November 30, 2010

Garsington Opera’s Glorious New Setting Unveiled With The Magic Flute

Press Release [30 November 2010]

Having taken up its new home on the Getty family’s magnificent Wormsley Estate in Buckinghamshire, Garsington Opera now announces its first season at Wormsley
(2 June - 5 July 2011). Three operas will be presented, beginning with Mozart’s much loved work, The Magic Flute, following with Rossini’s inspired comic opera, Il Turco in Italia and finally the British premiere of Vivaldi’s rarely performed work La verità in cimento.

Posted by Gary at 8:43 AM

November 29, 2010

Rigoletto, Opera Australia

The revival is even more welcome thanks to the outstanding performances of Michael Lewis and Rigoletto and Emma Matthews as Gilda.

The swinging, cynical sixties Moshinsky creates is the perfect world for the Duke. Paparazzi swarm around his act one party where showgirls dance with bishops.

Act one springs along in this updated guise, the circus-like party music even sounding like the sort of music Fellini’s regular composer Nino Rota would have written had he lived a century earlier.

Michael Yeargan’s revolving ‘doll house’ set shows the Duke’s palace, the street where Rigoletto meets Sparafucile, Rigoletto’s house and Sparafucile’s inn. A quick quarter turn in acts two and four and you have some open space for Gilda’s abduction and the final father-daughter duet. It all works splendidly and is another of Opera Australia’s landmark productions. The set also concentrates the action close to the front of the stage so, when the many set pieces come along, the characters are conveniently up stage nicely placed to deliver their arias.

Michael Lewis is a model Verdi baritone, perfect diction, smooth legato and clear, ringing top. Lewis exploits every note of the music, sung and unsung, to convey character. Seen during the prelude, applying a grotesque clown make-up (anticipating Heath Ledger’s Joker from Batman), Lewis’s Rigoletto then stands to show this Rigoletto’s extra handicap. Crippled, Lewis beetles about on walking sticks. Lewis’s thirty years singing the role bring insights into the character’s words and music illuminate every dimension of Rigoletto’s tragedy big and small from his terrified freeze at Monterone’s curse to the perfectly timed pause and wild yowl when Gilda dies.

Emma Matthews is radiant as Gilda. Mentored in the role by Joan Sutherland, she now takes the highest alternatives at the close of “Caro nomo”, singing with a security and sophistication that would make her late, great predecessor proud. Matthews’s acting matches her singing and she creates an understandably fatalistic young woman out of Gilda. Her murder scene is actually shocking; she strides fearlessly into the tavern so Maddalena seems to see it is a woman, not a man, and shrieks with horror as Gilds is stabbed. Jacqueline Dark, in the unlikely double act of Gilda’s untrustworthy guardian and then co-assassin brings a Freudian undertone perfectly in keeping with the story.

Rosario la Spina makes less of the Duke than his colleagues seeming to sing without much involvement but this has the advantage of suggesting the Duke’s detachment from his many victims.

OA_Rigoletto_02.gifMichael Lewis as Rigoletto [Photo by Jeff Busby courtesy of Opera Australia]

Conductor Marko Letonja and Orchestra Victoria do some splendid work with shaping the tender moments. The Rigoletto/Gilda duets are as lovingly shaped as they are sung and the often-repeated ‘curse’ theme and storm music are thrilling without being bombastic.

Michael Magnusson

image= image_description=Scene from Rigoletto [Photo courtesy of Opera Australia] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto product_by=Rigoletto: Michael Lewis; Gilda: Emma Matthews (Natalie Jones 25 & 27 November); Duke of Mantua: Rosario La Spina; Sparafucile: Richard Anderson; Maddalena/Giovanna: Jacqueline Dark; Monterone: Jud Arthur; Marullo: Luke Gabbedy; Borsa: David Corcoran; Count Ceprano: Richard Alexander; Countess Ceprano: Jane Parkin; Usher: Clifford Plumpton; Page — Jodie McGuren. Director: Elijah Moshinsky (Revival Director: Cathy Dadd); Conductor: Marko Letonja; Set & Costume Designer: Michael Yeargan. State Theatre, The Arts Centre (November 22, 25, 27 December 1, 3, 7, 10, 18, 2010) product_id=Above: Scene from Rigoletto [Photo courtesy of Opera Australia]
Posted by Gary at 11:49 AM

Le nozze di Figaro, Opera Australia

Armfield’s view of late eighteenth century life in Spain is a dark one. The Almaviva household is held in the same disdain as the then monarch Carlos IV and his dysfunctional family. Goya inspires Dale Ferguson’s costumes; Countess Almaviva in particular, in oyster satin (and thanks to Rachelle Durkin’s supermodel physique and bearing) has the devastating allure of Goya’s beloved Duchess of Alba. Goya even makes an appearance in act three to ‘photograph’ Figaro’s nuptials and, just as he did in his portrait of the Royal Family, captures a household in sexual, social and political turmoil.

Fergusson’s sets feature deliberate anachronisms that, to my eyes, show the contemptible attitude of the Almaviva’s to their staff. A shabby, vinyl reclining armchair dominates act one for Cherubino then the Count to hide behind or in. It’s the sort of out-of-date furniture that would normally be dumped but here is given to the servants to furnish their quarters. For the wedding celebrations the Count provides a battered tea urn and cafeteria crockery!

I prefer a deeper voiced Figaro contrasting the lighter voiced Count as here. With that gruff edge to his voice Teddy Tahu Rhodes exemplifies the peasant against the more refined voice of Peter Coleman-Wright’s aristocrat. In “Se vuol ballare” he embellishes the repeated theme. The result is a little ungainly but in terms of characterisation the growl works splendidly. Even better in “Non più andrai” he directs the second verse to the Count, seated smugly in the recliner chair, and, towering over the trembling Count, warns him his days of philandering are over too and reminding us how revolutionary this opera (and the play it derives from) was feared to be. Armfield fills the opera with insights like these and the principal singers — especially Coleman-Wright, Rhodes, Durkin and Tiffany Speight — integrate them into their performances with easy assurance.

Tall and sleek Durkin’s arms glide naturally into gestures both graceful and, at appropriate times, erotic. When, in act two, the Count tries to force her away from the door to force open the closet where Cherubino hides, he at first violently lays his gloved hands on her only to let them roam over her breasts and body making the sexual connection still existing between the two — despite their current marital problems — alarmingly obvious. Durkin’s response to this rare moment of contact with her faithless husband, melting at his touch, is simultaneously elegant and erotic. Erotic obsession is the basis of this opera after all and this insight into that eroticism created a frisson. The Countess’s attraction to Cherubino was insightfully played up too; the Countess wilting to his act two serenade like Gomez used to when Morticia spoke French.

Speight’s voice grows in size and stature with each appearance. Speight also has charming way with and special claim on Mozartian maids. Sian Pendry bravely displays the rampaging teenage sexuality of Cherubino behaving at times like a spaniel in heat! She neatly negotiates the rapid pace set for “Non so piu” beautifully enunciating the words as do he rest of the cast.

The secondary characters weave through the story with only occasional success. Elizabeth Campbell’s Marcellina is another character caught in a precarious situation. Her frustrations run deeper than mere anxiety over her age. Her favour with Count Almaviva, depends on her winning her case against Figaro. In Campbell’s hands there is that sense Marcellina is greatly relieved when she finds Figaro is her son and she can escape to bourgeoisie security as Bartolo’s wife. When Armfield’s production was first staged Don Basilio’s and Marcellina’s arias were cut. They were restored for the revival in Sydney, although Marcellina’s is excised for this Melbourne season. The tenor Robert Tear specialises in singing Basilio and devotes an entire essay to him in his book Singer Beware offering an illuminating analysis into “the quality of thought which might invest a small part with a fresh interest and, at the same time, probably alter the usual balance of the opera. “If the aria, is cut,” he writes, “the character becomes extremely hard to play simply because the chance of explaining his character to the audience is taken away, all the earlier behaviour seeming merely eccentric or stupid.” Basilio is a man of great intelligence, according to Tear, “more intelligent than anyone else in the Almaviva household” the seemingly bizarre aria “In quelli anni cui dal poco” is making a point about this “musician/thinker’s position in a philistine aristocratic house of the period.” While the near-revolutionary sentiments of Figaro’s are extrovertly apparent in Armfield’s clever twist in “Non più andrai”, there could have been similar possibilities with Basilio’s aria explaining his philosophy and how it helped him survive the “fooleries of class and politics” surrounding him. Conductor Marko Letonja actually highlights the ascending horn passages at the end of Balisio’s aria so they ring out with a confidence worthy of Beethoven and suggest maybe the triumphant Basilio is another plebeian hero. Kanen Breen plays Basilio primarily for laughs and by the time the aria arrives the character has become a rococo incarnation of Kenneth Williams. It’s an assured performance however; the character slithers around with decreasing fear of his betters.

There is a touch of early music practice from the orchestra; fortepiano replacing the usual harpsichord and the strings adopting that occasionally ‘wiry’ sound associated with early music practice. Acts one and two work the best in this current revival, the sexual and social strain made delightfully relevant by director and cast.

Michael Magnusson

image= image_description=Rachelle Durkin as Countess Almaviva and Peter Coleman-Wright as Count Almaviva [Photo by Branco Gacia courtesy of Opera Australia] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro product_by=Count Almaviva: Peter Coleman-Wright; Countess Almaviva: Rachelle Durkin; Susanna: Tiffany Speight; Figaro: Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Cherubino: Sian Pendry; Marcellina: Elizabeth Campbell; Bartolo: Warwick Fyfe; Basilio/Curzio: Kanen Breen; Barbarina: Claire Lyon; Antonio: Clifford Plumpton; Bridesmaids: Katherine Wiles & Margaret Plummer; Director: Neil Armfield; Conductor: Marko Letonja Anthony Legge (November 23 & 27); Scenery & Costume Design: Dale Ferguson. State Theatre, The Arts Centre. November 17, 20, 23, 27, December 2, 9, 11 & 15, 2010. product_id=Above: Rachelle Durkin as Countess Almaviva and Peter Coleman-Wright as Count Almaviva [Photo by Branco Gacia courtesy of Opera Australia]
Posted by Gary at 11:34 AM

Get with the contemporary classical programme? We already have

By Tom Service [Guardian, 29 November 2010]

There's already a healthy debate going on in response to Alex Ross's article. Some of the comments agree with him that music has a particular problem, or suggest that John Cage et al really are the equivalent of the emperor's new clothes; others - rightly, in my view - exhort the naysayers to "open your mind, experience the new, and you may find that you enjoy music a good deal more".

Posted by Gary at 11:06 AM

November 28, 2010

Is China poised to become next opera superpower?

By Bill Schiller [Toronto Star, 28 November 2010]

BEIJING—When Italian opera star Leo Nucci set off in 2009 on his first-ever working visit to China, he concedes he felt a measure of excitement.

Posted by Gary at 2:17 PM

Messiah at Community of Christ Auditorium, Kansas City

By Timothy McDonald [Kansas City Star, 28 November 2010]

The holiday season is replete with traditions, and the annual performance of Handel’s monumental oratorio Messiah is one of the region’s richest musical customs.

Posted by Gary at 2:14 PM

What would Mozart say? Storm over new Don Giovanni opera showing gang rape by men wearing Jesus Christ T-shirts

By Daily Mail Reporter [28 November 2010]

A new version of Don Giovanni which includes a gang rape by a group of masked men wearing Jesus Christ t-shirts was today causing a storm in the West End.

Posted by Gary at 2:11 PM

LA Opera’s Rigoletto

By Mark Swed [LA Times, 28 November 2010]

Around midway through Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” an odious cuckolded count asks the hunchbacked court jester in Mantua, "What’s the news," as Los Angeles Opera translated the Italian on supertitles Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "That you’re more annoying than ever," Rigoletto answers.

Posted by Gary at 10:58 AM

November 26, 2010

'Aida' by San Francisco Opera review: No subtlety

By Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 26 November 2010]

Verdi's "Aida" returned to the War Memorial Opera House on Tuesday night to conclude the San Francisco Opera's fall season with a bang - a loud and often ungainly one, I'm afraid.

Posted by Gary at 2:09 PM

Hugh the Drover, Cadogan Hall, London

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 26 November 2010]

When Ralph Vaughan Williams set out, early in his career, to turn a boxing match into opera, he could hardly have chosen a more impractical challenge. In the event, he did rather well: the fight between Hugh and his rival in love brings the first half of Hugh the Drover to a rousing climax.

Posted by Gary at 11:15 AM

November 25, 2010

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, OAE, Queen Elizabeth Hall

By Alexandra Coghlan [The Arts Desk, 25 November 2010]

A problem child in any number of ways, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail doesn’t always get the professional attention it deserves, certainly not from London companies. The opera’s last outing at the Royal Opera House dates back almost a decade, and you’d have to look even further back to find it in English National Opera’s performing catalogue.

Posted by Gary at 12:16 PM

November 23, 2010

A Dog’s Heart, ENO

‘The current climate’ is a dreary, defeatist phrase, generally an excuse for enemies of all that it is to be human to diminish our humanity further; nevertheless, it seems to inform so much of what we do and even hope for at the moment, that to have a new opera by an un-starry Russian composer, of whom most of the audience most likely will never have heard, performed at the Coliseum is worth a cheer or two in itself. (The current practice of many companies and orchestras in parochially commissioning works only from British artists is unworthy of organisations that would claim a place upon the world stage.) A couple more cheers — again, at least — must be granted the show’s resounding theatrical success. For more than anything else this is a triumph for Simon McBurney and Complicite. After a number of false starts in its current mission to import values from the non-operatic theatre, however one wishes to term it, ENO, in collaboration with the co-producing Holland Festival, really hits the target this time.

A fuller synopsis can be found elsewhere, but briefly, A Dog’s Heart reworks Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire. Cesare Mazzonis’s libretto is here translated by Martin Pickard. The opera opens with a stray dog — the superb puppet work inspired by Alberto Giacometti (click here for the sculpture in question) — mistreated by men, apparently rescued and promised a dog’s paradise by a distinguished scientist, Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky. The parallelism between the new workers’ state and the animal’s condition is revealingly maintained and deepened throughout, likewise the repellent superior pretensions of Preobrazhensky — the name will be familiar to students of Bolshevism and Stalinism — both as scientist and as human. Eventually, the professor sees his chance for true scientific glory. Having fed up the dog, whom he has named Sharik, he transplants human testicles and a pituitary gland, to create a ‘new man’, Sharikov. Sharikov’s antics leave him, the professor notes, at the most rudimentary evolutionary level, yet that is hardly Sharikov’s fault; indeed he garners hope from association with proletarian organisations, further horrifying his creator. The professor disowns him and conducts a second operation. The creature is once again a ‘mere’ dog. I could not help wondering about a potential English play on words: is the dog man another representation of our desire to create a god man?

DogHeart02.gifPeter Hoare as Sharikov

What marks A Dog’s Heart out from many collaborations is that it was collaborative from the beginning, a joint project involving composer, librettist, and Complicite. This tells; I suspected it must have been so before I discovered that it was. A true sense of theatre is present from the very outset, the opera opening without warning. Pacing is keen throughout and the stage direction puts most to shame. The puppetry, previously mentioned, is wonderful — this includes a cat, whom Sharikov cannot help but chase — but so are mechanics such as scene changing, so often something hapless to endure in the opera house. Sets from Michael Levine and his assistant, Luis Carvalho, are exemplary: never fussy, but evocative both of period and of their stage in the drama. The grandeur of the professor’s rooms — envied by the proletarian house committee, but our scientist has friends in high places — provides an apt link with an older Moscow, whilst Finn Ross’s NEP-style projections make clear what has changed. The silhouetted — in part — operation was very well handled, bringing subsequent gore into greater relief.

This is, to my knowledge, the only opera whose first act closes with the injunction, ‘Suck my cock!’ Why, in the supertitles, coyly write ‘c*unt’ thus, when everyone could hear the word, and why suppose, especially in such a context, that the sensibilities of Daily Mail readers should be considered? The ‘profane language’ is not, in that bizarre circumlocution, ‘gratuitous’, but integral to the plot, above all to the dog-man’s characterisation. Where it can somewhat irritate in Ligeti’s Le grand macabre — though there is, of course, Dadaist (un-)reason for it there too — it would be several suburbanisms too far for anyone to object in the present case.

Music, it must be said, takes second billing, though that is not a unique phenomenon: Gérard Mortier’s parting shot at the Opéra national de Paris, Am Anfang, billed Anselm Kiefer’s installation before Jörg Widmann’s score, and Widmann is a more famed composer than Alexander Raskatov. And yet, though I flatter myself that I can be called a musician, I did not mind, which must say something about the sum of the parts. It was far from easy to discern where one ‘contribution’ began and another stopped. For instance, doubling of parts seemed to have a point beyond economy. This is not Lulu; there was none of Berg’s carefully-crafted parallelism and symmetry. But the taking on of different roles said something about anonymity, appearance from and disappearance into the proletarian crowd, and Warhol-like moments in the limelight.

DogHeart03.gifSteven Page as Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky and Graeme Danby as Fyodor/Newspaper Seller/Big Boss

I cannot imagine wishing to hear to Raskatov’s score outside the theatre — and whilst I should definitely be tempted by a subsequent dramatic project, I should find it difficult to evince enthusiasm for hearing his music in the concert hall. Nevertheless, it works in the theatre. (People say that of Verdi, but that apparent success has always eluded me.) It is recognisably ‘Russian’- sounding, closer perhaps to Schnittke than anyone else, though there may be other influences of whose work I am simply unaware. Often somewhat cartoonish, it occupies its (relatively) subordinate role cheerfully and has its individualistic moments, for instance in the use of bass guitar. Connections to earlier Russian composers are manifest too. This is not Prokofiev (certainly not Prokofiev at his operatic best, for instance The Gambler or The Fiery Angel), but it is a good deal more entertaining than most Shostakovich — or Schnittke, for that matter. I cannot say that I could hear much, or any, influence from late Stravinsky or Webern, such as David Nice suggested in his otherwise helpful programme note. (Incidentally — actually, not incidentally, but importantly — the programme features, McBurney’s contributions included, were of an unusually high standard.) Thinning of textures on certain occasions aside, it was difficult to discern any kinship with the iron discipline of those serialist masters. But Raskatov’s closed forms, whilst obvious, exert their own dramatic impetus in tandem with the events on stage, even if the vocal writing — melismata, scalic passages, and so on — swiftly becomes predictable. A passcaglia signals darkening of mood, likewise the odd Mussorgskian choral moment: again, perhaps, predictable, yet again, perhaps, ‘effective’: a word I recall my A-level music teacher counselling against using, but here undeniably ‘effective’.

Garry Walker’s command of the score sounded exemplary. The sweeping dramatic drive he imparted made me keen to hear him back at the Coliseum very soon. He certainly knew how to bring the best out of the excellent ENO Orchestra — who deserved a good number of cheers of their own. The musicians played their hearts out — perhaps an unfortunate metaphor in the context of the present work — so much as to make one tempted truly to believe in Raskatov’s score. Steven Page presented a convincing dramatic portrayal of Preobrazhensky’s dilemma: no hint of caricature here, though the vibrato may have proved a little much for some tastes. Peter Hoare did likewise, albeit in very different manner, for Sharikov, repelling and provoking sympathy. Other noteworthy performances included the aburdist coloratura part of Zina the maid (Nancy Allen Lundy) and the grotesque cameo of Frances McCafferty’s elderly Second Patient. How could anyone refuse? How could anyone not? The dog as dog has two voices: unpleasant, the distorted, loud-speaker-hailing soprano Elena Vassileva (also impressive as the professor’s housekeeper, Darya Petrovna), and pleasant, the fine counter-tenor, Andrew Watts. There was certainly no finer musicianship on stage than that of Watts, whose plangent tones inspired the most genuine sympathy of all without sentimentalising.

The theatre seemed full and the audience responded enthusiastically. I saw two composers — Raskatov aside — so I suspect there will have been more. So no, this was not a musical event to rank with the recent premiere of Alexander Goehr’s Promised End — English Touring Opera’s initiative rightly described by Michael Tanner in The Spectator as ‘astoundingly heroic’ — but as a musico-theatrical event, it scored very highly. Unlike, say, the dismal recent Rufus Norris Don Giovanni, which, had ‘theatre people’ come to see it, might well have put them off opera for life, this might just have intrigued some of them to explore musical drama further. Our political and financial masters would never understand this, let alone agree, but that is something to which one cannot affix a price.

Mark Berry

image= image_description=Steven Page as Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky [Photo by Stephen Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Alexander Raskatov: A Dog’s Heart product_by=Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky: Steven Page; Peter Amoldovich Bormenthal: Leigh Melrose; Sharikov: Peter Hoare; Sharik the dog (unpleasant voice): Elena Vassileva; Sharik the dog (pleasant voice): Andrew Watts; Darya Petrovna: Elena Vassileva; Zina: Nancy Allen Lundy; Shvonder: Alasdair Elliott; Vyasemskaya: Andrew Watts; First Patient: Peter Hoare; Second Patient: Frances McCafferty; Provocateur: David Newman; Proletarians: Ella Kirkpatrick, Andrew Watts, Alasdair Elliott, Michael Burke; Fyodor/Newspaper Seller/Big Boss: Graeme Danby; Secretary: Sophie Desmars; Investigator: Matthew Hargreaves; Drunkards: Michael Selby, Christopher Speight. Old Women: Deborah Davison, Jane Reed; Puppeteers: Robin Beer, Finn Caldwell, Josie Dexter, Mark Down. Director, choreographer: Simon McBurney; Set designs: Michael Levine and Luis Carvalho; Costumes: Christina Cunningham; Lighting: Paul Anderson; Movement: Toby Sedgwick; Finn Ross (projections); Director of Puppetry: Blind Summit Theatre — Mark Down and Nick Barnes. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry); Orchestra of the English National Opera; Garry Walker (conductor). Coliseum, London, Saturday 20 November 2010. product_id=Above: Steven Page as Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky

All photos by Stephen Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:49 PM

Don Carlo, Metropolitan Opera, New York

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 23 November 2010]

Nicholas Hytner is a brilliant theatre director. But the demands of opera are quite unlike those of unsung drama, and his staging of Don Carlo - first presented at Covent Garden in 2008 and imported to the Met on Monday - is troublesome.

Posted by Gary at 3:35 PM

Tosca, Manitoba Opera

Puccini’s Tosca has everything: passionate love, consuming jealousy, undisguised lust, evil deceit, even murder and suicide. Manitoba Opera’s (MO) mostly Canadian cast rose to the occasion, leaving the audience emotionally spent but invigorated.

Conductor Tyrone Paterson led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from the pit in Puccini’s marvellously dramatic score that foreshadows much of the onstage action. Vigorous playing and superb solo section work throughout provided exactly the added finesse required, making this a first-rate performance.

Veteran director Val Kuinka worked her magic with the help of an exemplary cast. Wendy Nielsen as Tosca and Richard Margison as artist Cavaradossi outdid themselves, portraying the tragic figures with realism and relish. Margison hasn’t lost a step as his extensive career continues. With a tenor voice that’s easy to listen to, he floated effortlessly to his upper range in “Recondita armonia.”

His wistful rendition of the celebrated aria “E lucevan le stelle” in the final act almost broke our hearts, his powerful voice aching with love for his adored Tosca. Totally convincing and touching, Margison crafted this into a real tearjerker and the clarinet solo introducing it was splendidly sensitive, enhancing our anticipation of this favourite.

Talk about art imitating life! Nielsen was outstanding as Tosca — a great actress, putting her entire being into the demanding role of the opera singer title character. With her lovely, refined soprano, she lent her full vibrato and flexible style to the twists and turns of the plot, moving fluidly from jealous lover to desperate murderess. In “Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta,” she showed a diaphanous lightness to her voice, barely alighting on each note before flitting to the next.

Rich phrasing and fervent zeal highlighted her “Visse d’arte, vissi d’amore,” as she sang, collapsed on the floor, disconsolate and despairing, beseeching God for deserting her despite her lifelong piety and humanity. Nielsen is the consummate opera star, with a reliable, mature voice that is completely satisfying. Powerful beyond belief, her dramatic cries of pain reached right into the audience’s hearts.

_DSC0673.gifWendy Nielsen as Tosca and Richard Margison as Cavaradossi [Photo by R. Tinker courtesy of Manitoba Opera]

Baritone Gaétan Laperrière returned to MO in the role of villainous chief of police Baron Scarpia. Dressed to the nines in black with gold braiding and trim, he looked every inch a self-indulgent scoundrel bent on getting his way. Yet Laperrière’s first entry was soft - barely discernible. His “Va Tosca!” was overly subtle, lacking power. And while his voice had agreeable resonance and flow, one wanted him to boom a little more, and strike fear into our hearts. Laperrière’s actions and words were suitably despicable, but his delivery belied his villainy. Frequent wooden movements were also questionable.

Peter Strummer’s droll Sacristan, on the other hand, was completely endearing. Announcing his arrival onstage with several healthy sneezes, he was a natural in this comic role. His bass-baritone made “E sempre lava!” a breath of fresh air before the drama to come. He has his gestures down to an art and gave us the only laughs of the evening.

