September 29, 2010

Faust by ENO

ENO has entrusted its new production to Des McAnuff, best-known in London for the musical Jersey Boys which is currently enjoying a long run at the Prince Edward Theatre. The only toe he has thus far dipped in the operatic water was a production of Wozzeck in San Diego last year — not a piece that would come automatically to mind for a novice opera director. An eclectic history, promising more than some of the guest directors engaged by ENO in the recent past. McAnuff fixes the starting point of the opera in a WW2 atomic bomb laboratory. It is easy to believe how an ageing scientist would be left feeling unfulfilled after devoting his life and career to an inherently cold-blooded and inhuman vocation.

Faust’s reversion to youth appears to take him back to the early days of WW1 — though a few obviously intentional anachronisms make the period somewhat indistinct — and initially it is a romanticised vision of jolly carousing soldiers with their girls in dirndl skirts and flouncy blouses. The love scene is idealised even further, with intense coloured lighting, and flowers appearing to spring up at will on the projected backdrop. From that point forwards the scales start to fall from Faust’s eyes and time seems to be sped up; the colour is blanched from the scene, Marguerite seems to age several years in the few months that elapse between Acts 3 and 4, and even more between then and the final scene. The perky soldiers of the Act 2 tavern scene are almost unrecognisable when they return from duty, old and bent and going crazy with shell-shock.

Faust_ENO_03.gifMelody Moore and Iain Paterson

In the title role, Toby Spence was a revelation. His attractive stage presence, clarity of delivery and impeccable diction have never been in question, but Faust is a fuller lyric role than Spence has been used to, and I feared his voice may simply be swamped by the orchestra or vanish into the further reaches of the Coliseum’s vast auditorium. But in the event, the fullness of his sound at the very beginning had me worried that he might be over-singing, and I was relieved when the sound seemed to settle down, easily big enough for the occasion but retaining his trademark bright, youthful sound, right up to a splendidly confident high C in ‘Salut, demeure’. It is not the most flexible or nuanced sound, nor does it sound French — I’m not sure it’s possible to when singing in English translation — but it was confident, romantic and hugely enjoyable.

Iain Paterson was a congenial Mephistopheles, more gentleman than devil I felt, and he’s got the stage presence for the role. Although his lowest notes lack power (he’s a bass-baritone rather than a bass) he turned in an exceptionally stylish vocal performance.

Faust_ENO_01.gifMelody Moore and Toby Spence

The American soprano Melody Moore made a disappointing first impression as Marguerite (rendered in the surtitles as Margarita, though the principals seemed to be approximating the French pronunciation); there is something invulnerable and unyielding about her vocal quality which makes her difficult to engage with, and she made hard work of the Jewel Song. She did come into her own in the final scene, where the same qualities that had earlier been frustrating made for an effectively steadfast ‘Anges purs’.

Benedict Nelson’s Valentin was secure and simply effective in ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, and Anna Grevelius’s charmingly androgynous Siebel was beautifully-sung.

Faust_ENO_04.gifIain Paterson and Pamela Helen Stephen

Ed Gardner struck the right balance with the score, neither too heavy-handed in the rhythmic numbers nor too over-indulgent in the lyrical ones. Only ‘Le veau d’or’ didn’t quite have the drive to take flight.

McAnuff’s production worked for me for the most part, though it was disappointing that he opted to cut the Walpurgisnacht ballet altogether — all that remained of the scene was an episode in which Mephistopheles shows Faust a group of tortured souls writhing round a table. If going down the historically-informed opera ballet route doesn’t appeal (and frankly, why would it?) surely the ballet is the greatest opportunity for a director and his choreographer to add to the audience’s understanding, or to crystallize their production concept in the form of a vignette?

At the end, with Marguerite redeemed and Faust dragged down by Mephistopheles through a Don Giovanni-style trapdoor, we see the elderly Faust appearing in his laboratory, collapsing after apparently having drained the cup of poison from the start of the opera. Was his whole adventure into youth and corruption, then, just the hallucination of a poisoned and dying man? The elixir of youth to which Mephistopheles transforms Faust’s deadly draught is poison of one sort or another, whether its effect be physical or moral, and either way, Faust ends up back where he started.

Ruth Elleson © 2010

image= image_description=Toby Spence and Iain Paterson [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Charles Gounod: Faust product_by=Toby Spence, Melody Moore, Iain Paterson, Benedict Nelson, Anna Grevelius, Pamela Helen Stephen. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Des McAnuff; Set Designer: Robert Brill; Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford; Choreographer: Kelly Devine; Video Designer: Dustin O'NeillEnglish National Opera, London Coliseum, September 2010. product_id=Above: Toby Spence and Iain Paterson

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:28 PM

September 28, 2010

Orpheo ed Eurydice in Minnesota

Early music veteran David Daniels alongside fresh-voiced soprano Susanna Phillips headline the production. Stage director Lee Blakeley, British designer Adrian Linford, and choreographer Arthur Pita collaborate to create a visually captivating production, tapping into classical and raw humanistic elements. And with the exceptional underpinnings of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under the direction of baroque specialist Harry Bicket, what can be missed?

Phillips_Eurydice.gifSusanna Phillips as Euridice

Set in a classical-style theater proscenium, the backdrop directly alludes to Orpheus as the symbol of music, performance and art. Eurydice’s funeral in Act I reveals the remains of the same theater, though decaying, casting a darkened shadow on Orpheus’ future creative life without his beloved. As Orpheus prepares to enter the gates of Hades to retrieve Eurydice in Act II, he climbs into the backstage of the theater, where eerie stagehands haul decrepit set pieces from the wings and fierce Furies lurk behind the door. The Elysian Fields appear within the theater’s depths, casting bright light on souls descending into the afterlife from red cords dropping from the canopy. Orpheus and Eurydice travel from Hades to the land of the living, returning to the decrepit backstage. Only after Amore restores Eurydice’s life in Act III does the theater return to its original luster.

Under the direction of Arthur Pita, members of the Zenon Dance Company were a fantastic addition to this production. Implementing elements of modern dance throughout the longer orchestral interludes, the choreography perfectly reflected the musical topos. The choice of modern dance to complement the Classical music was a natural choice, considering Classical composers and performers of the time of Gluck were focused on recreating ancient Greek performance. Modern movement allowed the dancers to display the perfect proportions of the human form through raw and engaging movement without artifice. Pita’s use of dancers as the furies of Hades was a bold choice, considering this is the stormiest orchestral music of the opera. Barbarically clad monsters, tied to red cords leapt at Orpheus as he tries to enter the gates of Hades. The strong orchestral rhythms allowed the dancers to move with athleticism and virility, and were quite frightening to the audience! As the drama moves to the setting of the Elysian Fields, Pita makes more strong choices involving movement and dance. Dead souls slowly drop from the canopy, amplifying the languid transition from death to life. Once descended, the souls lose their human identity when they are forced to wear the mask of comedy. Pita’s choreography of one man’s soul losing his identity was some of the most raw yet fluid dancing of the evening.

1142.gifDavid Daniels as Orfeo, Susanna Phillips as Euridice and Company in The Minnesota Opera

Counter-tenor David Daniels shined throughout the opera. Considering Orpheus is onstage from Act I to the end, Daniels commanded every moment in the performance. Throughout recitatives and ensemble sections, he communicated with an intense musical and theatrical focus both with his fellow performers and the audience. Daniel’s “Che faro senza Euridice” was the evening’s pièce de resistance. Daniel’s middle and upper registers had such power, easily cutting over the orchestra yet maintaining a beautiful lyricism, and the yearning lines of this aria truly pulled heartstrings. Certainly Amore wasn’t the only one moved by this masterful performance.

Susanna Phillips as Eurydice was a fantastic surprise. The twenty-nine year-old soprano has found much success since her 2005 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions win. With a golden voice, full of warmth and richness, she was able to beautifully maneuver through Gluck’s Baroque/ Classical style with finesse and ease. Considering she has much experience with Mozart, singing Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Pamina, and the Countess, she executed refined tapered phrasing. Her breath agility was truly surprising during her Act III duet with Orpheo, where the voices are in perfect harmony. Shading her tone to complement Mr. Daniels was executed beautifully, both voices swelled and tapered through the harmonies, revealing beautiful simplicity in the straighter tones implemented. I hope Ms. Phillips continues to perform in these earlier genres, possibly foraying into Rameau or Handel.

Mortellaro_Amore.gifAngela Mortellaro as Amore

Minnesota Opera’s Resident Artist, Angela Mortellaro, played a spritely pants role as Amore, the god of love. Ingeniously clad in a blindfold and blind cane, Mortellaro cleverly uses her props to mock Gluck’s interlude orchestral music, imitating rhythms with her cane. Ms. Mortellaro’s voice has a silvery, glistening quality, and her upper register shot through the hall with ease. Much of her recitative lay in the lower register, and was not quite as audible. However, due to maybe one or two stands too many in the orchestra, an overpowering orchestra in some sections seemed to be an issue for the other performers as well.

The Minnesota Opera Chorus was a bit disappointing in this production. There was a large gap in performance intensity from the beginning with Mr. Daniels juxtaposed with the chorus in the opening funeral scene. It seemed as though the ensemble members were an energy drain onstage, with little to no commitment to their individual character, as well as lacking diction and musical intensity. With so many outstanding performers, the chorus could have used more theatrical coaching and diction work to bolster the ensemble to the level of the rest of the performance.

Sarah Luebke

image= image_description=David Daniels as Orfeo [Photo by Michael Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera] product=yes product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orpheo ed Eurydice product_by=Orfeo: David Daniels; Euridice, Orfeo's wife: Susanna Phillips; Amore, god of Love: Angela Mortellaro. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Zenon Dance Company. Conductor: Harry Bicket. Stage Director: Lee Blakeley. Set and Costume Dseginer: Adrian Linford. Choreographer: Arthur Pita. Lighting Designer: Jenny Cane. product_id=Above: David Daniels as Orfeo

All photos by Michael Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:52 PM

September 27, 2010

Los Angeles Opera revives 'Marriage of Figaro'

By Mark Swed [LA Times, 27 September 2010]

Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” has been called the perfect opera. David Cairns, in his keen recent study, “Mozart and His Operas,” goes out on a limb: “For the first time music has found the means of embodying the interplay of living people." No opera by Mozart or anyone else, the British scholar further contends, is so "in total harmony with itself.”

Posted by Gary at 9:15 PM

Placido Domingo Departs Washington National Opera

By Thomas Huizenga [NPR, 27 September 2010]

Tenor, baritone, conductor and opera administrator Placido Domingo is taking leave of the Washington National Opera by not renewing his contract when it expires in June, 2011.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 PM

Tristan und Isolde at Royal Festival Hall

Billed as a concert performance, it was not really, though I could not help wishing that it had been. Peter Sellars’s direction, or ‘artistic collaboration’, is restrained: generally a good thing in Tristan, which needs very little ‘doing’, though that very little can make all the difference. Would that Bill Viola showed such or indeed any restraint with his ‘video art’.

I saw his projections first at the Opéra national de Paris, two years ago. Then I was irritated and distracted, though there was a little more in the way of staging. Here, there was slightly less staging, which worked at least as well. The Royal Festival Hall was used imaginatively, singing from boxes providing, for instance, a nice impression of the ship: it actually put me in mind of the use of the same space for Nono’s Prometeo in 2008. However, I discovered on returning home that my distraction and the rest of my response tallied precisely with what I had written about the Paris performance, so my hopes for further understanding or at least ability to set Viola on one side were dashed. The Southbank Centre’s publicity read: ‘This concert performance will be set against the stunning backdrop of Bill Viola's film projections, further exploring the emotional subtexts of the work.’ Rarely, however, did these projections begin truly to engage with the work, let alone to explore texts or subtexts.

Distraction remains greatest during the first act. ‘Act I,’ to quote Viola, ‘presents the theme of Purification, the universal act of the individual’s preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self.’ We are in the world of Orientalism — or ‘the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra that lie submerged in the Western cultural consciousness’. One wonders whether Viola has ever read Edward Said; he certainly seems blissfully unaware of the pitfalls of evoking ‘the East’ in such a way. Sellars made him aware of ‘this connection to Eastern sources,’ but the outcome was hardly a drawing into ‘Wagner’s 19th-century work’. The first act represents anything but purification; it is instead a reawakening and a headlong rush into catastrophe. As I commented last time, the death that approaches is not sacrificial, but the selfish bidding of Schopenhauer’s Will. (Schopenhauer’s Orientalism might have been well worth pursuing: no such luck.) As the act progresses, the video projections of ceremonial purification seem merely disconnected rather than daringly contradictory; worst of all, they make it difficult to concentrate on the surging musical drama. Some images later on work better: that across the sea at the beginning of the third act, for example, and the magical reverse drowning of the conclusion. But for the most part, this is a display of superimposed self-indulgent Californianism. Candles are lit, of course, since candles show ‘spirituality’. Indeed, throughout, the imagery evokes the tedium of New Age self-fulfilment, which could hardly be further from Wagner’s vision — and which is not sufficient of a counterpoint to evoke true contrast either.

The musical performances were of course a different matter — and it was a sad thing that they were sometimes overwhelmed. Esa-Pekka Salonen steered a sure course through the work, though the miraculous opening prelude began with excessive ponderousness. Though JPE Harper-Scott’s programme note made a powerful case for Tristan as an avowedly tonal drama — I shall return to this at the end — Salonen tended to stress the presentiments of late Mahler and Schoenberg rather than the Romanticism of Wagner’s score. Tristan’s delirious monologue responded especially well to this approach: I am not sure that I have ever heard it sound so clearly as a male Erwartung. But to return to Nietzsche’s description of this as art’s opus metaphysicum, it was the metaphysical that was really lacking. Furtwängler, whose recording with this orchestra, remains the first choice any sane — and perhaps even insane — listener, could not have been more distant. The Philharmonia played extremely well, the strings sounding more German than I have heard them in a while. It was all a little too clinical, though, too well-drilled. Often, I found myself asking: yes, but what does this mean?

Violeta Urmana’s approach was rather different, not in the sense of metaphysics but in assimilating her role to nineteenth-century grand opera. She sang very well and made as dramatic an impression as one could reasonably hope for, but this was Isolde as diva. Her concerns again seemed resolutely of this world, the possibilities of the Schopenhauerian noumenal failing to register. On the more earthbound level, a little Nilsson-like sarcasm or irony would have helped too. Gary Lehman marshalled his resources well as Tristan. His was not a large-scale portrayal, but he did much more than get through the role, which is in itself a rare achievement. The delirium of the third act was perhaps a little too Lieder-like, but it was conveyed, albeit without those metaphysical implications expanding its horizons yet further. Matthew Best’s vibrato was somewhat intrusive as King Marke, especially during the second act, but his third-act forgiveness was humanly credible. I found the vowels of Jukka Rasilainen a little too much in a tradition that seems to mark Finnish singers in German — it must be something to do with the language — but otherwise he did fair enough service, if without scaling the heights or the depths. Anne Sofie von Otter’s Brangäne, however, was impressive in its detailed response. If hers is not the sort of voice I immediately think of for the role, one should retain an open mind in such matters. Her way with the poem was second to none, and her relative coolness, suggestively different from the typical Brangäne, fitted well with Salonen’s approach. I was especially impressed by Joshua Ellicott’s Shepherd: quite heart-rending, as moving a rendition as I can recall.

To return, briefly, to the matter of tonal or atonal (to steal from Schoenberg’s Three Satires), this performance made me reconsider my position somewhat. I am broadly in agreement, or at least I was, with Harper-Scott and others, for instance Roger Scruton, who insist upon the tonal underpinning of Wagner’s score. I now worry a little more, however, that such a reading, tracing its roots ultimately to Heinrich Schenker’s analytical approach, carries with it the danger of underselling what happens in between the opening Prelude and Isolde’s transfiguration. We do not, I hope, simply sit waiting for the end, for that final cadence. Indeed, the generative association of Wagner’s motivic web as well as his harmony carry with them important seeds of the serial constructivism that could lead twentieth-century composers to expansive, open-ended new universes of sound. There is a strong tendency towards the totality in Wagner’s work, of course, but there is also resistance within the material. Salonen’s intimations of Schoenberg heightened this sense — which rethinking, whatever my reservations, is testament to a successful performance.

Mark Berry

image= image_description=Richard Wagner product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde product_by=Tristan: Gary Lehman; Isolde: Violeta Urmana; Brangäne: Anne Sofie von Otter; King Marke: Matthew Best; Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen; Melot: Stephen Gadd; Shepherd/Young Sailor: Joshua Ellicott; Steersman: Darren Jeffery. Visual Artist: Bill Viola; Artistic Collaborator: Peter Sellars. Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver); Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday 26 September 2010. product_id=
Posted by Gary at 8:31 PM

September 26, 2010

Niobe, Regina di Tebe, Royal Opera

So it was with some surprise that Niobe, Regina di Tebe by Agostino Steffani (first performed 1688) hit the computer screen some months ago as Covent Garden’s 2010/11 baroque offering. Many could be forgiven for muttering “what…by whom?”

NIOBE-BC20100920258-LASZCZK.gifJacek Laszczkowski as Anfione

Reading the ROH notes, it becomes clear that it was a combination of financial expediency (a useful co-production with a recent successful track record) and genuine appreciation of the music revealed in the 2008 revival at the Schwetzingen Festival that encouraged the Royal Opera to add its considerable clout to the 2010 revival performances around Europe. Leaving aside the question of why Steffani — an admirable polymath of his time, but hardly the baroque’s greatest opera composer — we must at least be thankful that the ROH has been prepared to put some time and effort into converting what was an essentially small scale festival production into something that fits the bigger stage.

Even more important than this stage adaptation is the quality of the music and story-telling: and for this we must thank the energetic and committed Thomas Hengelbrock who as director of the period-instrument Balthazar-Neumann Ensemble has been the driving force behind the production from 2008 with his own critical edition. The same production team that enjoyed such success at Schwetzingen are responsible for the “hard gloss & soft fabric” look of the piece that on occasion seems to hark back to some of Pierre Audi’s early works with the Monteverdi operas. Exaggerated richly-hued baroque flounces and golden breast plates contrast with mirror surfaces and monumental palatial interiors. There are some very effective visual ideas that complement the richness of the scoring and the mythological elements of the libretto — be prepared for costumed fanfares, huge helium balloons and some very realistic fire effects — Steffani, with his taste for stage machinery and loud bangs, would have approved.

Mead_Niobe_ROH.gifTim Mead as Clearte

The story itself is a re-telling of the events leading up to the destruction of the proud queen Niobe of Thebes as told by Ovid — a tale of love, desire, pride and hubris that ends in tragedy - yet in true baroque fashion it also confirms the ascendancy of love and honour. Niobe, soprano Veronique Gens, is left to rule Thebes as her husband Anfione, male soprano Jacek Laszczkowski, goes off on a sort of regal “retreat” — a bad move on his part as Niobe has a would-be lover in the form of courtier Clearte, countertenor Tim Mead, and another in the form of foreign prince Creonte, countertenor Iestyn Davies. There is the almost-ubiquitous malevolent magician of these times, Poliferno, bass Alastair Miles, plotting in the background. Add to this the amorous sub-plot of two lesser characters, priestess Manto, soprano Amanda Forsythe, the daughter of High Priest Tiresia, baritone Bruno Taddia, and prince Tiberino, tenor Lothar Odinius, and season with a comic nurse character Nerea, contralto Delphine Galou, and you have a baroque compôte to rival any of Handel’s or Vivaldi’s. Where it differs is that here there is no lieto fine and the final scenes are a chilling reminder of how the gods punish the proud and foolish. Dead children are never an easy call for opera, and the emotional punches are not pulled. The very final scene, sung by the newly-enthroned Creonte, is both sternly optimistic but also ambiguous.

NIOBE-BC20100917152-MILES&G.gifAlastair Miles as Poliferno and Véronique Gens as Niobe

The quality of the vocal writing matches the inventiveness of the music which seems to hover, musicologically, somewhere between Cavalli and early Handel. The recitatives are lyrical, the arias and duets constantly change form and texture with no one vocal style predominating. There is no aria longer than five minutes and the da capo form in its full Handelian sense is missing: this helps to drive the action forward and several set-piece arias are interrupted by another character. The orchestration is equally complex and thoroughly fascinating in its detail and richness; often a character will be assigned his or her “own” obbligato instrument - such as the nurse Nerea who sings several slightly cynical or world-weary arias with some virtuosic recorder playing echoing her complaints. Anfione is often accompanied by the smaller strings and viola da gamba. Under the confident and stylish direction of Hengelbrock, his expanded orchestra gives an object lesson in how to transfer what was an intimate festival performance in 2008 into a major house display in 2010.

The singers themselves — also mainly from the Schwetzinger production — sound and look comfortable in their music. Niobe is a perfect role for the statuesque figure and warmly lyrical soprano of Gens; she convinced totally as her voice moved from purring eroticism to agonised despair. Her husband Anfione, the reluctant king, was equally believable in the hands and voice of Laszczkowski whose male soprano worked best when he stopped the action with heartfelt prayers for harmony, love and a bit of peace and quiet. Occasional tenorial lapses were a slight problem at the bottom of his soprano range, but there is no denying the ethereal effect of his top. Of the countertenors, Iestyn Davies had the least to do vocally, but did it best. He continues to mature vocally and dramatically and his voice is an effective mix of clarity, volume and pleasing tone. Tim Mead perhaps gave more on the acting front and was a convincing besotted lover. Alastair Miles, who makes something of a habit of playing evil magicians, was nicely devious with his reliable bass as agile as ever. Is there a better baroque Mr Nasty? Delphine Galou (Nerea), Amanda Forsythe (Manto), Bruno Taddia (Tiresia) and Lothar Odinius (Tiberino) all pleased without quite approaching the levels of the principals; Forsythe has a pretty, light, soprano that struggled in the large space whilst Galou’s lightish contralto carried more easily to the back of the house.

NIOBE-BC201009210557-GENS&D.gifVéronique Gens as Niobe and Iestyn Davies as Creonte

Although there was not, unsurprisingly, a full house on first night, there was a noticeable lack of empty seats after the one interval, which is always a good sign with a “new” opera. Most of the audience seemed caught up with the excellence of the music and visual spectacle and were generous in their applause at curtain call. If Gens and Davies just about won the applause-stakes for the singers, then they were both beaten by a short head by the superb players of the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble in the pit. Thomas Hengelbrock looked both relieved and delighted, and so he should. The production runs to the 3rd October before transferring to Luxembourg. Recommended.

Sue Loder © 2010

image= image_description=Vèronique Gens as Niobe [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of the Royal Opera] product=yes product_title=Agostino Steffani: Niobe, Regina di Tebe product_by=Niobe: Vèronique Gens; Anfione: Jacek Laszczkowski; Manto: Amanda Forsythe; Creonte: Iestyn Davies; Tiberino: Lothar Odinius; Clearte: Tim Mead; Nerea: Delphine Galou; Tiresia: Bruno Taddia; Poliferno: Alastair Miles. Royal Opera House, London. September 23rd. product_id=Above: Vèronique Gens as Niobe
br/>All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of the Royal Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:51 PM

September 25, 2010

Wagner for a Song

By Alex Ross [NY Times, 25 September 2010]

ON Monday night, “Das Rheingold,” the first part of a mammoth new production of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” will thunder down on the Metropolitan Opera. A 45-ton set will test the theater’s foundations; a reported $16 million budget will test the company’s finances. In the midst of economic troubles, is it seemly to spend such a vast amount on a spectacle that will be seen by a relatively small, elite audience?

Posted by Gary at 9:18 PM

September 24, 2010

Robert LePage brings Wagner to New York

By Robert Everett-Green [Globe and Mail, 24 September 2010]

Tenor Richard Croft is inching backward up a 70-degree incline, while singing, on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. One of a dozen computers parked on tables in the nearly empty auditorium controls an interactive projector that makes flames appear to flicker at his feet. Behind the steep surface that juts high above Croft’s head, stagehands grip a cable attached to his belt, trying to keep any slack out of the line as he moves, fly-like, on the wall.

Posted by Gary at 1:46 PM

Niobe, Regina di Tebe, Royal Opera House

By Rupert Christiansen [Telegraph, 24 September 2010]

This is something I feel compelled to review schizophrenically ­ first, wearing my official opera critic hat, and secondly, off-duty as Rupert Christiansen.

Posted by Gary at 1:39 PM

Pierre Jalbert: An Interview

He has an impressive catalogue of orchestral works, as well as four string quartets to his credit. We talked by Skype on May 3, 2010.

TM: You were born in Manchester, New Hampshire, and grew up in northern Vermont. What was the musical environment like in your family? Were there uncles and aunts that made music? Grandparents? Your parents?

PJ: My parents were not musical, although my father liked to listen to classical music. Neither one played an instrument, or was involved in classical music in any way. Whenever we would have a big family get-together, on my father’s side all my aunts and uncles played instruments by ear. They all played guitar and piano, and we would have these family sing-alongs, with both English and French folk and pop tunes. My ancestry is French-Canadian. Everybody in the family, in my parent’s generation, had English as their first language, but their second language was French, and they all speak fairly fluently. With my generation we lost that, and had to study it in school like everybody else. Those family get-togethers were some of the first musical experiences that I had.

Growing up in Vermont I was part of the Vermont Youth Orchestra, and played percussion instruments, but I was primarily a pianist, and eventually I played a concerto with the orchestra. I grew up playing percussion instruments in band in middle school and high school, because I was primarily a pianist. They didn’t need a pianist — they needed something else. I was always good at the mallet instruments, because they were set up like keyboards. Classical music was an important part of my upbringing, because I was pretty serious about piano — entering competitions, playing all of the classical composers — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven — as well as popular music — I was really into the Beatles. Pretty early on I knew that I wanted to write music and be a composer. I started writing little imitative piano pieces for myself to play. Later, when we started playing Copland in the Youth Orchestra, that was basically my introduction to his music, though I had played some of his piano pieces — the Passacaglia, Cat and Mouse. He became my hero at the time, because he was the only American composer I knew of that was making a living writing concert music. I remember distinctly that when I was a senior in high school I heard George Crumb’s music — his piece for two pianos and two percussion called Music for a Summer Evening. That was a life-changing experience for me — that piece just blew me away. Eventually I ended up studying with him at the University of Pennsylvania in graduate school. Before that I went to undergraduate school at Oberlin. He was certainly a big influence on me. Other musical influences would be Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, Ravel — a lot of the French composers.

