January 31, 2011

Elizabeth Futral — An Interview

At this season’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann by Florida Grand Opera, she takes on a tour-de-force portrayal of all four of Hoffmann’s loves. She spoke with Sarah Luebke.

SL: Offenbach intended that the same singer play the four female roles, for Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann’s unreachable love. However, most houses use separate sopranos, a coloratura for Olympia, a lyric for Antonia, and a dramatic soprano or mezzo for Giulietta. What was the impetus for you to essay the music of all four Heroines?

EF: I was asked to do the roles once before in the past, about seven or eight years ago, but had questions about the stamina aspects of getting through it all. After I had done several performances of Traviata along with bigger, more dramatic roles, I felt ready to sustain singing for the whole role [in Hoffmann].

SL: With your voice classified as a fuller lyric coloratura soprano, what have you found to be challenging vocally executing these roles in one performance?

EF: It actually works really well. I have found in rehearsals that climbing down from heights of Olympia to middle tessitura of Antonia can be tricky. Between Olmypia and Antonia, during intermission, I need to allow my voice and my mindset to settle, relaxing breath and body and throat, and allowing the middle voice to come in easily without pressing. Guilietta is a little lower, but not out of reach. She is more episodic, with recitative-like passages, which is very different from the aria and trio of Antonia.

SL: Italian Bel Canto and Verismo opera seem to be your go-to styles as of late. How has the shift to Offenbach’s style and the French aesthetic changed the way you approach your musical and dramatic preparation?

EF: I think [Hoffmann] falls into the world of the lyrical, romantic style with a comedic edge. I have always loved singing in French; something to do with the language helps with a natural vocal placement for healthy production. The coloratura of Olympia is akin to Lakemé’s “Bell Song” with lots of fireworks, but it starts with a healthy sense of humor, especially in the out of control coda! Antonia is much more beautiful melodic music. It’s very singable with sweeping French romantic lines — very fun to sing.

SL: Anything unpredictable happening in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Hoffmann?

EF: What I couldn’t have predicted with this production was how difficult the costuming would be. It takes the whole intermission to take paint off [of Olympia], and completely changing elaborate costumes, for both changes from Olympia to Antonia and Antonia to Giulietta. I begin getting into costume, and once I start I never have a moment to sit down; I’m on go the whole time. It’s been a little crazy and more challenging that trying to sing the thing! I really like [Florida Grand Opera’s] production. It’s really fun and entertaining, and moving when it needs to be.

SL: In the beginning of your career in the mid-nineties, your career took off with your performance of the title role of Lakme with New York City Opera. Many of those early roles included Lucia, Violetta, Guilda, and Susannah. Will your success in the Hoffmann Heroines give you the go-ahead to essay more dramatic or fuller lyric roles?

EF: The natural maturation process of one’s voice leads to some different things. This role has confirmed that I can do a broader range. Some things I’m considering that might be more of a stretch include Blanche [Dialogues des Carmelites], Marguerite [Faust]… also the bigger Bel Canto roles such as Anna Bolena might work well for me. It’s fun to think about new possibilities. I’ve always had a great time learning new roles, and I love the challenge of creating a new character. I get bored doing the same five roles over and over. This keeps me ticking, and I’m thrilled that new things are opening up.

SL: You have such an interesting background embracing and premiering a variety of new operas, including Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice and Ernst Krenek’s Die Nachtigall. You have also appeared opposite Placido Domingo on a 2007 Met Live in HD broadcast of Tan Dun’s First Emperor. Do you have any upcoming plans for premiering new works?

EF: I’m learning a new opera by Finnish female composer Kaija Saariaho, Émilie. This is a one women show I’ll be doing at the Spoletto Festival USA in Charleston, SC. It’s a daunting piece to learn…it’s all me, 80 minutes, 8 scenes. I’m on stage the whole time. The music is challenging, and it’s a little challenging to learn. But I’m just getting cracking at it now in between rehearsals and performances. This is definitely exciting and a big thing for me.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Elizabeth_Futral_broadband.png image_description=Elizabeth Futral [Photo courtesy of Neil Funkhouser Artists Management] product=yes product_title=Elizabeth Futral — An Interview product_by=By Sarah Luebke product_id=Above: Elizabeth Futral [Photo courtesy of Neil Funkhouser Artists Management]
Posted by Gary at 7:50 PM

Mark Adamo, Little Women

This is the second scene of act 2, in which the four sisters are all on stage at once even though they are supposed to be in different corners of the world: Adamo has beautifully synchronized the drama-counterpoint between the four different theatres, so that at the same instant that Jo, the independent author-heroine, is singing to Professor Bhaer of her coldness to the idea of marriage, Amy is warming to the same idea; in another division of the stage space the dying Beth is playing a clunky emphatic tune on the piano, ending with a smash on the keyboard. In a novel such events are usually strung out into separate narratives; here they attain something of the co-presence of important events as they meld in our memories. The music unites, but also differentiates the scenes: the piano smash is poised against the finely sustained and punctuated melody to which Professor Bhaer recites Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land,” a melody that has a number of harmonic touches characteristic of the German Lied. It might be objected that by making Bhaer such an attractive character Adamo fails to register Alcott’s own doubt about the propriety of marrying off her main character—Alcott felt that she was giving in to her readers’ wishes, and that Jo should have remained a literary spinster; but this is a tiny objection in a scene worked out with great dramatic and compositional care.

Elsewhere, the text and the dramaturgy remain effective, but the music is not so good. There is a good aria, Meg’s “Things change,” Jo, in which she insists on her right to marry despite Jo’s fear of breaking up the family. But there is a fatal lack of contrast, which leads to insipidity, in the absence of more melodic invention than Adamo can muster. He speaks in his program note of the contrast between the tonal music that accompanies presentation of character, versus the dodecaphonic music that accompanies narrative. But if there is dodecaphony, it is the most harmless and unobtrusive dodecaphony I’ve ever heard. Everywhere the music is pallidly peppy for the cheerful scenes, pallidly swoony for the romantical scenes, and pallidly droopy for the sad scenes. Everything in this innocuous music says, “Nothing At Stake Here.”

There is, however, one glorious musical moment, near the beginning, when the sisters sing, in subtle and potent four-part harmony, the word sorority; and again, at the end, when Beth is resurrected in order to complete the four-part harmony on the term One soul. Here the family feeling to which Jo desperately tries to retain through most of the opera is given intense expression.

The singing is good throughout, though the acting is generally bland, a condition not easy to overcome given the blandness of so much of the music. But the remarkably gifted Jo, Stephanie Novacek, registers in facial expression and physical gesture and shifts of voice-color the full range of the opera’s drama—maybe an even fuller range than Adamo himself provides.

Daniel Albright


image=http://www.operatoday.com/NBD0007.png image_description=Mark Adamo: Little Women product=yes product_title=Mark Adamo: Little Women product_by=Jo: Stephanie Novacek; Meg: Joyce DiDonato; Laurie: Chad Shelton; Beth: Stacey Tappan; Amy: Margaret Lloyd; John Brooke: Daniel Belcher; Friedrich Bhaer: Chen-Ye Yuan; Cecilia March: Katherine Ciesinski; Gideon Marche: James Maddalena; Alma March: Gwendolyn Jones; Mr Dashwood: Derrick Parker. Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. Patrick Summers, conductor. Peter Webster, stage director. Christopher McCollum, set designer. Melissa Graff, costume designer. David M. Plevan, lighting designer. Directed for TV by Brian Large. Recorded live from the Cullen Theatre, Wortham Theater Center, Houston, Texas, 17-18 March 2000. product_id=Naxos NBD0007 [Blu-Ray] price=$39.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=529809
Posted by Gary at 7:19 PM

Elisabeth Meister — An Interview

Both level-head and fun-loving, committed to hard work but spontaneous and imaginative, it’s easy to see why recent performances have brought her to the attention of the opera-going public, and won impressive acclaim from the critics: she has “a very special voice” but “is not just a prodigious voice, she is also an excellent communicator of the text and a vivid personality to boot” … “a future star”, “a name to watch”. As she prepares to sing the role of the First Lady in David McVicar’s oft-revived production of The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, she generously gave of her time to meet me and discuss the joys and demands of an opera-singer’s career.

Meister joined the Jette Parker Young Artist programme in September 2009, making her debut as the Pale Lady in Prokofiev’s The Gambler. This is her first Magic Flute, in a solo role, although she has a couple of Mozart roles under her belt, including the Countess (for Amici Opera) and Fiordiligi (for English Touring Opera). The latter is a role she would love to revisit and along with other strong Mozart heroines such as Elektra (Idomeneo). Mozart is “very good for the voice … [he] knows exactly how the voice works, he doesn’t make you sing too loudly, or sing too softly” and there is always a perfect balance between voice and orchestra. Meister identifies the main challenge of the role of First Lady as the “fairly high tessitura”, but she welcomes the support of Second and Third Ladies (Kai Rüütel, also a Jette Parker Young Artist, and Gaynor Keeble respectively) “which makes my job much easier and we work very much as a unit. One of the greatest pleasures of doing a piece like this is that you have such strong camaraderie.”

This is a theme that recurs during our discussion, for Meister relishes the comradeship and friendships which form during rehearsals and performances. “It’s an odd job. There’s a lot of solitary time for a solo singer, particularly if you are a concert artist, travelling from country to country; and you might not see your family for weeks on end. So it’s great to forge these friendships. … The great thing about the programme is that we are all so incredibly supportive of each other.“

Meister did not follow a straight path to her current position as a rising star. She describes it as a “fantastical journey”. There was music ‘in the blood’ though: her father was a self-taught organist and her mother played the piano. At the prodigiously early age of five, she learnt to read music and started singing in her father’s choir at eight-years-old, subsequently studying trumpet and piano. A musical career must have always seemed a likely future, but for a combination of reasons and circumstances, Meister did not complete her undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy, and worked for a time in business and administration. However, she continued to sing continued during this time, and gradually the lure of the stage became impossible to ignore. “I decided to give singing another try”. In 2002 she entered the Guildhall, and the following year surprised herself — “a rank outsider” — by winning second prize in the Kathleen Ferrier prize. A role in the chorus at Glyndebourne followed, and indeed The Magic Flute was the first choral role that she performed there. One senses that Meister was a quick learner, and that her perspective from the ranks of the chorus sharpened her insight and her ambition. “I was always watching from the sides and seeing what the principals did and following their stagecraft, and I took that with me to English Touring Opera the following year [where she sang Fiordiligi] and then to Welsh National Opera [where she was an extra chorus member].

At this point, Meister found herself at a crossroads. She had completed a highly enjoyable and successful year with the WNO chorus when a full-time vacancy arose. But, at the same time she sang for renowned tenor, Dennis O’Neill, and on the spot was offered a place at O’Neill’s International Academy of Voice at Cardiff. “I had very little time to decide whether I was going to sit back and have a nice comfortable career, nicely salaried and good pension etc., or whether I was going to put all my eggs in one basket. And I thought, I can give it my all for just one year [it’s a one-year programme] and if I succeed it will be because I’ve given it one hundred per cent.” Meister learned an enormous amount during that year, in terms of technique and stamina, and relished the ‘family feel’ of the programme, and at the end of the year she successfully auditioned for the Jette Parker Young Artist scheme.

So, when there are so many talented young singers, what is it that enables an individual to step out of the chorus and be successful under the glare of the spotlight? What distinguishes a chorus member from a leading lady? “It’s so many things. It’s a combination of ambition, a desire to show-off — above the rest of your colleagues! It’s jolly hard work, make no bones about that. Many in the chorus have the talent to step into leading roles but for whatever circumstances — family commitments or a desire for a more nine-to-five job, they are happier in the chorus … it’s a tricky beast managing a solo career.”