Supporting roles by David Watson (Angelotti/Sciarrone), Keith Klassen (Spoletto) and Howard Rempel (jailer) were all solid and credible and Carson Milberg was a sweet-voice shepherd boy offstage. Acoustics can be tricky with offstage singing and it may be wise to station Milberg closer to the curtain to ensure the audience can fully appreciate this musical lad’s talents.

_TNK8979.gifWendy Nielsen as Tosca and Gaétan Laperrière as Scarpia [Photo by R. Tinker courtesy of Manitoba Opera]

The chorus is not especially busy in Tosca but certainly came through well when called upon and costuming was truly impressive.

The three sets were amazingly ornate and detailed, transporting us easily to 19th century Rome, and but for some shaky spotlighting, Bill Williams lighting was mood-setting splendour.

Gwenda Nemerofsky

image= image_description=Tosca poster [Manitoba Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca product_by=Scarpia: Gaétan Laperrière; Cavaradossi: Richard Margison; Tosca: Wendy Nielsen; Sacristan: Peter Strummer. Director: Valerie Kuinka. Conductor: Tyrone Paterson. product_id=
Posted by Gary at 2:36 PM

November 22, 2010

Loft and found: have you got a Vivaldi lurking in your attic?

By Tom Service [The Guardian, 22 November 2010]

Vivaldi. The world's most forgetful composer? Why on earth have so many of his manuscripts been turning up in obscure collections across the British Isles in the last couple of months? In October, it was a flute concerto called Il Gran Mogol ("The Great Mogul", if my Italian's up to snuff) discovered in the Marquesses of Lothian's family papers in Edinburgh, and this month, it's a couple of violin sonatas in a 180-page portfolio donated to the Foundling Museum in London, pieces that were probably originally written for amateurs, which could be heard for the first time in 270 years, played by La Serenissima in Liverpool on Sunday.

Posted by Gary at 3:07 PM

November 21, 2010

Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera

Despite Adriana Lecouvreur being something of a rarity in the UK, having been absent from the stage of Covent Garden for more than a century, the prospect of Angela Gheorghiu taking on the title role for the first time was more than enough to justify the risk — though it is perhaps a sign of the times that it is a co-production with four other international houses, the largest number of collaborators I can ever recall seeing in an opera programme.

If I were producing an opera about theatre and actors, David McVicar is precisely who I would engage to direct it, given his knack for injecting opulent theatricality into the most naturalistic of dramatic situations. And if nobody had told me that this was one of his, it wouldn’t have been difficult to guess. The hallmarks were all there — the vast crowd of supernumeraries, the stage clutter, and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s deconstructed-Baroque dance costumes to name but a few — but this time McVicar has gone one step, if not many steps further in the name of making a point about the nature of theatre and artifice.

ADRIANA-2442-0867-KAUFMANN-.gifJonas Kaufmann as Maurizio

It was heaven for a geek like me, thanks to the sheer number of references to other shows — maybe a natural progression from the score itself. Cilea was a contemporary of Puccini and Massenet, and most of the aural reminders are from this milieu, but Act 4 in particular evokes a wider range of influences. In McVicar’s staging, a balletomane friend of mine who attended the dress rehearsal picked up on direct references (costumes and choreographic devices) within the Act 3 ballet to Royal Ballet productions of La fille mal gardée, Invitus Invitam and Sylvia. The chorus crowded into their onstage audience-seating much as they did in McVicar’s Alcina for ENO in 1999; then, a marble bust of Handel dominated the stage; here the bust was Moliere’s. It was interesting that of all his own works, this was the one McVicar chose to reference; another opera about the blurred boundary between theatre and reality.

With Charles Edwards’s set dominated by a large box which for much of the opera served as a full-height, fully-formed stage-within-a-stage, the production seemed determined to underline that we were the audience, and what was happening before us was not reality. The mostly naturalistic scenery was garnished with little touches of artificiality; vividly ornate interiors, for example, were finished off not with heavy velvet draperies, but with curtains painted onto wooden flats. Even Act 2, whose stage directions contain no overt references to a theatrical setting, appeared to be taking place on a stage, with the men in particular giving a stylised feel to their entrances and exits. Only in Act 4 was this extra level of artifice dispensed with; though the spectre of the stage continued to loom large over Adriana, it was a bare shell, and suddenly (the ludicrous business of the poisoned violets notwithstanding) it was all a lot more immediate and credible.

So what of the much-hyped cast? Gheorghiu may not be an immediately obvious ‘humble handmaid of art’ but she was poised and charming, playing a very youthful version of this heroine who historically has been associated with the ageing diva. Her voice is very much on the small side given the scoring, and for the intimacy of the first and last acts (which frame Adriana’s two celebrated arias) it was often exquisite. But in the confrontation with the Princesse de Bouillon and again in her vengeful Phèdre monologue, Gheorghiu was a kitten when a tigress was needed. I can’t quite picture how she will hold her own when the role of the Princesse transfers to the mighty Olga Borodina later in the run.

Jonas Kaufmann always seemed on the edge of something spectacular, and the contained restraint with which he treats his large, dark-coloured voice would have been massively exciting had it been part of a broad palette. As it was, he seemed to be trying to demonstrate that a hot-blooded verismo hero can be sung with subtlety and intelligence, while also showing off some of his remarkable technical skill (particularly in his legato, and once, memorably, his impeccable ability to diminuendo on a top note). It was very, very impressive — but all too careful, too measured. It seemed a studied effort in avoiding stereotype (or perhaps he was reining himself in to avoid overpowering Gheorghiu) but I longed for him to let rip.

ADRIANA-2442-1841-SCHUSTER&.gif- Michaela Schuster as Princesse De Bouillon and Bonaventura Bottone as Abbé De Chazeuil

Michaela Schuster was a dramatically-committed if somewhat vocally undisciplined Princesse, though it was a misjudgement (probably the director’s) to have her exchange with Adriana in Act 3 played partly for laughs, which diminished the impact. Alone among the major principals, Alessandro Corbelli — as Adriana’s unrequited admirer, Michonnet — was alone in painting a full and touching character portrait.

Much of the interest, and there was plenty, came from the supporting characters. Janis Kelly (Mlle. Jouvenot) and Sarah Castle (Mlle. Dangeville) sparked off one another in Act 1 in an impeccably-judged battle of wills; Bonaventura Bottone (the Abbé de Chazueil) and Maurizio Muraro (the Prince de Bouillon) gave nicely-detailed character portraits in a production which made them quite stylised and more than a little camp.

Mark Elder’s conducting displayed many of the same characteristics as Kaufmann’s singing — lovely, delicate, but for this repertoire far too careful and finely-crafted. On opening night the Gheorghiu and Kaufmann fans were out in force, with every aria met with cheers. But for me, a bit less decorum and a lot more scenery-chewing, both on stage and in the pit, would have served the opera better, and improved a promising performance in a lovingly-crafted production immeasurably.

Ruth Elleson © 2010

image= image_description=Angela Gheorghiu as Adriana Lecouvreur [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera] product=yes product_title=Francesco Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur product_by=Adriana Lecouvreur: Angela Gheorghiu, Ángeles Blancas Gulín; Maurizio: Jonas Kaufmann; The Prince of Bouillon: Maurizio Muraro: The Princess of Bouillon: Michaela Schuster, Olga Borodina; Michonnet: Alessandro Corbelli; L'Abbate di Chazeuil: Bonaventura Bottone; Poisson: Iain Paton; Quinault: David Soar; Madame Jouvenot: Janis Kelly; Madame Dangeville: Sarah Castle. Conductor: Mark Elder. Director: David McVicar. Set designs: Charles Edwards. Costume designs: Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Lighting design: Adam Silverman. Choreography: Andrew George. product_id=Above: Angela Gheorghiu as Adriana Lecouvreur

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:35 PM

The Met’s Don Pasquale: A treat for the eyes, a feast for the ears

By David Abrams [, 21 November 2010]

No one knows whether W.C. Fields was thinking of Don Pasquale when he delivered the phrase, "never give a sucker an even break." But when it comes to the plot of Donizetti’s farce, the celebrated American comedian was right on target.

Posted by Gary at 12:54 PM

November 20, 2010

The Makropulos Case in San Francisco

Specifically she kicked the asses of the several men who materialized in her long, long life just as the effects of the longevity potion her father invented back in 1593 began to wear off. These unfortunate men had awakened those few moments when, over the centuries, her soul had been moved, and these rediscovered feelings conflicted with her instinct for eternal life as she had come to understand over the centuries the futility of her emotions. She finds resolution of this conflict in death.

This bizarre masterpiece is, all said and done, Janáček’s idea of a comedy. His uniquely middle European depressive poetic, melding philosophy with highly complex emotions took solid hold into the reaches of War Memorial Opera House by its third performance (November 17).

Universally vivid performances. Elina’s great, great, great, etc., grandson Berti sung by Slovakian tenor Miro Dvorsky touched the true tonalities of the Czech language, the Prus of German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski found the suavity and confidence of an Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, the fumbling lawyer Dr. Kolenaty was enacted skillfully by stalwart San Franciscan buffo Dale Travis.

MattilaGrochowski.gifKarita Mattila as Emilia Marty and Gerd Grochowski as Jaroslav Prus

Touching were the performances of Adler alumni Thomas Gleen as Vitek and Brian Jagde as Janek, the callow young victim of Elina’s perfected sexual prowess. Adler alumnus Matthew O’Neill was caricatural pure perfection as Elina’s idiot lover Hauk, as was Kristina, the opera-star-to-be (Elina Makropulos’ protege) sung by Susannah Biller.

Dominating the stage equally were Janacek’s heroine Karita Mattila as Elina Makropulos and Janáček’s orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. They were simply one and the same, one soprano embodying Mo. Bělohlávek’s seventy-three players. Yes, the performance was huge. She was huge, the enormity of 337 years of life graphically unravelling on the stage was quite real.

The story of Elina Makropulos is told musically rather than dramatically, the little lawsuit Gregor vs. Prus merely pretext for the inner life of Mme. Makropulos to explode in the orchestra, superseding the dramatic inconsistencies and general confusion of the libretto.

Mme. Mattila absorbed every musical movement in a dramatic performance so complete that it will become legendary as it traverses the world. For this she has partnered with conductor Bělohlávek who revealed the gamut of the depraved humanity Janáček had transformed into pure music in his preceding oeuvre. Like all Janáček heroines Elina Makropulos too attains a sort of salvation by reconciling herself to the futility of life and therefore accepting death.

OfficeTrio.gifMiro Dvorsky as Albert Gregor, Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty and Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenatý

The production by Viennese director Olivier Tambosi merely supported the Mattila performance, the stylishly directed supporting cast moving appropriately over the turntable set imagined by big-time designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Like the staging the set disappeared behind the Mattila performance. Its cartoon lines were self-consciously descriptive of a caricatural concept that the production flirted with but never fully absorbed. Maintaining this careful balance of caricature and expressionist comedy was however the strength of the production, allowing at least some perspective for the over-the-top Mattila performance.

*“Let’s kick ass” was Mme. Mattila’s term before attacking Salome last year on the Met’s Live in HD.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Leoš Janáček: Věc Makropulos [The Makropulos Affair]
product_by=Emilia Marty: Karita Mattila; Albert Gregor: Miro Dvorsky; Baron Jaroslav Prus: Gerd Grochowski; Dr. Kolenaty: Dale Travis; Vitek: Thomas Glenn; Kristina: Susannah Biller; Count Hauk-Šendorf: Matthew O’Neill; Janek: Brian Jagde; A Stagehand: Austin Kness; A Chambermaid, A Cleaning Woman: Maya Lahyani. Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek. Director: Olivier Tambosi. Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler.
product_id=Above: Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 5:43 PM

November 19, 2010

Carmen, Arizona Opera

All of the action was moved into a bullring with choristers and even some audience members sitting above it in the arena seats. Uzan and Michael Baumgarten designed the scenery. Patricia A Hibbert created the period costumes and in Arizona, stage director Kay Walker Castaldo told the story in a more or less straightforward manner. Thanks to Baumgarten’s atmospheric lighting, one could imagine Lillas Pastia’s Tavern or a mountain pass on a dark night inside that bullring.

Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Joel Revzen led the Arizona Opera Orchestra in a brisk and powerful rendition of the score. The Carmen and Don José on Saturday evening were American mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton and Mexican tenor Fernando De La Mora. Clayton had considerable difficulty in the first act and her Habanera was sometimes out of tune but her seductive looks worked their magic on much of the audience. De La Mora has a robust voice and he used it to excellent effect. Both vocally and physically, he was a strong, virile lover.

Jossie-Perez.gifJossie Perez [Photo courtesy of Columbia Artists Management Inc.]

Sunday afternoon’s cast offered Puerto Rican mezzo-soprano Jossie Perez as Carmen and American tenor Garrett Sorenson as Don José. Perez is a sex kitten who sings with colorful chest tones so she makes a fine Carmen. Sorenson, a tenor with an exciting sound, was a dramatic José whose Flower Song garnered a number of bravos. He is definitely a singer to watch. Another new singer who may have a good career ahead of her is the radiant-voiced Janinah Burnett. Her Micaëla was a brave young woman who tried her best to save José and sang her aria with floods of iridescent tone.

Mexican baritone Luis Ledesma looked totally authentic as Escamillo, the bullfighter, and he sang with a strong polished sound. Peter Volpe was a stentorian Zuniga who commanded the stage. Studio members Cameron Schutza and Kevin Wetzel were eminently praiseworthy as El Remendado and El Dancaïro. Their feminine counterparts Rebecca Sjöwall and Stephanie Foley Davis suffused their phrases with emotion as Frasquita and Mercédès. Sjöwall has lovely high notes and they were most welcome in this opera where the title role is sung by a mezzo.

This production contained a good bit of Flamenco and ballet featuring Dance Captain Adam Cates and a group of nine powerful but graceful dancers. Peggy Hickey’s choreography evoked many images of France and Spain, even bringing to mind a painting or two. The performances of this Carmen next weekend in Phoenix should be a most worthwhile addition to the city’s fall season.

Maria Nockin

image= image_description=Beth Clayton as Carmen [Photo courtesy of] product=yes product_title=Georges Bizet: Carmen product_by=Carmen: Beth Clayton (November 13, 19, 21), Jossie Perez (November 14, 20); Jose: Fernando de La Mora (November 13, 19, 21), Garett Sorenson (November 14, 20); Micaela: Janinah Burnett; Escamillo: Luis Ledesma; Zuniga: Peter Volpe; Frasquita: Rebecca Sjöwall; Mercedes: Stephanie Foley Davis; Remendado: Cameron Schutza; Don Cairo: Kevin Wetzel; Morales: Kevin Wetzel. Conductor: Joel Revzen. Director: Kay Walker Castaldo. product_id=Above: Beth Clayton as Carmen [Photo courtesy of]
Posted by Gary at 11:35 AM

Il Viaggio a Sicilia

Happily, once inside this spectacular architectural marvel, the production of Don Quichotte was similarly chockfull of awesome surprises and considerable beauty.

Palermo, to be sure, is one of Italy’s leading companies and they stake their reputation on a well-considered mix of tried and true stars, standard and adventurous repertoire. In this instance, they began by engaging the world-renowned director Laurent Pelly to work his magic with a lesser Massenet opus, one more famed in our imagination as the Cervantes source story than this diluted French opera rendition. As a piece of composition the work is curiously paced, at times rip-snorting, more often gently introspective as dictated by the librettist’s erratic choices of which iconic episodes to feature and, more telling, which to omit.

Mr. Pelly’s fertile imagination is fully engaged here, and he made me believe this is a more significant opera than it really is. His overall concept centers around the conceit that Massenet himself is onstage as the protagonist and he morphs into Quixote as he pens the work. He was ably supported by the ingenious scenery created by Barbara de Limburg Stirum. She featured heaping mounds of manuscripts that first formed a staircase of sorts to Dulcinée’s balcony, and later actually created the massive rolling hills of the countryside. Highly impressive and impressionistic, this proved a perfect complement to the score’s aural palette.

Pelly not only masterfully moved the large chorus through meaningful staged numbers, but maintained exceptional focus on the interaction of his principals. The fluidity of crowd scenes and the clarity of the story-telling were always infused with generous heart and good dramatic purpose. And wit. Let us not forget wit. To wit:

The famous “tilting at windmills” was arguably the visual highpoint of the night. First, a windmill blade flew in from on high, then another unfolded from it and in a twinkle there was a dazzling windmill in full rotation. But unlike, say, Man of La Mancha which relegates the actual battle to an offstage moment, Laurent and Barbara contrived a sensational visual effect, having Quixote first settle into what looks to be a rocky seat that is part of the landscape. But, whoa Nelly, this seat soon pokes forward from the hillside on a giant arm bearing our hero aloft toward the slicing blades. But that’s not yet all. It then begins a crazed dip-and-soar like the old Octopus ride at the county fair. It was so dazzling that it became a hard act to follow.

TMassimo-Don-Quichotte-02.gifIrini Karaianni as Dulcinée and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte

But the team had more in store. Act IV featured an extensive terrace and staircase placed neatly atop the hillside of papers, and was fleshed out with other highly evocative images such as having Dulcinée dance with three men sporting tall, skinny horse head masks/hats. Not only powerful sexual imagery, but also a nice touch of spice to flavor the drawn out conflict in the scene. If I had one wish scenically, it would be that they not have taken time to close the curtain, remove the terrace and restore the hills to their previous unadorned state for Act V. It took the dramatic momentum away when the piece could least afford it, and visually it did not make any notable effect.

Oddly, the director has the leading man die standing up, albeit leaning, skewed at an angle, obviously braced somehow. He was beautifully lit in a pool of golden light (did I mention the excellent, ever shifting lighting was by Joel Adam?) but I wondered if the effect was worth the effort or worth the wait. This production was shared with Brussels’ Theatre Monnaie/DeMunt, and re-staged by Diane Chèvre-Clément. Should it be re-mounted, I might suggest they simply pull Quixote and Sancho in front of the act curtain seamlessly after Act IV, light them in isolation, and just let Act V continue the emotional momentum and limpid musical atmosphere.

Evergreen bass Ferruccio Furlanetto showed splendid command of all his resources here, and his Don was noted for an outpouring of burnished tone, heartfelt phrasing, comic abandon (with no trace of buffoonery), and very decent French to boot. He effortlessly carried the show as any good Quixote must. And he was matched every step of the way by Eduardo Chama’s lively rendition of Sancho Panza. Mr. Chama has a bright, well-placed baritone that has good ping and responsive technique. He was a perfect foil for Mr. Furlanetto and the two set off dramatic sparks on many occasions. Too, Eduardo communicated a touchingly simple admiration for his master that illuminated every bit of pathos that Massenet intended. Furlanetto and Chama were a wholly winning, first-rate combination.

In the less well-written female role, the fetching Irini Karaianni brought much visual and aural pleasure to the proceedings with her quite bewitching Dulcinée. Her smoky mezzo has a hint of darkness overall, but the highest notes slipped into a rather bright upper extension. She does not press her chest voice, but nevertheless commands a decent amount of presence in the lower extremes. It is to her credit (and Pelly’s) that Ms. Karaianni manages to bring sympathy and a third dimension to one of the repertoire’s thinnest sketches of a character. The remaining quartet of principals was well-cast with Elisabetta Martorana a silver-voiced Pedro; Rachele Stanisci a persuasive Garcias; Salvatore Ragonese a secure Rodriguez; and first among equals, Gianluca Sorrentino, a honey-toned Juan.

Alain Guingal conducted lovingly and with such knowing detail that he seemed to wholly believe Don Quichotte is the masterpiece it isn’t. His players responded in kind with beautifully atmospheric ensemble work and solo passages ripe with musical personality. In a work that often relies on diffuse, languid effects Maestro Guingal found freshness and a pulsating arc from the first downbeat to the final cut-off. In tandem, Andrea Faidutti’s well prepared chorus sang cleanly even when frequently moving about in (slightly over-)choreographed scenes.

Teatro_Massimo.gifTeatro Massimo

On the other side of the island, Catania’s Teatro Massimo Vincenzo Bellini was taking no chances with such novel repertoire, opting instead for a wholly competent La Bohème. The company seems to favor double- and even triple-casting the leads during the run, with an eye to including a handful of performances featuring a major star. In this case, that would be Sicilian Marcello Giordani’s Rodolfo.

Mr. Giordani is a known commodity, of course, a tenor whose substantial lirico-spinto voice is wedded to a reliable technique, persuasive stylistic acumen, ringing power, and sound delivery. Having brought his Rodolfo to many of the world stages, he knows this part inside out, and sings it exceedingly well. Would it be carping to say I would have appreciated even more a bit of spontaneity in his portrayal? Or a little more gradation of volume below a standard mezzo forte?

The first surprise of the evening to me was the young baritone Vincenzo Taormina as Marcello. Mr. Taormina has a rich, robust baritone of uncommon beauty and substantial power; unaffected stage presence; and possesses a fine understanding of the nuance of musical and dramatic effect that can be found in any role. He was easily Mr. Giordani’s equal and their Act IV duet was a high point of the evening. Vincenzo also has the benefit of conveying a youthfulness that was at odds with his other “young” Bohemians. To be fair, Fabio Previati’s well-sung Schaunard was almost as believable, but Alessandro Busi seemed miscast as Colline at this point in his career. His singing was sincere and secure enough, although veering a bit off-pitch in the upper stretches of the Coat Aria. But although he threw himself into the camaraderie completely, visually he looked as out of place as a fifty year old in the Student Union cafeteria.

The show’s major revelation was Donata d’Annunzio Lombardi as Mimi. Hers is a beautifully schooled soprano, capable of all the requirements Puccini sets out for his heroine. Conversational, introspective musings? Check. Ability to soar over the amassed vocal and instrumental forces? Check. Skill in floating delicate, secure, melting notes? Check. She may have a bit more edge than other recent definitive Mimi’s like Freni and Scotto. But Ms. Lombardi definitely has all the goods, not only for Mimi, but Butterfly and Liu and, and, and. Watch for her as her star continues to rise.

Sabrina Vianello contributed the sort of chirpy, light-voiced Musetta that we hardly ever encounter nowadays. Perhaps she brought more stage savvy and spunk than middle voice to the part, but she was always entertaining and, in the final scene, moving. The treasurable comprimario Angelo Nardinocchi did effective double duty as Benoit and Alcindoro (the former in as ill-fitting a skull cap as I hope to never see again).

In the pit, conductor Carlo Rizzari got everything settled down after a clumsy start. The band began out of sync for the first few bars, then plodded through a generally uninvolved, overplayed first act. But lo, once past a couple of minor ensemble hiccups in Act Two, the maestro and the orchestra seemed to relax, breathe with the singers, and go on to some truly luminous playing in the second half the show. Tiziana Carlini had prepared her large chorus well, and the children were especially effective.

Director Roberto Laganà Manoli (also costume designer) and set designer Pierluigi Samartini generally played it safe with a pleasingly traditional, no nonsense mounting that punched all the right tickets. And why not? Left alone, in the hands of such wonderful artists, it pretty much plays itself. Not to say that Signor Manoli didn’t have a trick or two up his sleeve. Marcello is discovered at curtain rise on a mini scaffold painting a rather large canvas with (what I presume is) a witty nod to the opening of Tosca. When Colline bursts in with his booty in Act I, it is so substantial that three delivery boys have to help carry it in. The amassed choral forces at Momus were well managed, especially the positioning of hen well-tutored youth who were heard to maximum advantage.

On a few occasions there were misfires. An odd positioning of actors and indecisive spatial considerations made for an awkward hand holding set up to “Che gelida manina.” And some of Three was place too extremely left or right so as to render singers momentarily out of sightlines for a third of the audience. Too, while the sets were pleasant, it took way too long to change them, with the combined intermissions being longer than the piece itself.

Still, the SRO audience did not seem to care, and lingered long after curtain fall in the beautiful auditorium (one of Europe’s loveliest) to lavish the performers with extended ovations.

James Sohre

Cast lists:

Don Quichotte

Dulcinée: Irini Karaianni
Don Quichotte: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Sancho: Eduardo Chama
Pedro: Elisabetta Martorana
Garcias: Rachele Stanisci
Rodriguez: Salvatore Ragonese
Juan: Gianluca Sorrentino

Conductor: Alain Guingal
Director and Costume Design: Laurent Pelly
Set Design: Barbara de Limburg Stirum
Lighting: Joel Adam
Restaged by Diane Chèvre-Clément
Chorus Master: Andrea Faidutti

Co-production with La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels

La Bohème

Mimi: Donata d’Annunzio Lombardi
Rodolfo: Marcello Giordani
Musetta: Sabrina Vianello
Marcello: Vincenzo Taormina
Colline: Alessandro Busi
Schaunard: Fabio Previati
Benoit/Alcindoro: Angelo Nardinocchi
Parpignol: Michele Mauro

Conductor: Carlo Rizzari
Director and Costume Design: Roberto Laganà Manoli
Set Design: Pierluigi Samartini
Lighting Design: Salvatore Noè
Chorus Master: Tiziana Carlini

image_description=Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte [Photo courtesy of Teatro Massimo]

product_title=Il Viaggio a Sicilia
product_by=See cast lists below
product_id=Above: Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte

All photos courtesy of Teatro Massimo

Posted by james_s at 8:31 AM

November 18, 2010

Karita Mattila: Helsinki Recital

Besides the DVD of the full recital and encores, Ondine provides a second disc basically constituting a sampler of studio Ondine recitals from the 1990s. Ms. Mattila is in gorgeous voice in these earlier recordings, singing Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms with exquisite tone and reserved but affecting emotion, and pouring out idiomatic splendor in songs from countrymen Jean Sibelius, Toivo Kuula, and Erkki Melartin (with Ilmo Ranta at the keyboard).