TM: How long had you lived in New Hampshire before moving to Vermont?

PJ: I moved there very early on, when I was five or six years old.

TM: When you say northern Vermont, is that what people refer to as the “Northern Kingdom”?

PJ: I grew up in south Burlington, on Lake Champlain, in the western part of the state. The Northeast Kingdom is close to where my folks are now — it’s the very northeast corner of the state, that borders Canada.

TM: What was the musical culture like in Burlington? I imagine that the city has a liberal, university atmosphere, with its representative being the only socialist in Congress.

PJ: At that time Bernie Sanders was the Mayor of Burlington, which is how he got his start. The musical culture centered on the Vermont Symphony, which played at an old movie theater called the Flynn Theater, in downtown Burlington. They still do. There was the Vermont Youth Orchestra, and every high school had its own music program, usually with band and chorus.

TM: How long had the Vermont Symphony been around?

PJ: They have been around a long, long time — I think they started in the twenties or thirties.

TM: Presently the director is Jaime Laredo. Who was directing when you were growing up?

PJ: Efrain Guigui. As a high-schooler, I would usher at the Vermont Symphony concerts so that I could get in for free — that was part of my introduction to the orchestral literature. A couple of years ago they commissioned me to write a piece for their fall tour. Every fall, during foliage season, they do a tour of Vermont, where they play in these old opera houses — every town in Vermont used to have its own opera house. They are wonderful little halls, and a lot of them have been renovated. The orchestra tours to ten different towns, and always commission a new piece. They commissioned a string orchestra piece from me, and I got to travel with them on their two-week tour, where Jaime Laredo also did the Four Seasons as soloist and conductor.

TM: How big are the halls?

PJ: Some of them are smaller, and might fit four hundred, and some larger, and might fit four to six hundred people.

TM: You must be among a small contingent of native Vermont composers.

PJ: David Rakowski grew up in Vermont. I remember Larry Reed, whom I believe is still at the University of Vermont. Because I was serious about composition, I would go to him for advice before I went off to college. There are also a couple of composers who have been associated with Bennington College.

TM: There is an old saying in Vermont (about out-of-staters) that even if a kitten is born in the oven, you don’t call it a biscuit. Does that describe Vermont for you?

PJ: I had a wonderful piano teacher, Arlene Cleary, whom I studied with from the moment I got to Vermont till the time I went off to college. She was one of the most energetic people I ever met, and really encouraging, not only about piano, but about composition as well, helping me to develop that talent, and pointing me to some different people in areas where she might not have had the expertise, to people like Larry Reed, at the University. It’s a small, tightly-knit community.

TM: Was there popular music that you found appealing or were involved in?

PJ: I also played in jazz band as a pianist, and as I said the one popular music group I was really into was the Beatles. I always liked their music, and especially their more experimental things, like George Harrison’s use of Indian music.

TM: What led you to decide to go to Oberlin? Were you already planning to do composition, or were you thinking about performance?

PJ: I was thinking about both, and I did both. I was studying piano as well as composition. By the time I went to grad school, I had decided that being a concert pianist was not the life that I wanted — I wanted to concentrate on composition. I had had some friend who went to Oberlin, and I visited and auditioned at a number of different schools. Coming from Vermont, and being isolated from the wider musical scene in the United States, I had no idea what was going on. Oberlin seemed to be a good choice — I didn’t want to go to a big city, and I was still only seventeen. It was in a small town, but yet close enough to Cleveland, so that you could go into the city for concerts if you wanted to, although there was a ton of stuff going on there on campus. It seemed like a nice environment in which to study music and be serious about it.

TM: Who did you study composition with at Oberlin?

PJ: I studied with just about everybody who was there at the time. Ed Miller, Richard Hoffman, who was a relative of Schoenberg, Randy Coleman, who was an experimental composer. I studied piano with a professor, Sedmara Rutstein, who was steeped in the Russian tradition. I was exposed to various different approaches. Ed Miller was into jazz, but was very serious about new music as well. Hoffman was a twelve-tone composer, and Coleman was in the Cagean experimental vein. When I arrived at Oberlin, I discovered that I was the most conservative composer around. It gave me a chance to really widen my vocabulary, and to try out different things.

TM: What had your vocabulary been? Who were your models for composition before you arrived at Oberlin?

PJ: I had played a lot of Prokofiev on the piano, knew a little bit of George Crumb, done a lot of Copland, Samuel Barber, Dello Joio — conventional twentieth-century composers. My music was quasi-neo-classical, neo-romantic — I had dabbled with twelve-tone, but it always came back to tonality.

TM: Who among those teachers at Oberlin was most appealing? Hoffman was a very important teacher, and perhaps the latest of the Schoenberg disciples to be still active.

PJ: They all brought something different to the table. I would say Ed Miller and Richard Hoffman were the most influential, because I studied with them the longest.

TM: What appealed to you in particular in terms of style?

PJ: At that time I was exposed to a lot of different composers, since a lot of people visited Oberlin. I would say that those who I felt a real affinity for included George Crumb and Joseph Schwantner. Others, as well, including Chris Rouse. I was pushing myself to try out different things. I wrote a completely twelve-tone work for the first time when I was a junior. I was trying out different instrumental ensembles — I wrote a piece that included electric guitar and electric bass, along with more standard instruments, and there was another piece which included electronics.

TM: What would you describe as your opus one, and why? Something from your time at Oberlin? At Penn?

PJ: Probably a piece I wrote at Oberlin that our contemporary ensemble performed, for about fifteen instruments. I really felt that it worked well, and it was chosen for a symposium. Larry Radcliffe, who was the director of the contemporary ensemble, conducted it. It was my first big success, and my first large ensemble piece that I was satisfied with at the time.

TM: What is it called?

PJ: It is called Memorial, and it’s not published, so in that sense it’s not opus 1. If I had to pick a piece that is available, it would probably be Songs of Gibran, which I wrote in graduate school. It’s a piece for mezzo-soprano and small ensemble based on texts by Khalil Gibran.

TM: Why Gibran?

PJ: They were short lyrical texts that I found easy to deal with vocally. There was something spiritual about his poetry that I really liked. These particular poems were written early on in his career, and simply called songs. They called out to be treated in a musical way.

TM: He is a poet that is so well known to the American public, although perhaps more so earlier than today. And yet he somehow belongs to the Arabic cultural sphere. How do you see his position in American culture?

PJ: I can’t speak about his position in American culture, but his writing spoke to me personally.

TM: How would you describe your idiom for this set of songs?

PJ: I was studying with George Crumb at the time, so there is a lot of Crumb influence in the piece. He has many works for voice with small ensemble. And there is Messiaen there as well.

TM: Who else did you study with at Penn?

PJ: Dick Wernick was also there, and Jim Primosch, and Jay Reise. I studied with all of them.

TM: Were there important colleagues who were fellow students of yours?

PJ: We had a lot of talented students who have done well for themselves since. Oswaldo Golijov conducted one of my pieces. We did all of our concerts at Curtis, since we basically had no performance program at Penn, but there was an exchange agreement with Curtis. Alan Gilbert was a conductor at Curtis at the time. He didn’t do any of my pieces, but he did some pieces by other Penn composers while he was there. Jennifer Higdon was there, David Crumb (George Crumb’s son, also a composer, who now teaches at the University of Oregon), Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, Michael Friday, David Lefkowitz, Ofer Ben-Amots….

TM: What would be a representative piece from this period?

PJ: I wrote an orchestra piece called Evocation, which was my first full orchestra, and I got a really good recording of it with the Curtis orchestra. That got me the New York Youth Symphony commission while I was there. Evocation and Songs of Gibran are two of the more important things I did while I was there.

TM: Two schools of making a piece: an architectural approach, where the general outlines of the work are the first things to be conceived, with the details then fitting into the shape; a more novelistic approach, where the piece is built upward from the details, with a sense of the total structure coming later. Which camp do you belong to?

PJ: I definitely fall into the first category, although once I have that I start fooling around with smaller ideas, and seeing how I can develop them. I try to have a picture of the whole, and I encourage my students to do that too, fairly early on in the process. Then you can work on timing, and the process of timing events. That is something that I learned very strongly from George Crumb’s music, which is almost totally about events occurring, and when and where they come in, and how they are timed. His sense of timing is just impeccable. If you can be successful with that, your music is much more convincing.

I try to start out with some sort of outline in terms of time. Is this a five-minute piece, or a twenty-minute piece? Is it a multi-movement piece or straight ahead? And these things can change as the ideas warrant, as you work on them. But I try to have a good idea of that, so that I can keep that in my mind all through the time in which I am working on the piece. Then I can set about thinking about the smaller-scale structures — the phrase structure — where does this phrase end, where does the other begin? How does this event happen, where does this section end, where does the other begin? How is it timed? Is this one too long, is this one too short? Does it need to be developed? That is pretty much the way that I work.

TM: What would you say is the thing that generates the piece? Do you work from a musical idea, a visual image, a literary reference?

PJ: It varies — I have done all of the above. I wrote a piece called Icefield Sonnets for the Ying Quartet, which was based on the poetry of Anthony Hawley, a set of sonnets which talk about nature scenes in very cold climates. That set of poems was inspired by his time at Banff, Canada. Growing up in Vermont, I could really relate to these cold winter scenes. Those conjured up certain musical ideas for me. I wrote a piece for the Albany Symphony based on the historic stained-glass windows by Louis Tiffany which can be found in some Albany churches. Those were a direct visual inspiration. I just did a piece with a visual artist in Montreal named Jean Detheux, who does computer-animated films that are completely abstract, like looking at an abstract colorful painting that moves through time.

Other pieces get their starts from purely musical ideas. I just wrote a cello sonata for David Finkel and Wu Han which is called Sonata for Cello and Piano — it doesn’t have an extra-musical association, necessarily.

TM: Please talk about In Aeternam, which seems to have been exceptionally successful. What is the reference in the title?

PJ: The reference is to a death in the family. My brother and his wife — their first baby died at birth, and that type of thing does not happen very often these days. This happened a long time ago, long before I wrote the piece. It stems from that, although I don’t think one needs to know that to enjoy the piece, to understand the piece musically. That piece follows the same kind of form that I was using in that piece I mentioned as my opus one, from Oberlin. In basic terms, you have a slow-fast-slow structure, an arch form where ideas A and B are in the slow section, idea C is in the fast section, although they are typically related thematically, then the slow section returns, and you have idea B, then idea A. I have used the same form for many of my works, and it seems to work very well. That was the first piece that I wrote for the California Symphony when I was appointed their Young American Composer-in-Residence. It was a three-year residence, and that was the first piece that I wrote there. I remember that the conductor had asked me to write a piece that their audiences could appreciate — in other words, make it accessible. This is probably the first piece where I was really trying to make it a little more accessible to a general audience. The piece went on to win the BBC Master Prize, which is why it has gotten a little bit of attention and some success.

TM: Your site mentions spiritual concerns, and your work list includes the Symphonia Sacra and Les Espaces Infinies [for orchestra and chamber orchestra, respectively]. As someone who has sung choral music for various denominations, I notice that is an area you have not explored.

PJ: I am Catholic, and the liturgical music I heard growing up had a big influence on my writing. There are several works, Symphonia Sacra being one of them, where I incorporate Gregorian chant into the piece. I am involved in our church here, and I sing in the choir, but the kind of music we do is not really classically based. Unless you are at a big church, which has a big choir with singers who are not necessarily professionals, but who are fairly well-trained — I can’t do anything on that level where I am right now, but I would like to. We have an excellent choir here at Rice, and I would love to write them a piece, but I just have to do it. I always seem to be writing a chamber music work or an orchestra piece.

TM: The Catholic Church, with a millennial tradition of great music and great architectural spaces, seems to have abandoned this in the last forty years, at least in the United States. Can something be done about that?

PJ: I don’t know. I spent a year at the American Academy in Rome back in 2000. I was surprised to find that even at the Vatican I was not at all impressed by the choir. They are just amateurs doing it. I don’t know what has happened. The music has become mostly folk or even pop music, because that is what the people know. To sing real classical music — masses by Mozart — you need to have a larger church and people with some expertise.

TM: People who are both fine musicians and devout Catholics no longer have a comfortable home in the US.

Could you talk about recent or upcoming projects?

PJ: I am trying to finish a piece for the Emerson Quartet which they will premiere in Houston this coming season. That will be my fifth string quartet. When people ask, I say yes.

After that I will be writing a piece for the Music from Copland House Ensemble. The Copland House is Copland’s estate, about 30 minutes north of New York City, near Peekskill. It now serves as a composer retreat. There is one composer living there each month. I went there a couple of years ago. You get the house to yourself, and Copland’s piano, and Copland’s workspace, they give you meals and provide a stipend for you. They have their own ensemble of five players — flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

TM: That’s an unusual format for an ensemble.

PJ: They are becoming more well known. Derek Bermel, who is also a composer, plays clarinet in the ensemble. I am also working on a piece for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, for clarinet, violin and piano, which they will be taking to London with them. After that I will be working on a piece for the Arizona Friend of Chamber Music, for the Tokyo Quartet, which looks like it will be a piano quintet. So there is lots of chamber music coming up.

TM: Another area for growth, since you have a fair amount of vocal music, would be music for the stage. Is that something that appeals to you?

PJ: Yes, I would love to write an opera, and Houston Grand Opera has a great track record of commissioning new opera.

TM: You are just waiting for the call.

PJ: Yes.

TM: Any final thoughts?

PJ: I have been at Rice for fourteen years, and my time here has been a big influence. The orchestra program is wonderful, the chamber music program is great, and the opera program. The school keeps getting better and better.

TM: The Houston climate is a little different from where you grew up.

PJ: Another Vermont connection is that the Lane Series has commissioned a piece as a retirement for Jane Ambrose, who is retiring as director of the series at the University of Vermont. And I will be going to New York for the award ceremony at the American Academy of Arts and Letters — I was fortunate to get one this year. And in August In Aeternam will be performed at the Cabrillo Festival with Marin Alsop.

TM: A busy summer.

Click here for Pierre Jalbert’s web site.

image= image_description=Pierre Jalbert product=yes product_title=An Interview with Pierre Jalbert product_by=Tom Moore, interviewer product_id=Above: Pierre Jalbert
Posted by Gary at 10:15 AM

Werther in San Francisco

How it fared in 1985 is an interesting speculation, as its famed Werther, Alfredo Kraus was then 57 years-old and his Charlotte was the famed verismo diva Renata Scotto in decline.

Just now the Werther was entrusted to 50 year-old Ramón Vargas. Just two years ago Mr. Vargas was the perfect embodiment of an adorable Nemorino in the SFO Elisir d’amore. His career however generally has traversed larger lyric tenor roles — Rodolfo, Lenski, Don Carlo, etc. — for which he has perfected the physical delivery. Unfortunately this famous Mexican tenor no longer seems to be able to muster the vocal heft to match the gestures. Lacking now was the sense of vocal push and emotional release that makes a tenor, and therefore Werther exciting.

Stober_Sophie_SFO.gifHeidi Stober as Sophie

Likewise his Charlotte, British mezzo Alice Coote gave a problematic performance. She is a lovely artist in prime condition whose fame has accrued primarily in the Baroque repertory. But the studied musicality that made her an ideal Idamante in SFO’s 2008 Idomeneo did not serve her in this foray into the French dramatic mezzo repertory. Unlike Mr. Vargas she has not absorbed the gestures and mannerisms of this repertory, an attribute that this production exploited by inducing too much realistic detail into her acting. Coupled with self-conscious musicality her performance was hard to watch.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume however supplied everything these artists lacked, and created what was a memorable performance, his orchestra whining and weeping convincingly and crying out in full throat and throttle, his expansive tempos relentlessly driving the despair first of Werther and finally of Charlotte. Massenet’s tear-jerker is replete with much opportunity for the double reeds to freely emote and that the fine players of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra did with abandon.

The flawed performances of the protagonists were overwhelmed indeed by Mo. Villaume’s orchestral outpourings and were exacerbated by the set of this new production that elevated the singers and placed them somewhat behind the proscenium arch, a positioning that proved visually and acoustically remote. [This observation was based on sitting in the eighteenth row. At another, performance seated in the third row, these problems disappeared.]

This brand new production, directed by Francisco Negrin and designed by Louis Désiré, is challenging and interesting, attributes that are rare these days at SFO. The intent of the production was apparently to supply the world in which Werther and Charlotte’s story evolved with the innumerable complexities hinted at in the libretto but not present in Massenet’s score. The practical intent was perhaps to insert action into a libretto of static emotional and dramatic situations.

CooVar.gifRamón Vargas as Werther and Alice Coote as Charlotte

The frenzy of subtext that resulted did not illuminate the simple, direct emotions of the Massenet score but rather created a vibrant ambience for Massenet’s ultimate, over-the-top dénouement. Any attempt at analysis of this imposed subtext seems useless as it hardly matters to the emotional gravity of the story that Sophie is head-over-heels in love with Werther or that Albert reads Werther’s letters alongside Charlotte and lies beside her in the marriage bed while she imagines Werther reciting Ossian. These real and imagined complications were sometimes amusing and other times annoying.

All this was effected in a frenzy of staging clichés — piles of furniture, the doubling of characters by actors, scribbling on a wall, lines of neon light, reflective surfaces, post-modern mix of materials and images, shuttering effects of light and image, not to forget the obligatory use of video. But all were put to good use, and even effective once the irritation of seeing these hackneyed tricks hit the stage once again was forgotten.

MulCoo.gifAlice Coote as Charlotte and Brian Mulligan as Albert

Of particularly fine effect was the use of actor doubles for the dying Werther (making three of them!) allowing Charlotte to kneel over a splayed Werther while the erect Vargas/Werther held forth pathetically nearby and the third sat motionless facing upstage. Perhaps there was even a fourth Werther as someone held a torch in upstage blackness all through this long death scene.

It had come as a bit of a surprise when Charlotte donned the black dress in which she emoted over dying Werther — for the first three acts she was kept emotionally aloof and physically far away so it was hard to accept that she suddenly raced to his side.

The set architecture was based on horizontal bands — Werther’s garret on stage level, above that the stage-wide platform on which all life unfolded like on a cinemascope movie screen (even silver hued because of reflective metal walls). And above that floated intermittently a band of photographs of, inexplicably, some old New England houses variously modified from time to time to illustrate mood. A few vertical leafless metallic trees tried to function as an indication of season.

Mr. Vargas and Mme. Coote executed their roles with obvious respect for the production. Baritone Brian Mulligan was directed to an unrelenting oafish presence for Albert that precluded the admittance of any depth to his character. Soprano Heidi Stober brought vitality and vocal brilliance to Sophie in the evening’s only sympathetic performance. The unusually fine supporting cast (the bailiff and his cronies) though too young managed to bring their roles vocally and dramatically alive.

This Werther is co-produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago where presumably it will appear in the 2011-12 season. With another cast it may take on a depth it lacked here in San Francisco.

Michael Milenski

Click here for a photo gallery and video clips.

image_description=Alice Coote as Charlotte [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Jules Massenet: Werther
product_by=Werther: Ramón Vargas; Charlotte: Alice Coote; Sophie: Heidi Stober; Albert: Brian Mulligan; The Bailiff: Christian Van Horn; Schmidt: Robert MacNeil; Kätchen: Susannah Biller; Brühlmann: Austin Kness; Johann: Bojan Knezevic. Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume. Director: Francisco Negrin. Production Designer: Louis Désiré. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler.
product_id=Above: Alice Coote as Charlotte

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 10:12 AM

September 23, 2010

The Makropulos Case at ENO

“The Makropulos formula is a powerful metaphor for a fixation … The moment Elina drinks it, she becomes an outlaw … But the story of The Makropulos Case is not simply a personal one. It extends to an idea about society’s rigid, collective destructiveness. Karel Čapek and Leoš Janáček lived in a time of agonizing transition. For them the 327-year old E. M. embodied the unwillingness of the past to give way to the present. She stands for a society living beyond its moment.”

Charles Edwards’ striking set designs certainly capture this conception; evoking the grim austerity of the pre-war Eastern Block, the single set serves as lawyer’s office, theatre and boudoir, its forbidding monochrome tones alleviated solely by the copious flowers which decorate the Act 2 stage, offered in adulation by Emilia Marty’s chorus of idolising worshippers. But, this ‘abstract’ and emblematic reading, is a long way from Karel Čapek’s original philosophical comedy, from which Janáček constructed his own libretto. And, while its certainly true that the music considerably darkens the hues of Čapek’s social satire and irony, this extraordinary opera surely remains at core a very human drama, not least because the tale of obsession and passion seems permeated by the aging composer’s own unrequited love for the young Kamilla Stösslova.

Man’s helplessness in the face of the inevitable and irrevocable passing of time is a powerful theme in the work, and one which here is visually reinforced by the interminable rise of the curtain in Act 1, the protracted turning of the large wall-clock’s hands, and the legal clerks’ leisurely gathering of the documents which flutter from the ceiling, falling in scattered heaps which emphasise the convoluted, ceaseless complexities of the eponymous law suit. Alden and Edwards — with their over-sized black desk and leather chair, and the flurry of annotations strewn across the blackboard which looms on the office wall — have sought to recreate an ambience of Kafkaesque menace and ambiguity, as the action lurches between stagnation and frenzied confusion.

Indeed, such conflicts of tempo are built into the score, which swings between static, fragmentary ostinatos and sudden orchestral outbursts; however, underpinning the staggers and sways, is a steadily accumulating rhythmic tension as the minutes of E.M.’s life tick unstoppably by.

Amanda Roocroft, tackling the role for the first time, was a cold, calculating Elina Makropulos in her latest incarnation as the opera star, Emilia Marty. Passionless and solipsistic, Roocroft’s stylised expressionist gestures recalled the faux agonies of a Twenties starlet of the silent screen. A convincingly cruel and callous femme fatale, it is not entirely evident, however, why she should be so hypnotically alluring to all men. Marching briskly about the stage, Roocroft conveyed Elina’s nervous energy but somewhat lacked voluptuous allure. Roocroft took a little time to settle, not quite finding the requisite opulent sensuousness in opening Act; moreover, her diction lacked clarity (although the translation did not always merit better – ill-judged comic one-liners and anachronistic phrases such as ‘Cor blimey’ hardly seemed in keeping with Alden’s and Edwards’ focused period vision). As the opera progressed, warmth and depth increasingly characterised her tone, and Roocroft released a soaring soprano of considerable beauty and power in the final act, as Elina recalls and is humanised by her love for Pepi, the man whose actions have given rise to the epic law case which has controlled and consumed so many lives. Her desperate attempts to shake the elixir formula from her hands was harrowing; obsessed with life, she now recognised that she has nothing to live for — the terrible admission of her final confession.

The_Makropulos_Case_02.gifAmanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty and Christopher Turner as Janek

Roocroft was partnered by a team of excellent male leads. Peter Hoare’s traumatiseGregor was superbly projected; a distressing portrait of exposed vulnerability and intense passion, his anguished appeals and anger conveyed the tortuous contradictions within all the men who want both to possess and destroy Elina. Janáček’s score skilfully delineates a rich array of character parts: strong performances by Andrew Shore, as a fussy Dr Kolenatý, and Ashley Holland, as a muscular Prus, were matched by the touching tenderness of Laura Mitchell’s Kristina and Christopher Turner’s tense, nervous Janek. Ryland Davies’s Hauk was a little weak in tone, but his portrayal of Marty’s feeble-minded former lover was theatrically effective, and his duet with Roocroft powerfully conveyed the pathos of Marty’s surge of affection for this aged former lover in Act 2.

Under the accomplished baton of Janáček specialist Richard Armstrong, the ENO orchestra evocatively accompanied and commented on the stage action. Armstrong emphasised the extreme contrasts of register and colour, percussive bitterness alternating with tender lyricism. Initially, some of textures lacked precise definition, particularly in the more conversational vocal passages, where a sense of driving energy was not always maintained; and perhaps the dramatic instrumental interjections could have been even more astringent and discomforting. But, the explosive third climax was wonderfully controlled.

The_Makropulos_Case_01.gifAmanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty, Andrew Shore as Dr Kolenatý, Alasdair Elliot as Vitek and Laura Mitchell as Kristina

Despite the undeniable affective power of this production, my difficulty with this reading of the opera lies in Alden’s apparent lack of sympathy for the essential ‘human’ aspects of the work. He envisages Elina as possessing “the soul of a traumatized sixteen-year-old girl in the body of powerful, indomitable woman”. Yet, surely her experiences over three hundred years would have enabled her to learn, grow, and achieve a more mature understanding of both herself and others? Alden essentially deprives Elina of her status as a tragic heroine; he focuses instead on creating a mechanistic vision of a 1920s dystopia – a reflection of Janáček’s contemporary Prague perhaps – but while the result is visually striking, he overlooks the fact that the preoccupations of drama are shared by all men at all times and in all places. The steely lifelessness of Adam Silverman’s intimidating lighting and the grey hardness of Edwards’ monumental designs is matched by the emotional vacuum within these pallid characters. Ultimately, they do not arouse our pity; in Marty’s case we may share Prus’ post-coital disgust at her barrenness and callousness — as, draped like a corpse, she seems brutalised by life’s experiences.

