May 31, 2013

Christian Thielemann’s Der Ring des Nibelungen

The label’s name and legendary yellow logo synonymous for many music lovers with top-quality recordings of Germanic repertory, Deutsche Grammophon’s catalogue already contains two studio-recorded Ring Cycles (those with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker and James Levine marshalling his Metropolitan Opera forces), as well as two of the most passionately-discussed Cycles in recent history (Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Centennial’ Bayreuth Ring, conducted by Pierre Boulez, and the Metropolitan Opera’s most recent production, directed by Cirque du Soleil alumnus Robert Lepage).  With these and other DGG versions readily available, alongside dozens of Ring recordings old and new, it is indicative of Deutsche Grammophon’s commitment to remaining at the epicenter of the operatic recording industry, even in a supposedly declining market, that precious resources were dedicated to recording, producing, and releasing this souvenir of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, premièred at the Wiener Staatsoper in November 2011.  The Staatsoper’s ‘pit band,’ from the ranks of which the players of the Wiener Philharmoniker are extracted, has not been represented on authorized commercial recordings since the pioneering DECCA Ring conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and any opportunity to hear one of the world’s finest orchestras in the music of Wagner is especially welcome.  It is unfortunate that so many elements of this Staatsoper Ring are reproduced elsewhere, not least the combination of this Ring’s conductor, Wotan, Siegfried, and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, available on Opus Arte CD and DVD recordings of the 2008 Bayreuth Ring.  Nevertheless, any Ring, whether recorded anew or mined from forgotten archives, is a noteworthy release, and this Wiener Staatsoper Ring is a performance with many virtues, recorded with the superb clarity and natural but fastidiously-controlled sonic balance for which Deutsche Grammophon is celebrated.  Benefitting from the unique acoustical qualities of the Staatsoper, this recording is superior in terms of basic sound quality to virtually every other Ring recorded during staged performances, with several crucial scenes displaying the frisson of live performance but the sonic detail of studio recordings.

The Ring is a monumental challenge even for an opera company as storied as the Wiener Staatsoper, and one of the most interesting developments in the Classical recording industry during the past quarter-century has been the efforts of opera companies beyond the traditional ‘Wagner centers’ to mount and record their own Ring Cycles, often shattering the conventions of Wagnerian production values as derived from the stage directions in the composer’s scores.  Naturally, the degrees of success in these efforts have varied enormously, with both undisputed triumphs and spectacular failures.  Many listeners may be inclined to think it fortunate that, in the context of DGG’s new Wiener Staatsoper Ring, they encounter only the audio component of the production at hand.  The debatable merits of the stage production notwithstanding, DGG’s recording inarguably allows the listener’s attention to be focused solely on Wagner’s music, and close attention to this performance is rewarded with many felicities.  One of the most significant of these is the singing of the Staatsoper Chorus, which by Wagner’s design is heard only in Götterdämmerung.  As the vassals who assemble in the Gibichung Hall when summoned by Hagen, the gentlemen of the chorus sing with great power and command of the demanding tessitura of their music.  In the scene by the Rhine in which Siegfried recounts episodes from his youth to his hunting companions, the choristers sing with audible wonderment and, as Hagen’s snare of lies entraps and dooms Siegfried, increasing horror.  Female choristers similarly take advantage of the limited opportunities given to them with singing of distinction.  Surprisingly, the playing of the orchestra does not always rise to the level of the choral singing.  As one might expect, there are stretches of playing that equal or surpass the work of the best orchestras in the world, but there are also passages—some of them including dramatically critical Leitmotifs—that find the orchestra lacking focus, balance, and precision.  The sheer professionalism of the orchestra makes it decidedly unlikely that any lacks of preparation, rehearsal, or familiarity with the music account for these lapses in ensemble and musicality, so the logical attribution for the occasional defects falls onto the conductor.  Coordination between stage and pit reveals few hints at the causes of the orchestral pitfalls, being generally impeccable, leaving only conjecture.  Waywardness of ensemble is most noticeable—and most damaging to the musical performance—during Act One of Die Walküre, but exactness of execution is restored in Act Two, formidably so in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ Scene, and prevails throughout most of the Cycle.  Perfect Rings are rarer than genuine Brünnhilde voices, of course, and even with momentary flaws this performance displays all of the legendary hallmarks of the Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra at its most imposing: luminous string tone, richness of woodwind timbres that seem fed on Sachertorte, and the famed security of horn playing that shames the horn sections of even very fine orchestras.  Maestro Thielemann presides with the assurance of a conductor who obviously knows and understands the music very well indeed, and there are passages that reveal encouraging strokes of a master’s hand in phrasing and following the dramatic thread of a scene from beginning to end.  Tempi are uniformly well-judged, but what is missing is an audible sense of the overriding structure that makes the Ring a credible cycle rather than a series of four connected but separate operas.

The Wiener Staatsoper possesses a rich ensemble from which to draw singers for principal rôles in the Ring, and consistency of casting pays great dividends in this performance.  Portraying the Rhinemaidens in both Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, Ileana Tonca, Ulrike Helzel, and Zoryana Kushpler interact playfully but with carefully-judged tonal balance.  Ms. Helzel and Ms. Kushpler also add their voices to the band of warrior sisters in Die Walküre and to the trio of Norns in Götterdämmerung, in which capacity they are joined euphoniously by Ildikó Raimondi, who also sings the Valkyrie Gerhilde.  Complementing Ms. Raimondi’s Gerhilde, Ms. Helzel’s Siegrune, and Ms. Kushpler’s Schwertleite, the Staatsoper assembled an impressive band of Valkyries for Die Walküre, with Donna Ellen as Helmwige, Alexandra Reinprecht as Ortlinde, Aura Twarowska as Waltraute, Monika Bohinec as Grimgerde, and Juliette Mars as Roßweiße.  Ensemble in the Valkyries’ contributions to Act Three of Die Walküre is tight, with almost no individual vocal misfires and departures from pitch to distract the listener.  There is little sense of the humor that Wagner suggested was appropriate in the ‘Walkürenritt,’ but there is great vitality in the way in which the Valkyries hurl out their lines.  The cantilena-like passages in which the Valkyries beg Wotan for mercy for Brünnhilde are beautifully done, and the terror with which they receive Wotan’s pronouncement of Brünnhilde’s punishment is credibly spontaneous.  Considering that they participate in twenty of the most famous minutes in opera, it is interesting to note that so many Ring productions feature such disappointing covens of Valkyries and most welcome that the Wiener Staatsoper have cast the parts so competently.  Another secondary rôle that can be a primary source of displeasure is the unseen avian voice that communicates with Siegfried: any feelings of dread of the Stimme des Waldvogels are remedied immediately upon hearing the first notes sung by Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, a coloratura specialist whose lovely, poised tone and complete ease with Wagner’s repetitive but ever-changing music convey that, at least for a singer with Ms. Reiss’s gifts, warbling dire warnings is the most natural thing in the operatic world.  Isolated to appearances in Götterdämmerung are Gutrune and Hagen, sung in this Ring by Australian soprano Caroline Wenborne and South Korean bass Attila Jun.  Ms. Wenborne brings to Gutrune’s music, some of which is quite strenuous in the scene in which she spars with Brünnhilde, a pliant voice of size and security equal to the part.  Mr. Jun, possessing a notably black-toned voice, is a chilling Hagen despite being a somewhat cardboard presence.

Das Rheingold is the nearest of any of the Ring operas to being a legitimate ensemble piece.  In Rheingold, the listener first encounters several of the Ring’s power players, and in opera as in all other aspects of life and art first impressions are tremendously important.  There are also several characters whose only appearances in the Ring occur in Das Rheingold, however, and these rôles are largely cast from strength in this production.  Loge’s presence is suggested by Leitmotifs in the orchestra throughout the Ring, most notably in the final scene of Die Walküre, but he is only seen and heard in humanoid form in Das Rheingold, during the course of which it becomes apparent that it is Loge’s prescience inspires his manipulation of events that precipitate the dramatic progression of all that follows in the Ring.  It is unusual to encounter a baritone as Loge, a part originated by tenor Heinrich Vogl (whose rôles at the Metropolitan Opera included Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, and Tristan, in addition to Loge), but Austrian baritone Adrian Eröd—a deservedly revered artist in Vienna—delivers the rôle with fine tone and notable musical and verbal dexterity.  Loge’s world-weariness is subtly conveyed by Mr. Eröd’s tonal shading, and the virility of his singing suggests a disarming sense of Loge’s delight in his own cleverness.  Donner and Froh can be rather dull figures, their posturing and threats of vengeance for the abduction of their sister Freia growing tiresome even in their relatively brief duration, but the parts are sung to great effect in this performance by Markus Eiche and Herbert Lippert, respectively.  Mr. Lippert is a singer most associated with Mozart repertory, but he proves himself an asset to this performance of Das Rheingold by singing boldly but within the scale of his natural instrument.  His conjuring of the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla is a magical moment, shaped by Mr. Lippert with great imagination.  Donner’s raising of the storm receives a similarly articulate and engagingly virile performance from Mr. Eiche, who returns in Götterdämmerung to sing a socially impotent but ultimately pitiable Gunther.  Alexandra Reinprecht’s bright soprano, also heard in Vienna in rôles as diverse as Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment and Massenet’s Manon (and as Ortlinde in this Cycle’s Walküre), shines in Freia’s music, which often falls victim to heavier voices less capable of conveying youth and beauty, two of her qualities that most effectively play into Wotan’s bargain with Fasolt and Fafner.  Sung by Lars Woldt and Ain Anger, Fasolt and Fafner—the rather dim-witted giants who, ignorant of Wotan’s deception, agree to build Valhalla in exchange for receiving Freia as their shared bride—are nasty louts, sung with such self-congratulatory menace and petulance that Fafner’s slaying of Fasolt in their quarrel over the ring seems inevitable.  Mr. Anger’s Fafter returns—in ophidian form—in Siegfried, still almost comically evil and oily of voice.  Also encountered in both Das Rheingold and Siegfried are Anna Larsson’s Erda, a compelling portrayal that gains immeasurably from the strength of the dynamic Swedish contralto’s lower register, and the Mime of Wolfgang Schmidt.  Having sung Siegfried in several notable Ring Cycles, Mr. Schmidt finds in Mime a far more congenial assignment, the voice sounding more controlled and evenly-produced than in larger-scaled rôles.  Genuine beauty of tone is in short supply, but Mr. Schmidt convincingly provides the creepiness needed for an effective Mime.  Common to Rheingold, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung is the Alberich of Tomasz Konieczny, an impressive Polish artist who will sing Wotan in the Staatsoper’s 2013 - 2014 revival of the Bechtolf Ring.  It can be argued that Alberich is the most complex character in the Ring, trapped in a series of inept interactions with societies that exploit and then reject him.  Broken by bitterness, he pours out his hate in a curse that undermines the confidence even of the mighty Wotan, and his dogged pursuit of the ring that he has cursed but cannot cede leads to his demise.  Mr. Konieczny sings the part wonderfully, sounding beguiled by the Rhinemaidens and then genuinely shocked by their taunts, both arrogant and ashamed in his confrontation with Wotan and Loge, goading but strangely tender in his ghostly scene with his son, Hagen.  The vocal bite and dramatic depth of Mr. Konieczny’s performance bring to mind Gustav Neidlinger, the veteran Alberich of many Ring productions: equally as intriguing psychologically as Neidlinger’s famous Alberich, Mr. Konieczny’s is in several passages, including his ‘haunting’ of Hagen in Götterdämmerung, even better sung.

A foundation is laid in Das Rheingold upon which the more dramatically substantial Fricka is constructed in Die Walküre.  The Fricka met in this Cycle’s Rheingold is a calculating intellectual rather than merely a scolding consort, sung by German mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle with a thoughtfully-colored voice allied to an unwavering intensity of dramatic purpose.  The Ring may inhabit a superficially patriarchal world, but Ms. Baechle’s interactions with her siblings Donner and Froh in Rheingold make it clear that Fricka is the familial authority figure.  It is more than usually evident that Fricka’s marriage to Wotan is one of political maneuvering, a means of elevating her in power and prominence to a status that she feels that is her birthright.  This does not preclude affection for her husband, of course, but even this is something that can be used to her advantage.  Dramatically, Fricka can be interpreted as Wagner’s foil for Erda, Sieglinde, and Brünnhilde: essentially Erda’s archetypal opposite in a very basic struggle between good and evil, she also shares with Erda a certain measure of understanding of her predicament and a societal barrier to breaking free from it.  Erda and Fricka are women of vision but inaction: sharing insights into their respective environments, Erda’s global and Fricka’s more individual, they nonetheless leave action to men.  Erda’s blandishments are directed at Wotan, with the intention of spurring him to action, and Fricka bullies both Wotan and Hunding into enacting her orders.  Sieglinde moves between these camps, so to speak, going on after Siegmund’s death but by the necessity of her own death leaving fulfillment of her humble ambitions to her son, Siegfried.  Only Brünnhilde successfully tramples the boundaries of the society into which she was born by seizing control of her destiny.  Even in her seeming domination of Wotan, Fricka is merely controlling her social order rather than truly transcending it.  Ms. Baechle’s singing makes both Fricka’s exasperation and her self-righteous authority audible, the voice strongly expressive in both Rheingold and Walküre.  Ironically from a dramatic perspective, Ms. Baechle returns in Götterdämmerung as Waltraute, one of the Valkyries—Wotan’s ‘illegitimate’ daughters—Fricka so loathes as symbols of her husband’s disloyalty and fears as the people closest and most precious to him.  Ms. Baechle’s singing as Waltraute is as impressive as it is as Fricka, her voice simmering magnificently with fear and uncertainty in her scene with Brünnhilde.  As did Fricka in Walküre, Waltraute attempts to control the circumstances into which her social order has been thrust, and Ms. Baechle’s powerful singing in both rôles makes the parallel unusually clear.

Die Walküre introduces a trio of important characters who do not appear in any of the other Ring operas.  Hunding, Sieglinde’s brutal husband and Fricka’s pawn, is physically imposing enough to carry out Fricka’s commands with strength to spare and witless enough to do so without questioning any of Fricka’s motives.  The performance by American bass Eric Halfvarson conveys both of these qualities—Hunding’s brute force and dullness—in spades, the voice darkly blunt but well-focused.  Like so many of Wagner’s ‘heavy’ characters, though, Hunding is not completely devoid of touches of humor, even in his unrelenting baseness of spirit, and more desirable qualities: though he will win no awards for inducing marital bliss, it is a valid point that Hunding is, despite his utter unsuitability, Sieglinde’s rightful husband.  It cannot be said that Mr. Halfvarson’s performance is likely to evoke any special sympathy for Hunding, but his avoidance of stock villainous gestures might arouse twangs of pity for a very simplistic man who is mercilessly—and ultimately fatally—plied by a woman of superior intellect.  British tenor Christopher Ventris’s Siegmund is a familiar creation, appreciated at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in addition to the Wiener Staatsoper.  Though he sings Wagner repertory to acclaim throughout the world, Mr. Ventris’s voice is not of true Heldentenor proportions, which is not an immediate disqualification from singing Siegmund.  In fact, he sings quite capably in this performance, producing the notes in his difficult outbursts in Act One with a degree of freedom.  He phrases handsomely in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ but offers few insights into Siegmund’s inner conflicts.  In truth, this Siegmund’s heroism pales in comparison with that of his Sieglinde, so much so that he finally seems merely a Y-chromosome donor rather than a bona fide contributor to Siegfried’s dramatic and emotional genetics.  Singing Sieglinde in this performance, German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier is a veteran of many Wagner productions, having proved her merit as a Wagnerian both as Kundry and as Isolde.  Sieglinde is a daunting assignment for a mezzo-soprano, but with Ms. Meier there are no worries about the notes: she has even the most exposed top notes demanded by Sieglinde’s music in her voice, and in this performance she delivers them almost totally without strain.  Interestingly, it is the middle range of Ms. Meier’s voice that sounds slightly cautious and unsteady in this Walküre, but her lightning-intensity dramatic instincts are more flashing than ever.  The torrents of sound that she unleashes in Acts One and Two are thrilling, and she digs more deeply into the character Wagner has given her to sing than any other singer in the cast of this Ring.  Despite gorgeous music in Act One and searingly intense music in Act Two, the greatest test of any Sieglinde comes in Act Three, in her response to Brünnhilde’s plan to rescue her from Wotan’s anger, ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’  Ms. Meier delivers this passage as though singing it for the first time, the sentiment sounding like the sudden awakening of a young woman to the promise of motherhood.  Vocally, Ms. Meier scales these heights with remarkable freshness and security.  Few listeners would dispute Ms. Meier’s reputation as one of her generation’s best singing actresses: none could deny that this performance confirms that her reputation is justified.  Singers with such exalted reputations sometimes disappoint, but there is no mistaking the quality of this Sieglinde.

Also unique to the Walküre performance is the Brünnhilde of Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman, who does not sing the same part in the subsequent Siegfried and Götterdämmerung performances.  It is good to have this recorded documentation of Ms. Dalayman’s Walküre Brünnhilde, which is not available elsewhere.  [Her account of the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is available in a recording of concert performances with the Hallé Orchestra.]  Displaying wisdom that eludes many of her colleagues, Ms. Dalayman has mostly paced her trajectory through the Wagner repertory according to the growth and development of her voice, starting her journey in rôles like Brangäne before moving into Brünnhilde territory.  She was not yet fifty at the time of this Walküre, and the voice remained on generally excellent form, exhibiting few signs of hard use.  Ms. Dalayman does not ‘taste’ the excitement of her opening Battle Cries like Marjorie Lawrence or Astrid Varnay, nor does she possess the kind of vocal athleticism of Birgit Nilsson.  She approaches her ‘Hojotohos’ unflinchingly, however, and despite a few wayward pitches she conveys the impetuosity that is central to Brünnhilde’s character.  She improves as the performance progresses, expressing gratitude for the lower center of vocal gravity in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ with firm, attractive singing.  She indicates Brünnhilde’s frustration with the defiant Siegmund but mostly misses the nuances of the Valkyrie experiencing the first pangs of human compassion.  There is ample fear in Ms. Dalayman’s singing of her first lines in Act Three, when Brünnhilde is being pursued by Wotan, and a brightened tone of triumph enters the voice when she facilitates Sieglinde’s escape.  Throughout Act Three, Ms. Dalayman offers her best singing of the performance, placing tones in the upper register with precision and authority.  The girlish affection and resignation that she brings to Brünnhilde’s defense and farewell to Wotan are touching.  Ms. Dalayman is not in this performance a Brünnhilde of legend, but she is a very good one, achieving much in a rôle that confounds even accomplished efforts.

Singing Wotan in Rheingold and Walküre and the Wanderer in Siegfried, Albert Dohmen was an eleventh-hour substitute for Juha Uusitalo.  Mr. Dohmen is a Wagnerian of proven distinction, but the three incarnations of Wotan are widely acknowledged as exceptional challenges even by Wagner’s exalted standards.  Musically, Wotan’s music veritably defines the dramatic bass-baritone em>Fach, the tessitura extending from bass depths to baritone heights, occasionally within the brief space of a single musical phrase.  Thankfully, Mr. Dohmen is a rare singer in whose performance Wotan’s weariness and disenfranchisement do not equate with wobbling.  There are instances, especially in Die Walküre, in which pitches are not as precise and lines not as eloquently shaped as would be ideal, but Mr. Dohmen’s voice generally sounds on good form.  He takes command winningly in Das Rheingold, greeting Valhalla with ringing tone.  There is fantastic contrast in Mr. Dohmen’s performance in Die Walküre, his live-wire nervousness in his first interview with Brünnhilde giving way to the boiling ire and boundless sadness of his arraignment and renunciation of her in Act Three.  When this Wotan takes his leave of Brünnhilde as the Magic Fire encircles her, he is already a broken man, and this is audible in the hollowness of Mr. Dohmen’s tone.  As the Wanderer, there is something very moving in Mr. Dohmen’s singing, especially in the failing Wotan’s encounter with his grandson, Siegfried.  The beauty of Mr. Dohmen’s softer singing conveys feelings more intimate than defeat and shame: there are also elements of pride and hope.  Though he was in slightly fresher voice in the 2008 Bayreuther Festspiele Ring recorded by Opus Arte, Mr. Dohmen improves upon that Cycle with these performances, in which the soul of the character is more tellingly explored.

Siegfried is sung in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung by American tenor Stephen Gould, a busy artist with as legitimate a claim to being designated a true Heldentenor as any artist singing today.  Its formidable tessitura—rising to a top C in Götterdämmerung—notwithstanding, Siegfried is, in both of his appearances, an almost impossibly long rôle, his contributions to Siegfried alone being almost triple the duration of an average Italian dramatic tenor rôle.  Stamina and meticulous knowledge of the score are equally important, the latter quality allowing the tenor to pace his performance according to cognizance of the passages during which he can rest the voice in order to reserve power for the climaxes.  In this sense, recordings of live performances are the best evidence for judging a tenor’s true capabilities for singing Siegfried, and Mr. Gould is revealed to be a clever artist who mostly makes choices that benefit his concepts of both the pre- and post-Brünnhilde Siegfrieds.  Few contemporary accounts survive of Georg Unger, the tenor who created both Siegfrieds for Wagner at Bayreuth, so it is difficult to assess the extent to which Wagner expected Siegfrieds to possess both power and tonal beauty.  Neither of Siegfried’s duets with Brünnhilde is particularly romantic in tone, repeated cries of ‘Heil!’ not creating the most seductive of atmospheres, but there can and should be great feeling in Siegfried’s death scene.  Historically, it is possible to suggest that only Lauritz Melchior approached a level of achievement as Siegfried that might be considered ideal, and Mr. Gould does not approach the sort of perfection in the parts that one longs without hope to hear.  Mr. Gould is superior to many of his contemporary rivals, however, and his performances in this Ring are more memorable than those in the 2008 Bayreuth Cycle.  In Siegfried, Mr. Gould brings adolescent petulance to his exchanges with Mime and rollicking high spirits to his combat with Fafner.  Like most Siegfrieds, he survives more than he conquers the Forging Song, but he sings with wonder when following the Stimme des Waldvogels and passion when contemplating the slumbering Brünnhilde.  Phrasing in both the closing duet in Siegfried and his opening duet in Götterdämmerung is finely-wrought, and strain in the upper register—sorely tested on both occasions—is put to dramatic use.  The Siegfried who arrives at the Gibichung Hall is a self-assured but still somewhat immature young man, and Mr. Gould makes much of the pain that Siegfried feels from the sting of his friends’ betrayal.  His flirting with the Rhinemaidens is light-hearted, and he sounds genuinely befuddled by their warnings.  The machismo of his descriptions of his youthful adventures to Hagen’s hunting party is deflated by the pierce of Hagen’s spear, and Mr. Gould provides his most subtle and beautiful singing of the Cycle in his death scene.  The world is not populated by tenors capable of singing Siegfried, but Mr. Gould gives a credible performance of some of the most punishing music in the tenor repertory.

Linda Watson’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes are both better-sung and better-recorded in Vienna than at Bayreuth three years earlier.  Like several of her colleagues in this Staatsoper Ring, Ms. Watson is a veteran Wagnerian, having participated in Ring productions throughout the world.  Dramatically, her Brünnhilde remains a work in progress, which is indicative of a welcome artistic curiosity.  Here building upon previous performances, Ms. Watson sings with greater involvement and dedication to meaningfully delivering the text than have been heard from her in past, and she achieves moments of genuine dramatic excellence.  It was cruel of Wagner to pair a fresh-voiced Brünnhilde in a duet at the opera’s end with a tenor drained by a long haul of singing in Siegfried, and Ms. Watson admittedly sails through the duet with far more energy than Mr. Gould can manage.  Soprano and tenor are more fairly matched in their duet in the Götterdämmerung Prologue, and the byplay between Ms. Watson and Mr. Gould is expert.  The top Cs that Brünnhilde is asked to produce to end both duets are in place but uncomfortable, though Ms. Watson’s upper register is mostly in good working order.  The amplitude of Ms. Watson’s instrument is most apparent in her trio with Gunther and Hagen, when the full force of the humiliated Brünnhilde’s anger is unleashed by the American soprano with snarling power.  The brightly feminine tone with which Ms. Watson describes Brünnhilde’s happiness with Siegfried to Waltraute turns imperious when the fallen Valkyrie realizes that her sister has come on ‘official business,’ so to speak.  If the greatest test for a Sieglinde is her ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ in the final Act of Walküre, the highest peak that Brünnhilde must ascend is her Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung.  It is anything but coincidental that both scenes are musically linked by Leitmotifs, Brünnhilde’s self-sacrifice framed by the return of thematic material associated with Sieglinde that is heard at no other time in the Ring except in Sieglinde’s final scene in Die Walküre.  Not unlike the way in which Siegfried is tried by the closing duet in Siegfried, the Immolation Scene comes after Brünnhilde has been required to sing unstintingly throughout the four hours of Götterdämmerung.  Ms. Watson gives her all, loading the voice into the music fearlessly despite audible fatigue and still producing sounds of bracing efficacy in the upper register.  There are a few raw attacks to remind the listener that, despite the pulsing inevitability of the rising tessitura, this is extraordinarily difficult music.  As a vocal actress, Ms. Watson is a Brünnhilde in command of all of her faculties, sweetly lyrical in love, tempestuous in rage, and unhesitatingly firm of purpose in death.  Several of the world’s larger opera houses have recently offered their audiences Brünnhildes considerably less pleasing to the ears than Ms. Watson is in this Ring: much praise is owed to Ms. Watson for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes in this Ring that can be enjoyed with only miniscule reservations.

With complete Ring Cycles in the works with Valery Gergiev (leading Mariinsky forces on the theatre’s house label) and Marek Janowski (conducting the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin on PentaTone), this Wiener Staatsoper Ring from Deutsche Grammophon contributes to an unlikely embarrassment of riches being offered in homage to Wagner on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth.  The devoted Wagnerite in 2013 is fortunate to have a plethora of Ring recordings available for study and submersion, ranging from Metropolitan Opera Cycles from early in the history of that Company’s Saturday matinée broadcasts and famous traversals of the complete Cycle by Wilhelm Furtwängler at La Scala and for RAI Roma to an array of Bayreuth Rings, the most recent to emerge from the mists of time being a 1962 Cycle conducted by Rudolf Kempe.  Though Wagnerian traditions are more firmly-entrenched in Germany than in Austria, it is surprising that the Wiener Staatsoper is not more extensively represented in the Ring discography.  Superbly recorded and presented, this Ring does not consistently capture the Staatsoper forces at the incomparable levels of greatness of which they remain capable, but its lack of any glaring weaknesses among its large cast of young and veteran singers is undeniably appreciable.  In the hearts and on the shelves of all zealous Wagnerites, there is always room for another Ring, and even without Flagstads, Melchiors, Nilssons, and Mödls this is a fine one.

Joseph Newsome

[This review was first published at Voix des Arts. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]


Das Rheingold—A. Dohmen (Wotan), J. Baechle (Fricka), A. Reinprecht (Freia), A. Larsson (Erda), T. Konieczny (Alberich), M. Eiche (Donner), H. Lippert (Froh), A. Eröd (Loge), W. Schmidt (Mime), L. Woldt (Fasolt), A. Anger (Fafner), I. Tonca (Woglinde), U. Helzel (Wellgunde), Z. Kushpler (Flosshilde)

Die Walküre—K. Dalayman (Brünnhilde), W. Meier (Sieglinde), A. Dohmen (Wotan), C. Ventris (Siegmund), J. Baechle (Fricka), E. Halfvarson (Hunding), D. Ellen (Helmwige), I. Raimondi (Gerhilde), A. Reinprecht (Ortlinde), A. Twarowska (Waltraute), U. Helzel (Siegrune), M. Bohinec (Grimgerde), Z. Kushpler (Schwertliete), J. Mars (Roßweiße)

Siegfried—S. Gould (Siegfried), L. Watson (Brünnhilde), A. Dohmen (der Wanderer), W. Schmidt (Mime), T. Konieczny (Alberich), A. Larsson (Erda), A. Anger (Fafner), C. Reiss (Stimme des Waldvogels)

Götterdämmerung—S. Gould (Siegfried), L. Watson (Brünnhilde), A. Jun (Hagen), M. Eiche (Gunter), T. Konieczny (Alberich), C. Wenborne (Gutrune), J. Baechle (Waltraute), Z. Kushpler (1. Norn, Flosshilde), U. Helzel (2. Norn, Wellgunde), I. Raimondi (3. Norn), I. Tonca (Woglinde)

Click here for extracts from this recording.

