June 28, 2010

Jay Reise: An Interview by Tom Moore

His opera Rasputin, originally commissioned by Beverly Sills and the New York City Opera, was revived in 2008-09 by the Helikon Opera in Moscow. Rasputin will be given its Paris premiere by Opéra de Massy in November 2010. A new opera, based on the famous Strindberg play The Ghost Sonata, is under way. His violin concerto The River Within was premiered in 2008 by Maria Bachmann and Orchestra 2001 and is scheduled for release on Innova Recordings later this year. We talked by phone on January 20, 2010 with an email follow-up in June.

TM: Please talk about the musical background in your family.

JR: Both of my parents were very musical though neither was a professional musician. My mother was my first piano teacher when I was five and then my father started teaching me. He had studied with Rudolf Ganz at Chicago Musical College, and then subsequently with Eric Itor Kahn and Irma Wolpe in New York. All three were quite formidable teachers: Ganz had studied with Busoni and is the dedicatee of Ravel’s Scarbo as well as Griffes’ The White Peacock and piano sonata; Kahn was a student of Schoenberg and had given the world premiere of Klavierstücke Op. 33a; and Wolpe, one of the most celebrated teachers at that time, had worked with Cortot and was of course Stefan Wolpe’s first wife. That’s quite a mixture of national musical cultures to introduce to a kid from Sparks, Nevada in the late 1940s! And I was fortunate to have something of it passed down to me. My dad eventually went on in business but is still an accomplished and enthusiastic amateur pianist.

The main focus of my parents was on classical music but they were also involved in jazz in the early 1950’s. My father was good friends with composer George Russell and copied music for George at the time when he was formulating what became his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. So my parents were wonderful mentors, embracing both the classical and jazz worlds.

I was, however, always most taken with classical music. I feel that I have known some of it all my life — which I guess I have since my Dad was always practicing it. I can’t remember when I didn’t know some pieces. They became a part of me. In a certain sense I sometimes feel like some of those composers are members of my family, like uncles. When I hear certain pieces by Schumann or, say, the Brahms B minor Intermezzo (Op. 117 No. 2) it sort of feels like a dear relative is back visiting again. I was an only-child so maybe that’s what gives me a peculiar sense of who my relatives are!

TM: You grew up in New York City?

JR: I grew up in Queens and then Staten Island but visited Manhattan all the time. Even though I was quite smitten with classical music as a teenager - listening constantly, studying scores and I even took a few piano lessons with Irma Wolpe — my heart was in literature. I was more interested in becoming a writer, a dramatist in particular. In high school I was especially taken with the Theater of the Absurd, which was very big in the sixties. I read all of Beckett’s works, Ionesco, Pinter — the whole lot — I really thought I would go into literature at that point. I guess writing my own librettos is where that interest finally led.

I went to Hamilton College in upstate New York and was an English major, still pursuing the literary idea. At that time, again through my parents, I also became very good friends with jazz clarinetist and composer Jimmy Giuffre. Jimmy is of course one of the great legends of jazz — he passed on about two years ago. He was a remarkable fellow — candid and subtle, kind, complex, a splendid teacher and mentor, and a musician whose lyrical voice I think is unsurpassed.

It was in my junior year in college, during summer vacations and holidays that I began to study composition with Jimmy at his loft on West 15th street. Though I continued to be quite passionate about literature, I was spending more and more time on music. When I told Jimmy about this, he said in his quiet wise way, “Well…music chooses you.” It’s an insightful statement, one that I have passed on to many aspiring-but-not-quite-certain student composers. I studied with him for about two years, mainly doing counterpoint.

In my senior year at Hamilton I met Canadian composer Hugh Hartwell who was newly appointed to the faculty at sister school Kirkland College. He became a very significant mentor. He had studied with George Crumb, George Rochberg and Richard Wernick at the University of Pennsylvania and is also an excellent jazz pianist. We had many fascinating discussions on all sorts of things ranging from voice leading in Monteverdi to harmonic rhythm in Debussy to melodic development in Miles Davis. My musical horizons kept expanding. Hugh introduced me to George Crumb and Neva Pilgrim. Neva is a wonderful soprano who is a major champion of new music. She was a founder of the Syracuse Society for new Music, a leading new music ensemble which was just honored with an American Music Center Founders Award. Neva later sang the vocal part in my Symphony of Voices which was premiered at the Monadnock Festival in 1978.

After I graduated Hamilton I turned my goals towards a career in composition and went to McGill University in Canada. I worked with some really superb musicians at McGill — Bengt Hambraeus, a Swedish composer who was newly appointed, and Bruce Mather, who is a splendid composer and pianist. In 1973 I headed to the University of Pennsylvania and studied composition with Richard Wernick and George Crumb. I also studied harmony with George Rochberg who had gone into his “radical” tonal period with the Third String Quartet about two years before.

TM: Could you say a little more about theater in the sixties? Beckett is an enduring cultural influence, but Ionesco has somewhat faded from the public eye. What was it particularly that appealed to you about those playwrights?

JR: I agree with your assessment though I have not really kept up with current developments in theater. I am very fond of Ionesco — the whole business of the disintegration of meaning in language through clichés, anti-theatre, and his aggressive ridiculousness is to me quite different from Beckett’s world. They are both labeled as Theater of the Absurd although to me they have relatively little to do with each other. There are a few Ionesco plays that have a sort of Beckett loneliness to them like The Chairs and Exit the King. And I guess the torrent of words in The Unnamable and Lucky’s speech in Godot have a Ionesco-like quality. I was sorry to miss the Broadway production of Exit the King last year, which was a rare revival. I saw the New York premiere. It has always been my favorite of Ionesco’s plays — in some ways it is the most Beckett-like, with the main character eventually disappearing into the void — an even more minimal precinct than that of Godot. Both authors are very dramatic in their own ways. Beckett, to my mind, is a literary giant who probes to the deepest regions of human expression. I cannot think of anyone in the history of literature who is more imaginative than Beckett — greater perhaps, but not more original.

TM: Ionesco is in a sense more like Moliere — not so serious, more entertainment, more farce, closer to the questions of day-to-day.

JR: I think that’s generally true. But Ionesco can certainly deliver a powerful humanistic message — the swastika armband in La Leçon, the mute orator in Les Chaises.

TM: Could you talk about other formative musical experiences in the sixties in New York?

JR: I guess my first big breakthrough composer was Mahler in 1960 when I was 10 years old. That was the centenary of Mahler’s birth and Leonard Bernstein single-handedly brought about a Mahler renaissance. I saw the famous Young People’s Concert on Mahler and heard Bernstein conduct the Second Symphony. I also heard Dimitri Mitropoulos conduct the Ninth as well as Bruno Walter’s legendary Das Lied von der Erde with Maureen Forrester and Richard Lewis. All were at Carnegie Hall. I met Bruno Walter backstage after the performance and then wrote to him. He sent me back an autographed picture with a note which I still treasure. Another big childhood experience occurred somewhat earlier when I heard Russell Sherman play the Brahms d-minor concerto with Bernstein and the Philharmonic. I got both their autographs. All pretty heady experiences for a pre-teener!

I discovered Scriabin when I was about fifteen. This was when scores of his works were not easy to obtain, especially the later ones. I used to haunt a music warehouse in the Brill Building in Manhattan where I found ragged copies of early editions of Scriabin in rusty file cabinets. I brought them home like treasures, which indeed they were. Then Dover reprinted everything and now it’s all available online — what a wonderful thing that is!

For a young person who had explored only tonal music, it was very exciting to investigate this strange music at the edges of tonality — not yet the dissonant landscapes of Schoenberg and the Viennese, but still mysteriously tonal, a style that had evolved from tonality…. All that was a huge influence. What I later understood to be the evolution of the symmetrical French sixth chord in Scriabin’s Poèmes Op. 32 to its use as a component of the famous “mystic chord” in the late works considerably expanded my music theory horizons and compositional imagination. Later I wrote an article on Scriabin’s approach to symmetrical scales.1 His late works really spoke to me when I was a teenager, and continue to. In some ways that musical mystical ambience he created — I don’t mean his own mysticism, but the aura of his sound world— is certainly one of the reasons that I pursued music. There was an other-worldliness to his music, and I was powerfully attracted to it. I have enjoyed discussing this with Gunther Schuller who as a teen had a similar experience with Scriabin’s music and also for whom Scriabin has remained a passion.

So I guess altogether my artistic tastes at the time had something in common: I was drawn to music and literature that were classically based but challenged the boundaries of classical convention and at the same time had a powerful emotional impact.

TM: It’s gotten to be a long time ago, and people who may be reading this may have no personal memories of the nineties, let alone the sixties….one of the notable phenomena was the sort of musical event with a theatrical edge, what one might call “happenings”…were there events, or composers working in the avant-garde that were notable for you from that period?

JR: It’s interesting that you mention “happenings” since it was actually at a happening that I met Jimmy Giuffre. In about 1965 or ‘66, when I was in high school, I went to the Avant Garde Festival which was a series of happenings organized annually by cellist Charlotte Moorman that took place that year on the Staten Island Ferry. Moorman was quite famous — or infamous — at the time for having performed on the cello topless as part of a happening. A posse of police cars and the riot squad had showed up. She was arrested and eventually given a suspended sentence. The “piece” — the happening — therefore extended from the announcement of the performance itself, to the courthouse, to the coverage in the New York Times and the subsequent fallout. It was all pretty funny but it was obvious that the happening was about the theater of the event rather than anything to do with music. I remember Charlotte as an exceptionally nice person. She was totally committed to what she was doing and had great fun doing it. And since joy is something that can be hard to come by in 20th century art, I guess she was on to something.

With regard to happenings themselves, well, that brings up the whole topic of John Cage, Nam June Paik and all of those folks who were taking a radically different approach to music at the time. That path seemed to me at the time more Dada or anti-music and not headed in a direction I was personally interested in. I have little patience for Dada and its derivatives in general - the joke seems to me stale. On the other hand I recognize now that happenings were also the beginning of performance art which is of course a very important medium.

So anyway, among all the unusual, bizarre and crazy things going on that Saturday on the Staten Island Ferry was a performance by a jazz trio led by a superb clarinet player surrounded by a large audience. That’s when I first met Jimmy. He was moving past his very avant garde “free jazz” period at the time which culminated with the album Free Fall.

TM: Were there jazz idioms that particularly appealed to you in the sixties and seventies?

JR: I was very interested in Jimmy Giuffre’s music of course, especially in terms of his unique lyricism and special instrumental voicings. Also George Russell. Jazz piano always interested me, although I don’t play very much jazz piano and don’t write in a jazz style. I always liked Bill Evans a lot, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Nat “King” Cole, Paul Bley, Monk. And of course all the great instrumentalists — Davis, Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown. I could go on — but my list would not be news to anyone. Maybe some somewhat lesser known names, like pianists Jimmy Rowles, Denny Zeitlin.... My mother plays wonderful jazz piano with some of the most exquisite chord changes I have ever heard.

When I was three or four my parents used to go to sessions in George Russell’s apartment — I would sleep in the bedroom on the coats while the music making went on ‘til the wee hours. What I would give to have a second chance to hear that!

I attended a memorial service for George a few weeks ago. The music was phenomenal and was played by some of today’s best jazz musicians covering his work from the ‘50s to just a few years ago. Almost sixty years of music of tremendous variety but George Russell always sounded like himself and no other.

TM: Please talk a little about the musical atmosphere at McGill. These days we have a facility in having access to music from Estonia, or Latvia, or Russia that is just astonishing, but at that time to have a new composer from Sweden at McGill must have been unusual.

JR: I guess so though it did not occur to me, maybe because in Canada I was an outsider as well. Montreal is a five-hour car ride to New York or Boston but its closest cultural connections are with Paris. The McGill music faculty was very French-oriented, and France’s most well known composers at the time were of course Messiaen and Boulez.

During my undergraduate years I had become very interested in the music of Messiaen — probably my primary passion after my Scriabin period. I was blown away by Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum which remains my favorite Messiaen multi-instrument work. I subsequently heard Yvonne Loriod perform the Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus at Hunter College as well as Messiaen and Loriod together playing his Visions de l’Amen. These were incredible experiences. Loriod was a magnificent pianist and her interpretation of standard literature like the Debussy Etudes was also a revelation.

Like Scriabin, Messaien used symmetrical scales and so inhabited a similar place at the edge of tonality. Both also had color-graphemic synesthesia as well as a strong dose of mysticism. When I had master classes with Messiaen at Tanglewood, I asked him about Scriabin’s harmony. He said that unlike Scriabin, he treated harmony only as a matter of taking down the music in the colors before him.

Both Bruce Mather and Bengt Hambraeus had studied with Messiaen. I didn’t go to McGill specifically for that reason, but the connection was certainly a plus. With Hambraeus I mainly studied orchestration. He was encyclopedic on contemporary techniques and a multitude of other things. He introduced me to such diverse things as the first version of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître and the unpublished Poésie pour pouvoir as well as the work of the great Russian conductor Nikolai Golovanov. Mather and I shared a love of Scriabin and his class in 20th-century harmony was truly extraordinary. We studied Scriabin, Debussy, late Fauré, Berg and wrote pieces in their styles, which is something I do in my own classes. But the first assignment was to write a Bach chorale: if you could not do that, you could forget the rest!

I had several pieces done at McGill as well as at a festival in Toronto; they were influenced by what I would now describe as French atonality along with some Berg. They were not serial — it was the time when serialism was beginning to lose its grip.

TM: Messiaen seems far more productive in the results that are evident in the composers that follow him than Boulez.

JR: Messiaen had such a wide scope — he was so all-encompassing and eclectic but incredibly original. Like Berg, he absorbed and transformed the 19th century musical phenomenon into his own inimitable style — and then took on bird song, plainchant, the Catholic faith, tonality and modality, symmetrical scales, atonality, fixed registers, Asian music and plainchant as well as other elements!

I have also always been a great admirer of Boulez, both his music and his writings. His style — in terms of his gestures and vocabulary — has expanded over the years but his “sound-print” is always unmistakable. One piece I recall from my formative years was Rituel. I saw the American premiere at Tanglewood and it stimulated much of my interest in rhythm which is a dominant feature in my music.

TM: Let’s move from Montreal to Philadelphia. Who was your primary teacher at Penn?

JR: I worked primarily with Richard Wernick who is a remarkable and eloquent composer and tremendously inspiring teacher. His extraordinary recent String Quartet No. 7 contains a 10-minute mensuration canon that is truly virtuosic and is of especial interest to me because of its rhythmic aspects. I also worked with George Crumb, who is of course a living legend — an incredible composer and a wonderful person — warm, witty, highly supportive and knowledgeable about many off-the-beaten-track kinds of things. I am the president emeritus of Orchestra 2001, a Philadelphia based ensemble specializing in contemporary music. George has composed a number of pieces for the group, most recently his extraordinary American Songbooks based on American folk tunes. I also studied harmony with George Rochberg — I never studied composition with him, unfortunately. The timing never worked out. His was one of the great musical minds I have encountered. These three composers wrote very different kinds of music. George Rochberg had just turned to writing a very traditional kind of tonal music about which I subsequently wrote an article for Perspectives of New Music2. But as different as they were they seemed to share something, in the sense that if you compared them to anybody else who was writing, they had more in common philosophically than just about any other composers you could put together. For example, George Crumb’s music is primarily tonally based but not in the same way as George Rochberg’s. All three were absolutely fantastic teachers, again very different from one another with each offering his own special musical vision based on supreme knowledge of the literature and superb technical mastery.

Also I have to say I have undoubtedly learned more about music from exchanging ideas with my many wonderful students over the last 35 years than any other single source.

TM: How would you have described your own style when you moved from Montreal to Philadelphia?

JR: I was studying all the great composers from the first half of the 20th century — especially Berg — and all the contemporary music I could get my hands on. The first half of the twentieth century is like a mini-century in itself, with an incredible roster of composers — there must be twenty-five from that period who are in the standard repertoire today. I was trying to write music that had the searing qualities and expressive qualities of serialism but could still evoke the wonderful moods of warmth and nobility that tonality brought.

TM: Could you say something about what it is that produces an “American” voice for composers? Is this something that is important?

JR: That’s a tricky issue, since this country exists as it is because of many immigrations and cultural importations. There were and are so many influences in this country — our American culture has been seeded by the heritages of the world and the result is something like a multi-colored mosaic. It’s interesting that in the second half of the 20th century America reversed the trend and is undoubtedly the leading exporter of culture.

I tend to divide the music of this country into two categories: music that has been influenced by European music and music has not been (or has been minimally). Jazz certainly fits that non-European bill. George Gershwin is the perfect hybrid of the two categories — he absorbed jazz and Gullah elements into his style as Bartok assimilated Eastern European folk music. American serial music on the other hand never sounds to me very American — even Copland’s Inscape, which sounds very Copland, does not come across as necessarily American. To me the most quintessentially American piece is Ives’ Concord Sonata, especially the introverted last movement “Thoreau”. Even the quotation of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony comes across like an imitation or memory of the Beethoven the ancestral European. Ives delves deeply and convincingly into our historic, literary and musical pasts as well as employing the most modernistic techniques. But of course he too had strong European academic musical credentials through his study with Horatio Parker who in turn had been trained in Munich.

My own music is more Western than particularly American or global. When I say I am influenced by jazz or Indian music, I don’t mean that I have swinging saxophone solos or improvisations in the manner of Charlie Parker or tabla solos like Zakir Hussain’s. Rather I am influenced by the management of the technical elements — the theory if you will — on which these musics are founded and generated. I utilize elements of their systems but my music remains clearly of the Western classical tradition. This incorporation of the techniques of other classical musical traditions is for me the most productive kind of “fusion”. What do I mean by “classical”? Not necessarily Western classical music, though obviously it’s one of those major traditions — but rather any music that has developed around a praxis whether it’s tala, blues, Western harmony, modal counterpoint or raga.

TM: Carnatic music, even more so than north Indian music, seems to be little-known to American listeners. What was your path into this music?

JR: It has often been remarked that of the parameters in Western music, rhythm seems to be the one that is least studied. I would suggest that that’s because rhythm is the least codified. There is little in the way of a particular method for Western rhythm as there is for harmony and counterpoint, except perhaps for Paul Creston’s Principles of Rhythm. Western rhythm seemed to be dependent on elements of harmony and voice-leading, especially in tonal music. I was always very interested in trying to discover a rhythmic method that was as powerful and flexible as that of tonal harmony. Messiaen did a lot of work with rhythm, so I studied Messiaen’s own rhythms and the Indian sources that inspired him so powerfully. I was fortunate enough to be invited to study at Tanglewood in 1975 when Messiaen was there — the first summer that he had been there in twenty-five years. He was actually writing his treatise on rhythm at the time, which I was very excited to see — it was left unpublished at his passing, and came out a few years ago. He was probably the first composer I encountered who showed me that musical riches were to be found in other classical traditions.

I had long been very interested in rhythm and had amassed many file folders, read books on African rhythm, studied the 120 deśītālas of Śārṅgadeva (one of Messiaen’s sources) — all of that kind of thing. But I always felt that my use of these materials was limited. If I found a particularly interesting African rhythm in, say, three layers, putting an oboe, bassoon and clarinet on each part wasn’t really using the rhythm — it was rather a kind of cut and paste approach. What I wanted to do find a way to “work” rhythms in the same way that you could develop a melody or modulate.

Then in the early 1990s, I was fortunate enough to meet Adrian L’Armand, an Australian violinist who specialized in Carnatic music. I was living in Swarthmore Pennsylvania at the time, and he lived around the block from me. How fortunate is that?! We were discussing Berio’s Circles one day and then he started talking about rhythm. In less than a minute I realized that he knew more about rhythm than anyone I had ever met. He talked about rhythmic displacement, variation and development — the very things that I was looking for. I immediately began to study rhythm with him, and continued for several years. It’s interesting how things quickly opened up compositionally for me.

In Western music, the cadence is implied by the unfolding harmony and voice leading. The basic gist of this rhythmic approach is that at least two layers of rhythmic motives (often based on 5's and 7's) are developed within a phrase. By making their total individual values equal (ie 7 groups of 5 = 5 groups of 7) the unfolding of the phrase will be such that the cadence point is implied by the rhythms alone. I call this technique “rhythmic polyphony”. Superimposing other regular and irregular rhythms (such as bembé and the like) leads to still more interesting and complex results. Traditional Baroque devices like augmentation and diminution produce wonderful effects, especially in tuplets. All this gave my counterpoint greater depth. Also, unlike Indian music in which a tala is used for a whole piece or at least a major portion, I change talas and rhythmic groups often, from whole sections to single measures. I think of this approach to rhythm as being somewhat analogous to Western harmonic rhythm where the rate of chord-change varies within the phrase.

TM: What is the source or sources of your pitch material?

JR: I am often asked that. I use an approach I think of as “chromatic modality”. This involves the full vocabulary of traditional scales and modes in which notes outside the set (non-diatonic tones) are introduced and are either subsumed by the diatonicism surrounding them, or “resolved” into the diatonic set. (Like my rhythmic procedures, a given set of pitches can be quite prolonged or shift quickly by phrase, by measure or even by chord.) I think this may be similar to Ives’ strategy in the Concord and some of the songs. Scriabin certainly used chromaticism in octatonic and whole tone contexts as I point out in my article. Debussy’s style may also have some similarities. It is characterized by a mixture of pentatonic, whole tone and modal scales tempered with a highly effective but unpredictable dose of Wagnerian chromaticism.

TM: What are some pieces in which these elements are particularly important in generating the musical fabric?

JR: Any of my pieces written after 1990 — after I had written Rasputin and my three symphonies. The first major work was Rhythmic Garlands, a piano piece that I wrote for and has been recorded by Jerome Lowenthal. That was followed by Duo Rhythmikosmos for violin and piano, a piano trio entitled Trio Rhythmikosmos, and Yellowstone. I also used these techniques in other major pieces — the choreographic tone poem The Selfish Giant based on Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, Satori for voice and piano (also in several ensemble arrangements), the string quartet Memory Refrain, Across the Horizons for clarinet, violin cello and piano, Concerto for Horn and 7 Instruments, and the violin concerto The River Within among others. My website as well as the webpage at my publisher, Theodore Presser, contain full listings.

TM: Please talk about your opera Rasputin, which was premiered in New York in 1988, with a recent performance in Russia. Were there some revisions for the more recent performance?

JR: The genesis of Rasputin began when I taught at my alma mater, Hamilton College in upstate New York in the 70’s. Christopher Keene was the artistic director of the Syracuse Symphony and premiered my Second Symphony in 1980 which I wrote with the support of a Guggenheim. Keene later conducted the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as my Third Symphony with the Long Island Philharmonic.

In the mid-80s, Keene introduced me to Beverly Sills who was the Executive Director of the New York City Opera and Rasputin was commissioned. Frank Corsaro was the stage director. My longtime interest in theater and ensuing close relationship with Frank — a tremendously imaginative and stimulating colleague — prompted me to write the libretto. The wonderful bass-baritone John Cheek sang the title role.

The Helikon production premiered in 2008-09 and was included in the “Helikon Opera of the Twentieth Century” retrospective series in April 2010. This production contains some revisions and a few cuts that I think makes the opera more effective dramatically. Lenin was moved exclusively to the end, for example.

My association with Helikon began when I met the artistic director and founder of the company, Dmitry Bertman, in 1994 on my first trip to Russia. Bertman was just starting the company and had only two or three people working for him. He wanted to produce Rasputin right away and actually scheduled it for 1996 but eventually didn’t have the forces or the finances to put it together at that time.

I am very excited about the Helikon production and think it has everything a composer could hope for. The cast, chorus, musicians, set and costume designers are superb. Bertman is a brilliant director with a vision that is vibrant and original but always within the boundaries of the material as I have conceived it. He brings out every element of turbulence and lyricism in the opera. Bertman captures the spirit and timing of both my music and libretto and infuses it with many bold gestures as well as thousands of wonderful details. The set consisted of gigantic Fabergé eggs nestled in egg crates highlighting the contrast between the exquisite world of the aristocracy and the rough-hewn lives of the working class that overthrew it in 1918. The topic of Rasputin and the murder of the royal family is still widely discussed in Russia. There was a court ruling on it even as the premiere of the opera was happening — the killing was judged to be a political act and the Tsar's family were considered to be victims of Bolshevism. Of course Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were canonized about 30 years ago. There was also a recent campaign by a
 religious faction to canonize Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible. It failed.

Opera Massy in Paris has scheduled Rasputin for November-December 2010 utilizing the Helikon production.

TM: Will there be a CD or DVD from the production?

JR: I am working on making a commercial DVD. We have a filming company in Moscow ready to go and are now seeking financing and a distributor for the US and Europe. Excerpts of the Helikon production (recorded in-house) can be seen online here.

TM: Do you have plans for future stage works?

JR: I am currently working on an opera based on Strindberg’s play The Ghost Sonata, which is a work I have loved since I was in high school. I remember an extraordinary performance of it on television in the ‘60s with Robert Helpmann and Jeremy Brett — and have sought a video recording in vain. I started working on the opera about six months ago and have written about a third of it. Also, though The Selfish Giant was given a wonderful premiere performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Djong Victorin Yu and has been performed in the States, it has never been choreographed. So I am also pursuing that.

TM: Will The Ghost Sonata be a full-length evening?

JR: Yes — it’s in three scenes, each about forty minutes.

TM: What is about this play that grabs you?

JR: It’s a very mystical, frightful, zany and yet poetic play — a strange mix, and yet everything works. It has all of the elements of opera — drama, other worldliness, striking characters. Every opera has some sort of other-worldly facet about it which is what its music deals with. The music is in an imaginary domain which gives the characters a means to express their inner sensibilities beyond words. They are unaware that they are singing unless it’s a specific song in the opera such as Walther’s Prize Song. On the psycho-dramatic side, Strindberg’s play is about people who gleefully reveal the fatal inner weaknesses of their opponents and in so doing expose their own. And of course there’s a love story, and a very unusual one at that. The play inhabits what I think of as a world of realistic fantasy. Most of the actions are normal and the setting is middle class. But with the creation of bizarre elements such as a ghost of the Milkmaid and a “mummy” in the closet, Strindberg creates a mood of penetrating psychological dread. The setting and general tone of the dialogue are like Chekhov or Ibsen but by the end we are not sure what plane of reality we are on. And at the last moment a coup de théâtre occurs as the scene disappears completely, rather like Exit the King….

TM: I was interested to hear Howard Shore describe his music for The Lord of the Rings as his only chance to write a Wagnerian opera.

JR: To compose in the epic manner must be a wonderful challenge.

TM: Perhaps you might talk about your piano music.

JR: I mentioned Rhythmic Garlands, my first extended piano work. Before Garlands I had written very little piano music though I am an ardent pianophile. I learned much about counterpoint listening to how pianists like Horowitz brought out inner voices. But I had not composed an extended piano piece before I studied rhythm closely. Studying the piano music of Nicholas Medtner was also a revelation. Medtner, who died in 1951, seems to me the most rhythmically sophisticated of the completely tonal composers.

After Rhythmic Garlands I wrote Sonata Rhythmikosmos which was commissioned by Mari Akagi, a wonderful Japanese pianist who premiered it in Tokyo when I was on a US-Japan Creative Arts Fellowship. That was followed by the violin Duo and Yellowstone Rhythms for bassoon and piano, both of which have extended piano parts. Yellowstone is a 15-minute lyrical rhapsody with bubbly and energetic contrasts. The Six Pictures from the Devil in the Flesh piano suite came from another opera project, one that eventually did not materialize. In the late ‘90s I was contacted by Vincent Malle, the brother of the late film director Louis Malle, about the possibility of writing an opera-film based on the novel Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet. I worked on this with Gude Lavitz, a wonderful film director who had made a documentary on the student uprisings and strikes in Paris in the 1960s. The project didn’t get the financing it needed so never came to fruition, but I composed some pilot music which I used in my Concerto for Cello and 13 Instruments (which has been recorded by Ulrich Boeckheler and Orchestra 2001 on CRI) and the Six Pictures. Each picture is a mood piece. I thought of them like the Debussy Preludes, each of which evokes a suggestive expressive atmosphere. So even though the opera project didn’t materialize, there were many good things that resulted from it. Marc-André Hamelin made a splendid recording of the Six Pictures as well as Yellowstone with bassoonist Charles Ullery.

TM: Hamelin is an astounding pianist.

JR: Yes, he really is — just incredible. He also recorded Sonata Rhythmikosmos and played the piano part in the premiere of my piano quintet Powers That Be with the Cassatt Quartet. Working with him is a wonderful experience — he is so often able to go beyond what you think is the limit of what can be done, especially in terms of clarity, detail and concentration of effects. His highly expressive delicacy is superb as well.

TM: Could you talk about future projects that you may have coming up? There’s the opera, of course.

JR: I don’t have a production yet for The Ghost Sonata, and I must admit have been somewhat slow to pursue that matter because as soon as I do I will be facing a deadline. I am enjoying composing this piece on my own time. Exciting as it was to compose Rasputin, I had to write the whole opera including the libretto in two years as well as teach. Sometimes you want to linger a little more than a deadline will permit. But I will begin to seek a production for The Ghost Sonata this year.

On the instrumental front, my new piece Lunahuaná for two percussionists will receive its premiere this coming fall.

TM: with a Latin American connection?

JR: Yes — my wife, Cecilia Paredes, is a visual artist from Perú. We spend summers and the winter holidays there. Lunahuaná is a town about sixty miles south of Lima, in a very unusual location where the cloud cover that continually hovers over the greater Lima area abruptly stops. I mean very abruptly — you can see the blue sky seemingly buttressed up against a wall of clouds. My piece evokes the atmosphere of the town, from its haunted history to a fiesta with fireworks and whistles.

I am now working on several new pieces: a rhapsody for violin and orchestra for Maria Bachmann who premiered my violin concerto The River Within; an extended piano piece for Konstantinos Papadakis; and a new version of The Selfish Giant for narrator and chamber orchestra.

1 Reise, Jay “Late Skriabin: Some Principles Behind the Style,” 19th Century Music, Sp.1983, pp. 220-231; reprinted in The Journal of the Scriabin Society of America, Winter 1996-97 pp. 29-46

2 Reise, Jay “Rochberg the Progressive”, Perspectives of New Music, 1980-81, pp. 395-407

image=http://www.operatoday.com/reise.png image_description=Jay Reise [Photo by Cecilia Paredes] product=yes product_title=Jay Reise: An Interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Jay Reise [Photo by Cecilia Paredes]
Posted by Gary at 1:11 PM

Die Walküre in San Francisco

Whispers about the price tag of the upcoming Met Ring suggest the proportions of a foreign war.

Gratefully as well the SFO Rheingold and Walküre have looked like opera, and not like crazed imitations of Star Wars, so they are easier to talk about. Though not necessarily a more or less compelling take on Wagner’s mega opera, this plain SFO Ring is unfolding as conceptually direct and wonderfully human.

Two years ago Rheingold got the San Francisco Ring off to a rocky start with its light weight cast and unfocused staging. Still it was a promising beginning with lots of ideas, some of which did not work all that well (the Nibelheim special effects as example). But lots of fun came out of its director Francesca Zambello who imposed a light touch on the divine machinations that initiate this long saga of greed and love, affectionately capturing the naivete, optimism and entrepreneurial fun that built our cities.

Conductor Donald Runnicles got right to the point in Walküre, not even allowing the applause that greeted him to die before attacking the complications motivated by Wotan’s insecurities. The War Memorial Opera House is particularly kind to Wagner, allowing the transparency within his massive orchestral sound to project the depth of his mountainous landscapes, and as well the myriad of musical motivations to coexist amongst themselves and within this cosmic nature. Mo. Runnicles exploited the Walküre score to its utmost, a remarkably rich reading.

_MG_6214.gifEva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Raymond Aceto as Hunding and Christopher Ventris as Siegmund

Die Walküre is no place for lightweights (as in fact Rheingold is not either), and San Francisco Opera rose to the occasion with a nearly stellar cast. The Siegmund of English tenor Christopher Ventris captured the youth of a young hero, his voice beating with energy, the Sieglinde of Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek soared vocally over the maelstrom with the unborn hero in her womb. But it was Swedish sopranto Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde whose voice rose over all else as the energy and psychic spirit of Wotan, her creator and the world’s master builder.

This is an American Ring (the mountains are surely our California Sierras, though there is no defining land or river-scape). Hunding’s cabin is an American primitive wood facade with a screen door that can be found no where else in the world other than in middle America. American bass Raymond Aceto in a long sleeved winter undershirt with suspenders was a medium voiced Hunding, his strut and menace hiding this character’s predestined impotence. Paired with his unhappy, beaten and defeated wife, Sieglinde in a ill fitting, sad pale blue dress Hunding, strangely, evoked sympathy.

Costumer Catherine Zuber dressed German mezzo Janina Baechle as Wotan’s wife Fricka in a sort of purple beaux arts long gown in which she stolidly prevailed as a wet-blanket moral conscience. Meanwhile Wotan, American bass Mark Delavan from the Rheingold cast, muttered and spat effectively as some sort of railroad tycoon, but was vocally pallid even before running out of voice (June 22).

_MG_7033.gifWendy Bryn Harmer as Gerhilde, Suzanne Hendrix as Schwerleite, Tamara Wapinsky as Helmwige, Pamela Dillard as Grimgerde, Daveda Karanas as Waltraute, Maya Lahyani as Siegrune, Priti Gandhi as Rossweise and Molly Fillmore as Ortlinde

Wotan’s Valhalla is seen through the window of a massive high rise. It was not specifically San Francisco but a high rise city profile that is specifically American, with echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Set design for this American Ring is by Michael Yeargan who, with Mme. Zambello is working in a determined post-modern vocabulary, Wotan’s desk a huge table with four huge wooden claws as legs, the following scene moving onto the contemporary detritus under an abandoned elevated freeway, and finally an abstract space for the Valkyries and the Wotan farewell to Brünnhilde.

Beautiful, detailed lighting by Mark McCullough subtly caught a real life wolf-dog and his cub racing across the stage as Wotan was about to kill his son, connecting the innocence of real nature to the tragedies of cosmic destiny. McCullough magically captured the steel gray folds of Wotan’s coat covering the sleeping Brünnhilde as a ring of real fire began to encircle the stage, this real fire somehow making the fairytale ending of the Ring’s second installment humanly real, and unusually moving.

Everything in this Ring was ordinary, and that was its triumph. Rarely has operatic acting achieved this level of realism delicately sitting on the verge of expressionism. This accomplishment signals heroic efforts of stage direction plus determined commitment from singers. Miraculously this staging melted effortlessly into the Runnicles reading of the score, the abstract musical motivations from the pit rendered on the stage in movement that effortlessly and truly portrayed complex dramatic motivations. Gesamtkunstwerk indeed!

It was a good night at San Francisco Opera.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
product_by=Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme; Wotan: Mark Delavan; Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Siegmund: Christopher Ventris; Fricka: Janina Baechle; Hunding: Raymond Aceto; Ortlinde: Molly Fillmore; Schwertleite: Suzanne Hendrix; Waltraute: Daveda Karanas; Gerhilde: Wendy Bryn Harmer; Helmwige: Tamara Wapinsky; Siegrune: Maya Lahyani; Grimgerde: Pamela Dillard; Rossweise: Priti Gandhi. Conductor: Donald Runnicles. Director: Francesca Zambello. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber. Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough. Projection Designer: Jan Hartley. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech.
product_id=Above: Mark Delavan as Wotan and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 9:20 AM

June 27, 2010

Massenet's Thaïs at Teatro Regio Torino

A good place to evaluate one's answer to that question comes in the form of this DVD of Stefano Poda's staging of Thaïs by Jules Massenet (composer) and Louis Gallet (libretto). Viewers who find the opera slightly risible but who still enjoy the music are likely to be amused and fascinated by Poda's over-the-top aesthetic, part dance and performance art spectacle, part out-of-control fashion runway show. Anyone actually captivated by the opera's conjunction of overripe sexuality and pained religiosity may be much less pleased.

A fairly long opera for its story, Thaïs has a cast listing of 9 roles, but the story never strays far from the title character and her admirer, a monk who sets out to convert the courtesan from her sinful ways and put her on the path to righteousness. In the end, the monk Athanaël finds himself over come by her attractions, but it is too late for his own conversion to sensuality, as Thaïs can no longer respond, having forsaken her former life and then, after being born again, rather abruptly dying.

The Metropolitan Opera recently staged Thaïs with stars Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles, and stars of that magnitude are needed. Without their charisma, a flimsy story and the fallows of the score between its 2 or 3 highlights make for a forgettable evening. Excellent singers both, such charisma doesn't get projected by Barbara Frittoli or Lado Ataneli, caught on this recording in live performance from 2008 at the Teatro Regio Torino. Frittoli has beauty enough for the role, edging just a bit into Rubenesque territory. Only in her big scene, the so-called Mirror aria, does the relative blandness of her vocal instrument come into too close focus. Ataneli, no actor, doesn't do much more than glower and look down, and in his dark floor-length tunic he looks a bit like Rasputin on a Middle East holiday. His handsome voice, however, makes credible the growing attraction the courtesan feels for him. In the only other truly notable role, as Thaïs's Babylonian sugar daddy Nicias, Alessandro Liberatore doesn't so much disappear into the role as just disappear.

What makes this show a fascinating experience is the total design effort of director Stefano Poda, who also choreographs and designs the sets, costumes, and lighting. He has no interest in pretending this is a naturalistic story of early AD Babylon. He plays with black, mostly in the costumes, and white in the sets. He does not attempt much differentiation between the libretto's settings, opting instead for a stylized dimension where barely clothed dancers sweep on and off, illustrating the action in the opera's extensive instrumental passages. It all borders on the silly, but so does the opera. Poda's flow of invention in creating eye-catching stage pictures makes the show not just bearable but actually fairly entertaining, especially seen in the incredibly crisp and detailed Blu-Ray picture.