But does Ondine do any favors to Ms. Mattila with the inclusion of this second disc? The voice in the 2006 recital is not the same liquid, flexible instrument heard ten years earlier. The Finnish National Opera house looks to be a relatively intimate concert space, but it’s still a hall, as opposed to the confines of a recording studio with sensitive equipment that allowed Mattila to employ a wide range of dynamic effects. The opening set of the 2006 recital, Duparc songs, often finds Mattila’s voice hardening by the middle of a song, and even a sort of Slavic thickness developing. This is less of a hindrance in the Kaija Saaraiho set “Quatre instants,” dedicated to Ms. Mattila. Here the soprano’s instrument is put to more dramatic, mechanical use. Martin Katz gets to shine in the Saaraiho music, and the director often focuses on the pianist's hands at the keyboard as he deals with wild jumps, booming bass lines and skittering steps across the high keys. At the end of the set Ms. Mattila clutches the score to her chest and then welcomes the composer to the stage. It must be quite an honor to have a preeminent contemporary composer fashion a piece for oneself; nonetheless, anyone who wants to hear this set of songs more than once has a greater appetite for the gnarly and self-consciously arty than your reviewer does.

The second half makes for a more enjoyable experience, with that Slavic tinge put to fine use in some lovely Rachmaninoff settings and then the Dvořäk “Gipsy Songs.” Your reviewer actually saw a 2003 recital appearance by Ms. Mattila, in a shamefully under-attended recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles back in 2003. The program was virtually the same, only with the cherishable exception of Sibelius songs in place of the not-yet-completed Saaraiho. As fine an actress as Ms. Mattila can be, she does enjoy well-considered effects, and after a few years of doing this recital set, it seems fair to say that any spontaneity has gone out of the evening. She did the same tacky but fun encore back then (Victor Young’s “Golden Earrings”), as well as the sweet Finnish traditional that closes the evening. In Helsinki Ms. Mattila looks stunning, it should be noted, almost uncomfortably smooth-faced and glamorized in hair and make-up. The porcelain surface of her face barely creases, no matter how much effort she brings to certain passages.

Ondine’s presentation is immaculate, and the camerawork couldn’t be better, as we enter the gorgeous Helsinki house form outside and see the handsome crowd gather in the lobby, champagne glasses in hand. Your reviewer would have preferred subtitles to the translated texts in the booklet, but some people love nothing more than to rustle programs at a recital, so here’s their chance to do it at home.

If the DVD recital slightly disappoints, therefore, rejoice in the artistry caught forever in the bonus disc of Ms. Mattila’s 1990s recordings.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Karita Mattila — Helsinki Recital

product_title=Karita Mattila — Helsinki Recital
product_by=Martin Katz, piano; Karita Mattila, soprano; Ilmo Ranta, piano
product_id=Ondine ODV 4004 [DVD plus bonus CD]

Posted by chris_m at 5:26 PM

The Forthright Tenor

By David Mermelstein [WSJ, 18 November 2010]

All opera stars endure the burden of expectation, but Roberto Alagna has felt that weight keenly. Dubbed "the fourth tenor" early in his career by unthinking handlers, he has found it difficult to shake unfair comparisons to Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and the late Luciano Pavarotti, none of whom he is heir to. Moreover, he has sometimes chosen parts that are too heavy for his essentially lyric voice. Yet he airily dismisses such concerns as he readies for the daunting title role in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's "Don Carlo," which opens Monday.

Posted by Gary at 3:38 PM

Stellan Sagvik: An Interview

In addition to all this Sagvik devotes himself to producing and releasing recordings of contemporary Swedish music on the label he founded, Nosag Records. We spoke by Skype on March 29, 2010.

TM: Where were you born?

SS: I was born in 1952 in a little town called Örebro, in the middle of southern Sweden, but moved from there when I was only four years old in 1956, so I have no memories whatsoever from that time. I grew up mostly in Stockholm.

TM: Were there musicians in your family?

SS: Not really. On my father’s side they had good singing voices. My grandfather, I think, played the flute, and one of my cousins played the guitar and was also a piano builder. Not really any musicians, and no composers whatsoever. On my mother’s side everybody is tone-deaf.

TM: Including your mother?

SS: Including my mother. She cannot sing two notes in a row.

TM: How did you get started in music? With an instrument? Or was it singing?

SS: I am told that when I was little I was sitting behind a big armchair pretending that I was a little radio. I don’t know how old I was at the time — maybe four or five. I was singing and making music — hitting some cans, or drumming on a stool. If you are talking about real music, I started playing recorder, as most children do in Sweden, at about six or seven. But then I thought that the songs in the recorder book were tedious and not very interesting, so I wrote my own. I was not a wonder-child — my mother kept them, and still has them, and they were random notes on lines on the paper.

TM: I suppose that when you were pretending to be a radio that the family did not yet have a television.

SS: Yes — there were no televisions in Sweden until the very late fifties, and early sixties. I saw a television for the first time in my life when I was seven. It was a big thing — some people had televisions. My mother said “It won’t be in our lifetime” that we would get a television.

TM: Was the broadcasting service through the government?

SS: In Sweden we have a rather unusual system. It is only very recently that we got commercial radio. Before that it was not government radio — it was owned by the unions — working people owned the system of radio and television in Sweden. The state was a not an owner — they had some involvement on the boards. It was ten to fifteen years ago that commercial radio got started in Sweden.

TM: What sort of music were you listening to on the radio?

SS: When I was little, there was very little music. There was one “Gramophone Hour” a day. The rest was talking, talking, talking, talking. There were some concerts on Saturdays, but I was too little. Once I was aware of what music was, when I was ten or eleven, there started to be more music being broadcast on the radio, and there was also a second station — there had been only one at the beginning. The second one was filled with music. When I was fifteen, they started a third channel with pop music. That was terrible! according to most people, but I thought it was rather OK.

TM: You were playing recorders with the other schoolchildren. Did you move on to other instruments?

SS: Not at the beginning. I was eleven or twelve when I started to play saxophone, which I played for a couple of years, but I thought it was a very heavy thing to carry that big box around, so I started taking leave. I would leave the house with my saxophone, tell my mother I was going to my lesson, and never went to the lesson, so my teacher called my mother after a couple of weeks asking where I was. She wondered “what is this???” since every week I had been going to the lesson, but I had been walking around with my big box, doing nothing. So I was not very interested at that time. I started really to take it more seriously when I was fifteen. I had a girlfriend at the time who was playing violin, both folk music and classical music. She took me to concerts — there were free concerts for youngsters at the concert hall at the time. She took me there, and I started getting interested. I also got some records. I got my first LP from my mother’s boyfriend (my father had died when I was little). He gave me an LP with the Beethoven fifth piano concerto. He was not a very nice guy — he bought it because he wanted me not to listen to pop music. It was a sort of kick in the ass — instead of buying Beatles or jazz he bought me Beethoven, and thought I would be mad. But I enjoyed it. By the end I knew every note because I listened to it all the time. When I started the relationship with this girl, I was fifteen, and began to write some music for her violin. I remember that I drew lines on a normal blank sketchbook, the sort you use for drawing, and I started writing a piece that later became a canon for two violins. At the time it was for solo violin — that was my first piece, from about ’67, ’68.

TM: Had you been studying music theory in school?

SS: Nothing like that. Again, it was this girlfriend that inspired me to start thinking about maybe getting some education in music, because I was very bored with school at the time, and wanted to quit. I was thinking about different ways to turn, and she said “Why don’t you go to the music school and see if they have some courses?” I met a very nice man, who quoted Handel, and said you have to learn everything that there is, and then go your own way. I took his advice, and started playing clarinet, since I still had some technique remaining from the saxophone. I had a very nice teacher who helped me to see music as expression, not only as notes that you have to manage with your instrument, but also something that you can speak with. You can tell something, tell stories, express feelings…. That’s how it all started, and just kept on rolling. I did a lot of work in theaters in my youth, so now I play almost all the instruments that there are. It sounds strange, but I play almost everything — I am not an expert on any of them, but I know how they all function, I can play tunes, I can use them for world music — for that type of concert.

TM: It’s much easier to write for them if you know what they do well, and what they don’t do well.

SS: Of course -and how they sound in their various registers, and what they shouldn’t do. You cannot write for a trombone in the same way that you write for a clarinet, and yet people who are writing with synthesizers don’t realize this — they write the same thing, regardless of what instrument it is for. But you have to think of this all the time.

TM: This is what Telemann said — that you must give the instrument what it likes to do, and that way the players will be happy, and you will be too.

SS: Absolutely. If you don’t write something that puts down or diminishes the musician, the musician does much better work, because they feel that you are using their skills, their musicality — you don’t insult them by coming with stupidities. I always have in mind that you have to work with the musicians, not against them.

TM: What was the musical environment when you were taking up the clarinet? Certainly there was rock and roll, and jazz, and contemporary music going on in Stockholm.

SS: Like most of my generation the basics were pop music — we didn’t call it rock, we called it pop. What Michael Jackson was doing is now called pop, while what we called pop is now rock. Most young people listened to Merseybeat, but I was more interested in those who were not doing the middle-of-the-road stuff — I wanted music that was more developed, that used more resources, perhaps worked with orchestras, did longer suites — not just two or three minutes, but six or seven or eight. That was what I listened to. When I got older — fifteen, sixteen, seventeen — I started listening to experimental groups like Parsons, King Crimson, Zappa….

TM: You mentioned your canon for violins. Where did you go after that in terms of the music that you were writing?

SS: I tried almost all types of ensembles, and sizes — my third or fourth pieces was my first symphony. For example, I read that there several types of clarinets — A, B-flat, C, D, E-Flat, F, A, A-flat — I used all of these in my symphony, and I also used the bassett-horn, that was not so common at the time, and also alto clarinet, and bass clarinet. It sounds like a clarinet symphony — that was not the case — but for every movement I changed the tuning for the clarinets, because I wanted to I see if the D clarinet had a different sound than the B-flat clarinet. Of course it does, but nobody ever played the symphony, so I didn’t get to hear the difference, and I don’t think people would be able to get access to all those different instruments.

TM: Where did you go to study music formally?

SS: That was rather late — I was twenty-four when I started higher education in music. I played clarinet, I played flute, I played oboe, I played several instruments — but I was not really any good compared to those that specialized in one. I played all the instruments, and so I couldn’t specialize in any, and couldn’t pass the entrance exam. When I did enter higher education, I did so as a composer, and not as an instrumentalist. This was in ’75 that I started.

TM: At the college of music in Stockholm?

SS: I slipped in — that’s my theory, anyway. There was a new professor of composition that year, and I had a very good recommendation from the boss where I had worked. He was a well-known director, and a well-known personality in Sweden. His
recommendation rather impressed the professor, so that’s why I got in so easily as a composer.

TM: You had been working at the theater?

SS: I had written pieces for the plays at the theater, and played many instruments. The director put all this in the recommendation. By this time I had already written about fifty pieces.

TM: Who was the professor with whom you went on to study?

SS: Gunnar Bucht, who was born in ’27, I think. He was professor for ten years, and then became headmaster of the college and the university and so forth. As a composer and a teacher he is very academic — very strict and filled with rules. He told that I would go through the program pretty much undisturbed, but that he thought that I could prune a little in my exuberantly growing garden. He thought that I had too many ideas, and his main aim was to try to get me to focus on few ideas, and develop them more.

TM: What was his background in terms of pedagogy?

SS: He had studied in Germany with a serial composer, I don’t remember who, and had also had lessons from Blomdahl and Rosenberg.

TM: The music you were writing was not twelve-tone….

SS: I did some pieces, but mostly as spin-offs from my professor’s assignments. Some of them I reused in pieces later, but I was never much into this…I thought it was a waste not to use the music which I had done — I tried to reshape it and make it useful. I made a flute concerto, the first one, and a piece for flute and organ, which were twelve-tone. The flute concerto I wrote when I was nineteen, and finished it with this professor. The piece was really finished already in ’72, but I reshaped it a little — shrunk it from big orchestra to flute and strings only.

TM: Would you say that you are self-taught?

SS: No, I wouldn’t, because in spite of what I said earlier, I got quite a lot from Bucht, because he made me more aware of what I was doing. I had lots of ideas, and wrote a lot of music, but based on intuition and not so much on thought. He made me focus so that I was aware of what I was doing, and why. I won’t say that the music that I did before was very much different from what I did after, but at least I felt more in control after my education.

TM: What would be a typical work from the time when you were studying with Gunnar Bucht?

SS: I don’t know if there are any typical works from that time, because I continued writing in all genres of music, from simple songs with piano up to orchestral pieces and full-scale opera. So I don’t have any typical pieces. I wrote an orchestral piece that was meant to be played by the orchestra of the school, and Bucht managed to have an agreement to make all the parts and scores and printing and so forth, and also with the professor in conducting, Jorma Panula, to direct this piece. But when it came time to begin the rehearsals, the students didn’t turn up. I don’t know if was a misunderstanding, bad planning… but it was never performed then. It was performed later.

TM: To follow up on what you were saying about moving from an intuitive approach to a more considered approach, would you say that your approach to composition is a narrative one, moving from the details to the structure, or an architectural one, moving from the large structure to filling in the details?

SS: Neither of them, really. I work with intuition. I don’t plan details. I have a goal, and I know where I am going, and I know what kind of stations I will pass, but the exact way of traveling, and who I meet — that is more from intuition, and almost improvisation sometimes.

It’s funny that you mention this about architecture, because one of my colleagues made a presentation about a concert of my music, and he made a comparison with architecture, saying that I am not one who makes a drawing or a sketch, something that you have to follow in every detail, but that I am an architect who uses one technique to build a pool, another for building a school, and another for building a theater, because you have to use different tools, you have to imagine different audiences, so that you have re-draw your drawings. I think that I work mostly from intuition and improvisation, but with a very clear goal.

TM: Another composer described a long piece as a long journey to a final vista, which has more of an effect because of the path you have to take to get there.

SS: Earlier I worked with texts — poetical texts, lyrics of different kinds, and abstract texts in non-existent languages, which helped me to make a structure. I also wrote four or five op eras, and equally many pieces for the stage. Now, in later years, I work more and more with chamber music, for special musicians, or for a special occasion, or for a special tour, or a special audience. That makes other demands, and gives other possibilities. The pieces are shorter, more concentrated. I wouldn’t say sketchy, but like short-hand, drawing — you throw out the idea rather quickly. I could write a piece in a couple of hours to be used the day after. In earlier times, I could sit for four or five months over a one-hour piece. It’s a different way of working today.

TM: Perhaps you might say something about your chamber music. You have a considerable amount of music for flute. Did you work with a particular flutist or flutists?

SS: I worked with the flutist Mats Möller, who did the first performances of many of my pieces. I wrote many of them for him or his ensembles. My wife, whom I met in 1995, is a flutist as well, so there are many pieces written for her to premiere. Her name is Kinga Práda, and she is originally from Transylvania. So I get big bites every day.

TM: Hence the title Vampire State Building.

SS: Exactly. There’s a very odd story about that. I wrote the piece around the time of 9/11, and Kinga was going to premiere the piece in Germany. The producer said “No, you can’t perform a piece with that title. It’s not possible”, because of the events. So I couldn’t call it anything that had to do with buildings, or planes, or flying, or travel, or anything having to do with the United States. So I had to rename the piece “Flute Status”. When the first performance finally took place, people’s nerves were more at ease, so I could go back to the original Vampire State Building.

TM: Not politically correct.

SS: Absolutely not.

TM: Perhaps you could talk about the idiom of your music for flute. Do you have a particular approach for flute?

SS: Normally I work rather traditionally. I don’t use the flute as a baseball bat, or something like that. I prefer to use it as it is supposed to sound. The Solar Plexus suite is based on the solar system, with the characteristics of the various planets, or, if you like, the Roman gods, their powers, their different temperaments….here I use somewhat more extended techniques, but still it is connected with flute playing, not with flute sounds or strange behaviors. I think it is the trickiest piece, technically, that I have written.

TM: Would you like to talk about some fairly recent pieces?

SS: I have several small pieces, mostly for chamber ensembles, for two, three, four musicians, the type of pieces based around the musicians playing them — portraits of the musicians, of their backgrounds, what they have been working with, if they are known for playing certain kinds of music — perhaps I will use that as a way of writing for them. I have some pieces that make references to impressionism — the great French repertoire for flute from the last century. I make comments on these in these small pieces.

I have done a lot of work for choir. I am now planning recording sessions to try to record all of my music for choir, collaborating with great conductors here in Sweden to document about four or five hours of choral music over the next two years.

TM: Which conductors and choirs?

SS: An American, Gary Graden, who has been working in Sweden for twenty years or so, who has a very good choir at the Jacob Church in Stockholm — the Jacob Chamber Choir. I am also working with a young conductor, Hans Vainikainen, who is working with one of the biggest choral congregations in Stockholm with six or seven choirs, six hundred choir singers. He has just recently started there, succeeding the guy who built this tradition. And there is Bengt Ollén, who has a very good chamber choir that has made several good CDs with both American and English music. The choir has a clear, young sound, so I plan to use that for some of the sacred pieces. They can’t be heavy or pressed, in the old sort of sacred tradition, there must be plenty of fresh air in the music.

TM: We were talking earlier about the difficulties of contemporary music, but it’s easier if you have a record company to release your music. How did your company get started?

SS: I really don’t remember….I was playing in the seventies in a world-music group, and we made some LPs. We wanted to reissue them on CD, and nobody was interested. So I took care of it — it started like that. At the same time I was singing in several choirs, and became the sound engineer, and recorded the concerts. One of the conductors said “We can make a CD from this concert”. “OK!” I said. It just grew more and more, and by now I have made 250 CDs, and release 20 each year, mostly with contemporary Swedish music. It’s totally idealistic — I don’t earn any money from this. I am no saint by saying that — I just feel that it’s important. All of the big companies tend more and more to make yet another set of Beethoven symphonies, or another Mahler series, or another of this or that, because each conductor has to do his own. Somebody has to work with contemporary music, and since I have been working with the composers’ union in Sweden, I know most of my colleagues and I try to focus on those who are not represented on CDs, so that they have a CD as a sort of calling-card, to introduce their music. You cannot send scores anymore. My experience is that people cannot read music anymore. They want mp3 files, or midi files — they cannot read music.

TM: The good side at least is that the composer is able to put his music out in a form that even those who can’t read a score can digest. That would seem to be the positive side of the deleterious effect that the mp3 has had on the recording industry.

SS: Of course. The bad side is that many people produce computerized files by feeding their score through a synthesizer, and they call it music. I am very much opposed to that, because I think that you have to work with living musicians. It’s important to have musicians play contemporary music, not just another Mozart flute concerto.

TM: The result from a MIDI program is totally off-putting.

SS: I don’t think it’s very sexy, to be honest. Of course, if you are trained, and you have the course, you can see what it is supposed to be, but you cannot use it as music — you only get disturbed by everything that is lacking. I myself don’t use synthesizers for composing, though I use software to make the scores themselves. I prefer to make sketches with pencil and pen, and then use the computer to make it tidy.

TM: Forthcoming projects?

SS: I always have several projects going, but my problem is finding time to realize them. The choral project will keep my busy, but I plan to go on working on the fourth symphony which is with texts which are semi-political — it’s environmental, about relations between nations and people, and a little about the courage that people show in standing up against bad regimes and bad decisions. I have planned it for many years. I want to make something that inspires, and doesn’t oppress, in the end. But to reach that you have to go through mud and blood and dirt to lift the curtains and let the sun shine in.

I am planning to write a third flute concerto for my wife, because she asked me to, and I also have more choral projects. I have five string quartets, and I have a sixth coming up, and we will have to document the set. That’s what I will work on over the next two years.

I wrote a big Missa Maria Magdalena, which was very successful, and plan to do another on the same scale, with a big orchestra, and several choirs, for the Cathedral of Stockholm. It’s something I have planned for many years, but haven’t had time to realize.
It’s not so much a church piece, but historical, looking back.

People don’t go to church every Sunday — they go when there is a catastrophe or something very disturbing happens — then they search for comfort. The piece is more about that, than a missa. More like an oratorio — a stage play for church.

TM: Final thoughts?

SS: The problem with me is that I always work in different areas, different genres. I had different jobs outside the musical world as well. Sometimes people say that I am not devoted enough to the composing business. But I want to work helping contemporary music to meet its audience, because the audience is there — the problem is that it is difficult to reach, because you have a wall of commercial culture — films, books, newspapers, music — everything is standing in the way. I know they are there -the people who want to listen to what my colleagues and myself are doing — but they cannot find us.

image_description=Stellan Sagvik

product_title=An Interview with Stellan Sagvik
product_by=By Tom Moore

Posted by Gary at 3:16 PM

György Kurtág — Kafka Fragments, London

Although this music is well-known, this Barbican Hall, London performance —— entitled “Kafka Fragments” — was the first time Peter Sellars’ staging has been seen in Europe. What would Sellars’ staging add to such music?

The beauty of Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments lies in its minimalist purity. Forty brief quotes from Kafka’s diaries appear, many barely more than a sentence long. Meaning is elusive. “Die Weissnäherinnen in den Regengüssen” (washerwomen in downpours), for example, which is the entire text of song 9. Kurtág sets the words so they slide up and down the scale in strange, disoriented cadence, the violin part edgily racing beside the voice. What does the image mean? Is Kurtág illustrating the image or is he purposefully using it to hint at something wholly intangible?

Kurtág deliberately chose fragments because they are incomplete, and because they are fragile. They are existentialist utterances, beyond explanation. Meaning is distilled, intensely condensed like a homeopathic substance with power to expand in your soul. Most of Kurtág’s music is like this, highly polished miniatures to be carefully savoured on an intuitive level. Very zen, exquisitely beautiful.

But does something so esoteric need to be confined by concrete staging? Sellars interprets the Fragments with heavy handed literalism, seizing on brief references of purity and dirt to create a soap opera of domestic banality. Dawn Upshaw is seen sweeping, ironing, changing light bulbs and in one memorable image, with a plastic basket over her head. When Kafka remarks on concealment, is he being silly? In his pre-performance talk, Sellars told the audience that cleaning a bathroom was a great source of contemplation. Perhaps to him, but not to all. In his recent staging of Tristan und Isolde, Sellars also used elaborate projections of a long cleansing ritual which bore little relevance to the opera. Wagner as spa? Perhaps it’s a Sellars’ thing. In this case, the photographic projections were not by Bill Viola but by David Michalek, and even more distracting.

Kurtág needs staging, he added. To loosely paraphrase Sellars, “If you associate a song with a visual image, you can follow it”. Yet Kafka-Fragmente is only an hour long, less than many symphonies. Each fragment is so distinct that it’s really not hard to follow if you listen attentively. The danger is worrying too much about consuming what you see on the page, rather than absorbing the whole by listening on a more profound, oblique level.

All performances involve interpretation. Even reading a score means personal input. But too literal a layer of expression obliterates without adding insight. Like haiku, Kurtág’s music is magical because it’s both elusive and utterly lucid at the same time, but treating it too literally defeats the whole purpose. This perhaps is why Sellars’ staging was so disappointing.

Kurtag.gifGyörgy Kurtág

There were good moments where his images matched the music, such as the swaying movements in the first song, like the ticking of a clock. “Die Guten gehn im gleichen Schritt....die Tänze der Zeit” (The Good march in step...the Dances of Time). Yet many of these fragments are evocative because they defy easy stereotypes. Forcing them into a narrative diminishes their power. When Kafka writes of pain, he doesn’t simply mean a woman pressing a hot iron into her face.

In principle, there’s nothing inherently wrong about staging music, particularly vocal music. Otherwise we wouldn’t have opera or ballet. But Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente work because they are beyond definition, their meaning deliberately open-ended and mysterious. It’s this freedom that makes aphoristic music so liberating. Kurtág explicitly connects to Anton Webern through the dedication to Pierre Boulez, Webern’s great champion. “The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended” “Stolzen zu machen, als begangen zu werden”. (making you stumble rather than easily walk) Obliqueness, again, and contradiction. Very haiku. For Sellars the rope seems to imply suicide. Whether that’s valid or not, it means something different to Kurtág.

The Barbican Centre in London should be commended because it does innovative, daring work for contemporary music and opera. Last year they did Eötvös’s Angels in America, and Michael van der Aa’s After Life. The Barbican has also staged several of Kaija Saariaho’s opera, for which Peter Sellars did excellent semi-stagings. These were successful because they encapsulated the essential drama in Saariaho’s diffuse, chromatic reveries. With Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente the opposite happens. In his pre-performance talk, Sellars gave many different explanations for his choices, a kitchen sink approach, perhaps in the hope that some of the ideas might work. If only he had absorbed the inner essence of Kurtág’s ethos, that less is more and that muzak isn’t music.

The benchmark recording of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente is easily the one with Juliane Banse and András Keller, on ECM (2006). It is the keynote, as Keller has worked with Kurtág for many years and performed most of his work for violin. Indeed, the composer was involved in making the recording. High standards indeed, so it’s to Dawn Upshaw’s credit that her singing was up to the mark. She’s possibly the most experienced American singer in contemporary repertoire, and it showed in the way she negotiated Kurtág’s quirky lines and silences. Technically, Upshaw’s voice is more lustrous than Banse’s but the setting let her down.

