August 30, 2011

Vincenzo Bellini: Zaira

Music composed by Vincenzo Bellini. Libretto by Felice Romani based on Voltaire’s Zaïre (1732).

First Performance: Parma, Teatro Ducale, 16 May 1829

Principal Roles:
Zaira, slave of the Sultan Soprano
Orosmane, Sultan of Jerusalem Bass
Nerestano, brother of Zaira Mezzo-soprano
Corasmino, vizier Tenor
Lusignano, father of Zaira and Nerestano Bass
Castiglione Tenor
Fatima Soprano
Meledor, official of the Sultan Bass


Act I

A magnificent gallery leading into the Harem; underground hall leading into the prisons; the inside of the Harem.

The beautiful slave Zaira is about to marry Orosmane, the Sultan of Jerusalem; there is a celebration in the harem, and odalisks and eunuchs dance and sing in his honor. The vizier Corasmino sees the Sultan’s decision to marry a Christian woman as an insult to Koranic law, especially at a time when their French enemies are about to descend on them; he therefore intends to prevent the wedding. Fatima, another slave in the harem, asks Zaira how she could have forgotten France and the French warrior who swore to free her, and renounced her Christian faith: but Zaira reminds her that she has had no news of that warrior since he returned to France, and that she now loves Orosmane, who loves her in return . Meanwhile the French knight Nerestano arrives at the Sultan’s court with the intention freeing Zaira: he was himself a prisoner of Orosmane but he was released: he learns however that the woman now loves Orosmane and has chosen the Muslim faith. and that the Sultan intends to release only the French knights who are still in his prisons but neither Zaira nor old Lusignano, a prince descended from the ancient Christian kings of Jerusalem and therefore hated by the Muslims. When they learn this, the prisoners decide to forego their freedom and accept the same fate as Lusignano. Zaira appears with Lusignano, whose freedom she has managed to obtain from Orosmane. By a necklace and a scar Lusignano recognizes Zaira and Nerestano as his daughter and son, who survived the massacre of Cesarea as children and were enslaved by the Muslims. When he discovers that Zaira has renounced her faith and is about in marry Orosmane, he orders her to repent and re-embrace Christianity: Zaira swears that she will do so.

Corasmino alerts the Sultan to the dangers which could arise from Lusignano return to Europe, but Orosmane does not want to refuse Zaira’s request. Meanwhile Nerestano in his turn attempts to persuade Zaira to end her liaison with the hated Sultan, reminding her that her old father is about to die of grief. Zaira does not wish to betray her love and Orosmane’s trust, but in the end she embraces her brother and decides to return to the Christian faith. The Sultan arrives and. when Zaira requests a postponement of the wedding, he suspects that Nerestano is a seducer and orders him. to leave the court.

Act II

Zaira’s rooms; a remote place near the quarters of the French knights; a hall of the Harem; a remote part of the Harem gardens.

Fatima encourages Zaira to forget Orosmane, who is so indignant at Zaira’s refusal that he wants to send her back among the slaves in the harem and find a woman more worthy of his love. Faced with Zaira’s tears, he asks for an explanation which she, bound by her promise to her brother, cannot give him at that moment. Orosmane agrees to wait one more day. Lusignano has died, and Nerestano blames his sister. The French knights ask Orosmane to postpone their departure so that they can comply with Lusignano’s wish to be buried in that land; the Sultan, out of love for Zaira, grants the request and pays no heed to warnings from Corasmino, who suspects that the request conceals a trick and who shows him a message in which Nerestano asks Zaira to meet him secretly. Orosmane is still doubtful and decides to test her: he will however have the secret message delivered to her. Zaira reads her brother’s letter and is torn between torment at having to betray the trust of her beloved and grief over her father’s death, for which she feels guilty. She faints into Fatima’s arms.

In a remote part of the harem gardens Orosmane and Corasmino are waiting to see if Zaira will go to the appointment with Nerestano. The pair arrive and Orosmane, seeing them ready to flee and believing them to be lovers, fatally wounds Zaira. At the revelation that they are brother and sister, he is overcome with grief and kills himself.

image= image_description=Vincenzo Bellini [Source: Wikipedia] audio=yes first_audio_name=Vincenzo Bellini: Zaira first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Vincenzo Bellini: Zaira product_by=Zaira: Ermonela Jaho; Nerestano: Varduhi Abrahamyan; Corasmino: Shalva Mukeria; Orosmane: Wenwei Zhang; Lusignano: Gezim Myshketa; Castiglione: Franck Bard; Fatima: Marianne Crebassa. Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc Roussillon. Choeur de la Radio Lettone. Conductor: Enrique Mazzola. Live performance, Montpellier, Le Corum, Opéra Berlioz, 13 July 2009. product_id=Above: Vincenzo Bellini [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 2:00 PM

BBC Prom 58: Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Elijah is a remarkable statement of faith. Graven images have distracted the people of Zion, and Elijah shows them the true God. Christians have monopolized the oratorio, especially in Britain, but fundamentally Elijah reflects something even deeper in Mendelssohn’s spirit. Although Mendelssohn was a devout Lutheran, he never denied nor denigrated his Jewish roots. Elijah’s God isn’t Jesus but the stern God of the Old Testament. St Paul was written to please Mendelssohn’s father, but Elijah springs from deeper sources. This gives the oratorio an undercurrent of grit which draws from the composer some of his most passionate, powerful music. No wonder Berlioz and Wagner were jealous and did all they could to destroy Mendelssohn’s reputation. The damage lasts still. One antidote is to listen toElijah and think about how he conveys its meaning.

Paul McCreesh conducted the Gabrieli Consort and Players. This was an inspired choice, as McCreesh and his orchestra are specialists in period performance, and have attempted to recreate something close to the 1847 Birmingham premiere of this work, so we can imagine its impact at the time. The early music sensibility is useful, too, because it brings Elijah closer to Handel and Bach, who were Mendelssohn’s own musical gods, and who are quoted in the score. The leaner period sound may be why the oratorio initially appealed not to Establishment High Church tastes but to the rise of the middle class in early Victorian times. McCreesh’s decision to “reclaim” Elijah from very Late Victorian practice is significant, for it connects to a time when Nonconformist Dissent was part of British Christianity, and choral performance an expression of such social values. Because this Elijah goes back to the fundamentals, it’s strikingly “modern” in the sense that it confronts dilemmas we still face today, like identity, beliefs and integrity.

Orchestrally, this BBC Proms performance was wonderful. Instruments like serpents, originally used in warfare to scare the enemy — baroque fantasy put to practical use. Slide trumpets which still sound natural and relatively unpitched. Goatskin timpani. The Royal Albert Hall Organ restricted to period stops and pipes. Two ophicleides augment the brass, and a magnificent contrabass ophicleides, known as the “Monstre” for obvious reasons. This period sensibility is not merely historic affectation. In the Bible, Elijah is a wild man of the desert who stands up to those who worship Baal, who seems to represent consumption and corruption. The orchestra thus connects to Elijah’s spartan defiance, and thus has more authenticity than more elaborate instrumentation. Furthermore, McCreesh’s musicians play as if they’re evoking ancient Hebrew instruments. Mendelssohn probably wouldn’t have heard Jewish liturgical music, but he had observant relatives, and was musician enough to intuit how instruments depicted in Bible pictures might have sounded. Mendelssohn is reaffirming his Jewish heritage discreetly but firmly. McCreesh and the Gabrieli’s prove the power of period practice.

The singers of the Gabrieli Consort were augmented by the forces of the Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, with whom they’ve co-operated before, and four youth choirs. Exceptionally precise singing — not a word muffled, despite the size of the Royal Albert Hall. Conducting this many singers at once is difficult, but here they were so well drilled, that no-one fluffed an entry. Perfect co-ordination, but even better, great enthusiasm and committment.

Perhaps it’s because the music is so “singable”. When the people call out to Baal, their calls are met by silence. These singers seem to listen! Blocks of male and female voices alternate and interweave. “Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty Land!”, the voices sing. Mendelssohn builds into the wild cross-currents images of wind and rain, thundering into parched ground. There are so many exquisite passages, it’s hard to pick out the most beautiful. “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps” for example, where the words “slumbers not nor sleeps” repeat in lovely tender patterns. Such delicacy from such a huge chorus. The final “and then shall your light shine forth” was a glorious apotheosis. Elijah has ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Although the five soloists naturally take the foreground, it’s the magnificent background of the choruses that make Elijah the monument it is. In this Prom, there were three hundred voices, creating a wonderful opulent sheen. These are the “people of Israel” after all, for whom Elijah sacrifices himself, so it’s utterly appropriate. Poised between soloists and massed choir are sub-groups like the double quartet, the quartet and an exceptionally good trio. “Lift up thine eyes to the mountains”, this group sings “whence cometh help”. They’re so clean and pure, they really do sound like angels.

Of these 300 voices, 181 are the voices of children from four youth choirs who participate in the Gabrieli’s Youth Coaching Project. This is an important part of the Gabrieli mission. Even though young voices break, by being involved, the singers learn the physical joy of singing and appreciate music better whatever they might go on to do in life. Singing is a community experience, and enhances life. These young voices are so well trained that there’s no lapse in standards. Indeed, their freshness adds excitement to the performance.

Simon Keenlyside sing Elijah. This is the key part, on which the whole oratorio hangs, and is the only one treated as a single “character”. Keenlyside is good, though he’s not quite as forceful as Terfel, Fischer-Dieskau or Goerne, but he’s clear and purposeful. His recitatives, “It is enough, O Lord” and “O Lord, I have laboured in vain” could have been more heart rending, because they show Elijah as human and vulnerable, but Keenlyside keeps them “English” and understated, which is perhaps more apt in an English context. Rosemary Joshua sings the soprano parts and Sarah Connolly the mezzo parts. Both were very convincing, though I’m imprinted with Gwyneth Jones and Janet Baker. Robert Murray had some tricky moments but was better in the Obadiah passages. Jonty Ward sang the Youth. It’s a beautifully written sequence where Mendelssohn contrasts the anxiety of the crowd with the pure, ringing tones of the Youth rising from silence. “It is nothing”, he sings three times. Then Elijah begs God for a sign, and the Youth beholds a cloud rising from the waters. It’s the incoming hurricane. The long drought is broken. The music explodes, like a storm, the choirs singing in tumult.

All BBC Proms are broadcast online, on demand and internationally for seven days after the live performance, and on subsequent occasions. To access the broadcast of this Prom 58, Mendelssohn Elijah, please follow this link. Please also visit the Gabrieli Consort website, where there’s a lot about the performance and those to come (Poland and Mendelssohn’s own Leipzig Gewandhaus on 16th September). A privately-funded recording is in the offing — for details read the Gabrieli Consort site.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Rosemary Joshua [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou] product=yes product_title=Felix Mendelssohn: Elijah op 70 product_by=Rosemary Joshua, soprano; Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Robert Murray, tenor Simon Keenlyside, baritone. Taplow Youth Choir. Ulster Youth Chamber Choir. Chetham’s Chamber Choir. North East Youth Chorale. Wrocław Philharmonic Choir. Gabrieli Consort & Players. Conductor: Paul McCreesh. BBC Prom 58, Royal Albert Hall, London 28th August 2011. product_id=Above: Rosemary Joshua [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]
Posted by anne_o at 12:00 PM

Bayreuth’s Tannhäuser: Recycled Trash

Oh, didn’t you know? Well don’t rush out to buy stock in it (although currently you might not do any worse than with a Fortune 500 investment). No, this hulking, huge, honking processing plant is what passes for Joep van Lieshout’s Tannhäuser scene design, and strives to be the summer’s must-have instigator of audience displeasure at the annual Wagner Festspiel. The massive wooden courtyard has two tiers of wrap-around balconies, two catwalks adjoining them, enough stairs to accommodate seven or eight Busby Berkley extravaganzas, and many large storage drums (think Esso) to contain the gas product generated from (among other things) human feces.

This is not all that director Sebastian Baumgarten is recycling. Think of any shabby little shocker idea from German Regie-theater from the last twenty years, and there is likely a pale, played-out copy of it in his muddled, slack direction. Let’s see…hero in underpants, tee shirt and work boots, legs smeared with (one presumes) excrement? That would be our leading tenor. Check. Embarrassed (if energetic) extras jumping around in cave man and animal suits? Check. Heroines inexplicably cutting their wrists and smearing stage blood on unlucky co-stars? Check. Okay, okay there were no bare-breasted nuns doing Linda Blair business with their crucifixes…and dammit…why not? The point being that anything and everything was acceptable because (as we have learned through years of sitting through “Konzepts”) it is not only about ignoring the work being manhandled, it is also about novelty at all costs.

Well, you know what, Bayreuth? You have failed. ‘Cause what Baumgarten has done done is not even pointed enough to be needling. And he was not alone in his failure to provoke us, oh no. He had invaluable support from the grab-bag of costumes by Nina von Mechow. I mean, really Nina, are giant tadpoles your full arsenal of shock-and-awe? Wal-Mart warehouse-worker-chic your boldest thought? “Redeemed” chorus girls in Satanic red gowns your most rankling effect? Put some effort in, gur-rul! (Although you do get points for having made Venus — The Eternal Feminine — look like a pregnant Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show in an unscripted Act II walk-on.)

And how about those omni-present video creations from Christopher Kondek? Endless looping promotions of the recycling business’s great success, shots of the CEO, lots of bacteria and amoebas doing what (I guess) they do, a very comprehensive cartoon about the digestive process, and even a naked woman (cliche Nummer zweitausendeins) writhing erotically along the Big. Long. Red. Tank. Stroooooooooooking spigots. Maaaaaaaaaaaarveling at hoses. And finally (lest we still have missed it) sitting on the pot to fill us in (as it were) on just what the primary substance was that was being recycled. Think of the dullest Power Point briefing you ever sat through. Are you picturing it? This was duller.

All this invention does not come cheap. This environment was solidly constructed and very detailed. Loading doors opened with rotating lights, hoisting hooks rose and fell from the ceiling, and a huge round circus cage (the Venusberg) rose and fell from the floor, often and effortlessly. But there was not anything of visual appeal or interest on display. Herr Baumgarten even put real audience members on chairs on stage far right and left, as spectators to…what? The factory tour? It sure wasn’t to see Tannhäuser. Say, remember Tannhäuser? Richard Wagner’s opera? By odd coincidence it was there, too! And it was musically quite fine, indeed.

In the title role, Lars Cleveman put his bright, reliable tenor to good use, offered much pleasurable full-throated singing, and negotiated the more lyrical stretches with insight and admirable technique. It is not his fault that he lacks the final measure of heroic stature in his instrument. Mr. Cleveman nevertheless presents a well considered portrayal of the tortured protagonist. Camilla Nylund was a nigh-perfect Elisabeth characterized by her substantial glowing soprano; rock-steady tone; and superior breath control. “Dich Teure Halle” was, of course, a giddy, heady high point, but a great Elisabeth is judged by the lean-and-mean control required for “Allmacht’ge Jungfrau” and she voiced it flawlessly. That Ms. Nylund is also prom queen attractive completed the winning theatrical package.

Young Michael Nagy is already to be numbered among the finest Wolframs I have experienced, and he will only get better with age. His mellifluous, honeyed baritone is sizable enough to ring out in the house, and nuanced enough to create a musically diverse portrayal. And he is highly persuasive as an actor, remaining sympathetic even as the director has Wolfram kill Elisabeth (whom he loves) by stuffing her through a door into a gas tank, and then proceeding to sing a ravishing “Ode to the Evening Star”…to a pregnant Venus. Yes, somehow we still manage to love him, Michael is that good.

I have the suspicion that Stephanie Friede has had better nights in her successful career than she delivered here as Venus. Although there were some potent phrases in the chest range as well as above the staff, the vocal production seemed a little loosely knit overall, making for some scrappy transitions through the middle. She was not helped by unattractive costuming and extra-Wagnerian dramatic interpolations. (Venus comes back more than Jason in Murder on Elm Street, appearing at the final chorus to present her swaddled baby to the masses who hoist it around as though in a mosh pit.)

The excellent bass Günther Groissböck was to have sung the key role of Hermann, but he was announced as indisposed with a bad cold. He agreed to act it while Kwangchul Youn sang it, magnificently, from the side. Mr. Yuon is currently singing Amfortas on The Hill, and his rolling, world-class bass is one of the glories of the Festspiel. Lothar Odinius made an especially strong impression as Walther von der Vogelweide, his vibrant tenor soaring through all of his featured passages. Katja Stuber’s drunken (why?), shirt-tie-and-suspenders (why?) Shepherd was brightly sung with an accomplished, slender soprano. Thomas Jesatko, who numbers Wotan among his roles, was a bit of luxury casting as Biterolf, and his booming bass was a welcome addition to the musical texture of the ensembles. As Heinrich and Reinmar, Arnold Bezuyen and Martin Snell made strong contributions.

Thomas Hengelbrock’s reading of the score was notably successful during the expansive, magisterial segments, and no less so when commanding the vibrant and vivacious writing for the Venusberg. In these, the Maestro drew beautifully detailed playing from the reliable Bayreuth pit. In more conversational stretches, notably the Rome Narrative, Mr. Hengelbrock’s pacing could stand to have more starch and be more dramatically responsive. Too, he allowed a rubato in “O Du Mein Holdern Abendstern” that undermined the easy flow of the opera’s best tune. But there is no doubt that he exerted a firm control over the proceedings and the finale was one musical high point of many, thanks too to Eberhard Friedrich’s thrilling chorus.

But enough about Wagner. And music. For I must now put pen to paper and jot a customer comment card to Wartburg Corporation. I want to recount to them where they might discover a huge unwanted pile of theatrical feces that is ripe for recycling.

James Sohre

Click here for audio clips.

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

image= image_description=Scene from Tannhäuser [Photo by David Ebener courtesy of] product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser product_by=Harmann, Landgraf von Thüringen: Günther Groissböck/Kwangchul Youn; Tannhäuser: Lars Cleveman; Wolfram von Eschenbach: Michael Nagy; Walther von der Vogelweide: Lothar Odinius; Biterolf: Thomas Jesatko; Heinrich der Schreiber: Arnold Bezuyen; Reinmar von Zweter: Martin Snell; Elisabeth: Camilla Nylund; Venus: Stephanie Friede; A Young Shepherd: Katja Stuber. Bayreuther Festspiele. Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrock; Director: Sebastian Baumgarten; Set Design: Joep van Lieshout; Costumes: Nina von Mechow; Lighting: Franck Evin; Video: Christopher Kondek; Chorus Master: Eberhard Friedrich. product_id=Above: Scene from Tannhäuser [Photo by David Ebener courtesy of]
Posted by james_s at 11:07 AM

Carlos Kleiber — Traces to Nowhere

No matter how original or astute the spoken observation may be, usually one is left wishing to hear the music without the voice-over. This is particularity frustrating if the selections or repertory are otherwise fairly obscure or rare. If the film biography is of a famous enough subject, opportunities to hear the music unimpeded by spoken commentary should be plentiful. The thoughts expressed by the various “talking heads” might even prompt one to explore, at one’s leisure, recordings that one may not have heard recently, if ever.

Eric Schulz’s film about the career of conductor Carlos Kleiber should fall into that latter camp for most viewers. During the course of a running time just over 70 minutes, many a viewer may tire of the unrelenting format of commentators speaking over archival footage of rehearsals or recordings played over photograph montages. Without too much effort, however, anyone can obtain recordings of Kleiber conducting the Fledermaus overture, Tristan und Isolde, or Brahms’s Symphony no. 4. Schulz omits the questions that prompt the reminiscences of those interviewed, which include the conductor’s sister as well as colleagues obscure and famous. The film is lightly organized, with a vaguely chronological format. As the 70 minutes proceed, therefore, some viewers may grow impatient with the repetitiveness of worshipful comments about Kleiber’s almost mystical ability to communicate his musical intentions to orchestras.

Schulz is also fond of capturing the interviewees simply listening to Kleiber recordings, their eyes aglow with wonder, and sometimes their hands waving lightly, as if conducting the music themselves. But the film doesn’t restrict itself to panegyrics, as Kleiber’s human failings also receive acknowledgement, from his infidelities to his growing self-doubt that caused him to almost withdraw from conducting entirely in the last years of his life.

Probably copyrights prevented Arthaus Musik from providing bonus features such as some of the remarkable rehearsal footage seen in the film in its entirety, without commentary, or even better, a live performance or two. Even so, not only will fans of Kleiber’s art find this documentary fascinating, but anyone who has ever simply wondered, “What is it that conductors really do?” will probably find this film extremely enlightening, without being overly technical about the conductor’s art. The film’s subtitle, “Traces to Nowhere,” gives a rather deceptive sense of the film’s contents. Although the last years of Kleiber’s life and career were sad, the sheer joy he emanated as seen in the Fledermaus overture rehearsal footage show that at his best, Carlos Kleiber conducted in a way that left more than just traces of joy and passion, fortunately forever caught in recordings and at least partly, in Schulz’s film.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Carlos Kleiber — Traces to Nowhere product=yes product_title=Carlos Kleiber — Traces to Nowhere product_by=A film by Eric Schulz with Placido Domingo, Brigitte Fassbaender, Michael Gielen, Manfred Honeck, Veronika Kleiber, Otto Schenk and others. product_id=ArtHaus Musik 101553 [DVD] price=$22.99 product_url=
Posted by chris_m at 10:00 AM

August 29, 2011

Orlando Paladino, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 29 August 2011]

Any performance of Orlando Paladino is a bit like an archaeological dig: it offers clues to Haydn’s personality and late-18th-century lifestyle, while leaving a lot to our imagination. It tells us, for example, what artists he had at his disposal at Esterháza, the aristocratic Elysium where he spent the most productive years of his life - a coloratura soprano with a formidable personality (the sorceress Alcina), a dramatic soprano with a brilliant top (the lovelorn heroine Angelica), a soubrette and baritone who were good at comedy (Erilla and Pasquale).

Posted by Gary at 3:45 PM

BBC Prom 55: Rinaldo

First there was Christopher Alden’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at ENO, and now Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo, first seen at Glyndebourne earlier this season, and presented in a semi-staged version by Bruno Ravella at the Albert Hall.

I found this production both troublesome and intriguing, at times conceptually irritating but always musically satisfying.

The distractions began during the overture, when the grace and elegance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the sensuous baton of Ottavio Dantone was rather brutally shattered by schoolboy tussles, as a gang of bullies sought to deprive the hapless Rinaldo of his cherished portrait of his beloved, Almirena, that he has secretly stashed in his school-desk.

At times, such distractions became more destructive, undermining plot and characterisation. It’s hard to be a convincing Crusading hero when you’re encumbered by an outsize satchel, have your bottom spanked by a sadistic schoolmarm, and, rather than a chariot and steed, your transport into battle is a bicycle with a dodgy headlamp and a puncture. And, it’s even worse when you don’t even get the chance to draw your sword to defend your true love against the dastardly forces of your evil enemy, because you’re too busy ‘making hay’ behind the bike sheds with the innocent lass to notice you’re surrounded.

Costumes, and props, were deliberately disconcerting but proved confusing. Uniformed schoolboys clashed with turban-clad Arabs — were we supposed to imagine Western involvement in contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts? And, one doesn’t usually find flashing scimitars and lacrosse sticks clashing as weapons on the same field of war. A PVC-clad dominatrix towering in her Louboutins; academic big-wigs in gowns and mortars; demure pinafores; gleaming bronze breastplates: nothing quite added up. In Afghanistan, they hide suicide bombs under their burkas; here, Armida’s female ‘press gang’ whisked off their shapeless hide-alls to reveal the hitched skirts and up-turned colours of the St. Trinian’s elite, a veritable harem of lacrosse-swinging ladettes.

Never mind. There were some deft directorial and visual touches: projected images and text — declarations and prophecies — were atmospheric and tartly informative respectively. And, the light comic ambience wryly emphasised the mixture of fairytale, fantasy and romance which the opera embraces. If one closed one’s eyes, great delights awaited.

Sonia Prina’s Rinaldo may have been a little underpowered to begin with, but she exhibited genuine musical intelligence and vocal stamina in shaping and sustaining this role. Her sweet, warm tone was matched by the breathtaking ease with which she despatched the coloratura challenges — surely Handel didn’t intend to look and sound that easy! The Act 1 ‘Caro sposa’ was superb. Given the formal stature of the aria, Prina had the sense to begin with understatement, the stillness of the long unfolding lines hinting at despair without over-dramatising. The vocal line was effectively reinforced by plaintive strings: a gentle walking bass coloured by affective gestures in the upper strings. Using text repetition and musical sequence to slowly build up emotional energy, Prina exquisitely and touchingly revealed Rinaldo’s torment.

Varduhi Abrahamyan demonstrated how to deliver recitative meaningfully, as Goffredo, and her arias were characterised by evenness of line and some impressive breath control. As Armida, Brenda Rae seemed to relish the raunchiness of the role a trifle too much to begin with, forgetting to focus on the music itself; leaps were a little insecure in her opening aria and at the top her brightness was occasionally tinged with shrillness. But, she settled down when she realised that she could easily project into the vast hall, growing in confidence and elegance throughout the performance.

Anett Fritsch’s soothing lower register was ideal for the placid, tender Almirena, and she blended meltingly in her duets with Rinaldo. Countertenor Tim Mead made a strong musical and dramatic impression as Eustazio, with vivid vigorous articulation and notable precision in the coloratura decorations. His is a truly appealing sound.

Most impressive of all was Luca Pisaroni’s Argante: unforced power and roundness of tone, combined with vocal flexibility and dexterity and an ability to perceive and convey psychological depth and complexity. While initially, his strength and heft suggested the weight of his grievance and desire for vengeance, he was also able to engage the audience’s sympathy, as in ‘Vieni, o cara, a consolarmi’, where he acquired a convincing gravity and sincerity.

This was a relaxed, nuanced interpretation by conductor Ottavio Dantone. He crafted an effortless flow between numbers, recitative naturally unfolding into aria and back again. Sensuous, at times almost dancing, then seated to direct the recitative from the keyboard, Dantone’s light, airy gestures clearly communicated profound intention and meaning to players. Details were highlighted, dynamics and articulation varied without succumbing to mannerism, and an extraordinary variety of moods was captured.

Thus, Goffredo’s ‘No, no che quest’alma’ was marked by some truly exciting string playing which significantly contributed to the drama, as the players entered into dialogue with vocal line. Elsewhere they unleashed a scurrying viciousness, as in Armida’s ‘Furie terribili’. The woodwind were no less striking. A trilling sopranino recorder charmingly evoked the tweeting birds in Almirena’s ‘Augelletti’ (so, why, oh why, did we need trite recorded birdsong, when Handel has written the idyllic twitterings into the score?). And, stunningly busy bassoon playing in Rinaldo’s ‘Venti, turbine, prestate’ characterised the winds and whirlwinds that our hero calls upon to give him strength. I fear some of the instrumental subtleties may have been lost in various places in the auditorium: the theorbo scarcely penetrated where I was seated.

So, despite the visual irritations, there was much to enjoy and admire. Composing in haste, economically filching much material from his own works, perhaps Handel did not fully engage with the implications of the text, but instead, hoping to win over London audiences to the new Italian opera seria style, presented a score containing some of his most exquisite numbers. However, as Anne Ozorio noted in her 13th July review of the Glyndebourne performance, while there is much humour in the work, “its deeper levels would not have been lost on baroque audiences. Handel, through Torquato Tasso, is also obliquely mocking the futility of war and power games”. The problem is that Carson’s perspective, which perhaps does seek to illuminate the naivety and irresponsibility of the Crusaders, ultimately trivialises the work; playground japes — football fun with a giant globe, sword fights with hockey sticks — just don’t sit comfortably with the epic scope of the original libretto, drawn from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata.