Gianandrea Noseda elicits sensuous playing from the house orchestra. The production in the Metropolitan Opera's performances, broadcast last year in the HD Moviecast series, was also fairly stylized, but it didn't draw attention to itself the way Poda's does. If that sounds like criticism of this version, stay away. If it sounds appealing, check it out.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Jules Massenet: Thaïs

product_title=Jules Massenet: Thaïs
product_by=Thaïs: Barbara Frittoli; Athanaël: Lado Ataneli; Nicias: Alessandro Liberatore; Palémon: Maurizio Lo Piccolo; Albine: Nadežda Serdyuk; Crobyle: Eleonora Buratto; Myrtale: Kete van Kemoklidze; La Charmeuse: Daniela Schillaci; Un serviteur: Diego Matamoros. Torino Teatro Regio Chorus (chorus master: Roberto Gabbiani). Torino Teatro Regio Orchestra. Gianandrea Noseda, conductor. Stefano Poda, stage director, choreographer, set, costume and light designer. Recorded live from the Teatro Regio Torino, 2008.
product_id=ArtHaus 101386 [Blu-Ray DVD]

Posted by chris_m at 5:56 PM

June 26, 2010

Is anybody listening? American opera faces crossroads as audiences for performing arts slide

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 27 June 2010]

When "Moby-Dick," a new opera by Jake Heggie, was announced as part of the Dallas Opera's season in its brand-new Winspear Opera House, there was skepticism in the opera world. How was this long, discursive novel going to make it to the stage in any form that would get people to want to listen to it? It became a standard joke to ask which large singer would play the whale.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

June 24, 2010

Opera Orchestra of New York Stages a Comeback

By Daniel J. Wakin [NY Times, 24 June 2010]

The Opera Orchestra of New York, a small but beloved institution for fans of off-beat repertory and big voices, is staging something of a comeback. The company said Thursday it would end its financially induced hiatus and mount two concert productions next season: Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine,”and a double bill of Massenet’s “La Navarraise” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.”

Posted by Gary at 1:08 PM

June 23, 2010

Three iconic places to see an opera in Italy

By Giovanna Dell'Orto [The Associated Press, 23 June 2010]

MILAN, Italy — Opera is as fundamental to Italy's soul as the Colosseum, Michelangelo or pasta. To attend an opera performance here in the summer is a quintessential Italian experience — especially if you're willing to brave the often-byzantine process for getting last-minute but astonishingly cheap tickets.

Posted by Gary at 1:06 PM

San Francisco's feminist 'Die Walkure'

By Mark Swed [LA Times, 23 June 2010]

Walkure Late Saturday night, Valhalla will fall for the final time in Los Angeles, and the Music Center will send its expensive “Ring” into long (possibly permanent) storage. And that will be that.

Posted by Gary at 1:04 PM

Leipzig Opera to stage Gluck Ring

It was thus hardly a surprise when Leipzig Opera approached its chief resident director Peter Konwitschny and suggested that he consider staging the Ring to celebrate the anniversary. Konwitschny, son of the late music director of Leipzig’s esteemed Gewandhaus Orchestra and among the most erudite and experienced of today’s German directors, pointed out that the Big Birthday will prompt a rush of Ring stagings throughout Germany and suggested that Leipzig consider rather new productions of four operas by Christoph Willibald Gluck, the man who late in the 18th century rescued opera from the excesses of the Baroque spectacle that it had become. Wisely, the Leipzig Opera knew a good idea when they heard one and told Konwitschny to go to work.

The director launched the project earlier this season with a new production of Alceste — or Alkestis, as it is known in Germany, which was seen at the last performance of the current season in Leipzig’s 50-year-old, 1260-seat opera house on June 18. Stagings of Gluck’s two Iphigenia operas — in Aulis and Tauris — and of Armida will follow. Konwitschny defines the common ground that will give coherence to the cycle as studies of four unusually strong women viewed from a perspective that reaches from the beginning of time to the present day. All four are dramas, he says, in which the conflict between love and power is of central importance. Konwitschny points out that the later masters of music theater — Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss — were all Gluck fans. Indeed, Wagner conducted Gluck and wrote about his work in his own essay Opera and Drama.

Konwitschny is a long established master of Regieoper, the practice widely spread in Germany — and now in other countries as well — of giving a director a totally free hand with a work, even if the original story is hardly recognizable in the resulting staging. What sets Konwitschny apart from other directors, however, is his regard for the composer and the story that he once told. He is there to respect — and serve — history. Yet nothing would have prepared a foreigner uninitiated in Regieoper for what Konwitschny has done with Alceste.

In his own new and original score for the opera he concludes the 1767 Vienna version with the satyr play that Gluck wrote for the Paris production of the opera nine years later. Konwitschny plays the first two acts “straight” — indeed in the majesty of their extended choruses there are markings of the sublime that one once dared expect from great art. Greek soprano Chiara Angella — a fitting choice for the heroine — sings her demonic address to the gods of the underworld with true dramatic pathos against the leaden skies projected on the rear wall of the simply-set stage. Then — with no hint of the change to come — the curtain opens Act Three in Her-Cool-TV, a television studio, in which a curly blond-wigged body builder Hercules is the host.

The chorus discards its togas in favor of jeans, colored shirts and baseball caps and sits in bleachers on either side of the stage. The studio crew feeds them their lines on posters and tells them when to laugh. The mayhem that ensues stresses the degree to which TV has corrupted modern life — and been corrupted by it. Alceste and Admetos — Belgian countertenor Yves Saelens — progressively lose ground as they argue about which of them has the greater right to die first. Finally, Apollo — dressed in the business suit of a successful politician — brings things to a happy end from the elevated loge where East-German leaders once sat at the Leipzig Opera. As the curtain falls, the reunited couple is wrapped in Saran Wrap.

10205_OPER-LEIPZIG_Admeto_S.gifSoula Parassidis as Alceste [Photo by Andreas Birkigt courtesy of Oper Leipzig]

But, one must ask, where does this leave the audience, which has had an experience of riotous entertainment that few would think available in an opera house? Does one think of the dreadful turmoil Alceste has been through, when even the husband for whom she wishes to sacrifice herself questions her motives? Has Konwitschny given his audience too much of a good thing?

Despite the popularity that Baroque opera has come to enjoy, one would hardly expect a company anywhere to perform two tellings of the Alceste story on successive June evenings. That, however, is what Leipzig Opera did in offering Handel’s Admeto on June 17. (In 1745 Gluck and Handel actually met in London, where they staged a concert together. When director Tobias Kratzer took his first look at Admeto he was overwhelmed by its proximity in spirit to soap opera, which became his model for this staging.

Set in a palace that is already a museum while still serving as a royal residence, Kratzer makes the work a spoof on Europe’s surviving blue-bloods. As Alceste, for example, mezzo Soula Parassidis could be either Grace Kelly or Princess Di. Sleuthing Orindo, superbly played by Kathrin Göring, is an obvious take-off on Miss Marple. The progress that opera made in the years between Admeto and Alceste roughly equals the distance between the Model T Ford and space flights. Katzer understood, however, how to make the Handel superb entertainment. He diverted attention from the static quality of Handel’s da capo arias. He added a stately five-man ensemble that roamed the lobby before curtain time and then participated in on-stage action as players of the melodica, the blow organ introduced by Hohner in the 1960s. In one case, the quintet even accompanied an aria.

BF_2010_Nr.-65_23.gifScene from Die Lybische Talestris [Photo by Gert Mothes courtesy of Oper Leipzig

Yet it was the quality of the cast and the exemplary playing of the pit ensemble that made this Admeto memorable. (The Gewandhaus Orchestra plays for Leipzig Opera.) Alceste, the most complex character in the drama, was sung by mezzo Soula Parassidis, a coloratura of impressive agility, who touchingly followed the figure through changing modes of loss, sorrow, fury and the desire for revenge. Hagen Matzeit — Admeto — is a male alto who sings with incredible ease, as does male countertenor Norman Reinhardt, who was engaging as the king’s brother Trasimede. And petite Elena Tokar made Antigona sympathetic — despite her confusion of feelings. The cast sang the German translation by Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze as easily as if it had been the original Italian libretto. Both operas added special flavor to the Leipzig Bach Festival that dominated the one-time home of Bach when these performances were on stage.

Major curiosity of the BachFest season was the performance of Johann David Heinchen’s Die Lybische Talestris, possibly the first opera performed in Leipzig over 300 years ago. Sigrid T’Hooft, who reconstructed the score from material in Berlin’s Singakademie directed students of Leipzig’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater in the production staged in the tiny Bad Lauchstädt theater, once directed by Goethe.

Alas, the five-hour — and somewhat slipshod — performance on the bare-board seats of the tiny Bad Lauchstädt proved more Baroque than most had bargained for. The theater was largely empty when — long after midnight — the curtain fell. (Allegedly, Heinrich — 1683-1729 — was well acquainted with Bach.)

One rarely hears of anyone who has gone to Leipzig for opera. It is clearly time that one does!

Wes Blomster

image_description=Chiara Angella as Alkestis and Yves Saelens as Admetos [Photo by Andreas Birkigt courtesy of Oper Leipzig]

product_title=Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck: Alkestis. G. F. Handel: Admeto. Johann David Heinchen: Die Lybische Talestris.
product_by=Alkestis — Alkestis: Chiara Angella; Admetos: Yves Saelens; Evandros: Norman Reinhardt; Ismene: Viktorija Kaminskaite; Herkules: Ryan McKinny; Apollo; Tomas Möwes. Conductor: George Petrou; Director: Peter Konwitschny; Sets:Jörg Kosdorff; Costumes: Michaela Mayer-Michnay; Video: fettFilm

Admeto — Admeto: Hagen Matzeit; Alceste: Soula Parassidis; Herkules: Miklo’s Sebestye’n; Orindo: Kathrin Göring; Antigona: Elena Tokar. Conductor: Federico Maria Sardelli; Director; Tobias Katzer; Sets/costumes: Rainer Sellmaier; Lighting: Michael Röger

Die Lybische Talestris — Pelopidus: Dominik Grosse; Philotas: Julia Kirchner; Talestris: Amrei Bauerle; Syringa: Christiane Wiese. Conductor: Suzanne Scholz; Director: Sigrid T’Hooft; Costumes: Stephan Dietrich. Staged by students from the Leipzig Conservatory for Music and Theater.
product_id=Above: Chiara Angella as Alkestis and Yves Saelens as Admetos [Photo by Andreas Birkigt courtesy of Oper Leipzig]

Posted by Gary at 12:57 PM

VERDI: Otello — La Scala 1954

First Performance: 5 February 1887, Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

Principal Roles:
Otello, a Moor, general of the Venetian army Tenor
Iago, an ensign Baritone
Cassio, a platoon leader Tenor
Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman Tenor
Lodovico, an ambassador of the Venetian Republic Bass
Montano, Otello’s predecessor as Governor of Cyprus Bass
A Herald Bass
Desdemona, Otello’s wife Soprano
Emilia, Iago’s wife Mezzo-Soprano

Setting: A maritime city on the island of Cyprus, at the end of the 15th century


Act I

Cyprus, near the harbor; an inn nearby, the castle in the background

It is night and a storm is raging. The people of the island are looking out to sea, anxious for Otello’s ship. It arrives safely and he greets the crowd with a shout of triumph: the storm which has spared him has completed the destruction of the Turkish fleet begun by him. Frustrated in his love of Desdemona, Roderigo is ready to drown himself, but Iago counsels him to be sensible. He hates Otello for having appointed Cassio captain over his head and will help Roderigo and have his own revenge at the same time.

As the islanders celebrate, Iago invites Cassio to drink the health of Otello and Desdemona, knowing that he has no head for liquor. Prompted by Iago, Roderigo begins a quarrel with the intoxicated Cassio, and when Montano tries to stop them, Cassio attacks him. Iago urges Roderigo to rouse the town.

Otello interrupts the fight and, discovering that Montano is wounded and angry because Desdemona’s sleep has been disturbed, demotes Cassio. He orders Iago to calm the population. Otello and Desdemona, left alone, remember the days of their courtship.

Act II

A hall in the castle with a garden in the background

Iago suggests to Cassio that he try to regain favor by asking Desdemona to intercede for him and exults in his inborn capacity for evil. He watches as Cassio approaches Desdemona and, noting the arrival of Otello, pretends to be worried about Cassio’s manner, going on to suggest the possibility of a relationship between him and Desdemona. He then warns Otello to beware of jealousy and advises him to observe his wife. After groups of Cypriots have sung a welcome to Desdemona she begins to plead for Cassio, but Otello puts her off, complaining of a headache. When she tries to bind his forehead with a handkerchief, he throws it to the ground, where it is picked up by Emilia.

Desdemona begs her husband to forgive her if she has unconsciously offended him and he broods that she may have ceased to love him because of his color and age. Iago snatches the handkerchief from Emilia, intending to leave it in Cassio’s lodging.

Otello orders Desdemona to leave and Iago continues to undermine Otello’s faith in her. Lamenting that his peace of mind has gone, Otello demands proof of her infidelity, so Iago claims to have overheard Cassio in his sleep betraying his love for her. He also says that he has seen the handkerchief, Otello’s first love-token to Desdemona, in Cassio’s hand. Otello vows vengeance and Iago vows to dedicate himself to this cause.

Othello_and_Desdemona_by_Al.gifOthello and Desdemona, by Alexandre-Marie Colin [Source: Wikipedia]


The great hall of the castle

A herald announces the arrival of a galley from Venice. Iago promises to induce Cassio to betray his love for Desdemona in Otello’s hearing.

When Desdemona again tries to speak of Cassio, Otello asks her to bind his forehead with the handkerchief. Becoming agitated when she is unable to produce it, he warns her that its loss will bring misfortune and accuses her of infidelity, driving her away, unmoved by her tears and protestations of innocence.

His grief at this affliction which has been sent to try him turns to rage as Iago gets him to hide while he talks to Cassio — a cunningly contrived conversation partly about Desdemona and partly about the courtesan Bianca, who is madly in love with Cassio. Otello, unable to hear everything, misinterprets Cassio’s amusement, particularly when Cassio produces the handkerchief, expressing puzzlement as to how it appeared in his lodging, and he and Iago laugh.

As trumpets proclaim the arrival of the Venetian ship, Otello resolves to kill Desdemona and Iago promises to take care of Cassio. Everyone gathers to welcome the ambassador. As Otello reads the despatches brought by Lodovico, he hears Desdemona express sympathy for Cassio and strikes her. He announces that he has been recalled to Venice and Cassio appointed in his place. Lodovico tries to make peace between him and Desdemona, but he throws her to the ground. Furious at Cassio’s promotion, Iago incites Roderigo to murder him, as a means of keeping Otello and Desdemona in Cyprus.

Otello orders everyone to leave, cursing Desdemona when she tries to approach him. As he falls to the ground in a fit, Iago gloatingly places his foot on him.

Act IV

Desdemona’s bedroom

As Desdemona prepares for bed, assisted by Emilia, her heart is full of foreboding and she remembers a girl called Barbara, who died of unrequited love, singing “a song of willow.” Bidding Emilia good night, she prays, then goes to bed.

Otello enters, wakes her with a kiss and tells her to pray for forgiveness for any unabsolved sins. She begs for her life, denying his accusations of infidelity with Cassio. He strangles her. Emila brings the news that Cassio has killed Roderigo, but is unharmed. Hearing Desdemona’s dying protestations of innocence, Emilia calls for help. She reveals the truth about the handkerchief and Montano says that Roderigo had revealed what he knew of the plot before dying. Iago flees, refusing to exculpate himself.

Lodovico takes Otello’s sword, but Otello draws a knife and kills himself, kissing Desdemona as he dies.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for the complete text of The Tragedie of Othello, Moore of Venice and related materials.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Othello_Desdemona.gif image_description=Othello and Desdemona in Venice, by Theodore Chasseriau (1819-1856) audio=yes first_audio_name=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Otello1954.m3u product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello product_by=Otello: Mario Del Monaco; Jago: Leonard Warren; Cassio: Giuseppe Zampieri; Roderigo: Luciano Della Pergola; Lodovico: Giorgio Tozzi; Montano: Enrico Campi: Un Araldo: Paolo Pedani; Desdemona: Renata Tebaldi; Emilia: Anna Maria Canali. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano. Antonino Votto, conducting. La Scala, Milano, 7 January 1954.
Posted by Gary at 12:23 PM

June 22, 2010

La fanciulla del West in San Francisco

Over the long evening we got to know this wall’s every nook and cranny in about every color of light imaginable.

Just when you thought San Francisco Opera got its productions from Chicago this one comes from Palermo (Italy) where its stage director, one Lorenzo Mariani, is the artistic director of the Teatro Massimo. The Italianization of San Francisco Opera is amusing. One can even imagine an Italian operatic mafia that promotes only its own when brokering international deals. This could explain and perhaps excuse the otherwise inexplicable and inexcusable.

_MG_4593.pngSalvatore Licitra as Dick Johnson

The star of this San Francisco edition of Palermo’s Fanciulla is, no surprise, conductor Nicola Luisotti whose full throated orchestra sang out with delirious abandon Minnie’s true love for the bandito Ramerrez. He pulls us through this evening with orchestral sweep and dramatic point — typical Luisotti.

Mo. Luisotti is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Minnie, soprano Deborah Voight, and Dick Johnson (aka Ramerrez), tenor Salvatore Licitra had no problem at all. Mme. Voight sings her first Minnie, combining a bona fide Americana persona with convincing Italianate singing, cutting loose with high notes as only a dramatic soprano can and here needs to do. Minnie is not the usual Puccini heroine who accepts her unhappy fate. Minnie’s fate is true love that she gains with true soprano coglioni, three aces and a pair, and high notes that simply wither anything that gets in the way!

Salvadore Licitra cuts a fine figure on the stage, the red flag on the back pocket of his Levi’s convincing, the six shooters on his hips menacing . He also sings. His musicianship is impeccable, his phrasing is elegant, and he soars to high notes with ease in his powerful, baritone colored tenor. He should shut up with his retro ideas about opera staging, voiced in an San Francisco Opera Guild preview.

The unhappy, love sick sheriff, Jack Rance, was perfectly rendered by Roberto Frontali who was appropriately emotionally withdrawn though expressive in his brief but revealing soliloquy, and his pleadings to Minnie were touching too. His fine baritone served him just as well when he got mean. Mr. Frontali’s voice, stance and profile would threaten bandits in any spagetti western.

Of the large supporting cast, Timothy Mix [sic] stood out as Sonora, a fine voice and sympathetic, commanding presence, as did young Adler Fellow Maya Lahyani as the Indian Wowkle, the only female voice in the opera other than Mme. Voight.

_MG_8325.pngSalvatore Licitra as Dick Johnson and Roberto Frontali as Jack Rance with Brian Jadge as Joe, Igor Viera as Happy, Timothy Mix as Sonora, Austin Kness as Handsome, David Lomelí as Harry and chorus members

Fanciulla is pure Italian kitsch. For Puccini California was a faraway colorful myth. Mix this with his beloved pentatonic scale (in his mind the perfect sound for California as well as Japan) and with a play that is like catchy short story (winning a guy in a card game). So no one expects a production of Fanciulla to be particularly California.

Nevertheless, evidently scene designer Maurizio Balò, like Puccini, has never been to California, because he would know that we do not have funny red brown rocks carved out of foam. Those rocks are in Utah and even there they are not carved out of foam. They turned weirdly blue when it was supposed to be snowing, though the snow was bubbles of some sort rather than flakes. Finally when Minnie and Dick were headed off into the sunset the foam wall turned gold, and split apart revealing a painted drop that was supposed to be, maybe, the Sierras as our plein air artists might imagine them. If this was the idea it failed miserably in execution.

Costumes are credited to American designer Gabriele Berry. The miners’ costumes seemed reasonable in the first act, but in the second act the many men of the posse had all donned identical, sinister, vaguely WWI looking raincoats. For her tryst with Dick Johnson in her cabin Mme. Voight was resplendent in a far too grand Victorian dress that she surely would have shed (but did not) to tease Dick a bit more before she rolled herself up (still in the dress) in a blanket to sleep on the floor (she had given Dick the bed).

Director Lorenzo Mariani moved actors on and off the stage as needed, and platforms holding a bar, a bed and a scaffold as well. When it was time for Minnie to rescue Dick he attempted a coup de théâtre with Minnie arriving on horseback — a bored, placid palomino was led slowly onto the stage by two keepers. Com’on, hasn’t he even seen Zefferelli’s white stallion gallop across the stage to rescue Leonora in Il Trovatore in Verona? That’s theater!

Provincial Italian opera surely has better to offer than this Fanciulla del West.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Deborah Voigt as Minnie [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West
product_by=Minnie: Deborah Voigt; Dick Johnson: Salvatore Licitra; Jack Rance: Roberto Frontali; Nick: Steven Cole; Sonora: Timothy Mix; Ashby: Kevin Langan; Joe: Brian Jagde; Harry: David Lomelí; Trin: Matthew O’Neill; Handsome: Austin Kness; Sid: Kenneth Overton; Jake Wallace: Trevor Scheunemann; Happy: Igor Vieira; Larkens: Brian Leerhuber; Wowkle: Maya Lahyani; Billy Jackrabbit: Jeremy Milner; Pony Express Rider: Christopher Jackson. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Lorenzo Mariani. Set Designer: Maurizio Balò. Costume Designer: Gabriel Berry. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler.
product_id=Above: Deborah Voigt as Minnie

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 11:50 AM

A Surreal Russian Opera That's All Bark and a Lot of Bite, Too

By George Loomis [NY Times, 22 June 2010]

AMSTERDAM — When it comes to giving birth to significant new Russian operas, the Netherlands Opera has a better recent track record than any theater in Russia.

Posted by Gary at 10:53 AM

Best When It's Tangy, Not Sweet

By Heidi Waleson [WSJ, 22 June 2010]

The beauty of Roald Dahl's darkly comic children's books is how they balance attraction and menace. "The Golden Ticket"—an opera by composer Peter Ash and librettist Donald Sturrock, based on Dahl's novel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," having its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis—is most successful when its score does the same. The opera's best music is edgy and snappy, its astringent orchestration giving prominence to the winds and the brass, capturing the story's restless unpredictability. But when it ventures into pure lyricism, it often meanders and sags.

Posted by Gary at 10:50 AM

Idomeneo at ENO

Idomeneo is a natural product of the courtly world of the Enlightenment — its hierarchies, values and symbols. It should be perfectly possible to translate this tale of vengeful Gods, proud Kings, of the passage from youth to age, and of human sacrifice, to a contemporary setting. Indeed, myth is essentially a presentation of a social worldview which, by delineating the customs and ideals of that society, can reveal how the modern world attained its current form. However, Katie Mitchell’s modern-day production so disregarded the mythic meaning of the work, and discounted the characterisation and motivation of the protagonists, focusing instead on mannered, often manic, stage business, that there was no hope that the audience might empathise with those on stage or relate to the unfolding drama.

The photographic seascape front-drop looked promising. It rose to reveal a clinical latter-day conference centre, the cool beiges and slate greys suggesting the best of contemporary Scandinavian design rather than of sultry climes of Mediterranean Crete. A panoramic window offered a glimpse of a cool, aquamarine ocean, but that’s as close as we got to Poseidon’s stormy seas in this production.

Vicki Mortimer and Alex Eales, Mitchell’s frequent collaborators, may have created a crisp, serene set, but it was immediately transformed into a hot-bed of activity, as waiters, bureaucrats and assorted flunkies charged back and forth, to and fro, in an unexplained and unfathomable flurry of activity. Pity poor Sarah Tynan, who as Ilia is charged with responsibility for clarifying the dramatic situation and mythic context in her opening aria, ‘Padre, germani, addio!’; it was almost impossible to concentrate on her music, words or predicament, so distracting was the surrounding maelstrom — despite Tynan’s serene composure, tender lyricism and excellent diction.

This infuriating fussiness, and the intrusion of countless pen-pushers and attendants, continued throughout the first two Acts, undermining the mythic stature of the work. Thus, while Idamante, seated at the distant end of a twenty-foot dining table, proclaimed his love for Ilia and begged her not to condemn him for the actions of his father (‘Non ho colpa’), Ilia gobbled down her dinner as sommeliers bustled about her, topping up her wine. No wonder she didn’t take him seriously. Iadamante fared little better in his endeavours to woo her in Act 2, as smooching couples intruded on their private moment, swaying distractingly to his words of love.

Mozart’s music sharply delineates the four main characters. Ironically, while over-directing her army of extras, Mitchell left the principals pretty much to their own devices, with mixed results. The composer’s verdict on the original Idomeneo and Idamante (the aging Anton Raaff and the soprano-castrato, Vincenzo dal Prato) was that they were, “the most wretched actors ever to walk the stage”; Mitchell did little to help her actors rise above these lowly standards. While Paul Nilon as Idomeneo was imposing and credible, Robert Murray‘s Idamante was a pretty feeble hero, threatening to slip ineffectually into self-pitying alcoholism. In Act 1 Scene 2, seeking solitude at the base of a cliff, to mourn the supposed loss of his father, Idamante sat unmoving on a craggy boulder, solipsistically bewailing his grief and pain, and failed to recognise the returning king even when he was staring him in the face; the general lack of dramatic credulity made the usual suspension of disbelief even more difficult.

Only Emma Bell, as Electra, injected any real dramatic frisson; unfortunately she was played, admittedly with great panache, as an obsessive neurotic, compulsively stalking the hapless Idamante, cocktail glass clutched firmly in hand — think ‘Sex and the City’ meets the Ugly Sisters. Her Act 2 aria, ‘Idol mil’, where she professes her sincere belief that she might win Idamante’s heart once she has removed him from Ilia’s gaze, was beautifully rhapsodic, a lyric moment of illusory happiness evoking real human emotion and pathos. Mozart’s music provides a moment of genuine compassion, fleetingly humanising Electra. But, Mitchell sees things rather differently: Bell’s hopeful, rapturous arcs became orgasmic swoons, as a civil servant indulged her foot fetishism. Electra’s jealousy should inspire fear, dismay and pity; but here Bell simply became a figure of fun, slumping drunkenly on the sofa, fawning across the indifferent men, her avowals of happiness presented as the deluded idiocies of a drunken clown.

Idomeneo_Emma_Bell_Paul_Nilon_Robert_Murray_Sarah_Tynan_credit_Steve_Cummiskey.pngEmma Bell as Electra, Paul Nilon as Idomeno, Robert Murray as Idamante and Sarah Tynan as Ilia

The chorus fared little better. For most of the opera they stood stock still, seemingly bemused as to their role in the drama. They were also musically sluggish and leaden in the opening chorus, ‘Godiam la pace’, although they sharpened up considerably as the opera progressed, and there was some admirable singing from those given small solo roles — Claire Mitcher, Lydia Marchione, Michelle Daly, David Newman and Michael Selby. And, there was one neat visual touch, in Act 2, as the vicious storm breaks before the departure of Idamante and Elektra: rushing from the smart cruise boat departure lounge into the VIP area, to escape from the ensuing tempest (‘Corriamo, fuggiamo’), the huddled crowd presented a fitting visual metaphor for the dread which overcomes them.

Despite the nonsense on stage, there was some excellent singing, not least from Paul Nilon. He rose impressively to the challenges of the Act 2 ‘Fuor del mar’, when it dawns on Idomeneo that all of them will be victims of the gods. His coloratura was notable for its stamina and flexibility, both agile and imposing. Sarah Tynan both looked and sang beautifully — costumed in an array of gorgeous gowns by Vicki Mortimer. Particularly striking was her clarity and superb intonation in ‘Se il padre perdei’, as Ilia confesses to Idamante that she now considers Crete a kind of homeland. Emma Bell was fittingly psychological unhinged in ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace’, while retaining absolute vocal control and displaying great power and projection. In the original version of 1781, Idamante was a castrato role, but Mozart gave a tenor alternative five years later in Vienna when it was being performed by amateurs. Today the role is often taken by a mezzo soprano, and Robert Murray failed to convince that the tenor version is to be preferred, seeming strained and tight at the top of the register.

The minor roles performed consistently. In particular, Adam Green’s Arbace, reporting that the people are demanding that the king deliver them from the monster, presented a touching lament for a Crete that is overwhelmed with sadness in his Act 3 aria ‘Sventurata Sidon!’

Edward Gardner, despite a rather weighty start in the overture, elsewhere sensitively drew out the instrumental nuances of the detailed, at times very virtuosic, orchestral score. There was some exquisite woodwind playing in Act 2, reaching its height in the quartet for flute, oboe, bassoon and which accompanies Ilia’s ‘Se il padre perdei’. Generally, despite the stasis on stage, Gardner paced the drama with increasing assurance; this is an opera with few of the long pauses between arias so characteristic of opera seria, and it was thanks to the conductor’s sure sense of the relationships between scenes and effective handling of the transitions and overlaps between numbers, that some sort of forward dramatic momentum was suggested.

The final act, as the individual protagonists express their private sorrows, did however lose musical momentum. And it made little dramatic sense. Mitchell has dispensed with the Gods and with the sea monster. Thus, there is nothing to cause the death and destruction of which the High Priest of Poseidon reports — making his recitative meaningless. And there is nothing for Idamante to slay, no heroic deed to prompt Ilia to declare her love — only vague waffling about brave deeds. It was hard to believe that this was a man to lead the Cretan nation … better perhaps to have stuck with the original myth’s ending and sacrificed Idamante after all. In the closing moments there was one last flounce from Elektra: horrified by the general rejoicing and the prospect of Idamante seeking pleasure and solace in her rival’s arms, she shrieked, ran from the stage and shot herself in the wings. Few wept, or cared.

The disappointing lack of concordance between dramatic contrivance and musical meaning makes this an unrewarding production, one which cannot fully be redeemed by some fine singing and playing.

Claire Seymour

Performances continue until July 9th

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Paul_Nilon.png image_description=Paul Nilon as Idomeneo [Photo by Steve Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Idomeneo product_by=Idomeneo: Paul Nilon; Idamante: Robert Murray; Ilia: Sarah Tynan; Electra: Emma Bell; Arbace: Adam Green; High Priest of Poseidon: Richard Edgar-Wilson; Voice of Poseidon: Pauls Putniņš. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Katie Mitchell. Set Designers: Vicki Mortimer, Alex Eales. Costume Designer: Vicki Mortimer. Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. English National Opera, London. Friday 18 June 2010. product_id=Above: Paul Nilon as Idomeneo

All photos by Steve Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 10:13 AM

June 21, 2010

Anne Schwanewilms in Recital at Wigmore Hall

Anne Schwanewilms was the perfect partner for Vignoles in this culminating concert. Increasingly renowned for her interpretations of Wagner and Strauss, the German lyric soprano’s recent Hyperion recording of these lieder has won astonishing accolades, and in this recital she emphatically demonstrated why she is fast becoming one of the leading Strauss singers of the new generation.

Poised, authoritative and superbly assured, from the opening song, ‘Ach Lieb, ich muß nun scheiden’ (‘Ah, my love, I must leave you now’), Schwanewilms spun a seamless legato, now luminous and shimmering, now radiant and sumptuous. Each phrase was shaped with innate musicality, and while she may not have the widest range of tonal colour, she subtly shaded particular notes to draw attention to the darker emotional hues of some of these songs. Thus, while in this first lied Schwanewilms employed a generally restrained vibrato, a controlled intensification — ‘Die Erlen und die Weiden vor Schmerz in Tränen stehn’ (The alders and willows weep with pain’) — economically and intelligently pinpointed the emotional centre of this lament.

The first four lieder aptly demonstrate the oft-unacknowledged expressive range of Strauss’ songs. Moving from the swift, light Cherubino-esque effervescence of ‘All’ mein Gedanken’ (‘All my thoughts’), through the ethereal stratospheres of the floating, prosaic lines of ‘Nachtgang’ (‘A walk at night’), arriving at the sonorous, subdued depths of ‘Geduld’ (‘Patience’), with its dark nadirs — ‘hourly a funeral bell demands/the last fare of tears for the grave’ — Schwanewilms and Vignoles encompassed the dramatic and emotional variety with naturalism and ease. Schwanewilms’ pianissimo was characterised by fragile sheen and innocence; yet such delicacy was matched by a bright, radiant forte. ‘Geduld’ demonstrated Vignoles’ wonderful appreciation of both overall dramatic structure and detailed nuance, as the swinging compound rhythms suspended over low pedals gave way to a more airy texture — ‘“Patience”, you say, and lower your eyelids’ — before the resumption of the original pendulous rocking led to an intensifying accelerando and rise in tessitura, culminating in a final assertive cadence, ‘But for loving and kissing I have/ only one spring like the rose bush’.

The inclusion of Arnold Schoenberg’s name on the programme may have caused a twinge of anxiety among the Wigmore Hall regulars and traditionalists, but the ‘Four Lieder Op.2’ amply illustrated the natural development of a German lyric idiom as the certainties of the nineteenth century gave way to the modern tensions of the twentieth. First performed in 1900, these songs capture the equivocation between satisfying expressive resolution and emotional unrest and revolution, an ambiguity — conveyed through chromatic nuance, melodic unpredictability, textural variety and rhapsodic outbursts which Schwanewilms and Vignoles relished.

In the first song, ‘Ertwartung’, ‘Expectation’, the piano’s high, rippling figuration and unsettling chromaticism perfectly captured the lunar gleams eerily playing on the surface of the ‘sea-green pond’. Schwanewilms negotiated the melodic challenges with ease. Her suspended high notes created a mood of effortless rapture and indulgence — as ‘Three opals glimmer’ — before she subsided to a more blanched, reserved tone for the equivocal closing phrase, ‘a woman’s pale hand/ waves to him …’. Vignoles’ piano postlude poignantly and effectively concluded and answered the questions posed by the ellipsis.

In ‘Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm’ (‘Give me your golden comb’), the soaring melodic arches, coupled with the piano’s rapt harmonies, evoked the glorious yet troubling relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, at once ecstatic and dangerous, depicted by Dehmel’s troubling verses. In these songs, Vignoles was in complete command of the emotional landscape, as evidenced by the piano’s controlled after-phrases in ‘Erhebung’ (‘Exlatation’) where the cathartic release of tumultuous emotions was deeply affecting but never uncontrolled. In ‘Waldsonne’ (‘Sun in the forest’) Schwanesilms achieved an effortless clarity in the leaps between vocal registers; while Vignoles, descending through the registers, created a powerful narrative from different harmonic interpretations of the repeating melodic motif.

The first half concluded with Strauss’s three ‘Ophelia songs’. These are extraordinary, quasi-operatic songs, quirky syncopations, melodic twists and unsettling dissonances conveying Ophelia’s incumbent madness. The protagonist is both childlike in her innocence and world-weary in despair. Thus, in ‘Guten morgen, ’s ist Sankt Valentinstag’ (‘Good morning, it’s St Valentine’s Day’) the off-beats and staccato articulation destablised an insouciant text. And, the final song, ‘Sie Traugen ihn auf der Bahre bloß’ (‘They carried him naked on the bier’), was marked by extreme contrasts which reveal Ophelia’s mental distress: the flowing melodic continuity of the piano’s legato lines and flowing right hand figuration, and the soaring vocal phrases (‘Fahr’ wohl, meing Taube!’ (‘Farewell, farewell, my dove’)), give way to angry melancholy and the unstable tempo of the final stanzas, thereby revealing Ophelia’s mental distress and intimating the forthcoming tragedy. In these Shakespearean ‘tableaux’, the contrast between the purity of Schwanewilms’ intonation and the intimations of imminent mental collapse was deeply touching.

The second half of the recital allowed Vignoles to demonstrate his mastery of Strauss’ ‘orchestral’ writing for the piano. ‘Winterweihe’ (‘Winter consecration’) was notable for the warmth and richness of the sonorous piano bass, which set in relief the exquisite delicacy of Schwanewilms’ soaring avowal to ‘dedicate day and night to blissful love’. In ‘Wiegenliedchen’ (‘A little lullaby’) the performers’ alert but never exaggerated attention to musical and dramatic detail was in evidence, swooping vocal descents — ‘Süßes Gesicht’ (‘you with the lovely face’) — sweetly matching the translucent ripples of the piano — as the ‘Little spider, little spider,/ shimmers in the sunshine’.

Strauss’ setting of Curt Mündel’s ‘Ach was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen’ uses sly chromatic twisting motifs to underpin the humour of the text: and Schwanewilms’ wry smiles winks, and flighty, joyful vocal leaps, invited the audience’s complicity, reinforcing what an innately dramatic performer she is.

Through this recital, Vignoles’ had complete command of the textural and formal complexity of these songs, complemented by an ability to convey an astonishing variety of colour and mood — from the delicate fragility of the rippling figuration in ‘Wiegenliedchen’ to the gentle, low undulations of ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’ (‘Dream into dusk’).

As the programme drew to a close, ‘O wärst du mein!’ (‘Ah, were you mine!’) re-established the mood of romantic rapture, the dominant resolution in the bass reached by a tantalising rising chromatic movement. The final song, ‘Woodland rapture’ (‘Waldseligkeit’), succinctly paraphrased the expressive power of Strauss’ lieder: with its suspended high notes, surprising harmonic shifts, and contrast of major and minor tonalities, the apparently simple text was transformed into a more complex narrative — as the performers reminded us of the dark volk roots of this musico-dramatic repertory.