The violinist here was Geoff Nuttall of the St Lawrence Quartet of Stanford, who has performed this piece with Upshaw and Sellars in the United States. He’s quoted as saying the piece is “almost unplayable” though Keller shows what’s possible. Nuttall was at an unfair advantage because Sellars’ staging nullified the tight, knife-edge balance between voice and violin which is fundamental to the piece. Upshaw was wonderful, but in many ways, the Kafka Fragments aren’t really a song cycle so much as intensely concentrated chamber music.

The Kafka-Fragmente have been around for 25 years. György Kurtág, his wife Marta and other musicians closely associated with them appear in person in London fairly frequently. Indeed, some in the audience at the Barbican were long time friends. Perhaps Sellars’ staging might have impressed audiences that don’t know the music, or put them off entirely. But for me it felt like seeing some great classic of European or Japanese art cinema remade for daytime TV.

Anne Ozorio

Click here for the programme of Kafka Fragments.

Click here for programme details.

image_description=Dawn Upshaw [Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of IMG Artists]

product_title=György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente for soprano and violin, op.24 (1985-7)
product_by=Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Geoff Nuttall, violin; Peter Sellars, director; David Michalek, photography; Anna Kiraly, costume design; James F. Ingalls, lighting design; Jenny Lazar, production stage manager; Diane J. Malecki producer.Barbican Hall, London, 11 November 2010.
product_id=Above: Dawn Upshaw [Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of IMG Artists]

Posted by anne_o at 2:10 PM

Curtain set to go up on Royal Opera House's £8.3m workshop

By Charlotte Higgins [The Guardian 18 November 2010]

The Royal Opera House's grand projet in the north of England - a full-blown branch in Manchester - has been quietly shelved because of straitened times. But its other ambitious scheme - a magnificent new production workshop in Purfleet, on the Thames in Essex - is about to open with, for the first and last time, the staging of an opera.

Posted by Gary at 10:28 AM

Singing dog adds bite to operatic satire

By Louise Jury [This is London, 18 November 2010]

The story of a singing dog sounds like the kind of shaggy mutt tale that might have featured on the television programme That's Life!

Posted by Gary at 10:22 AM

CIM Opera Theater savors the riches in Handel's "Xerxes"

By Donald Rosenberg [The Plain Dealer, 18 November 2010]

Not even the most sophisticated global positioning system could help an opera-goer navigate the twists and turns in the plot that's squeezed into Handel's "Xerxes," a comic work with serious undertones.

Posted by Gary at 10:09 AM

November 17, 2010

Joseph Calleja: Tenor up for a challenge

By John Terauds [The Star, 17 November 2010]

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja is hot. At age 32, he has already become a regular headliner at the Metropolitan Opera and other storied opera houses around the world.

Posted by Gary at 10:14 AM

Rare music well done by Opera Lafayette

By Charles T. Downey [Washington Post, 17 November 2010]

A stylish performance by Opera Lafayette breathed life into more forgotten music of the French baroque on Monday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. This ensemble of historical instrument specialists is most effective when the music in question is worth the effort of resuscitation. And it certainly was, particularly in a brilliantly programmed first half of rarely heard works that looked back at the golden age of French opera, during the austere conclusion of Louis XIV's reign.

Posted by Gary at 10:05 AM

November 12, 2010

Kafka Fragments, Barbican, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 12 November 2010]

By keeping in with maverick American director Peter Sellars the Barbican has secured itself a place at the international table for a regular supply of contemporary staged work. Over the years this has brought it important new pieces by leading composers such as John Adams and Kaija Saariaho, not to mention the occasional staging of a classic.

Posted by Gary at 4:06 PM

Interview: Michael McCarthy, director, In The Penal Colony

By Barry Gordon [The Scotsman, 12 November 2010]

A chamber opera based on a Franz Kafka short story, it's rather apt that renowned composer, Philip Glass, should score the music to Kafka's 1914 mini-masterpiece. For one thing, both musician and writer are revered for their taut, claustrophobic, often uncomfortable approach to their work.

Posted by Gary at 4:03 PM

Opera Cleveland keeps standards high in final performances of season

By Donald Rosenberg [The Plain Dealer, 12 November 2010]

The events that unfold in the two works Opera Cleveland is presenting as its final production of 2010 could hardly be called happy.

Posted by Gary at 3:58 PM

DONIZETTI: Lucrezia Borgia

Music composed by Gaetano Donizetti to a libretto by Felice Romani after Victor Hugo’s play Lucrèce Borgia.

First Performance: Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 26 December 1833.

Principal Roles:
Don Alfonso, Duca di Ferrara Bass
Donna Lucrezia Borgia Soprano
Gennaro Tenor
Maffio Orsini Contralto
Jeppo Liverotto Tenor
Don Apostolo Gazella Bass
Ascanio Petrucci Bass
Oloferno Vitellozzo Tenor
Gubetta Bass
Rustighello Tenor
Astolfo Bass
Una Voce Bass

Setting: Italy, early 16th Century.



A terrace of the Grimani palace in Venice. A festival by night.

Gennaro and his friends celebrate on the brightly lit terrace, in front of which lies the Giudecca canal. The friends’ conversation turns to Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, to whose house they will be travelling the next day, and to his wife, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. On hearing Lucrezia’s name, Orsini tells of how Gennaro and he, alone in a forest, were warned by a mysterious old man to beware her and the entire Borgia family. Professing his boredom with Orsini’s tale Gennaro wanders off and falls asleep nearby. His friends are invited to rejoin the festivities, and he is left alone. A gondola appears and a masked woman steps onto the terrace. She hurries over to the sleeping Gennaro and observes him with affection. (Com'è bello! Quale incanto in quel volto onesto e altero!) She kisses his hand, he wakes and is instantly struck by her beauty. He expresses his love for her and sings of his childhood as an orphan brought up by fishermen. He adds that he loves dearly the mother he has never met. (Di pescatore ignobile esser figliuol credei.) The others return and instantly recognise her as Lucrezia Borgia, listing in turn the members of their families she has killed to Gennaro’s horror.

Act I

A square at Ferrara.

The Duke, believing Gennaro to be Lucrezia’s lover, plots his murder with his servant Rustighello (Vieni: la mia vendetta è mediatata e pronta.) Gennaro and his companions leave the house for a party and pass the Duke’s palace with its large gilded coat of arms reading ‘Borgia’. Keen to show his contempt for the Borgia family, Gennaro removes the initial ‘B’, leaving the obscene ‘Orgia’ (“orgy”).

A hall in the ducal palace.

In the palace, Lucrezia is shown into the Duke’s chamber. Having seen the defaced crest, she demands death for the perpetrator, not knowing that it is Gennaro. The Duke orders Gennaro to be brought before her and accuses him of staining the noble name of Borgia, a crime to which he readily confesses. Lucrezia, horrified, attempts to excuse the insult as a youthful prank, but Don Alfonso accuses Lucrezia of infidelity, having observed her meeting with Gennaro in Venice. In a scene full of drama and tension, she denies any impropriety, but he demands the prisoner’s death and forces her to choose the manner of Gennaro’s execution. Pretending to pardon him, the Duke offers Gennaro a glass of wine and he swallows it. After a stunning trio (Guai se ti sfugge un moto, Se ti tradisce un detto!) the Duke leaves and Lucrezia hurries to Gennaro, giving him an antidote to the poison the Duke has mixed with the wine. He drinks, and in a last duet she implores him to flee the city and her husband. (Bevi e fuggi ... te’n prego, o Gennaro!)

Act II

A small courtyard leading into Gennaro’s house. A hall in the Negroni palace brightly lit and decked out for a festive banquet.

Ignoring Lucrezia’s advice, Gennaro attends a party at the palace, swearing never to be parted from his friend Orsini. Orsini leads the party in a brindisi or drinking song (Il segreto per esser felici) and they drink. Lucrezia enters and announces that in revenge for their insults in Venice she has poisoned their wine and arranged five coffins for their bodies. She has hitherto believed that Gennaro fled Ferrara on her advice, and is thus dismayed when he steps forward and announces that she has poisoned a sixth. Orsini, Liverotto, Vitellozzo, Petrucci and Gazella fall dead. Gennaro seizes a dagger and attempts to kill Lucrezia, but she stops him by revealing that he is in fact her son. Once again she asks him to drink the antidote, but this time he refuses, choosing to die with his friends. In a final cabaletta (Era desso il figlio mio,) Lucrezia mourns her son and expires.

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for a more detailed synopsis (free registration required).

Click here for the complete libretto (free registration required).

Click here for a discography through 1989 (free registration required).

Click here for production photos of this performance (free registration required).

image= image_description=Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto audio=yes first_audio_name=Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia product_by=Alfonso, Duca di Ferrara: Michele Pertusi; Donna Lucrezia Borgia: Mariella Devia; Gennaro: Marcelo Álvarez; Maffio Orsini: Daniela Barcellona; Jeppo Liverotto: Carlo Bosi; Don Apostolo Gazella: Piero Terranova; Ascanio Petrucci: Fabio Capitanucci; Oloferno Vitellozzo: Antonio Feltracco; Gubetta: Alessandro Svab; Rustighello: Iorio Zennaro; Astolfo: Eldar Aliev; Una voce: Ernesto Panariello. Chorus of il Teatro alla Scala, Milano. Orchestra of il Teatro alla Scala, Milano. Conductor: Renato Palumbo. Teatro degli Arcimboldi, 28 September 2002, Milano. product_id=
Posted by Gary at 3:24 PM

November 11, 2010

El Nuevo Mundo: Folias Criollas

Multicultural, we savor the admixture of diversity, and in the savoring seem to relax the complex boundaries of identity. Although this takes place now on an unprecedented scale, the history of colonialism and trade remind us that cultural intertwining is a conspicuous strand in the fabric of the past, as well. And it is the cultural intertwining of the “Andalusian Caribbean” that is vibrantly explored in the recording, El Nuevo Mundo, by the inestimable Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras.

In the exploration, traditional Latin American music in a variety of forms sits easily in the company of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music from both the Spanish “old” and “new” worlds in what can only be perceived as a musical family reunion, a reunion where resemblance rings true even among the more distant cousins, and kinship remains evident throughout the generations. The performance forces themselves underscore the theme, as well, for Savall’s well-known early music ensembles, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hesperion XXI, are joined by the Mexican traditional ensemble Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, a collaboration begun several years ago as part of the Festival Cervantino.

Solo turns are ample and shared: harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, for instance, improvises a “Danza de Moctezuma,” while gambist Savall takes a turn with smile-inducing, improvised “Canarios”; Figueras brings her hauntingly sinuous and sensuous voice to one of the most memorable works on the program, the cantata-like “Niña como en tus mudanzas.” In addition to the solo work, the ensemble playing is endlessly engaging with its abundance of “pluckery” and irresistible rhythmic animation.

One of the finest examples of the principle underlying the program, and also one of the finest of the performances, is the paired “Xicochi Conetzintle” and “Xochipitzahuatl,” the former an early baroque Christmas lullaby by Gaspar Fernandes from the cathedral at Oaxaca, the latter a traditional “son” in honor of Mary. The Fernandes piece is elegant in its rendition and memorable in its rhythmic undulations and cross-rhythms. The “son” blends seamlessly into the patterned sway—as “cousins” might easily do—only to yield place to an equally seamless return to the lullaby. In the motion back and forth we discern something of the flow of the musical currents shaping the music of el nuevo mundo; in the interplay of sounds we can take great delight.

Steven Plank

image= image_description=El Nuevo Mundo: Folias Criollas product=yes product_title=El Nuevo Mundo: Folias Criollas product_by=Montserrat Figueras, soprano; Tembembe Ensamble Continuo; La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Hesperion XXI; Jordi Savall, Director product_id=Alia Vox AVSA 9876 [SACD] price=$24.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 11:55 AM

Wedded With Wit

By Heidi Waleson [WSJ, 11 November 2010]

New York City Opera's fall-season exploration of modern-family dysfunction continues with Strauss's autobiographical "Intermezzo" (1924), a revival of City Opera's 1999 Leon Major production, starring soprano Mary Dunleavy as the wacky wife. Billed as "a domestic comedy with symphonic interludes," "Intermezzo" is a risky repertoire choice: It's not a toe-tapper, and it requires great orchestral playing.

Posted by Gary at 9:54 AM

November 10, 2010

The Seduction of Lovers, Plotted at a Faster Pace

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 10 November 2010]

The list of significant conductors who have never worked at the Metropolitan Opera grew shorter on Tuesday night, when William Christie made his company debut in Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte,” a revival of Lesley Koenig’s simple, sunny and charming 1996 production. Though Mr. Christie has conducted at leading opera companies in Lyon, Zurich and elsewhere, his major contributions have come from Les Arts Florissants, the early-music ensemble he founded in 1979, based in France.

Posted by Gary at 3:53 PM

Bampton Classical Opera: Holywell Music Room

By Nicola Lisle [Oxford Times, 10 November 2010]

Schumann have grabbed the lion’s share of the attention, while poor old Thomas Arne — born 300 years ago — has struggled to get a look in. Bampton Opera put that right on Friday with a double bill of two Arne masques, presented as concert versions — extracts from Alfred, composed in 1753 for the third birthday of Augusta, Princess of Brunswick, and The Judgement of Paris, composed in 1742, the same year that a fundraising campaign was launched to build the Holywell Music Room.

Posted by Gary at 3:04 PM

Mahler: The Complete Works

The compilation is at once a celebration of Mahler’s enduring music in sound and also extraordinary performances by generations of performers, whose interpretations offer solid readings of the music. EMI has been an excellent source of fine recordings of Mahler’s music for decades, with recordings in its catalogue that predate the revival of interest in his works that occurred in the early 1960s. Among the early recordings in this set is the famous recording of the song cycle Kindertotenlieder led by Mahler’s protégé Bruno Walter, with Kathleen Ferrier, which dates from 1949. EMI also includes the 1952 performance of the cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler included here — latter release that offers the interpretation of a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Yet EMI’s Mahler: The Complete Works is not limited to older performances, since some of EMI’s recent releases of Mahler’s music are included, as with the “Blumine” movement from the 1888 five-movement version of the First Symphony conducted by Paavo Järvi (2007) and Ian Bostridge’s set of three early Lieder, a 2010 release. Encompassing studio and live recordings released in the course of sixty years, this comprehensive set pays tribute to many fine performances which define the standards of Mahler interpretation.

Like EMI’s recent comprehensive collection of Puccini’s operas, the present Mahler set bears consideration for the choices made regarding the music, the singers, the conductors, the orchestras, and also the accompanists. With regard to the music, EMI made some laudable choices to present a comprehensive selection of Mahler’s works. All the major works are present, but for the Lieder, the orchestral versions are in the set, with the versions with piano accompaniment omitted. Absent from this set are the piano-vocal versions of the set of Des Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler orchestrated; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (which differs in detail, rather than substance from the orchestral version); Kindertotenlieder, and Das Lied von der Erde. These are relatively small points, but important when it comes to distinguishing this set as complete. The welcome inclusion of several different performances of the piano-vocal version of the Rückert song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” one of the outstanding features of this set, would, by extension, merit the include of performances of those Lieder with piano accompaniment.

Nevertheless, the effort for comprehensiveness emerges in various ways. For example, the “Blumine” movement from the First Symphony is presented separately, since Mahler cut it from the revised four-movement version of the work customarily performed — a case could be made for including the five-movement version with its original orchestration, since such presentation would demonstrate the shift in timbre Mahler achieved. Likewise, substantial differences exist in the two versions of the early cantata Das klagende Lied because of the number of years between the three-movement version (1880) and the revision as a two-movement work (1898-1899), with Rattle’s 1984 recording of the earlier one included in this set. In addition the tone poem Todtenfeier, which Mahler reworked as the first movement of the Second Symphony is not part of the set. Since this set focuses on music by Mahler himself, arrangements like the composer’s Bach Suite are not included, yet even then the “Entr’acte” from Die drei Pintos is a short piece that offers a glimpse of the orchestral sound Mahler would take into his Wunderhorn symphonies. These are details that are useful in considering Mahler’s complete works, but should not be taken as diminishing the contribution EMI has made in offering this set of recordings.

That stated, the more difficult choices exist with determining the performances to include or, rather, the ones to exclude, and for the most part, the set is uniformly strong. Mahler’s works demand much of conductors in bringing the scores to successful performance. The works are large not only in terms of the forces required, but also in length. Single movements, like the first movement of the Third Symphony take half an hour to perform, and convincing performances, like the one from 1997 in this set with Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, recreate the music vividly. Here the engagement of the conductor and ensemble result in a memorable performance that calls to mind the other fine recordings in Rattle’s Mahler cycle.

Rattle’s notable recording of the Second Symphony in comes to mind as an important contribution to the discography. While Rattle’s Second remains a compelling recording, EMI included in this set Otto Klemperer’s extraordinary 1962 performance, which deservedly has a place in the label’s series of Great Recordings of the Century. That recording is a defining one, with Klemperer realizing in performance this important score of Mahler’s early career. It remains an engaging performance that retains its sense vitality half century after its release.

A similar chemistry was involved in Klemperer’s 1966 recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. That classic interpretation of this posthumously premiere score deserves a place in a celebratory set like this one. While it may be familiar to many, Klemperer’s recording not only endures, but stands well when compared to others; this is not only a fortunate confluence of performers, but also an example of Klemperer’s affinity with Mahler’s style. This should not take away from the effectiveness of other older recordings, like the well-known one by Bruno Walter, with Julius Patzak and Kathleen Ferrier. Das Lied von der Erde is a work that benefits from the perspectives gained by rehearings both in live performances and through recordings. Of the latter, Klemperer’s recording retains its attraction and brings together two of the finest vocalists of the time.

Other venerable performances are part of this set, like the recording of the orchestral Wunderhornlieder that George Szell recorded in 1968 with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with the London Symphony Orchestra. This classic recording includes the dialogue songs performed by two singers, something implied in the text and not explicitly scored. With these performers, the result is engaging and natural, with the London Symphony providing a solid accompaniment to these pieces. The approach is lively and evocative, with appealing singing from both soloists. The inclusion of Szell in this set calls to mind his other contributions to the Mahler discography, which remain worth exploring. (Among his efforts are outstanding recordings of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies; as well as a live recording of Das Lied von der Erde performed while the Cleveland Orchestra was in Berlin.)

Another fine Mahler interpreter, Carlo Maria Giulini is represented by his impressive recording of the First Symphony with the Chicago Symphony (1971). While that recording is respected, Giulini’s other performances merit attention, including his expressive Ninth and other music by Mahler. The inclusion of this piece in the set also calls to mind the representation various orchestras in this set for their tradition of performing Mahler’s music well. While the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a number of recordings of Mahler’s works in its discography, this selection is an impressive performance of the First Symphony that stands well among the excellent recordings of the work not only in EMI’s catalogue, but elsewhere.

Along these lines, the contributions of Klaus Tennstedt to the Mahler discography are represented by two works from his Mahler cycle, the Fifth Symphony (1988) and the Eighth Symphony (1986). The latter is an extraordinary performance that stands well in comparison with other notable recordings, like Sir Georg Solti’s famous recording of the work. With its massive forces and complex structures, the Eighth is challenging score, and when executed well, it still poses challenges for effective recordings, because of the extreme contrasts in sound and timbre. Yet Tennstedt’s efforts are match with the excellent sound reproduction provided by EMI in this classic interpretation of the work. This recording merits attention for it the solid conception of the work that Tennstedt offers, and serves as tribute to the late conductor’s legacy as an interpreter of Mahler’s music.

With Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the performance selected for this set is a good choice among Tennstedt’s other recordings of the work. This intensity of this performance comes across well on CD and suggests well the dynamic approach Tennstedt took on the podium. While other recordings are also compelling, like Abbado’s live performance on Deutsche Grammophon or the historic recording that is part of Bruno Walter’s legacy, the one by Tennstedt reissued here has much to offer, including a spacing account of the monumental Scherzo at the center of the Fifth Symphony.

Other venerable conductors are present, as is the case with Sir John Barbirolli, whose performances of the Sixth and Ninth Symphonies are exemplary, and both are included in this set. The earlier of the two recordings, the Ninth, is with the Berlin Philharmonic (1964), while the Sixth is with the New Philharmonia Orchestra (1967). While David Gutman’s essay included in the booklet included with the set capture Leonard Bernstein’s comments about the relevance of the Ninth for a new generation, Barbirolli belongs to the tradition of performing the Ninth that may be traced to Bruno Walter, who led the premiere of that Symphony in Vienna in 1912 and recorded the work throughout his career. Barbirolli’s interpretation remains a solid one, as does his conception of the Sixth. With the latter, the textual problems of the score have been a concern in recent years, because the edition in the composer’s collected works reverses the order of the inner movements as Mahler intended them. This has resulted in decades of performances based on a structural choice that the composer himself complicated when he temporarily switched the order in print, but never performed the work that way. The conundrum is a critical matter in the performance practice, and an issue that calls for an editorial method that will serve Mahler’s music well. While the discography demonstrates that it is possible to perform the Symphony both ways, the interpretations change; Barbirolli’s recording is based on the order the composer himself used in performance, with the Andante followed by the Scherzo.

In addition to these classic accounts of Mahler’s scores, some more recent recordings are part of the set, with Sir Simon Rattle’s 1991 recording the Seventh Symphony. This is significant for the incisiveness of this particular performance of a work that has only come into its own in recent decades. In the 1960s the enthusiasm for Mahler’s music was equivocal for the Seventh, which some regarded a kind of step-child in the composer’s symphonies (this may be ascribed to the criticism of Theodor Adorno, who found that Mahler emerged as a poor yes-man in this score). Yet as scholars and conductors explored the strengths of this score, interpretations brought audiences new understandings in effective performances, like the famous one by Claudio Abbado with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the 1980s or the one Bernard Haitink contributed to his Mahler cycle on the Philips label. The Rattle performance in this set stands well with the outstanding modern interpretations of this work, with its persuasive treatment of the Rondo-Finale and the more intimate style of the two Nachtmusik movements that flank the central Scherzo.

As to the vocalists, EMI’s set offers essentially a record of Mahler singing. Again, with Fischer Dieskau’s early interpretations of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, listeners have the chance to hear how Mahler was presented to the public in the early 1950s. Likewise, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, whose contributions also include a fine recording of Mahler’s Fourth, Fischer-Dieskau, Dame Janet Baker, and other were known in the 1960s for their performances of Mahler’s music, and their inclusion in this sets represents an important part of the Mahler discography. Along these lines, some classic performances exist from that time, and this EMI set reissues the impressive recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony conducted by Jascha Horenstein, with Margaret Price performing the Song-Finale, “Das himmlische Leben.” (The Fourth Symphony benefits from a number of solid recordings, and this work alone may be the subject of a set of famous performances from the 1940s through the early twenty-first century. A similar retrospective approach could be taken for Das Lied von der Erde, for which recordings exist back to the late 1930s.)

Taken as a whole, the recordings of the famous vocalists in this set represent a level of interpretation on which other performers built, as found with the outstanding soloists for Tennstedt’s Eighth, which includes Felicity Lott, Hans Sotin, and others. The more recent vocalists include Thomas Hampson, whose recording the Kindertotenlieder with accompaniment Wolfram Rieger (1996); Katarina Karnéus for various early Lieder (1999) and the later song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (1998), and others. In fact, the choices made for the three volumes of Mahler’s early Lieder und Gesänge on disc 4 comprise a survey of singers and pianists who recorded those songs at various times for EMI.

Finally the accompanists for the Lieder are also impressive, with Gerald Moor, Irwin Gage, Roger Vignoles, Julius Drake, Daniel Barenboim, Antonio Pappano, prominent in this set. The pianists are well-known interpreters of Lieder, and they approach Mahler well from that tradition. Those interested in the interpretations may wish to seek out their recordings to hear Mahler’s Lieder in the more intimate settings for voice and piano, which merit attention along with the nuanced orchestral settings the composer also left in his oeuvre.

The release of these recordings in a single set not only calls attention to Mahler’s legacy in sound, but also to the quality of the efforts. From this perspective, the set benefits from uniformly excellent sound, despite the varying conditions involved, including studios and various live venues (the details of each recording are included the in accompanying book). At the same time, it is impressive to find all the music on 16 discs; yet that involved splitting multi-movement pieces between discs, which has been done in various ways with some of the existing sets of Mahler’s symphonies. This does not pose problems, but allows space for the useful set of various interpretations of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” on the final disc, which also contains the texts and translations for the entire set. (Note that the booklet is the only source of information on the specific tracks and releases. Each sleeve contains information about the music, but not the performers and details on the original releases, as found in the booklet. While such data is available at the URL listed above, for convenience, it could have been included with the useful PDF that contains the texts and translations.)

