September 30, 2011

The music of Donnacha Dennehy

In Celtic, those words serve as the title of a major piece by the relatively young Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy (b. 1970). And that piece — Grá agus Bás — gives its title to the CD containing it and a song cycle set to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, called That the Night Come. Bob Simpson’s booklet essay for the Nonesuch release attributes to the composer the claim that the title piece is “in no sense a Nationalistic statement.” Indeed, despite the Irish folk music that serves as the inspiration for Grá agus Bás and the poetry of one of Ireland’s greatest authors forming the basis of That the Night Come, the Nonesuch CD doesn’t feel like a 21st century Irish travelogue in contemporary music form. Dennehy manages the tricky and admirable feat of creating music that, while definitely showing its influences, presents a strong and interesting personal profile.

The title piece is a very bold statement. About 25 minutes in length, Grá agus Bás features the vocalism of Iarla Ó Lionáird, a man who specializes in sean-nós, “old tradition” singing. This is full-voiced singing, within a rather limited range, in which wavering of pitch colors the sound, offering tints of yearning and eeriness. Dennehy maintains interest over the work’s span by varying the textures in seamless segments. At root, the accompanying Crash Ensemble performs a sort of kaleidoscope of minimalist gestures, but more of John Adams's style than, say, that of Philip Glass. This is to say, there are acerbic statements at times, and more of a subtly shifting static fabric than the endlessly looping arpeggios of Glass.

Nonesuch provides an English translation of the texts for Grá agus Bás (as well as the Yeats’ poems), but perhaps the best way to experience Grá agus Bás is to let the sound wash over one, imaging the changing weather playing across the sort of bleak but beautiful landscape seen in the packaging art.

Dawn Upshaw takes the vocal line in That the Night Come, but Dennehy’s lines bring touches of the sean-nós tradition, and Upshaw manages them very well. As ever, her enunciation is crystal clear, and though her soprano has noticeably darkened, it is still a very attractive presence. The six selections range from just over 3 minutes to about 9, and the Crash Ensemble’s support sometimes features percussion and electronic effects that show Dennehy’s familiarity with the better representatives of pop-rock music of the last two decades. Still, this is unmistakably art music — not aggressively challenging, but evocative and complex.

Without resorting to excessive claims, this is one recording of contemporary music that leaves a listener interested in hearing more from a composer. Donnacha Dennehy may not have intended a “nationalistic statement,” but Ireland has itself a major voice.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Donnacha Dennehy: Grá agus Bás

product_title=Donnacha Dennehy: Grá agus Bás
product_by=Click here for the list of musicians and production staff
product_id=Nonesuch 527063-2 [CD]

Posted by chris_m at 10:55 AM

Mahler, Royal Festival Hall

Whilst always interested in hearing great or potentially interesting Mahlerians, I simply have no need to hear Maestro x conduct orchestra y in a run-of-the-mill Mahler Symphony no.z. Hearing the symphonies (alas, bar the Tenth) and song-cycles (bar some of the Wunderhorn songs) from the Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, and Pierre Boulez, in Berlin, in April 2007, was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my musical life. When the Philharmonia announced its 2011 Mahler cycle under Lorin Maazel, my enthusiasm was tempered. Nevertheless, I have heard good things, from a variety of sources, many of which I respect greatly, as the cycle has progressed. It therefore seemed time to experience Maazel’s Mahler for myself. On this showing, I am afraid, it emerges as barely preferable to that of Valery Gergiev, the miscast conductor of another (!) recent London cycle.

The opening work, or rather part of a work, the ‘Adagio’ from the Tenth Symphony was as unbearable as Gergiev’s, albeit in rather different ways. At least Gergiev rushed through his equally micromanaged account; I wonder whether anyone has taken this movement so slowly, whether individually or as part of a complete symphonic performance. Maazel’s reading actually opened promisingly, the viola line tremulous in a good way, suggestive, if we dare follow so Romantically autobiographical a route, of the failing heartbeat more often associated, dubiously or otherwise, with the Ninth Symphony. Thereafter, torpor set in. I have nothing against a daringly slow tempo, but Maazel proved quite incapable of sustaining it, at least meaningfully. Whatever the truth of the minutes on the clock, the music sounded as if it were taken at half-speed, and worse still, a phrase at a time, often with meaningless pauses inserted between those phrases. Worse still again, almost every subdivision of every beat was visibly and, more to the point, audibly, conducted, sapping Mahler’s music of any life. The music collapsed, less under its own (undeniable) weight than under the conductor’s shallowness: there was not even the slightest suggestion that it meant anything, whether or no that ‘anything’ might be put into words. It was, I am sad to say, inert and insufferable. Much of Mahler’s music might well be understood as haunted by death, but that means nothing without the impulse to life, here utterly lacking. Oh for the late Kurt Sanderling, Conductor Emeritus of the Philharmonia…

Maazel.gifLorin Maazel

Das Lied von der Erde was better, though mostly on account of the soloists’ contribution. The first movement, ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’, did not initially show Stefan Vinke at his best. Intonational problems compounded the cruel, almost insupportable, challenge Mahler throws at the tenor in this song. However, Vinke improved considerably in the second and third stanzas, the latter evincing the heroism of a Siegfried – or rather the forlorn Mahlerian effort to return to a Siegfried, to which effort’s failure the only answer is to fill the wine glass and to drink oneself into oblivion. If only the conducting had not been so regimented; for Maazel, alas, exchanged torpor for brash brutality, the unifying feature being lifelessness born at least in part of that direction of every last subdivision of a beat. Even Sir Simon Rattle at his most tediously ‘interventionist’ rarely conducts quite so fussily. Once again, I longed for Sanderling, still more so for Bruno Walter, cited by Julian Johnson in his excellent pre-performance talk.

The frozen quality, both temporal and sonorous, of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ suited Maazel better, if only by default. Alice Coote surmounted a viral infection in a fine Lieder-singer’s account, equally attentive to words and line. The words ‘Mein Herz ist müde’ were imploring, touching almost beyond words. There was a true sense of this as a song, in which Maazel, mercifully, acted more as ‘accompanist’ than ‘conductor’. (I was again struck by the parallel with Rattle, who often emerges preferably when paying heed to a soloist.) ‘Von der Jugend’ emerged mechanically, but at least there was a Coppelia-sort of life to it, absent entirely during the first part of the concert. Vinke was on good form, by turns playful and nostalgic, doubtless benefiting from the reality that this song is much less of a vocal struggle. If both ‘Von der Jugend’ and ‘Von der Schönheit’ ultimately veered towards the neo-classical, failing to yield as Mahler should, then one could at least appreciate the pointing of the chinoiserie. Meaning in the latter, it must be said, seemed to hail entirely from Coote, not from the podium. Vinke once again showed some strain at the outset of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, but settled reasonably into Siegfried-vein: his was not the subtlest reading, but it was for the most part well enough delivered. Leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay provided a delectable solo, but Maazel never proved more than efficient.

It was, then, something of a surprise to hear the baleful opening chords of ‘Der Abschied’ so resounding in menace, movingly responded to by Christopher Cowie’s excellent oboe solo. The problem was that this seemed to have come from nowhere. Mahler’s extraordinary finale needs to be approached, not implanted. One could draw solace that the music, at least to start with, moved fluently, but it rarely moved. Coote suffered a few moments where strain told, not least in a somewhat sour rendition of the words ‘die müden Menschen gehn heimwärts, um im Schlaf vergessnes Glück’, but more important were her palpable sincerity and textual understanding. The final blue light in the distance truly sounded as if it were such in eternity. With the best will in the world, however, it could not be said that her sensibility, even when ailing, was matched by Maazel, despite some fine woodwind playing (and an unfortunate, albeit brief, duet between flute and telephone). The laboured quality of the purely orchestral passages told their own story. Why, I could not help but wonder, did the Philharmonia not offer its Mahler cycle to a musician or to musicians better suited to the task?

Mark Berry

image= image_description=Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society] product=yes product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no.10: I. ‘Adagio’; Das Lied von der Erde product_by=Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano); Stefan Vinke (tenor); Philharmonia Orchestra. Conductor: Lorin Maazel. Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday, 29 September 2011. product_id=Above: Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]
Posted by Gary at 9:33 AM

September 29, 2011

Excerpt: 'Anna Bolena' at the Met

[NY Times, n.d.]

Anna Netrebko in the final scene of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” filmed during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera. (Video courtesy of the Met.)

Posted by Gary at 11:28 AM

Independent podcast - ENO OperaTalks: David Pountney

[The Independent, 29 September 2011]

Edward Seckerson talks to David Pountney about the UK premiere of Miecyzslaw Weinberg's Holocaust opera The Passenger

Posted by Gary at 11:11 AM

September 28, 2011

Bluthaus, Theater Bonn

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 28 September 2011]

In the house where her parents abused her and then slaughtered each other, Nadja is haunted by voices. She wants to get out. The estate agent brings customers eager to buy - to no avail. Nadja cannot free herself from the self-destructive need for her father’s love.

Posted by Gary at 2:28 PM

Faust, Royal Opera House

A stellar cast — Angela Gheorghiu, Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape and Dmitri Hvorostovsky — made this a sense of occasion, although the production, by David McVicar, was first seen in 2004. The performance worked well because there was good integration of all elements that contribute towards operatic experience — singing, staging, acting and orchestra. Following on from the superb Puccini Il trittico (reviewed here), it made for a spectacular start to the 2011/2 season at the Royal Opera House, London.

McVicar himself wasn’t present, but revival director Lee Blakely must have inspired the cast, for they were singing with great panache. Perhaps a little too much at times, for both Gheorghiu and Grigolo threw themselves so passionately into their parts that at times, there were weaknesses. But better this enthusiasm than technically note-perfect and dull. Faust and Marguerite don’t have Méphistophélès’s demonic powers, but they beat him in the end.

Faust_ROH_2011_02.pngRené Pape as Méphistofèlés

It was touching to see how genuinely happy Gheorghiu seemed to be when she comes upon the jewel box and forgets the studied froideur, with which she sang “The Song of the King of Thule.” If her diction wavers, it’s not entirely out of context. Gheorghiu’s Marguerite, despite the unflattering blonde wig, is sympathetic. Faust’s sacrificing love becomes altogether plausible.

Faust stretches Vittorio Grigolo vocally, but he compensates with expressive acting. His bright, exuberant timbre creates a Faust who’s hypnotized by the excitement of being young, a junkie to the thrill of new sensations. Thus he fits well with René Pape’s suave Méphistophélès. This opera is as much about social values as metaphysical struggle, so Pape’s sophisticated “French” urbanity may indeed be preferable. The humour in the plot, and the dogged cheerfulness in much of the orchestral writing indicates a lighter touch than obvious melodramatic malevolence.

Gounod’s long sequences for ballet are integral to the opera because, like the mercurial scene changes, they add sparkling wit. The witches in Walpurgis Night aren’t ugly crones but seductive ballerinas, who in this production have an orgy with the male patrons of the ballet. Just as Faust is tempted by sex, and Méphistophélès is repelled by Marthe (Carole Wilson)’s generous offer, so were audiences in Gounod’s time titilliated by tutus and dancers of easy virtue. These “witches” are free spirits of nature. Margeurite and Faust do what comes naturally. When Méphistophélès sings about “Reines de beauté, de l’antiquité”, Pape wears a woman’s black gown. Perhaps the reference is to Ortrud and her ancient gods, but more likely it connects to Goethe’s Eternal Feminine, temporarily usurped by Satan.

Faust_ROH_2011_03.pngAngela Gheorghiu as Marguérite

Hence the creation of Siébel as trouser role (Michèle Losier,). Nothing is quite what it appears to be in this moral universe. Even the “sculpture” in the church turns out to be Méphistophélès in a marble-coloured cape.

There’s a similar logic to Gounod’s emphasis on the military.context. It’s great theatre and the rousing march “Gloire immortelle” is justly famous. It expands the part of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, for he symbolizes the moral force that stand up to Méphistophélè’s sensual wiles. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is luxury casting, and his big arias, especially the curse, were superbly dramatic. In this production, he also has to act a lot, both in the sword scenes and in the ballet, where now he’s one of the undead, and is tempted. Macabrely, by the dancers. Perhaps Valentin doesn’t have to be.young, but Valentin’s naivety is so much a part of the role that we should cherish Hvorostovsky while we can.

Stage designs, by Charles Edwards are sumptuous, but as usual, his designs “act” amplifying themes in the drama. Town transforms to church then to the Harz mountains and to the Théâtre Lyrique, as mercurially as Méphistophélès can transport Faust through time and place. Spartan gloom to gorgeous luxury to desolation, like Faust’s life. Marguerite’s redemption seems even more miraculous. There’s no need to lift her up to the ceiling. Gheorghiu lies still, lit in pristine simplicity.

So much in this opera depends on the orchestra and the choruses, and this we had in abundance. Evelino Pidò first conducted at the Royal Opera House in 1993, His experience and focus pulled all the elements of the performance together extremely well.

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

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Vittorio Grigolo as Faust [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of Royal Opera House]

product_title=Charles Gounod: Faust
product_by=Faust: Vittorio Grigolo; René Pape: Méphistophélès; Marguerite: Angela Gheorghiu; Wagner: David Grice; Valentin: Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Siébel: Michèle Losier; Marthe Schwertlein: Carole Wilson; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Evelino Pidò. Director: David McVicar. Revival Director: Lee Blakeley. Set Designs: Charles Edwards. Costume Designs: Brigette Reifenstuel. Lighting designs: Paule Constable. Choreography: Michael Keegan-Dolan. Revival Choreographer: Daphne Strothmann. Royal Opera House, London.
product_id=Above: Vittorio Grigolo as Faust

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of Royal Opera House

Posted by anne_o at 12:30 PM

The Dallas Opera Announces Meeting of Key Milestones in the Planned Turnaround of the Company’s Finances

[Dallas Opera, 28 September 2011]
DALLAS, SEPTEMBER 28, 2011 - The Dallas Opera, after taking the difficult step last July of cancelling one of the five mainstage productions of the 2011-2012 “Tragic Obsessions” Season, in order to preserve cash and accelerate the company’s quest for financial balance, is now meeting key milestones in its turnaround plan. This is credited to both significant cost reductions and an outpouring of generous financial support for the company in the wake of that cancellation.

Posted by Gary at 11:49 AM

Lucrezia Borgia in San Francisco

Venetian facades are marble, not brick, thus it takes more than blue light rippling on red brick walls to evoke Venice. Lucrezia’s new home Ferrara was not towering walls of Styrofoam bricks painted red, plus it is obvious that all of Lucrezia’s evil machinations did not occur in a strong, golden sunset sidelight.

Rolex is not spelled Borgia, even though the golden insignia that hung over the stage seemed to advertise luxury watches, and the B wrenched from the Borgia name (that somehow found itself inscribed on a tomb in Ferrara) was a dead ringer for the serifed first letter of Bulgari.

Amazingly Mme. Fleming’s second act, stupendously rich gown upstaged both red Styrofoam and gold gel (the transparent film that colors stage lights), and the ridiculousness of her third act soldier disguise (revealing ample décolletage under a bouffant wig) upstaged her maternal anguish (she had had to poison her son).

LB_SFO3.gifMichael Fabiano as Gennaro and Elizabeth DeShong as Maffio Orsini

Mme. Fleming has carefully nurtured the image of American artistic luxury. Her porcelain persona was everywhere evident on the War Memorial stage. Mme. Fleming is at the same time a very intelligent artist who possesses a unique talent and a beautiful voice. Perhaps if this production had presented her as a real person we might have perceived a full, beautifully voiced character of brutal mind and twisted integrity.

Donizetti and his librettist’s idea of Lucrezia Borgia is as a bel canto heroine — no matter how horrible a person she may be, and how terrible her circumstances become, the music must always be beautiful, her voice soaring gloriously. Bel canto titillates its acolytes (willing audiences) with this contradiction. In the artificial atmospheres of this production that set out solely to beautify Mme. Fleming she read as dramatically and vocally insipid. And, well, the opera is all about her.

Lucrezia Borgia boasts sensational subject matter beyond infanticide. Her son Gennaro has sworn eternal love to his friend Maffio Orsini, who is actually a girl because it is a pants role. So a guy loves a guy who is actually a girl. Unfortunately this production precluded any resulting sexual titillation by casting diminutive mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini who read as Gennaro’s belligerent baby sister.

Even so the B in bel canto did succeed somewhat in forcing its way into the theater. Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza provided a solidly idiomatic if uninspired reading of Donizetti’s score, perhaps in reaction to the production. American tenor Michael Fabiano gave great pleasure, as a singer he is stylish and correct as evidenced in his splendid “Di pescator ignobile," and he glowed as an accomplished actor in scenes with his no affect mother. Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow made a big impression as Lucrezia’s third husband, Alfonso d’Este, tearing up the stage with his showpiece "Vieni, la mia vendetta!"

LB_SFO2.gifVitalij Kowaljow as Duke Alfonso and Daniel Montenegro as Rustighello

While Mlle. DeShong did not physically measure up to Orsini she proved herself to be a strong singer. Among the smaller roles the Rustighello of Adler Fellow Daniel Montenegro was effectively drawn.

The libretto by Felice Romano is undeserving of ridicule. It accomplishes what a bel canto libretto sets out to do — create situations that can only be resolved by beautiful singing. But Lucrezia Borgia is like a carefully constructed short story where there is not one word too many, and in fact Donizetti revised the opera several times so maybe there is not one note too many either. It is this stark minimalism that shunts this blunt opera from masterpiece status.

Stage direction, sets and costumes are all by English producer John Pascoe, a production he created for Mme. Fleming at the Washington Opera in 2008.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia
product_by=Lucrezia Borgia: Renée Fleming; Maffio Orsini: Elizabeth DeShong; Gennaro: Michael Fabiano; Alfonso d’Este: Vitalij Kowaljow; Rustighello: Daniel Montenegro; Jeppo iverotto: Christopher Jackson; Oloferno Vitellozzo: Brian Jagde; Apostolo Gazello: Austin Kness; Astolfo: Ryan Kuster; Ascanio Petrucci: Ao Li; Gubetta: Igor Vieira. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Riccardo Frizza. Production and stage direction: John Pascoe. War Memorial Opera House, 26 September 2011.
product_id=Above: Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 11:21 AM

Ioan Holender Farewell Concert

Perhaps some will say, a better way would be to also have Plácido Domingo, Leo Nucci, Anna Netrebko, and Thomas Hampson, among others, and sure enough, they appear as well. Actually, the mix of performers — from the most famous names to those of aspiring stars — makes the almost four hours two-disc set of the recorded gala distinguishable from the usual gala fare strictly limited to only the most well-established of performers. Nonetheless, Deutsche Grammophon could not resist giving the set the oddly-phrased subtitle of “A Benefit Gala with Opera World Stars.”

In terms of quality, the four hours steer a very erratic course. A listless Rienzi overture opens the evening, with Zubin Mehta the first of many conductors to pick up the baton in a sort of “conductor relay race” to the podium. The editing makes it impossible to tell if the performers are presented in their true order of appearance. Antonio Pappano has the baton next in the DVD, with Plácido Domingo signing “Winterstürme.” The great tenor is not quite warmed up, but the audience is grateful for his presence anyway. For the next several selections on disc one, the gala slowly slides into effortful mediocrity, with a not very impressive Nadia Krasteva lighting no fires in “Stride la vampa,” and the cellists seen behind her appearing to be a nod away from falling asleep at their instruments. Bertrand de Billy leads a truly unfortunate Hoffmann sextet, with intonation differences reaching Schoenbergian proportions. Two selections from Così pass unmemorably in the staid professionalism of Michael Schade and Barabara Frittoli, although Angelika Kirchshlager tries to liven things up. An unquestionably elegant tenor, Ramón Vargas simply doesn’t have the tenor juice to make a chestnut like Giordano’s “Amor ti vieta” really ring out, though he is in good form later for Roméo’s “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!.”

The first glimpse of gala greatness comes when Soile Isokoski appears, with the fresh choice of Agathe’s aria from Freischtuz. With pure tone and security of intonation, this singer, who can be an unprepossessing presence, shows what true artistry can do. Thomas Quastoff also offers an unorthodox selection, from Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau, but the pleasure in hearing this rare but quite appealing aria is qualified by concern over the baritone’s difficulty with staying in tune, especially in his lower range. Waltraud Meier almost matches Isokoski’s success with an inspired “Mild und leise,” and there are very professional turns by Leo Nucci, Thomas Hampson and Diana Damrau, who closes the first disc. Of the lesser known names on disc one, the best impression is made by tenor Saimir Pirgu, who gets one of the very few Puccini selections of the night, taking on Rinuccio’s aria from Gianni Schicchi. He just needs to secure his very top notes to have a chance at reaching “Opera World Star” status.

Disc two starts off with Vargas and then an ensemble from Die Frau ohne Schatten that rivals the earlier Hoffmann selection for dismaying group intonation. This continues to be a problem with duets from Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer (“O sink herneider”) and Angela Denoke and Stephen Gould (from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt). The dependable Ferrucio Furlanetto brings his King Philippe — yes, in French — to the stage. It is a great piece, but at 10 mostly somber minutes, perhaps not the best gala choice. Johan Botha seems to be a Vienna favorite, as the response to his secure but unaffecting “In fernem Land” is much more energetic than his performance. That same audience — supposedly sophisticated — interrupts Anna Netrebko’s Manon showpiece twice with applause, in the same places where audiences always do. The rest of the disc two gathers steam, with Natalie Dessay, Piotr Bezcala, and Simon Keenlyside providing real star power.

Leo Nucci leads the not unexpected finale of the closing ensemble from Falstaff, after a brief speech from the guest of honor (who also opens the program with some words). Interestingly, the preceding two selections, at least as seen on the DVD, seem to throw a dark shadow on Holender’s perspective as he leaves this major position. First we have Loge teasing the Gods as they lose their power without the golden apples in Das Rhiengold, and then Keenlyside’s Macbeth, saying farewell to “Pietà, rispetto, onore.” Intention or coincidence? Only Holender can say.

Although as seen on DVD the gala evening cannot be called a huge success, this recording has value as a document of the state of today’s “World Opera Stars” and as a place to catch a handful of very fine performances — with “rispetto” and “onore” most deservedly going to Soile Isokoski.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Ioan Holender Farewell Concert

product_title=Ioan Holender Farewell Concert
product_by=Plácido Domingo, Barbara Frittoli, Waltraud Meier, Leo Nucci, Anna Netrebko and other artists
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 001491309 [2DVDs]

Posted by chris_m at 10:42 AM

Billy Budd at the Barbican

Recorded live at the Barbican, London, between 5 and 9 December 2007, this performance involves a fine cast, led by Nathan Gunn as the title character and Ian Bostridge as Edward Vere, who stand out for their fine depictions of their characters in this work. Gunn has performed the role in various houses and brings to this recording the details of the character that both draw on his experience and also benefit from the clear direction Harding brings to this performance. The same can be said of Bostridge in the pivotal role of Captain Vere, whose memory of the story of Billy Budd serves as the frame for this opera, a Christ story by Herman Melville, which received dramatic shape in the libretto by Eric Crozier and E. M. Forster that serves as the basis for this intriguing score by Britten.

This particular recording of Billy Budd offers an evenly solid cast, in which the interplay between the characters emerges clearly. The solid delivery of the text through the sung voices conveys well the vocalizing Britten employed, such that the words come off clearly and, more importantly, the sense of the lines. Phrasing works well to allow the music to fit the libretto, such that the transition from Vere’s opening monologue and the scene that follows it (“Pull my bantams!” are equally clear. This transparent presentation of the score occurs throughout the recording, such that the culminating scene with Billy Budd in act 2, scene 3 is readily accessible, and the title character’s number “And farewell to ye, old Rights of Man!” is presented with the musical style and dramatic weight it deserves.

