May 31, 2011

Bach Cantatas, volume 11

John Eliot Gardiner’s remarkable Bach Cantata Pilgrimage during the anniversary year of 2000 was in a sense leisurely—a year-long feast of cantatas—and yet also quick-paced, with each week requiring the performance of several new works in different venues. As if to underscore the characteristic slowness of pilgrimages, however, the pace of the release of the live recordings from the Pilgrimage has been unhurried—the complete run of twenty-seven volumes has taken a decade, only completed in 2010. Thus, years after the event, we still have the pleasant discovery of new offerings, as in the 2010 release of the cantatas for the Twentieth and Twenty-first Sundays after Trinity (vol. 11).

With a decade’s worth of recordings at hand, by this time it comes as no surprise that there is little to surprise, except perhaps that the ensemble was able to maintain such high quality throughout the run. In this present volume, the characteristic touches are amply present: an often high-energy exuberance, remarkable stylistic fluency, an impressive command of 18th century performance idioms, and a rich sound palette. Whatever languages they may have encountered on their geographical pilgrimage, it is clear that the language of Bach is one they speak with the natural ease of a mother tongue.

The two liturgical days represented here focus on two themes: the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22), harnessed as an anticipation of the heavenly banquet in BWV 162, 49, and 180, and Jesus’s healing of the son of a nobleman (John 4), the prompt for musical essays on faith, doubt, and trust in BWV 109, 38, 98, and 188. Some of the cantatas remind of the degree to which the language and the form were conventionalized. “Ach, ich sehe,” BWV 162, for instance, features the kind of musical-word association that was standard, with fluid melodic and rhythmic motion to suggest the “fountain of all mercy” in the soprano aria, “Jesu, Brunnquell aller Gnaden,” or a rollicking bass line and melismatic prolixity to underscore the rejoicing in the alto-tenor duet, “In meinem Gott bin ich erfreut,” sung with admirable tidiness by Sara Mingardo and Christoph Genz. Yet, there is a significant amount of material that also underscores the range of variety and special touches that Bach brought to his sometimes weekly fare. For example, “Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen,” BWV 49, offers love duets between Jesus and the Christian Soul—more familiarly explored in BWV 21—enriched by the orchestrational additions of obligato organ and violoncello piccolo. “Ich glaube, lieber Herr,” BWV 109, offers a stunningly psychological monologue in the tenor recitative “Des Herren Hand,” in which the inner voices of faith and doubt spar one with the other, sung with expressive depth by Paul Agnew. Not all the variety is innovative, of course. The first chorus of “Aus tiefer Not,” BWV 38 is an old-styled motet, though with modern harmony intact.

Most notable among the solo singers are soprano Joanne Lunn, whose clarity and purity of sound is an unalloyed delight, and countertenor William Towers, whose ease in the high range is remarkable, as is the elegance of his contoured phrasing. The ensemble is uniformly in fine form, but perhaps most memorably so in the opening chorus of “Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan,” BWV 98, where the instrumental playing is particularly refined and the choral sound at its best—admirably clear and free of constraint. Ten years is a long time from recording to release, but, as in the pilgrimage experience, good things are often well worth the wait.

Steven Plank

image_description=J. S. Bach: Cantatas, volume 11

product_title=J. S. Bach: Cantatas, volume 11 [BWV 162, 49, 180, 109, 38, 98, 188]
product_by=The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Solists; Magdalena Kozena, Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Sara Mingardo, William Towers, altos; Christoph Genz, Paul Agnew, tenors; Peter Harvey, Gotthold Schwarz, basses; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor.
product_id=SDG 168 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 12:39 PM

Le Royaume Oublié: La Tragédie Cathare

Named “Artists for Peace” by UNESCO in 2008 “for their outstanding musical commitment to intercultural dialogue and their contribution to furthering the Organization’s ideals,” Savall and his wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras in The Forgotten Kingdom present a lyrical testimony to the high human cost when power and terror conjoin. Their focus is on the eradication of the Cathar culture of Occitana in southern France in the thirteenth century, an eradication accomplished by the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition that followed in its wake. The Cathari’s heretical embrace of dualism and anti-clericalism was answered by the strong arm of Roman ecclesial power, and tragic devastation accompanied the uprooting of the heresy; the killing of 20,000 residents of Beziers in 1209 suggests the scale of both the response and the tragic results. Savall’s work here is in part a musical excavation of this landscape, but is more prominently an explicit political reminder that our modern history resounds with the echoes. He writes of humankind’s “terrible amnesia” as “one of the principal causes of our inability to learn from history”; with references to Franco, Hitler, and the more recent wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq he underscores the persistence of that tragic inability.

The music ranges over several centuries. Some of it—fanfares, a haunting funeral march, and the like--is dramatic, even cinematic, in evoking the narrative landscape, with laments offering affective comment. Other music, such as the anti-clerical sirventes of Peire Cardenal, bring the specifics of the narrative into tighter focus. However, although the music is performed with the high polish, strong expressivity, and intensity that have long characterized the work of Savall and his colleagues, this is less an exploration of the music than the use of the music to remind of the poignant stakes at risk in aggression, in the demonizing of others, in not hearing the human voice of those we oppose. Savall’s expansive The Forgotten Kingdom makes the humanity of that voice both inescapable and memorable. The “artist for peace” leaves us much to ponder.

Steven Plank

image_description=Le Royaume Oublié

product_title=Le Royaume Oublié: La Tragédie Cathare (The Forgotten Kingdom: The Albigensian Crusade)
product_by=Hespèrion XXI; La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Jordi Savall, Director
product_id=Alia Vox AVSA9873 A/C [3CDs]

Posted by Gary at 12:37 PM

Handel – True or False?

In autumn 2009 a photocopy of the manuscript was circulated in London, where a Bond Street jeweller helped to contact top experts in the field with the aim of soliciting an authentication. On behalf of whom? The mystery has been partially solved with an official notice that appeared on 18 May on the website of Sony Classical, convening a press conference on 6 June at La Scala Shop in Milan.

Meanwhile, a taste has been offered to the media through a password-protected portal that presents 12 audio-streamed excerpts, the libretto, and a booklet note by the discoverer Ottaviano Tenerani, whose ensemble “Il Rossignolo” and a vocal cast featuring top-notch specialists (Mingardo, Fagioli, Foresti) have already recorded a CD. Tenerani simultaneously announces his in-house edition of the score.

A secret operation and a skilful marketing ploy, nevertheless it does not convince everyone. Maestro Tenerani says of it: “We are dealing with a serenata for six voices, written certainly for a private occasion involving the House of Habsburg or one of its supporters. The work is on a large scale (45 numbers including sinfonia, arias and recitatives), complete in one act. The watermarks allow us to assert that its provenance is Venetian, between 1706 and 1709. It is possibly the first dramatic work Handel composed in Italy”.

The chronology of Handel’s Italian trip remains disputed, but its extent is assumed to be between 1706 and February 1710. The original sung text, on the other hand, unequivocally identifies the personality who is being celebrated: the Habsburg archduke Joseph, King of the Romans and future Emperor Joseph I, who is described as a handsome young prince with blue eyes and blond hair; these were from his mother, Eleonore Magdalene of Pfalz-Neuburg, whilst his brother and successor Charles VI was brown-haired and rather ugly like their father Leopold. The anonymous poet eruditely overlaps the vicissitudes of the War of the Spanish Succession and the narrative of Tacitus (Annals, II/14, 26 and 41) about the triumphant return of Germanicus to Rome in 16 AD after the Rhine campaign, which suggests a dating of either 1702 or 1704 – the victorious returns of Joseph from the two sieges of the fortress of Landau in the Palatinate. In May 1705 he became emperor, after which time the allegorical representation of Germanico’s submission to his father (“Cesare”, i.e. Tiberius) would have seemed out of place.

Therefore Germanico is no opera but a celebratory court serenata, consistent in subject, form and style with other musical scores preserved in the Austrian National Library in Vienna: “Cetre amiche, a un cor che langue” by an anonymous composer (1702), Il ritorno di Giulio Cesare vincitore della Mauritania by Giovanni Bononcini (1704), and Attilio Ariosti’s I gloriosi presagi di Scipione Africano (1704). Its actual title, nowhere to be found in the score, may have sounded like Il Trionfo (or Il Sogno) di Germanico. Listening to the excerpts from the recording suggests a temptative attribution to either of the above composers, whilst the librettist might be the Neapolitan Donato Cupeda, the poeta cesareo (imperial poet) until 1705, or his vice Pietro Andrea Bernardoni. And what about the attribution on the opening page? Even the tiny facsimile provided by Sony raises doubts. Is it possible that a manuscript so formally written by such a careful copyist should lack a normal title-page? The hand that inscribed the attribution to “Hendl” is apparently not the same that has written “Andante” three times over the first bar of the sinfonia. Was the attribution a later guess or an attempt to allure a collector?

We must await further scholarly investigation to answer these and sundry questions. Meanwhile the music remains with us: full of educatedly languid melodies, intriguing ensembles and all the rich instrumentation that the Viennese Hofkapelle could afford. It doesn’t sound like Handel but it is definitely worth hearing.

Carlo Vitali(*)

(*) Carlo Vitali is the author and contributor to various musicological studies of Handel’s Italian period, published by Bärenreiter and Cambridge University Press.

Translation by David Vickers and Terence Best, courtesy of Classic Voice magazine, Milan (

image= image_description=G. F. Handel product=yes product_title=Handel – True or False? product_by=By Carlo Vitali courtesy of Classic Voice magazine, Milan ( product_id=Above: G. F. Handel
Posted by Gary at 10:57 AM

May 30, 2011

Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall

But despite the promise of the text, and the rapt lyricism of Tippett’s arrangement of Henry Purcell’s compelling air, the evening’s intriguing sequence of songs in the English language seemed, on the contrary, to demonstrate music’s power to dramatise the darkest, despairing aspect of human life.

Indeed, much of the selected repertoire drew upon the shadier regions of the low tenor register, and it was interesting to hear Bostridge calling on a grainier, rougher-hued tone at times. The contrast between weighty lows and bright high phrases emphasised the sudden changes of mood in Tippett’s setting. The intricate interplay and imitation between voice and accompaniment was sensitively delivered, suspensions subtly emphasised by Drake, scalic passages flowing smoothly.

Even in this opening song Bostridge’s delivery and physical manner conveyed dramatic tension and angst which, as the recital proceeded, rose at times to a quite disturbing intensity. Always fully committed — musically, dramatically and physically — here one feared for his well-being! With frowns and contortions, he tensed his body, twisted and almost stumbled across the stage, gripping the piano as if quite literally in need of physical support.

Such mannerisms aptly matched the astounding rhetorical force of Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s ‘The Queen’s Epicedium’. Just two days previously, the Wigmore Hall audience had been stirred by James Bowman’s moving rendition of Purcell’s original elegy. Britten’s setting is much more overtly theatrical and pained. The emotional range is vast, and calls for a far wider array of vividly expressive gestures, from the melismatic flourish of the opening challenge, “do you require a song?”, to the gentle dotted rhythms of the image of quiet pastoral mourning — “See, see how ev’ry nymph and swain/ hand down their pensive heads” — to almost hysterical cry of desolation, “The Queen! the Queen of Arcadie is gone!”, enhanced by piquant switches between major and minor. Bostridge emphasised the physical effort required to express such sorrow, seeming at times to have to force the words from his body, while Drake flamboyantly offered a glimpse of the eternal in the song’s astonishing final cadence: “her star is fixt, and shines beyond the skies.”

The poems by William Soutar which form Britten’s last song cycle, Who are these Children? recall the fierce juxtapositions of violence and innocence found in William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. However, the four songs chosen by Bostridge and Drake focus not on the purity of the child’s word, but rather expose the transience of childhood tranquillity and joy as the purity of youth, and youthful imagination, is corrupted by an unforgiving adult world. The spare linearity of much of the writing, coupled with surprising muscular rhythms, reminds us of the composer’s interest in Purcell’s approach to word-setting. Drake discerned much meaning in the harmonic subtleties and melodic nuances, from the eerie right hand line of the first song, ‘Nightmare’, to the ambiguous close of ‘Slaughter’: “The phantoms of the dead remain/ And from our faces show.” Elsewhere he evoked a terrifying and unstoppable force as, relentlessly, “Death rides upon an iron beast/ And tramples cities down”. Bostridge’s bitter rage in ‘Who are these Children?’ where “A wound which everywhere/ Corrupts the hearts of men: The blood of children corrupts the hearts of men” was frightening in its intensity, made sharper still by the deafening silence which followed. In this song, which depicts children watching a gentrified fox hunt, Britten’s ability to conjure a precisely drawn world through musical means was powerfully demonstrated, the staggering rhythms recalling the syncopated lurchings of Tarquinius’ night-time ride to the home of the virtuous Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia.

The following Whitman settings by Kurt Weill did little to dismiss the lingering sense that “The earth is darkened with a darkening stain”. Although there is much irony in Weill’s use of jazz idioms and pastiche, it is a black humour — the cynical wryness found in Britten’s own Cabaret Songs — and Bostridge and Drake conveyed the incongruity between style and sentiment perfectly through their control of rubato and dynamics in the lament, ‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’ There was some relief, however, in the tender ache of the closing lines of ‘Come up from the fields Father’ — in which a mother receives news of her son’s death in battle — and the warm opening of ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, as the last rays of sun and hours of summer pass to silvery autumnal evening.

In the first half, the titles of Haydn’s ‘Five English Canzonettas’ seemed to promise some lightening of heart, but the gloom was only partially allayed, for after the rollicking ‘Sailor’s song’, a boisterous glorification of the British navy , the Shakespearean text of ‘She never told her love’ returned us more to a mood of wounded renunciation, most poignantly conveyed by Drake’s expressive introduction and postlude. ‘The wanderer’, in both text and idiom, is the closest of these songs to the spirit of Schubert’s lieder, and it is not surprising that this drew the most affecting performance from Bostridge. But, it was J.S. Bach’s ‘Five Spiritual Songs’ which presented the most consoling moments of the evening, for even though they speak of death, it is the eternal peace of the Christian soul which is portrayed not the throbbing agony of human loss.

‘Come soothing death, come sweet repose’ Bach declares: a major key cadence concludes this song as the poet’s “eyelids close, come sweet repose!”, both confirming Bach’s own faith and reassuring the listener of the possibility of transcendence. However, while Bostridge and Drake certainly convinced the audience that music has remarkable expressive potential, there were few demonstrations of its power to beguile human woes and terrors on this occasion.

Claire Seymour


Purcell/Tippett: Music for a while
Bach/Britten: Five Spiritual Songs
Haydn: Content; Sailor’s song; She never told her love; The wanderer; Fidelity
Purcell/Britten: The Queen’s Epicedium
Britten: From Who are these Children? Op. 84; Nightmare; Slaughter; Who are these Children?; The Children
Weill: Beat! Beat! Drums!; O captain! My captain!; Come up from the fields, father; Dirge for two veterans

image= image_description=Ian Bostridge [Photo by Ben Ealovega] product=yes product_title=Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall product_by=Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake. piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 23rd May 2011. product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo by Ben Ealovega]
Posted by Gary at 12:37 PM

Les Noces de Figaro in Paris

Anyone who is anyone in the pantheon of Mozart interpreters over the last forty years has gone through the paces of this Strehler masterpiece.

It did have a brief respite during the Gerard Mortier five year reign of terror. To everyone's relief it is back now ostensibly as a tribute to Rolf Liebermann (the celebrated progressive impresario who succeeded in staying in conservative Paris for seven years in the nineteen-seventies) but actuality it is an appeasement to Parisian audiences for whom it has become, purely and simply, the Mozart masterpiece.

Based on its current edition at the Bastille it is a Marriage of Figaro none of us should go without. Not to worry if you have missed it so far. It will surely be back, and with whoever are the stars of the moment. The Strehler Noces is as Parisian as is, well, the Opéra or for that matter the Tour Eiffel. It is the embodiment of the elegance, refinement and grace that define La Ville-Lumière.

Its roots are in mannerisms, the little movements of physical comedy that were sculpted by the comedians of the Italian renaissance, then refined by Italy's eighteenth century dramatists, and finally distilled by Giorgio Strehler. It is like the theatrics of the French royal courts that have become elaborated over the centuries into French politesse, haute couture, cuisine, etc. Simply to say that the ultra controlled, hyper refined theatrics of Giorgio Strehler very well mirror an idealized French spirit.

Though strange to say it was the musical refinement of the current production that very nearly upstaged the Strehler elegance. Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger unleashed the lyricism Mozart lavished on the individual instruments of the orchestra that brought this familiar music to new plateaux of delicate pleasures. The horn duet in Se vuol ballare, the oboe solo in Dove sono, the resonant pizzicato strings in Deh vieni leap out as examples, but the overwhelming orchestral lyricism was everywhere and always.

The cast was perfection. The program bio of Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott unabashedly declares him to be the Figaro of the moment, a claim well proven by his distinctive dark voice, physical agility and sympathetic authority. His nearly speech-like delivery of recitative was remarkable. The Susanna of German soprano Julia Kleiter was physically, even vocally well matched to the Countess of German soprano Dorothea Röschmann to make Strehler's very presentational staging of the disguises far less tiresome than usual.