Harrowing indeed; but the orchestral richness, complemented by sudden swathes of light, as Marty embraces death surely intimate her ultimate recognition of the true value of human life, a realisation which is both edifying and uplifting? After, Janáček’s emotionally charged opera pointedly reminds us that life only has value because of our awareness of our mortality.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Amanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty [Photo by Neil Libbert courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Leoš Janáček: The Makropulos Case product_by=Emilia Marty: Amanda Roocroft; Dr Kolenatý: Andrew Shore; Albert Gregor: Peter Hoare; Vitek: Alasdair Elliott; Kristina: Laura Mitchell; Jaroslav Prus: Ashley Holland; Janek: Christopher Turner; Hauk-Šendorf: Ryland Davies; Cleaning Woman: Morag Boyle; Stage Technician: William Robert Allenby; Chambermaid: Susanna Tudor-Thomas. Conductor: Richard Armstrong. Director: Christopher Alden. Set designer: Charles Edwards. Costume designer: Sue Willmington. Lighting designer: Adam Silverman. Choreographer: Clare Glaskin. English Nation Opera, Coliseum, London. Monday 20th September 2010. product_id=Above: Amanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty

All photos by Neil Libbert courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 5:28 PM

Gluck the reformer

By Larry Fuchsberg [, 23 September 2010]

See the word "reformer" on the page and you're apt to think of some current political crusade. But reformers also sprout in the rich soil of the arts, and no art form boasts a more bountiful crop than the improbable concoction known as opera.

Posted by Gary at 1:42 PM

September 22, 2010

The Makropulos Case, Coliseum, London

By Tim Ashley [The Guardian, 22 September 2010]

Though many would regard Amanda Roocroft as a variable artist, she has developed of late into a fine Janáček interpreter, turning in performances as Katya Kabanova at Glyndebourne and Jenůfa for English National Opera that have been remarkable for their emotional and theatrical veracity. For ENO's revival of Christopher Alden's 2006 production of The Makropulos Case, she adds Emilia Marty to her repertoire, and proves no less exceptional in what for many is the most complex role in the composer's output.

Posted by Gary at 11:45 PM

Les Vêpres siciliennes, De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam

By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 22 September 2010]

Duchess Hélène, Henri, a young Sicilian, and Jean Procida, a local doctor, are determined to free Sicily from the yoke of its bloodthirsty French governor, Guy de Montfort, who just happens to be Henri’s secret father.

Posted by Gary at 11:41 PM

September 21, 2010

Aida in San Francisco

The program booklet credits include her various hair colors (“bright green later changed to a spectacular pink, sometimes radiant red”). Mme. Zandra, approximately 70 years of age according to the program booklet, was aided by British stage director Jo Davis whose credits include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End.

Gio2.gifMarcello Giordani as Radames

These ladies are nothing if not clever. They dealt with Verdi’s problematic three-ringer in a very business like fashion (among Mme. Rhodes listed credits is her successful retail outlet in fashionable Fulham Road). More often than not Verdi’s delicate masterpiece is crushed by its own weight (six big singers working out a sordid political mess caused by some runaway passions and a great big military victory, the situation finally resolved by sheer fatigue — that of the lovers themselves and invariably of the audience too).

The fatigue factor was very nearly solved by mesdames Rhodes and Davis who kept things moving right along by a pyramid shape that expanded and contracted according to moods and situations (the shutters closed completely, finally, on the dying lovers). Sometimes one of the triangle of lovers was left alone on the apron against blank, dark scenery to tell us a few things in private, and once the stage was opened up totally in blank white in stark contrast to the bright greens, spectacular pinks and radiant reds of an unusually flamboyant, 1960’s sensibility Egypt.

All this slick theatricality was unfettered by concept save the presence of the wrathful eye of Horus that oversaw much of the action and cleverly doubled as decoration too. The lower portion of Horus’ priests were covered by wide gold lamé skirts leaving the priests naked from the waist up (and that was a sight to see), coiffed by the appropriate falcon headdress. The Ethiopians and particularly Aida’s father Amonasro were spectacularly savage à la American indian or maybe Australian aboriginal, comically light years away from tall, proud, black Ethiopians who might have seemed actually threatening.

GioCar.gifMarcello Giordani as Radames and Micaela Carosi as Aida

All this was overseen by San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary music director, Nicola Luisotti who probably saw nothing of the above having maneuvered his singers out onto the stage apron where alone, in pairs, trios, etc., he vindicated the idea of the traditional Italian “numbers” opera and reinvented the idea of the “costume” opera (characters are identified by their costumes rather than by what they do). This positioning was ideal for Mo. Luisotti to commune with Verdi and with great big voices, and to create as much effect as possible. Suffice to say that the effect was in fact very nearly maximum, held back only by the fuzzy acoustic of the War Memorial Opera House.

So it was a great evening that teased critical sensibility, seamlessly morphing in and out of tongue-in-cheek caricature of spectacle opera to just plain big, thrilling opera like opera once was, or so we are told.

Zajick2.gifDolora Zajick as Amneris

Diva Dolora Zajick spat and soared in fine voice as Amneris, upholding her by now very long held reputation as the Amneris of our day. She was in ideal concert with the big musical and vocal ideas of the maestro and perfectly at home in the costume opera concept (a big blue dress with a huge sphinx like headdress). Mme. Zajick in fact and against all odds almost succeeded in making Amneris a living, feeling character, this achievement the magic of a true artist.

Likewise tenor Marcello Giordani and soprano Micaela Carosi, the ill-fated lovers, held their own with the maestro, Mr. Giordani bravely donning a truly ridiculous, unflattering warrior skirt while traversing the tenorial tessitura with ease and stylistic aplomb. Mme. Carosi soared to some beautiful pianissimos in the upper-most soprano registers, often the undoing of lesser singers, and otherwise exploited all Italianate mannerisms with conviction. Neither Mme. Carosi nor Mr. Giordani approached the vulnerability or sympathy of their characters, leaving the stage to Mme. Zajick.

Vratogna.gifMarco Vratogna as Amonasro

Baritone Marco Vratogna was puzzling as Amonasro. In his peculiar way-over-the-top costume he was inherently silly, and he delivered his role in a complementary fashion. He proved himself an excellent artist last season as Iago, thus the question remains whether he was directed into this strange histrionic performance or if he came up with it himself. The King of Egypt and the priest Ramfis were well sung respectively by Christian Van Horn and Hao Jiang Tian and were less controversial.

No account of an Aida production can avoid the triumphal scene. It moved quickly thanks to Mo. Luisotti and the mesdames Rhodes and Davis. They went for pure circus, complete with acrobats, a family dancing act and even the de rigueur elephant, here a whimsical, gossamer blue concoction that crowned the wit and fun of these clever ladies. The usual hundreds of supernumeraries had been reduced to a mere thirty-three, and there were no cuts. The scene flew by.

Michael Milenski

Click here for a photo gallery and video excerpts.

image_description=Micaela Carosi as Aida [Photo courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
product_by=Aida: Micaela Carosi; Amneris: Dolora Zajick; Radames: Marcello Giordani; Amonasro: Marco Vratogna; Ramfis: Hao Jiang Tian; The King of Egypt: Christian Van Horn; Priestess: Leah Crocetto; Messenger: David Lomelí. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Jo Davies. Production Designer: Zandra Rhodes. Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich. Original Choreographer: Jonathan Lunn. Revival Choreographer: Lawrence Pech.
product_id=Above: Micaela Carosi as Aida
br/>All photos courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 8:02 AM

September 20, 2010

Bartoli to Helm Salzburg Whitsun Festival

By Larry L. Lash [, 20 September 2010]

VIENNA -- Cecilia Bartoli has been appointed artistic director of the Salzburger Pfingstenfestspiele (Salzburg Whitsun Festival) effective 2012. The announcement was made by Salzburger Festspiele Intendant designate Alexander Pereira at a press luncheon today at Vienna’s Hotel Sacher.

Posted by Gary at 1:22 PM

L.A. Opera to deliver 'Il Postino' premiere

By Reed Johnson [LA Times, 20 September 2010]

The Spanish-language opera by composer Daniel Catán is inspired by the 1994 Italian film of the same name about a fictional friendship between a mailman and the poet Pablo Neruda. This version has more politics in addition to the love travails of the title character.

Posted by Gary at 8:13 AM

WNO's 'Opera in the Outfield' event is a family-friendly day with Verdi

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 20 September 2010]

"Play Ballo!" was the motto of the Washington National Opera on Sunday. On a blazing afternoon, 11,000 people, toting picnic blankets and sunscreen took over Nationals Stadium for the third annual Opera in the Outfield event, a live simulcast on the Jumbotron screen of Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera," broadcast from the Kennedy Center.

Posted by Gary at 8:11 AM

Fidelio, Welsh National Opera/ In the Penal Colony, Music Theatre Wales

By Rupert Christiansen [The Telegraph, 20 September 2010]
Published: 5:56PM BST 20 Sep 2010

Welsh National Opera has imported from Bordeaux a two-dimensional staging of Beethoven’s Fidelio, directed by Giuseppe Frigeni. It eliminates virtually all the dialogue and strips the action to a skeleton, avoiding any pretence of realism. The first act takes place against the background of one wall of a salon of Beethoven’s era and two walls of a high barred cage; the latter forms the only scenery for the second act.

Posted by Gary at 8:06 AM

An experience In the Penal Colony

A Visitor (Michael Bennett) arrives in a remote penal colony. He’s asked to witness an execution. He tries to be completely neutral, insisting that his opinions don’t count because he’s not involved with the system. A Condemned Man (Gerald Tyler) is to be strapped into a machine which kills slowly by driving the words of his “crime” into his body. Thirty years ago I read Kafka’s original story. It’s so horrifying that I haven’t been able to read it since.

It’s so traumatic that you’re forced to respond. Kafka intuited Antonin Artaud’s theory that extremes shake people out of complacency. In the penal colony, people accept the killing machine passively, even though it’s no longer as well maintained as it was when the Old Commander, its inventor, ruled the island. No-one is prepared to take moral responsibility.

Only when the Visitor finally confronts the horror do things change. The Officer, however, has so absorbed the madness that he can’t live without it.

Glass’s music whirls, unearthly sounds projected over a string quintet, mechanical merging with live music, as precisely as cogs in a machine. The endless repetitions fit the plot as tightly as a straitjacket. “Efficient, quiet, anonymous”, as the Visitor explained he’d like to be. You’re half-hypnotized by this strange semi-trance music, just as the protagonists are numbed into accepting their circumstances.

Yet the repetitions move with a crazy logic, sometimes up a notch, sometimes disintegrating into cacophony (such as when the Officer thinks of his homeland — a last glimpse of the man he once was). Pay close attention to the subtle gradations. Like good film music they affect emotions subliminally. You understand how people in the penal colony become machines.

Omar Ebrahim, who sings The Officer, is extremely experienced in contemporary music theatre. His vocal range is prodigious, though not used here where the monotony of the music is part of the plot. Nonetheless, Ebrahim brings surprising lyricism to the part. Some passages shimmer with the fervour of Bach. The Officer’s dedication to his old Commander and to the machine demands total sacrifice. Blasphemy, perhaps, but in the insane world of the penal colony, there’s crazy logic to the idea that the Officer should offer himself to the machine as it falls apart.

The Music Theatre of Wales Ensemble played well. If at times, the electronic projections of Sound Intrermedia — leaders in their field — threatened to overwhelm, it reinforced the disturbing effect of machine overcoming human. Michael Rafferty conducted, Michael McCarthy directed.

The Condemned Man is so debased, the character is silent. Instead, Gerald Tyler moves like an animal, his eyes slanted, flickering like a snake. But for fortune, this dehumanized prisoner could be another Officer.

100913_0043-penalcolony-M-B.gifMichael Bennett as the Visitor, Gerald Tyler as the Condemned Man and Omar Ebrahim as the Officer

Oddly both Tyler and Ebrahim are covered in tattoos which probably pre-date the production. It’s bizarre, since the machine carves words into bodies and the Old Commander’s penmanship was so elaborate the Visitor couldn’t decipher it. Michael Bennett didn’t undress. He disrobed emotionally.

In the Penal Colony isn’t meant to be entertaining. It’s subject is so sick that I can’t imagine what sort of people could sit comfortably through it. You’re forced to take an emotional stand. The Visitor looks at the audience, as if seeking guidance. The Condemned Man grabs the hands of those in the front row. Few will “enjoy” this opera, I guarantee, but it’s a powerful experience. Anyone who can emerge from these horrors unshaken one way or another must be shallow indeed.

Into the Penal Colony runs at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House until 20th September then tours throughout the United Kingdom. Music Theatre Wales is courageous to put this on, because it is an important work. Much more condensed and focused than much of Glass’s other work, this piece will not easily be forgotten.

For more information please see the Music Theatre Wales site.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Gerald Tyler as the the Condemned Man and Omar Ebrahimas the Officer [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of Welsh National Opera]

product_title=Philip Glass : In the Penal Colony
product_by=The Officer : Omar Ebrahim, The Visitor : Michael Bennett, The Condemned Man : Gerald Tyler, Conductor : Michael Rafferty, Music Theatre Wales Ensemble, Director :Michael McCarthy, Electronics: Sounds Intermedia, Lighting : Ace McCarron. Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, 15th September 2010.
product_id=Above: Gerald Tyler as the the Condemned Man and Omar Ebrahimas the Officer

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of Welsh National Opera

Posted by anne_o at 5:40 AM

September 19, 2010

Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

The first movement “Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde” is nuanced, with subtle shifts in tempo and phrasing which allow the structure of the piece to emerge easily. At the same time, Tilson Thomas verges on pauses at some points, and they contribute to the rhythmic tension already present in the recording. Stuart Skelton’s extroverted approach to this and his two other pieces in Das Lied von der Erde shows his voice and technique well in music that fits his reputation as one of the current leading Heldentenors. His lower range is full-bodied and clear, with ringing high notes. The only quibble about this recording is the use of head voice, almost a falsetto, in the final phrase. While the latter works well, the shift in Skelton’s timbre is apparent. Skelton also delivers convincing readings of “Von der Jugend” and “Das Trunkene im Fruhling.” The with latter, Skelton offers a remarkable interpretation, in which the text is always clear without compromising the phrase structure and articulation of the melodic line.

Likewise, Hampson is impressive in this recording, and his interpretation of the final song “Der Abschied” is an intensive one, with full-bodied passion and also heartfelt resignation suggested in his approach to the vocal line. In this performance, Hampson’s approaches to the three songs reveals subtleties through the way he colors his voice. His elegiac, almost Lieder-Abend sound is evident in the first number “Der Einsame im Herbst,” with the second “Von der Schönheit” suggesting a more overt style and, at times, suggesting the style found in Puccini’s Turandot, particularly the almost patter-song middle section. Yet it is in “Der Abschied” that he brings unquestioned finesse to the subtle, almost understate tone he uses at the outset, a timbre that is superseded by the more impassioned approach for the final section. While as quiet as the score requires, the final iterations of “ewig” (forever) are nonetheless insistent through Hampson’s attention to the articulation of that word and its setting in this work.

Tilson Thomas, whose interpretations of Mahler’s works is respected offers a vibrant and engaging performance. His command of the orchestra is impressive in the full execution of the score that never loses intensity, even in the quiet sections in which the vocal line must emerge clearly. Yet this never colors adversely the introductions, codas, and interludes, where the orchestra brings an instrumental intensity to those passages. The balance between the orchestra and Skelton in the opening song is impressive, and Tilson Thomas sustains that interaction throughout the piece. This is further intensified by those subtle shifts in tempo that allow breathing space not just for the performers, but for the audience. A similar effect occurs in “Der Einsame im Herbst,” which the chamber-music passages have welcome shape and distinction. The full-bodied tone-painting that Mahler brings to the score of “Von der Schönheit” rings with an appropriately aggressive sound, that recedes, when the score requires, as if Tilson Thomas were accompanying from the keyboard.

Such command of the ensemble makes the final song, “Der Abschied” memorable for the balance of tension and release that fits into the structure of the music. The voicing of the sonority with which the movement opens is telling for its clarity, and this colors the passages that follow. Likewise, the extended orchestral interlude between the two parts of this piece rings with the intensity Tilson Thomas brought to his interpretation of the second Nachtmusik movement of his recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. When the voice returns for the second half of the song, it is with a sense of arrival, since the instrumental interlude that preceded it has shape and intensity to allow for this almost programmatic sense of motion betwen two distinct points. This dynamism is also present in the final passage, where the voice and its accompaniment interact in the obstinate non-resolution of the vocal line from ^3-^2 (mi-re, without resolving to do) and the unresolved sonority of A-C-E-G with its implicit ambiguity in suggesting both a minor and major chord. This caps Hampson’s masterful interpretation of “Der Abschied” in conveying the full impact of Mahler’s final vocal work.

This recording benefits from the excellent sound characteristic of the San Francisco Symphony’s own label. At times the voices seem quite close to the microphone, but this presence never interferes with the overall balance. With notes by Michael Steinberg, the booklet is a useful supplement that documents the recording with the names of all the performers, along with the full texts of and translations of Das Lied von der Erde.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

product_title=Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
product_by=Stuart Skelton, tenor, Thomas Hampson, baritone, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. San Francisco Symphony
product_id=San Francisco Symphony 821936-0019-2 [SACD]

Posted by jim_z at 12:07 PM

Un ballo in maschera at the Washington National Opera

Intrigue, jealousy, murder and mayhem amid the sparkle of a masked ball certainly provide all the ingredients necessary for a successful inaugural gala. Yet director James Robinson’s version of the Ballo that has opened Washington National Opera’s 2010-2011 season is for the most part a gloomy affair, deliberately bereft of pageantry and panache. The color palette is mostly silver, eggshell, and beige; the chorus is dressed in identical drab gray, their steel-gray masks completing the picture of cold, faceless mannequins. Perhaps the director wanted to set the passionate principals of the drama (who — both heroes and villains — are permitted color) in sharper relief against the bland complicity of the chorus that tends to break into sycophantic hymns of praise at every opportunity - a habit that both the conspirators of the story and quite a few members of the audience, in my experience, tend to find extremely irritating.

As is fashionable nowadays, the action in this Ballo has been moved back to the 18th-century Swedish court of Gustav III, Verdi’s original location, which spares an American audience from the torment of imagining the 17th-century Boston, MA, populated by the very un-pilgrim-like Renato and Riccardo. Otherwise, this production is almost entirely traditional, which seemed to suit most of the principals I saw on Tuesday, September 14th, quite well. The Italian imports (tenor Salvatore Licitra as Gustavo and baritone Luca Salsi as Renato, Count Anckarström) in particular tended to gravitate towards the footlights at every opportunity, singing to the audience rather than to each other. Soprano Tamara Wilson as Amelia also tended to limit her acting to an occasional turn of the head. Yet, especially toward the end of the opera, it somehow worked for her, lending her tragic character dignity and poise that, in her predicament, Amelia could certainly use.

The only person in the production whom I spied having any fun at all was Micaëla Oeste’s lovable page Oscar. Oeste’s light, pure tone and her fast, precise, flexible coloratura made short work of the difficult part. She also monopolized virtually all the stage business in this Masked Ball, dancing, flirting, and mischief-making her way through the performance and keeping alive the bubbly spirit of French comedy, which Verdi so carefully planted into his score and which the other performers occasionally seemed to have misplaced. The one exception was the tasty “laughing chorus” at the end of Act 2, led with a suave nonchalance by Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins as Count Ribbing and Count Horn respectively.

One of the highlights of the evening was Salvatore Licitra, who will surely not lack for admirers in the DC area after his performance as Gustavo. Licitra’s is a powerful, metallic tenore di forza that we demand of our Dukes, Alfredos, and Radameses; it carried without strain, easily taking and holding the mandatory high Bs of Gustavo’s part. The singer was at his best in the bel canto strains of his cantabile arias, and as their prominence in his part increased in Acts 2 and 3, his performance soared, the famous grand duet with Amelia and the Act 3 romance Ma se m’è forza perderti garnering plenty of well-deserved applause. All that power, however, seems to come at the expense of flexibility, which made for a few awkward moments in Act 1, in which Gustavo must be at his comic best. While the opening La rivedrà nell’ estasi was lovely, Licitra’s solos in the stretta, Ogni cura si doni al diletto and particularly in the fabulous quintet, È scherzo od è follia in Act 1 Scene 2, lacked not only an articulate coloratura, but occasionally the basic pitch and rhythm, especially at the break-neck tempi chosen by the conductor, Licitra’s compatriot Daniele Callegari. The bright spot in that scene was the Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina, who stole the show as the fortune-teller Ulrica (that is, Mam’zelle Arvidson, according to Verdi’s original cast list). Manistina’s deep, rich, darkly powerful voice carried easily, with perhaps only a little too much vibrato - an echo of the Moscow singing school that nurtured the singer, a former Operalia winner. Immediately impressive was the opening invocation; despite the distraction of her unfortunate costume and wig (a cross between Macbeth and The Witches of Eastwick), one could hear both the menace of Azucena and the mystery of the Pique Dame, Ms. Manistina’s two signature parts.

Manistina-and-Licitra_051_c.gifSalvatore Licitra as King Gustavus III and Elena Manistina as Ulrica

As is so often the case, the overall impression of an opera production is either ruined or redeemed by the decisions of its design team, and the WNO’s Ballo was no exception (sets by Allen Moyer; original lighting by Duane Schuler; lighting by Jeff Bruckerhoff). The set for the fortune-telling scene, for instance, features the back panel of the palace ballroom, raised to hover diagonally over the stage, while Gustavo is forced to hide, in a most undignified fashion, behind a pile of left-over ballroom furniture. The choice of the ballroom’s fancy candelabra, partially covered with strips of cloth, somehow made to illuminate the Act 2 graveyard scene, is also rather puzzling. And alas, the pitiful sight of the choristers carrying their own chairs does make one reflect upon the depth of WNO’s budget woes. The “less is more” approach, however, works wonders in the opening scene of Act 3: set between the two panels - the floor and the much-too-low ceiling, with the sides draped in black, the austere design projects the oppressive and menacing atmosphere of the Anckarström household with spectacular power. Luca Salsi was equally spot-on with his Eri tu, one of Renato’s signature pieces and undoubtedly Salsi’s best contribution on Tuesday - his opening Alla vita che t’arride was shaky enough to make one wonder whether the part was too high for him. Like Salsi, Tamara Wilson’s Amelia grew on me as the evening progressed: her first act was unremarkable; the grand scena in Act 2 was better, although I was not entirely convinced by the duet; but the heart-breaking Morrò ma prima in grazia in Act 3 Scene 1, with its subtle mezzo voce, was truly memorable. That scene indeed proved one of the most potent in the production, if not for the orchestra - the timpani so loud and the brass so stunningly off-pitch, one could almost understand Amelia’s desire to end it all.

Wilson-and-Licitra_049_cr.gifSalvatore Licrita as King Gustavus III and Tamara Wilson as Amelia

In the final analysis, this WNO production of Un ballo in maschera, although uneven, is worth seeing, both for the highlights in the cast and for some powerful moments in direction and design. After all, the company is not spoiling us for choice this season, with only one other production — Salome — between now and March. Stay tuned!

Olga Haldey

image= image_description=Salvatore Licitra as King Gustavus III [Photo by Scott Suchman/WNO] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera product_by=King Gustavus III (Riccardo): Salvatore Licitra (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25), Frank Porretta (Sep 16, 20); Count Anckarström (Renato): Luca Salsi (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19m, 22, 25), Timothy Mix (Sep 16, 20); Amelia: Tamara Wilson (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19m, 22, 25), Susan Neves (Sep 16, 20); Oscar: Micaëla Oeste± (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19m, 22, 25), Monica Yunus (Sep 16, 20): Mam’zelle Arvidson (Ulrica): Elena Manistina; Count Ribbing (Samuel): Kenneth Kellogg;Count Horn (Tom): Julien Robbins (Sep 11, 14, 17, 19m, 22, 25), John Marcus Bindel (Sep 16, 20); Christian (Silvano): Aleksey Bogdanov; Servant: Peter Burroughs; Armfelt (Chief Judge): Tim Augustin. Conductor: Daniele Callegari. Director: James Robinson. Set Design: Allen Moyer. Costume Design: James Schuette. product_id=Above: Salvatore Licitra as King Gustavus III

All photos by Scott Suchman courtesy of Washington National Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:05 PM

September 16, 2010

Hugo Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch at Wigmore Hall

Religious fervour and sexual ecstasy are almost indistinguishable in these songs. Wolf was introduced to Emanuel Geibel’s and Paul Heyse’s translations of Spanish poetry in 1888, an encounter which unleashed a frenzy of creative inspiration, and which guided his musical style and techniques in surprising new directions. Vocal lines are more melodic, less declamatory, than his earlier settings of Eichendorff, Mörike and Goethe; in these Spanish songs, Wolf seems to have paid less attention to the exact intonations and rhythms of the words and instead to have submerged himself in the elated atmosphere of the poems.

The collection is divided into sacred and secular. We began with ten of the devotional songs, songs which are remarkably consistent in terms of mood, pace and texture — chordal accompaniments, processional rhythms, repeating slowly and incessantly — and which accumulate to embody the over-wrought, obsessive sentiments of the texts.

Bostridge_2010.gifIan Bostridge [Photo by Ben Ealovega]

Ian Bostridge is musically and physically suited to this repertoire. His highly nuanced style of delivery, which can at times seem over-mannered, here perfectly conveyed the mood of agonizing guilt, self-chastisement and martyrdom. Moving between pained earnestness and glorious rapture, Bostridge made effective use of his powerfully focused high timbre, subtle inflections suggesting a strained desperation, and the rich resources of a more baritonal range. Ever alert to the piquant dissonances in the accompaniment — the inexorable chromatic rises, the unexpectedly momentary clarity and light offered by a major-key resolution — his diction was precise. Tall and pale, physically responsive to the texts, he seemed to epitomise the combination mystical reverence and delight in intensely real detail so characteristic of Spanish baroque art.