Meister feels that she has got the balance about right. She lives close to her family, and a commutable distance from the Royal Opera House. She is totally focused on the programme which she praises effusively. “It couldn’t be better! You have exactly as much coaching as you want, or desire or need; you have help with languages, interpretation, stage craft, stage fighting; there is a personal trainer on the programme who we see once a fortnight; you have access to an osteopath —everything that a singer needs to function as well as they possibly can. Aside from the stage opportunities you get to sing in small roles, like the First Lady, and cover larger roles, like Anna Nicole …”

Meister’s success is obviously a combination of long-term planning, intensive hard work and training, great stamina, accompanied by the ability to adapt, be spontaneous and make the most of any opportunities that arise. Covering the role of the Fox in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, she had only 24 hours’ notice that she would have to step into the indisposed Emma Bell‘s shoes: “It was just about the right length of time, not enough time to start panicking, but just enough time to prepare.” It was an important, if unexpected, debut and won her much praise for her “bright, laser-like soprano” and her dramatic gifts: “Elisabeth Meister was full of manly swagger”, “her boyish vitality put the rest of the cast to shame”, “Her tom-boyish Fox bristled with energy … she is a natural stage animal.”

Her confidence on stage extends to her assuredness with languages, which she puts down to solid preparation and practice. “When I pick up a new piece of music, whatever language it’s in, the first thing I do is I translate it absolutely word for word, even if the word order doesn’t make any sense at that stage. And then translate it again into an idiomatic form, so that you don’t just have the ‘gist’ of the meaning, you know absolutely what you’re saying; and you know that, for example, Mozart has chosen to put a particular word on the highest note of the phrase, and you find the reason for why he has done that.” Meister doesn’t have strong opinions about whether one should always sing in original language, and while she herself prefers to do so, she recognises that it can be “great for communication” to sing in English. In this regard, she tells a typically mischievous anecdote: “I remember going to Turandot, and there was an elderly lady sitting next to me who was not enjoying the opera, and who complained, ‘I hate this opera and I can’t stand Puccini, it’s so vulgar … I went to see it in Italy last year where at least you have the advantage of not understanding what they’re saying …”

A glance at her performance history reveals a wide range of roles; while she is still exploring the operatic repertory, Meister particularly enjoys the “heavier repertoire … I adore German repertoire, especially Strauss heroines” — and is eager to try early Wagner. “It’s good to sing anything that you can sing and not to push too far outside the boundaries”. Having embraced a wide range of styles and periods, I ask whether there is any repertoire that she feels is not right for her voice. “It’s really to do with the ‘taste of the time’. There are particular tastes and sounds, say for Baroque music, which my voice wouldn’t fit into right now; but perhaps in the future that might change and my voice would be ideal for it. So you go with what’s current, what suits you and what you find not too challenging. If you’re expected to hold onto a top C for a minute and a half perhaps that’s not the repertoire that you want to go into!”

Coming up are an Aida — “one of my dream roles” — in 2011 for Santiago Opera and Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) in Chile in 2012. She covered Aida last year so when the Jette Parker programme ends in July, she will have a couple of months to “sing that back in”. She relishes such “fantasy roles … because they are not based on any real people, you can use your imagination a great deal”, and loves Verdi for he “absolutely knows the requirements and the capabilities of the soprano voice”. Meister also sustains a busy recital schedule but prefers to perform music by similar composers on the operatic stage and in the concert hall, at any one time. “The ‘mind set’ and the different demands that composers make on a voice are wonderful in their own different ways but sometimes incompatible.” On her future ‘wish-list’ are Turandot (“to show-off!”) and “for my vocal health”, more Verdi and early Wagner.

Meister also finds the prospect of creating new roles an exciting one. “With works such as The Magic Flute which are well known and well established you essentially step into someone else’s shoes, but once the basic stage business is clear you start to make it your own and put your own intention into it. If you’re creating a role for the first time you get a lot more input from the outset, because the rehearsal period is going to that much longer.” She is covering the role of Anna Nicole in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera, which opens at the ROH on 17 February: “It’s a great role for exploration. I love real characters — perhaps with difficult backgrounds, difficult situations.”

With a full performance diary ahead, there’s not much time for relaxation and rest — or to fit in the indoor climbing that she enjoys! But, it’s clear that Meister made the right decision in switching secretarial duties for the operatic stage. “Having not been one for taking risks in the past, this was a big risk … but if it doesn’t work out I want to be able to say that it wasn’t because I didn’t try.” Recent successes suggest that she won’t regret her decision. She comments that, “It’s strange to go from relative obscurity to everyone knowing your name”. And, she’s definitely a name to watch.

The Magic Flute will be performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on February 1, 3, 7, 9, 11, 16, 19, 22, 24 at 19.30pm; and on February 26 at 12.30pm.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Elisabeth_Meister_photo_By_BRIAN_TARR2008.png image_description=Elisabeth Meister [Photo by Brian Tarr courtesy of IMG Artists] product=yes product_title=Elisabeth Meister — An Interview product_by=By Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Elisabeth Meister [Photo by Brian Tarr courtesy of IMG Artists]
Posted by Gary at 7:03 PM

January 28, 2011

Mehta conducts Verdi’s La Forza del Destino on Blu-Ray

Which makes sense, given the numbers of high-end televisions sold in recent years, and the gradual decrease in the cost of Blu-Ray players. So what does the Blu-Ray format add to the enjoyment of a particular feature?

The so-called regular DVD format of a 2007 performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino crossed your reviewer’s path about 18 months ago, and not long ago, the Blu-Ray version made an appearance as well. A few lines below, readers will find the earlier review of the “regular” DVD copied in its entirety. Did watching the Blu-Ray version alter the opinions expressed at that time?

Not a bit. The staging is still handsome but lifeless, the singers talented but uninspired. The sharpness of the Blu-Ray picture allows, perhaps, for greater admiration of the sheer quality of the costuming and background projections. It also, unfortunately, brings into worrisome focus the waxy look of stage make-up and the shiny surfaces of wigs. The audio track, however, has to be commended for its spacious, penetrating aural picture. Certainly, anyone attracted to this performance and possessing a Blu-Ray player should opt for this version. For more casual viewers, nothing significant would be lost with the “regular” version. And now that earlier review:

This looks like a winner, with an esteemed conductor (Zubin Mehta), top-rank cast (Violeta Urmana, Marcello Giordani, Carlo Guelfi), and a production directed by Nicholas Joël that originated at the Opernhaus Zürich, a house that takes some chances and scores some successes. But the beauty expected doesn’t even go skin deep. While Verdi’s great score keeps La Forza del Destino in the standard repertory, the problematic libretto requires both sharp intelligence and inspired imagination. Sure, one can go back to the classic video with Tebaldi and Corelli, where the fabric of the cheap sets ripples every time a character brushes past. At least their singing mesmerizes, distracting the 21st century viewer from the 19th century production values. Despite the quality of the performers here, that magic act does not repeat itself.

To be fair to Nicholas Joël, the booklet credits state that the production was “restaged by Timo Schlüssel.” All that matters is that the result of the men’s work feels like an elaborately costumed concert performance. The chorus stand in blocks or move in unison. The actors usually occupy a small space near the front of the stage and seldom interact convincingly. The costumes of Franca Squarciapino, while well-made, all seem to have come straight from the cleaner’s. Even after a battle-scene the two Dons look immaculate. Ezio Frigerio’s sets barely distinguish between the opera’s varied settings, with the final scene being the lamest. Leonora’s mountain hideaway is simply a barred cage, like one would see at some dreadful old-time zoo. Working in such forlorn circumstances, even the most vibrant of performers would struggle. As commendable as their vocal efforts may be, these singers need more direction to be effective. Violeta Urmana is a very healthy Leonora, with that pitiful loaf of bread for her meal apparently having a substantial carbo load. Perhaps needless to say, the effort to make her convincing as a male produces laughable results. But close the eyes and the ears will hear a substantial voice that can meet all of the challenging role’s demands, often with attractive power. Carlo Guelfi delivers a “shades of black” interpretation of Don Carlo, Leonora’s vengeful brother, but again, he delivers the goods vocally.

Marcello Giordani comes across as more committed to portraying a character, and his Don Alvaro does have both nobility, pride, and the requisite fatalism. As is typical with this busy singer, the middle voice sounds as good as any tenor today, but the top range is variable — sometimes ringing out as tenor fans love, and other times turning hoarse, constricted. Julia Gertseva’s Preziosilla can be counted a success in so far as the character is not nearly as annoying as she can be. Roberto Scandiuzzi’s Padre Guardino and Bruno De Simone’s Fra Melitone fade into the grayness of the production’s dim inspiration.

Zubin Mehta doesn’t try to prettify the score, letting its occasionally crass martial music roar away. The singers are always well-supported, and the forces of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, where this performance took place in 2007 (TDK doesn’t give any more time information), play idiomatically.

And to get really picky, TDK could do a better job of graphically identifying which of the two discs is which, as they have identical faces except for very tiny lettering with the disc number tucked away under the copyright. Go for the Tebaldi/Corelli, if it can be found.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino
product_by=Il Marchese di Calatrava: Duccio Dal Monte; Donna Leonora: Violeta Urmana; Don Carlo di Vargas: Carlo Guelfi; Don Alvaro: Marcello Giordani; Preziosilla: Julia Gertseva; Padre Guardiano: Roberto Scandiuzzi; Frá Melitone: Bruno de Simone; Curra: Antonella Trevisan; Un alcalde: Filippo Polinelli; Mastro Trabuco: Carlo Bosi; Un chirurgo: Alessandro Luongo. Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Chorus and Orchestra. Zubin Mehta, conductor. Nicolas Joël, stage director. Ezio Frigerio, set design. Franca Squarciapino, costumes. Recorded live from the Teatro Comunale, Firenze, 2007.
product_id=TDK DVBD-OPFORZA [Blu-Ray]

Posted by chris_m at 2:00 PM

January 25, 2011

The Cunning Little Vixen

By Kate Molleson [Guardian, 25 January 2011]

It's been 31 years since director David Pountney and designer Maria Björnson dreamed up this production's patchwork forest and it still looks superb. A raised set of steep, motley hills plays woodland home to a cast of cheeky characters: a concertina-playing caterpillar waddling about morosely; matronly hens busying themselves with egg-laying and gossip

Posted by Gary at 9:26 PM

January 24, 2011

Nabucco, Palm Beach Opera

Biaggi’s claim is no folderol; each principal in PBO’s Nabucco (seen opening night December 10) offered a performance of individual value, with the balance of the night’s success tipping aptly on Mark Rucker’s Nabucco and on the playing of the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra with principal conductor and artistic director Bruno Aprea on the podium.

Mark Rucker presented fluent Verdi style, adding — of late — further finesse to a cantabile line that already made him a notable exponent of the style and period. The power-addled king’s delusions of Acts II and III were conveyed in Rucker’s singing — fashioned with portamento and diminuendos; he hit his stride vocally and dramatically with a ‘Dio di Giuda’ both meditative and conciliatory. This night’s Abigaille, Paoletta Marrocu, in her moments on vocal spotlight made most of an impression with an often rich middle register — mellifluously delivered in the more lyrical passages of ‘Anch'io dischiuso un giorno.’ In between some hard, go-for-broke, high notes and her seemingly unabashed use of discernible register breaks for dramatic effect, Ms. Marrocu spun accurately articulated scales and rapped out the text with biting authority.