Both sopranos are no-nonsense artists, penetrating the heart of the music and letting it naturally flow to the obvious great pleasure of the maestro who melted Mozart's eloquent orchestra to their voices. It was extraordinary music making. British baritone Christopher Maltman brought bark and bite and unusual fun to the Count, plus new, sly insight into his often tiresome aria that perceptibly deepened his character and enlivened the denouement of Figaro's financial predicament.


American mezzo Isabel Leonard may now compete with Federica von Stade as the Cherubino of your dreams, combining easy postures with consummate charm, upholding the impeccable musicianship that validates this travesty. The there-can-be-no-opera-in-Paris-without corps de ballet crashed the wedding scene, and the intrusion only gained validity when Mlle. Leonard leapt into the balletic fray with a virtuostic display of dance that conclusively proved her manhood (one did wonder how la Von Stade and all the others pulled this scene off).

The Marcellina of British mezzo/comedienne Ann Murray was exemplary. The Bartolo of Maurizio Muraro and the Basilio of Robin Leggate were rendered less present than usual in this production by the persuasive musicality of the five principals.

The extant members of the original production team were said to be involved in mounting this latest incarnation — Ezio Frigerio (sets and costumes), Franca Squarciapino (costumes), Marise Flach (movement). The actual credit for this and perhaps many other incarnations of the Strehler Noces belongs to Humbert Camerlo, an original member of the Libermann directorial staff who will have adapted the individual personalities of its current interpreters to the original Strehler conception.

Michael Milenski


Click here for a video clip.

image_description=Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799)

product_title=W. A. Mozart: Les Noces de Figaro
product_by=Christopher Maltman, Il Conte di Almaviva; Dorothea Röschmann, La Contessa di Almaviva; Julia Kleiter, Susanna; Erwin Schrott, Figaro; Isabel Leonard, Cherubino; Ann Murray, Marcellina; Maurizio Muraro, Bartolo; Robin Leggate, Don Basilio; Antoine Normand, Don Curzio; Zoe Nicolaidou, Barbarina; Christian Tréguier, Antonio/ Dan Ettinger, Conductor; Giorgio Strehler, Stage director and lighting; Humbert Camerlo, Realisation; Ezio Frigerio, Sets and costumes; Jean Guizerix, Choreography; Marise Flach, Movement assistant. Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
product_id=Above: Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799)

Posted by michael_m at 9:44 AM

May 27, 2011

James Bowman, The Last London Recital

After more than forty years of superlative music-making in the opera houses and concert halls of the world, on Saturday evening at the Wigmore Hall James Bowman bid a fond farewell to London audiences, who first witnessed his supreme artistry, musicianship and generosity in 1967 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – a year which also saw him first perform the role of Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the English Opera Group, a work with which he has had a long and distinguished association.

The excitement and sense of ‘occasion’ which buzzed in the foyer was more than matched by the joy and warmth of the reception which greeted Bowman’s appearance on the platform. But, there was no sense of cliché or routine about the evening’s performance, in no small part due to the presence of the young Iranian harpsichordist, Mahan Esfahani, who is quickly establishing himself as the leading harpsichordist of his generation.

Esfahani opened the recital with a vibrant, even effervescent, performance of J.S. Bach’s ‘Ouvertüre nach französischer Art’, sweeping through the successive dances – Courante, Gavottes, Passpieds, Sarabande, Bourrées and Gigue – with a rhythmic muscularity that was both shocking and exhilarating. He relished the drama of this music, emphasising the rhetorical flourishes of the Courante, while also bringing control and clarity to the more intricate cadences of the Passpieds. Esfahani is physically involved with his instrument, delighting in the sounds of its mechanism; rising from his seat as if his whole body is contributing to the production of sound, he positively foregrounds the instrument’s mechanism. Never does technique, albeit astonishing, outshine the music: an astounding array of tones and shades was matched by an attention to the expressivity of the dense counterpoint, and a concern to convey the power of harmonic tension and release. Ornamentation provided both decorative elegance and forward momentum, as Esfahani revealed his mastery of the architecture of the form, injecting a relentless energy into the streams of even, running semi-quavers and triplets to convey a sense of the composer’s effortless creative outpouring.

After the interval, Esfahani explored the rich resonances and full textures of Bach’s Adagio in G (BWV 968), presenting the repeating rhythmic motifs with weight and majesty, and eloquently declaiming the delicate cadential features. The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 984) gave new meaning to the cliché, tour de force. The relentless unravelling of the ceaseless passage work was not marred by a single hesitation or stumble, yet there was no sense of perfunctory note-spinning, and every contrapuntal dialogue was crystal clear – a true conversation of musical voices. It was as if Esfahani believed that the composer had presented him with an entity, a musical ‘being’, which must be both intellectually and physically overcome and mastered. The major cadences which concluded both Prelude and Fugue were both triumphal and celebratory.

Despite such glories, the spotlight shone firmly on James Bowman. Bowman’s first ever performance on the Wigmore Hall stage took place in November 1967, during an audition as a member of David Munrow’s ‘Early Music Consort’, before the legendary agent, Emmie Tillett. The ensemble went on to become one of the most ground-breaking and inspiring groups among the early music specialists, leading the way in the revival of period performance. Thus, three settings by Henry Purcell were a fitting choice with which to begin. Although he took a little time to settle, and the intonation was not always reliable (several upwardly resolving appoggiaturas had just a little too much ‘piquancy’), Bowman still possesses a remarkable vocal instrument: for range of colour, sheer beauty of sound, and flexibility between registers there are surely few who can match him. In ‘The Queen’s Epicedium’, whose Latin text laments the death of the ‘Queen of Arcadia’ which has silenced the lyres and poets of the land, his manipulation of chromatic inflection demonstrated his real involvement with the text and the sheer beauty of the lyrical enunciations and melismas conveyed the sincere grief that cannot be expressed ‘by lamenting breast’s/ Unrelenting sobbing’. The final vision of ‘Her star, immovable,/ [which] Shines on in the heavens’ powerfully expressed a bright optimism. Throughout Esfahani’s accompaniment provided understated but perfectly judged support, punctuating and enhancing the textual nuances through pointed alternation of major and minor modes, as in the rhetorical declaration, ‘The Queen, alas,/ The Queen of Arcadia is gone forever’.

Bowman’s diction was crisper in the subsequent English settings ‘Fairest Isle’ and ‘Thrice Happy Lovers’. In the former, the ringing tones delighting in the fact that ‘Venus here will choose her dwelling’ were equalled by the quiet tenderness of Dryden’s concluding lines, ‘And as these excel in beauty,/ Those shall be renown’d for love.’ Despite his years, Bowman embodied youthful enchantment in ‘Thrice Happy Lovers’, with its more elaborately melismatic style and telling interplay between voice and harpsichord.

The first countertenor to sing at Glyndebourne (in Cavalli’s La Calisto in 1971), there is scarcely an opera house in the world in which Bowman has not appeared. He concluded the recital with Handel, demonstrating an effortless legato in ‘Tacerò, pur che fedele’ from Agrippini, placing precisely nuanced weight on particular syllables to enhance the affekt. A sequence of three recitatives and arias followed, confirming Bowman’s innate feeling for the rhythm and form of dramatic texts, and his music range, both technical and expressive. ‘In un folto bosco ombroso’ was notable for controlled phrasing, while the pastoral calm, enriched with erotic intensity, in ‘Camminando lei pian piano’ was truly breath-taking. Intervallic leaps were effortlessly articulated and assumed intense affective meaning. Vocal agility was on display in the concluding ‘Rise Eurilla, Rise Amore’, the decorations adding thrill and excitement to the da capo form.

The audience’s reception was rapturous and heartfelt. Though a rising star himself, Esfahani was clearly moved and honoured to be part of such a stirring musical occasion. We were permitted one encore, which Bowman prefaced with the typically playful quip: “If you don’t recognise this one you shouldn’t be here.” What could be more fitting than Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’ to end the proceedings; threading a remarkable tapestry of diverse colours, Bowman’s final word was a fitting one: ‘Hallelujah!’

Claire Seymour


J.S. Bach: Ouvertüre nach französischer Art, BWV 831
Henry Purcell: The Queen’s Epicedium, Fairest Isle, Thrice Happy Lovers
J.S. Bach: Adagio in G Major, BWV 968, Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 984
George Frideric Handel: ‘Tacerò, pur che fedele’, from Agrippini, HWV 6, ‘Vedendo amor’ HWV 175

image= image_description=James Bowman product=yes product_title=James Bowman, The Last London Recital product_by=James Bowman, countertenor; Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 21st May 2011. product_id=Above: James Bowman
Posted by Gary at 8:52 AM

May 26, 2011

I Compagnacci and Il Re, Teatro Grattacielo

This year they came up with a comic double-bill of works from the 1920s, a symbolic moment for Italian opera—Puccini’s Turandot, premiered in 1926, is generally regarded as the last Italian work to enter the operatic repertory, either local or international, after more than three hundred years of Italian centrality to the creation of opera, an Italian invention. Primo Riccitelli, whose name is obscure even among Verismo composers, was represented by his first opera, I Compagnacci, a work controversial in its day (1922) as, according to which critic was writing, an inventive new voice or far too dependent on Mascagni and Puccini for any novel inspiration. Umberto Giordano, fondly remembered for Andrea Chenier and Fedora, drew an American premiere on this occasion for his last opera, Il Re (1929), which, at its first run, was considered far too reminiscent of … Umberto Giordano. Italian critics in the twenties had a rough time, which they eagerly passed along: They did not wish to seem so nationalistic as to be provincial or old-fashioned, but to be too enamored of new manners of making music might easily lead to admiration for such deplorable foreign trends as impressionism, atonality or even jazz. One is reminded of the Monty Python sketch: No one wanted to admit the bird was dead, but it wouldn’t be flying anywhere.

Ninety years later, both these works can be seen for what they are, not merely as part of a particular fashion—or as not part of a fashion. I Compagnacci, which had a brief career at the Met, demonstrated a talent for orchestration and an ease in vocal writing and did indeed remind listeners of Puccini, in this case Gianni Schicchi. As in the latter opera (premiered in New York only four years earlier, remember), the story is set in historic Florence where matters of money are in conflict with love. But where Puccini and his librettist put their Dante-derived tale in full view of their audience, to savor every outrageous detail of their commedia characters, Riccitelli’s plot hinges, fatally, on offstage events and he has no “O mio babbino caro” up his sleeve to provide us with a memorable personality to care about.

We are in Florence in the time of the friar-dictator Savonarola, celebrated for his “bonfire of the vanities” in the reaction to the cultivated Medici tyranny. Savonarola was eventually burned by his disgusted people (at the command of the cultivated Borgia pope), but some weeks before that event, as the tension reaches its height, two friars, one favoring Savonarola’s holiness, the other denouncing it, offered to walk through a bonfire in proof. God would be on the side of the one unburned. Bernardo, a greedy admirer of the dictator, is trying to force his niece, Anna Maria, into a loveless marriage with his protégé. Her truelove, Baldo, who leads a more luxurious faction, I Compagnacci, offers to sign over the family chateau if the monks actually dare to walk through the flames—as long as he can win Anna Maria if they don’t. (What would happen if one did and the other did not? No one mentions this possibility.) As Baldo guesses, neither friar dares risk the ordeal, and the Florentines rejoice in the triumph of art, vanity and love. The trouble is that we miss the climax—it takes place out the window, in the piazza, by the bonfire—visible from the windows but not visible to us. Another problem is that rich as the orchestration is, the melodic meat of the score shows little personality, and the personalities of the drama have none either. The orchestra makes an impression for skill not for music. It is a drama without substance, comic, dramatic or romantic.

The casting at Teatro Grattacielo is often remarkable, surprisingly so considering the vocal energy required in Verismo scores and the fact that young singers often appear. Gerard Powers and Jessica Klein sang Riccitelli’s generic lovers; their performances were not perfunctory but their musical emotions were, and these operas do not work if we do not care whether the lovers get together or not. Peter Castaldi was far more effective, sonorous and droll, as Anna Maria’s superstitious uncle, Lawrence Long an impressive foil as his confidant, and Joseph Gaines, as the unattractive and rejected suitor, had an amusing delivery of the most memorable tune in the opera.

In sharp contrast, Giordano’s Il Re was clearly a composer’s last opera not his first: All the parts worked, achieving just what they were intended to achieve, the characters musically as interesting as they needed to be for a silly fable (highly character-full performances fleshed them out, but that is what they were written for), and the elegant orchestration had real persons and real tunes to build on. The opera is as busy as Chenier without the emptiness of Fedora. The heroine’s role is a major coloratura vehicle, immensely satisfying because the resources of traditional Italian opera (trills, runs, ornaments) are on display, though in a style more like Richard Strauss than Donizetti, to give us Rosalina’s imaginative feather brain. The other characters are straight out of commedia dell’ arte, suitable to all levels of mugging. The melodies owe a little something to Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky but mostly, as the first critics said, to Giordani. The orchestration is something else again, witty and wild and all over the map, full of coloristic touches and humorous pratfalls. When the king is told that the lovely Rosalina has fallen in love with his beauty, he preens through harp to flutes to bassoons to brass—and does it again—and again. (John Maynard, singing the role, though deprived of the proper costume and looking glass of a fully staged performance, played it to the hilt without them.) The chorus sings “chorus stuff,” predictable but archly done, even, at one point, “tum-tum” guitar strums from the men while the women sing a silly serenade. Not one of the characters is as colorless as, well, everyone was in I Compagnacci; each lives up to the clichés suggested by tradition interpreted by Giordano’s knowing modern scoring.

The fable of Il Re concerns a miller’s daughter, Rosalina, who, on the eve of her wedding to a whiny miller boy (with her parents’ encouragement), sees the king pass through the forest and is overcome with love of his magnificence. He is, she is convinced, her destiny. The chickadees concur. Her parents and the faithful Columbello, having consulted a lawyer, a priest and an astrologer, go in desperation (with bribes) to the King. He invites Rosalina to the palace. In his bedroom, he tells her that her passion has touched him—then removes his royal robes, his corsets, his wig, his makeup and so on. (His voice, too, becomes decades more antique with the transformation.) Rosalina, aghast, returns to her boyfriend, and off they go to church.

Joanna Mongiardo, who has a voice of impressive size and warmth, as well as a technique with ornament that should give her Lucia, Philine and Zerbinetta to choose from, also has a putty face, capable of expressing several emotions at once and of making fun of herself while expressing them. Rosalina is a star role in the glorious line and Mongiardo brought the hall to its feet. If she is a good girl and doesn’t sing Norma or the Ernani Elvira too soon, I foresee a great future for her—and for Il Re, if she cares to remember it. (It’s a star vehicle if you’ve got the star.) She was ably, hilariously supported not only by her peerless monarch, Mr. Maynard, but also by Lawrence Long and Eugenie Greenwald as her distraught parents. The one weak performer was James Price, whose thin, watery tenor made Rosalina’s lack of romantic interest perfectly comprehensible.

David Wroe and the Westfield Symphony Orchestra, having made a shimmering hour of I Compagnacci, really sank their teeth into the sly excesses of Il Re, the work of a master determined at the end of his life to show off everything he had learned—and to laugh as he did so. It was a delight to make this score’s acquaintance in such circumstances.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Love Won - Love Lost - an Operatic Double Bill [[Image courtesy of Teatro Grattacielo] product=yes product_title=Primo Riccitelli: I Compagnacci; Umberto Giordano: Il Re product_by=I Compagnacci: Bernardo: Peter Castaldi; Anna Maria: Jessica Klein; Baldo: Gerard Powers; Venanzio: Lawrence Long; Noferi: Joseph Gaines.

Il Re: Il Re: John Maynard; Rosalina: Joanna Mongiardo; Colombello: James Price; Mugnaio: Lawrence Long; Moglie del Mugnaio: Eugenie Grunewald.

Westfield Symphony Orchestra and Cantori New York Chorus, conducted by David Wroe. Teatro Grattacielo at the Frederick Rose Theater, May 24. product_id=Above: Love Won - Love Lost - an Operatic Double Bill [[Image courtesy of Teatro Grattacielo]
Posted by Gary at 8:33 PM

Macbeth, Royal Opera

Arresting, and at times disturbing, it may be, but the symbolism is unabashedly transparent. Red = blood; black = evil; gold = power. Thrones in gilded cages remind us that power corrupts and ambition destroys; the roadside standpipe at which Macbeth pauses to erase the blood of battle from his hands reveals man’s bleak brutality.

MACBETH.110521_0525.MONASTYRSKA AS LADY MACBETH (C) BARDA 2011.pngLiudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth

That’s not to say that Anthony Ward’s designs, all looming grey stone and shadowy skies, are ineffective; indeed the stage space powerfully suggests both the magnitude of the Macbeths’ ambitions and the increasing claustrophobia as the net closes in. We are as mesmerised as the Scottish thanes by the glamorous glitter of the royal couple’s eye-splitting gold lamé gowns. Dramatic streams of light cut through the darkness of Duninsblane Castle, threatening to expose the criminals’ handiwork, or perhaps to represent the stabs of moral conscience which beleaguer the guilty pair, a device employed most effectively during Macbeth’s “is this a dagger …?” hallucination.