As an encore, aptly holding a floral bouquet, Schwanewilms gave a graceful, relaxed rendition of ‘Das Rosenband’. Inexplicably, some patrons had been seen to depart at the interval, but judging from the applause most of the audience could have listened to this music all night. Both performers were ever alert to both the musical beauty and dramatic potential of these songs. Quite simply, this was magnificent singing and playing: genuinely shared empathy and wonderful artistry.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Schwanewilms.gif image_description=Anne Schwanewilms [Photo courtesy of Haydn Rawstron Limited] product=yes product_title=Anne Schwanewilms in Recital at Wigmore Hall product_by=Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano. product_id=Richard Strauss: ‘Ach Lieb, ich muß nun scheiden’; ‘All’ mein Gedanken’; ‘Nachtgang’; ‘Geduld’; ‘Drei Lieder der Ophelia’; ‘Winterweihe’; ‘Wiegenliedchen’; ‘Wer lieben will, muss leiden’; ‘Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen’; ‘Blindenklage’; ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’; ‘Schlagende Herzen’; ‘O wärst du mein’; ‘Waldseligkeit’. Schoenberg: 4 Lieder Op. 2.Wigmore Hall, London. Wednesday 16th June 2010.
Posted by Gary at 3:23 PM

Night Music Magic 'n' More in St. Louis

Indeed, the best Broadway show is not in New York at all, but has taken up momentary residence at the company’s home in the intimate Loretto Hilton Theatre. The triumph begins with the exemplary cast.

11Night-Music02.gifAmy Irving as Desiree Armfeldt and Ron Raines as Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis]

Amy Irving was born to play Desiree Armfeldt. One of the world’s most glamorous women, she has allowed herself to age ever so gracefully. She wholly understands the heroine’s survival instincts but tempers them with a hint of pathos and melancholy that softens the bitchy edges of the writing. She is earthy without becoming earth-bound. Her dusky-verging-on-husky vocal instrument is a perfect match for the music Mr. Sondheim conceived for Glynis Johns. While alluringly petite, she nevertheless embodies huge star presence, not only necessary for the actress character she is playing, but totally dominating the tale at hand.

Ron Raines is decidedly her equal, offering the best Frederick Egermann of my experience. Has anyone ever sung this role with such a rich, ringing baritone? Or found such nuance in even the most tongue-tying patter? Or discovered such freshness and wit in Hugh Wheeler’s banter? Mr. Raines has infused Egerman with an inner spark that allows him to be world weary without making us weary.

As Madame Armfeldt, Siân Phillips not only has the most perfect diction I have encountered in many a moon, but she has a comic timing that hits more bulls eye’s than Annie Oakley. Her rendition of “Liaisons” could be offered as a Masters Class of song delivery, a mini-drama that relished and diversified every turn of plot. That Ms. Phillips could still make me laugh out loud at comic material I know from memory is testament to her skill. Her condescending delivery of the word “raisins” was alone worth the price of admission.

Amanda Squitieri is perfection as the virginal wife Anne, singing with precision and beauty and approximating the flightiness and experience of a young woman with nary a false move. Although dashing Christopher Herbert as the young son Henrik is a baritone, he negotiated the high flying tenorial phrases very winningly, and found a sweet core of heartsickness to temper his outward insufferability. The young Vivian Krich-Brinton was delectable as the daughter Frederika, whose singing was strong and true, and whose stage savvy left nothing to be desired.

11Night-Music23.gif Amanda Squitieri as Anne Egerman and Christopher Dylan Herbert as Henrik Egerman in A Little Night Music [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis]

Lee Gregory as Carl-Magnus and Erin Holland as his long-suffering wife Charlotte offered intriguing takes on their characters. At first I thought Mr.Gregory’s Dudley Do-Right approach might not wear well, but his utter belief in it, and relentless delivery of it ended up being a very satisfying portrayal. Coming off more the stupid prat than usual, the story was the richer for it. Ms. Holland was less acerbic than others I have seen as Charlotte, with more rounded edges and more genuine love for her errant soldier. What she lost in bite zinging some of her zingers, she made up for in empathy for her plight as his pawn.

Candra Savage was an especially pretty Petra, with an easy stage presence and a natural sexiness that made for amusing character interactions, and more. . .such as the sultry seduction with Matthew Lau’s lusty Frid. Ms. Savage delivered one of the show’s highlights: an assured and powerful rendition of The Miller’s Son. The Liebeslieder Quintet of singers were wonderfully matched, soloing magnificently and blending smoothly as required: Aaron Agulay (Mr. Lindquist), Lauren Jelencovich (Mrs. Nordstrom), Corinne Winters (Mrs. Anderssen), Mark Van Arsdale (Mr. Erlanson) and Laura Wilde (Mrs. Segstrom). While they are too young to sing about “remembering” sexual peccadilloes that are well in the past, they are endearing, poised, attractive, and sing the hell out Sondheim’s complex vocal writing.

Conductor Stephen Lord is eliciting ravishing playing from the orchestra and he has an unerring musical comedy sensibility. I heard color combinations and instrumental licks I never noticed before. Jonathan Tunick’s superb orchestration can seldom, if ever been heard to such fine advantage.

The mutli-talented Isaac Mizrahi was the Triple Theatre Stage Director, Setting, and Costume Designer. (Isaac must have run out of time to design and hand out the programs as well, but if he had we would have been the richer for it.) Boris Aronson’s original scenic concept was all tracked scenery and cinematic dissolves which informed how the piece developed and was played. The St.Louis thrust stage affords no such possibilities for computerized movement, but Mr. Mizrahi turned this limitation into an asset.

First, he imagined a magnificent forest of massive trees, suitable for climbing and perching, and a lush green grassy ground cloth. Then he choreographed his cast to move well-chosen set pieces on and off without stealing focus as the action/music continued. Only twice did we have to wait a few seconds for the setting to be completed (placing and removing the massive dinner party table), but frankly it hardly mattered as we were entertained by some additional piano noodling. Similarly his costumes were absolutely right, from the stuffy straight-jacketed business and formal attire to the suggestive undergarments and accoutrement’s of the half-dressed cast members lounging (and longing) on stage when we entered the auditorium. I was only distracted by the inconsistency of some of the servants and quintet having cute little angel wings attached (cupids? angels? fireflies?) and others did not.

11Night-Music17.gif(L to R) Vivian Krich-Brinton as Fredrika Armfeldt and Siân Phillips as Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis

Mizrahi the director struck an uncommonly fine balance between Scandanavian straight forwardness and American musical sentimentality. His scene work was beautifully inventive and laced with subtext. He made full use of the thrust stage and the variety of possibilities it affords. I thought I would never see a production of A Little Night Music to challenge my memory of that glorious Hal Prince original. I was wrong.

There are easier things than launching a new comic family friendly opera, like. . . rocket science, perhaps. But OTSL scored another major success with its world premiere of composer Peter Ash’s and librettist Donald Sturrock’s The Golden Ticket, a musicalization of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl. I think I am one of three people in the world who have not read the source material nor seen the Willie Wonka film incarnations. And I decided to keep it that way, coming to the piece with no background at all to see how it worked on its own merits.

And, indeed, it mostly worked very very well. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to give legs to a new comedy, much less compounding the comic timing with the challenge of having to sing the set-ups and punch lines. Both composer and librettist displayed considerable wit and imagination, and Mr. Ash made the orchestra a willing accomplice with characterful inventions, including a frat boy-level bassoon “fart” (ya had to be there).

11GoldenTicket02.jpg.gif (L to R) Daniel Okulitch as Willy Wonka and Michael Kepler Meo as Charlie in The Golden Ticket [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis]

Composer Ash seems to have been influenced by every composer of the last century, not least of which Leonard Bernstein who in turn borrowed from every composer who ever lived (and a few who didn’t). There are hints of Prokoviev, Barber, Janacek, Britten, Dove, Ades, and Corigliano, although Mr. Ash manages to contrive his own unique aural palette that suits the work at hand very well indeed. I was also impressed that he seems to have created a rather distinctive musical personality for each character, with well considered evocations of traditional operatic set pieces and arias. If some of the noodling and fidgeting gets restless, and some of the solos stretch on a bit long, this is contrasted with some affecting arioso moments and some truly sublime choral writing. All in all, aurally and dramatically the piece is accessible, interesting, and highly entertaining. Much of the musical success must lie with conductor Timothy Redmond, who led the reduced orchestra (think “Albert Herring” or “Ariadne”) with great conviction, rhythmic precision, and rhapsodic sweep.

This was a lot to take in on one viewing, but I would suggest that some of the Act Two scenes in which each of the bratty children get their comeuppance slightly exceed our interest level. After the first gets trapped in his own greed, there is a predictability that the same fate awaits the others in turn, save Good Boy Charlie. I would urge that the creative team look to tighten those individual “just rewards” scenes to get us all the sooner to the ennoblement of our young hero. I also thought the finale of Act One might be mis-judged, ending with a whimper instead of a bang. Ninety per cent of the writing landed so beautifully that I would hope that further mountings will give the creators the opportunity to fine tune “Ticket.”

A large part of the actors’ total success in creating these iconic characters has to be credited to the dazzling costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, abetted by the extensive array of wigs and specialty make-up by Tom Watson. The Lady Squirrels, the Oompa Loompas, the pink-suited news anchor woman, the arch-stereotypes of the contentious children, all of the attire was colorful, creative, and spot-on.

Bruno Schwengl’s amazingly mobile and versatile scenery was also first-rate and did not miss a trick in supporting the requisite special effects whether it be the inflatable chocolate river, the transformation of a child into a giant blueberry, or a star entrance for Willie Wonka in a balloon.

Ingenious. Greg Emetaz was equally effective in devising stage-filling, scrolling and rolling candy projections, as well as cheeky videos that worked wonders in facilitating the scenic journey through Candy land. Not to be outdone, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind greatly enhanced the production, most especially with beautiful specials, isolation effects, and a well-chosen mix of color filters. This was one of those instances where the limitations of the facility inspired the designers to exceptionally pleasing results.

I admired James Robinson’s stage direction more for its astounding traffic management (people and scenery) than for its revelatory detail. That Mr. Robinson kept things focused and moving fluidly is no mean feat, but occasionally characters seemed to be left hanging. Willie Wonka, for example, at the end of One gamely keeps improvising a hop-skip-step, twirling his cane and performing a hat trick, but the repetition, no matter how enthusiastically executed, wore thin. Too, as each child gets trapped in a fate of their own doing in Act Two, the accompanying parent/guardian is left wringing their hands and blustering within their own devices for too long, losing credibility. As I suggested above, perhaps tightening these sections will benefit all concerned, but in the meantime, the director has not always created wholly fulfilling moments with the piece he has been handed. Most curiously, it seemed to me as if the entire show was played straight front, with the assembled forces often lining up stage right to stage left, ignoring the audience segments off the thrust left and right. Curious indeed from one who knows the space so well.

Daniel Okulitch is making a wholly successful debut in the dual roles of Mr. Know and Willie Wonka. He is a stage creature, possessed of an easy presence and considerable charm. When he smiles conspiratorially at the audience we are quite helpless to resist this Pied Piper with a heart of chocolate. He sports a very secure lyric baritone, which blooms exponentially as it ascends. Mr. Okulitch is also capable of heart-stoppingly beautiful sotto voce effects, and it was a pity that his long aria did not have a musical “button” so that we could lavish him with applause for singing it so well. He sensibly does not push his voice hard below say, ‘f’ or so, meaning the infrequent lower lying passages were hard to make out. But for star wattage in this crucial role, Okulitch emphatically delivered the goods.

Michael Kepler Meo was simply a splendid young Charlie. His concentration and natural stage presence would be the envy of many an adult singer. He is possessed of an uncommonly lovely soprano, and he sings the most complicated phrases with security and tonal beauty. Although body-miked, we still lost a few of his phrases in the lower range when the orchestration competed rather than complemented. But his was a magnificent achievement.

11GoldenTicket20.jpg.gifA scene from The Golden Ticket [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis]

Spitfire Tracy Dahl was first among equals as the competing Violet Beauregard, a mini-Dale Evans in search of a heifer to brand. She fearlessly executed some of the most fiendishly difficult coloratura this side of “Grossmaechtige Prinzessin” with such clarity and precision that I long to hear her someday as a world class Zerbinetta. Lean and lanky Jennifer Rivera was the snotty cheerleader Veruca Salt, displaying a steely high-flying mezzo that could also pull back to more mellow tones. David Trudgen slammed out such ear-pinning high notes as Mike Teavee that he might have been auditioning for “Ah, mes amis.” As with the other vocal writing for the brats, his music was often excitable, conversational and angular so it was hard to judge what his legato singing in the passagio might be like, characterized here with some gear-changing at times. But, boy does Trudgen have the money notes. As Augustus Gloop, Andrew Drost showed off a solid counter-tenor with more bite than most in the upper register, and unafraid to dip into baritonal sounds as the role required at the lower end.

Among the adults, Frank Kelley was a stand-out as Grandpa Joe. He not only sang dreamily, but he alone tugged at my heartstrings with a deeply felt emotional portrayal. Oren Gradus was wonderful as ever as Mr. Beauregard and Grandpa George; Kristin Clayton brought her pleasing soprano to Mrs. Gloop and Grandma Georgina; MaryAnn McCormick was highly effective as Grandma Josephine and (especially) Mrs. Teavee; and Andrew Dost brought variety and firm vocal presence to Lord Salt. In her dual duty as the perky/bitchy Candy Mallow and the hyper-active Squirrelmistress, Jennifer Berkebile offered pristine singing and assured presence.

From the There-Are-No-Small-Roles Department: One the highlights of The Golden Ticket for me was Nick Fitzer’s brief but superbly vocalized turn as the Solo Oompa Loompa. No fooling folks, this young lyric tenor is a guy to watch. OTSL must think so, too since Nick is one of the Gerdine Young Artists. As usual, the ensemble of Young Artists provided choral singing of the highest caliber under the direction of Sandra Horst, and cleanly executed Séan Curran’s inventive choreography.

On the basis of the one-two punch of A Little Night Music and The Golden Ticket, in the US summer opera sweepstakes Opera Theatre of St. Louis remains the winner and still champeen.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/11GoldenTicket01.jpg.gif image_description=Michael Kepler Meo as Charlie in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis's 2010 production of The Golden Ticket [Photo by Ken Howard] product=yes product_title= product_by=A Little Night Music — Desiree Armfeldt: Amy Irving; Mdm. Armfeldt: Siân Phillips; Henrik Egerman: Christopher Herbert; Fredrik Egerman: Ron Raines; Anne Egerman: Amanda Squitieri; Carl-Magnus Malcolm: Lee Gregory; Charlotte Malcolm: Erin Holland; Fredrika Armfeldt: Vivian Krich-Brinton; Petra: Candra Savage; Mr. Lindquist: Aaron Agulay; Mrs. Nordstrom: Lauren Jelencovich; Mrs. Anderssen: Corinne Winters; Mr. Erlanson: Mark Van Arsdale; Mrs. Segstrom: Laura Wilde; Frid: Matthew Lau. Conductor: Stephen Lord. Stage Director, Set/Costume Designer: Isaac Mizrahi. Lighting Designer: Michael Chybowski. Wig and Makeup Design: Tom Watson. Choreographer: Seán Curran.

The Golden Ticket — Charlie: Michael Kepler Meo; Mr. Know/Willy Wonka: Daniel Okulitch; Mike Teavee: David Trudgen; Veruca Salt: Jennifer Rivera; Lord Salt: David Kravitz; Violet Beauregard: Tracy Dahl; Augustus Gloop: Andrew Drost; Grandpa Joe: Frank Kelley; Beauregard/Grandpa George: Oren Gradus; Mrs. Gloop/Grandma Georgina: Kristin Clayton; Mrs. Teavee/Grandma Josephine: MaryAnn McCormick; Candy Mallow/Squirrelmistress: Jennifer Berkebile. Conductor: Timothy Redmond. Stage Director: James Robinson. Set Designer: Bruno Schwengl. Costume Designer: Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind. Wig & Makeup Design: Tom Watson. Choreographer: Séan Curran. Chorus Master: Sandra Horst. product_id=Above: Michael Kepler Meo as Charlie in The Golden Ticket [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St Louis]
Posted by james_s at 1:22 PM

Der Ring des Nibelungen in Los Angeles

It was everything smart money can buy. L.A. superseded the sometimes sleazy flash of its film and television industry with brilliant flash, reminding us that this huge center of intellectual property is driven by artistic creation. There was no compromise. The nine day duration made it possible to retain the same Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried et al. and to keep them in good voice, and it gave pilgrims to the L.A. Ring ample time to explore this magnificent city of art, architecture, gardens and music.

This Ring was indeed flashy, starting in the pit. Conductor James Conlon did not explore or even approach the cosmic sonorities of Wagner’s score choosing to propel text and musical line to their maximum tension, nearly unbearable in Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde (arms outstretched they passed without touching). He choose the brightest voices to enflame the Valkyries ride (though actually they just stood there), he unveiled the love of Siegfried and Brünnhilde with such urgency (though they stood on opposite sides of the stage) that it became vocally extremely dangerous — and breathtakingly exciting.

But the immolation was delivered by a Brünnhilde (facing the audience standing on a center stage podium) who was wise and resigned rather than ecstatic, and finally Mo. Conlon’s cataclysm was measured rather than unleashed. At the end Wagner’s resolution was not a hopeful return to a primal world but the sad, unlamented demise of tormented creatures. Operatic indeed, and heartbreaking too.

Though Mo. Conlon was perhaps limited by the L.A. Opera orchestra itself, his path was shared if not proscribed by line and color, by masks, puppets and symbols.

German artist Achim Freyer got the gigantic commission to create this staging of Richard Wagner’s treatise, a fancy that incorporates the nineteenth century bourgeois social conscience with opera’s age old tensions — love, jealousy and dirty politics. Just as much about all this old operatic stuff Wagner’s treatise is about art — the building of Valhalla and the forging of the ring. So Mr. Freyer made his own art the focal point of his Ring.

Achim Freyer’s art is visual and for Freyer music is equally visual. Music must flow therefore Freyer’s art too must flow. The static frames that are formed on the stage by Freyer’s masks and puppets are overlaid with constant movement. Sometimes by horizontal or vertical lines that traverse the stage’s fourth wall (the proscenium opening), sometimes by a gigantic stage floor disk that revolves, other times by huge cloths pulled across the stage. With Brünnhilde deprived of her divinity black human forms began to slowly traverse the stage in perpetual pacing. Freyer’s catalogue of flow was inexhaustible.

As the music of Germany’s great river flows from the Ring’s inception to beyond its end, Wagner’s music flows too for the Ring’s twenty or so hours (intermissions included) and so flows Freyer’s visual world for these eternal hours, an accomplishment as superhuman as Wotan’s building of Valhalla.

The architecture of the Ring world transformed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s stage. A theater wide scrim was suspended halfway out over the orchestra pit, thereby incorporating much of the orchestra within the volume of the stage. The huge revolving disk was cantilevered far over the pit, platforms suspended on either side of the protruding disk held threatening batteries of lighting instruments. A huge, rather severe rake (sloping platform) covered the stage itself non plussing Siegfried tenor John Treleaven who tripped only a couple of times (second cycle), having warned the world through the L.A. Times that Mr. Freyer’s Ring was a dangerous place.

Rheingold-(Richard-Paul-Fin.gifRheingold — Richard Paul Fink as Alberich

The Freyer Ring is a dangerous and exciting space, it’s weapons (the sword and the staff) were tubes of light, its repose was long lines of light, its disorder these long lines broken into a myriad of small lines. The ultimate destruction of the space was effected by the racks of lights hidden in the flys (the space above the stage housing scenery and equipment) suddenly descending with blinding white light, Wotan’s ravens flying out to reveal two onstage conductors (prompters), the upstage scrim disappearing to reveal the bare stage back wall against which all creation flew every which way in black silhouette.

The world of art was destroyed at the same moment our own world was revealed as that same imaginary world. It could be depressing but instead it was thrilling art.

A Valhalla of theatrical art Freyer’s Ring had its Nibelheim as well. A small army (twelve) of silent slaves, Freyer’s Nibelungen, effected the huge puppets who doubled the Ring’s pantheon of characters in defining moments, trudged endlessly across the stage in black body stockings, donned elaborate Nibelungen attire, were rigged to fly above the stage, and the list goes one. It was endless, mindless, thankless labor.

Freyer’s singers, a veritable Who’s Who among opera singers, were but symbols in a gigantic visual world well beyond an opera stage, their faces were masked or painted, their bodies clothed in huge costume caricatures, Brünnhilde magnificent in a huge black wig that would shame Louis XIV. This camouflage left these artists naked as singers, and a vocally more brilliant cast cannot be imagined, down to the last Valkyrie.

Siegfried-(Graham-Clark-as-.gifSiegfried — Graham Clark as Mime, Vitalij Kowajow as Wanderer

Los Angeles itself seems a Valhalla. Traversing this heroic city on its endless Wilshire Boulevard, from the Music Center downtown through Koreatown, then MacArthur Park through Hancock Park stopping at Ace Gallery in Miracle Mile to see the paintings created by Achim Freyer while he was preparing the Ring (priced from $25,000 to $100,000) — canvases that are huge moments of soundless music. Offered too are the prototypes of Wotan’s ravens ($7500 each), and a huge Wotan puppet, the only work in the exhibition that includes sound — piano doodling on Ring themes ($50,000).

Continuing through Beverly Hills and Westwood finally Santa Monica appears and the Ruth Bachofner Gallery at Bergamot Station where L.A. Opera photographer Monika Ritterhaus exhibits her photographs of the Ring production. These stunning mementos of this great theater art were printed (by “art ink jet” onto silver rag) and shimmer in vibrant color (priced from $2500 to $5000). They may be previewed at www.RuthBachofnerGallery.com.

For in depth reviews of the individual operas please consult Opera Today (search title and city) and music critic Mark Swed at LATimes.com.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, Alan Held (on stage, at front) as Gunther [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

product_title=Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
product_by=Wotan: Vitalij Kowaljow; Loge: Arnold Bezuyen; Alberich: Richard Paul Fink; Mime: Graham Clark; Fricka (Rheingold): Michelle DeYoung; Erda: Jill Grove; Fasolt: Morris Robinson; Fafner: Eric Halfvarson; Freia: Ellie Dehn; Donner: Wayne Tigges; Froh: Beau Gibson; Woglinde: Stacey Tappan; Wellgunde: Lauren McNeese; Flosshilde: Ronnita Nicole Miller; Siegmund: Plácido Domingo; Sieglinde: Michelle DeYoung; Brunnhilde: Linda Watson; Fricka (Walküre): Ekaterina Semenchuk; Hunding: Eric Halfvarson; Gerhilde: Ellie Dehn; Helmwige: Susan Foster; Ortlinde: Melissa Citro; Waltraute: Erica Brookhyser; Rossweisse: Margaret Thompson; Siegrune: Buffy Baggott; Grimgerde: Jane Dutton; Schwertleite: Ronnita Nicole Miller; Siegfried: John Treleaven; Erda: Jill Grove; Woodbird: Stacey Tappan; Gunther: Alan Held; Hagen: Eric Halfvarson; Waltraute: Michelle DeYoung; 1st Norn: Jill Grove; 2nd Norn: Michelle DeYoung; 3rd Norn: Melissa Citro; Gutrune: Jennifer Wilson. Conductor: James Conlon. Director and Designer: Achim Freyer. Costume Designer: Achim Freyer and Amanda Freyer. Lighting Designer: Brian Gale and Achim Freyer.
product_id=Above: Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, Alan Held (on stage, at front) as Gunther

All photos by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of L.A. Opera

Posted by michael_m at 12:23 PM

June 20, 2010

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 20 June 2010]

There are two moments in Wagner’s midsummer comedy where Welsh voices should score - the Bach-like chorale at the start and the show-stopping exclamation “Wach’ auf!” at the end. Welsh National Opera does not disappoint. In Saturday’s Meistersinger, the first for the company, the chorus had heft, bloom, balance, poise and precision, reinforcing this opera’s reputation as the most magical of Wagner’s works.

Posted by Gary at 1:15 PM

June 19, 2010

Christine Brewer: An Interview by Maria Nockin

A staunch believer in regular exercise, she has just returned from an early morning swim when I phoned her. We chatted about country living, her history, and the state of the art of singing.

MN: Where did you grow up?

CB: I grew up along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. My brothers and I worked on local farms in summer when we were out of school. I finished high school early and was admitted to advanced placement at McKendree College, the oldest college in Illinois, which gave me a full scholarship. I graduated with a teaching degree when I was twenty. Ross Brewer and I married the following year and we both taught public school. During those years I never expected to earn my livelihood as a singer, but I did take voice lessons. I had a job singing in church and I was a section leader in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Chorus. My voice was very small and light when I was young, but after I gave birth to my daughter at age twenty-eight, I noticed a big change in it. I was thirty-three when I won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions so I definitely was a late bloomer!

MN: Do you have some tips for parents and teachers?

CB: These days music teachers are few and far between, but many classroom teachers are trying to include art and music in the curriculum as best they can. I suggest that those who want to help can do that by raising funds for a trip to a concert or by contacting people who can enable the kids to come for free. If you call your local symphony or opera company, you may find that they have an outreach program that will help. The St. Louis Symphony people tell me that some schools fail to take advantage of all the services available to them.

MN: How did “Echoes of Nightingales” come into being?

CB: Glenn Freiner, my voice teacher at McKendree, got me interested in doing songs once sung by artists like Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Eileen Farrell and Eleanor Steber. Whenever he went to a recital he would note down the titles of the American songs he heard so he could buy the music. When he passed away, he left me this treasure trove of recital pieces. Roger Vignoles and I recorded more than twenty of them for Hyperion. The disc should come out in a few months. I’m already using some of the songs on my recital program.

MN: When did you start singing full time?

CB: I was the soprano soloist at The Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis where several opera board members were in the congregation. Actually, General Director Richard Gaddes also attended when he was in town. I entered a young artist competition sponsored by the St. Louis Symphony and Gaddes was a judge. I did not win, but a few days after it was over I got a letter from him with a few hundred dollars in it. He wanted to make sure I would not give up because he thought I had potential, so he sent me what I would have gotten if I had won. He asked me to audition for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis Chorus and since they performed when school was not in session, I did. Eventually, I was asked to cover solo roles and conductors like Stephen Lord and John Nelson started giving me small parts. Then, Colin Graham asked me to do Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes. That was a true break-through for me

MN: Did you participate in any young artist programs?

CB: Yes, Colin Graham invited me to study for a summer in Banff, Canada. I sang the role of the Female Chorus in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and I understudied Lady Billows in his Albert Herring. It was one of my best early experiences because the study was so intense.

MN: Did you work with Birgit Nilsson?

CB: Yes, in 1988 I participated in a lieder master class with her in Washington, DC, and she invited me to a six-week program in Buekeburg, Germany. There were only six singers in the class and we had daily lessons. When the BBC recorded some of my concerts, I sent her the discs and she wrote back a critique.

I also sent her a disc of my first Isolde, which I did in London. Warner classics actually bought the recording and released it with no retakes, no patching at all. I did not hear from Birgit for a long time on that and I thought maybe she did not like it. Eventually, I got a letter that began: “Frau Isolde!!!” and went on to say how much she loved the recording. She said, “This is your role. You must sing it.” It really does fit me like a glove. I’ve already sung quite a few Isoldes and have a lot more coming up.

This summer I will spend two months in Santa Fe singing Lady Billows in Albert Herring. It’s one of my favorite roles. I love singing Britten’s music because of the way he captures true, honest humanity. That‘s why I love singing Ellen Orford so much. I think Peter Grimes is one of the best operas ever written by any composer. Albert Herring I love because it gives me a chance to show my comic side. I think I’m a very funny person because I always find the humor in things that happen to me. Comedy is difficult, however, because there is a very fine line between what is funny and what isn’t. In Santa Fe we have a fabulous director, Paul Curran. He directed the Peter Grimes there and the Die Frau ohne Schatten in Chicago. He’s a Scot and he understands Britten. Andrew Davis is conducting, so we really have the best in Santa Fe this summer. I know it’s going to be a fun production.

I love singing in my own language, English! Young singers need to learn to sing well in their native languages. So often I hear a young American singer singing in English and I can’t understand the words. To my mind, if you can’t sing in your own language there’s something wrong. I often sing entire recitals made up entirely of American and British songs because I think it’s important to sing well in our own language. People need to know that we have great music in English. There’s a lot of good music out there, actually, so it’s important to keep looking at new pieces, too.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Christine_Brewer_Steiner.gif image_description=Christine Brewer [Photo by Christian Steiner] product=yes product_title=Christine Brewer: An Interview by Maria Nockin product_by=Above: Christine Brewer [Photo by Christian Steiner] products_id=
Posted by Gary at 7:03 PM

Orpheus & Euridice at Long Beach Opera

References to Orpheus survive from as far back as the sixth century BCE. Pindar called him the ‘father of song’. It was thought that his mother taught him to sing while Apollo instructed him on the lyre.To the Greeks of the classical age, Orpheus was venerated as animportant artist whose music could charm birds, fish and even wild creatures into docility. According to legend, he could change the course of rivers, make the rocks dance and make the gods of the underworld do his bidding. Both Pindar and Apollonius of Rhodes say that he sailed with Jason and the Argonauts. When Orpheus heard the sirens’ voices attempting to lure the ship off course, he played his incredibly beautifulmusic and drowned out the evil witches’ songs.

It was Virgil who told the tale with which we are most familiar. According to him, Orpheus married Euridice who was soon bitten by a snake anddied. He was terribly distraught and sang songs so touching that the nymphs and the gods wept with him. Thus, Euridice was allowed to return to earth provided that Orpheus did not look at her on the journey. As soon as he reached the upper world, however, he turned to her, not realizing that because she was following a few steps behind him, she was not yet on earth. As a result, he lost her forever.

Virgil’s story is the model for Ricky Ian Gordon’s poem, Orpheus & Euridice. As with some nineteenth century writers, Gordon has written both the poem and the music for this opera, which can also be presented as a song cycle, since only one character actually sings. Euridice is both the bride who dies and the narrator, while Orpheus is a clarinetist. As Gordon put it:

‘In books it was a lute
but in my dream
it was a reed not a flute,
something richer, darker, starker...’

To play the part of the musician who could charm the inhabitants of earth, Mount Olympus and the underworld is, of course, a tall order, but clarinetist Todd Palmer was a perfect choice. It was easy to imagine hisexpressive, plangent tones allowing him to bargain with the gods of the nether world.

On Friday 11 June 2010, Long Beach Opera presented Gordon’s Orpheus & Euridice at the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach,California. The pool is indoors and is set up with bleacher seating that allows spectators to watch swimming meets. It’s a rather unusual venue for opera, but Long Beach Opera is famous for performing in thought-provoking places. Here the huge pool was the River Styx, which Orpheus has to cross and recross in order to retrieve his beloved Euridice from the underworld. To paraphrase Anna Russell’s Ringanalysis, the scene opens in the river, in it. While soprano Elizabeth Futral who sang Eurydice and Todd Palmer as Orpheus only received an occasional splash, supers and dancers were engulfed by the chilling waters of the Styx for much of the performance.

O&E-055.gifTodd Palmer as Orpheus and Elizabeth Futral as Euridice [Photo courtesy of Long Beach Opera]

Clothed in a tasteful short yellow gown and matching wrap by Emmy-nominated designer Marcy Froelich, Futral was a vision of physical loveliness who sang with equal vocal beauty. At this watery venue, there could have been all sorts of echoes, so the performers had to wear microphones, but the sound design was well done by Bob Christian and Futral’s lustrous silver tones sounded much as they had in the acoustic confines of San Diego Opera. She had a most appealing stage presence while singing her lines with the utmost clarity and conviction. Stage director Andreas Mitisek is LBO’s general and artistic director as well. With capable artists, a minimum of scenery by set designer Alan Muraoka and most inventive lighting design by Dan Weingarten, the pool became the mythical river of the ancient Greek legend.

Palmer had actually commissioned the piece in 1995. He wanted a short work similar to Franz Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, and Gordon agreed to write it despite caring for a seriously ill partner at that time. The composer procrastinated for quite a while until one evening when he dreamed of Orpheus. That same night he wrote the poem and sometime later the music followed. The final work was, however, a great deal longer than expected and had many more ramifications than a simple song cycle for soprano, clarinet and piano. On Friday night, we were treated to the addition of a mellifluous string orchestra as well as the fine piano virtuosity of Melvin Chen. Conductor Stephen White led the ensemble in this dramatically alert, romantic performance and drew sterling contributions from all.

This was a most interesting experiment and it turned out to be a major success. The applause at the end was thunderous, especially when the composer took his bow. He has a show heading for Broadway and commission from the Metropolitan Opera, so we were very lucky to hear his work in such an intimate venue.

Maria Nockin

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ricky_Ian_Gordon.gif image_description=Ricky Ian Gordon [Photo Wikimedia] product=yes product_title=Ricky Ian Gordon: Orpheus & Euridice product_by=Euridice: Elizabeth Futral; Orpheus: Todd Palmer. Concept/Director: Andreas Mitisek. Choreography: Ken Roht. Costumes: Marcy Froehlich. Videography: John J. Flynn. Scenery Designer: Alan Muraoka. Lighting Designer: Dan Weingarten. product_id=Click here for libretto and other information concerning this production.

Above: Ricky Ian Gordon [Photo Wikimedia]
Posted by Gary at 6:21 PM

Opera's challenge is to take it easy

By David Patrick Stearns [Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 June 2010]

In the world's most complicated art forms, simplicity is tough. But that's what is called for in Willibald Christoph Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, an occasion for which the Opera Company of Philadelphia made pared-back production values not just a virtue but an eloquent artistic statement - even if Thursday's opening performance at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater occasionally crossed lines from simplicity to blandness to dramatic uncertainty.

Posted by Gary at 10:55 AM

June 18, 2010

Revivals Sparkle in the City of Lights

Director Robert Carsen’s take on Les Contes d’Hoffmann is arguably not perfect, once even verging on the vulgar, and more than occasionally, at odds with the text. So why can’t I stop thinking about it? (Make that “puzzling” about it.)

Perhaps it is because Carsen is quite masterful at developing meaningful character relationships and devising varied blocking to implement his intentions. Or perhaps it is because he is so ably abetted by a brilliant design team, who collectively decided to set the entire piece as Hoffmann’s fantasy, housed wholly in the theatre where Stella is performing in Don Giovanni.

As we enter the auditorium, our troubled hero is lying down right on a bare stage, struggling to write, and wrestling with his demons. As the piece begins, he is visited by his Muse, in diaphanous gown effectively illuminated by a ghostly beam of cross lighting. Then, damn if a huge wagon doesn’t appear, bearing an entire representational, stage-filling, eye-popping period courtyard set that slowly tracks across from stage right to stage left, where it once again disappears.

And not a moment too soon, for the ‘intermission’ revelers pour on stage and a looooooooong contemporary refreshment bar pops up out of the floor. Almost filling 3/4 of the width of the Bastille’s huge stage, and with the ‘service’ side of the bar facing us, it looked for all the world like any interval crush of patrons in any opera house in the world, the bartenders trying to serve the crowd in turn as they elbowed their way to the front of the queue. Hoffmann gets absorbed in this melee, and while his exposition does not quite work as theatre lobby banter, the milieu suits Carsen’s purpose. The Kleinzach aria is perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, creating the Dwarf of Song by having Hoffmann reverse his jacket, put his shoes on his hands to prance on the bar, with Niklausse sticking hands through from behind to gesticulate. Although the business didn’t wear particularly well it did serve to make that long tune (that also often does not wear well) go by far more quickly, and that can’t be all bad.

For the Olympia segment, we were back in the full Don Giovanni courtyard set that we saw sidle past, except this time with a perspective from behind the scenery, facing the prompter’s box and the ‘audience’ upstage. Once I accepted the fact that it made no sense for the cast therefore to be singing in our direction when performing to their supposed ‘audience’ would place them with their backs to us (picky, picky, picky), I managed to appreciate a good deal of the hi-jinks this mechanical doll seems to bring out of production teams.

On this occasion, Olympia is a randy, sex-charged Barbie doll, channeling simultaneously an American Idol wannabe and a Termi-Domi-natrix run amok. Especially funny was her use of a faux microphone a la Karaoke during the echo portion of her arpeggiated staccato figures, alternatively singing into the mike and then holding it out to encourage the audience to sing along on the repeats. ‘Un-amusing’ was having her force Hoffmann onto his back on a convenient hay wagon and then mounting him with thrusts of enthusiastic intercourse matching her surging coloratura. When she later peeled of her clothes to reveal a nude plastic sculpted baby doll body, Offenbach’s wit seemed to have been abandoned for cheap laughs. But, zut alors, you know what? Laugh they did. Vociferously. I had to remind myself that this is the same public that reveres Jerry Lewis. Eh bien, vive la difference.

The Antonia act was altogether quite brilliant, set as it was in a replication of the orchestra pit, with the false stage and act curtain looming above it. There was something altogether “right” about Antonia taking the score off the conductor’s desk, winding through the empty chairs and stands, and repairing to the piano, compelled to sing her hauntingly beautiful selection. Her mother appears above “on stage” as Donna Anna, Crespel was an orchestra violinist, and Dr. Miracle a mad maestro. This provided the ingredients for gripping drama. As the “orchestra” assembled in the pit and the conductor assumed the podium, Antonia rushed “on stage” to join her mother, dying just before the “downbeat.” Memorably effective.

Act Three’s Venice offered one final perspective, that of the rows of tiered audience seating as viewed from the stage apron, complete with footlights beaming at us. As the uninhibited chorus peopled the seats, they proceeded to give Sodom a run for its money, coupling, stroking, grinding and smooching with such abandon that it recalled an 8th Avenue adult movie theatre at the height of the Sexual Revolution. (Perhaps such things still go on in Paris?) By the time the chorus sang their last, um, climax, I felt we might should all collectively share a Gauloise. But no time for that. There was more confrontation to be played, and shadows to be stolen, but truth to tell, with only the empty seats in the background, this act ran out of visual interest. (Carsen was to use this stadium seating idea to more varied effect in last season’s Amsterdam Carmen.)

Still, by the time we came full circle back to the bar, and then the bare stage with the return of the Muse, an undeniably inventive and beautifully constructed series of theatrical environments had been lavished upon us by set and costume designer Michael Levine. Jean Kalman’s lighting was superb in its mood setting and focused isolation of important dramatic moments. Philippe Giraudeau devised clever, yet uncomplicated choreography for the chorus (well schooled Patrick Marie Aubert), most especially as visual back-up in the Olympia scene. What a wacky idea to have all the identical male choristers in a semi-circle strumming guitars for The Doll Song!