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Posted by Gary at 9:08 AM

May 30, 2013

Cecilia Bartoli as Norma

When Norma was presented at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time on 27 February 1890, it was Lilli Lehmann who donned the Druidess’s robes, remarkably alternating performances as Norma in the spring of 1890 with outings as Verdi’s Aida, Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, all three Brünnhildes, Wagner’s Isolde, the title rôle in Karl Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba, Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Beethoven’s Leonore, Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive, and Amelia in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera!  Such versatility is astounding even for an artist as legendary as Lilli Lehmann, but it was admitted on the occasion of a revival of Norma in the autumn of 1891 by an unidentified critic writing in New York’s Times that Lehmann was ‘not heard at her best in music of the ornamental kind.’  Lehmann herself would likely have argued that an assessment of Norma as ‘music of the ornamental kind’ grossly misrepresents the opera, and she would have been right: cantilena prevails in Norma, and the moments of musical filigree are unfailingly put to dramatic use with a surety lacking even in Bellini’s other mature masterworks.  Lilli Lehmann set the standard for MET Normas of subsequent generations, however, her successors in the rôle including Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna, and Zinka Milanov, all of whom were successful in the part on their own terms.  Maria Callas—whose MET début in 1956 was as Norma—and Dame Joan Sutherland redefined the rôle, combining the weight of voice of singers like Lehmann, Ponselle, and Milanov with flexibility in coloratura associated with lighter voices, but it was also with Sutherland’s second studio recording of Norma—also a DECCA set—that a concerted effort at returning Norma to something like what Bellini would have expected to hear began in earnest.  In the first performance of Norma in 1831, Norma and Adalgisa were sung by Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi, sisters whose voices, judged by modern criteria, were both sopranos, and casting Montserrat Caballé—a celebrated Norma herself—opposite Sutherland’s Norma produced at least a reasonable facsimile of how Pasta, admired by her contemporaries for the richness of her timbre, and Grisi, described as a dramatic soprano but considering her creation of Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani and Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale perhaps lighter of timbre than the description suggests to 21st-Century observers, sounded in the opera’s first production.  Unlike her predecessors as Norma in the decades before the advent of Callas, Cecilia Bartoli—who, in addition to the present recording, has sung concert performances of Norma in Dortmund, which provided the impetus for this recording, along with a recent staged production at Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival (in which Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera, who sang Adalgisa in the Dortmund concerts, reprised the part) that will be reprised at this summer’s Salzburger Festspiele—is a singer who emphatically is ‘heard at her best in music of the ornamental kind.’  Whether singing the music of forgotten composers of the High Baroque or the most popular operas of Rossini, Ms. Bartoli is a reliably engaging presence, the brilliance of her bravura technique allied with a seemingly boundless artistic curiosity.  Her previous performances and recording of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula notwithstanding, the expansion of Ms. Bartoli’s musical ambitions to include Norma was surprising.  What she endeavors to capture in this recording is the spirit of Norma as it was when the opera was new, all of the music sung in Bellini’s original keys and each of the rôles sung in a manner as close to authenticity as modern scholarship and vocal techniques allow.  Ms. Bartoli as an artist shares with the character of Norma an indomitable spirit, but Norma is a score that cannot be conquered solely by commitment.

Employing an edition of the score by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi that contains music that may be new to many listeners, conductor Giovanni Antonini—a recorder and Baroque traverse flute virtuoso and frequent collaborator with Ms. Bartoli—approaches Norma with the fresh ears of a Baroque specialist attuned to the intricate sonorities of period instruments.  However, there is nothing pedantic in Maestro Antonini’s pacing of this performance, which in general is splendidly energetic.  The excellent players of Orchestra La Scintilla play period instruments of the time of the first performance of Norma.  Rather than making Bellini’s music sound in any way antiquated, the slightly edgy tones of these period instruments lend the music a freshness that renders Bellini’s melodic inspiration breathtakingly apparent.  There is not a single melody in Norma that is not of exceptional beauty, and Maestro Antonini consistently chooses tempi that accentuate the eloquence with which Bellini’s melodic lines develop.  Perhaps unexpectedly considering his pedigree in Baroque music, Maestro Antonini displays an instinctive comprehension of using rubato as an expressive device, judiciously broadening the pace of certain passages to great interpretive effect.  Also surprising for a specialist in Baroque repertory, in which break-neck approaches are often adopted even when detrimental to the music or excessively challenging to the performers, Maestro Antonini is unafraid of slow tempi, taking a dramatically vital scene like the opera’s finale at a speed at which its full power can unfold without dragging.  Bellini was criticized during his lifetime for being a pedestrian orchestrator, but what he lacked in innovation he made up for with considerable imagination for creating orchestral timbres that ideally support his melodic lines.  Maestro Antonini’s attention to the details of instrumental blends produces revelatory results, the prominence given to brass instruments showing the cleverness with which Bellini wrote for these instruments and perhaps hinting at one inspiration for Wagner’s appreciation of Bellini’s music.  As in many bel canto scores, the chorus is important in Norma, dramatically essential as the vocal embodiment of the social order against which the character’s trials play out and serving as the musical foundation upon which Bellini’s walls of sound are built.  The International Chamber Vocalists combine the strength of a large opera house chorus with the impeccable tonal blend of a collegiate glee club, and their contributions to this performance are consistently delightful, roused by Maestro Antonini’s direction to startling outbursts when on bellicose form and hushed sighs when their confidence is shattered by Norma’s admission of guilt.  As many of the finest recorded performances of Norma are those that document staged performances in imperfect sound and with all the blemishes introduced by the presence of dozens of bodies on a stage, the quality of the musical setting provided for this performance by the Orchestra La Scintilla, the International Chamber Vocalists, and Maestro Antonini is perhaps the highest yet heard in the opera’s impressive history on records.

It has often been said that, for a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to be completely successful, it should sound as though the tenor singing Goro could easily step in to sing Pinkerton if circumstances required.  Similar sentiments might be applied to the rôles of Clotilde and Flavio in Norma.  As Clotilde’s contributions to Norma are so modest, it would be folly to suggest that a singer engaged for the part could reasonably be expected to substitute as either Norma or Adalgisa should her colleagues be indisposed, but it is hardly coincidental that one of Dame Joan Sutherland’s earliest assignments at Covent Garden was singing Clotilde to the Norma of Maria Callas.  Sung in this performance by Romanian mezzo-soprano Liliana Nikiteanu, who also sang Teresa in Ms. Bartoli’s recording of La Sonnambula, Clotilde achieves greater significance than she often enjoys.  With her fine voice and excellent diction, Ms. Nikiteanu interacts wonderfully with Ms. Bartoli, convincingly conveying Clotilde’s terror in the scene in which Norma contemplates slaying her sleeping children.  Flavio has the thankless task of being the sensible sidekick of a man distracted by passion.  The ringing tones of Cuban-American tenor Reinaldo Macias, a first-place winner in the Metropolitan Opera auditions, make Flavio’s arguments more noticeable than usual.  Even the cajolery of a Flavio as accomplished as Mr. Macias cannot prevail upon his indiscrete comrade, but Mr. Macias’s voice strongly complements that of his Pollione.

The rôle of Oroveso, Norma’s father, presents enigmatic challenges, and it is interesting to note the evolution of the rôle that has occurred since the third quarter of the 20th Century.  In the early days of Norma on records, some of the greatest basses in the Italian tradition could be heard as Oroveso: Ezio Pinza in the legendary 1937 MET broadcast, with Gina Cigna as his errant daughter; Tancredi Pasero in the opera’s first studio recording, which also features Cigna in the title rôle; Giulio Neri in the 1952 Naples performance with the largely-forgotten Maria Pedrini; Boris Christoff opposite Maria Callas in the famed 1953 Trieste performance; Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in the first Callas studio recording; and Cesare Siepi in the 1954 MET broadcast with Zinka Milanov, as well as the 1970 broadcast with Sutherland.  Aside from occasional performances by artists such as Boaldo Giaiotti, Paul Plishka, and Giorgio Tozzi, Oroveso largely has not lured the accomplished basses of the past forty years into the dramatic folds of Roman Gaul.  It cannot be denied that Oroveso gives a singer little around which to wrap his creative energy, so it is a special treat to hear Italian bass-baritone Michele Pertusi, one of the most accomplished singers of bel canto bass-baritone rôles in recent years, in the part.  Though he is perhaps more associated with comic parts in the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, Mr. Pertusi has proved a tremendous asset in serious rôles, as well, his smooth, easily-produced voice and native Italian diction raising the levels of authenticity in many productions.  He brings both authority and a very welcome suggestion of youthfulness to his singing of Oroveso on this recording.  Norma being the mother of small children and, taking into account historical data on life expectancies and the like, therefore presumably a young woman herself, it stands to reason that Oroveso is not necessarily an elderly man: a bit of a dull stick he may well be, not least in his implacable adherence to social mores that condemn his daughter—his only child?—and orphan his grandchildren, but he need not be a tottering old man.  Mr. Pertusi’s Oroveso is lusty in advocating war with Rome and initially stoic but undone by Norma’s admission of her fraternization with a Roman, but there is audible softening of Oroveso’s heart as his daughter goes nobly to her death, entrusting her children to his care.  Mr. Pertusi’s tones are not as orotund as those of Pinza, Pasero, or Siepi, but he is convincing as a virile Archdruid without forcing or distorting his voice.  The opera’s opening number, ‘Ite sul colle, o Druidi’ and his ‘Ah! del Tebro a giogo indegno’ in Act Two are Oroveso’s only solo opportunities, and Mr. Pertusi seizes both impressively.  Mr. Pertusi is likely the member of the cast who is most adversely affected by the lowered diapason adopted for this recording [A = 430 Hz, which is likely a close approximation of authentic pitch from the time of Norma’s first performance as it is known that Verdi composed his operas with an assumed tuning of A = 432 Hz], the roughly quarter-tone deviation from standard modern concert pitch making his music slightly more demanding on the lower register than it would be in any of the world’s major opera houses.  Mr. Pertusi proves imperturbable, contributing an Oroveso that exemplifies his best work.

Possessing one of the most thrilling voices heard in bel canto repertory during the last decade, American tenor John Osborn joins the ranks of recorded Polliones that include Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti.  In the context of this performance, it might be said that Mr. Osborn combines the best qualities of all three of these illustrious forbears.  There are in Mr. Osborn’s performance senses of the dash of Corelli, the musicality of Domingo, and the vocal freedom of Pavarotti.  Pollione is admittedly perhaps not a rôle that young tenors dream of singing: virtually without warm-up, he is required to sing a tuneful but rather pompous (as befits a Roman proconsul, presumably) aria and cabaletta.  Thereafter, he is the pseudo-antagonist first against Adalgisa, then against both Adalgisa and Norma, and finally against Norma, all before having a virtually deus ex machina change of heart and resolving to share Norma’s death by immolation.  Felice Romani’s libretto does little to explain why such a man, a professed enemy of their people, would have proved so irresistible to not one but two priestesses of the Druid caste.  Mr. Osborn’s singing ably fills in the gaps, allying swaggering masculinity with moments of tenderness.  Pollione’s opening aria (‘Meco all’atar di Venere’) and cabaletta (‘Me protegge, me difende’) are as chest-thumpingly martial as any music ever composed for the tenor voice, and Mr. Osborn brings to his performance ingratiating verve and rhythmic precision.  It was perhaps cruel of Bellini to ask his Pollione for a top C so soon after his entrance, though if other Bellini operas are considered the tenor singing Pollione should be happy that it is not a note higher still.  A particularly enjoyable aspect of Mr. Osborn’s singing is the ringing accuracy of his upper register, which is given quite a workout by the embellishments that Mr. Osborn ventures in the repeats in his aria and cabaletta.  Also wonderful is the soft singing that Mr. Osborn accomplishes in his scene with Adalgisa, in which he displays a lovely mezza voce that is not over-reliant on falsetto.  Mr. Osborn more than holds his own in the great trio that ends Act One, in which Pollione is often lost in the fray between Norma and Adalgisa.  Though Pollione’s most obvious opportunities for vocal display occur in Act One, upon each of which Mr. Osborn capitalizes handsomely, his finest singing arguably comes in Act Two.  For one thing, Mr. Osborn is the rare tenor whose technique fully encompasses the rippling coloratura passages given to Pollione in his duet with Norma, ‘In mia man alfin tu sei.’  In many performances, the tenor simplifies the coloratura or merely allows Norma to sing an altered version of his lines: Mr. Osborn needs no such bypasses, and he delivers the coloratura with the precision of a first-rate Rossini tenor.  In most performances, Pollione’s last-minute decision to share Norma’s fate seems artificial at best: few singers manage to convey the cathartic purification by self-sacrifice that Bellini and Romani intended.  Mr. Osborn’s singing in the final scene is as musically poised and responsive as Bellini could have hoped for, and his dramatic instincts shape Romani’s poetry with rare grace.  There is an audible sense in Mr. Osborn’s transition from full-throated splendor in Act One to honeyed eloquence in Act Two of the development of Pollione’s character.  No other singer on records makes this evolution as apparent or as natural as Mr. Osborn does in this performance, and no one sings Pollione’s music more capably, confidently, and stylishly.

Whether for reasons of artistry or marketability, there is ample precedent for replacing singers who participated in performances of a work with other singers when the work is taken into the studio for recording.  Rebeca Olvera, the Mexican soprano who sang Adalgisa in the Dortmund concert performances that inspired this recording, was an effective, plangent-toned Adalgisa, but there is no debating that Sumi Jo, a DECCA artist of long standing and a schoolfellow of Cecilia Bartoli, is a more commercially lucrative presence.  In this case, however, what may have been primarily a business decision yields a genuine artistic triumph.  Particularly after a century of encountering the voices of singers such as Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Marilyn Horne, and Shirley Verrett as Adalgisa, casting a preeminent Königin der Nacht, Lucia, and Zerbinetta in the rôle may seem counterintuitive.  Ms. Jo is more celebrated for the flexibility and extensive range of her voice than for its power and amplitude, of course, but as suggested before there is musical evidence to suggest that Bellini’s first Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, may also have been more of a lyric than a dramatic soprano.  Ms. Jo is at the point in the career of a lyric coloratura soprano at which the tightrope-walk excursions into the extreme upper register—the sopracuti that, for better or worse, define a coloratura soprano’s career—are achieved with slightly greater effort than previously.  If the Königin der Nacht’s top Fs are a bit more of a challenge for Ms. Jo now than they were a decade ago, there is absolutely nothing in Adalgisa’s music, high or low, that is not completely comfortable for her.  There are both obvious and implicit ambiguities in Adalgisa’s character, the most significant of which is her breaking of her sacred vows.  When she learns that her illicit love for Pollione not only violates her commitment to chastity but also betrays her devotion to her best friend and mentor, Norma, she is torn between her desire for her lover—for whose sake she seemingly has prepared herself to abandon all that she holds dear—and her duty to her community.  Romani leaves Adalgisa as one of the most notable ‘loose ends’ in opera: after her exquisite scene with Norma in Act Two (‘Mira, o Norma’), she simply disappears.  There are no stage directions to document her presence in the final scene, so her occasional appearance in staged productions to assume guardianship of Norma’s and Pollione’s children is an entirely spurious invention of directors.  Having played her part in precipitating the tragic dénouement, does she flee into self-imposed exile?  Does she confess her own guilt, either publicly or privately, and like Aida secretly share her friends’ demise?  Does she succeed Norma as High Priestess of Irminsul?  Does she renounce her vows, marry a nice Druid boy, and live happily ever after?  No singer can solve the riddle of Adalgisa’s future in the context of a recording, but Ms. Jo provides as complete a portrait of Adalgisa as has ever been offered on records.  The foremost quality of Ms. Jo’s performance is that, the pressure of extremely high tessitura relieved, the voice is indescribably beautiful; more beautiful, in fact, than it has ever sounded on records.  The middle octave of the voice is stronger than it was previously, suggesting that Ms. Jo has blossomed into a wonderfully full lyric maturity.  In Adalgisa’s first appearance, ‘Sgombra è la sacra selva,’ Ms. Jo’s voice is that of a very conflicted young woman, her heart troubled by its own machinations.  Ms. Jo’s command of the bel canto idiom has never been in doubt, but she has never sung with more facile grace, firm tone, and dramatic involvement than in this recording.  In the subsequent duet with Pollione, ‘Va crudele, al dio spietato,’ Ms. Jo sings broadly, phrasing her melodic lines with superb breath control, and making spell-binding use of her trademark subito piano, a skill for which she credits her studies with Carlo Bergonzi.  Adalgisa’s shame, confusion, and upheaval as she discovers the truth of both her own and Norma’s relationships with Pollione are expressed by Ms. Jo by careful shading of the tone and an idiomatic use of portamento that might have been thought to be extinct among today’s singers.  The trio gains dramatic impetus from Ms. Jo’s impassioned singing, the duality of her predicament still weighing heavily on Adalgisa’s mind.  It is in the scene including ‘Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi’ that Adalgisa faces her greatest musical and dramatic challenges, and Ms. Jo’s singing here is a marvel.  The spun-silk sound of her voice as she begins the duet sotto voce is incredibly beguiling: it is difficult to imagine any Norma failing to be moved by her pleas.  The blend of her voice with Norma’s as they sing in thirds is lovely, and the gossamer threads of tone that she weaves as she and Norma trade melodic lines are glowing but touched with melancholy.  Throughout the performance, ascents into the upper register hold no terrors for Ms. Jo, but—somewhat unexpectedly—she proves equally undaunted by plunges into very low territory.  Having lived and studied in Italy since her teens, Ms. Jo’s Italian diction has the naturalness of a native, and her use of vowel sounds as the foundation for placing the voice is an art unto itself, a glimpse into a long-forgotten method of bel canto singing.  Ms. Jo is an exceptional artist, but even for her this performance is something extremely special.

A Norma without a capable Norma is destined for failure, an inevitable lesson that many opera companies (and a few record labels) have learned the hard way, so to speak.  In terms of vocal precedence, Cecilia Bartoli is hardly the first mezzo-soprano to take on Norma: both Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett sang the part with variable degrees of success, but Ms. Bartoli is surely the first mezzo-soprano to approach Norma as both a musical exploration and a scholarly exercise.  It should be said at the start that Ms. Bartoli’s Norma is anything but a stunt, however, and the familiar drive with which she throws herself into all of her rôles is especially evident in this performance.  It is apparent from the first notes of her entrance recitative, ‘Sedizïose voci,’ that Ms. Bartoli is in excellent voice, and the ‘bite’ of her crisp diction provides fascinating verbal inflections that illuminate Norma’s inner struggles.  ‘Casta diva,’ perhaps the textbook example of bel canto cantilena at its most inspired, is unfortunately the least persuasive portion of Ms. Bartoli’s performance.  Honed on the quicksilver bravura of Rossini, Ms. Bartoli’s technique is challenged by the extended lines of ‘Casta diva’—those long, long, long melodies so admired by both Verdi and Wagner,—suggesting that she is more comfortable in the shorter phrases of coloratura passages than in the long music paragraphs of a Bellini cavatina.  The smokiness of Ms. Bartoli’s timbre also mitigates the effectiveness of the aria’s opening, but there is increased profile to her singing of the aria as the vocal line rises in tessitura.  Using Bellini’s autograph keys and a basically come scritto approach in terms of interpolated high notes at the ends of arias and ensembles, the aria has an alluringly lower ending, without the trill that has brought so many Normas to grief.  Ms. Bartoli rips into the text of ‘Fine al rito,’ and her cabaletta—‘Ah! bello a me ritorna’—delivers her into familiar territory, the cascades of coloratura voiced with confidence and control and only the chromatic scales lacking complete mastery.  Norma’s first duet with Adalgisa conjures from Ms. Bartoli refreshingly unforced, unhurried singing, but the subsequent trio finds her appropriately breathing fire.  She handles the ascents to top C in ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido’—so feared by Callas and other Normas of lore—with aplomb, flinging the notes out like targeted daggers.  It is in ‘Vanne, sì, mi lascia, indegno’ that a few reservations start to creep in: though Ms. Bartoli’s intriguingly dark timbre suggests dramatic strength without manipulation, there are moments in Norma at which a mezzo-soprano’s relative lack of power in and around the soprano passaggio—where so much of Norma’s music dwells—lessens the cumulative impact of the performance.  There is no question of Ms. Bartoli possessing the notes, for that she does with greater reliability than many of her soprano colleagues past and present, but the basic timbre is weakest where Norma’s music demands that it be strongest.  She leads the trio to a rousing conclusion nonetheless.  Beginning with the opening scene in which she intends to murder her children, Act Two is for Norma a expansive dramatic arc from near-madness to ritualistic purification.  Musically and dramatically, Ms. Bartoli progresses with consummate artistry from the disturbed mother tempted by filicide to the loving friend reassured and reunited with her confidante in ‘Mira, o Norma.’  Her virtuosity is at its most infallible in the coloratura passages of ‘In mia man.’  If a singer’s performance of Norma can be defined by a single moment, it is that in which she sings ‘Son io,’ the words with which she reveals Norma’s guilt to her assembled countrymen.  Perhaps because of the difficult placement of the phrase within the voice (the issue of passaggio recurring here), Ms. Bartoli’s singing of this crucial phrase is rather plain, secure but lacking the mystery and ethereal sense of release brought to it by Callas.  From this point through the end of the opera, however, Ms. Bartoli reaches dizzying heights of musical expression, beginning with an account of ‘Qual cor tradisti’ that pulses with sublimated affection.  Ms. Bartoli’s singing of ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’ confirms Bellini’s genius in ending Norma with beautifully extended cantilena—a sort of apotheosis—rather than a display piece for the heroine.  In the final minutes of the opera, all questions of the appropriateness of a mezzo-soprano voice and of Ms. Bartoli’s voice in particular for Norma are silenced by the stilled intensity of her singing.  This is not a performance without compromise, but Ms. Bartoli creates a Norma on her own terms that ultimately taps into the lifeblood of bel canto and lyric tragedy.

Unlike the rising and falling fortunes of many operas, Norma has remained a beloved work of which an unimpeachably well-sung performance has ever been a cause for celebration.  Such works often defy the best efforts at experimentation, but this performance of Norma is not so much a test of an hypothesis as a rediscovery.  In a sense, it is like the restoration of an unusually fine piece of antique furniture: years upon years of refinishing have preserved something magnificent, but stripping away the layers of good intentions reveals the original patina, a direct link to the artistry of the past.  Accumulated traditions have made Norma an exhilarating masterwork of lyric theatre, but this recording displays what a startlingly moving work this was from the moment at which the ink dried on Bellini’s manuscript.  Zealously, grippingly sung and played, this is a Norma of intimacy and intricacy, its adherence to perceptions of performance values at the time of the opera’s creation proving not its particular historical context but its indefatigable timelessness.

Joseph Newsome

[This review was first published at Voix des Arts. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]

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Posted by Gary at 3:04 PM

Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park

Given the enormous international popularity of Austen's novels, one must conclude that there is something very antithetical to operatic adaptation about them for this to be the case. Though they were inspired, to some extent, by plays, they also felicitously manipulate novelistic conventions with no obvious stage correlatives. Many key scenes turn on the reader's awareness of deep feelings completely at odds with the triviality of the conversation. It is difficult to recreate this effect in the theatre, and perhaps hardest of all in opera, a medium generically disposed to seek out and amplify any whiff of a strong passion.

Mansfield Park strikes me as just about the hardest of the Austen novels to adapt for stage presentation, yet Benjamin Britten and Ronald Duncan began work on an abandoned operatic version in 1946, and one wonders whether Britten found the particular musical resonance in this novel that Jonathan Dove did ("When I first read Mansfield Park … I heard music. … [that] certainly didn't happen when I read other novels by Jane Austen"). Britten decided to compose Albert Herring instead. Over six decades later, Dove's version was commissioned by Heritage Opera and specially designed, delightfully, for performance in what the British call "stately homes," with four-hand piano accompaniment. The premiere was at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, in 2011. The Hampstead Garden Opera production is the first presentation of the work in a more conventional theatrical space, with the intimate Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre attractively transformed into a Regency drawing room.

Anyone who has read the novel will have some idea of the formidable difficulties involved in adapting Mansfield Park for the stage. It has a large cast of significant characters, but the actions of those characters are, for the most part, mediated to the reader through the consciousness of Fanny, the quietest, shyest and (her detractors would add) most annoyingly prim of Austen's heroines. In the opera Fanny is much less central, not necessarily to the detriment of the story, for many literary critics have agreed with Marilyn Butler that "at the centre Fanny is impossible." But with Fanny reduced in importance, Mr. Rushworth (here imagined as an amiable clown rather than Austen's boorish dupe) considerably enlarged, and Maria with him, the opera does suffer from the want of a clear central narrative. It asks us to be interested in the romantic fates of no less than seven young people (Fanny, Edmund, Maria, Julia, Rushworth and the two Crawfords) and attempts to present as much of their entangled stories as possible in the course of about two hours. Henry Crawford becomes the central character in terms of the plot, but he seemed insufficiently developed for such dramatic responsibly, though William Morgan did a very good job with the part as written.

Adapting any classic novel for representation in some other media is admittedly often an ungrateful enterprise, with some critics as irate at excessive fidelity as others are at the lack of it. But Mansfield Park the opera did feel over-full of story. Bruno Ravella, the director of the Hampstead production, must be congratulated for keeping the action coherent, and skillfully managing a great deal of stage movement in a small space, though anyone who had not read the novel, or the very full summary in the program, would still have struggled to follow the plot, especially in the early stages. I couldn't help thinking that a more streamlined libretto focused on the central quartet of Fanny, Edmund and the Crawfords would have worked better, and given the music more room to breathe. As things stand, there is a great deal of bustle and movement, especially in the first and longest of the two acts (culminating in Henry Crawford's statement that he intends to win Fanny's love), very much at odds with the novel's frequent emphasis on long evenings passing slowly as Lady Bertram snoozes on the sofa. The second act unfolds at a gentler pace, but it is hard to escape the feeling that much of the complex emotional wrapping up is rushed.

Dove's sparkling score propels the action forward with great energy. The sound of the piano is particularly appropriate to the drawing room, and sometimes there are direct echoes of the musical world of Austen's England - the sort of music one might expect in a BBC Austen adaptation. For the most part, though, the music aims to be dramatic rather than a period pastiche, and anyone acquainted with Dove's earlier operas, such as Flight, will quickly recognize his distinctive style, especially in the extended ensemble scenes where the music really takes wing. The three older characters, the kind but stern Sir Thomas, the languid Lady Bertram, and the spiteful busybody Mrs. Norris are strongly characterized in the music and were vividly brought to life in the Hampstead production by David Danson, Michelle Juneo and Madeleine Bradbury Rance respectively. The seven young people emerged less firmly individuated, and Mary Crawford, in particular, though Philippa Murray made her sing delectably, seemed too much like the Bertram girls to explain why Edmund found her so very special.

Fanny, of course, represents a special problem, and one not altogether satisfactorily solved. She is the heroine; but she is also the most silent character in the novel. In the opera she is revealed as the heroine primarily by the strength of the feelings she expresses, but this gave her the impression of trying not to burst much of the time, and she seemed rather blustery when she did sing out. Eleanor Minney gave me the impression of struggling with the role, though it may just be that there is an impossible contradiction between Austen's story and the nature of opera here.

Altogether, Dove's Mansfield Park is a brave and enjoyable attempt at creating a Jane Austen opera, though it reveals, too, why the operatic possibilities in her novels have gone so long unexplored. The potent appeal of her name obviously carries the hope that people not ordinarily inclined to go to see new operas will want to see this one, and there is an intrinsic fascination in seeing what can be done, operatically, with a novel like Mansfield Park. But the great strength of Dove's opera, as with much of his music, lies in what it offers the performers. Dove has written of his desire to write "a chamber-opera that really deserved the title," and Mansfield Park is certainly that, beautifully judged in its musical demands. It offers ten meaty, intelligent roles that allow of a good deal of individual interpretation, with at least seven of those tailor-made for young singers (and Madeleine Bradbury Rance as Mrs. Norris showed just how convincingly a talented young actress could assume one of the other roles). For a company like Hampstead Garden Opera, short of space and resources, but big on enthusiasm and commitment to nurturing the careers of young singers, it was an excellent choice, and I was delighted to learn that the ten performances, of which I saw the last, had all sold out.

It seemed to me that Dove and Middleton positioned their opera somewhere between comedy and drama, leaving directors to push it in one direction or the other, or indeed to stick to the middle. The Hampstead performance tended to the comic side, and there were plentiful laughs, especially at the childishness of William Davies's Mr. Rushworth, who perhaps stole the show a little too much. By contrast, Edmund Bertram, the most serious-minded of Austen's ideal men, performed by Dominic Sedgwick, often seemed too much in the background, though in the final scenes, as he denounces Mary Crawford and offers his love to Fanny, Sedgwick delivered some of the finest singing of the afternoon. As with all the Hampstead Garden Opera productions I have seen, everything bounced along with tremendous zest and the piano accompaniment provided by Yau Cheng and Lana Bode was absolutely thrilling, so musically rich that Mansfield Park should persuade other composers to explore the possibilities of chamber opera with four-hand piano.

David Chandler


Cast and production information:

Fanny Price: Eleanor Minney; Sir Thomas Bertram: David Danson; Lady Bertram: Michelle Jueno; Edmund Bertram: Dominic Sedgwick; Maria Bertram: Charlotte Richardson; Julia Bertram: Freya Jacklin; Aunt Norris: Madeleine Bradbury Rance; Henry Crawford: William Morgan; Mary Crawford: Philippa Murray; Mr. Rushworth: William Davies. Production Director: Bruno Ravella. Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven. Pianists: Yau Cheng and Lana Bode. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, London, 28 April 2013 (matinee).

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mansfield-Park_130418.gif image_description=A scene from Mansfield Park [Photo by Laurent Compagnon] product=yes product_title=Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park product_by=A review by David Chandler product_id=Above: A scene from Mansfield Park [Photo by Laurent Compagnon]
Posted by Gary at 1:20 PM

Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert

With ENO, once home to Reginald Goodall, one may delete the ‘near’; the Royal Opera has opted for a single production, in November, of Parsifal, whose casting does not exactly lift the spirits. There is certainly nothing anywhere near the composer’s birthday itself. The BBC Proms have valiantly stepped into the gap, offering concert performances of the Ring (Barenboim), Tristan und Isolde (Bychkov), Parsifal (Elder) and Tannhäuser (Runnicles). Those concerts, however, will not take place until July and August. For 22 May, London’s offering was a Philharmonia concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Doubtless there was stiff competition for Wagner conductors on the day, and Chirstian Thielemann was otherwise occupied in Bayreuth, but it was difficult not to feel that someone with greater Wagerian credentials might at least have been a possibility. Bernard Haitink, for instance? Most of us would readily have swapped the aforementioned Parsifal to hear the Royal Opera’s erstwhile music director once again in Wagner.