Beyond the performances of these two main figures, the other characters are well sung by fine performers. Gidon Saks offers a solid Claggart who conveys the character’s determination well, with Jonathan Lemalu giving good voice in his role as Mr. Flint, with these and the other principals supporting the drama well. They interact in the libretto with the characters Budd and Vere, who benefit from the strong performances of these singers. This also applies to the men of the London Symphony Chorus, who give voice to the crew of the ship throughout the opera, especially the choral music in the third scene of the first act and also the first scene of the second. The balanced, resonant sound is effective, with the rich choral textures serving as a contrast to the extended passages for solo voices.

That stated, the last part of act two is effective for various reasons, with the solid performances by Gunn and Bostridge standing out for their memorable portrayal of the roles of Budd and Vere. With Harding’s leadership, the resulting drama is borne out well in the pacing of the score as the work comes to its conclusion. The scenes unfold with appropriate musical sense and a thoughtful sense of phrasing, so that the text of the well-written libretto is always clear and prominent. This memorable reading is powerful in the intensity that emerges well in this live recording of Britten’s score, with the epilogue in Vere’s voice fitting appropriately onto the entire, impressive enterprise. Among the various recordings of Billy Budd currently available, it is good to have this reading, which brings a certain dynamic quality to the work.

The recording itself is spaciously recorded and issued on three discs, with a full libretto, along with a translation into French. The banding is useful in allowing for a sensible division of the work into the various parts of each scene, so that it finding specific passages is easy to do. More than that, the sound is uniformly clear and resonant, conveying well the live performances on which this release is based.

James L. Zychowicz

image= image_description=Virgin Classics 19039 product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd, Op. 50 product_by=Nathan Gunn: Billy Budd; Ian Bostridge: Edward Vere; Jonathan Lemalu: Mr. Flint; Gidon Saks: John Claggart; Daniel Teadt: Donald; Neal Davies: Mr. Redburn; Andrew Kennedy: The Novice; Matthew Best: Dansker; Matthew Rose: Mr. Ratcliffe. London Symphony Chorus. London Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Daniel Harding. product_id=Virgin Classics 19039 [3CDs] price=$29.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 10:07 AM

Atys, Brooklyn Academy of Music

I would say his “little known” Atys, but all of Lully’s operas were little known back then. The production was beyond elegant, somewhere in the supernal realms where the goddess Cybèle may dwell when she’s at home. It would have knocked Louis XIV’s satin knee-breeches off, never mind his gold-clocked silk stockings.

Atys knocked New York for a loop as well. The hitherto obscure (State-side) company became a must-see on their roughly annual returns to town among the baroque opera cognoscenti, with Atys again in 1992, and for Charpentier’s Medée (which cemented Lorraine Hunt’s hold on the public ear and eye), Monterverdi’s Ritorno di Ulisse, Rameau’s Les Boréades, Handel’s Hercules and Purcell’s The Faerie Queene, to mention but a few. This year, Atys returned (as from the realm of the august dead), as regal as ever. Lully’s masterpiece, four long hours of it, completely sold out the beaux-arts BAM opera house for five performances. That’s rather more than ten thousand tickets, and they went quickly. We happy few New York cognoscenti!

Christie’s group, with their scenic splendor, their sublime musicianship and choreography (choreographed singers no less!), their attention to detail, their international casts and tours are one of the reasons opera is once again a headline art form. My date thought they should be declared a UNESCO cultural landmark, like the Parthenon or Machu Picchu, protected from desecration by international law, but they’ve been such a success everywhere that hardly seems necessary. In another hundred years perhaps, should their popularity wane.

Atys, premiering in 1676, was Lully’s fifth opera and Louis XIV’s favorite. As with most of the others, the story is taken from classical mythology, with whimsical alterations. Philippe Quinault’s libretto is a triumph of sensibilité, the refinement of subtle gradations of emotion that had become chic in France (in the tragedies of Corneille and Racine and the novels of Madame de Lafayette) and was to linger there for centuries and influence everybody. Quinault’s verses for Lully’s Armide et Renaud were perfectly suitable for Gluck to create his Armide one hundred years later using the same libretto, and the subtle discussions of this or that degree of being in love are familiar to readers of Laclos, Stendhal and Proust. Even modern and outrageous French writers, such as Genet or Houellebecq, have delighted in constructing their shockers on these traditional expectations.

But in their Atys, Les Arts Florissants, whatever modern extremes it has gone to on other occasions, has attempted a staging, within the parameters of modern opera theater, in the high baroque style, the style of the then brand-new chateau of Versailles. The set is a square box of faux black marble with a Rorschach of white flaws on each wall. The doors are deep set, so that (in the spectacular ritualistic conclusion of the first act) we behold a procession of handmaidens of the goddess, costumed as baroque nuns in fur-trimmed white surplices, each holding a sprig of pine (the symbol of Cybèle), appearing and proceeding through distant halls with the rhythm of the stately music (while much action occurs in the foreground), and (we are led to imagine) winding through the halls of the palace to enter at last stage left, one after another, heralding the arrival (“La déesse déscende!” cry each of the characters in turn, throughout the act), just before the curtain falls, of the Queen of the Gods of ancient Phrygia, where the tale is set.

Even before Act I, we have been introduced to a little pageant in which Time (blue-faced, purple-stockinged, scythe at the ready), Flora (“If I wait until Spring, there is hardly any time for flowers before it’s over!”—the opera premiered in January) and Melpomene, the arrogant Muse of Tragedy, bicker over the nature of the piece to be presented in a tradition reminiscent of the operas of Monterverdi and Cavalli, Lully’s predecessors—and parodied endlessly, as late as Prokofiev. Act I introduces the conflict: The river Sangarius (grand old Bernard Deletré, ruddy-faced and hollow-voiced to imply drunkenness) has given his lovely daughter Sangaride (Emmanuelle de Negri, of the wistful soprano) to Célénus (Nicolas Rivenq, a most imposing baritone), who is the King of Phrygia, as his armored costume and plumed hat make plain. Sangaride, however, is in love with delicate Atys (Ed Lyon, as stiff and morose in this role as he was hilarious playing Rameau’s Actéon the last time Les Arts were in town). Atys feigns indifference to the emotions of the heart, but in fact he is secretly obsessed—with Sangaride! It takes several confidantes several scenes to straighten all this out, but even French courtiers break down and confess the truth eventually. Happy ending to a short opera, right?

Wrong. The goddess Cybèle (Anna Reinhold, a fine, dignified soprano but a bit youthful for this—she lacks the maturity, the emotional intensity of voice one desires such a role), great mother of Asia (roughly what is now known as Turkey) and queen of the gods, has descended to name a new high priest. She has chosen Atys, who therefore spends the rest of the opera in the long buttoned cassock of a court monsignor. Her real reason for doing so is that she has fallen, hard, for this mere mortal. Bored with prayers, rituals, human sacrifices, she wants love, and sends an act-full of dreams to explain this to neurotic Atys, and threaten dire consequences if he does not return her affections. But as we already know, Atys loves Sangaride. Does this plot remind you of Roberto Devereux, Maria Tudor and other operas of unrequited power ladies? It cannot end well.

In the last act, seated amidst sinister baroque candles (Les Arts Florissants always does black magic beautifully: remember Lorraine Hunt’s Medée and Joyce Di Donato in Hercules?), Cybèle invokes Alecto, goddess of madness. One must say a word about the wigs here (the work of Daniel Blanc): Everybody, singers, dancers, mimes, wears at least one, and they are superb, curly, stiff or flowing, horned or crested, suitable for pirouettes or coronets or plumed hats, with fontanges, lacy headdresses named for a mistress of Louis XIV, for many of the ladies. Wigs were de rigueur at Versailles, hence throughout noble Europe. When, at the crisis, Atys and Sangaride appear with hair askew, we know they have, well, flipped their wigs. Sure enough, maddened Atys stabs Sangaride (offstage) and then, on realizing what he has done, himself (ditto). Cybèle, obliged to live forever but filled with regret, transforms Atys into the emblematic pine, green when all other trees are bare, that we have seen on the faux tapestry stage curtain all night. (In the actual rites of this goddess, her priests, or galli, would become frenzied and castrate themselves. That would never do at Versailles. Suicide might be against the Church, but it was respectable. Ancient Romans did it all the time, you know.)

Into this short, sharp story, Lully (once he had got his king and dancing partner’s attention) threw every instrument in his arsenal: violins and theorbos, recorders of every shape and kind, solos and chorales, court dances and folk dances and ritual processions and commedia dell’arte mime, and every variety of instrumentation and vocalization 1675 had to offer. From a less inspired composer or a less inspired company it would have been too much. Keeping the lights on and playing cards or sipping champagne during the entire performance no doubt helped back then. These particular traditions have not been maintained.

Jean-Marie Villégier’s production, aimed oh-so-graciously at us (we enact Le Roy Soleil for the duration), lures us into a forgotten world of supreme majesty. Carlo Tommasi’s scenery and Patrice Cauchetier’s costumes—so much black and gray and silver in so many different patterns and textures, and then blazing colors when at last they arrive in the dream sequence—are clearly inspired by the sumptuous paintings of France’s most golden age. Francine Lancelot and Béatrice Massin have created hours of divertissement in the dances, the charades, the mime episodes, the twirls of the chorus and the soloists in the dainty, high-heeled dance styles of the era. In such an elaborate banquet of delights, each new course is a marvel, teasing yet another unsuspected receptor on our visual and aural taste buds. It goes on and on until one thinks one is beyond surprise—and then out come the Italian or Spanish dances, or the onstage instrumental ensembles in full costume, or the vengeful goddess in volatile transformation. Lully’s invention never flags—why should our attention?

In Act IV, for example, just as one might be tempted to check one’s watch, the frustrated Sangaride is consoled by two friends, Idas and Doris (gallantly sung by Marc Mauillon and Sophie Daneman), and after the hours of stately accompanied declamation that makes up most of the text, they suddenly gave us an a cappella trio of serene melodic charm, their voices so perfectly blended and twined and supportive that one almost did not notice the orchestra had ceased to join them. (Lully had written an entire a cappella mass for four voices; he knew where his talents lay.)

Lully’s operas, like Monteverdi’s and Cavalli’s and such imitators of Lully as Conradi and Rameau, do not clearly break the musical fabric into “numbers” and “dialogue.” This problem, which has been basic to opera from the very beginning and is susceptible of any number of solutions, produced, in the seventeenth century a more melodious declamation with perhaps fewer tuneful interruptions, the arias and concerted passages that occur to us when we think of opera. There are fewer “buttons” for concentration-breaking applause. This makes the presentation of Lully a more focused, more complete, more, well, Wagnerian occasion.

This engaging texture also has the effect of making these older operas seem more appealing, more modern to contemporary audiences than does the opera seria of the succeeding age, where yards of secco recitative are interrupted by (usually long-awaited) melodic statements of single or double static emotional states by virtuoso singers, who are thus highlighted and, in a sense, divorced from the larger drama. A master baroque singer (I’m recalling David Daniels in particular; lovers of the form will all have special favorites) can make the recits as intense, as thrilling, as the arias, but generally, recits are a slog. After the “reforms” of Gluck, Mozart and Rossini, the melodies emerged imperially from their formal cocoons, annexing and colonizing more and more of the action, until the recit-free, through-composed dramatic treatments of Wagner and Puccini evolved. This took time, but it was what a more drama-conscious public desired, as well as what they were gradually trained to expect on the opera stage. Melodious, excerptable arias are now the exception, though there are enough archaizing composers around who try to produce them. (I am thinking of Figaro’s dreary “patter song” in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles and the misbegotten “New York aria” in Picker’s American Tragedy. But there have been good ones, too: Baby Doe’s “Letter Song;” the girls’ duet in the opening scene of Harbison’s Great Gatsby.)

Therefore, Lully’s stock is rising. Les Arts Florissants, who have materially led this restoration, revisit their own past, but their achievements and the leadership of William Christie have not paused to take a breath. We may expect more glory; they have given us every reason to do so.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Jean-Baptiste Lully product=yes product_title=Jean-Baptiste Lully: Atys product_by=Cybèle: Anna Reinhold; Sangaride: Emmanuelle de Negri; Mélisse: Ingrid Perruche; Atys: Ed Lyon; Célénus: Nicolas Rivenq; Dieu du Sommeil: Paul Agnew; Le Temps, le fleuve Sangar: Bernard Deletré. Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, performance of September 23. product_id=Above: Jean-Baptiste Lully
Posted by Gary at 9:14 AM

September 27, 2011

The Bostridge Project, Wigmore Hall, London

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 27 September 2011]

As a concert series showcasing the versatility of a well-known but sometimes typecast artist, the Bostridge project seems a good idea. You can hear Ian Bostridge in Schubert and Britten as often as you like, in many different places, but only in a curated series such as this, in front of “his” devoted Wigmore public, can you hear him sing rarely performed secular cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel.

Posted by Gary at 8:44 PM

September 26, 2011

Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall

Gerhaher has been singing at the Wigmore Hall for years, so regular Lieder audiences know him well. He shot into stardom with more mainstream opera audiences with his Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House last year, which was reviewed in Opera Today. Gerhaher’s Wolfram was sensationally beautiful, perfectly fitting the other worldly, rarified purity that is in Wolfram’s character. Few baritones have that tenor-like lightness of touch. Gerhaher’s Wolfram shimmered, but Elisabeth still chose Tannhäuser. Think what Wagner meant by that.

Vocal music, almost by definition, is about meaning. One of the fundamental differences between opera and Lieder is how meaning is expressed. It’s not simply a question of refinement or detail, but of perspective. In opera, an artist creates a character defined by plot and music. In Lieder, the character “is” the artist himself. In opera, a singer is expressing what the role represents in the context of the opera. In most Lieder, text is confined to a few lines from which a singer must extract maximum possible meaning. No help from plot or orchestra. Opera singing is more extrospective. Lieder singing is more introspective.

The Schubert song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (D795) and Winterreise (D911) allow more context than single songs, but their narrative is internal, not external. Significantly, both are journeys, where landscape marks stages in the protagonists’ inner development. Gerhaher and Huber also gave a recital of Schwanengesang (D957), but it’s not actually a song cycle but a compilation put together by Schubert’s publisher after his death.

Die schöne Müllerin is interpretively more challenging because of its deliberate contradictions — cheerfully babbling brooks and declarations of love. But for whom, and by whom? The high tessitura is meant to suggest the miller’s naivety. It’s a complication that a light, airy baritone like Gerhaher doesn’t have to contend with, so the cycle is a good test of his interpretive skills. This performance was infinitely better than his recording with budget label Arte Nova six years ago, which fortunately will be superseded with a new recording. Gerhaher uses his range more effectively, and is more secure shaping phrases. His singing is particularly attractive in songs like “Des Müllers Blumen” which could be mistaken for a love song, out of context. Yet almost from the beginning the poems hint at altogether more sinister levels. The emotional range in this cycle is much more challenging than the vocal range. In “Der Jäger”, the miller’s jealousy erupts into anger. Gerhaher expresses this through increased volume and projection, which is effective enough, but doesn’t have quite the emotional wildness that can make this song so troubling. Gerhaher’s miller isn’t menacing, even in “Die böse Farbe ”with its hints of what today we’d call stalking, but a poetic dreamer. Gerhaher is pleasant, but if you want limpid sweetness, Fritz Wunderlich sings with such exquisite poise, his emotional denial is chilling.

What made this recital unusual was the inclusion of three poems from Wilhelm Müller’s original set of 25, which Schubert did not set. “Das Mühlenleben” describes the girl at the mill, but comes between “Der Neugierige ”and “Ungeduld,” which rather breaks the mood. On the other hand placing it after “Am Feierabend” extends that mood too long. More effective is “Erster Schmerz, letzter Scherz” before “Der liebe Farbe” and “Blümlien Vergissmein ”after “Die böse Farbe”, for the spoken poems garland the two companion songs. Gerhaher’s reading of “Blümlien Vergissmein” was lyrical, leading smoothly into “Trockne Blumen,” the poem enhancing the song.

In Winterreise the protagonist is leaving behind a relatively real world and heading into the unknown. There are far fewer clues to his psyche in the text. That’s why Winterreise is so fascinating, because the possibilities are even greater. Performers have to connect to something in themselves to create an individual approach that conveys something personal to the audience.

Those who’ve come to Gerhaher and Lieder via Wolfram in Tannhäuser will admire the clean tone and even timbre of Gerhaher’s singing. There’s plenty of scenic beauty in Winterreise, and some performances I’ve heard make much of the external-internal interface, but Gerhaher describes rather than contemplates. Individual songs like “Frühlingstraum ”are beautifully modulated. Winterreise moves in stages, and the structure of this cycle is significant. The protagonist is heading somewhere, even if we don’t know what will come of it. Is the Leiermann a symbol, and of what? Does the cycle end in death, madness or, even more controversially, of resistance? Here, we’re admiring Gerhaher’s smooth technique, so for a change, it’s up to us to be the servant of the music and what it might mean.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Christian Gerhaher [Photo by Hiromichi Yamamoto courtesy of KünstlerSekretariat am Gasteig] product=yes product_title=Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin; Winterreise product_by=Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Gerold Huber, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, 20th and 22nd September 2011. product_id=Above: Christian Gerhaher [Photo by Hiromichi Yamamoto courtesy of KünstlerSekretariat am Gasteig]
Posted by anne_o at 11:20 AM

September 23, 2011

Beecham conducts Delius

Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, however, rarely gets staged — while an excerpt, “The Walk to The Paradise Garden,” often appears on classical radio station playlists.

That particular piece does not appear on the two-disc set EMI Classics calls “Delius: Favourite Orchestral Works,” but the intermezzo from Fennimore and Gerda and the Irmelin Prelude made it. Perhaps EMI doesn’t have a recording of Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the “Paradise Garden” piece, as another name for this set could have been “Beecham Conducts Delius.” And that title would have been appropriate, for Beecham conducting Delius makes for delightful listening, whereas some other conductors with less sympathy for Delius’s sound world might have served up two and a half hours of string-heavy goop.

These late 1950s recordings come from an era of analogue warmth. They sound fine today — detailed, and yet not clinically cold, as too many digital recordings can be. And Sir Thomas brings his inimitable touch to each performance, with perfect tempo choices that never drag, yet never push forward aggressively. Delius could certainly write a fine tune (the Florida Suite is full of them) but atmosphere is what he really creates — languid, sensual, nostalgic. Of course, two and a half hours of that atmosphere will be more than most people need to experience in one sitting, and disc two begins to feel repetitive — “Didn’t we hear this selection on disc one?” No, but we can be forgiven for thinking so.

The set closes with orchestral settings of poet Ernest Dowson’s Songs of Sunset, for baritone and mezzo-soprano. Dowson is most known today for some phrases that entered the 20th century consciousness, such as the line “the days of wine and roses” from the last selection, “They are not long, the weeping and the laughter.” The diction and imagery now feel dated and stilted, and there should really be some variety to the dominating mood of forlorn sentimentality. But the piece could not hope for a better performance. John Cameron and Maureen Forrester sing in the best British oratorio tradition — on the credit side, that means disciplined enunciation and plaintive tone. Others will perceive the debit side, with the readings coming off as fussy and the tone a touch too fruity.

Any music library without some Delius, however, will be lacking a choice slice of early twentieth century music-making — the polar opposite of the Second Viennese school, or at least equatorially distant, as there is no frigidity to Delius at all. Such music libraries should snap up this budget EMI set of Beecham conducting much of the composer’s best music.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Frederick Delius: Brigg Fair and other works

product_title=Frederick Delius: Brigg Fair and other works
product_by=Mezzo-Soprano: Maureen Forrester, mezzo-soprano; John Cameron, baritone. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Thomas Beecham.
product_id=EMI Classics 0946532 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 5:00 PM

Lawrence Zazzo, Wigmore Hall

As I commented in my review, the recital amply demonstrated his declared intention to “push the envelope in terms of what countertenors can do” not just in terms of “different repertoire or singing higher, but showing that you can give a rounded performance that's acceptable on all different levels”.

On this occasion, Zazzo, accompanied by Ian Page and the Classical Opera company, returned to the more familiar countertenor ‘territory’ of the late-eighteenth century, while retaining an idiosyncratic twist by focussing on Mozart’s youthful, and lesser known, operas and concert arias from the 1770s.

Following a crisp performance of the brief Intrada from Apollo and Hyancithus, composed when Mozart was just eleven years old, Zazzo opened with ‘Iam pastor Apollo custody greges’ from this same opera, in which Apollo appears before the King and subjects of Laconia to reassure them of his favour and willingness to protect them. Dressed as a shepherd, the god is modest and unassuming, and Mozart’s vocal lines have a fitting grace and simplicity. Though he sang with assurance and control, I felt that Zazzo did not always capture Apollo’s quiet dignity, although his technical finesse was apparent in the more elaborate melodies of the aria’s second half.

Indeed, while Zazzo undoubtedly possesses a natural and engaging theatricality, dramatic impact is sometimes achieved at the expense of vocal beauty and formal grace. In the first half of the recital, his voice seemed at times a little unyielding, the phrasing rather rigid. In the 1776 concert aria ‘Ombre felice ... Io ti lascio’, in which Alsace bids farewell to his wife, the accompanied recitative was enlivened and dynamic, but though penetrating, the necessary contemplative quality was sometimes absent from his subsequent reflection that they may never meet again.

The sentiments expressed by Farnace in his aria ‘Venga pur, minacci e frema’ from Mitridate, re di Ponto, were more suited to Zazzo’s musical temperament. Vowing to defy and overthrow his father, the King of Pontus, the duplicitous Farnace reaches fiery emotional heights as he whips up a fierce and furious storm of resentful pride. With breathless excitement, Zazzo captured in music the vitality upon which the dramatic situation hinges; the demanding coloratura proved no problem and was employed as a natural, forceful expression of the aria’s emotion.

After the interval two arias from Ascanio in Alba,‘Perchè tacer degg’io?’ and ‘Al mio ben mi veggio avanti’, were delivered with greater eloquence and with a keen appreciation of the overall musico-dramatic structure of each number. The extended recitative which precedes ‘Perchè tacer degg’io?’ in which Ascanio vacillates impulsively between frustration and adoration, was particularly impressive, and led into an outpouring of uninhibited passion and joy.

Returning to Mitridate, re di Ponto to conclude the performance, Zazzo revealed how much the dishonourable Farnace has been transformed by his experiences in an eloquent interpretation of ‘Vadasi ... Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto’, in which Farnace repents his misdeeds. The relaxed central section was especially relaxed and sincere.

Handel’s delicate ‘Yet can I hear that dulcet lay’ from Handel’s The Choice of Hercules was a beautiful and moving encore; Zazzo shaped the phrases expertly and conveyed deeply affecting emotions.

The concert also featured two lively symphonies, which may or may not be the work of the teenage Mozart, but certainly indicated a burgeoning individuality. Ian Page drew committed and incisive playing from the Classical Opera Company Orchestra in K.74, striving for energy and textural clarity, although I felt that the dynamic contrasts were sometimes over-emphasised, diminishing the overall fluency and elegance. Moreover, while the small forces accompanied the soloist sensitively, in the instrumental works the two horns were inevitably a little exposed. Despite this, in the second of the two symphonies performed, they produced some sweet, sustained pianissimos. In the Italianate K.81, the violinsts sparkled, especially in the thrilling first movement, the rushing motifs of which fully display the piquant musical imagination of the young prodigy.