Having enjoyed Giuseppe Filianoti’s portrayal of the title role in Hamburg two seasons ago, I can happily report that he was even better here. Not only does he have the endurance for this killer part, but he has the right temperament. His ringing top notes never seemed to tire, and his substantial middle voice seems to have become more supple and expressive in the intervening years. Passion, good looks, commitment, star quality. . .what more could you ask for than Filianoti’s commanding impersonation?

Laura Aiken was a dizzy and dizzying Oympia, apparently willing (and able) to do anything asked of her by director and composer, all the while singing with accuracy and musicality. Her solid technique was wedded to a very pleasing instrument. If the voice lacks a unique aural personality, Ms. Aiken compensates with her savvy stagecraft skills. Inva Mula was a wholly convincing Antonia, regaling us with tonal beauty that displayed limpid tone and urgent desperation in equal measure. Lean and glamorous Béatrice Uria-Morizon used her statuesque beauty to good effect as Giulietta, and her substantial, slightly steely mezzo rang out in the house. I do wish she would pull back on phrase endings that dip near or below the break, though as they tended to splay ever so slightly, a minor flaw that also crept into the otherwise terrific Ekaterina Gubanova’s Niklausse. Gubanova strode the stage like a self-assured rooster, which was reflected in her no-nonsense, rock solid tonal production. Although it was not explained, Ekaterina also doubled as a well-sung Muse. A major talent. Cornelia Oncioiu’s rich, ripe contralto gave such pleasure as the Mother that it was a pity her contribution was so brief.

As a veteran of Carsen’s intriguing production, Franck Ferrari deployed his characterful, burly baritone to fine effect and he made much of the four villains, although I have to say they seemed less well delineated than the rich detail that Léonard Pezzino was able to achieve with his quadruple duty as Andres, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio. Indeed, Pezzino actually contributed the best take ever on Frantz’s comic ditty, singing almost all of it and eschewing the repeat of the embarrassing tired “joke” of his voice cracking. He just sang it out, Louise, to welcome appreciation from the audience. Rodolphe Briand was a perfectly competent Spalanzani, ditto Jason Bridges as Nathanaël, while stalwart company member Alain Vernhes was both a rousing Luther and a moving Crespel. Vladimir Kapshur made a solid contribution as Hermann, but Yuri Kissin was predictably soft-grained and undemonstrative as Schlemil.

Jesus Lopez-Cobos led an idiomatic reading, beautifully played, well-paced, and supportive of the singers. The Choudens version seems to have provided the bulk of this performance edition. At the risk of horrifying Offenbach scholars everywhere, my feeling about this piece is that it is just too long to sustain the premise. If there are options and editions from which to choose, why not sometime choose for a shorter one? That said, minute for minute this Tales of Hoffmann was musically resplendent and dramatically involving.

Click here for additional production information on Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

If anything, the wonderful orchestra played even more vibrantly for Jeffrey Tate in the riveting revival of Billy Budd. This knotty, moral allegory is not an easy listen. Even now, well into the 21st century, the dissonant harmonies, melisma-laced recitatives, and unsettling, oft shifting centers of tonality can challenge the ear. But Maestro Tate obviously knows his way around the Britten opus, and inspired his assembled forces to a forcefully cogent realization of this masterpiece.

Not least, the pit relished every detail of the thrilling, exhaustively multi-faceted orchestration, playing with enthusiasm, panache, and crackling dramatic fire. Not to be outdone, the all-male chorus (Monsieur Aubert’s exemplary work again) and mass of soloists performed with a united white-hot result.

I was fortunate to re-visit this production, which has aged better than a fine wine. Every minute theatrical moment, every technical element was polished to a lustrous sheen. Alison Chitty has devised a Rubick’s cube of a ship with a floor that tilts, steps that accordion, hammocks that hang, doors that enable varied traffic patterns, and a dominating mast that evokes an Orthodox cross. It is the perfect unit environment in which director Francesca Zambello can work her substantial magic. (Chitty also contributed the meaningful costumes, correctly capturing the military uniforms and all-important ranks and social order.)

Ms. Zambello makes nary a false move, not only in the thoroughly believable and fluid movement of the assembled forces, but also with her unerring placement of soloists and creation of plausible beats of tension and release. In a brilliant coup de theatre Billy is executed by placing the noose around his neck, having his mates hold him aloft on a wooden plank (as they had in Act One in his triumphant welcome to the ranks) and then dropping it as he swung . . .and swung. . .and swung. . .until an opaque drop was lowered in front of him. The shadow of his hanging corpse still seen on the curtain, Vere reverted to his aged persona and completed the evening. This was among the best dramatic effects I have experienced in an opera house.

Nor were we shortchanged on the vocal side. Lucas Meachem has a lot going for him: a lean, clean lyric baritone that is even throughout the range, excellent musical instincts, fine diction, and a complete mastery of the musical demands of the handsome, simple seaman. As yet, he seems to be just on the outside of the character, coming off a little cool in spite of conscientiously going through all the right dramatic motions. Other interpreters with less beautiful voices have made me weep, while Meachem just made me admire (albeit a lot) his technique. Too, Lucas is a bit too solid of frame to fully compete with other muscled and toned exponents of the role. Billy’s exceptional physical beauty is a key component of the plot after all, and it does matter. Further experience and a couple months of Weight Watchers and Mr. Meachem could be climbing the mizzen mast with the best of them.

Kim Begley’s well-seasoned Vere struck all the right points. His responsive tenor could be be authoritative one moment, and heart-breakingly plaintive the next. His transitions from broken old man to in-charge commander and back were believably impersonated. I was also mightily impressed by the weighty, dark-hued singing from Gidon Saks as Claggart. His attraction to young Billy was subtly, and hence effectively played, and he managed to find some variety in what is pretty much a ‘one note’ part.
The other officers were a trio of fine singers, indeed. Michael Druiett (Redburn), Paul Gay (Mr. Flint) and Scott Wilde (Lt. Ratcliffe) each achieved a well-differentiated persona.

Among the sailors, Andreas Jäggi had real presence as Red Whiskers and John Easterlin’s made the most of his moments as Squeak. The Novice is always a scene- and heart-stealer and the excellent François Piolino did just that, displaying a well-tutored tenor to boot. Franck Leguérinel also impressed with his few solos as the Bosun. Only Yuri Kissin’s Dansker was a bit disappointing, not in intent, but once again in under-powered execution.

From the Minor Quibble Department: While Alan Burrett has devised a superb lighting design, effectively contrasting light and dark, shadows and washes, night and day, there is one important moment that stands as a mis-calculation. At the very end of the piece the story fades away, Vere retreats introspectively, and the instrumentalists drop out entirely. Immediately after the tenor’s final word the lights suddenly jerked to an abrupt blackout. I would hope that this was a miscue, and urge that the effect be reconsidered to mirror the slow fade that is happening musically and dramatically.

But none of my reservations can dispel the fact that Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Billy Budd have been lovingly revived with a freshness and sparkle that does honor to the City of Lights.

Click here for additional production information on Billy Budd.

James Sohre

image_description=Giuseppe Filianoti [Photo by E. Paiz]

product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann; Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
product_by=Les Contes d’Hoffmann — Hoffmann: Giuseppe Filianoti; Olympia: Laura Aiken; Antonia: Inva Mula; Giulietta: Béatrice Uria-Morizon; Niklausse/Muse: Ekaterina Gubanova; Mother: Cornelia Oncioiu; Dr. Miracle: Franck Ferrari; Andres, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio: Léonard Pezzino; Spalanzi: Rodolphe Briand; Nathanaël: Jason Bridges; Luther, Crespel: Alain Vernhes; Hermann: Vladimir Kapshur; Schlemil: Yuri Kissin. Director: Robert Carsen. Conductor: Jesus Lopez-Cobos.

Billy Budd — Billy Budd: Lucas Meachem; Captain Vere: Kim Begley; John Claggart: Gidon Saks; Redburn: Michael Druiett; Mr. Flint: Paul Gay; Lt. Ratcliffe: Scott Wilde; Red Whiskers: Andreas Jäggi; Squeak: John Easterlin; The Novice: François Piolino; The Bosun: Franck Leguérinel; Dansker: Yuri Kissin. Director: Francesca Zambello. Conductor: Jeffrey Tate.
product_id=Above: Giuseppe Filianoti (Hoffmann) [Photo by E. Paiz]

Posted by james_s at 2:30 PM

Valencia Ring: Götterdämmerung

Given the effective staging of the other three operas in cycle, Götterdämmerung afforded the company to meet or exceed the challenges of presenting this work with the same creativity, and in this regard it is a success. The innovative thought that informed the presentation of the other operas is present here from the start, with the Norns in the prelude suspended on pulleys labeled past, present, and future, and surrounded by their rope like spiders. At the same time, the projections behind the horns illustrate some parts of their narration. The simple use of branches to depict the growth and decline of the ash tree is a sensible image that enhances the scene and never interferes with the fine ensemble of the Norns Daniela Denschlag, Pilar Vásquez, and Eugenia Bethencourt. The scene shifts to the place where Siegfried encountered Brünnhilde at the end of the previous opera, with the scenic design nicely reprising that work. Lance Ryan and Jennifer Wilson play the same roles, with both performers convincing both vocally and dramatically. Nicely the familiar orchestra interlude “Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt” contains imagery that recalls the projections that accompanied the Wanderer at the opening of the third act of Siegfried, and this touch is helpful in using the visual motifs of this production in a manner similar to the musical Leitmotifs Wagner integrated into the structure of this multi-part work.

The main action of the opera is set in modern dress, albeit stylized with references to financial matters that reinforce from the start the calculating personalities of the Gibichungs. Matti Salminenis impressive as Hagen, and interacts well with Ralf Lukas as Gunther. No illusions make Gunther any rival to Siegfried in this production, and that self-awareness sets up the dénouement in which Siegfried is sacrificed through their scheming. As Gutrune (with her name emblazoned on her costume like a modern hotelier) Elisabete Matos plays her role fittingly. Her primping, before Siegfried’s arrival is an added touch. While there are no castles on this version of the Rhine, the staging offers a contrast with nature-borne Siegfried in the foreign territory of the Gibichung’s world. Salminen’s stentorian “Heil! Siegfried, teurer Held” carries a duplicity, with Hagen facing the hero only after he sounds the greeting. Yet when the Gibichungs dress Siegfried in a business suit to fit their world, it is as if Superman were changed to Clark Kent, with dark-rimmed glasses and shorn of long hair, like a Delilah-entranced Samson. The overly emotive Siegfried shows the strength of the potion, and if Ryan is overly demonstrative, it certainly makes the point of the libretto.

The scene between Brünnhilde and Waltraute is musically and dramatically intense, with the special effects punctuating the interaction between Jennifer Wilson and Catherine Wyn-Rogers. The headgear for Brünnhilde seems an affectation until the moment in the scene in which Waltraute demands her sister’s attention, and then the blinders on Brünnhilde’s head become apparent. Wyn-Rogers was effective earlier in the cycle as Erda and even more persuasive as Waltraute. Her narration is expressive without overstating the powerful emotions her character feels about the fate about to be enacted. Wyn-Rogers conveys the sense of Wotan’s presence, even though the latter character is absent from this drama, and her connection with Brünnhilde is integral to the conclusion of this important scene.

The dilemma at the crux of the tragedy resonates well as the image of a Rhinemaiden projected behind Waltraute, pointing to the existence Brünnhilde previously had, just as Waltraute asks Brünnhilde for the ring, which the latter insists on keeping for love, a love about to be foresworn. The physical conflict between the sisters adds to the impact of this impressive performance. At the same time, the Wilson’s intensive vocality carries into the scene with Gunther, reinforced well by the visual imagery of her magic fire along with actual fire. Not just an accompaniment, this staging reinforces the surprise of Brünnhilde who is aware that the man who crosses that superhuman barrier will win her. Ralf Lukas brings the scene to its conclusion, with the image of the emotionally affected Brünnhilde etched well into the conclusion of the act.

Along with such poignant moments, some of the other, less emotionally demanding passages in the opera are depicted memorably. The opening of the third act aptly places the Rheinmaidens in the water, not only in the contains from which they sing, but also through the immense projections of bubbles and currents, accentuated by supernumeraries who create foreground of rushes that move in the scene. While some productions lack this grand conception of the scene, this one fits the production as envisioned here by La Fura dels Baus. Siegfried’s entrance puts him nicely into the scene, unlike some stagings in which the forest scenery is divorced from the placement of the Rhinemaidens nearby. In this passage, too, the orchestra conveys appropriate warmth and depth, which builds with the vocal trio of Rhinemaidens from the upper portion of the stage and allows for an effective interaction with Lance Ryan as Siegfried. The visual presence of the Ring, rather than a strictly verbal and aural reference, reinforces the libretto, as the drama moves toward Siegfried’s murder at the hand of Hagen. Ryan’s final passages in which he recounts his meeting Brünnhilde is moving, especially in the context stark depiction of the spear striking him. The camera angles from the stage reinforce the sound image of Siegfried’s death, so that his dying cry for Brünnhilde fits into the larger composition of the scene. The cortege bearing the body of Siegfried moves through the audience, like an off-stage instrumental passage in an orchestral work, thus enlarging the space in which to imagine the final scene.

As the work moves toward its conclusion, the interaction between Hagen, Gunther, and Gutrune works well, calling to mind the scene in which the three first appeared. While Hagen’s use of a pistol to kill Gunther is a bit out of place, it works sonically. Yet from her entrance immediately afterward, Jennifer Wilson commands the concluding portion of the opera. Her grief is visually apparent, but surpassed by her singing, which fits into a thoughtful conception of the well-known “immolation scene.” Here the staging assists her well, with a brilliant visualization of the scene, which emerges well in the film of the production. While the cross-cuts in the final scene might be sometimes abrupt, the overall effect is strong, with the reprise involving the Rhinemaidens and the acrobats who formed a human image of Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold. The production works well in creating an effective performance of the culminating opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle. At the core of the production is Mehta’s conception of the work, which is evident in the excellent performance. His comments in the bonus documentary about the making of this video offer some good insights into his thoughts about the work. His thoughts, alongside those of his collaborators in this production, give some background about the choices involved in presenting this remarkable staging.

As with the other discs, the sound is rich and clear, as is customary with Blu-Ray technology. The visual images are similarly crisp, an important facet of this recording. The enunciation of the text is solid, and it can be amplified through the use of German subtitles, and those interested can use French, English, or Spanish. The complete libretto of this or any of the other operas in the cycle is neither part of the booklet nor included on disc, but the text is readily available online or through a variety of publications. That aside, the effort is outstanding, from start to finish, with the Valencia Ring commendable on many levels for its vision of this fantastic set of operas which culminates in this production of Götterdämmerung.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung

product_title=Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung
product_by=Siegfried: Lance Ryan, Gunther: Ralf Lukas, Alberich: Franz-Josef Kapellmann, Hagen: Matti Salminen, Brünnhilde: Jennifer Wilson, Gutrune: Elisabete Matos, Waltraute: Catherine Wyn-Rogers, 1. Norn: Daniela Denschlag, 2. Norn: Pilar Vásquez, 3. Norn: Eugenia Bethencourt, Woglinde: Silvia Vásquez, Wellgunde: Ann-Katrin Naidu, Floßhilde: Marina Prudenskaya, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Zubin Mehta, conductor,
product_id=Unitel Classica 701204 [Blu-Ray]

Posted by jim_z at 2:00 PM

Verdi's Falstaff at The Metropolitan Opera, 1992

However, his Metropolitan Opera staging of Verdi’s late masterpiece Falstaff, decades old and still in use, shows the Italian director in a subtler light. Refreshed since its 1960s’ debut, the sets as seen in this DVD of a 1992 televised performance do not exactly look fresh, but a certain worn aspect fits in well with the scene locations of a seedy tavern and the middle-class home of one of the merry wives. Only the final forest tableaux, modestly attractive, may make some viewers wish Zeffirelli had given into his more ostentatious urges. Then again, the rather drab video probably mutes some of the intended effect.

When a true star singer takes the title role, that central performance can overwhelm the performances of the members of what should be an ensemble cast. That doesn’t happen here, and the show is the better for it. Paul Plishka continues to be a valuable resource as a house singer for the Met, and he makes the most of this opportunity for a rare leading role. He finds both the laughable delusions of the ostensible nobleman and Sir John’s piquant humanity. He may not make the most of the role’s musical opportunities for characterization, yet his subtler approach swerves the composer’s intent very well.

The strength of the women would justify a return to the title of Shakespeare’s source, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Mirella Freni is a magnificent Mrs. Ford, playful, yet commanding. Near the start of their careers, both Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham sing with youthful attractiveness, though with not as much character as that of the veteran cast members. The perfect example of that comes in Marilyn Horne’s Miss Quickly. A playful Ms. Horne uses her expert comic timing to great effect, and that over-developed richness of her voice that made many of her late performances heavy going for some people does not get much use in Verdi’s fleet-footed writing. A young Frank Lopardo shines in his brief act three solo. Bruno Pola as Ford makes for an almost too gruff and unpleasant comic foil, and what should be his highlight moment slows down the pace.

James Levine loves the energy and rhythmic pulse of the score; those who find his approach eventually exhausting will surely get tired. A good counterpart to this very well sung Falstaff in traditional garb is the Mehta/Raimondi update from the Maggio Musicale Florentine, also well-sung but with an edgier comic profile.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff
product_by=Sir John Falstaff: Paul Plishka; Ford: Bruno Pola; Mrs. Alice Ford: Mirella Freni; Nannetta: Barbara Bonney; Mrs. Quickly: Marilyn Horne; Mrs. Meg Page: Susan Graham. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: James Levine. Director: Franco Zeffirelli.
product_id=DG 477 650-2 [DVD]

Posted by chris_m at 12:20 PM

John Adams lends his music to 'I Am Love,' starring Tilda Swinton

By David Ng [LA Times, 18 June 2010]

From its pianissimo opening sequence to the thundering crescendo of its final moments, "I Am Love" is a movie awash in the music of John Adams.

Posted by Gary at 10:48 AM

June 17, 2010

The Love for Three Oranges, Grange Park Opera, UK

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 17 June 2010]

Was it a Tardis or only a common-or-garden police box? The zany fantasy of The Love for Three Oranges does not inhabit any particular time or space, so when a devil blows the lovesick Prince to the ends of the earth, there seems no reason why this production should not have him travel in style, like a fantastical Doctor Who.

Posted by Gary at 2:23 PM

Everyday Totalitarianism: Reflections on the Stuttgart Ring

By Andrew Moravcsik [Opera Quarterly, Winter 2010]

By the standards of contemporary German opera, the recent Stuttgart production of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen has generated a great deal of hype. Critics hail it as an epochal “milestone in the history of Wagner production, akin to the Patrice Chéreau Bayreuth centenary Ring of 1976,” and praise it for singlehandedly disproving “widespread claims that opera is dead.”

Posted by Gary at 12:22 PM

Underscoring Richard Wagner's influence on film music

By Jon Burlingame [LA Times, 17 June 2010]

Max Steiner, the pioneering film composer who wrote the music for "King Kong" and "Gone With the Wind," was once complimented as the man who invented modern movie music.

Posted by Gary at 12:00 PM

Maureen Forrester, Canadian Contralto, Dies at 79

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 17 June 2010]

Maureen Forrester, the Canadian contralto who was revered for her opulent voice and musical elegance and especially acclaimed for her performances of Mahler, died on Wednesday night in Toronto. She was 79.

Posted by Gary at 11:51 AM

Polishing Gemstones — Jette Parker Young Artists

It’s funded by the Oak Foundation, and is an investment that's paid off handsomely. Some very important singers, such as Jacques Imbrailo and Marina Poplavskaya, are graduates of the scheme.

“We are like rocks”, says Simona Mihai, the young Romanian soprano who joined the scheme in 2008. “They are like jewelers. They grind us and shape us, so we are being polished Stage by stage, we’re being worked on, so we can sparkle, like gems”.

Ruutel_Kai.gifKai Rüütel

“This is the most incredible opportunity” says Kai Rüütel, the Estonian mezzo soprano just at the end of the first year of the programme. “Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have hoped for something as good as this!”

The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme was created by the Royal Opera House, London as a specialist academy to support extremely gifted artists near the start of their careers. Young artists are given training in all aspects of performance. “They treat you like a person”, says Kai, “Everything is geared to what you need as an individual. If you need language coaching, you get a language coach. If you need to work on your technique, they have experts in that. If you want to study specific repertoire, they bring in people who can help.”

Nurturing young artists involves more than just technical support. “We get help with other things that let us develop well” adds Kai, “Personal training, stress management, all these things go into making you a good performer. So when you go on stage and sing, you don’t have to worry about anything except giving the best possible performance”.

SIMONA-MIHAI.gifSimona Mihai

“And if you’re enjoying yourself, then the audience enjoys too”, adds Simona. Both women are vivacious. They complete each other’s sentences with enthusiasm. It’s a pleasure to see how the Programme has instilled values such as comradeship, because mounting an opera is a huge co-operative undertaking. “Everyone seems to forget that what goes on behind the stage is important, but everyone pulls together to make a performance work”.

“Costumes, wigs, makeup, of course," says Kai, “but also voice coaches, some of them spend months working, even before a new production” “And movement coaches, and fight directors” adds Simona, “And don’t forget stage hands and those who move the sets. They have to be quick, and quiet, and sometimes those sets are huge”.

“It’s always safety first in this House” adds Kai, “we are so well looked after”. I’ve heard singers and conductors praise the high standards at the Royal Opera House. many times, so it’s good to hear that the same quality of care extends at all levels.

“Everyone is so dedicated”, they chime. “Maestro Pappano, he’s so committed. He gets so much in to things, doesn’t stop to eat, but grabs a bite in between moments when he’s conducting”. Recently, Antonio Pappano made a series for BBCTV, “Opera Italia”. It was so inspiring that it’s brought many people to opera who might not have realized how exciting it could be.

Getting into the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme isn’t easy. All applicants must have solid professional experience. Only 75 applicants are called to audition, and only a dozen reach the final round. Each year, only about five singers are selected. Age limits aren’t defined, but these young artists have proved their worth even before entering the scheme. It’s a full time responsibility but gives singers the opportunity to take part in most productions at the Royal Opera House and cover major roles. In a few days time, Simona Mihai is covering Anna Netrebko as Manon. “She’s a great artist, so professional, it’s wonderful working with her”.

Because the Young Artists Programme includes all aspects of opera production, special events are included. Last year, for example, the programme presented The Truth about Love, a meditation based on Rilke, Britten and Schumann by Young Artist Steven Ebel, who writes as well as sings. Kai Rüütel sang Frauen-Liebe und Leben and Elisabeth Meister the Britten songs. (Simona was singing Despina touring with Glyndebourne). This July, all will be appearing together, with others on the scheme, in the Young Artists Summer Performance. It's an ambitious event which showcases what they've achieved.

Being in a programme as intensive as this is daunting. “We learn about our strengths and think of ways to deal with our weaknesses.” Both emphasize the importance of entering into character. “When I sing a role, I’m not myself, I am the role. I build the part with the help of the conductor and the director, so I hope that I can get the message through to the audience”, says Simona.

“I definitely need an emotional connection”, says Kai, who once wanted to be a Blues singer. “I have to feel and believe every word, and draw on an enormous emotional palette. That’s why I do this job, I want to give the audience an experience so they can forget their daily lives and see things through the character’s eyes and feel what the character is feeling. That’s my ultimate goal.”

The secret, both say, is in preparation. “It’s like being in a kitchen”, says Simona, “You can’t suddenly come out, ‘Voilà, here’s the turkey!’. You have to prepare it properly or it won’t be good.”

They plan thoroughly, reading the score completely, and the novel behind it if there’s one, learning the meaning even when they learn the words phonetically. “Language coaches are wonderful”, says Kai, whose English is flawless. “If it’s a period production, we go to the National Gallery to look at the paintings and see how people carried themselves, sat, moved”, adds Simona, “Posture was different than it is now”, she demonstrates, sitting bolt upright. “It’s research, like university!” grins Kai.

The Young Artists Programme continues to nurture its graduates as they progress into their career “Whenever we are in London, we’re welcome to come back and work with our coaches again, after the current Young Artists are looked after”. This is valuable. because no good artist ever stops developing. It benefits Young Artists past and present at the same time.

Simona Mihai wants to sing a wide range of repertoire, rather than a narrow niche. She’s fascinated with The Governess in The Turn of the Screw and sang it at college and in Santiago. “I want to sing it again and again, there’s so much in it. I love Britten”, she said heartfully. Later she started singing impromptu a Mandarin song she learned when she lived in China when she was young. Perfect intonation, good accent, no problems adjusting to the different tonality. I was very impressed. “She’s ready! “ beamed Kai.

“For me this is the best job in the world”, says Kai Rüütel, “I want to sing big dramatic roles, but there are no ‘small roles’. All roles play an important part and you can make them work. I get so much happiness singing that I feel fulfilled whenever I can communicate. She’s statuesque and a natural actor. Going through the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme makes dreams possible.

For more information, please see the Royal Opera House site and read about Simona Mihai and Kai Rüütel below.

Anne Ozorio

Simona Mihai was born in Bucharest and studied at the Royal College of Music as a Queen Mother Scholar, Samling Foundation Scholar, Rosemary Budgen Junior Fellow and David Bowerman Junior Fellow. Numerous singing prizes include first prize in the Takasaky International Competition in Japan, the Kathleen Ferrier Bursary for Young Singers, the National Mozart Competition, the Miriam Licette Prize in conjunction with the Maggie Teyte Scholarship, the Joaninha Trust Award and the Clonter Opera Prize.

She’s appeared professionally many times since college, including Celia Lucio Silla with the European Opera Company, Roksana King Roger at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Governess The Turn of the Screw at Teatro Municipal de Santiago,Virtù and cover Poppea L’incoronazione di Poppea for Glyndebourne Festival Opera (and at the Proms) and Despina Così fan tutte for Glyndebourne on Tour. She’s given recitals throughout the UK, Europe, in Japan and the US.

She’s in her second year in the Programme, and has sung Dew Fairy and Echo Hänsel und Gretel, followed by Belinda Dido and Aeneas, Juliette Die tote Stadt and 15-Year-Old Girl Lulu. She also covered Giannetta L’elisir d’amore and Oscar Un ballo in maschera, Gaudy Lady The Gambler, Pepik The Cunning Little Vixen and Poussette Manon and cover title role The Cunning Little Vixen, title role Manon and Anne Trulove The Rake’s Progress.

Kai Rüütel has just completed her first year on the Programme. She won the national competition for classical singers in Estonia for three successive years, before studying at Koninklijk Conservatorium Den Haag. She received a Master’s degree with special honours from the Dutch National Opera Academy. She has sung Dorabella Così fan tutte, Ottavia and Virtù L’incoronazione di Poppea, Zerlina Don Giovanni, Mère Marie Dialogues des Carmelites and Carmen La tragedie de Carmen for Dutch National Opera Academy, Venerable Lady The Gambler (also covering Blanche), at the Royal Opera House, followed by Rosette Manon and Flora La traviata.

image_description=Royal Opera House [Photo: Wikimedia]

product_title=Polishing Gemstones — Jette Parker Young Artists
product_by=An Interview By Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Royal Opera House [Photo: Wikimedia]

Posted by anne_o at 10:38 AM

June 15, 2010

Denyce Graves at Strathmore: Living -- if not singing -- up to her image

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 15 June 2010]

The persona of a full-blown opera superstar took the stage at Strathmore on Sunday night. It took the form of Denyce Graves, Washington's favorite hometown mezzo-soprano, flatteringly lit with pink gels and side banks of lights shining into the audience's eyes.

Posted by Gary at 11:54 AM

June 12, 2010

The Wild West and the superstar Italian composer

By Richard Scheinin [Mercury News, 12 June 2010]

When Giacomo Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West," an opera based on a play by the son of a Gold Rush miner, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera a century ago, the glitterati were there in their finery — the Vanderbilts, the Pierpont Morgans, the Guggenheims, says Laura Basini, a Sacramento State University music historian. It was the very first Italian opera written for an American premiere. There were 55 curtain calls! And they presented Puccini on opening night with a solid silver laurel wreath crafted by Tiffany.

Posted by Gary at 11:57 AM

June 10, 2010

Musically Astute Armida, Garsington

It was founded by Leonard Ingrams, who began hosting operas nearly 20 years ago at his home, Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire. Tragically he died, only in his 60’s, in 2005, but the festival continues, moving next year to new surroundings at Wormsley Park, owned by Mark Getty. Ingrams was specially fond of Rossini, so this performance of Rossini’s Armida was a tribute to him, and to his artistic vision.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York did Rossini’s Armida earlier this Spring. This Garsington Armida was completely different, but by no means the lesser experience. At the Met, Armida was a vehicle for Renée Fleming, designed to showcase her coloratura talents. At Garsington, the emphasis was on Rossini, and on the dramatic heart of the opera.

The theatre at Garsington is tiny, capacity only 517, smaller than the 1500 seat Real Teatro di San Carlo but this is not necessarily a disadvantage, as Armida is almost more baroque than bel canto. David Parry has conducted no fewer than 7 Rossini operas at Garsington (one planned for next year). He’s currently Artistic Director at Opera Rara, so he’s attuned to period performance. Some of the musicians in this orchestra have been with Garsington since its formal inception.

Parry emphasized the inherent purity of Rossini’s orchestration. It’s carefully structured, clean, built on almost symmetrical foundations, from which extravagant flourishes can take flight. Indeed, images of M C Escher’s drawings came to mind. Escher’s flights of stairs and archways resemble Rossini’s musical architecture. The vocal parts soar, run after run, pushing the scales to ever greater heights.Sudden leaps and decelerations creating a strong sense of movement. Parry kept the lines clear and uncluttered, revealing the clarity of Rossini’s ideas, which seem to reference Handel and Gluck.

The production takes its cue from the musical logic.A well known critic described the Act One set with its row of chrome and leather chairs as “Ikea”, the Swedish design warehouse. And why not? The principle behind Swedish design is a fusion of function and classic elegance, an apt metaphor for Rossini’s style in Armida.

The theatre at Garsington is temporary, but solid enough to withstand inclement weather. Designer Ashley Martin-Davis brings the struts and metal framework into the opera, by simply painting them red and black. It’s an intelligent comment on the action, for this Act takes place in the camp of the Crusaders (also tented, like Garsington, one presumes).

armida04.pngNicholas Watts as Eustazio and Bogdan Mihai as Goffredo [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of Garsington Opera]

The Franks (and Italian Rinaldo) belong to a military order with semi-religious vows, but Rossini very deliberately doesn’t identify them with the Knights Templar. Torquato Tasso’s original poem, on which the narrative is based, dates from 1580. but connects to traditions that long predate the Middle Ages. In painting, the protagonists are usually depicted as idealized Greeks or Romans. In any case, Armida is a fantasy, for Armida is a sorceress who can use magic. Audiences in Rossini’s time had no delusions that the opera was “historic”. Indeed, the idea of priests succumbing to temptresses would have been only too obvious, and Rossini couldn’t risk offending the all-powerful Church.

Military orders are highly disciplined, and these paladins have vowed to repress love and earthly pleasures. Martin Duncan has the men move in orderly procession. They troop up parallel flights of stairs — the structured music, the Escher ideas, coming together beautifully. They’re ascetically garbed in black, reinforcing the idea of an austere sect. The costumes, stark as they are, are beautiful — elegant and simplicity again.

Armida is justly famed because it affords glorious coloratura display. But it’s important not to forget the context. Armida and Idraote and Goffredo’s Knights are polar opposites. The opera pivots on the dichotomy between love and duty, pleasure and higher ideals. Indeed, Armida’s singing shines all the more brightly when the context is given due respect. Armida’s luminous gardens wouldn’t be so tempting if they weren’t such a contrast to life in the regiment.

A small, temporary festival like Garsington does not do megastars, so it’s pointless to compare Jessica Pratt’s Armida with Renée Fleming or Maria Callas. Instead, she brings youthful energy to the part. If her ornamentations aren’t too flamboyant, she reaches the high peaks in the score, and acts well with her voice. She comes over as a warm hearted spirit, so when Rinaldo leaves her, you sympathize with her pain. In Dove son io? she finds the different stages of emotion. It’s not all piercing frenzy, but gradations of feeling.

Because the balance in this production isn’t entirely one-sided, the male parts take greater prominence. Victor Ryan Robertson sings Rinaldo with pluck. He brought a sense of wonder to his Dove son io!, a deft parallel to Armida’s final aria. The contrast between “hero” Rinaldo who kills for honour and “lover” Rinaldo, conquered by sensuality, was clear.

For such a young singer, Bogdan Mihai’s Goffredo had vocal authority and physical presence. Nice richness to his voice which will serve him well. He doubled as Carlo with David Alegret singing Gernando and Ubaldo. Alegret paced the long Gernando recitatives carefully, so the sudden explosions up the scale at the end of long phrases were very effective.

garsington05.pngThe Knot Garden [Photo courtesy of Garsington Opera]

Christophorus Stamboglis singing Idraote and Astarotte was impressive too. His voice has character, so it was almost a pity the parts weren’t large enough to show his full measure. Nicholas Watts sang a nice Eustazio.

Naturally, or rather supernaturally, Armida’s gardens in Acts 2 and 3 were vividly coloured. Now the male chorus appeared as blue-painted demons, hiding behind the infrastructure of beams that evoked both forest and ocean. When the nymphs appeared the audience gasped in delight. They were stunning, pale pink top to toe with glittery skirts, moving like exotic flowers. The choreography was simple, more group movement than dancing, but it supported the singing, rather than distracting from it. Gradually the male figures emerged from hiding and embraced the nymphs chastely. The choruses re-enacted Rinaldo and Armida’s relationship. It was another sign that this production developed from an understanding of the music and the opera.

Those who know the gardens at Garsington will be familiar with the strangely twisted topiary trees in the parterre garden the theatre opens onto. As we filtered out after the performance, the garden was lit with emerald light, the more famous large shrubs picked out in mauve. It was unearthly, as though we were experiencing Armida’s garden for ourselves. Imagine Garsington staging Tannhäuser ! That is part of the magic that is Garsington, where stage and reality interact.

This production, though, could easily be transported to another theatre. Indeed, any theatre suited to chamber opera. It’s much too good to be missed. Perhaps Garsington might consider joint ventures? In the long term that might be a way forward.

Anne Ozorio

Performances run from 5th to 29th June 2010. For more details, please see www.garsingtonopera.org

image_description=Jessica Pratt as Armida [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of Garsington Opera]

product_title=Gioacchino Rossini: Armida
product_by=Armida: Jessica Pratt; Rinaldo: Victor Ryan Robertson: Gernando/Ubaldo: David Alegret; Goffredo/Carlo: Bogdan Mihai; Idraote/Astarotte: Christophoros Stamboglis; Eustazio: Nicholas Watts. The Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: David Parry. Director: Martin Duncan. Designer: Ashley Martin-Davis. Lighting Designer: Malcolm Rippeth. Choreographer: Michael Popper. Garsington Opera, Garsington Manor, Oxford.
product_id=Above: Jessica Pratt as Armida [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of Garsington Opera]

Posted by anne_o at 10:45 AM

June 9, 2010

Better than Wagner

By Bettina Bildhauer [TLS, 9 June 2010]

There is not much about being human that one cannot learn from the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs). This epic poem is the Northern European myth of power and revenge, distilling centuries of wisdom about psychology and politics into a simple but tragic story: the tale of Siegfried, a hero who comes to power purely through his own strength and daring, and is crushed by the political elite. His widow, Kriemhild, then takes on the members of the establishment who killed him, and step by step slaughters them all because they refuse to give up one of their own. The grandmother of all medievalist fantasy and of superhero comics, the Nibelungenlied has it all in terms of a gripping yarn, too: it gives you the treasure, the dragon, the most valiant knights, the most beautiful ladies, the invincible hero, the spectacular battles, the mysteries, the mermaids, and the dead.

Posted by Gary at 12:14 PM

Le Grand Macabre, Avery Fisher Hall, NY

His music partook of all the outrageous avant-garde techniques that were hot in Europe in mid-century, but he never submitted to the rigid bounds of any academic school; he reserved the right to change his mind. There are composers of this period who are academic bores, lost in theory, who put one in mind of a water colorist refusing to use anything but black, white or gray. Ligeti used the full palette—he could duck into tonal harmonies and out of them with equal willfulness when the moment seemed right to him, with complete conviction of his own rightness. He would make fun of an admired technique even as he achieved its full potential. The most astonishing thing about the recent New York premier of his opera, Le Grand Macabre, by the New York Philharmonic was not the outrageous animations and puppetry that filled the stage or the merriment of the orchestra taking part but the fact that when a hand-picked cast sang this strange music, the expert voices unraveling Ligeti’s contortions were astonishingly beautiful. It was music with jokes in it, and theories in it, but also music that gave sensuous pleasure.

This is extraordinary because far too many of the composers writing opera in the mid-century never seem to have thought of using vocal beauty as part of their dramatic repertoire. Scores of “traditionalists” tend to listless arioso that singers can manage very well but that never achieves the grandeur of Gluck’s or Wagner’s declamation, in part because the melodies are seldom of interest. (The few exceptions, such as Benjamin Britten, invented their own kind of melody, knew how to suit it to voice and story, and created a body of enduring work.) Alternatively, “avant-gardists” often seem to have no understanding of the human voice at all, and having forfeited melody as a way to draw us into dramatic action or individual psychology, they have nothing to fall back upon: they oblige their singers to scream or bellow. Excitement, vengeance, passion, war, a boiling teakettle—it’s all the same murderous cacophony with the singers at the top of their range, barely to be heard over the screaming instruments.