Was I being unfair? The proof of the aural pudding would, as always, be in the hearing. Sadly, the Prelude to the first act of Die Meistersinger not its ‘Overture’, as the programme insert had it — received an account, which, if undoubtedly preferable to the straightforward incomprehension Antonio Pappano had shown conducting the entire opera at Covent Garden, proved no more than Kapellmeister-ish. Timings as such tell one nothing, but it felt rushed, often more martial than celebratory. There was certainly no sense of midsummer blaze or indeed embers. The Philharmonia strings, though many in number, sometimes tended towards wiriness. Detail was either skated or fussed over. Though there was more fire towards the close, it was really too late by then. It doubtless had not helped that, earlier in the day, I had listened to Furtwängler conducting the same music in 1931, but even taking that into account, it was an undistinguished performance.

Rather to my surprise, the Tristan excerpts worked better. I remain sceptical, to put it mildly, about the wisdom of pairing the first act Prelude and the so-called ‘Liebestod’ (Liszt’s wretched description of Isolde’s Transfiguration). Though I am well aware of the distinguished precedents - even Furtwängler and Boulez have followed the practice - to my ears it jars. That said, both conductor and orchestra were on better form. Not only was their a fuller string sound but Davis now seemed to understand, certainly to communicate, that something was at stake. He struck a good balance between forward impulse and a more analytical approach to the score. Though certainly not plumbing any Furtwänglerian metaphysical depths, it was a satisfying enough musical experience. Susan Bullock, joining for the ‘Liebestod’, held her line well enough. At some times, she shaded sensitively; at others, she proved rather squally. The Philharmonia, however, offered beautifully shimmering and pulsating support. Whoever interposed immediately with a boorish ‘Bravo!’ should be consigned to listen to Verdi for the rest of Wagner’s anniversary year.

The second half was devoted to the third act of Die Walküre. It is not the Wagner act I should have chosen in such circumstances; surely the first act of the same drama works better on its own. But we had what we had, and presumably part of the idea was to offer the popular, if generally misunderstood, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Davis for the most part proved a competent guide, though there were some arbitrary-sounding slowings, though he offered few if any revelations. Whilst the Philharmonia played well enough, it sounded during the ‘Magic Fire Music’ as if someone had suddenly turned on a light-switch, such was the vividness of colour hitherto lacking. (That is not simply a matter of Wagner’s wondrous scoring at the end.) There is not much to say about David Edwards’s ‘semi-staging’, save that very good use was made of a very limited space, the direction being largely a matter of having singers come on, go off, and engage with each other. That they all did well, with the exception of James Rutherford’s Wotan. An excellent touch at the end was to have Brünnhilde go up behind the stage, to the organ, to be put to sleep. Handing her a very old-fashioned helmet at that point seemed odd: neither an obvious post-modern touch nor in keeping with the neutral dress otherwise on offer. Bullock had her moments, less audibly strained than she had been recently at Covent Garden. She made a good deal of Wagner’s text, though there were moments of relative vocal weakness. One cannot really judge a Sieglinde on the basis of the third act, but Giselle Allen offered an account more hochdramtisch than lyrical; ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ sounded rushed, but that may have been Davis’s account. At any rate, what should be ecstatic was more matter-of-fact. The Valkyries were a good bunch, a couple of them somewhat weak, but others excellent indeed; Jennifer Johnston’s Waltraute particularly stood out. Rutherford’s Wotan, however, was a disappointment. Apparently glued to the score, and none too certain with it, there was no sign whatsoever of him having internalised the role; his performance was more akin to a first rehearsal for a minor oratorio. Tone production was often rather woolly too.

Had one been coming anew to Wagner, doubtless much would have impressed, and there may well have been some in the audience who were. (There were, as one might have expected, some decidedly peculiar people in the audience. A man seated next to me insisted on filming the first half and hour or so of the Walküre act, my glares having no effect, the ushers either not noticing or not caring. When finally he put his camera away, he replaced it with a skull-capped walking-stick.) London’s anniversary contribution remained, however, surprisingly low-key. The rest of the Wagner 200 celebrations promise much more, as do the Proms.

Mark Berry


Cast and production information:

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg : Prelude to Act One; Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act One and ‘Liebestod’; Die Walküre: Act Three. Isolde, Brünnhilde: Susan Bullock; Sieglinde : Giselle Allen; Wotan: James Rutherford; Helmwige: Katherine Broderick; Gerhilde: Mariya Krywaniuk; Siegrune: Magdalen Ashman; Grimgerde: Antonia Sotgiu; Ortlinde: Elaine McKrill; Waltraute: Jennifer Johnston; Rossweisse: Maria Jones; Schwertleite: Miriam Sharrad. David Edwards (director); David Holmes (lighting). Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (director). Royal Festival Hall, 22 May 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/The-Valkyrie.gif image_description=The Valkyrie / Das Walküre by Richard Wagner. The ride of the valkyries. Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939) product=yes product_title=Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: The ride of the Valkyries by Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939)
Posted by Gary at 12:50 PM

Toronto’s Triple Success

Without exception, the operas were brilliantly cast, singing was of the highest international standard, promising performers from the Young Artists program made significant contributions, and the orchestra played superbly. Whatever is being done to nurture and develop the musical roster could be bottled and sold to many another company. Would that COC had been as thoroughly judicious with their practitioners of stagecraft, especially since all three productions were known commodities, but let’s begin with the plusses, shall we?

Director Robert Carsen’s Dialogue des Carmelites is a wondrous blend of highly theatrical stage pictures and deeply moving interpersonal relationships. His masterful uses of the chorus and a large gang of supers contributed to a magnificent overall effect. He was ably abetted by his Associate Director Didier Kersten, and by an exceptional design team of Michael Levine (sets); Falk Bauer (costumes); and Jean Kalman (lighting).

Mr. Levine’s Big Gray Box of a modular set was a marvel of understatement. With great economy, the back and sides could fly up to reveal ominous mobs, or simply to allow extras to bring on the few well-chosen set pieces necessary to create the proper environment for each scene. The shifting visuals included peasants crossing from one side of the stage to the other as they littered the space with the revolutions’ detritus, nuns placing worktables, or townspeople setting altar railings. The effect of Herr Bauer’s character-specific costumes cannot be over-praised, witness the luxurious, red and gold aristocratic suit for the Marquis de la Force, complemented by a vibrant blue for the Chevalier. What volumes the attire spoke as Mr. Carsen had the two surrounded and isolated by a huge mob of scrappily clad peasants in the opening “dialogue.” No less important was Mr. Kalman’s moody lighting design, here recreated by Cor van den Brink. The plot was all hot cross-lighting and brilliant pools of specials, successfully pinpointing the action and important plot points amid threatening shadows.

I shall not soon forget the burial of the Old Prioress, whose corpse is discovered isolated on the floor center stage, covered with a white sheet as the second half of the performance began. However, at close of the scene, Blanche removes the cloth to show us that the ‘corpse’ was really only suggested by carefully considered floral groupings, the reveal of which now brought us uninterrupted into the garden. Stunning. Later, when the nuns were in prison Carsen magically evoked the garden imagery again as he had the nuns rise from a prostrate mound into a tight lighting special, kneeling up in divergent directions with faces to heaven as though they were buds searching out the sunlight. Chilling.

For the famous execution scene, Robert successfully tore a page from Peter Sellars’ playbook, and had the symmetrically spaced group perform a somewhat semaphoric “dance” until each was executed, at which point each slowly folded down flat onto the stage and spread their arms “cross-like.” Perhaps this was an hommage to the breath-taking opening of John Dexter’s celebrated Met production, but whatever the inspiration, it was unutterably moving.

COC Music Director Johannes Debus helmed an electrifying musico-dramatic performance. There was not a beat that was not charged with emotional weight or propulsive motion. Even moments of comparative repose, like the great set piece for the New Prioress, were rife with subtext and theatrical truth. The splendid orchestra outdid themselves on this occasion, whether hurling out searing dissonances, trumpeting assembled masses into the action onstage, or melting our hearts with poignant solo and ensemble playing of caressing delicacy. Maestro Debus elicited the most haunting, affecting rendition of Poulenc’s masterpiece I have ever heard, gut-wrenching yet radiantly redemptive. And best of all, Johannes inspired a well-matched cast to true greatness.

Local favorites figured prominently in three of the leads. Isabel Bayrakdarian brought uncommonly fine insights to the conflicted Blanche. Her clearly projected soprano may have lost a bit (but only a bit) of the ethereal sheen I experienced with her Melisande a few years ago, but Ms. B. traded it for a mature presence and penetrating thrust that mined all the dramatic potential of the role. I cannot believe I have missed ever hearing the acclaimed soprano Adrianne Pieczonka before, but her Mme. Lidoine was a revelation. Ms. P. lavished the New Prioress with a mellifluous spinto that was evenly, lusciously produced throughout the range. Hers is a major vocal talent.

Veteran Judith Forst offered a beautifully judged Mme. De Croissy, as mesmerizing an Old Prioress as you are likely to encounter. She not only knows every subtlety of the role but also, Ms. Forst’s powerful mezzo is happily still abundantly fresh, and cleanly produced with clarion delivery. Her every phrase is knowingly delivered like the pro she is. For her efforts, Judith arguably scored the evening’s most heartfelt ovation. Hélène Guilmette proved another of the show’s highlights as a radiant Constance. Ms. Guilmette’s warm, substantial soprano has an engaging youthful glow to be sure, but also boasts an underlying mettle that brings more than an ounce of starch to the usual Pollyanna. Irina Mishura brought a searing delivery and fierce commitment to Mother Marie, and was a fine complement to the other, more controlled vocal portraits. But Ms. Mishura might watch pushing her sizable mezzo to such volumes at high pitches that it instills a slight wobble.

In the featured men’s roles, Frédéric Antoun discovered much variety and motivation in the Chevalier de la Force. His beautifully rounded characterization impressed as he paired it with his smooth, secure, polished tenor. Jean-François Lapointe used his noble baritone and regal bearing to good end as the Marquis de la Force. And the important part of the Chaplain was sympathetically served by Michael Colvin‘s reliable tenor.

But Carmelites conquered all before it as a sum total of its considerable parts, and could serve as a model of what miracles can happen when everything and everyone goes thrillingly right. I had similar high hopes for David Alden’s intriguing concept for Lucia di Lammermoor. Mr. Alden set the action in a crumbling Victorian mansion/sanatorium. His research had discovered that in the period, such hospitals actually had auditoria with theatrical stages upon which hysterical patients might ‘act up’ for morbidly curious onlookers. This historic fascination with compromised lives and coping with adversity is not unlike popular fascination with say, The Biggest Loser, or So You Think You Can Dance. (“Oh, what a terrible tragedy, what a horrible time you have had, I can’t bear to hear it. But tell us some more.”)

There is no question that there is great dramatic potential in this proposition for an exploration of Lucia. Unfortunately, this good theory proved to be ineffective theatre since the team didn’t quite mine it correctly. Indeed, when first we meet Lucia, somewhat comatose and propped up sitting on the “stage,” for Regnava nel silenzio, she already seems unbalanced. Make that Beyond the Valley of Unbalanced. So where can she go from there? Remember the film The Shining when Jack Nicholson was obviously unhinged from the git-go? Well, similarly, from her first loopy appearance we would not have been at all surprised if Lucy had suddenly wielded an axe, chopped a door down, and intoned “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny.” (Or “Giovanni,” if you’re a purist.)

Edgardo-and-Lucia.gifStephen Costello as Edgardo and Anna Christy as Lucia

Then there was Enrico’s unrelenting malevolence. Alden unquestionably presented some provocative scenarios involving bondage, physical abuse and incest but they would have been all the more absorbing had they had been delivered with a modicum of restraint. The presentation of Enrico as diabolically evil was carried through to his contempt for Edgardo, as evidenced by his wringing his neck in the final bars just “to make sure” he is dead. (Can you spell “sledgehammer,” David?) At least Edgardo is allowed to react to this poor treatment (well, except when he’s dead, of course). Poor Lucia doesn’t even resist being tied to a bed, react to being hurled to the ground, or protest as her brother paws her private parts.

Charles Edwards’ setting, an ashen, decaying asylum becomes wearying to look at in short order, even when the director has chorus members enter the room in the first scene by crawling through the windows from outdoors. Structural and spatial inconsistencies are the order of the day, such as when Raimondo points straight forward to the audience to announce the arrival of the mad Lucy when in fact she is far upstage behind the assembled forces.

I didn’t so much mind the turbulent storm scene which found Edgardo perched on an island of cockeyed stairs center stage, and with a bare bulb light fixture and ragged drapes being maniacally buffeted by the wind. Adam Silverman’s effective lighting (and lightening) came into its own here (as recreated by Andrew Cutbush). A case was furthered that the chorus (well schooled by Sandra Horst) was a group of impassive, observant “family portraits” but then they broke illogically from their stony gawking at the wedding party only to revert to their staring when the murderous Lucia appeared.

For the most part, the gifted Brigitte Reiffenstuel contributed meaningful costume designs with the exception of the misjudged all-white suit for Arturo. The performer was way too tall and way too portly for the get-up which unfortunately suggested Baby Huey. This came to a bad end when the dispatched Arturo shared “the stage” with Lucia for the Mad Scene. When the two of them execute what amounts to a pratfall in a moment of silence (don’t ask), the effect is unintentionally comic.

And then suddenly, the graveyard effect was astounding in its effectiveness, using chairs and propped up portraits to chillingly create head stones. At last a visual that really resonates. It made me reflect anew on the great promise of the concept, and the opportunity missed. Happily, the musical side of the equation was once again stellar. Indeed, if audience response is any indication, two stars were born this day.

Edgardo is role notorious for making or breaking a promising (or even seasoned) tenor. Young Stephen Costello may have been ‘just’ at his limit at times, but what a dazzling limit it was! Mr. Costello has a wide-ranging instrument and a well-grounded technique. His tone is not in the bright, Pavarotti mode, but it is sturdy, distinctive, and mellow. Stephen was comfortably secure and full on the cruelly sustained, impassioned top. He successfully internalized the lad’s plight, and his heartfelt rendition of Tombe degli avi miei was cheered to the rafters, stopping the show with a thunderous ovation.

The audience was no less vocal about celebrating the accomplishment of Brian Mulligan, the best Enrico of my experience. His virile, vibrant baritone has real Italianate snarl and bite, and he finesses his phrases with polish and panache. Mr. Mulligan thins out his production ever so slightly to negotiate the very top, but his entire range is fluid, connected, and solid.

The lovely Anna Christy brings many gifts to bear as the doomed heroine. So let’s get this Elephant-in-the-Auditorium out of the way: Is she Joan, or Beverly, or Maria, or Edita? No. But even if she is not the larger-than-life, once-in-a-decade superstar that others have been in this role, Ms. Christy is highly effective as a womanly, accurate, limpid, affecting soprano. She is definitely not helped by confusing blocking, and the imposition of a passive face as a characterization tool. Although Anna does most everything right, the bravura seems to have been knocked out of her. This is also exacerbated by the use of the eerie glass harmonica in the Mad Scene instead of the more brilliant flute. Our soprano might consider taking more modest high note options since her sustained singing in alt tended to veer just off the pitch. But all in all, Anna Christy’s conscientious work was a solid achievement.

As Raimondo, Oren Gradus was not shy about showing off a big burly bass sound, but the pressed legato occasionally lumbers and held notes in the upper range sometimes have a tendency to spread. Mr. Gradus sympathetically wears his interpretive heart on his sleeve, but a little restraint might round out the few rough edges. Sasha Djihanian dispatched Alisa’s interjections with a clear, poised tone and added depth to the sextet. Nathaniel Peake also contributed clean, firm vocalizing as Arturo. In the pit, conductor Stephen Lord led a taut, meaningful reading that was stylistically sound and supportive of the singers. Maestro Lord clearly knows every nook and cranny of the score and elicited a wonderfully detailed performance from his instrumentalists, all the while beautifully partnering the vocalists.

It is a puzzle to me why COC felt the need to revive director Atom Egoyan’s take on Salome not once, but twice in its recent history. Was there really a public desire to experience this curiosity again and again? Or was it just expedient because the company owns it and well, at least Atom is Canadian?

Whatever the reason, and whatever might have once been fresh about this vision, for this viewer at least, the third time did not prove the charm. For all of its striving to be ‘different’ and trendy, Derek McLane’s set design is not only maddeningly non-specific, but (sorry) downright ugly. A large platform fills the stage, raked from right (high) to left (low), with a subterranean space (instead of a cistern) under the stage right portion. There are unattractive, non-descript high walls with openings for entrances. A swing hangs from the flies right of center and a catwalk spans the overhead front of the playing space.

But just where are we? Is it an asylum? The Mayo Clinic? A lounge at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre? A warehouse? Cirque du Soleil? The furniture gives no definitive clues, although some of Catherine Zuber’s confusing costumes lead us to believe that the Jews are white-coated doctors. Or are they inmates? Who can say? Other costumes seem out of some Hollywood Heyday, especially Herodias who looks like a mature Joan Crawford got up in a Seventies awards show gown and big hair. The Page is not a boy at all (unless “he” is cross-dressing) but is in a sort of woman’s business suit to match Narraboth’s get-up. Salome at least is in a rather non-descript timeless white schmatte.

Not trusting that Strauss knew what he was doing, Phillip Barker devised an endless display of unpleasant projections to distract us, including a repellent live close-up of Jochanaan’s mouth as he spewed his off-stage invectives. This trumped the visual of a woman’s rotting corpse that started the show. But was not as bad as the elimination of the actual ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ by substitution of a video and shadow show.

For it, a long white train gets attached to Salome’s costume as the dance music begins. The young woman sits in the swing and it becomes a trapeze that lifts her in the air until she disappears in the loft as extras spread the cloth to form a giant, stage-filling screen. A very creepy home movie is shown, I guess depicting Salome as a young contemporary girl, and implying impending sexual abuse. Then, cross fade to spotlights upstage that make a shadow of several dancers who flail and grind, enacting a scene of rape and debauchery. Oh, and some trees appear. And disappear. And re-appear. And did I mention flailing? Serge Bennathan is credited with the choreography and Clea Minaker with the shadow design. Rarely have I seen so much effort to so little truthful dramatic effect.

Did I mention that the Jews gave Herod an injection of some drug prior to this, I suppose meant to provoke this hoopla as an ‘hallunciation’? Or that Herodias kind of just got stuck on stage meandering and hovering with no real placement or motivation? She got her due, though. After the beheading is ordered and a strapping executioner curiously wobble-walks across the stage, Herodias empties a huge glass bowl of its peaches, and follows the head-chopper under the stage with not only the bowl but also her very own scimitar. She herself jubilantly emerges with head in bowl and raises it above her own head to platform level to pass it on to the Princess.

Salome_1670_COC.gifHanna Schwarz as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome

Salome’s final great scene is not staged particularly well, or more correctly, Michael Whitfield’s lighting design disappoints. Specific directions like the changeability of the murky moon and specifically, its illuminating ray that suddenly shows the girl in all her depravity prompting Herod to command her death, were ignored. For all the gloom and doom and quirkiness of the other design elements, the lighting was blandly vanilla. The stellar cast nevertheless made a gripping enough effect.

Erika Sunnegårdh has an ideal vocal quality for the title role. Her petite frame and enigmatic physiognomy were wedded to a pure, strong soprano that soared effortlessly above the orchestra and raised goose bumps in the final arching phrases. Her middle range is marginally less ample, and stronger enunciation of the consonants might serve her better, but there is nothing about the demanding part that eludes her total command. Hannah Schwarz made an imperiously beautiful Herodias and sang with real distinction and power, perhaps too much power. It seemed at times like the mezzo, at the end of a long and distinguished career, seemed out to prove that she still had it. Hannah, ya still got it and then some, so you could relax a little! Richard Margison sports a tenor of real quality and his appealing Herod was sung-not-barked, but it must be said his German (especially umlauts) was a but squishy at times.

Alan Held was simply tremendous as the Baptist, his imposing bass-baritone ringing out with galvanizing force, yet remaining warm and pliant. Mr. Held just sounded pretty damn’ thrilling. Nathaniel Peake’s substantial lyric tenor gave pleasure as Narraboth, although perhaps not as much 'pleasure' as he was getting from the Page who gave him oral 'service' right up until he shot himself in the head. Maya Lahyani’s Page gamely did what was asked of her, and she sang with rich, ripe tone to boot. First Nazarene Craig Irvin and Second Nazarene Owen McCausland were remarkably fine, making the most of their brief scene and capturing our attention with their beautifully judged singing.

That Strauss puts extreme demands on his orchestra goes without saying and the impressive COC orchestra did not disappoint. Johannes Debus exerted admirable control and exquisite balance between pit and stage. The trade off for all that clean, controlled playing is that there seeemed a constraint on the orchestral contribution to the evening’s drama, a slight deficit of shimmer and grit. When the talented Maestro next takes on Salome, I might encourage him to lose just a bit of the “control” and surrender more completely to Strauss’s powerful effects of “shock and awe.”

James Sohre


Cast and production information:

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Marquis de la Force: Jean-François Lapointe; Chevalier de la Force: Frédéric Antoun; Blanche de la Force: Isabel Bayrakdarian; Thierry/Monsieur Javelinot: Doug McNaughton; Mme. De Croissy (First Prioress): Judith Forst; Sister Constance: Hélène Guilmette; Mother Marie: Irina Mishura; Mme. Lidoine (Second Prioress): Adrianne Pieczonka; Chaplain: Michael Colvin; Sister Mathilde: Rihab Chaieb; First Commissioner: Christopher Enns; Second Commissioner: Evan Boyer; Mother Jeanne: Megan Latham; Officer: Cameron McPhail; A Voice: Claire de Sévigné; Jailer: Peter Barrett; Conductor: Johannes Debus; Director: Robert Carsen; Associate Director: Didier Kersten; Set Design: Michael Levine; Costume Design: Falk Bauer; Lighting Design: Jean Kalman, recreated by Cor van den Brink

Lucia di Lammermoor

Normanno: Adam Luther; Enrico: Brian Mulligan; Raimondo: Oren Gradus; Lucia: Anna Christy; Alisa: Sasha Djihanian; Edgardo: Stephen Costello; Arturo: Nathaniel Peake; Conductor: Stephen Lord; Director: David Alden; Associate Director: Ian Rutherford; Set Design: Charles Edwards; Costume Design: Brigitte Reiffenstuel; Lighting Design: Adam Silverman, recreated by Andrew Cutbush; Chorus Master: Sandra Horst

Salome

Narraboth: Nathaniel Peake; Page of Herodias: Maya Lahyani; First Soldier: Evan Boyer; Second Soldier: Sam Handley; Jochanaan: Alan Held; Cappadocian: Neil Craighead; Salome: Erika Sunnegårdh; Slave: Claire de Sévigné; Herodias: Hanna Schwarz; Herod: Richard Margison; First Jew: Adrian Thompson; Second Jew: Michael Colvin; Third Jew: Michael Barrett; Fourth Jew: Adam Luther; Fifth Jew: Jeremy Milner; First Nazarene: Craig Irvin; Second Nazarene: Owen McCausland; Conductor: Johannes Debus; Director: Atom Egoyan; Set Deign: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design: Michael Whitfield; Projections Design: Phillip Barker; Choreographer: Serge Bennathan; Shadow Designer: Clea Minaker

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Carmelites_0150_COC.gif
image_description=(Centre, L - R) Jean-François Lapointe as Marquis de la Force, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force and Frédéric Antoun as Chevalier de la Force [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company]

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product_title=Toronto’s Triple Success
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: (Centre, L - R) Jean-François Lapointe as Marquis de la Force, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force and Frédéric Antoun as Chevalier de la Force

Photos by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company

Posted by james_s at 12:19 PM

Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore

Alessandro Scarlatti was a tremendously prolific composer of the Italian era after Cavalli and before Vivaldi and Handel, famous throughout Italy, then soon forgotten. In this period, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (it is convenient to recall that his son, Domenico, the keyboard virtuoso, was born the same year as Handel and Bach in the generation of Vivaldi and Telemann), Venice had half a dozen theaters playing opera several nights a week (more during Carnival), and the demand for new work to fill them was insatiable. The other major cities of the disunited peninsula had their own theaters, their own traditions, their own composers—but Scarlatti moved about in search of commissions and a regular income to support his large family. He is remembered as a “Neapolitan” composer, perhaps because most of his manuscripts turned up in the Naples Conservatory, but he was far more international than that. Venice and Naples were capitals of very different states.

How large were these theaters? Not very. None of them belonged to the city; private landowners, usually noblemen, built them and rented them out to impresarios, who hired the musicians and produced the operas. You couldn’t easily light a large theater (wax drips, you know) and the tiny orchestras could not easily drown out audience chatter. In the great serious operas, chatter would cease when a famous singer expressed a special emotion in melody, but for nightly entertainment something lighter might be called for.

Comic stories were silly, romantic, predictable, the personalities taken from commedia dell’arte more fallible, less high-minded than the serious, heroic ones whom they often parodied, and the voices were expected to be serviceable if not top-flight. Opera buffa was a step down, and major singers did not take it. Did the lighter operas pay the composer as well as the serious ones? That’s a question I cannot answer. Certainly Scarlatti eagerly accepted both sorts of commission, and so did Pergolesi in Naples and Telemann in Hamburg. (Cavalli, as you will recall, intermingled comic scenes with serious ones in his narratives … but that style was out of fashion, though it is more immediately interesting to us today.) Handel probably would have set comic libretti, but he decamped to London—where comic foolery did not play in foreign tongues. His mature operas with comic stories are therefore constructed on a “serious” model: Serse, Partenope, Alessandro. Agrippina, with its old-fashioned mix of serious and comic characters, was composed during the sojourn in Venice when he met the Scarlattis.

Underworld Productions Opera has just given the New York premiere of Scarlatti’s 1718 opera buffa, Il Trionfo dell’Onore, which may or may not be typical of the comic output of the day. (Winton Dean says Scarlatti was stylistically eccentric, which appeals more to us than it did to the regular audience of his own time.) What stood out for me in this light piece was the way conflicts developed by way of duets rather than the, occasionally tedious serious manner of aria succeeding aria. This is a manner I had thought the invention of Mozart, Paisiello and Rossini, but here were are, a century before Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and two ladies display their personality in a duet of apparent sympathy while confiding to us that they are both in love with the same rogue and hate each other accordingly. We also have love duets of many varieties, from gentlemanly seductions (the lady flirtatious or sarcastic in response) to heartfelt recriminations.

In the cast at the Leonard Nimoy/Thalia, the men did not please as much as the women did, though all of them proved adept at conveying the casual yet emotional nature of romantic comedy. The two gentleman seducers who set the plot rolling were written for those irresistible figures, women in drag (think: Cherubino). In Venice, castrati were reserved for more upscale, heroic opera, while in the Papal States they were expected to play all the women, actual women being forbidden to set foot on the stage. (Lecherous old ladies were often played by men in drag, in any key at all.) Modern opera companies may do as they like in such matters, and what they tend to do is make use of whatever talent is on hand. The show must go on.

Thus we had Eric S. Brenner, a thin-voiced countertenor, as Riccardo, the scamp who neglects his fiancée Leonora to pursue her friend Doralice, ignoring her betrothal to Leonora’s brother, Erminio. Erminio was sung by a mezzo, Stephanie McGuire, so effectively ardent that I thought her, too, a countertenor. Maria Todaro, who has a deep alto of impressive quality, sang the heartbroken Leonora, and was quite humorous displaying her dark tones in sarcastic asides with Elise Jablow’s naïve, sweetly sung Doralice. Catherine Leech sang Rosina, a pert servant, with that combination of mischief and sentiment that we associate with Mozart’s Susanna, as she resisted the advances of both Riccardo’s lecherous uncle (dry-voiced Christopher Preston Thompson) and Riccardo’s bombastic friend Rodimarte (a bumptious baritone, Stephen Lavonier), and sighed to no avail for Ms. McGuire’s Erminio. Briana Sakamoto completed the cast as the elderly innkeeper with designs on the uncle who is after her servant. Somehow four happy couples evolved by the conclusion, though one wouldn’t predict happy marriages for many of the eight. Nor does one foresee major careers for most of these voices (I’d like to hear Ms. Todaro again), but their zesty performances and lack of top-flight pretension give us, perhaps, a more precise notion of the light musical theater derived from antique commedia that got audiences joyously through an evening out in 1718 when the regatta teams weren’t out playing water polo. How very enjoyable to encounter such a thing in New York in 2013!

John Yohalem


Production and cast information:

Riccardo: Eric S. Brenner; Bombarda: Stephen Lavonier; Leonora: Maria Todaro; Cornelia: Briana Sakamoto; Rosina: Catherine Leech; Flaminio: Christopher Preston Thompson; Doralice: Elise Jablow; Ermino: Stephanie McGuire. Sinfonia New York under Dorian Komanoff Bandy. Underworld Productions. At the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater. Performance of May 22.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/trionfo_image.gif image_description=Illustration by Underworld Productions Opera product=yes product_title=Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore product_by=A review by John Yohalem product_id=Above: Illustration by Underworld Productions Opera
Posted by Gary at 11:53 AM

Handel’s Rodrigo by Operamission

Myth focuses, as myths do, not on dull defects of administration but on the morals of Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king. A youthful usurper in any case, he was also said to have seduced a certain Florinda, whose father, Julian, governor of Ceuta across in Africa, invited the Moors, newly converted to Islam, to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and avenge the girl’s honor. They did, in a way.

Was there really a Florinda? A Julian? We don’t know, but the story evolved into several operas, most recently Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo , which introduced a young tenor named Domingo to the New York City Opera forty years back. Handel set the story in 1707, merely the second of his forty surviving operas and the first written on his apprentice visit to Italy. In his version, treacherous Rodrigo, inspired by his noble, long-suffering wife, Esilena, abdicates in favor of Florinda’s child, and there is no Arab invasion to clutter the happy ending called for by opera seria convention. Autres temps, autres Moors?