Claire Seymour


W. A. Mozart:

Intrada and ‘Iam pastor Apollo custodio greges’ from Apollo et Hyacinthus K.38
‘Ombre felice ... Io ti lascio’ K.255
Symphony No. 10 in G K.74
‘Venga pur, minacci e frema’ from Mitridate, re di Ponto K.87
‘Perchè tacer degg’io and ‘Al mio ben mi veggio avanti’ from Ascanio in Alba K.111
Symphony in D K.81
‘Vadasi ... Già dagli occhi il velo è tolto’ from Mitridate, re di Ponto K.87

image= image_description=Lawrence Zazzo [Photo courtesy of Harrison/Parrott Ltd] product=yes product_title=Lawrence Zazzo, Wigmore Hall product_by=Classical Opera Company. Conductor: Ian Page. Countertenor: Lawrence Zazzo. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 21st September product_id=Above: Lawrence Zazzo [Photo courtesy of Harrison/Parrott Ltd]
Posted by Gary at 10:08 AM

September 22, 2011

The Passenger, ENO, London

Everything about the Holocaust packs a powerful emotional punch, and rightly so.

Something insane descended on this world at that time — in Nazi-occupied lands, in Stalinist Russia, and beyond, that was so catastrophic that we must never forget. Zofia Posmysz’s original novel was based on her own experiences at Auschwitz, and Weinberg’s family perished. Posmysz appears at the end of performances and is deservedly applauded, for she symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, values we all want to believe in. This gives The Passenger such potent extra-musical experience that it’s more a communal homage than an opera.

David Pountney’s production, premiered at Bregenz, is amazing. Visually it’s so striking that it takes your breath away. This production, with designs by Johan Engels, costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and lighting by Fabrice Kebour makes the best possible case for this opera. No-one can come away unmoved by this set, or by the intelligence of the direction. This production absolutely makes the case for this opera as theatrical experience.

Everything’s bleached and pristine, so unnaturally bright it hurts the eye. Like Lisa Franz herself. Franz was a camp guard in Auschwitz. Lisa and Walter have been married 15 years but he’s never known about her past. “But I did nothing bad” she says. Perhaps. However, anyone connected to Auschwitz was tainted, just by association. Even victims suffer survivor guilt. Think of Primo Levi.

The revelation was provoked by the sight of another passenger on board ship who reminds Lisa of Marta, her favoured prisoner. In the original book, Posmysz wondered what had happened to her own persecutor, who’d apparently escaped retribution, so it’s an excellent plot device, framing an account of life in camp. Perhaps this is a key to interpreting the two parts of the opera. The First Act is more consciously dramatic, while in the Second, drama is imposed on a “normal” account of a thoroughly abnormal situation.

Music and text in the First Act are didactic to an extreme, which makes for good theatre. The orchestration is loud, strident and jarring, whipping up an excited emotional response. Subtle it is not, though, for the text is unbelievably stiff. Maybe it’s the English translation, originally by David Fanning, adapted by David Pountney for this performing edition. Perhaps they’re deliberately trying to present the singers as automatons, but this undermines the very real emotions characters like these might have. In Lisa’s case this is understandable because the character is in such denial she’s hardly human. Excellent performance by Michelle Breedt. If we never get to depths with what makes Lisa what she is, it’s not through any lapse in Breedt’s performance. It’s the script. Lisa’s husband, Walter, for example, reacts to her revelation in stylized clichés. Even the sturdy Kim Begley can’t make Walter feel real. Walter’s not evil. He, too, has been betrayed by the big lie, and deserves more sympathy.

Unfortunately, characterizations in the Second Act are equally cardboard. This is by far the better part of the opera in musical terms, where superficial but emotive B-movie shock gives way to moments of lovely writing, particularly in the arias where the women sing of their pasts and express their solidarity for one another. Excellent playing — evocative basses and deeper strings, a beautiful flute line. The ENO orchestra, conducted by Richard Armstrong, at its best.

The Passenger_Carolyn Dobbin & Giselle Allen_Credit Catherine Ashmore.pngCarolyn Dobbin as Hannah and Giselle Allen as Marta

The script, however, doesn’t reflect the greater subtlety in the score. Giselle Allen plays Marta with statuesque dignity. Her stage presence fills the role, but it’s her ability that comes over, rather than the material she has to work with. Each of the other women are characterized by nationality rather than much personality, though what they sing is uplifting. Leigh Melrose.s Tadeusz is strongly sung, but the subplot of love, violin and mad waltz has more potential than is developed.

There’s a lot of Holocaust-exploitation around, but The Passenger is most certainly sincere and honourable. The problem may be in the inherent difficulty of turning subjective experience into slightly more objective art. Such events are so painful that it’s perfectly human to need to block the extremes of pain. Good intentions don’t necessarily lead to great art or depth of perception. Again, remember Primo Levi and the price he paid for his brilliance.

Another difficulty stems from the circumstances in which the opera was written. Weinberg was in the Soviet Union, a repressive regime, where political considerations prevailed over art. The aria about “the freedom of the steppes” rings hollow when you think of reality. Moreover, there was and is a long history of anti-semitism in Russia and in Poland. Different solutions to Hitler, but similar agendas regarding Jews. Obviously not all inmates of Auschwitz were Jewish, and thousands of Catholic Poles were exterminated too. They must not be forgotten. But the world associates Auschwitz with the Holocaust and with Jews, and with death factories. So it’s not easy to hear lines like “I’m a Jew, we’re meant to die”, even if it’s in context. No-one is meant to die. There are millions of individual stories, all important, but the Holocaust was so all-encompassing that it needs broad perspective.

The Passenger_Michelle Breedt & Giselle Allen_Credit Catherine Ashmore.pngMichelle Breedt as Lisa and Giselle Allen as Marta

Since this production was based on a new performing edition, there might have been opportunities to tighten the orchestration and especially the libretto, by Alexander Medvedev. Even Poutney has said, it was the subject tof this opera that drew him to Weinberg. What works fine in a novel does not lend itself to the restraints of opera. The Passenger is Weinberg’s masterpiece, far more daring than The Portrait, and as such deserves stringent editing. Weinberg may now be highly fashionable, but he isn’t Shostakovich. Even As a theatrical and emotive experience, The Passenger works in this production. But more depth and less breadth would make it more satisfying as opera.

Incidentally, I kept hearing Peter Grimes (particularly the Sea Interludes) in this music, so I was delighted afterwards to read David Nice’s programme notes about the influence of Benjamin Britten. Nice mentions Peter Grimes in connection with Shostakovich, but perhaps Weinberg also knew Peter Grimes and what the character meant. Another reminder that Aldeburgh was not insular and is part of a greater European tradition.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=The Passenger (image by English National Opera) product=yes product_title=Mieczysław Weinberg: The Passenger product_by=Lisa: Michelle Breedt; Marta: Giselle Allen; Walter: Kim Begley; Tadeusz: Leigh Melrose; Katya: Julia Sporsen; Christina: Pamela Helen Stephen; Vlasta: Wendy Dawn Thompson; Hannah: Carolyn Dobbin; Ivette: Rhian Lois; Old Woman: Helen Field; Bronka: Rebecca de Pont Davies; SS officers: Adrian Dwyer, Charles Johnston, Gerard O’Connor; Steward/Elderly Passenger/Kommandant: Graeme Danby. Conductor: Richard Armstrong. Director: David Pountney. Associate Director: Rob Kearley. Set Designer: Johan Engels. Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca. Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour. Associate Lighting Designer: Christian Steinschaden. Fight Director: Ran Arthur Braun. Translator: David Pountney. English National Opera, Coliseum, London, 19th September 2011. product_id=All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by anne_o at 12:00 PM

September 21, 2011

Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, Chicago

The Lyric Opera Orchestra was conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, and Lyric Opera General Director Designate Anthony Freud addressed in his welcome the outdoor audience of thousands assembled in Millennium Park, Chicago. He commented on Lyric Opera’s new campaign entitled “Long Live Passion,” as a means to celebrate the particular feeling that opera can engender in listeners.

The first and last selections of the evening were sung by Renée Fleming who now holds the position of Creative Consultant to Lyric Opera. In a moving tribute to introduce the concert, which was dedicated to the memory of the September 11, 2001 anniversary and to military personnel and first responders, Ms. Fleming sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Fleming’s other solo pieces, sung with commitment and truly individual touches of vocal color, included “Lauretta’s aria” from Gianni Schicchi and Marguerite’s “Ô Dieu! Que de bijoux!” from Gounod’s Faust.

In the first half of the concert Villaume conducted the overture to Verdi’s Nabucco as a prelude to the vocal selections. The brass and percussion in the overture were led with firm control, and as the woodwinds entered one had the sense of a rounded conception. Despite some tempos taken somewhat slowly the overall effect was a rousing statement of liberation. The first aria, “O luce di quest’anima” from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, was performed by soprano Anna Christy. Ms. Christy’s command of bel canto decoration was evident throughout both parts of the aria. Her voice hovered on the declamation of “tenero core” (“tender heart”) just as it lifted on the prediction for her lover, “s’innalzerà” (“he will rise”). In the second part of the aria, taken at a faster tempo Ms. Christy’s runs and tasteful application of rubato and escape tones communicated for her character a sense of passion as appropriate for this occasion. The following two soloists, baritone Ljubomir Puškarič and René Barbera performed staples of their particular repertoire. Mr. Puškarič’s rendition of Riccardo’s “Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei” from Act I of Bellini’s I puritani showed a pleasing timbre with, at times, a need to focus more clearly on the line as sung. His breath-control and unforced upper register augur well for the future of this vocal type. Mr. Barbera sang Tonio’s aria “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. The tenor introduced a nice sense of line to an aria which, for other singers, has often focused instead on individual parts. At the same time, Mr. Barbera’s top notes, released fearlessly on “mon âme” and “sa flamme,” capped a performance which illustrated the absolute happiness of Tonio’s epiphany.

During such a concert with manifold talents in evidence it would seem difficult to single out individual vocalists for their memorable efforts. Yet the performance given by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton of Léonor’s aria “Ô mon Fernand” from Donizetti’s La favorite deserves particular recognition. Here was a voice that showed remarkable color and depth from the first notes of her aria. One admired the security of range as Ms. Barton’s voice lamented the fate of her love, the vocal line descending to heartfelt emotional depths at “Hélas! est condamné!” (“Alas! My love is condemned!). Her ascent to top notes on “tout” (“everything”) and “justice” and the cry of despair, which she took forte without a trace of harshness, prepared a transition to the middle section of the piece. At this point Léonor appeals to God for death. Her line, “fais-moi mourir” (“make me die”), performed by Ms. Barton with a fully rounded expressiveness, made the character’s entreaty all the more credible. In the last segment of the aria, taken at a brisker tempo, Ms. Barton’s melodic agility and dramatic high notes concluding on “sera morte avant ce soir” (“will be dead before tonight”) gave an exciting finish to this accomplished performance. As a whole, Ms. Barton’s aria was yet another example of the passion in which both singers and audience participate and about which Mr. Freud spoke as being an integral part of great operatic performances.

In the remaining selections from the first part of this concert listeners had the opportunity to hear soprano Susanna Phillips sing the Act I duet from Lucia di Lammermoor with Mr. Barbera taking on the role of Edgardo. Ms. Phillips has an excellent sense of adapting her voice to a role and to the emotional complexities as they might change even within scenes. Her legato singing throughout was impressive, and her shading on words such as “pensiero”and “messaggiero” made her hopes for a letter from Edgardo seem even more plaintive. This part of the evening also featured bass James Morris in two selections. In his performance of Procida’s aria “O tu, Palermo” from Verdi’s I vespri siciliani Morris’s flexible line and his superb Italian diction made much of the aria. Before the intermission he shared the stage with Mr. Puškarič as they sang the duet for bass and baritone from I puritani.

In the shorter, second part of the concert both the solo and ensemble singing continued to introduce less familiar pieces alongside well known selections, all performed with style and commitment. Ms. Christy and Ms. Barton performed the duet for the title character and Mallika from Delibes’s Lakmé. The voices blended very effectively with Ms. Barton providing just enough mezzo-soprano heft to suggest a woven texture of the two performers. In the barcarolle from Les contes d’Hoffmann Ms. Fleming sang together with mezzo-soprano Emily Fons. Just as in the duet from Lakmé the two singers started at different points yet merged vocally to achieve a rich, undulant blend. As a solo piece Ms. Fons performed afterward the aria for Niklausse “Vois sous l’archet fremissant” (“See beneath the quivering bow”) from Les contes d’Hoffmann. In keeping with her character’s message to Hoffmann Ms. Fons lent great pathos to extended low notes on “l’amour vainqueur” (“conquering love”) and “douleur enivrée” (“anguish of passion”). The romance as here performed by Ms. Fons encouraged Hoffmann to find solace in art, just as the sounds of the strings seemed to echo effectively in her delivery. Also in this second part Ms. Phillips performed Juliette’s well known “Je veux vivre” (“I want to live”) from Gounod’s opera. Noteworthy was the vocal coloration by which Ms. Phillips communicated the youthful naïvete of Juliette while other parts of the aria as sung hinted at an adult and realistic perspective. Also included in this segment of the concert was an ardent performance by Matthew Polenzani of Werther’s aria “Pourquoi me réveiller” (“Why awaken me”).

The audience in Chicago was treated to a well chosen variety of vocal splendor and has much passion ahead in the upcoming season of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Salvatore Calomino

image_description=Anna Christy [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]

product_title=Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, Chicago
product_by=Click here for additional information.
product_id=Above: Anna Christy [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]

Posted by Gary at 5:04 PM

Turandot in San Francisco

Meanwhile that same year (1992) Los Angeles artist David Hockney bestowed a Turandot upon San Francisco (and Chicago) that is pure Tinseltown. L.A. is famously the Hockney muse, thus the specific muse for the technicolor Hockney Turandot has to have been Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Like this National Historic Monument, the Hockney Turandot vibrates in theatrical shapes and Chinese red, and by now it too is an historic monument.

San Francisco has put its unique stamp solidly on Turandot as well. The 1977 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production had its massive stone Buddha that gestured and wept blood when the steely Monserrat Caballé succumbed to Luciano Pavarotti in their role debuts, this back in the days when San Francisco Opera pushed the progressive opera envelope in the U.S. 

Turandot-8.pngLeah Crocetto as Liù

These days it is a bit different in San Francisco. There is a stamp of a different sort, it is musical and it too pushes the envelope. Specifically it is the quixotic Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti who makes every score he touches vibrate with color, energy and sometimes questionable theatricality. Put this together with the timeless Hockney Turandot and you hit remarkable pay dirt — the current Turandot in San Francisco!

The Hockney Turandot is, no surprise, like a painting in that it is two dimensional. On this flat surface Ping, Pang and Pong complain, Liu sacrifices, Calaf thunders and Turandot rages. The lack of depth plays directly into the hands of the maestro who likes his singers right downstage center where he communes mightily with his voices and maybe even with Puccini. The current staging by Carnett Bruce is sensitive to artist, character and story telling, and it is precise and efficient in somehow getting and keeping the artists where the maestro wants them and where Hockney surely saw them. 

The performance was riveting from beginning to end. Even so there were those scenes that glowed with new life — the Ping, Pang, Pong conversation for example, made intimate by the three Hockney straight backed chairs painted onto a drop and by the maestro’s oh-so smooth intermingling of their vocal lines. Liu’s first act prayer 'Signore ascolta' was magical in its Adler Fellows innocence, and the Alfani duet (“who is Berio?” Luisotti surely would ask) that ends the opera was articulated with a surprising intimacy that made us actually feel a renewed humanity — no small feat amidst all that bombast.

Turandot-2.pngMarco Berti as Calaf, Gred Fedderly as Pang, Daniel Montenegro as Pong and Hyung Yun as Ping

The biggest vocal presence was Italian tenor Marco Berti as Calaf who used his strangely brutal  'Nessun dorma' to threaten the Chinese royalty and population even more, and more quickly dismiss Liu’s sacrifice. Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin was far more lyrical in her capitulation than the usual Turandot, though there was icy rage aplenty as she well anchored this story of anger versus power. Against this big house firepower the Liu of Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto was indeed sacrificial, a sacrifice of this symbolic character who must fully embody the supernal power of love. The mix of musical cultures does not work — the Adlers are specifically nurtured contemporary artists whose sophistication is at odds with can belto international artists.

The Timur of Raymond Aceto fulfilled its narrative obligations without adding pathos. The Ping of Hyung Yun dominated the trio of courtiers in association with the vivid Pang of L.A. character tenor Greg Fedderly. Pong was Adler Fellow Daniel Montenegro.

The visual sophistication of the David Hockney Turandot begs precise and brilliant lighting, a need recognized from the inception of this production those many years ago. Just now the lighting was reconfigured by Christopher Maravich though the ending was new. Mo. Luisotti endowed the final chord of the performance with an intense, nearly screaming crescendo that was matched by a crescendo of bright, brighter, blinding light.

Theatrical! No?

Michael Milenski

image_description=Iréne Theorin as Turandot [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
product_by=Turandot: Iréne Theorin; Calaf: Marco Berti; Liù: Leah Crocetto; Timur: Raymond Aceto; Ping: Hyung Yun; Pang: Greg Fedderly; Pong Daniel Montenegro; Emperor Altoum: Joseph Frank; A Mandarin: Ryan Kuster. War Memorial Opera House. Orchestra and chorus of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Production: David Hockney. Director: Garnett Bruce. Costume Designer: Ian Falconer. Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich. Performance date: 9/17/2011.
product_id=Above: Iréne Theorin as Turandot

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 4:17 PM

La tragedia di Tosca at the Washington National Opera

Like Victorien Sardou’s original play written as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, Puccini’s setting has enough sex, violence, and adult themes to induce responsible parents to keep their children at home. Not that it stopped the black-tie crowd of the opening-night gala from proudly parading their adorable five-year-olds in heavily ruched floor-length gowns along the hallways of the Kennedy Center. The latter, incidentally, has now officially swallowed up the WNO after fifty-five years of that company’s independence. Still, in these dire times of budgetary horrors and declining donations such an alliance might prove a transcendent romance rather than an apocalyptic tragedy; only time will tell.

The plot of Tosca is well known, and were it not so melodramatic, I suppose it could be eligible for the prestigious label of “tragic”: after all, not a single leading character is left alive at the end of Act 3! Thankfully, this original production, courtesy of Giulio Chazalettes and director David Kneuss, for the most part does not qualify as a tragedy. Soprano Patricia Racette (Tosca) is a known quantity in DC, and has a reputation among the local connoisseurs as a superior singing actress. Throughout the evening, the singer had plenty of opportunities to prove just how well deserved her reputation was, and she missed none of them. Unlike in last season’s unfortunate Iphigénie, Racette was not constrained here either by a director’s choreographic posturing or by the need to climb precarious metal scaffolding at high pitch. Instead, her acting was realistic, and her period clothes comfortably familiar. The steps of the Castel Sant’Angelo were wide and easily mountable, lending her final leap off the battlements its startling immediacy and dramatic flair that brought out audible gasps from the audience, instead of the audible chuckles that so often result. The leap was also, of course, entirely over-the-top, but then so is the entire part: Puccini followed Sardou in making his Tosca a real diva, and Racette had almost too much fun playing a “tragic heroine playing herself.” This was particularly apparent in the opening scene with Cavaradossi, where “playing” is really all Tosca does; her jealous rage more the stuff of romantic comedy than high drama. The drama comes in Act 2, undoubtedly Racette’s best. Her performance was electric, driven by raw emotion and almost visibly crackling nervous energy, resulting occasionally in a somewhat faster tempos than are usual for the part. “Vissi d’arte” in particular was fast — or was attempting to be: the conductor simply refused to let Racette run with it. Clearly, after singing a few hundred Toscas in his career, Placido Domingo has very definite ideas of how one should and should not sound — candles or no candles (for those passionately interested in this most vital aspect of every Tosca production, by the way, this one has no candles). However, such a minor interpretational disagreement between the two stars was no tragedy. Nobody was paying much attention to it, anyway — we were all too busy watching Alan Held’s scene-stealing Scarpia.

144_Racette and Held_WNOTOSCA2011_cr. Scott Suchman.pngAlan Held as Baron Scarpia and Patricia Racette as Floria Tosca

The tall baritone presented an imposing figure on stage — not remotely Italian, he looked rather like a Nordic god of thunder. Donner is, indeed, one of Held’s signature parts; fortunately, his performance as Scarpia possessed not only the necessary hammer strokes, but also a more Wotan-esque complexity, occasionally bordering on hypnotic. Alternatively suave and terrifying, Held offered both excellent singing and stellar acting from the first to the last note. Only the opening “Credo” of Act 2 proved somewhat unconvincing in his interpretation — exactly because the rest of the role was so believable. Subtle, nuanced, sinuously seductive Scarpia created by Held would not be caught dead saying such horrible things about himself — even to himself. Much better was his feverish monolog in the Act 1 finale, the famous “Te Deum” scene.

Indeed, the “Te Deum” finale proved one of the best moments in the production, thanks to Held, a solid performance from the WNO chorus (including children’s choir), and particularly to its effective visual design (sets and costumes by Ulisse Santicchi, lighting by Jeff Bruckerhoff). In an inspired move, the gigantic crucifixion triptych that served as the backdrop through the entire act suddenly becomes transparent, revealing the interior of the cathedral, complete with the altar, priest, and parishioners, who seamlessly merge with the chorus already on stage into a single, impressive tableau vivant. Overall, the décor for the production looked good: both tastefully appropriate and appropriately expensive. The neo-classical interiors in Acts 1 and 2 were both lovely. And although the gloom of the Castel Sant’Angelo’s stone banisters was somewhat undercut by the addition of pink marble columns on each side of the stage — the leftovers from the cathedral interior of the opening act — that was also no tragedy.

073_WNO Chorus in Te Deum_WNOTOSCA2011_cr. Scott Suchman.pngWNO Chorus and Children’s Chorus sing a Te Deum (Act I)

The real tragedies — at least on the opening night — belonged, in the pit, to the orchestra that seemed yet again simply incapable of playing in tune, and on stage, to the tenore di forza. Frank Porretta’s voice has both the steely intensity of timbre and powerful projection we expect of a Cavaradossi, and he came out swinging since the opening scene, earning some well-deserved applause. However, his somewhat forced sound production was worrisome: every note felt like it was being pushed out just a little too hard. Whether or not the singer was affected by the fact that he was performing a classic heroic tenor role in front of Placido Domingo (which, granted, might unnerve even a seasoned performer), I wondered if he would have trouble sustaining his efforts through the entire evening. Predictably, Porretta’s voice broke halfway through the climax of “E lucevan le stelle,” sliding from a fortissimo high pitch into an embarrassing croak. The audience was extremely kind, but this did not help: much as he tried, the singer was not able to bring his sound back again. The remainder of Act 3 was performed in a harsh semi-whisper, which in Cavaradossi’s final duet with Tosca is simply an impossible sell. Only occasionally did we hear an echo of the metallic flamboyancy of the opening scenes; the rest was so painful to endure that one was tempted to applaud the rifle volley from the castle guard that finally put the unfortunate tenor out of his misery. Hopefully, in the subsequent performances Porretta’s pacing would improved. If so, the tragedia of this overall high-quality, solidly traditional production will have relocated to where it belongs — Sardou’s bloody melodrama and Puccini’s “shocking” score.

Olga Haldey

image= image_description=Frank Porretta as Cavaradossi and Patricia Racette as Tosca [Photo by Scott Suchman courtesy of Washington National Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca product_by=Click here for cast and production information. product_id=Above: Frank Porretta as Cavaradossi and Patricia Racette as Tosca

All photos by Scott Suchman courtesy of Washington National Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:51 PM

Il Trittico, Covent Garden

This is the question which faces directors and composers who determine to stage in its entirety Puccini’s infrequently performed triptych of one-act operas, Il Trittico.

Is there a ‘unifying factor’? Should one even attempt to look for one? Perhaps it is the contrasts between the Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi that produce maximum theatrical effect and musical impact?