‘Ach, wie lang die Seele schlummert’ (‘Ah, how long the soul has slumbered’) was particularly impressive. A tritone fall in the piano bass and the sparseness of the accompaniment at the opening of the song create a deathly, muted ambience; Bostridge’s voice sank into its lower regions, then rose and warmed startlingly in a glorious imitation of real and figurative illumination as ‘the longed-for light/breaks through and dazzles [my soul’s] eyes’. The troubled questions of ‘Herr, was trägt der Boden hier’ (‘Lord, what will grow in this soil’) were given musical shape by the piano’s rhetorical gestures, while the tenor line acquired an intense focus in reply, ‘Thorns, dear heart, for me,/ and for you a wreath of flowers’. Unease gently disturbed the surface calm, until burst forth in an explicit outburst of anxiety, ‘O my Lord, for whose head are these wreaths woven, say?’ One was reminded of the expressionist outpourings of El Greco.

Kirschlager_Angelika_2010.gifAngelika Kirchschlager [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]

Bostridge was partnered in this recital by Angelika Kirchschlager. The soprano seemed ill at ease initially, and given that she had cancelled a recital just two days before, we might assume that she was suffering from a bad cold; for her voice seemed dry and constricted at times, and her breathing laboured. ‘Mühvoll komm’ich und beladen’ (‘In toil I come, and heavy-laden’) is a tortured emotional drama, the dissonant bass-register chords of the piano’s opening capturing the despairing weariness of the opening lines, ‘In toil I come and heavy-laden,/ receive me, O haven of mercy!’ However, Kirchschlager struggled to control her intonation during the biting dissonances which permeate the song. She seemed more comfortable in the only serene, contented song in the sequence, the gentle ‘Ach, des Knaben Augen’ (‘Ah, the infant’s eyes’), where she found a warm, restful tone to convey the radiance of the mother’s love, reflected also by the major tonality and soothing consonance of the song.

The secular followed the sacred — twenty-four songs about romantic and erotic love. After the sombre stillness of so many of the sacred songs, the immediate change of style and pace was surprising: the whirling semi-quavers and exuberant trills of the triple time ‘Kinge, klinge, mein Pandero’ (‘Sound, tambourine, sound’) immediately whisking us off into another world, one of joy, desire, coquetry and mockery. If anything, it felt as if we were journeying a little too fast, as successive songs tumbled into one another with scarcely a pause; at times the singers barely had time to rise from their seats, so rapidly had pianist Julius Drake launched himself into the next song.

Many of these songs are playfully ironic and tempt the singer to indulge in some teasing play-acting; Kirchschlager clearly enjoyed the mischievousness, but in fact she was musically more at home in the more simple euphoric songs, such as ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’ (‘Cover me with flowers’); meanwhile Bostridge’s sometimes exaggerated vocal gestures aptly suggested the dark ironies of these poems. ‘Auf dem grünen Balkon’ (‘On the green balcony’) was superbly sung: the tenor savoured the self-mockery of the poet-narrator who describes women’s guiles, always ‘mixing a drop of sadness into pleasure:/ with her eyes she leads me on,/ but her finger tells me: No!’ — the slightest rhythmic hesitation wonderfully imitating the satirical effect of the punctuation here.

Julius Drake relished the complexities and variety of the piano accompaniments. Bostridge and Drake know each other well; typically, the rubatos in ‘Wer sein holdes Live verloren’ (‘He who has lost his loved one’) and the changes of pace in ‘Herz, verzage nicht geschwind’ (Heart, do not despair too soon’) were perfectly co-ordinated. Yet Kirchschlager seemed a little rushed, as at times Drake allowed the admittedly soloistic writing for the piano to encourage him to dominate and lead, when the suffering soprano might have been pleased to have a little more time to breathe.

It was not until the twentieth century that the true significance of El Greco’s dramatic art was appreciated and understood. Wolf is more fortunate in having singers of this calibre and conviction to remind us what a startlingly original composer of lieder he was.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Christ carrying the cross by El Greco (1600-05) product=yes product_title=Hugo Wolf: Spanisches Liederbuch product_by=Ian Bostridge, tenor; Angelika Kirchschlager, soprano; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Monday 13th September. product_id=Above: Christ carrying the cross by El Greco (1600-05)
Posted by Gary at 4:38 PM

New York City Opera Names Charles R. Wall as Next Chairman of the Board of Directors

(New York, NY, September 16, 2010) Today, the Board of Directors of New York City Opera announced that Charles R. Wall was unanimously elected Chairman of the Board effective December 16, 2010. Mr. Wall, who previously served on City Opera’s board from 2001 to 2008, will succeed Susan L. Baker, who will step down as Chairman after seven years of dedicated service.

Posted by Gary at 3:19 PM

September 15, 2010

Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House

Isabella Bywater beautifully realises Miller’s clever visual concept, presenting us with an exquisite reproduction of an eighteenth-century doll’s house, the façade of which is drawn back to reveal a realistic and immensely detailed interior — the connecting corridors, doors and stairwells are perfect for upstairs-downstairs intrigues and affairs. Bywater is alert to every minor detail, the only anachronism being the arrival of boxes from Versace, Prada, Escada and La Perla after Norina’s extravagant post-marriage spending spree. Costumes are similarly precise and elaborate, the characters dressed as elaborate mannequins, with whitened faces, and gowns and cloaks of gharish reds, purples and pinks.

Beyond its visual appeal, this set has one clear advantage: it can be seen clearly from all corners and heights of the auditorium — not something that could be boasted off all recent ROH productions. However, enclosing the action in a succession of tiny chambers, three-storeys high, does produce a rather ‘distanced’ result, and at times the singers, trapped in their cubicles, struggled to project over the orchestral fabric and to communicate directly with the audience. It is thus quite a relief when, in the closing moments, the protagonists venture into the garden; as the door of the doll’s house is closed, a reassuring air of reality is intimately; these are real characters after all, not puppets, although the artificial world is still visible through a narrow chink, and the genuinely tragic and comic sentiments of this human drama are never fully evoked.

DP_ROH_02_2010.pngPaolo Gavanelli as Don Pasquale

As the eponymous old ogler, duped by his avaricious nephew, Paolo Gavanelli huffed and puffed, stamped and pounded, frustrated and exasperated almost to the point of self-combustion. While he hammed up the gags, Gavanelli’s baritone is a little heavy and his portrayal would have benefitted from some light buffo esprit — and from crisper diction. His patter-duet with Dr Malatesta, sung by Jacques Imbrailo, is the high point of the comedy, but it did not produce quite the excitement that it should, and was the wrong sort of ‘breathless’.

Imbrailo was a confident, wry Malatesta — a Dulcimara with style. Among the two-dimensional stereotypes, he conveyed a naturalism and credibility, sang with clear diction, and balanced lyricism with dramatic singing. A recent graduate of the Jette Parker Young Artist scheme, he’s one to watch.

Barry Banks, as Ernesto, was reportedly afflicted with an allergic reaction; his high, ringing tenor was a little unyielding at times, but, while he did not attain a truly Italianate bel canto lyricism, his voice has a freshness and focus which added vigour to a foppish role.

Making her house debut, Íride Martínez initially appeared somewhat nervous. This Norina was rather shrill and uncomfortable, but Martínez relaxed as the evening progressed and had no difficulty spanning the vocal compass of the role, or dispatching the coloratura demands of the final act. She revealed a sure sense of comic timing and gradually began to enjoy herself, metamorphosing from sweet young bride to scathing harridan.

DP_ROH_03_2010.pngJacques Imbrailo as Doctor Malatesta

The chorus have little to do musically until Act 3, but they kept themselves busy, dusting, cooking, gossiping…at times all this activity was a little distracting. When they did get the opportunity to sing, however, they produced an exciting, invigorated ensemble sound.

Perhaps sensing that the cast were rather constricted by the staging, Evelino Pidò injected some movement and fizz in the pit; tempi were pacy, textures were clear — there was some exquisite woodwind playing — and the accompanying patterns were energetic and light-footed.

Overall, the performances were solid but for this listener the parts did not add up to a totally convincing whole. Most unsettling of all, in this production the values articulated by this fairly straightforward farce were not absolutely clear - who are the ‘baddies’? We may pity our ‘hero’, Ernesto, as a lover deprived of his heart’s desire; but his campness is less appealing and his covetousness less admirable. Norina is an amusing minx but the slap she delivers to her long-suffering husband, sits uncomfortably among the frivolities and artifice, and dilutes our sympathy. Don Pasquale is a pitiful dupe, but also a dissipated old lecher. Even the calculating Malatesta is an ambiguous ‘villain’: his intentions are, after all, beneficent, and his manipulative scheming does have a happy outcome.

One can’t help feeling that things should either be more frothy or more revelatory. As it is, it’s hard to care about these marionettes in their artificial bubble.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Íride Martinez as Norina and Barry Banks as Ernesto [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the Royal Opera] product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale product_by=Ernesto: Barry Banks; Don Pasquale: Paolo Gavanelli; Doctor Malatesta: Jacques Imbrailo; Norina: Íride Martínez; Notary: Bryan Secombe. Conductor: Evelino Pidò. Director: Jonathan Miller. Associate Director: Daniel Dooner. Designs: Isabella Bywater. Lighting Designs: Jvan Morandi. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Sunday 12th September 2010. product_id=Above: Íride Martinez as Norina and Barry Banks as Ernesto

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the Royal Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:33 PM

Great Expectations for a New Opera, Dashed

By George Loomis [NY Times, 15 September 2010]

COPENHAGEN — Widely recognized as Denmark’s leading composer, Poul Ruders established himself as a major force in opera with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a harrowing treatment of Margaret Atwood’s futuristic best-seller that received its premiere at the Royal Danish Opera in 2000. This gripping work led Anthony Tommasini, writing in The New York Times in 2001, to observe that Mr. Ruders “seems to have a Verdian understanding of the genre.”

Posted by Gary at 12:52 PM

The Valhalla Machine

By Daniel J. Wakin [NY Times, 15 September 2010]

THE Rhinemaiden descended by a cable to the floor of the Metropolitan Opera stage. She extended her body just in front of a hollow beneath part of the set for Wagner’s “Rheingold.” Slowly, inexorably, the edge of a 45-ton structure tilted down toward her.

Posted by Gary at 8:08 AM

September 14, 2010

Don Pasquale, Royal Opera House, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 14 September 2010]

The management of the Royal Opera must have double vision at the moment. While the company is away on its first tour to Japan for 18 years, the autumn season is simultaneously opening at the Royal Opera House. On Sunday, with performances of La traviata in Yokohama and Don Pasquale in London, the Royal Opera miraculously managed to be in two places at the same time.

Posted by Gary at 4:57 PM

Les Contes '’Hoffmann Returns To The Met Thru 10/19

By BWW News Desk [, 14 September 2010]

Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann ("The Tales of Hoffmann") returns to the Met stage in last season's acclaimed production directed by Tony Award-winner Bartlett Sher, with Giuseppe Filianoti singing the title role for the first time at the Met. Ildar Abdrazakov, who sang the title role in last season's Met premiere of Verdi's Attila, makes his career role debut as the four villains. In the roles of Hoffmann's loves, three artists make their Met debuts: Hibla Gerzmava as both Antonia and Stella; Enkelejda Shkosa as Giulietta, and Elena Mosuc as Olympia (October 6 performance). Anna Christy sings the role of Olympia for the first time at the Met in the premiere cast, and Kate Lindsey reprises her admired portrayal of Nicklausse/The Muse, which she performed last season. French conductor Patrick Fournillier makes his Met debut leading the performances. Set designs are by Michael Yeargan and costume designs by Catherine Zuber, both Tony Award-winners who collaborated with Sher on his Met production of IL Barbiere di Siviglia. Lighting is by James F. Ingalls, and the choreography is by Dou Dou Huang. Performances run through October 19.

Posted by Gary at 4:52 PM

Karita Mattila, Wigmore Hall, London

By Erica Jeal [The Guardian, 14 September 2010]

Few of opera's big beasts are as fabulous as soprano Karita Mattila, who returned as the Wigmore Hall's season-opening act after 13 years away from the venue.

Posted by Gary at 4:49 PM

Royal Opera Japan tour diary: The second understudy steals the show

By Nicholas Wroe [The Guardian, 14 September 2010]

And so to the opening nights, and one of the classic storylines in all opera - not the dying heroines of Manon and La Traviata, but the understudy who steals the show. La Traviata began with Elaine Padmore, director of opera, coming on stage to formally apologise for Angela Gheorgiu's absence, and to explain that Violetta would be sung by Ermonela Jaho. Then, at the start of the second act, Padmore appeared again: "I wasn't expecting to be making another speech today ..."

Posted by Gary at 4:46 PM

The Rake’s Progress at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

The resulting work usually becomes treasured by critics but somewhat less warmly received by the broader opera-going public. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a gorgeous piece and almost surely a money loser when staged, at least for American companies. Of American companies as well, only the Metropolitan Opera seems able to gird its financial loins and put on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron every few years. More recent works in this vein that tickle the rarefied fancies of professional opera journalists include Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. The scores of these works, unsurprisingly, often demonstrate a sophistication and complexity beyond the reach of the humbler composers whose popular works keep opera house doors open. But an opera is more than a score.

For his sole full-length operatic venture, Igor Stravinsky composed a score to W. H Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto for The Rake’s Progress that marries his brilliant rhythmic hi-jinks with a neo-classical homage, including set numbers for the characters. However, once Stravinsky’s mature compositional self emerged from the shadow of Rimsky-Korsakov, he hardly established himself as a memorable composer of melodies, and much of The Rake’s Progress glides by in a kind of tart musical glaze that seems ready to form an appealing tuneful idea but never does. The libretto earns points for its clever mutation of the original source material, a series of sketches by Hogarth. Despite having a world-class poet as part of the writing team, much of the language is weirdly awkward, and the story becomes just another twist on Faust/Mephistopheles tale. Stylized to the point of aridity, this is very very dry wine for connoisseurs.

The sheer theatrical imagination and sharpness of Robert LePage’s staging of The Rake’s Progress only reinforces these convictions for your reviewer. Filmed here in April 2007 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, the cameras actually don’t do the optimal job of preserving the effect of Lepage’s best ideas as seen in the house (your reviewer saw this production in San Francisco a few years ago). Close-ups bring the viewer too near the theatrical make-up and flatten the charm of some of the best ideas, such as the inflatable trailer home, a delightful event seen live but less charming on film. The design, by Carl Fillion, appears to be inspired by the CinemaScope expanses of the American west as seen in George Stevens’ Giant. The connection to the material is dubious but it makes for some striking visuals.

An able but uncharismatic cast is one big part of the reason why this DVD is less entertaining than it promises to be. Tom Rakewell is almost as much of a bore when dissolute as he is when innocent at the opera’s start. Andrew Kennedy has a lyric tenor with some substance but little color, and he is one key performer done no favors by a farsighted camera person. Laura Claycomb sings a very pretty Anne Truelove, and there isn’t much more to do with the role than that. Surely Mephistopheles can afford a premium hair stylist, but William Shimmell’s Nick Shadow has the thinning hair and pasty complexion of a middle-aged politician. He’s more unappealing than demonic. As expected, Dagmar Peckova steals her scenes with a perky, limber Baba Turk.

Kazushi Ono conducts the La Monnaie forces with the attention to precision the score demands. Many people do esteem this work highly, and for those, this DVD surely counts as essential. For all others, the best option for this opera in this staging is to catch it live.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress

product_title=Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress
product_by=Anne Truelove: Laura Claycomb; Tom Rakewell: Andrew Kennedy; Nick Shadow: William Shimmell; Baba the Turk: Dagmar Peckova; Sellem: Donal J. Byrne. Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels. Kazushi Ono, conductor. Robert Lepage, stage director. Recorded live at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels on 26 and 28 April 2007.
product_id=Opus Arte OA BD7038 D [Blu-Ray]

Posted by chris_m at 4:46 PM

Met Opera Plans a Baroque Pastiche

By Daniel J. Wakin [NY Times, 14 September 2010]

They called it a pasticcio — pastry — a mishmash of arias by different composers, sometimes given new texts and often chosen by the singers. The practice of throwing together an opera from snippets, also called a pastiche opera, was standard operating procedure from the late-17th to late-18th centuries: a practice unthinkable in our age of textual authenticity.

Posted by Gary at 12:45 PM

Bayreuth’s Lohengrin: A ‘Rat’-ical Re-‘tail’-ing

It was the first of many WTF moments for its own WTF sake. It certainly had nothing to do with Wagner’s opus. Nor really much to with anything else, except for the inexplicable fact that aging bad-boy director Hans Neuenfels can apparently still get producers to lavish considerably large resources on his artistic pretensions.

My point being is that nothing about the production looks cheap. Just horribly, horribly…and willfully…wrong. Reinhard von der Thannen’s multitude of well-crafted costumes run the gamut from menacing rats with lighted red eyes, to Disney rats in alternating grey and white rows, to a cute ‘Mutti’ rat who conducts her tiny brood in ‘singing’ the squires ‘quartet’ in the wedding procession. You get the idea, and there are endless variations as these attention getting devices breed like…well…rats.

Wearing rubber rat feet, hands and tails; and an admittedly clever mesh mask/snout, the Chor occasionally molt their rat coats to reveal, say, blinding golden yellow zoot suits or later, white tails. The ladies come to the wedding procession in garish carnival gowns in Day-Glo hues that Carmen Miranda would have rejected. But ‘ohne Zweifel’ they sure are screamingly colorful. In the last act, the group of choristers are real people at last, in muted black and gray courtiers’ garb, having somehow been transformed from a controlled proletariat rats nest into a free society. Sort of.

The principals by comparison were rather lackluster in their dress, Elsa entering in a white silver buttoned trench coat get-up that was studded with more white arrows than a Saint Sebastian painting. Since two rats were trailing her with bows and arrows at the ready, one must guess that this was supposed to represent that she was a victim of the slings and arrows of malicious public opinion. But who the hell really knows? I will say that when our hero later yanks them out of her back as she winces, it more suggests a chicken being plucked than any high-minded moral imagery.

Lohengrin was in a simple contemporary white shirt with black pants and a loosened black tie, like a bored Prada model in an advert. The dapper King looked disco dressy in his black suit, vest and no shirt, although he did have a black felt crown in the standard-issue Euro-trash Bart Simpson hair-do design (do German theatres buy these by the gross?). Ortrud and Telramund at one point had shiny silver suits that, with the addition of a few spangles, could form the nucleus for the finale of A Chorus Line. It has to be said that the white-bird-black-bird cotillion gowns for Elsa and Ortrud in the wedding procession were beautiful to look at, although perhaps more appropriate for Swan Lake then Lohengrin. The Herald was decked out in grey tails (the prom attire type) and sported hair moussed so wildly Peter Sellars would be jealous.

These divergent costume eccentricities were balanced by Thannen’s clinical white sets, which served as a blessedly neutral backdrop to so much visual busy-ness. The laboratory theme was inconsistent with other settings in that we couldn’t really figure out just where these other places were supposed to be within context of the Konzept. The newlyweds’ bed chamber tracks on nicely from upstage and affords good playing levels, but what are those scattered porthole windows about? Are they meant to be peepholes? Or evocative of a Swiss cheese meant to bait a rat trap? Lest you think I hypothesize too much, the marauding assassins who break into the boudoir to kill the hero are all dressed as rats again, including Telramund. But, who dude…his body is wheeled on in the final scene on a gurney, fully human again. WTF?

Act Two is perhaps most puzzling of all, although perhaps also least maddening. In the middle of the stage a black carriage has broken down and a white horse lies dead on its side. I couldn’t help but think of Cinderella after the coach and horses went past the sell-by date and reverted to a pumpkin and mice (or rats). Except…well, there was no pumpkin. And while no one beat the dead horse, Ortrud and Telramund did beat the ‘demoralized travelers’ image until it had no pulse left, seeming like a scrapping couple bitching that they will never again take a damn’ package tour. (“First the horse dies, then the carriage breaks down, there are rodents everywhere…”).

Franck Evin came up with a complementary lighting design, and Bjorn Verloh devised some very professional videos, although they were far more distracting than they were enriching. Each one was titled “A truth.” The first two offered variations of a white rat (Elsa) pursuing a pink rat (Gottfried) and attempting to kill him; the first time succeeding, the second time being thwarted by another rat (Lohengrin). The third video featured the skeleton of a dog who becomes infested by the rats that he is chasing, and ultimately collapses in a pile of bones. Well produced, but…WTF?

Mr. Neuenfels, having exhausted his interest in placing giant insects on stage in past opera productions, has entered a new anthropological chapter and is clearly the driving force in imposing this mish-mosh of ideas and images. To his credit, the staging of the large crowd scenes are flawlessly put together, the complicated traffic patterns are well rehearsed, and even the semaphoric choreography is cleanly executed. And once in a while, in duet scenes, the characters actual seem to connect once the distractions momentarily abate. But such moments of illuminating repose are rare. The practiced discipline in his traffic management are woefully missing from his conception’s through-line and Mr. N seems hell-bent on throwing one whacked-out idea after another at us hoping one might work. Or better, rankle. Oooooooh. For provocation is what this guy is about. A partial listing:

At the exultant climax of Act One, a plucked swan-cum-rubber-chicken flies in from above like Groucho Marx’s duck. In a parody of court dances, two lines of boy rats, intensely caress the tales of two lines of lady rats with a curiously phallic fixation. Superfluous lab technicians in green scrubs are costumed stage managers and, on occasion, antagonists. A large, Lladro-like swan has its neck bent backwards by Ortrud who rides it like a witches broom, and when she dismounts, it slowly springs back up like an erection. And Hans’s worst effort is reserved for the final moments:

When the boat appears (a black coffin), it carries some large structure that is draped with a black cloth with a white swan image. Lohengrin pull it away to reveal a giant (swan?) egg. Laughter. Then the thing spins around to reveal the ugliest, placenta covered fetus (Gottfried) you can imagine. As the chorus prostrate themselves, the baby stands up, break off pieces from his umbilical cord, and tosses them on the crowd. Frat boy gross out behavior really serves Wagner’s intentions, right?

The musical side of the equation was mercifully in mostly very fine estate, thanks to the propulsive reading by conductor Andris Nelsons who was especially commanding in the frequent powerful dramatic outbursts. Not to imply that Maestro Nelsons was less successful in the introspective passages, since he found great longing and sensitivity in all the great emotional benchmark moments. However, the opening strings might have been more luminescent, and the rhythmic pulse might have throbbed a bit more. The usually flawless orchestra had a few surprising bleeps and blats from the horns and trumpets in the oft-repeated fanfares. I confess to still having a problem with the covered pit’s homogenizing of the orchestral colors. The echoed trumpet call effect didn’t land since all three ensembles sounded almost equally muted. I guess Wagner knew what he wanted, but I much prefer the vibrant colors and email that are able to emanate more fully from an uncovered pit. In addition to enthusiastically executing their demanding staging, Eberhard Friedrich’s large chorus was exceptional in every way, singing with commanding variety, and clearly enunciating every phrase as one voice.

Bass Georg Zeppenfeld stole the vocal honors for his powerfully sung Henry the Fowler. His rich, round tone was equally effective at both extremes of the range and everywhere in between, and his subtle dynamics and pointed phrasing wrung every bit of drama out of his role. In a very close second, Samuel Yuon was a superlative Herald, every bit as impressive as his splendid Gurnemanz last summer. Mr. Yuon has a hint of darkness in his sizable bass-baritone, but his lightness of approach and sound bel canto-based technique allow for gorgeous, arching musical statements. A most impressive vocalist.

Much interest was focused on Annette Dasch in her role debut as Elsa, and the audience enthusiasm for this popular star was not misplaced. Ms. Dasch has an exciting presence and an admirable impression of spontaneity that make for exciting musical and dramatic effects. I felt that her introspective sustained singing just after her entrance was not the strength of her portrayal, and she came into her own when she had the opportunity to interact with others, seeming spurred on by the heat she was being given from her fellow performers. The voice can be pleasingly grainy at lower volumes, but she can pour out full-voiced tone with a hint of steel when things start percolating. And she is lovely to behold, suggesting the cool girlish beauty of Margaux Hemingway. What Annette does not yet have is the artistic serenity for the character, and the vocal cream to enhance the moments of poised stillness in her self-doubt. She is young, she is gifted, she will grow. But already, hers was undeniably a crowd-pleasing Elsa.

The biggest drawing card of the show (sorry, Hans) was to have been recently-world-famous Jonas Kauffman in the title role. Alas, illness felled him for the final two shows and he was spelled on this occasion by a wholly satisfactory Simon O’Neill, who has the heft and staying power for the part. He had many thrilling moments when in full-Geschrei, and acquitted himself most professionally throughout. I found his well-schooled instrument slightly less effective in the quieter phrases, and it must be said that “Mein lieber Schwann” was effortful and a bit insecure (I was holding my breath but he made it through through sheer force of will). The audience was generous with their approval to the point of being almost rapturous, as much for saving the show as for his (mostly) assured singing.

Would that we had been so lucky with our evil-doers. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen offered a decently sung, if undistinguished Telramund, one that for all its bluster communicated little chilling villainy over the footlights. Having admired Evelyn Herlitzius as the Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde in Cologne not too many years ago, it was shocking to hear what toll the intervening Wagner performances have taken on her instrument. What once was a pleasantly penetrating soprano with a controlled womanly vibrato has become unpleasantly piercing at all but the softest volumes, and turns warbly at forte to boot. Her hysterical approach to the role had her pushing the volume more often than not, and high lying phrases veered considerably off pitch, often encompassing more pitches than those written. I hope Ms. Herlitzius can stop and fix it for she is a sensitive artist, and much of here softer singing still gave pleasure.

What to conclude then about this variable performance? Well, the Festspiel has gotten itself a good rip-roaring Skandal, and everyone is clucking and fussing about it. But what they don’t have, alas, is a very good Lohengrin. With the Ring leaving the repertoire next year, the schedule will inherit three poorly regarded productions and one intriguing Parsifal. The Publikum must be praying that Katerina and Eva are mindful that the new Tannhäuser is not just another case of ‘Shock and Schlock.’

