July 31, 2013

Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber

Indeed, it is doubtful that any opera singer has truly been an household name since the death of Luciano Pavarotti. Possessing an unique timbre that combined sweetness with power and an ironclad technique that enabled him to sing an effective, poised Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Covent Garden in 1947, after one of his lungs was fully incapacitated by the cancer that would take his life, Tauber was an extraordinary artist whose many recordings confirm that his charm and charisma were audible in every note that he sang. Sadly, though, even an artist such as Tauber falls victim to the erosive effects of time upon the reaches of musical legacies: once celebrated from Vienna to Vancouver and from Boston to Buenos Aires, Tauber is now but a name from history to many young artists; and, to many others, not even that. Equal parts homage to a fascinating artist of the past and opportunity for a young tenor to delight his admirers with a recital of music that suits his voice remarkably well, Heart’s Delight reminds the listener that Tauber’s ‘greatest hits’ having been enormously popular is in no way indicative that these gems composed for him by composers such as Franz Lehár (1870 - 1948) and Emmerich Kálmán (1882 - 1953) are musically insubstantial.

Though the selections on this disc rely principally upon the skills of the soloist, the support that the singer receives is nonetheless vital to the success of the performance. Having the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on hand to provide accompaniment is an embarrassment of riches, especially as some of the arrangements employed—most of which are credited to either Paul Bateman or Carl Michalski—subject the orchestra to service as little more than a string-heavy studio pick-up band of the type familiar from the musically chrome-plated recordings by the Mantovani Orchestra and similar ensembles. The Royal Philharmonic players take this in stride, however, producing lovely sounds that cushion the often ecstatic melodic lines. Violinist Duncan Riddell adds marvellously atmospheric playing to the orchestral fabric. Polish conductor Łukasz Borowicz presides over the performance with complete conviction, shaping each song with careful attention to the nuances of its text. Both Maestro Borowicz and the orchestra as a whole breathe in tandem with the soloist, conveying an unity of approach that makes even the too-familiar ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ sound newly-minted. Tinges of nostalgia in many of the songs prove surprisingly moving, kept in check as they are by Maestro Borowicz’s firm beat. The apparent enthusiasm for the project by both the Royal Philharmonic and Maestro Borowicz prevents this disc from ever seeming self-indulgent, a persistent peril with recital discs.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala is one of the most acclaimed tenors of the current generation, with triumphs on all of the world’s major operatic stages to his credit. It was as the Duca di Mantova in Verdi’s Rigoletto that Mr. Beczala made his début at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, and he reprised the rôle in the MET’s much-discussed new production of the opera by Michael Mayer in January 2013. Fine as he has been in recordings of operatic arias and full-length operas, he is on career-best form in this recording, his lean lyric tenor filling out the vocal lines of the selections on this disc with impressive security. Closely recorded with microphones dating from Tauber’s own recording sessions at London’s Angel Studios, Mr. Beczala mostly avoids the forcing in his upper register that increasingly affects his operatic performances. One of the most arresting aspects of Mr. Beczala’s singing on this disc is the uncanny resemblance of his timbre to that of José Carreras: there are in Mr. Beczala’s singing the same sort of sunny brilliance and unapologetic sentimentality that shone in Carreras’s finest singing. Occasionally, Mr. Beczala’s highest notes disclose slight discomfort. Pavarotti suggested that tenors are born with a sort of account into which a finite number of top Cs has been deposited: every withdrawal, as it were, depletes the account. There are more interpolated top notes in this performance than are strictly needed to make the impression that Mr. Beczala seemingly intends, some of them stretching his resources, but it is a great pleasure to hear this superb voice sounding so well.

The recital begins and ends with the aria that Tauber did more than any other artist to popularize, ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ from Léhar’s Das Land des Lächelns. It was for Tauber that Léhar composed ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ when he revised the score that was transformed into Das Land des Lächelns for Berlin in 1929. The opening track of Heart’s Delight offers the aria as ‘You are my heart’s delight’ in an English translation by Harry Graham that was used by Tauber in London performances. The similar cadences of the English and German texts produce performances that are virtually carbon copies of one another: both are excellently sung.