So, visually the intensity never wanes. And, indeed Verdi’s reading of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which the chorus looms so large, perhaps invites hyperbole and melodrama. Why have 3 witches when you can have 25? Similarly, while we may wonder why Shakespeare insists on the presence of a third, mute, murderer, at the assassination of Banquo, Verdi gives as a whole herd of henchmen, revelling in their butchery. Lloyd promptly takes her cues and, exploiting the significantly enlarged choral forces, makes the witches’ malicious intent the driving force of the drama, their scarlet headdresses signifying their blood-thirsty intentions. They are omnipresent: they help Fleance to evade his would-be assassins; they deliver Macbeth’s letter to his wife. If they are not steering the action, they are shifting the furniture.

Moreover, the innovative orchestral score strikingly conveys dark depths and deeds, and from the opening raspings of the bassoons and brass in the prelude, Pappano whipped up and sustained a sonic canvass to match the stage vision. He superbly controlled the musico-dramatic ebbs and flows, bring great energy to the accompaniment figurations, while elegantly highlighting the significant strands within the dense textures.

Making her role debut as Lady Macbeth, Ukrainian soprano Luidmyla Monastyrska was a commanding presence. When she made an unscheduled ROH debut as Aida in March, many commentated on the sheer size of her voice, and Lloyd’s production positively invited her to exhibit her vocal muscle to the full: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a soprano ride above a large ensemble with such force and potency – indeed, one would be concerned for her vocal health and longevity had it all not seemed so effortless. She began with an astounding confidence which suggested she’d been singing the role for a lifetime; she ascended to the stratosphere with ease and fleetly navigated the coloratura, while her lower register was burnished and sensual. Verdi’s Lady Macbeth could seem monstrous – an emblem, and agent, of the witches’ designs. For example, she is actually responsible for planting the seed of the murderous plot against Banquo in her husband’s mind, whereas Shakespeare’s queen is kept in ignorance. However, in a recent interview, Monastyrska explained that she senses Lady Macbeth’s guilt troubling her, almost immediately after the death of Duncan. And it is to Monastyrska’s credit that she is able convincingly to bring some complexity to a role which could become a one-dimensional portrait of sexual power; her Sleepwalking Scene was a sensitive exploration of motivation and psychology.

Simon Keenlyside was, by contrast, all subtlety and self-interrogation, though never lacking in focus if not quite matching his wife for decibels. Pony-tailed and sporting a goatee beard, his Macbeth is a portrait of self-doubt, the elation of victory on the battlefield and elevation at court swiftly giving way to the horror of his own moral devastation. While not always mastering the span and arch of the Verdian phrases, Keenlyside’s beautiful tone, carefully nuanced, movingly suggested the anguish of every twist and turn of Macbeth’s psychological brooding, as he swung between soulless defiance and poignant regret. Seemingly inhabiting opposing moral spheres, it is not surprising that the couple are found sleeping in separate by the rebellious Scottish refugees who burst into the bed chamber in Act 4. Perhaps greater erotic tension will grow between the pair as the run proceeds.

MACBETH.110521_0569. KEENLYSIDE AS MACBETH, PITTAS AS MACDUFF (C) BARDA 2011.pngSimon Keenlyside as Macbeth and Dimitri Pittas as Macduff

Of the rest of the cast, bass Raymond Aceto was a weighty Banquo, if occasionally uneven, while Dimitri Pittas, though firmer and more consistent of tone, was a rather wooden Macduff whose intonation tended to drift sharpwards. Both would have been assisted by some more attentive direction. Elisabeth Meister, a Jette Parker Young Artist, demonstrated an intelligent appreciation of the musical and dramatic demands of the role; she’s an intelligent singer who knows when to bring forth the finer details and when to blend with the ensemble. The huge chorus co-ordinated well with the pit, and were particularly powerful in the Act 1 concertante, driven by Pappano to a stirring climax. The witches’ strange whining tone was an unnecessary distraction, though.

Overall, there were many compelling moments during the evening, not least because of some outstanding singing from Monastyrska, but the production does not entirely convince.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera] product=yes product_title=Guiseppe Verdi: Macbeth product_by=Macbeth: Simon Keenlyside; Banquo: Raymond Aceto; Lady Macbeth: Liudmyla Monastyrska; Malcolm: Steven Ebel; Macduff: Dimitri Pittas; Duncan: Ian Lindsay; Lady-in-Waiting: Elisabeth Meister; Fleance: Will Richardson; Servant to Macbeth: Nigel Cliffe; First apparition: Jonathan Fisher; Second apparition: William Payne; Third apparition: Archie Buchanan; Herald: Jonathan Coad; Doctor: Lukas Jakobski. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Director: Phyllida Lloyd. Revival director: Harry Fehr. Designs: Anthony Ward. Lighting design: Paule Constable. Choreographer: Michael Keegan-Dolan. Revival choreographer: Kirsty Tapp. Fight director: Terry King. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tuesday 24th May 2011. product_id=Above: Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera
Posted by Gary at 7:47 PM

May 25, 2011

Houston Grand Opera Announces New Leadership

By BWW News Desk [Broadway World, 25 May 2011]
The Board of Directors of Houston Grand Opera (HGO) today voted unanimously to realign its top management structure, naming Patrick Summers as Artistic and Music Director, occupying the Margaret Alkek Williams Chair. Chief Operating Officer Perryn Leech has been named Managing Director. Chief Advancement Officer Greg Robertson completes the executive leadership team, which is supported by an eight-member senior management staff. These moves follow the departure of Anthony Freud, the company's General Director, who has been appointed to lead the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Posted by Gary at 4:29 PM

Zambello to WNO - as advisor

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 25 May 2011]

A few weeks before its merger with the Kennedy Center becomes official, the Washington National Opera has announced a new leadership team for its new era. The biggest news: WNO’s artistic advisor will be the acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello.

Posted by Gary at 4:27 PM

May 24, 2011

Oresteïa, Karlsplatz, Vienna

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 24 May 2011]
History and art overlap as the sun sets over Vienna’s Karlskirche. Cassandra sings of bloodbaths in the House of Atrius and flames lick the water of the 19th-century Karlsplatz pond, painting a Henry Moore sculpture orange while the fading light turns the 18th-century church delicate shades of eggshell.

Posted by Gary at 4:24 PM

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne

Glyndebourne is Britain’s equivalent of Bayreuth. Although its repertoire is obviously more varied, it’s a place of pilgrimage because it is iconic, the first and greatest of the English summer opera festivals. There are photographs of John Christie, Glyndebourne’s founder, in an amateur staging of Die Meistersinger in the 1930’s, but this is the first full production, as it’s a big opera for a house which even now seats barely 1100. But Glyndebourne has always been ambitious. How proud Christie would be to see this fulfillment of his dreams!

Because the theatre at Glyndbourne is more intimate than at Bayreuth, a bombastic, Teitjen-style production would be overwhelming. However, Vladimir Jurowski, Glyndebourne’s Music Director, has vision. He’s intuited how well Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg fits in with Glyndebourne’s open-air, countryside ethos. This is an opera where Nature plays a big role. Walther von Stolzing learned to sing by listening to birdsong. The Prize Ceremony takes place in a meadow. Summer and new growth infuse the whole spirit of the opera.

Heavy handed approaches underline grandeur, which is appropriate for the Meistersingers in procession, or for authoritarian interpretations of the choruses in the Third Act. But Jurowski understand the soul of this opera. He emphasizes the freedom and liveliness in Wagner’s music. The overture tumbles along vivaciously. He keeps textures light and bright, so they shine. This is a very different Meistersinger from some versions we’re used to but it’s true to score and to the meaning of the opera.

Hans Sachs is a cobbler, who sees all men’s shoes — the ultimate leveler. He doesn’t judge people by background but by who they are. He can spot Walther von Stoltzing’s true nobility when the Meistersingers ridicule him as an outsider. And that nobility comes from Art, not status or tradition.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is comic, but not comedy. It’s subversive. Beckmesser is the Town Clerk, thus symbol of the Establishment and authority. That’s why Pogner’s happy to marry his daughter off, and why the Meistersingers obey him when he ridicules Walther, who lives for pure art. Sachs opposes mob thinking, whether the mob are his fellow Meistersingers, or the townsfolk, fighting mindlessly in the streets. He protects Walther by giving him a chance to express his talent. Just as Sachs doesn’t march to anyone’s tune, neither will Walther. If Hitler had had any inkling of what Die Meistersinger really is about, he might not have been quite such a fan.

Sachs wasn’t fiction, but a real man who lived in the 16th century, when Germany was split apart by religious wars. Nuremberg was a Protestant island in the sea of Catholic Bavaria. The Papacy implied rule from Rome, regional cultures and languages suppressed by the dominance of Latin.

“Heilige Deutsche Kunst” refers quite specifically to the concept of emerging German identity which started with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and the Reformation. “Should the Holy Roman Empire end”, sing the townsfolk, “German values won’t end”. Just as Sachs and his peers rejected Rome and what it stood for, Wagner was turning from French and Italian opera, to create anew. It’s not necessarily negative, xenophobic or Nazi, for it marks the fundamental change in social attitudes the Reformation brought about. So, freedom and renewal are very much part of Die Meistersinger.

Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra as if it were a large chamber ensemble. Different threads are clearly defined, bringing out the almost contrapuntal flow in the music, where the different groups jostle together. The dynamic is vivid, and Jurowski’s deft touch doesn’t let it become congested, even in moments when different groups clash. The meadow scene with its massed voices and contrasting themes can become a disorganized mess, but Jurowski makes it possible to hear each sub-group’s individual character. Just as Sachs treats all as equals, Jurowski keeps a tight balance which lets the music shine.

This production (David McVicar, director, Vicki Mortimer, designer) is joyful. The apprentices are wonderfully energetic and “rude” in the best sense of the word. They leap and dance with the precision of workmen who are mastering their craft. They’re the future, just as Walther is. The apprentice’s music brought very animated playing from the orchestra — those sharp cracks and beats were made for rustic dance and exuberance. Topi Lehtipuu’s David sings with vigour, giving greater depth to the role than it sometimes gets. He acts like he’s put upon, but he’s a strong personality. Sachs would hardly take on a stupid apprentice, nor promote him to Gesellen. Lehtipuu’s David is convincingly the next Sachs in embryo.

But why is the opera updated to the early 19th century? Perhaps McVicar’s making a connection to Beethoven and Goethe, but the link is remote and adds nothing. Act One is dominated by a huge fan-vaulted ceiling. Of course, Walther and Eva meet in church, but it’s a major misreading of the opera. Wagner and Sachs aren’t upholding the Church but offering alternatives to traditional authority.

If anything, this is an opera about the freshness of nature, which is why the tree in the town square and the meadow play a part. Nuremberg in Sachs’s time was a warren, where the community lived in claustrophobic proximity. This elaborate ceiling means that Sachs’s workshop becomes something decidedly upper class, which destroys the idea of Sachs as a humble man of the people, who is elevated by his art. Wagner sent the Town Clerk into the cobbler’s workshop to show up the contrast in their status.

Hans Sachs isn’t a role one might associate with Gerald Finley, so there’s no point in comparing him to some of the iconic Sachs’s of the past. Finley’s voice is in reasonably good shape, so his Sachs is a refined, understated characterization. It emphasizes the poet in Sachs more than the cobbler, but it works well enough. Finley is convincing in the long monologue. “Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn” is a sentiment anyone can identify with, whatever the context.

Johannes Martin Kränzle is an effective Sixtus Beckmesser. He’s the most elegant man in town, who’s always got up in finery, unlike the locals who save it for festive occasions. The part could use more malice, but Kränzle spinned out the curling lines sinuously and moved like a viper. At the end, when he played his lute like an air guitar, it was hilarious. Anna Gabler sang Eva as a charming ingénue, at her best in the final scene where she at last can openly declare her love. The quintet was delicious, the three central figures haloed by the two lesser roles.

Marco Jentzsch’s Walther von Stoltzing was extremely impressive. This is a singer to watch as we desperately need new Heldentenors, or at least tenors with good range and dramatic stage presence. Jentzsch is tall and handsome, which helps, but his singing is his greatest asset. The voice is warm but assertive, and he uses it with intelligent expressiveness. This was Prize Song to cherish, beautifully fresh and pure, yet tinged with commitment. For someone relatively young, he’s mature. Walther, after all, is an independent spirit who even when he wins, doesn’t want to join a group. While he looked dazzling in his Hussar costume, it was an interpretive mistake, since Walther is a leaderless wanderer who doen’t do status or adhere to outward form. “Nein, Meister, nein!” Jentzsch is so good, however, that you focus on the singing, not the suit.

Though this production doesn’t plumb the subversive depths of this rewarding opera, it’s exuberant and uplifting, especially in the final scene, where all the threads are drawn together. Jurowski and the London Philharmonic are so vibrant that they bring insight into the inner dynamic of the music. Wagner and Sachs are much deeper, but in these discordant, polarized times, take heed of the message of this Glyndebourne Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Harmony is a lot more difficult to achieve than it seems. This production may be sunny but it’s not shallow.

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg continues at Glyndebourne Opera until 26th June. It will be screened live on HD in cinemas and also available online. For more information please visit the Glyndebourne Opera website.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs [Photo by Alastair Muir courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival]

product_title=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
product_by=Hans Sachs: Gerald Finley; Walther von Stolzing: Marco Jentzsch; David: Topi Lehtipuu; Sixtus Beckmesser: Johannes Martin Kränzle; Eva: Anna Gabler; Magdalene: Michaela Selinger; Veit Pogner: Alastair Miles; Fritz Kothner: Henry Waddington; Kunz Vogelgesang: Colin Judson; Konrad Nachtigall: Andrew Slater; Balthasar Zorn: Alasdair Elliott; Ulrich Eisslinger: Adrian Thompson; Augustin Moser: Daniel Norman; Hermann Ortel: Robert Poulton; Hans Schwarz: Maxim Mikailov; Hans Foltz: Graeme Broadbent; A Nightwatchman: Mats Almgren. Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski. London Philharmonic Orchestra. The Glyndebourne Chorus (Director: David McVicar). Designer: Vicki Mortimer. Lighting designer: Paule Constable. Movement director: Andrew George. Fight director: Nicholas Hall. Glyndbourne Opera; 21st May 2011.
product_id=Above: Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs [Photo by Alastair Muir courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival]

Click here for a photo gallery and other production information.

Posted by anne_o at 5:43 AM

May 23, 2011

Richard Coeur-de-Lion, New York

His grand operas were flops and he himself disarmingly confessed to having little talent for harmony, but the tunefulness of his light operas—we might call them operettas or opéras-bouffes if those terms had been coined yet—made him the toast of the town, an international success, and enabled him to survive the Revolution despite the distinctly royalist overtones of his biggest hit, Richard Coeur-de-Lion (1784, revised 1785). The big number, “O Richard, O mon roi, l’univers t’abandonne” (Oh, Richard, my king, though the universe abandons thee”) was sung by loyal but indiscreet officers toasting Louis XVI at a difficult moment during the uprisings, with disastrous consequences. Grétry sat out the bad times, then brought the opera back when Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor.

Grétry was a man on one of the cusps of opera, the confusing but inspiring time when opera seria was expiring and no one was sure what the new music would produce for the stage. Gluck (who composed light operas and opere serie as well as the “reform” dramas for which we remember him best) was an important influence, on the era and on Grétry. Gluck and Mozart and a whole array of lesser lights, step by step, transformed opera, and it is difficult not to be fascinated by the explorations that led them there. That means the operas of Monsigny, of J.C. Bach, of Salieri, of Paisiello, of Martin y Soler—all of them familiar to Mozart. So was Grétry, who was at the first peak of his popularity when Mozart paid his famous visit to Paris in 1778.

Grétry’s use of spoken dialogue rather than the Italian invention of recitative between numbers, combined with his intentional and dramatic blurring of the edges between dialogue and musical numbers makes him the harder to present in translation, though in his own era full translations of Richard were popular in London and many other towns. Like Opera Lafayette, which presented a rather disappointing account of Grétry’s Le Magnifique last fall, American Classical Orchestra (which has also given his Zémire et Azor) has compromised by having the dialogue in English, the singing in French. Whatever continuity Grétry was aiming for is thereby sacrificed, and since this is precisely why his operas were important, it seems an unfortunate choice. Too, Opera Lafayette’s singers were not very good and the plot of Le Magnifique seemed especially silly and dubiously coherent. Richard was, at least, presented with good voices and ardent actors, and one could almost overlook the awkward jump into and out of song.

Richard is a rescue opera—though such operas (Fidelio being the most notable) are usually assigned to the era after the Revolution. The principal figure is not the title character, England’s Crusader king, a captive in Germany, but the troubadour Blondel who (in this version anyway) wanders around the neighborhood pretending to be a blind minstrel, hoping to get a lead on his royal friend’s whereabouts. This produces (in Act II) a duet, within and without the castle walls and, the identification being made, to a stratagem to get him out. Connoisseurs of Mission: Impossible will sneer at the simplicity of the plot, and the emotional level is hardly that of Fidelio, but people have to start somewhere.