Those interested in this set may also wish to pursue EMI’s recent two-disc set of Mahler’s Adagios, that is, the slow movements from the composer’s ten symphonies. While it includes several movements from the “Complete Works,” the Adagio collection draws from a number of other recordings, notably Tennstedt’s Third, Klemperer’s Ninth, and several others. More than that, the focus on the slow movements calls attention to Mahler’s development of that part of his symphonic structures in terms of the content of the movement and its function in his works. If the slow movement in the nineteenth-century symphony served a secondary role in the context of the gravity of the outer movements, Mahler shifted that perspective from the start with the innovative content of the third movement of the First Symphony or the intensive double variations of the Fourth. With the Fifth, the transformation of a song into the Adagietto brings a level of self-reference into the work that has a parallel with the Scherzo of the Second. Yet with the Third and Ninth Symphonies, Mahler used slow movements as the Finale of each work, and with that created monumental structures that shift the weight from the conventional way of ending the work. At the end, he reconceived the slow movement and used his magnificent Adagio as the opening of his unfinished Tenth. An examination of the slow movements in either set merits attention; yet the larger box-set also afford listeners the chance to explore Mahler’s Scherzos for the same purpose, and thus appreciate the composer’s accomplishments in the context of all his works.

All in all, this commemorative set serves Mahler well, and more than that, the generations of performers who have interpreted his music. This set affords listeners not enjoy the fine recordings conveniently and, given the quality of the performances, should spur further explorations of the Mahler cycles by Tennstedt, Rattle, and others, along with the recordings of other conductors included in this set. As Mahler’s music reaches into a second century of performances, this kind of review of the discography is an excellent opportunity to return with renewed attention to music which has certainly become familiar, yet has never lost its relevance. Unquestionably Mahler’s time has come for audiences who can appreciate his works through the efforts of interpreters who renew the music in performances and recordings that continue this strong tradition into a second century.

James L. Zychowicz

image= image_description=Mahler: The Complete Works product=yes product_title=Mahler: The Complete Works product_by=Click here for contents and performance details. product_id=EMI Classics 5099960898524 [16CDs] price=$53.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 2:37 PM

November 8, 2010

L.A. Phil to transmit performances to HD-equipped movie theaters

By Reed Johnson [Los Angeles Times, 8 November 2010]

In a bold venture that the Los Angeles Philharmonic hopes will boost its "national brand" recognition and help raise the profile of classical music from Manhattan to Orange County, the orchestra next year will transmit live performances of three of its concerts to more than 450 high-definition-equipped movie theaters throughout the United States and Canada.

Posted by Gary at 3:01 PM

Jessye Norman — Roots: My Life, My Song

So when Jessye Norman decides she wants to celebrate her non-classical musical inspirations in live sets, fans and not-so-much fans can enjoy or not enjoy, but no one should really question the artist’s right to choose this avenue for expression. It does strike your reviewer as just a touch odd that Ms. Norman has decided to title her Sony collection “Roots: My Life, My Song.” Somewhere in two discs of music encapsulating her life and song, shouldn’t a listener find acknowledgment of the central role Schubert and Strauss have played, just to name two great composers through whose work Ms. Norman has shared her artistry for the bulk of her career?

Instead, Ms. Norman’s life and song derive from gospel and such classic songwriters as Harold Arlen and Duke Ellington. In a series of popular chanson, we do get the “Habanera” from Carmen, in a decidedly non-Bizet setting. Mostly, we hear Ms. Norman in lighter voice, her vocal styling paying tribute to esteemed popular singers such as Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. When the rich, darker shadings of her instrument do appear, Norman’s technique brings to mind a bit of late Sarah Vaughan - perilous drops into chest voice and sudden swoops upward, almost into a falsetto. The vocal performances manage the odd trick of always sounding like Norman, and yet constantly evoking one of these other performers in style and technique - which brings another complexity to understanding the title Ms. Norman chose. Many of these tracks feel like her tribute to other’s lives, and their songs.

Disc one opens with African drums, probably as a setting for the African-American historical heritage behind the several gospel songs that follow, sung with exquisite tone, although Ms. Norman does try to “rough it up” a bit from time to time. Why she suddenly swerves into an over-the-top, full-voiced rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story will have to remain Ms. Norman’s secret. After that misstep, she starts in on several numbers from the Great American Songbook, with a tasty ensemble of jazz players behind her. Disc two starts with the French songs, then centers on Duke Ellington before wrapping things up with an exultant “When the Saints Go Marching In.” As Ms. Norman truly settles into the live set, her peals of laughter often ring out over the sounds of audience applause. Everyone is having a very good time.

Her back-up musicians deserved more booklet notice than the small print credits they receive. Instead, pages of the booklet are given over to Ms. Norman’s prose stylings (“Whereas this may well be true, I think rather differently”) and her comments on the selections. Well, it’s her life, her songs, her CD. It needs no recommendation for fans, of course, but many others may find themselves enjoying this odd but endearing collection as well.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Jessye Norman — Roots: My Life, My Song

product_title=Jessye Norman — Roots: My Life, My Song
product_id=Sony 88697 64263 2 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 2:48 PM

Cavalleria Rusticana & La Navarraise: OONY

[Opera Britannia, 8 November 2010]

The Opera Orchestra of New York has been, for three decades, the most important concert opera organization in New York. Its performances, three to four annually of rare operas with world stars and important up-and-coming artists, have circulated widely on commercial disks and pirate recordings. Led since its inception by Eve Queler, a name to respect if not to conjure with, OONY has presented just over a hundred concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Posted by Gary at 2:27 PM

The Met Goes for Baroque — Preparing for Mozart, the Orchestra Fashions Itself After Its New Conductor

By Erica Orden [WSJ, 8 November 2010]

In preparation for the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Cosi fan tutte," Jessica Phillips, a clarinetist with the company's orchestra, braced herself for a challenge. She expected conductor William Christie, the baroque-music specialist who will make his Met debut with Tuesday's opening of the Mozart opera, to require his musicians to adapt their modern-era instruments to his early-music sensibilities.

Posted by Gary at 1:28 PM

Don Giovanni, ENO

Sadly, director Rufus Norris, designer Ian MacNeil, and conductor Kirill Karabits, are desperately out of kilter in this miserable, in all senses of the word, production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

A sparking, spluttering lighting rig occupies centre-stage as the opening notes of the overture strike up; gradually it rises, resting askew, half-way to the rafters, and there it dangles redundantly for the rest of the performance, occasionally emitting a spark or flash. As the Stone Guest’s motif sounds, there’s some vacuous brutality in the dark recesses, a nameless women is brought before Giovanni to be abused, and we are clearly being told that this is going to be a ‘nasty’ evening. Never mind that Da Ponte’s Giovanni proves to be a rather ineffectual Casanova, not once carrying out a successful seduction in the course of the opera. We are in a modern degenerate dystopia, and Mozart and his librettist have clearly been left far behind in the eighteenth century.

With this re-reading, a crucial aspect of the original is lost: namely, the class conflicts inherent in the amorous entanglements and betrayals. The erratic costumes don’t help. Dressed initially in jeans and scruffy trainers, the Don dons an aquamarine eighteenth-century frock coat for his opening sexual encounter, complete with antique wig; he then exchanges this outfit for a slick red suit, aptly devilish over a black thug’s t-shirt, as debonair man-about-town, gaily throwing parties for the plebs; and finally, he slips into slobby black pyjamas adorned with the face of Christ and topped off with a hallowe’en mask. Frankly, Masetto’s shiny blue Primark suit is more stylish. This confused costuming destabilises our sense of the power relations between the protagonists; and makes a nonsense of the Masetto’s avowal, ‘At your service, sir’, when Giovanni interrupts the wedding party. The Enlightenment’s strict stratification of society, with its attendant modes of behaviour and codes of honour, has been jettisoned, making the Don’s philandering seem like tedious self-indulgence as opposed to radical subversion.

Hyperactive periaktoi, spun wildly in the urban gloom by masked marauders, present us with fleeting visions of dingy street-corners, Elvira’s Formica flat, a Seventies’ discotheque, as MacNeil tries in vain to conjure up an air of reckless abandon and amoral depravity.

All this is a waste of good translation and some strong singing. Jeremy Sams perhaps indulges in a few too many vulgar double entendres — ‘I’m tired of playing sentry/while he tries to force an entry’ — but his wit sparkles and the rhyming couplets spill out easily (perhaps a bit too profusely in the final scene), reminding us of the fun and alertness of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s buffa opera. Sadly, at times it is clear that the director does not care what the cast are actually singing about: when Zerlina tries to wile her way back into Masetto’s affection after his beating at the hands of Giovanni’s thugs (where does it hurt … here, or here …?), providing, one might think, ample opportunity for some affectionate petting … there is no chance of an ardent quiver or two, as Norris has seated her on a window sill, 15 feet away.

Don_Giovanni_Brindley_Sherratt_credit_Donald_Cooper.pngBrindley Sherratt as Leporello

Part of the problem was the pace, or lack of it. Kirill Karabits never once whipped up the necessary excitement and zip in the pit; the overture was ponderous and fuzzy, the recitative almost static, and during one of the greatest of operatic denouements, as Giovanni is sucked down to hell, the only thing electrifying was the exploding circuit which descended and despatched Giovanni to his death. Thus, Leporello’s catalogue aria — skilfully and side-splittingly re-imagined by Sams as a spin-doctor’s statistical presentation of his master’s conquests month by month, powerpoint, spreadsheets and all — never generated enough momentum to suggest the rush of the Don’s romping rampages, despite the artful timing and neat delivery of Brindley Sherratt’s yobbish Leporello.

The cast tried their best to inject some frisson. The women fared best. Deputising at the last minute for Rebecca Evans (afflicted with infected sinuses), Sarah Redgwick was dramatically convincing as the scorned and scornful Donna Elvira. Attired in a sharp red suit, her ‘Mi tradi’ was clear and penetrating, and she never once became the nagging harridan or neurotic hysteric of Giovanni’s imaginings. Katherine Broderick has a sufficiently hefty voice for Donna Anna, but at times it was rather shrill and ragged, especially in Act 1. Sarah Tynan’s Zerlina was ravishingly sweet, and she minced delightfully; her bright sound was consistently matched by John Molloy as Masetto. But whatever happened to subtle innuendo: why, oh why, was Masetto offered a boxing glove on a silver platter during Zerlina’s faux-subordinate ‘Batti, batti’?

Don_Giovanni_Sarah_Redgewick_Iain_Paterson_Brindley_Sherratt_credit_Donald_Cooper.pngSarah Redgewick as Donna Elvira, Iain Paterson as Don Giovanni and Brindley Sherratt as Leporello

In the title role, Iain Paterson showed that he is a composed, accomplished singer, able to vary and control his voice, a confident stage presence. Yet, though the text was clearly enunciated and singing flexible and relaxed, he didn’t generate sufficient testosterone-fuelled dynamism — maybe the baggy Jesus t-shirt was to blame. Moreover, it was no fault of Paterson’s that his ‘Senerade’, delectably sung, made no dramatic sense: for, after a surfeit of comic crudities, Sams’ inserts sentimental longings for an ideal love, ‘the one I miss the most’, yearnings which are totally unconvincing. Mawkish projections of this ‘muse’ — assumingly an idealisation of female beauty — did not help.

As Don Ottavio, Robert Murray produced a warm tone and presented a generous heart as Donna Anna’s loyal, steady ‘protector’; he performed ‘Dalla sua pace’ with a consistently smooth line and striking radiance. Unfortunately, his portrait of integrity and loyalty was not assisted by the spangly, heart-shaped balloon he was forced to clutch, or the smooching couples dancing in distance. Murray suffered a fair share of the director’s indignities, encouraged inexplicably to remove his clothes at the end of the great Sextet? Matthew Best lacked a monumental majesty in the opening scene, but was suitable imposing at the close and made a striking image, slumped, white-suited and pallid against a graffitied wall. The chorus of identikit demons were, like their surroundings, unfocused and lacking spark.

The closing scene begins with Giovanni and his side-kick, slouched like drunken tramps on a grimy street, preparing a pavement picnic of takeaway left-overs drawn from a discount-store carrier-bag: an image that ironically rather sums things up — for, like the stale bread rolls they fling contemptuously at the Commendatore, there really is a lot of garbage in this production. The mock-fugue finale presents a simple moral: “if you’re bad you’ll go to hell” — relevant in more ways than one.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Katherine Broderick as Donna Anna and Iain Paterson as Don Giovanni [Photo by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product_by=Don Giovanni: Iain Paterson; Donna Elvira: Sarah Redgwick; Donna Anna: Katherine Broderick; Leporello: Brindley Sherratt; Don Ottavio: Robert Murray; Zerlina: Sarah Tynan; Commendatore: Matthew Best; Masetto: John Molloy. Conductor: Kirill Karabits. Director: Rufus Norris. Set Designer: Ian MacNeil. Costume Designer: Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin. English National Opera, Coliseum, Saturday 6th November product_id=Above: Katherine Broderick as Donna Anna and Iain Paterson as Don Giovanni

All photos by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:40 PM

Il Trovatore, Metropolitan Opera

They are extreme people, yielding unreflectively to extreme passions. Verdi’s score expresses just that element (richly evident in its source, a blood-and-thunder Gutierrez drama somewhat watered down for the libretto in order to appease papal censors), and the singing should emerge with just this sort of unreasoning passion. We may not believe that X loves Y, but we ought to believe their minds are at fever pitch: “I’m going to hit that orgasmic high note if it kills me.” No, you never hear a Trovatore like that any more, but back when all theater was live theater and Il Trovatore was the most popular theater piece on Earth, that’s the sort of excitement you could hope for. If you want it now, you might want to check out the old RCA recording with Milanov, Barbieri, Bjoerling and Warren. And that was an everyday Metropolitan Opera cast!

The Met’s current David McVicar production in Charles Edwards’s unattractive but functional sets (time period: Spain during a civil war — any old civil war — there were plenty to choose from, but anyway it’s not the one in 1410 where Gutierrez set it) is not without its absurdities. (Why are all those floozies hanging around the soldiers’ camp, acting so very camp, when the general is formally reviewing his troops?) But the job gets done and sets up the singers to play their parts with minimal fuss.

TROVATORE_Tsymbalyuk_as_Ferrando_9901a.pngAlexander Tsymbalyuk as Ferrando

One particular thing struck me about the leading singers on this occasion: None of them had their eyes glued to the conductor. Singers who sing to lovers, tormenters, wounded children or God while keeping an eye on the baton the whole time are often a necessary evil, a whimsy one grows used to, but it was a pleasure to have the stars of this revival, though they never lost the beat (and conductor Marco Armiliato never let Verdi’s powerful rhythms fade or grow less than propulsive), looking at each other the entire night. They were in it, they were on it. This is one of those professional touches you hardly notice if you’re not looking for it — and are accustomed to too many singers who can’t manage it.

TROVATORE_Racette_and_Tatum_9086a.pngPatricia Racette as Leonora and Renée Tatum as Inez

You seldom get four top stars in top form in a Trovatore, but the opera calls for just that. On this occasion no one sang badly but the glitter was seldom gold. The men had it rather over the women; their voices seemed better designed for singing Verdi. One felt in especially good hands with the Count di Luna of Željko Lučić, who makes one think the great days of the Verdi baritone live again. His “Il balen” was flawless, the long, long line filling the house without effort, each note on the proper pitch as though his throat could not consider putting it anywhere else. I don’t remember there being quite so much bladework in this production, but Lučić certainly startled the house when he drew his sword through his hand, drenching it in blood, in his determination to possess Leonora. He held his own in the confrontational duets and trios, too.

Marcelo Álvarez sang his offstage serenades beautifully (to the accompaniment of a harp that never appeared — hey, guys, he’s a troubadour, y’know?) but his double aria in the besieged fortress seemed on the gruff side and he ran out of voice by the time of the dungeon scene. Hoarseness seemed to be the problem; perhaps, like Franco Corelli, he should conceal glasses of water around the set. His canteen in Act IV seemed not to have been filled, and he needed it. He looked a romantic enough figure whenever he did not stand in profile.

Patricia Racette’s Leonora is not the loopy teenager jumping around the set played by Sondra Radvanovsky in this production: Leonora may be a teenager, but she’s a lady of high Spanish birth, and she knows it; Racette knows it, too. Spanish grandezza used to mean something, and Verdi’s Leonora is that sort of dignified character.

TROVATORE_Lucic_and_Racette_7337a.pngŽeljko Lučić as Count di Luna and Patricia Racette as Leonora

Racette is such an intelligent singer, so persuasive in her understanding of predicament, that I wish I liked her voice better. Her instrument always seems too small for the Met. She manages very professionally, but the voluptuous floods of sound that other sopranos have brought to the role, the voice that seems to define Leonora’s desperate heart and new-awakened passions, are not at Racette’s disposal. Her “Tacea la notte” was fascinating as vocal storytelling, but the tidal rise at its conclusion did not overflow. “Di tale amor” was, as it usually is, a bit of a mess, drawing no applause — Sutherland is the only soprano I ever heard sing it flawlessly, and the rest of her performance was inert. (“Di tale amor” is one of the few cases where I’d like to take his Orsinitá the composer aside and say, sternly, “Maestro, this tune isn’t good enough; go write a new one.”) The convent scene was no celestial flight, and Racette seemed out of breath in much of Act IV; there were many thin notes and others not precisely where one wanted them. Racette coped with the part but she did not take joy in it, or exploit its opportunities.

Marianne Cornetti has the heft for Azucena, but it takes her an awfully long time to warm up. Her “Stride le vampe” was loud but pitchless. Only at the end of the “Condotta” did she give evidence of the ferocity of a maddened Gypsy — her final notes actually brought forth the first responsive “echo” I’ve ever heard at the Met! The dungeon serenade, however, gave Cornetti place for her most beautiful singing of the night.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk, as Ferrando, has a clear, persuasive young bass but he bleats a bit. Renée Tatum was not the first confidante in my experience to make us all wish Inez had more to sing. The monks’ offstage “Miserere” in Act IV was downright heavenly, evidence of what those guys can accomplish when they’re not swashbuckling around shirtless, fighting with knives and spitting in each other’s faces, as they were obliged to do at other times.

TROVATORE_Cornetti_and_Alvarez_9001a.pngMarianne Cornetti as Azucena and Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico

The acting from all hands gave evidence of a bent towards melodrama. This is not out of place in Trovatore, of all operas, but many were the moments (“Ah sì, ben mio,” for example) when I felt the singers would give Verdi his due and us a better time if they’d stand and deliver in the old-fashioned way, instead of emoting like antsy banshees, losing their breath and tripping over their own feet.

The omission of nearly all cabaletta repeats implied a desire not so much to energize the occasion as to get it over with. That’s no way to do Trovatore; Trovatore must breathe.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico and Patricia Racette as Leonora [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore product_by=Leonora: Patricia Racette; Azucena: Marianne Cornetti; Manrico: Marcelo Álvarez; Count di Luna: Željko Lučić; Ferrando: Alexander Tsymbalyuk; Inez: Renée Tatum. Production by David McVicar. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Marco Armiliato. Performance of November 3. product_id=Above: Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico and Patricia Racette as Leonora

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:22 AM

November 7, 2010

Vocalists sing in BLO aria contest

By Sean Teehan [Boston Globe, 7 November 2010]

With pink and silver sequined dresses sparkling under the Shubert Theatre stage lights, four teenage singers introduced as The Sapete Sisters took turns singing into the microphone while the other three stood behind snapping fingers, bobbing up and down, and adding doo-wop harmonies.

Posted by Gary at 5:16 PM

Those foolish mortals are back, courtesy of Britten and the Bard

By John von Rhein [Chicago Tribune, 7 November 2010]

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Lyric Opera of Chicago is a bit slow to find its comic rhythm, the early scenes suggesting someone awakening from deep slumber who needs a jolt of black coffee before facing the day. But give it a chance. By the time the mismatched lovers are going at one other in full squabble mode, their senses hopelessly addled by Puck's magic herb, Benjamin Britten's delicate, otherworldly music has worked its wonders, the show comes alive and we are transported.

Posted by Gary at 5:14 PM

Shirley Verrett

[Telegraph, 7 November 2010]

Shirley Verrett, who died on November 5 aged 79, was a black opera star who during the 1960s and 1970s forged an independent-minded path through the barriers of race, religion and gender to establish herself as one of the most dramatic and powerful singers on the stage.

Posted by Gary at 5:10 PM

La Cenerentola, Minnesota Opera

However, true to Minnesota Opera fashion of exploring creative boundaries in time-honored operatic classics, this production successfully synthesized Rossini’s repetitive musical ideas with stylized, slightly buffo choreography, which brought life to an opera that too often becomes a boring museum relic. With this dash of whimsy, coupled with a stellar ensemble cast, even a fairy godmother couldn’t have concocted a more magical show!

Rossini’s music is notorious for its repetitive melodic material as he layers the orchestral texture with each succession. Stage director and choreographer, Doug Varone, uses this evolving musical medium as inspiration for his stage movement and choreography to further the drama throughout the opera. In his notes, he states, “Staging an opera is very similar to choreographing a dance. If it is done very well, movement ideas are wedded beautifully to the score and can be used to tell the story in much the same way a libretto does… By following my instinctive responses to the music, I allow myself to create a movement scenario that imaginatively brings this aural world to life.”

0885.gifDonato DiStefano as Don Magnifico

Varone wastes no time in bringing the magical world of Cinderella to life. From the overture downbeat, the curtain rises on a sleeping Cinderella in a dusty kitchen. The frantic rhythms in the orchestral texture highlight the busy day ahead for Cinderella as she hurriedly cleans the kitchen, prepares breakfast, and tries to ready her two comatose stepsisters for the day. The music of the overture is often completely bypassed or only partially staged, however in this production, we are allowed a unique look into Cinderella’s world, and are even more informed than we would have been if this additional staging were completely ignored.

Though this production was touted as Roxana Constantinescu’s (Angelina) American debut, Minnesota brought in many incredible headliners and supporting singers that truly allowed this ensemble opera to run seamlessly. A wonderful surprise came from MN Opera’s Resident Artists, Victoria Vargas (Tisbe) and Angela Mortellaro (Clorinda). Both performers embodied their buffa characters completely — Vargas maintained a lovely, full mezzo-tone in her vocal delivery, yet had wonderful physical comic timing, while Mortellaro allowed her voice to become slightly shrill in some of her recitatives to fully evoke her spoiled character.

4339.gifAngela Mortellaro as Clorinda, Roxana Constantinescu as La Cenerentola (Angelina) and Victoria Vargas as Tisbe

Roxana Constantinescu’s performance as Angelina will certainly open more doors for her in the states. Constantinescu has recently been performing in the Vienna Opera’s ensemble for the 2009-2010 season, singing roles such as Zerlina and Rosina. The role of Angelina has been part of her repertory since her debut at the Teatro Politeama di Lecce. Constatinescu played an endearing Angelina, highlighted by a warm, velvety tone full of connection and lyricism. Her performance of the lyric canzone “Una volta c'era un re” executed exquisite long lines coupled with impeccable phrasing. Her tour de force aria of Act II, “Nacqui all'affanno, al pianto,” shimmered with impeccable, perfectly rhythmic coloratura lines, no doubt influenced by her percussionist background. Unfortunately, her final high notes in the ensemble texture of Act II lacked warmth and finesse found in her lower lyric lines and coloratura. It was unclear whether Constatinescu was vocally exhausted by the demands of Act II, or felt she had to power over the ensemble.

John Tessier (Don Ramiro) had such honesty and simplicity in both his stage presence and his vocal ability. Tessier is certainly put to the test in his aria, “Si, ritrovarla io giuro.” As he sings of his love for this mystery woman, the prince’s valet entourage lifts him up to be undressed and re-dressed into his proper attire. This is all done, of course, as Tessier executes one flawless coloratura line after another, followed by crystal clear high C’s. Truly one of Varone’s more daring staging ideas, but Tessier made the whole ordeal seam like simple child’s play.

3755.gifRoxana Constantinescu as La Cenerentola (Angelina) and John Tessier as Don Ramiro

Daniel Mobbs (Alidoro) is the final surprise in this stellar ensemble cast. With a rich bass-baritone, Mobbs astounds with his flexible and incredibly accurate coloratura and command of the bel canto line. With an unshakeable stage presence, Mobbs seemed to command attention in each scene.

An attentive male chorus, executing complicated group staging throughout, rounded out the ensemble. Timing and Italian diction did seem to be sloppy at times, especially in the more parlando sections, but overall supported the scenes well. The Minnesota Opera Orchestra did especially well, determined to keep up with Maetro Christopher Franklin’s demanding tempi.

Sarah Luebke

image= image_description=Roxana Constantinescu as La Cenerentola (Angelina) [Photo by Michal Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera] product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Cinderella (La Cenerentola) product_by=La Cenerentola (Angelina), Don Magnifico's stepdaughter: Roxana Constantinescu; Don Ramiro, Prince of Salerno: John Tessier; Dandini, valet to Don Ramiro: Andrew Wilkowske; Don Magnifico, Baron of Monte Fiascone: Donato DiStefano; Clorinda, his daughter: Angela Mortellaro; Tisbe, his daughter: Victoria Vargas; Alidoro, tutor to Don Ramiro: Daniel Mobbs. Conductor: Christopher Franklin. Stage Director and Choreographer: Doug Varone. Set Designer: Erhard Rom. Costume Designer: James Schuette. Lighting Designer: Jane Cox. product_id=Above: Roxana Constantinescu as La Cenerentola (Angelina)

All photos by Michal Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:50 PM

Intermezzo, New York City Opera

I am not referring to the hectic happy marriage of Richard and Pauline Strauss, the model on which Strauss constructed Intermezzo, his portrait of the composer at home with the non-stop assault of his termagant wife accusing and blaming and admitting she’d find it dull to live with someone who didn’t fight back. I’m referring to the supremely happy marriage of artist and role (which, like any happy marriage, calls for luck and hard work) now on offer at the New York City Opera, where Mary Dunleavy has taken on the shrewish coloratura flights and turn-on-a-dime changes of mood that are Christine Storch.