Not surprisingly, the music of Léhar is prominent in this recital. In ‘Lippen schweigen,’ the famous waltz-duet from Die lustige Witwe, Mr. Beczala is joined by Russian diva Anna Netrebko. What could easily have been an embarrassingly hackneyed party number is a memorably lovely account of the duet. Drawing inspiration from her colleague, Ms. Netrebko’s voice is on fantastic form, the climactic top notes radiant and delivered with spot-on intonation. It is not indicated whether the English translation by A.P. Herbert that was used by Tauber in the London première of Paganini is employed for Mr. Beczala’s performance of ‘Girls were made to love and kiss,’ but the tenor is to be congratulated for making the dated, slightly chauvinistic lyrics sound legitimately romantic. Mr. Beczala enjoys the backing of the Berlin Comedian Harmonists, substituting for the chorus, in his ringing performance of ‘Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert’ from Giuditta.

Rudolf Sieczyński (1879 - 1952) would be completely forgotten today were it not for his lilting ‘Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume.’ As unabashedly sentimental paean to Vienna, the song became an unofficial anthem for the city. Mr. Beczala sings the song with unaffected fervor.

Emmerich Kálmán (1882 - 1953) was nearly as influential in the milieu of Viennese operetta in the early 20th Century as was Léhar, his command of the csárdás winning the hearts of Austrian and German audiences alongside Léhar’s waltz tunes. Kálmán’s importance to Tauber’s career is represented on this disc with two numbers from Gräfin Mariza, one of the composer’s greatest successes. ‘Auch ich war einst ein feiner Csárdáskavalier’ and ‘Grüß mir die süßen, die reizenden Frauen im schönen Wien’ are two of Kálmán’s most melodically distinguished songs, and Mr. Beczala relishes the fluid vocal lines.

Ralph Erwin’s (1896 - 1943) ‘Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame’ was sung by Tauber in Robert Land’s 1929 silent—except for Tauber’s performance—film of the same name. Marlene Dietrich’s performance as a free-thinking party girl whose aristocratic paramour turns out to be a mere waiter is one of the most subtle of her career, but it is Tauber’s singing of the title song that makes the film legendary. Mr. Beczala’s performance of the song is stirring. ‘Overhead the moon is beaming,’ Karl Franz’s Serenade from Sigmund Romberg’s (1887 - 1951) The Student Prince, is one of the most difficult tenor arias in the operetta repertory, and it was a particular gem in Tauber’s concert repertoire. It proves a highlight of Mr. Beczala’s performance, as well, his tone gleaming and his accent enchanting. In this song, too, the Berlin Comedian Harmonists back Mr. Beczala with perfect coordination. Carl Bohm (1844 - 1920) is now forgotten, but it was said in the 19th Century that his publisher’s profits from sales of Bohm’s songs financed publication of much of Brahms’s late work. The ‘old German love song’ ‘Still wie die Nacht,’ one of Bohm’s most bewitching songs, draws from Mr. Beczala a finely-wrought performance, the sound of the voice conveying the rapture of the text.

Robert Stolz (1880 - 1975) was one of Austria’s most versatile composers of the 20th Century, his career embracing operetta, film music, and a series of scores for Austria’s version of the Ice Capades. ‘O mia bella Napoli’ from Venus in Seide, transported to the sun-drenched streets of Naples by the inviting mandolin playing of Avi Avital, is a brooding, convincingly Italianate piece that brings out the most fetching colors in Mr. Beczala’s voice. The songs ‘Ob blond, ob braun, ich liebe alle Frau’n’ (from 1935’s Ich liebe alle Frauen) and ‘Ich liebe dich’ (from 1937’s Zauber der Bohème) are taken from two of Stolz’s most successful film scores and are sung with appropriate amorous swagger by Mr. Beczala. ‘Das Lied ist aus,’ from the 1930 film with the same title, is a mesmerizingly tender piece, and Mr. Beczala sings it lovingly, imparting an enthralling sincerity without over-emoting or distorting Maestro Borowicz’s perfect tempo.

Never have advances in recording technology been put to better use than in allowing Mr. Beczala to duet with Tauber in ‘Du bist die Welt für mich’ from Der singende Traum, one of Tauber’s own compositions. Tauber’s vocals were recorded in Vienna in 1934, but the sound of his singing is so vibrant that a listener could easily believe that Tauber was in the studio with Mr. Beczala in 2012. There are no hints of the artificiality that spoil many similar efforts of combining recordings of artists past and present. The care with which Mr. Beczala matches his phrasing to that of his illustrious predecessor is apparent, and the engineers achieved a blend of the two voices—similar in timbre but very different in tonal placement and vibrato—that is a credit to both artists. As in all of the tracks on this disc, Mr. Beczala’s singing is sensitive but aptly large-scaled.