Baritone Robert Balonek, in the starring role of the troubadour Blondel, revealed a light, full, meaty, attractive baritone that made this faithful intriguer comprehensible and sympathetic, and he’s easy on the eyes as well as the ears. I look forward to hearing him again.

Molly Davey sang Laurette, whose aria is nowadays the best-known item in the score, being the reverie of the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. It is a curious number, seeming somehow more appropriate to the sinister, apprehensive moment in that opera than it is in Grétry’s light original. Davey sang it very oddly: some phrases clear, light and high-flying, others from an entirely different voice lurking in the mezzo range, and still others, here and elsewhere all night, in an almost inaudible squeak. She should consider getting her various voices to study with the same teacher. At least they should be more intimately introduced to one another.

Joshua Benevento sang a pleasant, not terribly distinguished King Richard, Cory Clines a sturdy innkeeper, Anthony Caputo a mellow prison commander—more a lover (of Laurette) than a villain like Pizarro in Fidelio. Bright-voiced Catherine Webber sang the trouser role of Blondel’s pert young guide.

Thomas Crawford led this charming performance. The American Classical Orchestra makes use of valveless brasses (trumpets, horns) and skin heads on their drums, but happily, their antiquarianism does not prevent them playing in tune. While no substitute for a full staging, the American Classical Orchestra’s concert provided an enjoyable introduction to this winsome score.

John Yohalem

image_description=Portrait of André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1785)

product_title=André Ernest Modeste Grétry: Richard Coeur-de-Lion
product_by=Laurette: Molly Davey; Antonio: Catherine Webber; Blondel: Robert Balonek; Richard: Joshua Benevento; Williams: Cory Clines; Florestan: Anthony Caputo. American Classical Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Crawford. At the Society for Ethical Culture, performance of May 18.
product_id=Above: Portrait of André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1785)

Posted by Gary at 12:44 PM

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ENO

From ENO’s printed brochure this season it would appear that one director, Christopher Alden, helpfully worked out his Midsummer Night’s Dream concept far enough in advance to enable ENO’s marketing team to outline it in advance, in the hope of ensuring that the terminally conservative did not part with money they would later wish they hadn’t. This Dream, we were told, would be transplanted to ‘the hormonal hothouse of a 1960s school’.

I love seeing opera re-imagined well. Richard Jones’s comprehensive rethink of Pagliacci for the same company a couple of years ago was a superlative example of the genre, with every detail worked into a comprehensive theatrical whole. Alden’s school setting was a promising viewpoint, given Britten’s preoccupation with the theme of innocence corrupted, his extensive writing for treble chorus and soloists, an undercurrent of power games and spite, and a plot involving young couples falling in and out of lust/love with one another. And such is the eerie charm of the music that it should be robust enough to survive removal from anything remotely resembling an enchanted wood. In intelligent hands, it really ought to work.

Alden’s vision is that of a man attempting to exorcise childhood demons. The shadows of his past unfold with clarity: a schoolmaster once exerted a hold over him to the point that he became emotionally dependent on that relationship. Cast aside at puberty in favour of a younger and fresher favourite, the rejected victim reached adulthood mired in confusion. Now, on the eve of his wedding, these events flash through his mind in a dream as he attempts to make sense of their legacy. In the midst of a company of almost zombified fellow pupils, he imagines himself as an adolescent Puck (Jamie Manton), rejected by Latin-master Oberon in favour of the Indian Boy but unable to escape his power.

So far, so conceptually complete, and the power with which dark thoughts can haunt the subconscious was vividly portrayed from the moment one entered the auditorium, as there was no curtain and the dark grey school-exterior set was oppressively huge (full stage height, and wide enough to breach the proscenium at one side). The malevolent undercurrent of much of the music was brilliantly brought into focus. And herein lay one of the staging’s massive problems — it concentrated on the opera’s dark recesses at the expense of every other plot strand, and it became difficult to recognise as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Tytania, here the music-mistress, was complicit in Oberon’s abuse of power, but why? The best analogy I can think of is a ‘Turn of the Screw’ in which there had never been any sexual thrall exerted by Quint over Miss Jessel. This Tytania was robotic in her movements and almost sexless, an idea which works in the context of the production (the unconscious thoughts of a man whose first sexual experiences were homosexual, now being involved with a woman and not quite knowing how to relate to her) but goes quite against the strong and voluptuous melismatic vocal lines of Britten’s writing for her. For Bottom she took her blouse off at least, but it remained a curiously asexual seduction.

ENO-MND-01.gifScene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Bottom, too, removed his shirt when ‘translated’ — the choreography during those few moments suggested that he was turning into a powerful, sexually voracious animal — but there was no further visual suggestion that he had been transformed into an object of ridicule (at 64, Willard White remains a fine figure of a man) never mind an ass. What a waste of all the donkey-jokes in both the text and the music. It was moments like this that brought home the arrogance of a production which assumes that its audience will be familiar with the piece, or at least its source, in advance; it must have been baffling to the first-time viewer.

The other massive issue I had was the lazy assumption that practical non-sequiturs — for example the presence of two girls (Helena and Hermia) in a school otherwise populated entirely by boys — could be explained away by it all being a dream. Later, the dreamer turned out to be Theseus (on the eve of his marriage to Hippolyta) and it thus became perfectly credible that friends he was due to see the next day might pop up abstractly in his dream alongside its main plotline, but this revelation wasn’t really made until Act 3, by which time a number of audience members had already given up and left. In both the opera and Shakespeare’s original, the three strands of the cast — fairies, Athenians and rustics — are a balanced, structural feature, keeping the action fresh by alternating the groups scene by scene, while exploring the dramatic possibilities of members of different groups coming into contact with one another. Here, the sole theme was Theseus’s projection of his own thoughts into the ‘fairy’ world, with the four lovers a sideline and the rustics an afterthought. The lovers and rustics were thus neglected directorially, the former lacking the opportunity for passion (in both the loving and argumentative sense) and the latter for light relief and comedy.

ENO-MND-04.gifWillard White as Bottom and Anna Christy as Tytania

All of which brings me to the performers. It’s unfortunate when a principal is sick, especially on the opening night, and on this occasion it was Iestyn Davies who had to mime (owing to his understudy also being indisposed) to the voice of the saturnine William Towers, star of the Royal Opera/Linbury Studio Theatre production a couple of years ago, singing from one of the boxes. I trust Davies will be back to vocal health soon, but he could barely have had a more accomplished stand-in than Towers. Anna Christy’s sharply focused coloratura can be rather colourless but was thus ideal for the staging’s unalluring portrayal of Tytania. The four lovers — Kate Valentine, Tamara Gura, Allan Clayton and Benedict Nelson — were well-matched and would have been believable if only the production had allowed them to be.

Heading up the mechanicals, as I previously mentioned, was Willard White, a Bottom of great vocal beauty but absolutely no comic instinct. While it was gratifying to see the play-rehearsal scenes played straight rather than as unfunny and caricatured farce, the play itself was presented as shambolic and overtly lewd am-dram played for the odd belly-laugh (a drunken Snout, Peter van Hulle, swearing at his audience when invited to ‘curse again’). I longed for the comedy to be allowed to blossom for a few moments. We should not be, at this point, still inside the dream — even though very soon afterward, Alden has Puck reappearing among the players to reawaken Theseus’s memories.

Leo Hussain’s musical direction was to my mind faultless; instrumental lines emerged crisply from the texture when required, and tension always remained high. The boys’ chorus had clearly been directed to sing with a weighty, forward-projected sound and crisp diction; it was a powerful and sinister effect, and frankly put the adults to shame because most of the diction elsewhere was poor. The episode when the fairies entertain Bottom with nursery-tunes played on pipes and drums was malevolent and terrifying.

All in all, I found it musically brilliant and dramatically deeply frustrating. With two entire acts of the drama developed through the mind of one single dreamer, there were very few characters who were allowed to be important or interesting or to behave like human beings towards one another. Shakespeare’s text and Britten’s music are laden with disturbing themes ripe for exploration, but I wished with all my heart that Alden had not lost sight of the fact that they are also full of tenderness, wit, and beauty.

Ruth Elleson © 2011

image_description=Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Anna Christy as Tytania [Photo by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera]

product_title=Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
product_by=Oberon: Iestyn Davies (sung by William Towers due to Davies’s indisposition); Tytania: Anna Christy; Theseus: Paul Whelan; Puck: Jamie Manton; Hippolyta: Catherine Young; Lysander: Allan Clayton; Demetrius: Benedict Nelson; Hermia: Tamara Gura; Helena: Kate Valentine; Bottom: Willard White; Quince: Jonathan Veira; Flute: Michael Colvin; Snug: Graham Danby; Snout: Peter van Hulle; Starveling: Simon Butteriss. Orchestra of the English National Opera. Conductor: Leo Hussain. Director: Christopher Alden. Set designer: Charles Edwards. Costume designer: Sue Wilmington. Lighting designer: Adam Silverman. Staff Directors: Elaine Tyler Hall, Rob Kearley. English National Opera, London Coliseum, May 2011.
product_id=Above: Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Anna Christy as Tytania

All photos by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera

Posted by Gary at 11:59 AM

May 22, 2011

Liudmyla Monastyrska — An Interview

Although well-known and esteemed for many years in her native Ukraine, as principal soloist of Ukraine National Opera, it was a surprise last-minute debut at Deutsche Oper Berlin, as Tosca, in 2009 that won her immediate international acclaim and led to a much heralded Italian debut at the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, cementing her reputation as a world-class performer with great vocal control and huge power.

And, another eleventh-hour call propelled Monastyrska onto the Covent Garden stage in March this year, when Micaela Carosi unexpectedly withdrew from Aida and Monastyrska stepped hastily into the Ethiopian princess’s shoes— thereby pre-empting by a couple of months her planned ROH debut, in this month’s revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

When I ask Monastyrska whether this was an exciting or nerve-racking challenge, she is remarkably relaxed and unruffled: it’s a role she knows well, and has performed many times before. Moreover, she was the understudy for the role at Covent Garden and so was familiar with the production. “During the rehearsals, when I was covering the role of Aida, I just wanted to sing! And my fellow singers could see this too. So, when I had the opportunity to sing they were genuinely very happy for me— and I’m grateful to them for being supportive.” She adds, “It wasn’t a question of being nervous. It was just a great honour to sing in one of the greatest opera houses in the world”.

Monastyrka’s performance won her superlative accolades. One critic noted her “powerful, opulent voice, form and controlled in the lower register, and full in tone right to the top; in her great Nile scene aria, ‘O patria mia’, she floated the fiendish final phrases with ease, her breath control superb”. Many were struck by the sheer power of her “sumptuous instrument”, and enjoyed the Slavic duskiness which she used to introduce shade and colour.

It’s clear that Monastyrka truly relishes the Verdian idiom. She admits that although it’s hard to anticipate how one’s voice will develop in future, the roles one sings play a predominant role in shaping the voice, so it’s essential to choose one’s repertoire carefully. “Verdi is so comfortable to sing, so that seems like a good path to follow at the moment.” She will repeat Aida in 2012 at La Scala. She currently has no plans to tackle Wagner or Strauss, despite being offered Salome and some Wagnerian roles, though she has performed some Puccini, including Turandot (which was in the repertoire of the Ukraine National Opera in Kiev), and other verismo roles such as Gioconda, Nedda and Santuzza.

Verdi’s Macbeth does not always win the critical respect of his two great late Shakespearian operas. This is Monastyrka’s first Lady Macbeth, a role which she declares is the most difficult out of all the Verdian roles— both technically challenging and dramatically and psychologically complex. “It’s not something for very young singers to tackle, it needs a mature voice and while it’s not necessarily a role that I’ve been planning or determined to sing, I am happy to have the opportunity.”

She has a clear dramatic conception of the role. “Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is a pure incarnation of evil, but in Verdi she has more of a conscience; in her final aria the audience actually see her going out of her mind, and thus they don’t judge her as much as in the play. The music is her inner consciousness. In the duet with Macbeth, when he has murdered Duncan, Lady Macbeth takes the knife and goes to make sure that the deed has been done; when she comes back and looks at her hands, from that moment she realises her crime— she has sinned and is immediately tormented by her guilty conscience. This troubling remorse arrives much later in the play, in Act 4.”

Lloyd’s production is dark and radical: the evil of the witches is the force which drives the action forward, and thus we see them taking Macbeth’s letter to his wife, or engineering Fleance’s escape from the assassins. As Monastyrska puts it, “Lady Macbeth is the weapon that the witches use to carry out their evil”.

I wonder whether it’s easy, or even possible, to leave such an intense and demanding role behind at the end of a rehearsal or performance? “One tries to, but in addition to the concentration of the rehearsals, one is thinking constantly about the role and the production— I even dream about the role! The performance ends but one can’t put it away straight away; it’s so deep and involving.”

Home is still the Ukraine, and while Monastyrska recognises that operatic success will inevitably take her overseas, she doesn’t like being away from home for too long. “I love to sing in Kiev, for it’s my homeland and it’s given me much strength— it’s pleasing to be able to give something back. It’s wonderful to perform in Kiev, where my family and friends are, and where I grew up— I’m very attached to my theatre there.”

Do Russian audiences respond differently to Western European audiences? “Yes, they’re very different. People have been very enthusiastic about my performances in Europe; but the audiences come to the opera already knowing the score, and often having seen the productions, and they make comparisons with others’ performances. They even know just how long you should hold a particular note— and if you don’t, the critics don’t take any pity on you! This is good, and absolutely fair, because the singer should strive for perfection.”

Monastyrska also recognises the importance of language in opera and stresses that it is essential to have a good language coach, something that she really appreciates at Covent Garden. “When rehearsing Aida, if I got two consonants wrong the coach would point it out and we worked very hard to get it right because when you are actually performing you are thinking about other things.”

Although her family are not trained musicians (her father is a businessman and her mother a teacher) there was always music in the house, in particular the folksongs which her mother sang, and which have become very important to Monastyrska. “At the age of 15 one’s tastes start to change, and you develop your own interests; I was very lucky as a teacher directed me towards singing. I wasn’t sure if this was for me, but he said, “You have a gift from God!” I sang often at school in festivals and concerts and music has become as important to me as the air we breathe— as necessary as that …”

Committed and passionate, and with a busy schedule in the months ahead, it’s not surprising that Monastyrska finds little time to relax and unwind, although she does enjoy listening to symphonic music, in particular the music of Rachmaninov. She also likes to read, but performances can leave her so drained that sometimes she just falls asleep over a book.

And, what roles would she like to explore in the future? Not surprisingly, the answer is more Verdi— possible Amelia in Simon Boccanegra; “And,” she says, with a smile and a shrug, “maybe Carmen.”

Claire Seymour

Macbeth will be performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 24, 27, 30 May 3, 6, 10, 13, 15 June at 7.30pm and 18 June at 7pm. On 13 June 2011 (GMT), this production will be broadcast live into cinemas around the world, including: the United Kingdom, Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands and Spain, with delayed relays to the United States and Australia. Please visit for further information.

image= image_description=Liudmyla Monastyrska [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House] product=yes product_title=Liudmyla Monastyrska — An Interview product_by=Interview by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Liudmyla Monastyrska [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House]
Posted by Gary at 11:08 PM

A Move by City Opera Has Potential, as Well as Possible Pitfalls

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 22 May 2011]
After talking, fantasizing and plotting about it for years, New York City Opera is moving out of Lincoln Center. Immediately! Or so the company said on Friday in a stunning, if very sketchy, announcement from George Steel, the general manager and artistic director.

Posted by Gary at 4:20 PM

Opera Remade, 1700-1750

The format of the series as a whole is continued here: the Editor, Charles Dill of the University of Wisconsin, USA, provides an intriguing and detailed introduction to the period itself and also poses some pertinent questions on the state of current operatic scholarship. Both purely academic as well as musicological work is included and the reader will find a variety of approaches represented in the collection: sources, criticism, performers, authors, composers, culture, theory etc. The historical context is heavily represented as are the socio-political parameters of the time.

The collection is divided into four separate parts, three general, and one specific: Librettos, Gender, Theatres & Performing and, lastly, Handel. Presumably the latter section was given a separate heading due to the over-arching importance of this composer in this specific period of 1700-1750. With the regeneration of baroque opera performance in the late 20th and early 21st century, there has been a parallel regeneration of academic study of this specific period, so this substantial volume of works should meet a need. However, it is important to note that there are only five essays out of the total of 23 that were written since the year 2000, the vast majority being from the years 1995-98. One presumes that more modern work is widely available to today’s scholars as the essays here need to be placed in their own context of performance practice in the mid-90’s when much was in flux still after the seismic rethinks of the 70’s and 80’s.

The original sources for the essays are not wide, many from the Cambridge Opera Journal, Music & Letters, and Early Music and some will be already familiar to students of baroque opera – for example Katherine Bergeron (1996) “The Castrato as History” (COJ). From a practical viewpoint, there are many pages reproduced in very small print which is not easy to read; however, this is somewhat counterbalanced by useful musical illustrations of specific passages and apposite photographs of artworks and manuscripts. All the original footnotes and references for each essay are included and there is a useful, if limited, Name Index at the end of the volume.