Le Grand Macabre is vocally grateful even when it is murder to sing. Take the coloratura showpiece. Gepopo, chief of the secret police, who advises the king. It’s difficult to say what she advises—at one point she fires a gun in lieu of a high note, crying “Silence is golden!”—but her wacky soprano line is all over the place, topping the Queen of the Night, Zerbinetta and Olympia in a vocal line of self-consciously mechanical bounces and frills, all to a striking rhythmic pattern from the orchestra. (Ligeti uses rhythm as elegantly, as idiosyncratically, as traditional composers use melody.) All this, at the Philharmonic, while the soprano, Barbara Hannigan, was dancing about the stage (or in the aisles) in a robotic, highly individual manner. She dazzles, but she gives pleasure while she impresses with technique.

Or take Prince Go-Go, sovereign of Brueghelland, the rather disordered site of the fable. Go-Go is a countertenor, an unusual figure on the scene in the 1970s, common enough now. (Anthony Roth Costanzo, who made a bit of a stir in his City Opera debut in April, brought down the house as Go-Go.) He dwells in a palace besieged by etiquette - rendered by a prelude scored for doorbells - and is obliged to negotiate with rival politicians who force him to wear a monstrous crown. Happily, he retains the affection of his people (the orchestra throws stones at the Ministers), and allows his voice to appear on screen to reassure them in the crisis.

8_NYP20100527-0188.pngAn astronomer’s mad house! Mescalina (Melissa Parks), the mistress of the house, dominates her husband, Astradamors (Wilbur Pauley), the court astronomer, who reluctantly submits to her abuse. “As Mescalina, Melissa Parks combined a firm mezzo-soprano with the high-camp mugging one would expect in the role of a sex-starved dominatrix” wrote the New York Post.

The crisis is this: The world is about to be struck by a comet. A mysterious figure, Nekrotsar (the corpse emperor?), claiming to be Death, Le Grand Macabre, the Horseman of the Apocalypse et al., arrives in the kingdom of Breughelland to tell its frivolous people of imminent catastrophe. Though they do not actually doubt him, they are rather distracted by their own problems — marital dissension, political turmoil, all that stuff, as in one of the huge, complicated paintings of Breughel or Bosch. Death can’t get no respect. Finally an everyman named Piet the Pot gets the hapless Horseman so drunk that he can’t find his horse or his scythe. He sleeps through the midnight deadline. The characters find that being dead is just like being alive — only the hapless Nekrotsar actually perishes, of chagrin at the failure of his mission. Two naked innocents proclaim the saving power of love, which the composer takes no more seriously than the sinister power of death. Life goes on. What else should it do?

For the record, Nekrotsar - who enters just before the Apocalypse, down the aisle, in a Dance of Death procession accompanied by fluttering flags and a squealing woodwind parody Death March - was sung and performed as a tragic figure, noble but unappreciated, by the very funny Eric Owens. Piet the Pot was Mark Schowalter, a Met stalwart who has never before been able to display his elegant tenor at any length. Astradamors, the henpecked royal astrologer, was sung and acted to gross perfection by Wilbur Pauley, a stalwart of the Early and Modern music scenes for nearly thirty years now (I’ve heard him sing Handel, Corigiliano, Xenakis and Meredith Monk), still limber and sonorous after all these years. Melissa Parks sang his sadistic wife. (Could these outrageous scenes actually have been performed in New York in 1977? Downtown yes, but at Lincoln Center?) Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom were the foul-mouthed politicians; Renée Tatum and Jennifer Black were the innocently naked lovers whose message of hope seemed no more serious than anything else. Whoever was in charge of casting this piece - was it Maestro Gilbert? - found a troupe ready to do anything, and ready to make it sound lovely whenever the whimsy of staging and story made eyes droop.

4_NYP20100527-0058.pngThe lovers. After ogling Amanda (Jennifer Black, left) and Amando (Renée Tatum), Piet returns to his wine, and the couple searches for a quiet place to enjoy each other. “Ligeti gives [the lovers] melismatic intertwining melodies against the astringent harmonies of the orchestra, which this pair sang beautifully,” wrote The New York Times.

For this nonsensical story with its Lewis Carroll-worthy characters, Ligeti created a score every bit as foolish in a sumptuous style, as if sending up the pretensions of grand opera and of every great musical Requiem — which is just what he was doing. One prelude is composed for car horns; another for doorbells. The astrologer’s sadistic wife whips him mercilessly throughout their duet on the joys of married life. Piet, the astrologer and Death sing a drinking song that really sounds drunk.

A group called Giants Are Small created the animations and projections, usually right on stage, before our very eyes - permitting Mr. Owens and Mr. Costanzo to insert their heads in the midst of dioramas that were then projected above the stage to comic effect. The orchestra made thrilling and often lovely things out of a score that seldom lingered long enough in any one place to bore. It was a night at the Philharmonic like no other - except the other two performances and the dress rehearsal. A whole raft of introductions and alluring come-ons surrounded this manifestation; plainly the orchestra understands the use of modern media to entice as well as to entertain.

Has there been any serious, multidisciplinary examination of the effect of the Third World War on the arts?

26_NYP20100527-0842.pngA toast to the end of the world. With Astradamors, Go-Go, and Piet at his side, Nekrotzar falls under the influence of an all-too-earthy pastime of Breughelland’s citizenry — wine, which causes him to lose track of time and the upcoming stroke of midnight, the deadline for the world's end.

What Third World War? you reply. You remember—the nuclear one that destroyed (or at least undermined) all life on earth. It never actually occurred (so far as I know), but for many years everyone half-expected it. Great heaping piles of useless weaponry were stocked by both sides, and many a film (Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, A Boy and His Dog), novel (Alas Babylon, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Cat’s Cradle) and folk song (“We Will All Go Together When We Go,” “The End of the World As We Know It”) loomed large in our culture. This pervasive sense of doom, I suspect, gave rise to György Ligeti’s only opera, composed between 1974 and 1977 and revised in 1996.

Doom is predicted hourly. It is proper to have a musical expression of it. The world may end in bangs or whimpers, but Ligeti’s “It will end and not end, and no one will be surprised,” makes more sense than either one.

John Yohalem

image_description=György Ligeti by Peter Andersen

product_title=György Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre
product_by=Nekrotzar: Eric Owens; Piet the Pot: Mark Schowalter; Amanda: Jennifer Black; Amando: Renée Tatum; Mescalina: Melissa Parks; Astradamors: Wilbur Pauley; Minister in White: Peter Tantsits; Minister in Black: Joshua Bloom; Prince Go-Go: Anthony Roth Costanzo; Gepopo: Barbara Hannigan. Doug Fitch, director and designer. Performed by the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, led by Alan Gilbert. Performance of May 28.
product_id=Above: György Ligeti by Peter Andersen

All photos in the body of the review by Chris Lee courtesy of the New York Philharmonic. Commentary appended to photos by New York Philharmonic.

Posted by Gary at 11:20 AM

Pearl Fishers, ENO

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a new Tosca which looked suspiciously like Tristan und Isolde — now, we have a new Pearl Fishers which, if I hadn’t been able to hear the music as the curtain went up, I would have taken to be the opening of Das Rheingold. The series of major triads towards the end of Bizet’s prelude has never before struck me as sounding like Wagner, and I dare say it never will again — but its presence, coupled with the stage picture, makes for a disorientating few seconds of opera.

It is a stunning piece of visual theatre, making effective use of the vast dimensions of the Coliseum’s proscenium arch to emphasise the insignificance of humankind in comparison with the might of the sea. The precariousness of the pearl-fishing community’s existence is further underlined by designer Dick Bird’s Act 1 set — a shanty town on stilts, with little rickety wooden huts piled on top of one another up the hillside (small wonder that the announcement of a rapidly spreading fire causes such instant panic) — and by the fiercely billowing ocean waves which surround Leïla’s Act 2 sanctuary.

Woolcock’s production attempts to strip away most of the kitsch traditionally seen in 19th-century operas by European composers about the exotic East. Instead she gives us a hyper-realistic contemporary setting, in which shacks have rudimentary TV aerials rigged up on the roof, the locals wear an eclectic mix of Western and traditional Ceylonese clothing, and Western tourists with cameras are occasionally seen weaving through the dense crowd of locals. She doesn’t go quite so far as to replicate the litter-strewn shallows depicted in one of the photographs in the programme, but one suspects it is probably a good job this staging does not contain an olfactory element (it would surely be far less fragrant than Philip Prowse’s old production, last revived in 2000, with its heady scent of incense)!

The Act 1 set does, at least, look breathtakingly pretty when night falls and lights twinkle from the hillside huts, but the designs do create a few dramatic problems — the huts in the foreground are arrayed stage left and right, separated by a water-channel centre stage, so when Nadir and Zurga sing their duet from opposite sides of the divide, they are barely close enough to one another to be credible in greeting each other as old friends (what was that I said earlier about resemblance to Wagner?). And in Act 2, if Nadir has supposedly braved hell and high water to reach Leïla in her refuge, it’s amazing how Nourabad manages to get the whole chorus up there from another direction in five seconds flat.

Boe_Alattar.pngAlfie Boe as Nadir and Hanan Alattar as Leïla

The visual inspiration vanishes after Act 2, unfortunately, with Zurga’s aria and scene with Leïla set in front of what looks very much like a Bedouin tent, and the flames of the final inferno are a mere glow in the early morning sky, or at least they were from where I was sitting.

Though the staging grew steadily weaker throughout the opera, the musical quality went the other way. I was disappointed during Act 1 that tenor Alfie Boe, a popular star destined to ensure buoyant ticket sales, didn’t have the facility for a soft, floated ‘Je crois entendre encore’ in the mould of Vanzo or Kraus or even some of his own quite recent predecessors at the Coliseum. Bizet is the king of the high, piano tenor trick (think of the end of the Flower Song in Carmen) and when sung as written it is simply magical. This wasn’t. Similarly, the Leila, Hanan Alattar, started off the evening with a bright but frustratingly unyielding tone which bulldozed any notion that this young priestess might have been employed for her ability to seduce the gods into granting safety and protection to the pearl fishers.

One cast member was consistent — the Zurga, Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey. He has a pleasant, even tone with complete security throughout the role’s considerable vocal range, coupled with a mature and centred stage persona. He is not one of nature’s great movers, but I barely minded as he was so expressive in his Act 3 aria. Perhaps even more importantly, he seemed to bring the best out in Alattar, whose previously monochromatic soprano finally began to show variation in colour and tone, and whose top turned out to be really very beautiful.

Tong_Kelsey.pngQuinn Kelsey as Zurga and Freddie Tong as Nourabad

The chorus sang powerfully and with impressive diction (though I sometimes wished I hadn’t been able to hear quite so much of Martin Fitzpatrick’s translation) and Rory Macdonald’s handling of the score was thrusting and powerfully driven during the big chorus scenes, if a little short on delicacy for intimate moments such as Leïla’s aria.

If not a complete triumph, owing to musical frustrations in the opera’s early scenes and scenic frustrations in its later ones, this new production is more than worth seeing for the high points alone.

Ruth Elleson, June 2010

image_description=Hanan Alattar as Leïla [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]

product_title=Georges Bizet: Pearl Fishers
product_by=Zurga: Quinn Kelsey; Nadir: Alfie Boe; Leïla: Hanan Alattar; Nourabad: Freddie Tong. Orchestra and chorus of the English National Opera. Conductor: Rory Macdonald. Director: Penny Woolcock. Set designer: Dick Bird. Costume designer: Kevin Pollard. Lighting designer: Jennifer Schriever. Choreographer: Andrew Dawson. English National Opera, London Coliseum, June 2010
product_id=Above: Hanan Alattar as Leïla

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera

Posted by Gary at 10:29 AM

Valencia Ring: Siegfried.

For one, the musical performance is solid, with a cast that involves some of the finest Wagner singers currently performing the repertoire. Recorded live in June 2008 and June 2009 at the Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia”, Valencia, this recording makes available the innovative staging by La Fura dels Baus, Carlus Padrissa, stage director, in its stunning conception of the work. The machinery depicted during the prelude to the opera gives a sense of the details involved with the production, which are accentuated by the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds that accompany Mime’s opening lines. The science-fiction connotations of the opening scene fits well into the libretto, with the forge becoming a kind of factory that serves as a foil for the more nature-oriented personality of the young hero Siegfried. As Siegfried, Canadian tenor Lance Ryan makes his character vivid from the start, as he collides with the machinations of Mime. Here, Mehta’s tempos and subtlety shifting of dynamics contributes to the sense of the text, so that it is not only heard clearly, but conveys the tone of the libretto. Ryan’s tone is vibrant and continually fresh; he seems tireless in this role, which seems to suit his voice well. At the same time, his presence on stage involves movement appropriate to the text, especially in the more extended passages that serve to convey the details of his upbringing to the point where the opera begins. Ryan gives his character some welcome depth; raised innocent of his heritage, he knows the questions to ask as he draws information from Mime. His pacing of the forging of the broken sword Nothung brings further details into the sonic portrayal of the hero, which matches well the strong images on stage as the scene culminates.

As far as the production the projections reinforce the text, with the cartoon-like birds suggesting the character of Disney’s classic presentations of European fairy tales. With the floor-to-ceiling screens, the images are appropriately large, as should occur in a production like this. Equally effective is the projection of Sieglinde, which emerges discretely when Mime talks about Siegfried’s birth. This image brings the visual world of the production of Die Walküre into the opera without intruding on it unnecessarily - it offers a visual Leitmotif. The tiled views of Sieglinde presented later also work well and fit into the text. These scenes intersect nicely with the three-dimensional objects in this production, as occurs with the reference to Nibelheim and the reprise of images from Das Rheingold.

Yet it is the singing that makes this Siegfried memorable, not only the Ryan’s portrayal of the title character, but also through Gerhard Siegel’s thoughtful characterization of Mime. Siegel is certainly comfortable with this role and interacts with Ryan well. As the Wanderer, Juha Uusitalo brings his conception of Wotan into this opera. As much as his physical presence stands out in this staging, Uusitalo’s vocal characterization anchors his part in this production. The riddle scene is nicely staged, but more than that, performed with appropriate nuance to make it fit into the dramatic structure of the work.

As Alberich, Franz-Joseph Kapellmann is impressive at the beginning of the second act, not only in his solo passages, but also in his interaction with Uusitalo as the Wanderer. The recognition of the fateful consequences of his action is apparent in Kapellmann’s acting, an element that must come off with the conviction found here. Black Alberich, as the Wandered calls him, is not the same as the character was at the end of Das Rheingold, and here Wotan has also become transformed. Uusitalo is similarly changed, and Uusitalo demonstrates in reaction to Alberich’s resolve to rule the world. This, in turn, sets the stage for Siegfried’s entrance, an element cued in Wagner’s music and reinforced subtly by the images projected on the background of the stage.

Here the image of Fafner’s cave is a wonderful mixture of stagecraft and projected imagines. The use of blood-read hues with the steel-grays and black tones quite vivid, and the motion conveyed by the projections gives depth to the scene. Mime’s description of the dragon neither increases nor diminishes the embodiment of the creature, but appropriately helps to point up the character of Siegfried. In the scenes that follow the dragon finds shape gradually, with Stephen Milling giving it excellent voice as he offers a well-paced reading of Fafner’s role. Here the actual costume allotted Milling blends into larger scene, but his voice dominates with the fine support of the orchestra led by Mehta.

In a similar way the Waldvogel is larger than life, a Cirque-du-Soleil presence on the stage, with Marina Zyatkova supported nicely by her fantastic wings. The sometimes disembodied voice fits well into the depiction offered here, and Zyatkova sounds all the part of the supra-human creature who guides Siegfried through the conflicts he must face as the drama of the second act takes shape. Yet when Alberich is slain, the confirmation by Zyatkova offers a shift in tone, which stands in opposition to the more sinister opening of the act. This musical transformation in the second act has been reinforced by the staging, such that the elements involved with presenting the opera come together in a very Wagnerian sense. At the same time, the fanciful shapes and colors with which the second act ends also bring the colorful music to life.

Like the other recordings in this Ring cycle, the crisp images match the buoyant sound, and a telling point for the latter is the opening of the second act, where the “dragon” motif must sound subtly. The resulting sound in this recording is appropriate soft and always apparent. In fact it is nicely played here, and the presentation benefits from crosscuts between the orchestra and the stage as the first scene of the second act takes shape. In a similar way, the third act has its own challenges, and the sound at the beginning of that part of the drama benefits from the Blu-Ray technology. Without the strong sonic component, the images would not be as compelling. Here, too the snowy crags and mount shapes that frame the Wanderer are stunning. The scene alone shows how filmed images and live action combine effectively to culminate in the interaction between Wotan and Erda. In waking Erda, Wotan seems to descend to find her, and Uusitalo’s intensity is laudable. Catherine Wyn-Rogers gives Erda through her clear diction and well-phrased lines. While not as dark a voice as found with some Erdas cast in other Ring cycles, Wyn-Rogers is effective for the timbre she gives the character.

As appropriate, this production of Siegfried culminates in the final scenes in which the hero overcomes challenges to find Brünnhilde and then awakens her from magic sleep to similarly enchanted attraction. The dialogue between Siegfried and the Wanderer relies on traditional stagecraft, with supernumeraries suggesting the physical hindrances, and the simple movements of those extras allow the two principals to stand out in the scene, enhanced by closeups. Lance Ryan shows the confidence appropriate to Siegfried, and he uses hjis fresh, resilient voice well to suggest his fearlessness that culminates in his breaking Wotan’s spear. Ryan’s delivery of the lines after Wotan’s departure verge on shrill, the orchestral interlude that follows afford him time to rest before the extended scene with Brünnhilde.

In this scene, the close-ups suggest film more than filmed opera, while showing the full effective of the interactive staging between projects and live action. The filmed magic fire reaches over Siegfried to suggest the hero’s accomplishment, while the lighted torches of the men surrounding Brünnhilde dispel gradually to allow Siegfried to awaken his eventual partner. At the same time the close camera allows the Nibelung’s ring to stand out on Siegfried’s neck. That same intimate viewpoint reveals a joyfully awakening Brünnhilde, whom Jennifer Wilson depicts with exuberant voice and gestures. As Brünnhilde sheds the accoutrements of the valkyrie, Wilson sets the stage for the passage “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich” giving a sense of the humanity her character now carries into the drama. The performance is full of vocal details that make it compelling, along with visual cues that are not always possible to view in a conventional staging. The final part of the scene is triumphant for the nuances that Wilson introduces in a dynamic performance that culminates in the duet with Ryan as Siegfried, as the motifs associated with Brünnhilde’s existence as a valkyrie transform into expressions of human passion.

This production of Siegfried builds on the previous two operas in this cycle, and delivers a convincing presentation of the opera. Zubin Mehta offers a fine reading of the score, with the technical details and musical expression fitting to the work. More than that, the response of the audience at end shows how the performance in this production was indeed moving. The extended bows are a nice touch, which reinforces the aspect of live performance in this recording. At the end the entire orchestra is on stage for a well-deserved ovation. Those interested in the details of the production can consult the bonus, short documentary on this production, which contains some extended comments by Zubin Mehta that add to the overall effect.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Richard Wagner: Siegfried

product_title=Richard Wagner: Siegfried
product_by=Siegfried: Lance Ryan, Mime: Gerhard Siegel, Der Wanderer: Juha Uusitalo, Alberich: Franz-Josef Kapellmann, Fafner: Stephen Milling, Erda: Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Brünnhilde: Jennifer Wilson, Waldvogel: Marina Zyatkova, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Zubin Mehta, conductor.
product_id=Unitel Classica 701004 [Blu-Ray]

Posted by jim_z at 12:09 AM

June 8, 2010

Festive Concert with Jessye Norman

The appearance of an artist whose best years lie in the past can be a moving experience in its recall of extraordinary greatness. Hearing Norman, once one of the most impressive voices of her day, at this point in her career was, however, disquieting — and disheartening.

The concert was a major event in launching the program that makes Israel Opera a major player among the world’s summer opera festivals. Yet the established format for such gala events is in itself of questionable artistic merit: one sits patiently through bits and pieces of opera — the Marchfrom Aida and a bit of orchestral Puccini — waiting to hear a modest handful of hits sung by the artist of the evening.

The music that made Norman famous — Strauss, Mahler, Wagner — is clearly no longer within her reach and thus was totally absent from the Masada program. There she turned rather to Saint-Saens and Puccini and — on the second half of an almost three-hour concert — Gershwin and Duke Ellington. For certain qualities Norman, now 65, can still be praised: pitch is no problem and — with an excess of hand gestures — she still throws herself into the music.

The sad truth, however, is that she has lost absolute control of her voice; there is no longer flexibility, and only rarely was there at Masada a hint of the beauty and richness that once made her special. To counter her diminished powers Norman chose as her partner onstage young American Rachel Worby, now at home with the Pasadena Pops, who worked in Israel with the Raanana Symphonette, an ensemble founded in 1991 largely by musicians from the then still Soviet Union.

Worby qualified at Masada as an accommodating accompanist — not as an independent conductor. She took her cues from Norman and did what she could to help the singer create an impression of great artistry. Alas, it did not work.

The new theater, so successful for the lavish production of Verdi’s Nabucco on the previous evening, was much too large for the Norman concert. The sound so superb in Verdi was anemic; the show was too small for the majesty of surroundings that reached to the very edge of the Dead Sea.

Also physically diminished, Norman failed to reach her audience emotionally in the first half of the program; there was little enthusiasm in the response to Italian hits. Things went somewhat better with Gershwin and Ellington — but not much better. Although Norman on occasion sang this music earlier, it was never at the center of her repertory, and despite the use of a husky chest voice, one could not overcome the impression that here she was poaching.

The irony of It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing was that Norman could not make it swing at all. “You can hear Ella Fitzgerald rotating in her grave,” someone commented in leaving the performance that ended with several encores, including an uncomfortably graceless Amazing Grace. One wonders about Norman’s health. Getting on and off stage was an obvious effort; several times she remained on stage in a darkened chair while the orchestra was in the spotlight and on several occasions she remained seated while singing.

The big critical question, however, concerns the “why” of this event. Why did Israel Opera invite Jessye Norman for a concert that not only heralded a new festival, but also celebrated the company’s 25th anniversary? The concert underscored a turning point in the history of an ambitious and admirable company. The concert was thus designed to give Israel Opera at Masada an instant cachet: I’m Jessye Norman and I’m here to tell you how fantastic Masada is…

In this Norman failed Israel Opera; the concert was far from sold out, and many chose to listen to the second half at the bars outside the theater. And Norman? Why did she do this? How did she see — and hear- herself?

Once a queen, always a queen?

To a star who once had it all, recent years, devoted largely to good works, have been unkind. (Compare Norman’s artistry today with that of Frederica von Stade, also born in 1945.) She remains active, doing good works, but, as one saw at Masada, Jessye Norman is no longer a presence in the world of performing artists.

The Norman conquest, so to speak, is over.

Wes Blomster

image_description=Jessye Norman

product_title=Festive Concert with Jessye Norman
product_by=Jessye Norman, soprano. Raana Symphonette Orchestra. Conductor: Rachael Worby.
product_id=Above: Jessye Norman

Posted by Gary at 6:07 PM

Nabucco at Masada

In the opera house encores are out the question — except at youthful Israel Opera, where on June 3 the audience got to hear it three times — and they loved it. This was only one feature of this production in the new, 6500-seat outdoor theater at the foot of Mt. Masada that made this Nabucco fresh and exciting.
Oren, music director of Opera Israel, knows his Verdi. He understands the composer’s style. He knows Verdi was not a subtle musician and — unlike others — he makes no effort to make something of him that he is not. Oren unashamedly relishes the oom-paah of the score, and for him the confused identities of the plot are unhackneyed. For Oren it’s all fun — and that’s what this 25th-anniversary staging that launched a new international summer opera festival was.

But back — to make this case — to Va pensiero. Having performed the chorus and given it again as an encore, Oren then made it a community sing — but not before turning to the audience to tell them that they must not applaud until he brought down his hand at the end of the final note.

The capacity crowd — all five performances of Navucco were sold out — followed his instructions, and then went wild. It was a hoot, and it’s safe to say that Opera Israel at Masada is here to stay. To underscore the prestige of this production IO assembled a cast as committed as it was impressive.

Sterling senior Paata Burchuladze, who came West long ago from Soviet Georgia, sang a majestic Hebrew high priest Zuccaria. (In 1995 Burchuladze sang the title role in the production of Boris Godunov that opened Israel Opera’s new home in Tel Aviv. Since then he has appeared regularly with the company.) Italian baritone Alberto Gazala, who made his IO debut in the title role in this production, went straight to the heart of the troubled Babylonian emperor and portrayed his breakdown and recovery with great dramatic skill. As Abigaille, Greek soprano Dmitra Theodosssiou handled the shifting vocal demands that Verdi makes on the central female figure in the cast with amazing ease, while Italy’s Tiziana Carraro was appropriately gentle and loving as Fenena. (In the alternate cast Mongolian-born Baysa Dashnyam sang Abigaille and Italians Eugenia Tufano, Fenena and David Cecconi, Nabucco.)

The exuberance that Oren brought to the production was an obvious inspiration to everyone on stage and to members of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Le Zion, pit band of the company back home in Tel Aviv. It carried over to the audience as well, leaving them in a state of animated excitement when the performance ended at 1 a.m.
Behind the joyous success of Nabucco at Masada lay much more than the selection of a work and the assembly of a cast and production crew. We had to create the entire infrastructure for this project, said Opera Israel general director Hanna Munitz at a press conference before the June 3 performance of Nabucco. We had no example to follow; we had to figure it all out ourselves.

This meant not only building a modern theater in the middle of the dessert, but also arranging transportation from Israel’s major cities, organizing packages with the many hotels at the Dead Sea and providing shuttle service from them to the theater. It’s a dream that began four years ago, Munitz said. In the last four months it’s involved up to 600 people all working at one time. Of special importance was the choice of Britain’s Bryan Grant as sound designer for Nabucco. A totally natural sound prevailed throughout the performance.

Nabuko_Israel_308.gifPhoto by Yossi Zwecker courtesy of Israeli Opera

The stage at Masada is 35 by 64 meters — three times as large as in OI’s home theater in Tel Aviv. Director Joseph Rochlitz worked largely without props, distributing the chorus and extras over the broad staircases at either side of the stage and in the area above it. Sets were by Nitzsan Refaeli; costumes by Alberto Spiazzi and lighting by Avi Yoni Bueno.

Munitz announced plans for the staging of Verdi’s Aida in 2011 and mentioned Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saens as a probable future choice for the festival. Nabucco, however, was the obvious opera to launch the festival. And that does in no way imply that Verdi thought of the story that plays following the destruction of the first temple down the road in Jerusalem as a Jewish Opera.

For the composer it was rather a veil for his concern about the state of his native Italy in the mid-19th-century. Be that as it may, you cannot hear Va pensiero — at least not in Israel — without hearing it as an anthem of the Diaspora. It is thus not surprising that the gala concert that celebrated the opening of Israel Opera’s new home in Tel Aviv ended with Va pensiero.

Green opera

Israel Opera at Masada is further a cultural endeavor committed to an environmental cause: it is supporting a drive to see the Dead Sea named one of the seven new Wonders of the World. The level of water in the Sea is currently falling one meter per year. If this continues, it will be the end of the many hotels there and the tourism that they encourage.

Among projects under consideration is the building of a canal from the Mediterranean — a project envisioned by father of Zionism Theodor Herzl in his 1902 New Land, his Utopian vision of the Jewish state. Among sites under consideration for the new Seven Wonders list are the Amazon River, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. Nabucco — for those who might not know it — is short for Nebuchadnezzar.

Wes Blomster


product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
product_by=Zaccaria: Paata Burchuladze; Fenena: Tiziana Carraro; Ismaele: Nazzareno Antinori; Agigaille: Dmitra Theodossiou; Nabucco: Alberto Gazale. Conductor: Daniel Oren. Director: Joseph Rochlitz. Costumes: Alberto Spiazzi. Sets: Nitzan Refaeli. Lighting: Avi Yona Bueno. Sound: Bryan Grant.
product_id=Above: Masada

Posted by Gary at 5:39 PM

Armida, Garsington Opera

By Rupert Christiansen [Telegraph, 8 June 2010]

What a delightful surprise - a Rossini opera which shows him with his mind firmly on the job, from the overture’s arresting beginning to the anti-heroine’s concluding tirade. Making no lurches into banality or resorts to bang-and-clatter cliché, Rossini seems to have been unusually inspired by Tasso’s tale of the seductive sorceress Armida, who ensnares the crusader Rinaldo - perhaps partly because his talented new lover Isabella Colbran was creating the title-role.

Posted by Gary at 4:50 PM

A Dog's Heart, Het Muziektheatre, Amsterdam

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 8 June 2010]

What does it take to be human? Surgeon Philipp Philippovich transplants a human pituitary gland and testicles into a dog. Within a week, the creature is playing the balalaika, smoking and demanding the evening paper.

Posted by Gary at 12:11 PM

Mary Stuart, Grand Theatre, Leeds

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 8 June 2010]

When a story is based on history, we expect a fair amount of fidelity to the facts. But the job of artists is to stimulate the imagination, not to write documentaries. Maria Stuarda, the Donizetti opera based on a play by Schiller, is a good example. We know Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor never met, but that didn’t stop a German playwright and an Italian composer creating a fictional confrontation, without which the drama would lose its point. This is easy when the history is not your own. It requires clever management when English history is being dramatised for an English audience.

Posted by Gary at 12:09 PM

Faust in San Francisco

The operatic culture at San Francisco Opera is quite Italian these days, explaining maybe why for this montage of Gounod’s 1859 masterpiece the baton was passed to Italian conductor Maurizio Benini and its leading role was entrusted to fine Italian tenor Stefano Secco.

We might have been tempted to think of it as an Italianate montage except that all but one of the rest of its cast were graduates of SFO’s estimable young artist stable, the Adler Fellows, most notably the divissima Patricia Racette as a touching Marguerite, and not too far behind John Relyea as an ultra debonair Méphistophélès. Not to mention soprano Daniela Mack as a right-on Siébel.

Rel_TMC.gifJohn Relyea as Méphistophélès [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

The Adler Fellows is the justifiable pride of San Francisco Opera. Young singers arrive and are transformed into young artists many of whom eventually or even quickly become big stars with extraordinary dimension — well schooled fine voices and well schooled stage comportment. If you were a stage director these artists could be the colleagues of your dreams.

The production (sets and costumes) for this Faust montage came from the San Francisco Opera warehouse where it has been sequestered for fifteen years. The program booklet did not identify an original director, though the scenery and costumes were attributed to Robert Perdziola a veteran of several SFO productions during the Mansouri years. It was a meant-to-be dreary, towering unit set, its painted backdrop even more dreary architecture, scenery reminiscent of all the mistaken reasons Faust is considered a dated old piece that does not resonate with current sensibilities.

Staging of this revival was entrusted to yet another former Adler Fellow (the Adler Fellows occasionally include the odd stage director as well as the usual singers). Argentine born and trained Jose Maria Condemi did his best to make something of all this — like making Faust who we always thought was a philosopher into an anatomy professor. The opera began with four corpses on the stage awaiting dissection, Faust about to become a fifth corpse. But suddenly one of the corpses arose as Méphistophélès who saved the day.

Wagner, current Adler Fellow Austin Kness, was not a student but a soldier, later brought back from battle on a stretcher where, wept upon by his mother, he expired during the rousingly famous Soldiers’ Chorus, meanwhile Valentin, Juilliard trained Brian Mulligan as commanding officer presented flags to distraught wives and mothers of the soldiers who did not return.

RelKne_CW.gifJohn Relyea as Méphistophélès and Austin Kness as Wagner [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

And, uhm, Méphistophélès arrived at the fair (Kermesse) like Pagliacci (in harlequin garb) in his pornography wagon, Marguerite sang her spinning song while operating a huge loom in an eighteenth or some other century sweatshop. Just when you thought Faust was about pretty music it turned out to be about stage business. Mr. Condemi did indeed have many ideas that the singers worked too hard to implement. We soon tired of all those ideas and from all that work and just wanted to hear Gounod’s beautiful music.

But that we did not. Conductor Benini took turgid tempos, confusing Faust’s inherently pretty sentimentalism with hard-hitting verismo. Tenor Stefano Secco, a sensitive actor, did have some very fine moments of quite beautiful singing, never quite suppressing a hint of squillo or the sense that a tenorial sob was out of the question. Mr. Mulligan, the Valentin, quickly created his character in his Avant de quitter as an insensitive, volatile, big voiced personality who had not quite mastered the strut and lurch school of acting. Mme. Racette indulged us with some thrilling diva singing though her persona conveyed heroic distress more than Marguerite’s innocent madness.

The Saturday night audience, the opening night of the spring season, was out for a good time and judging from the applause Méphistophélès succeeded best in making it fun. Bass Baritone John Relyea dominated the stage with a commanding presence, a forceful voice, and lots of colorful costumes. The staging however deprived him of all possibility to exploit the sometimes diabolically sublime music Gounod gave him, in particular his here sarcastic delivery of the meltingly beautiful invocation to darkness Ô nuit, étends sur eux ton ombre.

sword_CW.gifBrian Mulligan as Valentin and John Relyea as Méphistophélès [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

The name of the opera is Faust though it is all about Marguerite who has the great showpiece arias plus the sometimes spine-tingling ascension. But Faust gets the last bow anyway. Though his cad-like behavior on stage had not endeared him to the audience Mr. Secco gracefully accepted his less enthusiastic ovation, knowing that he had made a successful debut in a role that will serve him well in international circles.

Lighting designer Duane Schuler did not take an opening night bow. Mr. Schuler most recently lighted the Peter Stein Tchaikowsky trilogy in Lyon, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Patricia Racette (Marguerite) and Sefano Secco (Faust) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Charles Gounod: Faust
product_by=Faust: Stefano Secco; Marguerite: Patricia Racette; Méphistophélès: John Relyea; Valentin: Brian Mulligan; Siebel: Daniela Mack; Marthe: Catherine Cook; Wagner: Austin Kness. Conductor: Maurizio Benini. Director: Jose Maria Condemi. Production Designer: Robert Perdziola. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech.
product_id=Above: Patricia Racette (Marguerite) and Sefano Secco (Faust) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 9:35 AM

Le Nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera House

Under the stern gaze of butlers and house-keepers, footmen and maids dart efficiently about the stage, tidying, carrying, dusting; this is a well-run household where everyone knows their place and their job. Well, almost everyone … for while the household machinery runs smoothly in the background, McVicar foregrounds the potential misery and heartache which may result from cross-class interactions of an amorous nature between servants and their imperious masters.

Upon this production’s first appearance in 2006, much was made of McVicar’s decision to ‘update’ the action to the 1830s. But this minor historical shift is neither especially remarkable nor inappropriate, for the focus here is not political conflict but human passions. And, this vision surely penetrates to the heart of this opera: for all its French Revolutionary origins, it is at essence a tale of amorous confusions and betrayals … it is in Don Giovanni (where the class divides are just as obvious, and further highlighted by contrasting musical idioms) that we hear the revolutionary cries of “Viva la liberté!”, whereas Figaro explores human emotions — love, lust, envy, treachery — as encapsulated by the Count’s words, ‘Shall I live to see a servant of mine happy and enjoying pleasure that I desire in vain?’

NOZZE-100528_0118-NAKAMURA-.gifEri Nakamura as Susanna

The spacious stage, with widened proscenium arch, comfortably accommodates Tanya McCallin’s inventive sets, which slide ingeniously to emphasise the contrast between the luxurious grace of the courtly rooms and the shabby jumble of the servants’ quarters, while also revealing the co-dependence of the two worlds. In the Act 1 Trio, ‘Cosa sento!’, when the enraged Count discovers the unfortunate page, Cherubino, hiding in Susanna’s room, servants listen avidly outside the door, relishing the commotion within. As the Count rants, rages and plans revenge in ‘Hai già vinta la causa!’, butlers and housemaids silently go about their business, diplomatically deaf to their master’s indiscreet outpourings.

McVicar is alert to every potential for realism: there are some neat contemporary references — Count Almaviva inspects some new scientific machinery at the start of Act 3, for example — and there is not an anachronism or improbability in sight. With this particular Susanna a good foot shorter than the Countess, disguise and mistaken identity become more improbable, so McVicar stands his Susanna on a box, just one example of the understated dramatic integrity of the whole.

The transitions between locations are imperceptible and creative, none more so that between Acts 3 and 4, where the imposing interior smoothly and almost indiscernibly transforms to become a nocturnal garden, beautifully and evocatively lit by Paule Constable.

The performances of the fairly young cast of principals were similarly well-matched, marked by musical accuracy and dramatic credibility. Erwin Schrott as Figaro sang with naturalism and ease: his perturbed servant is not an over-confident, boastful buffoon, but rather a man of cool intelligence and wit, who really is in control of the commotion. Although he lacks some power in the lower range, Schrott’s performance is impressive and unceasingly entertaining. There is not a wasted moment or irrelevant gesture, as when he quick-wittedly improvises a limp when his lies about leaping from the Countess’s window are almost uncovered by the Count. When the hunting fanfares trill out in ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’, Schrott waggles his cuckold’s horns, but while his horror at Susanna’s imagined infidelity seems genuine at this point, we are confident that he will manage events to his benefit; and his wry comic nuance in the ensuing denouement was superb.

NOZZE-100528_0094-ADAMONYTE.gifJurgita Adamonytė as Cherubino

In an unusually vicious interpretation, Mariusz Kwiecien was a portrait of pride and brutal petulance as Count Almaviva. This was really dramatic singing. Drawing upon a wide range of colours in his Act 3 aria, ‘Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro’, Kwiecien suggested not a petty aristrocrat’s frustration at not getting his own way, but genuine fury and ferocity. However, the surprising slap which he inflicted upon the Countess during their argument about Cherubino’s whereabouts seemed inappropriate — such nastiness and intimated cruelty is hard to reconcile with their apparently harmonious reunion at the close of the opera.