Operamission, which last year presented the New York premiere of Handel’s first surviving opera, the German-language Almira, in a sparkling, astonishing run of performances (the work will be given by the Boston Early Music Festival in June), gave the American premiere of Rodrigo in May. The libretto, a rather tatterdemalion affair with several bits missing (Handel used to cut whole numbers from old operas when he required a last-minute substitution in some newer work), is a twisty skeleton on which the singers must build dramatic excitement. Emotions of love, revenge, conceit and abrupt magnanimity provide the vocal opportunities, and the subtle orchestral accompaniments are varied and surprising.

The through line is Rodrigo: He has sinned and must pay, but subjects should not raise their hands against their king no matter the provocation. (They do anyway for most of Act II.) While fighting them, Rodrigo must achieve his own self-conquest. It’s a pity his first aria is missing: We have the text, in which he advises Florinda to revel in the memory of the pleasures they have shared. Rodrigo’s pride prepares us for his comeuppance, and it would have been interesting to hear Handel depict such unlikely sentiments. Instead, we open (after a very long dance-y overture) with Florinda in a fury, which will remain unappeased till the final scene, when her lover is deposed, her son enthroned and a new lover swears devotion. Florinda’s rage drives the plot every time anyone is willing to compromise, but she’s not the prima donna, a position held by Rodrigo’s sublime wife.

The lobby of the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street is divided into two parts by a curtain, and conversation by the elevators often intrudes on the musical half, while the performance space tests the inventiveness of the company and the tolerance of the audience. This may not be unlike conditions in the small, noisy, candlelit private opera houses of Handel’s time. Operamission also provided no sets or costumes to speak of. The tableaux of Rodrigo’s libretto are more easily placed than were the confusions of Almira last year, and the audience was seated around the room with the fourteen musicians of the Handel Band, led by violinist Joan Plana in the center. The band included baroque oboes, bassoon, cello and bass—there were no brasses in the score, but oboes ingeniously stand in for them in typically Handelian martial numbers. This closeness made the whole score more interesting, intelligible accompaniment: You could distinguish the separate parts chosen to signal different emotions in a way that a modern covered theater pit tends to obscure.

Rodrigo calls for six singers and fully half of them were castrati at the premiere in Florence. Today these roles go to countertenors, and at the Operamission performances, one marveled at the variety of them now singing professionally. Nicholas Tamagna, the Rodrigo, burst onto the scene with a brilliant, trumpet-flavored sound that immediately signaled: I’m the leading man. Tamagna’s brashness set us up to be surprised by the superb melancholy of his singing of later scenes as the king’s fortunes declined and fell. This is a wonderful voice that has delighted me on many occasions, its soft colors as appealing as the brassy ones, and he is a fine actor, but on this occasion his singing was not infrequently a bit below pitch. Christopher Newcomer, as his opponent Evanco (who ends up with Florinda), has a thinner, more soprano sound that ran out of steam in the last act where Handel cruelly assigns him four arias to express a range of gloat and amorous satisfaction. Daniel Bubeck sang the two-aria role of Fernando, a general, with an alto of such sensuous quality that one regretted he was a fighter, not a lover. He was also the only singer of the night who gave us something like a genuine trill. Everyone in the cast could manage Handelian passagework brilliantly, a skill in demand for any church singing, but baroque opera calls for other ornaments as well.

Madeline Bender brought a dark, chesty soprano to the fumious Florinda. She had the full flood of sound for wrath but the baroque repertory seems an uncomfortable fit for her vocal character and her ornamentation was uneven. I’d peg her for the romantic repertory, where the emotions are just as intense and she can let herself go. Dísella Lárusdóttir, the bright-voiced Woglinde in the Met’s recent Ring, sang Esilena, Rodrigo’s long-suffering queen, the largest role in the opera, which may explain why she sang from the score all night, as other singers did occasionally. (Was rehearsal time too brief?) Her soprano made a nice contrast with Bender’s, more metallic and focused, and she does wonderful slow-swelling tones to express her sighs of sympathy and renunciation. But pathetic emotions did not allow much scope to the brightness of her upper register, and when she did ascend to the stratosphere, pitch became wayward. Too, her Italian could use polishing.

John Carlo Pierce, the Giuliano (Florinda’s brother not her father in this version), had the ungrateful tenor role, the lowest in the opera. Handel tenors tend to sound grainy, less heroic or appealing than the tenor protagonists the nineteenth century would invent as their romantic leads, but Pierce has a most agreeable sound, phrased beautifully and ornamented with force and charm.

Jennifer Peterson, who played harpsichord continuo and prompted the singers, devised the edition used on this occasion, a decent realization of imperfect manuscript survivals, and Jeff Caldwell directed the clear but rather sketchy acting. Peterson has spoken of hoping to go right through the Handel operatic canon, a venture that has frustrated previous companies. Her first task, it would seem to me, is to find a more dedicated venue, perhaps a larger one—word of mouth sold out the last of the three performances of Rodrigo.

John Yohalem


Click here for production photos.

Cast and production information:

Esilena: Dísella Lárusdóttir; Florinda: Madeline Bender; Rodrigo: Nicholas Tamagna; Giuliano: John Carlo Pierce; Evanco: Christopher Newcomer; Fernando: Daniel Bubeck. Operamission Handel Band conducted by Joan Plana. At the Gershwin Hotel. New York City. Performance of May 23.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/rodrigo_operamission.gif image_description=Rodrigo [Illustration by Tomi Um] product=yes product_title=Handel’s Rodrigo by Operamission product_by=A review by John Yohalem product_id=Above: Rodrigo [Illustration by Tomi Um]
Posted by Gary at 11:21 AM

“Marriage” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic

It all began with an original French play, titled La Folle Journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (A  Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), written by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais in 1773. The work,which was not produced until 1778, had strong political and social overtones, which helped disseminate the concepts of equality and individual rights, that led to the French revolution. Note, however, that at during the period that Beaumarchais was writing his plays, he was also employed by both Louis XV and XVI for secret missions in London.  There are numerous sources for information about Beaumarchais' amorous adventures.  For his life as a secret agent, see the CIA's (unclassified) web page titled “Beaumarchais and the American Revolution.” 

Lorenzo Da Ponte, the poet, who wrote the Italian libretto, was also a man given to wanderings and strange connections.  An ex-Jew, and ex-priest, who had been banished from Venice for licentious behavior, not only did he know Mozart, Casanova and Clement C, Moore (of The Night Before Christmas fame), but Samuel F. B Morse, inventor of the telegraph painted the poet's portrait, which once hung in Columbia University.  Da Ponte's autobiography which describes some of his lurid adventures, is not completely to be trusted.

CTM-8844.gifRachel Frenkel as Cherubino and Malin Christensson as Susanna

It was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who proposed using the Beaumarchais play as an opera libretto to Da Ponte, with the stipulation that the harsh political overtones be removed.  Professor Robert Greenberg considers The Marriage of Figaro, which is Mozart's most popular opera, “among the greatest achievements of artistic striving.” Following their collaboration for The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte produced two more works, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.

While it is not unusual for an opera company to plan Mozart/Da Ponte festivals, it is  extraordinary for an orchestra housed in a concert hall to undertake the task.  Even more extraordinary are the lengths and expense to which the Los Angeles Orchestra has gone to produce these performances.  The installation and sets for Don Giovanni, which they offered last year, were created by architect Frank Gehry, who had designed the Disney Concert Hall.  Fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, created the costumes.  This year, presumably in honor of  Beaumarchais and the opera's Gallic origins, Jean Nouvel, a French architect created the performance area and Parisian based designer Azzedine Alaïa designed the costumes.  Both operas were directed by Christopher Alden. 

Don Giovanni was set on a narrow strip of stage in an all white, galactic looking universe. The  orchestra was behind the stage, so that singers had to follow the conductors beat on monitors.  Nouvel created a deeper stage in a rich maroon color  At the rear, a staircase rose toward the organ.  The stage surface wound around a newly created orchestra  pit to form an apron that allowed for interaction between performers and instrumentalists - and even with the conductor.   This, in fact, provided some moments of fun, which sadly, was often lacking on stage. 

This was a musically superb Marriage of Figaro.  In direct eye contact with the singers as well as the orchestra, Maestro Dudamel conducted a brilliant performance with the fluidity and precision that Mozart demands.  While he hadn't used a score for Don Giovanni, he did employ one for the Marriage of Figaro, at least for the performance I attended on May 19th.   The large, well chosen cast made for additional musical pleasure.  Baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer was an unusually lustrous voiced, though angry Figaro.  Swedish soprano, Malin Christensson's shimmering Susanna was pert and charming.  As the Countess, soprano Dorothea Röschmann, known world-wide for the role, made her two great arias testaments to her character's deep sorrow.  Christopher Maltman was a suave, elegant, and seductive Count, and Rachel Frenkel offered a charmingly confused Cherubino.  John Del Carlo and Ann Murray, as Bartolo and Marcellina were luxury casting as a pair of unsuccessful plotters, turned loving parents.  William Ferguson, who sang Basilio, and Simone Osborne, as Barbarina, as well as John Irvin and Brandon Cedel, were all excellent.  The Los Angeles Master Chorale was a pleasant but almost invisible presence curtained off high and far behind the stage.

CTM-8946.gifChristopher Maltman as the Count and Dorothea Röschmann as the Countess

While Mozart was well served by the orchestra and singers, our two witty, humanist librettists were not.  When, as the fizzy overture was still being played, the cast wandered onto the stage at a languid, funereal pace. I should have known that this was not to be an entertaining, much less funny theater piece.  The stage though large, was essentially an empty space with no exits or entrances, no place to hide.  Artfully arranged lighting created shaded places, generally on the floor, to which singers retreated in various positions until called upon to sing once again.  In the last act, there were three such bodies on the floor, making the scene appear more like the end of Shakespearean tragedy than an  operatic farce.  One could read titles, and hear voices, but often could not locate the singers.  Figaro sang his teasing, “non piu andrai” to the audience, standing on the apron to left of the conductor.  Meanwhile, Cherubino to whom the words are addressed stood at rigid attention far behind him and the orchestra.  The famous comedic chair scene was performed without a chair or comedy.  I have no idea what the costumer had in mind.  At one point Susanna in a short skirt with cascading blond hair, looked like Alice straight out of Wonderland.  And when she wore her elegant white wedding dress, Figaro, beside her, wore a tight fitting zipped to the neck sweater, looking for all the world like a president about to deliver a fire side chat.  As in last year'sDon Giovanni, the English titles told the audience   things they didn't see.  It was impossible even for knowledgeable opera goers to follow the action, particularly in the garden scene. 

For all its visual failings, however, this staging of The Marriage of Figaro, was more successful than the Don Giovanni.  The use of the large stage improved sight lines.  Placing the orchestra in a pit allowed for freer music making.   Perhaps next year's Così fan tutte, will be ther lucky third that gets it all right.

Estelle Gilson


Production and cast information:

Figaro: Edwin Crossley-Mercer; Susanna: Malin Christensson; Bartolo: John Del Carlo; Marcellina: Ann Murray; Cherubino: Rachel Frenkel; Don Basilio: William Freguson; Count Almaviva: Christopher Maltman; Countess Almaviva: Dorothea Röschmann; Antonio: Brandon Cedel; Don Curzio: John Irvin; Barbarina: Simone Osborne. Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gustavo Dudamel, conductor. Christopher Alden, director. Jean Nouvel, installations. Azzedine Alaïa, costume design. Aaron Black, lighting design.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PY7C2474.gif image_description=Malin Christensson as Susanna and Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Figaro [Photo by Craig T. Mathew & Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging] product=yes product_title=“Marriage” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson product_id=Above: Malin Christensson as Susanna and Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Figaro

Photos by Craig T. Mathew & Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging
Posted by E_Gilson at 11:12 AM

Tales from Ovid: Classical Opera

performing in several central London venues — the Wigmore Hall, King’s Place and the Barbican — and continuing their admirable work in developing opportunities for young singers and instrumentalists, and extending audiences’ awareness of this lesser-known repertoire.

I have attended several such well-assembled and assuredly delivered performances at the Wigmore Hall, the latest of which presented a selection of instrumental and vocal works united under the umbrella, Tales from Ovid.

We began with a substantial orchestral opener — Dittersdorf’s Symphony in F major, ‘The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus’, one of six of surviving symphonies by the composer which were inspired by specific tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The performance was noteworthy for the beautifully cantabile oboe solos of James Eastaway, particularly in the Larghetto third movement where the phrases and cadences were exquisitely shaped, and the appoggiaturas were milked for all they were worth! Indeed, the decorative gestures throughout this movement were movingly executed, and the gentle glow of muted strings and horns was tenderly demonstrative. Page shaped the lively second movement effectively, building gradually to the vigorous entry of the bright, vibrant horns. The ensemble was excellent throughout.

The operatic contribution in the first half of the concert was an excerpt from Act Three of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice: the sequence of numbers leading to the renowned ‘Che farò’. Anna Devin, confidently singing ‘off-the-score’, was an engaging Euridice. She convincingly located a range of emotions from indignation to defiance, from doubt to hope; ‘Che fiero momento!’ (‘What cruel moment’) was characterised by emotional impact, the woodwind shaping an affecting dialogue with the voice, the strings producing a focused timbre. The phrase “Vacillo, tremo” (“I sway, I tremble”) was fittingly unsettling and impassioned, full of driving energy. As Orfeo, countertenor Christopher Ainslie was less secure: the register seemed a little too high for comfort, and as Ainslie worked hard in the accompanied recitative to convey the nuances of the text, the tone became rather shrill and strained. He found a sweeter lightness, however, in the culminating aria and the gracefully shaped lines conveyed Orfeo’s vulnerability and bewilderment.

The overture and a scene from Haydn’s Philemon und Baucis followed after the interval, Devin (singing the roles of Baucis and Narcissa) now partnered by tenor Benjamin Hulett (Aret). Written in 1773 for the marionette theatre at the Esterházy palace, Philemon und Baucis did not survive in complete form — possibly the victim of nineteenth-century taste or of a theatre fire — and has been reconstructed from an extant singspiel version. It takes the form of arias and duets, sung by six marionette characters, framed by spoken dialogue; the libretto is undistinguished but the music charming.

And, there was quite a lot of music before we got to the singing. The brisk fiddle playing and punchy horn outbursts in the overture (somewhat dubiously attributed to Haydn) depicted the thunderstorm which kills Aret — the son of the peasant couple, Philemon and Baucis — and his fiancée, Narcissa, on their wedding day. Despite their grief, the old couple offer hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury who have come to earth disguised as pilgrims (cue another instrumental interlude) and in return the gods transform the funeral urns into an arbour of roses — the bucolic reliquary musically depicted in a suitably pastoral idiom.

Inside the floral dell, the lost couple are restored to life. Aret’s aria of reawakening established a quiet mood of musical enchantment, the unusual timbre — solo oboe, muted triplets and pizzicato from the two groups of violins above a firm bass — enhancing the sense of uniqueness and preciousness. Hulett’s pronunciation of the text was clear but never mannered, the gentle lyricism revealing his sense of wonderment and tentative but blossoming joy at the miracle which has occurred. Then, together, Aret and Narcissa celebrate their reunion and pledge eternal devotion; in this joyous, invigorating duet, ‘Entflohn ist nun der Schlummer’ (‘The slumber has now departed’), the crystal clear soprano of Devin blended beautifully with Hulett’s mellifluous tenor in shared ardency and joy.

Part Three of Mozart’s first opera, Apollo and Hyacinthus, concluded the programme. Hyacinthus, mortally wounded by Apollo’s discus which has been deliberately blown off course by Zephyrus, has just identified his killer to his father, Oebalus (Hulett) before expiring. Oebalus and his daughter Melia (Devin) sing of their grief, their outpouring so moving Apollo (Ainslie) that he turns the dead boy’s body into a flower, the hyacinth, (with its distinctive marking, ‘Ai’, an exclamation of anguish in the ancient world). Apollo then reaffirms his love for Melia and the three sing a hymn of praise that their forthcoming marriage may bring restoration and good blessings.

Hulett was excellent in his rage aria, expressing his fury at the murder of his son with forceful projection and accurate, supple coloratura, matched by incisive violin playing. He joined once again with Devin in their duet of mourning; their melancholy was eloquently expressed, the lines intricately crafted, the sighing appoggiaturas and chromatic inflections perfectly judged. The gentle undulations and pizzicato of the accompaniment was a perfect bed for the opulently entwining voices, and for the affecting violin solo which opened and closed the duet. Ainslie now found a more delicate tone, fitting for the young Apollo; the final Trio was exuberant and elevating.

Musically and technically, Classical Opera offered much to admire; and, judging from the near-capacity audience’s generous ovation the company certainly has a band of loyal and idolatrous fans. But, one is tempted to ask, if Page truly believes in this repertory — not only in its musical worth but also its theatrical credibility — then should such conviction not be demonstrated on the operatic stage rather in the concert hall or in the recording studio?

In some respects, Michael Maloney’s overly thespian declamation between the movements of the Dittersdorf symphony and before the opera scenes were the most explicitly dramatic aspect of the evening — and they were, in fact, redundant, since the programme outlined the mythical context and narrative in some detail and provided the text of the sung numbers. The audience is sufficiently well-informed and competent to assimilate such written information with their aural experience of the music.

Snippets and bite-sized chunks might offer melodic charm, instrumental colours might appeal and seduce, but ultimately such works need to be ‘tested’ in the theatre; only complete staged performances will ensure their incorporation into the ‘operatic canon’ and their longevity. Otherwise, the company might as well rename itself the ‘Classical Themed-Concert-Performance Company’. That said, musical standards were typically high, and we can only hope that Page gives us the opportunity to enjoy more theatrical presentations of this lovely repertoire soon.

Claire Seymour


Production and cast information:

Dittersdorf: Symphony in F, ‘The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus’; Gluck: ‘Scene from Act Three of Orfeo ed Euridice; Hadyn: Overture and Scene from Philemon und Baucis; Mozart: Part Three of Apollo and Hyacinthus]. Anna Devin: soprano; Christopher Ainslie: countertenor; Benjamin Hulett: tenor; Michael Maloney: reader; The Orchestra of Classical Opera (leader Matthew Truscott); Ian Page: conductor. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 20th May 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ovid-355x3551.gif image_description=Tales of Ovid [Image by The Classical Opera] product=yes product_title=Tales from Ovid: Classical Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Tales of Ovid [Image by The Classical Opera]
Posted by Gary at 10:05 AM

May 25, 2013

Baltimore Premieres Camelot Requiem

Grief is the word that came to mind during the world premiere of composer Joshua Bornfield and librettist Caitlin Vincent’s original opera, Camelot Requiem. In May of 2013, the Spire Series at the First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, observed the fiftieth anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy by presenting a work dealing with the 1963 assassination. The librettist is the Artistic Director of The Figaro Project, a group formed to promote local artists and affordable opera. The two-act work, which incorporates a Requiem Mass, was performed with a six-piece orchestra from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University School of Music was conducted by Blair Skinner. The cast, also from Peabody, included: Caitlin Vincent as Jacqueline Kennedy, Nathan Wyatt as Robert Kennedy, Alex Rosen as Lyndon Johnson, Lisa Perry as Lady Bird Johnson, Jeremy Hirsch as Dr. Burkley, Kate Jackman as Nurse Hutton, and Stephen Campbell as the Reverend Oscar L. Huber.

The opera depicted the horror of the time with a powerful musical performance punctuated with dissonance and silence. Taylor Boykins, a first year Peabody student who was at the performance, said, “The text is raw - kind of graphic.” The opening chords sent shivers down my spine when they combined with the ringing of bells and chanting. As Jacqueline Kennedy, Vincent was costumed in a bright pink suit, matching pillbox hat and bloodstained white gloves. With her dark hair and attractive demeanor, she resembled the first lady as her lush sound soared above the musical depiction of the events that took place at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Texas and the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Bornfield had unleashed his composition on a potent libretto.

Through the thunderous performances of Wyatt as Robert F. Kennedy and Rosen as L. B. J., the audience got a glimpse of the transfer of presidential power in the midst of the nation’s emotional shock following the assassination. Andrew Posner, 20, an undergraduate composition student of at Peabody said that Bornfield’s style was unique and his orchestration fantastic. Vincent drafted the libretto in October 2011 from three poems she had written from Mrs. Kennedy’s perspective on the day of her husband’s death. She developed one of them, entitled Rose, into a melancholy aria. To obtain her material, she researched oral interviews, Lady Bird’s personal diary and condolence letters sent to Mrs. Kennedy. When operagoers arrived at the church and they were handed programs and reproductions of sympathy notes sent to Mrs. Kennedy from around the world.

While the action moved on and off the church altar, the deliberate cacophony, bursting harmonies, and the magnificent baritone voice of Wyatt as RFK convinced the audience that a “New Frontier” was imminent. Perry as Lady Bird offered relief from the tension by infusing the opera with a warm and casual 1970’s song. Conductor Skinner, a DMA candidate at the Peabody, said that when you have a piece of music that no one has heard before and ten individual voices, each of which does something individualistic, the process is grueling but the hard work makes the effort extremely rewarding. Jackman as Nurse Patricia Hutton expressed emotional intensity with the weight of her soothing mezzo-soprano voice. As Mrs. Kennedy, Vincent sang that she would like to wake up from this nightmare. Her sorrow came across to the audience when she sang that she would rather die with her Jack than live without him. The final Lux Aeterna, sung by the cast from the balcony to Mrs. Kennedy who was standing below, left audience feeling comforted by angels.

Maureen L. Mitchell

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Camelot-Requiem-1.gif
image_description=Photograph by Britt Olsen-Ecker

product=yes
product_title=Baltimore Premieres Camelot Requiem
product_by=A review by Maureen L. Mitchell
product_id=Above: Photograph by Britt Olsen-Ecker

Posted by maria_n at 10:38 AM

May 22, 2013

Domingo Conducts Holdridge’s New Opera Dulce Rosa

Dulce Rosa, a brand new opera, had its world premiere Friday night, May 17, 2013 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. It was produced by Los Angeles Opera, but staged in the smaller theater. The opera is based on Isabel Allende’s short story, Una Venganza, (An Act of Vengeance). She wrote it some thirty years ago, at a time when people were attempting to understand the Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that causes hostages to have positive feelings toward their captors. The opera’s heroine, Dulce Rosa, is raped by a Tadeo Cespedes, a high-ranking soldier who kept her alive during an invasion when other women were being killed. Rosa’s father was going to kill her himself, but she promised him that she would wreak vengeance on her abusers if she was allowed to live.

Eventually, she developed some affectionate feelings for Tadeo, despite her attempts to dispel them. Sometime before her ordeal she had become engaged to Tomas, a medical student who went to the United States to study. Returning after the war, he wants to marry her but she gives him back his ring. When she shows her preference for Tadeo, Tomas pulls out a gun and aims for the soldier but kills Rosa. Actually, in Allende’s original, Rosa commits suicide, but librettist and stage director Richard Sparks changed it for the opera. It is a sad story from Latin America in the 1950s, but its dramatic situations work very well onstage. Sparks did not ask the singers to do very much acting and there really could have been a great deal more action, but the story was well told and the music was delightful.

Composer Lee Holdridge has written a tonal, melodic opera with an interesting, complex orchestration. Holdridge is obviously a follower of Puccini. His music is a little bit like that of the late Daniel Catan, but with a stronger string component. Interspersed in the drama is some affecting Church music that adds solemnity and historical context, while offering a bit of respite from the drama. Most of the scenery for the production was composed of Jenny Okun’s projections which were focused on a simple arch with two upper windows designed by Yael Pardess. She projected the lush scenery of a South American spring, stained glass church windows, the devastation of war and the beginning of a post-war rebirth. Anne Militello’s lighting designs added greatly to the ambience seen on stage. Durinda Wood’s costumes were a mixture of Latin American folk dress, army uniforms, and 1950s street and formal clothing.

The most important aspect of this performance was the singing. Uruguayan soprano Maria Antúnez not only has sterling silver high notes, she also has a warm, creamy middle register. Tall and slim, she was a most believable Rosa. In truth, she is an excellent new artist whom I hope to hear in other roles as well. Greg Fedderly, whose voice seems to have grown as of late, was Rosa’s overbearing father. In Act I his tones were warm and his nature inviting. When he returned as a ghost in Act II, he was an avenging angel who even threatened his daughter. Like many starring sopranos, Rosa has a mezzo-soprano companion. Sung passionately by Peabody Southwell, Inez not only provided pleasant harmonies, but also an occasional Allende one-liner.

Warm voiced tenor, Benjamin Bliss, soon to sing Alfredo in La Traviata, was the disappointed fiancé who returns to find that his Rosa has become an entirely different person. Dark voiced Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza was the sexy bad boy who eventually won Rosa’s heart. He made Tadeo an intriguing character and probably won a few hearts in the audience as well. In the middle of war and conflict of emotions, the politician Aguilar, sung and acted most effectively by Craig Colclough, played both sides against each other and gained high office. His character was one we know all too well. Grant Gershon’s chorus was usually heard singing Holdridge’s charming Church music. Plácido Domingo conducted the moderate sized orchestra, bringing out Holdridge’s complex, nuanced melodies and the dramatic tonal language that supported Sparks’ text. Although the performances in Santa Monica are sung in English, a Spanish translation will soon be ready. Dulce Rosa is at the Broad Stage through June seventh.

Maria Nockin


Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/SwR1225.gif
image_description=Maria Antunez as Rosa and Alfredo Daza as Tadeo [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera]

product=yes
product_title=Domingo Conducts Holdridge’s New Opera Dulce Rosa
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Maria Antunez as Rosa and Alfredo Daza as Tadeo [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera]

Posted by maria_n at 12:42 PM

Verdi’s Falstaff at Glyndebourne

In Ultz’s recreation of post-war Windsor — a fitting setting for a year in which we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation — suburban mock-Tudor has replaced the genuine article but it’s a familiar world populated, much as in the historic past, by down-on-their-luck aristocrats and aspiring social climbers. There are nods forwards as well as backwards: the regimented cabbage plots amid the middle-class semis call to mind that prior ‘age of austerity’, when the ‘Dig For Victory’ mentality was as common as ‘Grow Your Own’ economising is today.

We begin in a rather genteel, wood-panelled local saloon bar, The Garter Inn; a portrait of George VI and an extravagantly antlered stag’s head oversee proceedings — a reminder of the class tensions and cuckoldry which will disturb the bourgeois complacency. Centre-stage sprawls Falstaff, ardently typing amorous missives, audaciously and insouciantly adding to his alcohol tab, and flamboyantly issuing commands to his senseless sidekicks, Bardolfo and Pistola.

Laurent Naouri’s Sir John is imposingly wide of girth — thanks to an impressive fat-suit — and generously resounding of voice. His authoritative bellow vanquishes complaints from his snivelling underlings; with beguiling tone, he serenades and courts the ladies. There is no doubting his haughty bumptiousness and Naouri emphasises his essential aristocratic dignity. But, at times this Falstaff is overly curmudgeonly, aggrieved that others do not recognise his ‘nobility’ — an anachronistic note in 1950s England — and his irritability and crabbiness do not endear him. Naouri is light on his feet, despite the prodigious abdominal encumbrance, and can neatly execute a dainty flounce. But, while the voice is sweet and enticing, this Falstaff lacks a certain wicked sparkle in the eye and the debonair charm that might win a feminine heart regardless of his physical decrepitude. Falstaff should be both dignified and vulgar, both arrogant and aware of his own coarseness and comic crassness — he should laugh at himself, so that we can laugh with him.

Part of the problem is Jones’ uncharacteristic lack of attention to comic detail and gesture; there are a few neat touches — the faux leave-taking courtesies of Ford and Falstaff, the obsequious pleading for forgiveness of the perfidious Bardolfo and Pistola, the tidal wave which bursts through the Fords’ front window when Falstaff tumbles from the window ledge and belly-flops into the Thames — but most of the audience laughter was prompted by the surtitles rather than the stage action itself (excepting the feline wriggles of the furry puppet adorning the Garter’s bar-top). The lengthy pauses between scenes, necessitated by some hefty scene-shifting, further diminished the comic briskness. The sets themselves are neat and credible, and troupes of rowing eights and girl guides add to the period feel — although they have little relevance to the drama itself. Three such scouts cross-stitch the local panorama across the front cloth before curtain-up, but it’s stretching things somewhat to ask us to imagine that they have won their needlepoint brownie badges creating a tapestry screen of Windsor Castle to adorn Alice Ford’s morning room. The latter is rather sparsely decorated, leaving few opportunities for chaotic concealment in what should be a farcical man-hunt for the lascivious Falstaff during his lecherous assignation in Act 2.

falstaff-4680.gifElena Tsallagova, Ailyn Perez, Susanne Resmark and Lucia Cirillo

The huge oak in the final scene is impressively anthropomorphic and, swathed in unnatural colours by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, casts eerie, dancing shadows. But, the scene is poorly choreographed, the stage overly cluttered, and the ghoulish, lurid Halloween costumes — bought, presumably, at the high-street Joke Shop depicted in the previous scene — sported by the boy scouts and brownies are at odds with the Shakespearean mood of enchantment and magic. More ‘trick or treat’ than Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ultimately, these flaws in the staging do not overly trouble us, for there is not a single weak link in the cast. Making her Glyndebourne debut, American soprano Ailyn Pérez was a self-possessed and spirited Alice Ford. Never histrionic but always secure in her self-belief, Pérez’ golden voice soared lyrically; at times slyly coy, she commanded the stage with ease. Susanne Resmark as Mistress Quickly, purposefully attired in an Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform, demonstrated masterly comic timing, particularly in her scenes with Falstaff — tongue-firmly-in-cheek, she relished the ironic resonances of the mocking salutation, ‘with respect’.