Sue Loder

image= image_description=Opera Remade, 1700-1750 product=yes product_title=Opera Remade, 1700-1750 product_by=Charles Dill, ed., The Ashgate Library of Essays in Opera Studies, Ashgate Publishing Company, 530 pp. product_id=ISBN 978-0-7546-2900-9 price=$250.00 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 2:08 PM

Iphigénie en Tauride at the Washington National Opera

The production is also the swan song for Placido Domingo, WNO’s departing artistic director and the star of Iphigénie’s long-awaited and much-acclaimed 2007 revival at the Met. Although the DC audiences who missed that event (last reprised in February this year) were in for a treat in experiencing Domingo’s masterly Orestes, the fabulous Stephen Wadsworth production in which he appeared did not — alas! — accompany him from New York. Instead, we saw a creation of Spanish director Emilio Sagi, imported from Ópera de Oviedo, a small, picturesque and artistically adventurous town in the Northern Spanish province of Asturias. Yet, if there was ever a case made for choosing a locally grown creative product over an import, this was it. The WNO Iphigénie was a classic example of an aural triumph cloaked in a visual disaster: from the opening chorus on, I wished that the vengeful gods of Olympus would strike me blind and let me enjoy a wonderful opera in a truly superior performance while sparing me the ugliness on stage.

If one had to choose, the industrial-looking sets by Luis Antonio Suarez were the least objectionable element of the Oviedo production. The metal-and-concrete box that, according to Suarez, doubled as the heroine’s temple and her prison was a reasonable contemporary interpretation of the plot. Indeed, watching the singers in floor-length costumes climbing up and down flimsy metal ladders built into the concrete while trying to produce an acceptable sound was a heart-stopping experience, designed no doubt to increase dramatic tension. The back of the set, a cross between a gigantic wrought-iron gate and a mosaic of mirrored glass, was actually attractive, and the minimalistic set of Act 3, with its metal floor-length torch, modernist angular white armchair, and stone back wall that opened out into the starry night was an effective conceit. But the costumes by Oviedo’s own Pepa Ojanguren were to die for — and not in a good way. The highlights included loosely hanging black tunics, pants, and skirts; cloaks of cheap plastic for the warriors and one-piece bathing suits for the dancers; and the horribly lurid black lycra bodices that made the choristers look like they were wearing bargain trash bags (dare one make a bad pun on “Eurotrash” at this point?). I am still puzzled over the vision of lead dancer and choreographer Diniz Sanchez bouncing around the stage on high-tech curved metal stilts — that is, when he was not clinging for dear life to Iphigenia’s shoulders, lest he lose his balance and tumble into the orchestra pit. I am not certain, however, if that particular detail should be credited to the choreographer himself or to the stage director: both seemed determined to design all stage movements either for Olympic athletes or ballet dancers, without the slightest concern for the performers who would actually have to execute their ideas. For instance, the living chain of priestesses, their bare arms on each other’s shoulders, might prove attractive, even affecting in Giselle, but instead looked merely embarrassing on the ladies of the WNO choir, who do not all wear size two, and who deserve much praise for delivering beautiful renditions of Iphigénie’s stunning choruses, despite their predicament.

The same can be said for American soprano Patricia Racette, who brought both vocal prowess (with only an occasional muddiness on highs) and powerful drama to her portrayal of Iphigenia. That is, when her considerable acting talent was not stymied by the stage director. Evidently torn between a realistic and a symbolic interpretation of her character, Sagi produced neither, instead punctuating Racette’s part with random swoons and melodramatic clutching of the stomach. This approach looked particularly bizarre in the opening scene, in which the ingenious effect of projecting images of swirling storm clouds onto the gauze front curtain (lighting designer Eduardo Bravo) was entirely ruined by awkward acting behind the gauze. The audience was left to wonder whether Iphigenia and her priestesses were being battered by the waves or suffering from an acute case of seasickness.

The music-drama contradictions in Pilade’s character, however, should likely be attributed not to the director but to Shawn Mathey, American tenor cast in the role. It is perfectly understandable why Mathey would be tempted to make Pilade a Heldentenor: in the story, Pilades is indeed a hero, who in the opera’s finale rescues his friend Orestes and Iphigenia from the clutches of the tyrant Thoas (the fabulously menacing Simone Alberghini — the only singer who really owned that black lycra). Unfortunately (and rarely for this superb opera), the score does not support the libretto here. The part is written for a haute-contre — a very high, light, almost feminine tenor timbre, more appropriate for an over-excited adolescent (or a wimpy Don Ottavio — Mathey’s most recent part on the WNO stage) than a heroic young warrior. It is not the bravura of his Act 3 “to-the-rescue” aria, but the languid, mildly erotic grace of the Act 2 romance that define Gluck’s Pilade — and appropriately, it was the romance and not the aria in which Mathey shined.

Overall, despite the youth of many soloists (four of them Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists), the vocal quality of the performance was surprisingly and consistently excellent from the beginning of Act 1. Yet, the first note out of Placido Domingo’s mouth in the Act 1 finale puts us on notice: the king of the Greeks has arrived. Domingo’s magnificent Orestes has been much discussed since he took up the baritone part in the 2007 Met production. The dramatic intensity he brings to the role makes one forget his age, his tenor past, even his star power: we see only the character, and forget to applaud the performer (which, of course, was the goal of Gluck’s opera reform that gave birth to Iphigénie). It is a good thing too, for there are few moments in the score that allow for an applause break, and fewer still in the part of Orestes: with the exception of his Act 2 monolog, that character’s best moments are ensemble scenes (such as his duets with Pilades, and the Act 3 trio with Pilades and Iphigenia) and occasional throw-away lines of declamation, such as the single phrase allowed him in Act 1, which he rendered with the perfectly pitched, beautifully delivered anguish. The role of Orestes is well suited to the Domingo of today: it offers the lower vocal range he now prefers; and the patented absence of fast coloratura allows the singer to showcase an impeccably contoured and virtually unadorned bel canto line molded flawlessly to the declamation, as Gluck’s music submits to the demands of the drama.

The only issues that arose throughout the performance were not of Domingo’s own making. An occasional lapse in projection in Act 3 was a gift of the director who positioned Orestes at the very back of the stage with his back to the audience. As for the moments during which the singer seemed to have trouble catching up with the orchestra, this concern was shared by all the soloists and the chorus and must be attributed to some unaccountably brisk tempos selected by conductor William Lacey — a particularly dicey proposition, considering that the chorus rarely had the luxury of facing the baton, while Domingo and Mathey spent the opening scene of Act 2 blind-folded. On the other hand, the British conductor elicited an unexpectedly strong, clean performance from the WNO orchestra, typically the company’s weakest link. Granted, this feat might have been made possible by the absence of several habitual offenders from the wind and brass sections in Gluck’s 18th-century score.

On the whole, despite its ups and downs, the WNO presentation of Iphigénie en Tauride has been a testament to the enduring power of Gluck’s chef-d’oeuvre, reminding us of the heights to which its drama can be lifted by a great interpreter, and thankfully, of the score’s ability to overcome the deficiencies of a mediocre one. Not that this opera needs much interpreting: unlike much of the pre-Mozart repertoire, it does not feel out of place on a modern stage. Instead, it offers high-minded tragedy, revealed through flexible declamation and ensemble dialog, rather than high-powered solo numbers — an approach embraced in many contemporary operas. But unlike their music, viewed sometimes as too dissonant and forbidding, Gluck’s score is transcendently beautiful, selling the concept of operatic ensemble drama to an audience raised on the Romantic era’s coloratura tours-de-force. I hope we shall see this work often. I also hope that when next Iphigenia of Tauris arrives in Washington DC, she is not only a pleasure to hear, but also a pleasure to watch.

Olga Haldey

image= image_description=Iphigenia by Anselm Feuerbach, 1862 product=yes product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride product_by=Click here for cast and production information product_id=Click here for a photo gallery

Above: Iphigenia by Anselm Feuerbach, 1862
Posted by Gary at 12:30 PM

James MacMillan’s Clemency, Royal Opera

As with their two previous operatic collaborations, The Sacrifice (WNO, 2007) and Parthenogenesis (Royal Opera, 2009) the work was directed by Katie Mitchell. Clemency premièred at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre on 6th May 2011 (seen 7th May), and the work is a co-commission with Scottish Opera, the Britten Sinfonia and Boston Lyric Opera.

Like the previous two works, the opera examines the interaction between the mythic and the everyday. MacMillan and Symmons Roberts have turned to a slightly curious biblical episode for their source. Abraham and Sarah are visited by 3 strangers, they offer hospitality to the strangers, who inform Sarah that when they return in a year’s time Sarah will have a son, something she disbelieves because of her age. The three then reveal themselves as angels. When asked where they are going the strangers say they are going to the twin towns by the lake (Sodom and Gomorrah), that their business is vengeance. Abraham and Sarah dispute with the angels to try and save the townspeople.

MacMillan, Symmons Roberts and Mitchell have set the opera firmly in the downtrodden present. Alex Eales set showed three rooms side by side, enclosed by picture frames like a religious triptych. The opera opened in silence as Sarah (Janis Kelly, looking suitably dowdy), prepared lunch in the shabby kitchen (stage right) as Abraham (Grant Doyle) entered the living space (stage centre) and busied himself counting money and singing Hebrew to himself unaccompanied. Only after some time did MacMillan bring in the accompaniment of the Britten Sinfonia in a wonderful gesture of expanding the textures.

Abraham and Sarah share lunch, developing Abraham’s blessing into a lovely duet. 3 strangers appear, looking like migrant workers, named the Triplets in the programme (Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise). Though Abraham and Sarah do not recognise them, they offer hospitality, providing lunch. But MacMillan uses musical means to ensure that we do recognise them. The three sing in the sort of modified homophony familiar from MacMillan’s sacred music. He gives the Triplets their own sound-world which has a wonderfully transfigurative effect, contrasting with Abraham and Sarah with their rich string accompaniment.

The opera was accompanied just by the strings of the Britten Sinfonia, numbering 24 in all. They formed more than a simple accompaniment to the dialogue, the multi-textured strings seemed to lie very much in the rich tradition of British string music. The warm, resonant, interlinked textures seemed to speak much of Abraham and Sarah’s long, warm relationship.

When the Triplets reveal themselves they did so by fire and by speaking in tongues. Here MacMillan’s music took on a numinous quality and Mitchell’s deceptively natural production captured their strangeness and the disturbing effect the presence of three angels had on Abraham and Sarah’s routine existence.

The realisation that the news of the impending baby is a revelation from God was too much for Sarah who went back into the kitchen, contemplating the news in an ecstatic solo.

In a brilliant piece of stage-craft the room shown stage left, is not a separate room but the other half of the centre room, so that when the Triplets, Abraham and Sarah sit round the table we see them facing us in the two rooms. This enabled Doyle and Kelly to react to the men whilst all remained facing us. The Triplets changed into business suits, looking like hit-men complete with guns and to a horrified Abraham and Sarah revealed the sins of the cities (complete with images on their mobile phones) and their planned retribution.

Abraham and Sarah attempted to stop the Triplets, trying to bargain with them on the number of good inhabitants necessary to stop the planned retribution. Here the musical and dramatic set up of the earlier scenes became important as our belief in numinous nature of the Triplets, helped by both MacMillan’s music and Doyle and Kelly’s vividly natural reaction, fed into our understanding of the nature of what Abraham was doing, arguing with the word of God.

The opera finished not in a blaze, but in a quiet contemplation mirroring the opening. As Abraham rushed out after the departed Triplets, Kelly’s Sarah was left contemplating the future of her baby in a world where the twin town had been destroyed.

This was the third opera of MacMillan’s that I had seen and for me it felt the most accessible. MacMillan’s musical language relied quite heavily on the ornamentally inflected chant figures which can be found in much of his sacred music. Owing much to Scottish Gaelic influences, here they took on a Middle-Eastern flavour without ever approaching pastiche. The vocal lines were approachably lyric, full of interest and, where necessary, filled with a sense of the numinous. The principal thing I brought away from the performance was the fine sense of contrast between the music for the Triplets and the multi-layered string accompaniment.

This did not feel like a première run, the performances from all the principals felt so natural and complete, that it seemed as if they had been performing the piece for ever. Doyle and Kelly were completely absorbing as the settled married couple. Green, Mulhall and Tortise as young men only half aware of the disturbance their presence created, were suitably ambiguous as to who the trio really were.. Macmillan used the Tortise’s high tenor register to brilliant effect, and the singer coped admirably with the role’s challenging tessitura. All three formed a finely balanced ensemble.

With no surtitles we relied on the singers diction to enlighten us and generally the diction was excellent, the words crystal clear. Only in the more ecstatic sections did Janis Kelly rather leave us behind.

In the pit, the Britten Sinfonia under conductor Clark Rundell, made a fine rich sound, sonorously expressive. Like the singers, it felt as if the group had been playing this music all their lives.

At only 50 minutes this was quite a short evening’s entertainment, though MacMillan and Symmons Robert’s work is quite intense and will be tricky to place in a longer programme. Our hope must be that now MacMillan will create a companion piece for this wonderful work. The piece is scheduled to be seen in Scotland in 2012.

Robert Hugill

image_description=James MacMillan [Photo by Philip Gatward courtesy of Boosey & Hawkes

product_title=James MacMillan: Clemency; Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia
product_by=Sarah: Janis Kelly; Abraham: Grant Doyle; Triplets: Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall, Andrew Tortise Director: Katie Mitchell. Stage Design: Alex Eales. Costume Design: John Bright. Lighting Design: Jon Clark. Movement Director: Joseph Alford. Assistant Director: Dan Ayling. Conductor: Clark Rundell. Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio Theatre, Saturday 7th May 2011.
product_id=Above: James MacMillan [Photo by Philip Gatward courtesy of Boosey & Hawkes]

Posted by Gary at 12:00 PM

May 21, 2011

Don Giovanni, Florida Grand Opera

Whether such a thing is possible (Wilt Chamberlain notwithstanding) or not is for others to debate. The more interesting question might be who DaPonte and Mozart had in mind as they set to work on unmasking the Spanish grandee.

Early in the 17th century, a Spanish monk by the name Tirso de Molina wrote of a certain Don Juan more reprehensible than is probable and so much less than worthy that he is cast into fiery hell pits. Scores of offshoots (Moliere, Byron, E.T.A. Hoffman, Pushkin, and Kierkegaard count among those that succeeded with adaptations) came out of Molina’s Don and it is probable that this is the historical figure from which Mozart’s Don Giovanni is derived.

About a century later, there appears on the scene Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt. You know him simply as Casanova. Mozart’s take on Giovanni so interested Casanova — and his station as a man that set off on serial dalliances was so established - that he was said to have approached (unsolicited) DaPonte to advise him on the libretto; he may have sat in on the opera’s premiere to wit. But Casanova’s reputation was not that of a true libertine. By his own admission in his 12 volume mega-autobiography L’histoire de mon vie, he was but a mild womanizer: he lists a paltry 122 escapades and often the sole faculty he required from a woman was good conversation.

It remains that DaPonte and Mozart shaped Giovanni as a composite of these men, adding a soupcon of super-physical feats here and inflating the drollness (in the spirit of dark comedy, or drama giocosa) driving his depravity there. From this, productions and directors have room to play with the degree of redeeming value left their Giovanni. Florida Grand Opera’s production seeks to bend the picture of Giovanni to make him a more sympathetic anti-hero, to explain his actions as a function of psychodynamics and therefore something all men must trespass through: commitment-phobia or its less severe cousin, proverbial cold-feet.

The festive ambiance in the air on April 16, opening night, was the likes of which are felt when things are on an upswing and that is where FGO finds itself in recent seasons. The company’s operatic high notes peaked in 2010 with exciting new productions, interesting new talent and efforts to reach out to the opera community at large (opera luminary Ira Siff is on hand and this is John Pascoe’s Giovanni). So, opera interest is heightened this month with this Giovanni production (courtesy Washington National Opera) and, in repertory, David DiChiera’s Cyrano showing through the end of the month.

BidlackWagnerMorris.pngOttavio and Anna (Bidlack and Wagner) by the fallen Commendatore (Robinson)

Before a single note played, the curtain rose to Giovanni (David Pittsinger) and the circling “ghost of girlfriends past” behind a soft screen — what resulted was a field-of-sight dark, smoky, hazy, and impressionistic — a feast for the eyes before other senses were tapped.

Pascoe’s sets (arid and rustic in flavor with corresponding studding and fittings on frames and doors), offset costumes (those of Masetto and Zerlina were especially decorative) and the wielding of revolvers gives the story extra personality and takes the audience to a Spain feeling the remnants of Ottoman influence. The final scene at Giovanni’s castle, with vault-like doors at the entrance, was another glance into Pascoe’s imagination: the Commendatore, forces of repent coursing through him, pulls Giovanni (and zaps a Leporello too close for comfort) in like a magnet. That strobe lights, so often a gimmicky excess, were trained at center of symmetrical doors had something to do with their effectiveness. Pascoe’s costumes were of gorgeously decorated heavy and reflective fabrics — in purples, blues, and blacks, embroidered and streaked in gold.