Eri Nakamura is still a Jette Parker Young Artist but she showed musical maturity, and stamina, as Susanna. Secure and poised throughout, she held her own among more her experienced colleagues. However, it was a pity that, when Da Ponte’s libretto contributes so much to the wit and irony of the opera, her Italian was almost unintelligible! Jurgita Adamonytė convincingly conveyed Cherubino’s restless energy and capacity for mischief. Her intonation was secure, her tone crisp and clear, and she shaped Mozart’s lyrical lines in ‘Voi che sapete’ with grace; but while she dashed gauchely about the stage, vocally perhaps she was a bit too elegant and controlled, not quite capturing Cherubino’s breathless excitement and urgency.

German soprano, Annette Dasch, was making her ROH debut as the Countess. Although she was a little nervous and unsteady at the start, she relaxed after a slightly strained ‘Porgi amor’, and blended sweetly with Nakamura in their Act 3 Canzonetta. However, ‘Dove sono’ was a little too pressing and tense for my liking; accompanied by wonderful woodwind playing, Dasch lacked richness at the top of her voice and in the climactic closing phrases pushed to forcefully to the top As, lacking somewhat the composure and restraint required to suggest the Countess’s deeply felt but poignant regret.

NOZZE-100528_0205-DASCH-AS-.gifAnnette Dasch as Countess Almaviva

Marie McLaughlin is an experienced Marcellina and she was clearly comfortable in the role, enjoying the on-stage business and singing with bright tone and precision — it was a pity that her Act 4 aria was cut. McLaughlin’s sense of timing was more than equalled by Robert Lloyd as Bartolo, and they made a wonderful comic pair, the latter despatching the prattling patter of ‘La vendetta’ with ease.

Peter Hoare was a suitably snide and sneering Basilio, although he might have made even more of his comic moments, such as the repetition of his line, ‘What I said about the page, it was just a suspicion …’ in ‘Cosa Sento’. Nicholas Folwell’s Antonio was convincingly furious at having his flowerbeds trampled by Cherubino, and certainly not keen on acquiring him as a son-in-law! American soprano, Amanda Forsythe, confidently delivered Barbarina’s Act 4 aria with polished style and lovely refinement, and Christopher Gillett was a very competent Don Curzio.

Just one weakness marred the otherwise superb singing: the cast, most especially during the ensembles, on occasion lagged behind the spirited pace set by Sir Colin Davis in the pit, clouding the orchestra’s sharp clarity and liveliness. The servants’ chorus which closes Act 1 was particularly marred in this way. Post-interval, after an announcement informed us that due to unforeseen circumstances Davis had had to leave the theatre, the problem continued under the baton of David Syrus, Head of Music for The Royal Opera House, who is scheduled to conduct later performances of the run. Although he did not always sustain the dramatic momentum in the final Act, with its extended sequence of arias and recitatives, Syrus built impressively towards the close in the final ensemble.

NOZZE-100528_0127--(C)CLIVE.gifPeter Hoare as Don Basilio, Eri Nakamura as Susanna and Mariusz Kwiecien as Count Almaviva

McVicar’s production will doubtless and deservedly become a Covent Garden staple. But, it needs a slightly more stellar cast if it is to really sparkle. On this occasion, as the servant’s curtsey which accompanied the closing bars implied, it was the production itself which was star of the show.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/NOZZE-100528_0410-SCHROTT-A.gif image_description=Erwin Schrott as Figaro [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro product_by=Figaro: Erwin Schrott; Susanna: Eri Nakamura; Count Almaviva: Mariusz Kwiecien; Countess Almaviva: Annette Dasch; Cherubino: Jurgita Adamonytė; Bartolo: Robert Lloyd; Marcellina: Marie McLaughlin; Don Basilio: Peter Hoare; Don Curzio: Christopher Gillett; Barbarina: Amanda Forsythe; Antonio: Nicholas Folwell. Conductor: Colin Davis. Director: David McVicar. Designer: Tanya McCallin. Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Friday 4th June, 2010. product_id=Above: Erwin Schrott as Figaro

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera
Posted by Gary at 7:31 AM

June 7, 2010

I Gioielli della Madonna, New York

When Italy and Germany went to war, his career languished, and his music has not endured — perhaps because his most notorious work, the brief, comic Segreto di Susanna, arouses modern prejudices: it’s a hymn to the joys of cigarette addiction. Or perhaps it’s because he never quite settled on a single style, and his tuneful, professional operas do not fit into any easy category.

I Gioielli della Madonna (The Jewels of the Madonna), a story of passion, sacrilege and madness among superstitious Neapolitan hoi polloi, composed in 1911, is Wolf-Ferrari’s sole contribution to the Verismo genre. It was quite popular in its day, especially in Chicago, where the great Polish soprano Rosa Raisa made it a celebrated vehicle. Maria Jeritza (and, later, Florence Easton) triumphed in it at the Met, in an all-out superspectacular production in 1926 with street scenes in anthropological detail, giving the snooty Times reviewer the chance to condemn its vulgarity in a group with Cavalleria Rusticana and Tosca — names unlikely to deter opera fans today. On the strength of the excellent concert performance presented by Teatro Grattacielo at Rose Hall last Monday, Wolf-Ferrari might be worthy of more attention, though there are few Raisas or Jeritzas around today who could do the role of Maliella justice.

Wolf-Ferrari’s gifts for depicting character with melody, his skill at taut plotting and abrupt turns from festival to horror were rather greater in his youth than were evidenced in the much later Sly, when the Met produced that dreary vehicle a few years back. As a composer, Wolf-Ferrari is not so much of the manner of such contemporaries as Giordano and Montemezzi as a harkener back to the melody of Ponchielli, Boito and the young Mascagni. If the crowd scene that opens I Gioielli takes a lot of time (and would cost a fortune to stage — peddlers, street kids, folk making the evening passaggio, the full panoply of local color) and the orgy in the den of brigands in Act III goes on for rather a bit, there is always a pleasing tunefulness to pass the time. Too, the composer has the orchestral skill for not one but two intermezzi and a ballet — though I did not find them as evocative as Mascagni’s or Ponchielli’s.

The story was devised by the composer, probably after being fleeced during a Neapolitan vacation. Venetians are reluctant to admit that Neapolitans belong to the same nationality as themselves, and the Camorra, who figure loudly in the opera, are still the real rulers of the city.

I_Giioelli_10.gifPhoto by David Samsky

Gennaro is lustfully obsessed with young, arrogant Maliella. As Maliella, a girl of low birth, has been raised as his foster sister, she finds his possessive attitude grotesque; she is attracted to the sexy local Camorra boss, Rafaele, who offers her anything she likes — even the jewels that adorn the wonder-working local statue of the Madonna, Queen of Heaven. Of course Maliella would never ask such a sacrilegious gift, and even Rafaele wouldn’t really steal them, but she tosses the offer in Gennaro’s face — and he, maddened, does just that, decorating the girl with the stolen jewels and using her shock (and her lust aroused by a duet with Rafaele) to seduce her. Now that she’s damaged goods, Rafaele, who has boasted of her virginity, no longer wants her and the Camorra are horrified by the accusation they will surely receive when the theft is discovered. Maliella drowns herself. Gennaro goes mad, prays for repentance, and stabs himself in religious ecstasy — yes, this is another opera composed in the era of turn-of-the-century Catholic revival (Suor Angelica, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame) where the Madonna makes a climactic, fatal appearance.

There is no one to like very much in this story, and its erstwhile popularity may be credited in part to the audiences’ cheerful contempt for the superstitious lower orders. In an earlier era, Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne and Bellini’s La Sonnambula tickled sophisticates with tales of naïve peasant love — how happy we might be if we were as poor and simple as they! In the Verismo era of Cavalleria Rusticana, Tiefland and I Gioielli della Madonna, the pitying sneer was again not unmixed with envy: we’re too civilized to believe in the miraculous or to avenge betrayal with blood, but aren’t these peasants passionate? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could feel like those simple folk? Among later works in a similar strain, one can think of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera (in which German lowlifes paraded their passions for a cheerfully shocked bourgeoisie), Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Bernstein’s West Side Story. This patronizing attitude has not died out. Why should it? Sophisticates who have no intention of renouncing their sophisticated privileges, love to think they bear a burden.

For the Grattacielo performance, Julia Kierstine wore a red spangled gown as loud as, well, Rosa Raisa — she was fun to watch. Her voice had the heft and the lyric lilt for sexy Maliella, but the annoying quality of singing around rather than precisely on the pitches. I did not get the sense (which the composer clearly wished to convey) of a flaunting but naïve sexpot, and am not sure if it was her technique or the melody that failed. Kierstine did better with the sensuous duet in Act II (which does not get pornographically out of hand because the composer has cleverly put a locked and barred garden gate between the two passionately lusting lovers), and the brief Verismo mad scene that accompanies her seduction at the act’s climax.

Joshua Benaim tossed off Rafaele’s addresses with the proper casual and sexy address — one believed in the sincerity of his passion for Maliella — until he finds she’s no longer a virgin, and discards her in disgust. Benaim has a sturdy, well-focused, slightly rough-edged baritone, and he cleverly makes use of its roughness to display the nastier sides of Rafaele’s personality, barking the lines in disgust in contrast to his elegant phrasing of serenade and yearning duet. He is a gifted, intelligent singer, and Italian opera of this era rewards that sort of skill.

Raúl Melo sang the tormented role of Gennaro with fervor that never interfered with an attractive lyric line. Gennaro is rather a one-note character until his final magnificent scene of repentance and suicide, and the character is not a pretty one, but the quality of Melo’s singing kept us eager to have him return, to hear what he would give us next.

Eugenie Grünewald sang Gennaro’s mother Carmela with the right broad and earthy spaciousness, not unmixed with an unfortunate wobble. The many small roles were cast with Teatro Grattacielo’s usual expertise.

David Wroe, the company’s music director, kept impressively on top of this elaborate score, which his large orchestra, enormous chorus (on the rear tiers of the hall), mandolins for local color (not overdone, thank you Maestro Wolf-Ferrari), and expert children’s chorus performed with great panache until the final slightly uneven pianissimo. There was even a mime for one intermezzo and four dancers for the orgiastic ballet — capable no doubt, but for me the least interesting part of the night; I kept my eyes closed to focus on the music-making.

Rose Hall is not enormous and the acoustic varies greatly — I found my seats in the front orchestra awkward due the brassy explosions of the opening scene, the balances much better from the rear of the section for the other acts. A loud, elaborate orchestration calls for sitting farther back — as in any hall.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ermanno-Wolf-Ferrari.gif image_description=Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari by Brightcecilia Classical Music Forum product=yes product_title=Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: I Gioielli della Madonna product_by=Maliella: Julia Kierstine; Carmela: Eugenie Grünewald; Gennaro: Raúl Melo; Rafaele: Joshua Benaim. Westfield Symphony Orchestra and Cantori New York Chorus and Long Island University Chorus, conducted by David Wroe. Teatro Grattacielo, at Frederick P. Rose Hall. Performance of May 24. product_id=Above: Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari by Brightcecilia Classical Music Forum
Posted by Gary at 10:46 PM

Bliss, Tosca and La Sonnambula at Opera Australia

One, The Eighth Wonder, even dealt with the creation of Opera Australia’s main venue, the Sydney Opera House.


The most recent commission Bliss, is by Brett Dean and based on the novel of the same name by one of Australia’s most celebrated living authors, Peter Carey. Unusually it is not a serious historical work, instead it is a grotesque satire on the Australian Bourgeoisie worthy of Gogol, inspired by the author’s early life in the advertising industry.

Carey satirises the industry with the same ferocity Barry Humphries satirises the rest of Australian culture. Harry Joy heads an ad company, is rich and successful but, as the opera opens, is felled by heart attack on his birthday. Clinically dead for a few minutes Harry is convinced he has awakened in Hell. Delusional he visits his favourite restaurant and sees the place over-run with circus performers and an elephant that sits on his car.

Recovering his composure Harry determines to be good and run a socially responsible business, his family, however, are far from good as he discovers. Peering through his window he witnesses his wife Betty in the throes of an affair with his business partner and, through another window, his daughter Lucy exchanging sexual favours with his son David in return for drugs.

Retreating to a hotel the lonely Harry calls an escort agency only to be bewitched by the call girl, Honey B. a part-time prostitute who lives in the country producing honey.

Convinced Harry is mad his family have him committed but a colleague, Alex, visits him when the psychiatric team arrive and Alex is taken by mistake. Alex refuses to change places with the real Harry when he is finally brought in. Betty purchases Harry’s discharge and takes over the business, displaying a talent for advertising that astounds Harry. Betty is diagnosed with cancer, caused by exposure in her early life to petrol at her father’s service station. A petroleum company is coincidentally the major client of the agency and Betty ignites a can of petrol at a company meeting, immolating herself, her lover Johnny and the entire board. Harry deserts his son and daughter and goes with Honey to her bushland retreat and finds solace in planting trees.

Bliss may be Dean’s first opera but its decade long evolution has coincided with his development as a composer of international stature. His work features in concert throughout Australia, Britain, the United States and Europe and he was the winner of last year’s Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

The libretto is by Amanda Holden who will be known as the senior editor of the admirable Viking Opera Guide. Holden encapsulates Carey’s 1981 novel with only minor changes and creates from it many ensembles and opportunities for arioso, particularly in the opera’s most dramatic moments such as Betty’s ‘petrol aria’ and the sublimely simple – Candide like - concluding scene.


Ethereal and mystical themes prompt Dean to some of his most successful creations. Ariel’s Music (inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is one while Beggars and Angels is an earlier and highly praised merging of otherworldly beauty and brutal baseness not unlike the music of Bliss. In the opening scene, when Harry briefly dies Dean creates a magical, otherworldly sound to accompany the experience. For Harry’s Hellish surroundings the music is infused with a course, satirical edge, appropriately for this Gogol-esque fantasy, sounding particularly in the early interludes, like Shostakovich at his ironic best.

Dean’s multi faced score even suggest further playful references to other opera’s with similar situations. Harry’s fascination with the prostitute Honey B, for example, evokes Berg’s Lulu. Throughout Bliss Dean depicts this vulgar world but concludes the opera with a return to magical simplicity describing Harry’s new, simpler and purer life with the now angelic Honey. Scored for a coloratura soprano Lorina Gore is Lulu-like to look at and listen to, praising her favourite variety of honey in seductive, high melisma.

The tranquil ending, where Harry opts to tend the garden returns the music from blustering satire to ethereal simplicity much like the brief episode at the beginning.

The role of Harry is tour-de-force requiring the baritone to be on stage and singing for most of the opera. Peter Coleman-Wright is exceptional. The present cast all have the luxury of having the opera tailored to them and the effect is rather like listening to the pioneering recordings of a Britten opera with the role creators.

An Ad Man’s dream must be to see his work illuminated on glittering sign boards like in New York’s Times Square. Harry’s surreal vision is played out in a nightmare inversion of that dream. The entire scenic design is created on a LED light screen enveloping the stage. Programmed lights achieve locations and effects, even the elephant incident and the boardroom inferno. In the asylum a violinist plays referencing the Bedlam as depicted in William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress.

Director Neil Armfield has supervised some of the company’s most important and artistically acclaimed productions and has done so again with the careful, 10 year, generation of Bliss.

Bliss — Peter Coleman-Wright: Harry Joy; Merlyn Quaife: Betty; Lorina Gore: Honey B; Barry Ryan: Alex; David Corcoran: David; Malcolm Ede: Neighbour/Asylum Doctor/Managing Director 3; Taryn Fiebig: Lucy; Teresa La Rocca, Jane Parkin: Nurses; Kanen Breen: Johnny; Shane Lowrencev: Reverend Des/Police Officer 2/Nurse; Henry Choo: Aldo/Nigel Clunes; Milijana Nikolic: Mrs Dalton, Matron of the psychiatric hospital; Stephen Smith: Police Officer 1/Betty's Doctor. Erkki Veltheim: Onstage Violinist. Sam Sakker, David Lewis, Christopher Hillier, Sam Roberts-Smith: Company Directors. Opera Australia Chorus. Orchestra Victoria. Elgar Horwarth: Conductor. Neil Armfield: Director. Kate Champion: Choreographer. Brian Thomson: Set Designer. Alice Babidge: Costume Designer. Nigel Levings: Lighting Designer. State Theatre Melbourne, April 20, 23, 27 & May 1, 2010.

This production of Bliss will travel to the 2010 Edinburgh Festival with performances on September 2 & 3. The European premiere will be staged staged, in a new production, by the Hamburg State Opera on September 12, 15, 19, 21, 25 & October 2, 2010.


For thirty years Opera Australia maintained a production of Tosca by John Copley, closely modelled on his famous Covent Garden production for Maria Callas. With this in mind, perhaps audiences became over familiar the “shabby little shocker” (as the music historian Joseph Kerman memorably dubbed it) its shocks predictable and its shabbiness almost literal!

Collective memories were challenged by the importation of Christopher Alden reworking of Tosca, first mounted by England’s Opera North in 2002, and which drastically modernises the opera in time and dramatic conception. Tosca has been updated before, but Alden’s interpretation goes much further. Alden cites an “aspect to 19th-century art and opera … less connected to our modern sensibility…” and so updated the setting to contemporary Italy where political corruption and the machinery of justice is, as the press regularly remind us, as rife as ever. Judging from his interpretation

In his vision of contemporary Italy (the locations having been neutralised along with references to Napoleon or any other historical events and persons) Alden would also have us believe the Roman Catholic is just an extension of the State where the Sacristan now sells lottery tickets and assists in Cavaradossi’s torture and imprisonment.

The entire proceedings take place in a church basement where ‘Forza Italia’ posters adorn the walls. The confessional, plaster saints and religious brick-a-brack have been put into storage here and Cavaradossi is engaged, not as an art creator, but an art restorer, mending the pictures littering this basement.

Alden has added plot twists and complications, some of them implicit in the story, others not at all. And not all of them work. Anyone knowing the libretto or speaking Italian will notice names and places still sung although they are omitted from the English translation projected above the stage. So confusion, even frustration reign as one attempts to reconcile tradition with innovation. When the Sacristan announces that the, unnamed tyrant (whose name, Bonaparte, is still uttered by the singers), has been defeated, the chorus enter in a curious slow motion walk that signifies, perhaps, that the following scene is not very real (or that Alden has not quite worked out how to incorporate the action into his new scheme). Even more confusing, they proceed to trash the artworks that Cavaradossi has concentrated so much attention, even more attention that he paid to Tosca during her brief visit, on restoring. When the Te Deum is eventually sung, the chorus are not participating in a sacred service but are buying lottery tickets!

Angelotti’s sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, actually appears and, concealing herself on top of the confessional and watches the entire proceedings including the torture and execution of Cavaradossi as well as substituting for the off–stage shepherd’s voice in act three.

When act two begins Scarpia is eating pizza. There is no elegant dinner table for Tosca to perform her knife discovering dumb show, and you certainly don’t get cutlery in take-away pizza boxes. Instead Spoletta, barely concealing his hatred of Scarpia and, by brandishing a packing knife and placing it conveniently within Tosca’s reach, sets up his despised boss’s death. In this soulless environment, Tosca is actually raped, and Scarpia is murdered ‘in flagrante delicto’.


The third act takes place as a fantasy, the traumatised Tosca only imagining her final meeting with Cavaradossi who was apparently dead even before she entered into the fatal bargain with Scarpia. Snapping back into reality by Spoletta and Sciarrone who have been present the entire time, they fake surprise and, finding Tosca cowering in the corner, shoot her.

Although details like police firing cannons to alert that a prisoner has escaped seem odd in this contemporary setting Alden connects it, as he had hoped, to our modern sensibility. As one of the most often performed operas, Tosca, despite its violence, has assumed a bizarre normality. Like cartoon violence, it is shrugged off as melo-dramatic make believe, much the same way Shakespeare’s plays, are revered and excused. Alden attempts to re-establish the horror by turning it up several notches, taking away familiar cues such as Scarpia’s dinner knife, and bring back the uncertainty and mounting tension that must have been felt by an original audience. Wearing cheap trench coats and indulging in uncensored violence the opera strays from the world of grand Italian art to the lurid world of Italian exploitation movies.

The original story is of course badly compromised. While relationship between Tosca and Scarpia remains almost unscathed, Cavaradossi’s character is drastically altered, no doiubt frustratingly so to any tenor hoping to play the traditional hero. Alden’s smudging of the relationship between the libretto and Puccini’s musical setting can be frustrating too. The scurrying music, for example, after Tosca has left and Angelotti’s and Cavaradossi conspire his escape is ignored. But if one disregards these minor details, what emerges, instead, is an unforgettable account of the opera’s central crisis where a psychopath terrorises his victim with horrific results. And in the act two encounter between Tosca and Scarpia, there is as more mounting tension and catharsis as a traditional production with Tosca in gloves and tiara and Scarpia with decent catering. In act one Tosca is a self-assured, calm, sunglasses sporting woman. In act two, her self-assurance evaporates.

Despite any misgivings about the staging, the musical performance was first rate. The conductor, Shao-Chia Lü, guides the climaxes and paces the music underlining the dramatic action with great conviction, the familiar arias and scenes seeming to unfurl.

Youl has an exciting voice and can apply a powerful, cutting edge. But it is in the middle voice, particularly in the almost spoken exchanges with Scarpia, that she impresses most with a power of declamation worthy of Tebaldi. Wegner is a gifted, singing actor. A splendid Wagnerian, he can produce a pulverising sound or project the barest whisper. His presence is as commanding as his voice and he enters into the inhuman spirit of this newly conceived Scarpia with astounding assurance. The way Youl and Wegner use the stage space speaks volumes as his sadism escalates her defiance evaporates. Rosario La Spina is challenged by the shift in Cavaradossi’s character. His voice is warm and genuinely Italianate, perfectly suited to the two famous arias but, as a less than enthusiastic ex-lover in act one and robbed of the night sky, impending death and firing squad for his death, his new role makes less impact. With the Sacristan and Spoletta transformed from stock characters to newly motivated participants in the tragedy, even the smaller parts give new insights to their singers and they are cast from strength. Fyfe, for example, sings the Sacristan with a malevolent edge, almost matching Wegner’s Scarpia.

In stripping away familiar dramatic landmarks Alden revitalised what is, after all, one of the most horrific scenes in opera. With the comfort of knowing that Tosca will be chased three times around the sofa, fall on her knees to sing “Visi d’arte”, discover the knife and use it before Scapria claims her, gone, the viewer no longer knows what to expect only that it will be something dreadful. As performed by Youl and Wegner it is hair-raising!

This new production continues to confront and occasionally confuse by its clash of naturalistic and non-naturalistic acting but in shattering this familiar work Alden delivers a shattering experience.

Tosca — Nicole Youl: Floria Tosca; Rosario La Spina: Cavardossi; John Wegner: Scarpia; Jud Arthur: Angelotti; Warwick Fyfe: Sacristan / Gaoler; Graeme Macfarlane: Spoletta; Andrew Moran: Sciarrone; Sian Pendry: Marchesa Attavanti. Opera Australia Chorus. Orchestra Victoria. Conductor: Shao Chia Lü. Director: Christopher Alden, Rehearsed by Cathy Dadd. Set & Lighting Designer: Charles Edwards. Costume Designer: Jon Morrell. State Theatre, Melbourne. April 14, 17, 21, 24, 28 May 1, 4, 10 & 13, 2010.

La Sonnambula

While Tosca is mainstay of Opera Australia’s repertoire, Bellini’s La Sonnambula has not been professionally staged here since Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge included it in their touring company in 1965. Seizing on the success of a new I Capuleti e I Montecchi last year, Opera Australia are promoting the star of that production, Emma Matthews, in a new staging of La Sonnambula. Recently returned from her debut at England’s Royal Opera as Janacek’s Vixen, Matthews actually possesses a formidable coloratura voice and technique and is developing her repertoire along those lines. This is her first Amina and she displays a keen understanding of the style of the role and the genre it belongs to. The high lying notes were delivered with a sense of effortlessness, high notes clear and strong without being strident. Matthews also demonstrates what bel canto is all about. Runs were executed faultlessly, the individual notes of ascending and descending scales clearly articulated, and her trill is genuine and seemingly endless. She can apply a soft focus without losing any of the clarity in her singing and, for a role where the character is asleep as often as awake, that softness of tone lends the music a ‘dreamy’ aspect.

Emma-Matthews---Joshua-Bloo.gifMatthews is also a very engaging actor and, aided by a deceptively simple production by Julie Edwardson, creates a moving Amina, her dreams giving way to a melancholy perfectly intimated by the music in the two sleepwalking scenes. Both Matthews and Edwardson understand that character is created through music and both base their interpretations in Bellini’s this ingenious music.

As Elvino, Jorge Lopez-Yanez, has the kind of ‘tenorino’ voice that, we would believe, prevailed in Bellini’s time and he sang with the same softness of tone as Mathews. He and Joshua Bloom as Count Rodolfo were able to display a similar elegance of style thanks to the encouragement and beautiful shaping of the score from conductor Richard Bonynge.

In the same way Taryn Fiebig’s solo when she briefly becomes Elvino’s betrothed was made into a telling dramatic moment as her music echoed Amina’s in the first sleepwalking scene as Amina’s imagined her marriage to Elvino.

Edwardson has reconceived the opera to the early 20th century. Richard Robert has designed a single set with a central raked, revolving platform and costumes that at times look like a kind of alpine Albert Herring. Edwardson suggests, without overplaying, the Jungian and Freudian fascination with dreams happening at this time and the nocturnal palate of Matt Scott's lighting created a visual parallel to the nocturnal and dreamlike music. Other touches, like Amina slipping into a trance in the act one ensemble where the phantom that haunts the village is mentioned (and is of course, really Amina) are brilliantly subtle and dramatic additions.

Bonynge knows this opera inside out and breathed long phrases into the music without affecting the drama. The charm and intimacy of the music came through from the very start, despite the expansiveness of the large auditorium. His decisions about tempo and keys and selection of embellishments for Matthews’s key arias added to the success of the production.

La Sonnambula — Emma Matthews: Amina; Jorge Lopez-Yanez: Elvino; Joshua Bloom: Count Rodolfo; Taryn Fiebig: Lisa; Elizabeth Campbell: Teresa; Andrew Jones: Alessio; Kanen Breen: Notary. Opera Australia Chorus. Orchestra Victoria. Richard Bonynge: Conductor. Julie Edwardson: Director. Richard Roberts: Set & Costume Designer. Matt Scott: Lighting Designer. Presented by Opera Australia. State Theatre, Melbourne April 30, May 3, 6, 8, 12, 15 & 17, 2010. Sydney Opera House August 5, 7, 9, 11, 14, 17, 19, 21 & 24, 2010.

Michael Magnusson

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Brett_Dean.gif image_description=Brett Dean [Photo: University of Louisville] product=yes product_title=Bliss, Tosca and La Sonnambula at Opera Australia product_by=Above: Brett Dean [Photo: University of Louisville]
Posted by Gary at 10:03 PM

La Damnation de Faust in Modern Guise at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In the more familiar staged version by Charles Gounod Lyric Opera scored a resounding triumph in the fall with several notable role debuts. Now La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz has entered the roster of Lyric Opera’s staged works and can also count as a musically fulfilling venture. The four soloists in this production rank among the foremost interpreters today of the music of Berlioz and of this dramatic work. Paul Groves sang the role of Faust in an interpretation which met all the challenges of the score and also left an individual stamp on his character’s portrayal. His tempter and nemesis Méphistophélès provided the bass baritone John Relyea with considerable opportunities for acting and vocalism. In this role Mr. Relyea was making his Chicago Lyric debut this season. Susan Graham performed the role of Marguerite with memorable artistic commitment, her singing reinforcing the reputation she enjoys for the music of Berlioz. Christian Van Horn sang the role of Brander in a convincing portrayal by which the text matches ideally his movements and gestures. Sir Andrew Davis conducted a fluid and well-rehearsed Lyric Opera Orchestra in a performance expressing the vital nuances of the score.

Soon after the curtain rises in this new production, the figure of Faust appears caught inside a box-like elevated space at the center of the stage. Mr. Groves wore modern, semi-formal dress, and he sat positioned in front of a computer. A cell phone was intermittently visible in the tenor’s hand. The stage as depicted is an effective externalization of the lead character’s feelings of despair and isolation. The walls of the boxed space seem to cause his frustration to grow, just as Groves paced repeatedly to indicate a nervous relation to sounds and emotions from the outside. This staging was, however, less effective in suggesting Faust’s physical journey from the plains of Hungary in the first part of the score to his workroom and surroundings in northern Germany in the second part. Again the viewer was prompted to visualize such a physical transfer and symbolic movement from the projected text. Before that shift in scene a lush orchestral interlude, here richly played, emphasized the spirit of life circulating in the world outside of Faust’s surroundings. Groves seemed to be praying at his computer in order to arrive at some answer to his dilemma of isolation. At this point the chorus emerged from various doors and passageways located below the suspended box. Also here in dress suggestive of a post-World War II decade the chorus sings variously of pleasures and freedom from care. The assemblage in civilian garb then gave way to a group of soldiers bent on recruiting new forces, all preparatory to the stirring Hungarian March. This part was effectively staged as nearly a ballet for the soldiers while Davis kept taut control over the superb playing from the orchestra.

Faust_Lyric_03.gifSusan Graham as Marguerite [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]

At the opening of the second part it is clear that Faust’s travels have not solved his feelings of “ennui.” His opening soliloquy was movingly intoned by Groves with memorable intonation on “je souffre” [“I suffer”] and “la nuit sans étoiles” [“the night without stars”]. Only the entrance of the chorus singing an Easter hymn prevents Faust from consuming poison. The innovative staging at this point focused attention on a large standing crucifix shining with yellow light, while soldiers now intermingled as they removed flags from coffins lined up symmetrically on either side of the stage. The surging tones of the chorus showed Faust sensing renewal and a readiness to live, emphasized by Groves with lyrically convincing high notes pronounced at “O mon âme tremblante!” [“O my fluttering soul!”]. Ironically it is at this point that Méphistophélès enters. Mr. Relyea, who emerged as one from the chorus, removed the collar of a priest from his costume and declared his presence as the spirit of life. He offers to entertain Faust and to fulfill all his desires. Once Faust accepted, the atmosphere of Auerbach’s Keller was rendered as a transformation of the preceding: the coffins on stage opened, girls emerged to treat the crucifix as a pole for dancing, and a cabaret-like setting lifted Faust from his torpor. Relyea performs the role of Méphistophélès as a suave, understated tempter who leads others to the responsibility of their own downfall. By contrast, Christian Van Horn sang the role of Brander in the tavern with gusto and fully committed gestures. Faust is at first attracted yet then repulsed by these lurid displays of the tempter’s vision of life. From this point to the close of the second part Faust now coasts toward inevitable infatuation. He is lulled to sleep in a bed of roses, in the midst of which he sees a vision of Marguerite in his dream. In this production Marguerite appears in her bedroom caught in the same box-like structure which earlier housed Faust. She seems to sleep fitfully, as though plagued by thoughts beyond her control. As he awakens from the dream Groves calls out the name Marguerite with exquisite sustained top notes. He concedes to the suggestion of Méphistophélès that they should approach the girl’s house as part of a crowd of students. As the act ends Faust appears at Marguerite’s bed holding a bouquet of roses from his dream.

During the third and fourth parts the passionate attraction between Faust and Marguerite reaches its resolution and destructive consequences. At first Faust appears alone in her room and luxuriates in the aura of her accustomed surroundings. When Marguerite begins to speak, she elaborates on her equivalent dream and her vision of the beloved whom she has yet to meet. In the following scene the well-known ballad “Autrefois un roi de Thulé´[“Once a king of Thule”] gives expression to her sentiments of melancholy longing. Susan Graham, poised on a balcony outside her stuffy room and holding a lit cigarette, sang the ballad with touching ardor, the arching phrases matching the movements of the goblet as the King of Thule cast it into the sea. After this moving expression of her character, Méphistophélès called upon the service of various spirits in order to lure Marguerite into Faust’s presence. Their duet of recognition led to a convincing declaration in which both principals sang excitedly of their “ivresse” [“passion”]. The short-lived union is brought to its close by Méphistophélès who warns that the neighbors are calling to Marguerite’s mother that “un gallant est dans ta maison” [“a gallant is in your house”].

Faust_Lyric_02.gifPaul Groves as Faust [Photo by Robert Kusel courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]

In the fourth part Marguerite sings plaintively of her love granted and her current loneliness in the romance “D’amour l’ardente flame” [“The burning flame of love”]. Ms. Graham sang the piece with the conviction of one who has granted her entire being in love and is now left with only the memory. In this production she was now shown serving multiple cups of tea to her mother by which she hoped to administer a sleeping potion. Soon afterward Marguerite was led away by armed police when her mother’s lifeless body was discovered. It is at this point that Méphistophélès reminds Faust of his beloved. When Faust learns of Marguerite’s fate he agrees to sign the document by which he will serve the demonic force in order to save her. On two black steeds, as here simulated, Méphistophélès and Faust pursue the Ride to the Abyss as the soul of Faust is claimed in the eternal depths. The final scene unites Marguerite with the lighted crucifix, transformed again from earlier in this production, as she ascends the stairs in God’s forgiveness.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Faust_Lyric_01.gif image_description=Paul Groves as Faust and John Relyea as Méphistophélès [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust product_by=Faust: Paul Groves; Marguerite: Susan Graham; Méphistophélès: John Relyea; Brander: Christian Van Horn. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Stage Director: Stephen Langridge. Designer: George Souglides. Lighting Designer: Wolfgang Göbbel. Projections Designer: John Boesche. Chorus Master: Donald Nally. Choreographer: Philippe Giraudeau. product_id=Above: Paul Groves as Faust and John Relyea as Méphistophélès [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
Posted by Gary at 9:07 PM

In S.F. Opera's sumptuous 'Faust,' John Relyea dominates as Mephistopheles

By Cheryl North [Mercury News, 7 June 2010]

SAN FRANCISCO — "Short-term gain; long-term pain" — a few economists might be bandying about that pithy phrase these days. But these words were also irreverently buzzing in my brain during San Francisco Opera's sumptuous three-hour-plus production of Charles Gounod's "Faust" Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House. While these six little words might get to the moral heart of the timeless Faust story, they do not even begin to characterize Gounod's glorious music.

Posted by Gary at 4:45 PM

Jurgita Adamonytė: An Interview

A treat is in store, then, for the audience at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where Adamonytė sings the role of the over-excitable page, Cherubino, in a revival of David McVicars’ production of The Marriage of Figaro.

Adamonytė has recently played Cherubino in the Salzburg Festival production which toured Japan. But, McVicar’s vision of Figaro is a subtly dark one: transferred from Revolutionary France to the 1830s, McVicar places less emphasis on the comic confusions, seeking instead to convey what the director himself has called the ‘heartfelt’ emotions of the opera. I asked Adamonytė if it was difficult to erase the memory of a former recent interpretation when stepping into a new, very different production?

“Yes, it can be, because one always forms some impressions of the character. But it has not been so difficult here because the director gives the singers a lot of freedom. Of course, we work out the blocking and so on, but then it is left to the singer to interpret.”

So, how does she see Cherubino? Is he a gauche ingénue or a more knowing, mischievous trouble-maker?

“Oh, he’s just a young boy — a young boy who is in love with everyone!” So, we should expect lots of rampant adolescent hormones? Adamonytė laughs, and one can see that she will bring a natural, fresh, light-heartedness to the role. She relishes her aria, ‘Voi che sapete’, which she sees as expressive of the essence of Cherubino’s experience.

Adamonytė clearly feels a natural affinity for Mozart. She made her debut with Zerlina in 2002 at the Lithuanian National Opera, and more recently received much praise for her Idamante in concert performances of Idomeneo in Amsterdam, Lisbon and London. Stepping in at short notice to replace the indisposed Christine Rice, Adamonytė produced what one critic described as the ‘most conventionally Mozartean singing … she gave every evidence of thorough and intelligent study of the role, all her expressive choices seemingly the perfect ones’.

“Mozart just feels so right, it is so natural for my voice.”

She does not come from a family of singers or musicians. Weekends as a teenager spent singing in a folk choir in her native Lithuania led to private singing lessons and subsequently to study at the Lithuanian Academy of Music. In 2004, she moved to London, and during her time at the Royal Academy won the Opera Rara Bel Canto Prize, the Isabel Jay Prize and the Ludmilla Andrew Russian Song Prize. She completed her studies at the Cardiff International Academy of Voice in 2008.

“I met Dennis O'Neill in 2006 in a master-class at the RAM and I loved working with him. When I found out he was opening a new school — CIAV (Cardiff International Academy of Voice) — I asked him to take me. It meant leaving RAM one year earlier, but I knew I had met MY teacher and I am happy I made this decision as it has changed my singing and my life.”

What influence has O’Neill had on the way she has developed as a singer?

“Technique. Absolutely, the importance of technique. And, how necessary it is to communicate the meaning through the voice. That is the thing that is most difficult, because the voice must convey the drama and the emotion.”

The need to communicate with an audience is clearly important to Adamonytė. She has recently performed and recorded, Karl Jenkins’ Stabat Mater, to great acclaim, and I asked her if she enjoyed singing Jenkins’ music, which is sometimes criticised for being rather mundane and predictable. She rejected such censures of the ‘cross-over’ idiom, emphasising the pure beauty of Jenkins’ melody, and the way that the music appealed to the audience and touched them.

More ‘cutting edge’ repertoire has also featured in Adamonytė’s recent experiences: she created the role of Scipio in D. Glanert’s La Caligula which received its world premiere at Frankfurt Opera Theatre in 2006. Does she enjoy singing new music?

“Yes, because one can actually influence the music. Working with the composer, one can suggest things and change things!”