Showing off an even bel canto line — that touched the F sharp in his cabaletta — and a sizable, fleet instrument was bass Dmitry Belosselskliy (Zaccaria). Laura Vlasak Nolen (Fenena) displayed fine stage sense in the final act prayer, where she and Aprea collaborated with Verdian strokes of refined rubato. Adam Diegel owns a large instrument with lyric attributes that made short work of Ismaele’s lines. As the High Priest of Baal, Harold Wilson brought a knowing gait and a fine bass. Palm Beach Young Artists Evanivaldo Correa and Alison Bates did right by the roles of Abdallo and Anna.

Grave majesty was missing from the opening of Nabucco’s overture; once to the livelier section though, the playing of the orchestra turned altogether superlative. Aprea’s conducting strikes as being attentive and open to various facets of artistic nuance. In the overture, there was a cohesive vitality that held through bouncy and bold and light and lyrical passages with well-executed string and woodwind playing. Verdi’s markings were honored to the end; and, in the manner of, Aprea was keen to push on or allow singers rhythmic room as necessary. Both the orchestra and the Palm Beach Opera Chorus reached a level of musical gravitas in ‘Immenso Jeovha.’

PaolettaMarrocu.gifPaoletta Marrocu as Abigaille

Stage director Guy Montavon and chorus were doubtless challenged by set pieces (credit given to Opera de Montreal) with compact stage space. Though conceptually beautiful, the Temple — swept in purifying soft shades of blue, a motif for the sets — seemed randomly besieged by congregants. To Montavon’s credit, the varying presence of Doric columns on a stage-wide platform with stairs leading to two landings left little room downstage and only a few feet from the pit to work with. Of “special mention” quality is the lighting of David Gano — faintly fading across wide gulfs of the color spectrum is analogous to mystifying and winding dramaturgical currents in Act II.

Robert Carreras

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Nabucco_PBO_01.gif image_description=Mark Rucker as Nabucco [Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Opera] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco product_by=Nabucco: Mark Rucker (12/10 & 12/12) / Sebastian Catana (12/11 & 12/13); Abigaille: Paoletta Marrocu (12/10 & 12/12) / Csilla Boross (12/11 & 12/13) ; Zaccaria: Dmitry Belosselskiy; Fenena: Laura Vlasak Nolen; Ismaele: Adam Diegel; High Priest of Baal: Harold Wilson; Abdallo: Evanivaldo Correa Serrano. Conductor: Bruno Aprea. Director: Guy Montavon. Set: Opéra de Montréal. Palm Beach Opera Orchestra and Chorus. product_id=Above: Mark Rucker as Nabucco

All photos courtesy of Palm Beach Opera
Posted by Gary at 5:41 PM

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Covent Garden

Eighteen months later, under the revival director, Justin Way, the singing is still of a consistently high quality, at times reaching giddy heights, the costumes are just as gaudily dazzling, and the setting zany, even giddily anarchic. But, like a magnum of vintage champagne, its glossy labels promising much but the bottle left uncorked just a bit too long, this first night performance was distinctly lacking in fizz, the whole experience dramatically rather flat. When one of the best of all buffa operas struggles to raise a laugh in its opening hour, you know that something is not quite right.

There were certainly no complaints about the assembled cast of principals. American tenor, John Osborn, was musically and dramatically at ease in the role of Count Almaviva, delivering his opening aria, ‘Ecco ridente’, nonchalantly balanced in the twilit branches beneath the window of his beloved’s boudoir. His voice is quite light, and lacks a truly resonant gleam, but Osborn’s tone is sweet and relaxed, his phrases musically shaped and his projection even. His gentle lyricism deftly conveyed the Count’s heartfelt ardour and the anguish of unrequited love; and he displayed a similarly tender tenore di grazia in his Act 2 ‘Cessa di piu resistere’. As the evening progressed Osborn settled comfortably into the comic capers, enjoying the obsequious fawning of music-maestro, Alonso, and making a convincing and likeable drunken rabble-rouser.

As the self-important factotum, Transylvanian baritone, Levente Molnár, exhibited a powerful vocal instrument and bracing stage presence in the role of Figaro. Emerging from among the ranks of a surprised stall’s audience, springing athletically onto the stage, he brought an extrovert swagger to the role of barber and man-about-town. The energy of his entry was sustained throughout, but I thought there was a bit too much bluster and bluff, and a tendency to shout, particularly at the start. However, he certainly had the measure of the tongue-twisting text in ‘Largo al factotum’.

Bruno Praticò, as Doctor Bartolo, delivered his patter in similarly impressive and slick style in his Act 1 aria, ‘A un dottor delta mia sorte’, and demonstrated a sure sense of comic timing. But, he was ‘out-done’ in the comedy stakes by the extraordinary performance of Russian bass, Ildar Abdrazakov, whose powerful boom was almost over-shadowed by his astonishing physical exploits, which suggested that this Basilio was not only warped by malice and envy but truly demented!

Among this strong cast, the star of the show was, however, Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak. Only the previous day, Kurzak had signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca, and the studio must be delighted and excited to have ‘hooked’ a singer who is certainly a luminary in the making. Kurzak combines technical assurance with an innate sense of dramatic pacing. The pyrotechnics scarcely caused her to bat an eyelid: she made it sound entirely natural to leap between registers and ornament extravagantly — seldom can coloratura have seemed so ‘normal’ a means of communication. Her effortless delivery, swooning sweetness turning to steely feistiness in a flash, was utterly bewitching. And she knows how to play the audience, her petulant dart-throwing in the middle of a sparkling, nimble ‘Una voce poco fa’, prompted the first real laugh, as Rosina’s ‘goodness’ — ‘I’m obedient, gentle, and loving’ — was ironically belied by a sudden flash of adolescent rage.

BARBIERE-10013_0019-MOLNAR&.gifLevente Molnár as Figaro and John Osborn as Count Almaviva

The designs are inventive and Christian Fenouillat’s minimalist sets eye-catching: a crescent moon against a purple sky gleamingly illuminates a silhouetted tree beneath Rosina’s balcony; stripy pastel clashes and playful postmodern dots are eye-watering, and emphasise the surreal air of anarchy. This visual playfulness is aptly complemented by the costumes of Agostino Cavalca.

Rory Macdonald conducted the ROH orchestra in a precise but unexhilarating reading of the score, accurate and crisply articulated but lacking frisson or a sense of risk. The greatest sense of danger came in the Act 1 finale, when the wildly tilting stage threatened to tip and toss the chorus of plastic-gowned gendarmes — who struggled gamely to stay upright but gave little impression of knowing what they would do if they did regain the perpendicular — into a muddled mound. There was a sense of impending doom as stage and pit also went adrift. Plenty of chaos, but not much comedy.

BARBIERE-10013_0005-GRICE&O.gifDaniel Grice as Fiorello, John Osborn as Count Almaviva and The Royal Opera Chorus

During the first revival, American soprano, Joyce DiDonato, did indeed take a tumble, breaking her leg in the process, and was forced to deliver the remainder of the run wheel-chair bound. Perhaps it was the added sense of unpredictably that this lent to the proceedings that kept me on the edge of my seat last time around. The dress rehearsal for this revival did in fact suffer its own near-disaster, when the stage set and machinery refused to co-operate and the cast had to perform in front of the safety curtain, the chorus singing from the stalls. It seems that this revival needs a touch of the unexpected to add a little spontaneity and surprise.

Claire Seymour

Click here for Claire’s review of the first revival.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/BARBIERE-10014_0313-KURZAK-.gif image_description=Aleksandra Kurzak as Rosina [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera House] product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia product_by=Rosina: Aleksandra Kurzak; Count Almaviva: John Osborn; Figaro: Levente Molnár; Doctor Bartolo: Bruno Praticò; Don Basilio: Ildar Abdrazakov; Berta: Jennifer Rhys-Davies; Fiorello: Daniel Grice. Directors: Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier. Conductor: Rory Macdonald. Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat. Costume designs: Agostino Cavalca. Lighting: Christophe Forey. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tuesday 18th January 2011. product_id=Above: Aleksandra Kurzak as Rosina

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera House
Posted by Gary at 4:58 PM

January 19, 2011

Mahler: Symphony no. 7

While the Seventh had been something of a stepchild among Mahler’s symphonies, conductors in the late twentieth century began to champion the work that analysts like Adorno had sometimes disparaged. Gerard Schwarz offers a solid interpretation of the Seventh Symphony that merits attention from start to finish. Schwarz’s reading of the first movement is engaging because of the tension between the sometimes expansive content and tight structure, a detail that emerges readily in this interpretation. The convention of a slow introduction that contrasts the exposition is a gesture that reaches back to the formative years of the Austro-German symphony, and Schwarz brings out these connections convincingly. At the same time, he allows the various combinations of motifs in the development to emerge through the varying tone colors, all the while guiding the direction of the movement as he leads to the recapitulation. Even there, the reprise of ideas is not an end in itself, as the piece finds the ultimate resolution in the well-paced coda.

Schwarz treats the second movement in a similarly masterful way, with the soaring melodic ideas fitting into the open-ended title of the piece as Nachtmusik, a vague idea that allows listeners to drawn connections on their own to the vivid, but ultimately non-programmatic score. This is an effective reading of the movement, with the musical space created by the off-stage instruments adding a sonic distance to the sound of the orchestra.

In a similar way the Scherzo’s marking “schattenhaft,” or “shadowy” also conveys a since of darkness that emerges readily in this performance. The Scherzo has the sense of a well-prepared drama, as the ideas follow each other with logically. If this recording seems a little brisk, it is nonetheless satisfying. In this sense, it sets up the second “Nachtmusik,” the lingering slow movement that serves as the counterpart to the second movement. Schwarz’s interpretation is appropriately romantic, with the rich orchestration nicely articulated. The strings are at the core of the movement, and the tone is a point of reference for the various winds and brass that intersect, with the movement ending so convincingly that the opening of the Finale truly comes as a bit of a surprise.

As with the Scherzo, the Rondo-Finale seems initially brisk, but the quick tempo is not an affection. Rather, Schwarz established a momentum that allows him to fit the contrasting episodes into his conception of the entire movement. This musical logic contributes to the success of the movement, which can sound like a series of loosely connected episodes in the hands of some conductors. Instead, Schwarz offers a nice balance between the rondo theme and the episodes, so that the movement leads to the concluding passages with which the entire symphonic structure comes to a satisfying ending.

Those unfamiliar with Schwarz’s interpretations of Mahler’s music may find this recording to be a good introduction. Other recent Mahler discs by Schwarz include his reading of the Ninth Symphony, also with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. While the balance is occasionally tipped toward the brass and winds, this never gets in the way of hearing Schwarz’s interpretation. Likewise, the horns sound sometimes a bit pushed, but that is a small quibble in the larger context of a laudable effort.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 7

product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 7
product_by=Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Gerard Schwarz, conductor.
product_id=Artek AR-0043-2 [CD]

Posted by jim_z at 7:27 PM

La Bohème at Covent Garden, 2009

John Copley’s very traditional staging of Puccini’s La Bohème debuted in 1974, and as Copley notes in a brief bonus interview feature, such tenor stars as Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras have dressed as Rodolfo on these sets. In the Blu-Ray picture, the crisp picture locates no obvious signs of age in the sets — at least, in physical deterioration. Whenever any stage action departs from the classic depiction of young love in Paris, there’s an air of a desperate effort to bring something fresh to a decades-old production. Thus, when Schaunard and Colline enter in act one, why are they accompanied by two silent women who help unload the groceries and then disappear? And why in act four does Marcello need a live nude model to inspire him as he sings of his former love, alongside Rodolfo?