Dunleavy’s honeyed voice resembles that of Renée Fleming before that grande dame became so affected and spoiled. I first heard Dunleavy’s sturdy lyric soprano as that roughest of dramatic coloratura workouts, Konstanze in Mozart’s Seraglio, and a woman who can handle Konstanze with credit can probably wrestle tigers. More recently she has been an admired Violetta (which I did not see). I wouldn’t have thought of Christine as a Dunleavy vehicle, perhaps because the part was created for the more opulent vocal charms of Lotte Lehmann, perhaps because the last time the City Opera presented it, the role was taken by Lauren Flanigan. Flanigan’s lyric skills were severely tested by the Strauss orchestra but her voice has a dangerous edge to it that made her an exciting Christine.

Intermezzo0043.gifMary Dunleavy as Christine Storch and Nicholas Pallesen as Robert Storch

Dunleavy lacks that edge, but her girlish qualities are stronger than they seem (as was probably also true of Pauline Strauss, for whom her husband wrote so many of his loveliest songs), and she has no problem riding the full blast of a lush orchestra. At moments of stress, a metallic sheen (very Strauss, very Jugendstil, like the gold slathered on a Klimt portrait) gleams through the instrumental texture, which argues not merely ability but craft: Dunleavy knows just how to slice through a heavy orchestra without putting herself under undue strain. Nor did it hurt that, with her marcelled hair and suave twenties costumes, her pert, imperious manner recalled the slangy heroines played by Myrna Loy and Jean Arthur. Add to this a balletic figure and a charm that almost persuades you Christine would be endurable, and you have the finest achievement of a singing actress on New York’s opera stages this fall.

Intermezzo is one of Strauss’s conversational operas—the Prologue to Ariadne and Die Schweigsame Frau are similar—in that, though the score is full of melody, the voice seldom flows into easy, relaxing song. This is a major reason for the opera’s rarity in non-German-speaking lands, but with Dunleavy’s lyricism joining the fragments of sprechstimme and endearment and tirade, I felt as I do with a good Handel or Verdi recitativo accompagnato, that this was more interesting, more full of character, than song would be. Strauss uses the same richly symphonic language for the mythic and grandiose (in operas like Die Frau ohne Schatten and the “operatic” portions of Ariadne auf Naxos) as he does for the day-to-day domesticity of the “Sinfonia Domestica” and Intermezzo. Perhaps he saw no difference between the mythic and day-to-day family discord. Today, with a flood of new operas loosed upon the world dealing with messy everyday lives, neglecting antique myth or historical pageant, perhaps Intermezzo will prove to have been a harbinger of a change in operatic style, just as Strauss’s Elektra was a harbinger of new musical looks at classical Greece.

Intermezzo0010.gifMary Dunleavy as Christine Storch and Andrew Bidlack as Baron Lummer

The other triumph, musically speaking, was the lush Strauss score as led by George Manahan, which swept the evening’s welter of events along like the ice skater’s waltz mimed (on in-line skates) in one of Intermezzo’s many locales without drowning the singers. Vocally, the entire cast seemed well chosen and on their toes, as Pauline Strauss (a terror to her housemaids) would no doubt have imperiously insisted. Nicholas Pallesen sang the not quite credible saintly Robert Storch—Strauss’s self-portrait—with suave dignity, though some stretching for high notes implied that he might not have handled a full-sized leading role so easily. Andrew Bidlack as the young parasitical baron that snobby Christine unwarily picks up showed a fine, easy lyric tenor one hopes to hear more of. Jessica Klein was a pleasure as the most put-upon of the maids. A debutante named Tharanga Goonetilleke gave the three lines of the Baron’s girlfriend a deep, sexy contralto throb that made everyone’s ears open wider.

The handsome, stage-smart production was by Leon Major. Andrew Jackness’s sets and Martha Mann’s costumes looked handsome and in period (which is early, respectable Weimar) without evidently straining the budget.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Mary Dunleavy as Christine Storch [Photo by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera] product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Intermezzo product_by=Christine Storch: Mary Dunleavy; Robert Storch: Nicholas Pallesen; Anna: Jessica Klein; Baron Lummer: Andrew Bidlack; Stroh: Erik Nelson Werner; Notary: Matthew Burns. New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by George Manahan. Performance of October 31. product_id=Above: Mary Dunleavy as Christine Storch

All photos by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera
Posted by Gary at 2:23 PM

Angelika Kirchschlager, German Lieder 1830-40 Wigmore Hall

Of course Lieder can be enjoyed on a superficial level as pure sound, but it’s infinitely more rewarding when intelligent interpretation brings out true depth.

There are celebrities of whom it’s said that opera fans think they’re Lieder singers, and Lieder fans think they’re opera singers. But not of Kirchschlager, who is superlative in both genres.

This was an unusual programme, far more difficult to carry off than might seem in theory. Instead of going for surefire hit material, Kirchschlager and Martineau chose material that showed how fertile German song writing was in the decade 1830-40. These are most certainly not “Victorian parlour songs” as they were written for sophisticated and intellectual audiences who knew the composers and poets well. Fanny Mendelssohn gave regular recitals at home, which were attended by the best minds in Berlin, and were so popular that the house was extended to cope with guests. Salons like these were the way artistic people converged. The Schubertiades were by no means unique.

Felix Mendelssohn’s songs about Spring are gloriously ecstatic, “Frühlingstrunknen Blumen”, (spring-intoxicated flowers) are not merely decorative but a metaphor for new life after hard times. Kirchschlager’s voice rises lithely, then dips sensuously round words like “Nun muss sich alles, alles wenden” (All things must change) Winter will return, but Mendelssohn embraces the moment of energy. Kirchschlager’s perception brought out the link between the Spring songs and the second set of Mendelssohn songs. Auf Flügeln des Gesanges(op 34/2), for example, is sensual. Then a real stroke of good programme planning. In Neue Liebe(op 19a/4), the queen of the elves appears and smiles enigmatically. Is it new love, or death?

This reinforces the meaning of Franz Paul Lachner’s Die badende Elfe. Most people have heard of Lachner in connection with Richard Wagner, who ousted him from Munich. Lachner’s song cycle Sängerfahrt op 33 dates from 1831-2 when he still lived in Vienna. While he was influenced by Schubert, whom he knew personally, Lachner’s songs evoke earlier traditions, for example the songs of Carl Zelter, who introduced Goethe to young Felix Mendelssohn.

There are some wonderful songs in Lachner’s Sängerfahrt, though Kirchschlager sang only four, probably wisely as some don’t suit female voice. But how she made a case for them ! Die badende Elfe came vividly to life, Martineau playing arpeggiations that sparkled as delicately as water and light. Kirchschlager’s timbre was clear, bright, almost trembling with excitement. A man spies a water nymph bathing in the moonlight. Since the poem is by Heine, expect deeper meanings. Kirchschlager shapes the phrase “Arm und Nacken, weiss und lieblich” sensually. What’s turning the poet on is implicit, especially since Lachner wrote the songs for his bride-to-be. Pure, chaste,but erotic.

it’s hard to forget Schumann’s Dichterliebe settings of Im Mai and Eine Liebe, but Kirchschlager did Lachner more than justice. I’ve heard three versions of these songs and thought I knew them well, but Kirchschlager’s a revelation. Her lucidity eclipses all else. Martineau’s playing, too, convinced me that modern piano isn’t necessarily a bar to freeing the energy in these songs. The explicitly Schubertian elements in Die einsame Träne might sound derivative, but Kirchschlager sings with conviction. The “falling tears” in the piano part work well because Martineau is light of hand and pedal.

Three of the Fanny Mendelssohn songs heard here come from her Op 1. They’re not early works, but the first published, which was a daring act for a woman of her status at that time. She was a pianist rather than a singer, so her songs give Martineau a chance to bring out their best qualities. In Schwanenlied,(op 1/1) for example, slow, graceful movement, and the ending dissolves mysteriously. The poet’s Heine, whom Fanny met and disliked, but the song captures the foreboding behind the shining surface. On the other hand, in Warum sind denn, die Rosen so blass, (op1/3) she replaces Heine’s “Leichenduft”(stink of a rotting corpse) with the word “Blümenduft”. (scent of flowers).

Kirchschlager and Martineau also chose Carl Loewe’s op 60 setting of the Chamisso poems Schumann made immortal in Frauenliebe und Leben. Here, Kirchschlager filled lines like “die Quelle der Freudigkeit” with such warmth that even the most fervent feminist could not doubt its sincerity. Martineau made much of the almost Brahmsian richness in the piano part, particularly lovely in An meinen Herzen. Since Brahms was at the time only three years old, it’s an indication of how significant Loewe was, and why the music of this decade, 1830-40 needs further assessment.

Loewe’s songs are vivid and imaginative. Two songs from his Vier Fabbelieder op 64 (1837) gave Kirchschlager a chance to show what a vivid character singer she can be, combining her opera experience with true Lieder singing. Der Kuckkuck uses the same Wunderhorn text that Mahler would set fifty years later. Thanks to Kirchschlager, Loewe’s cuckoo is funnier, even if the donkey cry, “Ija ! Ija!” isn’t quite so obvious. More of a challenge was the long strophic ballad, Der verliebte Maikäfer (Glow worm in Love). A foppish glow worm courts a fly but is too vain to see she can’t stand him. Nice growling sounds to create the lumpen bug, light sharp sounds for the fly. The punchline comes at the end, when the story changes - two (human) lovers are about to fool around at night. The story’s complicated, but Kirchschlager’s diction is so clear that meaning comes through even if you don’t know German. This is where her experience shows. She acts through her voice, expressively, never losing the sharp wit beneath the charm.

This concert was being recorded for future broadcast. If it’s released on CD, it will be a must for anyone seriously interested in Lieder.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Angelika Kirchschlager [Photo by Nikolaus Karlinsy]

product_title=Angelika Kirschlager, German Lieder 1830-40 Wigmore Hall — Songs by Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Memndelssohn, Franz Paul Lachner, Carl Loewe
product_by=Angelika Kirchschlager, Malcolm Martineau. Wigmore Hall London. 5th November 2010.
product_id=Above: Angelika Kirchschlager [Photo by Nikolaus Karlinsy]

Posted by anne_o at 1:59 PM

New Adriana Lecouvreur in London — Alessandro Corbelli

The whole cast is new to the opera. There's excitement backstage. Alessandro Corbelli speaks about the production in which he sings Michonnet.

“We are all making our debuts this time”, says Corbelli, who has many years of experience, and is well respected. “It’s new for all of us, the conductor (Mark Elder), the stars and the comprimario. Rehearsals started early for the prima on 18th November. “We’re all excited, everything is going well. And it’s set in period with period costumes”. The director is David McVicar and designs are by Charles Edwards.

Corbelli worked with Mark Elder in Linda di Chamounix in September 2009. “I know his way of working. He helps me extract the best from my voice and the character. Everything is based on the music. He knows the Italian language well, and even the different regional accents. That’s very unusual for a non-Italian conductor”.

“This is verismo, Cilea’s music comes from spoken language, very high notes for the soprano, Angela Gheorghiu”. Is Italian the language of music? “I hope so!” smiles Corbelli, whose reputation is built on extensive experience in Italian repertoire.

In Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Corbelli is singing Michonnet. “Michonnet is the Stage Manager at the Comédie-Française where Adriana is the star. So he has influence and is very involved in how the plot develops. He was Adriana’s teacher, so he knows her very well. He’s in love with her. He wants to show his feelings, but she confides in him that she’s in love with a young Saxon. Michonnet is wounded, but he’s sensitive and caring. He knows he’s much older than Adriana and wants her to be happy. He knows she’s depressed about her love affair. So even though he loves her, he tries to help her by sending a letter to Maurizio”.

“When Michonnet discovers that the Princess de Bouillon is in love with Maurizio, he knows the rivalry will be trouble. He wants to protect Adriana and keep her calm, but it doesn’t work. Adriana explodes with strong emotions. Then the poisoned violets come, and she dies”

“In my opinion”, adds Corbelli, “The Princess is young like Adriana. The Prince is much older and has affairs with other women. So when the Princess falls in love with Maurizio, she can’t stand competition. Michonnet is kind hearted. He’s a good man, but he cannot stop the tragedy”.

Since his debut at the early age of 22, Corbelli has become an outstanding exponent of bel canto and Mozart roles for baritone. He has sung in all the major opera houses, including La Scala since 1989, and The Metropolitan Opera, New York where he debuted in 1997. He is a regular at the Royal Opera House, London where most recently he sang Don Geronio in Il Turco in Italia and Sulpice in La Fille du Regiment. (Please read the respective reviews in Opera Today. here and here)

Next season, he’s singing Taddeo in Paris, Dulcamara in Munich, Don Alfonso in Vienna, Bartolo and Falstaff in Toulouse and Don Pasquale in Santiago de Chile. He’s booked until 2015.

Corbelli is celebrated as a character singer. The ease with which he creates such diverse roles indicates great acting skills. “They didn’t teach that when I was training”, he says. “But I’m always learning, on stage and by watching and listening to others. He’s created both Dandini and Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola, both Don Pasquale and Dr. Malatesta in Don Pasquale. “Of course, not at the same time!”, he bursts out laughing. Good character singing comes from wit and observation.

Anne Ozorio

For more information, please see the Royal Opera House website
Adriana Lecouvreur runs from 18th November to 10th December 2010 and stars Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Alessandro Corbelli, Michaela Schuster and Maurizio Muraro.

image_description=Alessandro Corbelli

product_title=New Adriana Lecouvrer in London — Alessandro Corbelli
product_by=An interview by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Alessandro Corbelli

Posted by anne_o at 1:00 PM

November 6, 2010

The Fan-dome of the Opera

By Richard Ouzounian [The Star, 6 November 2010]

For Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, his proudest moment recently came when he opened the New York Times on Oct. 9.

Posted by Gary at 11:32 AM

November 3, 2010

Overture to London’s Handel Festival 2011

The hour-long concert, catchily entitled “Castrati to Countertenors”, preceded the now-annual benefit Dinner which helps fund the following year’s London Handel Festival. As hors d’oeuvres, it must have been ideal — piquant orchestral playing combined with some fuller vocal flavours courtesy of the excellent London Handel Players (is there a finer small baroque band in this city?) and young countertenor Christopher Lowrey who deservedly won the Festival’s Michael Oliver Prize in 2010.

The programme consisted of the overtures to and well-known airs and arias from Saul and Rodelinda: “O Lord, whose mercies numberless”, “Impious wretch”, “Dove Sei, amato bene”, and “Vivi, tiranno!”, together with a scintillating performance of the meatier Concerto Grosso, Op. 3 No. 5 in D Minor (HWV 316), which showed off this small band’s command of colour, dynamic and pinpoint accents. The Players were led with real joie de vivre and musicality by their Musical Director Laurence Cummings from the harpsichord/keyboard. Young Lowrey, we were warned, was suffering from a chest infection but there was little sign of this (apart perhaps from some short-breathed lines and restrained ornamentation) in his performance as he offered some real drama combined with concise, accurate coloratura. He seemed most at home with the material from Rodelinda and this confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 at the Festival/Britten International Opera School production of Alessandro. He is an undoubted talent in the ever-increasing pool of excellent young countertenors graduating now.

The concert series continues this Autumn with the traditional Christmas-time Messiah on the 2nd December at St. George’s Hanover Square and in 2011 we can look forward to performances of Rodelinda (fully staged), Saul, the St Matthew Passion, Comus, the Magnificat and many other concerts and recitals — not forgetting the increasingly important Singing Competition Final in April. Full details can be found at the LHF’s web site.

Sue Loder © 2010

image= image_description=Laurence Cummings [Photo courtesy and copyright Sheila Rock] product=yes product_title=Overture to London’s Handel Festival 2011 product_by=Above: Laurence Cummings [Photo courtesy and © Sheila Rock]
Posted by Gary at 10:58 AM

A Carmen Cast to Strength: Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Revival

The principals are assuming their roles for the first time at Lyric, and the conductor Alain Altinoglu makes his house debut in these performances. Katherine Goeldner fits exceptionally well into the production as a dramatically convincing and vocally assured Carmen. Yonghoon Lee projects his alternately confused and devoted emotional state in a forthright depiction of Don José. Elaine Alvarez and Kyle Ketelsen make strong impressions as Micaëla and Escamillo respectively. A well chosen supporting cast from the Ryan Opera Center fulfills the lyrical and dramatic needs of this colorful panorama which ultimately ends in tragedy.

In his approach to the overture Altinoglu encouraged a light touch with effective, percussive elements used to give structural shape. As the curtain rises on a mixture of pale greys and browns -- bathed here in a bright, summery light -- the collected soldiers laze about until Michaëla enters in search of Don José. Moralès leads the men in playful banter with the shy woman: here Paul La Rosa uses his warm, lyrical baritone to good effect as a Moralès whose urging at first assures, then repels Micaëla. In the latter role Ms. Alvarez applies vibrato and liquid notes sensitively to express the feelings she wishes to communicate when she finally locates José. At his entrance Mr. Lee strikes a disciplined pose as both soldier and compatriot to the maiden who has come to search for him. Only gradually during this and the following act does Mr. Lee’s persona show the descent into a world ruled by passion, once he encounters and becomes obsessed with Carmen. As the tempting femme Katherine Goeldner performs her two well-known arias from Act I as a natural extension of the character’s personality. At the words “prends garde” (“beware”), Goeldner sings forte with a convincing dramatic and vocal poise, following this with piano lines that delineate further her seductive and playful attitude. When she repeats her warning, the line is sufficiently varied to command the attention of a transfixed Don José, with Goeldner concluding on a dramatic top note. As the stage is then transformed by red illumination, José’s infatuation is -- in this production -- perhaps all too pointedly revealed to the audience. Ms. Goeldner’s seguidilla later in Act I is sung with equal assurance and admirable attention to linear detail. Despite the appeals so fervently delivered by the Micaëla of Ms. Alvarez, José is ultimately distracted to the point of assisting in Carmen’s escape.

The second and following acts of Lyric Opera’s Carmen make use of a set modified from the first act with altered lighting and effective placement of props. As Frasquita and Mercédès Jennifer Jakob and Emily Fons are exuberant foils to Goeldner’s Carmen, all three giving a sultry impression as they sing and cavort in ensembles. Perhaps most striking in this and subsequent acts is the image created for Escamillo by Kyle Ketelsen. His “Votre Toast” [(“Your toast”), Toreador Song] is a model of declamation, extended lyrical line, and an even projection from secure bass notes to a ringing, exciting top. Mr. Ketelsen’s experience in this role is further evident in the dramatic, convincing ease with which he projects both swagger and the need for adulation. As the rival for Carmen’s interest Mr. Lee soon pays what he presumes to be a brief visit to the gypsy camp. In his aria “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” (“The flower which you threw to me”) Lee invests piano notes with sincerity and tenderness, yet the descriptive and dramatic portions of the aria show an overuse of forte singing. His revised commitment to the camp of smugglers is complete until Micaëla returns to seek him out in the third act. Ms. Alvarez gives an accomplished performance of Micaëla’s prayer-like aria in Act III, her tendency to shade lyrical phrases alternating touchingly with urgent pleas for divine help. Again, it is the Toreador whose melody ends the act and prepares the audience for a final scene of celebration and violence. In that last, brief act Mr. Lee’s desperate tone as Don José are appropriate to his character’s mental state, something which Goeldner’s Carmen refuses to take seriously until, tragically, too late.

Salvatore Calomino

image= image_description=Katharine Goeldner as Carmen and Yonghoon Lee as Don José [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Georges Bizet: Carmen product_by=Carmen: Katharine Goeldner; Don José: Yonghoon Lee; Micaëla: Elaine Alvarez; Escamillo: Kyle Ketelsen; Zuniga: Craig Irvin; Frasquita: Jennifer Jakob; Mercédès: Emily Fons; Dancaïre: Paul Scholten; Remendado: René Barbera; Moralès: Paul La Rosa. Chicago Children's Chorus. Josephine Lee: Artistic Director. Alain Altinoglu: Conductor. Harry Silverstein: Stage Director. Robin Don: Set Designer. Robert Perdziola: Costume Designer. Jason Brown: Lighting Designer. Chorus Master: Donald Nally. Choreographer & Ballet Mistress: August Tye. product_id=Above: Katharine Goeldner as Carmen and Yonghoon Lee as Don José [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
Posted by Gary at 9:31 AM

Marcela Pavia — An Interview

She has made the journey back to the “old country”, having first studied with Donatoni in Siena, and then established herself permanently in Italy, although like most contemporary composers, she is no stranger to the inside of a jet, with an international presence in Europe, the United States and South America. We spoke via Skype on February 22, 2010.

TM: Where did you grow up? Was there music in your family?

MP: I was born in Argentina, and grew up there and studied there, at the University of Rosario. I also studied with two Argentinean masters, one from Rosario, Dante Grela, and the other from Buenos Aires, Francisco Kröpfl. With regard to my family, there are no musicians, but my mother studied philosophy, so she has a cultural background in the humanities.

TM: Was the family originally from Rosario?

MP: I was born in Rosario. My parents were from Argentina, but almost all my grandparents were from Italy. They met in Argentina. They were almost all from northern Italy. I belong to a second generation of Argentineans. I was able to have Italian citizenship, without losing my Argentinean citizenship, because my father’s father never lost his Italian citizenship. There is an agreement between Argentina and Italy.

TM: Where in northern Italy did the families come from?

MP: The father of my father, from Piemont. The mother of my mother, from Piedmont. And I think my father’s mother was also from Piedmont. There was only one who came originally from south Italy.

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

MP: We listened to classical music, and my father listened to a lot of jazz. When I was a teenager I discovered progressive rock and roll. At that moment I started to study music seriously. I had been studying music since I was a child, but as a hobby. It was as a teenager that I started to do it more seriously.

TM: Had you started with the piano?

MP: No, I had started with the accordion. Then I went on to study flute and guitar. And I finally I started piano when I began to study composition.

TM: You mentioned jazz and progressive rock. Was there also tango in Rosario?

MP: At that time, when I was a teenager, tango was part of history, there were people who listened to it, but not young people. Young people at that time were devoted to rock ― progressive rock, like me, and that was a minority; commercial rock, and there were a lot of people who liked that; and the people who were politically on the left were connected with folk music, but folk music that was reworked and mixed together with rock. I also liked that sort of fusion of rock and folk music.

TM: What would be an example of a group that played that kind of music?

MP: There was a group called Arco-Iris (which means “rainbow”). One of the leaders of the group was Gustavo Santaolalla ― he is now in the United States, in Los Angeles, I believe. Another important member, who continued to do music, was Ara Tokatlian.

TM: What progressive rock groups were exciting for you as a teenager?

MP: I liked Jethro Tull, and especially the LPs which were conceived as a single work, like Thick as a Brick, or The Dark Side of the Moon, or Tommy. It was not by chance that I liked progressive rock and then became devoted to classical music, because progressive rock was based on classical music ― it was very orchestral. Thick as a Brick, for example, is a mix of rock and baroque music, and it’s a very successful mix. I could listen to it today with a lot of pleasure.

TM: I listened to it myself in the United States in the 1970s, and I think that music is almost unknown today. It has fallen into oblivion in some respects.

MP: Yes, and it was not replaced by something better, really.

TM: When did you start to study composition?

MP: In 1980, when I was at the university already. I studied at the university and at the school of music ― I did both, up to a moment when I decided that I would stay with composition, because it was very difficult to do both things. I started with anthropology, and then three years of biochemistry, and always doing composition at the same time.

TM: Had you been playing pop music as an adolescent?

MP: Yes, when I was in Rosario, we had a group of friends, and we played and did some concerts. We did the arrangements. It was a very nice experience, but it was difficult to go on, because we all had different ideas regarding what we wanted to do with our lives. The only one who is now devoted to music professionally is me.

TM: Your university study was also in Rosario. Could you say a little about the culture of Rosario? Rosario, if I am not mistaken, is the third largest city in Argentina.

MP: Second or third. It belongs to the same cultural zone as Buenos Aires. In fact, it is very near to Buenos Aires by Argentinean standards, which are very different from European ones. For us, 300 km is close by. Rosario’s culture is very similar to Buenos Aires, but with many fewer possibilities, since by comparison Buenos Aires is much larger. It’s everything. The other cities get the leftovers ― this is the problem with Argentina.

Rosario had a movement in contemporary music which was very important, because of the composer Dante Grela, who led a school in the sense that most of the composers who are active and well-known today were pupils of Dante Grela. Rosario was important from this point of view. It was also important because in the seventies there was a big moment for rock music ― I belonged to that moment for a while ― and there were a lot of rock and pop musicians who went on to become famous in Argentina. Most of them went to Buenos Aires, but they were originally from Rosario.

TM: There are also some important literary figures who are based in Rosario ― Angelica Gorodischer, if I am not mistaken.

MP: Yes, I know here by name, and she has a son who was a friend of a friend of mine. The world is very small.