SUOR ANGELICA - BC20110908179 - JAHO AS SISTER ANGELICA (C) BILL COOPER.png Ermonela Jaho as Sister Angelica

Il Tabarro, in director Richard Jones’ and conductor Antonio Pappano’s conception builds effectively from the leaden, repetitive melancholy of the opening scenes to a central moment of passionate ecstacy before falling terrifyingly and inexorably to its shocking, vicious conclusion. That Pappano has a masterful appreciation of the Puccinian idiom and unsurpassed ability to match musical structure to dramatic denouement, is apparent from the first: the latent violence of the riverside community suggested by disturbing and startling surges in dynamic and melodic compass which disrupt the hypnotic rhythmic repetitions of the lapping waters.

Jones presents an appropriately naturalistic stage picture, designer Ultz delivering looming brick walls, narrow alleyways and grimy barges which depressingly conjure the colourless world of the stevedores, dockers and rag-pickers who work on or beside the Seine. Popular song melodies - Ji-Min Park’s (Song Seller) street ballad, Alan Oke’s (Tinca) drinking song — provide both realism and variety.

The bleakness is broken by the Giorgetta’s outburst of yearning, the soaring warmth of Eva-Maria Westbroek’s gleaming soprano, revealing the stark contrast between feminine ideals and dreams and the wretched reality of the enchained lives s of those who make their pitiful living from the river. She is joined by Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Luigi in a rapturous paean to romantic imaginings. The only unfortunate aspect of Westbroek’s performance was a tendency for her physically voluptuous movements and exhibitionism to remind one of her last ROH incarnation, another girl longing for the city lights, Anna Nicole.

IL TABARRO - BC201109090183 - GALLO AS MICHELE, WESTBROEK AS GIORGETTA (C) BILL COOPER.pngLucio Gallo as Michele and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Giorgetta

Antonenko’s Luigi possessed a masculine swagger which was matched by a lustrous tone; together they conveyed his commitment both to revolutionary ideals and to human love. After a slightly over-blown opening, Antonenko relaxed and revealed his huge vocal capacity and glossy warmth. His affecting and appealing sound were complemented by confident, convincing acting.

Michele was sung by Lucio Gallo, whose slightly dry vocal timbre and physical rigidity successfully communicated his resignation and endurance, before stoicism was finally overwhelmed by self-destructive bitterness and frustration.

The set was effective cast by evocative shadows, literal and metaphorical, capturing the grey misery which will ensue for all the protagonists. Lighting designer, D.M. Wood, exploited similarly sombre shades in Suor Angelica, to convey a quieter loneliness; while in Gianni Schicchi contrasting flashes of brightness and darkness suggested the deceitful twists and turns of the plotting relatives.

Suor Angelica presents another enclosed world, but here the desire to escape is not represented by an aspiration to return to the bright lights of Paris in search of earthly pleasures, but rather by a longing to transcend earthly preoccupations and discover eternal salvation and bliss. The Catholic message perhaps has little resonance with many modern opera-goers and Jones has made a brilliant decision to replace religious institutionalism with secular rituals, to dispense with convents and cloisters in favour of the hospital ward of a children’s hospital, the nuns exchanging their habits for the uniforms of a nursing order. The re-location is inspired, and wonderfully realised in Miriam Buether’s arresting set.

SUOR ANGELICA - BC20110908355 - LARSSON AS THE PRINCESS (C) BILL COOPER.pngAnna Larsson as The Princess

In the title role, Albanian Ermonela Jaho, making her debut in the role after replacing German soprano Anja Harteros at short notice, did not always surmount the rich orchestral fabric, but her sound is attractive, and she often attained the requisite long-phrased melodicism.

In the libretto, recognising that her decision to commit suicide is a mortal sin, Angelica is overcome with guilt and prays for salvation; she is rewarded with a redemptive final vision of the Virgin Mary and her son, before she dies, presumably transfigured. Jones replaces this spiritual vision with a more mundane one: immobile, Angelica stares piercingly, transfixed by one of the young boys she has been nursing, a painful reminder of her own loss and culpability. Some critics have accused Puccini’s religious apotheosis of vulgarity and tastelessness, but in Jones’ hands, any sense of kitsch Catholicism is transformed into a tragic realism more commonly associated with Il Tabarro. If Jaho tired slightly towards the close, this only served to emphasise that any notion of transfiguration is, in Jones’ eyes, delusory.

As Angelica’s harridan aunt, The Princess, Anna Larsson was suitably haughty and viciously Machiavellian. The scene in which she compels Angelica to acknowledge her shame (she has given birth to a child outside marriage), not to save her niece’s soul but to manipulate her into signing away her inheritance, was chillingly cruel; most effective too was the way in Buether re-configures the set, creating a separate corridor for the desolate struggle between the two women.

Upon learning of her son’s death, Jaho delivers her aria, ‘Senza mamma’, with disturbing concentration, although her physical trembling, while painfully affecting, did result in an unfortunately exaggerated vibrato.

GIANNI SCHICCHI - BC201109091221 - SEE PHOTOGRAPHS LIST FOR CAPTION (C) BILL COOPER.pngFrom Left To Right - Rebecca Evans as Nella, Alan Oke as Gherardo, Francesco Demuro as Rinuccio, Robert Poulton as Marco, Elena Zilio as Zita, Gwynne Howell as Simone, Marie Mclaughlin as La Ciesca and Jeremy White as Betto Di Signa

Anna Devin, a Jette Parker Young Artist, had a busy evening, impressing in all three roles. Highly competent as Sister Genovieffa, and as one of the Lovers in Il Tabarro, she subsequently stood in for indisposed the Ekaterina Siurina as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi. Elizabeth Woollett as the Nursing Sister and Eryl Royle (Sister Osmina) also pleased.

Pappano grasped the way in which the ritualistic repetitions of the score accrue emotional meaning, building to a concentrated lyricism of escalating intensity. The ROH orchestra was the embodiment of instrumental refinement, particularly in the orchestral intermezzo.

GIANNI SCHICCHI - BC201109091373 - GALLO AS GIANNI SCHICCHI (C) BILL COOPER.pngLucio Gallo as Gianni Schicchi

However, the rushing chords which open Gianni Schicci — seen here in a revival of Jones’ 2007 staging — immediately swept aside the constrained ambience of the preceding opera, in a breathless dance of irony and wit.

For once Pappano perhaps didn’t quite always garner the requisite fleetness of foot but there was much zany zippiness, with visual humour provided by staging and costumes which recall the cardboard shabbiness of 1960s sit-com set.

The comic know-how of Gwynne Howells, returning to the role of Simone — one of the avaricious, grasping heirs of the declining Buoso Donati — provided some stability and focus among the comic capers. Rebecca Evans, making her debut in the role of Nella, relished the vulgarity of the role; while in the title role, Lucio Gallo seemed at times to find it hard to break free from the dark shadows of Il Tabarro, offering a sardonic but not ineffective interpretation.

Other strong performances came from Francesco Demuro, who demonstrated a fervent tone as Rinuccio — although in the set-piece, ‘Firenze è come un albero fiorito’ he perhaps tried a bit too hard — and Elena Zilio (Zita).

GIANNI SCHICCHI - BC201109091393 - SIURINA AS LAURETTA AND DEMURO AS RINUCCIO (C) BILL COOPER.pngEkaterina Siurina as Lauretta and Francesco Demuro as Rinuccio

So, is the whole triptych greater than the sum of its parts? In the final reckoning, it probably doesn’t matter either way: Jones and Pappano revealed the affective power of each of these three divergent and complementary works — no musical detail was overlooked, and each was made to cohere within an impressively paced whole, the varying spatial dimensions of each of the three operas perfectly judged. It truly was an evening when there was something for everyone.

Claire Seymour

Il Tabarro

Michele: Lucio Gallo; Giorgetta: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Luigi: Aleksandrs Antonenko; Tinca: Alan Oke; Talpa: Jeremy White; Frugola: Irina Mishura; Song Seller: Ji-Min Park; Lovers: Anna Devin, Robert Anthony Gardiner. Set Designs: Ultz. Costume Designs: Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting Design: D.M. Wood.

Suor Angelica

Monitress: Elena Zilio; Two Lay Sisters: Melissa Alder, Kate Mccarney; Mistress of the Novices: Elizabeth Sikora; Sister Lucilla: Anne Osborne; Sister Osmina: Eryl Royle; Sister Genovieffa: Anna Devin; Sister Angelica: Ermonela Jaho; Nursing Sister: Elizabeth Woollett; Two Alms Sisters: Gillian Webster, Kathleen Wilder; Abbess: Irina Mishura; The Princess: Anna Larsson. Set Designs: Miriam Beuther. Costume Designs: Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting Design: D.M. Wood.

Gianni Schicchi

Buoso Donati: Peter Curtis; Simone: Gwynne Howell; Zita: Elena Zilio; Rinuccio: Francesco Demuro; Betto di Signa: Jeremy White; Marco: Robert Poulton; La Ciesca: Marie McLaughlin; Gherado: Alan Oke; Nella: Rebecca Evans; Gerardino: Noah Scoffiedl; Gianni Schicchi: Lucio Gallo; Lauretta: Anna Devin; Maestro Spinelloccio: Henry Waddington; Ser Amantio di Nicolao: Enrico Fissore; Pinello: Daniel Grice; Guccio: John Molloy. Associate Director: Benjamin Davis. Set Designs: John Macfarlane. Costume Designs: Nicky Gillibrand. Original Lighting Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin. Revival Lighting Design: D.M. Wood.

Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Director: Richard Jones.

image= image_description=Eva-Maria Westbroek as Giorgetta and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Luigi [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Il Trittico product_by=Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Wednesday 14th September 2011. product_id=Above: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Giorgetta and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Luigi

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera
Posted by Gary at 2:17 PM

The Elixir of Love, ENO

But, if we imagine that love potions, placebos and quackery, are a thing of the past, we only have to remember that there’s still a vibrant market for Viagra and rhino horn.

So, it’s clear that the follies and frailties which are gently lampooned in Donizetti’s tale have not yet been eradicated, and Jonathan Miller’s production, while indulgently charming, never lets the cynical gaze drop: Nemorino’s transfiguration from simple-minded mechanic to James Dean look-a-like is effected by a lusty swig of cheap Kentucky bourbon; the gushing adoration of the female population is motivated more by his recent monetary good fortune than any sudden recognition of his innate qualities as a lover and husband. Human gullibility is still going strong.

First seen at ENO in February 2010, Miller’s 1950s Mid-Western re-location works a treat — the rolling golden plains and sky-blue expanse which stretch as far as the eye can see evoke an innocent place far from modern urbanity; the homespun folk are just ripe for exploitation by an itinerant charlatan.

We are invited to relax and enjoy ourselves at ‘Adina’s Diner’, a bustling watering hole superbly imagined by Isabella Bywater, in a naturalist recreation of the era, all clashing complementary tones of vibrant pink and green. This revival hasn’t managed to overcome an innate challenge presented by the set, however; for while the resourceful rotation of the design is inventive, the interior itself is rather too cramped. When the whole town crowd inside there’s barely room to breathe, let alone sing and dance, and the chorus are often static and unengaging. That said, in the opening scene Nemorino (Ben Johnson) seemed further forward than I remembered from the previous run, enabling him to be more clearly heard above orchestra and chorus, and effectively drawing the audience’s attention to his downheartedness and romantic dilemma from the start.

Andrew Shore’s performance as the nattily dressed Dr Dulcamara, equipped with a silken tongue and a sharp nose for commercial opportunities, won him an Olivier nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in 2010, and he’s certainly the star of the show. Gliding into the town in a gleaming Cadillac cabriolet — even the desert dust can’t dampen the dazzle of his entrance — this slick fraudster so genuinely relishes his own ingenuity, warmly encouraging all who dash to sample his wares that he’s almost impossible to dislike. As usual, Shore’s diction is exemplary — no need for surtitles as he assuredly launches into his glib advertising sales pitch: “If you reek of halitosis/ Then take a couple of doses”.

He’s undoubtedly the star-turn, but there is a danger that it might seem as if the whole production has been designed as a Shore-showcase, were it not for the impressive performance of Sarah Tynan returning to the role of Adina. The pert blonde bob flawlessly coiffed, the Monroe-wiggle honed to perfection, Tynan evinces confidence and allure, her voice luscious and full.

As the naïve, nerdy, love-struck Nemorino, Ben Johnson certainly pulled the heartstrings. He is in full command of the Italianate style, his phrases elegantly shaped; and his attractive tone is complemented by convincing acting, the comic gestures discreet but telling. The ardent yearnings of “Una furtiva lagrima” can seem a little out of place after the preceding light-hearted mischief, and I found Johnson rather too intense: it seemed impossible that this garage dunce could feel passions so profound, and express sentiments so earnest. However, Johnson had all the notes — although there were a few rough edges as he strove for depth of feeling — and the aria was well-received; it evidently moved the hearts of the audience, if not the money-grabbing girls of the town.

Benedict Nelson, as Belcore, demonstrated a pleasing, focused tone, although his voice is a little too light-weight for this auditorium and did not always carry. Nelson’s was an intelligent dramatic interpretation: he did not overdo the brash blustering, and for once it did not seem incredible that Adina might fall for Belcore’s charms. And, in his Act 2 confrontation with Nemorino the two men worked effectively together.

Despite fine performances from all the principals — including Ella Kirkpatrick as an alert, smart Giannetta — the show did not always sparkle, however. Russ Macdonald’s tempi were simply too slow, the instrumental playing too leaden; and the overall effect was more toffee apple than candyfloss. That said, the astuteness of Miller’s perceptions, aided by Kelley Rourke’s witty ‘translation’ (although while the Americanisms — “knuckle sandwich”, “hello cupcake” - pay effective homage to Porter and Sondheim, the cast’s American accents are less consistent), and impressive performances in the central roles, make for a highly agreeable, satisfying evening.

Claire Seymour

Click here for access to a gallery of photos, audio and video sections and other information.

image= image_description=The Elixir of Love [Image courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: The Elixir of Love product_by=Nemorino: Ben Johnson; Adina: Sara Tynan; Belcore: Benedict Nelson; Dr Dulcamara: Andrew Shore; Giannetta: Ella Kirkpatrick. Conductor: Russ Macdonald. Director: Jonathan Miller. Revival Director: Elaine Tyler-Hall. Set Design: Isabella Bywater. Lighting Design: Hans Äke-Sjöquist. English National Opera, London Coliseum. Thursday 15th September 2011. product_id=Above image courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:35 PM

The Italian Girl in London, Bampton Classical Opera

Revered by artists and intellectuals, he was (according to an informative programme essay) considered by Delacroix to be superior to Mozart, while Stendhal asserted that his genius was equal to that of Raphael!

Nowadays, Cimarosa is best known primarily for his comic masterpiece, Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage). However, once again Bampton Classical Opera have delved into the archives and located another melodious, charming gem richly deserving of a wider audience.

Covering a single day during a time of war, and set in a London hotel, The Italian Girl in London is a typically daft buffa tale of muddle, misunderstanding and mayhem. Resident are an eclectic bunch of Europeans: an eminently sensible, if self-righteous, Dutchman, Sumers; Don Polidoro, an ardent Italian; and the morose English aristocrat, Milord Arespingh — their needs catered for by the émigré Italian hostess, Madama Brillante, assisted by her French waitress, Henriette. The foreign visitors find English manners and customs baffling, but despite their national differences, all three men are equally entranced by the captivating Henriette. In fact, ‘Henriette’ is actually Livia — formerly affianced to, and jilted by, Milord, who has been ordered by his father to marry the ghastly Diana. Polidoro is the object of Madama’s own amorous attentions, but she is determined to embarrass him for his infatuation with Livia. So, she explains that the girl can make herself invisible using a magic bloodstone, and tricks him into making amorous advances to thin air. Meanwhile, Sumers has learned of Milord’s forthcoming marriage and resolves to protect Livia from the inappropriate attentions of others. The protagonists lurch from one melodrama to the next: the deluded Polidoro searches for his own bloodstone in order to advance his courtship with Livia; driven to despair by thoughts of a life with Diana, Milord demands that the Italian spares him his fate by running him through with a sword; Livia is arrested (a ruse intended by her father to prevent her running away from home), before the chivalrous Sumers comes to her rescue. Inevitably, there is a sentimental resolution to the pandemonium: the puzzles are solved, the disorder dispelled, and both lovers and nations celebrate peaceful reconciliations.

Following fully staged performances earlier this season at Bampton, Westonbirt and at the Buxton Festival, Bampton Classical Opera presented the opera at St. John’s Smith Square with only costumes and minimal props to recreate the Victory Bar at the down-at-heel ‘Nelson Hotel’; a Rubik Cube (which fascinates but defeats the dim-witted Milord) and a rack of Charles & Di postcards serve to establish the year, 1982. At Buxton sets and staging were wittily deployed to complement the entertaining translation by Jeremy Gray and Gilly French, and this visual humour was missed, especially in the barmy finale to Act 1. Perhaps some side flats would have helped, but, although the stage business was necessarily quite limited given the restrictions of the St. John’s performing space, the young cast did succeed in conjuring up a frothy, sunny atmosphere — although the nautical cutlasses were more anachronistic when drawn from the umbrella stand than they had been when plucked from a wall display of maritime memorabilia!

_MG_9513.pngThe finale of Act I

Although the commedia dell’arte stereotypes are rather two-dimensional, focused acting from the whole cast quickly established strong characterisation: Nicholas Merryweather demonstrated a typically sharp appreciation of comic timing and gesture, and Adam Tunncliffe made much of the rather ‘flat’ role of Sumers, engaging the audience’s attention effectively in well-acted, focused recitatives. He demonstrated a flexible, pleasing tenor as he introduced a much-needed touch of sobriety into the inane proceedings. Even the silent roles — Rosa French, as the hotel’s gum-chewing maid, and director Jeremy Gray, attempting to restore order with his police officer’s hand-cuffs — contributed considerably to the capers and drolleries.

The singers enjoyed Cimarosa’s graceful, shapely vocal lines; while there is little flamboyant coloratura, the well-crafted phrases do allow for textual clarity, and diction was uniformly clear. Merryweather excelled in this regard; moreover, he charmingly varied his tone to indicate the passionate Italian’s whims and wiles — his crafty whispered asides, with perfect intonation and crisp enunciation, were particularly impressive. As a poised and dignified Livia, Irish soprano Kim Sheehan produced a pleasing round tone, never strident at the top, and conveyed tender pathos when destined for imprisonment.

Bass Robert Winslade Anderson (Milord) seemed a little hesitant at first, and on occasion strayed from conductor Thomas Blunt’s beat, but to be fair, placed in front of the orchestra and without a monitor to aid them, all the cast had to work hard in this regard. And, in an explosive jealous outburst in his Act 2 aria, Anderson presented a confident portrait of blustering pomposity, making excellent use of the text to develop characterisation. As the knowing, worldly Madama Brillante, Caryl Hughes’ Act 2 cavatina was particularly lively and bright.

Placed centrally on raked staging behind the singers, Bampton Classical Orchestra delivered a neat, precise performance, understated and accurate, never overwhelming the young voices. Textures were elegant, articulation appropriately nimble, and Charlotte Forrest’s continuo accompaniments were elegantly decorative. Blunt judged the tempi well, particularly in the galloping Act-finales; after a series of solo arias he confidently led cast and players as the momentum accumulated towards the cheerful, buoyant conclusion.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Kim Sheehan as Livia and Nicholas Merryweather as Milord Arespingh [Picture(s) by Anthony Hall courtesy of Bampton Classical Opera] product=yes product_title=Domenico Cimarosa: The Italian Girl in London product_by=Livia: Kim Sheehan; Madama Brillante: Caryl Hughes; Sumers: Adam Tunncliffe; Don Polidoro: Nicholas Merryweather; Milord Arespingh: Robert Winslade Anderson. Bampton Classical Players. Conductor: Thomas Blunt. Director: Jeremy Gray. Bampton Classical Opera. St John’s, Smith Square, Tuesday 13th September 2011. product_id=Above: Kim Sheehan as Livia and Nicholas Merryweather as Milord Arespingh
All picture(s) by Anthony Hall courtesy of Bampton Classical Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:02 PM

Paris: A Thrilling Leap and Then a Stumble

“Thrilling” and La Clemenza di Tito do not often occur in the same sentence, but thanks to a near-perfect cast, characterful instrumental effects, a visually handsome playing space, and cunning direction, this splendid revival makes a fine case for the infrequently performed opera. Perhaps the piece should be called The Sesto Spectacular since the mezzo role not only dominates the story, but has many of the best tunes.

Lean, lanky Stephanie D’Oustrac was a perfect physical fit for the pants role, and her vibrant, throbbing mezzo easily encompassed Mozart’s challenges. Ms. D’Oustrac has a beautiful evenness to her instrument whether nailing the writing in the chest register, sailing above the staff (where she slightly lightens her tone, only slightly), or railing through rapid fire melismas with supremely controlled accuracy. The best-known set piece Parto, parto was delivered with a powerful sense of discovery. Indeed such freshness, immediacy and excellent diction marked her singing throughout the evening. Stephanie’s dramatic impersonation was well-considered, her gait and demeanor were believable, and her phrases were meaningful and theatrically vivid. I might suggest she consider modifying the slight breathiness she uses to convey anguish or incredulity, but all things considered this was an accomplished, galvanizing performance.

We were no less fortunate with our Vitellia. The sensational soprano Hibla Gerzmava is the most remarkable new (to me) talent I have encountered in many a year (I ran-not-walked to Google her name right after the show). This Russian diva is possessed of a gorgeous, pliable spinto voice that is not only capable of caressing a phrase with meltingly beautiful piano singing, but also has no problem bouncing searing dramatic outbursts off the back wall. Ms. Gerzmava is also capable of considerable variety and she found an unusual depth in her interpretation of the villainess. Nowhere was this more evident than in her take on the lengthy aria “Non piu di fiori”, which the soprano made into an uncommonly meaningful mini-drama, all the while singing it flawlessly. Ms. Hibla is scheduled for a run of Met Mimi’s this season and I would not be surprised if this were the springboard to widen the reputation of this remarkable talent.

Allyson McHardy has a well-schooled mezzo which recalls von Stade’s responsiveness, as well as her controlled economy of vocal gesture. The vibrato is a bit quicker, but engaging. Her solid sound was a bit similar to Sesto’s, and in a perfect world, the casting director might have found a contrasting type. But it has to be said that Ms. McHardy gave substantial pleasure. She was excellently paired with the clear-voiced Servilia of petite, attractive Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Ms. B-D’s richly glowing timbre was jot only a perfect complement, but also blended beautifully with Sesto on the flowing duet Ah, perdona al primo affetto. Balint Szabo was an exceptionally colorful Publio, his penetrating bass making us wish for once that his second act aria was a bit longer.

But what to say about Klaus Florian Vogt as Tito? Having quite enjoyed Mr. Vogt as Walther in Bayreuth a few seasons back, I wish my second encounter with this in-demand tenor was as happy as the first. Tito definitely could benefit from a heroic young Wagnerian instrument, but that was not what Vogt served up on this occasion. I am not sure if he was affecting a precious, Mozartean delivery, or if the rather light voice has been affected by heavier roles. Here it sounded rather characterless with a somewhat dull tone that resisted coming out of the mask. Klaus did, however, essay the role with consummate professionalism, good communication of the character, clear diction, and a thorough understanding of the part. He certainly held his own. It’s not that he really missed anything in the role. It just seemed the role missed him.

There was nothing at all missing from the pit, however, where Adam Fisher elicited a wondrous account of the score. Clemenza especially benefits from this kind of knowing, dedicated rendering and the orchestra proved to be a willing accomplice in creating a memorable night of lyrical theatre. The bass clarinetist is to be especially commended for the incomparable obbligato to the two famous arias.