Russian baritone Roman Burdenko was a proud, indignant Ford; Falstaff may be the one with the title, but Burdenko’s powerful yet elegant delivery left no doubt about his own sense of entitlement. In this production, Fenton is a GI, and the Italian tenor, Antonio Poli exuded freshness and optimism, although he was surpassed in graceful airiness by Elena Tsallagova as Nanetta, whose angelic faerie supplication in Act 3 was the musical highlight of the evening. Lucia Cirillo was a fiery Meg; Graham Clark as Dr Caius, and Colin Judson and Paolo Battaglia — Bardolfo and Pistola respectively — completed the fine line-up.

Conducting much of the score from memory, Mark Elder led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a crisp but warm account, alert to every detail and unfailingly conjuring deft musical humour even when the stage action was less buoyant. The sombre, slightly melancholic tone of the natural horns coupled with the darker gut string timbre, made for an unusual but convincing musical colour. There was much fine playing and the instrumentalists fully captured the conviviality and essential geniality of the work; they richly deserved their ovation.

Claire Seymour


Click here for a podcast relating to this production.

Cast and production information:

Falstaff: Laurent Naouri; Alice Ford: Ailyn Pérez; Ford: Roman Burdenko; Meg Page: Lucia Cirillo; Mistress Quickly: Susanne Resmark; Nannetta: Elena Tsallagova; Fenton: Antonio Poli; Dr Cajus: Graham Clark; Bardolfo: Colin Judson; Pistola: Paolo Battaglia; Conductor Mark Elder; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; The Glyndebourne Chorus; Director Richard Jones; Revival Director Sarah Fahie; Designer Ultz; Lighting Designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. Glyndebourne Festival, Sunday, 19th May 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/falstaff-2442%20%281%29.gif image_description=Laurent Naouri in Falstaff, Festival 2013. Photo Tristram Kenton product=yes product_title=Verdi’s Falstaff at Glyndebourne product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Laurent Naouri

Photos by Tristram Kenton courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival
Posted by Gary at 12:38 PM

May 21, 2013

Gareth John, Wigmore Hall

This Wigmore Hall recital, with pianist Matthew Fletcher, presented a varied programme and revealed a confident and technically accomplished performer.

We began with Schubert, four settings of Mayrhofer and one by Heine which share a ‘watery’ theme. Fletcher’s exuberant opening hurled us straight into the wind and storm of ‘Der Schiffer’ (‘The Skipper’) as the protagonist battles with the teaming rain and lashing waves. John’s strong voice was a more than equal match for the turbulent weather and waves; the tone was, however, rather unyielding at times and it took a little while for the intonation to settle. In ‘Der Strom’ (‘The Stream’), the baritone used the text effectively, the expression ardent and moving. Best of the bunch was ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’ (‘How Ulfru fishes’); here John found a wider tonal palette which he used to inject drama into the battle of wits between man and fish. Some intelligent, controlled rubato in the final stanza initiated a more meditative mood, as the poet-speaker reflects on the brevity and unpredictability of life: “Die Erde ist gewaltig schön,/ Doch sicher ist sie nicht” (“The world is certainly beautiful/, But safe, it is not”).

Fletcher was alert to textural details and the accompaniment enhanced both the mood and the narrative of the poetry. In ‘Auf der Donau’ the rapid left-hand motifs were deftly articulated, imitating the rippling waves, while at the close a more lyrical mood captured the prevailing melancholy and vulnerability.

A well-shaped performance of ‘Nachtstck’ (‘Nocturne’) concluded the Schubert sequence, throughout which John’s accurate delivery of the text was exemplary. He produced a consistently clear vocal line too. It’s a big voice, and a warm one, with a very full, rich sound; the tone is evenly sustained across the range, with exceptionally focused lower register. Now, more diversity of tone, colour and weight would add even greater nuance and depth.

An earnest, urgent reading of ‘Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze!’ (‘How lovely to love in spring!’) initiated a series of songs by Johannes Brahms. The powerful assertion of this opening song contrasted with the poignant softness of the yearning lover’s reflection, “Keine Ferne kann es heilen,/ Nu rein holder Blick von dir” (“No distance can heal it,/ Only a loving glance from you”) in ‘And den Mond’ (‘To the moon’), where the rich shimmering accompaniment effectively delineated the silvery, shimmering rays of the moon.

‘Minnelied’ (‘Love Song’) and ‘Willst du, daß ich geh’?’ (‘Do you want me to go?’) were both characterised by fervour and passion, the vocal phrases well-crafted, the accompaniment full of drama and energy. In contrast, ‘Geheimnis’ (‘Secret’) was wonderfully tender, John using registral contrasts to exploit different colours which were complemented by the arpeggiated accompaniment. The performers captured the folk-like simplicity of ‘Sonntag’ (‘Sunday’), making much of the brief, pianissimo twist to the minor mode. The final stanza of ‘Da unten im Tale’ was similarly poignant and contemplative, as the poet-speaker poignantly wishes his former love farewell: “Un I wünsch, daß dir’s anderswo/ Besser mag gehn” (“And wish that elsewhere/ You might fare better”).

The second half of the recital moved from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, beginning with Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, a set of three songs (‘Chanson romanesque’, ‘chanson épique’ and ‘chanson à boire’). This was the last work that Ravel completed before his death in 1937. Each song employs a different Spanish dance rhythm to portray Don Quixote as first a noble lover, then a devout soldier and finally a raucous, rabble-rousing drinker. Fletcher’s accompaniment was full of Iberian fluidity and charm, although John’s French was less idiomatic than his flawless German and his voice a little too weighty and unbending to capture the spontaneity and impulsiveness of the madcap Quixote.

John’s rendering of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel was a noteworthy element of his winning Kathleen Ferrier Award performance, and to conclude the programme he offered an incisive and vigorous account of these R.L. Stevenson settings, one which consistently emphasised the freshness of the texts. ‘The Vagabond’ established a driving momentum, but in ‘Let Beauty Awake’ John’s vocal line unfolded more gently above the piano’s arabesques. The final verse of ‘The Roadside Fire’ was delightfully expansive, as the traveller reflects on the private moments that he and his beloved will share: “And this shall be for music when no one else is near,/ The fine song for singing, the rare song tor hear.”

An uplifting airiness characterised ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’, the supple undulations of the accompaniment creating a magical soundscape suggesting the “Uncountable angel stars/ Showering sorrow and light”. John conveyed a true sense of enchantment and wonder in the final lines: “Til lo! I looked in the dusk / And a star had come down to me.” The strophic repetitions of ‘Wither Must I Wander?’ reminded us of the headlong march of the opening song, but here the journey onwards was tinged with sadness in recognition that while “Spring shall come, come again”, for the traveller the past will never be re-visited: “But I go for ever and come again no more.” John countered this sorrow in the following ‘Bright’, the declamation of the title word ringing with hope and positivity. The concluding ‘I have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope’, with its arioso recollections of fragments of the preceding songs, brought the recital to an affecting, moving close.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

Schubert: ‘Der Schiffer’, ‘Auf der Donau’, ‘Der Strom’, ‘Das Dischermädchen’, ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’, ‘Nachtstück’; Brahms: Fünf Gesänge Op.71, ‘Sonntag’, selection from 49 Deutsche Volkslieder; Ravel: Don Quichotte à Dulcinée; Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel. Gareth John, baritone; Matthew Fletcher piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday, 16th May 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Gareth_John.gif image_description=Gareth Brynmor John - Baritone [Photo courtesy of the artist] product=yes product_title=Gareth John, Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Gareth Brynmor John - Baritone [Photo courtesy of the artist]
Posted by Gary at 12:39 PM

La bohème at ENO

Miller has often been over-praised, particularly by those ‘of a certain age’, apparently unaware or unwilling to accept that the world has moved on from the 1960s of their youth; indeed, Miller’s Royal Opera Così fan tutte is not simply bad, but one of the most objectionable stagings I have seen of anything. This Bohème, whilst hardly groundbreaking, does its job reasonably enough. For some reason, the action is updated to the Paris of the 1930s. Beyond imparting a certain cinematic quality — though not necessarily nearly so much as Miller and his designer, Isabella Bywater seem to think it does — it is not clear what is gained, but nor for that matter is a great deal lost. An individual’s fondness for the photography of George Brassaï does not in itself seem to me justification for a production, but anyway... The characters are for well directed on stage, for which revival director, Natascha Metherell should doubtless receive much of the credit. (Both Metherell and Miller appeared on stage to take a bow.) Occasionally, I wondered whether the action were a little too prey to domestification of the wrong way; the meeting between Rodolfo and Mimì is decidedly low-key, more akin to a neighbourhood watch meeting than an ignition of passion. However, the selfishness of ‘Bohemian’ youth comes across at least as strongly as I can recall upon other occasions: are not these boys to some extent playing at poverty, whilst Mimì’s suffering is the real thing?

Described in the publicity blurb as a ‘cast of young British talent’, that is for the most part what it is. I have little patience with those who castigate ENO — or Covent Garden, for that matter — for ‘failing to promote British artists’. The arts world has, let us be grateful, yet to capitulate to the insidious yet hysterical nationalism pervading much of our political class and media. What we want are singers, artists in general, who are good, and preferably more than that. With the exception of Gwyn Hughes Jones, we did pretty well. Though his Rodolfo improved somewhat during the third and fourth acts, and was not without sensitivity, there was too much that was simply crude, almost an allegedly ‘Italianate’ parody, or strangely faceless. The vacuum extended to stage presence too; it would have been well-nigh impossible to believe in him as a Romantic lead. Kate Valentine’s Mimì, on the other hand, was a credit to her and to ENO. Nobility of spirit was allied to sterling, necessary musical values of phrasing and tonal variegation. It was a delight to make the acquaintance of the charismatic American singer, the splendidly named Angel Blue (an exception in terms of nationality, but certainly not quality). She sang as well as she acted, holding the stage without effort, imparting both ‘artistic’ superiority to Musetta as singer and, increasingly, warm humanity to her as woman. Richard Burkhard’s Marcello impressed too, as did the excellently sung — and acted — Colline of Andrew Craig Brown and Schaunard of Duncan Rock. It was a pity that Simon Butteriss over-acted — ‘silly voice’ rather than expression of the text through singing — in the role of Benoit; maybe he was doing so under orders. A greater pity was the banality of Amanda Holden’s translation; making Puccini sound satisfactory in English is not the easiest of tasks, but too often, a tin ear revealed itself in the straightforward incompatibility of words and vocal line.

Oleg Caetani made a very welcome return to the Coliseum. His direction of the ENO Orchestra was splendid, rich in tone — sometimes, a little more, alla Daniele Gatti, would have been appreciated there, but then Gatti, last summer, had the Vienna Philharmonic — but above all, dramatically alert. Temptations to linger, to sentimentalise, were eschewed, without draining the drama of its lifeblood. Wagnerisms — I noticed some especially Tristan-esque progressions — and modernisms were not necessarily underlined, yet, given Caetani’s ear for balance and line, caught one’s ear nevertheless. I should love one day to hear a properly modernistic Bohème — or Tosca. This was not it, but refusal to play to the gallery, and underlining of solid, yet certainly not stolid, musical virtues proved a great relief for a work in which superficial gloss can all too readily hold sway. Choral singing and direction of the chorus also proved estimable throughout.

Mark Berry


Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

Cast and production information:

Marcello: Richard Burkhard; Rodolfo: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Colline: Andrew Craig Brown; Schaunard: Duncan Rock; Benoit: Simon Butteriss; Mimì: Kate Valentine; Parpignol: Philip Daggett; Musetta: Angel Blue; Alcindoro: Simon Butteriss; Policeman: Paul Sheehan; Foreman; Andrew Tinkler. Jonathan Miller (director); Natascha Metherell (revival director); Isabella Bywater (designs); Jean Kalman, Kevin Sleep (lighting). Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis) of the English National Opera/Oleg Caetani (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 29.4.2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ENO_Boheme01.gif image_description=Richard Burkhard, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Kate Valentine, Duncan Rock, Andrew Craig Brown (L-R) [Photo by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La bohème product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Richard Burkhard, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Kate Valentine, Duncan Rock, Andrew Craig Brown (L-R) [Photo by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera]
Posted by Gary at 11:15 AM

Rolando Villazón: Verdi (International Opera Stars Series 2013)

Add these two factors together and the result is a 15-day tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Guerassim Voronkov, presenting a combination of lyric and dramatic numbers which largely eschews the ‘popular hits’ in favour of the less familiar Verdian territory.

The selection has been carefully chosen to avoid potential technical pitfalls and reveal Villazón’s diversity and dramatic assurance. Each aria or scena in this engaging performance was individualised and differentiated — in terms of both musical characterisation and dramatic tone; all were marked by intelligence, composure and much vocal beauty. Villazón may have lost some of the warm lustre and ease which characterised his voice prior to his pre-2009 operation, but he is still capable of producing some lovely shading of the top notes and spinning a wonderfully long line.

Following a well-shaped, deft performance of the overture to Nabucco, Villazón began with the relatively brief cavatina, ‘La mia letizia infondere’ from I Lombardi alla prima crociata. Despite its succinctness, Villazón left us in no doubt of the readiness and ease with which he can adopt a persona — like an actor slipping on a hat or coat to indicate a change of role — and, although the performance was fairly reserved and contained (we’d been pre-warned that he was suffering from a slight cold) the voice was agile and bright.

The Act 3 scena from Il Corsaro, ‘Eccomi prigioniero!’, afforded more space for vocal expansion and dramatic development, moving from an intense accompanied recitative as the imprisoned Corrado laments his lost dreams, to a lyrical outpouring of poignant disillusionment as he realises that his visions of freedom are simply dreams. Here, the pulsing orchestral motifs, echoed in the tenor’s voice which trembled with emotion, presented a complementary contrast to Karen Stephenson’s affecting cello solo. There was both lingering pain in Corrado’s recognition of his own “vane lusinghe!” (“flattering delusions”), and muscular assertion in his desire for the body to be granted a moment’s rest.

Verdi’s output is almost wholly operatic — even the Requiem is dramatic in essence and effect — but in both 1838 and 1845, the composer published sets of six songs for voice and piano, eight of which were later orchestrated by Luciano Berio. In ‘Il mistero’, which tells of a lover’s hidden passions, Villazón combined long-breathed lines with buoyancy and forward motion, although at times the rather dense orchestral textures and pedal points absorbed the voice in its middle to lower registers. The final phrase, “Chè alimento da sè stesso/ Prende amore in nobil cor” (“Because love feeds itself in a noble heart”) was heart-breakingly tender and sweet.

An urgent, nimble rendering of the overture from Luisa Miller — noteworthy for the clarity of the clarinet and flute solos, and for striking dynamic and textural contrasts — was followed by ‘Quando le sere al placido’ which Villazón infused with sustained burning emotion and drama, demonstrating confident breath control.

The ‘Preludio’ to Otello opened the second half, Voronkov drawing, as throughout the evening, a precise account from his players, one characterised by a diverse expressive range and well-crafted overall form. With ‘Ciel, che feci … Ciel pietoso’ from Oberto, Villazón began to relax, building Riccardo’s aria to a powerful climax in the central lines, “Ah no! l’ultimo lament/ è del misero che muor” (“Ah no! These are the last lamenting tones of the wretched man dying”), a full-hearted outpouring of anguished guilt and regret following the duel which kills the eponymous protagonist. After the tenor’s convincing and moving expression of genuine remorse, the legato celli arpeggiation brought some sense of ease as Riccardo prays for pardon for his murderous act.

The concluding number, the rarely heard ‘L’esule’, confirmed — if it were necessary — Villazón’s ability to build broad structures and sustain a firm line, losing nothing of the vibrancy and impact within the longer, substantial form.

Three encores, including a beer-swilling brindisi, allowed the effervescent tenor to indulge in some hyperactive acknowledgement of the audience’s adulation — Villazón leapt about like an irrepressible jack-in-a-box, roses were strewn far and wide, and a female violinist was waltzed from the stage! Jolly japes which seemed to go down well with the tenor’s affectionate fans.

So, having presented ‘The Genius Of Verdi’ on BBC television just five days previously, Villazón now offers us, ‘The Gifts of Villazón’: singer, actor, entertainer, communicator. His passionate belief in this music was evident from the start, and he communicated this conviction with unfailing directness and immediacy. Villazón has recently explained: ’for me the most important reason why he remains modern and popular is because he wanted to reach his audience. He did not want to impress his listeners; he did not try to gain the acceptance and praise of musicologists or critics. His goal was always to serve the drama, to give music to the feelings of his characters and above all, to move us.’ He might well have been describing himself.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

Overture, Nabucco; ‘La mia letizia infondere’ from I Lombardi; Prelude, I masnadieri; ‘Eccomi prigioniero!’ from Il corsaro; ‘Il mistero’ from 8 Romances for tenor and orchestra (orch. Berio); Overture, ‘Quando le sere al placido’ from Luisa Miller; Prelude, Otello; ‘Ciel, che feci!’ from Oberto; Baletti. ‘O figli, o figli miei!’, ‘Ah,la paterna mano’ from Macbeth; Overture, I vespri siciliani; ‘Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata’, ‘L’esule’ from 8 Romances for tenor and orchestra (orch. Berio), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre London, Wednesday, 15th May 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Villazon.png image_description=Rolando Villazón [Photo © Gabo / Deutsche Grammophon] product=yes product_title=Rolando Villazón: Verdi (International Opera Stars Series 2013) product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Rolando Villazón [Photo © Gabo / Deutsche Grammophon]
Posted by Gary at 9:30 AM

May 20, 2013

Brahms Third in San Francisco

It was an extraordinary evening at the opera, a perfect mise en scène (none) for San Francisco’s tyrannical maestro. The 70 member orchestra sat huddled in a black void and sang in one magnificent voice Brahms’ most lyrical symphony, its colors shining as never before, its moods of turgid Brahmsian contentment translocated into luminescent, metaphysical Latin lyricism.

It was opera, and this was understood by the audience who felt each movement as an extended aria, and unabashedly applauded each movement in unbridled appreciation of great singing. It was symphony as opera, the fifty-year-old composer spinning this famous yarn of contentment, its thematic play subsumed into joy of performance. Bel canto indeed.

The maestro can sometimes, even often be accused of imposing excessive drama, but Brahms offers him very little of it to manipulate. Thus the musical excess — and there was plenty of it — was limited to expected extreme tempo alterations and cantabile melodic exaggerations that illuminated and transfixed more than distorted an Alpine pastoral lyricism. Though it seemed a subdued Luisotti it was still a possessed Luisotti, a powerful conductor with a unique voice.

The Opera orchestra is known to be a very able ensemble, after all it performs the most difficult orchestral scores that exist. The sludgy sound of the War Memorial Opera House prevents perception of the beauty of its sound, sounds that until now we could only imagine. Though Zellerbach Hall is a dowdy acoustical space — the sound at first had a cavernous quality but once accepted it permitted the winds of the orchestra to sing with a beauty of tone reminiscent of the Vienna Philharmonic (yes, really it’s true). What the strings may lack in clarity of tone they make up in boldness, and this alone defines and qualifies this ensemble as a truly dramatic orchestra.

It was an evening of orchestral drama. Not least of which was the Nino Rota 1962 Piano Concerto in C major. Not much of Italian Fascist musical culture is around these days, but its heroic post-Romanticism certainly informed composer Rota’s musical formation and aspiration. Add this to the heady filmic creativity at mid-century Cinecitta and you have the sense of this musical relic. It challenged elegant French pianist Aldo Ciccolini at its premiere in 1987 but was a-piece-of-cake just now for 34 year-old Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese (no relationship to Licia).

Dressed in formal wear with scarlet spats young Albanese visually startled, and then attacked the American Steinway with the confidence of a finished post-Boulez virtuoso and a highly intelligent contemporary musician. Like Luisotti pianist Albanese was possessed by the music, the mechanics of the score and its execution played out physically and intellectually in full view, or let us say a vista. It was pure theater of musical performance. Mr. Albanese is also Professor of Philosophy at the University of Messina where he teaches the “methodology of musical communication.”

The Rota concerto was Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky but more so it was the myriad moods that composer Rota mined for films ranging from 8 1/2 to Godfather. These moods were often conversations between the piano and an instrument of the orchestra, raptly and rapturously executed in an atmosphere of absolute artistic collaboration imposed by the maestro.

The audience roared (yes, it was a vocal opera audience), and brought Albanese back for curtain calls. But two were enough for these lovers of voices. Never mind. This determined artist came back unsummoned to perform four encores — to our great pleasure! The highlights were Scriabin’s Left Hand Nocturne played with his downstage arm (the right one) hanging limply, and a version (showers of notes) of Gershwin’s song The Man I Love created by American piano virtuoso Earl Wilde.

Conductor Luisotti opened the program with Puccini’s 1883 Capriccio Sinfonico. From this early work Puccini literally recycled the flashier moments to La boheme (1896) and even Suor Angelica (1918). It served as a perfect, amusing overture to the evening.

Michael Milenski


image=http://www.operatoday.com/NicolaLuisotti_03.gif
image_description=Nicola Luisotti [Photo by Roger Steen]

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product_title=Brahms Third in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Nicola Luisotti [Photo by Roger Steen]

Posted by michael_m at 8:33 PM

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue on Blu-Ray

Now it is an intriguing second-rank work whose time may have come again. Recent performances have led to recordings under Bertrand de Billy and Leon Botstein, re-releases on classic recordings under Armin Jordan, Gary Bertini, Tony Aubin and Jean Martinon, and now this first Blu-Ray under Stéphane Denève from the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

The music and the production, which I witnessed live in Barcelona, are reproduced faithfully here in high-resolution Blu-Ray quality. Musically, the best thing about it is Denève’s conducting. He manages to convey Dukas’ half-tone mix of Debussy, Wagner and Strauss (all of whom are both quoted and imitated in the score), though he struggles to keep the volume down and achieve the requisite palette of orchestral color. The singing is no more than adequate. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet is committed singer with a large voice, good diction, and stage presence, but her voice is unpleasantly stressed by louder and higher passages in way that grates in an opera where she is continuously on stage. Irish soprano Patricia Barden has made something of a specialty of the Nurse, and she is solid, though shows similar strains. José van Dam delivers a focused, careful performance of the surprisingly short role of Barbe-Bleue; though over 70 at the time of the production, looks more convincing on stage than anyone else. Of the wives, the strongest musically is rising Catalan mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert as Sélysette. Yet all this does not add up to a recording that matches the best CD effort (under Armin Jordan) or even Toscanini’s excerpt.

So the case for seeking out this recording comes down to the production of Claus Guth. Any smart and successful German opera director these days—Guth is both—bends the libretto’s explicit instructions. Most spectators, lacking previous experience with Ariane, will find the result in this case confusing: its sparseness leads to absurd inconsistencies with the libretto. Those with some knowledge of the work, or the time and inclination to think through Guth’s production, may be even more troubled. Guth’s basic interpretive trope is to modernize settings and then to contrast bleak naturalism to individual madness. For him, every libretto contains a hidden Wozzeck longing to get out. This treatment is singularly unsuited to Dukas’ delicate and subtle work.

To see why, a little background is useful. The Nobel-prize winning Belgian Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck—who provided Ariane’s libretto and that of Debussy’s Pelleas—was widely viewed as the greatest Francophone writer of his time. He believed that human emotions and choice are secondary. We are all marionettes driven by silent, slow-moving forces of which we are, at best, semi-conscious. His plays do not portray stark realities, philosophical concepts or madness, but moods, often of feminine melancholy and foreboding. Maeterlinck seeks to capture these deeper forces and moods through deliberately ambiguous symbols, metaphors and rituals couched in sparse French prose-poetry.

The plot, as Maeterlinck and Dukas meant it to be, turns neither on Ariane’s relentless impulse to liberate, nor on the feeble resistance of Barbe-Bleue, but on the fact that his five former wives do not in the end leave their wounded warrior, reactionary though he may be. Not by chance, they are evocatively named Sélysette, Ygraine, Bellangère, Alladine, and Mélisande—all mythic heroines from Maeterlinck’s beloved previous dramas. Nor is it incidental that Dukas serenades them with his most lovely music: the chorus of the daughters of Orlamonde, two sets of jewel variations, the escape from the dungeons, and the finale. The staging and costuming instructions portray them as unique visions. Whether they are real, or just visions of what Ariane might be or thinks they are, is unclear. Yet Maeterlinck and Dukas’s underlying message is clear as it is deliberately ambiguous: the ancient world of richly imaginative private visions and the modern world of public justice and mass equality cannot coexist or even communicate. Those who discover this are not crazy, even if they cannot express precisely why they act as they do. They are just profoundly human.

Guth has no sense of these existential and historical undertones, or he chooses to ignore them in the interest of a chic and topical setting. So Maeterlinck’s medieval castle, with its finely shaded distinctions between gloomy interiors and imaginary vistas of stained glass, forests and the sea, becomes the plain off-white interior of a row house, suggesting an asylum. Barbe-Bleue becomes a suburban psychopath who compensates for his masculine inadequacies by keeping five former wives chained in its cellar. Ariane becomes a woman’s libber who sweeps in with the opening chord proclaiming freedom and independence for all, quickly dominates her new husband, and rescues his prisoners.

The sole reason left for the wives to reject Ariane’s road to freedom in favor of servitude in the hands of a criminal is because they are insane, as indicated by their relentless eye rolling, limb twitching, hair twisting, and clutching of stuffed animals. To assume that fictional characters must be out of their minds to act as they do demonstrates a lack of dramaturgical and cultural imagination. This transforms what is already a subtle and challenging opera into a very long evening indeed.

Andrew Moravcsik

image=http://www.operatoday.com/OpusArteOABD7114D.gif image_description=Opus Arte OABD 7114D [Blu-Ray] product=yes product_title=Paul Dukas: Ariane et Barbe-bleue product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik product_id=Opus Arte OABD 7114D [Blu-Ray] price=$29.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=859428
Posted by Gary at 1:48 PM

May 19, 2013

Glyndebourne: Ariadne auf Naxos

Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. His music is a clue. There are, of course, references to Mozart, but these are prettified and tarted up. Are Strauss and Hofmannsthal suggesting that the Composer courts success rather than art for arts sake? He is, after all, writing for “the richest man in Vienna”. The Music Master (Thomas Allen) clashes with the Major-domo (William Relton), but the firework display takes priority. Ariadne auf Naxos is an indictment of the system..

ariadne_auf_naxos212_0.gifKate Lindsey as the Composer

The Vorspiel and Opera are distinct, but only up to a point. Strauss pits art against artifice, disguising the true, radical meaning of his work behind a veneer of elegant stylization.These are mind games. As Zerbinetta tells the Composer, “Auf dem Theater spiele ich die Kokette, wer sagt, dass mein Herz dabei im Spiele ist? Ich scheine munter und bin doch traurig, gelte für gesellig und bin doch so einsam” (In the theatre I play the coquette. But who says my heart is in the game? I seem cheerful, but I’m sad. I play to the crowd, but I’m so alone”.)

Katharina Thoma’s staging is erudite. Years after the opera was written, firebombs would destroy many German theatres, symbolically wiping out the German opera tradition. Obviously this was nothing in comparison to the destruction wrought by politicians and their philistine followers, but to a man like Strauss, whose world revolved around Dresden and Munich, the bombings were a metaphor for mindless barbarism. “The holiest shrine in the world”, he wrote. “Zerstört!”. Ariadne auf Naxos was written during the First World War. Although Strauss could not foresee the future, as a modern audience, we cannot forget the more destructive war that came after. There are relevant connections between Ariadne auf Naxos and Metamorphosen, which is perhaps Strauss’s most explicit comment on the madness that is war. Until we stop giggling when someone opens his cloak to reveal RAF logos, we have learned nothing.

Strauss’s score gives us other clues. The stock characters reference standard commedia dell’arte where figures are hidden behind masks. Greek myth itself uses archetypes as metaphor. If Ariadne were a “real” person, she’d be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, given her obsessive delusions about Theseus and suicide. She and Bacchus both come from family backgrounds where women have sex with gods and monsters, so they have a lot in common. But what psychiatrist would countenance that? Soile Isokoski sang the glorious aria “Ein Schönes war” so beautifully that we could feel Ariadne’s tragedy as if it were personal and universal. “Und ging im Licht und freute sich des Lebens!” became a brave cry of protest against the hospital where “normal” people don’t understand her extreme personality. Yet like Zerbinetta, Ariadne will not be silenced. In the end, she (sort of) gets what she needs, escaping the mundane world in which she’s trapped into a kind of warped apotheosis of love, death and delusion.

Strauss had mixed feelings about Tristan und Isolde. His own take on the Liebestod is delicously delirious. The references to “drink” is particularly ironic, given that mental hospitals dispense chemical solutions just as Brangäne dispensed a potion that didn’t do what it was supposed to. Strauss writes the nurses’ last song so they have to warble like mad Rhinemaidens, totally uncomprehending what’s going on round them. Against his better instincts, Bacchus (Sergey Skorokhodov) cannot help but succumb. At the end, Thoma’s staging shows the hospital curtains billowing out like the sails of a ship, heading out at last for the freedom of the seas. The “sails” are lit by a red glow. Is this sunset or fire ? Is Valhalla burning ? Or does it suggest Dresden, Munich, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Hamburg or many other cities destroyed since?