Claire Seymour

Click here to listen to this production.

image_description=Brenda Rae as Armida [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]

product_title=G. F. Handel: Rinaldo
product_by=Rinaldo: Sonia Prina; Goffredo: Varduhi Abrahamyan; Eustazio: Tim Mead; Almirena: Anett Fritsch; Armida: Brenda Rae; Argante: Luca Pisaroni; Christian Magician: William Towers; Herald: Oliver Mercer; Woman: Rhian Lewis. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Ottavio Dantone. Stage Director: Bruno Ravella. Director: Robert Carsen. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, Thursday 25th August 2011.
product_id=Above: Brenda Rae as Armida [Photo © BBC/Chris Christodoulou]

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

Posted by Gary at 10:39 AM

Don Giovanni, Salzburg

His radical conception of the connection between opera and philosophy is seen all throughout his work; this is especially clear in his four part Ring cycle. In the popular imagination, the Ring cycle has become the most recognizable multi-part operatic work. This is why this year’s Salzburg Festival’s presentation of all three of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas as a continuous trilogy is eyebrow-raising. Although it may seem strange on paper, Claus Guth’s choice to present these operas (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte) as a continuous statement on the dark side of human nature makes sense. However, during the transition from creative concept to stageds production, something went awry. As a result, this production was a potpourri of fleeting inspirations.

Guth’s conception of the trilogy is to be commended for stagings of reasonable merit. His production of Così fan tutte used elements from both Figaro and Don Giovanni to present the libretto as if it were a social experiment gone wrong. His stage pictures illustrated the deteriorating relationships between the characters as well as the evil inherent in Don Alfonso’s scheme. On the whole, this gave refreshing depth to Così. The problem however, is Guth’s staging of Don Giovanni only hints at its place in the trilogy as a bridge between the mostly safe world of Figaro to the tumultuous world of Così.

hires-giovanni_2011_050.gifMalin Byström as Donna Anna and Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni occupies a unique place in the Da Ponte trilogy. Unlike Figaro where the potential for evil is never fully in the foreground, Giovanni is evil personified. While ultimately, Giovanni is vanquished by death, the characters of Così are forced to confront their own imperfections. If Guth wanted to view the three operas as an evil trilogy, this is the direction he should have taken. Instead, he took liberties with the libretto of Don Giovanni that ultimately caused some confusion with character development as well as with the progression of the drama.

As Giovanni, Gerald Finley gave a searing performance which carries on the mantle of Sir Thomas Allen. What would have been an otherwise electric performance, was hindered by Guth’s decision to have Giovanni “fatally” wounded at the outset; limiting his ability to inhabit the strong body of the slimy villain . This gives rise to another more unfortunate question: if Don Giovanni is so near death, what makes him a force to be reckoned with? This also left me with mixed emotions regarding the character. Take for example, “Fin ch’han dal vino”, whereby Finley poured a can of beer over himself and then proceeded to shake like a ferocious wet dog. This was scary to watch. Needless to say, his singing enhanced his actions. Yet at the end of the aria, he collapsed to the floor. The message here is unclear. It would have been better if he ended the aria with the typical maniacal laugh.

As Donna Anna, Malin Byström sang in the big-voiced tradition of Sharon Sweet. The most interesting facet of her performance was her rendition of “Or sai chi l’onore”. Here Donna Anna became someone who was exposed and vulnerable due to the murder of her father, as opposed to the more typical strong woman who screams at her fiancé in order to avenge this death. However, in this production, Donna Anna played into another flaw: Giovanni’s attempted rape of Donna Anna which normally begins the opera was portrayed as a consensual affair. Under this circumstance the whole rasion d’etre of the rage of Donna Anna and the villainy of Giovanni remain unsubstantiated. Despite the opera’s tragic elements, this is still an opera buffa. A key feature of opera buffa is the unflattering portrayal of the aristocracy. In this production, the aristocracy, which is symbolized by Don Giovanni, does not experience the ridicule to the same degree as there is a deficiency of the villainy Don Giovanni.

hires-giovanni_2011_026.gifGerald Finley as Don Giovanni, Dorothea Röschmann as Donna Elvira and Erwin Schrott as Leporello

Dorothea Röschmann, as Donna Elvira, sang powerfully, giving an excellent case for Donna Elvira as a tragic heroine, which was strengthened in synergy by Byström’s portrayal of Donna Anna as a weak character. Christiane Karg was a girlish Zerlina who could also show great concern and substantial depth of character as necessary. Adam Plachetka, as Masetto, made it clear that he understood the evil Giovanni from the very beginning. Both Don Ottavio and Leporello, played by Joel Priesto and Adrian Sâmpetrean, respectively were admirably sung.

Under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Vienna Philharmonic made a fine case for the symphonic capabilities of Mozart’s score. However, his tempos were slow at the beginning, and the numerous florid accompaniments to the recitatives were distracting. That said, he brought a romantic expansiveness to certain pieces, including “Là ci darem la mano”.

It remains to be said that some of the humor of the production diminished the overall dramatic effect. The humor of Mozart’s tragic comedy should arise from situations that are detailed in the libretto, not from the staging. There were several instances, such as Giovanni taunting Zerlina and Masetto while on a swing, that were humorous, while at the same time illustrating the Don’s capacity for villainy. Yet, other gags consisted of elaborate stage movements that were difficult to follow and at times disrupted the flow of the drama. The imbalance produced by these attempts at comedy was symbolic of the overall effect of Guth’s production. In this adaptation, there were moments of inspiration that were somehow lost.

Gregory Moomjy

Click here for a video trailer of this production.

image= image_description=Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni [Photo © Monika Rittershaus courtesy of Salzburg Festspiele] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product_by=Gerald Finley: Don Giovanni; Franz-Josef Selig: Il Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father; Malin Byström: Donna Anna, betrothed to Don Ottavio; Joel Prieto: Don Ottavio; Dorothea Röschmann: Donna Elvira, a lady from Burgos; Erwin Schrott / Adrian Sâmpetrean (23.08): Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant; Christiane Karg: Zerlina, a peasent girl, betrothed to Masetto; Adam Plachetka: Masetto, a peasant. Felice Venanzoni: Continuo Piano Forte. Antje Strömsdörfer: Mandolin. Vienna Philharmonic. Members of Angelika Prokopp Sommerakademie der Wiener Philharmoniker, Stage Music. Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus. product_id=Above: Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni

All photos © Monika Rittershaus courtesy of Salzburg Festspiele
Posted by Gary at 9:08 AM

L’elisir d’amore, Miami

Noel Goodwin’s observation is as topical today as it was in the early 1990’s: L’elisir shared the rank of sixth most produced opera in 2010 according to records compiled by Opera America; another resource that is gaining more credibility from opera scholars, OperaBase, finds that Donizetti’s bel canto comedy placed 12th on the list of most performed operas in the world from 2005-2010. In the recording (audio and video) annuls, L’elisir has a steady hold as each new generation of star singers commits their artistry to posterity in the work.

Pereira.gifDavid Pereira

Note that Goodwin ascribes credit for L’elisir ‘s hold in the repertoire to Romani’s text. Felice Romani was a librettist’s librettist. He wrote nearly 100, collaborating most notably with Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti. L’elisir , with a musical surface — from its melodies — best described as lightweight and a base — from Donizetti’s chords — best described as solemn, will transmit its meanings best through words. Perhaps more than in any other opera, the means of its exposition can confuse — L’elisir’s story is primed to be misunderstood. That said, it’s a good thing that Romani’s text for L’elisir is playful, sarcastic and worldly. And, it’s a good thing that supertitles are up and running at Colony Theater for Miami Lyric Opera.

Individual performances brought this L’elisir to life despite listless stage action and sets (by Carlos Arditti) that did little, and indeed this is often the case in this opera’s productions, to lift la commedia. Belcore probably just pulled the weeds he so sloppily shoved in Adina’s hands; she, taking one look at the dry shrubs and, with some annoyance delivered her, “well, isn’t he modest”; Nemorino, packing a few extra pounds after his drinking binge, was a nicely engorged fellow that seemed genuinely altered pitching the line, “I’ve had plenty of this elixir”; the blueprints for laughter were sketched but the whole performance was missing jocular bite in the theater.

On its own, Donizetti’s music for L’elisir is peppered with “shiny happy people” quality, but the feel of the music can suggest a graver situation as it did on the night of August 13th, MLO’s second and final showing of L’elisir. It is not surprising that the orchestra sounded as polished as it did given that MLO music director and conductor Dr. Beverly Coulter was at the baton. A staunch promoter of and regular fixture in the classical music scene in south Florida, maestra Coulter is a musician’s musician. Coulter is the head of an opera program at a small university, having had the likes of soprano Elizabeth Caballero in her studio. Soprano Coulter has a singing CV herself; for MLO, she will repeat the lead in Marina (the Arrieta zarzuela) in a free outdoor concert presented by the company in November.

MLOElisirTrio.gifDavid Pereira (Nemorino), Susana Diaz (Adina), and Belcore (Daniel Snodgrass)

Coulter’s approach leans toward the technical, and she keeps a close watch over the stage; L’elisir’s many ensembles were models in keeping time with singers. The volume produced from instrumentalists was heavy (so much so that crescendos were hard to come by), the orchestral mechanics were tight. The playing included lustrous solo flute (Robert Billington) and harp (Ana Maria Bolivar) playing in the overture. Secco recitatives came from an electronic harpsichord behind the stage.

One factor that helped this evening was the chemistry that built up between principals Susana Diaz (Adina) and David Pereira (Nemorino). Diaz the distant “realist,” Pereira the defocused naïve — they became more involved, more comfortable, and by the end of the first act their teaming turned pleasing. In Adina, Romani created a wily fox. Though easier sung than portrayed, Daiz managed a bit of that in scoffing at Nemorino’s one-woman ways, “try my way, change lovers every day.” Program posters like the exotic good looks that Diaz has and, on the vocal front, she displayed control up to and over high C in a sweet “Prendi, per me sei libero.”

Pereira began the night with a shaky “Quanto è bella, quanto è cara.” Before long though, the light lyric tenor’s timbre warmed and his singing was more secure, although pinched acuti hung about. Lighting specialist Kevin Roman put a spotlight on Pereira to an otherwise darkened stage for “Una furtiva lagrima;” the tenor was hesitant through the first few bars, then getting a hold of the familiar aria, gave it with personal touch.

MLOSnodDiaz.gifBelcore (Daniel Snodgrass and Adina (Susana Diaz)

MLO sported a good singing Belcore and a strong singing-actor as Dulcamara — done spiritedly, either of these roles can easily run away with this show because of the rhyming verse that Romani supplies them. “A woman is a creature who defies understanding,” bemoaned Daniel Snodgrass, whose sound might be confused for a tenor’s. Not a problem for Belcore, whose music Snodgrass sings with strict passage work. Snodgrass gets much work in this area and has been with MLO since its first season. Of all the performers this evening, Oscar Martinez (Dulcamara) appeared to enjoy himself most. His knowledge of the role, and with the buffo aesthetic, is firm. Gianetta sets the tone early in this opera with her words, “what’s so funny?” A past MLO contributor, Daisy Su as Gianetta — Adina’s close friend — did well in her moments at center stage.

Another strength of this L’elisir was the MLO chorus — they sang clearly and strongly and took advantage of their conspicuous presence in the Donizetti opera. Entranced with Adina, they sang out Romani’s Italian for, “let us hear what you are reading.” Congratulations chorus master Pablo Hernandez.

A recent high school graduate with operatic aspirations, Jesus Gonzalez came off as a parody of the notary — the costume (by Pamela De Vercelly), and moustache, hung over Gonzalez a few sizes large. Chorus member Jared Peroune was an high-spirited fez-wearing spotter for Dulcamara.

MLOElisirDulcamara.gifDulcamara (Oscar Martinez)

If Donizetti’s part in L’elisir leaves listeners puzzled vis a vis the point of the story, Romani’s libretto activates the morals to be extracted. That charlatano, that slippery-wise Dulcamara brings you a big one: “It is risky business to try to buy or sell love.”

Robert Carreras

image= image_description=Susana Diaz [Photo courtesy of Daroca Artists International] product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: L’elisir d’amore product_by=Adina: Jessica Slatkoff Arteaga / Susana Diaz; Nemorino: David Pereira; Dulcamara: Oscar Martinez; Belcore: Daniel Snodgrass; Gianetta: Rebekah Diaz / Daisy Su; Notaro: Jesus Gonzalez. Miami Lyric Opera. Conductor: Beverly Coulter. Director: Raffaele Cardone. Chorus Master: Pablo Hernandez. product_id=Above: Susana Diaz [Photo courtesy of Daroca Artists International]

All other photos courtesy of Miami Lyric Opera
Posted by Gary at 7:59 AM

August 28, 2011

A Classic That Still Vexes as It Pleases

By Zachary Woolfe [NY Times, 28 August 2011]

LENOX, Mass. — On Friday evening a hurricane raged toward the Atlantic coast. At the same time one roared onstage here at the Tanglewood Festival, threatening the lives of the inhabitants of Catfish Row, the South Carolina ghetto that is the setting of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.”

Posted by Gary at 4:00 PM

BBC Prom 50

No Man’s Land received its premiere in this Promenade concert, which was dedicated to Hickox’s memory and reflected his own particular musical passions and interests.

A setting of ‘Airs and Ditties of No Man’s Land’, a sequence of poems by Christopher Reid, Matthews’ work takes the form of a conversation between the ghostly skeletons of two soldiers whose mangled bodies have been left hanging on the barbed wire which separates the opposing forces of the Somme. Captain Gifford (tenor, Ian Bostridge) and Sergeant Slack (baritone, Roderick Williams) reflect on their experiences of war in a discomforting sequence of reminiscences.

In fact, although there are some exchanges of dialogue between the two men, the overall effect of the sequence is less a ‘conversation’ than a series of individual outbursts juxtaposing painful recollections of the battlefield with ironic wartime songs and ballads of the period. The singers, aided by the musical fabric, worked hard to produce a coherent drama, joining together in the more expansive duet passages with a painful lyrical earnestness. Bostridge, in particular, convincingly conveyed the patrician gravity of the Captain; in his first arioso passage, describing the apocalyptic events of the battle — when the “earth erupted/ In fountains of black clay; Ancient trees somersaulted/ And broke their backs; a landscape/ jumped up and ran away.” — his high tenor soared emotively above the chamber orchestra’s occasional moments of poignant harmonic consonance. The physical casting was fortunate too, with Bostridge a tall, imposing figure of aristocratic assertiveness and Williams a more jovial, down-to-earth chap.

Adopting a chamber orchestra with percussion, celeste and a ‘an out-of-tune upright piano of the kind which might have made its way to the Western Front’, Matthews has created an atmospheric score which shockingly contrasts the humorous and the haunting, the sloppily sentimental with the bitingly ironic. In a manner reminiscent of Britten’s skilful pastiches, the idioms of the period — and even actual recordings - are adroitly recreated and integrated in Mahlerian fashion, the instrumentation further enhancing the incongruities between text and timbre. Thus, in a grimly cheery ballad, Williams’ relaxed warm baritone was suitably complemented by his nonchalant stance - an indulgent rubato here and there suggesting a gregarious pub performance — before succeeding to unsettling rhythmic busyness evoking the scurrying of rats in the trenches, and ominous drumrolls heralding Gifford’s disquieting declaration:

I’ll tell you something, Sergeant Slack,
I with they’d told me long before:
The tunes that march men off to war
Are not the same as march them back.

The sequence builds to a powerful conclusion: Slack’s waltz-like ditty is interrupted by dissonant rumblings leading to an instrumental interlude which conveys both compassion and despair. This is followed by Gifford’s recollection of a ‘dream’, an episode dramatising the appalling indifference of those in command to the sufferings of their men, which equals Sassoon in its casual bitterness. In the final exchange, Bostridge’s tenor assumed a hollow ring as, emptied of life, the two men confront the painful truth: the men who fall, not from ‘high-spirits’, not in a ‘swoon’, these men, “who go into no man’s land/ [And] won’t be back soon”. A solo violin mordantly underlined the text’s dreadful finality.

With its jarring juxtapositions, its pain and poignancy, and its disconcerting honesties, the overall effect of No Man’s Land is of a sort of War Requiem meets Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’. Matthews has created a moving, disturbing work of great emotional power, and he was well served by the CLS, whose well-defined playing was adeptly shaped into a dramatic whole by Layton.

The opening work, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, was similarly incisive and alert, as Layton gradually increased the rhythmic energy, eliciting a range of colours and sound worlds from his dynamic string players. The performance built from austere beginnings, through the sweet charms of the ‘Romance’, the racing wit of the ‘Aria Italiana’, and the sonorous intensity of the ‘Funeral March’, concluding with a Fugue of spiky vigour.

A pacy performance of Mozart’s Requiem made for an exciting, enlivened second half. Tempi were brisk, and crisp instrumental articulation was matched by the driving impact of Polyphony’s vocal delivery. The individual movements proceeded with scarcely a pause, forming an almost operatic whole. There were consummate performances from all four eminent soloists. Bostridge once again demonstrated his professional poise, and he was joined by baritone Henk Neven, who despite some confident projection found himself a little overwhelmed by an exuberant solo trombone in the Tuba Miram! Renata Pokupić’s mezzo soprano was full of life and colour, while Emma Bell’s bright, well-shaped soprano lines were a particular highlight. It all made for a pleasingly fresh and engaging rendering of this familiar work.

Claire Seymour

Click here to listen to this program.

image= image_description=W. A. Mozart by Barbara Krafft, Salzburg, 1819 product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; Colin Matthews: No Man’s Land; W.A. Mozart: Requiem in D minor (compl. Süssmayr) product_by=Emma Bell, soprano; Renata Pokupić, mezzo-soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone; Henk Neven, baritone. Polyphony. City of London Sinfonia. Stephen Layton conductor. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday 21st August 2011. product_id=Above: W. A. Mozart by Barbara Krafft, Salzburg, 1819
Posted by Gary at 3:09 PM

August 27, 2011

Santa Fe: Best of Show 2011

Best of the summer for this observer included the closing performance of Alban Berg’s magical expressionist tragedy, Wozzeck. It was a complete realization of the 2001 production by Daniel Slater and Robert Innes Hopkins, which captivated everyone at the time and has remained in memory as an historic highlight of the company’s quality. So it was again this season through only four performances (La bohème enjoyed ten). Under the music direction of St Louis Symphony’s superlative conductor David Robertson, the musical quality was, if anything, improved over 2001. I attended the first and final performances, and the show grew and developed into musical-dramatic tour de force — a deeply touching one.

Berg’s 1925 masterwork was not professionally staged in its entirety in this country until 1959 at the New York Met, though excerpts had been heard in concert form in 1951, presented by Dmitri Mitropoulos at Carnegie Hall and issued on Columbia records (some will argue that the 1931 Leopold Stokowski presentation of Wozzeck in Philadelphia was the North American premiere, though it was a semi-professional company, derived out of patroness Mrs Bok’s local conservatory with, remarkably, Nelson Eddy in the title role). Nowadays, the complicated score is relatively easily listenable so one can turn to matters of message and dramatic effect — and the elegance of its deeply beautiful, if complex orchestral music. As in Wagner’s famous quip about his own operas, here “the drama is in the orchestra.” Berg’s innovative atonal writing, with its remarkable orchestration and colors, right up to a thunderous held chord on B for the full orchestra, a kind of massive punctuation mark, followed by a tonal interlude centered on D-minor, seduces the audience into thinking the worst is over. The cruelties dealt to Wozzeck by life, in the person of virtually all his associates, are too much for him; his mind finally snaps and he, along with his mistress, die. After the healing surprise of the D-minor interlude near the end of the opera, we suddenly find Wozzeck’s young son riding his stick horse across the stage, murmuring ‘hip hop, hip hop.” With his parents dead, there is no one to hear him — and now the atonal patterns return, the tragedy of life starts all over again.

A fine cast was led by the strong baritone Richard Paul Fink, memorable in the intense title role, with debutante German soprano, the skilled Nicola Beller Carbone, fascinating as Marie. The pungency of Slater’s staging — it’s tension and release, aided by Hopkins’ remarkable set that leans and dips according to the action — never ceases until the final shattering moments of the 90-minute opera. In secondary but important roles, the proven talents of Robert Brubaker, Eric Owens and Stuart Skelton, along with Patricia Risley and Jason Slayden, gave much reward. The Santa Fe orchestra was entirely up to its task, with, I’ll say again, David Robertson the master of the evening. I could go to this opera with much enjoyment many more times, most especially in Santa Fe’s heightened expressionistic production.

WOZ2_235a.gifNicola Beller Carbone (Marie), Stuart Skelton (Drum Major) & Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck)

A common denominator between the opera and a new voice recital series, played over three concerts in August at the Scottish Rite Temple in downtown Santa Fe, was the memorable talent of basso-cantante Eric Owens. The singer, known especially to opera audiences as General Leslie Groves in Adams’ Dr Atomic, proved a pleasant surprise as a proponent of German lied. The dramatic statements of several of Schubert’s largest lied lay easily within the eloquent basso’s grasp; yet he could spin a piano tone in Duparc, or crisply deliver a merry old English song. Ironically, perhaps the greatest achievement of his hour’s recital was a stunningly vocalized and moving encore of King Philip’s monologue from Verdi’s Don Carlos. In German, French and Italian, this splendid artist is a man for all seasons; the voice fine-grained but purposeful, the musicality secure, the diction square on.

Mr. Owens has it all, and may fate grant him a long and fruitful artistic life. Appreciation is due Santa Fe conductor and concert promoter Joseph Illick for developing the new vocal series, which we hear will return next season. It is nice to see life breathed back into the art of the art song!

Finally, and in some ways most enjoyable of all, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival presented in a noontime recital at the resonant St. Francis Auditorium, the young Korean-American pianist Joyce Yang. I had heard this artist play in California during the Spring and found her exceptional. All expectations were fulfilled in a program based on Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles (1989), a jaunty, layered showpiece of pianistic technique, which was a breeze for Miss Yang. Debussy’s Estampes followed, flowing richly from her big Steinway, a riot of impressionistic nuance, color and fleet image-making from the young Debussy’s inspired imagination. Miss Yang took one’s breath away with her ease and maturity of phrasing, the mistress of resourcefulness and thrilling resolve. I know, but it really was that good!

The climax of the event was the great and glorious Carnival of Robert Schumann, a landmark of romantic invention, and a strong test of any pianist. Miss Yang seemed to approach the 20-some scenes of Schumann’s storytelling with absolute certainty of what she was about, playing with reserves of power, tasteful musicality and poise, that were most vivifying for this old masterwork. The audience went crazy, as they should have, and encores were offered. The best possible encore is to have this young sorceress back as soon and often as possible!

Any three ‘best’ choices are bound to be arbitrary; but with the bountiful offerings of the music and opera festivals in Santa Fe’s high season, I suggest these selections, out of dozens of other wonderful moments, as a taste of what “America’s Salzburg” is all about.

James A. Van Sant © 2011

image= image_description=Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck) [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera] product=yes product_title=Santa Fe: Best of Show 2011 product_by=Above: Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck)

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera product_id=
Posted by Gary at 5:38 PM

Caractacus,Three Choirs Festival, Worcester

The Three Choirs Festival was founded some 300 years ago, bringing together the choirs of three great cathedral cities — Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. The Three Choirs epitomize all that is great and good about the English choral tradition. It’s a festival which no-one seriously interested in the genre can miss. The atmosphere is unique, and immeasurably enhances appreciation of the music.

Edward Elgar was very much part of the Three Choirs Festival. He attended without fail, and his music has figured prominently in every Festival for over 100 years. He was a Worcester man by birth, so it was a very special experience to hear this performance of Caractacus in Worcester Cathedral, where Elgar himself would have heard it.

Caractacus is an epic oratorio about an ancient Briton King called Caractacus. Legend has it that he was defeated by the Romans, making his last stand on a hill now known as the Herefordshire Beacon. It’s a spectacular spot, commanding a panoramic view over the Malvern Hills. Ancient fortifications can still be seen on its summit.

History co-exists with the present of Elgar’s own time in Caractacus. “Watchmen alert!” sing the massed choir. Right from the start, Elgar’s Caractacus begins defiantly. “The Roman hordes have girdled in our British coast”. Then Caractacus takes up the call. “Watchmen alert! The King is here!”. The Britons are facing a crisis situation, for soon Caractacus and his men will be taken as slaves to Rome and their ancient Druid religion gradually obliterated.

In 1898, the British Empire was at its peak. Basking in the certainties of their manifest destiny, Victorian Imperialists didn’t register the irony that they were themselves doing to others what the Romans Imperialists did to their ancestors. In the last big chorus, Elgar’s text specifically mentions “the flag of Britain (and) its triple crosses”, ie the Union Flag which didn’t exist until Stuart times, and British dominion “O’er peoples undiscover’d, inlands we cannot know”. Hearing the truculence of this text makes one realize what a shock the 1914-18 war would be to Elgar, and to the certainties of Empire.

Nonetheless, Elgar’s music is exquisite, overcoming the often lugubrious text. He was a Worcester man at heart, who hiked and cycled in the woods around him. Caractacus is very much inspired by the spirit of the landscape around him in the Malverns. The text may be violent, but the music is gloriously pastoral for the most part. The “Woodland Interlude” that begins Scene III is short, but its verdant loveliness pervades the entire work. The Druids worshipped the forces of nature. Dense woodlands were sacred to them just as Worcester Cathedral is to the modern faithful. For Elgar, nature and landscape were almost sacred too. He wrote to a friend (who appears encoded in the Enigma Variations), “the trees are singing my music- or have I sung theirs?”

“The air is sweet, the sky is calm” sings Caractacus, “all nature round is breathing balm…O spirits of the hill surround, with waving wings this holy ground”. Peter Savidge’s firm intonation carries authority naturally, without being forced. His diction is so clear that it cuts through the choirs, decisively. He creates Caractacus’s character with warmth and sensitivity, more faithful, perhaps to the spirit of the Druids than to High Victorian arrogance. Just listening to Savidge, you can understand why Claudius, the Roman Emperor, was so impressed by Caractacus’s moral strength that he treated the Britons with respect. Savidge’s O my warriors! was expansive, yet surprisingly tender. Truly “a freeborn chieftain and a people free ...(whose) soul remains unshackled still”.”

Elgar’s forte is the orchestral extension of text, so performance stands or falls on orchestra and conductor. Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia were superlative, technically brighter and sharper than the London Symphony Chorus were for Richard Hickox on their recording almost 20 years ago. Davis delineates the underlying themes so precisely that the music seems to come alive, whispering meaning much as the trees the Druids worshipped whispered meaning to them. Tight dynamics built drama into what might otherwise be fairly stolid Victorian melodrama. When this performance is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 3rd September make sure to listen, because this is the new benchmark. Hopefully, a recording may be made available. Worcester, and the Three Choirs Festival are sacred ground to Elgar enthusiasts.

What makes the Three Choirs Festival unique, however, is the quality of the choral singing, which is the whole raison d’être behind this 300 year old tradition. Although at moments it wasn’t easy to make out all the text, the fault lies not with the voices nor with the choirmaster but with the text itself. English is a language which lends itself to vowels rather than consonants, so it’s easy to approximate vocally, which is why it’s near universal today. There were many Caractacus figures in Gaul and in the lands of the Franks, so in theory there might be similar works in French or German, but they’d sound completely different. The relative imprecision of English makes the Triumphal March sympathetic. The Britons are a ragged bunch of wild men, very different to the sophisticated Roman Court, yet they win out since Caractacus is a level-headed fellow.

Brindley Sherratt sang Claudius with such rich resonance that he brought out the depth in the Roman’s personality. The Romans may be the enemy, but Sherratt shows what a fundamentally civilized man Claudius is, for he can show mercy without compromising his power. Stephen Roberts Arch Druid/Bard was also deeply impressive. Judith Howarth reprised Eigen, Caractacus’s daughter. Her voice is in excellent form, still pure and sweet though it’s been 20 years since she sang it with Richard Hickox. In At eve to the greenwood she managed the sudden leap up the register with aplomb. Even better was her When the glow of the evening. Ben Johnson sang Orbin, the Druid whom Eigen is in love with. Johnson’s very young and this is a fairly demanding part, so he did very well indeed. His bright tone is matched by good Italianate looks and an expressive face which will stand him in good stead in opera.