Very few recital discs planned as tributes to artists of prior generations are as successful as Heart’s Delight. Too many of these sorts of recordings are excessively academic or merely orchestrated manifestations of singers’ egos. Foremost among the many exemplary qualities of Heart’s Delight is the affinity of the singer for the music that he sings: Piotr Beczala never for a moment condescends to the notion of singing numbers from operettas and film scores. This is not an instance of an important opera singer ‘slumming it’ in a performance of music of lesser quality than that to which he is accustomed. Richard Tauber undoubtedly possessed one of the finest tenor voices of the 20th Century, and he gravitated to operetta not because his vocal capabilities were unsuited to grand opera but because his artistic soul found in operetta the opportunity to smile through music. When hearing his singing on Heart’s Delight, the listener is likely to find that the smile in Piotr Beczala’s voice is contagious.

Joseph Newsome

Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber—Songs composed for Richard Tauber performed by Piotr Beczala with Anna Netrebko, soprano; the Berlin Comedian Harmonists; Avi Avital, mandolin; Duncan Riddell, violin; and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Łukasz Borowicz [Recorded in the Angel Recording Studios Ltd, London, during October 2012; Deutsche Grammophon B0018337-02; 1CD, 62:05]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DG4790838.jpg image_description=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0838 8 [CD] product=yes product_title=Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0838 8 [CD] price=$15.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?ordertag=Perfrecom48961-936458&album_id=939443
Posted by Gary at 9:37 AM

July 30, 2013

Prom 20: Wagner — Götterdämmerung

And so it came to pass. Not only did we continue to hear superlative conducting from Daniel Barenboim and equally superlative playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin. (To guard my back, unlike Siegfried, I shall mention in passing very occasional signs of tiredness towards the end, if only so as not to have to return to such Beckmesserish thoughts.) We also at last heard a Siegfried and Brünnhilde worthy of the roles. Götterdämmerung, by virtue of its placing as the third ‘day’ of the Ring, should always be a special occasion, though sadly that is anything but a foregone conclusion; this performance, however went beyond ‘special’, to ‘great’.

The weight of history was apparent in those portentous opening chords to the Norns’ Scene, but so was sonorous magic. Wagner’s goal-orientation is not Beethoven’s, though it is not diametrically opposed either; Barenboim’s guiding of this crucial scene opened up possibilities rather than closing them, whilst at the same time ensuring that the drama’s tragic import won out. The bassoon line following the Second Norn’s ‘...woran spannst du das Seil?’ sounded as if it were itself the guiding thread of the Norns’ rope of Fate. More often than one might expect, conductors misjudge Wagner’s climaxes; often, indeed, they try to introduce irrelevant climaxes of their own. There was no such danger here, the outbreak of Dawn judged to perfection, the Staatskapelle Berlin in truly glorious sound, followed by a scene with an ebb and flow — Wagner’s melos — in which words and music truly melded together to form a musico-dramatic whole. And the tenderness of the strings, for instance when Brünnhilde here embraced Siegfried, far surpassed anything the BBC SO had been able to conjure up the previous evening, for Tristan. The final climax to the scene sounded as fully achieved as if Furtwängler himself had been at the podium; not that we should forget here the extraordinary contributions of Andreas Schager as Siegfried and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, on whom more below. As ever, Barenboim proved worthy of Wagner’s ‘most subtle art’ of transition, that wonderful Dawn followed by a masterly Rhine Journey, placed aptly midway between Beethovenian playfulness and Mahlerian contrapuntal involvement. (Special mention here should be afforded to the glockenspiel, veritable icing on the orchestral cake.) Once we reached the Rhineland proper, moving towards the Hall of the Gibichungs, we were afforded a veritable pageant, noteworthy not just in itself, but, in its ‘secondary’ diatonicism (to borrow from Carl Dahlhaus on Die Meistersinger, the mediated diatonic harmony being predicated upon the chromaticism it both negated and incorporated) already conveying the mediated unease of ‘civilisation’. Beneath the surface lay not only the nixies of the Rhine, but more worryingly, the snares of Hagen’s plotting. The aural stench of decay — how truly, truthfully ugly some of Götterdämmerung’s music is! — led us to the Hall itself. There was already something of the unhealthy air of Venice, of the Palazzo Vendramin.