Perhaps this old-style show needs star power, however, to make its greatest impact. This 2009 performance is pleasant enough, but none of the four key leads has anything particularly distinctive to offer, making the performance as whole rather forgettable. Certainly tenor Teodor Ilincai poses no threat to his “Three Tenor” predecessors. A baby-faced young man, his middle voice is pleasant but punchless, and the tight top dampens the the intended thrill of the high notes. Intonation is inconsistent, as well. As Mimi, Hilda Gerzmava possess more vocal security throughout her range. As an actress, however, she has little of either Mimi’s vulnerability. Gabriele Viviani’s Marcello captures the handsome, hulky side of the role physically, bu the generic nature of his instrument dulls the total effect. Inna Dukack struts as a Musetta should do in act two, squabbles as she should in act three, and softens appropriately in the tragic act four. Her big act two aria, however, feels mannered. The supporting cast politely refrains from stealing any scenes.

The truly interesting young star here can be found in the pit — conductor Andris Nelsons. He provides the precise rhythmic support that bounces along with the hi-jinks and keeps the romantic and tragic passages from turning maudlin. He gets his own brief interview bonus feature as well.

Memorable modern stagings of Bohème on DVD elude your reviewer’s memory. However, there are any number of options when it comes to traditional versions such as this one, and with more impressive signing from well-known names. Some people can never have enough of Puccini’s Parisian masterpiece, though, and this perfectly acceptable performance will undoubtedly please them.

Chris Mullins


image_description=Giacomo Puccini: La bohème

product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La bohème
product_by=Rodolfo: Teodor Ilincai; Mimì: Hibla Gerzmava; Marcello: Gabriele Viviani; Musetta: Inna Dukach; Colline: Kostas Smoriginas; Schaunard: Jacques Imbrailo; Benoit: Jeremy White; Alcindoro: Donald Maxwell. Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra. Andris Nelsons, conductor. John Copley, stage director. Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, December 2009.
product_id=Opus Arte OABD7060D [Blu-Ray]

Posted by chris_m at 2:48 PM

James Gilchrist, Wigmore Hall

But such sanguinity was almost immediately disturbed and ultimately dispelled. Although never melodramatic (there was little of the painfully intense brooding and wrought self-examination of Bostridge, Padmore or Scholl), Gilchrist and his accompanist, Anna Tilbrook, shaped the narrative effectively, subtly pointing the changes of mood: thus, shifts from hope to despair, from introspection to anger, seemed inevitable, never exaggerated, as the psychology of the drama unfolded in a controlled, naturalistic manner. The naïve enthusiasm of the opening gave way to a resigned weariness and deeply expressive poignancy at the close of the cycle; the sustained and penetrating stillness and quietude which following the final cadence, revealed that the audience, almost unconsciously swept along on the journey which began so hopefully, truly shared the protagonist’s surprise at his ultimate failure and disappointment.

Gilchrist’s light tenor and distinct diction (all well-shaped vowels and crisp consonants but never mannered) perfectly conveyed the ebullient mood of ‘Das Wandern’ (‘Journeying’). Assertive, dynamic playing by Anna Tilbrook conjured a lively brook, the precise and springy rhythms aptly conjuring the bubbling, restless water. Throughout Tilbrook took an active role in the narrative: the regularity and clarity of the whirling cycles of the mill in ‘Halt!’ and ‘Am Feierabend’ (‘When the work is done’), suggested both the literal power of the mechanism and the figurative fixedness of the forces that the young wanderer must face. Indeed, despite the happy ambience of the opening song, one might have intimated a subtle but insistent menace in the incisiveness of the brook’s tireless energy, which here positively supports the wanderer’s song but which later becomes an insistent tremor — the ‘murmuring friend’ in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (‘Thanksgiving to the brook’) — and finally a threatening ‘roar’ (in ‘Mein’) which haunts, undermines and overcomes him.

Despite possessing a naturally light-grained voice, Gilchrist subtly used tone and colour to indicate the wanderer’s psychological journeying and wavering. Thus, the light headiness of ‘Wohin?’ (‘Where to?’) expressed his excited anticipation, while in ‘Halt’ Gilchrist adopted a more resonant timbre upon arriving at the mill. Similarly, the subdued, introspective questioning of ‘Der Neugierige’ (‘The inquisitive one’) — “tell me, brooklet, does she love me?” — gave way first to an sudden, excited outburst when he is sure of the mill girl’s love — “the maid of the mill I love is mein!”; the persistence of the repeated phrase hinted at the young man’s growing self-delusion. Replaced by a harder, more urgent tone in ‘Tränenregen’ (‘Rain of tears’), the vocal colours modulated into bitterness in ‘Die böse Farbe’ (‘The hateful colour’) . Confident and comfortable across all registers, Gilchrist was particularly controlled at the height of his tessitura, in the superbly sustained arcs of ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ and in the more angry protestations of ‘Der Jäger’ (‘The Hunter’).

Rhythm and pace were handled with similar expertise; slight rallentandi at the close of songs permitted a fluent progression to the next, effectively sustaining the narrative momentum. Pauses were meticulously judged — as in ‘Der Neugierige’, where expressive dissonances and inconclusive melodic lines were skilfully crafted to convey impending meditative melancholy: “one little word is ‘yes’,/ the other is ‘no’/ by these two little words/my whole world is bounded.” In the penultimate song, ‘Der Müller und die Bach’ (‘The miller and the brook’), Gilchrist’s almost imperceptible hesitations suggested that the wanderer was lost in his own disillusion; detached from reality, he now dwells in imaginary realms and suicide is the only possible closure.

Tilbrook subtly pointed the oscillations between major and minor modes — the transition to the darker minor at the conclusion of ‘Mein!’ was stunningly affective — so that they served as an aural metaphor for the ironic contrast between the verdant beauty and freshness of the surrounding countryside and the wanderer’s growing disappointment as he recognises the falsity of the land’s promise.

Gilchrist’s musical intelligence is considerable, and this was a thoughtfully conceived and uniformly captivating whole. The paired songs, ‘Die liebe Farbe’ and ‘Die böse Farbe’, in which the rich greenery is first a ‘beloved’ and then a ‘hateful’ colour, were an emotional and expressive highpoint; astonishingly, while the voice almost disappeared in a pianissimo whisper, the words and their sentiment were presented with deep impact. But it was the touching simplicity of the final three songs which was most remarkable — and surprising, after the emotional troughs and peaks of the preceding songs. The pale, gentleness of the voice, defenceless against steady presence of the brook was extraordinary poignant: the significance of Tilbrook’s initial assertiveness was now apparent, the brook’s indifference to the wanderer’s deathly lullaby revealed.

Gilchrist and Tilbrook released a highly acclaimed recording of Die schöne Müllerin in 2009 on the Orchid label. That this audience was deeply affected by this live rendering of the wanderer’s tale, was attested by the long, resonant silence which followed the final cadence.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/James_Gilchrist.png image_description=James Gilchrist [Photo by Jim Four courtesy of Hazard Chase] product=yes product_title=Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin product_by=James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 17 January 2011. product_id=Above: James Gilchrist [Photo by Jim Four courtesy of Hazard Chase]
Posted by Gary at 12:03 PM

January 18, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No. 3.

Foremost on this recording is the clean playing, which emerges well in the solid acoustics of the recording. A “live” recording made in September 2007 at the Barbican, London, the sound has the qualities of a traditional studio recording, with any ambient sounds minimal at best. More than that, Mahler’s colorful orchestration is captured effectively, starting with the various tone colors of the first movement, the large-scale introduction and march with which the piece begins. Here the solo sections seem prominent, and in his interpretation Gergiev has allowed various performers a comfortable amount of time with their solos. The oboe is more languid than other conductors offer, and the trombone, to cite another example, has plenty of time for the various solo lines. These interpretive decisions contribute to the length of this performance, which treats the various sections of the score individually, with the whole coming together near the end of the performance. Lasting just over 32 minutes, this recording of the first movement offers a spacious reading, which is issued as the first of the two discs in the set.

The remaining movements of the Symphony are found on the second disc, and occupy about 70 minutes, with the entire work being 92 minutes. The slow movement, Mahler’s Tempo di menuetto, receives a meditative reading in Gergiev’s hands, with the approach sometimes challenging the phrase structure of the music. A similar approach occurs in the Scherzo, with the “Posthorn” nicely played, but somewhat more extended in the context of the entire work. The result is certainly clear playing, but the benefit of the technical clarity sometimes challenges the cohesiveness of the structure of the movement.

At the same time, this recording includes a well-considered interpretation of the fourth movement, Mahler’s setting of a text from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra in the movement once entitled “What the night tells me.” Anna Larsson delivers a well-considered interpretation of the piece, which is underscored by an atmospheric accompaniment. Larsson’s sustained pitches are reminiscent of her fine performances of Brangäne in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, particularly the passages denoted by sustained pitches. Those familiar with her work will appreciate Larsson's efforts in this recording.

In bringing the Third Symphony to its conclusion, Gergiev gives a lively account of the setting of the text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, “Es sungen drei Engel,” with a fine result from the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. Here the interaction with Larsson is effective, with the entire result serving the piece well. This leads to the final movement, the slow and majestic conclusion of the work which Mahler once entitled “What love tells me.” A set of variations, this movement benefits from clearly differentiated textures, which occurs here. The structure of the Finale leads to the climax, which Gergiev delivers with aplomb. Yet the final gesture, the coda of the movement, seems uncharacteristically brisk compared to what came before it in this performance.

This recording offers some fine playing by the London Symphony Orchestra, with the very immediate sound of the ensemble effectively reproduced. If at times the brass seem forward, it is never at the expense of the larger balance between sections, which generally works well. While Gergiev’s reading is sometimes methodical, it merits attention, especially in the context of other recent recordings of Mahler’s Third that have been issued recently.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 3

product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 3
product_by=Anna Larsson, alto, Tiffin Boys Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra. Valery Gergiev, conductor.
product_id=LSO 6603 [2SACDs]

Posted by jim_z at 2:00 PM

January 16, 2011

The Magic Flute and La Traviata, New York

But what about the individual institutions that make Lincoln Center the landmark it is? How can we make them as welcoming?

On January 6, the Metropolitan Opera attracted a large and lively crowd for the season’s final performance of its reduced version of Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute, sung in English. Despite the family appeal, the adults in the audience still far outnumbered their younger counterparts.

Unfortunately, there were moments of obvious disconnect between conductor Erik Nielsen, the Met orchestra, and the singers. The evening got off to a rough start due to the awkward excising of the overture and some rather listless performances from Bruce Sledge as Tamino and Wendy Bryn Harmer, Jamie Barton, and Tamara Mumford as the Three Ladies. Things didn’t pick up until Nathan Gunn’s assured entrance as Papageno.

Susanna Phillips worked hard to make her Pamina three-dimensional and she succeeded despite some bizarre staging and an inexplicable costume. Bass Morris Robinson deserves kudos for his performance as Sarastro. He was one of only a few artists who made the most of singing and speaking in the audience’s vernacular. Ashley Emerson did an especially good job with her spoken scenes as Papagena and brought real charm to the role.