TM: Please talk about how you came to study composition, and whom you studied with.

MP: I came to Italy, because I came to the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, and at that time the composer giving the master course was Franco Donatoni. I arrived in Siena in 1991 to do the summer master-course with Donatoni. It was something that changed my life, because I decided to move to Italy. I already had Italian citizenship, and so after I went back to Argentina, first I had a residency in the United States, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and then went to Italy in 1992 to live. I went to the Chigiana for a second year, and then continued studying with Donatoni.

TM: Please say a little about your teachers in Argentina.

MP: In Rosario, there was Dante Grela, and in Buenos Aires, Francisco Kröpfl. Kröpfl is known outside Argentina since he was on the jury for the Bourges competition and in the Venice Biennale and so on.

TM: What was your musical language like before you studied with Donatoni?

MP: Contemporary, absolutely contemporary, because both Grela and Kröpfl came Juan Carlos Paz. Juan Carlos Paz was the one who introduced the Vienna School ― Schoenberg, Berg and Webern ― to Argentina. From him the contemporary music movement in Argentina was born. We all come from Juan Carlos Paz, in a way.

TM: To return to Italy, please talk about study with Donatoni, and the works you were writing as a student of his.

MP: Studying with Donatoni was very important because it led to a change in the way that I was writing. At that time, he did not teach technique ― he assumed that had already been done by his pupils. I was particularly interested in his esthetics, as I very much liked his music. It was very useful for me, because, in my experience, an analytical approach prevailed. In Argentina, the musical experience in the academic world is very different because each university or conservatory may have its own curriculum, unlike in Italy, where the state mandates examinations that are the same for everyone. If you study in the conservatory in Turin, the examination to conclude your studies will be more or less the same as the examination at the conservatory in Cagliari. Things are centralized. In Argentina, it’s different, because each conservatory or university is free to design its own curriculum, and the curriculum must then be approved by the Ministry of Education. I studied at the School of Music of the University of Rosario, and the School had an historical and stylistic approach. In the first year of composition, we studied the Middle Ages, and Gregorian chant. We started at the beginning of Western music. Then we went to polyphony, to Baroque, to Classical music, and so on. And by the end one would arrive at the twentieth century. This was the approach in Rosario. Other universities and conservatories had different approaches. What I realized about the Argentinean approach, when I arrived in Italy, was that it was very analytical. This is very useful in the moment of analysis, but it’s not useful for everybody.

With Donatoni I learned the importance of the gesture. The gesture could be the first idea of a piece, the strong idea, and could be defined in all its aspects, so the gesture means that you see everything ― this means the rhythm, the pitches, the dynamics. Then you let the gesture evolve over time. This was very useful for me, because at that moment I could put together the poetical ideas that very often are the thing that impels me to write music. The strong idea that you have inside is the only thing that gives character to the music. When you don’t have a strong idea or concept ― you can call it whatever you want ― the material is indifferent. It is only the strong idea, the one which moves you, which makes the material lose its neutrality. At that moment the material becomes significant. This is one approach to composition; there are other approaches that put the accent on the parametrical way of composing (I am talking about the process of composition),

TM: One can think of composers who are capable of elaborating the original material, but unfortunately the original material is mediocre. And if the original impulse does not grab you, the final product is fated to be not worth listening to.

MP: Yes, because it becomes simply a matter of technique, like an academic examination. Sometimes these things are noticeable, because one thing is simply the same as the next. A piece may be simply a way to demonstrate how to work with parameters in an analytical way, which is something that I don’t like, or the music can be a means, an instrument for expressing ourselves. It’s a way of expressing something significant.

TM: Could you tell me what piece would be your opus one, the point at which you moved from being a student to being a creative artist?

MP: In general I can say that I really started writing music here, in Italy.

TM: Could you talk about a particular piece in more detail?

MP: Yes. There is a piece from that period, Nayla, for flute, which is on my website. It is still receiving many performances, although by now it is a very old piece. It’s a piece which I still appreciate.

TM: What was the genesis of this work? Was it commissioned by a particular performer?

MP: No, it was written when I was studying with Donatoni in Milan, and was not written at the request of a performer. It is a very difficult piece, and requires considerable study. The idea was to use very, very few effects or extended techniques. I liked the notion (which is a very Donatonian idea) that the new sound of something could come from the way of writing it. The same elements, combined in a different way, could produce a very, very different result. For example, if you use an instrument, and make them play all the time in a very high register, it will not be recognizable by the public or by the listener. Perhaps you may not use unusual effects at all, but the usual technique of the instrument, not extended techniques, but normal techniques. Even with normal techniques we can make sound textures, even with only one instrument, that can produce a different acoustical result. In Nayla, there are moments where you think that there are two instruments rather than one, because of the linear polyphony. That is the strong idea of the piece, which is very difficult because it must be played as fast as possible. The velocity is important in order to produce this result. The velocity is another element which could absolutely change the way in which you perceive something. A very simple example: you have a melody, with two notes which are not very far separated in time. If they are not far separated in time, they are related to each other ―they are a melody. But if you put them very far away from each other in time, they are no longer a melody. And if you put them very near, you no longer hear two notes, but you hear a timbre. Here we are speaking of only two elements, and just notes. With the same elements you can produce a very different result ― if you know how to handle them. Kröpfl was my master in this analytical approach; Donatoni was my master in how to apply it.

TM: Could you please talk about a more recent piece?

MP: I will talk about Pain is not linear. This piece is representative of one of my areas of interest, which is working with resonance. I have also worked with this in my works for guitar, which has the possibility of producing sympathetic resonance. With the piano I use the possibilities of the tonal pedal to produce these resonances. In this work the strong idea is that deep feelings, like pain, do not follow linear paths. No psychological process follows a linear path. The form of the piece is not linear, because there is something that always comes back. There are resonances centered on the A at the beginning, and they come back in the form of harmonics or in other ways. In addition to the resonance, there is another way of working which I do not use all the time, but many times, which is the idea that the material of the whole piece is concentrated at the beginning. It is a very difficult piece, which was commissioned by the American pianist Thomas Rosenkranz after he heard Nayla.

TM: Perhaps you could talk about your works for guitar. It seems like in a certain sense the language for Fideal is more Latin American.

MP: I have written purely Argentinean music, or a fusion between Argentinean and contemporary music, or between contemporary music and other styles. Fideal is contemporary. Malambo is a fusion between contemporary music and an Argentine folk rhythm, a dance, and the name of this dance is malambo. At the beginning the guitar is used as a percussive instrument and the rhythm of the malambo becomes clear.

TM: Now that you are in Italy, do you continue to be concerned with Argentinean national expression? Are you an Italian composer? Or both?

MP: Contemporary music is a mirror, a good mirror, of globalization, which most of the time I think is not a good thing. But contemporary music is a kind of language that really goes beyond borders, and so a contemporary composer who comes from Italy is not so different from a contemporary composer who comes from Mexico, or from Argentina, because we have a common ancestry. To this common background we add other things, so in addition to being a contemporary composer, I have a background of folk music from Argentina. Even if you listen to a Japanese composer ― Toru Takemitsu ― there is no difference between his approach to contemporary music and elsewhere. Each composer has his own esthetics, but the differences between them are not very great in comparison with the differences that you find in popular cultures. Popular characteristics are much more marked, are much more evident than the differences between individual composers of contemporary music.

That being said, in the United States, and in American festivals in Italy, there is much more diversity between contemporary composers. You may find someone who writes in a neo-classical way, or a rhythmic/folk-related way, or using a mix of everything ― in Italy it is not like that. And generally also in Argentina ― being contemporary means a certain esthetic.

TM: Would you like to talk about new pieces for this year and next?

MP: I am writing a piece for a chamber orchestra from Florence. I am also working on a piece for guitar and electronics that belongs to a larger project which will become a whole concert for guitar and electronics. I have also just finished a piece for an Argentinean guitarist which will be performed in Argentina.

I am traveling quite a lot. In June I have a concert in Chicago because I have been in contact with the CUBE ensemble there, but I think I will not be able to go because at the beginning of July I have to be in New York for the premiere of a piece that I wrote for the Duo Quaranta-Sei for violin and guitar. On July 7 they will play the piece, and then there will be a panel with me and many others. The composers featured by Duo 46 are a German composer whose name is Michael Quell, Jack Fortner, and Jorge Liderman, an Argentine composer who lived in the United States and died sometime ago.

In July I will be in the Soundscape Festival, an American festival which is held here in Italy, and I will be the faculty member, so I will have to be there until the end of July. In August I may have to go to Finland for another concert, and in October we have a festival in Argentina, so I will be there.

TM: Very busy!

MP: I am tired already…

image= image_description=Marcela Pavia product=yes product_title=An Interview with Marcela Pavia product_by=By Tom Moore product_id=Above: Marcela Pavia
Posted by Gary at 9:10 AM

November 2, 2010

Wexford Festival Opera 2010

The Festival was extended from last year’s slightly reduced calendar to fifteen cram-packed days, the afternoon ‘Short Works’ programme was restored, and staged at the recently-refurbished, hyper-swish White’s Hotel — evoking memories of previous shows at the former ‘White’s Barn’, with queues of eager locals snaking down the narrow Wexford streets. The main productions were complemented by a diverse Fringe programme, and the 2010 seemed to offer something for everyone, from international opera aficionado to Wexford schoolchild.

Indeed, the uniformly strong casts, excellent orchestral playing and typically warm hospitality might have made one forget the backdrop of national austerity and frugality against which this improbable but uplifting Festival is mounted. Almost, but not quite. Built on the back of a seemingly buoyant economic outlook and fully justified operatic ambition, when it opened in 2008 Wexford’s stunning new opera house promised not only improved access, comfort and auditory richness, but also more opulent and adventurous stagings. However, while traditionally a forum for repertoire commonly classified as rare, unknown or unjustly languishing, this year quite understandable commercial pressures seem to have compelled Wexford to it play safe, offering lower-risk, even ‘child-friendly’ productions. Well-staged and enjoyable such shows may be, but a lack of ‘edge’ was palpable; and not all of this year’s repertory seemed entirely apt for a Festival which has spent sixty years establishing an idiosyncratic ‘niche’ in the international opera world.

Moreover, economic expediency has encouraged (forced?) artistic director David Agler to build on the relationship with Opera Theatre of St. Louis which was initiated by last year’s staging of The Ghosts of Versailles: two of this year’s productions have a link with St. Louis, and one imagines that there may be more co-productions in the years ahead.

Smetana’s Hubičke (‘The Kiss’) will be performed at St. Louis in 2012. A fairy-tale village romance, tinged with darkness — albeit of the faint, easily-dispatched kind — Smetana’s opera is a tuneful, folk-inspired affair seldom heard outside the composer’s native land, but previously staged at Wexford in 1984.

Following the death of his wife, Lukáš finds himself free to marry his childhood sweetheart, Vendulka. However, despite the qualified approval of her father, Paloucký Otec (who fears that the two lovers share a stubborn temperament which will jeopardise their happy union), and her own willingness to become a loving mother to Lukaš’ child, Vendulka is possessed by a powerful ethical impulse which drives her to refuse Lukáš’ kiss until after their marriage — thereby impelling her drunken ‘fiancée’ to seek solace in the open arms of the village tavern coquettes. Faced with such inconstancy, Vendulka determines to join a gang of local smugglers — as one would … Reprimanded by his brother, Tomeš, a repentant Lukáš’ vows to beg for Vendulka’s forgiveness. His promises are overheard by Matouš, the leader of the contrabands, who passes on the good news to Vendulka. Reassured, she eventually relaxes her stringent demands — only to find herself the victim of Lukáš’ own ‘moral integrity’, as he withholds, infuriatingly but only temporarily, his kiss.

Michael Gielata’s production, with sets by James Macnamara, somewhat gauchely recreates an ‘innocent’ rural world: strikingly green grass is skirted by an arching, panelled cyclorama which serves to hint at both domestic interior and forest enclave, effectively separating the intimate spaces from the open village milieu. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting juxtaposes vibrant oranges and cool blues, at times a rather simplistic reflection of day and night, but also effectively dramatising the abrupt changes of emotion as the central pair of lovers lurch from fervent passion to bitter alienation and back again.

Potentially there is much to appeal, musically, dramatically and visually; but there were several problems with this production. First, the costumes by Fabio Toblini were an odd mix of the formal and rustic: why were the men’s strictly knotted ties and smart business suits juxtaposed with the rural head-scarves, floral dresses and agricultural boots of the women? Moreover, this may be a ‘simple tale’, but that doesn’t mean that choreography is superfluous: yet, in the absence of any meaningful stage direction, the chorus floundered, lingering redundantly in straggly lines, clutching plastic sunflowers, or struggling to control giant strings of slippery smuggled sausages.

Fortunately, the singing was more engaging, not least the Vendulka of South African soprano, Pumeza Matshikiza, who may be a little unpolished, but who possesses a fresh open tone, and sincere dramatic commitment. She earnestly conveyed the honesty and fierce independence of the zealous peasant girl, and the Act 1 lullaby, when Vendulka vows to nurture Lukaš’ motherless child, truly touched the audience’s heart. As Lukaš, Slovak tenor Peter Berger - first passionate, then petulant, finally penitent — confidently strode the stage and easily dealt with the demands of the role, powerfully and clearly projecting to the far reaches of the auditorium. Mezzo-soprano Eliška Weissová was an assured Martinka (Vendulka’s adventurous aunt, who entices her into a smuggler’s career), focused and warm, avoiding stereotype; Russian soprano Ekaterina Bakanovà soared with clarity and conviction as Barče, the Maid who dreams of the freedom of the skylark; American bass Bradley Smoak was strong in the cameo role of Matouš. The only ‘weak link’ was BJiri Pribyl, as Vendulka’s father: an acclaimed young bass, he was perfectly adequate vocally, but his caricature of the aging patriarch — stooping, shuffling and posturing — was reminiscent of the worst of amateur dramatics.

The coordination between stage and pit was not always perfect, but conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink drew fine playing from his band, not least from the woodwind section, whose oboes and bassoons deftly recreated a folk ambience.

Sadly, despite spinning many an appealing melody, Smetana does not sustain conflict and momentum, and this production struggled to create sufficient dramatic energy in Act 2. Lukáš’ final ‘trick’ is over before one knows it, and there is no musical complement for the brief dramatic discomfort when he unsettles his betrothed by mimicking her own conscience-driven restraint. Overall, this was a pleasant enough evening on the ear, but presented little to convince one of the enduring merits of the work.

The second of the St. Louis collaborations was Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The story is comfortingly familiar — the composer and the librettist, Donald Sturrock, have essentially stuck to Dahl’s narrative — but the idiom is more disconcerting: for this work does not really know whether it wants to be opera, music theatre or pantomime.

Ash’s score assembles and arranges snatches recalling an array of twentieth-century composers, from Britten to Bernstein, Ravel to Sondeim. In Act 1, the woodwind/brass-dominated ensemble presents some punchy, percussive rhythms and textures, creating energy and pace as Charlie’s search for one of the five ‘Golden tickets’, which will allow him to enter Wonka’s fabulous factory of confectionary delights, becomes ever more desperate. Tender string solos add a sentimental touch. But, in Act 2 the score descends into schmaltzy mawkishness; flattened sevenths and rising appoggiaturas convey thwarted yearning, leaping major sevenths suggest worthy aspirations — all the ‘tricks of the Broadway trade’ are employed as Ash creates a syrupy orchestral slush. As the children journey through the factory’s secret chambers, the music abandons any dramatic pretensions and becomes simply a backdrop of assorted colours and flavours.

The purely decorative ‘busyness’ of the score creates additional difficulties: for while the singers tried hard to make themselves heard above the hectic textures — as conductor Timothy Redmond urged his brass section to ever greater brashness — even the amplified soprano of Michael Kepler Meo, as Charlie, was lost at times. Moreover, the amplification presented its own problems, as phrases which began in the lower register were entirely inaudible but frequently climbed to ear-piercingly strident climaxes.

Perhaps the inaudibility doesn’t matter too much, as Sturrock’s libretto is rather bland, drawing on Dahl’s own ‘Horrible Rhymes’ but not quite matching their disturbing surprises. Set to music, Dahl’s startling rhyming juxtapositions are watered down, and the lines lose their rhythmic bite. An incessant string of rhyming couplets offers little to shock — Augustus Gloop loves “indulging/see how my fat tummy’s bulging”; and “Nasty Veruca’s such a brute/We’ve thrown her down the rubbish chute”. The children have temper tantrums (“Daddy, I want one of those — Now!”) and, Disney-style, are comforted that all will be well if they just “close their eyes and imagine”.

One certainly could not accuse the cast of lack of commitment and there were some very fine performances, not least from bass-baritone Wayne Tigges in the prime role of Willa Wonka-Mr Know (the latter — Wonka’s alter ego who gently guides Charlie towards his destiny — being the creators’ only significant addition to Dahl). Tigges’ strong, buoyant bass and engaging stage presence provided a much-needed musical and dramatic focus. Of Charlie’s four grandparents, only Grandpa Joe is really distinguished from the other ancient, bedridden crones, and American tenor Frank Kelley successfully communicated Joe’s grandfatherly affection and still-youthful, lively wit. Enjoying their caricatures, the other geriatrics also doubled as the children’s grisly parents: Bradley Smoak (in the third of his four Wexford incarnations) was a convincingly indulgent Mr Beauregard; Canadian mezzo soprano Leslie Davis doubled as Mike Teavee’s hapless mother; and Irish soprano Miriam Murphy displayed a pure, ringing tone in Mrs Gloop’s long lines of despair as her Bunter-esque boy was swallowed by the confectionary canal.

There’s always a risk that adults playing petulant, pouting children will fail to convince, but here all four singers — all from across the Pond — gave persuasive, engaging performances. Soprano Kiera Duffy, as the gum-chewing cowgirl, Violet Beauregard, and mezzo soprano Abigail Nims, as the obnoxious spoilt Brat, Veruca Salt, were credibly appalling, rising to the vocal challenges of their respective roles with aplomb. American tenor nOah Stewart rolled convincingly around the stage, as the spherical chocoholic, Augustus Gloop. As commando-costumed, machine-gun slinging Mike Teavee, David Trudgen, a Canadian countertenor, startled with the power and precision of his striking coloratura flourishes and stratospheric runs, creating a disturbing vision of what a passion for violent video games and an obsession with TV-fame can do to a young boy.

Kepler Meo was an engaging Charlie — innocent, imaginative, curious, and justly rewarded with the keys to Wonka’s weird domain. His ‘apotheosis’ was superb — the never-before-pressed ‘Up and Away’ button lifting Charlie and Wonka aloft on the power of their dreams — but was unfortunately followed by an anti-climactic reunion scene, in which Charlie’s grandparents voiced their reluctance to leave the bed where they have resided for fifty years (visual echoes, perhaps, of Beckett’s Nagg and Nell, ensconced in their dustbins?) and Charlie yearned to tell Mr Know all about his adventures. Charlie may dream of sparkling blue balls which metamorphose into delicate pink birds perched on the end of one’s tongue, but The Golden Ticket ends in more mundane fashion.

Bruno Schwengl’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are clever without being overly complex, and visually entertaining without being wearisome: projections of swirling Smarties and whizzing lollipops capture the zany weirdness of Wonka’s world; snaking chocolate rivers and exploding human-blueberries infer a hint of dark humour; garish colours and gaudy fabrics highlight the tasteless coarseness of the over-indulged youngsters. Props and stage furniture were pushed on and off by stage hands — remember you have to use your imagination to transform the ordinary to the fantastical …

Yet, despite the vocal prowess of the cast and the creativity of design team, this work fails to fully ensnare its audience, young or old, for it is not entirely sure if there is real danger in the darkness or whether it’s all just good old harmless fun. Despite its ‘happy ending’, Dahl’s novel leaves us wondering just what does happen to children who drown in chocolate rivers or disappear into the juicing machine … children are amused by the brutal nastiness and comforted by the slick neatness of the ending, but adults remain alarmed by the vicious violence. However, Ash and Sturrock dispel all doubts and fears: Act 2 begins with a chorus of Oompa Loompas reassuring us that, despite the cruel events which are about to unfold before us, no real harm will come to the children whom we see punished for their avarice and gluttony.

There is more genuine maliciousness and menace in Hansel and Gretel. Here we are presented with a simple moral fable, illustrating the dangers of materialism and consumerism — modern perils which make you fat, bad and dangerous to know. Man can only be saved by the power of his imagination; unfortunately there was not quite enough imagination at work here to genuinely bewitch us.

Undoubtedly pre-eminent among this year’s productions was Mercadante’s Virginia. Although musically unexceptional — the composer was drawing on styles and conventions which were already out-of-date when the opera was premiered in 1866 — the recitative-aria-cabaletta format certainly satisfies one’s expectations without ever quite taking one’s breath away. Mercadante knew how to please the crowds, and this was a musically and theatrically appealing performance, well-paced by conductor Carlos Izcaray who coaxed a rich palette of textures and colours from the talented and responsive Festival orchestra led by Fionnuala Hunt.

Drawn from Livy’s History of Rome, Cammarano’s libretto dramatises the animosity which existed between patricians and plebeians in the early days of the Roman Empire. Appio Claudio has issued an edict forbidding marriage between the two classes, only to find himself enamoured by Virginia, the daughter of a plebeian soldier. Initially consumed with self-disgust, Appio is unable to resist her charms and sends his murderous henchman, Marco, to bribe and seduce Virginia, and to ‘remove’ Ilicio whom, inconveniently, Virginia loves. Failing in his mission, Marco constructs a tale, before the Forum, that Virginia was born to one of his slaves, and is thus his own possession. Before she is handed over to her new master, her father, Virginio, asks for one final embrace with his daughter — a request that, with mock generosity, Appio grants. Virginio draws his dagger and stabs Virginia, who dies declaring that in granting her death rather than dishonour, Virginio has proved himself to be her true father. Appalled by his abuse of power, the crowd fall upon Appio.

Director Kevin Newbury has chosen to focus on the political overtones of the work, juxtaposing the grand arenas of patrician public life — the business and pleasures of State and Church — with a humble domestic kitchen, the heart of the plebeian private dwelling.

However, Newbury’s conception is not entirely clear at the start. We begin, apparently, at a raucous Roman festival, the arena ornamented with black marble and gilded lions: the chorus, somewhat disconcertingly, are decorated with gaudy Carnivalesque face-paint and entertained by three almost-naked dancing cherubs, the latter’s blushes saved merely by some judiciously hung clusters of golden grapes. The licentiousness is interrupted by the arrival of the Mafiosi, suitably menacing in sharp suits and shades, before we are transported to a 1980s kitchen in which the devoutly religious Virginia mourns the death of her mother. It only subsequently becomes evident that what seemed like a gratuitous excuse for on-stage male nudity and debauchery was in fact a fancy-dress party. However, once the confusing anachronisms have been explained, things move entertainingly along; and this is due in no small part to outstanding performances from all three principals.

For the role of the eponymous tragic heroine, Virginia requires a soprano of considerable power and stamina, able to sustain long, flexible bel canto lines and to rise deftly to vertiginous heights, retaining lightness throughout the extensive decorations. Although she made her professional debut just two years ago, American Angela Meade is a dramatically assured and technically accomplished performer; she displayed outstanding flexibility throughout the protracted ornamental flourishes, astounding athleticism, and delicate sweetness even at the very top of her range. Her breath control was superb: Virginia is a long, taxing sing, but Meade was clear and strong in the final scene, scarcely taxed by the excessive demands of the preceding three acts. Possessing an easy grace on stage, she will surely be greatly in demand in the nineteenth-century bel canto repertoire.

Moreover, Mercadante’s opera requires not one tenor but two, and Wexford was fortunate in both Ivan Magrì and Bruno Ribeiro, who delivered the goods, high notes ringing true. Slim, handsome and athletic, both looked the part too. Portuguese Ribeiro’s tone is the more ardent, and his representation of the impulsive, temperamental Icilio was exciting and engaging. Sicilian Magrì had no trouble adopting the strut and swagger of a mafioso thug, and he was ably abetted by Italian Gianluca Buratto as his henchman, Marco, whose booming bass struck just the right note of menace and bluster. As Virginia’s father, Virginio, Canadian baritone Hugh Russell presented a credible account of paternal devotion and despair, but was a little woolly in tone and employed a wide, continuous vibrato which diminished the dramatic variety and nuance. Irish soprano Marcella Walsh (Tullia) and American tenor John Myers (Valerio) completed the strong line up. The chorus, although a little ragged in the opening scene, tightened up as the action progressed and produced some thrilling dramatic singing in the later ensemble scenes.

Complementing the three main productions, Wexford mounted three ‘Short Works’. These afternoon performances have, in various years, taken the form of either seldom-performed short operas, lasting perhaps 60-90 minutes, or ‘potted operas’; that is, reduced versions of well-known full-scale works: the former appeal to the devotee eager to sample the rarely-heard, while the latter attract members of the local community eager for to experience renowned operas for the first-time. This year we were presented with both approaches: Pergolesi’s witty, one-act La serva padrona; Puccini’s evergreen La bohème; and a new work, Winners, with libretto and score by American composer Richard Wargo, based on the first part of Brian Friel’s play, Winners and Losers.