And so to the first act proper. The sturdiness Barenboim imparted to Gunther’s rhythms — Lohengrin, as it were, aufgehoben — immediately made clear the hopelessness of that character’s plight. (If only Gerd Grochowski had managed a little better the difficult balancing act of a strong portrayal of a weak character, but anyway...) Throughout the act, orchestral exultancy would bid Siegfried to new deeds, all the more movingly for our knowledge of Hagen’s snares, his Watch again sick with chromatic decay, whilst the transition to Brünnhilde’s rock drew us into a more intimate, tragically fragile world. The phantasmagoria with which Brünnhilde’s anger was transformed into evening twilight again had to be heard to be believed, likewise the cruellest of interruptions — more so even the coitus interruptus of Tristan ’s second act — upon Siegfried’s appearance (as Gunther). The violence of rape horrified, as it must, at the close.

How one relished the richness of the bass line — reinforced by those eight double basses — at the opening of the second act! The architecture of every act was perfectly in place: long familiarity, for conductor and orchestra alike, clearly pays off; the vengeance trio proved no mere set piece, but a true culmination. But moments told equally truthfully, whether the trombone interjections of ‘Hagen’ as Brünnhilde screamed of her deceit. Then the new sound-world of the third act came as a breath of fresh air, though just as soon as one had thought that, necessary doubts set in. The orchestra sounded languorous, almost Debussyan; one often hears Liszt here, in this first scene, but Barenboim’s balances imparted intriguing and apposite presentiments not so much of Pelléas as of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and even the Images. Integration was, as ever key, the Funeral March all the more impressive for acting as interlude rather than interposed set piece. Barenboim’s greatness in Beethoven now fully informs his Wagner, and did so until the closing bar, bathed in the after-glow of orchestral flames that might well have burned us. And yet, at the end there was a message of equivocal hope. Barenboim has no fear of comparisons with anyone, not even Haitink (from whom, in any case, we are extremely unlikely to hear another Ring).

From Siegfried’s very first line, we heard what had been missing earlier on. Lance Ryan had proved serviceable in the previous instalment, yet Andreas Schager proved preferable in every respect. The beauty of his voice alone here showed what earlier had been lacking, let alone the dramatic commitment he would show when acting his third-act narration or, indeed, stiffly as ‘Gunther’ with the Tarnhelm. It was clear even in the Prologue that this was a fully mature Siegfried, a man, no longer a boy, despite his fatal flaws; Schager’s interaction with the orchestra as part of a musico-dramatic whole that extended far beyond any single contributor was not the least of his virtues. Drinking the potion brought a touching hymn to lost innocence, soon enough followed by an eroticism entirely lacking in many portrayals (let alone Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan, the night before). There was, moreover, real anger to his contesting Brünnhilde’s claims in the second act, betokening a psychological understanding rarely present in this role. One might have taken dictation, of words and music, from either him or Stemme, for pretty much the whole of the performance. Anyone who did not respond both to the irrepressible vitality of this Siegfried’s swagger with the Rhinemaidens and to the detailed, loving narrative of his deeds recalled would be satisfied with no one, not even Lauritz Melchior. This might actually have been the first time I was moved as I should have been by the moment when he recalls Brünnhilde: a true monument to a truer love than I have heard.

Stemme’s Prologue ‘O heilige Götter!’ was a paean to a glorious age, an age which yet had passed; the realm of the gods was not belittled, but there was no doubt that the future held something different. The dramatic urgency she imparted to the Waltraute scene was every bit the equal of Waltraud Meier’s. ‘Denn selig aus ihm leuchtet mir Siegfrieds Liebe!’ revelled in tragic irony: Stemme sang in the present but the orchestra — and we — knew that she sang of the past, the ecstasy of her love notwithstanding. Her fear before Siegfried (as Gunther) was palpable, yet without loss to the commanding nature of her performance. And her Immolation Scene, delivered from the organ, somehow bringing together the strongest virtues of Flagstad’s womanhood and Nilsson’s authority, should become the stuff of legend. Meier’s turning to her sister as the latter asked ‘Weisst du, wie das wird?’ was a dramatic moment worth all (or most of) the stagings in the world. How she later made the words come alive as she told, for instance, of Wotan taming Loge! Though Meier’s Waltraute may be dangerously close to definitive, that is no excuse for overlooking the excellence of her contribution, here with a true sense of epic narrative in telling her tale of Wotan’s depression. Increasing desperation urged on the orchestra, as it in turn urged her on. Her departure had one think of Cassandra herself.