There are several fun moments in this production but, on the whole, the performance felt uncoordinated and severely lacking in the magic department. At the curtain call, a man sitting behind me yelled “Bravo!” when a cast member came onstage to take a bow, but then immediately turned to his companion and said, “I don’t even remember that guy!” Yes, that man in the audience can say he went to the opera and maybe he even enjoyed the 140 minutes he spent there, but the nearly instantaneous amnesia he experienced is not what opera is about. I began to wonder exactly how much putting a friendlier face on Lincoln Center has cost, and not necessarily in dollars.

_S1E3231a.gifMarina Poplavskaya as Violetta and Mattew Polenzani as Alfredo

When the audience is packed with people young and old cheering in the aisles has the battle for a more “inviting” Lincoln Center been won? Not if they’re streaming out the doors before the prima donna has taken her bow. Not if they forget about the opera they just saw before they even catch a cab at that fancy new underpass.

If Thursday night’s performance was unmemorable, Friday night’s showing of the Met’s newly acquired production of La Traviata provided plenty to think about. German director Willy Decker has not only stripped the drama to its essentials, he also effectively changed the opera’s architecture by eliding the final three acts into a single sequence. Strangely enough, this had less of an effect on the combined acts than it had on Act I, which felt weakly related to the rest of the evening. Still, the evening progressed seamlessly from the single intermission to the end, the drama unfolding at a relentless pace that illustrated both Violetta’s lifestyle and her illness.

Restructuring the opera in this manner created an added challenge for Marina Poplavskaya in the title role. In the first act her defiant and flippant Violetta spent practically the entire time posturing and posing. This could have been dramatically effective if the singing had been tossed off with more ease. As it was, both the acting and the singing felt effortful. Still, she met the trials of the long second half and her performance of “Addio, del passato” was genuinely touching.

As Alfredo, Matthew Polenzani sang with an appealing mix of passion and elegance despite a few potentially awkward staging moments. Moreover, he was the only cast member to comfortably fit Decker’s style within a greater musical context. Playing the elder Germont, Andrzej Dobber sang and acted with unusual brusqueness. Although a refreshing reminder of bourgeois prejudices, this harshness should have been better tempered with more subtle compassion in order to make his later actions logical and to soften his sound in places.

_MG_1786a.gifMattew Polenzani as Alfredo and Andrzej Dobber as Germont

Jennifer Holloway was a stylish and androgynous Flora but, because of her costuming, she got lost in the crowd despite a fine performance. In the dramatically expanded role of Dr. Grenville, Luigi Roni did an excellent job of segueing between the part as originally written and functioning as an effective personification of death. Among the comprimario parts, Maria Zifchak was excellent and underused as Annina. Juhwan Lee and Joseph Turi both made strong impressions as well.

As for the production itself, only time will tell if Decker’s version can withstand the rotating casts and quickly changing tastes that burden a repertory production of La Traviata. While the previous Met production practically engulfed singers with its fussiness, Decker’s is brilliantly and almost cruelly exposed. Furthermore, while the attractive set and nearly uniform costumes feel both contemporary and timeless, they have a whitewashing effect that the singers must fight against. A power couple such as Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon may have done it with ease, but it is difficult to imagine a pair of singers who could match their success. However, the staging and design of Decker’s production (with sets and costume designs by Wolfgang Gussmann) are intriguing and enjoyable. Like the renovations that surround the opera house, I consider the Met’s new Traviata to be a success.

Alison Moritz

Cast Lists:

W. A. Mozart: Magic Flute — Pamina: Susanna Phillips; Queen of the Night: Erika Miklosa; Tamino: Bruce Sledge; Papageno: Nathan Gunn; Speaker: Tom Fox; Sarastro: Morris Robinson; Papagena: Ashley Emerson; 1st Lady: Wendy Bryn Harmer; 2nd Lady: Jamie Barton; 3rd Lady: Tamara Mumford; Monostatos: Joel Sorensen. Conductor: Erik Nielsen. Production: Julie Taymor. Set Designer: George Tsypin. Costume Designer: Julie Taymor.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata — Violetta: Marina Poplavskaya; Alfredo: Mattew Polenzani; Germont: Andrzej Dobber; Flora: Jennifer Holloway; Annina: Maria Zifchak; Gastone: Scott Scully; Dr. Grenvil: Luigi Roni; Giuseppe: Juhwan Lee; Messenger: Joseph Turi. Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda. Production: Willy Decker.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/_S1E2849a.gif image_description=Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: The Magic Flute
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata product_by=See body of review for cast lists product_id=Above: Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

Tosca, Metropolitan Opera

The firing squad doesn’t rehearse during the exquisite music Puccini wrote to illustrate a perfectly silent, motionless dawn in Rome; instead, the Jailer plays chess with Cavaradossi. The show is still hideously ugly, no incitement to any opera-lovers ever to return to this opera, but casting three terrific singing actors in the leads—one of them a role debut, another a surprise, last-minute house debut, no less—makes a world of difference to the Tosca experience (as perhaps the presentation should be entitled). Seeing any director monkey with a theatrical machine as carefully made as Tosca, with its precise alignments of movement to music (the window that must be shut just as the cantata cuts off, the candles placed beside the corpse, the sunrise with churchbells, and dozens more), you’d think, would give opera directors pause about attempting to “improve” on a classic. But it doesn’t. They just think how much of a reputation they can make by breaking the smoothly running parts. Why don’t they just piss on it out of our sight? That would contribute as much.

TOSCA_Alagna_as_Cavaradossi.gifRoberto Alagna as Cavaradossi

However: Considering the train wreck of a year ago—was it only?—my return to Tosca proved surprisingly satisfying.

Sondra Radvanovsky was singing her first Tosca at the Met—was it her first anywhere? She has a big voice—Met-sized, I’d call it. Too, she is a handsome woman and a passionate actress, with excellent stage instincts. She has been known to go overboard at times, and she did so here, in the outsize boohoos that ornamented her response to her lover’s apparent treachery in Act I, and in the “roll in the hay” under Cavaradossi on the church floor, but opera, especially Verismo opera, is an art with room for going overboard that is not often utilized these days, or not by singers, or not by singers with any gift for high style. I found her thrilling in the part.

My doubts about Radvanovsky have to do with a basic harshness of her instrument. The color does not always give pleasure in sensuous roles with a touch of bel canto to them, such as Leonora (her signature part) or Elena. But Tosca does not fall into that category: Even at her most sensuous, this woman is brittle, excited, suspicious, a little frantic. Radvanovsky inhabited Tosca as Tosca has not been inhabited in the Met for some time. Just don’t expect any Tebaldi or Caballé legatos.

TOSCA_Struckmann_and_Radvan.gifFalk Struckmann as Scarpia and Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca

Marcelo Álvarez was to have sung Cavaradossi. He withdrew mere hours before the performance, and Roberto Alagna, who was in town to sing Don José and has never sung Cavaradossi here, stepped in for him. What a treat! It says a great deal for Mr. Alagna’s stage sense, which has never been in doubt, that he rarely seemed confused by this unpredictable and complicated staging. His singing, a bit tentative and low-powered at first, built in the course of the evening to the appropriate fire and polish for “Vittoria, vittoria!” His “E lucevan le stelle” was not the most sensuous or dreamy account one has heard of it, but it was gritty and real, poignant and despairing. There was genuine chemistry between him and his Floria, and genuine shock on her part when she found he was dead.

Falk Struckmann is more actor than voice, and Scarpia rewards such talent. He did not overdo the gross touches director Luc Bondy inserted into this staging, and his authority and brutality were in no doubt, but he used them suavely, not overbearingly: a commanding figure, not a gross one. This led to one moment of great humor: When Tosca informed him she intended to leave Rome (after yielding to his lust), Struckmann’s Scarpia parodied a tearful admirer, sentimentally brokenhearted by the news—sarcastically amused by her melodramatic reaction. Too, he was laughing when he assaulted her at last, so that we could enjoy his furious discomfiture the more.

Two further things added to my enjoyment: On this the first night in the production (and with no rehearsal for one of the leading singers), no one seemed to be staring at the conductor, Marco Armiliato, who pieced the well-molded parts of the Tosca jigsaw puzzle together with admirable skill and precision, drowning no one out, foreshadowing and echoing with precision. Second, they have figured out how to mime Tosca’s leap into space without forfeiting either probability or the desired shock.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Tosca_Met_2010-11_01.gif image_description=Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca product_by=Tosca: Sondra Radvanovsky; Cavaradossi: Roberto Alagna; Scarpia: Falk Struckmann; Angelotti: Peter Volpe. Conducted by Marco Armiliato. Metropolitan Opera, performance of January 10. product_id=Above: Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:15 PM

The Art of the Countertenor

This recital of gems from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries undoubtedly confirmed why Davies deserves such acclamations. Moreover, a concert of two distinct halves, it demonstrated the extraordinary range of his technical accomplishments, musical insights and dramatic embodiments. Unaffected and assured, he does not seek to impose himself upon the music; rather, his easeful stage presence and innate appreciation of the requirements of each particular musical medium allows the music itself to rise to the fore. The voice never distracts; it is only at the final cadence that one realises how supremely the song has been served.

We began in the seventeenth century with an exquisitely compiled and meticulously researched programme. Not only were the names unfamiliar but works were chosen to demonstrate idiosyncratic, and often unusual, qualities. Benedetto Ferrari’s triple-time, ‘Voglio di vita uscir’ (‘I want to depart this life’) introduced us to the Italian court musician, librettist and theorbo player’s penchant for the chaconne bass. Davies’ fresh, unaffected voice moved effortlessly between registers, particularly in the expressive recitative with which the song closes.

In ‘Figlio dormi’ (‘Sleep son’) by Giovanni Girolami Kapsberger — a celebrated virtuoso on the lute and theorbo — accompanist Richard Egarr’s gentle introduction and delicate instrumental episodes summoned to mind the affectionate, tender strumming of the lute. Embellishments were relished by both performers, and perfectly judged. This traditional ‘Ninna la nanna’ lullaby charmed and calmed; in contrast, the continuous, oscillating, two-note motif which underpins Tarquinio Merula’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’ bewitched and disconcerted, before the consoling serenity of the final major key cadences.

Listening to Richard Egarr’s accompaniments was the aural equivalent of watching a painter at work. Relaxed and confident, instinctively attuned to the ‘colours’ of each song, Egarr selected just the right tints and shades from an extraordinarily rich palette of tones and textures. The ground bass in Ferrari’s devotional cantata, ‘Quest pungenti spine’ was superbly realised; the surprising dissonances between voice and harpsichord were piquantly emphasised but never exaggerated. Davies’ breath control is extraordinary and was on display in a variety of contexts: in the extravagant vocal gymnastics of the more elaborate coloratura episodes of cantatas by Porpora and Vivaldi; in Antonio’s Cesti’s intricate, freely exploratory lines in ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ (‘Gape open, ye abysses’); and also here in Ferrari’s long-held, tender opening notes. From the initial lyrical tranquillity, the countertenor found just the right sentiment of yearning and ‘sweet torment’, building as the lines become more florid and impassioned, to an ecstatic conclusion: “my Lord and God;/ they are the divine arrows/ that, softened and tempered/ by heaven’s fire/ attract and delight — ”. The chaconne bass is interrupted four times by recitative refrains, and the performers’ mastery of the formal structure more than matched their command of musical detail — and their delight in the harmonic pungencies.