Isokoski is one of the great Strauss singers of our time, so it was a pity that the production made more of Laura Claycomb’s one-dimensional Zerbinetta. The part is central to the work as Zerbinetta interacts with the Composer (Kate Lindsey) while the Prima Donna (Soile Isokoski) is too wrapped up in her “role” as mega-star. Ariadne is frigid. Zerbinetta goes to the opposite extreme. Given that Greek myth is full of bestiality and explicit sex, we really should not be alarmed that Zerbinetta, who doesn’t feature in antiquity, is a nympho. Compared with Ariadne’s mother, Zerbinetta is almost healthy. Claycomb is good at being strident and brassy, so if the subtlety in the role didn’t come over well, there was much else in the production to savour. When Claycomb throws off the restraints of the straitjacket, we thrill at the strength of her spirit. It’s a brilliant image, totally in keeping with the meaning of the opera on many levels.

Although the Vorspiel and the Opera are ostensibly separate they are integral to each other. The Composer sings in the first part because he/she’s written a score. But when the Opera actually takes place, the characters transform, as if they’ve taken on lives of their own. Hoffmansthal and Strauss don’t give the Composer anything to sing in the second part. The Composer storms out when he realizes that scores don’t exist in limbo but are changed by circumstances and performance. Hence the psychic creative storm as this bombshell drops. In Thoma’s production, the Composer is struck dumb with the horror that he/she is no longer “in control”. As a successful composer, Strauss knew full well that a score only becomes an opera when it is performed by musicians who think and feel. There is no such thing as “non-interpretation”. Now, Lindsey makes her presence felt through her acting, rather than by her singing, in a thoughtful reversal of roles. The Composer “is” part of the opera, silent or otherwise.

ariadne_auf_naxos144_0.gifThe commedia troupe

Strauss’s score is brilliantly anarchic, extending the idea of multiple levels of reality. The Mozart and commedia dell’arte references jostle with references to Wagner, popular dance tunes and woozy bursts of fantasy. Vladimir Jurowski has a wonderful feel for Strauss’s sense of humour. The brasses of the London Philharmonic Orchestra blare just enough so we can hear the parody, the winds (especially the bassoons) wail like a bunch of mock tubas. The strings reminded me of Strauss’ Metamorphosen. Humour is even more difficult to express in abstract music than more obvious emotions, because by its very nature, it’s quixotic, tilting at the windmills of rigid literalism.

Hence the vignettes, which Thoma stages so well. They break the intensity, injecting an irreverent sense of the absurd. The nymphs, Naiad, Dryad and Echo are mindless, not “carers” so much as nurses who follow rules without question. But how lovingly they are sung and acted by Ana Maria Labin, Adriana Di Paola, and Gabriela Istoc. The Four Comedians, Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Truffaldino and Brighella (Dmitri Vargin, James Kryshak, Torben Jürgens and Andrew Stenson) are even more impressively performed. When they dance, every movement matches perfectly with the music: even their toes are tuned just right. The figures may be “fools” but they’re done with panache and precision. They practically steal the show.

This Glyndebourne Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos has the makings of a classic, once audiences realize how genuinely true it is to the savage wit of Strauss and Hoffmansthal. Ariadne auf Naxos subverts delusion and false images. We need its irreverence more than ever.

Anne Ozorio


For more information, and details of the June 4th broadcast, please see the Glyndebourne Festival website.

Click here for a podcast relating to this production.

Cast and production information:

Prologue: Music Master: Thomas Allen, Major-domo: William Renton, Lackey: Frederick Long, Officer: Stuart Jackson, Composer: Kate Lindsey, Tenor: Sergey Skorokhodov, Wigmaker: Michael Wallace, Zerbinetta: Laura Claycomb, Prima Donna: Soile Isokoski, Dancing Master: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Comedians: Dimitri Vargin, James Kryshak, Torben Jürgens, Andrew Stenson, Piano: Gary Matthewman. O[pera: Naiad: Ana Maria Labin, Dryad: Adriana Di Paola, Echo: Gabriela Istoc, Ariadne: Soile Isokoski, Zerbinetta: Layura Claycomb, Harlequin: Dimitri Vargin, Scaramuccio: James Kryshak, Truffaldino: Torben Jürgens, Brighella: Andrew Stenson, Bacchus: Serghey Skorokhodov. Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Director: Katharina Thoma, Set designer: Julia Müer, Costumes: Irina Bartels, Lighting: Olaf Winter, Movement: Lucy Burge. Glyndebourne Festival, 18th May 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ariadne_auf_naxos617.gif
image_description=Soile Isokoski and Sergey Skorokhodov [Photo by Alastair Muir courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival]

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product_title=Glyndebourne: Ariadne auf Naxos
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Soile Isokoski and Sergey Skorokhodov

Photos by Alastair Muir courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival

Posted by anne_o at 5:32 PM

May 17, 2013

Paris Opera Awards 2013

Mary-Jean O'Doherty is the 1st Prize Winner--Paris Opera Awards 2013. The jury included Sherrill Milnes, Martina Arroyo and Daniel Lipton.

Posted by Gary at 11:05 AM

Michele Mariotti conducts La donna del lago

He has only just turned 34, but has extensive experience. He conducted Rigoletto at the Met. “You know,” he smiles, “the Rat Pack Rigoletto”.

Mariotti grew up in Pesaro, so Rossini’s music is in his genes. “Every summer, I was so excited when the Festival started at the Teatro Rossini. I went to everything I could get to. It was wonderful to be with people like Riccardo Chailly and Claudio Abbado, Leo Nucci and so many great names. I went to rehearsals to see close-up how they worked. I was very young of course, but I could ‘live’ Rossini’s music. That’s why I feel so close to the patois, and care about it so much. If you play Rossini, you understand that you have to find a way into the music through what it means. If you see a dot on the note you know it means playing short, but interpretation is much more. Everything has to be elegant, sweet, swift, evoking the atmosphere. La donna del lago is very Romantic, the closest for me to Guillaume Tell, which for me is Rossini’s greatest masterpiece.”

“The instrumentation is so delicate, so transparent that it’s much harder to conduct than if it were just loud. The orchestra is not just accompaniment. It has to sing with the voices. Rossini wrote more serious opera than comic, and he expresses feelings in a more abstract, intellectual way. The structure is almost completely vertical, not contrapuntal. It can look quite ‘frozen’ in theory, but it’s a very different way of expressing feelings. For example, in the Act Two trio, "Qual pena in me gia desta", Elena and her two suitors are singing short, sharp high C’s. But these notes bear swords!”

“In the ‘King’s aria’, “O fiamma soave”, you can hear that Uberto cannot be a shepherd because the coloratura is so elegant, so royal that only a king could sing like that. He was wearing a disguise as a shepherd, but the people in the audience can hear who he really is.”

Mariotti’s sensitivity to Rossini’s idiom comes from instinct, but is also grounded firmly in formal and structural discipline. “I studied composition at the Conservatorio Rossini in Pesaro, but I didn’t want to be a composer. I wanted to understand the “science”, the technique of composition, so it would help me understand how to conduct. Composers don’t write ‘from God’, they use processes to express themselves. Rossini wrote more serious opera than comic, and he retired from opera soon after Guillaume Tell, so we have to understand that too. He is abstract, more intellectual, though you can’t compare him to Verdi, any more than you can compare Chopin to Bach”.

“I think you have to respect tradition, but you have to respect that not all tradition is good. Sometimes it can kill the character of the music. You have to keep asking yourself questions, because the world is always changing, and we can’t forever do the same things. When a composer finishes writing the score, the opera as a work of art is not finished. Every time it is performed, it lives again in new interpretation. A painting in a museum doesn’t change. But every time you go and look at it, you can see something new. You don’t go with a pencil and change the nose, the eyes or anything like that. But you are looking at it in a different way. In opera, every performance is a new way of listening, because the performers are different, and the situation and the audience are different too. So when I study a score, I need to know the tradition but also understand that there is never only one way to do it”.

“I met Juan Diego Flórez many years ago in Pesaro. With singers like him and Joyce DiDonato, you can always change things and find something new. They are true musicians, who immediately understand what can be done. John Fulljames I met last year in Bologna. He showed me the ideas he had for this production, and I was very happy . He has a good understanding of the meaning of the opera, so his direction comes from the music. You can breathe the spirit of Scotland, you can feel the wind and the waves and the colours. It doesn’t matter if the set is traditional or modern. The direction is modern if it the movements and characters are alive. The most important thing is that the direction is coherent and lets the singers act”.

Michele Mariotti has been the Principal Conductor of the Teatro Communale in Bologna, for six years. He enjoys a strong relationship with the players and is building connections with the community. He has also conducted at the Opera Bastille, the Liceu, in Washington, in Los Angeles and at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. He conducted Bizet Carmen at the Met (“a bit outside my usual repertoire”) in 2011 and conducted the acclaimed Verdi Rigoletto with Piotr Beczala

Yet he has only just turned 34, celebrating his birthday between rehearsals for the Royal Opera House La donna del lago. He’s definitely a rising star, yet comes over in person as sensitive and soft-spoken, most inspired when he talks about music. “For me it is always important to build things by the right steps. A conductor needs more than technical expertise. We need life experience to really understand the meaning of some operas. I don’t conduct Verdi Falstaff, for example. I want to do more symphonic music and more Verdi, Brahms, Strauss, Shostakovich. And Guillaume Tell !

When he’s not making music, Mariotti plays tennis, basketball, and reads and cooks. “Musicians are always thinking about music, how to do this bar better, how to do that tempo….I need to relax and clear my mind. So I think about tomatoes and onions instead”. But cooking is creative. Blending ingredients is a form of art. Like conducting an orchestra, perhaps

Anne Ozorio

Rosssini La donna del lago runs from 17th May to 11th June. For more details, please see the Royal Opera House site.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mariotti_MG_4200.gif
image_description=Michele Mariotti [Photo by Amati Bacciardi (Pesaro) courtesy of Columbia Artists Music]

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product_title=Michele Mariotti conducts La donna del lago
product_by=An interview by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Michele Mariotti [Photo by Amati Bacciardi (Pesaro) courtesy of Columbia Artists Music]

Posted by anne_o at 6:09 AM

May 16, 2013

Lohengrin, Bayreuth 2010 Live

First performance: Weimar, 28 August 1850

Characters
Role Voice type
Lohengrin tenor
Elsa of Brabant soprano
Ortrud, Telramund's wife dramatic soprano or mezzo-soprano
Friedrich of Telramund, a Count of Brabant baritone
Heinrich der Vogler (Henry the Fowler) bass
The King's Herald baritone
Four Noblemen of Brabant tenors, basses
Four Pages sopranos, altos
Duke Gottfried, Elsa's brother silent
Saxon, Thuringian, and Brabantian counts and nobles, ladies of honor, pages, vassals, serfs

Setting: Antwerp during the first half of the Tenth Century

Synopsis

Act I

A plain on the banks of the River Scheldt near Antwerp

King Henry of Germany has come to Antwerp to urge the people to join with him in battle against invading Magyars, but he finds the Brabantians locked in civil strife without a leader. Frederick of Telramund explains that on his deathbed the Duke of Brabant had entrusted to his care his two children, Elsa and Godfrey, on the understanding that he would marry Elsa and be guardian to Godfrey. But Godfrey has disappeared, Elsa is suspected of doing away with him and Telramund has married Ortrud, daughter of Radbold, King of the Frisians.

In her name and his own he claims the dukedom and accuses Elsa of fratricide and of having a secret lover. The king agrees to judge the case and Elsa is summoned. Her only answer to the accusations is to relate a dream in which a hero appeared in answer to her need. To him she will entrust her cause. The king decrees trial by combat, and the herald calls for a champion to appear.

A knight appears, in a boat drawn by a swan. He says he has been sent by God to be Elsa's champion. She accepts him as champion and husband, agreeing to his condition that she must never ask his name or lineage or where he came from. Telramund is defeated in the duel, but the stranger knight spares his life and is acclaimed by the populace.

Act II

The fortress of Antwerp

Telramund blames Ortrud for his downfall, as she had told him that she saw Elsa drown her young brother, but she convinces him that he was defeated by magic rather than divine intervention. She claims that the stranger's magic would fail if he could be made to reveal his name - or even if the tip of a finger were to be cut off.

As only Elsa can ask him to reveal his name, Ortrud plans to undermine her confidence. Elsa appears on the balcony and Otrud, calling to her from the darkness, succeeds in winning her pity, invoking the pagan gods in triumph as Elsa prepares to let her in. Ortrud begs Elsa to intercede for Telramund and suggests that as the stranger arrived by magic, so he may leave by magic, but Elsa's faith is unshaken.

At dawn the herald proclaims the banishment of Telramund and announces that the king has invested the crown of Brabant in Elsa's husband, who will lead the Brabantians into battle. Four nobles mutter their resentment at this decision and Telramund offers to lead them in rebellion.

As Elsa is about to enter the church for her wedding Ortrud claims that she must yield pride of place to her, since her husband has been falsely accused and is of noble birth, whereas no one knows anything about Elsa's husband. Claiming that he would be revealed a fraud if he had to divulge the source of his power, she challenges Elsa to ask the question. Telramund accuses the strange knight of witchcraft and asks his name and lineage, but he is answerable to Elsa alone. Telramund whispers to Elsa that if she were to let him cut off the tip of the stranger's finger his secret would be known and he would never leave her. She rejects the advice and goes into the church with her husband, who orders Telramund and Ortrud to leave.

Act III

Scene 1. The bridal chamber

Following the good wishes of their attendants, Elsa and her husband are left alone for the first time. Their delight in one another is soon undermined by her regrets that she cannot call her husband by his name and her fears that he may leave her. A hysterical vision of the swan returning to take him away leads to the fatal question. Telramund bursts in with his followers and is killed by Lohengrin, who tells the nobles to bring the body before the king. He calls Elsa's ladies to dress her and tells her he will answer her question before the king.

Scene 2. The banks of the Scheldt

The king thanks the people for their support in defending Germany against the heathen. The body of Telramund is carried in, followed by Elsa and her husband, who tells the king he will not be able to lead the people of Brabant into battle. He is absolved from blame for Telramund's death.

Explaining that Elsa has been tricked into asking the forbidden question, he answers it: he is one of the champions of the Holy Grail, who are sent out into the world to defend the cause of right. But they must leave once their identities are known. He is Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, who wears the crown of the Grail. He prophesies that Germany will never be conquered by the eastern hordes. The swan appears and Lohengrin bids farewell to Elsa, telling her that if he had been able to stay, her bother Godfrey, who is not dead, would have returned.

Ortrud exults at her success in driving Lohengrin away and that Godrey must remain in the form of the swan as a result of her witchcraft. Lohengrin kneels in prayer and when he takes the chain from the neck of the swan, it is transformed into Godfrey. Elsa falls lifeless as Lohengrin leaves, his boat now drawn by a white dove.

[Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete score.

Click here for the complete libretto (English translation).

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lohengrin.gif image_description= product=yes product_title=Lohengrin, Bayreuth 2010 Live product_by=Bayreuther Festspiele 2010 product_id=
Posted by Gary at 1:13 PM

Wagner — 200 Years Later

The current theme celebrates Richard Wagner's birth 200 years ago. Over the course of the next several weeks, recordings of each of works will be presented, including recordings of live performances when available.

Click here for a general overview of Wagner and his works.

Posted by Gary at 11:47 AM

Parsifal, Bayreuth 2012 Live

Music and libretto by Richard Wagner.

First Performance: 26 July 1882, Bayreuth (Festspielhaus)

Characters:

AmfortasBaritone
TiturelBass
GurnemanzBass
ParsifalTenor
KlingsorBariton
KundrySoprano
First and Second Knights of the GrailTenor/Bass
First and Second SquiresSoprano
Third and Fourth SquiresTenor
A VoiceContralto
Klingsor's Flower MaidensSoprano/Alto

Time and Place: In the vicinity of Monsalvat, the castle of the Knights of the Grail, located in the northern mountains of Gothic Spain.

Synopsis:

Act I

In a wood near the castle of Monsalvat, home to the Knights of the Grail, Gurnemanz, one of the Knights of the Grail, wakes his young squires and leads them in prayer. He notices the retinue of Amfortas approach, and asks the leading Knight for news of the King’s health. The knight tells him that the King has suffered during the night and is going early for his bath. The squires ask Gurnemanz to explain how the King’s injuries can be healed, but before he can do so a wild woman - Kundry - bursts in. She offers a balsam for the King’s pain which she claims is from Arabia and then collapses, exhausted.

Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, arrives, carried on a stretcher. He asks for Gawain, only to be told that this Knight has left without his permission. Angrily, Amfortas says that this sort of impetuousity was what led him to Klingsor’s realm and to his downfall. He receives Kundry’s potion and tries to thank her, but she answers, incoherently, that thanks will not help and urges him to his bath.

The King leaves, and the squires question Kundry mistrustfully. Gurnemanz tells them that Kundry has often helped the Grail Knights but that she appears and disappears at her whim. When he asks her why she does not stay to help, she replies that she never helps. The squires think she is a witch and sneer that if she is so helpful, why does she not find the Holy Spear for them? Gurnemanz says that this is destined to be the job of another. He tells them that Amfortas had been the guardian of the Spear, but lost it when seduced by a fearsomely attractive woman in Klingsor’s domain. Klingsor had stabbed Amfortas with the Spear: this is the wound which causes Amfortas’ suffering and it will never heal.

Two squires, returning from the King’s bath, tell Gurnemanz that Kundry’s balsam has eased the King’s sufferings for the moment. His squires ask Gurnemanz whether he knew Klingsor. He tells them of how the Holy Spear, which was used to wound the Redeemer on the Cross, and the Grail which caught His blood, had come to Monsalvat to be guarded by the Knights of the Grail under the rule of Titurel - Amfortas’ father. Klingsor had yearned to join the Knights, but had been unable to drive impure thoughts from his mind and resorted to self-castration which led to his expulsion. Klingsor then bitterly set himself up in opposition to the Kingdom of the Grail, learning dark arts and establishing a domain full of beautiful flower-maidens who seduce and destroy the Knights of the Grail. It was in this way that Amfortas lost the Holy Spear, which is now in Klingsor’s hand. Gurnemanz relates how Amfortas then had a vision in which he was told to wait for a “holy fool, enlightened by compassion” (“Durch Mitleid Wissend, der Reine Tor”) who would finally heal his wound.

At this moment, cries are heard from the Knights: a swan has been shot, and a young man is dragged in carrying a bow. Gurnemanz berates the boy, telling him that this is a holy domain, and asking what had the swan ever done to injure the boy. The boy remorsefully breaks his bow and is unable to answer any question put to him: why is he here, who is his father, how did he arrive at the realm of the Grail and what is his name? When asked what he does know, the boy says he has a mother called Herzeleide, and that he made his bow himself. Kundry has been watching and now she tells them that the boy’s father was Gamuret, a knight killed in battle, and how the boy’s mother had forbidden her son to use a sword, fearing that he would suffer the same fate as his father. The boy exclaims that after seeing Knights passing through his forest he immediately left his mother to follow them. Kundry laughs and tells the boy that his mother has died of grief, at which the boy attempts to attack Kundry, but then collapses in grief. Kundry suddenly seems overcome with sleep, but cries out that she must not sleep and wishes that she would never waken. She crawls off to rest.

Gurnemanz invites the boy to observe the Grail ritual at Monsalvat. The boy does not know what the Grail is, but remarks as they walk that although he scarcely moves, he has travelled far. Gurnemanz tells him that in this realm, time becomes space.

They arrive at the Hall of the Grail and observe the ceremony. The voice of Titurel is heard, telling his son, Amfortas, to uncover the Grail. Amfortas is racked with shame and suffering. He is the Guardian of the Grail, and yet he has succumbed to temptation and lost the Holy Spear: he declares himself unworthy of his office. He cries out for forgiveness (“Erbarmen!”) but hears only the promise of future redemption by the “Holy Fool, enlightened by compassion”. The Knights and Titurel urge him to reveal the Grail, which he finally does. The Hall is bathed in the light of the Grail as the Knight commune by taking bread and wine. Amfortas has collapsed, and is taken out. Slowly the Hall empties leaving only the boy and Gurnemanz, who asks him if he has understood what he has seen. The boy cannot answer and is roughly ejected by Gurnemanz with a warning not to shoot swans. A voice from on high repeats the promise of redemption.

Act II

The second act begins in Klingsor’s castle, where Klingsor calls up his servant to destroy the boy who has strayed into his domain. He calls her: HellRose, Herodias, Gunddrigga and finally Kundry, transformed here into the fearsomely beautiful woman who seduced Amfortas. She wakes from her sleep and initially resists Klingsor, mocking his enforced chastity, but soon succumbs to his spell. Klingsor calls up Knights from his domain to attack the boy, but can only watch as they are slain. He sees the boy stray into his Flowermaiden garden and calls on Kundry to seek the boy out - but she has already gone.

The boy finds himself in a Garden surrounded by the beautiful and seductive Flower-maidens. They call to him and entwine themselves around him, chiding him for killing their lovers and for resisting their charms. They fight amongst themselves to win his love but are stilled when a voice calls out the boy’s name: Parsifal. Parsifal suddenly remembers that this is the name his mother used when she appeared in his dreams. The Flower-maidens fade away, calling him a fool, leaving Parsifal and Kundry alone. He wonders if this has all been a dream and asks how she knows his name. Kundry tells him that she knows his name from his Mother who had loved him and tried to protect him from his father’s fate, but who had been abandoned by him and finally died of grief. Parsifal is overcome with grief and blames himself for his mother’s death. He thinks he must be very stupid to have forgotten his mother. Kundry says that this is his first sign of understanding, and that she can help him understand his mother’s love by kissing him. Kundry’s kiss is, however, anything but maternal, and Parsifal reacts immediately by realising that this is how Amfortas was seduced - he feels the wound burn in his side, and now understands Amfortas’ passion during the Grail Ceremony. Filled with this compassion for Amfortas, Parsifal rejects Kundry.

Furious, Kundry tells Parsifal that if he can feel compassion for Amfortas, then he should feel compassion for her as well. She relates how she saw the Redeemer on the cross and laughed at Him. For this lack of compassion, she has been condemned to wander through the centuries looking for rest. Parsifal tells her that they would both be condemned for ever if he succumbed to her. Kundry again calls for his compassion, telling him that she is now the slave of the Spear-carrier. As he rejects her again, she curses him to wander without ever returning to the Kingdom of the Grail, and finally she calls on Klingsor to help her.

Klingsor appears and throws the Spear at Parsifal, but the Holy Fool catches it and destroys Klingsor and his Kingdom by making the sign of the Cross with the Spear. As he leaves, he tells Kundry that she knows where she will find him.

Act III

The Third act opens again at the Kingdom of the Grail, many years later. Gurnemanz, now aged and bent, hears a crying outside his hut and discovers Kundry unconscious. He revives her, using water from the Holy Spring, but she will only speak the word “serve” (“Dienen”). Gurnemanz wonders if there is any significance in the fact that she has reappeared on this, special, day. He then notices a figure dressed in full armour approaching. He cannot see who it is because the stranger wears a helmet, and does not speak. Finally the apparition removes its helmet and Guremanz recognises the boy who shot the swan, and then realises that the spear carried by him is the Holy Spear.

Parsifal tells of his desire to return to Amfortas. He relates his journey, wandering for years unable to find the path back to the Grail: he has often been forced to fight, but has never wielded the Spear in battle. Gurnemanz tells him that the curse preventing Parsifal from finding his right path has now been lifted, but that in his absence Amfortas has refused to reveal the Grail, and that Titurel has died. Parsifal is overcome with remorse, blaming himself for this state of affairs. Gurnemanz tells him that today is the day of Titurel’s funeral rites, and that Parsifal has a great duty to perform. Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet and Gurnemanz anoints him with water from the Holy Spring, recognising him as the pure Holy Fool, now enlightened by compassion, and as the new King of the Knights of the Grail.

Parsifal comments on the beauty of the meadow and Gurnemanz explains that today is Good Friday, when all the world is renewed. Parsifal gives his blessing to the weeping Kundry.

Once more they travel to the Hall of the Grail. Amfortas is brought before the Grail and before Titurel’s coffin. He cries out to his dead father to offer him rest from his sufferings, and wishes to join him in death. The Knights of Grail urge Amfortas angrily to reveal the Grail to them again, but Amfortas in a frenzy says he will never reveal the Grail and commands his Knights to kill him. At this moment, Parsifal arrives and says that only one weapon can perform this task: with the Spear he heals Amfortas’ wound and forgives him. He returns the Spear to the keeping of the Grail knights and once more reveals the Grail. All kneel before him and Kundry, released from her curse, sinks lifeless to the ground.

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto (English translation).

image=http://www.operatoday.com/AN00459076_001_l.gif
image_description=Illustration of Parsifal by Rogelio Egusquiza [Courtesy of The British Museum]


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product_title=Parsifal, Bayreuth 2012 Live
product_by=Bayreuther Festspiele 2012
product_id=Above: Illustration of Parsifal by Rogelio Egusquiza [Courtesy of The British Museum]

Posted by Gary at 11:01 AM

May 14, 2013

Wozzeck at ENO

But, even the darkest most abject tragedies have, by definition, the power to uplift, salve and redeem. Our spirits are plunged to the most terrible depths, yet our terrified souls are ultimately cleansed by some ultimate beauty which perhaps cannot be defined but whose capacity to purify is discerned and experienced.

Carrie Cracknell’s striking new production of Berg’s bleak opera is a tragedy without catharsis or succour. Situating the unfolding misery in a shabby army barracks in modern Britain, Cracknell presents us with unsentimental, gritty realism and domestic suffering, enriched by imaginative theatrical details. Wozzeck is a poor private driven into despair and then madness by impoverishment, betrayal and guilt. He kills his wife, and then himself, their lifeless bodies, slumped like rag-dolls across a scuffed kitchen table, a painful image of futility and senselessness. There is no universal atonement.

The wretchedness unfolds relentlessly across the levels of designer Tom Scutt’s highly effective three-level set. The cheerless private living quarters are permanently visible above the public goings-on in the ground floor mess, thereby emphasising that the horror and inanity of war is responsible for the destruction of human dignity. Indeed, Cracknell makes much of the military context; soldiers in combat gear stand astride the stage, smoking, posturing, challenging the audience before curtain rise. Union-draped coffins return home but are awarded little respect, as the women prefer to bestow their shameless attentions on the living rather than direct their compassion to the fallen.

Wozzeck--Leigh_Melrose--Bryan_Register.gifLeigh Melrose as Wozzeck and Bryan Register as Drum Major

Certainly one should not under-estimate the impact of Berg’s own experiences of war - he enlisted in August 1915 - on this opera, and they may have encouraged him to empathise with the oppressed soldier of Büchner's play. But, Berg show Wozzeck as a man who is both a poor squaddie and a visionary, and his tragedy is - like that of Peter Grimes - that he cannot reconcile these two opposing identities. Cracknell’s Wozzeck is a man undone by the revulsion and responsibilities of war, which hound and haunt him - mingled with the hallucinatory torments caused by the Doctor’s psychedelic chemical experimentations. But, the director offers little sense of the visionary dimension, of the Wozzeck who is more than a representative of the oppressed class - ‘die arme Leute’; the Wozzeck who is ‘outside’ conventional mores.

The effects of this are most noticeable in the closing moments when the decision to confine the drama within the domestic interior deprives us of the pathos of the moonlit lake where Wozzeck desperately tries to purify his soul, by committing suicide in the very waters where he has washed the blood from the lethal knife. (It also makes a nonsense of the translated surtitles). Yet, what better expresses Wozzeck's ultimate alienation and estrangement than the gentle sounds of nature - namely the indifferent croaking of the frogs as he drowns in the lake upon whose shore lies Marie’s condemnatory corpse.

In Berg’s final scene, the child of Wozzeck and Marie is seen playing, enjoying what will be his final moments of innocence, unaware of the tragedy which has ensued; but in Cracknell’s production Harry Polden creeps past the bloodied bodies - with shocking dignity and composure - to the courtyard.

As Wozzeck, Leigh Melrose is at once introverted and authoritative. A man trapped in own mind, plagued and piqued by images of innocence ravaged, he is as physically enfeebled as he is mentally besieged. It is clear that his obsessive love for the unworthy Marie is both a tantalising path to deliverance and his ultimate, inevitable route to destruction. At times an inert, frail figure, Melrose focuses all his authority into his voice, conveying a huge range of psychological states and dimensions. Both he and his Marie, the American soprano Sara Jakubiak, are moving without lapsing into sentimentality.
Jakubiak finds huge resources of passion and piercing anger, conveying the savagery of her desires and distress. Yet, conversely, she captures Marie’s unobtrusive yet undoubted emergent remorse, culminating in a sudden realization of her culpability which confirms her inescapable haplessness and lack of hope.

Berg’s monstrous Captain and Doctor can seem outlandish caricatures and Cracknell certainly piles on the grotesque twitches and manias. Tom Randle’s swaggering Captain, his steroid-derived muscles etched with livid tattoos, runs a neat side-line in drugs-trafficking, concealing his mind-numbing powders and capsules in garish children’s toys. James Morris’s egregious, despotic Doctor, meanwhile, finds the likes of Wozzeck and his friend Andres (Adrian Dwyer) - a wheelchair-bound veteran who numbs the pain of reality by retreating into the world of computer games and cyber hostilities - a willing workforce, ready to endure his experiments and chemical confections for small change.

Both Morris and Randle presented unequivocally committed performances of vicious vitality; in common with the entire cast, they delivered Richard Stokes’ translation with unfailingly clarity. During the diverse, loosely connected dialogue of the opening scene, they used body and voice to transfix us in fascination at their foulness; throughout they ambushed all with their ghastly diversions, Morris thundering imposingly forth while Randle unleashed some terrifying falsetto shrieks.

Edward Gardner drew a performance of astonishing lyrical intensity from the orchestra of English National Opera, in a rich, Romantic reading of almost Mahlerian elegy. He used the intimate quality of much of the score to throw the interludes into powerful relief, crafting the latter so that they steadily gained in dramatic significance and emotional potency. Such luscious opulence may have been a little at odds with the stark bleakness of the on-stage action, but Gardner’s acute awareness of the minutiae of the disciplined structure units from which the score is built provided a controlled counterpoint to the escalation of abnormal psychological intensity.