Mikhail Petrenko’s protean Hagen is now a known quantity. Sometimes, from force of habit perhaps more than from dramatic necessity, one finds oneself expecting a darker voice, but Petrenko’s vision is in many ways more dangerous than the traditional Ridderbusch-like performance. Rather than pitch-black ‘mere’ evil, we hear someone devilishly intelligent, and troublingly alluring. Not that Petrenko’s voice is without heft, but, for instance, his ‘Heil! Siegfried, teurer Held!’ as the hero brought his boat ashore was curdled with a menace that went beyond brute force. (After all, it is through cunning that he will slay Siegfried, not though overpowering him.) ‘Dir ha ich guten Rat,’ seemed almost throwaway: ‘I gave you good advice,’ but the words were made to tell, to inform us that such advice to Siegfried was anything but ‘good’, however that might be understood. Aggression and restlessness suggested a power-lust that might have been enhanced by substances the modern would tends to deem illicit. This Hagen was one dealer no one would wish to encounter upon a dark night.

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich once again showed a fine way with words. His injunction to Hagen, ‘Hasse die Frohen!’ seethed with Nietzschean ressentiment, whilst the ghostliness of the regfrain, ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn,’ chilled as it should. Our trio of Rhinemaidens if anything surpassed its excellence in Das Rheingold. Anna Samuil, alas, proved somewhat on the shrill side as the Third Norn and blowsy as Gutrune, her vibrato, especially during the first act, uncomfortably unsteady. She was more honeytrap than dupe, and less interesting for it. There was, though, real vocal presence to be heard from Margarita Nekrasova’s First Norn. The Royal Opera Chorus excelled, its weight as impressive as its clarity.

All were rightly commended by Barenboim in a few closing words. Charming as ever, he praised the audience for its silence as well as for its most fulsome applause, and forewent to mention the selfish **** (fill in as appropriate) who had interrupted Hagen’s opening advice to Gunther with a mobile telephone call. There were many stars to this Ring, but once again, this proved above all others the achievement of Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, no secret to those of us enamoured with the German capital, but now firmly ensconced in Londoners’ hearts too. Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf took a well-deserved bow, retiring as concert-master — surely only Barenboim could get away with an implicit Führer gag here, explaining that Germans do not favour the English term, ‘leader’ — but applause resounded for the whole of Wagner’s Attic chorus. And, one hopes, for Wagner himself, a fitting tribute, which is really saying something, to the composer’s bicentenary. Now, please, someone, a CD release...!

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme; Siegfried: Andreas Schager; Gunther: Gerd Grochowski; Alberich: Johannes Martin Kränzle; Hagen: Mikhail Petrenko; Gutrune, Third Norn: Anna Samuil; Waltraute, Second Norn: Waltraud Meier; First Norn: Margarita Nekrasova; Woglinde: Aga Mikolaj; Wellgunde: Maria Gortsevskaja; Flosshilde: Anna Lapovskaja. Justin Way (director). Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday 28 July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Nina_Stemme12.png image_description=Nina Stemme [Photo by Tanja Niemann] product=yes product_title=Prom 20: Wagner — Götterdämmerung product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Nina Stemme [Photo by Tanja Niemann]
Posted by Gary at 10:34 AM

Prom 19: Wagner — Tristan and Isolde

Semyon Bychkov, whom I heard conduct the work in Paris in 2008, once again proved a sure guiding presence, though perhaps without the final ounce or two of delirium that is required to elevate the work to the deserved status of Nietzsche’s opus metaphysicum. The opening Prelude underlined the crucial importance of the bass line, even in - arguably particularly in - this work, straining as it does at the bounds of tonality, without ever quite transgressing them. As Theodor Adorno wrote, in his Versuch über Wagner, ‘‘It is with good reason that the bars in the Tristan score following the words “der furchtbare Trank” stand upon the threshold of new music, in whose first canonical work, Schoenberg’s F-sharp minor Quartet, the words appear: “Take love from me, grant me your happiness!”’ I never felt that quite so much was at stake, but this remained a distinguished reading in a more conventionally dramatic sense. Part of that, perhaps, was to be attributed to the orchestra. Whilst on fine form, the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not, with the best will in the world, be said to have conjured up the tonal, metaphysical depth of Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, especially when it came to the all-important string section.