This performance of Elgar’s Caractacus from the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 after the Proms end in mid September.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Engraving of statue of Caractacus by John Henry Foley product=yes product_title=Edward Elgar: Caractacus product_by=Peter Savidge: Caractacus, Judith Howarth: Eigen, Ben Jihnson: Orbin, Brindley Sherratt: Claudius, Stephen Roberts: Arch Druid/Bard. The Three Choirs Festival Chorus, The Philharmonia Orchestra, Andrew Davis: conductor. Worcester Cathedral, Three Choirs Festival, 10th August 2011. product_id=Above: Engraving of statue of Caractacus by John Henry Foley
Posted by anne_o at 5:32 PM

Santa Fe Musical Delights

The major contributing factor to the success of the summer’s new Faust is the inspired leadership by the festival’s Chief Conductor Frédéric Chaslin. It is safe to say that the Gounod opus is probably on no one’s short list of the greatest operas of all time, but mercifully the Maestro didn’t get that memo, for he approaches the piece with a ferocity, commitment, spiritual depth, and import usually reserved for the likes of Tristan or Otello. The result is as musically fine a Faust as you are likely to encounter in a lifetime of opera-going. The Santa Fe musicians responded with a reading of blazing intensity and lustrous detail. Chorus Master Susanne Sheston was a skilled and willing partner, and she had drilled her full-throated ensemble of Young Artists to a fare-thee-well.

FST2_0130a.gifMark Doss (Méphistophélès)

Bryan Hymel offered a polished, perhaps even definitive performance as Faust, his gleaming, evenly-produced lyric voice capable of enough heft to ride the orchestra in the heavier passages, especially above the staff. Mr. Hymel also boasts one of the best, surefire, high C’s in the business. That said, he did little to suggest the old man in the opening scene either physically or with vocal coloring. The voice was so robust, so unvaried that at first I wondered if his straight forward presentational style would wear well for an entire evening. But once he was transformed to the young man, Hymel found the requisite nuance, variety, subtlety and heart to wed to his beautifully produced vocal lines. His French was also quite good, although he does need to watch that “morte” not become “mahrt” nor “sans” become “sahn.” Bryan does have an easy stage deportment and good natural interpretive instincts that serve him well. It is easy to see why this exciting young tenor is moving around the world in major assignments. Watch for him.

Beauty-contest-pretty Ailyn Pérez has a voice that matches, and her creamy, responsive soprano proved to be ideal for Marguerite. Okay, the quick moving melismas were perhaps a little fudged in the Jewel Song but Ms. Pérez has discovered a meaning to every phrase, and weds them together to etch an unusually rich, well-rounded character. She is not only capable of suggesting the naive, inexperienced young girl, but also has all the dramatic power (and interpretive gifts) to move us to the core as she descends to become the ruined young woman. Although she finds great variety in the role, and explores ever dramatic beat to the fullest, I suggest that in the first two scenes, Ailyn might offer a little more full-bodied tone on certain understated utterances and not treat them like they might break if pressed with a bit more urgency. But hers was an accomplished, moving, highly satisfying Marguerite.

We were similarly blessed with our Valentin, Christopher Magiera embodying the soldier with a manly, vibrant baritone of uncommon distinction. His “Avant de quitter” was a high point of the show, with ringing top notes, and his death scene was undeniably affecting. Jennifer Holloway may be on her way to assuming Susan Graham’s French-singing mantle if her warmly sung, impetuous Siébel is any indication. In addition to her exemplary mezzo, the slim Ms. Holloway is perfect at impersonating a young man. Jamie Barton brought a refined alto and a good sense of comedy to a successful, non-sterotypical take on Marthe. Young Artist Darik Knutsen held his own in this stellar company, with a solidly sung, theatrically engaged Wagner.

There is so much I really liked about Mark S. Doss as a larger-than-death Méphistophélès: a seasoned command of the stage, untiring invention of stage business, a powerhouse of a tremulously dark bass, and a thorough understanding of the role and all the possibilities it contains. With so many plusses, I only wish that Mr. Doss had not resorted to mugging, focus-grabbing, and making Snidely Whiplash faces. Since his ringing bass is absolutely the right type, and his technique is so sound, he could easily be numbered among the leading proponents of the role. A little less would be so much more in this already commanding performance. But perhaps, Mark is really only doing what his director has asked of him?

Stephen Lawless has not often gone for subtlety in this staging, and the whole comes across as over-produced, with enough ideas for several stagings of Faust. WIth maybe a little Perichole left over. Set designer Benoit Dugardyn has a field day (and apparently a big budget) as he first provides an open peforming space flanked by legs of bookcases oveflowing with books, which he then fills with set pieces that either rise up from the basement or roll in from the sides, get revealed upstage center by parting panels, or all three at once. The most unifying inset is the coffin that rises from the floor center stage and serves as Faust’s desk, the basis of a flower garden plot, a bed, and even (*gasp*) a coffin!

FST2_1877a.gifBackground left: Matthew Worth (Valentin), Jennifer Holloway (Siébel) & Chorus, Foreground: Ailyn Pérez (Marguerite)

Second most used effect were rolling glass-and-painted backdrop museum display cases that start out housing sideshow freaks at the Kermesse, reappear stuffed with jewels as a Bijouterie for Marguerite’s aria, and come back in the Walpurgisnacht bearing six of history’s most notorious femmes fatales. As if this weren’t enough there was a large upstage Ferris Wheel with disco lighting, a rotating house with bed for Faust’s seduction of Marguerite, hospital beds and screens, a pipe organ and later, oversize organ pipes that Marguerite climbs like the steps to heaven. When the devil sings Le Veau d’Or he does it riding on a carousel version of a golden calf, flanked by four other merry-go-round horses bearing choristers. Oh, and there is a got-to-have-cost-a-franc-or-two wheelchair for Old Man Faust that has more moves than a Busta Rhymes video. It sits up, it lays down, it rolls, it tilts, it floats, it does everything but stand on its head and whistle “Dixie.” Is all this necessary? (It did occur to me that the trick chair might serve the company well if they ever mount Sweeney Todd.)

Sue Wilmington’s late 19th Century costumes worked less hard, were wonderfully detailed, and made a real contribution. Her attire for Marguerite’s early scenes made her look radiant. And the period military costumes were spot on. The specialty costumes for Salome, Manon, Cleopatra, etc. and all the other dancers that peopled Faust’s nightmare were well crafted and supportive of the concept. Nicola Bowie’s choreography resorted to simplistic steps for the iconic bad girls reducing the scene to a kitschy bitch fight and a dispassionate stroke fest, a bad idea gone wrong.

To be fair to director Lawless, he almost always maintained a good focus on the primary action, in spite of crowding it with effects. More often than not, character relationships and plot developments were well reflected in the blocking. A few of the devil’s surprise entrances are delightful like when he is revealed under a sheet in the hospital ward, or pops up out of the coffin. At other times, the placement of the scenic elements necessitated awkward, unmotivatable movement to simply get the performers to the scenery. But despite the hubbub and the well-intended visuals, nothing could distract this listener from the ravishing musical achievement.

SAV1_0229a.gifKevin Burdette (Mr. Scattergood) & Anna Christy (Kitty)

Had the chat phrase LMAO not already been in usage, someone would have had to coin it to describe the response to the flawless production of Menotti rarity, The Last Savage. This may not be great opera, but it was a terrific time in the theatre. Allen Moyer’s scenery featured a fairy tale mix of a palace in India, a sleek Chicago penthouse with glittering skyline, and a comic book cave in the jungle. His eye-popping riff on Indian costumes rivaled Bollywood, and the witty 60’s attire was a spot-on evocation of that psychedlic fashion period. It was a stroke of genius to costume the dancing chorus as tattooed (body suit) swamis, sporting turban, beard and diaper and, all evening long, performing the loopiest, dizziest, funniest dance steps since. . .well. . .Santa Fe’s Platee. Seán Curran’s inventive choreography never wears out its welcome, and is a constant ripe source of titters and belly laughs (I am giggling as I write).

Director Ned Canty makes nary a false move as he steers his exceptionally gifted cast of comedians-who-happen-to-sing-opera around the stage. His handling of the large (really large) group scenes is nothing short of astounding, especially Act Two’s cocktail party, in which it seems as though everyone in the Young Artist program, or maybe even the greater Santa Fe Metro area, has been given a cameo to perform. Mr. Canty’s ability to focus our attention where it needs to be, and to move the massive forces around the stage was. . .well, let’s just say he could be a successful air traffic controller at any airport on the eastern seaboard. Not sure who was responsible for the Connie and Carla moment (when a club audience suddenly throws arms in the air en masse, Lupone-like on “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”), but when the packed stage of ‘sophisticates’ suddenly did this goofy jazz-hands-swaying-in-the-air-move in perfect unison, this veiwer was, well, LMAO.

And what a cast! As Mr. Scattergood, Kevin Burdette is displaying one of the best physical comedy performances since Dick Van Dyke reigned supreme. All loose limbs, and with shameless deadpan timing, Mr. Burdette is such an excellent comic actor, you almost forget how beautifully he is singing, in a robust, immensely satisfying baritone. His ‘daughter’ Kitty (written for Roberta Peters) is a perfect fit for petite, blond Anna Christy. One of the opera’s running jokes is a spoof on show-offy, meaningless coloratura displays, and Ms. Christy commands a well-schooled, flute-like soprano that tosses these off with aplomb. Mr. Moyer also has a field day costuming the lovely Anna, first in a pink, short-shorts version of a safari outfit with pith helmet and designer boots (that Lady Gaga might actually wear), then baby doll PJ’s that allow for a cheeky Kitten-with-a-Whip moment, and even an animal print sarong that is one part Sheena Queen of the Jungle and one part Victoria’s Secret. Ms. Christy is so committed, and sings so effortlessly that she breezes us along through even the most preposterous plot points.

SAV2_3093a.gifThomas Hammons (Maharajah), Jennifer Zetlan (Sardula), Daniel Okulitch (Abdul), Sean Panikkar (Kodanda) & Anna Christy (Kitty)

Thomas Hammons puts his buffo abilities to excellent purpose as the Maharaja, managing to land even the most sexist marital observations. As the corpulent, sedan bound, Maharanee, Jamie Barton had a field day, and her full-throated mezzo rang out in the house. When she did alight from her perch and revealed her full measure (the well padded costume recalled Jane Eaglen in a biiiiiiiiiiig hoop skirt) , she struck real comedic sparks with Mr. Burdette. Young tenor Sean Panikkar was a perfect Prince Kodanda, charming, dashing, and possessed of a crystal clear tenor that he used in excellent service to one of the night’s best arias. As the greedy servant girl Sardula, Jennifer Zetlan made the most of perhaps the least well-drawn character, who starts off as a comic antagonist, then reverts to rather an unpleasant harridan, and later softens to fall in love with Kodanda. Ms. Zetlan’s silvery lyric voice was a good match for one of the show’s most extended arias, and she managed to imbue it with more interest than its generic sentiments invited.

So, what of the title character, the savage (Abdul, written for imposing voice of George London)? Boyishly appealing Daniel Okulitch is a hard-working, well-prepared performer. There is never a moment that he is not completely engaged, and he brings a savvy stage presence to all he does. Based on one hearing, this role may actually be less interesting than others in the opera. There is a lot of reaction to him, a lot of talking about him, but in some scenes like the party, there are long stretches in which he gets upstaged by the writing for other momentarily featured characters. Mr. Okulitch certainly had his day in the kissing lesson scene, and was madly wacky at the end of Two where he tears the penthouse window curtain down, invades the skyline and climbs a skyscraper a la King Kong. Full advantage was taken of Daniel’s lean, muscled physique, an asset he is not shy about sharing (although, when there was a reference to how hairy he was, it must have been written before his chest got perfectly waxed. . .). The gifted baritone brought a luminous voice to Act Three’s duet with Kitty, and was a key component in the sensitive musings of a beautifully presented setpet, perhaps the best number in the piece.

George Manahan got fine results from the orchestra, who played with flair, delicacy, and oozing lyricism as required. Mr. Menotti has composed a hybrid opera that intentionally incorporates bits and bobs of almost every composer who has ever lived. After a nod to Rossini/Donizetti in the early part of the overture the brass licks emulate Prokofieff, and just as suddenly Puccini seems to have arrived. The penthouse jazz segments paid homage to Bernstein, and the send-up of mid-century ‘modern’ music was so devastatingly correct it could have been an actual quote of...Stockhausen? Babbit? Penderecki? Lyricism is in short supply until about halfway through the performance, but when it does come, the simple, folksy arias are not unlike Douglas Moore. For someone who could plot a script well, and pen such viable joke set-ups and punch lines, it is curious that some of Menotti’s other prose is so shockingly stilted. There are rhymes and sentiments that are so clunky that even Hallmark would reject them.

I cannot imagine that The Last Savage will ever receive a better performed, or more winningly staged production than this. At the end when the shadow box jungle was turned into a display case freezing Abdul and Kitty in time, with a sign placed beneath it “The Last Savage and His Mate,” and with a group of school girls wandering through the “museum,” the night ended as it began: LMAO.

GRIS_2787a.gifMeredith Arwady (Griselda), Isabel Leonard (Costanza), Paul Groves (Gualtiero) & David Daniels (Roberto)

It is equally unlikely you would ever hear a more ravishing musical rendition of Vivaldi’s seldom performed Griselda than the one on display in New Mexico. My first encounter with this live version proved the piece eminently “stage-worthy,” this in spite of Peter Sellars slack direction. I so admire Mr. Sellars’ work that it pains me to say that on this occasion he seemed to be re-cycling ideas from prior, far better productions. The concept is that the piece is set in colonial New Mexico, all well and good. To the production’s great credit the muralist Gronk has supplied a mutli-faceted box set design with his signature (and dazzling) graffiti art that boldly evokes the Southwestern milieu. And James F. Ingalls has devised an eccentric lighting design that has a real point of view, even while keeping Ottone and Costanza inexplicably in complete darkness for their first scene. Still, his effects isolating the diverse elements of the mural showed imagination and careful forethought. Dunya Ramicova’s costumes support the concept with competent (if little more) designs.

But Mr. Sellars’ lack of fresh ideas hindered the piece from making its full effect. Left with a bare stage, save a couple of straight back chairs, Sellars rarely had the characters connect in any truthful way, the blocking turgid, the pacing ineffective. Singers would complete spectacular accounts of an aria and then just stroll off stage while the orchestra played the (sometimes longish) final bars. Part of the audience, wanting to respond enthusiastically (and deservedly so) would start to applaud and cheer the departed soloist while the rest of us waited dutifully until the music was completed to voice approval. It was an odd stop-and-go, surge-and-die dynamic that could have, nay, should have been avoided with well timed direction. Having Ottone dressed like he was from ‘da Hood’ was a reflux of past programs, and reducing Griselda to a cleaning lady at opera’s end while the off stage chorus extols her reunification with her husband was, well, cynical at best. In place of the army of soldiers, two goons marched around the stage like bug-sprayed roaches in a pinball machine, almost comically brandishing machine guns at point blank range. Haven’t we seen this idea better presented in past productions? Peter, please, please, clear your head, toss out the old, and give us another insightful, cogent interpretation soon. We need your genius back on full display.

That the cast was able to surmount the directorial shortcoming is a testament to their brilliance. The incomparable David Daniels was a Roberto without equal. His beefy, manly counter tenor (yes, manly) remains a wonder of the modern world, his coloratura work exceptionally vivid, his legato passages unparalleled, his commitment sincere and unforced. There have been many worthy challengers to the throne, but Daniels remains the king of this repertoire. Amanda Majeski is his equal as a thrilling Ottone. I hope fireworks are legal in Santa Fe, because Ms. Majeski fires off unbelievably accurate salvos of melismatic star bursts, turning out blazing Vivaldi phrases that work the public up into a willing frenzy of excitement. Hers is a major talent in this repertoire.

GRIS_1985a.gifIsabel Leonard (Costanza) & Yuri Minenko (Corrado)

The lovely Isabel Leonard is no less a musical delight as the long-suffering Costanza. Her lean, purely produced soprano is beautifully modulated to limn a sympathetic character of dramatic interest and musical accomplishment. How wonderful it was to hear the up-and-coming contralto Meredith Arwady break out of her ‘featured roles’ status and knock our socks off as an impassioned Griselda. Ms. Arwady seems to be successfully vying to assume the mantle of Lili Chookasian, her rolling low register matched by a searing and well controlled top. Yuri Minenko makes the most of Corrado’s brief role with a mezzo of directness and accomplished technique. While I am a fan of Paul Groves, he was not having his best night as Gualtiero. It just did not seem to lie gratefully for his considerable gifts, and the fioriture was strained and well behind the beat. Everything above the passaggio was a bit fuzzy, although he managed some moving sotto voce phrases. Even with that caveat, Mr. Groves delivered vivid, full voiced, well accented recitatives that were a model of their kind.

In the pit, Grant Gershon could do no wrong. This was the high calibre of instrumental playing that should be recorded to show future listeners how exciting Griselda can be when everything goes miraculously right. For the astounding musical accomplishments of these three offerings, Santa Fe can luxuriate in its status as the grand daddy of US summer festivals.

James Sohre

Cast lists:


Faust: Bryan Hymel; Méphistophélès: Mark S. Doss; Wagner: Darik Knutsen; Valentin: Christopher Magiera; Siébel: Jennifer Holloway; Marthe: Jamie Barton; Marguerite: Ailyn Pérez. Conductor: Frédéric Chaslin. Director: Stephen Lawless. Scenic Design: Benoit Dugardyn. Costume Design: Sue Wilmington. Lighting Design: Pat Collins. Choreographer: Nicola Bowie. Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston.

The Last Savage

Mr. Scattergood: Kevin Burdette; Maharajah: Thomas Hammons; Maharanee: Jamie Barton; Kodanda: Sean Panikkar; Kitty: Anna Christy; Sardula: Jennifer Zetlan; Abdul: Daniel Okulitch. Conductor: George Manahan. Director: Ned Canty. Scenic and Costume Design: Allen Moyer. Lighting Design: Rick Fisher. Choreographer: Seán Curran. Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston.


Gualtiero: Paul Groves; Griselda: Meredith Arwady; Ottone: Amanda Majeski; Costanza: Isabel Leonard; Roberto: David Daniels; Corrado: Yuri Minenko. Conductor: Grant Gershon. Director: Peter Sellars. Scenic Design: Gronk. Costume Design: Dunya Ramicova. Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls.

image= image_description=Clockwise from top: Bryan Hymel (Faust), Mark Doss (Méphistophélès), Gabrielle Zucker (Helen of Troy), Kesa Huey (Cleopatra), Kristin Osler (Manon), Heidi Kershaw (Carmen), Hallie Brenner Dalsimer (Salome) & Jasmine Quinsier (Delilah) [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera] product=yes product_title=Santa Fe Musical Delights product_by=Charles Gounod: Faust; Gian Carlo Menotti: The Last Savage & Antonio Vivaldi: Griselda product_id=Above: Clockwise from top: Bryan Hymel (Faust), Mark Doss (Méphistophélès), Gabrielle Zucker (Helen of Troy), Kesa Huey (Cleopatra), Kristin Osler (Manon), Heidi Kershaw (Carmen), Hallie Brenner Dalsimer (Salome) & Jasmine Quinsier (Delilah)

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera
Posted by james_s at 4:04 PM

Nino Machaidze: Romantic Arias

The first and last phrases are the sort of non-specific, almost esoteric utterances one might expect from artists asked to speak about their work, but the middle phrase gets right to the point. Machiadze has had a fairly stunning rise to stardom since she was chosen to replace Anna Netrebko in a high-profile Salzburg Festival assignment, opposite Rolando Villazón (she was Juliette to his Roméo in the 2008 staging of Gounod’s opera). She has done a smattering of classic French roles — the disc features her Massenet Manon as well as two Juliette arias. Beyond those, she has concentrated on the three great bel canto composers: Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. And that is the music found on this disc.

The recording finds her more impressive in bel canto. While not unpleasing, in the French repertoire the tart — some might say acidic — edge to Machiadze’s voice doesn’t always suit the music or the role. In “Adieu, notre petite table” she shows she can scale down her voice and project the appropriate mood, but that tenderness some singers bring to this aria isn’t felt. Juliette’s “poison/potion” aria also comes across as forced in its initial fervor, bordering on hysteria, and the ruminative section should be more deeply felt.

Turn to Donizetti’s Lucia in her opening scene, and that tartness adds piquancy to the emotional register. Machiadze’s version certainly wouldn’t eclipse those of other sopranos who are known for this role. She doesn’t have Sutherland’s voluptuousness or the interior drama of Callas. Machiadze falls between the two, the tone precise, lines well-sustained, and a sense of restraint in the characterization, rather than an absence of feeling. In a lesser-known aria, that restraint leads to a certain blandness (as in the track from Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini). Machiadze comes into her own in the disc’s faster numbers, frolicking through the coloratura and capping the scenes with fiercely attacked high notes. The Donizetti scenes from La Fille du Regiment and Linda di Chamounix show her at her best.

With fine support from conductor Michele Mariotti and Teatro Comunale of Bologna orchestra, Ms. Machiadze enjoys a rare distinction these days in even having a recorded recital disc. If the totality of the performances doesn’t quite suggest that she is anyone near her full potential as an artist, the disc still provides plenty of reason o believe that she’ll be adding to her “successes” on the world’s opera stages.

Chris Mullins


product_title=Romantic Arias
product_by=Nino Machiadze, soprano. Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Michele Mariotti.
product_id=Sony Classical 784174 [CD]

Posted by chris_m at 12:35 PM

Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals at Grant Park

Carlos Kalmar conducted his forces with the intensity needed to retain the devotional focus and tension throughout the lengthy work. In the extended and demanding role of Saint John the tenor Robert Künzli gave a riveting performance of vocal and dramatic strengths. Participating in various solo and ensemble parts the well chosen cast was made up of soprano Edith Lienbacher, mezzo soprano Christa Ratzenböck, tenor Alexander Kaimbacher, and bass Albert Pesendorfer.

The orchestral prelude to Schmidt’s composition returns, as appropriate, at the close in one of several musical gestures underlining the cyclical nature of the work. In much the same way, the vocal declamations and variations on these are performed in complementary passages near the start and at the end of the work. In the role of both introducing and concluding the piece Künzli’s unflagging Saint John called upon his listeners to recall the sacrifice of Christ. Further, he announced that revelations concerning the end of the world would truly come to pass. Künzli’s approach was at times dramatic and ringing in delivery, whereas at others he used a lighter tone on softer intonation (e.g., the word “gewaschen” [“washed”] in “Der uns geliebet hat und gewaschen von den Sünden” [“He who loved us and washed us from our sins”]). In the role of the Lord’s voice Pesendorfer gave a consistently strong impression in vocal flexibility. His extended mid-range notes on “Ich bin das A und das O” were followed by exhortations to approach the heavenly throne with well projected articulation on low bass notes. After this declaration from above Saint John described the heavenly throne with Künzli achieving specific emphasis on the dramatic “Donner und Stimmen” (“thunder and voices”). As he concluded this description with rapid tempos on “einem fliegenden Adler” (“a flying eagle”), the remaining “Wesen” or “beasts” were enumerated in their positions surrounding the heavenly throne. At this point the additional soloists are first heard as part of a quartet in the parts of the beasts. The soprano, mezzo-soprano, and tenor were joined by Pesendorfer in the quartet as Kaimbacher’s emotive tenor called memorably the holiness of the Lord. For the remaining portions of the prologue the Chorus and Saint John, alternating with the other soloists, introduced the substance of the Book with its seals, the concept of sacrifice, and the preparations to open the Book and announce its revealed wisdom.

Just as the first mention of the Book in the Prologue was heralded by the accompaniment of the organ, Part I and Part II of Schmidt’s work are both introduced by extended organ solos. As each of the first six seals of the Book is opened in Part I, a symbolic figure occurs together with descriptive events on the earth. The Grant Park Chorus, first as a whole and then divided into groups, communicated in their well-rehearsed performance the fate of individuals as the firs two seals released the white and red horses of the apocalypse. Male and female groups of the Chorus conveyed the violent ravages and the intense suffering as a result of war and its devastations. Künzli’s moving summary that “Hölle folgte ihm nach” (“Hell followed after him”) brought a transition to the third seal or the black horseman of hunger. Pesendorfer’s solo in this role introduced a duet for mother and daughter. Ms. Lienbacher and Ms. Ratzenböck sang here with especially effective, merging vocal lines, so that the pain and desperation of human needs were touchingly communicated. After Saint John declared the fourth seal opened, and the pale horse of death was announced, the two male survivors sang that in death they are brothers. Kaimbacher and Pesendorfer performed with fervor their individual parts of the complementary duet which coalesced in a Biblical quote that found both voices perfectly matched. For the earthquake associated with opening the sixth seal toward the close of Part I both Chorus and orchestra swelled into a crescendo ending on “O wer kann da bestehen?” (“O who will be able to stand?”).

The organ solo at the start of Part II has a more ominous tone than in Part I with, as played here, somewhat more pointed individual notes. In the introduction to Saint John’s announcement of the seventh and final seal being opened Künzli lavished emotional effects on his long monologue detailing the original battle between angels and dragon. Orchestral effects were carefully matched to vocal lines so that trumpet and percussion led to a message of judgment. The solo quartet “Wehe euch! Das vierte Wehe” (“Woe! The fourth sorrow”), as introduced by the bass and integrating the other voices skillfully, warns of the celestial lights being extinguished in preparation for the time of judgment. From here to the conclusion of Schmidt’s work the Chorus shares the sung pronouncements with Saint John and with the voice of the Lord. Saint John declares now that a second Book was brought forth, the “Buch des Lebens” or Book of Life, in which are listed those who will be saved. As Künzli reiterated this line with emotional emphasis on “Leben,” the series of repetitions commences which echo the start of the work. His further, emphatic treatment of the prophecy of “Worte” (“words”), as here most appropriate, led to a resolution with the Chorus on the word “Amen!” Chicagoans are fortunate to have heard performances of such commitment of Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals. These concerts by distinguished soloists and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus under Kalmar will surely rank among the finest presentations of this masterpiece.

Salvatore Calomino

image= image_description=Johannes der Evangelist auf Patmos by Hieronymus Bosch product=yes product_title=Franz Schmidt: The Book with Seven Seals product_by=Edith Lienbacher, Soprano; Christa Ratzenböck, Mezzo-Soprano; Robert Künzli, Tenor; Alexander Kaimbacher, Tenor; Albert Pesendorfer, Bass. Grant Park Orchestra. Grant Park Chorus. William Spaulding, Guest Chorus Director. Carlos Kalmar, Conductor. product_id=Above: Johannes der Evangelist auf Patmos by Hieronymus Bosch
Posted by Gary at 11:09 AM

Two one-act comic operas from New York Festival of Song

In 2008 the festival branched out to present two one-act comic operas. The two librettos by Mark Campbell center on domestic love. In Bastianello, a new groom leaves his wedding after his wife displeases him, and through a series of encounters with other couples, learns that in a marriage, one must learn to forgive others’ faults. Lucrezia finds the title character married to an older man, and seduced by one Lorenzo, but it is Lorenzo who finds at the end that it is he himself who has been seduced.

Campbell writes some exceedingly clever lines, which sometimes zing and sometimes — don’t zing. The actual plot shenanigans tend to be rather cumbersome, so Campbell relies often on the unexpected rhyme to prompt a giggle —

“In my heart these feelings aren’t foreign.
To end this fight/We’ll do what’s right
And flip a florin.”

That “florin” gives a taste of the rather dated genre here — if the copyright for these libretti were 1908 instead of 2008, only the occasional anachronism would be alarming. But Campbell does have some lines less musty and more funny:

“Is the sex cold? Is it distant? That’s a laugh. Try ‘non-existent.’”

All the funny lines imaginable, however, wouldn’t deepen the characterization or supply the missing narrative interest. “Clever” can only go so far in maintaining interest in a story and characters, even in one act operas. The composers had their work cut out for them. William Bolcom’s music for Lucrezia fares best, possibly because the libretto he scored is less segregated into scenes. Bolcom is able to keep up a constant flow of fairly attractive musical invention, shifting subtly from one mood to another. His familiar mélange of ragtime, tango and faux-Gershwin works well for the story. Blier and Barrett at the pianos certainly play with rhythmic flair.

John Musto’s idiom for Bastianello is not radically different from Bolcom’s, but drier melodies and less variety of tempo makes this shorter opera feel as long as Lucrezia. The five singers seem to be enjoying themselves greatly, at any rate, and seen live they surely made a fine impression. Paul Appleby has a supple tenor voice, perfect for “male ingénue” parts. Matt Boehler and Patrick Mason take on the male “character voice” parts and mug in ways appropriate to the settings. Sasha Cooke captures the sly scheming of Lucrezia very well, and she and Lisa Vroman skillfully take on multiple roles in Bastianello.