Director Roberto Recchia took charge of the first two offerings. La serva padrona began its life as a humble intermezzo, presented between the acts of a serious opera, although it is now best remembered for having triggered the famous Querelle des Bouffons in 1752 between supporters of the French comic style and promoters of the new lively Italian school. Drawing on centuries of comic theatrical conventions — from intermezzo, through commedia dell’arte, opera buffa and incorporating farce à la Chaplin — Recchia certainly made the most of the semi-theatrical, play-within-a-play origins of the work. In the mute acting role of Vespone, he began proceedings with a fifteen-minute spoken preamble which, in the absence of surtitles provided a useful introduction to the plot, but which also incorporated improvisations on the merits and demerits of the mobile ‘phone and the exigencies of health and safety legislation. Though brilliantly, effortlessly carried off, what was initially surprising and amusing, did become a little wearing — designed perhaps to divert the audience’s attention from the fact that the opera is itself only 45 minutes long…

The plot is simple. A scheming servant girl, Serpina, determines to trick her master, Uberto, into marrying her. He enlists the help of Vespone to help him find an alternative wife, but underestimates the wiles and will of the two accomplices: disguised as Captain Tempesta, Vespone demands a huge dowry from Uberto in exchange for Serpina’s hand, an exorbitant ultimatum which scares Uberto into promising to marry Serpina himself. Servant becomes mistress: mission accomplished.

Kate Guinness’ neat, minimal set, Uberto’s Café, mirrored the bar of White’s Hotel and enabled Recchia to suggest that such ruses and conspiracies are commonplace. Moreover, seating several audience members at café tables on the stage, and involving them in the action, further blurred the boundaries between artifice and reality. Indeed, alongside superb comic-timing, Recchia possesses a deft eye for detail and dramatic effect: Vespone avidly scoured the audience for potential wives for Uberto; moved by Serpina’s faux melancholy, he wiped a tear from his eye, only to wring bucket loads of water from his dishcloth, cynically indicating the depth of his trauma … While never fussy, this was a lively, alert production, requiring athletic and attentive performances from the two principal singers.

Bradley Smoak and Ekaterina Bakanovà relished the humour and verve of Recchia’s conception, the former breaking effortlessly into a jazzed-up karaoke, the latter convincingly creating mock pathos in her Pulcinella-style serenade. Smoak has a warm, focused sound and an appealing and relaxed manner, which aroused the audience’s sympathy for the incompetent Uberto. Bakanovà’s soprano is light, fresh and jaunty; she hit the high notes with ease and indulged in some unscripted, crystal clear coloratura flights. This was an accomplished, cleverly conceived production, self-knowing yet never glib.

Unfortunately, Recchia’s take on La bohème was less successful. Updating the action to the 1940s, the set (again by Guinness) was pleasingly uncluttered and the choreography well-considered but uncomplicated; the cast readily evoked a sense of easy camaraderie and bon vivo between close friends. However, Recchia preferred to focus not on the tale of friendship, loyalty and ill-fated love, but to inject a ‘political’ reading, paralleling the ‘deprivation’ of Puccini’s nineteenth-century bohemians with the suffering of the Jews in 1940s Paris. Thus, archive film sequences were projected between scenes (rather inappropriate perhaps, given the essential inconsequentiality of Puccini’s original tale), Musetta flirted with a German officer, Stars of David and armbands indicated the artists’ persecution and subordination, and Mimi died draped in a French flag. This all seemed rather unnecessary and distracting — none more so than in the final moments when, turning their back to the stage, the bohemians were shot for their Resistance to the German occupation.

Fortunately, some excellent singing from the young cast restored Puccini’s score to the foreground. As Mimi, English soprano Rebecca Goulden demonstrated a beautifully clear, fresh tone; her Act 1 aria was especially affecting. nOah Stewart’s Rodolfo was fervent and committed. When singing in the middle of his range at a medium dynamic level, Stewart produces a relaxed, charming sound to match his natural stage confidence and poise. Unfortunately, he has not yet learned to control his voice when power is required; an ugly ‘edge’ can appear in the higher fortissimo passages, and Stewart often struggled to manage his breathing and intonation. Marcello was well sung by Irish baritone, Gavin Ring, while Gianluca Buratto’s Colline was a touching portrayal.

The last of the three Short Works was Richard Wargo’s Winners. Set in the fictional Northern Ireland town of Ballymore, Winners intertwines the gradually unfolding tale of two young lovers, Mag and Joe, as narrated by two ballad-singers, with the lovers’ own dialogue as they reflect on their hopes and fears for the future. Mag is pregnant and they are to be married in three weeks’ time; the excitement of moving into their own home is juxtaposed with the problems which will face them: they are divided by class, ostracised by their community. In a sudden twist we learn from the sean-nos singers that this is the last day that Joe and Mag will be alive — yet, they are ‘winners’ because they will die with their love and hope intact, untouched by the disillusionment that the future would bring.

Uniformly committed and proficient performances from all four principals saved this rather humdrum score from cliché and monotony. As the balladeers, two young American singers — mezzo soprano, Jennifer Berkebile, and tenor Adam Cannedy — established a haunting stage presence, delivering their lines in an unaffected manner, clearly enunciating the text; their movements around and between the singers were carefully and effectively choreographed. Australian Kristy Swift was a fittingly excitable Mag, injecting a natural enthusiasm and energy into her bright, lively soprano, a pleasing complement to Robert Anthony Gardiner’s more pensive tenor.

David Stuttard’s lighting cast an eerie glow over Kate Guinness’ empty, raked hillside; Wargo attempts to enhance the uncanny ambience by the inclusion of recorded Irish pipes at the opening and close of the work. These pipes are, however, an unnecessary distraction; despite the significance of location in Friel’s play, the story of Mag and Joe is not rooted in place in Wargo’s telling, although the score is rather facilely coloured by traditional motifs and harmonies of Irish folk song, which intermingle with the conventions of the American musical. Winners may not be an entirely appropriate choice of Short Work for a festival which has prided itself on presenting the experimental and the cutting edge; but the audience certainly warmed to the young cast and appreciated their dedication and sincerity.

In addition to the Festival’s programme of choral and orchestral concerts, and lectures, recitals are held daily in St. Iberius Church, offering the audience a chance to hear members of the operatic casts ‘close up’, and giving the singers themselves the opportunity both to show off their talents and develop friendships formed during the Festival. Thus, Bruno Ribiero and Angela Meade teamed up to confirm their undoubted bel canto credentials. Ribiero’s renditions of Verdi were noteworthy for his superb breath control, ringing upper range and pleasingly burnished lower register; Meade offered a tender but powerful account of ‘Casta diva’, her stunning final note perfectly centred and endlessly, effortlessly sustained. Gershwin’s ‘By Strauss’ and ‘I want to be a prima donna’ revealed Meade’s relaxed, fun-loving side. The Act 1 duet from Don Carlos and the Brindisi from La Traviata provided evidence of the strong rapport that develops between so many of the performers at Wexford.

Irish soprano Miriam Murphy was naturally relaxed and at home among the Wexford crowd. She presented a thoughtful recital, including Beethoven’s Op.48 cycle, in which she skilfully manipulated colour to convey the depth of Beethoven’s emotions at a time when his deafness was worsening: the subdued sincerity of Murphy’s lower register in ‘On Death’ powerfully suggested the composer’s despair. Traditional Irish songs, such as ‘I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’, provided a refreshing contrast; Andrea Grant was a sympathetic and nuanced accompanist throughout. One of the undoubted ‘stars’ of this year’s Festival was nOah Stewart who, despite some technical short-comings (which were as much in evidence in his lunchtime recital as they had been during La bohème), won the hearts of all Wexford ladies-of-a-certain-age. The departing crowd threatened to bring Wexford to a standstill as they lingered to shake the young singer’s hand or request an autograph! Certainly, Stewart has much charisma and is deeply serious about his performances. Considerable thought had been given to his recital programme which, including songs by Haydn, Reynaldo Hahn, Rachmaninov, Tosti as well as three American spirituals, allowed him to demonstrate his proficiency in a range of languages and national musical styles. It’s always risky to sing ‘O Danny Boy’ to the Irish, but Stewart pulled it off. There is no doubting his presence and appeal; but now some hard work is necessary to overcome the technical deficiencies.

The programme for next year’s Festival when, remarkably, Wexford will be hosting its sixtieth opera festival, will be announced in January 2011 — following crucial funding decisions and announcements. The Festival team have obviously worked hard to improve private sponsorship, and to make both international visitors and native audiences feel welcome — White’s Hotel was buzzing before, after and in-between performances; the Friends’ Room was opened up to opera-goers during the day; the Festival even arranged courtesy travel to and from Waterford airport for opera attendees. Let’s hope that when the mandarins tighten their belts, the remarkable ambitions and achievements of this small Irish fishing town are not overlooked or disregarded.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Entrance to Wexford Opera House [Photo by Ros Kavanagh courtesy of Wexford Operahouse] product=yes product_title=Wexford Festival Opera 2010 product_by= product_id=Above: Entrance to Wexford Opera House [Photo by Ros Kavanagh courtesy of Wexford Operahouse]
Posted by Gary at 5:40 PM

Cyrano de Bergerac in San Francisco

There are those of us who remember the San Francisco American Conservatory Theater’s Peter Donat as Cyrano and his Roxanne, Marsha Mason, unleashing floods of spellbinding lyricism in the Geary Theater. This was back in the 1970‘s, the mere recollection sets the local Cyrano benchmark impossibly high.

Cyrano the seventeenth century dramatist and Cyrano, Edmund Rostrand’s Belle Époque hero dealt in the spoken word. The rhythm and music is already there. Franco Alfano, a twentieth century post-Romantic opera composer adds only more opulence to Rostrand’s 1898 already opulently verbal masterpiece but he cannot surmount Rostrand’s lyrical flights — his extravagant music simply overwhelms the more modest art form.

Near the end of his long life Henri Caïn (Massenet’s well-experienced librettist) provided Alfano with this easily workable libretto of Rostrand’s Cyrano, each act with its central lyrical episode surrounded by lively battle scenes. Alfano’s advanced Romantic compositional technique responded to these scenes with music that rivals Meistersinger’s midsummer night’s riot and Otello’s storm, and this complex, descriptive music is indeed effective. But when Alfano wishes to describe emotions his music teeters on the edge of insincerity as its sheer size and sheen betrays all intimacy.

Enter the grand old man of opera, Plácido Domingo, veteran of opera’s greatest lyric moments! Though now he is too old to be Cyrano his presence alone is enough to enliven the lyric muse. And perhaps he has always been Cyrano, his art coming so easily to him that it can become real only in the person of another, a character he plays. In the Rostrand Cyrano it is handsome, young Christian who takes his voice. But Domingo is no longer young, and perhaps this does not matter as Rostrand has his Cyrano die fourteen years after this torrid love poetry is spoken, and now, near death most movingly repeated by the aged tenorissimo.

Just last year this Cyrano was produced at the Châtelet theater in Paris. It is rare that the Châtelet produces, preferring to search out productions of opera and music theater that are famous or infamous and need therefore to be seen in Paris. So this Cyrano was conceived as a boutique production to compete with the rarest and finest of Europe’s opera productions.

It has survived its translocation to San Francisco, no longer a boutique production here but as part of a repertory season. It profits greatly from San Francisco Opera’s superb orchestra that overcame with ease the difficult score and made Alfano’s descriptive music glow at the direction of St. Etienne’s Patrick Fournillier, a Massenet specialist. Both the Roxanne, Ainhoa Arteta, and her lover Christian, Thiago Arancam are from the Domingo cadre. Mme. Arteta provides a lovely figure as Cyrano’s muse but her fine soprano does not possess the beauty of tone one could wish for Roxanne. The same could be said of tenor Arancam who otherwise made a good Christian.

ArancamArtet.pngThiago Arancam as Christian and Ainhoa Arteta as Roxane

The supporting roles may not have a panache equal to their Parisian counterparts but showed San Francisco Opera as a truly fine ensemble company, specifically the villain De Guiche sung by Stephen Powell, the baker Ragueneau sung by Brian Mulligan who here proves that he belongs in character roles, and the lieutenant Le Bret sung by Timothy Mix. The drunken Bojan Knezevic stands out as well, as do Adler Fellows Austin Kness and Maya Lahyani in various roles.

The Châtelet Cyrano is above all else cinematic, a style that well fits the swashbuckling Cyrano (well, he did manage some fairly quick moves) with very flashy swordsmanship surprisingly executed without mishap by eight fencing acrobats. The cinematic staging also pointed out the cinematic nature of Alfani’s intimate music, small movements of spirit sonically magnified to full-screen proportion. What was once verismo was by the mid 1930‘s neo-verismo well on its way to becoming movie melodrama.

Romanian opera director Petrika Ionesco staged this Cyrano de Bergerac in the way that Parisians love — nostalgic longing for the bloodiest and the artiest moments of their history, and a dose of kitsch as well. Mr. Ionesco has staged both Aida and Nabucco at the 80,000 seat Stadt de France and The Millennium Project and Continents on Parade at EuroDisney (near Paris). Here is a man that knows pageantry.

DomingoSoldiers.pngLester Lynch as Carbon, Plácido Domingo as Cyrano de Bergerac and the soldiers

Colorful theater, good opera and one of San Francisco Opera’s finer recent moments.

Roberto Alagna was the Cyrano in the Opéra National de Montpellier’s Alfano Cyrano in 2008. No doubt a San Francisco debut by this tenor would generate an enthusiasm equal to that of this Domingo return (if not the nostalgia). For the record the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier revived several late verismo operas in the early years of this new century, notably operas by Alfani, Franchetti, and Mascagni.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Plácido Domingo as Cyrano de Bergerac [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Franco Alfano: Cyrano de Bergerac
product_by=Cyrano de Bergerac: Plácido Domingo; Roxane: Ainhoa Arteta; Christian de Neuveville: Thiago Arancam; De Guiche: Stephen Powell; Carbon: Lester Lynch; Ragueneau: Brian Mulligan; Le Bret: Timothy Mix; Lisa, A Sister: Leah Crocetto; The Duenna, Sister Marta: Maya Lahyani; Vicomte de Valvert, The Spanish Official, A Cook: Austin Kness; Montfleury: Martin Rojas-Dietrich; Sentinels: David Gustafson / Christopher Jackson; Lignière, A Musketeer: Bojan Knezevic. Conductor: Patrick Fournillier. Director: Petrika Ionesco. Set Designer: Petrika Ionesco. Costume Designer: Lili Kendaka. Lighting Designer: Petrika Ionesco. Fencing Choreographer: François Rostain.
product_id=Above: Plácido Domingo as Cyrano de Bergerac

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 12:18 PM

Haydn: L’isola disabitata, London

Written in 1799, just before the three best known operas, L’isola disabitata is enjoying a major revival all of its own, thanks to the 2007 edition used at the Young Artists production in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House, London. It’s short, snappy and there are no high male voices.

ISOLA-00098-DEVIN-AS-SILVIA.gifAnna Devin as Silvia

Its beauty lies in its Spartan simplicity. This is a deserted island, after all. As with so much pre 19th century music, elaboration masks strong basic themes. L’isola disabitata is remarkably clear sighted. It’s about keeping faith, despite adversity.

Constanza (Elisabeth Meister) is a woman who has been on an isolated island for 13 years. She thinks she’s been deserted by her husband Genandro (Steven Ebel). The name “Constanza” means “constancy”, but Constanza is no passive saint like Penelope in Greek myth who kept faith with Odysseus when he wandered. Constanza gets angry, so mad that she almost becomes mad with bitterness. She passes the years by incising an inscription deeper and deeper into the surface of a rock. It’s a powerfully potent curse. Her love has turned to unrelenting hate.

When Constanza was abandoned, she held her infant sister in her arms. Silvia (Anna Devlin) is a feral child, who has grown up in isolation, knowing nothing of “civilized” society. She’s had no role model other than Constanza, so she’s been taught to fear men. While Constanza turns inward, Silvia enjoys the island, living with nature (symbolized in this production by a toy animal which also indicates her innocence).

Mysteriously, Gernando (Steven Ebel), her husband returns to the island. He hadn’t deserted Constanza of his own free will, but had been kidnapped by marauding soldiers. Recognizing the surroundings, he sets out to search for her and save her. Eventually they are reunited. Constanza destroys the curse, realizing it was wrong. Faith triumphs, against all odds.

ISOLA---00549---GRICE-(C)PE.gifDaniel Grice as Enrico

Silvia who has been taught to hate men, encounters Gernando’s companion, Enrico (Daniel Grice). At first she fears him, but they fall in love. Silvia and Enrico form a standard love interest sub plot, which enlivens the otherwise grim tale of Constanza’s suffering. But Haydn’s also commenting on the idea of society in Arcadian surroundings. He’s very much in tune with the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although L’isola disabitata predicates on marital fidelity, there are deeper, less explicit political implications.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that this opera should appeal to modern audiences. Although Haydn worked for Prince Esterházy, he wasn’t subservient, as his Symphony no 45, “The Farewell” indicates. The American Revolution showed how potent Rousseau’s political concepts could be, the French Revolution signaled the end of Absolute Monarchy. Musically, too, Haydn understood the Zeitgeist. Classical poise tempered baroque opulence. The Sturm und Drang movement, which so influenced Haydn was a precursor of what we now called Romanticism, which ushered in further revolutions in the arts and society.

Although L’isola disabitata is set on an island, the island is in fact no more than a structural concept indicating a situation cut off from the reality of normal society. Haydn uses a contemporary text, by Pietro Metastasio, which refers to barren rocks and smoke — metaphors of oppression, and of Constanza’s moral confusion. Hence the layer of smoke that filled the Linbury Studio Theatre for this production by the Royal Opera House Young Artists programme, enveloping set and singers in the mist. Suddenly there’s a sound of running water. Until the conductor (Volker Krafft) climbs out of the pit, you’re not sure whether the first part of the opera is over or not. Just as Constanza’s disoriented, so are we.

A friend observed that the set “looks like a bomb site”. She’s right, for Constanza must have felt that she’d been hit by disaster. The designs (Jamie Vartan) reflect Constanza’s emotional landscape. She’s desolate, ruined, shattered. She’s lost faith because she invested in the trappings of marriage, rather than love.

ISOLA-00736-EBEL&MEISTER-(C.gifElisabeth Meister as Constanza and Gernando Steven Ebel as Gernando

The spartan designs in this production also reflect Haydn’s music. L’isola disabitata uses only four voices, each distinctly defined and characterized. Until they’re united at the end, they sing alone, reflecting the characters’ inability to link up. The orchestra’s small — nineteen strings, with only two horns, two oboes, bassoon and flute. Minimalist by 19th century standards.

Musically, it’s also “modern”, in the sense that the voice parts are direct and communicate without excess adornment. The orchestral writing follows the words intimately. Sometimes one instrument shadows a voice, delicately picking up details. It’s word painting, almost as sensitive as Lieder would become.

Elisabeth Meister and Steven Ebel excel. Both have been prominent in the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme for some time, and have been heard many times in smaller roles in the main House. Meister memorably stepped in at short notice to sing the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen. She sang with Ebel in Ebel’s The Truth about Love at the Linbury last year. He also sang Rimenes in Arne’s Atarxerxes. All these have been reviewed in Opera Today — please follow the links.

Daniel Grice’s Enrico was also good — I’d like to hear more of him. Anna Devin’s singing was rather obscured because she had to jump about so much. It’s in keeping with the idea of Silvia as a wild child unfettered by society, so director Rodula Gaitanou and movement director Mandy Demetriou are making a valid point, though overdone.

But the point of Young Artists presentations is learning through experience. There’s more to performance than technical prowess. Life skills count too. Please read “Polishing gemstones” where Simona Mihai and Kai Rüütel speak on the benefits of the Programme, one of the most highly regarded in Europe. The scheme also trains people in all aspects of opera, such as the conductor Volker Krafft, the director, designer, lighting and fighting. It’s tough being a creative artist especially in this financial climate. But if this excellent performance of Haydn L’isola disabitata is anything to go by, the Young Artists have proved themselves.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Elisabeth Meister as Constanza [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera]

product_title=Franz Joseph Hadyn: L’isola disabitata
product_by=Constanza: Elisabeth Meister; Gernando: Steven Ebel; Silvia: Anna Devin; Enrico: Daniel Grice. Conductor: Volker Krafft. Director: Rodula Gaitanou. Designer: Jamie Vartan. Movement Director: Mandy Demetrious. Fight Director: Philip d’Orleans. Southbank Sinfonia. Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 28th October 2010.
product_id=Above: Elisabeth Meister as Constanza

All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera

Posted by anne_o at 9:15 AM

November 1, 2010

From day one, The Marriage Of Figaro was a match made in heaven

By Conrad Wilson [The Herald, 1 November 2010]

But what was it actually like, that very first performance of The Marriage Of Figaro at Vienna’s Burgtheater in May 1786? Not quite like Scottish Opera’s in Glasgow last night, to be sure. At a time when modern conductors, especially the late lamented Sir Charles Mackerras, have been trying to bring us closer and closer to the composer’s intentions while many modern stage directors have been transporting us further away from them, we cannot help wondering what the original audience really experienced and how much, despite Mackerras’s meticulous attention to detail, it must have differed from a performance today.

Posted by Gary at 5:20 PM

Thomas Hampson, baritone and Living Legend, exhilarates with American songs

By Cecelia Porter [Washington Post, 30 October 2010]

Thomas Hampson, the celebrated baritone of the opera stage and recital hall, enraptured a capacity audience at the Library of Congress on Thursday with examples from his Song of America Project and Gustav Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" settings -- all music that has deservedly become identified with Hampson.

Posted by Gary at 11:19 AM

Cervantino stages rare Graun opera — The Mexican national opera?

Montezuma was thus an obvious choice as the operatic centerpiece of the 2010 International Cervantino Festival, staged in Guanajuato, a major station on the march to Mexican freedom that began in 1810.

Although he was his contemporary, Graun was no Handel, and thus Montezuma, even when performed with the dedication obvious in the production seen in the historic Teatro Juárez on October 14, is more conversation piece than masterwork. The libretto by Graun’s employer, Prussia’s music-loving, flute-playing Frederick the Great, was performed in Guanajuato in Italian translation.

CCC_1295.gifChristophe Carré countertenor as Panfilo de Narvaes

The somewhat simplistic plot reflects Frederick’s desire to be seen as an apostle of the Enlightenment — despite his own absolute power. Montezuma is an embodiment of the monarch’s philosophical leaning vis-à-vis the Noble Savage. (Recall that this is also the age of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with Voltaire being in residence at Frederick’s court.)

Mexico’s opera Wunderkind Claudio Valdés Kuri brought all the excesses of Regietheater to the minimalist staging, trying too hard to make more of Montezuma than is really there. Intent of fitting the work into the theme of the season, Kuri employed all the techniques of Brechtian alienation to combine in the production a picture of Mexico’s inhuman suffering with a vision of hope for the future. Thus in the title role countertenor Flavio Oliver frequently swapped Aztec loin cloth with T-shirt, and in Act III Kuri changed the entire 26-member Elyma Ensemble, an able but undistinguished early-music group, into “civvies” and moved them onto the stage. This act concluded not with Graun’s original score, but with a dramatic scene by Mexican Baroque composer Manuel de Sumaya. As Montezuma died, half the stage was wrapped in a modern Mexican flag. The substituted finale seemed to suggest an eventual and successful synthesis of cultures. Yet one wondered— to cite only one from many examples— whether Cortés on-stage rape of heroic Montezuma did not detract from the figurative rape of ancient Mexico that is the true subject of the Graun’s opera.

Oliver, by far the finest voice— and actor— in the cast, was a virile Montezuma in the minimalist staging, designed by Herman Sorgeloos. As conqueror Cortés Adrian’s George Popescu, an equally able countertenor, was the embodiment of the Absolute Evil that brought about the end of Aztec civilization.


As Montezuma’s mate, soprano Lourdes Ambriz grew in stature as she suffered ever-greater abuse throughout the performance. She made her lament in Act III a memorable moment in an otherwise often tedious evening of opera. Without distorting the figure, Kuri took advantage of Ambriz’ talent to bring a hint of feminist thought to the production. Gratefully, Kuri trimmed his staging to three hours from the original four. It was also to Kuri’s credit that he corrected Frederick’s idealist picture of Montezuma with an opening scene that showed that his hands too were soiled with the blood of innocent victims.

A co-commission Germany’s Theater der Welt and the Edinburgh Festival (it was staged by both earlier this year), the Cervantino, Madrid’s Teatro, where it recently played. It is yet to be seen in Mexico City.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Flavio Oliver as Montezuma [Photo courtesy of Festival Internacional Cervantino] product=yes product_title=Carl Heinrich Graun: Montezuma product_by=Flavio Oliver: Montezuma; Lourdes Ambriz: his wife; Rogelio Marín: Tezeucco; Lucia Salas: an Aztec general; Adrián-George Popescu: Cortés; Christophe Carré: Narvés, a Spanish captain. Gabriel Garrido: conductor. Claudio Valdés Kuri: director. Herman Sorgeloos: scenic designer. Jimena Fernández: costume designer. Carsten Sander: lighting. Elyma Ensemble. International Cervantino Festival. Teatro Juárez, Guanajuato. October 14, 2010. product_id=Above: Flavio Oliver as Montezuma

All photos courtesy of Festival Internacional Cervantino
Posted by Gary at 9:48 AM