So, what does the immediate future have in store? Despite being encouraged to explore Rossini — “I am always being told I should sing La Cenerentola and Rosina — Adamonytė is resisting the early-nineteenth-century Italian repertoire. Even though ‘home’ is now a quiet Italian village, “I don’t have a natural feeling for that music; it doesn’t feel right for me.” She has a refreshingly relaxed approach to her career. The recent birth of her baby — which, she observes, seems to have added a few notes to her top register! — has meant fewer auditions of late, although there are still some exciting challenges ahead.

Following a Dorabella in America, she will return to London. Indeed, Adamonytė is becoming quite a regular at Covent Garden … following a small role in Die Tote Stadt (2009) and a flouncy, ‘suitably flashy’ Blanche in The Gambler earlier this season, she returns in September 2010 to take the role of Dorabella in Jonathan Miller’s oft-revived Così fan tutte. Is it difficult to step into operatic shoes which are already well-worn?

“It can be difficult, but there is always something fresh about the interpretation. The director may make small changes. I saw this production when it was performed earlier this year, and I think it is going to be challenging for me, not really difficult as such. The singer has to do everything. The setting is very bare — just one large room, and the walls are quite stark. And, I know that I will have my ’mobile phone, my lap-top, my Starbucks coffee … so, there is a lot of responsibility on the singer. But, I am very excited to be singing with a wonderful cast of singers.”

Adamonytė comes across as modest, unassuming, and genuinely excited by the opportunities which are coming her way. She professes to feel incredibly privileged and lucky to have had such a relatively rapid rise, but one senses that, armed both with great natural talent and much common sense, she has made the most of her luck and opportunities.

The Marriage of Figaro opened on Monday 31st May, and continues for nine further performances until 3rd July.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/jurgita_adamonyte.gif image_description=Jurgita Adamonytė [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt] product=yes product_title=Jurgita Adamonytė: An Interview product_by=Above: Jurgita Adamonytė [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
Posted by Gary at 4:12 PM

First Opera in 3D — Carmen, Royal Opera House

3D is a higher grade technology than the 2D High Definition filming currently available at the Metropolitan Opera, The Royal Opera and other houses. The process, developed by RealD was used in James Cameron’s hit fantasy film Avatar, and in the most recent Disney Alice in Wonderland . Carmen is so dramatic that it could have been written for the movies. So why not a spectacular new version of the opera, using state of the art technology?

Francesca Zambello’s 2006 production is a good choice too. Visually, it’s very strong, so it will appeal to audiences who aren’t necessarily familiar with this opera, or even with opera at all. This staging lends itself specially well to film in many ways. It’s as colourful as the music. The town square is depicted in glowing earth tones, red, and ochre, with a large orange tree inn the background. The smuggling scene is shrouded in mysterious blues, greys and greens. In the final scene, the empty street is lit by garish light. Carmen has nowhere to hide.

CARMEN-9946_0590_1-HYMEL-AS.gifBryan Hymel as Don José and Christine Rice as Carmen

This is an eventful staging, full of details that translate well into film. The townsfolk are busy doing different things, selling fruit, washing themselves, playing guitars. A donkey is led through the crowd. The children’s choruses are delightful, each child an individual. The dance scenes are excellent, thanks to the combined forces of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet. You can tell professional dancers apart from dancing singers, but that’s part of the fun. The toreadors are dazzling. No wonder the people adore the Corrida, and its colourful trappings. It’s circus, an escape from daily life, despite the blood and death.

First Night Syndrome affects every production, but this time there’s the film to think about too. So much is hanging on the success of the film, which is a historic first. So it was good to follow the first performance, imagining how it would develop as the run continues, and how it might be adapted for film. I looked out for details, like the way there are small ensembles high above the stage, easily missed during normal performance. From there, striking panoramas could be shot of the action below.

CARMEN-9946_0003-KOVALEVSKA.gifMaija Kovalevska as Micaëla and Dawid Kimberg as Moralès

Christine Rice’s dark good looks make her a good choice for the part. Her singing is precise and attractive, but wilder abandon would liven the characterization. Carmen’s lowdown, mean and dirty. Rice is well-bred and lady-like, not really the sort of girl who sticks men’s heads up her skirt to taunt them, like Carmen does in this staging. Rice is best when she shows the softer sides of Carmen’s personality, such as in the card game trio with Frasquita (Elena Xanthoudakis) and Mercédès (Paula Murrihy). All three singing particularly well. A wonderful vignette.

Aris Argiris’s Escamillo has huge potential. The “public” and “private” Escamillos co-exist, but often the public version dominates attention. The Act Two entrance is so dramatic that it overshadows all else. In this production he’s astride a real black stallion which carries him above the crowd. It takes your breath away, even if you know it’s coming. But what was interesting for me was the way Argiris conveyed the double edge of the Toreador song. Escamillo’s describing the spectacle of a bullfight, yet there’s a wistful vulnerability when he sings of the “dark eyes” that are watching. This is important, for what Escamillo and Carmen have in common is this inner sensitivity other people cannot see, but which they recognize in each other.

Film can show details easily lost in a large auditorium, so Argiris’s finely focused characterization will “grow” to advantage in close-ups. The part is written in an unusual way. The big entrance is dramatic, but it doesn’t last long. There’s more singing in the duel scene, where the part is written more conventionally. Then in the final act, Escamillo doesn’t actually have very much to sing at all. But therein lies the intelligence of Bizet’s approach. It’s not the macho big moments that make Escamillo, but the short, concealed glimpses of who he really is.

The critical part in the entrance scene isn’t the flamboyance, but the moment when Escamillo sees Carmen and knows instinctively that hers are the black eyes that have been awaiting him. The final love duet lasts only moments, but again, it’s powerful because it’s direct and private. Argiris’s Escamillo is much deeper than the usual flashy image. Because film can focus on detail, we’ll be able to appreciate this thoughtful approach to Escamillo. Indeed, this more intimate focus may also reveal the true depths of Christine Rice’s Carmen.

CARMEN-9948_0441-ARGIRIS-AS.gifAris Argiris as Escamillo

It’s significant how Bizet contrasts the two couples, Carmen and Escamillo and José and Micaëla. The former don’t actually sing all that much, but the latter sing on, and on. Since the latter pair are more conventional, their parts are written more conventionally too. Brian Hymel’s Don José struggled vocally in the first act, but by the final, and critical act, he was in better form. He’ll be heard to advantage as the run progresses, and in the film. Singing, unlike bullfighting, isn’t sudden death.

Maija Kovalevska’s Micaëla on the other hand was superb from beginning to end. Sometimes, Micaëla seems like a minor part because she’s just a kid, but Kovalevska’s solid vocal authority brings out the role’s hidden power. Micaëla travels into smuggler’s dens to find José. She’s more of a man than he is, sweet as she may be. Indeed, she’s a prototype of Carmen herself, because she, too, is independent and takes risks for love. It’s her Covent Garden debut too, but she’s sung the role at the Met and in Munich. She has impressive experience elsewhere too.

Since Carmen is so familiar, we think we know it. But perhaps the film will reveal what we could still discover. I’m looking forward the the ROH film, 3D or not, if it’s well directed. Indeed, the angles and frames have probably already been planned. The direction of this revival could be tightened up, movements sharpened and French diction improved, but all in all, this was good.

Anne Ozorio

Carmen runs at the Royal Opera House, London, on 5, 8, 14, 16, 18, 21, 24, 26 June 2010. For more details, please see www.roh.org.uk This is a co-production with Den Norske Opera,Oslo and Opera Australia.

The 3D film will be available in cinemas worldwide from Autumn 2010. It’s part of a broader digital media strategy which ensures that the Royal Opera House has the capability to showcase its work across a wide range of media. This includes television and radio broadcasts, cinemas, BP Summer Big Screens, DVDs, online and via mobile technology. The Royal Opera House recently became the first arts organisation in Europe and the third in the world to launch its own iTunes U site.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CARMEN-994604941-%28C%29RICE-.gif image_description=Christine Rice as Carmen [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Georges Bizet: Carmen productby=Moralés: Dawid Kimberg; Micaëla: Maija Kovalevska; Don José: Bryan Hymel; Zuniga: Nicolas Courjal; Carmen: Christine Rice; Frasquita: Elena Xanthoudakis; Mercédès: Paula Murrihy; Lillas Pastia: Caroline Lena Olsson; Escamillo: Aris Argiris; Le Dancaïre: Adrian Clarke; Le Remendado: Harry Nicoll; Guide: Anthony de Baeck. Actors, Dancers, Members of Trinity Boys’ Choir and Trinity School, Croydon (director: David Swinson); Members of Tiffin Girls’ School Choir (choirmaster: Simon Ferris); Royal Opera Chorus and extra chorus (chorus director: Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Constantinos Carydis. Director: Francesca Zambello. Revival Director: Duncan Macfarland. Designs: Tanya McCallin. Lighting: Paule Constable. Choreography: Arthur Pita. Fight Director: Mike Loades. Revival Fight Director: Natalie Dakin. Royal Opera House, London. 5th June, 2010. product_id=Above: Christine Rice as Carmen

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera

Posted by anne_o at 11:47 AM

Tchaikowsky Trilogy in Lyon

These directors made their primary operatic contributions in the previous century. Mr. Stein too made forays into opera back then (notably a hugely successful Otello at Welsh National Opera in 1986 and a notoriously unsuccessful Das Rheingold at the Paris Opera also in the ’80’s), but his major explorations of the genre have occurred in this first decade of the new century, and at the Opéra National de Lyon.

Not to forego mentioning Boris Godunov coming this fall at the Met.

Besides Pelleas et Melisande, Falstaff and Lulu in Lyon Mr. Stein has staged the three primary Tchaikowsky operas in the intimate Opéra Nouvel [named after its architect Jean Nouvel] — Mazeppa in 2006, Eugene Onegin in 2007 and Pique Dame in 2008. Just now these thrilling operas have had cyclic performances as a trilogy, certainly the crown of the France wide, year long celebration of Russian art.

Peter Stein is a consummately musical director. In the most pristine moments of his stagings (at the premieres, less so in these revivals) the staging detail is so precise that even the smallest motion of a hand resonates musically, the spacial relationships between two (or more) singers are so precisely defined that musical tensions are held at their maximum. Movement is abstracted and directional, like musical line.

Mr. Stein ignores the presence of an audience, creating a fourth wall in his performing space, thus allowing a singer to move down stage center and face this wall, privately voicing his or her emotions with no consciousness that this wall is transparent. Peter Stein’s stage world is complete in itself. In its most pristine form you, the audience witness a dramatic privacy, immediate in its emotional import and highly distilled in its expression. At once cold and hot. Riveting.

Designer Ferdinand Wôgerbauer, longtime Peter Stein scenic collaborator, created the physical stages for the trilogy, spaces that at first seem like comic book frames in their austerity, but realized so that the singer is the primary shape on the stage, and therefore the single expressive element. The space delineates a location and its boundaries but does not compete with a singer’s presence or his words or movements by describing a surrounding. Though when, rarely, there is furniture or an implement it is very real, because the singer is real.

Costume collaborator Anne Marie Heinreich contributes to the impression of comic book vignette by her use of bold primary color, in shapes that are large, and always specifically evocative of period. Of Peter Stein’s collaborators only American lighting designer Duane Schuler does not come from theater, his provenance is big-time opera. Lighting is crucial in the Peter Stein opera language because the singer or singers are all there is — though they are small they must be big, resonating in light. Mr. Schuler has mastered the technic of projecting Mr. Stein’s tiny visual frames onto the operatic scale.

Peter Stein’s musical collaborator for the trilogy is conductor Kirill Petrenko. Russian born, Viennese trained Mo. Petrenko is a consummately theatrical musician, magnifying the smallest instrumental details into revelations of emotional color, his orchestra becoming a raw nerve ending in direct contact with Peter Stein’s tense visual frames. Mo. Petrenko supplies the driven tempos that crucially underpin the careful progression of these frames. The inspired Petrenko/Stein connection illuminates the supercharged Tchaikowsky genius, respectively heating it up and cooling it down. [N.B. Petrenko will not conduct the Met Boris (entrusted to Gergiev), contenting himself, surely, with a Bayreuth Ring in 2013. Ironically Stein was offered a Bayreuth Ring in 1976, but the Wagners refused to uncover the pit, so it went to Chereau].

Comic book is an imperfect metaphor since the Tchaikowsky operas do not tell simple stories. In fact they do not tell stories at all since Tchaikowsky assumes that we, as all good Russians already know these famous Pushkin stories. Tchaikowsky drops us into the crucial scenes of these stories, just when something horrible is about to happen — he calls them lyric scenes rather than operas.

Taken in sequence the first of the trilogy is Onegin, a domestic comedy that goes bad. Mazeppa follows, an epic tale that clothes wrenching familial concerns, and finally Pique Dame is a horror opera, pure Guignol. Each has one or more suicides (Maria in Tchaikowsky’s original Mazeppa version kills herself), a gambler who loses, a bloody fight between two men, and a woman who loses love and life (Tatiana succumbs to the bourgeoisie, a synonym of death in many circles then [and now]).

With its two sets of lovers Eugene Onegin (1879) is like Puccini’s La Boheme (1898), but Puccini’s lovers are so busy dealing with immediate crises that there is little psychology and no philosophy. The miracle of Tchaikowsky is that within heightened emotional immediacy we still participate intellectually — we struggle to understand why. The why can be psychological, political or philosophical, or all three. In a Peter Stein production we feel and we understand these sometimes indefinable depths to a shattering degree.

Just now in Lyon (May 14) the focus was on Lenski, Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas, whose youth, immediacy of voice and tall physical stature commanded our attention, and gave us the vibrancy of young life and love. Onegin, Russian baritone Alexey Markov, was but the motor of the scenes, driving Lenski to his death and Tatiana to her unenviable bourgeois fate (surely soon to join Desperate Housewives). Onegin was little more than a symptom of Russian social malaise, who had finally just a glimpse of an overpowering primal emotion before he too was crushed by the dullness of bourgeois life. Not that we cared as Tchaikowsky had given him little to sing.

Tatiana’s letter scene resonated with very real adolescent energy bouncing between obsession and determination, splendidly realized by Ukrainian soprano Olga Mykytenko to brilliant musical detail from Mo. Petrenko’s pit. Gremin’s ball was a brisk Polonaise made leaden by the blank stares of its dancers through Peter Stein’s fourth wall. Tatiana, now the Prince’s wife, had become matronly, her youthful dreams lost to the weight of social responsibility. She wreaked her revenge with little regret. The curtain fell as the tall, handsome, dull, vocally lackluster Prince Gremin, Russian bass Michail Schelomianski, towered over Onegin, mocking his futile gesture.

If Eugene Onegin is the thirty-nine year old Tchaikowsky at his most inspired, Mazeppa found the forty-four year old composer frustrated by a problematic libretto of his own making. Peter Stein took it all at face value, knowing that epic is episodic and that Puskin’s epic had been left in the dust anyway, so he did his best. This 2006 production then traveled to the Edinburgh Festival where only the most prestigious production are hosted.

Mazeppa is the Ukrainian general who betrayed Peter the Great, but it didn’t matter because the Russians whipped the Swedes at the battle of Poltava, so Mazeppa, a Swedish ally, lost his gamble to liberate the Ukraine from Russian rule. Tchaikowsky took care of all this in a symphonic interlude, and Peter Stein dismissed it by projecting a huge battle painting (with a heavy gold frame) in commemoration of this momentous bit of history.

Tchaikowsky’s muse was a hopeless one, here the eighteen year-old daughter of a rich Ukrainian is smitten by an older man, General Mazeppa, who unlike the much younger Onegin, requites her love, smitten himself. The rich Ukrainian and his wife are most unhappy to lose their beautiful daughter to this treacherous old man.

There were some great scenes (May 13). The rich Ukrainian had a pow wow with his friends where they decided to take a gamble — if they betrayed Mazeppa’s intentions to Peter, maybe Peter would dispose of Mazeppa, thereby liberating his daughter. Her childhood lover, Andrei, is the ardent messenger of this intelligence to Peter (Russian tenor Misha Didyk is always ardent to the hilt). The mother, seated among the women, was artfully picked out by beautiful light to deliver her plea (though the mother, Russian mezzo Marianna Tarasova, soon lost her voice so she did not present herself at the curtain calls).

Vintage Peter Stein (after Onegin and Pique Dame we are now experts) was the confrontation between the daughter Maria, beautifully sung by Russian soprano Olga Guryakova (who moved her large voice quite effectively in pianissimo singing) and Mazeppa, sung by Siberian baritone Nikolai Putilin, physically a cross between Robert E. Lee and Napoleon. This balcony scene had no movement, save small motions of hands in the tense distances between its protagonists, with eloquent and elegant music soaring from Mo. Petrenko’s pit.

Well, Mazeppa arrested the rich Ukrainian and the messenger (we assumed) and then had no choice but to behead them, but not before the disheveled prisoners sang a prayer. For some reason this scene evoked a chorus of boos from the audience. As it turned out it was not the messenger (Misha Didyk) who was beheaded though in the distressed costume it could have been, but a minor character (Iskra) sung by Edgaras Montvidas, resurrected the very next night as our superb Lenski (only of course to die again).

Death scenes must always be snowy in Russia. Maria’s childhood lover, Andrei (the ardent Mr. Didyk) confused us (we thought he was dead) by appearing on a snowy hillside where Mazeppa soon passed fleeing Poltava (the real Poltava battle was fought in scorching heat). Mazeppa thwarts Andrei’s pathetic attempt at revenge, and Andrei dies in the now mad Maria’s arms though she has not the foggiest idea who he is. Likewise Lenski — once shot dead he very dramatically and very slowly slid down a very steep snow covered slope, and Liza in Pique Dame threw herself into the Neva with snow flying everywhere, though it took awhile.

The big scene was the lament of Kotchoubei (the rich Ukrainian) tortured in his prison cell. Sung by Ukrainian bass Anatoli Kotscherga (the only surviving member of the original cast) in a stage frame greatly contracted into a narrow vertical slit — a brilliant scenic resolution. Mr. Kotchoubei is basically a character singer whose huge, bear-like physical presence and inelegant vocal delivery evoke a comic presence. This casting will have been Peter Stein’s, and perhaps it was Mr. Stein’s way of calling attention to the theatrical precariousness of Mazeppa. Mr. Stein can be very subtle, so just maybe.

Or maybe it was too much Tchaikowsky in one sitting, or too much Peter Stein. Finally it was all wonderful, especially the high level, dedicated singing actors, the vision and technique of a master director, and above all else, a dynamite conductor.

For Peter Stein’s Pique Dame, please see my review of a performance in 2008, now archived on my website www.CapSurOpera.com.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/tchaikovsky.gif image_description=Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky

product=yes producttitle=Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin; Mazeppa; Pique Dame productby=Eugene Onegin — Onegin: Alexy Markov; Tatiana: Olga Mykytenko; Lenski: Edgaras Montvidas; Olga: Elena Maximova; Prince Gremin: Michail Schelomianski; Larina Marianna: Tarasova; Filipievna: Margarita Nekrasova; Mr. Triquet: Jeff Martin; Zaretski: Alexey Tikhormirov; A captain: Paolo Stupenengo; A peasant: Fabrice Constans. Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Mise en scène: Peter Stein. Scenery: Ferdinand Wögerbauer. Costumes: Anna Maria Neinreich. Lights: Duane Schuler. Choreography: Lynne Hockney.

Mazeppa — Mazeppa: Nikolaï Putilin; Kotchoubeï: Anatoli Kotscherga; Liioubov: Marianna Tarasova; Maria: Olga Guryakova; Andreï: Misha Didyk; Orlik: Alexy Tikhomirov; Iskra: Edgaras Montvidas; A Drunk Cosaque: Jeff Martin. Chorus and Orchestra Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Mise en scène: Peter Stein. Scenery: Ferdinand Wögerbauer. Costumes: Anna Maria Heinreidch. Lighting: Duane Schuler.

Pique Dame — Hermann: Misha Didyk; Tomski: Nikolai Putilin; Eletski: Alexey Markov; Tchekalinsky: Jeff Martin; Sourine: Alexey Tikhomirov; La Comtesse: Marianna Tarasova; Lisa: Olga Guryakova; Pauline: Elena Maximova; Governess: Margarita Nekrasova; Tchaplitsky: Didier Roussel; Naroumov: Paolo Stupenengo; Master of Ceremonies Brian Bruce; Macha: Lou. Orchestra, Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Mise en scène: Peter Stein. Scenery: Ferdinand Wögerbauer. Costumes: Anna Maria Heinreich. Lumières: Duane Schuler. Choreography: Michael Ihnow.

Posted by michael_m at 10:27 AM

Tosca, ENO

Actually, that isn’t strictly true. The first time I came across Tosca was five years earlier, in my early teens and long before I became really interested in opera, when I was nonetheless gripped by the live international TV broadcast from the authentic locations in Rome. That film’s star, Catherine Malfitano, moved into opera direction herself six years ago, and it is she who has been charged with ENO’s latest new staging.

The result is a competent, dramatically coherent and (how often these days can one say this about a recent ENO staging of a repertoire standard?) eminently revivable production. Above all, it stands out for the believability of the characters — I can’t remember ever having seen such a natural, genuine and un-stagey Act 1 love scene between Tosca and Cavaradossi, nor a Scarpia who so successfully avoided villainous caricature.

The Act 1 set design gives a modern twist on a naturalistic setting, with a slightly abstract, pixellated version of what is very definitely a depiction of the actual interior of Sant’Andrea della Valle, particularly during the Te Deum when a shift in the lighting results in the basilica’s characteristic shafts of pale yellow light beaming down from the high windows. This coup-de-theatre by lighting designer David Martin Jacques is one of many touches throughout the opera which keep the production feeling true to its location, another being the decision to leave both the Act 2 Cantata and the Shepherd Boy’s solo in the original Italian.

The Act 2 staging is entirely straightforward, until the last few seconds where a projection of an expanse of infinite star-filled space appears on the back wall, a symbol of the simultaneous liberty and wilderness into which Tosca moves following Scarpia’s murder. After that, Act 3 has a more abstract feel, retaining the star-studded backdrop from the end of Act 2, with a striking curved set which looked somewhat as though a ‘realistic’ recreation of the uppermost reaches of the Castel Sant-Angelo had been tipped backwards through ninety degrees. This for me was the one jarring note, principally because of the considerable resultant visual resemblance to Act 2 of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Tristan und Isolde for Glyndebourne — I couldn’t help feeling that I was watching the wrong opera, and that the music and visuals didn’t match. I half-expected Tosca to make her final exit in the manner of Isolde in that production, drifting off into space.

The title role was taken by the South African soprano Amanda Echalaz. Although a substantial instrument — which I have previously showcased to thrilling effect elsewhere, including in this very role with Opera Holland Park — it rarely manages to dominate volume-wise above heavy Puccini orchestration in a house the size of the Coliseum. Nonetheless it is a beautifully-coloured, smooth and classy, and she brings the character to vivacious and passionate life.

Her Cavaradossi was Julian Gavin — a phrase which gives me a certain sense of deja vu, as I have now heard him in three different ENO productions of the same opera. It is to his great credit that almost fourteen years after the first time, he retains the vocal intensity and physical vigour of youth, but now brings added value to the role with the more baritonal colours of his increased vocal maturity. The spinto character of his upper voice made the big moments thrilling, particularly ‘Vittoria!’, Cavaradossi’s political ardour winning over his romantic ardour.

Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Scarpia was a good vocal match for Echalaz, perhaps not quite as firmly in his element as in his recent memorable Rigoletto here but a dangerous, vocally alluring snake in the grass. I suspect that like his tenor colleague, Mr Michaels-Moore has sung multiple English versions of this opera — one of the disadvantages of ENO’s use of surtitles is that it highlights when the words sung do not match those which were supposed to be sung, and there were a couple of such glitches.

The smaller roles were strongly assumed — Pauls Putninš was a dramatically-compelling Angelotti despite a shortage of a vocal ‘edge’ to lend urgency to his delivery, while ENO Young Singers Christopher Turner (Spoletta) and James Gower (Sciarrone) were both eloquent and incisive.

On behalf of all singers-in-English, I grieve for ENO’s obsession with using a different translation for every new staging. That sort of thing is inclined to mess with singers’ minds. Considering that Puccini doesn’t tend to translate well into English, the Amanda Holden translation used in David McVicar’s 2002 production was really quite respectable, bringing a natural rhythm to the text within the tight constraints of the musical line. So why now revert to an ancient and rather ungainly translation by the late Edmund Tracey? I hope other English-language companies pick up on Holden’s translation so it doesn’t now disappear forever.

Under Ed Gardner, the orchestral sound was full of life and colour, with special mention due to the vicious snarls of the trumpet in the torture scene. The cello quartet just before ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was beautifully played — when I saw the last production I vividly remember the passage being a disaster, and it sounded so utterly different this time round that I had to compare the orchestra lists in the two programmes. It would appear to have been exactly the same cellists now as then, which underlines yet again the extent of the good that Gardner’s directorship has done this band. Musically, this performance is a triumph.

Ruth Elleson, May 2010

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Tosca_Amanda_Echalaz_Credit.gif image_description=Amanda Echalaz as Tosca [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca product_by=Tosca: Amanda Echalaz; Cavaradossi: Julian Gavin; Scarpia: Anthony Michaels-Moore; Angelotti: Pauls Putninš; Sacristan: Jonathan Veira; Spoletta: Christopher Turner; Sciarrone: James Gower. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Catherine Malfitano; Set Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann; Costume Designer: Gideon Davey; Lighting Designer David Martin Jacques product_id=Above: Amanda Echalaz as Tosca [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera]
Posted by Gary at 7:00 AM

June 6, 2010

Capriccio/Tosca, Grange Park, Hampshire; Armida, Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 6 June 2010]

Opera, says the Count in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, “is an absurd thing”. Orders are sung. Politics are discussed in duets. Graves are danced on and stabs are delivered melodically. The Count has a point: it is absurd. What this imaginary 18th-century figure could not have known is that 21st-century English country house opera seems even more absurd than the old aristocratic version. Black tie is worn. Picnics are consumed. Country air is filled with the music of champagne corks.

Posted by Gary at 12:07 PM

Bostridge and Pappano at Wigmore Hall

Serious, earnest, meticulous, intense … such qualities we have come to expect of any Bostridge performance. Some may find his cool, even severe, stage presence and arch gestures, occasionally distracting or overly mannered; but there is no doubting his commitment to the music and, equally, to the emotional drama of the texts. As ever, his diction was crisp and clear; the desire to convey every nuance of the poetry at times took precedence over pure vocal beauty or melodic lyricism, but was evidence of absolute dramatic integrity.

Although there was no continuous ‘narrative’ running through this recital, which was performed without an interval, two archetypal Romantic themes to which the texts repeatedly returned provided unity — unattainable love and alienation. The opening song, ‘Widerschein’ (‘Reflection’), established a subdued mood. Coloured by the lower registers of piano and voice, a halting, melodic line tells of the fisherman who waits ‘sullenly’ on the bridge for his absent love; as he dreams, a radiant vision is reflected in the water — a fitting metaphor for the unfulfilled yearning revealed in so many of the songs that followed. Here, Bostridge’s placement of the faltering vocal line was precise and controlled, but in ‘Der Winterabend’ (‘The winter evening’), his tone was more melancholic above restless semi-quavers in the right hand of the accompaniment. The melismatic close, ‘Seufze still, und sinne und sinne’ (‘Sign in silence, and muse and muse’), plaintively conveyed the old man’s ceaseless meditations as he awaits the coming of night and death. It is such attention to textual and musical detail that reveals Bostridge’s immersion and genuine involvement in the world of each song.

‘Die Sterne’ (‘The stars’) was more assertive, driven by the piano’s dactylic rhythm which mimics the stars’ heavenly shining. At times, however, Pappano’s boisterous accompaniment overwhelmed the voice; indeed, throughout the recital his playing, while undoubtedly committed, often lacked discretion and restraint, and was marked by over-use of the sustaining pedal and some cloudiness of texture.

‘Schwanengesang’ (‘Swan Song’), gathered into a collection — and shrewdly titled — by the Viennese publisher, Tobias Haslinger, comprises seven settings of Rellstab and six of Heine. This was an anguished account: not a ‘story’, rather variations on the theme of emotional vulnerability. Extreme contrasts characterise the Rellstab songs. The subtly shifting modulations of ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (‘Love’s message’), matched by a perfectly understated dialogue between the voice and the inner lines of the accompaniment, were followed by Pappano’s turbulent drum rhythms at the opening and close of ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (‘Warrior’s foreboding’), where dreams of his beloved disturb the soldier’s intimations of imminent death. Bostridge and Pappano highlighted the inner contrasts too, underlining affective harmonic movements, drawing out the lyricism of the soldier’s bitter-sweet recollections, “How often have I dreamt sweet dreams/ resting on her warm breast!” Such melancholy brooding was deftly swept away by the feverish questioning of ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’ (‘Spring longing’); Pappano’s tremulous triplets precipitated a frenetic rush to the poet’s last passionate plea, “Who shall finally quell my longing?” The answer, “Nur Du!”, (“only you!”) was an exhausted cry of despair.

‘Ständchen’ (‘Serenade’) was fittingly more restrained; and here Pappano did sustain a deft staccato throughout, underpinning the gentle nocturnal imploring of the poet’s song, which rise to a suggestive final call, “Komm, beglücke mich!” (“Come — make me happy!”). ‘In der Ferne’ (‘Far away’) was a sombre rendition of the Romantic wanderer’s alienation: the voice sank to its lowest registers, a desolate pianissimo revealing that “alas, no blessing follows him/ on his way!” Bostridge balanced detailed attention to individual words — “Nirgend verweilender” (“you who never linger”) — with carefully shaped melodic arches, bringing a fleeting warmth to the protagonist’s memories of whispering breezes and sunbeams. ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’) was a jauntily ironic conclusion, with its tripping accompaniment rhythms and deceptively nonchalant “Farewells!”

The Heine songs are more concentrated in their intensity, and as the performers moved swiftly from one song to the next, there was a disturbing accumulation of dramatic tension. The misery and self-pity of ‘Der Atlas’ (‘Atlas’) was shocking in its honesty; the oppressiveness of ‘Die Stadt’ (‘’The town’) — with its diminished harmonies and bare, profound close — overwhelming. Bostridge brought a gentle tenderness to the major-key second verse of ‘Ihr Bild’ (“Her likeness”), striking after the cold unisons of the opening, and dashed away by the forceful admission in the last line, “I have lost you!” The stillness at the opening of ‘Am Meer’ (“By the sea”) seemed to offer the hint of some repose and consolation, but rapidly declined into a pained and angry revelation of a woman’s betrayal. But it was the closing song, ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (‘The wraith’), that brought forth the most remarkable display of emotional catharsis, building from veiled beginnings to tormented self-castigations. With astonishing courage, Bostridge relished the free declamations, interpreting every detail, fully becoming the man “wracked with pain” in both voice and body.

Seidl's 'Die Taubenpost' was performed as a brief encore, momentarily alleviating the anguish but not fully dispelling the darkness as we exited the Hall, into the fading evening light.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Ian Bostridge

product_title=Bostridge and Pappano at Wigmore Hall
product_by=Ian Bostridge, tenor; Antonio Pappano piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Monday 31st May, 2010.

Posted by Gary at 9:29 AM

June 5, 2010

Lulu, New York

This came home painfully five minutes before the performance ended, at the tense moment when the humiliated Lulu entreats her latest client, a black-bag-toting Englishman named Jack, into her bedroom. Somebody’s watch began to beep and kept on beeping. Happily, the music at this point is pretty loud, depicting what Jack is doing to Lulu just off stage, and Fabio Luisi let it out and drowned the beeping.

Nothing given at the Met this not-very-triumphant year (with the possible exceptions of The Nose, From the House of the Dead and Ariadne auf Naxos) has been of the across-the-board excellence, brilliantly sung, flawlessly acted, sublimely played, appropriately staged, of this Lulu. This fact brings to mind questions: Why does Lulu – seldom a crowd-pleaser (though the house was packed for the performance I attended, all enthusiastic) – merit this level of care from the Met while such more traditional fare as Aida or Turandot or Der Fliegende Holländer or Tosca are allowed to sink or swim, survive on lingering reputation, the staging haphazard, the singing mediocre? Is it because Lulu, being notoriously difficult, gets extra attention? Is it because the Met cannot find anyone capable of singing Aida or Radames or Turandot, but can easily come up with Lulu and Dr. Schön? It’s difficult to believe a Lulu of the caliber of Marlis Petersen is to be found on every street corner of the opera world, and if she has been located and lured to the Met, why has there been hardly a decent Aida in decades? The production is there, and Great Isis knows the audience is there, eager to hear it.

Otter_Lulu.gifAnne Sofie von Otter as Countess Geschwitz

Well, enough about Aida: this was a Lulu to remember. John Dexter’s handsome thirty-year-old Jugendstil production, with its Austro-Hungarian curlicues, its air of Klimt-Schiele decadence, is still handsome enough to satisfy. The direction was largely appropriate, though characters occasionally sing of going out of doors when in fact they are climbing the staircase to an upper floor. Lulu behaved as if on a different wavelength from that of the men – and women – obsessed with her, and that is as it should be: she is their idol, their destroyer, their plaything, their posession. No one ever sees her as human, including Lulu herself, and when she does show signs of humanity, it’s far too late.

In a cast giving exceptional performances across the board, even in such minuscule roles as the pimp who tries to blackmail Lulu into entering a brothel in Cairo in Act III – Graham Clark, sinister and funny, as he was also as Lulu’s butler in Act II – and the pageboy who obligingly changes clothes with Lulu, allowing her to escape the pimp – Ginger Costa-Jackson, who manages the trick of looking and moving like a boy uncomfortably in drag – the star of the evening, besides Marlis Petersen’s Lulu, was Fabio Luisi, recently announced as the Met’s visiting music director, who once again demonstrated that his control, his musicianship, his dramatic flair rank every him every way as worthy as James Levine. This was a taut, elegant, alive performance. There was time to notice such witty details as the concertato in the final scene of Act I – when the various men in Lulu’s life savage each other vocally in an atonal parody of a bel canto sextet, while Lulu, the only treble voice on stage, seems to pay no attention to them.

Petersen, the vocal star of the Met’s Hamlet this spring, wherein she sang the most old-fashioned of suicidal mad scenes in a luscious, gratifying manner, might almost be another singer when she sings Lulu. Mind you, the part could hardly be farther from bel canto Ophélie – it is all Sprechstimme, high-flying taunting, snarling, giggling, dreaming phrases pointed here and there on the scale, all of them produced with dramatic intent. Lulu, the child of nature, is no sensualist like Carmen or Musetta: she likes the physicality of sex. She does not develop a soul, a self, until she becomes desperate in Act III, having lost her money, her husbands, her position, almost her freedom. The transformation in Peteren’s vocal delivery in this act was matched by her movements; her entire figure seemed that of another woman, yearning no longer for sex but for death – the equal and opposite urge, as Freud might have suggested to Berg, his contemporary.

LULU_Act_I_0654.gifA scene from Act I with James Courtney as the Theater Manager, James Morris as Dr. Schön, Marlis Petersen in the title role, Gary Lehman as Alwa, Graham Clark as the Prince, and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Wardrobe Mistress

James Morris seemed on the ropes when he sang Claudius in Hamlet, his voice dry and tending towards wobble. As Dr. Schön, Lulu’s most possessive possessor, he sang with authority and irony. Each syllable was acted, and each sung note had a degree of menace and self-loathing. A very classy act. Anne-Sofie von Otter, whom I have found dull in more conventional parts, sang a most affecting Countess Geschwitz. Gary Lehman was stocky but sympathetic as Alwa Schön. Bradley Garvin brought particular menace not only to his movements but to each phrase of his vigorous baritone as the Acrobat. It was a cast without a flaw, a Lulu to remember forever, the new standard.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Petersen_Lulu.gif image_description=Marlis Petersen as Lulu [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Alban Berg: Lulu product_by=Lulu: Marlis Petersen; Countess Geschwitz: Anne Sofie von Otter; Alwa: Gary Lehman; Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper: James Morris; The Painter: Michael Schade; The Acrobat: Bradley Garvin; Schigolch: Gwynne Howell; Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy/Page: Ginger Costa-Jackson; The Prince/The Manservant/The Marquis: Graham Clark. Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Fabio Luisi. Performance of May 12. product_id=Above: Marlis Petersen as Lulu

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 8:20 PM

Renée Fleming -- opera, pop and snobbery (and music samples)

By Kevin Berger [LA Times, 5 June 2010]

By no means do I mean to sound self-centered, but when I interviewed Renée Fleming to detail the making of her first rock album, "Dark Hope" -- you can read the article here -- she said she was going to start consulting me about music. I was, she said, the rare person "tuned in to something I've been thinking a lot about lately -- the bridge between classical and contemporary music, and where one leads to another."

Posted by Gary at 4:43 PM

June 4, 2010

Aris Argiris debuts as Escamillo in the Royal Opera House's Carmen

The Royal Opera House is having this Carmen filmed in 3D digital technology, pioneered by RealD who were behind James Cameron‘s hit Avatar. 3D is higher grade than the current 2D High Definition, so it should make the experience even more dynamic.

Such a debut would put pressure on any young singer, but Aris Argiris, the 35 year old baritone, is resilient. In 1999, he won the Maria Callas Scholarship in Athens and in 2002 won the Kammeroper Schloss Reinsberg prize. He’s steadily building a solid career, singing in Berlin, Leipzig, Dortmund, Bonn, Brussels, Tokyo and Ghent. Currently, he’s based in Frankfurt.

“Escamillo is a Toreador, he’s not afraid”, says Argiris. “He gets charged by bulls all the time, so he stays calm, even when José pulls a knife on him. His job is to fight bulls, not to kill men. It’s not worth his time. He thanks Carmen for saving him, but actually he’s already getting up. Next minute, he forgets about the duel, and thinks ahead, inviting everyone to the next bullfight.”

“Escamillo is a big star, all around him people are singing “Vivat! vivat!”, so he has to give them the kind of show they want. Why do people like watching blood, danger death? I don’t know. But Escamillo gives them a thrill. Both he and Carmen are the centre of attention, they have to give their public a dramatic image, so they both have these wonderful arias. So Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre is Escamillo’s Habanera”.