James Sohre

image= image_description= product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin product_by=Lohengrin: Simon O’Neill; Elsa: Annette Dasch; Henry the Fowler: Georg Zeppenfeld; Herald: Samuel Yuon; Friedrich von Telramund: Hans-Joachim Ketelsen; Ortrud: Evelyn Herlitzius. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Set and Costume Design: Reinhard von der Thannen. Lighting Design: Franck Evin. Video: Bjorn Verloh. Chorus Master: Eberhard Friedrich. product_id=
Posted by james_s at 12:16 PM

September 13, 2010

San Francisco Opera's 'Aida'

By Joshua Kosman {SF Chronicle Music, 13 September 2010]

One of the secrets mastered by the ancient Egyptians was the trick of turning the separate static images of hieroglyphics into dramatic narrative. The production of "Aida" that inaugurated the San Francisco Opera's fall season at the War Memorial Opera House on Friday night attempts something similar with mixed but increasing success.

Posted by Gary at 12:43 PM

Kate Lindsey: An Interview

With great fanfare, the company placed much emphasis on the unveiling of Kelly Kaduce as the guileless Butterfly and on the return of Christine Brewer as the imperious Lady Billows. Yet it was mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey as the Muse/Nicklausse (the protector of the libertine Hoffmann) and as Nancy (the liberator of the over-protected Albert) who enraptured the audience with her dramatic presence, nuanced phrasing and effortless technique. In reviewing her earlier appearance at the Met in the role the Muse/Nicklausse, our John Yohalem wrote:

The trouser role of Hoffmann’s pal, Nicklausse — who is secretly the Muse of Poetry — has been increasing steadily from edition to edition. On this occasion he/she was elevated from sidekick to prima donna, and Kate Lindsey, young, slim, attractive, with a dark, flawlessly placed mezzo soprano and a range of expression from foolish to satirical to sympathetic, gave it star quality. Although the role is now longer than it ever used to be, she was almost the only singer of the night who never seemed to be struggling for enough breath to support whatever phrase she cared to sing, as loud as might be needed or as softly, persuasively as the drama called for.
So, too, she admirably met the demands of light comedy in her performance of the charmingly inconstant Nancy. In Albert Herring, the elite of the fictional Loxford, under the heavy-handed rule of Lady Billows, holds a Manichean view of woman as subservient to demons, the instrument of seduction, who causes the shipwreck of youthful sexual desire. Lindsey’s Nancy rebels by subtly showing concupiscence as a natural part of the human condition (the vita activa) yet not at the expense of modesty and reserve. When Albert finds a “wild explosion” as his “only way-out,” Lindsey’s Nancy provided the light-heartedness needed to steady Albert’s course while simultaneously affirming his deliverance from the metaphorical chains of Loxford, all with her mellifluous mezzo and uninhibited presence.

We spoke on 23 August.

GH: You were raised in Richmond, Virginia. Were you from a musical family?

KL: No, I am not from a professionally musical family. Except for me, no one pursued music as a career. I remember fondly, though, when my family would frequently drive to South Carolina and North Carolina visiting family. We sang in the car in harmony, made up shows. We took piano lessons. My sister was a great musician, a great singer.

GH: When did you first begin to take special interest in music generally and classical music in particular?

KL: I grew up as a tomboy. I sang in both my school choirs and church choirs. But soccer was my real passion. When I was 13, I tore a ligament, which took a year to heal. Then I tore a ligament in my other knee. So I started to reevaluate things. Music was my salvation. I tried out for musicals. I was a shy girl. So when I got into a musical at age 15, it seemed amazing and terrifying!

I was in chorus one day. The girl sitting next to me said I had a good voice and suggested I take voice lessons. She referred me to a teacher who only taught classical music. We started out with Italian arias and then moved on to French and German literature. In my sophomore year, she told me that I had a lot of potential and that I should develop that gift to the best of my ability. She also said to me that as quickly as something can be given to you, as quickly it could be taken away.

GH: You attended the University of Indiana where you obtained a bachelor’s degree in music. Why there?

KL: I went to Indiana University — the “factory” — because I wanted variety. I felt that a conservatory setting would be too claustrophobic. And Indiana had an abundance of voice teachers. In some ways, Indiana is not the best place for undergrads. Some do very well, depending upon their level of self-awareness.

KL2-Dario-Acosta.gifKate Lindsey [Photo by Dario Acosta]

As part of my work-study, I worked at the library there. I loved reading biographies of singers and then composers. Indiana was a tough school academically.

At 18, I knew I was not ready for opera on the big stage at IU. I went to the IU Theater School where I did musicals every year. I learned about acting and presence on stage.

GH: What did you sing for your auditions?

KL: I sang works for soprano by Fauré , Handel and Mozart. I focused on light and simple works that didn’t push the voice.

GH: Who were your voice teachers at Indiana?

KL: I had Patricia Wise the whole time I was there.

GH: What was the defining moment when you knew you were a mezzo and not a soprano?

KL: That question lingered for several years. There was not one defining moment. Within a month, Patricia Wise thought I was a lyric mezzo. I found “O mio babbino caro” too hard. I was struggling with the tessitura. She had me try “Non so più” and then I immediately felt comfortable.

As my voice developed over the years, I received a lot of opinions from people. Finally my teacher said, “Who cares what you are or are not. If we train the voice properly with a healthy technique, the voice will eventually tell you what you are.” Definitely by 2007-08 my voice settled into the mezzo tessitura.

GH: Did you attend any summer programs such as AIMS, Brevard, Intermezzo?

KL: In my freshman year, I went to BASOTI [Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute]. There I was offered to sing Cherubino. It was life changing. All of my questions were answered. I knew I wanted to do opera. I then went to Brevard in 2002 and to Santa Fe the following summer.

GH: There is a new book on the University of Indiana Opera Theater. It lists you as performing Dolly in Jeppe (2002-03) and Mrs. Meg Page in Falstaff (2003-04). How would you describe the experience in performing those roles?

KL: By my junior year, it was time to start auditioning for operas. I was psychologically ready. After Brevard, I was in Jeppe, an opera by a Swedish composer. It was sung in English, fortunately. It was nerve-racking. I was standing off to the side of the stage and asked myself “What are you doing?” People now ask me whether I am nervous going out onto stage. I always say, “Nerves or not, the time will come that you have to get out there and do it, so I choose not to dwell on fear.” Jeppe was a growing experience.

GH: What did you do after graduation in terms of professional development?

KL: I started my masters at Indiana. I received a graduate assistantship, and I got the part of Meg Page. At that time, I entered the Met auditions just for the experience. There were so many singers there. When I was awarded one of the prizes, I was flabbergasted. I then went to the regionals in Indianapolis where I received second place. A few months later, Lenore Rosenberg asked me to audition for the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. I went to watch master classes. I was salivating. I wanted to learn so badly. Following the “first round” of the audition and interview process, I was called to audition for James Levine. The next day I was asked to join the Program.

In April 2004 I was in the summer young artist program in St. Louis. I then went to New York, which was overwhelming and incredibly invigorating. I was walking into work where all these famous singers were walking around, whose recordings I was listening to just the year before. The most valuable thing was watching dress rehearsals of every production, which was mandatory. It was hugely educational — how they dealt with things, what you liked in performances. You absorbed what touched you and shaped your artistic identity. We had classes in Italian, French and German. We studied acting. We gave recitals. We had role studies, two per semester. We had master classes with Maestro Levine. Opera companies came specifically to hear members of the Program, which was incredibly convenient. It was like we were “cooked in a slow cooker,” intense yet protected. We had ample guidance. We were encouraged to start creating for ourselves. I developed a number of really special friendships.

GH: You also received several grants/awards in 2006 and 2007. How did they assist you in developing your voice, your dramatic skills and the like?

Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]

KL: These were scholarship competitions. It was, number one, an honor to have placed. They were helpful financially to work on studying. I had stronger language skills in Italian and German than French. I needed to focus on French because I must sing a lot in French. So I used the money one summer for intense work on the French language. I went to a woman’s home on Île de Ré off the coast of western France where I worked intensely to improve my skills within a limited amount of time. We would work in the morning and then go to the market…do everyday things. We would go to different towns to get my mind into another zone. It was a good way to absorb a lot in a short amount of time. I then went to Germany for a month. I wish I had more time to study languages. You lose it if you don’t use it often enough.

GH: What was your first appearance as a professional singer?

KL: My first appearance as a professional singer was during the fall of my junior year at Indiana when I attended a study-abroad program in Vienna. There was a group of singers and instrumentalists who studied with teachers from all over. I studied with Donna Robin, a soprano. Someone had written a piece for her but she couldn’t sing it because it was too low. So she gave it to me, which was my first paid gig.

GH: Who is your current voice teacher? Your coach?

KL: I am currently working with Ruth Falcon in New York. I don’t have a particular coach. I work with different ones depending upon who may be [geographically] close at the time. I do a lot of work on my own and then I take it to someone to see where I am and to check things out.

GH: Do you listen to recordings in preparing?

KL: I listen to recordings for style and to pick things out that I like. I am not too analytical at that point. I then put it away so that I don’t pick up certain “isms” of other people’s portrayals.1

GH: You recently appeared as The Muse/Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann, both at the Met and at Santa Fe. How did you happen to be selected to perform that role in those venues?

KL: At the Met, Elīna Garanča was originally selected to perform Nicklausse. I was to cover her and to perform the role late in the season. Generally, the Met will not put you on stage for a role you never performed before. Last summer, Angela Gheorgiu pulled out of Carmen. Elīna was moved over to perform Carmen. I took over Nicklausse, which was exciting. I started working hard on it…doing research. I am excited to be going back to the Met this fall to revisit the role.

GH: Santa Fe used the Michael Kaye edition. Did the Met use the same edition?

Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse with Paul Groves as Hoffmann in the background [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]

KL:No. They are not exactly the same. For Nicklausse, The Met’s version uses the “Guitar aria” and the Kaye version calls for the use of the “Puppet aria”. The Kaye version includes a lot more spoken dialogue as well. There are also places where there is the same music in both version but different words or even different notes are set to that music. Kaye’s version of the Giulietta act is vastly different from the Met’s.

The Met production is dark, visually and psychologically. The stage director, Bart Sher, is very focused. He is concerned with dissecting the psychological makeup of Hoffmann and creating the clarity of the triangle that is forming between Hoffmann, the Villains and the Muse. Because of a scheduling issue last fall, we had to stage the Prologue and then skip to Act III. Because we jumped to the end, we found some answers that were key to the thread that enabled us to maneuver through the opera. We specifically had meetings to discuss how important it was that the members of that triangle were all connected in terms of our thought processes.

GH: Where do the four incarnations of Stella fit in vis-à-vis this triangular relationship?

KL: Stella is the catalyst in Hoffmann’s intense meltdown and inability to write and create. All the women (Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta) represent three different parts of Stella in Hoffmann’s eyes (i.e.…a perfect doll, a beautiful musician, a sexual temptress). I think the goal of “the triangle” is to force him to sort through his despair from losing Stella so that he can create again.

GH: Early on you (the Muse) are trying to divert Hoffmann from his dissolute life. What motivates you?

KL: The Muse is not a physical being. She is a part of Hoffmann’s psyche, as are the Villains. Hoffmann’s struggle is between the Villains (his dark side) and the Muse who pulls him toward art. No female form will ever be capable to compete with his art. The “Violin Aria” is about his need for art, which is Hoffmann’s one true, all-encompassing love. This is a constant struggle for artists everyday — what is our greater love? Partners, spouses? From the perspective of the Muse, she cannot just sit down and reason with Hoffmann in order to get an idea through his head. He has to experience everything fully so that he can make a large leap and learn from its consequences. To return to himself, Hoffmann has to fully embrace these stories. He has to fall down and get back up, and then he’ll be ready to write again.

GH: In Act III of the Santa Fe production, you are sitting alongside Giulietta and cohorts scheming to steal Hoffmann’s reflection (or his soul). A co-conspirator if you will. You are then seen holding the mirror, the instrument by which Giulietta executes her scheme. How is this helping Hoffmann? You seem to be Hoffmann’s antagonist.

KL: Many people have asked about Dapertutto putting a picture frame about my head. It was vague at first for me as well, but I found it linked very specifically to a moment in the prologue, which helped me to form meaning in the movements. In the Prologue there is a moment where I crawl to Lindorf, who holds me as Hoffmann sings about his love. At that moment it becomes my struggle not to go to Hoffmann’s dark side. If I could save Hoffmann myself, I would. But I can’t save him alone. I have to use the Villain to get Hoffmann back. During the Giulietta Act, Hoffmann tosses me to Dapertutto. At that point he puts the frame (a metaphor of the mirror) around me. I am trapped in this and I have to become a co-conspirator because of the pact with Villain I have made. I have no choice but to hold the mirror. The dark side has taken me further than I would have been willing to go.

GH: In Albert Herring, you performed the role of Nancy. How would you describe Nancy?

KL: On the first day of rehearsals, Paul Curran asked “Who is Nancy?” I came forward and said that Nancy is a fresh-faced young girl trying to keep up with the latest fashions. She has a relationship with Sid but also some sort of attraction to Albert. Paul said, “Nancy is sex.”, and that was all he needed to say!

GH: The relationship between Albert and Nancy seems to be ambiguous. At one point, Albert complains about Nancy pitying him but at another he notes that Nancy blushes and stammers in his presence. How would you describe the relationship?

KL: Nancy is not shy around Albert. I am intrigued with Albert’s virginity. The blushing and stammering occurs before the point when he says that I pity him. During the May Day festival, there is a bit of contact with him because I am concerned that Sid was not truthful about what he put in his glass. Albert is inebriated then. In the following scene, Sid and I talk about Albert, the poor guy. Albert hears that, and he bemoans being pitied.

GH: Is Albert a threat to Sid?

KL: No. I don’t think Albert is a threat to Sid, but Sid and Nancy are not going to end up together.

GH: There is some controversy2 regarding the ending of the opera? What do you think ultimately becomes of Albert? Will he remain a grocer in Loxford or will he move on elsewhere?

_MG_4724.gifKate Lindsey as Nancy and Alek Shrader as Albert Herring [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]

KL: I don’t think Albert is going anywhere. He probably ends up taking more ownership of the shop. At the end, he tells his Mum, “that’ll do”, and I’d like to think that she eventually gives him the shop.

GH: Let’s turn to the future. You will be returning to the Met this fall to appear once again in The Tales of Hoffmann. Then you are off to Seattle to perform the role of Rosina. Then to LA Opera to perform in Il Turco and then to Paris in June to perform in Idomeneo. What is your timeline in preparing for these roles?

KL: The last seven months have been intense. I have time off in November for study. It is not just about learning the notes on the page. I study historical references and other materials. I will use a lot of time in November to prepare for recitals and to work on Turco. I have a couple of weeks before Idomeneo to do final preparations. I make myself a timeline of goals, which helps tremendously. I love the learning process.

GH: You also have two recitals in March and April, the first at Rockefeller University and the second at Wolf Trap. I presume they have the same program. What is the program?

KL: Yes, they have the same program. I am in the midst of finalizing the program. I am at the point where I want to do new things. It is a good opportunity to learn new stuff. In developing the program I will be working with Craig Terry as my accompanist, whom I first met at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis. He is a great recitalist. Kim Pensinger Witman, the director of Wolf Trap Opera Company, will be my accompanist at Wolf Trap.

It is going to be an interesting program — a couple of songs by Bizet, some by Liszt. Then there will be songs of Charles Ives based on poems by Heine, as well as songs by John Musto and by Alma Mahler. I am working with Mohammed Fairouz in creating a cycle that includes songs by Alma Mahler and songs based on her letters and other texts with the music composed by Mohammed. The program will be varied and will probably include Chausson’s “Chanson perpétuelle”.

GH: Where do you hope to see yourself in five to ten years?

KL: Loving the work. There are roles that I would like to sing, people I would love to work with. I used to be more concerned about what would be next. Through time, I came to realize that if I can’t enjoy the moment at hand, then I am never going to be fully dedicated to what is right in front of me. If I give myself to fully the present moment, then the rest of the dreams will work out. The work suffers when I get too tied up in the “small stuff”.

GH: There are many great roles for mezzo-soprano such as Charlotte, the Composer, Octavian and, of course, Carmen. Are any of these on your wish list?

KL: There are so many to do for the first time. Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito. I am pumped for Idomeneo. I have an interest in performing roles in works that are less performed such as Massenet’s Chérubin. Paul Curran has a gorgeous production. Then there is Massenet’s Cendrillon. You can tell I am a fan of Massenet. Then, of course, Rosenkav and Ariadne are on the schedule. Octavian is one of the most important milestones.

Right now, I don’t see myself vocally as Carmen. Let’s see in ten years. People’s ears have gotten used to the Olga Borodina type of voice. I don’t think I have the color or weight of voice that people expect in that role. From an acting perspective, I would love to play the character; but, I wouldn’t want to fall short vocally. But, the character would be amazing to perform.

GH: You have appeared as one of the Rhinemaidens in the Ring. Are there any major Wagnerian roles that you hope to perform?

KL: No. I don’t see a lot of Wagner in my future. I don’t think my voice is headed in that direction.

Long term, after I’m done singing, I would like to take on a professorship. The question is how long do you stay performing versus trying to help bring in the next generation? That will probably be when I will not be able to perform the roles I want to perform.

GH: Looking back at your career so far, who would you say has been the most influential in guiding your musical life?

KL: The most influential is definitely James Levine. He taught me a lot in our work about coming from an honest place. You don’t get into the frills and sparkles before you have a core understanding or connection to the music, the role or character.

There are several people to whom I am so grateful that they took a risk on me. Ruth Falcon, for one, has seen me through a lot of vocal development. She is a dedicated teacher who provides a fabulous support system.

GH: What advice would you give aspiring singers?

KL: In undergraduate school, find a teacher who will teach you healthy habits. There are a lot of great teachers in smaller liberal arts schools. Then go for your masters at one of the bigger schools. A key piece of advice is to take advantage of your summers. It is important to train and to meet people outside your educational “bubble.” This opens up a lot of new avenues of information, and there are good chances to perform.

GH: What is home base for you now? Is it Richmond?

KL: No. I was in New York for six years. But right now I don’t have a home base. I bought a place in Charlotte, so that I can see my family on the rare occasions that I am home!

GH: Thank you so much for your time.

1. Will Crutchfield echoes a similar view. He argues that much of so-called tradition is the product of recordings.

In short, the rigid conventions that frustrate so many of us today are mostly products of the 1920s through 1950s. We would not go too far wrong if we were to paraphrase Mahler and say: what you theater people call your tradition is nothing but your imitation of selected gramophone recordings.
Will Crutchfield, “What is tradition?” in Fashions and Legacies of Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera, ed. Roberta Montemora Marvin and Hilary Poriss (Cambridge University Press, 2010) p. 248.

2. The source text of Albert Herring is Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Rosier de Madame Husson,” translated as “An Enthusiast,” vol. 10 (Addenda), The Life Work of Henri René de Maupassant (Akron: St. Dunstan Society, 1903) pp. 111-132. Isodore, the protagonist, becomes a drunkard “too disgusting to be touched by a ragpicker.” He ultimately dies “in a crisis of delirium tremens” with scant notice by the citizens of Gisor. See Claire Seymour, The Operas of Benjamin Britten — Expression and Evasion (Rochester: The Boydell Press, 2004) pp. 98-117.

image= image_description=Kate Lindsey [Photo by Dario Acosta] product=yes product_title=Kate Lindsey: An Interview product_by=Interviewed by Gary Hoffman product_id=Above: Kate Lindsey [Photo by Dario Acosta]
Posted by Gary at 11:11 AM

Bruce Adolphe: An Interview

We spoke by Skype on April 28, 2010.

TM: Please talk about early influences. Was there music in your family? How did you get started?

BA: There wasn’t a lot of music in my family in terms of performing or writing, but my parents were avid, and I would say semi-professional, folk dancers, so they had a record collection that included folk music from all over the world. It was very high quality. I danced with them when I was a kid quite a lot, so there was a physical and visceral relation to music. I had a cousin who was a good jazz pianist, but aside from that, not really — there was not particularly music in the family. The invitation that I felt came more from Leonard Bernstein on TV, and Victor Borge — that period when a lot of people my age, growing up in the sixties, were turned on by Leonard Bernstein. I took it very seriously. In fact, when I was ten, I did a tour of elementary schools on Long Island, playing piano and reciting Peter and the Wolf, because I thought that I should do outreach also.

TM: Where did you grow up?

BA: Primarily on Long Island — West Hempstead, Long Island.

TM: Inside the Greater New York cultural sphere.

BA: My parents did take my brother and me into the city, and we primarily saw theater, and some dance. When I got a little older, I wanted to see concerts, so that became part of it. I had not been taken to concerts until I started to ask for it.

TM: How did they get involved with folk dance? I don’t usually think of “professional” and “folk dance” as things that go together.

BA: They were semi-professional. They were teachers. By semi-professional I mean that they got hired to teach folk dance during the summer. I think it was my father’s passion, and my mother learned to do it to keep up with him.

TM: Was there a particular type of dance?

BA: It was quite varied — they did American dancing, dances from Ireland and Scotland, Israel, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia.

TM: We often think of dance as separate from music now, but there were certainly composers who were trained dancers, such as Leclair, who first studied dance, and then went to Italy to study violin.

BA: It’s not that way now of course — it would be very hard to find a dancer-composer — not that there isn’t one, but I can’t think of anybody…

TM: What was your first instrument?

BA: Piano. I also asked for a piano — we didn’t have one in the house. I was playing on a table, so they got me a toy piano. We had a parakeet — I mention that because the parakeet used to rip the keys off the toy piano. Eventually we got a real piano, and we also got a parrot — a larger bird. Not in order to rip the keys off — just a coincidence. My family has always had birds. I still have that parrot — he is forty-five years old now.

TM: What languages does he speak?

BA: He sings operatic selections and jazz. He says only a handful of words, but he sings very well. His name is Polly Rhythm.

TM: Was it you that trained him in opera?

BA: I didn’t try to train him — he just learned to sing immediately, within three or four months of his coming to our home, because I was listening to a lot of opera and vocal recordings. I was always into that, even as a little kid. It was among the first things that he ever heard, so I guess he thought that that was what he should be doing.

TM: I am reminded of the story about the parrot who is taken to the synagogue…

BA: I know all those parrot stories.

TM: …and refuses to sing on Rosh Hashanah…

BA:…because he want to increase the odds.

TM: You started on piano…

BA: …but I did study a lot of other instruments. I played the clarinet for five or six years, and then I decided to change to the bassoon. I played the bassoon for maybe ten or twelve years before stopping that. I played folk guitar and classical guitar a little bit; I played standup bass in a jazz band. I didn’t play it in a classical sense, because I didn’t have any lessons on it at all. I figured out how to get around on it when I was a young teenager and I played it in a big band. In my teenage years I tried lots of instruments, and took lessons on many instruments just to see what it felt like. I took viola lessons, I took a few cello lessons, I took flute lessons. Because of the bassoon, I found it pretty easy to get around on the English horn, but I never really played the oboe. I was very interested to try instruments out, and found myself renting them from the school, or borrowing them from people who had spare instruments.

TM: I think that’s a very interesting story, because so often people happen to end up with the instrument that their parents happened to put in their hands, or even if they do choose an instrument themselves, there can be such an economic incentive to keep on playing the instrument you have that people may not end up with the instrument that is “right” for them.

BA: The only thing that I really play is the piano, which I never stopped playing during that whole time, but I really enjoyed doing that. I took voice lessons too — I just always wanted to try everything. Composing started when I was around ten, and it was always part of my identity for myself that I was a composer. Eventually I didn’t have time to do anything but play the piano and compose, and do occasional conducting. And a lot of teaching of course.

TM: What was it that motivated you to get started writing down music?

BA: I didn’t have any clue that it was strange — I started writing things down when I was eight or nine, and by ten I was very serious about it. I luckily had a piano teacher who always wanted to hear what I was writing. She wasn’t a composer, but she was always interested, and made a few comments. When I was ten or so, she told my mother that she had better find me a real composition teacher. So I studied with various people when I was ten, eleven, twelve.

TM: Was that through an institution in New York?

BA: In the beginning I guess the idea that my family had was to go to Long Island-based universities that we could get to easily, and I took some lessons at Hofstra and at C.W Post, both of which were colleges in Nassau County. At Hofstra at the time there was a man named Herbert Deutsch. I know he is still around and still composing. I took lessons with him when I was twelve and thirteen, and then didn’t see him for years, until last year when I went to speak at a college in Pennsylvania, and he was there visiting as well. I studied with him, and then with other people, but I had very few lessons because I didn’t find it as interesting. Then I went to the Juilliard Pre-College division, and there I studied with Lawrence Widdoes, who would later become a friend of mine, a few years down the line, but when I began to study with him I was very young — fourteen or so.

I got to Juilliard as an undergraduate when I had just turned sixteen, so I was a very young undergraduate, and there I studied with Persichetti and Milton Babbitt. I also became very close to Elliott Carter while I was there — although I didn’t officially study with him, we spent a lot of time talking about music.

TM: You were a composition major as an undergraduate? Was that common? How many comp majors were there?

BA: I wouldn’t say it was common, but they did have the program, and there were a handful of people in it. It was a nice program — there was a Composer’s Forum, and private lessons, and lots of opportunities, if you were aggressive about it, to get your music performed by the students. I also played piano in some ensembles. I played in the new music ensemble, and I still played bassoon, which I played in some chamber music. The one thing that I did that was extremely unusual when I was a Juilliard student was that I somehow got myself entangled in the Drama division, which was brand new. It started while I was there. The first group of drama students included students who were hand-picked to make sure that it was successful, who were young professionals. David Ogden Stiers was there, and Patti LuPone, and Robin Williams. No one knew who they were yet, but the first group was very carefully selected. They had gone around the country looking for very talented young actors who might want some serious training in the classics, and some help with their careers.

I got to know some of them, and also started writing music for the drama productions, and did that for the entire time that I was there. That led to a lot of interesting connections, and I learned a lot. I eventually decided that just writing music for its own sake, whether chamber music or opera (I have written quite a lot of opera, actually) was more satisfying. Writing music for theater and film, which I did a little bit, was not as satisfying, because I didn’t feel in control, and the music was not the main issue.