Willy Decker proved yet again that he is one of the best directors around for clarity of blocking, meaningful development of character relationships, and knowing use of the entire playing space. Decker was well-served by designer John MacFarlane, who provided a highly effective in-one set design that incorporated evocative historic architectural elements, and a series of eye-popping front drops that resonated with meaning. The huge, slightly leaning semi-circular wall enclosure on-stage suggested a Pantheon, and the stage right half of the unit could slide around front a bit to reveal upstage darkened skies in various stumbled effects. The master stroke was to start the show with a huge block of marble center stage, which the principals regard, variously, during the overture, and on which one of them eventually takes a piece of chalk and writes “Titus” in block letters. This monolith serves as a barrier, a reviewing platform, and eventually a bust of Titus. MacFarlane has devised a journey for this marble that involves revealing it in various states of development by an unseen sculptor. Mr. Decker obliges by bringing action periodically in front of the show drop to facilitate changing out the work-in-progress behind. And what show drops!

Against a blazing white background, and with a nod to Cy Twombly, MacFarlane begins with streaks of dazzling reds and yellows, with a ghostly central impression of the crowned Titus. This swaps out, tellingly, to another drop that features a Jasper Johnsian heart ,stabbed by a dagger; counter balanced by an image of a distended spirit reaching in vain for the crown. At opera’s close, a final drop depicts a stylized, Voldemorte-ish Titus, having (mortally?) fallen with the crown dislodged from his head. These were stellar images that masterfully underlined the major plot themes. The only other piece was a white chair-cum-throne that figured prominently at key moments, especially as used metaphorically in conjunction with the white “royal” cape and rudimentary, pointed crown that looks like Bart Simpson’s hair-do (this standard issue European opera house model is apparently the only crown allowed in use — there must be an EU rule about that).

Indeed, when Vitellia sang her last aria, it was done on, and around the chair, laden with the cape and crown, and perched atop a mound of marble chips that were residue from the creation of the bust. Director and soprano mined many exciting moments of stage business from those elements. Another interesting visual was the introduction of a victor’s bouquet of brilliant red roses that recurs as imagery at key points, and corresponds to a vision of Berenice, a drop-dead gorgeous extra in a fiery red gown. MacFarlane’s fanciful costumes seem to have been drawn loosely from Mozart’s time, with liberal adaptations of the silhouette for chic strapless gowns fresh off the runway (Vitellia and Berenice get treated to these). Having dressed Servilia in canary yellow, it was a witty touch to mirror Annio’s growing passion for her by having the maiden first present her beau with a similar colored waistcoat, but then to have the boy completely change to an all-yellow suit. This sexy playfulness was ingrained into the whole concept with a sultry (and manipulative) byplay between Vitellia and Sesto that was quite torrid, indeed.

A small suggestion to directors and performers everywhere: when a substance is supposed to be “marble,” don’t hit it, slam things down on it, or stomp around on it making it ‘thump’ like the painted wood it is! Theatre is an illusion, after all, and anything that breaks the spell should be avoided if possible. But that very very minor quibble aside, at the end of the night this was just the sort of dynamic, committed, top notch treatment that could convert anyone to the pleasures of the under-appreciated La Clemenza di Tito. Strauss’s thrice-familiar, and widely played Salome needs no such advocacy, of course, although its glories are frequently more substantial than those on display the next day at the Bastille.

Up front, let me say that Stig Andersen is giving a tremendous performance as Herod. His round, stentorian voice sounded fresh and vital, belying his years and with no apparent consequences from the many memorable outings in world houses as various Siegfrieds, Siegmunds and Tristans. He is perhaps uniquely a Herod who sings the whole role, his approach lyrical, musical, sensitive, with nary a bark or a bray, even in the most agitated passages against thick orchestral competition. I hope Mr. Andersen keeps singing this well for a very long time for we surely need his treasurable artistry. But no one comes out of Salome humming the Herod. So what of our titular princess?

I am a great admirer of Angela Denoke, having heard her give very fine accounts of Elsa, Agathe, and the like. But Salome does not employ quite the same skill set and Ms. Denoke’s generous jugendlich-dramatisch soprano is more responsive at the top than in the lower middle where much of the conversational passages live. She has a commendable technique, and completely understands how to husband her resources to accomplish the task at hand. She had capital to spare even by opera’s end, and she immersed herself into the part and the directorial concept. But she seriously disregarded consonants at points that called for strong-voiced phrases. Ich will deinen Mund küssen for one example was so mushy that Angela made Joan Sutherland seem a model of clipped pronunciation. The sound poured out, but the words kinda set-up the whole plot. It would have been nice to have heard them. Although perfectly tuned 99% of the time, she also had a tendency to sing upward leaps just shy of the pitch, such as Allein was tut’s. Frau Denoke is a very fine singer who I fear may have assumed the wrong part. Not at all bad, many notable stretches, but in the end not yet a vocally mesmerizing Salome.

I would welcome another chance to assess Juha Uusitalo’s rolling bass, for when he infrequently sang lyrically, he displayed a most enjoyable color and size. Unfortunately, Mr. Uusitalo chose to sing not in phrases but in decibels, and spent most his stage time bellowing as loudly as his instrument would allow, I guess in an attempt to be dramatic. Pity. The wonderful Doris Soffel seemed to be infected with the same volume obsession, and her attempt to be imposing as Herodias resulted in her singing first loud. And then louder. Stanislas de Barbeyrac has a sturdy tenor which he put to good use as Narraboth, but his singing was about as stiff as his stage demeanor, which was not much more engaged or animated than when he was lying dead on the floor.

Isabelle Druet was a remarkably good Page, commanding our attention with each well-focused, burnished musical statement. The many featured roles were cast from strength, with the section of bickering Jews particularly clean and well-sung. I also found Scott Wilde’s First Nazarene to be authoritatively voiced with a handsome bass.

Conductor Pinchas Steinberg helmed a rather dispassionate and noisy reading from the pit, more cerebral than internalized. The musicians played cleanly, of course, and things started to loosen up a bit with The Dance of the Seven Veils. But if you haven’t been emotionally engaged by then it is a real uphill battle, no matter how erotically the cellos ‘moan’ in the beheading segment. Maestro Steinberg also had his hand on the volume button and did not always show enough sensitivity to the text and the singers ability to project it in lower registers, resulting in more than a few lost phrase endings.

Nicky Reiti has come up with a ‘beaut’ of a set design, a filigreed Moorish palace courtyard with a number of doorways and terraces that allow for varied traffic patterns. And it has been superbly lit by André Diot, with well-calculated area lighting, well-cued specials, and terrific moon projections (the blood-red eclipse for the final scene was chilling). And I liked the effect of reverting to a garish light of morning at the end which removed all the moody atmosphere and was an excellent prompt for Herod’s order to kill the princess. The costumes were another matter, inspired by modern dress, but with biblical twists. (Or, biblically ‘twisted.’) Salome came off a bit of a petulant debutante, Herod was in a smoking jacket, Jochanaan sported a prayer shawl and yarmulke, and worst served, Herodias looked like Norman Desmond performing an Evil Queen in, oh, say, a Disney cartoon production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. (Doris, did you have to keep swooping that cape? Didja?)

Since this was a revival, I am not sure how much of director André Engel’s original thoughts remained, but most of the goings-on were quite thought-less. Or at east not thought through. When Jochanaan first becomes verbally contentious with Salome, Narraboth draws a knife. Later, when the J-Man actually grabs her arm forcefully, Narraboth does nothing. Not even a facial reaction. Hmmm. It gets established that Herod abuses his wife’s Page, allowing him to get kicked around by his lackeys, pushed aside, well, you get the picture. Yet when no one else acts to kill Salome as he commands, it is the Page who rushes through a door and slits her throat. Why would the Page do Herod’s bidding? Why not kill Herod instead? Hmmmmm. Engel strands poor Salome quite shamefully after the very antiseptic head is delivered. It looked as though he simply said “take this latex creation and do something with it.” And she gamely tries. But without inventive subtext there are just so many ways you can address a rubber head. Right profile. Left profile. Stand up. Kneel down. Hug it. Hold it. Out of ideas now, and only 246 bars of music to go. . .

If nothing else, I was handed a worthy addition to my collection of Worst Operatic Moments Ever: The Dance of the Seven Veils (marked down from ten). Everyone got shooed off stage so Salome could dance for Herod alone. She began by swooshing her skirt a few times and then hopped up on a window ledge and extended her feet to him and wiggled her toes like a school girl. This is apparently very exciting to Herod, who fumbles a cigarette out of a case and nervously fails to be able to light it. So, he throws it aside and looks smolderingly at Ms. S. She oh-so-deliberately Takes. Off. One. Shoe. And. Then. The. Other. (She is shameless, I say, shameless.) And Herod, unable to contain himself Does. The. Same. They hurl the shoes aside like in a Carol Burnett sketch. And I suddenly think, should I be giggling at “Salome”? Oh, there was more cat-and-mouse hide-and-seek, ballroom dancing that made Bristol Palin look talented, our heroine rolling on the floor like a giant ball of chiffon, and then crawling on her belly like Little Sheba, with poor dear Stig trying very hard to look aroused by all this. Or even interested. God bless him. The choreography was not by St. Vitus, oh no, it was credited to Françoise Grès.

With no clue as to how to engage the characters assembled on stage by having them react in some meaningful way during Salome’s last shocking monologue, the director simply had them all turn upstage, out of character, facing away from the performance. They were the lucky ones.

James Sohre

La Clemenza di Tito

Tito: Klaus Florian Vogt; Vitellia: Hibla Gerzmava; Servilia: Amel Brahim-Djelloul; Sesto: Stephanie D’Oustrac; Annio: Allyson McHardy; Publio: Balint Szabo; Conductor: Adam Fischer; Director: Willy Decker; Set and Costume Design: John MacFarlane; Lighting Design: Hans Toelstede; Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano


Salome: Angela Denoke; Herod: Stig Andersen; Herodias: Doris Soffel; Jochanaan: Juha Uusitalo; Narraboth: Stanislas de Barbeyrac; Page of Herodias: Isabelle Druet; First Jew: Dietmar Kerschbaum; Second Jew: Eric Huchet; Third Jew: François Piolino; Fourth Jew: Andreas Jaggi; Fifth Jew: Antoine Garcin; First Nazarene: Scott Wilde; Second Nazarene: Damien Pass; First Soldier: Gergory Reinhart; Second Soldier: Ugo Rabec; Cappadocian: Thomas Dear; Slave: Grzegorz Staskiewicz; Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg; Director: André Engel; Set Design: Nicky Rieti; Costume Design: Elizabeth Neumüller; Lighting Design: André Diot; Choreography: Françoise Grès.

image_description=Scene from Salome [Palais Garnier / Opéra Bastille © Jean-Pierre Delagarde]

product_title=Richard Strauss: Salome; W. A. Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito
product_by=Opéra national de Paris
product_id=Above: Scene from Salome [Photo: Palais Garnier / Opéra Bastille © Jean-Pierre Delagarde]

Posted by james_s at 11:11 AM

Willy Decker’s staging of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron

Think Turandot or Lulu. Arnold Schoenberg lived on for many years with two acts of Moses und Aron finished, but the third act he had planned never became a reality. He did not allow for performances of his incomplete opera, and so it was only shortly before his death that Moses und Aron was first performed. In the decades since then, this harsh but fascinating work has made it to the stage of most of the world’s great opera houses…and festivals.

The Ruhrtriennale is an arts festival in Germany, and Willy Decker has led it since 2009. His staging of Moses und Aron was filmed in 2009, and the DVD preserves a scintillating performance, well outside the bounds of standard operatic performance. The only criticism of the DVD package is that there is no bonus feature on the production, and that is a keen disappointment not just because such features have become ubiquitous. Generally they are only modestly enlightening, if even that, but after viewing this production, many a viewer is likely to want to hear more - from the director, musicians and performers - as to the experience just seen. At least the modest booklet offers the director’s thoughts (translated into English by Stewart Spencer). Decker basically provides a detailed synopsis that probes the psychological reality of the libretto’s action. Then in his last paragraph, Decker finds in the unfinished state of the opera a metaphor for the work’s themes: “Schoenberg…equated his own inevitable failure with the tragic failure of his eponymous hero Moses…”

The performing area is unorthodox. The audience sits in two bleacher-like sections, facing each other, and the orchestra is off to one side. At key moments the bleachers pull apart to create a performing space. Sometimes a scrim-walled box descends from the rafters. At other times, one side of the theater, opposite the orchestra, opens for entrances and exits. The contemporary costumes of Wolfgang Gussmann and Susana Mendoza come in shades of gray and black. Instead of suggesting a specific time, however, they help to create a sense of timelessness, which makes the action both metaphorically consistent with the libretto’s narrative and evocative of its universal themes.

Decker has always been a master of theatrical movement, a very real rarity in the world of opera. Anyone who has seen Decker’s Salzburg Traviata should know that. His work here with the chorus, let along the leads, is phenomenal. The sense of a lost people, torn in their allegiance, prey to the more ferocious impulses of human weakness, makes for a stage orgy that is not risible - a notable achievement in itself.

Dale Duesing as Moses and Andreas Conrad as Aron live every moment, some of which must have been physically arduous. Their vocalism is unimpaired, thanks to being projected through small microphones. Michael Boder leads the Bochumer Symphoniker in a reading that makes the sheer aggression of the score an adrenaline rush, a bravura demonstration of orchestral power. No, no one will leave humming any tunes, but Schoenberg’s sound world leaves its own impression, one of force and honesty.

At around 100 minutes, the sheer intensity of the performance almost becomes exhausting. Perhaps with a completed third act, Moses und Aron would simply be too brutal an experience. Someone may yet attempt a completion, as was done for Berg’s Lulu. But even if successful, a completed version won’t eclipse the achievement of Willy Decker and company in this remarkable DVD.

Chris Mullins

image_description=EuroArts 2058178

product_title=Arnold Schoenberg: Moses und Aron
product_by=Moses: Dale Duesing; Aron: Andreas Conrad; Ein junges Mädchen: Ilse Eerens; Eine Kranke: Karolina Gumos; Ein junger Mann: Finnur Bjarnason; Der nackter Jüngling: Michael Smallwood; Ein anderer Mann / Ephraimit: Boris Grappe; Ein Priester: Renatus Mészár. ChorWerk Ruhr. Bochumer Symphoniker. Michael Boder, conductor. Willy Decker, stage director. Wolfgang Gussmann, stage and costume design. Susana Mendoza, costume design. Andreas Grüter, lighting design. Recorded live at Jahrhunderthalle Bochum during the Ruhrtriennale 2009.
product_id=EuroArts 2058178 [DVD]

Posted by chris_m at 10:40 AM

Schiller: Ein Leben in Liedern, Wigmore Hall

This Opening Concert of the 2011/2 season was devoted to songs to texts by Friedrich von Schiller.

Goethe gets more musical settings more than any other poet because his idiom lends itself naturally to song. Schiller, on the other hand, wrote texts that read well on the page but don’t necessarily “sing”.

This concert, “Friedrich von Schiller — Ein Leben in Liedern”, was organized on very short notice. Soile Isokoski had originally been scheduled to sing and to judge the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition, but she was indisposed. The programme was very far from Isokoski’s usual repertoire, but so well put together that it was satisfying compensation. It bears the hallmark of Graham Johnson, whose experience in designing good programmes is legendary.

Johnson’s knowledge of this repertoire is equalled by few (Richard Stokes and Richard Wigmore are in this league too). Go to the Hyperion Records website and read Johnson’s programme notes for the 37 disc set of Schubert songs. This is what programme note writing should be, stimulating an erudite audience like that at the Wigmore Hall. Indeed, audiences completely new to the genre are even more badly served by superficial, clichéd work, devoid of the analysis and contextual connections that make programme notes worth reading in the first place. The Wigmore Hall gives medals for services to Lieder. Why not Graham Johnson?

How daring to place not one but several long strophic ballads together! Schiller’s poetry isn’t often lyrical in the way that Goethe’s is, so musical settings tend towards declamatory and need to be livened up by good performance or they can descend into dull. Luckily many good singers rise to the challenge. Fischer-Dieskau, Matthias Goerne, Wolfgang Holzmair and Christoph Prégardien had/have them in their repertoire. There were two stunning Die Bürgschaft D246 at the Wigmore Hall (Holzmair and Prégardien) a while back, about a year apart, both performed so vividly the whole song became a dramatic monologue. Quite an achievement for a 20 minute song where the “characters” as such are fairly stylized Classical Heroes.

Fortunately Christopher Maltman has these songs in his repertoire too and has worked so often with Graham Johnson. These Schiller songs suit Maltman’s voice and style, for they benefit from rich-toned gravitas. In Der Kampf D594 Maltman declaims dramatically, so the song sounds like a vignette from a much larger theatrical piece. Very Schiller, more unusual for Schubert. Maltman carefully negotiates the tricky “Bewundert still mein heldenmütiges Entsagen, und grossmutvoll beschliesst sie meinen Lohn…”. If strain appears later in the next strophe, Maltman had already earned his reward.

Tellingly, Johnson quotes Carlyle in his programme notes. Schiller, said Thomas Carlyle, was “too elevated, too regular and sustained in his elevation to be altogether natural”. Hence Johnson adds a few songs which lend themselves to earthly lyricism. An den Frühling (D587), Das Geheimnis (D793) and Dithyrambe (D801) bring out the gentler Schiller, and give Maltman a chance to exercise softer, warmer colours. These more “Schubertian” songs allow Johnson to play with great, expressive verve.

Schumann set very little Schiller, but it was interesting that Johnson included Schumann’s Der Handschuh op 87 (1850). This is interesting because it dates from the period when Schumann was experimenting with theatrical music, like Genoveva op 81 and Scenes from Goethe’s Faust(WoO 3). Schiller’s poem presents a scene of striking dramatic possibilities. Like a Roman Emperor, King Francis 1 is entertaining his court to a gory spectacle where lions, tigers and leopards rip each other apart. A lady drops her glove into the fray to taunt her lover. He gets the glove back but realizes what the lady really is like, and leaves her. The drama is in the situation, rather than in the personalities, so Schumann sets it as a decorative story, which Maltman and Johnson tell without too much savagery.

An interesting sub-theme flows through this programme: the unsentimental breaking of bonds. The protagonist in Der Kampf has pledged to some heinous crime by the one he loves. The hero in Der Handschuh learns that his lover wants him dead. In Die Bürgschaft, a man called Moro tries to assassinate the king although he’s due to marry his sister off the following day, Oddly enough the King lets him go home, but Moro’s friend must be crucified if Moro doesn’t come back in time. Cue for glorious dramatic effects in the text, storms, floods, brigands, all of which Moro defeats, arriving just as his friend is about to die. Even more oddly, the king decides that all three should henceforth be friends. Will Moros suddenly embrace the tyrant? Why schedule an assasination with a wedding? Logic doesn’t count in melodrama. This time, “meaning” in Lieder means meta-meaning, so as long as twenty steady strophes are delivered with panache, the ballad works.

All this summer, we’ve had Proms, operas and orchestral performances influenced by Alpine imagery and the freedom and danger mountains evoke. Our debt to Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell is far reaching. Johnson and Maltman performed Schumann’s Des Buben Schützenlied together with three settings by Franz Liszt, Der Fischerknabe, Der Hirt and Der Alpenjäger. Johnson makes a good point about Schiller’s political views and Schubert’s friend Johann Senn who was exiled from Vienna. The Metternich police state had no hold on Schumann and Liszt (or on Rossini or Catalani), so they can indulge in songs of lyrical grace, untroubled by the darker side of what Tell symbolized. At times the tessitura is high for Maltman (“im Paradies” in Der Fischerknabe) but this enhanced to the sense of danger that runs through Schiller’s play. Johnson played so evocatively in the Liszt songs that at times I thought of Edvard Grieg.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Friedrich Schiller (1793/94) by Ludovike Simanowiz [Source: Wikipedia]

product_title=Freidrich von Schiller: Ein Leben in Liedern — Settings by Schubert, Schumann and Liszt
product_by=Christopher Maltman, baritone; Graham Johnson, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, 10th September 2011
product_id=Above: Friedrich Schiller (1793/94) by Ludovike Simanowiz [Source: Wikipedia]

Posted by anne_o at 10:00 AM

Heart of a Soldier, San Francisco

We immediately knew that we were not before San Francisco’s altar to operatic art but rather at an altar of national sentiment. Christopher Theofanidis and Donna di Novelli’s Heart of a Soldier is not great art, nor is it political or historical tragedy. It is what it sets out to be — an account. Strangely, and perhaps this was its hidden intention, it distills the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center to some very small components — a few men and women whose lives were and are simply insignificant to the larger historical perspectives of the twenty-first century.

San Francisco Opera pulled out its biggest guns to accomplish this task. Ring director Francesca Zambello created a slick and smart production, minimal in concept though maximal in execution (it was complex). It toyed with a few levels of two white high rise towers, a few scenic screens, some with projections, and a couple of sliding platforms.

The libretto held thirty named roles that San Francisco Opera covered with fourteen singers, led by no less than American baritone Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla, security chief at the WTC. Mr. Hampson obviously reveled in portraying this more colorful than interesting character who was, might we say, more headstrong than heroic.

SFO principal guest conductor Patrick Summers was at the helm of all these folks, plus a standard sized chorus and a modestly endowed Romantic era orchestra. There was remarkably little percussion limited to the service of orchestral color. Battle sounds were modest electronic reproductions of the real thing.

The key to understanding this remarkable evening is to take yourself back to that terrible day, as you could not help but do in anticipation of the performance. Thus it was already emotionally laden before the fact.

For most of us the destruction of the World Trade Center was a small event, which is to way it was the size of our television screen. What were certainly awesome roars emitted by the collapsing towers were no louder than the voices of those begging for news of loved ones, the visual images of the still standing towers were even smaller than these anonymous tortured faces.

Heart of a Soldier captured the anonymity of this calamity by recounting the life of but one of its 3000 victims, a life however that was fulfilled by its death in battle. This victim, Rick, was a soldier, his story was told in scenes in which he was among many soldiers on the many battlefields on which they fought. Justness of cause was never mentioned. It was simply life on a battlefield, the battlefield of life where finally you too will die. It was a metaphor for all its victims, at once huge and minuscule.

There was huge art involved in creating this opera. Donna di Novelli’s libretto was the structure, stating its themes and images, developing them and recapitulating all these themes on that fateful September 11, 2001. It might have seemed contrived except we soon perceived that these conceits were in fact structural, creating brief lyric musical spaces as well as the arc of the story. The lyric moments were however always too brief, never indulging in what were the inherently wrenching emotions we had braced ourselves to endure and maybe finally wished we had.

The score by Christopher Theofanidis was based on American musical vocabulary, our open fifths and fourths, our primitive dance forms and our chugging minimalism. Its musical sophistication was stratospheric — Mr. Theofanidis’ brilliant orchestration would have made Berlioz green with envy, his harmonic transports would have cowed Richard Strauss.

While the premise of Heart of a Soldier was challenging on so many levels, Mr. Theofanidis’ score simply was not. One longed for a fugue or at least some sense of music taking on a life of its own, music that transcended the word and the literal and pushed us to the edge of our sensibilities and our endurance, like 9/11 had. This splendidly beautiful music did not.

Rick Rescorla’s best friend Dan Hill was portrayed by tenor William Burden in a quite convincing and moving characterization of this simple American mercenary who converted to Islam. Rick’s second wife Susan was enacted by Melody Moore who achieved the simple vivacity of character asked by the libretto in vibrant voice. The opera’s lack of emotional indulgence was echoed by its absence of vocal indulgence, even Mr. Hampson was given but one small opportunity to place his operatic art before Rick’s swagger. Of the secondary roles only the medic Tom beautifully sung by Michael Sumuel and his girlfriend Juliet sung by Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra were offered somewhat extended opportunities for lyric expansion.