CorbeilJarman.pngLeporello (Corbeil) recounts of Giovanni's conquest to Elvira (Jarman) in the “Catalogue Aria”

Pittsinger mostly fulfilled his promise to “inhabit” Giovanni, stylizing his performance satisfyingly. Giovanni does some pretty daft to risqué things per Pascoe — urinating on the Commendatore’s statue, performing cunnulingus on one of the members of the band in the last act — and Pittsinger went at these gamely. All the fight scenes came off well, with special kudos due the swordplay and tug-of-war (Fighting Director Bruce Lecure and Choreographer Sara Erde — in her first assignment with FGO - collaborating) with Ottavio and friends (four in total). Giovanni’s music sits very well in Pittsinger’s voice; he shaded and modulated compellingly and, at times, beautifully — his “Deh, vieni” placed in the latter category.

By the sound of it, Tom Corbeil — whose voice is phonogenic — is likely to make the switch from Leporello to Giovanni not far down the road. Corbeil had fun with Leporello’s music and the Pee-Wee Herman hairdo (Wig and Makeup by Chris Diamantides) he sported was in keeping with his anxiety-stricken servant. The Donna Elvira of Georgia Jarman was as irritating to the Don as could be imagined; Pascoe put a tool in the hand of Elvira for that purpose — evidence of the grandee’s misdeeds and complicating Giovanni’s relationship to Elvira and the Commendatore. Elvira carries a swaddled infant throughout the opera. Jarman, in her first outing with FGO, sang a “Mi tradi” with potent force and some lovely spun high notes.

MorrisPittsingerCemetary.pngThe Commendatore (Morris Robinson) runs through Giovanni (David Pittsinger)

Morris Robinson is such a presence — he (and Pascoe) made the Commendatore a pivot point in this production. Right from the get go, he pulls out a pistol during the duel, grazing Giovanni on the arm (a wound that is hard to heal throughout the opera). Heard at other points in his career in other roles, Robinson’s voice is remembered for its sheer size; Mozart’s music exposes it as glorious.

In his arias, Andrew Bidlack (Don Ottavio) sang winning phrases with a pleasant sounding mid-section. As Ottavio’s betrothed Donna Anna, Jacqueline Wagner won the audience over with a strongly felt “Non mi dir.” The Masetto this evening, Jonathon G. Michie, exhibited exemplary acting, nonplussed and peeved as he was over his Zerlina’s infatuation for the Don. Brittany Ann Renee Robinson (Zerlina), in her FGO debut, was a distracted vixen with a light soprano that carried a light “Batti, batti.”

FGO resident conductor Andrew Bisantz — carrying an ultra-sensitive baton for vocalists this evening– and orchestra found their most select playing marks in the sweeping interplay of winds and strings. Caren Levine provided harpsichord continuo. FGO’s chorus (with John Keene as Chorus Master) did a fine job on all fronts — busy as they were in non-singing tasks (they riot across the stage to open the second act). Erde made things interesting for the minuet by turning the program into something of a dance school.

It’s hard to tell if Giovanni came off as more likable, or even more relatable, this time. This time, like most times, there is only one way to defrost Giovanni’s feet.

Robert Carreras

image= image_description=David Pittsinger as Don Giovanni [Photo by Gaston de Cardenas courtesy of Florida Grand Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product_by=Don Giovanni: David Pittsinger; Donna Anna: Jacquelyn Wagner; Leporello: Tom Corbeil; Don Ottavio: Andrew Bidlack; The Commendatore: Morris Robinson; Donna Elvira: Georgia Jarman; Masetto: Jonathan G. Michie; Zerlina: Brittany Ann Renee Robinson. Florida Grand Opera. Conductor: Andrew Bisantz. Stage Director: John Pascoe. Set and Costume Designer: John Pascoe. product_id=Above: David Pittsinger as Don Giovanni

All photos by Gaston de Cardenas courtesy of Florida Grand Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:30 PM

Benvenuto Cellini

When the curtain rises we see a modern city at night: the heroine Teresa (who loves the great sculptor Cellini, and despises the poor sculptor Fieramosca, whom her father, the papal treasurer, wishes her to marry) has a perfume advertisement in front of her face; this ad turns out to be the back of Paris Match magazine, whose cover speculates that Cellini is a drug abuser. It seems that the opera is going to concern product placement, though this turns out not to be quite true. Then Teresa’s (mute) servants enter: the male servant is a robot that seems made of a refrigerator case into which two auto headlights are set for eyes, and a radiator grill set for a mouth; the female servant is a pink metal contraption with a conical head. As Teresa sings her lovesick aria, the female servant paints Teresa’s nails and shaves her armpits while the male servant turns out to be a huge vacuum cleaner. After her father glowers at her with a shotgun, Cellini, a charismatic tattooed fellow in jeans and a leather jacket, steps off a helicopter onto the roof. Only a few minutes have yet gone by.

A review printed on the back of the DVD notes, correctly, the resemblances to Batman and to Metropolis. The Metropolis suggestion is quite overt, since Ascanio, Cellini’s henchman and assistant, is a gold gynoid (or android—sex is ambiguous here) straight out of Fritz Lang’s movie, although with a few up-to-date touches—the back of his head is full of transistors and wires. But I think that the range of reference is far cheesier than the reviewer suggests. The pink conehead maid is straight out of Judy Jetson’s household; the male servant alludes to low-budget science fiction, on the order of the TV show Lost in Space. In the carnival scene, there are everywhere allusions to cartoons: we see costumes that suggest Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck and Donald’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. A big dynamite detonator is so clearly derived from Roadrunner cartoons that it might as well have The Acme Company printed on it. Zippy the Pinhead seems to inspire certain details, but I’m not sure that Stölzl is likely to know this semi-underground cartoon.

But despite all the sci-fi paraphernalia, even including ray-guns, there is a distinct retro look. Riveted girders are on display; the popemobile is a 1930s roadster with a big glowing cross as the hood ornament. Smokestacks continually emit steam, and indeed this may be the first steampunk opera production.

It is easy to ridicule this—Stölzl certainly intends this ridiculous production to be ridiculed. But almost in spite of myself I enjoyed it, and I think I know why. This is an opera about creativity: the drama concerns Cellini’s difficulties in forging his great statue of Perseus; Berlioz tried hard to limn the artistic personality—reckless, sexy, dangerous to the point of committing murder—that could create such a masterpiece. I suspect that Stölzl tried to imitate this sort of reckless, sexy, dangerous creativity, though the results are usually diffuse. Most focused is his treatment of the robot Ascanio, who becomes a sort of Galatea to Pygmalion-Cellini. Stölzl has Cellini give him (her) a passionate kiss, in defiance of the rules of trousers roles, but here not just a transvestism of the sexes, but a transvestism between the quick and the dead. At one point Ascanio’s severed head sings an aria, as his headless body dances around, as if he were a kind of avatar of Cellini, in danger of being hanged; and, during the casting of the Perseus, Ascanio tosses part of his body into the furnace, to contribute metal to the dangerously low supply. The sexual element is strong: Cellini fondles Teresa’s breasts; some servants spray Fieramosca’s groin with a fire extinguisher; in the satirical carnival show, the puppet representing the nitwit ninny Fieramosca has a huge balloon phallus, finally popped by one of the revelers. Berlioz himself was a kind of steampunk composer, whose harmonic daring and avant-garde urgency of expression was combined with certain (sometimes ironically) retrograde elements, such as the division of the action into set numbers, in some sense a throwback to a pre-Gluckian way of constructing an opera.

The conductor, Valery Gergiev, is about perfect, all impetuousness and finesse and control. The singing is a little less good: best is Maija Kovaleska, the Teresa, a flashy and, despite her mugging, a compelling actress, with a clear vibrant voice that can be caressing but tends to a slight blowsiness; Burkhard Fritz, the Cellini, has a potent stage presence, but an inelegant and uningratiating voice. Even the Fieramosca, Laurent Naouri, who knows everything about French classical style, is guilty of some lunging, as if the fake meretriciousness (if meretriciousness can be faked) had entered his soul. But I suspect that everyone involved had a great deal of fun.

Daniel Albright

  image= image_description=Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini product=yes product_title=Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini product_by=Benvenuto Cellini: Burkhard Fritz; Teresa: Maija Kovalevska; Fieramosca: Laurent Naouri; Giacomo Balducci: Brindley Sherratt; Pope Clemens VII: Mikhail Petrenko; Ascanio: Kate Aldrich; Francesco: Xavier Mas; Bernardino: Roberto Tagliavini; Pompeo: Adam Plachetka; Innkeeper: Sung-Keun Park. Vienna State Opera Chorus. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (chorus master: Andreas Schüller). Valery Gergiev, conductor. Philipp Stölzl, stage director and stage designer. Kathi Maurer, costume design. Duane Schuler, lighting design. Mara Kurotschka, choreographer. Filmed at the Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 5, 10 and 15 August 2007. product_id=Naxos NBD0006 [Blu-Ray] price=$39.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 11:12 AM

May 20, 2011

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in Der Rosenkavalier

The companies behind the product get another marketing opportunity, and the fans get the chance to see a beloved work of art in a state-of-the-art reproduction.

Such seems to be the promise behind a recent Kultur release of a “restored & remastered” version of Paul Czinner’s classic 1962 film of Der Rosenkavalier, from the Salzburg Festival, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and a superlative cast: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, Sena Jurinac in the title role, Anneliese Rotherberger as Sophie and Otto Edlelmann as Baroc Ochs.

As compared to a drab VHS version your reviewer saw some years ago, this DVD version does indeed have sharper colors and adequate sound. However, the film quality still shows its age, and audiophiles have no special reason to rejoice. The chief advantage of this new version is the addition of subtitles — that VHS version had none. Kultur does retain the synopses that begin each act, which have a certain historic charm, although the subtitles make them superfluous. The review copy offers nothing else — a one page track listing is the only thing provided in place of a booklet.

In the end, any disappointment provoked by the above state of affairs is washed away in the glory of this impeccably classy and traditional performance. The opera of composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal has depths and dark corners unexamined in this lovely 1962 presentation, and so we can be thankful for some of the more successful non-traditional productions of Der Rosenkavalier seen in recent years. Still, charm is not a negligible quality, and charm of one sort or another smiles out of almost every frame of this film.

Kultur has Schwarzkopf’s Marchallin as the cover, and she does dominate act one and the closing segment of act three. The voice undoubtedly had more plushness in earlier years, but ameliorating that loss is the mature wisdom of her understated portrayal. She knows this is no longer a stage performance, and she lets her eyes provide the acting. When she gathers her gown and departs after the trio, her visage from behind has more dramatic force than many performers manage facing the audience. Sena Jurinac neither sings nor acts convincingly as a male adolescent, but in the fairy-tale aspect of this work, her Octavian fits right in. In a role that be too cutesy by half, Annelise Rothenberger as Sophie earns our love along with Octavian’s, although one might wish for just a bit more security in the very highest notes. Otto Edelmann’s is a classically crude and obnoxious Ochs, which does make act three feel long until his disappearance (despite the fact that it is cut already). His epic last note at the end of act two won’t satisfy those who want the walls to reverberate with low vibrations, but he gets it out.

Herbert von Karajan loved to be filmed conducting, but there director Czinner keeps the camera on the stage, excepting, of course, the opening instrumental passages. Amusingly enough, Karajan does get the final bow.

So while this may not be the truest, most rewarding “restoration and remastering” imaginable, anything that puts this film on the market again deserves our thanks. Thank you, Kultur!

Chris Mullins


image_description=Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

product_title=Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
product_by=The Marschallin: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf; Octavian: Sena Jurinac; Sophie: Anneliese Rothenberger; Baron Ochs: Otto Edlelmann. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan. Director: Paul Czinner.
product_id=Kultur D4684 [DVD]
price=$37.99 (Blu-Ray)

Posted by chris_m at 3:04 PM

John Adams: Nixon in China

With music by John Adams to a libretto by Alice Goodman, Nixon in China is unlikely to eclipse La Traviata or even Porgy and Bess in frequency of stagings, but it should no longer be called a rarity. This year the opera made its debut on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and seemingly for that milestone, Nonesuch has reissued the recording made around the time of the opera's debut.

With the passage of time, both from the original historical events covered by the opera and from the work’s premiere, when it undoubtedly seemed incredibly fresh and risky, Nixon in China might be viewed now as an audience-friendly work. It is in English, with characters, story and setting familiar to most opera goers. There are solo pieces that reward an audience’s patience with the longer passages of Adams’s minimalist scene-setting — especially Madame Mao’s high-flying aria and Nixon’s propulsive number, “News is a kind of mystery.” A ballroom dance sequence has become a fairly popular orchestra showpiece, both on classical radio and in concert programming. A minority of opera-goers might be offended by the libretto’s somewhat snarky tone toward the political figures (especially Henry Kissinger), but the majority probably are quite comfortable with the mixture of ironic detachment and forays into metaphysical poetry:

CHORUS: We saw our parents’ nakedness;
Rivers of blood will be required
To cover them. Rivers of blood.
PAT NIXON: I squeezed your paycheck till it screamed…

The only thing mitigating against even greater popularity for the opera is its length — it is in three acts, with almost three hours of music. The libretto is not exactly action-packed: in act one the American party arrives and is greeted. In act two, they attend some functions, and in the oddly low-key act three, the parties retire to bed and reflect on the experience. Each character seems to be almost autistically isolated from the others. Characters may sing over each other from time to time, but there are no true duets.

The 1987 recording captures a fine orchestra performance by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, with Edo De Waart in full command of the score’s subtle textures and rhythmic complexity. The singers had created their roles and had lived in them for at some time at the point of recording. James Maddelena’s Nixon has a security that was sadly not consistently present when he resumed the role this year at the Metropolitan. Sanford Sylvan sings with dignity as Chou En-Lai, as opposed to Thomas Hammons, who is required to slink into comic caricature as Henry Kissinger. John Duykers’s character tenor voice makes for an interesting choice as Mao-Tse-tung — instead of some gruff, heavy growl, we get a piercing, insistent tone. Carolann Page gets a pensive, but appealing solo number as Pat Nixon, and as Madame Mao, Trudy Ellen Craney fires off some high-lying coloratura.

In the world of opera, 25 years is not really all that long. It could be that Nixon in China is just beginning to assert itself as a key document in American opera history, with regular if not frequent appearances in opera houses for decades to come. Or this could be the high-point of its success, as the historical context slips into an obscure past for younger opera-goers, and the music and staging possible become a bit dated. In this fine Nonesuch recording, however, the best that the opera has to offer is recorded forever.

Chris Mullins

image_description=John Adams: Nixon in China

product_title=John Adams: Nixon in China
product_by=Richard Nixon: James Maddalena; Pat Nixon: Carolann Page; Chou En-Lai: Sanford Sylvan; Henry Kissinger: Thomas Hammons; Mao Tse-Tung: John Duykers; Madame Mao Tse-Tung: Trudy Ellen Craney. Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Conductor: Edo de Waart.
product_id=Nonesuch 79177-2 [3CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 12:37 PM

A Fond Remembrance of Hildegard Behrens

Did you know that a young US Air Force radio operator, serving in post WWII Germany, was once engaged to marry renowned German opera soprano Hildegard Behrens?

I’m Charles Pratt, a retired businessman now living in Denver, Colorado. Of course, Hildegard is no longer with us, having died 2009 at the age of 72. Our love affair, for we didn’t have “relationships” in those days, spanned two continents and three decades.

It began in 1955. I was a USAF basic airman on a train, looking forward to visiting a young lady. Hildegard was on that same train, on her way to Paris to visit friends. Fate intervened, and we met, and were instantly attracted to each other.

We were both very young. I joined the Air Force at age 17, just after high school graduation in Strahan, Iowa. Going through basic training at California’s Parks Air Force Base and Biloxi, Mississippi’s radio operations training, I was off to Bremerhaven, Germany.

Hildegard was still in high school when we met. What a lovely livewire she was, highly intelligent and precocious. She spoke English, French, German, and Greek and could converse in Latin. She was a people magnet, very outgoing and dramatic, even flamboyant, with a flair for creating fun. I was drawn to her warm, outgoing personality. I’m the opposite, very quiet and taciturn. Hildegard impatiently urged me to talk more! In fact, she teasingly called me “The Quiet Man,” from the 1952 romantic comedy-drama film starring John Wayne.

In Varel, Germany, Hildegard grew up as the youngest of 6. Both her parents were physicians and their offices were in their large home. At first I stayed in a hotel not far from their home.Later, they made room for me in their home. It was devoted to music, Dr. Behrens being an avid amateur musician. Many evenings the family gathered for classical music radio broadcasts. All the Behrens children studied the piano and violin or cello from a young age.

I purchased a car. Hildegard’s sister Isa would hop in the car with us, and I naively thought she was bored and wanted an outing. Only later did I learn she was our chaperone! That changed once we became engaged.

Many times, our destination was the Bremerhofen base service club. Hildegard’s brother Wilhelm, a concert pianist and music professor at the University of Freiburg, sometimes came along. He generously played the piano at the base, giving the gift of sing-alongs and jazz sessions .