TM: I was just reading an interview with Elena Kats-Chernin, who spent a long time writing theater music in Germany. One of the things that she observed is that while she was writing theater music, she was writing pre-recorded music to go along with the production. Was that the case for these productions at Juilliard.

BA: Yes, most of the time it was. I would watch the production, discuss things with the director, we would figure out, as if it were a movie, even though the actors were live, where would the music go, we would record it with Juilliard students, and then they would play it back from the booth. That happened almost all the time. We did one show that had live music, but that is because there was so much live singing in it that it was practically a musical, even though it wasn’t when we started working on it.

But most of the time it was pre-recorded. That’s how a lot of theaters were working at the time, and many still do.

TM: To Kat-Chernin, the fact that it was pre-recorded was almost an invitation to move from music to sounds, to sonoplasty or sound design.

BA: I didn’t do that, because the directors that I was working with (this was during a very short period of time for me, from age nineteen to twenty-four) had very specific desires, and my job was to fulfill them, somehow or other. It was fun. They knew where they wanted music, and knew what they wanted to accomplish with it, and sometimes would even tell me what kind of music it should sound like, and would discuss the instruments — it was very detailed. I enjoyed doing it quite a lot, and it led to my writing some film scores for public television and documentaries. Then I basically got completely out of that before I was thirty, because I didn’t need it — I had two operas produced before I was twenty-five, and when the operas were produced I began to feel like writing for theater was really second-class, and just didn’t want to do it any more.

TM: Looking back at the late sixties and early seventies with hindsight, that was a particularly adventurous time in terms of esthetics. In some sense, we haven’t gotten anyplace close to as adventurous since 1975, say. Something about the culture changed. You were studying with Persichetti and Babbitt, who have very different approaches. Please say a little about the musical environment of the time.

BA: Yes, it was a great time. Before I get into that, neither Persichetti nor Babbitt wanted me or any of their students to write the way they wrote, or to imitate them. They were both very open and flexible, and wanted to see one’s ideas, and encourage people, and challenge — there was no sense of a school that had to be followed.

The feeling at the time was that practically anything was possible. Boulez came to Juilliard when I was there, and was at the Philharmonic while I was there. I went to a lot of rehearsals. The Rug Concerts happened, where they pulled out the seats from Avery Fisher and put rugs everywhere. Some of the composers who were making a big splash when I was a student were Berio, Xenakis, and of course Babbitt himself was doing some very interesting work at the time, and Mario Davidovsky. There were the beginnings of interactive tape music with live performance, and synthesizer-generated music. There was a lot of new technology which now seems dinosaur-like. But the emphasis was on composition, not on the technology. There was a lot of experimental singing going on, with people like Cathy Berberian, Jan DeGaetani, and people who wanted to do everything. And George Crumb was really coming into his own when I was a student. I had some exposure to him at Aspen. I probably wrote one or two pieces that sounded like Crumb when I was eighteen or so.

The feeling with Berio and Crumb — I am leaving out a few people — was that we were on the verge of something. The whole Polish thing was happening… and Elliott Carter, as he still is, was turning out lots of music. At Juilliard Carter was a very powerful figure, because he wrote so much, and there was always a major premiere happening.

It was exciting between Crumb and Berio, and the other extreme with Babbitt and Davidovsky — those names somehow sum up what I was thinking about at the time, although I don’t write like any of those people. As a student I was pulled in all these different directions.

Berio had a very big influence on me. He had just taught at Juilliard, but left before I got there. I sent an analysis of his piece Circles to him in Italy by mail, and he wrote a really nice note back to me.

It was a wonderful time to be a student — that is for sure. I don’t want to generalize, but a lot of students come to composition now, and their main background, until they are exposed to something more interesting, has been film scores. This was not at all true for our generation. I have met people who want to study composition very seriously, who are in their late teens and early twenties, and they don’t know contemporary music, the music of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century, very much, unless it’s a film score composer. People might even refer to John Williams as a serious composer.

TM: I recall speaking with Milton Babbitt a few years ago, perhaps five or ten years ago, and he remarked that his composition students had never heard the Beethoven symphonies, by and large, which seems remarkable.

BA: It’s an interesting comment, but it’s different than saying that they don’t know Stravinsky. When we were kids, for a very long time before, and for a while after, it was typical that someone who wanted to be a composer was playing an instrument quite well, and had played in a youth orchestra, or had played chamber music, and was familiar therefore with Beethoven and Mozart. Probably they had practiced Bach, and thought it was amazing, and they were aware of Ravel and Debussy, but they also had heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and perhaps Schoenberg’ Verklärte Nacht, or something later, like Pierrot Lunaire, and maybe something by a living composer like Berio or Crumb. This is the reason that someone wanted to write music. For me, I wanted to write when I was ten because of Stravinsky. A little bit of Gershwin, a few other people, maybe Copland — but I was listening to that as a child. Someone had given me the recording of the Rite of Spring as a present, thinking that this was the right thing to do for me, and it was. I loved the Story of a Soldier as a child.

It is true that when I guest-teach at various universities — not at Juilliard — this doesn’t really happen at music schools like that — but at university departments where there are kids majoring in composition, they seem to have a giant gap, both in classical music history, and in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. People might know Philip Glass, and they might know a few people who are in the super-mainstream, but they don’t know who have been the primary forces, or who is doing the interesting thinking right now. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, because I am not — I am pretty positive about what is going on, and I have had some great students. I think this is the natural result of a bombardment of technologies, where everything comes into your home, and commercial pressures have created a very pop-culture environment. Television has really taken over people’s lives. That’s why things are the way they are. There’s a glut — you can find anything in a second — and so it’s hard, if you are young, and your parents are not musicians, to know what to listen to.

* * * * * * * * * *

TM: What was it that happened after this period that transformed an exploratory culture, or to put it another, took us from modernism to post-modernism?

BA: I think that there were many, many factors (and I think we have now entered a new phase, by the way). Among them would be the fact that a lot of the teachers of our generation were very involved with a Stravinsky/Schoenberg approach. Even though there were people like Berio and Crumb, most of the teaching was slanted toward Schoenberg, and atonalism and serialism, etc. That was thought to be what you did at a university, at a music school. There was a natural reaction against that, because people did not grow up knowing that music, and were more attracted to trying different things. What we think of as modernism is unfairly linked to expressionism and a few other movements. Even before that, neo-classicism could easily be called post-modernism. I have a saying, which I hope you won’t take seriously, which is that “post-modernism is nothing new”. It has always been the case that people are reacting to the past. Every time there is a moment of experimentalism, the generation that follows is trying to make sense of what has come before, and they often look further back, to a few generations before, rather than the one that they grew up being influenced by. I don’t think that it is so unusual. What made it unusual was the rise of pop culture in the media at the same time, plus the disappearance from the public schools of good music programs, or indeed any music programs, in many cases. So what you had was the first generation of parents who didn’t care about instrumental music, or know about it, because they themselves didn’t have it. They only got their music from radio and TV, and their kids did also. It was more difficult to expect to have a music-focused culture to grow up, where experimentalism, or at least serious thinking about music, was part of society. People went to the movies, or watched TV, and had not studied an instrument. Without the hands-on experience of playing an instrument, the likelihood of taking music seriously has greatly decreased.

There has been a rise of community music schools to take on some of that burden, but you have to pay for that — it’s not free, as part of your public education. A good thing has been the independence produced by the internet. It’s bad and good, but the good part has been that everything is available, everything can be published quickly, things can be put up and listened to, so there’s a sense of independence which has caused major trouble for the major companies. In some respects it is good that things have gotten down to a smaller scale again, and people without a lot of money can have a CD, and everybody can hear it. It’s harder to make money from it, but it is easier to distribute and disseminate information. If you are interested to hear music from another culture, or music that is not well-known, or an individual that is carving a new path, you can find it and listen to it. It’s difficult that things cost 99 cents, or are free — that’s not so good.

TM: I recall the ethos of the early seventies being that it was hip to be into what was interesting, or different, or challenging, whether it was the music of Charles Ives that was being rediscovered at that time, or Messiaen, or Sessions, who is someone who is completely forgotten at this point, or Davidovsky. And then it became hip to be square.

BA: Part of this is the fact that it would be hard to rebel against that, without going in the opposite direction. Wall Street parents get a hippie, but that hippie might have kids that go work on Wall Street.

TM: Please say a little about what you might consider your opus one.

BA: It’s an interesting question. There are some little ones and some larger ones. There was a very small piece, my Oboe Quartet, for oboe, violin, viola, cello, which, perhaps because it was my first piece that was not performed at Juilliard , but professionally, got a lot of attention for me, got a nice review in the Times. It’s not a major work, but it got a lot of attention. I got a publishing offer right away. That made me feel like a professional composer, even though I had been writing for public TV documentaries and theater — it was nice to have a piece of chamber music that people were playing. The Oboe Quartet is still out there, and people play it, but I don’t relate to it at all, except as a memory. That perhaps was an opus one.

There were three operas in a row, that didn’t launch a career — I don’t like that word — but opened a path. In 1978 I wrote an opera, though it wasn’t performed yet, called The Telltale Heart, a one-act opera based on the Poe story. I just deposited it at the American Music Center library — I had no idea what to do with it. It was a vocal score for singers and piano, and I had not done anything about instruments.

I was asked to consider writing something for free, but a great opportunity, for the 92nd Street Y in New York, an opera on a Jewish subject. After all sorts of false starts, I found a librettist with a fascinating subject, which was the story of a Jewish actor murdered by Stalin. It was called Mikhoels the Wise. That was being produced in 1982. While I was working on that opera, John Moriarty, who was the opera director at the New England Conservatory and also the Boston Conservatory, called me up, and said “I am doing a program of scary one-act operas, and would like to do your Telltale Heart. Can you send it over here?” He didn’t know that it would be a premiere, that it had never been performed, and that there was no orchestra. I was very young, and didn’t want to let him know that right away. So I said “of course I will send it. Can you give me a week to get the materials together?” I sat down, and this was pre-computer, orchestrated it by hand, made an orchestra score and all the parts, and sent it to him five days later. Luckily it was only one act, because I was still working on the other opera. That’s the kind of maniac I was at the time. I am a little bit like that now, but with a computer it’s very easy. I work very fast. Until the computer came along I used to have a giant callus on the finger that presses against the pen, because I wrote all day and all night long for years and years and years.

So I had two operas premiered in 1982 — one in Boston, and one in New York. Both of them got attention, and some critical acclaim. I did another opera the next year, The False Messiah, also for the 92nd Street Y, and that was something that they had never done before. I still wasn’t getting a commission, but I had my expenses paid, and got a professional production, so that was fine, since I was still in my twenties. After that, from 1983 on, I don’t think I ever had a year without a whole slew of commissions. That was a huge change — 1982 and 1983.

TM: The False Messiah is about Shabtai Zvi, yes?

BA: Even though there is a great book by Gerson Scholem, and it’s an important piece of history, Shabtai Zvi is not known, because there was an effort to expurgate his name and story from Jewish literature. People were embarrassed and ashamed that there was a false messiah, but it’s a fabulous story. There was another opera on the subject, which I didn’t know about, written much earlier than mine, by Alexandre Tansman, a friend of Stravinsky. I discovered it more than a year after my opera was produced. I got hold of the score. I didn’t really like the opera very much, since it was essentially in the style of Debussy, but not by Debussy. But many of the characters were the same, and the outline of the story was close enough to be freaky. I was glad not to have known about it before I started writing, because that might have put a crimp in my energy.

TM: How does it work musically for you as a Jewish composer writing about Jewish topics?

BA: In 82-83 it was the first time that I had addressed any Jewish subject matter, and it was the subject matter that led me to think about what Jewish music is. Those two operas brought me a lot of other people wanting me to write music on Jewish subjects. I then got a commission to write a piece about the Holocaust, which led to an oratorio called Out of the Whirlwind. I took actual melodies, or fragments of melodies, and texts written by survivors of the Holocaust, and created an oratorio — it’s for two singers and large wind ensemble — that was all new music, but with raw material drawing from these sources. I wrote a few other smaller Jewish pieces, and then made a conscious decision to stop doing it, because I didn’t want to get pegged. I was using a bit of klezmer, which nobody else was doing at the time. About three or four years later there was a huge klezmer revival, which was funny, because while I was doing it I didn’t see it going anywhere. One of the musicians in the orchestra for both of the operas, the clarinetist, was David Krakauer, who had not played any klezmer yet, except for one opera by David Schiff, and my two operas, which had some klezmer. He said “this klezmer stuff is really interesting — I am going to look into it.” I feel like I managed to inspire, tangentially, someone who is now at the head of the klezmer movement. He is a good friend of mine now.

TM: The degree to which one can in the context of American culture, if one is Jewish, reflect on the Jewish experience, and whether one has to do that in some kind of veiled way, which is so often the case, or if one can do it explicitly, is an interesting question. You look at all sorts of American culture and think “this is so clearly a metaphor for this Jewish experience…” How often do people who are farther removed from Judaism in America get that that is what it’s about?

BA: What I was involved in was very explicitly based on Jewish subjects, and I pulled in references to various kinds of Jewish music. Different people will hear those references, or not, but the subject was very obvious. It’s hard to know, and you always run the risk of someone thinking that it’s too Jewish, or someone else thinking that it’s not Jewish enough. I did actually see that all the time.

Years after I wrote this music, in the late 90s, I got a call from the Milken Foundation, who were doing a hundred CDs of Jewish culture, and they wanted to make a CD of some of my Jewish music. They produced a recording on Naxos of one scene from Mikhoels the Wise, the oratorio Out of the Whirlwind, and a set of Ladino songs that I wrote for Lucy Shelton. It won a Grammy for the producer, along with four other CDs in the set. I didn’t think that I would ever get a recording of two of those pieces, because Out of the Whirlwind is gigantic, with many players and a weird combination of instruments. The Grammy was a wake-up call, that I was getting older, and that much time could go by and it didn’t seem like anything, and at the same time it reminded me that I had dropped all that Jewish identity — I have done almost nothing with it since then.

TM: Talking about the seventies recalls that stylistic divide between downtown and uptown…your music is certainly not downtown, but it doesn’t sound uptown either.

BA: Good — I have lived both uptown and downtown. I lived in Soho for twelve years, and I live on the Upper West Side now. If you were ask “which am I?” I would have no answer for that.

TM: And it clearly sounds like American music.

BA: To hear that you really have to know what you are listening to, but yes, I think that’s true. The most American thing that I have ever done is an opera called Let Freedom Sing, that was produced last year. It’s the story of Marian Anderson, and involves spirituals, and Schubert, and Bach, and jazz. The idea was that it would be touring to high schools, and perhaps to younger schools, and would tell her story to an audience that needs to hear it, but doesn’t know about her. It needed to appeal to them musically. I decided to incorporate quite a lot of the music that she sang, but also to give it modern rhythmic energy. It was very successful in Washington DC, and in Maryland, and a few other places. We are trying to bring it to New York. We have people that are interested, but it is hard to raise money with the present economic situation, but I think it is going to happen. The New York Public Library is interested to give venues, and the Opera Guild is interested to try to help us get it going. The Bank Street College of Education is going to write a curriculum for the opera that would help high schools and middle schools relate to the story, and understand the Civil Rights movement , and who she was. The libretto is by a woman called Carolivia Herron, who is phenomenal. She had not written a libretto before, but it is brilliant.

TM: To switch directions here, when I talk to composers, I often find that they may fall into two schools — one an architectural school, in the manner of the architect Oscar Niemeyer, who may sketch out some curves, and the whole project has the details filled in from those few, basic, Matisse-like lines…

BA: with cones, and swirling shapes, very round…

TM: …and the other approach, perhaps more organic, where you begin with a seed, or a character, and the structure arises from the ground up. Which approach would you take?

BA: You are asking if I start out with an overall structure, or allow detail to accumulate into a structure.

TM: Yes.

BA: I do both of those things, back and forth. I divide the way that I think about music into a two-part process, and the two parts don’t have to happen in a particular order, but they happen at separate times. There is being in the sound world of it, and not thinking about anything but the sound, and the complete opposite, which is more intellectual, like an editor, who is very critical. When I am the critical editor I think about large-scale structure a lot, and I think about how everything is going to fit together, and try to get a vision of the whole thing. When I am just composing in the moment I tend not to think about that, and think about each moment of sound, and how it gets from one thing to the other. Those two things go back and forth, because I don’t think that I would get a successful piece if I only did one of them. I know which one I am doing, and I don’t let them interfere with each other.

For example, I have just finished today, this morning, a short piece for the Brentano String Quartet. I was in the composing mode, thinking about what the piece sounds like, at the moment that I was in. I wrote about three minutes of music, and then I went back. I got to the ending, and went back into the other mode, as if I were my own teacher, or my own consultant. I got very critical about the ending, thinking that it had taken a slightly wrong direction, and had some thoughts about readjusting the piece. I went through it, removed a few things, opened up a few measures, and made a decision about how I would correct, in a sense, both the ending and some of the places in the middle that needed to be in better proportion. After I decided that, I put blank measures in on the computer in all those places, though not a specific number. Then I went back into the other mode, into writing in the moment, feeling what the performance would be like, feeling like I was in the audience, feeling like I was playing the first violin part, or the cello…and then stopped again and went to see how that was going.

If it’s a large work, I usually spend a fair amount of time imagining the thing from the large structural point of view, but then I let go of that when I start working, just in case that is not going to work out. I don’t hold myself to a blueprint, but I do think about it.

TM: Your catalog has relatively few pieces which have what we would call generic titles in the library biz. The pieces tend to have literary references, or a title that hints at the contents.

BA: Yes.

TM: Would you say that you start from a concept, or an emotion, rather than putting three or four notes together?

BA: I always start with a concept. I didn’t use to, but I have for many years now. It seems to me that I would like to know why I am writing the piece, what it’s about. Very often the title will come later. But I do like to know why I am writing the piece, because it focuses my attention. I am talking about instrumental music, nothing with a text or a story. The first time I realized how vital that was was with Whispers of Mortality, which is my fourth string quartet, from 1998. I was writing about my wife’s cousin, who was extremely ill, and I was fairly young, and had never done that before. I didn’t usually like the idea of writing about something in my personal life that was upsetting, and then turning it into a piece. In this case I couldn’t help it — I was doing it anyway. I had a commission to write a string quartet, and this is all we were talking about at home. I decided to try to deal with it in the piece, because I figured if that’s what I am thinking about, I should write about it. Interesting things happened. One of them was when I decided that the cello would be the threat of the disease, and the violin the outrage, and the second violin and the viola would be giving a sense of time passing. Though that seems programmatic, I didn’t make it into a program, but used it as a way to define the material, and its relationship to each other. The whole piece started to work that way, and it became a very strong piece — I felt it was stronger than other pieces that had come before it. The reactions of other musicians to it were very powerful, and there were people crying in the audience, even though I didn’t necessarily tell anyone what it was about. I thought there was something very real here.

Then I decided that I would think consciously about what was important to me while I was writing the piece, or before I was about to write something, so that I could repeat that process in terms of making the piece really speak to an issue, speak to a concern that would also communicate to listeners. So basically I have been doing in that in every piece since 1998, in some way or another.

Sometimes I start like that, and I don’t worry about it once I get the material. I let the piece go its own way. But it made a huge difference in what kind of material I write, because I am trying to communicate something, that, for lack of a better expression, I can put into words. I know what I am writing about , I know what the subject is. By the time it becomes musical material, I often don’t need the subject anymore to write the piece, but it was very important to get me to the sound world, and the emotional quality of the opening — things like that.

TM: With a piece of chamber music you don’t need to have a concrete sense of what it is about to know that it’s about something. I think, for example, of the String Quartet no. 8 of Shostakovich…

BA: Of course. I have written a lot about this — I have a book which is full of this discussion, called Of Mozart, Parrots and Cherry Blossoms in the Wind. The chapter that is called And All is Always Now is very much about this issue. Basically I still feel that I like to find something that I am thinking about that is meaningful, and it’s helpful to the audience to have a title. I wrote a piece called After the End, and I don’t think I have this listed anywhere. It was pre-computer, and the parts are not in the greatest condition. It’s a piece for piano and orchestra, but it’s not a concerto. I wrote extensive program notes for the premiere about personal things — a personal relationship, all kinds of things. It was true that I was thinking of these things while I was writing the music, or, I thought of those things in order to find the material, and then I wrote the piece. I decided to write the program notes because everyone I talked with said that the audience would definitely respond to this.

Then it was premiered, with the Jacksonville Symphony, and David Golub was the pianist. In the intermission, after the performance, people came up to me, and it was the most bizarre thing. They would say “I know exactly what you are talking about. When I heard this piece, I thought “this is my life too!” I wanted to say “You’ve got to be kidding! It’s not my life or your life. It’s a piece of music. You’re just listening to the program notes.” But then I thought, “Well, maybe they are right”. It was very interesting for me. I almost wished that I had not given them any notes so I could have seen what their reaction would have been. I need a control experiment.

TM: That’s what people are truly looking for- for someone to tell them about their own lives in a way that they don’t have access to themselves.

BA: When people read a novel or see a movie or experience theater, they know that they will find some aspect of their own experience in there, and if they don’t, it’s very unusual. For a piece of music, I think that a lot of people don’t even ask themselves that when they listen. You don’t walk out of a performance of a chamber work and say “How does this relate to my experience?” But at some level, unconsciously, that is what is happening. That’s one of the reasons that I use titles which might suggest to people that they can think that way.

TM: In fact, the more unconscious it is, the more effective it is.

BA: That’s true. Sometimes a suggested title opens up something, but sometimes it closes something down. It’s a risk. Persichetti called everything Parable, and Berio called everything Sequenza. I was actually present in the room at Juilliard when Persichetti had a Parable for solo viola premiered, and Berio was there, as a guest. He said to Persichetti “I think it’s a wonderful piece, but you should not call it Parable. You should call it Sequenza.”

TM: In the Romance languages both of the words that we have for “talk” both have this storytelling sense. “Parlare” and “parler” come from parabola, parable, and in Spanish and Portuguese it comes from “fabula” (fable). We are not simply uttering words, we are telling stories.

BA: This relates very well to the Brain and Creativity Institute, where I will be composer-in-residence, in Los Angeles, the neuroscience place where Antonio Damasio and his wife, Hanna Damasio, are the lead neuroscientists. Antonio often talks in terms of the construction of a narrative that is happening simultaneously with the actual actions that we take. That’s a simplification, since he gets into the biological aspects, which I am not going to do.

The idea of narrative is what makes us human. Our memories are also fabrications, stories that we tell ourselves. Our memories are not stored — we have to continually reconstruct them so that they fit our story. When we write a piece of music, it also has the sense of spinning a point of view. Even when there is no story, no programmatic aspect, no suggestive title, it is still a narrative based on who we think that we are. If you think of the old question “Do you write for an audience or for yourself”, I write for an audience full of people who are like me.

TM: That’s all we can do. We have to imagine a listener who is like ourselves, because a listener who is not like ourselves is beyond our imagining.

BA: There’s a movie with Oscar Levant, in which he is conducting an orchestra. At the beginning you see only him, and gradually you see that every face in the orchestra is also Oscar Levant, and then everyone in the audience is also Oscar Levant. It’s a great statement.

TM: What’s the new project for 2010 and 2011?

BA: The residency at the Brain and Creativity Institute has a lot to do with the piece that was just premiered last May [2009] by Yo-Yo Ma at the American Museum of Natural History, which is called Self Comes to Mind. Antonio Damasio has written a new book coming out next year [2011], which is also called Self Comes to Mind. I have known him for about fifteen years, and eventually he invited me to be composer-in-residence at a place that doesn’t have any music or musicians. It is connected to the University of Southern California, which does have musicians, and he wants me to design and implement music research there, in ways that will guided more by musicians than scientist, because he thinks that that is missing in the research.

Another purely musical project is a performance in Florence at the Teatro Goldoni in October [2010], which is the European premiere of a piece called Of Art and Onions: Homage to Bronzino, which was premiered at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, to go along with their Bronzino show, but it was commissioned by the Palazzo Strozzi. From what I understand, it is the first time that that the Metropolitan Museum has collaborated with a foreign museum to do anything. Luckily the head of the Palazzo Strozzi heard Yo-Yo Ma premiere my piece, and thought that I should write something they could use about Bronzino. The piece is for madrigal choir, viola da gamba, harpsichord and vibraphone. It’s exciting — the group that is performing is a Dutch ensemble called the Kassiopeia Quintet. They have recorded the complete madrigals of Gesualdo, and I am a Gesualdo fanatic, and good friends with Glenn Watkins, who is the main Gesualdo scholar.

TM: Any other questions I should asked, or areas we should have covered?

BA: I divide my time compositionally between the sort of things that we have been talking about, and writing music for families and children. There’s a company called The Learning Maestros, which I started with Julian Fifer about ten years ago, which is devoted to interdisciplinary education for adults and for children. Let Freedom Sing has become one of our projects, but there are also things about dinosaurs, and Shakespeare, and wind energy, with the idea that really good education should be interdisciplinary, with music and art mixed with science and social consciousness. This company is a platform for me to create stuff with interesting people, and disseminate it to schools and concert presenters and orchestras.

image= image_description=Bruce Adolphe product=yes product_title=Bruce Adolphe: An Interview product_by=Interviewed by Tom Moore
Posted by Gary at 9:15 AM

Così fan tutte, Royal Opera House

Worldwide screenings are geared towards mass audiences, many of whom are new to opera. This production of Così fan tutte first heard in 1995 now in its seventh revival, was a safe choice.

Sir Thomas Allen’s presence guaranteed success. Like Don Alfonso, he’s a grandee, elevated above the common run. The lovers strut and fret their hour upon the stage, but Don Alfonso’s seen it all before. Allen has created Don Alfonso so many times that he has it down pat. Before the performance began, he sauntered on the Royal Opera House stage for some cheerful repartee. he’s a consummate charmer.