The final image was neither word nor music, it was simply the tableau of Dan Hill knelt in Islamic prayer and Susan Rescorla, arms uplifted sifting the dust of 9/11 through her fingers. It was the only emotionally overpowering moment of the performance.

Michael Milenski

Click here for a photo gallery, along with video and audio selections.

image_description=Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla. [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Christopher Theofanidis: Heart of a Soldier
product_by=Rick Rescorla; Thomas Hampson: Daniel J. Hill; William Burden; Susan Rescorla; Melody Moore: Juliet/Barbara; Nadine Sierra: Cyrill; Henry Phips: Imam; Mohannad Mchallah: Tom/Ted; Michael Sumuel: Lolita/Bridesmaid; Susannah Biller: Pat/Ann; Sara Gartland: Kathy Bridesmaid; Maya Lahyani: Omaha/Robert; Ta'u Pupu'a: Dexter/Dex; Daniel Snyder: Joseph/Joe; Trevor Scheunemann: Sam/Wesley; Wayne Tigges. War Memorial Opera House. Chorus and orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Director: Francesca Zambello. Set designer: Peter J. Davison. Costume designer: Jess Goldstein. Lighting designer: Mark McCullough. 9/13/2001
product_id=Above: Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla. [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 9:25 AM

September 19, 2011

Wigmore Hall International Song Competition 2011

Sir Ralph Kohn, head of the Kohn Foundation which supports the Competition and many other philanthropic ventures, asks in his introduction “Is a competition essential to identify outstanding talent”? So often competition results are controversial, and don’t reflect what happens later in the marketplace, but at the Wigmore Hall, the emphasis is less on competition than on nurturing young talent. Kohn adds, “None of Wagner’s ‘Beckmesserisms’ in our search for the next young Meistersinger”.

The 2011 Jury included Sir Ralph, Bernarda Fink, Graham Johnson, Thomas Quasthoff, Malcolm Martineau, Sarah Walker, Richard Stokes, Jeremy Geffen and both the present and past Directors of the Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly and William Lyne. Judgement, though, is not the primary aim, for those who participate are encouraged to develop their skills. No “winners” or “losers” here, for all benefit.

Standards are very high. This year’s competition attracted 170 applicants from 33 countries. Some of the curriculum vitae are very impressive indeed, many applicants having extensive experience in fairly prominent roles. Many have won prizes before, and are involved with young artist schemes in major opera houses.

First prize went to baritone Dominik Köninger who made his debut in 2004 and who has worked extensively throughout Europe. He’s appeared in Baden-Baden, Stuttgart, Munich, Hamburg and the Theatre an der Wien. Next season, he joins the Komische Oper, Berlin. He has an attractively burnished voice, and his delivery is refined. He and his pianist Volker Krafft chose a programme of introspective songs, rather than those with immediate dramatic impact. In a competition which emphasizes German Lieder above all else, this demonstrated his fluency in “inward” expression. Köninger has a nice way of eliding words so they flow, without compromising diction. At times he showed real beauty, such as the way he infused the word “Lindenduft” (from Mahler’s Ich atmet einen linden Duft) with expansive warmth, evoking the scented breeze.

Second prize went to Stuart Jackson, one of the youngest participants, who is still attending the opera course at the Royal Academy of Music. Almost as soon as he started singing, I recognized his voice, though I’d heard him only once before, over a year ago, singing a few songs at a private recital which included many very well established performers. At the age of 25, very few singers are quite so distinctive that you remember their voices immediately, though you’ve forgotten the name and face.

Jackson’s tenor voice has natural colour and agility, but more importantly, he uses it intelligently. He’s very sensitive to emotional nuance. He sang several Russian songs, but had prepared so thoroughly that he conveyed mood so well that you could understand meaning. Jackson seems to relish the Russian syntax, sailing through the angular consonants of Mily Balakirev’s Son. A soldier is dying, dreaming of home : Jackson conveys both darkness and tenderness, so the song is deeply moving even if you don’t know the words.

Plenty of volume, too, huge crescendi where needed, but achieved through careful modulation, projected effectively outwards. No barking here, no straining for effect, but good technical control. A very good Liszt Pace non trovo (Petrach Sonnet no 104) indicates that Jackson can act with his voice. Jackson has an extremely interesting voice, but it’s his sensitivity to meaning and expressiveness that will give him an edge Properly polished and nurtured, Jackson will be someone to listen out for.

Song competitions are as much about identifying potential as about what happens in the finals. Perhaps that’s why mezzo-soprano Dorottya Lang won third prize, for she was so frozen by nerves that she didn’t come across well. Maybe she was better in the earlier heats. Potential, certainly, in baritone Jonathan McGovern. Again, nerves caused problems, which is hardly surprising, given the pressure these singers and pianists were under. McGovern has a nice, deep timbre, but also uses his brain. He chose Poulenc’s Four Songs from Le travail du peintre, shaping each song as Poulenc wanted, to reflect the poem and the painter described. Especially effective, though was his Ivor Gurney Epitaph in old mode. English song often suffers from over pretentious earnestness. McGovern free, almost conversational style communicates far better.

McGovern and his pianist Timothy End were awarded the Jean Meikle Prize for a duo, End sharing the Pianist Prize with Jonathan Ware, who did not appear in the finals. End’s not easy on his singers, being rather dominant and fast, but he’s a good player. I was impressed with Volker Krafft’s playing for Dominik Köninger. Krafft is primarily a conductor, and part of the Royal Opera House Jette Parker Young Artists Scheme, so his background is in voice,. He let his singer take precedence, shining in passages where the singer falls silent.

Thomas Quasthoff won an award, too, the Wigmore Hall Medal for outstanding contributions to the art of Lieder. The medal has only been awatrded once before, to Matthias Goerne. I was at Quasthoff’s very first Wigmore Hall recital, his London debut. It was a night to remember, and a reminder that relatively unknown singers can become major stars.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Wigmore Hall International Song Competition 2011

product_title=Wigmore Hall International Song Competition 2011
product_by=Dorottya Lang with Mehrdokht Manavi, Stuart Jackson with Jocelyn Freeman, Jonathan McGovern with Timothy End, Dominik Köninger with Volker Krafft. Wigmore Hall, London 8th September 2011.

Posted by anne_o at 9:24 AM

September 15, 2011

Bruckner: Symphony no. 9

Eschewing the completions of the torso or attempts to include with the movements with another composition by the composer to round out the program, the performance avoids some of the overt attention to the fact that the work is unfinished and, instead, provides a reading that treats the completed portion with integrity.

An important modern interpreter of Bruckner, Welser-Most leads the score with authority and finesse. The phrasing and articulation of the phrase structure stands out for the clarity Welser-Most delivers in this performance. His sense of timing in the cadences allows the ideas flow naturally. Yet the sound does not always serve the performance sufficiently to render some of the details that are apparent visually from the gestures Welser-Most uses in this performance. Not distorted, the sound is overly even, with the softer, thinner passages in the first movement lacking the almost inaudible quality that is part of some audio recordings. Likewise, the climactic points fail to deliver the full textures that are part of the score and evident visually in Welser-Most’s conducting. It is, nonetheless, a clean performance that shows the precision of the Cleveland Orchestra, with good balances between the sections of the orchestra, particularly the idiomatically solid brass sound that never distorts the textures with the strings and woodwinds.

The first movement is nicely paced to enhance the sense mystery as the piece unfolds and underscoring the composer’s initial marking “Feierlich, misterioso.” Welser-Most offers a clear presentation of the sections of the movement, with the exposition delineated effectively. At the same time, the conductor does not give away the recapitulation prematurely, but blends the reprise of the opening section convincingly into the structure, making the architecture of the movement palpable.

Welser-Most gives a vivid reading of Scherzo that follows, with the accompaniment nicely audible, and the percussive sonorities that character the opening section appropriately for the acoustics of the hall. The antiphonal passages have the proper resonance in this recording. This is an exemplary treatment of the movement that lends itself to repeated hearings to review the varied reprise Welser-Most achieves by bringing out the details of articulations of inflection.

Yet the third (Adagio. Langsam feierlich) movement stands apart from the others for Welser-Most’s convincing interpretation. It becomes a convincing conclusion for the work, which benefits from the breadth the conductor contributes to the score. Like other slow movements of Bruckner’s symphonies, this one benefits from the details that emerge in the thoughtful execution. The sustained pitches at the end offer a sense of finality and, as an unfinished work that ends in medias res, Welser-Most’s pause before bringing down his arms seems to pay tacit homage to the composer who died while composing the work.

Visually, the clear images are welcome, especially the close-ups of the various sections of the orchestra. At times, though, the shots suggest a large ensemble on a crowded stage, an image that is at odds with the actual size of the hall that generates the full sound Welser-Most draws from the Cleveland Orchestra, as viewed at the end of the Scherzo and the conclusion of the last movement.

James L. Zychowicz

image= image_description=Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 9 in D minor product=yes product_title=Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 9 in D minor product_by=Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Most, conductor. product_id=Medici Arts 2056848 [DVD] price=$24.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

L’Amour des trois oranges on CD and DVD

The irony there is that L’Amour des trois oranges debuted in Chicago, and legendarily, almost bankrupted the company. Of course, the “March” from the score is one Prokofiev’s smash hits, and the entire suite the composer derived from his score contains much fine music, in the composer’s inimitable mix of idiosyncratic melodicism and ingenious orchestration.

The temptation to stage the opera should probably be resisted, however, and U.S. companies that live and die at the box office and by donors’ generosity have no problem doing so. That’s probably due to the fact that no matter how attractive Prokofiev’s music is, the opera is tiresome and dated in its “modernistic” blend of fairy tale and farce. The original Carlo Gozzi play may or may not be a fine piece of literature, but the libretto that the composer and Vera Janacopoulos adapted from it overestimates the ability of stock comic characters and surrealistic action to support a cohesive evening of musical theater.


Two recent releases of the opera, one on DVD and one on CD, highlight the opera’s problems — ironically, by their sheer excellence. Despite the brilliant musical performance Kent Nagano leads in the 1989 Virgin Classics recording, without any visual element the score becomes a test of patience as the listener awaits the end of the “declarative” sections and an outburst of Prokofiev’s scintillating orchestral interludes. The cast is able but not compelling. Virgin provides, in its budget line, a third disc containing the libretto and notes.

On DVD, the 2005 Paris Opera production of director Gilbert Deflo can at least be enjoyed for its theatrical invention, with creative sets and costumes by William Orlandi. The performers are clearly having a wonderful time. However, the masks and make-up dampen even more the flat characters such reliable performers as Barry Banks and Beatrice Uria-Monzon inhabit. With no emotional involvement on the audience’s part, a few chuckles aren’t enough of a theatrical reward. Chuckles are better than groans, however, which many viewers will emit in the scene with a female character in blackface.

A 30 minute bonus feature, audaciously titled “How to Fall in Love with Three Oranges” only demonstrates the opera’s problems, as it mostly consists of the performers laboriously recounting their character’s actions and, without much conviction, trying to assign routine human motivations to the nonsensical action. Conductor Sylvain Cambreling selected a score edition which reprises the famous March so often that by the closing iteration one may not want to hear it ever again.

For those with more admiration for the score or opera than this reviewer, both these versions can be recommended for their overall high quality. For those in sympathy with the views expressed here, look for any orchestral performance of the suite. L’Amour des trois oranges is more than its famous “March” — but still not a successful opera.

Chris Mullins


image_description=Sergey Prokofiev: L’Amour des trois Oranges (The Love for 3 Oranges)

product_title=Sergey Prokofiev: L’Amour des trois Oranges (The Love for 3 Oranges)
product_by=Le roi de Trèfle: Philippe Rouillon; Le Prince: Charles Workman; La princesse Clarice: Hannah Esther Minutillo; Léandre: Guillaume Antoine; Trouffaldino: Barry Banks; Pantalon: Jean-Luc Ballestra; Tchélio: José van Dam; Fata Morgana: Béatrice Uria-Monzon; Linette: Letitia Singleton; Nicolette: Natacha Constantin; Ninette: Aleksandra Zamojska; La Cuisinière: Victor van Halem; Farfarello: Jean-Sébastien Bou; Sméraldine: Lucia Cirillo; Le Maître de cérémonie: Nicolas Marie; Le Héraut: David Bizic. Paris National Opera Chorus and Orchestra (chorus master: Peter Burian). Sylvain Cambreling, conductor. Gilbert Deflo, stage director. William Orlandi, set and costume designer. Joël Hourbeigt, lighting designer. Marta Ferri, choreographer. Recorded live from the Opéra national de Paris, 2005.
product_id=ArtHaus Musik 107241 DVD]

Posted by chris_m at 1:20 PM

September 13, 2011

BBC Prom 73: Der Freischütz

It seems that Hector Berlioz was compelled in this endeavour by a memory of a 1824 performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when the Frenchman was just 21 years old, which he bewailed was “hacked and mutilated in the most wanton fashion by an arranger”. However, despite severe misgivings about the production and vocal performances, Berlioz was enchanted by the work itself, and did not miss a single performance in the run.

When the Opéra decided to revive the opera, under the title Le Freyschütz, 17 years later, Berlioz perhaps feared that if he did not himself take on the task of modifying the work to satisfy the requirements of the Opéra’s statutes — no speech on stage, but there must be dancing — the outcome would be another garbled monstrosity. So, he set about replacing the spoken dialogue with sung recitatives and also inventing a musical vehicle for the obligatory ballet, on the condition that the opera was performed without a word or note being cut or altered.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner performed Berlioz’s French-language version earlier this year, at the Opéra Comique in Paris; upon transferring the production to the Royal Albert Hall for the penultimate Prom of the 2011 season, sets were dispensed with but a few props, costumes and some neat stage business — even a few rifle shots — lifted what was described in the programme as a ‘concert performance’ to a genuinely dramatic format. Indeed, while movements and gestures were deft and economically, it was hard to see what would have been gained by a more extravagant staging: essentially, the drama lies within Weber’s score, the vocal lines revealing credible and engaging relationships between the protagonists, and the orchestral fabric fully evoking the dark, elemental forests where the melodrama unfolds.

Substituting sung recitative need not necessarily alter the ambience or dramatic tempo; but, in this instance I felt that the recitative ‘diluted’ the melodrama and weakened the naturalism for which Weber strived. And, to my ear the gentle lyricism of the French text could not match the grim Gothic resonances of the original German. Moreover, the cast were not all equal to the demands of the French text; not surprisingly the two Francophones, bass Luc Bertin-Hugault and soprano Virginie Pochon, fared best.

Indeed Virginie Pochon’s Annette was a show-stealing performance. Her striking Act 2 aria revealed her rich bright tone, while in a stunning ‘Chanson’ in Act 3 she combined disciplined accuracy with energetic and spontaneous freshness.

Act 1 is dominated by male voices. Andrew Kennedy was a naïve, charming Max, his light high tenor sweet and appealing, although some of the role’s low-lying phrases did not carry over the orchestral texture. In this large arena, he was also a little lacking in stage presence; this Max was certainly no match for Gidon Saks's dastardly Gaspard whose committed embodiment of spitefulness managed to stay just the right side of cartoon villain, and who also had the vocal heft to fling his venom to the far reaches of the Hall. Before the seemingly impervious bust of Sir Henry Wood, Gaspard’s devilry unfolded, as he delved to the depths of a vast cauldron cloaked in swirls of dry ice to summon up his magic bullets.

Sophie Karthäuser as Agathe has a radiant tone and accurate intonation but she was rather underpowered, struggling to project above the incisive orchestral playing; in fairness, Agathe is a two-dimensional character, and while Karthäuser certainly captured her innocence, she did not uncover the anxious foreboding in the music which might convey her ‘darker’ qualities.

The smaller parts were competently delivered, although once again the young singers occasionally seemed a little reticent, vocally and dramatically. Matthew Brook’s Kouno successfully conveyed his gentleness and tender feelings for Max, and Robert Davies was an assertive Ottokar. Samuel Evans was a competent Kilian, while Luc Bertin-Hugault might have strived for more gravity and stature as the Hermit. However, I found Christian Pelissier’s Mephistophelian Samiel somewhat exaggerated and lacking in sophistication — disengaged from his victims and uninterested in their fate.

The superb Monteverdi Choir were utterly convincing and engaging, entrancing and exiting fluently, moving naturally on the raked staging, one even descending to the fore-stage to dance a peasant waltz with Kilian. In the ‘folk’ numbers, there was some wonderfully warm singing from the men — their hunting calls perfectly mimicking the ringing tones of a hunter’s horn — and some fine performances from the solo bridesmaids in Act 3. Overall the precision of the ensemble reminded one of Weber’s nationalistic ideals: he elevated the purity of the folk as representative of the ‘soul’ of the people, the ‘people’ being an organism in its own right, capable of democratically determining its own destiny.

In many ways, the most impressive aspect of the performance was the marvellous playing of the Orchestra Révolutionnaire and Romantique, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner who whisked the players along with dramatic urgency and fleetness. The overture was richly melodiousness, the four horns lustrous. Elsewhere string tremolos shimmered, and there were countless woodwind solos of exquisite clarity; the tone and articulation of the period instruments evoked the beauty and strength of the natural world, highlighting Weber’s rich symphonic tone painting. The climactic ‘Wolf’s Glen’ scene was spine-chillingly suggestive, striking horn playing, trembling low woodwind and ominous booming timpani strokes revealing the harmonic power and radicalism of Weber’s score.

Having struggled without success to convince the Opéra to overlook their demand for a balletic diversion, the best that Berlioz could do was to orchestrate Weber’s own piano piece, Invitation to the Dance. Although the intervention of this instrumental divertissement strikes a somewhat disruptive note in the drama, it did give the instrumentalists another opportunity to shine.

Although the pace lagged a little towards the close — not aided by the balletic intervention — and the happy ending is rather contrived, this performance forcefully demonstrated that Weber’s opera, in both Germanic and Gallic ‘variants’, is a work of both enormous musical charm and radical creative invention.

Claire Seymour

Click here for access to audio recordings of this performance.

image= image_description=Carl Maria von Weber product=yes product_title=Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz (French version, 1841, with recitatives by Hector Berlioz) product_by=Max: Andrew Kennedy; Kilian: Samuel Evans; Kouno: Matthew Brook; Gaspard: Gidon Saks; Annette: Virginie Pochon; Agathe: Sophie Karthäuser; Samiel: Christian Pelissier; Ottakar: Robert Davies; Hermit: Luc Bertin-Hugault. Monteverdi Choir. Orchestra Révolutionnaire and Romantique. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.BBC Proms 2011, Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 9th September 2011. product_id=
Posted by Gary at 9:51 AM

September 12, 2011

Munich’s Dialogues des Carmélites

It requires little in the way of vocal prowess or even acting ability, though a great Old Prioress (such as Rita Gorr, whom I once saw in Toronto) can make her death scene a thing of terrible beauty. Much of the musical and dramatic weight falls not on the characters or even the situations but on verbal formulae—sometimes poor ones (God tries not your strength but your weakness), sometimes ones worth pondering a little (what we call chance is just God’s logic), sometimes ones of some profundity (you might wind up dying someone else’s death by mistake—an idea that touches the heart of one of the mysteries of the faith, the divine surrogacy, Christ as vicar). Poulenc may have been more interested in these thoughts than in incising characters: they’re all prophetesses, though one, the Old Prioress,, is a sibyl as tyrant, and another, Sister Constance, is a sibyl as cheerleader, and the heroine, Sister Blanche, is a sibyl as nervous wreck. Indeed the opera has something in common with another religious opera, the Stein / Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts, with its interchangeable throng of saints—Stein said her inspiration was a series of photos of a novice turning into a nun, not far from the plot of Poulenc’s opera.

This production opens on a empty grayish-blue space, in which Blanche de la Force and her father and brother converse in modern clothes—here, the secular world is simply a desert. The convent, on the other hand, is a place, a screened bare room lit with electric lights strung from bare wires. The director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, springs his first major surprise here: there are no Christian emblems anywhere; and the ostentatiously dowdy modern dress, coupled with the fact that Poulenc’s text came from a screenplay that Georges Bernanos wrote in 1949, makes you wonder if there might be something about Jews and Nazis in the director’s mind. On the other hand, there are no Jewish emblems either.

It is fascinating to watch how this tease plays out. There are two occasions when it is impossible to ignore Christian visual elements: one is when the soldiers (dressed in generic police costumes, though with German lettering on their shoulder patches) order the nuns to doff their habits (Mother Marie strips to her bra at this point); and another when an effigy of the infant Jesus is passed around (a putto doll with a sunburst around his head, neither Christian nor unchristian).

The matter isn’t settled completely until the prison turns out to be full of cylinders of poison gas, a disappointingly obvious touch, I thought. And the final scene is comically outrageous, on the level of Ken Russell’s firing off a hydrogen bomb at the end of Madama Butterfly: Sister Blanche, far from joining the nuns in their Farewell Symphony Salve regina, as they’re executed one by one, breaks down the door, saves her gasping sisters from death, and perishes in an explosion. And yet: Poulenc borrowed the music for this intensely moving final scene from a strange orchestral piece he wrote in 1937, Deux marches et un intermède, in which the first piece is labeled “Marche” (1889) and contains a dainty quotation from The Nutcracker, and the second is labeled “Marche” (1937) and is all harrow. So, Poulenc may have considered his music pertinent to the difficult political situation of a harrowing age.

Kent Nagano’s conducting is even finer than in his audio recording, gesturally intent to the highest degree. None of the singing seemed to deserve special comment, except for Susan Gritton’s Blanche, by turns sweet-voiced and heady and hysterical, and yet with a sort of implacability in the background, like the calm at the center of Blanche’s storm.

Daniel Albright

image= image_description=Dialogues des Carmélites product=yes product_title=Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites product_by=Marquis de la Force: Alain Vernhes; Blanche de la Force: Susan Gritton; Chevalier de la Force: Bernard Richter; Madame de Croissy: Sylvie Brunet; Madame idoine: Soile Isokoski; Mère Marie: Susanne Resmark; Sœur Constance: Hélène Guilmette; Mère Jeanne: Heike Grötzinger; Sœur Mathilde: Anaïk Morel. Bayerische Staatsoper. Conductor: Kent Nagano. Staged by: Dmitri Tcherniakov. product_id=Bel Air Classics BAC461 [Blu-Ray] price=$39.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:28 PM

September 10, 2011

Santa Fe Faust — Revisited

Often over a run of performances, a production and the fit of singers into their roles will mature into an organic whole that eclipses earlier performances. We saw this closing night August 27 with Santa Fe Opera’s lavish production of the Gounod masterwork, Faust. It was from the first a good show — at times more ‘show’ than opera — but by the close of its run of nine performances, it was an artistic whole that proved a well-rationalized way of presenting an 1859 operatic hit to a 2011 popular audience.

Admittedly, it is hard to accept Santa Fe’s staging of Act I that had Faust still a grizzled old man when he was wheeled off stage at the end of his transformation scene. Gounod, in both direction and music, makes it clear Faust is to regain his youth, due to a deal with the devil and Méphisto’s magic, right on stage — the audience seeing him sing the second verse of his duet with Méphisto as a virile young man. Changing that through stage direction proved pointless, a silly notion of English powerhouse theatrical producer Stephen Lawless — but this talented world-class director did so many other right things for Santa Fe’s presentation, it is hard to feel anything but admiration for his work, and that of musical director Frédéric Chaslin, for between them, and with Santa Fe’s deep pockets, they produced a memorable evening of music theatre worthy of its venerable subject.