The penetrating tone which, following Marie’s murder, twice surges from a troubling pianissimo tremor to a captivating, apocalyptic boom, was electrifying in its primitive grandeur. At the moment of death some believe that all the important occurrences of one’s life pass rapidly and in distortion through one’s mind; and here, we seemed to experience both the self-consuming fire of Marie’s death, and Wozzeck’s terrifying realization of his own vileness.

Sir Thomas Beecham detested Berg’s opera, calling it “the most horrible opera in the world”. Cracknell offered little to alleviate the horror but much to inspire admiration.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Wozzeck: Leigh Melrose; Marie: Sara Jakubiak; Captain: Tom Randle; Doctor: James Morris; Drum Major: Bryan Register; Andres: Adrian Dwyer; Margret: Clare Presland; First Apprentice: Andrew Greenan; Second Apprentice: James Cleverton; Madman: Peter van Hulle; Marie’s Child: Harry Polden; Carrie Cracknell: director; Edward Gardner: conductor; Tom Scutt: set designs; Oliver Townsend and Naomi Wilkinson: costumes; Jon Clarke: lighting; Ann Yee: choreography; Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Saturday 11th May 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Wozzeck--Sara_Jakubiak.gif
image_description=Sara Jakubiak as Marie [Photo by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera]

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product_id=Above: Sara Jakubiak as Marie

Photos by Tristram Kenton courtesy of English National Opera

Posted by Gary at 9:03 AM

May 11, 2013

Mulhouse: Rare Britten Well Done

The pacifist Britten wrote the piece for BBC television in 1971, partly as a response to the lingering Viet Nam War which was still raging. The structure of the dramatic episodes, the cross fades written into the transitions, and the contrasting instrumental sounds in the sparsely-scored work were all a consideration of the medium.

Indeed, my one and only experience with the piece was when PBS broadcast the original production in the early 70’s, when television sound was still rather rudimentary. Now encountering the work live in the theatre, I was not prepared for the rich diversity of the instrumental writing, nor for the sonorous ensemble effects. Britten was, of course, not only a master orchestrator, but quite adept at setting texts to good dramatic effect. He was well-served in Mulhouse by cast, band, and production leadership.

L’Opéra national du Rhin has wisely chosen to feature the excellent young members of their Opera Studio program and if the result is any indication, opera has a promising future in France. The title role is a Big Sing, with lots of it lying in the middle voice, and Laurent Deleuil essayed Owen with a well-schooled baritone that boasted a solid technique wedded to a (not overly) warm tone that had substantial presence. If the very top money notes pushed him to the limit, Mr. Deleuil nevertheless had the full arsenal of gifts necessary to score a considerable success as he anchored the production. Laurent is possessed of an easy, unaffected stage deportment and has very clear diction. If ultimately he didn’t yet quite feel the character’s convictions deep in his gut (especially at the start), this was nonetheless a memorable role assumption.

The towering Sévag Tachdjian gave much pleasure in his commanding turn as schoolmaster Coyle. Mr. Tachdjian’s orotund bass-baritone was passionately deployed and was evenly produced throughout the rangy part. But he needs a little more coaching on his pronunciation, since his somewhat odd-sounding vowels and soft consonants made me wonder at first if he was singing, in English. Handsome Jérémy Duffau was a lanky, coltish Lechmere, and his buzzy lyric tenor was engaged, solid, and fluid. He might check his tendency to appear too balletic in his movements in his embodiment of the young soldier.

Mélanie Moussay proved to be an imperious Miss Wingrave, with a distinguished vocal instrument of unanticipated maturity, resonance and power for one so young. Kristina Bitene combined excellent elocution and a wiry, committed demeanor to make Mrs. Julia a riveting personage in the unfolding drama. She also proved to have a reliable, wide-ranging soprano of pleasant bite and with a rock solid technique. Mmes. Moussay, Bitene, and the evening’s “Kate” made their extended trio “(“He will listen to the house”) a real musical highlight.

And speaking of Kate, Marie Cubaynes had much to offer with her dark-hued mezzo including a consistency and pulsing forward motion that served the opinionated, head-strong lass well. Her final duet with Owen was another highly affecting emotional landmark. Guillaume François proved a real “triple threat” as he took on the three roles of Sir Philip, Narrator, and the Phantom. His promising tenor sported a pleasant, steady tone, even if it had a moment or two in legato passages that were a little rough around the edges. Still, his rendition of the unaccompanied “folk song” was hauntingly beautiful, and very well controlled, especially at opera’s close.

Conductor David Syrus had a remarkable night in the pit, wringing every last variation of color from his talented, small band of musicians. That Maestro Syrus is a noted Britten specialist was self-evident based on the exceptional aural results of this performance. Just listen to the nuanced interweaving of text and orchestra, the gossamer sheen of the signature repeated chords, the rhythmic storm of effects he churns up, the inevitable unfolding of the conversational phrases, the effortless deliberation and weight of the ensembles. This was a wholly mesmerizing night of persuasive music-making.

Stage director Christophe Gayral, in tandem with set and lighting designer Eric Soyer were admirable models of restraint, and their modus operandi of “less is more” paid huge dividends. The set was all black legs, sliding doors, levels, and carefully chosen set pieces. On occasion, it suggested an Advent-calendar approach with insets (and characters) revealed, but only as long as they were pertinent.

The evening opened with a dumb-show, first revealing the boy dropping dead to the floor then effectively blending into a foreshadowing of Owen’s funeral. Especially telling was Kate’s fainting with guilt as she goes to place a rose in the blood red funeral spray (in the form of a cross). Of course, we don’t know any of these characters yet, but the scene cleverly gets us to speculate and anticipate the mysteries to come. Renaud Rubiamo has devised a number of gorgeous still projections and video effects, the most stunning being the requisite hall of portraits that at one point come eerily to life.

The only downside of the night was that the seats were only half-filled for this significant musical-dramatic achievement. But there is another chance to partake of its glories. Owen Wingrave will play two more performances this summer in Strasbourg (4 and 6 July). It would be worth the trip.

James Sohre



Cast and production information:

Owen Wingrave: Laurent Deleuil; Spencer Coyle: Sévag Tachdjian; Lechmere: Jérémy Duffau; Miss Wingrave: Mélanie Moussay; Mrs. Julian: Kristina Bitene; Kate: Marie Cubaynes; Sir Philip, Narrator, Phantom: Guillaume François; Boy Ghost: Victor Collin; Conductor: David Syrus; Stage Director: Christophe Gayral; Set and Lighting Design: Eric Soyer; Costume Design: Cidalia Da Costa; Video Design: Renaud Rubiamo

Posted by james_s at 10:23 PM

Frankfurt's Intriguing Idomeneo

Never mind that the not-to-be-ignored ‘interpretations’ had to be ‘different’ at all costs; or that (often rankling) ‘insider’ concepts by groupie-inspiring-directors had to be explained (if indeed that were possible) with extensive program notes; or that decent enough singers were sometimes secondary to the buzz-worthy ‘event.’ The city opera house on the Main River was a place to see and be seen, challenge and be challenged.

And then prime movers and shakers moved out, and the company seemed shaken indeed not only by those high profile departures, but also by devastating budget cuts in the last Time of Austerity. They almost cut the chorus entirely, for crying out loud! What followed was a well-intended but languishing period when the company’s productions unwillingly digressed from ‘shock and awe’ to ‘schlock and awful’ on more than a few occasions.

But happily in recent seasons, the old rebel spark is decidedly back in force (mercifully moderated by common sense), the overall quality of the singers is once again high, and the half-hearted air that seemed to inhabit nearly a decade of shows has lifted. Witness their new, modern dress, cogent spin on Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo which is extremely well-served by its wholly comprehensible Konzept.

Stage Director Jan Philipp Gloger has set out to actually tell the story (*gasp*) while informing it with a contemporary resonance. War references feature soldiers that could have come out of today’s conflicts. Karin Jud’s costumes successfully define the aristocrats and refugees/prisoners in modern terms, and the Naval uniforms ably establish a hierarchy of a military (and political) chain of command. Mr. Gloger’s intentions have been well-served by a collaborative set design (Franziska Bornkamm) that is at once blissfully simple and wonderfully varied thanks to the ingenious use of Frankfurt’s massive turntable. Bearing a huge white wall with massive double doors that bisects up-stage from down-, it rotates frequently to reveal ever more interesting “rooms” in Idomeneo’s realm. The space is effectively re-defined with well-chosen set pieces that include a desk, Nautilus set, hospital bed, podium, press conference set-up, catafalque and more.

The director has blocked the action to facilitate highly detailed character relationships, and has made full use of the vast playing space with well-motivated and dramatically telling movement. Gloger masterfully uses diverse levels and groupings, witness the stylized ‘group hug’ by title character, Idamante, Ilia and Elettra in the great quartet. Too, the dramatic tension between Ilia and various others was physicalized in unusually contentious, even brutal confrontations. Exciting stuff.

Only the transition to the shore left me wanting something more. It was all well and good to have the massive wall disappear into the flies, and I accepted the modern suitcases littered about like toppled gravestones. But as the bits of ‘flotsam and jetsam’ were blown onstage by hidden fans, did the strands of debris have to be black, sparkly cuttings from a slit plastic glitter curtain? Not damaging, but it seemed at odds with other more sober scenic effects. The whole evening’s story telling was exceptionally well-lit by Jan Hartmann with well tightly crafted specials, atmospheric gel colors, good area washes and excellent focus of the action.

All in all, the staging made absolute sense within its chosen convention. I loved introducing Idamante as a boy given a toy boat by Idomeneo in a flashback. When the adult Idamante then bounded on stage he was first still carrying the boat, which spoke volumes about his youthfulness, his unconditional love for his father, and his place in succession to the throne as a future naval hero. The presentation of Idomeneo as a war veteran, first on crutches and later in a wheelchair had great meaning. And having his suffering require sedation and confinement to a hospital bed set up one of the show’s best and most mysterious effects.

For the sacrifice of Idamante, a stunning backdrop gets pulled in depicting a site crowded with ancient ruins. When it comes time for Idomeneo to kill his son, it is the boy-extra who enters and mouths the words as the adult Idamante sings upstage. For a while, it all seems disorienting until. . .it is all cunningly revealed to have been a drug-induced hallucination by the hospitalized hero. This proved a real stunner of an interpretive twist, an absolutely honest one that injected truthful spontaneity into what can be a stilted theatrical moment.

The huge revolving wall also facilitated/masked some amazing “dissolves,” such as when the entire chorus seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving an empty press conference room at the end. Or when Idomeneo’s negative fantasy of Ilia and Idamante is revealed as a steamy sex scene with the two in bed together, only to have vanished when the setting came back ‘round.

Misfires? Yeah, a couple moments might be re-considered like Idomeneo’s very brief attempted rape of Ilia. Or having the boy-as-sacrifice mouth every single word Idamante sings off stage rather than simply having the boy gesture. Or Elettra’s powder blue business suit that rendered her unnecessarily matronly, with an unflattering wig that she ripped off a couple of times. But these were quite minor distractions in what was a pretty terrific take on Mozart’s dramatic masterpiece.

Best of all, Frankfurt peopled this inventive production with a truly first rate cast of singing actors. The title role is surely the best, and most difficult tenor role Mozart ever created. It has severely tested any number of first-string performers over the years, but it seemed to hold no terror for the resourceful Roberto Saccà. Having begun his career as a light tenor, in the intervening years Mr. Saccà has imbued his refulgent tone with a good deal of weight, resulting in a robust, even delivery. The trade-off is that the youthful sweetness in his mid-lower range tends to become a mite tremulous when pressed, but the pay-off is that his meaty high notes soar. His fiercely accurate, propulsive rendition of Fuor del mar was downright definitive.

Elsa van den Heever is not only a house favorite, she has been branching out to conquer hearts with major companies throughout the world (the latest with her recent Met debut). The diva’s praiseworthy spinto was a good match for Elettra, and while she could zing out a phrase with aplomb, she could also scale back her tone to a filigree of melting beauty. Her superlative way with serene utterances were all prelude to a powerfully demented fury that she unleashed with her showpiece D’Oreste d’Ajace.

Juanita Lascarro was the darkest-voice Ilia I have yet encountered, which added an interesting dynamic to the musical texture. Ms. Lascarro proved a spirited persona dominating her every scene, although her impassioned delivery found her forcefully trilling her “r’s” a bit too much for my taste. Given that she slightly covers her voice, the result was that Juanita had an admirable way with legato phrases and could float high notes that were very affecting. That said, when she pressed the top more powerfully, forte notes tended to spread.

Martin Mitterutzner was a revelation as a fresh-voiced, fresh-faced Idamanate. Lanky and boyishly handsome, Mr. Mitterutzner complemented his committed acting with a robust lyric tenor that had power and style. Company member Julien Prégardien displayed all his familiar strengths (uncanny musicianship, gently pleasing tone, and clean melismas) and an occasional weakness (the very top notes don’t turn over and get a bit straight), but his seasoned delivery as Arbace was a success.

Young Beau Gibson showed off an exceptionally pleasing, youthful tone married to a witty impersonation as the High Priest. As Neptune, lean and wiry actor Olaf Reinecke seemed to meld the Ancient Mariner and Freddy Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street) in equal parts, as he lurked, menaced, proffered weapons, and generally behaved doggone unpleasantly. The four soloists (Cretans and Trojans) drawn from the Frankfurt chorus were all uniformly fine: Camilla Suzana Peteu, Thomas Charrois, Yvonne Hettegger, and Pere Llompart. Their winning featured moments speak well for the quality and depth of the vocal ensemble who excelled under Chorus Master Matthias Köhler’s tutelage.

In the pit Julia Jones elicited exciting results from the resident orchestra. For once the rather dry acoustic was a plus, as the individual colors of the instruments were highlighted without taking away from a smooth, clean, well-oiled ensemble. Perhaps there was nothing radically revelatory about Maestra Jones’s straightforward interpretation, but she hit all the musical marks, the drama was always well served, and the singers were superbly partnered.

Having visited Frankfurt Opera happily and often during the ten years I lived there, what a joy it was to re-live (and perhaps reclaim) the ‘glory days’ with this inspired, well-crafted performance.

James Sohre


Cast and production information:

Idomeneo: Roberto Saccà; Idamante: Martin Mitterutzner; Ilia: Juanita Lascarro; Elettra: Elsa van den Heever; Arbace: Julian Prégardien; Neptune’s High Priest: Beau Gibson; Voice: Philipp Alexander Mehr; Neptune: Olaf Reinecke; Two Cretans: Camilla Suzana Peteu, Thomas Charrois; Two Trojans: Yvonne Hettegger, Pere Llompart; Conductor: Julia Jones; Stage Director: Jan Philipp Gloger; Set Design: Franziska Bornkamm; Costume Design: Karin Jud; Lighting Design: Jan Hartmann; Chorus Master: Matthias Köhler


Posted by james_s at 10:13 PM

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recent series of Rigoletto performances featured several such opportunities. In the second half of the run Željko Lučić sang the baritone role of the jester Rigoletto with utmost dramatic conviction and vocal skills honed to match this impression. The Duke of Mantua was sung by Giuseppe Filianoti, and the part of Gilda featured the debut season of Albina Shagimuratova. Significant contributions were also provided by Andrea Silvestrelli as Sparafucile and Nicole Piccolomini as Maddalena. Evan Rogister conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Ian Robertson served as Guest Chorus Master.

The sets for first scene of Act I of Lyric Opera’s Rigoletto suggested the sumptuous interior of a Renaissance court. These images would then contrast with the simplicity of Rigoletto’s home and the various architectural exteriors suggested in the second scene of Act I. The Duke’s opening song, “Questa o quella,” showed Filianoti to advantage. His top notes were secure, a smooth legato was produced effortlessly, and he expressed the word “amore” with tasteful decoration. From the start of Rigoletto’s mocking commentary directed at Count Ceprano one was struck by the resonant fullness of Lučić’s voice. His sensitivity to vocal line and its dramatic import was evident even more in his address to Count Monterone. While deriding the Count, whose daughter was defiled by the Duke, Lučić shaded his voice by means of diminuendo to heighten the comedy of his charge. As the scene at the court concluded -- and both the Duke and Rigoletto are cursed by Monterone -- the chorus was allowed overly vehement orchestral support, such that Monterone’s curse was not sufficiently audible.

In the subsequent scene en route to Rigoletto’s domestic setting Lučić communicated his character’s troubled thoughts at having been denounced at court. His vocal modulations were here extensions of an inner transformation that persisted until he encountered the assassin Sparafucile. The confrontation between both personalities was filled with tension and hints of future contact. Silvestrelli’s impressive vocal range ascended easily to top notes when identifying himself while concluding his final pitch with a chillingly deep and menacing emphasis. When Rigolettto reacts to the offer of the departing assassin, he muses on his own position of buffone as an outsider as well. As if to shake off these thoughts, Lučić proclaimed with a ringing, precise high pitch “E follia!” as he entered his domain.

The scene between father and daughter was convincingly portrayed. Ms. Shagimuratova is clearly quite comfortable in the vocal range for Gilda so that she is able to add individual touches to her interpretation. In her duet with Lučić, for example, Shagimuratova let her voice gently yet accurately touch the higher notes as her feelings grew in intensity. Rigoletto’s piano on “angelo” when recalling Gilda’s mother was matched by Shagimuratova shading her voice to a near whisper of the lyrical line on “Addio mio padre.”

Although Rigoletto had, of course, cautioned the maidservant Giovanna not to allow visitors access, she is here depicted as herself succumbing to the charms of the Duke masquerading as a student. The ensuing duet between Gilda and Gualtier Maldè, assumed name of the student, suggested the budding passion between both principals. At this point Shagimuratova sang with clear forte emphasis whereas Filianoti began to exhibit strain on the higher pitches of his part. Once they took leave with well executed final notes, Gilda was left alone to muse on her feelings in her aria “Caro nome.” Shagimuratova made of this scene a memorable showpiece. Her slightly breathless approach at the start of the aria indicated her growing infatuation with the student/Duke. The singer’s legato used through the next section of the aria suggested an unbroken, spun line, while vibrato was judiciously placed with feeling expressiveness. Shagimuratova continued the aria while lying on her back and clutching a pillow, as though reaching for an imagined beloved, just as her decoration at the close of “Caro nome” was exemplary. Gilda’s abduction was staged with minimal props, in keeping with the depiction of the locale, such that ultimate attention was focused on Rigoletto’s loss.
At the start of Act Two Filianoti gave a credible portrayal of the Duke’s personality. His lament “Parmi veder le legrime” was capped with a trill, while the joyous “Possente amor” was sung with ebullient decoration. At Rigoloetto’s entrance and his aia “Cortigiani” Lučić varied his vocal technique from earlier with ever-growing desperation. High notes were shaded piano, and “pieta” at the close was emitted as an expansive plea. The final duet with Gilda, “Tutte le feste,” showed both characters here caught in the drama and intrigue of the court while each sang from a differing emotional base.

In the final act the famous tenor aria, “La donna è mobile,” and the quartet of principals each received distinctive treatment. Filianoti sang his aria with a practiced melodic swagger and, later during the repeat, ended the aria with a falsetto pitch. In the role of Maddalena, Nicole Piccolomini sang with a riveting middle and low register, her voice penetrating throughout the quartet and in her subsequent demands to Sparafucile to spare the Duke’s life. In the final scene as staged Lučić’s Rigoletto seemed trapped by the buildings and closed doors as he held the sack with his dying daughter. His repeated pleas to the fading Gilda with variation upward in vocal line gave to the tragedy its lyrical and emotional close.

Salvatore Calomino

Posted by jim_z at 9:41 AM

Britten Sinfonia with Ian Bostridge

The Barbican Hall was plunged into darkness as the players edged their way warily across the stage to their desks, trying to avoid potentially hazardous music stands and other stage clutter, while the audience peered and strained to read the programme notes which had irritatingly disappeared from view. With stand lights the only illumination and striking shadows cast by the players’ movements, the Britten Sinfonia began their ruminations on matters nocturnal with the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No.5.

The playing was delicate and precise, the tempo well-judged with subtle use of rubato, and there was a real sense of coherent, confident ensemble playing. This was fortunate, as the Sinfonia was conductor-less and led by their principal violinist, Jacqueline Shave, who — though raised with her desk partner on a platform — must still have been difficult for the other players to discern through the gloom.

Although technically accomplished, the Mahlerian climaxes were a little underwhelming; it’s just not possible to attain the lustrous, penetrating string sound required with such a small number of players. But, there was a clear sense of contour and overall structure, and a haunting ambience was established.

Sadly this mood was quickly dispelled by some unfortunate but obviously necessary house-keeping, as stage was noisily prepared for Henze’s L'heure bleue, a serenade for 16 instruments, which was commissioned by Alte Oper Frankfurt, and premiered in September 2001 by the Ensemble Modern, conducted by Oliver Knussen. Henze described the genesis of the title:

‘Those who live on the shores of the Mediterranean call dusk “the blue hour” because, in summer as in winter, in the evening after the sun has set and before the moon has risen, it suddenly and unexpectedly begins on the western horizon with a kind of opaline blue that slowly darkens in colour.’

Once again, a visual aid was deemed necessary: a discotheque-blue wash swathed the stage, but this was simply a distraction from the Sinfonia’s ravishing evocation of the delicate minutiae of Henze’s impressionistic score. Sensuous colours and rhythms gradually evolved, transformed and mutated as night enveloped day, motifs rising to surface and falling again into the shadows.

The first half closed with three Schubert lieder arranged for the Britten Sinfonia by Detlev Glanert. Ian Bostridge knows and understands these songs so well he must often hear them in his sleep, but here he had to work too hard to balance the vocal line against a frequently overly dense, and rather unvarying, instrumental texture. There simply wasn’t ‘space’ for the text to come through, and Bostridge’s middle and lower register were often swallowed up by the orchestral texture. That said, ‘Waldesnacht’ (Night in the Forest) was fleet of foot, the instrumentalists evocatively capturing the roar of the wind rushing and surging through the trees, the flashes of the flames of sunrise and the ‘eternal murmurings of gentle springs’ — the forces of nature embodying ‘Life’s urge to be free of its fetters/ The struggle of strong, wild impulses’. In ‘Viola’, Bostridge used the repetitions of the theme to create coherence and also imbue the withering violet with ever more pathos and tenderness.

One imagines that the reason for programming Schubert’s posthumously published Notturno for piano trio, which opened the second half, was its title. But, despite continuing the nocturnal theme, the piece added scant musical weight. (Indeed, the programme informed us that sketches suggest the Notturno was originally intended as the slow movement of the B-flat Piano Trio: ‘Why Schubert rejected the movement in favour of the Andante that replaced it is unclear’, we were told, but one might argue, all too understandable.) For this performance, Huw Watkins (piano), Shave and principal cellist, Caroline Dearnley, were seated on the far left of the stage; those audience members in the middle or right of the auditorium must have felt fairly detached from proceedings, especially as the prevailing mood of calm composure did not lend itself to a dramatic, communicative rendition.

Fortunately, Bostridge raised the level of expressivity and musicianship in Britten’s Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instrumental soloists and strings. Here Britten’s nuanced scoring allowed the voice, and text, to some across clearly, even in the more dream-like, shaded passages. The individual movements melted into one another as Bostridge conveyed both the rapture and ethereality of night-time worlds. The woodwind soloists were all excellent — the cor anglais was touchingly beautiful in Wilfred Owen’s ‘The Kind Ghosts’, in Keats’ ‘Sleep and Poetry’ clarinet and flute danced an elegant arabesque, and there was some impressively virtuosic bassoon playing. The final movement, a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘When most I wink’ (Sonnet 43) possessed a rhetorical stateliness which was quite troubling, Britten’s setting of the final lines — ‘All days are nights to see till I see thee,/ And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me’ — disturbing in its restless intensity and visceral impact.

The audience delighted in much wonderful singing and fine playing, but we could live without the gimmicks.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

Mahler ‘Adagietto’ from Symphony No. 5; Henze L'heure bleue; Schubert arr. Detlev Glanert (London premiere) ‘Lied im Grünen’. ‘Viola’, ‘Waldesnacht’; Schubert Notturno in E flat for Piano Trio; Britten Nocturne

Ian Bostridge tenor, Britten Sinfonia; Jacqueline Shave, violin/director, Barbican Centre, London, Saturday 4 May 2013

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Posted by Gary at 9:07 AM

May 10, 2013

Aida, Manitoba Opera

From the opening scene of Manitoba Opera’s lavish production of Verdi’s beloved four-act opera, we knew the ill-fated Ethiopian title princess (disguised as a slave) was conflicted.

Canadian soprano Michele Capalbo is the embodiment of the long-suffering Aida, in love with Radames, captain of the guard. In dramatic stance, she sang of her contradictory loves for her father, the Ethiopian king, her country and Radames. We could feel her heartbreak through the passion of her lithe singing in “Ritorna vincitor”, every note crafted to shimmering perfection. Capalbo’s ability to make the softest pianissimo note build and swell into a booming fortissimo is nothing short of extraordinary. (And she makes it seem easy.)

Aida’s love interest, Radames, played by Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila returns her affection, proclaiming his love eloquently in Celeste Aida, forma divina, sustaining the ultimate B-flat with impressive assurance. Davila’s robust voice is versatile, enabling him to exude the confidence of the conquering hero, yet also portray the sweet lover to the hilt. Only a slight crack in his voice as he reached for the upper register in “Pur ti riveggio, mia dolce” Aida signalled some fatigue.

Here’s where things got complicated. Aida’s employer, Amneris (Italian mezzo soprano Tiziana Carraro) daughter of the King of Egypt, also loves Radames. Amneris is determined to marry Radames, but suspects that Aida is her rival.

Carraro has a true presence onstage, with her sultry walk and strong features. Her velvety, somewhat throaty vocal quality aptly conveyed her jealous doubts. One distracting tendency, however, limited her ability to engage the audience. As she sang, she cast her eyes downward, only looking up when she stopped singing. She never looked out beseechingly for empathy; rarely looked at her singing partners, even when declaring love to Radames. This denied any real chemistry between characters.

David Watson sang the role of the King of Egypt with his customary reliability and wonderful clear diction. Tenor Terence Mierau took his brief role of messenger to heart, giving it an impassioned performance and it’s always a pleasure to hear the fine, pure voice of Winnipeg soprano Lara Ciekiewicz, resplendent here as the High Priestess.

All eyes were drawn to bass Phillip Ens as Ramfis, High Priest of Egypt in his gold-encrusted robe. He brought the requisite grandeur and authority to the role, his bold delivery and rumbling voice almost shaking the ground.

We didn’t see baritone Gregory Dahl (Amonsaro, King of Ethiopia/Aida’s father) until late in the opera, but his warm, powerful voice and commanding presence were worth the wait.

Of special note was the superbly balanced ensemble work — every individual voice distinguishable. And the tomb scene was unforgettably touching, with Capalbo and Davila pulling on the audiences’ heartstrings as they sang their final and most desperate final words.

Mounting this work boasting over 100 performers onstage was an awe-inspiring accomplishment for director Brian Deedrick and stage manager Robert Pel.

As an entertainment piece, this presentation has it all — ornate, gilded sets, Egyptian friezes and a gigantic sphinx-like head designed by Roberto Oswald, lavish costuming from Edmonton Opera, and lighting by Scott Henderson that subtly assisted us to predict the action as it shifted with the mood.

The women’s chorus in the boudoir scene sang with flowing youthfulness, while the men were all pomp and power. Athletic dancers, several from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Aspirant Program leapt across the stage wielding knives and swords. And the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in the pit was in good hands with conductor Tyrone Paterson, with just a few discrepancies in tempo between singers and orchestra. Bravo to the brass section for its authentically triumphant, military majesty.

This was an impressive production of mammoth proportions superbly crafted in every detail.

Gwenda Nemerofsky

Click here for cast and production information.

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Posted by Gary at 10:58 AM

May 5, 2013

Superlative singing: Don Carlo, Royal Opera House

Act One started a little tentatively. Perhaps it takes time for the drama to unfold and Kaufmann knew how much was yet to come. His pacing was deft : when he needed to stun, his voice rang out with ferocious colour. This was a Don Carlo one could imagine defying the Spanish Empire, its violence and tyranny. His vocal authority was matched by physical energy. Kaufmann embodies the part perfectly. His interactions were outstanding. His voice balances well with Anja Harteros (Elisabetta) and Marius Kwiecien (Rodrigo), and he allowed the duets and trios to work seamlessly. There was no big name ego dominance, Kaufmann placing his art above all.

Verdi prepares us from the start for the turbulence turbulence that will meet Elizabeth of Valois. Even before she leaves home, Elisabetta experiences extreme changes of mood within a compressed period of time. Anja Harteros delineates these intense feelings deftly, without exaggeration, so they arise naturally from her singing. When she bids goodbye to the Countess of Aremberg (Elizabeth Woods), Harteros sings as though she were bidding farewell to life itself. Indeed she is, for Elisabetta is now alone, trapped in an alien world. Harteros creates Elisabetta with such conviction that she dominates the drama even when she is silent. Her presence is felt even when others are singing about her. When Harteros sings "Tu che le vanità", we feel that Elisabetta has reached valediction, after a long and tortured journey. She sings of Fontainebleau and her brief day of happiness so tenderly that the agony of "Addio, addio, bei sogni d'or, illusion perduta!" becomes truly overwhelming. Harteros and Kaufmann have taken these roles before together. Here, in London, they achieved transcendence.