Sondheim-aficionados and fans of the type of well-trained vocalism on exhibit here will find this Bridge recording enjoyable enough. It may not represent the ideal calling-card for the New York Festival of Song, however. Fortunately, that institution seems to be enough of an established success that a calling card — as antiquated a concept as much of the libretti’s dramaturgy — should prove superfluous.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Two New Comic Operas [Bridge 9299A/B] product=yes product_title=John Musto: Bastianello & William Bolcom: Lucrezia product_by=Lisa Vroman, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Paul Appleby, tenor; Patrick Mason, baritone; Matthew Boehler, bass; Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, piano. New York Festival of Song. product_id=Bridge 9299A/B [2CDs] price=$39.99 product_url=
Posted by chris_m at 11:05 AM

Mosé in Egitto and Adelaide di Borgogna in Pesaro

Well, the politics of the Graham Vick production were a bit confusing at first as Moses implored God to restore light to Egypt and He did in the most magnificent chorus of Andrea Leone Tottola’s azione tragico-sacra that ultimately parts the Red Sea and then drowns the Egyptians.

_DSC5037_ganassi.gifSonia Ganassi as Elcia

But back to Egypt bathed in glorious light with the Egyptians confused about who was going to clean up the ostentatious palaces growing out of decayed reinforced concrete structures if the enslaved Jews were released. So they did not free the Jews after all to the relief of the scion of the ruling family who had fallen in love with an Hebrew maiden.

Moses, betrayed, implores God to rain fire on the Egyptians, and the Hebrews to a man, woman and child strap bombs onto their bodies while singing a most magnificent chorus. And, uhm, was that really Osama Bin Laden’s beard on Moses? We now fully understand that Graham Vick’s dramatic vocabulary is not politically literal. It is the storybook tragedy of the Old Testament magnified onto the now massive tragedy of Western Asia and the entire world.

_DSC3177_esposito.gifAlex Esposito as Faraone

The enormity of the subject and its realization was full force in this sleepy seaside town, the birthplace of the great Rossini. Its 15,000 seat sports palace, the Adriatic Arena is now home to one of the three major productions of this August festival (the other two are in the 19th century Teatro Rossini). But wait! Walls and a ceiling (new this year — that nasty echo is no more) are installed, those 15,000 seats are reduced to 1200. A huge space remains for a scenic installation.

The drafty, leaky Adriatic Arena has become surprisingly one of the world’s most exciting opera venues. Opera there is out-of-the-box so to speak, and has been for several years, notably the scenic installations of Zelmira (2009) by Italian director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti (critics attacked its political illiteracies) and Cenerentola (2010) by Italian director Luca Ronconi. There are no directors more in-the-box than Graham Vick (the stage housings of the Met, San Francisco War Memorial, etc.). Maybe it should have been no surprise that he can ascend to the heights of the great Italian theater directors, but it was.

Rossini’s exquisitely beautiful third act prayer by Moses, Aaron, Elcia and chorus of Hebrews was punctuated by invisible sniper fire executing the Egyptian eldest sons (its sound mute, its victims’ fell sharply echoing the suddenness of the gunshot). Special forces commandos stormed the Adriatic Arena pursuing the Jews (some audience fled in terror [yes, this really happened]) for whom the sea parted for their crossing into the Promised Land. The Egyptians are destroyed but for one lone surviving boy. He straps a bomb onto his body as a lone Israeli soldier climbs out of a tank and offers him a detonator.


Conductor Roberto Abbado had propelled the Zelmira to plateaux of lyric delirium as he had the Ermione (2008), a brilliant Adriatic Arena installation directed by his cousin Daniele Abbado. But this was another Rossini, the delirium replaced by lyric solemnity, much like the tone of the Rossini Stabat Mater, but with extended dramatic scenes for soloists. Bass Alex Esposito, the Egyptian pharaoh, exploded in his Cade dal ciglio il velo, terrifying in its runaway machismo. Tenor Dimitry Korchak, the pharaoh’s son and soon lover of the Hebrew girl Elcia lamented her loss in clumsy, brutal moves of male domination. Soprano Sonia Ganassi as Elcia tore at our hearts in her supplication to him to release Moses.

_MG_5783_ganassi_korchak.gifSonia Ganassi as Elcia and Dmitry Korchak as Osiride

New at the Rossini Festival productions this year were supertitles. Tottola’s text however is virtually incomprehensible in the archness of its style and the richness of its archaic vocabulary that fit the perceived gravity of a biblical subject. Never mind that the supertitles were washed out by the crescendo of brilliant light during the Eterno! immenso! incomprensibil Dio!, Maestro Abbado simultaneously effected a spine tingling choral crescendo that took us into and beyond the text, and kept us there until the opera’s final moment.

Ovations at the Rossini Festival are usually reserved for a singer who has executed a difficult aria with finesse, and these ovations are extended often over several minutes. Here these extended, very extended ovations occurred only at the ends of the acts, the astonished audience unwilling to leave its seats.

The individual performances were subsumed into the Graham Vick production of this Rossini masterwork. Nonetheless besides the flashy performances of brilliant singing mentioned above Riccardo Zanellato as Moses captured the anger and passivity of this complex personage with exceptional beauty of voice and delivery. Young Chinese Ylhe Shi as Aaron continues to mature as a Rossini tenor, here showing a new confidence that propelled this secondary character to unexpected emotional stature. The chorus of the Teatro Comunale of Bologna rose to unprecedented glory in its huge role as the Hebrews when not as the Egyptians.

The premiere of Adelaide di Borgogna was in December, 1817, the premiere of Mosé in Egitto in March, 1818, thus the two works were composed back to back and performed just now in Pesaro back to back. Both works chronicle the fall of a father and son, both works explore human relationships in politically charged atmospheres, and both end in hollow political victories.

The librettist, Giovanni Federico Schmidt had written the libretto for Armida (upcoming at the Met) earlier the same year. Adelaide di Borgogna was the wife of Lotario, the last Carolingian king of most everywhere in those days, though Schmidt is quite confused about dates and happenings. Never mind, as opera is about opera and not about history as Rossini and Graham Vick know.

In Schmidt’s libretto the widowed Adelaide is told by Lotario’s successor, Berengario that she must marry his son, thereby legitimizing the succession, You can imagine the rest of the story. And yes, she finally marries Ottone, making him Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor while Berengario and his son Adelberto are taken away in chains. The operatic problem is that Adelberto truly loves Adelaide, and that maybe Berengario did not murder Lotario after all.

_MG_5500_barcellona.gifDaniela Barcellona as Ottone

Italian avant-gardiste of the 1980’s Pier’Alli was the stage director. He also did sets, costumes, video projections and lights. He did not have Graham Vick’s good luck — no pregnant political metaphor comes to mind nor does the challenge of the Adriatic Arena present itself. But he did have video to play with, and that can be pretty cruel too.

The Teatro Rossini stage is small, challenging some contemporary metteurs en scéne to overcome this perceived limitation. Mr. Pier’Alli explored the digital technology that has exploded in theatrical scenic applications. Apparently no one informed Mr. Pier’Alli that you cannot watch a movie of a mud puddle and live opera at the same time, that moving images, particularly geometric images in absolute synchronization with musical architecture gets old fast, and that fast visual information (image stimuli) is not consistent with fast musical stimuli (Rossini, for example). Not least, Mr. Pier’Alli who trained as an architect is visually imprisoned by absolute structural symmetry. His mise en scéne was suffocating, if at best sort of pretty.

Against Schmidt’s strange account of historical happenings and this mise en scène Russian conductor Dmitri Jurowski deployed a score that is not one of the Rossini masterpieces, and maybe not all composed by Rossini anyway. The orchestra of the Teatro Comunale of Bologna responded with warmth of tone and obvious sympathy for the maestro whose tempos were indeed sympathetic to the needs of the singers. This maestro however did not connect with the Rossini ethos, and in this opera maybe Rossini does not either.

Mezzo soprano Daniella Barcellona is one of the Rossini Festival’s greatest treasures. Though she is surely the world’s prima donna assoluta of Rossini pants roles, even she could not make Ottone, the cardboard savior of poor Adelaide into a sympathetic hero. Our sympathies were with young Romanian tenor Bogdan Mihai as Adelberto whose vocal and histrionic innocence won us over to his father’s side. Australian soprano Jessica Pratt as Adelaide was the prize but her mannered piano singing and stolid presence captured none of the Rossini flash that could have made her operatically desirable to either suitor.

Mme. Pratt did know enough to hit her high E forte so she drew wild applause from an audience susceptible to the high is hard fallacy. On the other hand solid performances in high style were delivered by Italian baritone Nicola Ulivieri as a sympathetic Berengario and by Italian mezzo soprano Francesca Pierpaoli as Adelaide’s protector Iroldo, performances greatly appreciated by all of us Rossinians from around the globe.

Michael Milenski

N.B. Graham Vick’s Mosé in Egitto was cheered and wildly booed at its first performance, probably because Mr. Vick took a bow. Earlier that evening real riot police were brought in to quell a fight among spectators that broke out in the auditorium. At this second performance above the audience was enthralled, though perhaps there was one lone boo heard amidst the solid, extended applause.

Cast lists:

Adelaide di Borgogna

Ottone: Daniela Barcellona; Adelaide: Jessica Pratt; Berengario: Nicola Ulivieri; Adelberto: Bogdan Mihai; Eurice: Jeannette Fischer; Iroldo: Francesca Pierpaoli; Ernesto: Clemente Antonio Daliotti. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Maestro del Coro Lorenzo Fratini. Direttore: Dmitri Jurowski. Regia, Scene, Costumi, Progetto Video e Luci: Pier'Alli.

Mosè in Egitto

Faraone: Alex Esposito; Amaltea: Olga Senderskaya; Osiride: Dmitry Korchak; Elcia: Sonia Ganassi; Mambre: Enea Scala; Mosè: Riccardo Zanellato; Aronne: Yijie Shi; Amenofi: Chiara Amarù. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Maestro del Coro Lorenzo Fratini. Direttore: Roberto Abbado. Regia: Graham Vick. Scene e Costumi: Stuart Nunn. Progetto luci: Giuseppe Di Iorio.

image_description=Rossini Opera Festival 2011

product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Adelaide di Borgogna & Mosè in Egitto
product_by=Rossini Opera Festival 2011
product_id=See body of review for cast lists

All photos by Studio Amati Bacciardi courtesy of Rossini Opera Festival 2011

Posted by michael_m at 3:19 AM

August 25, 2011

Rossini’s Armida from the Met HD Live

In 1581, when Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata was published, it must have seemed like a vindication of Roman Catholic culture in the wake of the Protestant rift, perhaps even a vindication of Renaissance culture itself. Here was an epic poem that set out to emulate and even rival Homer and Vergil, the success of which almost justified its ambition; it was, moreover, an improvement on its models in that it was a Christian epic, founded on the re-taking of Jerusalem, albeit briefly, in the course of the First Crusade. True, Tasso peppered it all with fictions and fancy, but gone were the burlesque gods and the improper relationships of the Classical poets; uniting the many threads of plot was Tasso’s vigorous and almost unabashedly sensual style. Tasso’s work inspired similarly high-minded long poems from Ronsard, Lope de Vega, and many another, but his influence went well beyond Catholic Europe to England’s own Edmund Spenser and John Milton. It is fair to say that without Tasso’s example, there would have been no Paradise Lost, for better or worse.

The story of Armida, a Saracen sorceress in the employ of Satan, who tries in vain to derail the Christian champion Rinaldo from his labors as a Crusader, is only one of many episodes in the poem, and arguably, to modern eyes, not the most interesting: we might well prefer, even as we scour the pages of Tasso for something other than battle, the slight kickiness of Clorinda, a true woman warrior for the “pagan” side, who is inadvertently killed by her Christian boyfriend, but in a disturbingly fevered passage, is awarded a kiss, baptism, and death within minutes (Monteverdi must have preferred her as well; his depiction of the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is a crucial warmup for his last two operas). Armida perhaps too transparently combines the appeal of the rejected Dido, the magical Circe, and the vengeful Medea. Still, her potency had charm, as well as foreknowledge that, like Clorinda, she would be brought around to the “right” side just before dying, although few composers and artists carried her story as far as that. The list of composers who have taken her on is dazzling: to name Lully, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Vivaldi, Dvořák, and Rossini is to name only the most noted.

How much of Armida’s dangerous allure was left by Lully’s day, much less by 1817, when Rossini’s opera on the subject premiered? It is hard to imagine that Tasso’s poem was still required adult reading in post-Napoleonic Catholic Europe, nor that the story of the self-destruction of this strong woman evoked much more than the memory of a thrill.* What did Rossini see in this old tale? His affection for strong women—Rosina, Isabella, Elisabetta—is not hard to demonstrate; plus, Armida was his second pass at the material of the First Crusade, although his Tancredi of 1813 is founded on Voltaire’s play rather than Tasso’s epic. It is without question that Armida was a showpiece for the Teatro San Carlo, and most especially for the first Armida, Isabella Colbran, whose lifelong relationship with Rossini had just begun: what we are to make of the character of the title lady is even more puzzling today than it was in 1817, when the questions raised by the Crusades burn hotter than ever.

Armida has not seen very frequent revivals, given the difficulty of casting—Rossini’s heroine, here, must be at once a powerhouse, a songbird, and a femme fatale, musically and dramatically; she is surrounded and supported by six substantial tenor parts. A revival was staged for Maria Callas in 1952, and there is a respected recording with Cecilia Gasdia, as well as Renée Fleming’s 1993 outing in the role, at the time of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. It is rare for any opera house to have six stalwart tenors at hand; even in the first production of 1817, the Naples house made do with four, with a little shrewd doubling; the current Met production, of which this DVD is a record, uses five.

In 2010, the Metropolitan Opera, at the urging of reigning diva, and current American soprano sweetheart Renée Fleming, brought Armida back to the stage under the direction of Mary Zimmerman, and the evidence is that Zimmerman is as puzzled as the rest of us by the intentions of Rossini’s opera. It has been Zimmerman’s custom, in opera, to throw a number of non-correlated ideas at a piece, and hope that one of them feels right and sticks—witness her disastrous Sonnambula for the Met a few years ago. Was it a comedy or a love-song gone wrong? Which parts were we to understand as authentically felt, and which mere play-acting, with winks and sniggers to the audience? Zimmerman didn’t know then, and the result was an unsatisfying night at the opera. Designer Richard Hudson’s unit set for Armida is a semi-circle of doorways, like half of a giant dome: picture-book palm trees, giant chrysanthemums, parrots, spiders, and foliage fly in and out. Tasso’s doughty Christian paladins wear rather smart ankle-length dress coats, while Armida herself opts for gowns that lie somewhere between princess dresses and prom outfits. At the opening of the second act, when the demons obedient to the sorceress rule the stage, the legions of Hell resemble nothing so much as Maurice Sendak’s embraceable beasts in Where the Wild Things Are, and then the hitherto-elusive keynote of the production rises to the mind: camp. It would be good to know whether this was Zimmerman and Hudson’s intention, or a product of their uncertainty about the meaning of the piece.

Zimmerman’s fondness for a kind of specious variety, which merely disguises a certain intellectual timidity, is exemplified by her treatment of the nymphs Armida produces to sing and dance for Rinaldo, presumably to reinforce her own erotic charms. Up to this point, nothing at all has been made of Armida’s supposed Muslim faith—and this is just, since throughout Renaissance iconography, Armida was nothing but a pinup girl—but here, quite suddenly, Armida’s backup group is dressed in matronly hijab, performing a kind of low-calorie version of Middle Eastern dance. They are perhaps the least erotic nymphs released to DVD in a generation—but moreover, why has Zimmerman imported the plainest sort of Muslim garb for them at this point? Is Armida, then, a disobedient Muslim girl? Or does her important work as a temptress and magician exempt her from local religious custom? Also present in the mix are danced and mimed representations of love and vengeance. Love, although iconographically a match for Cupid, is plainly a young lady; Vengeance, an idea apparently Zimmerman’s own, is something like a cross between a wrestler and a scorpion. Again, the ideas don’t match. What is Cupid, male or female, doing among the matrons of Riyadh, much less competing for Armida’s attention with a refugee a Guillermo del Toro film?

One can hardly blame Zimmerman for trying to distance herself from Armida’s problems for a contemporary audience, which compound the problems of opera itself: all the heavy emoting; the exclamations of pride and rage; the whimsy and fantasy; the unredeemed sexism and cultural chauvinism. What does one do, after all, with that unwelcome background of the Crusade? Are the paladins, seen with the hindsight of history, now to be understood as the monsters? Are Idraote and Armida, their Muslim adversaries, still wicked, or are they freedom fighters? Hudson and Zimmerman try everything: Idraote is faintly pasha-like; the paladins blusterers, and Armida is left with a kind of flatly naughty sexiness.

The trouble comes, however, in the third act, when Armida must evolve from Circe to Dido to Medea in the space of fifteen minutes. After Zimmerman has invited us to roll our eyes at all the ridiculous machinery of opera for more than two hours, are we to believe in the sincerity of Armida’s love, and condole her in the pain of her abandonment? Are we to experience the thrill of fear when she swears vengeance? Or is it all Armida’s fakery; or Rossini’s? Certainly Fleming herself seems to want us to believe that Armida takes herself at face value throughout, but Zimmerman has rather abandoned her in this production, and there is no moment when it seems clear to the viewer that Armida’s calculation turns into passion: Fleming is passionate, in her predictably winning way, about every moment as it passes.

Armida, as a vocal exercise, is a curious choice for Fleming at this stage in her career. A sampling of her essay at the role in 1993 is revelatory. While Fleming has never had a true Rossinian instrument, there was a focus and a drive in her voice then that has since been replaced by a darker, more floral sound that makes her such a fine Rusalka, Thaïs, Arabella, and most of all, the Countess in Strauss’ Capriccio. More and more, one can hear intention rather than ease driving every roulade in her coloratura. Her leading man here is as fine a Rossini singer as one could wish for, the phenomenal Lawrence Brownlee, whose passage-work is consistently a marvel of ring, clarity, and accuracy. Their duets—and the duets in Armida are arguably Rossini’s finest, and perhaps the musical heart of the work—are both musical and touching. It is a pity that Fleming did not have such a Rinaldo at her side in 1993. Special note should be made of the heroic labors of Barry Banks, doubling as Gernando and Carlo: Banks is a singer of great verve and vigor, and rightly acclaimed both here and back in the United Kingdom. Among the remaining singers—John Osborn as Goffredo, Yeghishe Manucharyan as Eustazio, Peter Volpe as Armida’s wicked uncle Idraote, Keith Miller as the imp Astarotte—only Kobie van Rensburg as Ubaldo seemed underpowered. Graciela Daniele and Daniel Pelzig, despite being trapped in the production’s odd concepts, have created a witty second act ballet: Aaron Loux, as Rinaldo’s danced counterpart, is a pleasure to watch.

The fortunes of Armida are a kind of template for the fortunes of both Tasso and bel canto in our day. It is not easy to muster up a fondness for the earnest morality and curious sensuality of the Gerusalemme; the recursive wit and cynical fantasy of Tasso’s great rival Ludovico Ariosto are more to our taste. Then, too, the stylized forms and emotions of the Baroque, and the odd, tangled interior conflicts their operas illustrate are somehow easier to manage than the candid grandeur of the earlier nineteenth century. Full productions of Rossini’s serious masterpieces (Maometto; Guillaume Tell) are few and far between; Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda and Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan, to name just two, have almost disappeared, while the fortunes of Handel’s Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina, all based on Ariosto’s zany Orlando Furioso, rise and rise. There is no shortage of singers equal to the demands of bel canto, even given approaches as different as those of Fleming and Brownlee here; what is lacking is a sense of how we want to approach these great works in the contemporary context. Rossini’s Armida, and her sisters, it seems, await a better day.

Graham Christian

* [Editor’s Note: For a survey of “Orientalism” in contemporary fiction, see Reeva Spector Simon, Spies and Holy Wars (Austin: Univ. Texas Press, 2010).

image= image_description=Decca 0440 074 3416 1 product=yes product_title=Gioacchino Rossini : Armida. (Libretto by Giovanni Schmidt, based on Gerusalemme Liberata by Torquato Tasso.) product_by=Goffredo: John Osbon; Eustazio: Yeghishe Manucharyan; Armida: Renée Fleming; Idraote: Peter Volpe; Gernando: Barry Banks; Rinaldo: Lawrence Brownlee; Astarotte: Keith Miller; Ubaldo: Kobie van Rensburg; Carlo: Barry Banks: Love: Teele Ude; Revenge: Isaac Scranton; Ballet Rinaldo: Aaron Loux. Conductor: Riccardo Frizza; Productoin: Mary Zimmerman; Set/Costume: Richard Hudson; Lighting: Brian MacDevitt; Choreographer: Graciela Daniele; Associate Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig. product_id=Decca 0440 074 3416 1 [2DVDs] price=$34.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 12:48 PM

August 24, 2011

Opera Grows in Brooklyn

[Press Release, Opera on Tap]

BROOKLYN, NY - Two Brooklyn opera companies, American Opera Projects (AOP) and Opera On Tap (OOT), in association with The Brooklyn Book Festival, will present Opera Grows in BOOKlyn, an evening of vocal music based on texts by renowned and up-and-coming Brooklyn writers.

Posted by Gary at 10:08 AM

August 20, 2011

Donizetti’s Marino Faliero at the 2008 Bergamo Music Festival

Of his enormous output, only three operas are regularly staged — Lucia di Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore, and Don Pasquale. The so-called “Queen” trilogy is once again getting some attention (Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux), and a couple others get occasional revivals, such as La Favorita and Lucrezia Borgia. But Donizetti wrote at least 4 dozen operas. Verdi, by comparison, wrote over two dozen operas, at least half of which are either standard repertory or get regularly revived. Is the disparity in quality between Donzietti’s established and obscure works really so great?

The answer is a qualified “yes,” on the basis of the Dynamic DVD of the Bergamo Musica Festival’s 2008 resurrection of Marino Faliero, the Donizetti opera that immediately preceded the premiere of his greatest success, Lucia. The full name of the festival, by the way, is Bergamo Musica Festival Gaetano Donzietti, and the operas are performed at the Teatro Donizetti. Explorations of the composer’s lesser-known titles must be a regular festival tradition. The orchestra’s performance of this score, as conducted by Bruno Cinquegrani, certainly reflects comfort with and dedication to the composer’s limited but evocative tonal world. For the tight Teatro Donizetti stage Alessandro Ciammarughi designed a modestly modernistic uni-set, with a sweeping walled staircase at the rear and a grated platform at the center of the open stage space. The costumes, also by Ciammarughi, are more opulent and thoroughly traditional. Given a suitable cast of singers, the festival can be said to have given an obscure opera such as Marino Faliero every opportunity for a fresh presentation of any overlooked virtues.

Faliero debuted around the same time as Bellini’s I Puritani, which had a greater success and overshadowed Donizetti’s work. Contemporary reviews, quoted in Dynamic’s excellent booklet essay, reveal that Faliero received qualified praise at best. The opera did not immediately vanish, but performances dwindled until it had disappeared from the repertory by the turn of the century.

The 2008 performance reveals a work with, unsurprisingly, a flawed libretto that only fitfully inspired the composer to excellent work. The very long first act bears the crux of the responsibility. It takes librettist Giovanni Emanuele Bidera far too long to establish both the romantic triangle and the political intrigue that move the plot forward, and the two elements never really coalesce. The story might seem to foreshadow Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, as the title character is the Doge of Venice, caught up in the usual Venetian subterfuge and treachery. However, a more apt comparison would be to a sort of funhouse-mirror reflection of Un ballo in Maschera. Marino Faliero would be the Renato character, joining a conspiracy to take power away from a despised elite, but unaware that his wife Elena is in love with another man — the Doge’s nephew, Fernando. Fernando dies in defense of the Doge, and when Faliero’s conspiracy is revealed, he is sentenced to death. His wife then chooses that unfortunate moment to reveal to her husband that she was in love with Fernando. As he faces death, Marino forgives his wife.

It takes Bidera around thirty minutes to even get Faliero on stage, and the rest of act one drags itself to a forgettable conclusion. A spooky chorus starts act two off better, and although Fernando’s act two scene lacks that melodic memorability Donizetti displayed elsewhere, the music is strong. Act three has some more good music as Elena lies in despair after hearing of Fernando’s death, and then a brutal trial scene for the conspirators and Faliero packs a punch that serves to heighten the undeveloped promise of the story. So some of what keeps a small number of Donizetti’s works on the world’s opera stages is in evidence — just not nearly enough.

Perhaps an even better impression would have been made with a stronger cast. The Bergamo audience loves the tenor who sings Fernando, one Ivan Magri, but on DVD he comes across as very modestly talented, singing without much subtlety while misidentifying braying for volume. That said, he is better than the soprano, Rachele Stanisco, whose voice is aggressively unpleasant through much of the opera. By act three she finally seems to have settled and is able to make a decent impression. In the title role, baritone Giorgio Surian wobbles all over the place, but he has a gruff authority suitable for the role. As a chief conspirator, Luca Grassi makes the best impression, singing his music of outrage and defiance with real conviction.

For many opera lovers, exploring rare repertory retains a strong appeal, and though this Bergamo production doesn’t reveal a lost masterpiece, and the performance is not all it could be, there’s enough of interest here to suggest a recommendation to such fans for this Marino Faliero.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Gaetano Donizetti: Marino Faliero (1835 edition)

product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Marino Faliero (1835 edition)
product_by=Marino Faliero: Giorgo Surian; Elena: Rachele Stanisci; Fernando: Ivan Magri; Israele Bertucci: Luca Grassi; Steno: Luca Dall’Amico; Leoni: Leonardo ramegna; A gondolier / Strozzi: Domenico Menini; Irene: Paola Spissu; Vincenzo: Aleksandar Stefanovski; Beltrame: Giuseppe Di Paola; Pietro: Enrico Marchesini; Marco: Livio Scarpellini; Arrigo: Elvis Fanton; Giovanni: Moya Gonzalo Ezequiel. Bergamo Musica Festival Chorus and Orchestra (chorus master: Fabio Tartari). Bruno Cinquegrani, conductor. Marco Spada, stage director. Alessandro Ciammarughi, set and costume designer. Giovanni Pirandello, lighting designer. Recorded live at the Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, Italy, 31 October and 2 November 2008.
product_id=Naxos 2.110616-17 [2DVDs]

Posted by chris_m at 1:30 PM

August 19, 2011

BBC Prom 41

Commissions from the Japanese government and Serge Koussevitsky had resulted in the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) and Spring Symphony (1949) respectively; now added to these earlier works was a new composition, the Cantata Misericordium commissioned for the centenary of the International Red Cross, and first heard at their celebrations in Geneva just a few days earlier.

Prom-41---Alan-Oke.gifAlan Oke

It was Ronald Duncan, the librettist of the Rape of Lucretia, who once remarked that Britten had told him that “he never had a purely musical thought unrelated to a verbal context”*. Certainly, the absence of a ‘straightforward’ symphony from Britten’s oeuvre might suggest that he was not naturally inclined towards ‘pure’ symphonic structures and approaches. However, this performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted with conviction and insight by Mark Wigglesworth (deputising for an indisposed Jiři Bělohlávek), and his superb crafting of the complex and at times problematic architecture of these works revealed the composer’s control of symphonic form and mastery of instrumental colour.

The Cantata Misericordium relates the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan, the chorus framing and commenting on the action as presented by two soloists — a Traveller (baritone) and Samaritan (tenor). The text is wholly in Latin and this lends an air of formality which both the BBC Singers and the excellent soloists, Leigh Melrose and Alan Oke, sustained without becoming overly stylised or austere. Indeed, the soloists’ drama was earnestly related, building to a moving climax during the attack upon the Traveller which culminated in an intense, chromatic choral outburst.

Prom-41---Christine-Rice.gifChristine Rice

Wigglesworth handled the continuous form, with its clearly delineated sections, with great skill, subtly controlling the rhythmic tensions which establish a forward-moving pulse. He fashioned a coherent narrative which moved from the tightly-controlled motivic statements of the instrumental introduction (drawing beautifully tender playing from the solo string quartet), to a more expansive close, the rich concordant harmonies of the full orchestra suggesting relaxation and reconciliation.