True, in many ways the production was re-set or changed, yet it caught the 19th Century spirit of Gounod’s masterpiece and made the most of it. Tenor Bryan Hymel in the title role sang the full run with poise and assurance, his brilliant top range conquering every high-B and C, with a few extras thrown in. He proved a stalwart over a long and demanding assignment. The Méphistophélès of Mark S. Doss, earlier in the season a bit hard to hear, perhaps a bit under-powered, by late August was on top of every aspect of his famous role. The voice was fine, the playing better than ever — and as usual the Devil was the audience favorite — it was ever thus for the Fallen Angel! The key role of Valentin was assumed in August by baritone Christopher Magiera, new to Santa Fe and an experienced and competent performer. Ideally, one wants to hear a more sonorous voice in this big role, yet Magiera’s smooth lyric voice and musical taste met most demands; one could relax with this Valentin and enjoy his music.

On the ladies’ side all was much as before, and again Ailyn Perèz was a Marguerite of great beauty and stage worthiness. She is an enchanting creature in her role of the girlish young woman seduced into tragedy. With three performances in seven days of a demanding role, a ‘big sing’ by any measure, the soprano on closing night seemed frankly tired. Early on her rich voice had color and point, her diction better than before, but by the end, she was close to the edge, her Trio B-naturals uneasy. Perez is a major voice; she well knows how to use it and how to inhabit a role, but she is still young and there is work to be done. There is much to be anticipated from this Chicago-born lyric soprano.

Last but foremost, the French conductor Frédéric Chaslin, serving now as Santa Fe Opera’s music director and chief conductor, proved the master of his domain. He had the orchestra honed to a fine point, all was in place, with shape and nuance lavished upon the familiar score that revitalized it and brought forth the impressive talents of the SFO Orchestra. Reports from the orchestra confirm high morale and eagerness to perform with this music master. I trust we may look forward to more French repertory under Chaslin, a former Santa Fe weak spot that is no longer a problem.

There had been rumors over the summer that the Opera would shorten the production, perhaps dropping the Parade of Courtesans scene, which offered much of the familiar Faust ballet music, if little classic ballet. Instead, each of the demi- mondaines — Salome, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Dalila, Manon and Carmen — offered her moments of temptation for the bedazzled young Faust, with plenty of effective choreographed movement (by Nicola Bowie), and sometimes humor. After twenty-minutes or so of such business, we were taken on to more serious matters; but the interval had served its purpose and reminded one how important dance and diversion are in 19th C. French opera. One had especially to appreciate the creativity of costumer Sue Willmington, scenic designer Benoit Dugardyn and the unusually effective lighting provided by Pat Collins. There was much to see, almost more than could be grasped in one viewing.

On the matter of the evening’s length, three-hours and more can be a trial for an audience seated semi-outdoors in a high-mountain environment. But, I did not notice any empty seats after the intermission, and applause and cheering at the final calls were substantial. Santa Fe’s Faust was a big production of a big opera that is not always accorded a company’s full forces these days; this time, Faust got what it deserved and Charles MacKay’s opera company showed, most impressively, what they can do if they really try. Well done!

In season 2012, two rarities, Rossini’s Maometto II and Szymanowski’s King Roger will be featured. If given the measure of quality provided Faust (and Menotti’s Last Savage) in the recent run, they should be well worth experiencing.

James A. Van Sant © 2011

image= image_description=Ailyn Pérez as Marguerite and Bryan Hymel as Faust [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera] product=yes product_title=Santa Fe Faust — Revisited product_by=By James A. Van Sant product_id=Above: Ailyn Pérez as Marguerite and Bryan Hymel as Faust [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
Posted by Gary at 10:25 AM

September 9, 2011

Jules Massenet: Le Cid

Music composed by Jules Massenet. Libretto by Adolphe d’Ennery, Edouard Blau and Louis Gallet based on Le Cid (1637) by Pierre Corneille.

First Performance: 30 November 1885, Opéra, Paris.

Principal Characters:
Chimène, daughter of Count Gormas Soprano
L’Infante, Daughter of Don Fernand Soprano
Rodrigue (Le Cid) Tenor
Don Diègue (Don Diego), father of Rodrigue Bass
Le Roi, Don Fernand, King of Castille Baritone
Le Comte de Gormas (Count Gormas) Bass
Sr. Jacques Bass
L’Envoyé Maure Baritone
Don Arias Tenor
Don Alonzo Baritone

Setting: Eleventh Century Burgos, capital of Castille.


Rodrigue has returned from victory over the Moors, and the first act shows him receiving knighthood from King Ferdinand, at the house of Count Gormas, whose daughter, Chimène, is in love with the warrior. The King and his family approve, although the King’s daughter herself loves Rodrigue. The latter match, however, is impossible since the hero is not of royal blood. The King bestows upon Don Diego, father of Rodrigue, a governorship expected by Count Gormas. The enraged Count insults Don Diego, who, too old to fight, calls upon his son to uphold his honor—without naming his adversary.

Although grieved upon learning his adversary’s identity, Rodrigue is obliged to go through with the duel, and more by accident than design kills the Count. Chimène swears vengeance.

The next scene takes piace in the great square before the palace of the King at Seville, where a crowd of merrymakers has gathered, for this is a festival day. In the midst of the revelry Chimène appears and begs the King to bring revenge upon Rodrigue. The King refuses, and learning that the Moors are advancing, bids her delay her vengeance until the close of the campaign, for Rodrigue is to lead the Spanish forces. Before departing, Rodrigue gains an interview with Chimène, and finds that her love is as strong as her desire for retribution.

At first seemingly near defeat, Rodrigue prays and resigns his fate to Providence. Then there is a sudden turn of fortune and the Spaniards are victorious.

First reports come that the army has been defeated and its leader slain. Chimène has her revenge, but is prostrated with grief and fervently declares her love. A second report reverses the news and Rodrigue returns to find his beloved still implacable. The King, shrewdly enough, now promises Chimène he will punish the warrior, but Solomon-like asks her to pronounce the death sentence. This unexpected decision causes her once more to change her mind, and when Rodrigue draws his dagger and threatens to end his own life if she will not wed him, she is compelled to acknowledge that Love is triumphant.

[Synopsis Source: The Victor Book of the Opera (10th ed. 1929)]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=El Cid [Photo by Anna Hyatt Huntington] audio=yes first_audio_name=Jules Massenet: Le Cid first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Jules Massenet: Le Cid product_by=Chimène: Béatrice Uria-Monzon; L’infante: Kimy McLaren; Rodrigue: Roberto Alagna; Don Diègue: Francesco Ellero D’Artegna; Le roi: Franco Pomponi; Saint-Jacques de Compostelle/L’émissaire Maure: Bernard Imbert. Orchestre et Chœur de l’Opéra de Marseille. Direction musicale: Jacques Lacombe. Mise en scène: Charles Roubaud. Assistant: Bernard Monforte. Décors: Emmanuelle Favre. Costumes: Katia Duflot. Live performance, Marseilles, 17 June 2011. product_id=Above: El Cid [Photo by Anna Hyatt Huntington]
Posted by Gary at 3:38 PM

Les Troyens by La Fura dels Baus

They are dressed as contestants in a hockey game—at the end of the second act we will learn, from Casssandra’s jersey, that they play for Team Troy.

This is startling. On closer inspection we see that the costumes also have elements of the clone warriors in Star Wars, and many other sorts of mechano-futuristic adventure-kitsch will appear later: the Trojan Horse is a kind of space capsule, made of steel planes that become whirling blades; when, in the first act pantomime, Hector’s little orphan puts an offering on his father’s tomb, it turns out to be a toy monster-truck. Later, in the Carthaginian acts, Dido and her court inhabit a space ship: four huge octagonal rings with a nose cone in back, and eight giant gray inflated cylinders protruding forward, creating an allusion to a hull. Dido has left Phoenicia to build a city, not in Africa, but in outer space.

Berlioz’s singers undergo a great many transports, and rapture, in this low-gravity environment, always means levitation. Cassandra and the other suicidal women rise out of the clutches of the Greek rapists; Dido and Aeneas rise into the air as the they sing their duet, at the end of which Mercury flies by in a satellite to urge Aeneas to leave Dido and fulfill his mission; Hylas, at the beginning of act 5, is not in the crow’s-nest of a ship but floating in a space suit, tethered to a satellite, with Greenland far below.

Carlus Padrissa, the stage director, has other technologies in his armamentarium. The cast often lug computer monitors with them: during the lovely act 4 septet, the monitors show treble clefs and other music-notation detritus, reinforcing the idea that this opera is, in fact, an opera. At the end of act 2, the rear projection displays a computer monitor sending alarming messages of system failure and virus alert. Indeed the production seems designed to be seen less in an opera house than on a computer screen: at the end of act 5, as Dido commits suicide, she stands on the nose cone (now outfitted as a kind of bed), upon which computer monitors are erected, showing the image of the Trojan Horse from act 1: Dido is dreaming of a new Trojan Horse to lay waste the second Troy that Aeneas will build in Italy. Objects continually threaten to flatten into digital images, in this extremely pixeled production.

I admire the way in which Padrissa attended to the strictly narrative and metaphorical aspects of the text: aspects that Berlioz left undramatized, Padrissa dramatized. When Cassandra sings of the vultures that will eat the Trojans’ bodies, the circumvolving smoke on the rear projects starts to turn into shadowy images of huge pecking birds. When Aeneas narrates the death of Laocoon, strangled by sea serpents, two gray cylinders (which will be part of the space ship in act 3) come to life and (with dancers strapped to the ends to represent mouths) start to devour Laocoon. The visual elements become a second orchestra, telling what Berlioz’s staging was (in Berlioz’s time) unable to show.

Musically, the production is beyond anyone’s dreams of excellence. Lance Ryan’s Aeneas is rhythmically careless in places, but outdoes Vickers in vehemence and (maybe) vocal power; Elisabete Matos’s Cassandra and Daniela Barcellona’s Dido are merely superb. Gergiev conducts with ardor, subtlety, and decisiveness. But: not many members of the cast can sing French vowels without discoloration.

Daniel Albright

image= image_description=C Major 706104 product=yes product_title=Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens product_by=Énée: Lance Ryan; Chorèbe: Gabriele Viviani; Panthée: Giorgio Giuseppini; Narbal: Stephen Milling; Iopas: Eric Cutler; Ascagne: Oksana Shilova; Cassandre: Elisabete Matos; Didon: Daniele Barcellona; Anna: Zlata Bulycheva. Valencia Regional Government Choir (Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana). Valencian Community Orchestra (Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana). Valery Gergiev, conductor. La Fura dels Baus, staging. Carlus Padrissa, stage director. Ronald Olbeter, stage designer. Peter van Praet, lighting designer. Chu Uroz, costume designer. Recorded live from the Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia”, Valencia, Spain, 2009. product_id=C Major 706104 [Blu-Ray] price=$37.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

September 8, 2011

Prom 67: Beethoven, Mass in D major, op.123

It seems to me inconceivable that I shall not look back in my dotage — assuming that I shall have one — and remember Sir Colin Davis conducting the Missa Solemnis at the Proms. Partly that must be a matter of my personal and, I flatter myself, intellectual obsession with the work. Furtwängler considered it Beethoven’s greatest work; if pushed, so do I. But its greatness is not that of Mozartian perfection: it lies in what, along with the late string quartets, must surely constitute Beethoven’s greatest challenge, both for himself and for us. It is both symphonic and, as Sir Colin points out in a brief programme interview, a work that, ‘constructed word for word … doesn’t lend itself to symphonic treatment’. The Mass both affirms and doubts — does it even deny? — belief in God, as a setting of the liturgy. It stands both as an affirmation, monumental and personal, in humanity, and a shattering demonstration of its nothingness in the face of the Almighty. Beethoven’s setting is both utterly characteristic in its strenuousness of purpose and strangely un-Beethovenian in other ways (something I have promised myself I shall think more closely about after several other projects: in the meantime, I shall refer the reader to Adorno). It is also well-nigh unperformable; Furtwängler simply stopped performing it. Indeed, a Furtwängler Missa Solemnis must be the ultimate fantasy recording; alas, it seems that it will remain a fantasy. We have Klemperer, though, in many ways a more meaningful dialectical antithesis to Furtwängler than the incomprehensibly venerated band-master Toscanini. And now we have Davis.

There was a special warmth to the applause Sir Colin received upon mounting the podium, a warmth that in London I otherwise only associate with Bernard Haitink. (The two conductors’ status as former Music Directors of the Royal Opera House, and their accomplishments in that post, doubtless has something to do with it, though Davis’s work with the London Symphony Orchestra may rank higher still in audience and critical esteem.) But this is not a conductor to be flattered, nor, crucially, to manufacture some easy, false sense of ‘excitement’. Beethoven’s opening bars thus resounded with spacious expectancy, as far removed from the idiocies of ‘period’ fashion as could be imagined. Indeed, there was a tentative moment of ensemble that suggested the orchestra, which has recently been performing Beethoven with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, might not quite be attuned to Davis’s reading. The moment was over in the twinkling of an eye, however, and it would, I think, be the sole criticism I could muster of a magnificent performance from the LSO. The massed ranks of the London Symphony Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir sounded quite staggering in heft, unity, and clarity, once again proving a nonsense of the claim sometimes heard that only small choirs can permit of contrapuntal or even homophonic clarity. And the soloists — first of all, soprano, mezzo, and tenor — sounded a voice for us, for frail humanity. One knew that this was intended, and believed in: by Beethoven, by the conductor, and indeed by the singers themselves. (Davis again: ‘You may not believe it immediately afterwards, but it [the work] doesn’t survive unless everybody is committed to it.’) The soloists’ echoing of the chorus upon ‘Christe’ intensified the sense of cosmological struggle — and this in the ‘Kyrie’, only the first, and arguably most ‘normal’ movement. Kettledrums sounded implacable throughout, as if intoning Holy Writ, or even trying to persuade us of it. Truth, then, shone from every bar: there was a real sense that the Lord might, just might, grant us that mercy besought in the liturgy.

Nothing, though, had prepared me for the opening of the ‘Gloria’ — which is as it should be. It came like an explosion, a thunderbolt even, with the kind of electricity that Furtwängler himself used to impart to Beethoven, and few, very few, others have succeeded in eliciting since; it was as if the heavenly throng itself were singing the Almighty’s praises. I wondered whether Paul Groves was a little on the ‘operatic’ side during the ‘Gratias’ section, or at least not sufficiently Germanic in style, and one could have wished for greater resonance from Matthew Rose. But any such minor doubts were soon overtaken by the titanic, orchestrally-founded strength upon which we heard the choral ‘Domine Deus, Rex cœlestis’. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik upon ‘Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe’ were gratefully received, but we were never in doubt that the Mozartian paradise had been lost for ever, woodwind in the ‘Qui tollis’ section now recognisable from the travails of the Ninth Symphony. Once again Beethovenian sincerity shone as a light through the performance, the imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis’ signalling the composer kneeling. (And there is clearly only one person, or force, before whom or which Beethoven would ever kneel.) The ‘Quoniam’ captured to perfection that precarious balance, or rather dialectic, between certainty and uncertainty or downright despair, whilst the close of the movement recaptured the electricity of its opening. If the soloists’ final Amen sent shivers down the spine, the final choral shout of ‘Gloria’ went beyond anything I can even attempt to express in words.

The opening calls of ‘Credo’ announced the battle royal that lies at the heart of the work, the struggle of belief itself. ‘Credo quia absurdum’ (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? Davis seemed here heavily to lean towards Klemperer’s Nietzschean ‘immoralism’. (One imagines Furtwängler would have given a very different impression, but who knows?) And crucially, there was a true sense of plainsong and Renaissance polyphony sounding through history, if not eternity. When Christ, as the liturgy has it, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, he certainly did in performance, and with what majesty: I thought momentarily of the Advent hymn, ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending’. The echoes of early music — in the best rather than the modish sense — sounded still more clearly upon hearing of the mystery of the Incarnation, as did the wonder of the human soloists and Gareth Davies’s transcendent flute. Groves emerged triumphant, or perhaps better as a true celebrant, intoning the climactic ‘Et homo factus est’, the Christian miracle of God become man. Likewise, one felt, almost as if in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, ‘Passus’, Beethoven’s profoundest compassion expressed for Christ as man, evoking Fidelio, and yet, extending far beyond even Fidelio. The choral tenors’ shout of Resurrection, the sheer joy of Easter, reaffirmed hope that might have been lost. And yet, strain, partly a consequence of Beethoven’s notorious vocal writing, remained: does he, do we, believe? The uphill sense of struggle, almost a literal expression of ‘ascendit’ and yet of course meaning so much more than that, was valiantly, movingly expressed in the ‘Allegro molto’ section, until we returned to ‘Credo’, in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost. There was a sense of arrival, but also, strongly, that this was but the first foothill in our ascent. I was particularly impressed at the virtually flawless delivery of the sopranos’ cruel soft, high lines upon the words ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’. (Listen to Karajan’s Wiener Singverein should you wish to hear how poorly even a professional chorus can shape up to Beethoven’s demands.) By now, there was a sense of lid being kept on, prior to explosion. And so it came to pass, the movement ending with Klemperian inevitability.

Beethoven marked the Sanctus ‘Mit Andacht’ (‘with devotion’), which is just what we heard, trombones sounding their aequale across the Habsburg centuries. Davis’s mastery of transition was heard to great effect in the difficult section prefacing the calls of ‘Pleni sunt coeli’. The choruses once again sounded as if an angelic host: awe-inspiring, truly thrilling. And then, that extraordinary paradox: the ‘Praeludium’, in which the orchestra sounds almost more like an organ than an organ does (the organ part itself elsewhere being taken excellently by Catherine Edwards). Beethoven’s power of suggestion reminded me here of an instance in the E major piano sonata, op.14 no.1, in which he somehow manages to suggest portamento, writing a passage that would never work as the real thing on the violin. What spiritual inwardness, though, was expressed here: a mystery awaiting revelation, for which the LSO’s lower strings unerringly prepared us, ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini’. Whilst the vocal contribution to the ‘Benedictus’ section was extraordinarily fine, Sarah Connolly’s richness of tone an especial marvel here, and Helena Juntunen, a late replacement for Carmen Giannattasio, also excellent, there was, alas, something of a disappointment to be endured from the all-too-secular sounding violin solo from Gordan Nikolitch. (It sounded and looked like a concerto: I cannot believe that it was a wise decision to have him stand.) That was a pity, but we were soon reconciled in true Handelian grandeur — or what used to be Handelian grandeur before the composer’s capture by ‘authenticity’ — of the ‘Hosanna’.

Finally, the ‘Agnus Dei’. Here, Rose impressed, dolorous and at times desperate, the other soloists responding in kind. The horrors of war — human reality as opposed to the human ideal? — terrified without lapsing into the grotesque, as so often they do; I have rarely heard them so integrated into the musical argument, save once again for readings by Klemperer. And there was again a properly Handelian sturdiness to the ‘Dona nobis pacem’. Whether or no there be an actual quotation from Messiah, and it is too readily forgotten just how greatly Beethoven revered Handel, it certainly sounded as if the resemblance to ‘And he shall reign’ was intentional. The performance was crowned, though it was too late, for we had been taken to the abyss. ‘Pacem’? Perhaps. In fact, probably not, for this was the most desolate conclusion to the work I have ever heard: desolate, and yet retaining a nobility which might remain our sole hope of peace.

Mark Berry

Click here for access to audio and video recordings of this performance.

image= image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven byJoseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Prom 67: Beethoven, Mass in D major, op.123 product_by=Helena Juntunen (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Paul Groves (tenor); Matthew Rose (bass); London Philharmonic Choir (chorus-master: Neville Creed); London Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Joseph Cullen); London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday, 4 September 2011. product_id=Above: Ludwig van Beethoven byJoseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 4:28 PM

Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd

Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.

The present Glyndebourne production of Britten’s Billy Budd (based on Melville’s novella) is the most gnostic production I’ve ever seen.

Gnosticism comprised several different doctrines, all of which Christianity found heretical.* One strand of gnostic thought described the earth as the creation of an ignorant demiurge ** named Ialdaboth—God, being wholly good, could have had nothing to do with such a botched thing as the physical universe. Another strand, the Manichean, described good and evil as equally matched, incapable of ever resolving their struggle for mastery. Both these strains are relevant to Billy Budd.

Christopher Oram, the designer of this production, set the action in the hold of an enormous ship: the hull stretches so far upward that there is scarcely a glimpse of light from above. This has the effect of making the ship all hulk and loom, a prison: near the beginning, when the seamen pull ropes diagonally over the whole expanse of the stage, we seem to be watching the rigging of a giant torture chamber. There are no sails visible anywhere: this makes the opera earthbound and airless, heavy, without any sense of vehicular form. In the 1966 film (with Mackerras and Pears) we are on deck for most of the action, and the emptiness of the sound stage behind the ship gives a strong feel of being lost on the infinite sea. Possibly this is a still better effect, but there is much to be said in favor of the ship-as-dungeon as well.

The Captain Vere is John Mark Ainsley, a most distinguished singer, whose every syllable is weighted beautifully—bel canto, bel parlare at once. Compared to a fiery Vere such as Philip Langridge (in the English National Opera DVD), Ainsley can seem fussy and ineffectful. But Vere, for all his reputation as a mighty warrior, is an extraordinarily impotent leader, unable to hunt down the French ship, able but unwilling to save Billy from death. Vere is a God too dainty to meddle with the events of the physical world. He ponders and anguishes but does not act; indeed the whole of this past-tense drama takes place in Vere’s memory—there is a finely judged moment in this production where Vere appears, during the riot after Billy’s execution, in his bathrobe, as if he’s already detaching himself from the action, moving back into the distant future of the opera’s frame.

God is powerless, and so is the devil. Phillip Ens, the Claggart of this production, turns in one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen: one expects a Claggart to be a thug and a monster, like Michael Langdon in the 1966 film, or at least a black-voiced Hagen, like the bass who created the role, Frederick Dalberg, but Ens creates an intense effect of evil through finesse and even a sort of gentleness. He is left breathless by Billy’s beauty, and you hear his erotic excitement almost everywhere: when he sings, in his great soliloquy, “I will destroy you,” he is clearly in a state of elation. Like Vere, however, Claggart can achieve nothing: his scheme to make Squeak vex Billy beyond endurance fails; his scheme to make the novice incriminate Billy as a mutineer fails; his scheme to report Billy’s “crimes” to Vere leads to Claggart’s own death. If Starry Vere is the God of the opera, made vain through his extreme detachment, Claggart is a Satan made vain through his helplessness to understand that virtue can exist. And yet, in the production, only Claggart seems a being capable of love—it’s a sadist’s love, but love nonetheless. That is why I find Ens’s Claggart so disturbing.

The only person who can act is Billy himself, and the only action he can perform is to kill Claggart, in a manner that leads to his own death—he is hanged for striking his superior officer. This is the Manichean aspect of Melville’s tale: virtue and vice cancel each other out, leaving only—what?—some post-ethical exhaustion? Jacques Imbrailo’s Billy is clear and incisive: his voice isn’t colorful, but the performance is moving. He has a way of turning ensembles into star turns, especially in the scene where the sailors first describe Starry Vere: he stands center stage, facing the audience, as if he were the lead actor in a drama—a calling-attention to theatre that I found appropriate in this histrionically self-conscious production.

All of the singing is excellent—in fact, this production is nearly faultless except for Mark Elder’s conducting, somewhat subdued, calculating, without flair. Exercise of rational control is usually a fine thing when conducting Britten, but Billy Budd is unusual its in opportunities for abandon: the interlude before Billy’s great final aria, the bestial cries of sailors on the brink of mutiny after Billy’s death—these are occasions not for good taste but some great shriek from one of the favorite gods of the librettist, E. M. Forster: Dionysus.

Daniel Albright

*Editor’s Note: “Gnosticism is a heresy which is made up of a diverse set of beliefs. It is the teaching based on the idea of gnosis (a Koine Greek word meaning ‘secret knowledge’), or knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of internal, intuitive means. While Gnosticism thus relies on personal religious experience as its primary authority, early ‘Christian’ Gnostics did adopt their own versions of authoritative Scriptures, such as those found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt.” Gnosticism in Theopedia.