COSI-9990_1010-ALLEN-AS-DON.gifThomas Allen as Don Alfonso

As Allen said, “I spend a lot of time sitting about”, since Don Alfonso’s a suave observer, who hardly needs to pulls strings to make puppets dance. The part makes no heroic vocal demands and suits Allen’s range well. He’s mellowed so well into the persona that his acting is effortless. At one point he calmly makes golf swings in the air, without a club.

Rebecca Evans as Despina made a perfect foil. She, too, has extensive experience in the role and in this production. If anything, she’s now in her prime. Wonderfully agile singing, full of verve. Her tiny frame pulsates energy. She zips about with much more vigour than her youthful mistresses. Diction and phrasing are sharp, her singing so vivid you could listen eyes closed and enjoy. When she comes in disguised in operating theatre greens, she has a mask over her face. Even before she starts to sing, her body language is so expressive it conveys personality.

Despina is a wonderful part but it isn’t the whole opera, and Evans can’t make up for the other performances which were adequate, rather than scintillating.

Maria Bengtsson and Jurgita Adamonytė resemble each other physically, and while their voices differ, neither is vocally as distinctive as might be. Adamonytė was impressive as Blanche in Prokofiev’s The Gambler at Covent Garden earlier this year, but her Dorabella, while sweetly formed, could use more individuality. Bengstsson’s Fiordiligi was more forcefully projected, dramatically sound, if lacking in nuance.

COSI-9990_1590-BENGTSSON-AS.gifMaria Bengtsson as Fiordiligi

Neither Pavol Breslik’s Ferrando nor Stéphane Degout’s Guglielmo were specially engaging to listen to, so they were upstaged by their costumes. This is the production where the Albanians are dressed as Rockstars with bandanas and skull motif T shirts. At the premiere, this was shocking. Now it’s just corny, but in the absence of colour to listen to, it afforded some colour to look at.

Jonathan Miller’s production plays up the visual gags. Cell phones with camera applications, golf imagery, ultra-trendy costumes. This bland set looks like a caricature of “Regie” staging. It was probably more effective on film because the long flat horizontals on stage would have been foreshortened. Similarly, film would have allowed more detail than could be seen in the auditorium, enlivening the general lack of pace. Much of the action takes place off the stage. Perhaps Miller is trying to create the impression of “theatre-within-theatre” but it doesn’t work well live.

This is the sort of production gives minimalism a bad name, but unlike many where simplicity directs attention to the soul of the opera, this didn’t attempt to offer any insights. Its superficiality wouldn’t matter if the singing were uniformly impressive, but this wasn’t the case here.

COSI-9990_1332-(C)HOBAN.gifFrom Left to Right: Maria Bengtsson as Fiordiligi, Pavol Breslik as Ferrando, Rebecca Evans as Despina, Jurgita Adamonytė as Dorabella and Stéphane Degout as Guglielmo

Yet when Miller took his bows, he was wildly applauded. Perhaps this was because there was little tension in the ensemble, and the sharper edges of Mozart’s wit were blunted But Così fan tutte without challenge undersells Mozart. This is comedy, but not shallow. Nonetheless, jokes are entertaining. Here mobile phone tunes sang the message.

The real news this evening was Thomas Hengelbrock, the conductor. He cofounded the Freiburger Barockorchester.and later the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble and Choir. Lively period instrument ensembles prove that historically-informed practice can be vigorous and modern in spirit.They can be very adventurous, experimenting with 19th and 20th century repertoire as well as baroque.

The Royal Opera House Orchestra isn’t a period orchestra, but Hengelbrock brings the vivacity for which he is famed. It’s ideal for Così fan tutte where timing and clarity are important. Excellent balance — the harpsichord continuo specially vivid. Hengelbrock will soon be conducting Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe at the Royal Opera House.

For more information, please visit the Royal Opera House website.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Stéphane Degout as Guglielmo and Jurgita Adamonytė as Dorabella [Photo by Mike Hoban]

product_title=W. A. Mozart: Così fan tutte
product_by=Ferrando: Pavol Breslik; Guglielmo: Stéphane Degout; Don Alfonso: Thomas Allen; Fiordiligi: Maria Bengtsson; Dorabella: Jurgita Adamonytė; Despina: Rebecca Evans. Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrock, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Director and Designs: Jonathan Miller. Royal Opera House, London, 10th September 2010.
product_id=Above: Stéphane Degout as Guglielmo and Jurgita Adamonytė as Dorabella

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of the Royal Opera

Posted by anne_o at 9:00 AM

September 12, 2010

Julius Röntgen: Aus Goethes Faust.

Known in his day, Julius Röntgen (1855-1932), a prolific composer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, composed over 650 works in almost every genre, including a fascinating late work entitled Aus Goethes Faust (“From Goethe’s Faust”).

Composed in 1931, late in Röntgen’s career, this cantata-like work resembles Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust in his selection of episodes to set to music, and also calls to mind the way other composers set similar scenes: Boito in his setting of the “Prologue in Heaven,” Berlioz for the scene in Auerbach’s Cellar, and both Liszt and Mahler for their settings of the closing passage “Alles vergängliche ist nu rein Gleichnis” in the movement Röntgen specifically calls the Chorus mysticus. Notwithstanding the associations that emerge Röntgen approached this score in his own style that remains firmly tonal in an idiom that Brahms or Reger would use. In the latter Röntgen’s writing sounds at times like the scores Erich von Korngold would compose for Hollywood films a decade later. That stated, the music is facile and engaging, with clear structures, chromatic, but not atonal harmonic, and contrapuntal episodes that call to mind Röntgen’s association with the music of Bach.

In creating a secular cantata with its basis in Goethe’s Faust Röntgen used both instrumental and vocal movements that reflect the major episodes in the dramatic poem. The opening piece is an instrumental “Prologue in Heaven” that sets the tone with rich harmonies and sometimes ominous scoring of the thick chords. It is an evocative piece that works well because of the instrumental idiom that Röntgen uses, allowing the vocal movements to occur later.

In Röntgen’s selections from Goethe, he invokes the Erdgeist, the Earth-Spirit, rather than referring to Mephistofeles by name or calling the figure the devil. In this sense, the theology seems rooted in the dualist Manichaeism that juxtaposes heaven and earth, thus making one transitory, the other eternal, with Faust ultimately poised for heavenly things. In this sense, though, the drama of hinges on the confrontation between Faust and the Erdgeist, and this is expressed well in the eighth number, “Faust’s “Anrufung an den Erdgeist.”

While this piece may never supplant the conventional settings of the Faust story, this setting is of interest as another interpretation of the tale. Its structure suggests a scenic cantata, with the details of the story left to the audience, as the musical pieces depict various points of arrival that find expression in music. The use of chorus in “Faust’s Dream” is effective, and while the music for the concluding portion, the familiar lines “Alles vergängliches ist nu rein Gleichnis” suffers comparison with Liszt’s setting of the same text in the Faust Symphony and Mahler’s in the second part of his Eighth, Röntgen caps his own work fittingly. As much as this Faust is a curiosity, this recording makes a case for performing the score as another interpretation of the familiar legend.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Julius Röntgen: Aus Goethes Faust for Orchestra, Organ, Chorus, and Soloists.

product_title=Julius Röntgen: Aus Goethes Faust for Orchestra, Organ, Chorus, and Soloists.
product_by=Machteld Baumans, Marcel Beekman, Andre Morsch, Andre Post, Mark Richardson, Dennis Wilgenhof. Koor van de Nationale Reisopera Enschede. Netherlands SO, David Porcelijn.
product_id=CPO 777311 [CD]

Posted by jim_z at 8:00 PM

Verdi’s 'Masked Ball' opens WNO season

By Terry Ponick [Washington Times, 12 September 2010]

Washington — The Washington National Opera launched its budget-shortened 2010-2011 season last night with a decent new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) and the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The singing, costuming, and orchestral playing were generally good, but the production’s five-and-dime sets left much to be desired.

Posted by Gary at 7:47 PM

Renee Fleming stretches beyond opera

By Andrew Druckenbrod [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12 September 2010]

Opera singers have never sung opera exclusively -- not in the art form's nascent years around 1600, nor in its heyday in the 19th century or its golden years around the middle of the past century. So it should be no surprise that Renee Fleming, the premier operatic soprano of the past few decades, is looking to step off the operatic stage more often.

Posted by Gary at 7:45 PM

Grant Gershon keeps a steady beat

By Chloe Veltman [LA Times, 12 September 2010]

This summer, Grant Gershon became the first ever music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale to lead the vocal ensemble and the Los Angeles Philharmonic together in a concert. As final preparations for the event were underway at the Hollywood Bowl, Gershon showed no signs of apprehension. Appearing on the rehearsal podium in a black T-shirt and jeans with the bangs of his sandy hair flopping boyishly over his eyes, the conductor devoted his time to chatting about the history of Haydn's Te Deum, synchronizing phrase endings between the orchestra and chorus in Poulenc's Gloria and running through the solos in Vivaldi's Gloria with sopranos Jessica Rivera and Christine Brandes and alto Kelley O'Connor.

Posted by Gary at 7:43 PM

Mohammed Fairouz: An Interview

The present season will include at least five premieres including those of his Opera Sumeida’s Song as well as his Third Symphony, an ambitious work for large forces looking at the possibilities of peace in the Middle East, setting texts in Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew. We spoke via Skype on August 23, 2010.

TM: Let’s talk about your piece for the Zamir Chorale, which began as an oratorio.

MF: That piece has now taken the form of a symphony, which is my third symphony. It shares a lot of thematic similarities with my first two symphonies, but it is also very, very different. It is an evening-long work for chorus and orchestra, which will bring together the Zamir Chorale and the Northeastern University Choral Society. There is a children’s chorus in the piece, there is a large orchestra, and a couple of soloists. The mezzo-soprano solo will be sung by Lynn Torgove, and the baritone solo will be sung by Dana Whiteside, both prominent Boston singers with a presence on the oratorio scene. The piece will be premiered at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, on April 10, 2011. I am nearing the final stages of completing the work.

TM: Could you say a little about how the commission for this work came about?

MF: I teach at Northeastern, and the commission came through Northeastern University, though before I started working there. The commission was the vision of Joshua Jacobson, who is the conductor and artistic director of the Zamir Chorale, and one of the foremost authorities on Jewish choral music. He ran the idea by Denis Sullivan, who is the head of the Middle East Studies Department at Northeastern, and who has strong connections to the Arab world. The Middle East Studies Department decided to commission the work. It is entirely set in Middle Eastern languages, and uses the poetry and liturgy of the ancient and modern Middle East as its point of departure.

TM: So there will be text in Arabic and Hebrew. What other languages are you working with?

MF: The first movement is a grand choral-solo-orchestral setting of the Kaddish, which is in Aramaic. It is an ancient prayer, a doxology, praising God, which acquired the connotation over the years of being a prayer for the dead. The second movement is in Arabic, a setting of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem from his epic called State of Siege. It is a very intimate second movement, set as a lullaby. The principal clarinetist in the orchestra plays in the style of ancient Middle Eastern writing — maqam-based composition, and the soloist sings a lullaby for her son who dies, presumably in the conflict in the Middle East. After that, there is a return to Aramaic, with an interlude for the men’s voices of the chorus, who sing the Oseh Shalom, which is from the Kaddish. It is a call for piece, which is set for a minyan, a quorum of Jewish men. There have to be at least ten Jewish men who come together to pray — it’s a very formal concept, and very traditional. They sing Oseh Shalom — He who makes peace in high places, may he make peace for us and for all Israel. This text has a significance for the drama of the whole piece, which I will explain when I come to talk about the last movement.

Then we have a third movement, which is a setting for orchestra and solo violin, this time. The solo violinist will be the legendary violinist James Buswell, whom I have admired for a long time, and whom I have worked with over the last several years. This movement will be crafted for him. Lynn Torgove will sing the words of Fadwa Tuqan, a Palestinian poet, in Arabic. She was called the poetess of Palestine, an important figure both in feminist literature and in Arabic poetry in the twentieth century. She died in 2006. Her poem deals with the sense of loss and dispossession. After the third movement, the childrens’ choir comes in, and sings an interlude on the words of the Oseh Shalom. This time we hear the children, the first time we heard the men. Then the finale, a grand setting of Memorial Day for the War Dead by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, which is in modern Hebrew. That movement is over a half-hour long in itself, and is the grand finale of this piece, for chorus, children’s choir, soloists, orchestra — all of the forces put together. There are various nuances to Amichai’s poem, but basically it ends on an ambiguous note, saying that behind all this perhaps some great happiness is hiding, and that brings the epilogue, which is setting for the men, the women, the children, for everyone, of the Oseh Shalom. Finally, I add the words to the conclusion of this text which some Jewish groups have been adding since the 1970s — “and for all the nations of the world”, and these words are repeated almost hypnotically as the piece comes to a close. This brings closure, as we are praying not only for the tribe, but for all the nations of the world.

TM: In a certain sense there are few pieces in the repertoire which one could think of as addressing this subject matter. I can think of the Britten War Requiem, the Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Do you have a sense of where this piece will fit in terms of those predecessors?

MF: I am thinking in terms of two models. Of course the War Requiem has been looming over me during the composition of this piece, and it is a wonderful model. Right from the very beginning I thought to myself that the War Requiem was such a timely piece, but it has such artistic value that it merits repeated performances, and it lives on very strongly in the repertoire. Of course being Mohammed Fairouz, and having the connections that I do to the Middle East, and seeing the tragedy of this conflict, I am uniquely situated to write this big timely piece. One has to imbue the work with the artistic integrity that Britten brought to the War Requiem, because to write a timely piece might create a statement for the here and now — there’s nothing more pressing and desperately needing of attention than the Middle East, in my estimation — it’s an absolute disaster and a tragedy — rather than the ages. It’s also important to note that the piece is a choral symphony, and it has the connotations of that very first choral symphony by Beethoven. Schiller’s words Alle Menschen werden Brüder are being realized in this choral symphony, aimed at the contemporary Middle East. The ability of choirs to be ideal communities of people that come together, and bring their voices together…


TM: Please say a little, for people who are not from Boston, about the choral tradition in the Boston area. Not only is there the Zamir Chorale, but Boston has a centuries-old tradition of excellent choral singing, perhaps the oldest ensemble being the Handel and Haydn Society, but in addition there are the Cecilia Society, the Cantata Singers and others. Sanders Theater has been a venue for many of these groups. You are in a good place to be writing a choral symphony.

MF: Boston is a great town, and of course Joshua Jacobson is one of the great choral conductors, and studied with another great conductor, Lorna Cooke de Varon, at the New England Conservatory, which is where I went to school. David Hoose is a great conductor, who works with the Cantata Singers, and who conducted my Requiem Mass, a long a cappella work, in New York City a few years ago, and did it carefully and beautifully. There’s the Boston Children’s Chorus, a unique choir with a social vision and mission. There are of course the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Handel and Haydn Society. There are many choral societies, and a great choral tradition.

TM: Please say a little about the musical idioms that you use, since Americans in general are probably familiar neither with classical Arabic music nor with Jewish music. They may have heard klezmer, possibly, and it’s less likely that they will have heard Umm Kulthum.

MF: Maqam is Arabic, and is essentially a system of modes. I used maqam extensively in my opera Sumeida’s Song. That work is slated for premiere three days after my Third Symphony. The symphony will premiere in Boston on April 10, and the opera in New York City on April 13. The idea of the maqam, which is central to Arabic music, is that it is microtonally inflected. We sometimes say quarter-tones, but they are not exactly quarter-tones, but inflections, for example, in the maqam Bayati, which is the mode that I use most extensively in Sumeida’s Song. It is also the mode that I use, together with the maqams Rast and Sikah (each of the maqams has a name, a descriptive name) in my Third Symphony, I use it in Tahwidah, my songs for voice and clarinet, I use it in my Fragments from Ibn Khafajah, which is a song cycle.

I am in a sense straddling worlds, because I am Western-trained, and I use the maqam. But I use it with counterpoint, and I use it with harmony, and I use it with the symphony orchestra, which with some effort and skill, can be made to sound not much like a symphony orchestra — it can sound like an Arabic takht, the orchestra that accompanies belly dancers, that accompanied Umm Kulthum. The use of the mode, the use of orchestration, the idea of writing music which is essentially heterophonic — what fascinates me about Arabic music is the fact that without counterpoint, without harmony, this tradition has existed for thousands and thousands of years, putting all of its effort and concentration into the melodic line. That inspires me constantly to refine my melodic line. But I use all the Western aspects as well. There is a huge four-voice fugue for chorus and orchestra in the finale of my Third Symphony. I use sonata form, rather than the model that Umm Kulthum uses, for example, where you have a subject, and then a diversion, and then she diverts from the diversion, and there’s a further diversion from the diversion of the diversion — two hours later you are at the end of the evening, and you are not sure where you began. I use motivic development and traditional forms as well to unify my drama. The way that I use Arabic music is an interesting synthesis.

TM: We are at a time where the tensions and conflicts are presently daily, not just in the Middle East, but in our politics in the United States, in discussions about where Islamic centers can or cannot be located — it’s hard to believe that in the twenty-first century we have come to this. Hopefully this is something that will help to raise consciousness in this area. Do you have motion towards a New York premiere for the Third Symphony?

MF: All I can say at this point is that we are in negotiations with a major New York orchestra to premiere the work in New York with the Zamir Chorale. Zamir is looking at a tour schedule for the Middle East for Fall of 2011, and we have performances that are scheduled for Cairo, at the Opera House, and four cities across Israel, including Tel Aviv, and in Jordan, probably, if security allows us in the Palestinian territories — Joshua Jacobson has a vision to take this to Ramallah, where there is a wonderful cultural center. I applaud the courage of his vision.

TM: Perhaps you could also talk about some other recent works.

MF: The Cygnus Ensemble, under the leadership of the guitarist William Anderson, commissioned me to write a piece, which they wanted to premiere at Bargemusic, which overlooks Lower Manhattan. For that project I chose these wonderful texts by Ibn Khafajah, which are homo-erotic Arabic love songs from the Middle Ages in Arab Andalusia. They are so innocent and at the same time so subversive, because they comment on religion, they comment on politics — but it’s a song cycle of love songs. I was able to make a strong commentary with something that is innocent and tender, which speaks to the humanity of these people.

TM: Anyone who looks at The Thousand and One Nights will be amazed to see how much of it is poetry — it flows back and forth between narrative and poetry. It’s easy to forget that both our Western music and poetry have very strong roots in the interactions in Spain between Arab and Jewish and Christian poets.

MF: Another example of that is a song cycle of mine called Rubaiyat. It’s two songs, but three rubaiyats. The rubaiyat is a wonderful form — it’s a quatrain, but the way that Omar Khayyam uses that form lends itself to musical puns and games. The Arabs regarded poetry as the highest art, and I have always been in awe of the great poets. I have set a lot of text — I have eight song cycles which are being presented in concerts this year. I love poetry, I love literature. It inspires a lot of my musical creation.

TM: Thinking about Arabic, and the Third Symphony, people who are familiar with medieval Spain may know that there was a period of convivencia, of co-existence of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but may nevertheless be unaware that many of the important works of the Jewish writers of the Middle Ages were written in Arabic.

MF: I discovered as I was setting the Fragments of Ibn Khafajah that the poet (1058-1138) had Jewish roots. His first name was Ishaq, or Isaac, a characteristically Jewish name.

Of course, there are all these connections. I am in constant awe of the poets that I am working with in the Third Symphony. The oldest text here, the Kaddish, is thousands of years old, and the newest text, the Darwish is ten years old, and the Amichai is hardly thirty years old. This poetry, this music, these prayers… this civilization which can create poetry on this dazzling level… isn’t it poignant that I am writing a piece desperately calling for them to stop tearing themselves apart?

The Hebrew text of the Amichai has so many internal rhythms and rhymes which are eminently musical, and so many layers. He says “Memorial Day for the War Dead, add now the grief of all your losses to their grief.” That’s an invitation to counterpoint if there ever was one. Later he says “Memorial Day, holiday which combines holiday and sacrifice and mourning on one day, for easy, convenient memory”. I remember spending a sleepless night thinking “what does he mean by this?” , and then I thought “Of course, “holiday” is Independence Day in Israel. “Sacrifice” is the memorial day for the Holocaust. “Mourning” is Yom Hazikaron, the memorial for the war dead.” Since Independence Day runs back-to-back with Memorial Day for the War Dead, and days in Israel are evening to evening, dusk to dusk, the two melt into each other. And Memorial Day for the Holocaust is barely a week apart from those two days. The loaded sense of history in a small land is mind-boggling. When you read the text that says “a flag loses contact with reality, and flies off”, which I set as a fugue, and the culmination is “everything in three languages — Hebrew, Arabic and Death”. That sounds horribly heavy-handed in English, but in Hebrew - “Ivrit, Aravit, Umavet” there’s something creepy that just doesn’t translate. I will be immersing people in ninety minutes of Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, and no English — they are going into a foreign land. Most Americans will be going into a foreign land for an evening when they listen to this piece.

TM: Millions of Americans are familiar with the text of the Hebrew Bible, but what they usually don’t realize is how many fewer words it takes to say those things in Hebrew, how lapidary the language is, and how explicit you must be in English with things that can be implied in Hebrew.

MF: The heavy cultural significance of everything - there is so much vital stuff that is lost in translation.

To turn to a few purely instrumental works that I have been working on, they seem to speak that universal language of music, but they speak it, I speak it, in a strong Middle Eastern dialect, and in a sense my wind quintet, which I just completed, as part of the Legacy commissioning project of the Imani Winds, reflects that. I heard the reading, and was impressed that the Middle Eastern colloquialisms came out in a very subtle way. Even when the music is not using Arab idioms, and not using maqam…the clarinetist in that group, Mariam Adam, is an Arab-American, and she plays with that her blood — she is an incredible artist, and so I wrote a big passage for her at the end of the quintet which she played the hell out of, even when they were reading — as though she were speaking my language.

TM: Any final thoughts about upcoming projects?

MF: On September 18, a few days after the Borromeo Quartet releases a disc with my Lamentation and Satire, their violinist and cellist Nicholas Kitchen and Yeesun Kim, who are partners in life and in music, will be premiering a double concerto that was commissioned for them by Ensemble 212. That program will also feature my first and second symphonies. The double concerto is based on a wonderful book by Jacqueline Rose, States of Fantasy, which chronicles aspects of the Middle East, aspects of psychology, aspects of her thoughts about Israel as a contemporary Jew. I am delighted that their conductor, Yoon Jae Lee, has taken the initiative to put together a very complex piece. I am looking forward to that.

There are two other projects which are in the pipeline. One is with the dear and spectacular mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, for whom I am composing a song cycle on the subject of Alma Mahler, and the other with the wonderful Arab-American conductor, Fawzi Haimor, who just took the post as assistant conductor at the Alabama Symphony. Fawzi is an ambitious and incredibly talented young Maestro (I encourage all to keep and eye on him). He is presenting my Second Symphony in Alabama, together with a symposium on Middle Eastern music, engaging the Alabama Youth Symphony Orchestra, so that we can educate young people about our heritage, about contemporary music in general, and I am delighted about those two projects.

image= image_description=Mohammed Fairouz product=yes product_title=Mohammed Fairouz: An Interview product_by=Interviewed by Tom Moore product_id=Above: Mohammed Fairouz

All photos courtesy of Mohammed Fairouz
Posted by Gary at 3:55 PM

September 10, 2010

A Conductor’s Herculean Schedule

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 10 September 2010]

TWO of the most anticipated events of the new season are coming right up, and they both involve James Levine.

Posted by Gary at 7:49 PM

Disembodied performance

By Morgan Bettex [MIT News, 10 September 2010]

Later this month, the Opera of the Future Group at the MIT Media Lab will premiere Death and the Powers, an opera more than 10 years in the making. Featuring life-sized singing robots and a musical chandelier, the opera could redefine how technology can enhance live performance and help reestablish opera’s spirit of innovation.

Posted by Gary at 9:13 AM

In The Penal Colony, Royal Opera House

By Matt Thomas [Wales Online, 10 September 2010]

A contemporary opera based on the work of Franz Kafka, with a score by the minimalist composer Philip Glass, might not sound like the most welcoming work - but Music Theatre Wales are hoping to persuade you otherwise.

Posted by Gary at 9:09 AM

September 9, 2010

Jacques Imbrailo, Malatesta at the Royal Opera House

“Don Pasquale is elderly, so people assume his friend Dr Malatesta must be old too”, says Imbrailo, “but he claims his sister is young, straight out of the convent. So maybe Malatesta is not such an old man”.

Imbrailo will be singing with big names like Paolo Gavanelli, Barry Banks and Íride Martínez. Since he’s still only in his early 30’s, this is quite an achievement. Nonetheless, his reputation is built on solid foundations.

Imbrailo’s been associated with the Royal Opera House for quite some time. While he was still a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Scheme, he shone as Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave. In June 2010 he created the first ever Billy Budd at the Glyndebourne Festival to great acclaim. He’s appeared many times at Covent Garden, most recently as Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

“It’s interesting that people assume Dr Malatesta is a bad man”, says Imbrailo thoughtfully. “He’s a friend to Don Pasquale, Ernesto and Norina and wants the best outcome for them. In the end, he is helping them even though he goes about it in a devious and manipulative way. He’s slimy, and might even go for Norina if he had a chance. He’s an opportunist who likes to give things a nudge, then sit back and see how things unfold. He’ll push events towards an outcome that suits him. The only one who really gets hurt is Don Pasquale, but he’s saved from a much worse fate. Dr Malatesta’s intentions are good, though he thinks the ends justify the means”.

In this Don Pasquale, director Jonathan Milller aims for lyrical realism. “Not too flowery, he tells us”. says Imbrailo, “Naturalness is good even though it’s bel canto”.The focus is on acting as well as on vocal display.