Wigglesworth revealed a similar appreciation of form in the Sinfonia da Requiem commissioned to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese empire, but ultimately declared unsuitable, its sentiments considered insufficiently triumphant, overly religious and inappropriately Christian in nature. The three movements — Lacrymosa, Dies Irae and Requiem Aeternam — cohered seamlessly. After a thunderous opening, the Lacrymosa moved eerily and relentlessly, erupting in an energized scherzo — a frenzied ‘dance of death’ — which, seeming to have exhausted itself, in turn was replaced with the more subdued calm of the final movement.

Prom-41---Leigh-Melrose.gifLeigh Melrose

But, it was in the Spring Symphony that Wigglesworth demonstrated even greater insight, successfully creating a logical whole from the various parts of Britten’s multi-movement score. Initially Britten referred to his Spring Symphony simply as ‘the Symphony’ and wrote to Koussevitsky in January 1947, ‘I am planning it for chorus & soloists … but it is a real symphony (the emphasis is on the orchestra) & consequently I am using Latin words’**. Things turned out rather differently: the large forces include a boys’ choir (here the Trinity Boys Choir) and extensive orchestra (triple woodwind, four percussionists, two harps), and the fifteen English texts are arranged into 12 numbers, organised into four separate parts. The result is perhaps closer to a cantata form than a conventional classical four-movement structure but, moving naturally and instinctively through the series of scene settings and choral dances, Wigglesworth located and sustained a narrative line, as we progressed from winter to spring, experiencing the reawakening of earth, and thereby fully avoided the sense that this work is in any way an ‘orchestral song-cycle’.

Typically, Britten constructs chamber-like ensembles from the diverse instrumental forces available to him, and conductor and orchestra were alert to the nuances of colour which portray the various aspects of spring and reveal Britten’s sensitive response to his chosen texts. After quiet beginnings, a trio of triumphant trumpets accompanied Alan Oke’s exultant heralding of the arrival of ‘The merry cuckoo’; in ‘The Driving Boy’, Amanda Roocroft’s charming and eloquent depiction of the ‘driving boy beside his team … Cracking his whip in starts of joy’ was decorated by dancing woodwind and tambourine; glassy sul ponticello strings evoked the gentle evening rain in the setting of Vaughan’s ‘Waters Above’. Christine Rice carefully shaped Auden’s ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’ at the close of Part 2, accompanied by an atmospheric wordless chorus. In the final movement, above Oke’s descriptions of May festivities, from Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a primitive cow horn marked the end of the journey from winter to spring, and called all the people to join in the celebration of the return of life to the earth.

Prom-41---Mark-Wigglesworth.gifMark Wigglesworth

In 1963 Britten began his Promenade concert with a performance of his own arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor. For this occasion, the BBC had commissioned Joby Talbot to prepare a new arrangement, and Talbot provided an exciting, dramatic score, which in its exploitation of instrumental contrasts, and use of small groupings within the large orchestral forces, was suitably Brittenesque. Talbot’s version may have lacked some sense of the inevitable unfolding of Purcell’s ceaselessly evolving form, but it certainly highlighted the rhythmic vitality and freedom which underpinned both Britten’s and Purcell’s work.

Claire Seymour

* Duncan, Working With Britten (The Rebel Press), p.103.

** In Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten (Faber), p.278.

image= image_description=Amanda Roocroft [Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou] product=yes product_title=BBC Prom 41 — Purcell, arr. Joby Talbot: Chacony in G Minor
Britten: Cantata misericordium; Sinfonia da Requiem; Spring Symphony product_by=Amanda Roocroft, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo soprano; Alan Oke, tenor; Leigh Melrose, baritone. Trinity Boys Choir. BBC Singers. BBC Symphony Orchestra. Mark Wigglesworth: conductor. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 14th August 2011. product_id=Above: Amanda Roocroft

Photos: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Posted by Gary at 1:49 PM

Glimmer, Glamour Back in Cooperstown

Omnipresent at last weekend’s musical and (casually) glam social offerings, Ms. Zambello was busy networking, building bridges, and charming sponsors and subscribers alike with a personal touch, an upbeat message and an infectious enthusiasm for her new job as General Director. Whether attending one (or all) of the opera performances, taking in a celebrity concert with the likes of Nathan Gunn or Deborah Voigt, or checking out a cabaret event or lecture with composers John Musto or Jeanine Tesori, one fact was clear — this new attitude and one-on-one promotion has put noticeably more happy patrons in the seats. But all that would be for naught if the shows were not good, and for the most part, Glimmerglass happily delivered with creative productions and high musical quality.

Anne Bogart is one of the country’s pre-eminent directors, and her take on Carmen coupled some inventive effects with a relatively traditional staging framed by an intriguing physical production. James Schuette has devised a multi-purpose box of a set design that makes no pretense at realism with the theatre’s back wall and rigging at all times visible. The piece opens with the cast assembling ad libitum in a waiting room with multiple doors in…where? The barracks? The station? No matter. Clearly these varied personages are going to enact a story for us, and in a trice, the room is transformed into the town square. With addition of tables and chairs, and a simple muslin drop that halves the stage, it becomes Lillas Pastia’s tavern. The upstage walls split and strike completely to become the mountain pass, oil drums providing a glow of fire, and mounded furniture suggesting rocks.

By the time the walls are restored for Act Four, we are back to the same visual as the opening. In a chilling visual coup, while the revelers are singing the praises of the bullfighting entourage, Don Jose appeared menacingly outside one of the open doors, slowly closing it. This was repeated in the three remaining single doors as the crowds dispersed, until finally he came through the double doors up center and oh-so-slowly pulled them closed, trapping his prey within the now-enclosed room. Masterful imagery from designer and director.

JCERVANTES_2011-2254_0295.gifGinger Costa-Jackson as Carmen and Adam Diegel as Don José in Carmen [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]

Ms. Bogart’s crowd management was particularly impressive, nowhere more so than in the last act’s parade in which she devised some incredibly varied focal changes simply by having the entire cast jump into a new position and alter our plane of reference. The clever fight choreography for Jose and Escamillo was, for once, exciting and acrobatic, complete with backward somersaults (Domingo never did that!). Alas, in spite of the presence of four experienced dancers, Barney O’Hanlon’s simplistic choreographed moves never quite caught fire.

Mr. Schuette also provided an array of appropriate 1920’s era costumes. Military uniforms, factory work dresses, period street wear, all were beautifully realized. Escamillo’s sparkling matador garb and Carmen’s dazzling wine-colored gown were especially noteworthy. Only Escamillo’s entrance costume seemed less well considered, its black cape and wide-brimmed hat looking more apt for a Fado singer than a celebrity bullfighter.

Ginger Costa-Jackson already delivers star power and a very well-sung Carmen. With careful development I could see her becoming the world’s gypsy-of-choice in short order. Physically, she is slim, beautiful, and muy caliente. Her dark-toned mezzo is able to suggests a sexy huskiness in the low range all the while retaining a cleanly focused placement, witness her ringing, zinging top notes. She is already skilled at using her sound technique to negotiate all the perils of Bizet’s varied demands. And Ms. C-J has been able to invest each line she sings with an inner dramatic life. Even that over-familiar “Habanera” is freshly treated to a personalized dramatic journey. I did wish she would swing her hips and spread her legs somewhat less. And perhaps she shouldn’t flop quite so easily onto a waiting chair like a bored Valley Girl. Nevertheless, Ginger has not only offered a true crowd-pleasing star turn with her Carmen, but has raised expectations of a very bright future.

JCERVANTES_2011-2266_0137.gifMichael Todd Simpson as Escamillo and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen in Carmen [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]

On the audience approval meter, she was matched by her Don Jose, Adam Diegel, who seems to have grown substantially as an artist since last summer’s Cavaradossi. While I still worry for Mr. Diegel’s long term vocal health when he pushes volume more than needed (and ‘just’ at his limit), there is no doubting that his best impassioned spinto moments are about as exciting as they come. Some of this polish as a performer likely came from Ms. Bogart’s direction, for here he seemed to have a good understanding of not only the arc of this character, but also the internal meaning of Jose’s dramatic mile posts. He served the score well with many wonderfully turned phrases, however, after almost cracking on a penultimate phrase, we held our collective breath to see whether he could manage the final outburst. (He did, and he nailed it.) I would only encourage Adam to take care to keep his vocalizing always just within his considerable means.

Anya Matanovič was a delectable Micaela, with a throbbing, slightly steely lyric soprano that conveyed more starchy resolve than is often encountered with this simple character. Michael Todd Simpson worked effectively as Escamillo and certainly commanded our attention as the tallest person on stage, but I thought that the role was a half step too high for his pleasant, straight-forward bass. He got all climactic ‘F’s’ to be sure, but they never quite turned over. Lindsay Russell was a genuine treat with her vibrantly sung Frasquita, and she was paired well by Cynthia Hanna’s direct, solid mezzo as Mercedes. The breathless smugglers’ quintet was made all the more enjoyable by the addition of Alex Lawrence’s virile baritone (Dancairo) and Juan José de León’s well-schooled tenor (Remendado). Wes Mason offered a more individualized Morales than usual, showing off a resonant, mature lyric baritone. Aaron Sorenson put his dark-voiced instrument to good use as a moody Zuniga.

David Angus conducted with a spontaneity and vitality that belied the fact that this is one of the most well-known (and over-exposed works in the repertoire. His orchestra and cast responded in kind, as if discovering Bizet’s masterpiece for the first time. Maestro Angus brought equal enthusiasm and expertise to one of the world’s newest operas, Later the Same Evening by composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell.

Campbell’s witty text is fabricated from imagined character relationships based on personages featured in five well-known Edward Hopper paintings. Designer Erhard Rom has devised an elegant, silvery setting with a large window frame in a stage right wall (sort of a false proscenium); five rotating upstage panels (each hung with one of the painting reproductions); with the whole backed by a pleated silver drape. As part of Mark McCullough’s inspired lighting design, each framed oil is individually lit as its “story” comes to life in the stage action. David O. Roberts’ elegant costumes mirrored Hopper’s images. In a short piece that introduces many characters in rapid succession and links them together, director Leon Major did yeoman’s work in presenting clear impressions and clarifying the inter-relationships.

JCERVANTES_2011-2269_0160.gifKyle Albertson as Gus O’Neill and Andrea Arias Martin as Elaine O’Neill in Later the Same Evening [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]

Set in Hopper’s New York, Elaine (Andrea Arias Martin) and Gus O’Neill (Kyle Albertson) are a couple whose marriage is in trouble. Ms. Martin’s full-voiced portrayal sometimes gets a little tremulous at forte, but as she gamely plays out tunes on the (air) piano in an attempt to quell her loneliness, she creates a sympathetic figure. Mr. Albertson’s baritone seems a little colorless but perhaps it is merely to evoke the wearied Gus, who heads to an assignation at a bar after he begs off going to the theatre with his wife. In overlapping imagery, veteran soprano Patricia Schuman, in well-controlled voice, has emulated another painting by taking her place on the opposite side of the stage as she gazes out the window and awaits her escort. Concurrently, Lauren Snouffer knocks our socks off with a smashing lyric display in her mini-drama as a failed Broadway dancer Ruth Baldwin. Ruth is retreating back to Indianapolis, leaving a note in vain hope that her boyfriend will follow. Ms. Snouffer, just in her early twenties, is an exciting talent whose star is sure to rise as high as the stratospheric heights of her arioso outpourings. World traveler Ronaldo Cabral, portrayed by the reliable Jake Gardner, joins Ms. Ogelthorpe to accompany her to the theatre. Gardner delights with his seasoned baritone, stage acumen, and European accent.

As several characters assemble at the ‘theatre’ to partake of a mindless musical entertainment, they are joined by the remaining cast members:

Bickering, co-dependent married couple Sheldon and Rose Segal (Neal Ferreira and Andrea Carroll fine as the opera’s least well drawn caricatures); Thelma Yablonski, the stressed usher who ends up having a more interesting background than we expected (nicely impersonated by Carin Gilfry with her pure soprano); Valentina Scarcella, the iconic Hopper lady in the box seat (Lacy Sauter, making a good impression in a short but complex role); Joe Harland, the boyfriend stood up at the theater by the Indiana-bound dancer (John Boehr, his smooth singing eliciting enormous sympathy); and best of all, Jimmy O’Keefe, the beneficiary of Elaine’s husband’s unused ticket. As this fey, star-struck Broadway novice, Andrew Stenson sang Jimmy with an unerring, clear tenor and was delightfully infectious as he animatedly reacted to the ‘show’ they were collectively watching.

JCERVANTES_2011-2269_0316.gifAndrew Stenson (right) as Jimmy O’Keefe with members of the cast in Later the Same Evening [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]

Musically, the piece owes more than a passing debt to the musical vocabulary of Phillip Glass, or perhaps more accurately to the hybrid Broadway-Classical sensibilities of Stephen Sondheim. There are echoes of the Pointillism theme from Sunday in the Park. . . as well as the uncanny ability to blend angular vocal lines with sudden lyricism. Mr. Musto successfully creates individual vocal identities for the principals by blending modern classical sound with jazz, Broadway, and even quasi-urban riffs to provide a pleasingly accessible score. Dramatically, I was longing for more of a tidy-up by the close that united the disparate stories as the puzzle pieces converged in some final surging revelation. Still, this was a cleverly constructed, beautifully performed new work that deserves further stagings. It would seem to be a natural for University opera workshops with its diverse casting opportunities.

On this occasion, it was paired with another interesting new short piece, A Blizzard at Marblehead Neck by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Anthony Kushner. Based on the known real-life conflicts between playwright Eugene O’Neill and his wife Carlotta, this piece imagines the argument that compelled O’Neill to flee his house and nearly perish as he got lost on a snowy night. Mr. Kushner has crafted a taut, yet rich confrontation and a poetic denouement.

Ms. Tesori has largely a Broadway pedigree and her work here most recalls her through-composed musical, Caroline, or Change. But while Caroline did not seem to light on any satisfying tunes often enough or long enough, Blizzard is another matter. Here Jeanine not only uses popular song, but also writes personalized roles for her two adversaries, incorporating not only crackling prose exchanges but also aching, arching poetic lines of substantial beauty. The great monologue for O’Neill (superbly sing by the flawless baritone David Pittsinger) was wonderfully varied, by turns demonstrative and introspective, chock full of diverse colors like the haunting ukulele chords that recurred when he sang of a tropical island.

Blizzard_On_Marblehead_Neck.gifL to R: Stephanie Foley Davis as Mary McCarthy and Patricia Schuman as Carlotta Monterey in A Blizzard On Marblehead Neck [Photo by William Brown]

There was nothing wrong with the firebrand bitchery Tesori created for Carlotta, merely that it seemed written for the arsenal of a full voiced ranter like Lauren Flanigan rather than the gentler gifts of Patricia Schuman, who, it has to be said, hurled herself fearlessly into the part But Ms. Schuman too often lost the volume battle with baritone and band, and the words of her rapid patter were usually only discernible by reading the surtitles. In the small roles of the offending critics, Carin Gilfry (Louis Kronenberger), Aleksey Bogdanov (Bernard DeVoto) and especially Stephanie Foley Davis (Mary McCarthy) sang persuasively and blended well. The accomplished Lindsay Russell was haunting in her brief appearance as a mysterious Young Woman who appears to O’Neill in his moment of peril; and Jeffrey Gwaltney (Officer Christopher Snow) did everything needed to successfully tie everything up in the opera’s chatty final scene.

Francesca Zambello staged the piece with skillful economy within Mr. Rom’s surreal, evocative, snow-bound revolving house, with its one side an austere stylized grey/white winter landscape, the other a claustrophobic, icy interior in which the warring duet seemed fatally trapped. When the diaphanous curtain obscured the house to cut off O’Neill from reality, Mr. McCullough’s icy lighting effects made the magic complete, especially as a giant moon (for the Misbegotten?) descended from the flies. A Blizzard at Marblehead Neck deserves many more hearings in major houses. The rapt audience rewarded both new operas with a most enthusiastic reception.

Cherubini’s Medea is celebrated more by discerning aficionados than the subscriber base, and at that, more for a passing (or intense) acquaintance with Maria Callas”s recording than any live performance. I recall Maralin Niska as being quite fine in the New York City Opera mounting in the Seventies but since then…? Glimmerglass is to be commended for not only affording its public the opportunity to experience this rarity, but also for locating a suitable soprano willing to tackle the title role’s rigorous challenges.

JCERVANTES_2011-2258_0322.gifAlexandra Deshorties as Medea with the Argonauts in Cherubini’s Medea [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]

First, Joe Vanek’s startling, solid architectural sets and characterful, colorful costumes were arguably the design achievement of the festival. Using a snake pattern as the unifying motif, here was an exceptionally detailed and dramatically inspired visual accomplishment. Everyone looked exactly like who they should be, and in the case of Medea, her shifting emotional state (not to mention sanity) was reflected with a series of well-considered attire. Perhaps her final Esther Williams peek-a-boo swimsuit and beach cape look was a bit over the top, but it did allow her to be copiously bloodied for the child killer’s final, unhinged moments. Robert Wierzel finished it all off with a complex lighting plot that had a prominent sun projection on the cyc as its defining statement. At times diffuse, then sharply focused; colored golden, then white-hot, this was a highly effective dramatic device. At opera’s end, when the blood red orb was eclipsed by the black moon, the effect was dazzling. As in all five festival operas, Anne Ford-Coates proved herself a company treasure for her exemplary make-up and wigs.

Alexandra Deshorties has the myriad vocal skills to succeed as Cherubini’s titular soprano, including scorching high notes, good stamina, and an even production to include a rather meaty chest voice. She also has evident intellect and fine musical instincts, although she sometimes muttered softer phrasings with a result that suggested ‘marking.’ What this conscientious artist does not yet have is sufficient natural dramatic stature, and a well enough stocked catalogue of stage business that can fill out the lengthy stage time and volatile moods of this spurned nut-job. That is partly the fault of her director Michael Barker-Craven, who has not collaborated thoroughly enough with his star to devise a meaningful scenario for her, especially when left on stage virtually alone for the last third of the opera. Too, Ms. Deshorties’ sensibilities seemed more ‘contemporary Wiccan’ than ‘legendary sorceress.’ At one point, she actually did a gesture straight to the audience of “Well…du-uh…” which got (hopefully unintentional) laughter as her rival was writhing her way to an excruciating death. Her finest moments came at the start of the second half, when her many gifts suddenly coalesced, her focus was unwavering, her voice was freed of careful couching, and she took the stage like an unbridled tigress. If she could apply this freedom to the rest of the part, Alexandra Deshorties could become an even greater force to be reckoned with in this Everest of a role.

Mr. Barker-Craven showed more success moving the rest of the cast around the stage, with decently motivated blocking, and clean traffic patterns for the choral forces. I wanted to like Jeffrey Gwaltney’s Jason as much as the rest of the audience seemed to, but as in Blizzard, I found his tenor curiously unsteady in the upper middle register. Lower reaches were secure enough, and the top was loudly reliable (if bit pushed). Overall the voice lacked brightness in the tone which sounded placed well back from the mask. Although young Mr. Gwaltney’s engaging presence and natural instrument are currently pleasing his fans, I wonder if grounding his technique a bit more on the speaking voice might not have even better long-term benefits.

JCERVANTES_2011-2259_0475.gifAlexandra Deshorties in the title role of Cherubini’s Medea [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]

David Pittsinger was once again sublime as the tortured Creon. But the show’s most affecting performance was delivered by Sarah Larsen who, as Neris, touched our hearts with her deeply felt aria. Ms. Larsen has a plummy, ripe mezzo that rang out with secure, plangent tones. Jessica Stavros was full-voiced and straight-forward as the hapless Glauce, looking lovely and acting with sincerity. She did miss a bit of the vocal delicacy of the role, and did not provide as good a contrast with Medea as other lyric sopranos might (think Scotto and Lorengar). As the First and Second Handmaidens, Young Artists Meredith Lustig and Emily Lorini made fine impressions.

Conductor Daniele Rustioni commanded the proceedings with stylistic accuracy and unbridled enthusiasm for the work. From the first downbeat, the Maestro elicited dramatically committed playing and singing from his assembled forces. He worked as one with his soloists in crafting the best possible musical case for Cherubini’s masterpiece.

JCERVANTES_2011-2263_0085.gifDeborah Voigt as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]

I must confess that when I first heard Glimmerglass was mounting a popular Irving Berlin musical starring a Wagnerian soprano, my first thought was “Annie, get your gun. . .and please shoot me.” However, Deborah Voigt seems to be having the time of her life in the title role, landing all her jokes, and securely negotiating her way around the songs written in the chest register for the Queen of Belt, Ethel Merman. But the most oft overheard question among the intermission crowd was “why?” Why, indeed, when there are so many more appropriate interpreters? And how long will it take the invaluable Ms. Voigt to get Wagner back in her voice after months of singing in the cellar? Lord knows I love me some Debbie (she remains the most luminous Ariadne I will ever likely experience), but it if she was interested in a Glimmerglass star vehicle, why not, say, Die Aegyptische Helena? Just askin’.

Rod Gilfry looks handsome, sings oh-so-operatically, and is oddly detached as her love interest, Frank Butler. Oh, they banter collegially, but there is not an ounce of romantic chemistry between them. To no one’s surprise, Broadway pros fare well. Drew Taylor brings musical comedy sparkle to Charlie Davenport and Klea Blackhurst is successfully channeling Dody Goodman with her spunky Dolly Tate. Jake Gardner is on hand to deliver the best sung Buffalo Bill of my experience, Nick Santa Maria got his laughs as Chief Sitting Bull, and Peter Macklin doubled as a suitably hysterical Foster Wilson and obnoxious Pawnee Bill. Annie’s siblings were portrayed with skill and talent by Richard Pittsinger, Maria Pittsinger, Addy Schneider and Young Artist Lauren Snouffer.

Kristen Blodgette conducted with consummate élan. Court Watson has provided a marvel of a modular set design, all blues and oranges and featuring the kind of gorgeously painted drops you rarely see any more. Mr. Watson’s clever mix of rolling crates, stairs, and specialty insets keeps the action moving fluidly. His colorful, apt costumes were a joy. Francesca Zambello has directed with a sure hand, the pace excellent, the stage space used creatively. The same cannot be said of Eric Sean Vogel’s bland choreography. The Indian induction number was a half-hearted shadow screen affair; Frank’s “Bad Bad Man,” a clunking staged number; and “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” an opportunity missed to really feature the sprightly Young Artists’ chorus with a far more dynamic eleven o’clock number.

JCERVANTES_2011-2265_0407.gifRod Gilfry (center) as Frank Butler with members of the ensemble in Annie Get Your Gun [Photo by Julieta Cervantes]

Nathan Gunn, accompanied by his pianist wife Julie, generously gifted Glimmerglass with a benefit recital. Drawn partly from his cross-over CD and their subsequent Cafe Carlyle cabaret appearances, the program was long on American popular songs, beautifully prepared. However, when the duo ventured into Rorem songs, or the Bolcom cabaret set, the performance stopped merely ‘singing’ and virtually soared as the interpreters’ awesome skill set was matched by the materials’ greater demands. And, shades of Horne’s heart-stopping “I Dream of Jeannie,” when Nathan voiced an utterly simple, utterly apt, utterly breath-taking rendition of “Home on the Range,” well, you knew you were at the right address.

All in all, a fresh direction and numerous significant artistic achievements have resulted in a Glimmerglass Festival at its considerable best, with much promise for upcoming seasons.

James Sohre


Morales: Wes Mason; Micaela: Anya Matanovič; Don Jose: Adam Diegel; Zuniga: Aaron Sorenson; Carmen: Ginger Costa-Jackson; Frasquita: Lindsay Russell; Mercedes: Cynthia Hanna; Escamillo: Michael Todd Simpson; El Dancairo: Alex Lawrence; El Remendado: Juan José de León; Lillas Pastia: Peter Macklin; A Guide: Neal Ferreira. Conductor: David Angus. Director: Anne Bogart. Sets and Costumes: James Schuette. Lighting: Robert Wierzel. Choreographer: Barney O’Hanlon. Hair and Make-up: Anne Ford-Coates.

Later the Same Evening

Elaine O’Neill: Andrea Arias Martin; Gus O’Neill: Kyle Albertson; Estelle Oglethorpe: Patricia Schuman; Ruth Baldwin: Lauren Snouffer; Ronaldo Cabral: Jake Gardner; Sheldon Segal: Neal Ferreira; Rose Segal: Andrea Carroll; Thelma Yablonski: Carin Gilfry; Jimmy O’Keefe: Andrew Stenson; Valentina Scarcella: Lacy Sauter; Joe Harland: John Boehr. Conductor: David Angus. Director: Leon Major. Sets: Erhard Rom. Costumes: David O. Roberts. Lighting: Mark McCullough. Hair and Make-up: Anne Ford-Coates.

A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck

Carlotta Monterey: Patricia Schuman; Eugene O’Neill: David Pittsinger; Three Critics: Louis Kronenberger (Carin Gilfry), Bernard DeVoto (Aleksey Bogdanov) and Mary McCarthy (Stephanie Foley Davis); A Young Woman: Lindsay Russell; Officer Christopher Snow: Jeffrey Gwaltney. Conductor: Jeanine Tesori. Director: Francesca Zambello. Sets: Erhard Rom. Costumes: Court Watson. Lighting: Mark McCullough. Hair and Make-up: Anne Ford-Coates.


First Handmaiden: Meredith Lustig; Second Handmaiden: Emily Lorini; Glauce: Jessica Stavros; Creon: David Pittsinger; Jason: Jeffrey Gwaltney; Captain of the Guard: Kyle Albertson; Medea: Alexandra Deshorties; Neris: Sarah Larsen; Children: Max Horvath, Mia Horvath. Conductor: Daniele Rustioni. Director: Michael Barker-Caven. Sets and Costumes: Joe Vanek. Lighting: Robert Wierzel. Hair and Make-up: Anne Ford-Coates.

Annie, Get Your Gun

Charlie Davenport: Drew Taylor; Dolly Tate: Klea Blackhurst; Mac: Wes Mason; Foster Wilson/Pawnee Bill: Peter Macklin; Frank Butler: Rodney Gilfrey; Annie Oakley: Deborah Voigt; Little Jake: Richard Pittsinger; Nellie: Maria Pittsinger; Jessie: Addy Schneider; Minnie: Lauren Snouffer; Buffalo Bill Cody: Jake Gardner; Chief Sitting Bull: Nick Santa Maria; Mrs. Sylvia Potter-Porter: Jessica Stavros. Conductor: Kristen Blodgette. Director: Francesca Zambello. Sets and Costumes: Court Watson. Lighting: Mark McCullough. Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel. Hair and Make-up: Anne Ford-Coates.

image= image_description=Francesca Zambello, Glimmerglass Festival Artistic & General Director [Photo by Claire McAdams/Glimmerglass Festival] product=yes product_title=The Glimmerglass Festival 2011 product_by=See body of review for production and cast information product_id=Above: Francesca Zambello, Glimmerglass Festival Artistic & General Director [Photo by Claire McAdams/Glimmerglass Festival]
Posted by james_s at 10:08 AM

Previn and Caird’s Brief Encounter

Think of the last three new operas which debuted at Los Angeles Opera — Il Postino, The Fly, and Grendel. Each was very different from the others, but at least for publicity purposes, much of the audience would have some familiarity with the material going in. In the end, all that should matter is the actual artistic quality of the resulting work (in the case of those three, in respective order: “qualified,” “abysmal,” and “interesting but flawed”).

Your reviewer does not know whether that critic reviewed the 2009 Houston Grand Opera premiere of André Previn and John Caird’s operatic adaptation of Brief Encounter, based on the well-known David Lean film. It would certainly have been an easy target, however. Here is a story of suppressed emotion, perfectly suited for the intimacy of close-ups and the relevant restraint of film acting. Somehow Previn and Caird convinced themselves this would good material for the field of opera — the core of which tends to be heightened emotion and dramatic but unsubtle effects. Perhaps just the mere renown of the film and its evocative title deluded the creators…

Helen Jesson and Alec Harvey, neither happily married, meet at a train station. They quickly feel a strong emotional attraction, and though Mrs. Jesson is nagged by guilt, she finds herself on the threshold of commencing an affair with Harvey, until he himself decides to make their mutual temptation impossible to pursue, by moving out of the country.