“But Escamillo knows that in the bullring, he is alone with the bull. Real Toreadors are very young”, adds Argiris, “Seventeen, maybe 21, but they have to be young, like footballers, because they have to move fast. They can’t grow old or the bull kills them”. The aria is full of thrills, but also “un œil noir”. Someone, something is watching the Toreador. Is his fate love ? As Carmen sings, love is a wild bird that cannot be trapped. And bulls have dark eyes too.

“Escamillo acts like he doesn’t care, but he is a deep person. Carmen too, acts like a devil, but there is something more in her. She is a bit like Don Giovanni, everyone wants to be with her, but everyone gets hurt. So she’s a challenge to someone like Escamillo who shows no fear. The moment they see each other, the whole atmosphere changes, even though she pretends to be haughty. The meeting is fatal, because it’s the beginning of the end for Carmen”.

“What they feel is ursprunglich, it comes from deepest parts of the soul. At this moment, nothing else matters, they can’t think rationally or about consequences, it’s pure instinct”.

“Their love duet must be the shortest love duet in the whole repertoire, only a page and a half. They sing in unison, but it only lasts a moment, like their love, which will end too soon. There’s nothing like it between Carmen and José”. In the middle of the interview, Argiris bursts into song, he’s so moved. “Listen how it ends with a modulation. It cannot go forward because their love will not go forward. It’s amazing how Bizet writes it, it’s deliberate. He’s telling us that this love cannot be fulfilled. The moment is short, but it’s so important, and it’s cut with strange harmonies from the orchestra”.

“And look”, Argiris adds, “how Escamillo shows his love for Carmen to the whole world, without fear. She was a gypsy and was a smuggler, but now she is the Toreador’s Lady, and she has the best seat on the horse. She is someone important. Yet at that moment of triumph, she is killed. So it’s not an accident that, when Carmen dies, the Toreador melody is heard again. In the distance Escamillo has killed another bull. The crowd cheer, but he has lost, because he has lost Carmen”.

Argiris is so engaged with the part that I ask him how he prepares. “I had golden advice”, he says, “from older singers. Do your homework, they said, learn everything you possibly can about the role, the opera, the composer, the music, the time the composer lived in, and so on. And when you have absorbed all that, trust the music, follow it, let it become part of your nature”.

Argiris listens extensively to the great voices of the past and present. He used to play an instrument before he started singing, which makes him sensitive to the orchestra. He reads, too. Since Escamillo doesn’t appear in Prosper Mérimée’s novel, that indicates something about Bizet’s perspective on the role. “But you’re only human, you can’t know everything”, he adds. “You go into an rehearsal with an open mind. That’s why I love the give and take that goes into a production, The director, the singers, the Maestro, everyone is involved”.

Understanding the background also made him realize why the opera was badly received at its premiere. “There is something revolutionary about it”, he says, “ahead of the fashion of the time”. Now, of course, it’s probably the most popular opera of all, and permeates into popular culture all over the world.

Perhaps The Royal Opera House has chosen this production of Carmen by Francesca Zambello for filming in 3D because it’s visually spectacular. “It’s so beautiful”, says Argiris, “Zambello understands that people want to see an opera as well as hear it, because it’s music theatre. It’s exciting because it’s larger than life”.

“It’s wonderful working with this production, everyone is helping each other, everyone is contributing to making the performance work. His enthusiasm is heartfelt. “I’m so honoured to be a part of this”, he says.I know he isn’t just saying that as routine. He means it sincerely. Aris Argiris is still very young to be facing such a debut. But like Escamillo, he has courage and spirit. It’s important to support and encourage young singers because they are the future. If they’re nurtured well, they develop, and everyone benefits in the long run.

Anne Ozorio

This Royal Opera House Carmen starts on 5th June and runs for six performances to 26th June 2010. For more details see www.roh.org.uk. The performance on 8th June will be broadcast live on Big Screens all over the UK. There will also be a Sing Along event connected to this screening. Please see the Royal Opera House site for more information. The 3D film will be shown from Autumn 2010.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CARMEN-99480976-RICE-ASCAR.gif imagedescription=Christine Rice as Carmen and Aris Argiris as Escamillo [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera]

product=yes producttitle=An Interview with Aris Argiris productby=Above: Christine Rice as Carmen and Aris Argiris as Escamillo [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera]

Posted by anne_o at 1:27 PM

June 3, 2010

Olja Jelaska: An Interview by Tom Moore

A disc devoted to her work was issued in the series devoted contemporary Croatian composers on the Cantus label (available for order from www.cantus.hr).

The interview was done via e-mail.

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

OJ: In my family there are no professional musicians — I’m the first one. My father wanted to study music, but instead he completed his studies in electrical engineering. He was the head of the main post-office in Split. My mother taught the arts in primary school. They are both passionately fond of arts generally. In my childhood, they used to take me to theatre and exhibition but very often I was bored because I couldn’t understand what was going on. They have many books on the arts — monographs on great painters, biographies of some artists, books on specific periods in the history of the arts. My father has a collection of CDs, almost all classical music. Throughout my life I have felt their deep love for the arts.

When I was between eight and fifteen years old , my mother used to organize exhibitions of pictures by children, and she always took me with her — from organizing the exhibition to the final opening. Today, I think that it influenced my abstract creation.

My grandmother on my father’s side was someone who was self-taught in music. My father told me that she had a pianoforte in her flat, and frequently she would play some easier pieces for piano. She knew all the most familiar melodies from operas by Verdi, Puccini and other Italian opera composers. She died when I was seven.

My mother comes from Slovenia. Her parents had lived in the countryside, and every evening they used to sing Slovenian folksongs. My mother said that they sang them by heart. My grandfather died before I was born, but I often heard my grandmother sing. Her father ( my great-grandfather) was a maker of simple-style accordions. My paternal uncle was a stage director in the theatre in Belgrade.

TM: Where did you live in Croatia? Was it a small town, medium-size, large?

OJ: I was born in Split. My hometown is situated on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. It’s a beautiful small town (about 300,000 inhabitants) with many historical monuments: there is the Palace of Diocletian which was built by the Roman emperor at the turn of the fourth century AD. Diocletian built the massive palace in preparation for his retirement on May 1, 305. It lies in a bay on the south side of a short peninsula running out from the Dalmatian coast, four miles from Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. The Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the most important sights in Croatia.

Split is a typical Mediterranean town. There is the Croatian National Theatre in Split with drama, opera and ballet, but unfortunately there is no concert hall. For this reason we have no large orchestra nor an administration to organize musical events.

TM: Did Split also have active folk musicians?

OJ: Yes. Traditional Dalmatian songs are very popular nowadays in Split. There are many groups of singers who sing authentic folksongs. During the summer there are folk music festivals. People here like this music very much. Among the most important perfomances are those at the Festival of Dalmatian Klapas in Omiš, the Evenings of Dalmatian Songs in Kaštel and the Festival of Dalmatian Chansons in Šibenik. Omiš, Kaštela and Šibenik are small towns near Split. There are also many pop singers , and this is a kind of music coloured with Mediterranean melodies. There are important differences between the South and the North. Differences in the way people look at the world, and music reflects thos differences.

TM. How long had your family been there?

OJ: My father’s family has been living in Split for a long, long time. My mother was born in Slovenia, which was another republic in the former state of Yugoslavia. My father studied in Slovenia, and they met in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. They came to Split together 45 years ago.

TM: What was it that prompted you to start playing? What was your first instrument?

OJ: When I was seven my parents bought me a piano. They sent me to music school but it was really bad at the beginning, because I was a very introverted child, and my piano teacher had problems making a connection with me. I hated going to music school — it was a terrible period for me. It didn’t take long before I told my parents that I wouldn’t go there any more. But I wanted to take a private lessons with a teacher who was retired. She was very nice to me, and every time I went she would give me some sweets — that was the reason why I started to practise piano. After elementary school I decided to continue in a secondary school for the arts (music department). I composed my first piece in secondary school. It was a simple short piece for piano. Deeply inside I felt that I would be an artist, but still I didn’t know in which of the arts. I drew very well, and I liked painting as much as I did music, so I had to make a decision. And I did.

TM: What was the path you took classical composition? Where did you study ? Who did you study with? Were the models which you wanted to emulate in terms of composition?

OJ: I received my primary and secondary education in Split before leaving for Zagreb. I graduated from the Zagreb Academy of Music at the Department for Music theory in 1992. Throughout this entire I had the sense that I might do something else. My professor Stanko Horvat taught me the basics of composition.. I liked this subject very much, and after the third year he advised me to start the study of composition. I said : why not? I completed my studies in the class of Marko Ruždjak in 1994, graduating with a chamber mini-opera entitled Chamber Trio. This work was first performed in 1997 at the Croatian National Theatre in Split, preceding the performance at the Music Biennale Zagreb in the same year. It was a great experience for me. The invitation to perform my mini-opera at the Music Biennale came from the present president of Croatia, Mr. Ivo Josipović, who is also a composer. I had great professors. I must say that I was really lucky because I got on very well with them, and I learned a great deal.

TM: Who was your professor? What was his pedagogical approach to composition and music history?

OJ: My professor was Marko Ruždjak. He graduated from the Zagreb Academy of Music in clarinet and composition. He continued his studies in Paris, with Ivo Malec and Pierre Schaeffer, and Cologne, with Milko Kelemen. He has received many awards for his compositions. To explain his approach to music, I’ll quote him: “Some people see in the development of music and of themselves an organic growth, such as that of a tree, and they consider themselves to be a branch of such a tree, carrying on the growth of the roots and trank. To me, music is rather like grass, renewing itself every year, sprouting from old seeds yet completely new.” He liked to paraphase Borges, who compared writing with a dim view of an island emerging afterwards out of some archipelago. At first you notice one of the tops (which is in fact an island), then you try to connect it to the other tops, and that is how an nonregular process is created, because some islands slowly sink to the bottom, and you never know what will appear in the next moment. At the same time it is sometimes possible to start from the end or from the middle.

During my study I had a course on classical instrumentation. We dealt with string instruments (in the second year), woodwind instruments (in the third year), and brass, and during the last year I was writing the mini-opera for soprano, mezzosoprano, tenor and chamber orchestra. At the same time, I did many exercises in modern techniques of composition. During that period I wrote one wood-wind quintet, a piece for chamber trio (oboe, clarinet,and bassoon) and mezzo-soprano, one brass quintet, three songs for mezzosoprano and strings, and finally, the mini-opera.

It’s difficult for me to explain our pedagogy, but it was something verging on the abstract — working with certain ideas. My professor had a particular accent on rhythm. It was very good for me because I had to break old rhythmic habits.

TM: What was the musical scene in Zagreb? In the city generally?

OJ: Zagreb is the capital, much bigger city then Split, and the life there is much different also. There is the Croatian National Theatre but there are also some other theaters as well. There is the Vatroslav Lisinski concert hall, named for the Croatian composer who wrote the first Croatian opera. There are also some smaller halls which are used for concerts. There is the Philharmonic Orchestra, the Croatian Radio Television Symphonic Orchestra and many chamber ensembles specializing in various kinds of music.

For me — coming to Zagreb was something extremely important. Coming from Split, I wasn’t aware how it would change myself, my approach to music, to life generally. I was living in a house for students of music. We lived and studied together — it was a special experience. My father brought me my pianoforte from Split. New friendships, new professors, study at the academy, many new things for me . Every evening after lectures and practising, we went out — usually to a concert, but also to the cinema or the theater. There were many excelent concerts and orchestras... and I really enjoyed it very much. It was really wonderful. I sucked in every impression I saw.

At the academy ,there was a group of professors/composers who lived what they taught. Their compositions were being performed performing, and their teaching didn’t only take place in the classroom but also in the corridors, at concerts, at breaks in lectures. They had a very open approach for us. As composers, they have been very different.

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

OJ: I was studying composition in the early nineties, and I graduated in 1994. In 2007 I produced my first CD with earlier compositions which I had written up until 2002. I could say it was my search for the right colour. I was looking for my own means of expression. All the compositions on the CD belong to the area of chamber music because it has been at the centre of my attention. There are seven pieces which describe that period.

At that time my approach to music was mostly intellectual. In beginning to write a piece I would determine the form of composition generally, and then I started to design many details. I tried to avoid the usual scheme of melodies , forms and rhythm...and the result is my first CD which concludes that period.

The most recent composition on the CD is Kaleidoscope for flute, clarinet, and string quartet with four movements. During the year when I was composing Kaleidoscope something happened to me in my private life that moved me very strongly to make a change. I had to alter many things in my life, and this also led changes in my approach to music. I had to break off composing for two years. I had to take a step back and see what I was going to do next.

There is something very strong in a composer’s subconscious. It is very influential, and the music written by composer is very highly determined by his/her subconscious. It’s avery interesting thing — I believe that every composer is a kind of channel, a connection with the spiritual world . My music is mine, but it comes from an invisible world — music is a very spiritual sphere.

TM: Which early works are still in your catalog? What work would you decribe as your opus one and why?

OJ: I chose for my CD, I could say , the best of my compositions from my first period. I wrote also compositions which I don’t consider very successful, but even those compositions contribute to my development. My relation to my early pieces is like the mother’s relation to her young child. Nowdays , I’m a very different person from the one I was ten or fifteen years ago, and that goes for my music too.

All of my compositions on the CD I could describe as my opus one, because this was my real beginning of learning about instruments, about music, about myself. In that period I wrote several compositions which include flute: DUO for flute, vibraphone and triangle, TAMARISK for flute and string quartet, AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA for flute (alto flute, piccolo) and percussion, KALEIDOSCOPE for flute, clarinet and string quartet and others as well. I also liked clarinet. There are some pieces where I wrote for clarinet and other instruments. Guitar was another instrument which inspired me. I wrote THREE PICTURES for guitar solo, and PINA’s DRESS for guitar trio. Percussion is also very interesting. AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA for flute and percussion ensemble was the piece in which I learned a lot about percussion. MASKS for quartet of saxophones was written in1999. I love the sound of saxophone, its very broad reach of colours and possibilities.

I wrote a piece, SPHINX, in three movements, for the Croatian Army Symphonic Wind Orchestra. This piece was a very hard test for me because it called for a large orchestra of wind instruments, but I conquered it.

I wrote chamber music because the small form allowed me to explore different combination of registers through different instruments. It was very exciting for me. I discovered that I was a colorist, and it did not bother me that this was not something new in music. I was looking for myself through the music.

I liked woodwind instruments very much, because with them I could slowly describe my musical ideas. I could say it’s something near impressionism.

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

OJ: I would say in my first phase I was in the first group. KALEIDOSCOPE was the last piece in that period.

The next composition which I made, in 2005, was BUTTERFLIES for flute, clarinet,bassoon and string quartet, and it was the beginning of a new phase which is still going on. Now I am trying to have a more, I’d say, natural approach. At the beginning of a new piece I imagine the form generally, but I don’t stick with it inflexibly. If in the process of composition I feel the form should be something else, I will change the plan. Then I start to invent ideas which I could make use of, but I try not to think too much. It’s hard to explain, but now I do not try to control my ideas, but let them go in their own direction. Every composition for me is like a journey. I can’t be certain that everything will go exactly the way that I imagined before. But I’m trying to refine every idea so that it makes a certain sense.

TM: Please talk about your study in Bialystok and Darmstadt. How were these places different from Croatia?

OJ: I continued my studies at seminars in Bialystok (Poland) in 1995 and in Darmstadt (Germany) in 1996. I’m very glad that I went. I wanted to see and listen to music by contemporary composers. In Bialystok and Darmstadt, I was able to meet contemporary European composers, and the music which I heard there I could also hear at the Zagreb Music Biennale every other year. During my study of composition I had learned about many contemporary techniques, so it wasn’t something completely new for me. But I must say that after these seminars I realized that I must turn to myself. I said to myself: my music must come from me.

Our ears were used to thinking that dissonance was consonance, but from time to time I have felt something rebel deeply inside of me. Yes, some influneces are nesessary at a certain point. But the main direction for my music should come from my spiritual field.

Today I think that in a composer’s life the most imporant thing is his/her personality. I have to base my work on my physical body, on my emotions, on my spiritual life, on my intellectual life, my social life, all together. And then music comes very easily without difficulties. The human must be at the center.

The Cantus ensemble, conducted by his conductor and composer Berislav Šipuš, is a group which promotes Croatian music. For about ten years they have been performing Croatian contemporary compositions as well as contemporary music from elsewere in te world, and the music of the twentieth century. Thanks to them many Croatian composers have had the chance to have their music performed. There are also other ensembles such as the Zagreb Quartet, Zagreb Saxophone Quartet, Zagreb Guitar Trio, Music Percussion Ensemble.

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

OJ: Next year I’m going to have a concert devoted to my music in Split as part of the Days of Christian Culture. So I am preparing new pieces. I have been writing some compositions for Trio Solenza from Zagreb. It’s a chamber ensemble with Mario Čopor, piano, Davorka Horvat, soprano, and Bruno Philipp, clarinet. They will perform my compositions which are based on motives from Bible. We are also trying to arrange for collaboration with ensembles from other countries.

I am also writing a new piece for clarinet and strings which will be performed in the autumn this year. I have no plan to explore areas that are new for me, but if an opportunity presents itself, and I think it looks interesting, I will probably try.

I am interested also in collaborating on a project which might include acting, music, and singing based on some interesting spiritual stories. We’ll see what will happen.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Jelaska.gif image_description=Olja Jelaska [Photo by Damil Kalogjera] product=yes product_title=Olja Jelaska: An Interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Olja Jelaska [Photo by Damil Kalogjera]
Posted by Gary at 8:24 AM

June 2, 2010

The Pearl Fishers, Coliseum, London

By Andrew Clements [The Guardian, 2 June 2010]

If it did not include one of the most popular of all operatic lollipops - the tenor-and-baritone duet Au Fond du Temple Saint - surely no one would bother too much with The Pearl Fishers. It would be consigned to semi-obscurity, along with Bizet’s other lesser known stage works such as Ivan IV and La Jolie Fille de Perth (a far more convincing piece dramatically), leaving Carmen the only regular in the repertory.

Posted by Gary at 3:52 PM

June 1, 2010

Juan Trigos: An Interview by Tom Moore

Trigos the younger studied music in Mexico and Italy, where his professors included Castiglioni and Donatoni. As of this writing a CD on which he directs music by his compatriot Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon is about to be released by Bridge Records. We spoke by phone on January 18, 2010.

TM: You were born in Mexico City. What was the musical environment like in your family?

JT: I was born in Mexico City, but my father’s family, most of them, comes from Veracruz, where the music is very characteristic, very rhythmic, a strange mixture between Spanish, Indian and black music. Perhaps the most important thing is that my father is a writer. My interest in music and art in general comes from him, especially in my childhood years, when I used to listen to music with him and with his friends, and to go to plays at the theater. He is still writing plays, which we will talk about later. My brother Luciano is a painter, so the family is involved in the arts — my father is a writer, my brother a painter, and myself a musician.

I started school in Mexico City, and went to the Conservatory there. After that I studied at the Instituto de Liturgia Música y Arte “Cardenal Miranda” for Sacred Music. Then I moved to Europe.

TM: Could you say a little more about the music of Veracruz? Music from Veracruz from the 1940s is featured in a Disney film, Tres Caballeros.

JT: The piece played in that film is a “Son Jarocho or Veracruzano” called “La Bamba” and is one of the most famous.

It’s important in connection to my own music to know that I was in touch with Mexican folk music, and other folk musics as well. The folk music from Mexico City is not mariachi, which comes from Jalisco, but even so it is very well-known and played in Mexico City. Music from Veracruz is traditionally played by a quartet — a small guitar known as requinto, which is the one that plays solos and improvises, the jarana, also known as the guitarra de golpe, or “striking” guitar — the rhythm guitar, which has double courses, the regular “Spanish” guitar, and a very special, colorful harp, the Veracruzana harp, which improvises also. This is the classical quartet, and the players sing at the same time that they play. You can hear the solo, or lead voice, plus three voices in the chorus.

I was very close to that music. I was born and raised with this music, not consciously, but as something you have inside you. At the same time, the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and everyone else — an interesting combination. You couldn’t subtract any of it — it’s all part of my heritage.

TM: Your father, who is also named Juan Trigos — when did he come to Mexico City from Veracruz?

JT: I don’t remember exactly, I think my grandfather and the whole family left Veracruz and moved to live in Mexico City in the late thirties.

TM: Please talk a bit more about the classical music you heard as a child.

JT: At home, my father and my grandfather, who was an opera lover as well, would listen to many kinds of music — all genres — symphonies, concertos, sonatas, etc. And literature was present as well — poetry, novels, plays. Almost every day they would listen to music at home.

TM: Were there opera performances in Mexico City that you attended?

JT: Yes, I attended many opera performances, and many concerts with symphony orchestras, chorus, chamber music, and theater.

TM: What repertoire did they perform at the opera house?

JT: The usual — Puccini, Verdi, Bellini, Bizet, Mozart, etc— very classical. I saw some Wagner — Flying Hollander and Beethoven’s Fidelio. Sometimes they would do modern works. I saw La Güera Rodríguez by Carlos Jimenez Mabarak, when I was fifteen or so. Another Mexican work was La Mulata de Cordoba by Pablo Moncayo. I especially remember Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve as well.

TM: What is there from Mexican theater that had an influence on your own work?

JT: I saw classics with Mexican companies, though not so much. I remember a French company which came when I was about ten, and presented Ubu Roi by Jarry. I remember that one especially, since I was shocked by it, and asked my father if I could see it twice, even though I couldn’t understand the whole thing since it was half in French and half in Spanish. I saw many other things, such as works by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, one of our most important playwrights. Some Carballido. Many things directed by Juan José Gurrola, who died recently. He was a stage director, who played some Jarry as well, Strindberg, things like that. Actually we worked together on two operas: Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Rota’s La Notte di un Nevrastenico, he as a stage director and me as a conductor.

I saw some Mexican classics, like Alarcon, Spanish classics like Calderon de la Barca, some Shakespeare, of course. Albee, Tennessee Williams in Spanish. I especially recall A Streetcar Called Desire. I saw Opereta by Witold Gombrowicz, and that kind of theater, because my father was in the avant-garde. And of course my father’s plays.

TM: This is very interesting, since in the United States we have such a distorted view of Mexico. The list of plays that you have just given is something that you could only see in the United States in New York….

JT: Washington, possibly.

TM: In a world cultural capital….

What was your first musical instrument as a child?

JT: You won’t believe it. I started with the guitar, since my father used to play the guitar. Well, actually, the first instrument was the voice. I would sing all day long. I still love to sing. After that, the guitar. My father taught me a few chords — the rudiments of guitar, nothing very complicated. Then I immediately switched to the piano. The voice is something more inside — not that I want to be a singer, but I like to sing, and always sang in choirs. It’s part of me as well.

TM: How old were you when you started piano?

JT: Ten or eleven — I don’t remember exactly.

TM: What music do you recall from that period?

JT: I remember Bach, of course. I think that the first sonatina that I played was by Pleyel. It wasn’t so bad — I remember it with a certain affection. And the usual stuff — the Mikrokosmos of Bartok, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart…the great masters. This part would be exactly the same in the United States or in Europe.

TM: Was there international pop music that you were listening to as an adolescent?

JT: I had contact with rock through my friends, but I can’t say that I love rock. I don’t hate rock, but it is not my music. I feel closer to folk music. The pop music that I listened to and that I listen to now is salsa and son (all kinds) — closer to folk music. I like jazz and blues, but rock is just something I don’t feel close to. I like international folk music — folk music from India, Arabian music, Japanese music, Chinese music — both classical and folk.

TM: To return to your study, you studied at the Conservatorio Nacional and at the Instituto Cardenal Miranda. Had you been singing in church choirs before you went to study at the latter?

JT: When I was a kid I used to sing at the choir of my elementary school. As a teen I used to sing in choirs in the neighborhood, to earn some extra pesos. I sang at the Conservatorio, because there was a course in the area of chamber music for which you needed to sing in an ensemble. I sang at the Conservatorio, the Instituto Cardenal Miranda, and at the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra of Rome, especially in the areas of polyphony and Gregorian chant.

TM: These days, after Vatican II, there are very few places where you can work on Gregorian chant. This was in the early 1980s?

JT: Yes, in 1982 or 1983, and this was important because I then moved to Europe, and continued to study Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, both conducting and singing, over the course of several years.

TM: It is not so usual these days for a composer to have spent time working on early and sacred music.

JT: I was very attracted to this kind of music — spiritual, and with a very strong basis.

TM: I found a brief interview with you on the internet, where you summarized your music in four words — comedy, drama, lightness, and spirituality, and it sounds like you found all four of those in the sacred music that you were studying.

JT: Exactly. I am very close to sacred music and to folk music because it is attached strongly to the land. It is for these reasons that I called my aesthetic Abstract Folklore.

TM: This makes a great deal of sense — opera is not very far from sacred music.

JT: No, not the kind of opera that I make. I call it Hemofiction Opera, because the text is my father’s and that is the name he gave to his own literature, Hemofiction.

TM: Please talk about your study in Italy. I know that you studied with Donatoni and Castiglioni.

JT: I went first to study in Rome, where I studied chant and polyphony with Domenico Bartolucci, who used to be the choirmaster at the Sistine Chapel, a terrific musician and very well-known in Italy. I studied piano with Enzo Stanzani, organ, and composition too with Padre Giovanni Bucci. After that I moved to Milan, where I studied composition with Nicolò Castiglioni.

It was a shock to move from Rome to Milan, because when you are that age, you are looking for something, and you are not quite sure what you want. Rome is more traditional, and Milan is closer to the big cities of Europe, more open to influences from elsewhere. Particularly at that time the power of the avant-garde in Europe was terrible. Practically everything that you wrote was wrong. If you didn’t write in this kind of style or with that kind of systematic way of thinking… it was wrong. If you put two sounds together it seemed like melody. Wrong! Like Darmstadt in the early years — it was that way in the conservatories, in the academies, in the municipal schools. For the first few years I didn’t understand what was wrong about these things. I came to understand later, after living there.

At the same time I also studied at the Civica Scuola in Milan. I studied conducting with Franco Gallini. I finished studying composition with Castiglioni in ’88 and got the diploma, and continued studying composition in advanced courses with Donatoni at the Civica Scuola di Milano (Contemporary Music Department) and at the Lorenzo Perosi Academy in Biella.

I got my diploma in conducting in ’91 at the Conservatory “G. Verdi of Milan studying with Gianpiero Taverna and came back to Mexico in 1993 to work.

TM: Was it your interest in sacred music that led you to go to Italy, or were there other factors?

JT: There were many factors, but the opportunity came because I was studying at the Instituto Cardenal Miranda and I got a small scholarship to go to Rome to the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra.

TM: Perhaps you could talk about your early compositions — are there pieces from your years in Italy that are still in your catalogue?

JT: I have dropped most, though not all, of my earliest compositions. I don’t believe in progress in music. Some of the early pieces are good, although perhaps not the best that I wrote, but they deserve to stay in the catalogue. There is Sax Sin Aliento (1988), the Quartet for Clarinet, Saxophone, Guitar and Bongó (1989), the trilogy for flute (Tres Danzas Floridas, 1989-1990). Even earlier than that there is the Gloria in Latin, which is very close to tonality, but I think it’s a very nice piece, even though it’s in that style. And I think that’s it.

TM: Please say a little about the quartet, for which there is a performance on Youtube. It’s a very interesting scoring.

JT: That piece was an experiment with regard to various elements. It introduced folk elements for the bongo and the guitar. The writing for the bongo was a mess — I worked for hours in order to be specific about the various attacks and colors for the instrument — whether you use the fingers or the hands, or if you keep the left hand on the drumhead. I rewrote it many times so that the symbols would be exact. I worked on the bongo articulation in combination with the guitar, and after that I put the sax. This was the beginnings of “abstract folklore” — my concept of adapting folk idioms. This piece is probably my first to use these elements. I could call this piece the matrix for “abstract folklore”. The very first version was in ’87, which was never performed, and then it was revised in ’89, and recorded in 1990.

TM: Tell me about your trajectory after returning to Mexico.

JT: When I came back from Italy I went directly to Mexico City and stayed there until 2004. I had a private studio where I taught, and also taught to the Instituto Cardenal Miranda and conducted many seminars around Mexico and the United States, and began to conduct frequently — festivals, orchestras here and there. I became conductor and music director of the National Chamber Orchestra, and conductor of the Camerata de las Americas.

TM: I had the chance to view a video of you conducting Elgar and Sibelius. Elgar in particular seems a world away from Latin America.

JT: It is very serious….but I love that music, especially that symphony [no. 1, op. 55], although nobody wants to play it. I find that symphony interesting in many ways. The music is serious, and at the same time very tender, like Dickens. It has a childlike innocence.

TM: You mentioned that you had been in Canada.

JT: Yes, for almost five years, in Toronto, working free-lance, but in particular because I wanted a spiritual retreat in order to compose my second Hemofiction opera. My first was De Cachetito Raspado (“Cheek to Stubbled Cheek”), and the second is Mis Dos Cabezas Piensan Peor Que Una (“My Two Heads Think Worse Than One”). De Cachetito Raspado has two different versions — a chamber and an orchestral version.

TM: Is there a complete recording available yet?

JT: Not yet. I have an almost complete recording of the orchestral version, which is missing a couple of scenes. The orchestra version is from 2004, and revised in 2009.

TM: The libretto….

JT: is my father’s.

TM: You mentioned that you are planning to live in the USA? Where will you be based?

JT: I am not sure yet — I am a free-lancer with many projects in various places. All of my family now lives in the US — my father, my brother, my sisters. I feel at home in the states. I know a lot of people here, and want to open a new chapter in my life. But I haven’t decided yet where.

TM: I know that you have connections with Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez and Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon. How did you come to meet them?

JT: I met Ricardo at Gaudeamus Music Week in Holland, in 1991, because we were the only two Mexicans at the festival. I heard the very first version of Ricardo’s Flores del Viento, the one with soprano and recorder. I have recorded the one with baritone and flute. We became friends, and kept in touch, and we met again in 1994 when he was teaching in Guanajuato and organized a very nice festival of contemporary music there. I had heard of Carlos, and heard some of his music before we actually met in 1995 or 1996. I had invited him to lecture at a festival that I organized in Mexico City.

Ricardo is very deep in his thinking about music, and Carlos is a very powerful composer, full of ideas, with aggressive gestures and fabulous rhythms. I consider them fine composers and very good friends as well.

They organized the Broadband ensemble, with which we recorded Ricardo’s CD for Bridge records [Cantos, Bridge 9325, released June 2010]. We recorded it last May with Broadband. In 2008 we did a nice tour to Mexico in Chihuahua.

TM: Do you find that that there are musical areas in common between your work and that of Ricardo and Carlos? In the area of rhythm?

JT: I think the three of us have in common without of doubt our cultural heritage, Mexico is always very present. We also agree on the idea of the search for self-expression by means of sensibility and inner ear and not just pure speculation.

In the rhythm, I’m not sure — if you speak about rhythm you don’t say anything. It’s like rock — there are many styles of rock and speak about the rhythm is pretty much the same. In a sense our music is rhythmic but we think in a very different way.

Ricardo’s rhythmical writing is based on the construction of small motifs that are strung together (quasi Leitmotif), and a very transparent harmony. Under an apparent simplicity, these motifs are expanded, repeated and transformed and create the form in a very contrapuntal way. He is maybe the most contrapuntal of the three. In his vocal music also uses the metric of the words. This is another point in common, the fact we both write vocal music and operas.

Carlos’s approach with rhythm is more linear, in a way. He delays and moves the accents, but not in a polyphonic sense. Sometimes he uses aspects of music from Veracruz, but it appears as lines that can be spread in one or two voices. It is something like linearity against verticality with some metric distortion.

I am more interested on principles such as the primary pulsation, the resonance and the obsessive use of polyrhythmic and polyphonic interlocking musical events and segments of different density and duration. It’s more like African music, but not in the sense of the patterns — I don’t use pre-composed rhythms or patterns. In terms of jazz, it may be in 3/4 or 4/4, but it does not sound in 3/4 or 4/4, you have all the accents outside the strong beats. My way to think of rhythm is as a set of small mechanisms combining to form in an abstract way. I use and expand in the form the rhythm of the text in my Operas, for me it is very important to make the text understandable. All these aspects are some of the principles of the Abstract Folklore.

TM: You now have two operas. Is there another one being planned?

JT: Yes. The title is Contra-Sujeto [Counter-Subject], which is an allusion to fugue. The play belongs to another cycle of works of my father. The first two belong to the cycle of plays known as “I say I am me, but who knows” [Yo digo que soy yo, pero quién sabe?] This cycle is “Flying heads” — the protagonist is crazy, and was in the asylum. His father pays to have him declared not insane, since as you know, in good families, there are no mad or bad people. So he corrupts the shrink. The protagonist went crazy because as a child he saw people playing soccer with a human head. When he leaves the asylum, he only relates to heads — he speaks only with heads, and not with people. He is eleven different characters at the same time, and talks to himself. I started a year ago, made some sketches, and am beginning to work very hard on it now. I have known the play since I was ten, and I love it.

Speaking about the cycle “I say I am me, but who knows”, written in the way of “la commedia dell’arte”, my father’s plays [known as the Theater of Hemofiction] use the same characters all the time, and by this time it’s a huge cycle — around forty plays. There are many situations, and the essence of the characters, who are husband and wife, is that the only way for them to stay together is to be drunk or stoned. Their profession is to dub films, and their response to their frustration, the way to redeem themselves, is make theater at home, full of madness and distortion of reality, but at the same they are very cultivated, very funny, very spiritual, and they invent these two Siamese brothers, who serves as a kind of Greek chorus. They become real, because they speak, and disagree with the others’ opinion. Hemofiction has to do with blood — everything to do with parenthood, heritage, hate, love, and present absence.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Trigos.png image_description=Juan Trigos product=yes product_title=Juan Trigos: An Interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Juan Trigos
Posted by Gary at 5:48 PM

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden

By Rupert Christiansen [The Telegraph, 1 June 2010]

Underpinning this hugely enjoyable revival of Mozart’s comic masterpiece - surely a far wiser and truer thing than the over-rated Così fan tutte - is the glorious conducting of that unlikely octogenarian Sir Colin Davis.

Posted by Gary at 2:40 PM

Spoleto So Far: intense piano music, funny dance, a spare opera and a change at the top

By Jeffrey Day [Free Times, 1June 2010]

Even after going to the Spoleto Festival for 20 years now, I kind of freak out about everything I’ve jammed into my schedule — usually 15 performances in five days — and how little I really know about most of it. The first day is nuts, but the second day I feel like I’ve been there for a week, and by that time I’ve seen something really good or at least interesting.

Posted by Gary at 2:36 PM

Ian Bostridge at the Wigmore Hall

The heart of the programme was Schwanengesang, D957 (1828) which Bostridge and Pappano recorded in 2009. For this recital, they chose only three extra songs (different from those on the CD), which made for a short evening. We exited the Wigmore Hall while it was still twilight. Whether this was planned or not,it was appropriate. The songs in Schwanengesang were written in Schubert’s own twilight. They were collected and titled posthumously.

All music, almost by definition, is dramatic, but there are many forms of drama. Lieder is quiet and introspective, “inner” drama. where truth comes from other than voice depth matters. That’s why I have so much respect for Ian Bostridge. Lieder is an intellectual genre, and he’s unusually sensitive to meaning. There’s nothing safe or bland about his singing, but Lieder isn’t bland or safe.

Bostridge performances can be unpredictable. Sometimes he holds back emotionally, which is understandable, but when he ignites, he can be amazing. In this performance, he seemed more relaxed than usual, which was an interesting compromise. Pappano has a stabilizing influence which can pay dividends as their recording of Hugo Wolf songs shows. Bostridge thrives when he has a supportive pianist, but sometimes his finest work comes when the support pushes him creatively.

Widerschein D949 began with a flourish, Bostridge creating a soaring arc on the phrase “Die Geliebte säumt”,but became more restrained after that first outburst. In Winterabend D938, heavy snow muffles the sounds of the busy world outside, but the poet has internalized the relentless snowfall. “Sinne, und sinne”. Pappano’s playing caught the muffle well, but the danger is that the mood can turn soporific.

This muted spirit carried over through Die Sterne D939 and into the first few songs of Schwanengesang. Understatement can work well with Schubert, even in Kreiger’s Ahnung, where the images are of battle, but the message is of rest, possibly eternal.

Nonetheless, there are other moods in this collection. For Ständchen, Bostridge quickened the pace, because the poet is quivering with anticipation that his lover might appear. Chances are that Schubert knew, and Rellstab knew, that she won’t show. In Lieder, love is usually unrequited.

The Heine Settings provide sterner material. In Der Atlas, Bostridge’s voice broke out of repose, taking on a harder, more violent edge, which fits the song, and made a nice change from the refinement that had gone before. In contrast, Der Fischermädchen was deliciously free, Bostridge making clear the erotic mischief in the last stanza.

By this stage, the contemplation in Schwanengesang starts to darken, eerily. Bostridge was now much more in his element. The strange, clarinet-like quality of his voice is ideally suited to evocations of the surreal. Die Stadt and An Meer felt mysterious, as they should be. Heine doesn’t do landscape for its own sake. In Der Doppelgänger, Bostridge used the extreme dynamic range to heighten the sense of mounting horror. No peaceful contemplation here. He spat the words out, emphatically. “Du, Doppelgänger! du bleicher Geselle!” No need to build beauty or softness. It’s a song of violent accusation. Bostridge’s lips curled, horrified loathing etched in his features.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/bostridge-portrait.gif image_description=Ian Bostridge

product=yes producttitle=Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang and other songs productby=Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano. Wigmore Hall, London, 29th May 2010

Posted by anne_o at 12:30 PM