Ferruccio Furlanetto was equally outstanding. His years of experience in the part give him authority. Verdi writes the part to reflect the personal austerity for which the historic Philip II was known. A solo cello introduces his big aria "Ella giammai m'amò", emphasizing the King's loneliness., despite the trappings of wealth and power around him. Later, violas and basses extend the mood of melancholy. Furlanetto sings with force, but with colour and tenderness. Because he makes us feel the man beneath the public persona, we realize that the tragedy involves Philip as well as his wife and son. Furlanetto makes us realize that the king is just as much trapped by the system as they are. "Beware the Grand Inqusitor !" he cries, for the Grand Inquisitor is perhaps the only truly evil character in this opera.

Verdi introduces the Grand Inquisitor with music that exudes menace. Slow, low rumbling sounds, suggesting a snake slithering, oozing poisonous slime. Eric Halfvarson was indisposed with a cold, but this didn't affect his singing. The Grand Inquisitor is supposed to sound diseased. "Did God not give his only Son to save the world ?". Theology is twisted for evil purposes.

Mariusz Kwiecień was a clean voiced, muscular Rodrigo, and a perfect complement to Kaufmann's Don Carlo. The dynamic between them is very good : they're both relatively youthful and fresh. This similarity is important, for it reinforces the tragedy, and the theme of sacrifice. When Kwiecień sings Rodrigo's last aria, "Per me giunto è il di supreme", he infuses it with warmth and love, so it connects with Elisabetta's farewell to life.

One of Béatrice Uria-Monzon's signature roles is Carmen, so when she sang the Pricess of Eboli, she brought a Carmen-like sharpness to the role, which was entirely in order. Her Veil Song was a showpiece, but the song is a mask, since the princess's true feelings are also hidden behind a veil. When she realizes her mistakes, her personality disintegrates. When Uria-Monzon sings of the convent, she suggests the horoor of living death.

Dusica Bijelic sang a sprightly Tebaldo. Even the Flemish Deputies made an impact greater than the size oif their parts : extremely tight ensemble, yet individually characterized. Robert Lloyd sang Carlo V credibly. The Royal Opera House Orchestra and chorus, always excellent, were on even better form than usual. Verdi is Antomio Pappano's great strength. He's inspired towards an highly individual but vivid reading which emphasizes dramatic detail. He's also a singer's conductor, who lets voices breath, as we heard so admirably.

This would have been an almost perfect Verdi Don Carlo, but is lamentably let down by the production. Originally directed by Nicholas Hytner and revived this time by Paul Higgins, it was first seen at the Royal Opera House in 2008. The designs (by Bob Crowley) feel outdated, serving little dramatic purpose. Huge expanses of space are filled with grids of holes. Perhaps these represent windows, walls or even the spying eyes that are ever present in tyrannical regimes. If the image had been developed well, it might have enhanced the paranoia that runs through this opera. Instead, the image lies inert, like a weak joke endlessly repeated. In the scene where the ladies of the court listen to the Veil Song, there's a wall of red plastic cubes which look like they've descended from Legoland for no obvious reason.

The greatest weakness of this Don Carlo was that the staging missed the deeper, more challenging levels of the opera. The monastery of Yuste is depicted by the tomb of Charles V with the name "Carlos" engraved in huge letters so they can't possibly be missed. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor renounced his power and retreated into the monastery where he died ten years before the Revolt of the Netherlands.

Opera isn't history. But when a composer like Verdi adapts history for art, there is a reason. In this production, the political aspects of the story are downplayed. Even the asceticism of Charles V and Philip II is sacrificed to decorative imperative, although the words "addio, bei sogni d'or, illusion perduta!" pertain to more than Elisabetta. This is the kind of production that gives modern staging a bad reputation. Yet because it's comic book cute, it's probably popular. Staging is much more than decor. Like every other element in a production, it should contribute to meaning and drama, rather than distract. A cast of this exceptional quality deserved better.

Anne Ozorio

image=
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product_title=Giuseppe Verdi : Don Carlo
product_by=Don Carlo : Jonas Kaufmann, Tebaldo : Dusica Bijelic, Elizabeth of Valoius : Anja Harteros, Count of Lerma : Pablo Bemsch, Countess of Aremberg : Elizabeth Woods, Carlos V : Robert Lloyd, Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa : Mariusz Kweicien, Philip II : Ferrucio Furlanetto, Princess Eboli : Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Priest Inquisitor : Téo Ghil, Flemish Deputies : Zhengzhong Zhou, Michel de Souza, Ashley Riches, Daniel Grice, Jihoon Kim, John Cunningham, Voice from Heaven : Susana Gaspar, Grand Inquisitor : Eric Halfvarson, Conductor : Antonio Pappano, Director : Nicholas Hytner, Revival Director : Paul Higgins, designs : Bob Crowley, Lighting : Mark Henderson
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Posted by anne_o at 8:13 PM

May 4, 2013

Sarah Connolly: French Song at Wigmore Hall

Beginning with three songs by Albert Roussel, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Malcolm Martineau revealed the pervasive influences on French music and chanson at this time - the impressionistic cascading textures and drifting harmonies of Debussy, and the provocative rhythms and piquant harmonic twists of the music of Spain. In ‘Le bachelier de Salamanque’ (The Salamanca student), Martineau’s dry ripples, which occasionally expanded into outburst of warmth and colour, propelled the music forward, building to a poignant glissando flourish at the close which highlighted the pathos of final lines.

Here, and in the following ‘Le jardin mouillé’ (The drenched garden), Connolly modulated her tone to suggest something tantalisingly in-between indifferent and erotic, the French exquisitely pronounced. The joyous chords which open ‘Nuit d’automne’ (Autumn night) conveyed the richness of the golden sunset described - “the golden trees it stains with red” - but contrasting with this effulgence, Connolly found a sweetness to suggest the tenderness of love: “The dusk, on the roses,/ is so pure, so calm and so sweet,/ that noto one of them has closed - / and I pick one for you”. The tranquil sensuality of the close was deeply stirring: “and is still so warm/ that you could fall asleep naked.”

Fauré’s 'Le jardin clos' (The closed garden) followed. ‘La Messagère’ (The Messenger) aptly conveyed fleetness and vigour, through the energised nimble accompaniment, reaching vocal heights with the discovery of the beloved, “and her flower eyes open,/ resplendent in golden laughter”. Connolly’s burnished lower register mingled with Martineau’s rich accompaniment in ‘Dans la Nymphée’ (In the Grotto) while ‘Dans la pènombre’ (In the half-light) presented an insouciant contrast. Martineau was a typically sensitive accompanist throughout, never overwhelming the mezzo-soprano, even in the more tumultuous ‘Il m’est cher, Amour, le bandeau’ (My Love, the blindfold is dear to me). The gentle modalism of ‘Inscription sur le sable’ (Inscription in the sand) was most affecting.

Ernest Chausson’s theatrical ‘Chanson perpétuelle’ (Song without end) closed the first half of the recital; Martineau and Connolly balanced a symphonic majesty with delicate exchanges and reserved intimacy.

Though performed with consummate artistry and technical assurance, one couldn’t help feeling that the repertoire of the first part of this French sojourn was a little lacking in both variety and expressive depth. This is perhaps because of the innate equanimity and serenity of the material; but, Honegger’s Petit cours de morale (A little course in morals) offered a welcome epigrammatic diversion. Connolly’s focused low register was put to good effect in ‘Jeanne’, while ‘Adèle’ revealed the performers’ ability to derive the utmost variety of mood within the miniature form. Martineau’s slithering pianissimo gestures lent an ironic nonchalance to ‘Cécile’; and Connolly enjoyed the jazz-enthused vibrancy of ‘Rosemonde’, the closing phrase suggesting a world of possibility: “If you wish to discover the world/ close your eyes, Rosemonde”.

Poulenc’s passion for the poetry of Federico García Lorca was heartfelt but the composer professed: “What difficulty I have in showing my passion for Lorca in music”, “these three songs are of little importance in my vocal work”. He was referring to his Trois chanson de Federico García Lorca. Despite this authorial dismissiveness, the performers brought a thoughtful coherence to the three songs: ‘L’enfant muet’ (The dumb child) was marked by fragile tentativeness, ‘Adelina à la promenade’ (Adelina out walking) by a restless energy, and ‘Chanson de l’oranger sec’ (Songs of the dried-up orange tree) by a resonant nobility and declamatory grandeur.

Martineau made much of the musico-drama of the piano introduction to André Caplet’s ‘La croix douloureuse’ (The cross of pain); Connolly’s languid tone suggested the effort required by the poet=speaker to articulate his distress. Caplet’s accompaniment exploits the deep resonances of the piano and the contrasts between sonic reverberation and sparse brittleness, and the performers made much of the hollow self-sacrifice of the martyred protagonist: “I bow my head and I accept … the cross with which you assail me”.

Eric Satie’s Trois poems d’amour are characteristically dry and detached; Connolly and Martineau did not attempt to inject overly mannered nuances, but found some expressive meaning in the small gestures - such as the animated rising octave at the end of a phrase, or the oddly fanciful piano interjection.

Joseph Turina’s 'Tres arias' brought the concert to a close. In ‘Romance’, Martineau’s incessantly dramatic accompaniment was notable for the astonishing evenness of touch as the bass drove the music forward with muscular energy. In ‘El pescador’ (The fisherman) Connolly found an exquisite serenity to convey the fisherman’s alluring call to the fishermaiden: “come down to the shore/ and listen with delight/ to my song of love”.
The performance was marked by scarcely a blemish. But, while the technical accomplishments on display were unequivocal, and there was much intriguing and infrequently encountered material to digest, there was also perhaps a sense that we had not experienced the heights of Gallic representation of this varied and troubled epoch.

Claire Seymour

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Posted by anne_o at 3:46 AM

May 3, 2013

Rare restoration: Handel’s Esther 1720

The Dunedin Consort’s 2012 recording of ‘the first reconstructable version, 1720, was highly acclaimed; it was the result of research by musicologist John H. Roberts which identified the music which was intended for a private performance in 1720 at the residence of James Bridges, later Duke of Chandos, and that which Handel added subsequently for the 1732 revival.

This Wigmore Hall performance, the only London appearance in 2013 of the acclaimed Edinburgh-based ensemble, was musically accomplished but, excepting the contribution of one or two individuals, did not consistently generate sufficient dramatic and narrative impetus.

Part of the problem is the libretto, attributed to Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot and based on a Racine play, which lacks the dramatic élan of the biblical book of Esther and has narrative inconsistencies that are probably a result of the various revisions and re-workings. In the opening scene, Haman, henchman to the Persian King, Assuerus, proclaims an order that all the Jews are to be massacred. Ironically, at that time they are celebrating the felicitous news that Esther has been chosen as queen following a search for a woman to replace the disobedient Queen Vashti, and are ignorant of the threat to their race. Morcedai, leader of the Jewish community in Persia and guardian to Esther, informs Esther of the news and begs her to intervene with the King. She approaches Assuerus with dread, fearful that she will be punished by the law that condemns anyone who enters the King’s presence; but Assuerus admits her and then avows his love. In the final act, the King offers Esther anything she desires - he seems strangely unaware of her Jewish identity and even of Haman’s decree. Esther convinces Assuerus of Haman’s treachery and the latter is sentenced to death while the Jews are granted their freedom.

As Haman, bass Matthew Brook recognised the need to make the most of the text, and deftly created a villainous stage persona in his Act 1 aria, ‘Pluck root and branch from out the land’, delivering a punchy vocal line and terse dotted rhythms. In the magnificent Act 3 aria, ‘How art thou fall’n from thy height!’, Brook declaimed powerfully above the inexorable bass line with its plunging intervals, wonderfully conveying the mixed emotions of the condemned man.

Similarly tenor James Gilchrist (Assuerus) sang with expressive and well-measured urgency. His Act 2 duet with Esther (Mhairi Lawson), ‘Awake My Soul, My Life, My Breath!’ was full of ardency and eagerness, the thrill of passion embodied in his tone a striking contrast to the spectral, pianissimo chords of the accompaniment, restrained and dry until a slight blossoming of warmth and colour at the close. The following ‘O beauteous Queen, unclose those eyes!’ possessed an earnest ardour, the text repetitions given true shape and meaning as Gilchrist crafted a substantial musico-dramatic structure. His recitatives were likewise authoritative and full of impact.
Soprano Mhairi Lawson demonstrated both the coloratura lustre and quiet nuance that the role of Esther requires, subtly shading her imploring line, ‘Who calls my parting soul from death?’ in her Act 2 duet with Assuerus, and assertively declaring her defiance in her Act 3 aria, ‘Flatt’ring tongue, no more I hear thee!’ The extended melodies of the Act 2 aria, ‘Tears assist me’, were fluent and exquisitely shaped. But, overall she did not quite convey the regal assurance of the soon-to-be queen.

Nicholas Mulroy sang the long lines of Mordecai’s Act 2 aria cleanly but with little tonal variety and his forte outbursts occasionally seemed a little forced. Given the sparse string textures one might have expected the text to be more distinct. Although a little unyielding initially, tenor Thomas Hobbs (First Israelite) relaxed in the da capo repeat of ‘Tune your hearts to cheerful strains’ and the elegant nuances of the oboe solo and pizzicato strings brought a mood of easeful joy. As the Priest of the Israelites, countertenor Tim Mead was technically assured but struggled to fulfil the challenge of controlling and shaping the long aria which forms a climax to Act 1.

In the programme article, conductor John Butt makes much of the ‘greater emphasis’ placed on the chorus, in comparison to Handel’s Italianate works, noting that the composer was drawing on both the German choral tradition and the resources available in English cathedrals, colleges and private homes at the time. Butt led the chorus of 10 (the soloists supplemented by countertenor Rory McCleery and bass Jim Holliday) in vigorous fashion but as an ensemble they did not always respond to his direction; one would expect such slender forces, accompanied by small chamber orchestra, to be characterised by a nimble, airy brightness but at times the choral numbers seemed somewhat flat and unresponsive. The delivery of the text lacked buoyancy, even in the final ‘Hallelujah Chorus-inspired’ choral proclamation, “For ever blessed be thy holy name’; here, while the massed sound was majestic, the repetitions of ‘ever’ acquired increasing weight, one which resulted in a rather emphatic heaviness rather than emotional excitement. In the opening scene of Act 3, the chorus joyfully welcome their saviour, but despite the vigorous string playing the choral cries, ‘Earth trembles’, were remarkably polite, the ‘r’ genteelly rolled.

The instrumentalists were similarly well-marshalled but despite poise, accuracy and sure technique, there was not always a sense that they truly breathed Handel’s rhythms, and Butt’s tempi were often conservative. But, if the ensemble lacked a fiery spark, there was much fine solo playing. The lyrical overture showcased Katharina Speckelsen’s beautiful oboe playing, which was matched by the delicate grace of Carina Cosgrave’s flute obbligato in the Israelite Boy’s aria, ‘Praise the Lord with cheerful noise’, sung sweetly by Rachel Redmond. The strings punctuated the secco recitative incisively, as in the Priest’s Act 1 Scene 3 ‘How have our sins provok’d the Lord!’; in the aria which follows, the voice contrasted effectively with striking string unisons and declamatory interjections. The accompanied recitative was similarly coloured by orchestral texture and tone, Haman’s ‘Turn not, O Queen’ enriched by plangent repeated string notes, the twisting chromatic bass directly the harmony to strange realms. And, Assuerus’ excited aria, ‘How can I stay, when love invites?’, was enlivened further by some agile bassoon playing. The crisp articulation, splendid trills and focused countermelodies of the trumpet and horns brought nobility to the final act.

The stage platform was rather crowded and perhaps this inhibited the performers’ dramatic energy; overall, there was some fine singing and playing, but - while acknowledging that the Wigmore Hall is an intimate venue - there was little sense of a desire to communicate the heart of the emotional drama - the passion of an oppressed people - with immediacy and directness. Butt’s reference to the ‘English context’ of cathedral and collegiate choirs may indeed be pertinent, for such establishments were the training ground for many of the soloists and indeed the conductor himself. The result was a performance of a sacred drama in which the ecclesiastical dimension perhaps outweighed dramatic imperatives.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Mhairi Lawson, soprano - Esther; James Gilchrist, tenor - Assuerus & Habdonah; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone - Haman; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor - Mordecai; Thomas Hobbs, tenor - First Israelite; Tim Mead, countertenor - Priest; Malcolm Bennett, tenor - Officer & Second Israelite; Rachel Redmond, soprano - Israelite Boy. The Dunedin Consort, Wigmore Hall, London, 25th April 2013. Image : Esther before Ahasueras : Artemesia Gentileschi

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Esther.gif
image_description=Esther before Ahasuerus by Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, Rome 1593-1651/53 Naples) [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

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product_title=G F Handel : Esther
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Esther before Ahasuerus by Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, Rome 1593-1651/53 Naples) [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Posted by anne_o at 3:17 AM

May 1, 2013

Kate Lindsey at Glyndebourne

With a voice that has been described as full-throated and vibrant, Lindsey has assumed Mozart and Offenbach travesti roles in her career thus far. The trouser role in Ariadne will mark both Lindsey’s Glyndebourne and role debuts, not to mention her first Strauss opera, when the production opens on 18 May 2013.

When we met up at Glyndebourne, I asked if she had plans for future Strauss roles (Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Zdenka in Arabella spring to mind). She said she hoped so, a measured and careful response from a young singer who clearly takes an admirably considered and well-paced view of her career, rather than rushing into new roles. At the moment, she is simply concentrating on the Composer, she explained. She feels it is important to get this iconic role debut right, pointing out that you only get to do a role debut once and that she wants to enjoy every moment. She has been preparing for the role for over a month, pacing herself and studying, wanting to feel secure.

Lindsey has found an exciting freshness and vitality to the character of which she is trying to take advantage. She points out that once you have done a role, you always carry what you’ve done with you, and that there is a certain beauty in having a blank canvas. She is relishing Strauss’ music as she gets to know the role.

Her preparation has included reading the history behind the opera, notably the relationship between Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmanstal. Lindsey finds that understanding the lives of the creators informs the spirit of the character she is playing.

In fact, when Strauss and Hoffmanstal talked about expanding Ariadne auf Naxos and writing the prologue, Strauss said that he did not want the character of the Composer to be based on himself. The character was written so that it was closer to Mozart, which made Strauss more comfortable. But Lindsey feels, having read the letters between Strauss and Hoffmanstal, that the character of the Composer is rather like Hoffmanstal. He could become inflamed about things, whereas Strauss was a calmer, more grounded character.

Asked whether she found it frustrating not to be in the second part of Ariadne auf Naxos, the opera proper, she said she found it so rewarding to do the prologue that there was no use fretting about not being in the second part. Also, in the new Glyndebourne production (which is directed by Katharina Thoma and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski), her character has been staged into the second part—though she does not provide details. This, of course, entails extra rehearsals, but this is the sort of work that Lindsey loves: simply being in the room during the production process.

Glyndebourne Opera, with its location on a country estate far from London and with long rehearsal periods, is a very particular experience and one that is also new to Lindsey. She has found Glyndebourne gorgeous, commenting that from the moment she arrived, everyone was smiling and learning her name; it made a big difference that there were friendly faces and a family atmosphere. Her three-month stay at Glyndebourne will be the longest she has been in one place in several years.

Lindsey has worked at Santa Fe and Saint Louis, both of whose opera festivals were founded on the Glyndebourne model. Lindsey has found it fascinating to see the original. Having read a history of Glyndebourne, she finds John Christie’s founding of the festival in the middle of the countryside in the 1930s simply inconceivable.

For the duration of her stay at Glyndebourne, Lindsey is living in a cottage nearby, close to the South Downs. She has been taking advantage of the location to take lots of walks, relishing the English countryside and in its network of marked footpaths.

After Glyndebourne, Lindsey will be taking some time off. Then she has new roles to study. In autumn, she will appear in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and has a busy concert schedule. After Christmas, she will be returning to the role Niklausse in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in Munich and has a tour with Thomas Hengelbrock in what she describes as a “Handel pasticcio,” a semi-staged production created from the composer’s arias.

Lindsey would like to do more baroque opera. Give that she is comfortable in travesti roles, she would be successful in such repertoire. But Lindsey points out that there is a lot less baroque opera in the United States than there is in Europe. She attributes this partly to the size of the theatres, that the right voices for the repertoire do not always fit the houses.

There is also the dramatic challenge, particularly in the da capo arias. One needs the right artist to perform them, but also someone ready to dig deep into the work. For Lindsey, such music requires a firm grasp of the subtexts necessary to give the music life. She finds it a challenge to breathe life into music, to build new ideas whilst still respecting tradition.

The future will bring several new roles while reprising existing ones such as Niklausse. Lindsey finds it helpful to hold onto roles she knows. At the moment she does not find that she gets bored or frustrated with repeating roles. She points out that she is still young, yet adds that she never wants to feel that she could not repeat a role.

For her, each experience is creative — different performances may push you in different directions. You may not always connect with a director, but even in difficult moments you find something that you have not accessed before. Also, she does not stop when she leaves the rehearsal room, spending time mulling over things, going over the interactions with other characters. She will still be thinking hours later. Quoting Billy Joel, she found his comments about his career not being 9 to 5 very helpful. Even once they have passed opening night for Ariadne auf Naxos she will continue to think about her character and find ways forward.

Lindsey finds it helpful to listen to recordings, adding that it is fascinating to hear how other people have approached passages—that it can be a voice lesson. She also appreciates being able to watch and observe performances on DVD. With a role like the Composer, which has been assumed by both mezzo-sopranos and sopranos, there is the added interest of hearing how the different voice types navigate the music. In places, the vocal line goes high; when learning the role Lindsey was curious to hear how someone with a much thicker voice made it work.

For her, the Composer is such a physically intense character that it is a challenge to find the relaxation necessary to float some beautiful lines. She also points out that nowadays, it is harder for singers to experiment with roles because performances can quickly find their way onto the internet after people film with their phones. This creates an interesting pressure, Lindsey says, feels there is no opportunity to try things out in the way singers in the past were able to.

As a singer you now have to be your own protector, she continues, which is no easy task for the young. You have to learn to say no. But the results of saying no, of knowing yourself, can lead to wonderful opportunities and hopefully people will respect you.

Mozart has featured very strongly in her career so far. She has performed the Second Lady in Die Zauberflöte, Idamante in Idomeneo, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Cherubino in La Nozze di Figaro, and Annio in La Clemenza di Tito, with plans for Sesto next year. Lindsey feels connected to Mozart’s music and that his roles are a challenge to sing with their inherent humanity; they offer dramatic life, and that is where she likes to start. Lindsey finds that when she goes back to Mozart, the music tells you where the balance is in your voice. Mozart’s music is like medicine for the voice.

Lindsey is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, a program which she found very helpful indeed. It was an intense three years of study, but working with and observing some of the top singers in the world; taking small roles in productions; and sharing the rehearsal space with major singers allowed her to learn what opera really was all about. There was glamour at some level, but also an intense process, which was very educational and helped her to define some of her artistic priorities. Her time on the Met program also included working with James Levine, enabling her to delve into the music in all its intensity. She found the period a goldmine, and is forever grateful for the opportunities it gave her.

Lindsey admits to having no grand plan. There are roles that she aspires to sing, projects she wishes to create and people she would like to work with creatively, adding that working in a creative environment is the most important thing. Fixed goals are not Lindsey’s style; she says that there is grace in allowing things to unfold. She doesn’t consider it just her manager’s job to get her work but her job to do the best work possible. The only thing she can control is the present. Her goal for now is to give everything to the current project. After that, other things will come.

Ariadne auf Naxos runs from 18 May to 11 July as part of Glyndebourne Festival. For more information visit www.glyndebourne.com or call 01273 813813.

Robert Hugill

image=http://www.operatoday.com/KLsideshot.gif image_description=Kate Lindsey [Photo by Dario Acosta] product=yes product_title=Kate Lindsey at Glyndebourne product_by=An interview by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: Kate Lindsey [Photo by Dario Acosta]
Posted by Gary at 2:53 PM

The Damnation of Faust, London

In their performance of the complete work at London's Royal Festival Hall on 30 April 2013, Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brought Berlioz's dramatic legend to life with a very fine quartet of soloists, Ruxandra Donose, Paul Groves, Benedict Nelson and Willard White, and the London Symphony Chorus. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, whose passion for the music of Berlioz was so important to its re-discovery in the 20th century.

La Damnation de Faust was a complete failure at its premiere in 1846 at the Opera Comique. Berlioz had been obsessed with Goethe's Faust ever since reading part one, in Gerard de Nerval's translation, in 1828. The result was his Opus 1, "Eight Scenes from Faust", and it was these that were eventually transformed into the compete La Damnation de Faust, with Berlioz writing his own text for Faust's invocation to nature in Part 4.

He transposed the location of Part 1 to Hungary so that he could include his Rákóczi March which had been a great success on concert tour in 1845. There are a number of other orchestra show-pieces in the work. Though Berlioz did not stretch the musical form as far as he would with Romeo et Juliette, he still produced a work which used the orchestra as an extra character in the drama and which gave the orchestra a starring role. The work left its first audience confused, and it wasn't until 1893 at the Opera de Montecarlo that anyone tried to stage it.

From the first notes of Charles Dutoit's performance it was clear that we were not going to need a staging. Dutoit drew playing of great beauty and great flexibility from his orchestra (he is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the RPO). There were a lot of them, 60 strings in all with triple woodwind. There was a nice sheen to the quiet playing, but a feeling of attention to detail to. Dutoit is a very alive conductor, clearly alert to every moment and he brought out all of the different layers of Berlioz's superb scoring. Granted there were some fine solo contributions (the viola in the King of Thule aria and the glorious cor anglais solo in "D'amour l'ardente flamme") but what impressed was the quality of every moment of the playing. This wasn't sheer look-at-me brilliance, but a rich subtlety devoted to Berlioz's music.

Dutoit often took a relaxed attitude to speeds, but this was very much a performance of vivid contrast with some passages being taken at quite a pace. There was a lovely bounce to all of the rhythmic passages in the orchestra, everything was alive and vivid.

The role of Faust is rather an impossible one. It is the style of early 19th century French tenor which requires power and flexibility in a high tessitura which combines in a killing combination. Flexible lyric tenors can sound underpowered at the crucial moments, dramatic tenors can lack the flexibility and the necessary ease at the top of the stave. In 1893 at Montecarlo the role was sung by Jean de Reske, a tenor who combined singing Tristan and Siegfried with Gounod's Faust and Romeo, a combination well nigh unimaginable nowadays.

Paul Groves seems to make a speciality of these combinations of power, focus and clarity of line. Recent roles have included the killer tenor part in Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide his performances and recording of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius have managed to evoke a lost tradition of tenor singing. At the Royal Festival Hall, his use of his score was minimal and he delivered a highly dramatically involved performance. It was clear that he was having to do some management of his voice in the higher passages, but he delivered a performance was was admirable for his clarity of line and beauty of tone. He brought the sort of nasal intensity to the line which is very French, very necessary and so rarely achieved.

Whilst, perhaps, we might have imagined a more relaxed voice in some of the quieter moments, in the moments of rapture such as the invocation to nature, Groves brought in power reserves whilst still preserving the essential integrity of the voice, he never opened up in an Italianate way. Here, I must bring in one criticism of Dutoit, who seemed to take no account of any potential balance problems. There were moments when Dutoit could have made life a little easier for Groves and for Willard White.

Willard White playing Mefistopheles, one of his signature roles, was a miracle. The singer is now in his mid-sixties but apart from a hint of occasional fogginess at the top his voice is still in a superb state. And he certainly knows how to use it. Barely looking at his score, White was acting the role of Mefistopheles even when not singing. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the stalls, so could see clearly how White constantly used his eyes, and his whole body. White's Mefistopheles was certainly not a comic figure, he was blackly sardonic and rather formidable. His dark, chocolatey sounding voice is perfect for this role, especially as he can move it around with relative ease, making a delight of the lighter moments.

He and Groves developed a good rapport so that the dialogue moments were well realised, moments of drama as vivid as what was happening in the orchestra.

Ruxandra Donose was a beautifully modulated Marguerite. She was profoundly touching in the King of Thule aria, shaping the phrases quite beautifully. She has a rather soft-grained voice and this added to the impression of the rather nice girl in too deep. She combined with Groves to give a flexibly impassioned account of the love duet, whilst never quite matching Groves for sheer intensity. Her performance of D'amour l'ardente flamme was lovely and rather moving, as far as it went. But if you have heard someone like Regine Crespin singing the aria, then you know that it is possible to bring far more intense pain into the piece. Donose seemed to stay within the envelope of a beautiful voice and I wanted her to push things a little more.

Young British baritone Benedict Nelson sang the role of Brander, giving us a well shaped performance of the aria, full of lovely tone.

The London Symphony Chorus were on strong form, responding to Dutoit's direction and giving us a lively and highly involved performance. I did rather think, though, that there were occasional moments when the details were a little smudgier than they might have been. But at the big moments, such as the Pandemonium, we were treated to choral tone of a glorious amplitude. For the final scene, the chorus was joined by the New London Childrens Chorus, who added their voices to the beauty of the moment.

Given this extravagance, it seems odd that Dutoit did not follow Berlioz's request with regard to the harps. Though there are only two harp parts in the score, for this final scene Berlioz requests four or five harps on each part. I have heard it performed so, when Mark Elder performed the work at the Proms in the late 1980's (when I was singing in the chorus). The result is brilliantly magical and its a shame that Dutoit and RPO deprived us of it. Still, what we did hear was glorious enough and provided a magical end to a fine evening.

It was good to hear the RPO back on form, and under Charles Dutoit giving a fine account of one of Berlioz's great scores.

Robert Hugill

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/gustavecourbet_portraitofhe.gif
image_description=Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]


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product_id=Above: Hector Berlioz [Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1850]

Posted by anne_o at 9:11 AM