The next two years were full of memories. I remember a coat that Hildegard hand stitched, so intricately and precisely detailed that it could be worn reversed. This attention to detail carried through all Hildegard’s life endeavors.

Christmas at the Behrens’ home featured a very tall, live tree sparkling with real candles and tinsel. After Christmas Eve church services came the gift exchange. I gave Hildegard’s mother a bottle of Joy perfume and her dad a box of Roi-Tan cigars.

There was teasing, too. Hildegard’s brother Otto, Hildegard and I needled Frau Dr. Behrens who presided over the dinner table. My role was to emit very loud burps while the others snickered. Frau Dr. Behrens would lower her head to her hands, satisfactorily shuddering at my bad manners. Later, as a gift, Otto gave me a pewter mug engraved with “Burpy.”

In the spring of 1957, Hildegard and I became engaged. We announced this to Hildegard’s mother first, by taking her to lunch. Otto came along as spokesman to explain our wish to marry. Hildegard’s father was told that evening and then an announcement was posted to friends and relatives, and to the newspaper.

Following German custom, I gave a gold ring to Hildegard who wore it on her left hand; with marriage she would switch the ring to her right ring finger. Luckily, this custom was known to me because Hildegard’s brother, DiDi (Dietrict) had gotten engaged and married prior to this and I was his best man.

Then, everything changed. In May 1957, my tour of duty ended and I returned to the states. Regretfully, I listened to my father who convinced me to break the engagement with Hildegard, and I sent a “Dear Jane” letter to my fiancée. Hurt and feeling heartbroken, Hildegard wrote to my mother of a desire to do away with herself.

Instead she became a riveting soprano opera star, famed for a warm, textured voice and top notes that sliced through heavy Wagner orchestras. Had our breakup not occurred, would she have achieved all that she did? I’ve wondered.

I finished college and married in 1959. My business adventures were too far ahead of their time to be successful--ethanol production, an electric car, wind turbines, and a commercial environmental garbage disposal. My marriage faltered when my two girls were teenagers.

Hildegard had earned a law degree and then started vocal studies, at the age of 26, at the Freiburg Academy of Music. At the age of 34, she debuted in a lyric soprano role as the countess in The Marriage of Figaro.

I decided to contact Hildegard about this time. Her father, who I got out of bed when I called to trace her, said she lived in Dusseldorf and was beginning an opera career. She was also a single mother, raising a five year old son, Philip.

We had many long transatlantic phone conversations before deciding that Hildegard would fly to visit me in New York City, where I had an office. She obtained her opera company’s permission for the visit and I met her plane at JFK Airport.

Hildegard brought only winter clothes and the New York weather was warm, so our first stop was Honeybee, a boutique near my office, for a new wardrobe. Once she was comfortable, we headed for a piano bar to just talk. It was as if we had never been apart. The next days were full of sightseeing and an evening at the Metropolitan Opera House where we had orchestra seats. Hildegard, who knew the lead Mexican tenor, wanted to send him flowers. I suggested a magnum of champagne instead. We shouted “Bravo!” to him at the stage door and then we all went for drinks. That evening I told Hildegard that she would one day sing at the Met. She told me that she loved the challenge of opera music because of its complexity. She did sing at the Met 171 times as well as other worldwide venues.

Our visit was wonderful. After that, I made many trips to Germany, once staying five weeks. I met her little boy, Philip, and heard Hildegard sing in both Frankfurt and Dusseldorf. I met her friends and went to Varel to see her father. Hildegard’s mother, tragically, was killed in a car accident. Hildegard and I traveled all over Europe — Barcelona, Geneva, Amsterdam, and elsewhere.

Hildegard visited the states again and met my mother in Omaha, Nebraska. She visited my home in Denver where she enjoyed the beauty of the Rocky Mountains but acknowledged that her first love was the sea.

And our love? After seeing each other across the continents, it became clear that our worlds were far apart. She asked me to be her manager but I knew so little of opera; how could I be what she needed? And her son was there in Germany; my family was here in the states.

We affirmed our love for each other, our first and most precious love that nothing could ever replace. Such a warm and fiery woman, she was my “little one” and I was her “poodle.” After a few more phone calls across the ocean, we each went on with our separate lives in our separate worlds.

Most people do not get a second chance to re-kindle a love relationship that, powerful and exciting, is not meant to be permanent. I am so thankful for twice having a love affair to remember.

image= image_description=Hildegard Behrens product=yes product_title=A Fond Remembrance of Hildegard Behrens product_by=An account by Charles Pratt as told to Shirley Hessel product_id=Above: Hildegard Behrens
Posted by Gary at 9:16 AM

May 19, 2011

La Prigione di Edimburgo

By Kenneth Walton [The Scotsman, 19 May 2011]
'LA PRIGIONE di Edimburgo, which holds a delicate balance between pathos and comedy, might well bear revival". So wrote the late Julian Budden in the recently published New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, in reference to a long-forgotten opera by the 19th century Italian composer Frederico Ricci that translates rather banally, but intriguingly for us in Scotland, as The Prisoner of Edinburgh.

Posted by Gary at 3:03 PM

L.A. Opera takes to the radio airwaves with 'Il Postino' and five other productions

By Lee Margulies [LA Times, 19 May 2011]
"L.A. Opera on Air" begins its fifth season on classical music station KUSC-FM (91.5) this weekend, showcasing six productions from the company's 2010-11 season. First up is "Il Postino" (The Postman), featuring L.A. Opera General Director Placido Domingo in the lead role of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Posted by Gary at 2:51 PM

May 18, 2011

Orfeo ed Euridice, Metropolitan Opera

Gluck’s intention was to isolate the story in three individual voices, as no opera treating the story of Orpheus had done before. He could even have made it a monodrama, and in some ways it is one: The roles of Euridice and Amor are neither large nor intricate in the original Vienna version of the score. (Euridice’s aria was a Parisian afterthought, as was Orfeo’s coloratura showpiece in Act I, which may not even be Gluck’s work. Neither is performed at the Met.)

ORFEO_Daniels_as_Orfeo_1307.gifDavid Daniels as Orfeo

The Metropolitan Opera production, directed by Mark Morris, seemed, when it was first mounted, to be mostly about Isaac Mizrahi’s distracting costumes for the chorus (some idiot tale about “all the famous people in history witnessing the story”) and, secondarily, Morris’s jazzy choreography, almost the only scene-setting we have for Tartaros or Elysium. There was some story about a guy who goes to the Underworld to bring back his dead wife, but that came a poor third. On its latest revival, those miserable costumes are still around, but the chorus do not rush about on their catwalk portraying furious Furies; they stay sedately in place, out of the spotlight. The lighting is seldom upon them anyway, and one can ignore their egregious intrusions and just listen to the way they sing. (Beautifully, with very precise diction.) Morris’s choreography also seems less to clutter matters and (I could be wrong here) there may have been cuts in the celebratory dances. So at last the opera is about Orpheus and Eurydice, a pleasant, nearly Ovidian, metamorphosis.

ORFEO_Oropesa_as_Amor_0293.gifLisette Oropesa as Amor

Antony Walker, an Australian, made an excellent, brisk debut in the pit, and even at its most languid moments, the musical tension never let up all night: an energetic performance informed, one suspects, by a background in the current, danceable Early Music style of doing galant music. He plays well with singers, too—this staging requires the chorus to keep time, beating their hands on the rails of their bleachers, at certain moments.

David Daniels is now 45, and countertenors’ voices do not last as long as, say, Wagnerian sopranos’ do. I hear less of the thrilling sensuality in his alto that had me gaga in earlier years, less control at the edges of individual notes, but he has always been a superb musician and a passionate actor, and his Orfeo is a memorable, ardent portrait. When he stands alone, bereft, at the center of the stage (vertically as well as horizontally) for the climactic “Che faro senza Euridice,” a clear and simple statement of anguish, he has earned our total attention and repays it richly. This is what Gluck’s clarifying reform of opera was all about.

ORFEO_Daniels_and_Royal_188.gifDavid Daniels as Orfeo and Kate Royal as Euridice

Lisette Oropesa made a pleasing god of love, the voice pure and clear, filling the hall, the gestures a minimum of cute excess. Kate Royal made her Met debut as Euridice, with a voice of distinct color and beauty and an attractive stage presence, but she did not make terribly much of this pallid character’s awkward situation, as Danielle de Niese, in striking contrast, did, and for some reason she had lost her vocal footing for the final triumphal duet and was unable to regain it.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Kate Royal as Euridice [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice product_by=Orfeo: David Daniels; Euridice: Kate Royal; Amore: Lisette Oropesa. Metropolitan Opera chorus and orchestra, conducted by Antony Walker. Performance of April 29. product_id=Above: Kate Royal as Euridice

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 11:49 AM

Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera

If I’d attended the opening, I might have been less pleased. A friend whom I met at this, the third, performance clued me in on all sorts of changes, not least in the improving command of his music on the part of Bryn Terfel. On the third night, there was only one major machinery mishap: Siegrune (Eva Gigliotti), broke the straps that held her to her bucking “horse,” and landed with a thump in the trough behind the forestage. She leaped (nothing broken!) into the wings, and when (after, no doubt, cursing and moaning mercifully inaudible to us) she bounded back onstage for a war-cry or two, there was applause. At the Met, audiences take the singer’s side against malicious, high-concept scenery. This may not be true at other performing venues.

Die Walküre has always been the most popular drama of Wagner’s Ring, performed far more frequently than the others. The doomed romance of Siegmund and Sieglinde is the most moving human relationship in the entire cycle, their undeserved doom winning our deepest sympathy, and Wotan’s tragedy is nowhere made more manifest than in his renunciation of Brünnhilde, the daughter who has been his second self. Parents, children, lovers, loners, schemers who fail—everyone who falls into any of those categories, or sympathizes with one of them, will feel the terrific pang in Wagner’s matchless musical setting of these situations.

Wulkure_Met_2011_02.gifBryn Terfel as Wotan and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka

The questions I always ask before the curtain rises on Die Walküre are, first, can these singers sing it properly? That is, beautifully, with enough breath and power for the theater in which they find themselves, and can they act, so that the lengthy debates of Acts II and III hold our attention? Then, what pitfalls will the director fall into? Will Siegmund start fondling Sieglinde the moment he sets eyes on her (which always makes me feel sympathetic to Hunding) or will their physical communication be only by eyes and exchanged drinks until their climactic embrace at the end of the act? They are two people who have never been able to touch anyone all their lives, and this first contact should mean something, should come only after we know their stories, anticipate their destinies. Then, how will Brünnhilde’s transformation from unfeeling goddess to sympathetic woman during the “Todesverkündigung” duet be manifested? And will the director and the singers be able to make sense of the end of Act II, where Wagner has given them far too cluttered a set of events to perform? And, last act, lacking real flying horses and real magic fire, how will they indicate flying horses and magic fire?

A great deal of the answer in the Met’s new production, by Robert Lepage, depends on special mechanical effects created by lights, projections and twenty-four “planks” that perform as athletically as anybody. You may remember them from Das Rheingold, as the roof of Alberich’s cavern and the staircase down to it from Valhalla, the bridge towards that castle and its monumental walls as well. This time around, the planks portray the rustic insides and (later) the slate roof of Hunding’s hut, a snowcapped mountain (getting all the icier with Wotan’s chilly mood), eight cavorting steeds in the Valkyrie Theme Park™, a tulgy wood or two, heaving in the wind, and a stage-wide winged bird-beast of prey. They are also the plasma-screen projection TV of Siegmund’s bardic imagination, and that’s going entirely too far—savages racing about like animated cave paintings are mere kitsch and as unnecessary as subtitles. Just listen to the leitmotifs and Wagner will tell you exactly what’s going on. Lepage also provides a gigantic plastic eyeball (programmed for light show!) to illustrate Wotan’s narration, and a spectacular ram’s head-armed High Victorian settee for Fricka, but rarely did I feel in Act II (as I had with the cave paintings) that he had gone too far, illustrating what simply did not call for illustration. Many of the meditative sections of Wagner’s great drama were indeed meditative: The music, the singing, needed no specific illustration because the music, the singing, were the drama, and what it was about. I wasn’t sure Lepage had got that important Wagnerian memo; perhaps he has.

Was Lepage or some less exalted figure responsible for the moving around of the humans in this staging? Someone has paid attention to the psychological underpinnings of the drama, which is an excellent thing. Though there are certain things I itch to tweak, in many ways it is an improvement on earlier stagings, even the sacrosanct Schenk production. Siegmund’s rush through the forest (those planks again!) was quite alarming, and can’t be easy to render safe. It will also exhaust the average tenor, but then, he has a time to catch his breath before singing again, and he spends it lying across the Hundings’ hearth. Sieglinde, who has been out gathering wood, finds him there and touches him, gingerly, to see if he’s still alive. At this, Siegmund seizes her hand—plainly the reflex of a hunted man and no flirtation. Later, Hans-Peter König—not merely a bass of golden age vocal stature, who only has to open his mouth to remind us how fallen, in other categories, is the modern Wagnerian estate, but also the funniest Hunding ever—ambles brutally home, tosses his bearskins on the sword-hilt conveniently sticking out of a tree, and, without looking at him, sticks his spear across the stranger’s chest as if to say, “What the hell is he doing here?” The focus on the scene that follows is, correctly, not on Siegmund so much as on the portrait of an unhappy marriage that Siegmund has interrupted.

Wulkure_Met_2011_03.gifDeborah Voigt as Brünnhilde

I’ve always hated the salacious impulse of modern directors to have Siegmund and Sieglinde flop down and do it on the kitchen floor as the curtain falls on Act I. Surely she loathes her unhappy home, Hunding might wake at any moment, and Siegmund’s whole message has been: There’s a great big world full of springtime and love out there! Let’s go and enjoy it! Wagner says they rush out into the night, and I’m with him. So, happily, is Lepage, for as we watch, the planks that have been the inner wall of Hunding’s hut turn into the slate roof, and we’re out in the woods. Excellent.

In Act II, the planks became a sort of mountain platform with a cavern beneath, and on this floated Stephanie Blythe, our Fricka. Though sizable, Blythe has never had the slightest difficulty racing about the stage and up and down reasonable obstacles, but Lepage has not been willing to risk this. He gives her a motorized wheelchair with rams’ heads on the arms (in Norse mythology and in Wagner’s text, Fricka drives a chariot drawn by rams), and here she must sit and discourse with Wotan. Being Blythe, she has no problem acting in this contraption: seething goddess, neglected wife, yearning erstwhile lover, implacable lawyer (G.B. Shaw said Fricka represented the Law to Wotan’s Church). I found rather touching her extension of a hopeful hand to defeated Wotan, and his sarcastic kissing of it. The next “effect” was the popping up from the cavern under the rocks (the planks again) of a circular plastic “eye,” a screen on which Brünnhilde watches suggestive videos while Wotan tells her his tale. Cute but kitsch, and unnecessary.

For the Todesverkündigung, we were back in plank forest, but nothing much should happen during Siegmund and Brünnhilde’s stichomythia, at least until its conclusion, when he takes up the sword to slay Sieglinde and Brünnhilde, in stopping him, unknowingly becomes human herself. Here Deborah Voigt abruptly deflected his blade with her shield, and disarmed him with her spear. It was startling, as the moment should be.

I’ve rarely seen the scene that ends Act II staged with all its elements clear and visible, gods “hovering” protectively over mortals, a lot of weapons-play, witnesses to things incomprehensible if not invisible. And how many Brünnhildes can pick up all the pieces of broken Nothung and get Sieglinde offstage in the allotted time? Lepage managed most of it to a thrilling degree. Hunding and his men simply did not “see” Wotan or Brünnhilde; nor, so far as we could tell, did Sieglinde, motionless until the moment Brünnhilde (whom she has never seen before, remember) addressed her. Wotan strode forward with his spear to break the useless sword in Siegmund’s hand, then stood back to allow Hunding to strike the death blow. Siegmund died cradled in Wotan’s arms, reaching, touchingly, to the face of the invisible father he has barely known. Then—a little too hurriedly, methinks; he should have godlike dignity even in his wrath—Wotan chugged off stage in pursuit of his errant daughters. It seemed to me that there were far too many men around, Hunding’s confederates but, in fact, Lepage’s crew. There is nothing for them to do, no reason for them to move, and they neither moved nor sang. Two or three would fill the bill.

And so to the scene that is usually a snap: Wotan kisses Brünnhilde, her godhead falls away, she sinks sleeping into his arms, and he lays her out on the mountaintop before summoning the fire to surround her. Here, Lepage let his ambitions for a startling tableau run away with him, adding many an unnecessary complication in order to produce an image that, while impressive, even chilling, hardly seemed worth the bother. We should focus on Wotan and his feelings (lovingly described by the orchestra); instead we are distracted by the sight of the snow-covered mountain sinking into the earth, the spear-cradled Valkyrie (a body double) carried to the top of it and hung upside down as we, presumably, witness from above, in dolly shot. It’s quite a coup de théâtre, but aren’t we attending an opera? Shouldn’t the emotional focus of the story be Wotan’s feelings, and not: How does she stay up there?