The second half saw us on the more familiar terrain of the eighteenth century. In Porpora’s cantata, ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’ (‘Ah, if only my heart’), Davies revealed his dramatic poise, moving effortlessly between the moods of the successive recitatives and arias. Vivaldi’s ‘Pianti, sospiri’ (‘Weeping, sighing’) drew forth the peaks of Davies’ technical armoury — his projection, pacing, ornamental invention and virtuosic elasticity quite simply took one’s breath away. However complicated the line, the voice remained unhindered and light.

In between the vocal treasures, Egarr offered readings of Frescobaldi’s ‘Se l’aura spira’ and ‘Capriccio sopra Ut re mi fa sol la’, and Handel’s Suite in D (HMV428), exploiting texture to create a remarkable ‘dynamic’ variety; the pianissimo passages were particularly beautiful. Expertly shaping harmonic sequences and cadences, Egarr assembled the architectural forms of Handel’s Suite like a master builder.

The encores — an athletic showcase from Partenope and the lovely Irish folksong, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ — demonstrated the performers’ unpretentious, genuine and infectious joy in the music and its performance. This recital celebrated Director John Gilhooly’s 10 years at Wigmore Hall. He could not have wished for a more glorious musical tribute.

Claire Seymour


Ferrari‘Voglio di vita uscir’
Kapsberger ‘Figlio dormi’
Frescobaldi Toccata Settima from Il secondo libro (solo harpsichord)
Frescobaldi ‘Se l’aura spira’
Ferrari ‘Queste pungenti spine’
Frescobaldi ‘Capriccio sopra Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la’ (solo harpsichord)
Cesti Selino’s Lament: ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ from L’Argia
Merula ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’
Porpora Cantata: ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’
Handel Suite No.3 in D minor HWV428 (solo harpsichord)
Vivaldi Cantata: Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede

image=http://www.operatoday.com/587.jpg image_description=Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt] product=yes product_title=The Art of the Countertenor product_by=Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Richard Egarr, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 13th January 2011 product_id=Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
Posted by Gary at 12:48 PM

January 14, 2011

Ghost Opera & A Chinese Home

By Peter McCallum [Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 2011]

GHOST OPERA is not an opera in any normal use of the term but an evocative name for a theatrically presented Quintet for Strings and Pipa (which doesn't quite have the same ring). More to the point, it is an example of the fondness of the composer Tan Dun for bringing playful and imaginative theatrical dimensions to concert works, and of the Kronos Quartet's unique capacity to realise such boundary-pushing.

Posted by Gary at 3:23 PM

January 12, 2011

Carmen, I've cracked you

By Daniel Kramer [The Guardian, 12 January 2011]

In 2007, after six years working as a theatre director, the English National Opera asked me to direct Harrison Birtwistle's opera Punch and Judy. I was joyous - until I heard the music. It sounded like mutant toads belching on a broken assembly line. But I had to make it work. I locked myself up for six weeks and listened to the music over and over, forcing myself to try to understand what each clarinet and trumpet, each wacky drum beat was saying.

Posted by Gary at 3:33 PM

Taking Gilbert & Sullivan Seriously

By Heidi Waleson [WSJ, 12 January 2011]

The trick to presenting a very familiar work like Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" (1885) is to make the audience see and hear it as if for the first time. Lyric Opera of Chicago accomplishes that with its new production. The stage director, Gary Griffin, the associate artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and the conductor, Andrew Davis, the music director of Lyric Opera, take this comic masterpiece seriously, casting it with real voices and banning all mugging.

Posted by Gary at 3:26 PM

January 11, 2011

Simon Boccanegra, Bologna 2007

The conducting of youthful Michele Mariotti finds all the pathos, beauty and drama of Simon Boccanegra’s score. Guido Fiorate provides both the traditional, beautifully detailed costumes and a brilliantly constructed abstract set. Where pertinent, an expansive background of blue suggests the sea. The winding streets of the town, suggestive of the labyrinthine politics, find shape in shifting walls of black and white stripes. Director Giorgio Gallione mostly avoids clichéd gestures, and with the best performers in the show, he prompts some fine stage acting.

Ultimately, however, the effect of all this accomplishment is muted by too much ordinary signing in principal roles. Right at the top, Roberto Frontali as the title character can only sing with satisfactory control at higher volume. He rarely attempts softer signing, and as the role proceeds, his tone loosens. In the key role of the Amelia, the daughter long lost to Boccanegra, Carmen Giannattasio comes on stage with what is arguably the opera’s best-known aria, a gorgeous set-piece that she mars with surprisingly mature tone (she is quite youthful and attractive). Later her voice settles somewhat but she is never able to offer anything distinctive in the role. Callow and routine, tenor Giuseppe Gipali sings the role of Amelia’s love interest, completing a trio of leads whose lack of energy and imagination drains much potential drama from the production.

There are two worthy performers. As Boccanegra’s rival, Giacomo Prestia avoids villainous cliché, retaining a sense of wounded dignity. The voice is more than dark and solid enough to impress as well. Marco Vratogna takes the smaller role of the scheming conspirator Paolo Albiani and steals every scene he is in. His is not the handsomest of voices, but it has real body, and he is a committed actor with a strong stage presence. Part of that presence is his handsome shaved head, which allows, in frequent close-ups, views of the mics used these days for optimal audio recording. If a viewer looks closely, other such mics can be seen in other performer’s hair/wigs. It’s unfortunate that in order to film the production with top quality sounds, the visual element has to be compromised with these mics. But that’s how it is.

Filmed versions of this opera don’t pop up all that frequently. Presumably the Metropolitan Opera will soon make available its recent HD movie-cast version, with Placido Domingo taking on the title role. He has more conviction than Frontali, and a more beautiful voice, but whether his is a voice appropriate for the role remains highly controversial. The rest of the Metropolitan cast is not particularly special, and the production is heavy and dark. So this Bologna version of Simon Boccanegra would be the DVD to beat, if only the singing were consistently effective.

Chris Mullins


image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
product_by=Simon Boccanegra: Roberto Frontali; Amelia Grimaldi: Carmen Giannattasio; Jacopo Fiesco: Giacomo Prestia; Paolo Albiani: Marco Vratogna; Pietro: Alberto Rota; Capitano dei balestrieri: Enea Scala; Ancella di Amelia: Lucia Michelazzo. Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Comunale di Bologna (chorus master: Paulo Vero). Michele Mariotti, conductor. Giorgio Gallione, stage director. Guido Fiorato, costume and set design. Daniele Naldi, lighting design. Recorded live from the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, 2007.
product_id=ArtHaus Musik 101307 [DVD] | 101308 [Blu-Ray]
price=$29.99 (DVD)

Posted by chris_m at 9:00 AM

Il barbiere di Siviglia in Montpellier

Montpellier’s old Comedie would have been a perfect venue for Rossini’s most famous comedy, but this fine, late-nineteenth century Italian style theater is closed for renovation. This left the huge, ultra-modern Théâtre Berlioz, a barn-of-a-theater that the Opéra National de Montpellier often makes work against all odds.

The solution for presenting Le Barbier de Seville in this vast space was to import an existing production from another barn-of-a-theater, the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The Deutsch Oper had some solutions of its own for blowing up Rossini’s diminutive masterwork to sufficient size to fill up its vast space.

To wit, performing it as a sort of commedia dell’arte on a stage wagon pulled by a tractor onto a beachfront esplanade in front of a lively square that was perhaps Seville. Though of course Seville is nowhere near any sea. There was a beach, and we presumably sat on it to watch the show, together with various little families, lovers, same-sex lovers and a donkey all of whom from time to time were doing their own thing.

It is Berlin after all, where artistic choices are sometimes questionable though usually amusing. The Deutsche Oper had hired Katharina Thalbach, a protégé of Brecht’s theatrically chic Berliner Ensemble, to stage the opera. Thus Rossini’s hyper-sophisticated early nineteenth century opera would have the gloss of hyper-sophisticated mid-twentieth century theater. It was simply the old-hat trick of a play within a play.

If you are getting the idea that all this could not possibly work you are absolutely right. And worse placing Rossini’s opera within quotation marks distanced us from Rossini’s inimitable musical immediacy. The theatrics were indeed clever (and there were abundant antics by the crowd watching [or not] the silly play to keep us amused). The great Rossini was reduced to a small stage on the stage. And the pit.

The Opéra National de Montpellier had made its choices too. A big theater demands a big conductor, and the Italian maestro Stefano Ranzani was an obvious choice, with credits of the biggest repertory in the biggest theaters. A lot of big music resulted, and of course some weird tempi. And there was even some Rossini to be heard though this was perhaps the first Rossini this maestro ever conducted — no Rossini credits were listed in his program biography.

There were even a few times when a modest Rossini boil was achieved, but those were moments when the maestro was aided by the two veteran Rossinians in the cast, Simone Alaimo as Basilio and Alberto Rinaldi as Bartolo. It was a hint of what Rossini can be but almost never is in great big theaters.


Bartolo’s ward and intended bride Rosina was Georgian mezzo soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze, a recent winner of the Placido Domingo competition (among many other competitions). Appropriately for winning competitions and for Rossini’s Rosina, Mlle. Kemoklidze exhibited boundless confidence. She possesses an unusually bright mezzo voice, a winning stage presence and obviously sings quite well.

Her lover Almaviva was Italian tenor Filippo Adami who sang very well too, and attacked Rossini’s fioratura with cool bravura. Mr. Adami possesses a voice with a fine edge and not much sweetness, attributes that would be more appreciated in productions with specific Rossini musico-dramatic values.

If Mlle. Kemoklidze and Mr. Adami came across as sophisticated performers, young French Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, the Figaro, presented himself as a consummately charming performer, but one who does not yet possess the finesse and bravura to fully anchor Rossini’s comedy.


These three young performers are representative of a fine new generation of opera singers, well prepared vocally and musically, and willing and able to fit themselves into whatever directorial visions may occur. This Montpellier staging was obtuse, complex and demanding. These performers made all possible effort to pull it off, and they did. Bravo!

The mid-winter holidays are festive, and entertainments are meant to be festive. If nothing else Le Barbier de Seville in Montpellier was just that. Unlike Berlin, there are actually fine beaches not far away where we will soon find ourselves. All said and done this production was maybe right at home in Montpellier.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Gioacchino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

product_title=Gioacchino Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia
product_by=Rosina: Ketevan Kemoklidze; Almaviva: Filippo Adami; Figaro: Etienne Dupuis; Bartolo: Alberto Rinaldi; Basilio: Simone Alaimo; Berta: Laura Cherici; Fiorello: Igor Gnidii; Un officier: Laurent Serou. Direction musicale: Stefano Ranzani. Metteur en Scène: Katharina Thalbach. Décorateur: Momme Röhrbein. Costumes: Guido Maria Kretschmer. Lumières: Bernd Hassel. Chef des Choeurs: Noëlle Geny.
product_id=All photos by Marc Ginot / Opéra National de Montpellier.

Posted by michael_m at 3:52 AM

January 10, 2011

NY Phil/Adès/Hampson, Avery Fisher Hall, New York

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 10 January 2011]

The New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert moved in three directions on Thursday. The concert began with hum-along Mozart, the Symphony No. 40, and then surveyed the heartbreak of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The big news, however, involved a local premiere: Thomas Adès’s In Seven Days.

Posted by Gary at 3:36 PM

January 9, 2011

King Roger at Bregenz Festival 2009

Let’s call them “vampire” operas, and one such is the sole operatic creation of Karol Szymanowski, composer and co-librettist (with Jaroslaw Iwasszkiewicz) of King Roger. This DVD set’s excellent booklet essay (written by Christoph Schlüren and translated by J. Bradford Robinson) describes this as an obscure work admired mostly by “connoisseurs and composers.” That might do well to characterize all of Szymanowski’s compositions, with his violin concertos being the pieces most likely to earn an occasional recording and, less often, make a concert hall appearance. The seductiveness of King Roger lies in its texturally rich score, a silky fabric of lushness and languidity, with ecstatic outbursts. The danger is in believing, with its libretto that Schlüren tactfully describes as lacking “dramatic fibre,” that King Roger can hold the stage in any conventional sense.