The lack of narrative incident and the mostly interior emotional conflicts make this one of those libretti where the singers are always announcing to the audience what they feel:

LAURA: I’ve been such a fool/I’ve been such a fool/I’ve fallen in love


ALEC: All my Thursdays are the same/Dreaming, yearning, planning, fearing/Praying for Laura to be here

The rest of the opera, in keeping with the original story, is a morass of the mundane, with talk of tea and weather and huge helpings of cliché (“time and tide will tell”). The exaggerated British accents of some of the singers of the smaller roles prove grating as well. A little of this goes a long way, and it should be pointed out that almost 30 minutes pass in act one before the would-be lovers have their first conversation alone. Previn scores these prosaic sections of the opera with his more pointed, acerbic modernistic style. The lyrical outbursts, when they come, are welcome as respite from the arid recitatives. Unfortunately, the most potent of Previn’s themes bears a very strong resemblance to the opening notes of Leonard Bernstein’s music for “Make our garden grow” from Candide. One can only imagine that with as esteemed a figure as André Previn, no one dared point this out to him.

In the lead roles, Nathan Gunn makes the best effect, his manicured, smooth approach perfect for the role. Elizabeth Futral as Helen is asked to sing at the top of her range far too much. Her final scene, therefore, is her most affecting, as Previn finally allows her to slip down into lower territory. Kim Josephson, in the thankless role of the husband for whom Helen forsakes true love, earns a fairly good solo in the last act.

Perhaps a video of this production would have produced evidence that Previn and Caird’s adaptation made a stronger impact seen staged. A better bet would be that any video would only call to mind comparisons with the classic film, which would be not in favor of the opera.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=André Previn: Brief Encounter (libretto by John Caird) product=yes product_title=André Previn: Brief Encounter (libretto by John Caird) product_by=Laura Jesson: Elizabeth Futral; Alec Harvey: Nathan Gunn; Fred Jesson: Kim Josephson. Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. Conductor: Patrick Summers. product_id=DG 0289 477 9351 9 [2CDs] price=$30.99 product_url=
Posted by chris_m at 8:47 AM

La Bohème at Torre del Lago

Like Bayreuth the Torre del Lago is devoted exclusively to the works of one composer. But unlike Bayreuth the Fondazione Puccini exerts little effort to glorify the legacy of this remarkable composer by staging productions that may fulfill the operatic expectations of the unwashed masses but leave serious Puccini disciples aghast.

Such was the effect of La Bohème (8/12) seen from press seats in the 26th row of the 3200 seat Gran Teatro all’Aperto Giacomo Puccini at the edge of Lake Massaciuccoli, a sort of swamp by the Mediterranean near Pisa. Actually the 26th row is even more distant from the action than it would ordinarily be because not only are there several wide lateral aisles between sections, there is also a lot of legroom (a boast of the management).

Thus those of us in this section felt rather remote from the performance, encouraging some seaside bathers sitting nearby to follow the libretto on the screens of their cell phones with the added advantage of not missing urgent text messages, and others to sotto voce the story to their children — the lack of supertitles thus compensated (though these kids were far too young to read). After the first act the audience readjusted itself and we found seats in the 16th row amidst more serious spectators.

Here at least there was something to appreciate — the well-schooled verismo conducting of Alberto Veronesi was apparent (Mo. Veronesi is Eve Queler’s successor at the Opera Orchestra of New York), and the proficient opera acting and idiomatic Italian tenor singing of Venezuelan Aquiles Machado as Rodolfo was pleasurable. The mature style and presence of Italian baritone Marzio Giossi balanced the lively young and appropriately Italianate Colline of South Korean bass Seung-Pil Choi (it had to be him though the program gave another name).

Italian soprano Anna Maria dell’Oste made some fun as a Musetta who knew all the classic moves. Of the principals only the Mimi of Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia disappointed, her Mozartian delivery and matronly presence failed to capture the musical and dramatic energy imparted by the rest of the cast. Most notably it was Mr. Machado who generated real Puccini magic in his third act farewell to Mimi and with his final cries at her death. He accepted his abundant applause with extravagantly florid bows.


Rome Opera resident stage director Maurizio di Mattia moved his very experienced cast with slick flair, though he imposed a tasteless appearance of Puccini himself to watch the death scene. Rome Opera scene painter Maurizio Varamo designed the sets and presumably it was he who painted a quite wonderful backdrop of Paris for his set. But its architecture betrayed crudeness and naivete, especially the kitsch Tour Eiffel. The production was first seen in Hong Kong where it was not un-appreciated.

In flagrant disregard of current performance practice principal bows were effected after each of the four acts cruelly lengthening the evening, interminable already because of the clumsy production could not possibly be organized into the now usual two part format. A lot of fine Pommery champagne, a sponsor of the festival, flowed between the acts making the sculptures in the large garden seem very witty indeed by the early morning hours of the next day.

Michael Milenski

Click here for a photo gallery.

image_description=Giacomo Puccini [Photo courtesy of Festival Puccini]

product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
product_by=Click here for cast information.
product_id=Above: Giacomo Puccini
Photos courtesy of Festival Puccini

Posted by michael_m at 1:46 AM

August 18, 2011

The Other Child in Papa Mozart’s Musical Troupe

By Manohla Dargis [NY Times, 18 August 2011]

“Mozart’s Sister” has just started when the French director René Féret makes the point that his fictional look at the early life and times of Wolfgang Amadeus isn’t interested in the pretty manners and nostalgia of many period movies. In truth, the film has little to do even with Wolfgang, a side note in a story focused on his only sister who’s first seen squatting on the side of a road taking care of business at a short distance from her similarly engaged father, mother and brother. This is the Family Mozart, Mr. Féret seems to declare with this scene, stripped down and at their most human.

Posted by Gary at 9:24 AM

August 15, 2011

The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne, UK

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 15 August 2011]

Only two years remain until Benjamin Britten’s centenary in 2013. It is unlucky for him that it should coincide with the bicentenaries of both Verdi and Wagner, but opera companies across the world are putting together their plans to mark the occasion - Glyndebourne not excepted, as the festival proudly hosted the premieres of two of Britten’s operas in its early years.

Posted by Gary at 1:53 PM

August 14, 2011

Edinburgh International Festival, various venues

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 14 August 2011]

When is a festival not a festival? When it is a shopping bag. In his speech before Friday’s opening concert, Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, recited a litany of places that had supplied acts for his east-meets-west theme. Intended to impress, it ended up like a shopping list.

Posted by Gary at 5:05 PM

Ariadne auf Naxos, Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble

What the general public doesn’t understand is that this very same question has been debated for centuries within the realms of opera itself. The question of high-brow versus low-brow entertainment goes back at least to the creation of Italian opera buffa, which dates from the Enlightenment. The comic, and consequently unflattering, portrayal of the aristocracy which has come to define opera buffa set the genre at odds with opera seria, which attempts to depict the aristocracy as noble human beings who tragically suffer for the good of the state. This binary, which epitomizes the adage that tragedy shows us our betters, while comedy scoffs at the misfortune of others, has defined opera ever since. However, by integrating operas buffa with opera seria, Richard Strauss’s opera-within-an-opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, carried the tradition of opera buffa into the 20th century.

Dell ‘Arte Opera Ensemble’s recent production of this bubbling comedy should be commended for an all-around stylish performance which captures the wit and the lyricism of this work. The term “Mozartian” has been applied to other Strauss comedies like Die Liebe der Danae and Der Rosenkavalier; however, this assessment sometimes seems implausible simply because Strauss was working with an orchestra of Wagnerian force. An orchestra of this size was simply not available to Mozart. This explains my fear on seeing that the orchestra was considerably smaller than the normal forces required. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Conductor Christopher Fecteau struck a noteworthy balance between humor and aesthetics, bringing a classical precision to the trio of the nymphs in the opera proper was certainly reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier.

Mezzo Sarah Heltzel was utterly compelling as the Composer (played by Juli Borst on August 18 and 20). The blind devotion to music as an art form that she injected into the character made the themes of the opera, the conflicts between what a composer wants to write and what his audience wants to see, more tangible than in Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio where the question that was debated was whether, when writing an opera, were words or music were more important. Like soprano Mary Ann Stewart, who played the prima donna, (who is played by Jane Shivick on August 18 and 20) the commitment that Heltzel brought to the role served as fodder for the contrast between their idealized view of art and the more realistic view of opera, as personified by the commedia dell’arte troupe and soprano Jennifer Moore, who played Zerbinetta (played by Jennifer Rossetti on August 18 and 20). Stewart sang warmly, yet when called for, she could also sing powerfully.

Jennifer Moore was delightfully girlish as Zerbinetta. Her portrayal strengthened the parallels between Strauss and Mozart, as her Zerbinetta could be a modern-day Zerlina or Despina. It should be said, however, that in the Prologue, despite her glorious high notes, the body of her voice was slightly heavier than other Zerbinettas, such as Elisabeth Schwartzkopf’s. That said, she could be lyrical when called for. More importantly, Act II was her time to shine. She clearly relished her showpiece; her cadenzas were simply stunning. At the same time, her singing highlighted the implied mockery of the proverbial bel canto scena, which coloraturas love to lose their minds to.

As the Dance Master, Edwin Vega (played by Andrew Klima on August 18 and 20) obviously had fun, and his light tenor was always a joy to hear. In the second act, he vocally outshone the other the singers in the commedia dell’arte troupe. That said, the troupe worked cohesively as a team and created immensely comical portrayals of each character throughout. The trio of the nymphs was in splendid vocal form as well. On the whole, the only rough spot in the second act was Shawn Thuris’s rendition of Bacchus, which was a little understated compared to that of his partners on stage. Even so, there were moments where his singing shone through.

Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble is one of a number of organizations, such as Wolf Trap Opera Company, that is dedicated to providing young singers with the tools they need to succeed in the extremely competitive world of opera. However, this company is still unique insofar as it performs in a Greenwich Village loft, allowing the audience to be quite literally feet away from the actors. I even had the honor of shaking hands with Zerbinetta. In this way, Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble provides an invaluable experience not only for its singers, but to its audiences as well.

Gregory Moomjy

image= image_description=Richard Strauss product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos product_by=Click here for cast information. product_id=Above: Richard Strauss
Posted by Gary at 4:35 PM

Love Beats Science in a Spoof by Menotti

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 14 August 2011]

SANTA FE, N.M. — When Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Last Savage” had its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in early 1964, after its introduction at the Opéra Comique in Paris, its poor reception was explained by defenders as a case of bad timing.

Posted by Gary at 4:10 PM

Opera at Grant Park Music Festival

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in selections by Mozart, Donizetti, and Rossini. Commentary was provided by Jack Zimmerman as narrator.

The first selection was Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor, or The Impessario. Since this one-act piece allows for both solo and ensemble singing by the four soloists, it proved to be an appropriate introduction to the evening. The rival sopranos Madame Goldentrill and Miss Silverpeal were sung, respectively, by Kiri Deonarine and Emily Birsan. Mr. Angel the Impressario and Mr. Bluff were sung by Bernard Holcomb and Joseph Lim. After settling into the overture Calmar encouraged orchestral colors especially in the woodwinds, so that the concept of subsequent vocal pieces was truly prefigured. Mr. Zimmerman’s versified summaries and comments propelled the piece toward the two arias sung by the sopranos. As Mme. Goldentrill Ms. Deonarine projected a secure vocal technique with an especially vivid effect on “Du kannst gewiss nich treulos sein” (“Surely you cannot be unfaithful”). Her rapid passagework was equally accomplished with top notes securely placed. Ms. Birsan sang with matching confidence yet perhaps with a shade more volume than needed in some of the rising lines. In the following trio both women overwhelmed Mr. Holcomb’s character as he tried to settle their dispute. Here Ms. Deonarine’s rise to high ntes on the word “Adagio” showed a sound technique and steady control of pitch. The entry of Mr. Bluff and the accompanying final ensemble provided opportunities for the four soloists to extend their pleas. Mr. Lim’s polished sense of line and his musical play on Buff and O showed him to be a worthy partner in the vocal dispute that ends with “Künstler müssen freilich streben” (“Artists must always strive”).

The second selection of the evening, Act Two of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, featured excellent contributions by Jennifer Jakob as Norina, Paul La rosa as Malatesta, and David Govertsen as Don Pasquale. At the start of the act René Barbera made a worthy showpiece of the nephew’s aria, “Povero Ernesto!” (“Poor Ernesto!”). His seamless range, high notes, and occasional use of piano (e.g. in “nè frapposti monti e mar” [“nor seas and mountains in between”]) were a welcome contribution to the overall shape of the aria. The singing of bass-baritone David Govertsen in the role of Don Pasquale, with an impressive bel canto technique extending to his lowest range, provided consistent stylish character to the title role. The Norina of Ms. Jakob was alternately understated and petulant, as expected in her variable persona, throughout the act. Her diction was accurate and she shaded her voice subtlety on words such as giovane (“young woman”) to emphasize the word’s import. In bel canto ensembles and in her individual decoration Ms. Jakob gave the impression of inhabiting the role comfortably. Mr. La Rosa’s sonorous baritone was an equally welcome voice in ensembles yet also in the delivery of individual parts in recitative. The line “ … un matrimonio in regula a stringere si va” (“a lawful marriage will herewith be contracted”) was released with deeply felt legato, while La Rosa launched with skilled decoration into the part “Ah! Figliuol, non mi far scene” (“Oh, my son, don’t make a scene”).

In the final selection, Act Two of Rossini’s La cenerentola, Emily Fons gave an exceptional performance as Angelina, the Cinderella of the title. Don Magnifico, sung here with rapid understatement by Evan Boyer, introduced in the first scene the continuing domestic and royal misunderstandings. In the following scene the remaining principals were introduced. James Kryschak sang Don Ramiro’s aria with the expected poise of a Rossini tenor, although some of the top notes were overly loud. Paul Scholten’s approach to Dandini in solo pieces and his duet with Don Magnifico was tasteful in his buffo lines and seamless in his well enunciated runs. Mr. Govertsen’s Alidoro made a strong impression with the hope for an assumption of the complete role in the future. It is in the fourth and fifth scenes and in the finale to Act Two that the mezzo role of Angelina truly rises to vocal splendor. Ms. Fons displayed a mature and focused line in her wistful rendering of “Una volta c’era un re” (“Once upon a time there was a king”). In the following scene of recognition, with identities and affections finally sorted out, the sextet was noteworthy for individual and ensemble contributions. For the finale, the title character’s arias “Nacqui all’ affanno” and “Non più mesta” were, in the memorable performance of Ms. Fons, models of bel canto singing recalling an earlier time. In the first aria she introduced appropriate decoration on “la sorte mia” (“my lot”) and ended the line on “cangiò” (“has changed”) with an exquisite trill. Several of the escape tones and other fitting ornamentation included in her polished rendition of “Non più mesta” enhanced a performance of future great promise.

Salvatore Calomino

image= image_description=W. A. Mozart by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819) [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Ryan Opera Center: Scenes from Donizetti, Mozart & Rossini product_by=Click here for program notes. product_id=Above: W. A. Mozart by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819) [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 4:10 PM

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Wolf Trap

The modern operatic world is extremely competitive and the audience, while widening due to the recent plethora of audience-building initiatives, is still to an extent comprised of a small portion of the general population who believes in this art form with something akin to religious fervor. The chances of success are small, yet still, the prospect of immortal glory, as won by Joan Sutherland or Beverly Sills, is tantalising. This is where organisations such as Wolf Trap Opera serve an invaluable purpose in the modern classical music world. Like vocal competitions or alliances between fine art academies and performing institutions, it is designed to outfit participants with the skills to succeed in the modern operatic world.

This season, Wolf Trap closes with Offenbach’s popular opéra fantastique, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. At first glance, Les Contes d’Hoffmann may seem like an improper vehicle through which to present student singers. Its principal roles verge on the epic, each placing a unique set of demands on the singer, which seem to increase as the opera progresses.

The opera’s performance history is convoluted. After Offenbach finished the opera itself, the delay required for him to rewrite and raise the tessituras of the four heroines was quite literally fatal; he died before he was able to orchestrate the opera. This, combined with a string of fires in opera houses performing the piece, leaves modern organizations with a dearth of materials and a wealth of questions. I am happy to report that despite it all, Wolf Trap’s decision to perform Les Contes d’Hoffmann was a risk that, on the whole, paid off.

Conductor Israel Gursky managed to bring out all facets of Offenbach’s majestic score. His reading, which presented the opera in the tradition of French Grand Opera from the turn of the 20th century, was not at all hindered by the decision to use spoken dialogue instead of recitative. At times, his choice of tempo seemed a little slow, as in the case of Councilor Lindorf’s opening aria, as well as the ever-popular “Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille” by Olympia. However, in each case, he seemed to sacrifice speed in order to gain a deeper understanding, either of the character or of the music in general.

Wolf Trap’s production is commendable for several reasons. Offenbach had originally conceived the four heroines to be sung by a single soprano. Since the opera’s creation, few sopranos, Sills and Sutherland among them, have done so. Personally, I prefer each heroine to be sung by a different soprano, as each character is so complex, both vocally and psychologically, that it is very hard to imagine a soprano so gifted as to be able to bring out the complexities of each character. Additionally, the decision to divide the heroines among four sopranos allowed for more students to participate.

In this case, each heroine did a commendable job. As Olympia, coloratura Jamie-Rose Guarrine sang with polish, yet the timbre of her voice suggested that she was capable of doing more than just a series of vocal acrobatics. Although, it must be said that she lacked physical presence. She lacked the precise physical movements needed to execute the role, making this Olympia more humanoid than automaton.

As Antonia, Marcy Stonikas sang with power and lyricism. Toward the end of the act’s closing trio, she seemed to lose stamina, but recovered. Her capable physical acting deserves mention because she was 37 weeks pregnant while doing it.

Eve Gigliotti made for a noteworthy Guilietta, as she is perhaps the most lyrical singer I’ve heard in the role. At times, her acting bordered on the demonic. She clearly seemed to relish Hoffmann’s pain, which only turned to sorrow after Hoffmann killed her beloved companion, Pitichinaccio.

There were several caprimarios who deserve mention. Edward Mout, as Frantz, commanded attention, both vocally and physically. This is quite extraordinary, as Frantz doesn’t seem to have a purpose outside of comic relief. Kenneth Kellogg made a strong vocal case for both Crespel and Schlémil.

This production can also take credit for presenting a version of Hoffmann that was true to the work’s dramatic potential, while at the same time unearthing other previously unseen complexities. The acts followed the order of Olympia, Antonia, then Guilietta. Some Hoffmann scholars, like Richard Bonynge, believe in placing the Antonia act last as a way of strengthening Hoffmann’s belief in idealized poetic love. However, placing the courtesan last emphasizes the idea that Hoffmann’s three relationships form a trajectory that rises and falls.

This strengthens the contrast between poetic idealism and reality, and Nathaniel Peake brought this aspect of the leading role to life with painstaking clarity. He also deserves credit for controlling his stamina through this marathon role, not to mention singing a part whose performance history includes Plácido Domingo and Nikolai Gedda. His strong performance made one forget his occasional difficulties with the French language.

The crowning achievement of this production is the conception of Niklausse, played so deftly by Catherine Martin. As Hoffmannn’s poetic muse, she was far more than the androgynous confidant of other productions. Like Craig Irvin, who played the four villians, she brought a mix of severity and comedy to the role. One got the feeling that she was along for the ride waiting for Hoffmannn to realize that the woman who was there all along was the love of his life. Hoffmannn’s realization at the end brought a sense of closure that other productions lack.

The works of E.T.A Hoffmannn are no stranger to classical music. Tchaikovsky based his ballet, The Nutcracker, on Hoffmannn’s work as well. The problems these works present depends largely on the composer’s ability to see past the maze of lifelike automatons, demonic courtesans, and oversized rats to the essential humanity of the story being told. Wolf Trap Opera can congratulate itself on meeting all the demands that Les Contes d’Hoffmann poses and presenting a fluid, dramatic conception of the opera, which is perhaps the most human yet.

Gregory Moomjy

image= image_description=Jacques Offenbach [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Les contes d’Hoffmann product_by=Click here for cast information. product_id=Above: Jacques Offenbach [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 3:53 PM

Prom 32: Brahms and Mahler

At any rate, Christian Teztlaff gave a fine account of the former, though he was not always matched by Edward Gardner’s conducting, which was mostly unobjectionable — more than can be said for many examples — but not especially rich in insight. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was generally on good, if not infallible, form, its first movement contribution more lyrical than stentorian. (A mobile telephone provided unwanted interruption during the first exposition.) Teztlaff’s solo performance was intensely committed, fiercely dramatic, and unwavering in intonation, the cadenza (Joachim’s) providing both intimacy and direction. The opening of the ensuing coda proved splendidly autumnal, though its conclusion was arguably rushed by Gardner. Unwelcome applause intervened prior to a slow movement in which Tetzlaff generally acted as first among serenade-like equals, the spirit of Mozart undeniably present. Though the opening woodwind solos, especially Richard Simpson’s oboe, were well taken, there was a sense that they might have sung still more freely had Gardner moulded them less. That is a minor criticism, however, for Tetzlaff’s sweet-toned rendition ensured that the heart strings would be tugged where necessary, without the slightest hint of undue manipulation. Gardner, to his credit, held the audience at bay during the brief pause before the finale. Rhythms were well pointed here, though there were times when the orchestra felt a little driven. Tetzlaff’s musicianship and virtuosity were never in doubt; it would be good to hear him in this concerto with a more experienced Brahmsian, such as Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, or Sir Colin Davis. If anything even better was his poised, thoughtful, richly expressive encore account of the Gavotte en rondeau from Bach’s E major Partita. Not for the first time, the smallest of forces seemed to project better than a typical symphony orchestra in the problematic acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

Gardner fashioned a performance of Das klagende Lied that was more ‘operatic’ than benefits the music. Or, to put it another way, it concentrated on highlighting of certain textual ‘incident’ and artificially whipped-up excitement in a stop-and-start way that recalled Sir Georg Solti (though I am not sure whether Solti conducted this particular work). At least, though, we could hear vibrato-laden strings, a relief after the horror tales of Sir Roger Norrington’s recent Ninth Symphony. The orchestral introduction to ‘Waldmärchen’ was somewhat hesitant at first, and then, as if to compensate, was fiercely driven. It eventually settled, but the movement as a whole did not. The second stanza, though well presented vocally and orchestrally, simply dragged, Gardner seemingly finding it impossible to alight upon a just tempo. Uncertain brass slightly marred the brothers’ entry into the forest, though tenor Stuart Skelton gave a good sense of Mahler as balladeer. When, during the final two stanzas, Mahler’s Wagnerian inheritance — Gardner seemed previously to have done his utmost to make the composer sound closer to Verdi! — inevitably came to the fore, whether through harmony, instrumentation, and vocal line, it was almost a sense of too little, too late. Anna Larsson, a late substitution for Ekaterina Gubanova, nevertheless proved a wonderfully rich mezzo soloist.

Intimations of the First and Second Symphonies in the introduction to ‘Der Spielmann’ came across clearly — how could they not? — but, in Gardner’s hands, there was something unnecessarily four-square to the phrasing. Christopher Purves, however, proved plaintive indeed upon the words ‘Dort ist’s so lind und voll von Duft, als ging ein Weinen durch die Luft!’, even though the pacing now had become unduly distended. The first entry of the off-stage band sounded splendid in itself, but Gardner struggled — and failed — to keep it together with the ‘main’ orchestra. There were, happily, no such problems later on. Tempi here and in the concluding ‘Hochzeitsstück’ veered towards the comatose, however, interspersed with ‘compensating’ rushed passages. What should sound wide-eyed in its staggering youthful ambition and accomplishment tended merely to sprawl. (Applause again intervened between the second and third movements.) Choral diction was very good throughout, though it would have done no harm to have had a larger chorus. Treble voices touched in their fragility, helping to prove once again that it is this original version of Das klagende Lied that has the superior claim to performance. I cannot begin to understand David Matthews’s programme note claim that the revised two-part version is ‘incontrovertibly tighter and arguably more effective’. If the effect were somewhat sprawling, that was the fault of Gardner’s performance, not of the work itself, which is a much better piece than this evening’s audience may have been led to believe.

Mark Berry

image= image_description=Gustav Mahler product=yes product_title=Brahms — Violin Concerto in D major, op.77; Mahler — Das klagende Lied (original version) product_by=Christian Tetzlaff (violin); Melanie Diener (soprano); Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano); Stuart Skelton (tenor); Christopher Purves (baritone); Theodore Beeny, Augustus Bell, Timothy Fairbairn, Thomas Featherstonehaugh, Matthew Lloyd-Wilson, Oluwatimilehin Otudeko (trebles); BBC Singers (chorus master: Stephen Jackson); Edward Gardner (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 7 August 2011. product_id=Above: Gustav Mahler
Posted by Gary at 3:46 PM

Julia Lezhneva sings Rossini

Julia Lezhneva was born in Russia in 1989. A surprisingly lengthy biographical note in the CD booklet is crammed with details of her attendance in master classes and various competitions (many of which she won, it should be noted), and fairly few stage appearances, most of which were concerts.

However, Ms. Lezhneva clearly has an esteemed supporter in the person of conductor Marc Minkowski, who leads the Sinfonia Varsovia in this selection of Rossini arias for soprano, along with the La Cenerentola Sinfonia. Mr. Minkowski has proven himself to be a leader with an individual touch, typified by sharp rhythms and surprising mdash; if not occasionally erratic mdash; tempo choices. Many of today’s best singers have taken key roles in Minkowski’s large recorded output, so if the conductor hears something special in Ms. Lezhneva, perhaps this release of her vocalism at such an early stage of her career will prove a fascinating document at some point in the future.

For now, although the disc offers much to enjoy, the possible future greatness of Ms. Lezhneva remains a case of “time will tell.” In slower numbers such as “L’ora fatal s’apressa” from L’assedio di Corinto, Ms. Lezhneva’s voice has a pleasing note of sadness that, over the course of a long aria, tends to degrade into a sort of droopy sameness. She can cover the lower range well enough, and then extend into the higher notes without much strain, but the high notes tend to be unsupported or attenuated.

In a more energetic piece such as La Cenerentola’s “Della fortuna istabile…Nacqui all’affanno,” the expected chirpiness thankfully fails to appear. Still, the voice could use a bit more brightness to really project joyful emotion.

Two of the more successful numbers come at the start of the CD mdash; a languid and sensuous performance of “Tanti affetti” from La donna del lago and a touching “Ils s’ėloignent enfin” from Guillaume Tell. No doubt, there is quality here. By recital’s end, one may have grown weary of a certain monotony in the approach while still maintaining a curiosity about how this singer will develop.

Who knows if Naïve or another company will still be releasing recital CDs in a few years, but should Ms. Lezhneva get another shot, there’s every reason to believe she’ll prove herself a worthy protégé to conductor Minkowski.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Gioachino Rossini: Arias

product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Arias
product_by=Julia Lezhneva, soprano. Sinfonia Varsovia. Conductor: Marc Minkowski
product_id=Naïve V5221 [CD]

Posted by chris_m at 2:16 PM

Starry-Crossed Lovers in Bavaria

The lovely Ekaterina Siurina can always be counted upon to sing sublimely and act meaningfully, but on this occasion she raised the bar past even her own high standard. Ms. Siurina embodied Giulietta with complete immersion in the heroine’s emotional state. There was nary a false move nor a wasted gesture, and the soprano managed a fully-rounded traversal of the heroine that was one moment stunningly economical, and the next extravagantly abandoned.

What a joy that her singing is not only faultlessly produced, but seems to emanate from the very soul of the doomed girl. Her shimmering, secure soprano is ample enough to fill the house at all volumes and throughout the extensive range of Bellini’s demands. Within the scope of her lyric instrument, Ekaterina skillfully suggests an amazing palette of vocal colors, witness the hollow, despairing reading of her opening phrases that inform the character’s mental state, and portend her eventual fate. Her meticulously sung, completely rendered theatrical portrayal had all the elements of Sills at her finest (and her slimmest!).