That said, Bychkov worked wonders at times. The orchestral swaying at the beginning of the first time managed to convey just the right mixture of physical and metaphysical turbulence. Sinuous woodwind as Isolde told of her ‘art’ looked forward to the Flowermaidens. The orchestra as a whole, even if it sometimes lacked true depth, still assumed its role as Greek Chorus, or, in Wagner’s later terms, representation of the Will. As Isolde instructed Kurwenal to have Tristan come to her, there was a true sense of tragic inevitability both from orchestra and singer. Bychkov, here and elsewhere, understood and communicated both musical structure and its interaction with the external ‘drama’. (In this of all Wagner’s works, the drama lies more in the orchestra than anywhere else; indeed, more than once, I found myself thinking how much I should love to hear him conduct Schoenberg’s avowedly post­­-Tristan symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande. The stillness of Hell, as much as Nietzsche’s ‘voluptuousness’, truly registered as Isolde drank the potion; moreover, the shimmering sound Bychkov drew from the BBC SO violins had them play to a level I have rarely heard - certainly not under their recently-departed absentee conductor.

The Prelude to Act II was unusually fleet, but not harried: probably wise given that one was not dealing with the traditional ‘dark’ German sound of an orchestra such as Barenboim’s Staatskapelle. Offstage brass, conducted by Andrew Griffiths, were excellent. Again, the BBC SO often surpassed itself, its scream at the opening of the second scene - responding to Isolde’s ‘Tristan - Geliebter!’ - offering a somewhat embarrassing contrast with the puny sounds heard from Tristan himself. Woodwind again excelled, at times, for instance after Isolde’s ‘O eitler Tagesknecht!’, evoking Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. As Tristan - just about - harangued the spite and envy of day, we heard an apt orchestral sardonicism, mid-way between Loge and Schoenberg. (I thought in particular of the First Chamber Symphony.) And the deadly slowing of the heartbeat - Karajan truly worried about this Act II music, fearing it might literally take the lives of conductors - was well conveyed. I liked the idea - and practice - of having the Shepherd’s English horn solo piped from above, as if from the ramparts. The spotlighting of the (very good) soloist put me in mind of Stockhausen’s later practice of blurring the boundaries between instruments and ‘characters’. If the level of orchestral playing was not so impressive during much of the third act, most obviously earlier on, that may have been part of a doomed attempt to enable Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan to be heard. There was, though, also a problem with balance at times, the brass tending to overpower in a way never heard in Barenboim’s Ring performances. Dramatic urgency was regained, however, after Tristan’s death.

Violeta Urmana opened in somewhat shrill fashion, her words often indistinct. She improved quickly, though, and as early as the second scene, was both more sensitive in terms of tonal variegation and far more comprehensible. There were times, especially during the first act - for instance, on the ‘preis’ of ‘mit ihr gab er es pries!’ - when her climaxes were a little too conventionally operatic, but hers remained a committed performance. She had no difficulty in riding the orchestral wave in her transfiguration: impressive, if not necessarily moving. Mihoko Fujimura excelled as Brangäne; indeed, it seems to be more her role than Kundry. There was true musical satisfaction to be gained from the ‘rightness’ of her phrasing, as well as dramatic truth from the honesty of her character portrayal. Her second-act Watch was radiant, euphonious, somehow sounding as if from a greater distance than the RAH organ, as if carried to us by an opportune, clement breeze. Andrew Staples put in excellent performances as both the Shepherd and the Young Sailor. The latter role, sung from above, was very nicely shaded, and with diction of an excellence that put many other cast members to shame. As Shepherd, his voice was audibly, somewhat awkwardly, more virile than that of the lamentable Tristan.