For a man whose star is most certainly in the ascendant, Imbrailo comes over in person as remarkably humble and sincere. This spirit contributed greatly to his portrayal of Billy Budd. Billy’s good-natured but also strong enough not to be pulled into mutiny. He’s hanged, but forgives his Captain.

“I’m quite reserved” says Imbrailo. “I’m not a people-pleaser, but I like getting on with people. I’m always eager to take on board what others think, in a healthy way. Maybe sometimes it’s to my detriment because there are times when you need to stand for what you believe in, whatever others say. Maybe I have the “pleasing” side of Billy’s character”.

Thinking himself into Dr Malatesta is interesting. “I try not to put on anything artificial. I’m not a mimicker. If I had to fake anything, I’d be rubbish. I like to get inside the personality, and think how a person would react in those situations. I want to be natural, but no-one has the same personality traits. I have to tweak things so I can react to emotions expressed by completely different personas.”

Imbrailo’s voice broke fairly late, and is still maturing. He’s wise to chose roles that develop his voice as well as his career.

“I’d love to sing Pelléas” he says, “What a lovely role!”. Imbrailo’s clear, lyrical style would fit it well. “And Papageno. There’s not a huge lot of singing, but there’s so much potential in the part”. “Possibly Posa in Don Carlos, but definitely Wozzeck,one day in the next few years”.

“Wozzeck is a gift to learn”, says Imbrailo. He’s already been offered a Wozzeck, but wants to grow further into it. “Wozzeck is disturbed because he’s been battered so much that it becomes his frame of mind, and he loses control. I asked Simon Keenlyside, because he also sang the part when he was quite young. Straight away he sent me a huge email, full of wonderful and sensible advice.”

“I’ve been blessed”, says Imbrailo, “I’ve had so much help and support” He cites Gerald Finley, for example, and his former voice teacher in South Africa, to whom he can always turn. He has a South African mentor in London, who gives good advice, and a wife who keeps him grounded. “I’m one of those guys people come up to and say, ‘Well done! You’ve hit the jackpot’. They’re both committed Christians which helps them keep their priorities centred, whatever the stresses of the opera business.

Soon, Imbrailo takes Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd to Amsterdam at De Nederlandse Opera. In summer 2011, he’ll be singing a lead in Judith Weir’s premiere, Miss Fortune/Achterbahn at the Bregenz Festival.

Imbrailo also was one of the founders of The Prince Consort, a very well respected vocal ensemble. They appear regularly at the Wigmore Hall and the Oxford Lieder Festival, and have released a CD of the Songs of Ned Rorem. It’s won several awards and praise from the composer himself. It’s very good indeed, highly recommended.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale will run at the Royal Opera House from 12 September to 21st September. For more details, please visit the Royal Opera House website.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Jacques Imbrailo [Photo courtesy of Intermusica]

product_title=Jacques Imbrailo: An Interview
product_by=Above: Jacques Imbrailo [Photo courtesy of Intermusica]

Posted by anne_o at 3:33 PM

September 8, 2010

A composer for all seasons

By Michael Dervan [Irish Times, 8 September 2010]

HOW MANY Krzysztof Pendereckis are there? There’s the Penderecki who, back in 1959, entered three works into a composers’ competition in his native Poland, and won all three prizes. There’s the Penderecki who received international recognition for the startling sounds of his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima just a year later. There’s the man who combined the sound world of the musical avant-garde with the sacred text of St Luke’s Gospel to huge emotional effect in his St Luke Passion of 1966.

Posted by Gary at 11:46 AM

Unique Rigoletto live from Mantua

Verdi’s stage directions are so faithfully followed that the performance took place over two days. Just as Verdi indicated, each Act unfolds at the correct time of day, in the places indicated in the libretto. Ultimate veracity to script.

No ordinary theatre has the capacity to create a production as loyal to the composer’s instructions as this. This is the real Palazzo Ducale di Mantova. No two dimensional theatre set could hope to replicate the possibilities filming in real space can offer. The Palace is a maze of different buildings connected by alleyways and courtyards. A metaphor for the complex relationships within the Court, where nothing is quite as simple as might seem.

Real Renaissance staircases and hallways, real marble parquets. Frescoes painted by 15th and 16th century masters. Real antique tapestries and furniture. No opera house workshop would even dream of competing with Mantegna or Corregio. Design doesn’t get more perfect than this.

Yet the production resists the temptation to linger on these riches. The focus is resolutely on the opera itself, which is as it should be. Film offers possibilities which expand the impact of any opera. At the ball in Act One, for example, the camera shoots the dancers from above, so we can appreciate the intricate choreography. It’s not just for show, since intrigue at Court is like a dance, with death for those out of step. Rigoletto mocks Count Monterone but soon it will be his own turn to be trounced.

Film enables commentary without interrupting action. Plácido Domingo runs from the courtiers into the room with the famous Mantegna ceiling, painted to look as it if opens onto the sky. It’s trompe l’oeil, deliberate illusion, reversing the natural order. The Dukes of Mantua looked on it as a joke. Rigoletto has no illusions. For him, life is a bad joke. He has to play the fool to survive. Domingo’s face twists in anguish, but for a moment his head is framed against Mantegna’s golden circle, like a halo.

Similarly, the film adds to the portrayal of Gilda. The character’s a mystery. She’s her father’s daughter because she’s inherited his extreme personality. Ten years ago, Christine Schäfer created a Gilda who exploded with passionate heroism. Julia Novikova is much too young and inexperienced to attempt such intensity. Instead Director Marco Bellochio makes her innocence a positive feature. She’s filmed in a room of Lucca della Robbia medallions, depicting the Madonna and Infant Jesus. Gilda’s grown up in isolation. Her only references to life come from religion. Other girls might be wary of blind faith, love, sacrifice and death, but Gilda never questions. The very purity Rigoletto hoped would protect her becomes his defeat.

Plácido Domingo chooses to sing Rigoletto perhaps because the tessitura in the first Act lies close enough to his range that it’s not much of a challenge. Later, when the part darkens, he relies more on the integrity of his acting. Rigoletto is growing old, ravaged by a lifetime of pretending to be what he isn’t. Domingo’s growing old, too, at last able to release his “Inner baritone” not so much through vocal perfection but through the authenticity of his acting.

His performance is artistically valid because he’s creating the character intuitively. Film helps moderate the experience, focusing close-up on his mobile facial muscles, so expressive that even if his vocal chords aren’t what they were, you’re drawn through other means to a true portrayal of Rigoletto’s personality.

Vittorio Grigolo, hot new favourite, comes over very well indeed as the Duke of Mantua. He’s a film natural, good looking and sexy, moving as if he inhabits this set like he was born to it. Interesting warm voice, with potential.

Faithful as this production is to script, following directions too literally leads to problems in Act Three. Verdi wanted a night-time atmosphere but being too literal means the action is fatally obscured. Ruggerio Raimondi’s Sparafucile impresses because he’s indoors where there’s light, an interesting reversal of his first appearance in the dark alley.

The final scene, where Rigoletto finds his daughter again is too shrouded. On conventional stage, it would be completely lost. Here, it’s done via close-ups that can be easily lit. In a sense it’s psychologically true, since Rigoletto is now truly alone, but it doesn’t make for good theatre.

Producer Andrea Alderman and this team created the 1992 Tosca filmed on location in Rome, with Domingo as Cavaradossi and Ruggerio Raimondi as Scarpia. Twenty years on, technology and telecommunications are much more sophisticated. Still, the logistics are such that it’s amazing there weren’t more technical hitches, especially as this was live, with no room for correction.

Zubin Mehta didn’t conduct at the scene where the singing was being filmed. He and the orchestra were in the building nearby, so there was simultaneous transmission, apparently by state of the art techniques, between orchestra, singers and film crew. It’s certainly not unusual these days for performers to communicate via TV monitors, so the slight discord between Mehta’s pace and the singing stemmed more from his tempi than from the medium itself.

This film, in any case, isn’t supposed to replicate studio conditions. Nowadays, operas aren’t filmed in sterile conditions, but as they happen on stage (even if they’re carefully edited). There are compensations, like greater spontaneity, which are closer to real experience in an opera house, where things aren’t necessarily perfect every time. Films like these are an extension of the process.

Imagine the technical, legal and logistic nightmares that were involved making this. Insurance and government clearance must have been hard to negotiate. International simultaneous broadcast to organize. The wonder is that more didn’t go wrong.

We can see stage performances of Rigoletto any time, but we’ll never see another production quite like this. This ambitious venture is unique.

Anne Ozorio

Click here for a video clip.

Click here for a photo array of this production.

image_description=Plácido Domingo as Rigoletto

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
product_by=Plácido Domingo: Rigoletto; Julia Novikova: Gilda; Vittori Grigolo: Il Duca di Mantova; Ruggerio Raimondi: Sparafuclie; Nino Surguladze: Maddalena. Zubin Mehta, conductor, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI. Andrea Alderrmann: Producer. Mario Bellochio: Director. Vittorio Storare: Cinematographer. Filmed live in Mantua via RAI, Radiotelevisione Italia, 3-4th September 2010.
product_id=Above: Plácido Domingo as Rigoletto

Posted by anne_o at 8:04 AM

September 7, 2010

Buxton Opera House to open new Pavilion arts venue

By Natalie Woolman [The Stage, 7 September 2010]

Buxton Opera House is due to open a secondary venue later this month, following a £2.5 million redevelopment project.

Posted by Gary at 11:45 AM

Diana Damrau in Recital at Salzburg Festival

This particular Liederabend offers a selection of music by five late-Romantic composers, Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler. Alexander Zemlinsky, Hugo Wolf, and Richard Strauss, and presents some repertoire performed infrequently.

More familiar, perhaps in the opera house, Damrau offers a different side of her voice in the more intimate venue of the song recital. This provides those who are familiar with Damrau to hear her perform literature that they could not hear elsewhere. One of the selections, for example, is the Strauss song “Amor,” which is remarkably similar to the music associated with Zerbinetta in the composer’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos and in this context provides a fine connection between Damrau in the opera house and her efforts in the recital milieu. That song in particular demonstrates not just Damrau’s facility, but her virtuosity in performing the lengthy coloratura melismas associated with Zerbinetta but here, in the more exposed medium of voice and piano. It is a persuasive performance, all the more remarkable for Damrau’s performance at the conclusion of an otherwise full recital.

As to the other literature performed, Damrau performed entire sets of Lieder, starting with Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder, a selection of songs from the early part of his career, when the pulls between the late-Romantic style and the atonal idiom he would pursue are audible from the start in “Nacht,” which Damrau delivers convincingly. “Traumgekrönt,” with its text by Rainer Maria Rilke, has a similar sense, which Damrau brings out not only in her execution of the line, but also in her enunciation of the text. (In Berg’s “Liebesode” Damrau’s work on the stage is perceptible in the rolled “r” of the word “Arm,” an element that she brings into her performance of the piano version of “Das himmlische Leben,” the Song-Finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.)

With Zemlinksy’s Walzergesänge this infrequently heard piece conveys a sense of Brahms’s vocal Liebeslieder waltzes, with the inflection of the kind of modernism heard a generation later, albeit inspired by the Tuscan folksongs of Ferdinand Gregorovius. These short, early settings by Zemlinsky do not yet embody the kind of expressive dissonances that are part of the composer’s Lyrische Symphonie, yet clearly take the listener into the late Romantic idiom, as found distinctively in “Ich geh’ des Nachts.” These pieces are removed from the idiom Wolf used in the five settings of Eduard Mörike performed in this recital. Her approach to “Lebe wohl” captures the style of the text well, and stands out for its moving interpretation. Likewise, the pianism of Landemann is nicely heard in “Nimmersatte Liebe,” where it sets the tone for the song at the beginning. His subtle conclusion of the last of the Wolf set is effective in bringing this relatively lengthy setting to an appropriate musical ending.

With Strauss’s relatively early set Mädchenblumen, op. 22, Damrau offers another perspective on the late-Romantic Lied. The register of several of these songs, like “Kornblumen” fit Damrau’s voice, and she offers some solid performances of these seldom heard pieces. That son and others in the cycle are unified by the images of flowers, and the deft touch Damrau gives the music is quite effective, something nicely connected with her inclusion of a later setting by Strauss of “Ich wollt’ ein Sträußlein binden” (“I will make a bouquet”), a song which literally connects the parts of the song cycle and, through the author of text, Clemens Brentano, creates a link to the final piece on the recital, the song “Amor.”

The audience was quite enthusiastic about Damrau, and the applause is nicely captured on the recording, which also preserves the four encores she gave: Mahler’s song “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?” along with two selections from Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch “Auch kleine Dinge” and a virtuoso treatment of “Ich hab’ in Penna” and, at the end, a song by Liszt, “Es muss ein Wunderbares sein.” The latter is a curious piece that adds an earlier composer to the recital with this piece that also conveys, as Damrau remarks, as a means of expressing her own enthusiasm for this recital.

This recording captures a fascinating recital that not only serves to document the Salzburg Festival, but also serves as a fine example of programming. As various expressions of late-Romantic music, the music Damrau performed offers several perspectives on the style and her own facility with each of the composers represented. As such, it serves well in making available some vibrant interpretations of song repertoire by an exceptional performer.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Diana Damrau in Recital at Salzburg Festival

product_title=Diana Damrau in Recital at Salzburg Festival: Alban Berg (1885 - 1935): Sieben Frühe Lieder; Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911): Das Himmlische Leben from Das Knaben Wunderhorn; Alexander Zemlinsky (1871 - 1942): Walzergesänge; Hugo Wolf (1860 - 1903): Fünf Lieder; Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949): Mädchenblumen, Op. 22; Ich Wollt’ein Sträußlein Binden, Op. 68/2; Amor, Op. 68/5
product_by=Diana Damrau, soprano; Stephan Matthias Lademann, piano. Live recording: Salzburg Festival, Mozarteum, August 13, 2005.
product_id=Orfeo d'Or 702061 [CD]

Posted by jim_z at 12:06 AM

September 6, 2010

Conductor Seiji Ozawa stages comeback after illness

[BBC, 6 September 2010]

Acclaimed Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa has opened a music festival in his native country following a nine-month battle with throat cancer.

Posted by Gary at 4:05 PM

September 5, 2010

Bliss, Edinburgh

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 5 September 2010]

Life is cruel. Capitalism is corrupt. Ambition is cancerous. But by turning your back on so-called civilisation and cultivating your back yard, you may find salvation. That seems to be the moral of Brett Dean’s new opera, a black comedy about modern life. Based on Peter Carey’s 1981 novel, Bliss tells of an advertising executive, Harry Joy, who has a heart attack that triggers (or symbolises?) a midlife crisis. He sees the hollowness of his success, is dismissed as mad by his peers and survives by dropping out.

Posted by Gary at 3:50 PM

September 3, 2010

Opera Noir: Alban Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’ — From the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow

By Bruce Scott [NPR, 3 September 2010]

It's difficult to compare Alban Berg’s searing yet beautiful drama Wozzeck with just about any other opera, much less with other forms of dramatic entertainment. Yet there is one comparison that may be appropriate.

Posted by Gary at 5:10 PM

September 2, 2010

Excuse me, does my Boheme look big in this?

By Rosemary Sorensen [The Australian, 2 September 2010]

PUCCINI'S La Boheme is about Mimi, that pathetic creature who loves oh so briefly, then is snuffed out, coughing up her guts with a bad case of consumption. Never mind that she is able - poor and ill though she may be - to warble at the top of her spotty lungs and drive her lover to distraction. Mimi is a tragic maid.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

Why no modern-day equals to 'Carmen,' 'Tosca'?

[, 2 September 2010]

Dear Mr. Kosman: How come we don't have any modern opera composers that approach those of the past? When you hear "Carmen" or "Tosca," you can hum the melodies of those compositions, but I dare anyone to hum the melodies of anything composed after 1930. It would be so nice to hear a new "warhorse" opera. Where is the modern-day version of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini or Bizet?

Posted by Gary at 8:58 AM

Mathematicians, Musicians and Chess Masters

By Dylan Loeb McClain [NY Times, 2 September 2010]

Sunday’s chess column was about Noam Elkies, a Harvard mathematics professor who is also a music composer and chess player. Though Elkies is unusual at being talented in all three areas, he is not entirely unique. Through the years, there have been a number of strong chess players who were excellent mathematicians or musicians.

Posted by Gary at 8:52 AM

September 1, 2010

Englebert Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel — BBC Prom 61

This year, Laurent Pelly’s 2008 staging of Humperdinck’s fairy-tale favourite, Hansel and Gretel, with its economical, ‘recession-savvy’ sets — brown cardboard boxes à la homeless-city, floor-mop trees, litter-strewn landscape and flimsy paper ovens — proved a timely and fitting choice for the restricted stage space and theatrical basics available at the Royal Albert Hall. The absence of luxurious stage designs and copious props was certainly not a hindrance to Stéphane Marlot’s clever adaptation for the Royal Albert Hall, which hinted at fantasy and enchantment but left it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the ambiguous gaps — which is just as it should be in fairyland.

After a long Glyndebourne run, which began in July, the cast were confident and at ease; interestingly, performances that might have lacked freshness were given a boost of spontaneity by the unfamiliar locale, none more so that the arrival William Dazely’s Father, surreptitiously signalled by a speculative glance to the back of the Arena by conductor, Robin Ticciati. A boisterous Dazely, clutching two bursting supermarket-bags, raucously negotiated his way through a crowded, surprised Proms Arena, lurching and launching himself over successive barriers to climb up to the stage — the cymbal player serving as a useful bag carrier as the final hoist was accomplished.

As his wife, Imgard Vilsmaier was rather less rough and ready. Vilsmaier has a big Wagnerian voice — booming the Mother’s frustration and despair to the rafters of the Gallery — but it is a pleasant-toned instrument, one which she modulated skilfully in her Act 1 aria to convey her maternal distress and despair.

But it is eponymous siblings who dominate the opera, and this production presented a superlative pairing. Alice Coote, enacted an astonishing metamorphosis to petulant, prepubescent mischief-maker — a touch of attention deficit disorder, perhaps? Coote was exhaustingly hyperactive, even managing to make disappearing into a cardboard box appear interesting and amusing. Her glorious tone was consistently projected with clarity and warmth - one cannot imagine a better Hansel, or a mezzo-soprano who enjoys the role more. Lydia Teuscher, as Gretel, held her own admirably with such a seasoned partner. Possessing a crisp, clear soprano, she twisted and twirled engagingly with her impish brother, their voices entwining with breathtaking beauty in the Evening Prayer.

Attired in a fluorescent pink two-piece suit and bouffant wig, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was an eye-watering picture of consumerist and gastronomic greed as the Witch. His ‘Shirley-Bassey’ strutting, brazenly clutching an upturned mop — microphone or broomstick? — raised uncomfortable hackles, and anticipated the exposure of his chilling intent when he whipped off the wig and revealed the sinisterly bare-headed, pot-bellied, knife-wielding monster beneath the deceptively frivolous drag-queen apparel.

H&G_Glyndebourne_017.gifWolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Witch

In the absence of the full trappings of the opera house, it was essentially left to the lighting scheme to successfully evoke location and ambience. The panels encircling the raised platform variously shone ice-blue, for the loveless, foodless family home; blared gothic red for the slaughter-house kitchen; twinkled luminous silver for the moonlit forest; and gleamed verdant green for the final familial reunion. Despite these resourceful effects, it remained somewhat difficult for the minor roles to establish their character effectively, in such a large arena, although the performances of both Tara Erraught, as the Sandman, and Ida Falk Winland’s Dew-Fairy captured the ambiguous bitter-sweet mood of this production.

The children’s chorus, no doubt well-drilled for Glyndebourne, sang sweetly but looked a little unsure and slightly stilted as they moved around the confines of the stage platform. The Dream Pantomime is a clever concept though: Pelly presents a pristine parade of white-frocked, well-fed children, gorging on Big Macs while a hungry Hansel and Gretel can only dream of gluttonous gastronomy — an ‘angelic host’ which leaves the children nothing but discarded wrappers and empty bellies. As one critic has put it, this is a sharp metaphor for the ‘haves and have-nots’, a pertinent message which Pelly presumably hoped would not be lost on the affluent Glyndebourne clientele.

H&G_Glyndebourne_018.gifLydia Teuscher as Gretel and Alice Coote as Hänsel

Conductor Robin Ticciati, danced light-footedly on the podium before an engaging and committed London Philharmonic Orchestra. Ticciati proved himself a master of rhythmic flexibility, skilfully controlling pace to expose the juxtapositions of sweet joy and melancholy deprivation, energetic optimism and despondent resignation, which characterise the score. The orchestra provided the tints and shades of the rich colour palette which was missing visually; their energetic playing never tipped into Wagnerian weightiness, as Ticciati conjured both the effervescence of the children’s escapade and the satisfyingly soporific moments of rest.

There were no sub- or sur-titles for this performance; thus the audience were prompted out of an habitual ‘laziness’, forced to listen closely to the sung text, or attentively follow the libretto provided in the programme, or to rely on their familiarity with this well-known tale. There were no complaints, and no difficulties, as far as I could tell; we simply rediscovered our ability to be responsive to what was presented to our eyes and ears, an effort which audiences should be pushed to make more frequently perhaps?

As the fairy-story reached its equivocal ‘happy ever after’, Ticciati’s baton drew ravishing warmth from his players. Pelly’s reading of this Grimm tale may be ironic and more than a little shadowy, but the darkness on this occasion was buried beneath the orchestral light and hope.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Lydia Teuscher as Gretel [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival 2010]

product_title=Englebert Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel
product_by=Hansel: Alice Coote; Gretel: Lydia Teuscher; Mother: Irmgard Vilsmaier; Father: William Dazeley; Sandman: Tara Erraught; Dew Fairy: Ida Falk Winland; Witch: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Conductor: Robin Ticciati. Glyndebourne Chorus. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Directed at Glyndebourne (2008) by Laurent Pelly. Revised and semi-staged for the BBC Proms (2010) by Stéphane Marlot. Royal Albert Hall, London, 31 August 2010.
product_id=Above: Lydia Teuscher as Gretel

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival 2010 from the Glyndebourne Festival’s production

Posted by Gary at 10:53 AM

BERTIN: La Esmeralda

Music composed by Louise Bertin. Libretto by Victor Hugo from his novel Notre-Dame de Paris (Hunchback of Notre Dame). Vocal score edited by Franz Liszt (Cat. Nos. LW A038a and S 476)

First Performance: Opéra, Paris, 14 November 1836

Principal Roles:
La Esmeralda Soprano
Phoebus Tenor
Frollo Bass
Quasimodo Bass
Clopin Tenor
Fleur-de-Lys Mezzo-Soprano
Le Vicomte de Gif Tenor
Madame de Gondelaurier Mezzo-Soprano
Monsieur de Morlaix Baritone
Monsieur de Chevreuse Bass
Diane Mezzo-Soprano
Berangere Mezzo-Soprano
Pierrat Torterue Baritone

Synopsis of novel:

The story dates back to January 6, 1482 in Paris, France, the day of the ‘Festival of Fools’ in Paris. Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame, is introduced by his crowning as Pope of Fools.

Esmeralda, a beautiful Gypsy with a kind and generous heart, captures the hearts of many men, including that of a Captain Phoebus, but especially those of Quasimodo and his adopted father, Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame. Frollo is torn between his lust and the rules of the church. He orders Quasimodo to kidnap her, but the hunchback is suddenly captured by Phoebus and his guards who save Esmeralda. Quasimodo is sentenced to be whipped and ordered to be tied down by the heat. Esmeralda, seeing his thirst, offers him water. It saves her, for she captures his heart.

Esmeralda is later charged with the attempted murder of Phoebus, whom Frollo attempted to kill in jealousy, and is sentenced to death by hanging. As she is being led to the gallows, Quasimodo swings down by the bell rope of Notre Dame and carries her off to the cathedral under the law of sanctuary. Clopin rallies the Truands (criminals of Paris) to charge the cathedral and rescue Esmeralda. The King, seeing the chaos, vetoes the law of sanctuary and commands his troops to take Esmeralda out and kill her. When Quasimodo sees the Truands, he assumes they are there to hurt Esmeralda, so he drives them off. Frollo betrays Esmeralda by handing her to the troops and watches while she is hanged. Quasimodo pushes him from the heights of Notre Dame to his death. Quasimodo then goes to a mass grave, lies next to her corpse, crawls off to Esmeralda’s tomb with his arms around her body and eventually dies of starvation. Two years later, excavationists find the skeletons of Esmeralda with a broken neck and Quasimodo locked in an embrace.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Libretto not available.

image= image_description=La Esméralda by Karl von Steuben (1839) audio=yes first_audio_name=Louise Bertin: La Esmeralda (m3u playlist) first_audio_link= second_audio_name=Louise Bertin: La Esmeralda (pls playlist) second_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Louise Bertin: La Esmeralda product_by=La Esmeralda: Maya Boog; Phoebus: Manuel Nunes Camelino; Frollo: Francesco Ellero d'Artegna; Quasimodo: Frederic Antoun; Clopin: Yves Saelens; Fleur-de-Lys: Engenie Danglade; Le Vicomte de Gif: Eric Huchet; Madame de Gondelaurier: Marie-France Gascard; Monsieur de Morlaix: Evgenyi Alexiev; Monsieur de Chevreuse: Marc Mazuir; Diane: Sherri Sassoon-Deshler; Berangere: Alexandra Dauphin-Heiser; Pierrat Torterue: Gundars Dzilums. Choeur de la Radio Lettone. Orchestre national de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. Lawrence Foster, conducting. Montpellier, Opera Berlioz - Le Corum, 23 July 2008.
Posted by Gary at 10:24 AM

WNO and Kennedy Center Opera House Conductor Heinz Fricke Set to Retire

By BWW News Desk [Broadway World, 1 September 2010]

Washington National Opera (WNO) and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts have announced the retirement of Music Director Heinz Fricke. The announcement marks the conclusion of the German maestro's remarkable 18-year tenure leading the Washington National Opera Orchestra and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, which cooperatively share a corps of 61 professional musicians.

Posted by Gary at 9:04 AM