Miss S. had a worthy partner indeed in the Romeo of Vesselina Kasarova, arguably the starriest name in the cast. The Bulgarian mezzo has all the assets to triumph in the part: a heldentenorial timbre in the chest voice, a well-knitted passage into the lower middle, searing top notes, and an often jaw-dropping way with the fiendish fioriture. Ms. Kasarova is also blessed with a distinctive, dark vocal presence that is uniquely her own, making her uncommonly well suited to trouser roles.

Too, she has an unaffected swagger and such a fierce commitment that her confrontational moments suggested a lion about to claim its lunch. That said, this seasoned artist seemed to begin the evening a little off form. Her opening aria was punctuated by uncharacteristic gulps and glottal attacks, and the cabaletta was a bit hysterical and mannered (she firmly slowed the pace down with her first phrase). Thereafter, however, this house favorite settled into a riveting, and heartfelt impersonation, perhaps spurred on by her sublime Giulietta. Their extended duet passage work in thirds was breath-taking, their dissimilar vocal production providing a delectable musical texture.

Young tenor Dimitri Pittas’s straight-forward, solidly vocalized Tebaldo demonstrated just why his star is rising. The substantial, straight forward tone has good squillo and an engaging aural presence. Mr. Pittas also has some of the sweetest tones to be experienced at the top of the staff, and he bends and shapes phrases with tenderness and musicality. He decisively delivers robust outbursts in the upper voice although at the very fullest throttle, the warm tone loses a little of its pleasant spin. The high profile duet with Romeo fairly crackled with intensity, and staked its claim as one of the evening’s high points.

Carlo Cigni offered an unusually youthful Lorenzo, so persuasively served by his rolling, well-modulated bass-baritone that the role seemed larger than it was. Very impressive singing. Rounding out the principals, Ante Jerkunica deployed his soft-grained bass to fine effect as the paternally misguided Capellio.

Capuleti_Kasarova_Siurina_2.gifVesselina Kasarova as Romeo and Ekaterina Siurina as Giulietta [Photo: Wilfried Hösl / Bayerische Staatsoper]

The captivating staging and design was anything but slavishly representational, opting rather to created a spiritual and emotional environment in which the performers played out the intent of a story we know by heart. Instead of being confusing, it was almost wholly intriguing. Set designer Vincent Lemaire has devised a singer friendly box of sorts, with Batik-like patterns that had the curious ability to be soothing or disturbing. This was partly owing to Guido Levi’s ambitious multi-colored lighting design which was long on imagination, but short on subtlety with the many abrupt cross fades. I might urge Mr. Levi to smooth out the edges a bit.

Mr. Lemaire, however, has created some highly charged images suggesting escape, emotional instability, and inevitably fatal choices. From the rows of saddles and stirrups hanging ominously over the courtiers in the opening scene, to the floating sculpture of two lovers suspended in flight in Juliet’s chamber, to the eternal staircase at the party that rises from the bowels of the basement and is framed like a giant painting, these were dramatically powerful visual statements.

Legendary Christian Lecroix has greatly advanced the production concept with his lavish, character specific, intentionally anachronistic costumes. The men’s chorus sports Dickensian stove-pipe hats and frock coats; Giulietta is dressed in designer white undies, a teddy-ish creation with short puffy culottes, not unlike like those paper lamb cutlet dress-ups at finer restaurants. Thus semi-clothed, she desperately clutches to her torso, then drops, then retrieves a gorgeous diaphanous dress-up gown, thereby symbolizing her ambivalence to duty, gender roles, and obedience. The women’s party dresses were a riotously colored mix of Carnevale inspirations.

Director Vincent Broussard has drawn highly charged performances from his principals. The blocking is decidedly moody, frequently menacing, yet when required, effusively romantic. Perhaps he repeats certain devices once too often, like having a troubled character face the wall as though in a Time Out Room, or having two singers stalk each other in wide circles. But other images pay off handsomely, like having Giulietta gingerly walk the huge picture frame like a balance beam during her extended party scene address, or having the poison/potion takers merely mime swallowing a handful of pills. Where did they come from? Who knows? Who cares? It was truthful and it worked. A little more attention might be paid to crowd management in the choral scenes, as the grouping and re-grouping in trite choral line-ups lacked variety. But all in all, this was a director not only true to his staging ideas, but also true to the spirit of Bellini’s musical drama.

In the pit, Yves Able wrung a highly detailed, taut, impulsive reading of a score that can sometimes come off as preciously ‘sensitive.’ Not only did Maestro Able inject a wonderful rhythmic propulsion that buoyed the entire proceeding, but he also provided appropriate elasticity that supported the sensitive phrasing and nuanced delivery from the soloists. There was also remarkably fine solo playing, most especially from the principal horn and the clarinet, both of whom gifted us with awesome technique, dramatic fire, and distinctive musical personality.

That this collective team of top professionals collaborated to give us a tremendously realized I Capuleti e i Montecchi was evidenced by the sustained, vociferous approval at evening’s end. The rowdy festival crowd called the cast back for curtain call after curtain call after curtain call. A most fitting end to celebrate a richly rewarding experience.

James Sohre

Click here for video trailer.

image= image_description=Vesselina Kasarova as Romeo and Ekaterina Siurina as Giulietta [Photo: Wilfried Hösl / Bayerische Staatsoper] product=yes product_title=Vincenzo Bellini: I Capuleti e i Montecchi. product_by=Romeo: Vesselina Kasarova; Giulietta: Ekaterina Siurina; Tebaldo: Dimitri Pittas; Capellio: Ante Jerkunica; Lorenzo: Carlo Cigni. Conductor: Yves Able. Director: Vincent Broussard. Set Design: Vincent Lemaire. Costume Design: Christian Lacroix. Lighting Design: Guido Levi. Chorus Master: Sören Eckhoff. product_id=Above: Vesselina Kasarova as Romeo and Ekaterina Siurina as Giulietta [Photo: Wilfried Hösl / Bayerische Staatsoper]
Posted by james_s at 1:55 PM

August 13, 2011

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Aleksis Kivi

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Aleksis Kivi, which premiered in 1997, ventures there, as it puts on stage the story of Finland’s 19th century literary hero. Kivi used the vernacular to tell stories of greater realism than the prevailing Romantic tradition, and while he found enough success to keep his works alive, he also encountered a great deal of derision and suppression from the literary establishment. He also had to struggle against his own demons, especially alcoholism fueled by mental illness, to which he succumbed at the early age of 38.

Although the composer’s booklet note (translated by Andrew Bentley) refers to Kivi’s “eventful life,” the 90-minute opera doesn’t concern itself with narrative in any conventional sense. There is a double for Kivi at a young age, and a key female figure, Charlotta, who may have been a romantic interest (although this is far from clear). The core of any dramatic impetus comes from the intractable hatred of Kivi’s nemesis, critic August Ahlqvist. In a daring move that pays big dividends, Rautavaara makes this a speaking role, with acerbic music underscoring the character’s venomous railings. However, no progression follows the establishment of Ahlqvist’s disdain in the opening scenes — he hates and ridicules Kivi until opera’s end, with only a brief comic respite when Ahlqvist brings out the legendary writer Runeberg, initially confined to a wheelchair. Soon this supposedly respectable literary master is scampering around the stage in a fit of dementia, with Ahlqvist in chase. The humorous respite precedes the touching climax, where the schizophrenic Kivi, in the final moments of his life, revisits Charlotta and even his younger self, finding solace in the conviction that what he created will live on.

This Ondine DVD of a 2010 staging is directed by Pekka Milonoff, although the true guiding hand of this film, caught by cameras without an audience, belongs to TV director Hannu Kamppila. A captivating cast holds the attention that otherwise might lose interest in set designer Eeva Ijäs’s sparse set. Dominating with both the conviction of his acting and the handsome colors of his voice is baritone Jorma Hynninen as Kivi. He looks older than the 38 Kivi was at death, but he captures the haunted appearance of a man caught between the ecstasy of his creative urge and the pain of the mental illness and abuse of alcohol that consumed him. There is little interaction between Kivi and Ahlqvist, as there is truly no ground for them to share. Janne Reinikainen gives a bold performance as the deluded Ahlqvist, who believes he is protecting Finland reputation. Both sinister and ridiculous, he is a fine villain.

A twenty-minute bonus feature on the making of the film features the composer’s thoughts, delivered in a somewhat scary hoarse whisper, as well as interviews with Hynninen and conductor Mikko Franck. Franck’s appearance — cherubic would be polite — and his relaxed interplay with his excellent musicians shows that the tradition of the frightening, dictatorial conductor is as dead as the literature of Runeberg.

Rautavaara’s score will please those who know and respect his music — a mixture of modernistic textures with tonal underpinnings that, though never conventionally melodic, has affecting strength. At 90 minutes, Aleksis Kivi makes a good introduction to Rautavaara’s operatic efforts, but a release from a couple of years ago of Rasputin, with the titanic Matti Salminen in the title role, would be your reviewer’s choice for the best place to start.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Aleksis Kivi

product_title=Einojuhani Rautavvara: Aleksis Kivi
product_by=Aleksis Kivi: Jorma Hynninen; August Ahlqvist: Janne Reinikainen; Charlotta: Riikka Rantanen; Hilda: Paulina Linnosaari. Finnish National Opera Orchestra. Conductor: Mikko Franck.
product_id=Ondine ODV4009 [DVD]

Posted by chris_m at 5:24 PM

The Makropulos Case, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 13 August 2011]

The combination has worked before. Christoph Marthaler and Anna Viebrock as maverick director and eccentric stage director, Angela Denoke in the title role. Their 1998 Katja Kabanova was one of the Salzburg Festival’s finest moments.

Posted by Gary at 5:08 PM

Théodore Gouvy’s Iphigénie en Tauride

According to the booklet essay in this CPO set of Théodore Gouvy’s Iphigénie en Tauride, the composer enjoyed wide respect in his lifetime (1819-1898), and this oratorio was his most successful work. Hearing it both explains the extent of his reputation during his life and why even Gouvy’s most successful work slipped into utter obscurity.

Herbert Schneider’s essay (translated by Nicholas Smith) also stipulates that Gouvy reviled Wagner and decried what was for Gouvy modern music’s “distancing” from “the ensembles, the finales, and melodic treatment of the voices.” Gouvy shows himself to be a master of choral writing in his score for this Iphigénie, with no fewer than 16 of this set’s 26 tracks listing “Choeur” participation. The Kantorie Saarlouis performs these sections beautifully, although they are not able to distinguish between the “Greeks,” “Furies” and “Scythians” the libretto depicts, for Gouvy’s great failing comes in characterization and drama. A blood-thirsty crowd calling for human sacrifice doesn’t sound all that more urgent than another group mourning in exile. Most of these passages are in minor keys, with simple but effective orchestral gestures. But that element of risk found in great art never appears in Gouvy’s work. Each section of the text is neatly compartmentalized, a tidiness that begins to feel routine very quickly. The very elegance and formal rigor that earned him such praise in his time fails him in ours, as his music only superficially captures the essence of the dark and blood-thirsty story of Iphigénie, who is forced to lead sacrifices and very nearly kills her own brother.

In the more dramatic exchanges between Iphigénie and Thoas, who compels her to perform the sacrifices, Gouvy does dare to have his Iphigénie shout out in distress, but those rare outbursts only heighten the disparity between most of the music’s professional sheen and the swirling passions of the text. Not helping matters is the unsteady vocalism of the Iphigénie, Christine Maschler. The body of the voice has a sour character, and she lunges precariously at high notes. Her male counterparts are more successful, with Benjamin Hulett in the tenor role of Orest’s friend Pylades showing a lot of promise, his voice sweet and yet powerful. Vinzenz Haab sings a stalwart Orest and Ekkehard Abele provides the expected bass aura of villainy very well as Thoas.

Conductor Joachim Fontaine and Le Grand Société Philharmonique deliver an enthusiastic reading, presenting ably the best of Gouvy’s music - some tasty orchestration, and a facility for pleasant, though not memorable, thematic material. For those who enjoy exploring rare repertoire, this CPO set will be a fine diversion. With a different soprano, this recording might even have earned Gouvy a new bunch of admirers, especially among those who agree that with Wagner, music lost that feel for “melodic treatment of the voices.” As the conclusion drags on and on, however, many more will be glad to have given Gouvy a chance, but feel that the judgment of music history was just and apt.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Théodore Gouvy: Iphigénie en Tauride

product_title=Théodore Gouvy: Iphigénie en Tauride
product_by=Iphigénie: Christine Maschler; Orest: Vinzenz Haab; Pylades: Benjamin Hulett; Thoas: Ekkehard Abele. Le Grand Société Philharmonique. Kantorie Saarlouis. Conductor: Joachim Fontaine
product_id=CPO 777504-2 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 1:40 PM

August 12, 2011

Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila in Antwerp

This 2009 staging of Saint-Saens’s reliably goofy Biblical tunefest Samson et Dalila takes the prize for the most apt and amusing title for a bonus feature about the directors (yes, two in this case) of a “Regie” staging: “Amir Zuabi and Omri Nitzan explain the production and staging.” In the more obscure and complex Regie productions, such a bonus feature would probably pay big dividends. In the case of Zuabi and Nitzan’s take on Samson et Dalila, an explanation proves superfluous. One can admire the fact that one director is Israeli (Nitzan) and the other Palestinian (Zuabi), and that they have worked together to update the Biblical setting of the opera to the contemporary Middle East. Nevertheless, what is actually onstage (and before the cameras) is no more challenging to the average intellect than a traditional staging of this deliciously silly but potent opera.

Act one still betrays its origin as an oratorio, with the chorus standing mid-stage, with very little movement. The dress is modern, with khaki battle jackets and long neck scarves serving to suggest a Mideast setting. Sets are minimal. Act two still focuses mainly on Dalila’s bed, albeit with the huge leaves of some desert flower around it (which oddly close on the prostrate Samson at act’s end). Act three is no temple but some sort of bizarre fashion-cum-armory show, with young beauties of both sexes in black underwear, carting bazookas and grenade launchers. Undoubtedly the directors expected to shock with the revised climax, which has Samson in a suicide bomber’s explosive jacket, ready to push the button to bring down the temple when a blackout ends the show. The shock is in how little effect is actually produced, since everything leading to that point has been so innocuous. One can only admire the optimism of the EU Commissioner “for External Relations” who composed a note reprinted in the booklet, claiming that this production will “spearhead…a successful and respectful inter-cultural dialogue.” Their Euros at work!

Given all that, any opera performance comes down to musical quality to prove its worth, and this performance actually has a fair amount going for it. After a few unsteady moments at the beginning, conductor Tomáš Netopil gets a rich, precise performance from the Vlaamse musicians. Don’t be surprised to hear some arpeggio sections that suggest Saint-Saens as a precursor to late 20th century Minimalist composers. As Samson, tenor Torsten Kerl is in fine voice, easily reaching up to the higher sections, and with a commanding strength throughout his range. Marianna Tarasova’s Dalila has a bit too much of that hooty quality not unknown in this part, but she is comfortable in the role. In the only other part with a real opportunity to make an impression, Nikola Mijalovič as the High Priest puts out a handsome flow of sound, even while, apparently, sodomizing Dalila. Don’t ask.

Strict traditionalist may get their feathers in a bunch over this production, but really the directors flatter themselves about their political risk-taking. In the end, it’s still Samson at Dalila — for good and bad. Catch this for some decent singing and a tasty performance of the score by the orchestra.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Camille Saint- Saëns:Samson et Dalila

product_title=Camille Saint- Saëns:Samson et Dalila
product_by=Samson: Torsten Kerl; Dalila: Marianna Tarasova; High Preist: Nikola Mijalovič. Symphony Orchestra and Choir of Vlaamse Antwerp/Ghent. Conductor: Tomáš Netopil.
product_id=EuroArts DVD 2058628

Posted by chris_m at 3:00 PM

Gergiev conducts Wagner’s Parsifal

This is the image chosen for the box cover of a new studio recording of Wagner’s Parsifal, from the Mariinsky Opera forces, led by Valery Gergiev. The somber beauty of the artwork, with lettering for the credits in shades of gray (except for the conductor’s name in white) captures both the admiration provoked by the quality of the performance inside, and some discombobulation provoked by the performance as well. For surely the animal most closely associated with Parsifal is a swan, and the corresponding color scheme would be white. So why this horse caught in ebony, as striking as it is? And under Gergiev’s leadership, why does Parsifal feel so tense and charged, with a strong forward momentum, yet also so barren of spiritual depth in the outer acts or sensuality in act two?

Gergiev’s conducting presents the score as a taut (though, of course, extremely elongated) rumination on pain and internal conflict. Of course, there is a lot of that in Parsifal, and so much of this performance works very well. But there is more in the music — the sick sensuality of act two and especially the tender reconciliation and redemption of the final act. Gergiev is less successful at conveying those qualities. The last chord of the score embodies this. Instead of gently ebbing, letting the tension flow away at the drama’s resolution, the chord lingers on in almost grim determination, and then suddenly cuts off.

It is, however, the outer acts that are most impressive, and much of the credit must go to the outstanding performance of René Pape as Gurnemanz. This character and his extended monologues can wear anyone’s patience down in any merely adequate performance. Such is the sheer tonal gorgeousness of Pape’s voice and the sensitivity and conviction of his line readings that Gurnemanz becomes what he is surely meant to be — the soul and essence of the opera’s world. Pape’s performance alone will make this set an essential listening experience for lovers of the opera.

The rest of the cast is strong but not at Pape’s level. Violeta Urmana as Kundry sings every note with beautiful control, but the underlying conflict of her character is not conveyed. In the lead role, Gary Lehman shows why his late-blossoming career found its most fertile soil in Wagner’s opera. His tenor has dark colors, yet still easily attains higher notes. He only lacks that elusive quality which makes a voice easily distinguished from all others. Evgeny Nikitin transmits the agony of Amfortas, while Nikolai Putilin’s Klingsor growls and cajoles with aggressive unpleasantness. `

The admirable packaging has a separate sleeve for each of the four discs. The booklet offers a guide for “Reading the Russian Libretto,” which is fascinating but somewhat confusing in its aim, as the libretto is also available in English, German and French, and surely those who opt for the Russian version already know how to read the language…

The sound picture is beautifully captured, and overall this studio recording impresses. When Pape is singing, the selection for the cover of a dark steed makes sense — something noble, powerful, yet pensive and sad is captured inside. Touched with that greatness, this is a Parsifal deserving of attention.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Richard Wagner: Parsifal [Mariinsky MAR0508 [4CDs]] product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Parsifal product_by=Parsifal: Gary Lehman; Kundry: Violeta Urmana; Gurnemanz: René Pape; Klingsor: Nikolai Putilin; Amfortas: Evgeny Nikitin. Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater. Conductor: Valery Gergiev. product_id=Mariinsky MAR0508 [4CDs] price=$55.49 product_url=
Posted by chris_m at 2:33 PM

Risorgimento 150 years after

Since its inception in the early 17th century, opera is a divisive artform in Italy. Over the centuries it had to be apologized for — in front of highbrow intellectuals, who rather advocated the revival of “true” Greek drama, as well as in front of the Church and of the State, no matter whether a petty local lord or an occupant foreign power. Hence, from Monteverdi to Verdi and later, originated all possible combinations of patronage and censorship, celebration and criticism of the powers-that-be. Today, opera has to be marketed as relevant to contemporary issues (which sometimes may apply, and sometimes not) or construed in the specialized media as the battlefield between preservationists and innovators, Werktreu and Regietheater, senior and younger patrons, or whatever.

Good news is that the younger generation is back again in the opera houses. Past are the days when middle-class preppies and undergraduates flocked to jazz, rock, symphony, chamber or avant-garde concerts — nay, even to early music, Gregorian chant and every sort of ethnic, folk and fusion events. In a word: to everything but to opera, largely perceived as the preserve of their reactionary parents and decadent grandparents. The throwing foul eggs at people entering to a season premiere was the favourite sport for many self-styled revolutionaries in their late twenties to early thirties, who had been taught that Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni had ruined Italy, severing it from the live streams of modern culture. Performing such stuff over and over for the sole benefit of the selfish bourgeoisie was a huge waste of money, they maintained. Leaving statistics aside — of which SIAE (the Italian Authors’ Association), Federculture, and sundry agencies provide quite enough -, any casual observer can testify that the panorama has widely changed during the latest decade. Youngsters find that opera is “cool”, discuss it on their blogs or social groups over the Internet, and can be seen queing for it in larger numbers than ever during my operagoers’ experience, which started back in the mid-1960s.

And now to the bad news. It is no secret that Berlusconi’s regime, whose consensus was shaped by — and survives on — telecracy, hates most forms of live show such as drama, ballet, and opera. Particularly opera. Countless times the mercurial Prime Minister and his loudspeakers exposed opera houses as dens of “Communists”, “privileged lazybones”, “unproductive beggars” etc, who do not deserve public support and should apply to the market in order to survive. Since 1985, nearly one half of the State funding for the whole sector of live show, mainly channeled through FUS (Fondo Unico per lo Spettacolo), was divided among the Big 13, now 14, largest opera houses nationwide. At nominal value, the amount of FUS sank from Euro 464.49 million in 2005 to a projected 258.61 for 2011 (-44 per cent). Even worse, during the same period, its percentage on the gross national product decreased from 0.032 to 0.016, a round minus 50 per cent. Worser and worser, further heavy cuts were announced, then promised to be withdrawn, then restated, and finally cancelled under a surge of bipartisan protest leading to the resignation of Culture Minister Sandro Bondi on March 23. Such erratic policies caused opera managers to live day-by-day without being able to effectively plan their seasons, prevented private money from joining in, raised havoc among both the workers and the goers, encouraged the less responsible unions. If the government’s aim was to disrupt the national opera system, it was a brilliant strike.

However, signs of resilience are showing up. Fundraising campaigns are reportedly proving successful — as in Florence, Venice, Naples. Economies on salaries and disproportionate fringe benefits are being implemented through in-house negotiations — as in Bologna, Palermo, and elsewhere. Innovative, if sometimes controversial, means of accruing earned income through rental of the premises for publicity and social events are avidly sought after. Coproductions, both on national and international scale, are in full bloom. The celebrations for the 150enary of Italian unification even brought forth the commission of new operas, whose subject matter was expected to be more or less closely related to the occasion. The appointed composers reacted to the brief with widely different approaches: from critical adherence, through subversion, to open disregard — but none of them (predictably and perhaps fortunately) fell into the trap of patriot rhetorics. Neither the current state of the country, nor the above-mentioned confrontation opposing the political establishment to the world of opera and of high culture at large, would have justified such a surrender. Thus the post of musician laureate, left vacant by serious professionals, was occupied by Giovanni Allevi, the self-styled “new Mozart” and pop icon of the piano, with an equally self-styled “arrangement” of the national anthem Fratelli d’Italia, which is being broadcast over and over on all TV channels, both public and commercial.

* * *

In January, Palermo’s Teatro Massimo started the row of Risorgimento operas with Senso by Marco Tutino. With its scarce two hours of music, Senso mimics a romance film rather than the celebrative grand opera one would expect for a national festival. Epic it is not, as the storyline relies on Camillo Boito’s short novel of the same title (1883), not dealing with the glorious days of 1861, but with the catastrophe of 1866, when Italy’s newborn regular army tested its inefficiency against the rusty military apparate of the Austro-Hungarian empire, so that rescue came from both the Prussian ally and Garibaldi’s volunteers. Movie-oriented it is indeed, inasmuch composer Tutino and librettist Di Leva could not dispense with Luchino Visconti’s masterly film treatment of 1954. In fact, they conflated novel and film into a palimpsest of sorts, where patriotic feelings are the preserve of Italian tavern maids and of Roberto Donà, a naive young nobleman, while old count Serpieri voices high-class opportunism and yields to the change he cannot avoid.

So much for the historic background. Away from Visconti’s high dramaticism about conflicting loyalties (the core of most opera seria plots), and back to Boito’s cynical approach, the focus lies here in the sexual crave of countess Livia Serpieri, pushing her to utter degradation as she gets financially exploited, deceived and abused by the Austrian lieutenant Hans Büchner, a magnificent lover but a pathological coward. After causing him to be court-martialled in revenge, Livia returns to her usual lifestyle of luxury and futile flirting.

Oui, c’est de la décadence. At any rate, one must concede that verse, music and staging are well attuned to it. Tutino’s strongpoint as an operatic composer is to produce music always fitting the given subject, if somewhat impersonal in style. Early in the 1980s, while still a fresh graduate from the Conservatory of his native Milan, he was among the founders of the “neo-romantic” school, campaigning against avantgarde and claiming the right to write entertaining music. What’s more, he actually succeeded in writing some. Such titles as Pinocchio (1985), La lupa (1990), Federico II (1992), Il gatto con gli stivali (1994), Le Bel indifférent (2004), made him probably the most performed among Italian living composers worldwide.

The score’s popular highlights are quotations, more or less harmonically skewed, from the Vienna waltz, Verdi’s Trovatore, a Venetian boat song, a folk serenade from the Trento area and, most notably, the above-quoted national anthem Fratelli d’Italia (an actual battle hymn from the late 1840s), here turned with eerie effect into the minor key — the same procedure Mahler applied in his First Symphony, 3.rd movement. Most outright lyric passages are found in the Puccini-esque Act II (of two, framed by perfunctory short sections called “Prologue” and “Epilogue”). Here, Livia’s complaint aria “Da quante notti non dormo”, Roberto’s disdainful “Non voglio capire”, plus a row of finely-wrought ensembles and choral scenes, add some pepper to the seamless stream of declamato, which makes the main fabric of Tutino’s discourse, albeit sustained by clever orchestral textures. To all that, Hugo de Ana’s pictorial taste provided a backdrop of unparalleled splendour, featuring acrobatic copulations between both principals among sets of mirrors, Baroque architectures, gilded furniture and costumes inspired to such period painters as Silvestro Lega and Giovanni Fattori. The whole company was up to the task, with soprano Nicola Beller Carbone as a sexy and vocally wanton Countess, (anti)-Heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich duly beefy both in his utterances and nude looks, and second soprano Zuzana Marková as the passionate chambermaid Giustina. Conductor Pinchas Steinberg bravely steered the home ensembles clear of the problems which any new score must set, particularly when confrontation runs high between personnel and management (a speech delivered before the curtain by a quartet of union representatives witnessed to that).

* * *

Risorgimento_2_ph-Rolando-G.gifScene from Risorgimento! [Photo by Rolando Guerzoni]

Then, in March-April, Modena’s Teatro Pavarotti and Bologna’s Comunale joined forces for a diptych including Lorenzo Ferrero’s new one-acter Risorgimento! and Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero (1949). The extramusical ground for the association was the theme of struggle against oppression, as Italians use to label the anti-Nazi movement “Resistenza” as “Second Risorgimento”. Subject for Risorgimento! is the time-honoured gimmick of an opera rehearsal, in this case of Verdi’s Nabucco at La Scala in February 1842. The characters are partly taken from history: the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, primadonnas Giovannina Bellinzaghi and Giuseppina Strepponi (later Verdi’s wife). Verdi himself, who is shown in multiple sosias and in various ages, does not sing but delivers a final speech about how the hopes of his revolutionary youth were disappointed. Despite a clumsy libretto, Ferrero succeeded to write entertaining music, navigating between quotations from authentic period material, ironical neo-romantic numbers vaguely resembling arias, cabalettas and ensembles, dances, large orchestral outbursts accompanied by epic projections and thundering battle noise. The up-and-coming soprano Valentina Corradetti got the best of the double bill, first as a passionate Strepponi in the new score and later as The Mother in Dallapiccola’s austere 12-tone masterpiece. At Modena and Bologna, two neighbouring affluent towns in the opera-avid Po Valley, full houses granted an equally warm acclaim both to the modern and the post-modern composer. During the same weeks, a comparable success was harvested in Ravenna, Ferrara and — again — Modena by a production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare featuring Ottavio Dantone and his period band Accademia Bizantina, lots of countertenors and a flamboyant Regietheater staging. There is definitely neither dearth nor scarce diversity of offer in this area, where opera-going is a traditional part of lifestyle, exactly like fine food and progressive political leanings.