Robert Dean Smith was, alas, a grave disappointment as Tristan. From his ‘Fragt die Sitte!’ to Isolde, matter of fact in the wrong way, there was little dramatic involvement to be gleaned. He often sounded more like Isolde’s grandfather, about to expire, even in the first act, than her lover. The orchestra, as guided by Bychkov, often compensated for him, but it should not have had to do so.. When Tristan sang that he and Isolde were ‘ungetrennt’ (undivided), the division was all too glaringly apparent. It was not just that he lacked charisma and volume, though he certainly did, but that his performance throughout seemed entirely unaware of the deadly eroticism in which it should have been soaked; he often sounded more like an attempt, a couple of sizes too small, at Beckmesser, than Tristan. Boaz Daniel proved an ardent Kurwenal, his ‘Heil Tristan!’ a proper reminder of a doomed attempt to return to the chivalric mores of Lohengrin, of the day. David Wilson-Johnson’s Melot was unpleasantly blustering, the only other real disappointment in the cast. Kwangchul Youn gave an excellent performance too. I have often found him a little dull in the past, but here his tenderness and passion showed King Marke to be a true human being, not a mere saint. Had I been Isolde, I should certainly have stuck with him on this occasion.

The combined male forces of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra made for a goodlier crew than I can recall, a veritable male voice choir. There was no compromise between heft and diction; the former quality had the excellent consequence of already emphasising the threatening nature of the external, phenomenal world of the day. If not necessarily a Tristan for the ages, then, there remained much to admire.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith; Isolde: Violeta Urmana; King Marke: Kwangchul Youn; Kurwenal: Boaz Daniel; Brangäne: Mihoko Fujimura; Melot: David Wilson-Johnson: Steersman: Edward Price: Young Sailor/Shepherd: Andrew Staphes. BBC Singers/BBC Symphony Chours (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov. Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 27 July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Violeta_Urmana.jpg image_description=Violeta Urmana [Photo © Ivan Balderramo] product=yes product_title=Prom 19: Wagner — Tristan and Isolde product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Violeta Urmana [Photo © Ivan Balderramo]
Posted by Gary at 10:21 AM

Prom 18: Wagner — Siegfried

It is to be hoped that those Londoners who do not travel much — though it remains unclear to me why they could not listen to the odd recording or broadcast — will finally be disabused by this Proms Ring of the strange claim that the sub-standard Wagner they have all too often been served up over the past decade represents anything but a pale shadow of the ‘real thing’.

That is crucial not from the standpoint of drawing up some variety of ghastly league table, but because Wagner deserves so much better, as, barring a few noisy miscreants, do audiences. A friend remarked acutely earlier in the week that so much of the chatter concerning last year’s Covent Garden Ring concerned the work as some sort of ‘ultimate challenge’ and congratulated the forces for having (just about) withstood that challenge. Art is not, however, a school sports day; to come anywhere near realising Wagner’s potential requires musicians who understand his (admittedly strenuous) demands, who are as comprehending of his world-view and its implications, historical and contemporary, as possible, and who are expert at communicating his message at as many of its multiple levels as they can. ‘Muddling through’ — or, to put it another way, a self-congratulatory celebration of English amateurism — should never be an option.

Barenboim once again had the measure of the score, his understanding of which has deepened considerably over the years, from the outset. The Prelude to Act I opened very slowly, but its hallmark was flexibility, not least when a mini-Furtwänglerian accelerando led us, as the most natural development in the world, into Wagner’s menacing treatment of the no-longer-dormant Nibelung motif. Lesser conductors would simply present one thing after another, perhaps with the odd ‘shock’ effect imposed upon the meaningless progression; Wagner’s drama needs to be simultaneously communicated and reinforced through a tightly woven web of motivic interconnection. As Carl Dahlhaus put it, ‘the decline in importance of the symphony as a genre represented the obverse of an inexorable expansion of the symphonic style in other genres.’ It is inconceivable that a great Wagnerian would not also be a great Beethovenian.

The dark orchestral phantasmagoria, inevitably bringing to mind Adorno’s Versuch über Wagner, conjured up by Barenboim and his orchestra as Mime initially struggled to forge the sword told of dark forces, dramatic and musical, at work; one was drawn into the drama in the very best way, by the score ‘itself’. And yet, there was plenty of life: Siegfried’s music quite rightly evoked the world of a Beethoven scherzo, transformed into musico-dramatic material. Barenboim showed that lightness does not preclude depth; indeed, it often relies upon it. And depth one certainly heard from the Staatskapelle’s strings, heart-rendingly when Siegfried casually knocked the food Mime had prepared out of his hands; we empathised with Mime and his misery through Wagner’s extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal. Likewise, in the third scene, Barenboim — and Wagner, of course — conjured up the sheer horror of Mime’s predicament just as truthfully as the other, unconscious, heroic side of the coin. Competition between soundworlds, distinct and yet dialectically related, was very much the stuff of this first act. The dark Staatskapelle brass, never brash in the way sections from Anglophone orchestras might often be, told during the Mime-Wanderer scene of the darkness still cast by Alberich’s Nibelheim curse — even when the Wanderer was ostensibly talking of himself. Schwarz- and Licht-Alberich continued their dialectical dance of death (even though we never discover quite what becomes of the former).