For the 2009 Bregenz Festival (in its “house” venue, not at the lakeside theater used for the more spectacular stagings), David Pountney, never one for the conventional approach anyway, easily evaded this danger. Pountney’s staging affirms the oratorio nature of the libretto, with what action there is occurring on an oversized flight of white stair-steps that covers the stage practically from side to side and back to front. Szymanowski’s score employs a large chorus, and in act one they troop up and down the stairs in black gowns, surrounding and observing the action of the few key performers. With amazing lighting designs (by Fabrice Kebour), this single set serves as the varying locations of the three acts, but as the narrative never seems concerned with conventional scene setting anyway, this is no detriment.

The booklet omits any synopsis, probably because none is really needed. In a remote time, a King is warned that a stranger has appeared whose presence is both beguiling and alarming the populace. When this man, referred to as the Shepherd, is denounced by the Archbishop as a heretic and threatened with death, the King’s wife Roxana, besotted, asks that the Shepherd be given a chance to demonstrate his good intentions. Soon the Shepherd has enchanted the populace, and by act three, a Dionysian orgy is underway — where the opera suddenly ends, with King Roger apparently now under the sway of the Shepherd and the old order in tatters.

Pountney therefore begins the opera rather solemnly and simply, but things get a bit wild in act two, where the Shepard wears — and not well — the same bold red gown as Roxana. And both gowns have the same ghastly red fabric flower stitched to the front, enough to make Michael Kors’ mouth pucker in disgust (not that Kors’s mouth ever doesn’t do that). In act three, after a wild night, the King sports the dress, or what’s left of it, and quite a lot of smeared blood as well. By the time King Roger raises his blood-smeared arms to the rising sun, the orgy participants have left, leaving the once pristine white stairs sprinkled with crimson.

Thomas Hampson has recorded the title role, and his gorgeous voice and handsome but stiff presence would work well on stage, one would imagine. Here, Scott Hendricks is game, but his instrument is rather ordinary, and he looks no better in his torn gown of red than Will Hartmann does as the Shepard (Hartmann at least gets to wear it intact, though in act three he is down to a rather frightful loincloth). To ask any tenor to create a figure of surpassing physical beauty and charisma is to ask rather too much, and as much appreciated as Mr. Hartmann’s efforts should be, he doesn’t really come up to the role’s requirements. In a role of almost no character definition, Olga Pasichnyk as Roxana does get some beautiful music, especially in an exquisite second act number. Why she should be as bald, if not balder, than her King is not clear to your reviewer.

Conductor Mark Elder clearly relishes the score, as most any conductor would, and the Wiener Symphoniker plays with delicacy and passion as needed. And this is not the amplified monstrosity of an acoustic as heard in the festival’s lakeside venue. Sound and picture are both impeccable.

Those who know — or know of- the opera should surely avail themselves of a chance to see what arguable amounts to a semi-staging, although a stylish and evocative one at its best. And even if one is not among those “connoisseurs and composers” who admire the work and the composer, this is a quality production that will reward the serious opera fan.

Chris Mullins


image_description=Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger (King Roger)

product_title=Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger (King Roger)
product_by=King Roger: Scott Hendricks; Roxana: Olga Pasichnyk; Shepherd: Will Hartmann; Edrisi: John Graham-Hall. Wiener Symphoniker. Conductor: Mark Elder. Staged by David Pountney
product_id=Unitel Classics 702808 [DVD]

Posted by chris_m at 12:00 AM

Operatic Advice and Counsel…A Welcome New Reference Book

For all the currency of a few Bizet, Massenet and Gounod chestnuts, and the occasional appearance of a well-polished rarity such as Pelleas et Melisande, French opera in general is something of a hidden treasure.

I recall around 1990 when the new Opera Bastille was being inaugurated in Paris, it opened with Berlioz’ celebrated masterwork, Les Troyens, a well-judged and appropriate nod to a great cultural history. But then, the repertory wandered off into a mix of international opera most of it with little relevance to the history of French opera. Had they wished to show the strength of France’s operatic history, Paris Opera could easily have mounted several weeks of strictly French operas, each one of them a work of merit and interest.

Splendor is what the period of mid-1800s through the first part of the 20th C. had to offer to operatic France, and to the world. I wondered at the time why French opera powers did not open their capacious new modern house in the Place Bastille with a run of French composed operas that, in addition to the Berlioz, might include two or three enduring successes of Massenet, the standards of Gounod and Ambroise Thomas, of course Charpentier’s Louise, but including later novelties such as Massenet’s Jongleur de Notre-Dame and the Marouf of Henri Rabaud, even Enesco’s Oedipe — names everyone knows from books, but who has heard them? The recent successful revival of Pelleas et Melisande, vividly conducted by Simon Rattle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, again demonstrates the durability of Debussy’s highly original masterpiece that in the right hands becomes stunning music theatre. Giroud, a distinguished librarian and music scholar, assures us there are many more waiting to be heard. So, the French are like anyone else, and maybe more so, in that genius, or at least quality, is often not recognized at home.

Mr. Giroud’s new book indirectly takes cognizance of this point, for while he necessarily includes in his chronological history, running from Rameau and Gluck to Satie and Messiaen, just about every name to be found in history books, and his commentary is always well-informed and thoughtful, the reader will profit most from his discussion of the rarities — the French operas we know of but do not know, many of which, as Giroud points out, have much to offer. For standard repertory, the reader will not experience much new insight, though the discussions are rich and balanced. On the other hand, once Faust, Carmen, Manon, Werther, Mignon, Samson et Dalila and Louise are disposed of, the new history really earns its fee with discussions of the lesser known masters of the Second Empire era when the Paris Conservatory ruled musical Europe (pace Wagner), up through the crisis of WWI, and a certain revival of composition in France in the 1920s and especially the 1930s.

I come away from Giroud keen to hear productions of Adolphe Adam, Victor Massé, Ernest Reyer, Alfred Bruneau and late Massenet (after 1900). Our author lauds the Roumanian-born, Paris-trained, Georges Enesco whose Oedipe, Giroud claims is, “the greatest French opera of the period (1936);” a current and highly regarded recording with bass Jose van Dam attests to this sound judgment.

From Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902) to Chérubin and several others, Giroud recommends the last decade of Jules Massenet’s compositions as much underrated and deserving of revival, calling Massenet a composer comparable to Puccini and Strauss who, “has yet to be fully recognized in his own country.” This opera lover was fortunate to hear in 1989 Chérubin, and in 2006, Cendrillon in original productions at Santa Fe Opera, the excellence of which supports our author’s claim. Giroud also discusses Alfred Bruneau, “a prime candidate for revival,” and he tells why. I’d love to follow his advice!

I put the new Giroud history of French opera alongside the 2008 reissue of George Whitney Martin’s great standard The Opera Companion, as must-have essentials for any opera lover’s library. Where they both treat the same material, Gounod’s Faust for example, comparison of their disparate views makes for lively reading, in fact one can say that of the whole Giroud book.

J. A. Van Sant © 2011


image=http://www.operatoday.com/French_opera.gif image_description=French Opera — A Short History product=yes product_title=French Opera — A Short History product_by=Vincent Giroud, Yale University Press, 2010 product_id=ISBN: 9780300117653 price=$30.76 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/0300117655
Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

January 7, 2011

Music at the Morgan

By Alex Ross [The Rest is Noise, 7 January 2011]

Just before Christmas, the Morgan Library unveiled digitized versions of some of the most important music manuscripts in its collection. Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony, Mahler's Fifth Symphony, and Schubert's Winterreise are among the dozens of treasures on offer. (The image above is of the first page of the Adagietto of Mahler's Fifth. Note that he writes "Molto Adagio.") The library says that in the near future more than nine hundred manuscripts will be made available. This is obviously a major resource for musicians, scholars, and music-lovers.

Posted by Gary at 12:22 PM

Rienzi on DVD

In this new DVD of Wagner’s Rienzi — the first ever full filming — from Deutsche Oper Berlin with Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, the overture is outstandingly well staged. Rienzi is alone looking out at a giant panorama of the Alps. The majesty of the mountains overwhelms : this is real power. In comparison, Rienzi’s nobody despite his status. At first he looks out imperiously, then does a dramatic acrobatic backflip. He starts to “conduct” the music he — and we — hear. Eventually the mountains transform into a vision of the world seen from space. The imagery is at once valid in itself, yet it also seemingly mimics the globe scene in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Indeed, throughout this production references to early film abound.

Don’t assume, though, this is “only” Berchtesgaden. The Alps can be seen just as clearly from Northern Italy. Strictly speaking, Rienzi isn’t really Italian, since the text is based on an English novel by eminent Victorian Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The subject’s universal — a “man of the people” versus established order who himself gets corrupted by power. Throughout this production, directed by Philip Stölzl, there are references to the early 1920’s, to early film and design. Futurism started in Italy long before the First World War. It’s preoccupation with technology and mass movements found fruit in Russia after 1917, and in German Expressionism. Since the United States was not at war with Germany when The Great Dictator was made, he had to widen his references to include other forms of fascism. Mussolini, for example, wore the white uniform Rienzi wears in this production, and which Chaplin used in his film. Rienzi is about power and the abuse thereof. It could happen anywhere. Indeed the idea of art and designer style as a tool of politics is even more relevant now, in an age of mass media manipulation.

Hence the references to film and propaganda. As Rienzi becomes more caught up with power, his hold on reality loosens. Image-building takes over. The man of the people becomes a huge face projected above the regimented, conforming masses. Theatre becomes a substitute for real life. See how the stage becomes divided. “Public” on top, “private” bunker below, where Rienzi and his intimates function pretty much alone. On the DVD, this split screen effect is particularly good as the lower part resembles film cells rolling on loop. Personality-cult dictatorships have always known the power of image creation, from Napoleon to Mao Zedong. What is the role of the artist in society? This production raises questions, from Sergei Eisenstein for Lenin and Leni Reifenstahl for Hitler.

Torsten Kerl is an excellent, charismatic Rienzi : plenty of forceful volume, yet able to convey the character’s inner virtues. He’s no simplistic stage villain. Wagner builds humanity into the part so Rienzi’s sympathetic. If he were truly ruthless, he’d have wiped out the Colonnas. Kerl’s “Allmächt’ger Vater” is particularly delicate,but throughout the opera, the non-vocal parts are surprisingly contemplative, almost dreamy, as though Wagner understands the value of being visionary. The long non-vocal passages are by no means background, but part of story. This production illustrates them without being intrusive, respecting their oblique nature. Kerl plays with “toy” houses (like empire builders and town planners do). He doesn’t have to sing but his boyish innocence suddenly breaks through the iron man exterior. At the end, Rienzi’s faith seems to rest in the ultimate good of mankind, even though he’s destroyed.