* * *

From light-hearted deconstruction to outright off-topic, La Scala mounted Luca Francesconi’s Quartett as a grand peep-show signed by Àlex Ollé, co-director of La Fura dels Baus. A 3-ton parallelepiped hovered above the stage, disquieting projections showed cosmic forces at work and destitute human masses, yet the audience’s eyes were mesmerized on the gruesome action taking place within a dark room or prison of sorts. Heiner Müller’s duodrama, telling the mutual destruction of the selfish characters loosely taken from De Laclos’ Liaisons dangereures, was rounded up by Francesconi with an even bloodier finale borrowed from the same Müller’s Hamletmaschine. However, his own libretto arrangement in English missed most of the original verbal violence, rather sounding as a carnival of Oscar-Wilde-style paradox: “Love is the domain of the servants”... “Fear makes philosophers”... “Virtue is an infectious disease”... Each language has its Geist; how would that sound like in Italian, one wonders. Happier notes came from the music itself. Above the prevailing discourse in atonal conversation-style on gigantic intervals, the solo voices soared in concise florid passages, hints at artificial Baroque belcanto, fragmentary arias and duos. An astounding multimedia experience was provided by the electronic equipment from the Paris IRCAM, which mixed and projected all around various sources: the soloists onstage, a small ensemble in the pit, a large orchestra plus choir secluded within the house’s sixth storey. Terrific singing and red-hot acting by Allison Cook as the Marquise and Robin Adams as the Vicomte. After a cold reception on the premiere, the 6-night run ended in success — not necessarily de scandale.

* * *

_NEU_Konkurrenten.gifScene from L’Italia del destino [Photo by Gianluca Moggi]

Regrettably, no more than two nights were scheduled at Florence’s Maggio Musicale for the last of commissioned operas: L’Italia del destino, Real-Italy in un atto by Luca Mosca. The original plans were, once more, about the background of an opera rehearsal; this time Verdi’s La forza del destino. Then, as Mosca’s favourite librettist Gianluigi Melega was joined by further collaborators, it came to both an actualization of the subject matter and a downsizing of the production. It is doubtful whether the culturati and glitterati flocking in for the premiere at the cosy Teatro Goldoni, an auxiliary venue of the Maggio in downtown Florence, ever experienced first-hand contact with such trashy formats as Il Grande Fratello (The Big Brother) or L’Isola dei Famosi, the tremendously successful reality shows flooding the Italian TV channels 4-5 hours a week. More likely, they would read the scornful reviews that quality newspapers devote to the issue: paper arrows hardly able to compete with the barrage fire deployed by millions of remote controls. Thus the operatic reenactment of one such show — a parade of crass ignorance, exposed flesh, talentless wannabes craving for celebrity and fast money — is turned into a modern version of Commedia dell’Arte, with stock characters, long tirades and very little action. Some dramatic excitement is provided only in the finale, where the Presenter (a cross-dressed summary of the mad scientist Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show plus the Master of Ceremonies in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret) is morphed into Lord Darth Vader from Star Wars, literally slaughtering all the contenders with his laser sword. In his own closing words: “Perdiamo tutti” (We all loose). A good point, but otherwise the libretto, rich in metaphors, quotations, clever rhetoric devices, is exceedingly verbose and does not hurt as an effective satire should. With a drastical pruning, it could work better. Mosca’s music sticks to the subject with nearly 100 minutes of astringent sound, hectic rhythm and tempo changes, trivial jingles and sudden projections to the foreground from individual instruments, particularly woodwinds, like in a madcap sinfonia concertante. Accuracy and relentless attention was shown by the 17 choice instrumentalists from the Maggio house orchestra, led with firm pulse by specialist Marco Angius. Lacking memorable solo numbers, Mosca’s usual leaning toward displays of agility provided opportunities for Roberto Abbondanza, Alda Caiello, Sara Mingardo and Daniela Bruera to show their well-known versatily in the most diverse singing styles. Inventive scenery (by Davide Livermore) featuring tributes to the op-art and Escher’s impossible perspectives, while Gianluca Falaschi’s garish costumes amounted to a ghastly apotheosis of Kitsch.

Carlo Vitali

© Friedrich Berlin Verlag (by kind permission) (condensed from issues 3 and 7/ 2011 of Opernwelt (Berlin, Germany))

Marco Tutino: Senso

Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg; Direction, Stage, Costumes: Hugo de Ana. Cast: Nicola Beller Carbone (Countess Livia Serpieri), Brandon Jovanovich (Lieutenant Hans Büchner, Giorgio Surian (Count Serpieri), Dalibor Jenis (Marquis Roberto Donà).

Palermo, Teatro Massimo, 28 February 2011.

Lorenzo Ferrero: Risorgimento! (with Luigi Dallapiccola: Il Prigioniero)

Conductor: Michele Mariotti; Direction: Giorgio Gallione; Stage: Tiziano Santi; Costumes: Claudia Pernigotti.

Cast for Risorgimento!: Alessandro Spina (The Piano Coach), Annunziata Vestri (Giovannina Bellinzaghi), Alessandro Luongo (Bartolomeo Merelli), Valentina Corradetti (Giuseppina Strepponi), Leonardo Cortellazzi (Luigi Barbiano di Belgiojoso), Umberto Bortolani (Giuseppe Verdi, spoken role).

Cast for Il Prigioniero: Solisten: Chad Armstrong (The Prisoner), Valentina Corradetti (The Mother), Armaz Darashvili (The Gaoler, The Grand Inquisitor), Dario Di Vietri, Mattia Olivieri (Two Priests).

Modena, Teatro Pavarotti, 27 March 2011.

Luca Francesconi: Quartett

Conductor: Susanna Mälkki and Jean-Michaël Lavoie; Direction: Àlex Ollé; Stage: Alfons Flores; Costumes: Lluc Castells; Computer Sound Design: Serge Lemouton. Cast: Allison Cook (Marquise de Merteuil), Robin Adams (Vicomte de Valmont).

Milan, La Scala, 28 April 2011.

Luca Mosca: L’Italia del destino

Conductor: Marco Angius; Direction and Stage: Davide Livermore; Costumes: Gianluca Falaschi. Cast: Daniela Bruera (La Cameriera/ The Chambermaid), Alda Caiello (La Stilista/ The Stylist), Cristina Zavalloni (Sexilia), Sara Mingardo (La Diva/ The Diva), Davide Livermore (Il Cantante/ The Pop Singer), Chris Ziegler (Il Palestrato/ The Bodybuilding-Freak), Roberto Abbondanza (Il Creativo/ The Creative), Sax Nicosia (Il Moderatore/ The Presenter, spoken role).

Florence, Teatro Goldoni, 15 May 2011.

image= image_description=Scene from Senso [Photo by Franco Tutino] product=yes product_title=Risorgimento 150 years after: How the saga of Italian unification in 1861 is being (half-heartedly) celebrated by opera composers product_by=By Carlo Vitali [© Friedrich Berlin Verlag (by kind permission) (condensed from issues 3 and 7/ 2011 of Opernwelt (Berlin, Germany))] product_id=Above: Scene from Senso [Photo by Franco Tutino]
Posted by Gary at 9:55 AM

August 2, 2011

BBC Prom 21

Straddling the interval were the two main works by Prokofiev and Walton. Having re-settled in Russia in 1936, Prokofiev subsequently made two concert tours to the West, and it was the second of these to USA in 1938 which took him to the studios of Hollywood to study film music techniques. Two years later, he was to make superb use of his observations in his collaboration with film maker, Sergey Eisenstein, for the director’s celebrated film Alexander Nevsky, from which Prokofiev later drew his dramatic cantata.

Made at the height of Stalin’s Terror, the film, essentially a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda, relates the victory of medieval prince of Novgorod over Teutonic crusaders in a battle on the frozen Lake Chud. Prokofiev had experience of such ‘populist’ commemorative works, designed to promote Stalinist policy, having composed in 1936-7 the mammoth Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, to texts by Marx, Lenin and Stalin. The work marshalled 500-strong forces to parade the message of socialist realism. However, the composer was accused of ‘vulgarity’, and had perhaps been naïve in choosing texts of such ideological significance, and it was not performed until many years later; that said, its structure, built-up of ten large sections, reveals a strong sense of dramatic form which enriches Alexander Nevsky.

Prokofiev’s move to Russia, after years in the USA and Paris, marked the beginning of his enforced isolation from Western classical music, if only because of the disappearance of such ‘progressive’ music from Russian concert programmes, by order of the Stalinist regime. Any work which adopted a conspicuously ‘western’ approach risked being condemned as ‘formalistic’, but in this cantata Prokofiev never lapses into the bombastic bluster which characterised so many ‘socialist realism’ scores, creating instead a sincere idiom which draws on the modality and form of Russian folk-song, in the manner of Mussorgsky. Eisenstein’s decision to adapt the narrative style of the Russian epic form bylina both reflected the archaic origins of the tale and provided the composer with an appropriate musical framework.

Mussorgsky’s influence is evident throughout the score, most poignantly perhaps in penultimate movement, ‘Field of the Dead’, in which a young girl laments as she seeks the living among the lifeless bodies. Here, Russian mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Serdiuk, projected a warm, sincere sound projected throughout the cavernous hall. Poised in grief, her phrases were eloquently shaped and sustained.

The CBSO also summoned up medieval worlds in the opening movement, ‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke’, where sparse textures and extremes of register evoked the austerity of a long-distant past. The quasi-folk style continued in the ‘Song of Alexander Nevsky’, which introduced the vibrant CBSO chorus in resolute style. Although rather too refined and polished to suggest a truly Russian or Slavonic force, here and in ‘Arise, Russian People’ they built to an astonishing heroic might, one complemented elsewhere by melancholic string playing which painted the chill of the icy landscape, the desolation of the suffering people, and the apprehension before the ensuing battle.

In ‘The Battle on the Ice’, Prokofiev evokes the trials and triumphs of the battlefield. The longest of Nevsky’s seven movements, its filmic roots are evident in the episodic structure; here, Nelsons control of pace was masterly. Brutal repetitive rhythms, vigorous ‘cello playing, dazzling brass flourishes, and wildly cascading strings and woodwind brought the skirmishes of battle to life, both its joys and tribulations. The colourful percussive finale, as the victorious Nevsky enters Pskov, was electrifying.

Commissioned by Jascha Heifetz, Walton’s Violin Concerto is an odd mixture of sensuous, indulgent lyricism and extravagant technical virtuosity. An unusual combination of objective modernist form with deeply Romantic expression, throughout the three movements melancholic dreaming yields without warning to angry, even spiteful, eruptions. Japanese American violinist, Midori, began introspectively — and there were some inequalities of balance — her quiet reveries building to a broader lyricism in the arching song-like melodies of the opening Andante tranquillo. Tiny, hunched forward, she unleashed astonishing outbursts of energy. The exuberant, quicksilver Italianate scherzo, Presto capriccioso alla napolitana, revealed a playful brilliance, as soloist and orchestra danced through a tarantella and ironic mock-waltz. The horn melody in the central trio, canzonetta, was suitably dreamy, before the Neapolitan folksong was passed to the solo violin whose ethereal harmonics climbed ever higher.

The canzonetta theme is transformed into a march-like melody for final Vivace, a dramatic polyphonic dialogue between soloist and orchestra alternating with tender, ardent melodies, and here soloist and orchestra presented a brilliant display of technical dexterity and masterly musicianship, united in purpose and execution.

Nelsons’ innate feeling for orchestral colour and pace was also apparent in the two works by Richard Strauss which framed the concert. The CBSO relished the exquisite textures and timbres of Don Juan, revelling in the tender delicacy and lush richness which express the youthful Strauss’ own life and loves. Nelsons, despite his unceasing animation, kept a tight reign on proceedings, perfectly controlling the subdued, minor key close which denies the audience, and the eponymous ‘hero’, a concluding sense of joy and ‘victory’. There was some superb solo playing from the principal woodwind, especially oboist Rainer Dutch, whose exquisite tone and shaping of phrase were a delight. Virtuosic feats from the enlarged orchestra continued in the slinky ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, effectively a flamboyant orchestral encore to a consummate evening of music-making.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Icon of Alexander Nevsky [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=R. Strauss: Don Juan; Walton: Violin Concerto; Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky; R. Strauss: ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ (Salomé). product_by=Midori , violin. Nadezhda Serdiuk , mezzo-soprano. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. CBSO Chorus. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Royal Albert Hall, London, Saturday 30th July, 2011. product_id=Above: Icon of Alexander Nevsky [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 9:52 AM

August 1, 2011

La traviata at the Aix Festival

Natalie Dessay is more or less a national hero here in France, maybe even more famous than Carla Bruni. Nonetheless there are those of us who are not fans of Mme. Dessay, thus we were relieved to be able to attend one of the four performances of La traviata sung by Irina Lungu.

Ironically the star of this traviata finally was not Mlle. Lungu nor probably was it la Dessay but its metteur en scene Jean-François Sivadier, an actor and later playwright who declared his love for la traviata back in 1996 in a theater piece that became very famous in France. Called Italienne avec orchestra, it was based on fictional rehearsals for a presumed production of La traviata.

Mr. Sivadier has truly fulfilled his dreams these many years later, and given enormous pleasure to Aix audiences with his finally finished traviata. For Mr. Sivadier Violetta is not a courtesan but an actress, a calling far more familiar to most of us these days. Though a concession to current perceptions is not Mr. Sivandier’s intention (he offers a convoluted rationale in his program booklet apology) it was an interpretive tool that accommodates a diva as an actress, not troubling her to attempt a character, here Piave’s sympathetic courtesan.

The hard part was not seeing Mme. Dessay, for whom Mr. Sivandier’s production was finally created, in every move and gesture made by young Russian soprano Irina lungu, an ingenue traviata. Once past this distraction however Mlle. Lungu made this Violetta her own, her fresh voice, burnished tone and fine Italianate style well sustaining the substantially different vocal demands of the first and last acts, her almost convincing diva stage presence unencumbered by a famous name and excessive fame.

Mr. Sivandier’s traviata catalogued virtually every twentieth theatrical cliché, from Brechtian devices to physical theater, from Stanislavski acting to cinematic realism, and of course plenty of scenic graffiti. Since his basic metaphor was self-conscious theater the use of such diverse techniques was central to his concept, and amusingly appropriate.

The traviata herself was the most theatrically abstracted character, dying without so much as a cough, simply walking forward into bright light with the blackout just at the moment she would step into the pit. Alfredo was the least abstracted character, the admirations, supplications and sufferings of a most sympathetic Charles Castronovo were cinematically real, and very human. This young American tenor is a light voiced, stylishly correct singer. He sang all ten performances, some back to back, perhaps explaining the cracked b-flat as he stormed off-stage to follow Violetta to Paris (7/18).

Germont fulfilled the psychological reversals (reinterpretations) that fulfill later twentieth century theatrical exigencies. No longer the gentle, hurt father French baritone Ludovic Tézier realized a bullying Germont with steely tone and threatening, uncomfortable presence. And yes, the ‘Di Provenza’ cabaletta was restored, dramatically motivated by a cowering Alfredo. Mr. Castronovo is a fine actor.

Aix-Traviata-4.gifIrina Lungu as Violetta and Charles Castronovo as Alfredo

This Aix traviata was made festival fare by availing itself of unusual operatic collaborators. Veteran opera conductor Louis Langrée conjured a traviata of extraordinary sweetness and passivity taking advantage of the symphonic resources of the London Symphony Orchestra, indulging in beauty of symphonic tone rather than dramatic pressures. The Estonian Chamber Choir provided pleasurable, excessively careful tone and musicianship in its stolid presence, betrayed by the two female choristers who executed fine physical theater, full body death collapses in their fourth act rejoicing, a vista in Mr. Sivadier’s rehearsal production.

The action of Mr. Sivadier’s opera took place on an empty stage during Traviata rehearsals — a constructed empty stage erected on the stage of the Archeveché theater. The back wall was black, simulated brick. There were minimal costumes (Annina was Violetta’s wardrobe assistant) — Violetta’s rehearsal costume was a leftover sort of commedia dell’arte Colombina). There were few hand props — flower bouquets presented to the diva by admirers, and champagne glasses. A few small painted cloud flats and de rigueur crystal chandeliers flew in from time to time to suggest locale.

Le_clemenza_Aix.gifScene from La clemenza di Tito

The Aix Festival’s La clemenza di Tito occurred within the actual empty stage housing of the Archeveché Theater, the back wall of which is the south courtyard facade of this old bishops palace. This last of the Mozart operas was staged by David McVicor, a member of good standing of the British opera director cabal. Perhaps this accordance to British artistic imperialism was determined by the presence of the London Symphony Orchestra succeeding the Berlin Philharmonic as the festival’s orchestra in residence.

The LSO was again in the pit, with none other than Sir Colin Davis at the helm, though at this point he is more a reverential presence than a musically inspirational one. But we enjoyed rock solid Anglo-Saxon sound, musicianship and style. All this added little to the performance (7/06) as this strange, anachronistic opera seria demands a determined pit presence, here sorely lacking.

The Aix Festival at its best profits from intelligent artistic gullibility, but it was obviously tricked into acceding to stage director Mr. McVicor the creation of the scenic space for his staging of Tito. This amounted to a clumsy, huge gray stair unit (some sort of temple) stage left, and a couple of black columns sitting on a small black platform stage right. Both units rolled on and off stage from time to time, though a monumental white marble statue of Tito remained on the stage all the time. Its face turned red when Sextus was to be executed at Titus’ command.

Yes, you got it — shades of black, white and red (for blood). Red lighted theatrical fog (i.e. smoke) oozed through the apertures of the façade of the bishop’s palace during the Roman uprising. All this Mr. Vicor’s idea of minimalism.

Tito was costumed in a white satin 18th century formal court dress quotation that included a powdered wig and shiny white shoes. He dragged a twenty-foot mantel that he tried to fold up when governing became all to much for him, and comically it was a bit much for him to organize Mr. Vicar’s conceit. But Tito finally forgave everyone, almost. Mr. McVicor had a surprise up his sleeve — Tito’s eight black costumed, semi-balletic dragoon figurants (extras) skewered Vitelia (a solid black gown)! Blackout!

American tenor Gregory Kunde took the place at the last minute for an indisposed John Mark Ainsley as Tito. Mr. Kunde has enjoyed much success at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro over the years. He is not a Mozart singer or an elegant performer. Italian soprano Carmen Ginnattasio as the antagonist Vitelia offered mannered, spat Italian with grating “r”’s — fun for a while. English soprano Sarah Connolly brought solid Anglo-Saxon artistry to Sextus, but nothing more.

Win some, lose some.

LeNez_Aix.gifScene from Le Nez/The Nose

The third and last big production of this sixty-third Aix festival was Shostakovich’s Le Nez/The Nose (ticket price $340), a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera where it opened last year (ticket price $240 +/-), and the Opéra de Lyon where it plays in October (ticket price $140).

South African artist/actor William Kentridge is the author of this production, thus instead of the filter of a symphony orchestra between the opera and its production (as for the Traviata and Tito) there was the filter of a mature, powerful contemporary visual artist to distance us from this youthful (composed by Shostakovich when he was 22 years old) experiment/prank/masterpiece.

Casting was as problematic as it had been in New York. South Pacific star Paulo Szot, the Met’s Kovaliov (who loses his nose), had been replaced by Albert Schagidullin who was replaced after the program was printed by Vladimir Samsonov. Though a veteran of the role at Paris’ Bastille Mr. Samsonov who began his career as an operetta artist was not a big enough singer or strong enough performer to command the stage in Aix.

In his previous opera productions (Il ritorno d’Ulisse and Die Zauberflöte) Mr. Kentridge has used puppetry to great effect. This theatrical abstraction is echoed in his visual art in abstracted black two-dimensional human forms on white background and sometimes some red lines as well, and here these paper cut-out forms sometimes re-appeared in marching formation during musical interludes.

Mr. Kentridge offered many collages as well including a show curtain that was an abstracted newspaper with both English and now French catchy news items teasing early socialism. To distance or distract us further from Gogol’s derisive text other interlude collages included such video images as a middle-aged Shostakovich playing the piano!

Mr. Kentridge’s visual language is essentially good natured, with studied charm. He projected this temperament onto the staged scenes by making Sweeney Todd like vignette’s pop out of the show curtain from time to time. This technically complex, completely finished production teetered on the edge of popular musical theater. Maybe this is why the public in the 1350 seat, indoor Grand Théâtre de Provence roared its approval (7/08), and the word on the street was that it was a great show!

The strengths of the production were the resources of the Opéra de Lyon, its music director Kazushi Ono providing a chiseled if somewhat restrained reading of this extravagant score by the fine orchestra of what is certainly France’s premier opera company. The contributions of the chorus of the Opéra de Lyon gave real pleasure as well.

To these strengths add the fine, appropriately expressionistic, exaggerated characters of Gogol’s ravings enacted by tenor Andrei Popov as the Inspector, Vladimer Ognovenko as the Barber and Vasily Efimov as Kovaliov’s servant (all veterans of the Met cast). The casting of Tehmine Yeghiazaryan as the Daughter of Madame Podtotchine is however inexplicable (after all you paid $340 for your ticket!).

Coupling Mr. Kentridge’s puppetry with Mozart’s puppet opera masterpiece, The Magic Flute made sense. His production was enthralling. In Aix just now however the strident young Shostakovich was shortchanged. It was a long one hour forty minutes.

Michael Milenski

image= image_description=Natalie Dessay as Violetta [Photo by Pascal Victor / Artcom Art courtesy of Festival d'Aix en Provence] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata; W.A. Mozart: La clemenza di Tito; Dmitri Shostakovich: Le Nez/The Nose product_by=Click here for La traviata production information

Click here for La clemenza di Tito production information

Click here for Le Nez/The Nose production information product_id=Above: Natalie Dessay as Violetta

Photos by Pascal Victor / Artcom Art courtesy of Festival d’Aix en Provence
Posted by michael_m at 12:10 PM

La Wally, Opera Holland Park, London

La Wally has huge potential. It’s an Italianate Der Freischütz, imbued with the wild, free spirit of the Romantic Movement, though Catalani was a contemporary of Puccini. Perhaps they shared a common fascination with exotic locales and extreme emotion.

La Wally is gloriously theatrical. The heroine, Wally, is extraordinary. She’s an elemental, part woman, part nature spirit, who lives alone in the wilderness — surviving, one imagines, on sheer force of will. Compared to Wally, Carmen is a wimp. This story isn’t set in the high Alps for nothing. The mountains loom upwards towards the stratosphere. Extraordinary heroine, extraordinary setting: mountain peaks, frozen glaciers, crevasses, snowstorms and an avalanche.

Catalani’s music isn’t sophisticated, but it’s gorgeously atmospheric. Peter Robinson conducted the City of London Sinfonia with brio. Horns on one side, trombones and trumpet on the other, “calling” to one another as villagers in the Alps might do — church bells, the sound of distant hunting horns, long booming alpenhorns (created by the trombones), the sound of cowbells, bright sunny flute motifs, not-quite-Ländler dances, just bucolic enough to be humorous. This music is so colourful that you can visualize the imagery.

Then the atmosphere changes, like the weather in the Alps. Wally has been away for a year in the wilderness. The villagers are carousing in the square by the tavern. Wally is humiliated and overreacts. From then on Wally’s fate is sealed. The Andante that begins Act III marks a turning point. It’s moody, as if the weather is closing in. Catalani’s writing is so vivid that it becomes the drama. Wally’s heroic rescue mission is described in hard-driven figures. The avalanche music in Act IV could come straight out of Hollywood.

La Wally is a fascinating opera, so full of possibilities that it should be heard in full more frequently. So I was frustrated that more wasn’t made of it. Certainly, the opportunities were there. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, who was a sensational Leonora in the 2010 OHP production of Verdi’s La forza del destino, was a brilliant choice for Wally. This isn’t any easy role to cast, particularly since the stars who’ve made the famous arias so popular are hard to equal. Wally is a complex personality, full of extremes and contradictions. The score gives clues to her background, but the part is so remarkable that there’s so much that could be done to flesh out the part. Jeffers has a voice with good range and emotional depth.

Her ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’ was poignant, because Jeffers understands what leaving the village means to Wally. Wally takes risks, like her emblem the edelweiss, she clings to steep slopes and survives harsh conditions. Forceful as Wally is, Jeffers shows her finest colours in the Third and Fourth Act arias. Her dialogue with Walter (Alinka Kozari) is spirited, and her ‘Eterne a me d’intorno’ was a study in heartfelt dignity.

LaW-062.gifStephen Richardson as Stromminger and Stephen Gadd as Gellner

Jeffers can act as well as sing, as her performance in La forza demonstrated. In this production, her resources were sadly underutilized. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans keeps Jeffers busy doing things like change her clothes. In the score she removes her bodice, but on this stage she’s stripped down to her underwear, somewhat gratuitously. She’s directed to move in an inhibited way, as if she’s domesticated. The pearls aren’t merely decorative but as symbolic as a chain. Perhaps Wally is a victim of abuse, for Stromminger (Stephen Richardson) keeps beating her up, but she’s far too strong a personality to be cowed. Jeffers really should be groomed for greater things. She’s an asset British opera should nurture properly

This production had a generally strong cast. Adrian Dwyer and Stephen Gadd sing Hagenbach and Gellner better than they are called on to act. Stephen Richardson’s Stromminger is weighty — a pity the character dies after Act 1. Alinka Kozari’s Walter is bright and sharply characterized. Her extended Act I monologue was a joy. Charles Johnston was Il Pedone and Heather Shipp a sparky Afra.

La Wally isn’t an easy opera to stage, but Catalani’s score is so inherently dramatic that it suggests imaginative solutions. The mountains and the wild extremes of nature reflect the excesses in Wally’s personality. They function like a chorus, “speaking” through the music, sometimes sunny, but gradually more turbulent. and menacing, culminating in the avalanche. Mountains are dangerous, as Catalani keeps reminding us in the score. There’s almost no way anyone could stage La Wally realistically, for a narrative like this demands suspension of disbelief. Landscape settings on this grand scale would have been technically impossible in Catalani’s time. Realism in opera isn’t “tradition” but aberration. This opera is surreal nature fantasy, but that doesn’t mean banal.

Designer Jamie Vartan sidesteps the issue altogether, using a painter’s dropcloth, suspended by guy ropes that remain clearly visible throughout and threaten to trip the singers at several points. Only in the very end does the dropcloth make sense, when it’s manipulated to look much more like mountains, but by then the opera’s nearly over. The problem of how to stage the avalanche is solved but until that point, we’re often left staring at the carved portico that remains of Holland Park House which completely undercuts the idea of open horizons and wilderness. Since the opera itself comprises two distinct parts it might have been more effective to realise the difference with different settings, Perhaps filmed projections might work well in other houses, but Holland Park is almost open-air. Given the nature of the two acts, even a good old fashioned painted backdrop of mountains might work. It could be witty and let the singers and orchestra do their thing.

The staging is so awkward that if you didn’t know the plot you’d be lost. Gellner chases Hagenbach up the peaks and pushes him into a crevasse in the glacier. Catalani’s music describes the urgency and struggle with whirling figures like wind, trudging staccato, tearing, screaming figures from the string section, alarums from the brass. But what we get on stage is a trestle table about three feet high, covered with cloth. Gadd scuffles with Dwyer who rolls onto the other side of the table. The avalanche roars through the orchestra. We see an acrobat hanging from a rope on stage but the music has already told us that Wally and Hagenbach have been so overwhelmingly engulfed that no trace of them remains.

La Wally is definitely worth going to as it could be a while before another production comes along. Don’t worry too much about the staging, but focus on the excellent singing and the lively orchestra. This opera has great potential, so it’s worth thinking about in depth.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Wally and Stephen Richardson as Stromminger [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park] product=yes product_title=Alfredo Catalani: La Wally product_by=Wally: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers; Stromminger: Stephen Richardson; Afra: Heather Shipp; Walter: Alinka Kozari; Hagenbach: Adrian Dwyer; Gellner: Stephen Gadd; Il Pedone: Charles Johnston. Conductor: Peter Robinson. City of London Sinfonia. Director: Martin Lloyd-Evans. Designer: Jamie Vartan. Holland Park Opera. 29th July to 12th August 2011. product_id=Above: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Wally and Stephen Richardson as Stromminger

Photos by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park
Posted by anne_o at 10:45 AM