** Editor’s Note: From the Greek meaning the “craftsman”, which was used by Plato as the divine being who created the material world. The Gnostics considered Demiurge inferior to the supreme and unknowable God. See Demiurge in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

image= image_description=Opus Arte OABD7086D [Blu-Ray] product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd product_by=Captain Vere: John Mark Ainsley; Billy Budd: Jacques Imbrailo; Claggart: Phillip Ens; Mr. Redburn: Iain Paterson; Mr. Flint: Matthew Rose; Lieutenant Ratcliffe: Darren Jeffery; Red Whiskers: Alasdair Elliott; Donald: John Moore; Dansker: Jeremy White; Novice: Ben Johnson; Squeak: Colin Judson; Bosun: Richard Mosley-Evans. The Glyndebourne Chorus. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Mark Elder. Stage Director: Michael Grandage. product_id=Opus Arte OABD7086D [Blu-Ray] price=$39.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 12:16 PM

September 6, 2011

Ruhrtriennale’s Luminous Tristan

But that was before we were regaled by the consummate artistry of director Willy Decker, conductor Kirill Petrenko, and a team of visionary designers who have crafted an austere, spare, uncommonly affecting work of art that virtually defines Gesamtkunstwerk. If reassurance is needed (and I fear it is, oh how it is) that a gifted creative team can not only brilliantly innovate, but also genuinely serve the composer’s intent, this production was proof positive. I am not sure the last time I was so captivated by a creation of modern art, as I was taken by the massive and utterly simple set design by Wolfgang Gussmann.

In front of the warehouse’s black, bare back wall, Mr. Gussmann has given us two massive white trapezoids (sails?), one as floor and one as ceiling, that narrow in perspective from front to back, gaping open towards us like a yawning room. Upstage, a pure white sphere is the other constant element. These components are perfectly tracked, flown, and hydraulically outfitted to twist, turn and reconfigure in a seemingly endless re-arrangement to spectacular effect. And the motion is often so subtle as to be undetectable until — what the heck? — whoa! — the front corner of the stage right has quietly risen twelve feet in the air tilting the whole dang playing space! As the huge floor spun counter-clockwise over the pit at one point, I did fear for the harpist’s safety (or at least the harp’s)!

The coup de théâtre of this production had to have been the flawlessly stunning video projections by fettFilm’s (sic) Momme Hinrichs and Torge Moller. At key moments the sphere was almost undetectably replaced by a round white screen. The Love Duet’s churning-seas-imagery gave way to a floating, nubile, nude couple who literally tumbled into and through each other variously and repeatedly, a magical mirror of the lovers’ emotional intertwining, and a perfect visual partner to the sinuously sensual musical effects. When Tristan pours out his afflicted feelings in Three, a series of images of a young man trapped behind a wall of fabric provides a devastating counterpoint to our hero’s anguish at being unable to escape his fate. Time and again the young man desperately pushes forward against the stretching, unyielding fabric. I usually run the other way from installation video art in museums, but these images were not the usual self-indulgent filmography, but true works of beauty in their own right, that also greatly supported Wagner’s composition.

I hasten to add that Andreas Grüter’s fluid, moody lighting design was a perfect artistic collaboration. At the very end of the rapturous duet, this team suddenly cross-faded the general wash on the structure and replaced it with a stage-encompassing video projection like the Milky Way. And then, as we made the jump to light speed and the stars began to recede, the two imposing trapezoids seemed to lift and float (all through projections), and spun and receded through the atmosphere like the monolith in 2001, A Space Odyssey. The goose bumps are returning as I recall this as one of the finest theatrical effects in a lifetime of opera-going.


Gussmann collaborated with Susana Mendoza to provide the handsome modern costumes. They treated the characters as contemporary archetypes and it worked well enough, especially for Isolde who appeared to good advantage in a light dusty rose strapless gown with a wrap around ‘ribbon’ of fuschia accenting the bosom. That she was barefoot effortlessly communicated her captivity. Tristan appears first in hip black clubbing garb down to the calf-length trenchcoat. The pair both tellingly change to all-white versions of their clothing for their Act Two encounter. Kurwenal sports a happenin’, dark gray Land’s End ensemble, and Melot is suited up like a pimp. Brangäne’s tailored business outfit was a wonderful contrast to Isolde’s chic look. Only the shepherd was puzzling, with his paper-crown-and-cape outfit looking more like the Fool in King Lear than a simple bucolic lad. I also must point out that the choices of richly textured, detailed fabrics ‘read’ extremely well in the house.

Willy Decker has crafted a straight forward and character-driven approach to the blocking, which is almost choreographed. Mr. Decker uses the changing levels of the floor to underline the dominant character in several encounters. He uses every inch of the playing space with visual variety and dramatic purpose. For Act Two’s garden, he chooses to begin the scene with Isolde trapped next to Marke, as they sit in rows of chairs amid the chorus, as if spectators at a stuffy state function. As the crowd disperses, some meaningful business was provided as Brangäne cleared the stray seats, to make way for the tryst. Luckily, Herr Decker had a willing and talented cast at his disposal to further his conception.

Anja Kampe scored a triumph as Isolde. I first heard her as a very good Sieglinde at Washington Opera, with a gleaming jugendlich-dramatisch soprano of good promise. Well, that promise has been amply fulfilled. She has most assuredly got Isolde ‘in her voice’; that is, she has negotiated her considerably sized, warmly appealing instrument to successfully encompass the myriad demands of the Irish Princess. She has the requisite power, to be sure, but Ms. Kampe also has such a secure, lyrical, personal approach to so much of the role that she now joins the rarefied ranks of “Isolde of Choice.” And Anja is a sincere actress, lovely and unaffected, with a full understanding of Isolde’s journey. The cascades of cheers that met her curtain call were deservedly the most vociferous of the night.

We were almost as fortunate with our Tristan. Christian Franz began with some gorgeously secure phrases, and throughout he displayed absolute knowledge of the role, its glories, and its pitfalls. He found his way most happily through the lyrical sections, where his medium-sized instrument was fully pliable and responsive. Mr. Franz, like many before him, was more challenged by the ranting prose-like declamations that must be hurled out over the competing orchestra. With an apology to all Wagner scholars, the master does not unfailingly write carefully for the balance of band and singer, and I think Tristan gets especially put-upon by some angular vocal writing dipping to lower reaches, and competing with the brass in full tootle. That said, Franz took Wagner’s advice and got quite conversational with some of his delivery, dramatically effective, but arguably a little too near to ‘shouting.’ Christian has certainly learned how to pace himself through this punishing role as evidenced by his many, many affecting moments, not least of which was the expiring, tender exclamation of “Isolde” in Act Three. It was positively melting.


The Publikum was also very taken with veteran Stephen Milling as King Marke and it is easy to see why. Mr. Milling has a barrel-like, ebony-dark tone that only gets more imposing as it descends, a most impressive sound. He displays security throughout, but while he ‘gets’ the handful of the very highest top notes, he tricks them out of hiding with a substantially covered approach. Claudia Mahnke’s searing, white-hot intensity as Brangäne gifted the piece with impetus and real vocal excitement. That she could scale her sizable voice back to equally fine effect (and with no loss of vibrant tone) was a pleasure to encounter. Eljandro Marco-Buhrmester was a solid-voiced, supremely sympathetic Kurwenal. Boris Grappe’s fidgety, thuggish deportment as Melot paid good visual dividends, and his evenly projected baritone made the most of his brief role. Thomas Ebenstein’s pleasing, slender tenor was a perfect match for his double roles as a Young Seaman and the Shepherd, the latter very movingly acted. Martin Gerke’s Stearman rang out with conviction.

Kirill Petrenko worked musical wonders in the pit, inspiring a glowing, expansive reading characterized by insightful playing from the Duisburg Philharmonic. The richness of the strings, the excitable brass licks, the shifting banks of colors were all duly in place. If the winds didn’t always ‘speak’ tightly together on the tricky attacci in the slow, piano, opening bars (nevertheless gorgeously paced), they made up for it with excellent ensemble and solo playing the rest of the night. Indeed, the English Horn solo in Act Three was superlatively rendered with heartfelt personality. Almost without exception, the pace, forward motion, and overall shaping were all that could be desired. I do wish the general attentiveness hadn’t waned somewhat after the Love Duet. We can little afford to slack off at this point, and Marke’s long address suffered from a sameness and a slow pace that was not informed with sufficient inner rhythmic life. When every vocal phrase is weighted the same and every deliberate orchestral utterance is equally ‘Important,’ variety and interest ebb.

Nonetheless, the Ruhrtrienalle has managed to craft as meaningful, musically satisfying, and luminous a staging of Tristan und Isolde as I imagine is possible. Some smart opera company might do well to pursue this definitive contemporary production before it goes away at festival’s end.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Tristan und Isolde, Ruhrtriennale product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde product_by=Tristan: Christian Franz; King Marke: Stephen Milling; Isolde: Anja Kampe; Brangäne: Claudie Mahnke; Kurwenal: Eljandro Marco-Buhrmester; Melot: Boris Grappe; Young Seaman/Shepherd: Thomas Ebenstein; Stearman: Martin Gerke. Jahrhunderthalle Bochum. Duisburg Philharmonic. Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Director: Willy Decker. Set Design: Wolfgang Gussmann. Costume Design: Wolfgang Gussmann, Susana Mendoza. Lighting Design: Andreas Grüter. Video: fettFilm/ Momme Hinrichs, Torge Moller. Chorus Master: Michael Alber. product_id=All photos by Paul Leclaire BFF, Köln, courtesy of Ruhrtriennale
Posted by james_s at 3:40 PM

New Injury Forces James Levine to Cancel Fall Performances

New York, NY (September 6, 2011) - After a fall last week that damaged one of his vertebrae, James Levine underwent emergency surgery on Thursday in New York, forcing him to withdraw from his performances at the Metropolitan Opera this fall.

Posted by Gary at 10:10 AM

Macbeth from Paris and Parma

Besides the odd backstage injury or death, an air of box office doom also permeates any staging of Macbeth. Two recent DVDs of opera house performances of Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maira Piave’s adaptation give credence to the superstitions, no matter how many tickets may have been sold. What the cameras recorded is fairly dire.

Superficially, both Lilaina Cavalli’s staging for the Teatro Regio di Parma in 2006 and the 2009 Paris Opera work of Dmitri Tcherniakov could be classified as “Regie” productions. In other words, the directors make themselves felt at every almost moment, with their choice of setting and costume, as well as the occasional ostentatious creative touch. For the latter, consider Tcherniakov’s use, between scenes, of stage projections of a Google Earth point of view on a small European town, or Cavalli’s use of a little person in Lady Macbeth’s first scene, said little person sporting, for no discernible reason, a long, thick rat tail.

However, Cavalli just uses some of the clichés of Regie directors to spice up her basically traditional point of view. Viewers can ignore the chorus members in theater-seat rows watching the action at certain points, and the pointless updating of air raid sirens and gun fire just before the overture. When the singers appear, they essentially move and behave as singers of these roles have for decades. Sylvie Valayre’s Lady Macbeth, for example, wears a conventional nightgown and carries a candle holder in her sleep walking scene. Veteran Leo Nucci goes from military regalia to kingly robes, all while wearing a fairly unvaried pained expression.

It’s the worst of both worlds — the distractions of an inept Regie production and the pro-forma stiffness of a dull traditional one. Cavalli is blessed, therefore, to have Leo Nucci as her lead. Nucci is not a great signing actor, but he can be effective, and this is one of his great roles. By the end of the evening — a long sing — gruffness begins to dominate his tone, but for much of the performance, he is in top shape, earning the audience’s passionate adulation. From the slight wobble and tendency to smother the tone, Sylvia Valayre appears to be a soprano with a huge voice just barely within her control. She plays a conventional Lady, stroking her husband’s bare chest when flirtatious, and widening her eyes to convey homicidal passion. The rest of the cast is capable but generic. Roberto Iuliano does sing a rather sweet “ah, la paterna mano.” Bruno Bartoletti, even more veteran than his leading man, gets a proficient reading from the Parma orchestra.


Both Cavalli in Parma and Tcherniakov in Paris opt to spare their singers of Banco a zombie-like reappearance after the character’s murder, instead having their Macbeth alarm the party guests by raving about a man invisible both to them and the audience. After that, there is no comparison between the two productions. Paris wants the “real Regie.” Tcherniakov is quoted in the booklet essay as admitting Macbeth gave him “a world of trouble.” So apparently it was his intent to share that with us. He apparently decided that the world of Macbeth is centered on community, so the main stage is the square of a remarkably neat row of houses apparently constructed by Ikea. For the castle, a frame moves forward with an elegant, high-ceilinged living room in earth tones. In the witch and forest scenes, the chorus — mixed in gender — ambles and roams around the town square. For Banco’s murder, for example, that fine singer Ferrucio Furlanetto basically just gets lost in a crowd of passing strangers in overcoats, and when they part, he is dead on the ground. This distaste for the eerie or supernatural elements of the libretto has its flip side in the best part of Tcherniakov’s direction, the complexity of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship. Here we have a couple who are outwardly normal. Circumstances bring out an unexpected blood lust, but they turn to each other with a gentleness not often seen in other productions. The director’s most amazing work is with Violetta Urmana as Lady Macbeth. In other appearances Urmana has used both the amplitude of her voice and her physical self to sink back into prima donna poses. Here, both her vocal work and her acting have a sharp relief that grips the attention, even when Urmana is not at the front of the attention. Almost as strong is Dimitris Tiliakos in the title role. His is not an imposing voice, but he works with it to produce incisive effects. His thinner frame gives him a haunted look, as well as a sense of weakness that draws in the audience’s sympathy. That’s especially potent in the final scene, which Tiliakos plays in a shirt and briefs. Besides the typically imposing Furlanetto, Paris has a credible Macduff in Stefano Secco. A young conductor with appropriate name of Teodor Currentzis exhibits both expected flash and some keen insight into a score that does have its unsubtle moments.

Despite the originality of Tcherniakov’s vision, ultimately this Macbeth simply works too hard to be different than any other Macbeth. There’s always something interesting to observe, but the total impact is much less than the director might have hoped. A 30 minute bonus feature centered on the director will fascinate some, as it delves deep into his working method. Others will find their worst suppositions about the ego of Regie artists extensively confirmed.

If anyone is desperate for a Macbeth on DVD and these two are all that is easily available, consider the Parma one for the star power of Nucci, and the Paris one for Urmana’s amazing work, if not also for some interesting stage pictures and a sense that there is a place for opera in the world of 2011.

Chris Mullins


image= image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth (Parma 2006) product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth product_by=Macbeth: Leo Nucci; Banco: Enrico Iori; Lady Macbeth: Sylvie Valayre; Dama di Lady Macbeth: Tiziana Tramonti; Macduff: Roberto Iuliano; Malcolm: Nicola Pascoli; Il medico: Enrico Turco; L'araldo: Davide Ronzoni; Un domestico: Riccardo di Stefano; Il sicario: Noris Borgogelli. Compagnia Balletto di Roma. Teatro Regio di Parma Chorus and Orchestra (chorus master: Martino Faggiani). Conductor: Bruno Bartoletti. Stage Director: Liliana Cavani. Set Designer: Dante Ferretti. Costume Designer: Alberto Verso. Lighting Designer: Sergio Rossi. Choreographer: Amedeo Amodio. Recorded live at the Teatro Regio di Parma, June 2006. product_id=ArtHaus Musik 107313 [DVD] price=$29.99 product_url=
Posted by chris_m at 10:00 AM

September 5, 2011

Salvatore Licitra, Operatic Tenor at Met, Is Dead at 43

By Zachary Woolfe [NY Times, 5 September 2011]

Salvatore Licitra, a tenor with a ringing, powerful voice who rode a sensational surprise Metropolitan Opera debut to dozens of performances with the company, died on Monday in Catania, Sicily, nine days after being severely injured in a motor-scooter accident. He was 43. His death was reported on his Web site,

Posted by Gary at 2:17 PM

September 2, 2011

Vincenzo Bellini: I puritani

Music composed by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). Libretto by Carlo Pepoli from Têtes rondes et Cavaliers (1833) by Jacques Ancelot and Xavier Saintine.

First Performance: 24 January 1835 at Théâtre Italien, Paris.

Principal Roles
Lord Gualtiero Walton, Governor General of the fortress Bass
Sir Giorgio, brother of Lord Walton, retired Puritan colonel Bass
Lord Arturo Talbo, Cavalier, Stuart sympathizer Tenor
Sir Riccardo Forth, Puritan colonel Baritone
Sir Bruno Robertson, Puritan officer Tenor
Enrichetta di Francia [Queen Henrietta Maria], widow of Charles I Mezzo-Soprano
Elvira, daughter of Lord Walton Soprano

Time and Place: Near Plymouth, England, during the Second English Civil War after the execution of Charles I (30 January 1649)


Act One

Riccardo, a follower of Cromwell and his Puritans, and Arturo, a staunch Cavalier who supports the Stuart cause, are both in love with Elvira, the daughter of Lord Walton. Walton had originally promised Riccardo his daughter’s hand in marriage but subsequently relented, not wishing to disregard the feelings of his daughter, who is in love with Arturo. The preparations for the nuptuals of Elvira and Arturo are in full swing.

Elvira as yet knows nothing of her good fortune. Her uncle, Giorgio, informs her that he has interceded on her behalf with his brother, her father, who has now agreed to her marrying Arturo.

Arturo arrives for the festivities. On discovering that a prisoner in the fortress under sentence of death is, in fact, Queen Enrichetta, the widow of Charles I of England, he enables her to escape by disguising her in Elvira's bridal veil. Elvira interprets this as desertion and loses her reason.

Act Two

The English parliament has sentenced Arturo to death, and Elvira no longer sees any sense in her life.

Giorgio hopes that a sudden piece of good news will cure Elvira and restore her to reason, and what better news than that Aturo should be pardoned. Giorgio persuades Riccardo to spare Arturo, if the latter does not fight on the side of the Royalists in Cromwell's impending battle against the Cavalier followers of the Stuarts.

Act Three

Arturo has returned to the fortress secretly to seek out Elvira and convince her of his continued devotion. Cromwell's soldiers apprehend him and threaten him with execution. At this very moment Elvira suddenly becomes aware of the situation and pleads, in vain, for Arturo's life. At the very last moment a messenger arrives with the news of Cromwell’s defeat of the Stuart followers. Cromwell has issued a pardon for all prisoners. Arturo is freed and there is now nothing to prevent the lovers from marrying.

[Synopsis: Bayerische Staatsoper (translation: Susan Bollinger)]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Luigi Lablache and Giulia Grisi in Bellini's I puritani, at the King's Theatre, London in 1835 [Source: Wikipedia] audio=yes first_audio_name=Vincenzo Bellini: I puritani first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Vincenzo Bellini: I puritani product_by=Elvira: Diana Damrau; Lord Arturo Talbot: Alexey Kudrya; Sir Riccardo Forth: Franco Vassallo; Sir Giorgio Walton: Lorenzo Regazzo; Lord Gualtiero Walton: In-Sung Sim; Sir Bruno Roberton: Fabrice Farina; Enrichetta di Francia: Isabelle Henriquez. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Chœur du Grand Téâtre de Genève (Direction Ching-Lien Wu). Conductor: Jesús López Cobos. Director: Francisco Negrin. Designer: Es Devlin. Costumes: Louis Désiré. Lighting: Bruno Poet. Live performance, Grand Théâtre de Genève, February 2011. product_id=Luigi Lablache and Giulia Grisi in Bellini's I puritani, at the King's Theatre, London in 1835 [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 11:47 AM

September 1, 2011

Verdi’s Requiem Closes Grant Park Festival

The featured singers were Amber Wagner, soprano, Michaela Martens, mezzo-soprano, Michael Fabiano, tenor, and Kyle Ketelsen, bass. William G. Spaulding was the guest chorus director and the Grant Park Orchestra was conducted by Carlos Kalmar.

The first section of the Requiem was especially effective with Kalmar eliciting moving gestures from the cello section followed by the other strings with a gradually intensifying volume. The Grant Park Chorus set a dignified tone as piano segments alternated with vocal exhortations such as “Exaudi” (“Hear”). Noteworthy was the effect of legato singing so that the pace remained consistent up to the entrance of the soloists in this section. Each of the latter sang an introductory line on “Kyrie eleison” or “Christe eleison” with moving expressiveness. The blending of principal singers and chorus was established here for the balance of the work, so that neither dominated but rather all achieved an ideal synthesis.

The “Dies irae,” or second part, began with appropriate dramatic and percussive force before modulating to a more speculative and quiet section for the chorus. Trumpets were positioned on either side of the chorus above the stage in order to magnify the call to judgment. As the next part for bass and chorus, “Tuba mirum” (“wondrous trumpet”), followed seamlessly, Mr. Ketelsen released declarative and lyrically controlled reminders on “mors” and “natura” (“death” and “nature”). He followed these with a chillingly hushed piano on the repeated “mors” and low bass notes of warning on “stupebit” (“shall be stunned”). In the following section for mezzo-soprano and chorus, “Liber scriptus” (“a written book”), Ms. Martens sang with comparable feeling to announce the judgment. She used her upper register most effectively on words such as “Judex” and “judicetur” while singing a touching melisma on “proferetur” (“will be brought forth”). Between these parts for soloists and chorus Kalmar led the orchestra through reprises of the “Dies irae” motif with carefully measured tempos. In the subsequent appeal for pity shared by the four soloists and chorus Ms. Wagner sang a smoothly descending line punctuated with impressively soaring top notes. Mr. Fabiano’s accompanying soft notes sung on the repetition were equally effective. As a conclusion to this part Ms. Wagner performed the final sequence of “Salva me” with a memorable diminuendo.

In the succeeding “Recordare” duet for the women both Wagner and Martens excelled not only in their individual parts but also in blending their voices, for example, at “Juste judex” (“Righteous judge”). Martens sang here with well chosen vibrato so that her part was rendered with true pathos, while Wagner’s beautifully held pitch on “causa” (“the reason”) added to the prayerful effect. Just as sensitive to communicating text, Fabiano’s moving tenor “Ingemisco” which followed was one of the highlights of this performance. His rising notes on ”Mariam” and “exaudisti” (“you heeded”) were sung with convincing emotional fervor, underlined by ringing top notes directly on pitch for “in parte dextra” (“at Your right hand”). In the “Lacrimosa,” a section in which all four soloists have significant parts, the magnificent lines were produced with sensitivity to the appeal for rest and mercy. Following in the “Offertorio” both tenor and bass included decorative and well executed trills as an emphasis on “offerimus.”

The concluding segments of the Requiem, the “Sanctus,” “Agnus Dei,” and “Libera me” in this performance were significant for the interplay of orchestral and vocal elements. In the “Lux aeterna” the flute solo was distinctly present as Ms. Martens’s rising line was repeated at “lux perpetua luceat eis” (“may eternal light shine on them”). Ms. Wagner’s final solo in “Libera me” was dramatic as well as poignant. Her thrilling high notes resolved into a prayer to end the work with gentle orchestral accompaniment on its final note of supplication. Such a moving performance emphasized the devotional and musical strengths of Verdi’s religious masterpiece.

Salvatore Calomino

image= image_description=Giuseppe Verdi [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem product_by=Amber Wagner, Soprano; Michaela Martens, Mezzo-Soprano; Michael Fabiano, Tenor; Kyle Ketelsen, Bass. Grant Park Music Festival. Grant Park Orchestra. Grant Park Chorus. Carlos Kalmar, Conductor. William Spaulding, Guest Chorus Director. product_id=Above: Giuseppe Verdi [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 12:34 PM