The singing ranged from good to spectacular—alas, the best of it came from the two least loved of the figures onstage, Fricka (Stephanie Blythe), rock solid but warm and womanly, and Hunding (Hans-Peter König), who opens his mouth only to caress the ear, reminding one of Kurt Moll, Matti Salminen and the other Wagnerian basses of more golden ages. The weakest link was Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek, a handsome woman and a fine actress with a large, womanly instrument, who sang “Du bist der Lenz” consistently flat and her final triumphant outburst in Act III all over the place, never consistently anything or anywhere. She’d been suffering from a cold a week before, at the opening; perhaps it lingered, unannounced. In any case this was not an enjoyable Sieglinde.

Wulkure_Met_2011_05.gifHans-Peter König as Hunding

At my first Die Walküre (Nilsson, Jones, Vickers), forty years ago, a veteran of many Rings beside me turned to her friend and said, “Such a pleasure to see a Siegmund and Sieglinde who actually resemble each other.” I think Vickers wore a blond wig, actually. At this latest one, Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann seemed to be wearing curly chestnut wigs—in any case, the resemblance of these tall, slim persons in dark garb (especially when they first warily looked each other over, profile echoing profile) was striking enough to seem uncanny, as Wagner desired—score for the Met’s wig and makeup department! Kaufmann, currently one of the world’s most admired tenors but one whose voice had seemed a little small for the Met even against a Traviata orchestra, gave us a darkly baritonal, cautious Siegmund, meeting nearly all the role’s challenges with full weight. The “Wãl-” in his Act I-concluding “Wälsungen Blut” was flat, as if his strength had given out by that time, but the invocations of “Wälse” earlier in the act were stirringly done. He seemed to have the measure of the Met’s acoustics and to know just how far he did not need to push to be heard in a suave “Winterstürme” and the ominous phrases of the Todesverkündigung. His ability to race through quite a dangerous little maze of log palisade/thick forest, to fight almost credibly with a broad sword and to die with an anguished gaze on the father-god who has betrayed him won him a deserved ovation.

I’d been dreading Deborah Voigt’s assumption of the role of Brünnhilde, and I still wish they’d find someone else for it, but she managed a decent, B-level Valkyrie, devotedly acted, and she looked terrific in a costume carefully modeled on the Victorian armor and silken flounces of Amalie Materna’s creation of the role at Bayreuth in 1876. She brought the proper emotions to her singing, the exultation to the war-cry (no trills of course), a sense of inexorable doom to the all-important Todesverkündigung. But Voigt’s voice these days suggests little in the way of color, of metal, of shine; half the time she scrapes it over gravel. It is the ruins of a voice and therefore, though she gives an enthusiastic performance, it does not sound heroic. This is less painful in the long, narrative stretches of a Wagnerian part than it was in lyric Puccini last December, when she was simply a gray, blank space on a colorful canvas; in Wagner she is able but uninspiring.

Bryn Terfel seemed inadequate to Wagnerian power in Das Rheingold last fall, but either his health has improved or he has devoted more attention and energy to the far longer and emotionally deeper Wotan of Die Walküre. There were moments (such as the beginning of his Act II narration) where his bad habit of acting, spitting, thrusting lines rather than singing them proved briefly tiresome, but by and large this was an honest, forceful, intriguing performance, one that holds proper weight in the opera, with real lyricism when he dwelt on the springlike love of the twins or his youthful ambitions, and in the long last exchange with the desperate Brünnhilde. His diction was excellent, he never fell back to crooning as he has been known to do when singing Mozart. His acting was full of intriguing touches, like the unloving kiss he forces himself to place on Fricka’s outstretched hand, nor did the wobbling planks beneath his feet give him the slightest insecurity. He played an imposing if unlucky king of the gods with conviction and authority.

Wulkure_Met_2011_04.gifA scene from Act 3 of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” with the Valkuries (left to right) Marjorie Elinor Dix as Waltraute, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Ortlinde, Molly Fillmore as Helmwige, Kelly Cae Hogan as Gerhilde, Mary Ann McCormick as Grimgerde, Lindsay Armann as Rossweisse, Eve Gigliotti as Siegrune, and Mary Phillips as Schwertleite. At top is Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde.

James Levine was too weary to climb up to the stage at the end of the festivities; the singers applauded him from the stage apron. Other indications that he has changed were apparent. For one thing, he kept the surge of Wagnerian power at a low simmer: His singers never had to fight to be heard. This is new. Perhaps it was a concession to the less than godlike power of Kaufmann and Voigt, but Levine has never made such concessions before; he has usually been a conductor you had to fight for stage attention. Many a glorious note has risen clear and singing over the years to the front regions of the top balconies of the Met’s horseshoe, inaudible in the orchestra seats. If this was a new control, a new generosity, it was very pleasing in Row M. If there was less of an emotional swell to the final parting of Wotan and Brünnhilde than one likes to feel, let’s be generous and credit the awkward new staging. But I’m strongly tempted to go to another performance, somewhere high in the Family Circle, to check my perceptions of the Wagnerian temperature, usually at white heat in those polar regions.

If the new Rheingold made one wonder about the Met’s priorities and the advisability of the entire endeavor, the new Walküre makes me look forward with interest to the remainder of the cycle.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Die Walküre product_by=Brünnhilde: Deborah Voigt; Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Fricka: Stephanie Blythe; Siegmund: Jonas Kaufmann; Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Hunding: Hans-Peter König. Production by Robert Lepage. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Performance of April 28. product_id=Above: Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:31 AM

May 15, 2011

Rigoletto, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 15 May 2011]
How do you create “inner” realism in opera without recourse to the sort of “outer” realism that stifles the imagination? It is a question that preoccupied Verdi but finds little resonance in opera production today. Thrashing around for something new to say about familiar works, most companies propose either a superficial update of the composer’s scenic descriptions or something so far removed from them that what we see bears no relation to what we hear.

Posted by Gary at 2:47 PM

May 9, 2011

Houston makes sense — and music — of Ariadne

Much in the work depends on the wit of the Prologue, in which the richest man in Vienna demands that the evening’s performance in his home merge the planned comedy and tragedy in a staging to last not more than one hour. It would otherwise interfere with the fireworks — the heart of the evening, one gathers — that is to follow.

In the age before titles, the Prologue was sometimes performed in English; the opera in the intended German. Titles now bring home the egotism of singers who fight about dressing rooms and the frustrations of the idealistic young composer who sees his work devastated by the striking of a single note. More important, however, is the foreshadowing of the opera in the intense love that the composer comes to feel for coquettish commedia dell’arte Zebinetta, who in her fickleness seems everything that he and Ariadne are not.

Scored for a mere 35 instruments, Ariadne is — despite Wagnerian vocal demands — a chamber work that echoes the Baroque once dominant in Strauss’ native Bavaria. And it was Patrick Summers thorough understanding of these roots that accounted for the unusual radiance of the staging, seen on opening night of the five-performance Houston run.

This was an Ariadne of cultivated gentleness, in which reserve dominated and in the opera accounted for the seamlessness with which tragedy and comedy blended with such ease. Keeping Strauss’ sometimes runaway sensuality in check, Summers concentrated rather on the intimacy of the opera, drawing the audience into a story that in its intricacy identifies von Hofmannsthal as perhaps the greatest librettist in the history of opera. Conductor Summers, HGO music director, is now an established figure in the world’s opera houses, and here he showed again the polish and sophistication that he has brought to the company’s orchestra.

The central figure in the Prologue is the youthful Composer, a trouser role patterned after the Octavian of Rosenkavalier. In this country Susan Graham continues to hold the copyright on these roles. A dashing and exuberant figure, she played the art-and love-smitten composer with fervor and conviction and without exaggerated mannerisms. She clearly remains at the height of her vocal powers.

Christine Goerke, famous for her interpretation of such dark roles as Wagner’s Ortrud and Kundy and Verdi’s Eboli, brought richness to death-obsessed Ariadne in a performance made luminous by Summer’s disciplined approach to the score. The conductor deserves further praise for the transparency with which the nymphs who watch over Ariadne as the opera opens sang.

Over the past decade Texas-born Laura Claycomb has distinguished herself in works from Handel to Mahler and Britten. Without slighting the playful side of the role, she stressed that Zerbinetta — despite appearances — is looking for the one man to whom she might be true.

Bacchus, an unrewarding assignment, would be a supporting role, were he not needed to engineer the transcendence with which the opera ends. Sometimes a role for ageing Wagnerians — James King comes to mind, Alexey Dolgov is perhaps too young to play Bacchus. (The Siberian-born tenor made his HGO debut as Puccini’s Rodolfo in 2008.)

Ariadne_HGO_2011_02.gifJohn Fanning as Music Teacher and Susan Graham as Composer

It is, however, the role itself that is problematic. Bacchus, at best a bit of a bumpkin, stumbles onto Naxos on the heels of heroic exploits, and — until he falls hopelessly in love with the abandoned Ariadne — doesn’t really understand what is going on there. Neither does Ariadne, who sees him as the envoy of Death. Thus the two sing at cross purposes at the outset of the duet that ends the opera. Nonetheless, one felt that Dolgov had been miscast — the single blemish on the otherwise enviously engaging performance. Of course, one knows Strauss’ antipathy for tenors, and Dolgov’s shortfall underscored that this — like Rosenkavalier — is a womens’ opera.

One left the Wortham with heart warmed by Goerke’s deeply internalized delivery of Ein Scho”nes war and “Es gibt ein Reich” and awed by the effortlessness with which Claycomb proved herself an ideal Zerbinetta.

Ariadne_HGO_2011_04.gifBoris Zyakov as Harlequin-and Laura Claycomb as Zerbinetta

Six of the seven youthful singers cast as nymphs and commedia dell’arte clowns were current HGO studio artists, underscoring the high professional standards of that program.

All in all an Ariadne to treasure, the production not only concluded the present HGO season, but further brought down the curtain on Anthony Freud’s all too brief tenure of the company’s general director. (Freud arrived in 2006.) Freud succeeds William Mason at the helm of Chicago Lyric Opera.

Wes Blomster

image_description=Alexey Dolgov as Bacchus and Christine Goerke as Ariadne [Photo by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]

product_title=Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
product_by=Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos Prima Donna/Ariadne: Christine Goerke; Tenor/Bacchus: Alexey; Dolgov; Zerbinetta: Laura Claycomb; Composer: Susan Graham; Music Master: John Fanning; Major Domo; Jon Kolbet; Dance Master: Rodell Rosel; Naiad: Kiri Deonarine; Dryad: Catherine; Martin; Echo: Brittany Wheeler; Harlequin: Boris Dyakov; Truffaldino: Robert Gleadow; Brighella: Brendan Tuohy; Scaramuccio: Nathaniel Peake. Conductor: Patrick Summers; Director: John Cox; Set and Costume Director: Robert Perdziola Lighting Director: Duane Schuler; Associate Director: Bruno Ravella; Associate Lighting Director: Michael James Clark; Stage Manager: Christopher Staub. Houston Grand Opera Brown Theater; Wortham Theater Center, April 29, 2011.
product_id=Above: Alexey Dolgov as Bacchus and Christine Goerke as Ariadne

All photos by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Posted by Gary at 12:50 PM

The Damnation of Faust, ENO

This production is great theatre, but it’s best approached as a Monty Python skit on the theme of Faust, with incidental soundtrack by Berlioz.

Gilliam’s take on Faust stems from it being a classic of German literature, overlooking the inconvenient fact that Berlioz was French and that Christopher Marlowe, who was English, wrote an important play on the theme centuries before Goethe was even born. The Faust legend has universal resonance, which is why it’s an icon. But Gilliam narrows the focus down to Germany and to the Third Reich. In principle, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be updated in this way, but it would take a director of genuine vision and insight to develop the concept properly. Gilliam, however, isn’t bothered with veracity as long as he can tell a good story. The problem is that the Nazis and the Holocaust should be much more than props in a feelgood musical.

Damnation-Of-Faust_Christin.gifChristine Rice as Marguerite and Peter Hoare as Faust

Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust reveals itself in a series of tableaux, each of them recognizable images from German art. Beautiful reconstruction of a Romantic painting, a reference to a famous cartoon of the First World War, vignettes from Georg Grosz, and a montage from the films of Leni Reifenstahl. They enfold like pictures in a short illustrated guide to Germany, compiled for illiterates. If we can avoid things like the Holocaust ever happening again, we need to understand the real complexities that brought them about. Comic book cleverness ultimately demeans knowledge, for it substitutes cliché for real thought. Totalitarianism thrives on lazy minds.

Faust (Peter Hoare) sports an upright shock of orange hair. Is this a reference to Peter Sellars? Apart from vague references to books on shelves, there’s precious little of Faust as scientist or idealist in this production. Faust becomes a SA brownshirt, the type whose resentment of intellectuals drove them to burn books. Marguerite (Christine Rice) becomes orthodox Jewish, undressing and swapping wigs while standing before a brightly lit menorah on the Sabbath eve. It’s no surprise that Faust ends up crucified on a swastika cross. Such images have shock value, but unless they’re integrated into an overall vision, they became little more than cheap entertainment.

Perhaps Gilliam is a comedian and is having a joke. But the indications are that he’s taking it all too portentously. “My struggle” says Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves) “Mein Kampf”. The audience obediently titters. Marguerite is shown as Brünnhilde on a rock, surrounded by flames. Faust does a comic impression of Siegfried. While connections between Faust and the Ring do exist, in this production they’re happened upon by accident, no more thought through than some sensationalist yellow press scandal. It’s enough here that Hitler liked Wagner, ergo Wagner was Third Reich.

While Gilliam wasn’t involved in Fawlty Towers, the spin off TV series that followed Monty Python, he falls back on the same mindless xenophobia that infects a large part of the population. The central character in the TV show was obsessed by Germans and the war, unable to think of people as people, only as caricatures. It was too persistent to be satire, and reinforced stereotypes by making them seem like harmless fun. The audience reaction to Gilliam’s gimmicks showed that perhaps Britain hasn’t matured in 30 years.

Significantly, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust isn’t an opera but a hybrid from which voices emerge from an orchestral fantasy. This doesn’t preclude staging, and indeed the long passages without text allow greater freedom of interpretation than might normally be the case. But fundamentally, there’s no point in any staging at all if it disregards the original. Berlioz’s orchestral writing is so vividly dynamic that it “is” the drama, the vocal parts devoted to vignettes like “King of Thule” song and “The Flea”. The visuals in this production were so hyperactive that at times, the cast had to slow themselves down not to lose synch with the music.

In a recent interview Gilliam is qouted as saying “Berlioz was crackers, he suffered like I do”. Wagner comes off even worse. Gilliam would cut out the recitatives in the Ring. Yet with metaphysics and subtle complexities expunged, neither Berlioz nor Wagner would be what they are. Just as there’s no real engagement with German history in this production, there’s no real engagement with the music.

Damnation-Of-Faust_Peter-Ho.gifPeter Hoare as Faust and Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles

Superb singing from Christine Rice, way above the level of the rest of the cast. There were momentary lapses elsewhere, the tessitura being to high for Hoare, and the legato unbalanced by clumsy translation. No jokes in the English text this time, for they’d compete with what was happening on stage. Purves and Nicholas Folwell (Brander) were reliable, both parts depending on acting skills as much as on singing. Because the orchestral parts were so critical to Berlioz, it was a balm that Edward Gardner conducted the ENO orchestra well.

The irony of Gilliam’s Damnation of Faust is that audiences who might otherwise howl with rage at more original, challenging work will applaud Gilliam’s indifference to the original. Self referential gags are peppered throughout the production so the audience don’t forget they’ve come for Monty Python, not Goethe or Faust. This is an example of the much maligned but usually misunderstood “Director opera” with a vengeance, but audiences take it because the director happens to be someone popular (and not German). Thus it won’t be damned but lauded.

In Mel Brooks’s 1968 classic, The Producers, two con men cook up the worst possible musical so it will fail and they can run off with investors’ money. The show within the movie is Springtime for Hitler, complete with high stepping SS men. Against all reason, the audience loves it and the show becomes a hit. The Producers was a satire on the gullbility of the public. As long as there’s a song and a dance, people will follow anything.

For more details, please see the ENO website HERE.

For a full download of a performance of Berlioz The Damnation of Faust, with Nicolai Gedda and Marilyn Horne (1968) please see HERE.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles [Photo by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera]

product_title=Hector Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust
product_by=Marguerite: Christine Rice; Faust: Peter Hoare; Mephistopheles: Christopher Purves; Brander: Nicholas Folwell; Soprano solo: Ella Kirkpatrick. English National Orchestra. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Terry Gilliam. Set designer: Hildegarde Bechtler. Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay. Lighting designer: Peter Mumford. Video designer: Finn Ross. Associate Director: Leah Hausman.The Coliseum, London, 6th May 2011.
product_id=Above: Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles

All photos by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera

Posted by anne_o at 7:13 AM

May 6, 2011

La Damnation de Faust, English National Opera

By Mark Berry [Boulezian, 6 May 2011]
This was, I am afraid, a self-congratulatory car-crash, from beginning to end. Alarm bells rang when opening the programme to reveal images from the Third Reich. Still louder did they ring when perusing an interview between director Terry Gilliam and Edward Seckerson, in which the former’s grasp of German history was revealed to be at best shaky.

Posted by Gary at 1:10 PM