Sebastien Lang-Lessing conducts knowing how important these almost symphonic interludes are in shaping meaning — deft, understated but not overshadowed by the big vocal numbers. Kate Aldrich is an outstanding Adriano Colonna, agile, vibrant, passionate. What a part this is, wavering from one loyalty to another, always on the brink of extreme sacrifice! Aldrich’s voice expresses intensity, her acting the mercurial frisson in the part. This opera is Adriano’s tragedy almost as much as it’s Rienzi’s. Camilla Nylund does well as Irene, though the role is less demanding, and Ante Jerkunica’s a solid Colonna. But it’s the crowd scenes that impress. They’re wonderfully costumed and choreographed. Sometimes the singers march like automatons, the “ideal machine” of Futurist iconology. Sometimes they’re grotesques with masks straight out of caricature. Or Carnival, gone wrong. The singing is equally good. Mechanical precision, even in the mad scenes, showing the crowd as mindless monster.

Although Rienzi is relatively neglected, despite receiving more frequent productions in Europe, this superb new DVD could change that. At 156 minutes, it’s obviously cut from the four hour original, but that may not be a bad thing. The Sawallisch recording with René Kollo is the benchmark, but this performance is edgier and tenser — much closer to the horrible truths in the drama. Kerl’s excellent, making the purchase worthwhile for his sake alone. This performance (filmed live) is also so vivid, it’s a brilliant introduction to an aspect of Wagner that might have been had the composer chosen another direction.

Anne Ozorio


image_description=Richard Wagner: Rienzi, die letze der Tribunen

product_title=Richard Wagner: Rienzi, die letze der Tribunen
product_by=Rienzi: Torsten Kerl; Irene: Camilla Nylund; Steffano Colonna: Ante Jerkunica; Adriano: Kate Aldrich; Paolo Orsini: Krzysztof Szumanski; Cardinal Orvieto: Lenus Carlson; Baroncelli: Clemens Bieber; Cecco del Vecchio: Stephen Bronk. Berlin Deutsche Opera Chorus and Orchestra (chorus master: William Spaulding). Sebastian Lang-Lessing, conductor. Philipp Stölzl, stage director and set design. Ulrike Siegrist, set design. Kathi Maurer and Ursula Kudrna, costume design. Recorded live from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010.
product_id=ArtHaus Musik 101521 [2DVDs] | 101522 [Blu-Ray]

Posted by anne_o at 8:18 AM

January 5, 2011

Un ballo in maschera at its roots

Stage director Renata Scotto has achieved a believably dignified and fluid progression of scenes leading up to the tragedy of misunderstandings. The role of King Gustavus III of Sweden is taken by Frank Lopardo, while that of Amelia his beloved features soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Baritone Mark Delavan sings Count Anckarström, husband of Amelia as well as close friend of the King. The travesti role of the page Oscar is sung by Kathleen Kim and Mme. Arvidson signaled the debut at Lyric Opera of Stephanie Blythe. Through a sensitive approach to tempos Asher Fisch conducted a meaningful account of one of Verdi’s most lyrical scores.

Ballo_Chicago02.gifMark Delavan as Renato

The principals in the first scene of Act I establish themselves immediately in the movements and dramatic interchange of this production. The ballo of the final scene is, of course, foreshadowed now by means of a list of invited guests for the event of the present evening. As the curtain opens on the reception room of an eighteenth-century court, both supporters and detractors of Gustavus give vent to their feelings. The page Oscar, so often in this work a dramatic hinge, announces the King’s arrival with the famous line, “S’avanza il Re.” [“The King approaches”] In the role of Oscar Ms. Kim moves nimbly and projects her lines with a delighted urgency. The event of this evening’s ballo is now used as a means to stir the King’s emotions in the first of that character’s arias. When Gustavus sees in the list his beloved Amelia’s name, he sings rapturously of expecting her presence that night. Mr. Lopardo’s introductory declamation and performance of “La rivedrà nell’estasi” [“what ecstasy to see her again”] are exemplary: in both parts of the scene he demonstrates an assured skill in legato with effective touches of vocal color on significant phrases, such as “E qui sonar d’amore.” [“and music of love.”] When the petitioners are instructed to leave, Oscar shows in Count Anckarström who now advises the King on matters of the court. As he warns Gustavus of a plot against his life, Anckarström’s lines rise upward with dramatic force. A similar vocal technique is needed in the baritone Anckarström’s first solo piece, “Alla vita che t’arride,” [“To your life so promising”], which occurs before Oscar reenters. It is in such transitional moments that Mr. Delavan’s interpretation falls short. His reach to an upper register becomes noticeably detached from the preceding lines so that dramatic effects do not match his intended goal. The conclusion of this scene, devoted to varying opinions of the fortuneteller Mme. Arvidson, highlights both individual and ensemble work. Once the judge declares that Mme. Arvidson should be banished because of witchcraft, Oscar issues a spirited defense of the woman in that character’s first solo aria, “Volta la terrea” [“the sallow one turned”]. Ms. Kim tosses off this piece with secure vocal agility, while she acts out the noted appeal of the sorceress with movement and dramatic gesture. Gustavus resolves to visit her hovel despite the protestations of individual courtiers, the plan for this adventure being affirmed in a rousing conclusion.

Ballo_Chicago03.gifFrank Lopardo as Gustavo and Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica

The second scene of the act introduces both the characters Mme. Arvidson and Amelia. In her interpretation of the fortuneteller Ms. Blythe uses all facets of her rich vocal range. Her hushed, piano intonations in the first part of her incantation to Lucifer are followed by excitingly ringing top notes, while she signals her enhanced communication with the forces beyond. As she concludes with a thrilling and extended chest note on “Silenzio!”, Ms. Blythe’s disheveled persona looks truly possessed. She prophesies riches and rank for the sailor Cristiano, who is convincingly sung and acted in this production by Paul La Rosa. After he is sent off — the entire scene being observed from a distance by the disguised King Gustavus — Amelia enters and solicits the intercession for her part of Mme. Arvidson. She begs for a solution to her emotional attraction to Gustavus, which has distracted her from duty. Mme. Arvidson tells her to pick at night a magic herb growing at an isolated gallows outside the city. Even in this relatively brief exchange Ms. Radvanovsky communicates in her liquid vocal lines a sense of urgency, hinting at her extended prayer in the subsequent act. The trio which now follows indeed features her first prayer to God, while Mme. Arvidson encourages her daring to find the herb and Gustavus, still unseen, simultaneously promises to follow. [“Consentimi, o Signore” (“Grant to me, o Lord”)]. Here Ms. Radvanovsky’s voice soars in her appeals for help, such that she effectively binds the trio into a crescendo of determination. In the final part of the scene following Amelia’s departure Gustavus emerges and demands that the fortuneteller predict his future. When Mme. Arvidson sees the sign of death in his palm, the reaction “Presto morrai” [“Soon you will die”] is delivered by Ms. Blythe with chilling certainty in her intonation. Gustavus laughs off the divination and clasps the hand of Anckarström, hence sealing the prediction that he will die by the hand of the next person whom he thus greets.

In the constellation of beloved and spouse which makes up the shorter second act of Un ballo the emotions and conflicts introduced earlier develop into a turning point for the principals. After appropriately fast and bright tempi under Fisch’s direction, Amelia enters at the isolated gallows while snow falls. As she reaches for the herb, she recoils in fear, which Radvanovsky emphasizes with a distinct intonation on “terrore.” In her following aria, “Ma dall’irido stelo” [“But when from the dry stem”], she sings with great pathos, her tone moving from lament to self-encouragement and ending in the touching prayer for divine support. Throughout the aria, and notably in the final ascent and following “Miserere,” Radvanovsky exhibits the ideal Verdian soprano range, assured middle and upper registers bound seamlessly with admirable breath control. When Gustavus enters and declares “Teco io sto” [“I am here with you”], the subsequent duet allows both to admit their love. At first Amelia protests that the King should leave her, a line that Radvanovsky sings with telling diminuendo on “Mi lasciate.” During the well-known scene Lopardo’s voice blooms in lyrical abandon as Gustavus is transported by the assurance of Amelia’s love. Lopardo’s tasteful performance of top notes in the duet is matched by Radvanovsky’s line as the two singers blend vocally toward each other. Soon after the declaration of love a warning alerts the King of Cout Anckarström’s approach. Gustavus entrusts the veiled Amelia to Anckarström and asks his friend to accompany the unnamed woman back to the court. Although Anckarström had come to warn the King of a plot against his life, loyalties soon shift: Amelia’s veil drops when she tries to protect her husband and the latter perceives his wife’s emotional betrayal. In the final ensemble, at which the Count is mocked by the courtiers returning to court, Amelia’s final notes, as here performed, give expression to her sense of an undeniable love with a tragic outcome.

Ballo_Chicago05.gifSondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Frank Lopardo as Gustavo

In Act III the Count gives vent to his anger as the two arias of the first scene reflect on the couple’s marriage. When the Count threatens to have Amelia killed, she begs for the opportunity to see her child one last time. Radvanovsky’s approach to the aria, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” [“I shall die, but first in mercy”], evinces a number of vocal touches that blend ideally with the orchestra to express her character’s suffering. Once she leaves, the Count sings of his own anguish and the betrayal he feels at the King’s behavior. In Delavan’s approach to “Eri tu” [“It was you”] an admirable sense of legato is marred by an attack stronger than necessary at the beginning of lines. The conspirators now enter and the Count throws in his lot with them against the King. When Amelia returns, she is forced to choose the name of the one privileged to slay the King. As the scene ends with the Count’s name selected and the venue of the ball announced, the vocal ensemble rises in excitement to the fateful evening.

In the final scene before the ball, when the Count indeed shoots the King fatally, Gustavus performs his last aria alone, while musing on his devotion for Amelia yet his resolve to send the couple away from court. As his voice moves here through successive phrases with an exquisite sense of line, Lopardo echoes the love expressed in his earlier scenes but now with an appropriate foreboding on “del nostro amor” [“of our love”]. His inevitable death at the hands of the Count is accompanied by a moving declaration of Amelia’s innocence, her own voice then rising expressively in horror at the turn of events.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ballo_Chicago04.gif image_description=Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Frank Lopardo as Gustavo [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera product_by=Gustavo: Frank Lopardo; Amelia: Sondra Radvanovsky; Ulrica: Stephanie Blythe; Oscar: Kathleen Kim; Samuel: Craig Irvin; Tom: Sam Handley Silvano: Paul La Rosa. Conductor: Asher Fisch. Director: Renata Scotto. Lighting Designer: Christine Binder. Chorus Master: Donald Nally. product_id=Above: Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Frank Lopardo as Gustavo

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago
Posted by Gary at 3:36 PM

January 3, 2011

Hansel and Gretel, Royal Opera House, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 3 January 2011]

The most heartwarming moment at this matinee performance was the roar of applause that went up as Hansel and Gretel gleefully upended the Witch into her oven for a roasting. It had been clear in the foyer that there were a large number of children among the audience, but until then the silence in the theatre had suggested they were all asleep.

Posted by Gary at 11:20 AM

The Met's New "Traviata"

By Howard Kissel [Huffington Post, 3 January 2011]

The new production of Verdi's "La Traviata," unveiled New Year's Eve at the Metropolitan Opera, is pretty strenuous -- the singers have to do a lot of running, jumping and gymnastics. Given the Met's new adeptness at marketing, I wouldn't be surprised if they'll soon feature a "Traviata Workout" DVD in their gift shop.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

January 2, 2011

Anna Nicole: the opera

By Peter Conrad [The Observer, 2 January 2011]

Imagine the love-goddess Aphrodite fitted with silicone-swollen boobs, bloated by junk food, slowed down by pills and befogged by booze: that was Anna Nicole Smith, who is soon to wiggle, waddle and stagger across the stage of the Royal Opera House.

Posted by Gary at 11:26 AM