Act II opened in similarly magisterial fashion. Marking by kettledrums of that crucial tritone — the giants’ motif darkened, perverted, from its initially diatonic form — was effected to musico-dramatic perfection; that interval, that sound would hang over the act for at least as long as it took Siegfried to slay Fafner. A febrile undergrowth, scenic and harmonic, would soon find itself conjured up — that phantasmagorical phrase again — by composer, conductor, and orchestra together. The orchestra, moreover, gained a real spring to its step during those extraordinary exchanges between Mime and Siegfried, when the former, despite all his efforts, betrays his true intentions, Wagner’s sardonicism conveyed with the darkest of comedy. And that Feuerbachian moment of hope — love, revolution, love in revolution might yet emerge the victor — at the end of the act was captured to perfection, only to be contrasted, at the beginning of Act III, by a very different variety of dramatic urgency, the Wanderer’s dismissal of Erda (and thus of Fate itself) upon us.

Barenboim’s deceleration as Erda rose from the depths told of far more than mere handling of the score; this was an attempt to hold back history itself — likewise at the end of his confrontation with Siegfried in the following scene. The Wanderer’s urgency with Erda, rhythms buoyant and generative, would emerge victorious, but at what cost, and for how long? Questions rather than answers were proffered. His silence following ‘Weisst du, was Wotan will?’ was made to tell in a fashion not entirely unlike a silence in Bruckner, and yet, with its very particular musico-dramatic import, quite unlike it. By contrast, the transformation to the final scene was perhaps the most ecstatic I have heard, the orchestra revelling in Wagner’s wizardry, Barenboim ensuring that such revelry retained dramatic motivation. There were moments when one heard, for instance, the fresh air of Johannistag — ‘Ach! Wie schön!’ as Siegfried loosened Brünnhilde’s helmet — or delectable violin femininity, as Siegfried lifted the breastplate. But they never stood out, self-regarding, for their own sake; the drama was the thing.

Peter Bronder’s Mime was excellent. He wheedled without falling into caricature, projected a strong command of his line throughout, and even proved a dab hand pretty with his (small) hammer. There was real anger, moreover, as well as self-pity, when he dubbed Siegfried ‘dankbares, arges Kind!’ Lance Ryan is not possessed of a beautiful voice, but he showed the necessary tirelessness not simply to ‘get through’ the role, but also to shape its progress. If vocal lines were often less than mellifluous, one could hear pretty much every word. He had a nice — or rather nasty — line in cruelty of delivery, for instance when telling of how he longed to seize Mime’s neck, though there were undoubtedly occasions when he erred on the side of crudity, not least during the forging of Notung, and clowning around over the horn was probably overdone. Johannes Martin Kränzle once again contributed an attentive reading of Alberich’s part, words, music, stage manner welded into something considerably more than the sum of its parts. Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner (from the organ) was properly evocative of the rentier as dragon: what he lay on, he owned. One even felt a degree of sympathy at the moment of death. Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer was not as large of life as some, but his solemnity told its own tale; this was, after all, a Wotan two generations on from Das Rheingold, scarred by events, working his way towards renunciation of the Schopenhauerisn Will. Whether that were actually how Stensvold thought of it or no, one could certainly understand his portrayal that way. His Norwegian way with Wagner’s words harked back to the the old sagas: perhaps not ideal in abstract pronunciation terms, but again opening up other associations for those willing to listen. As in Berlin, Rinnat Moriah proved a bright-toned Woodbird, perfectly contrasted with the deep contralto of Anna Larsson’s wonderful Erda, her tiredness and fading powers conveyed musically rather than by default. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde gave an excellent impression of awakening, and handled very well this difficult transition from Valkyrie to woman. She more than whetted the appetite for what is now to come.

Mark Berry

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lance_Ryan_2012_-_01_klein_MUSICA_Management_1335177011.png image_description=Lance Ryan [Photo by Musica Management] product=yes product_title=Prom 18: Wagner — Siegfried product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Lance Ryan [Photo by Musica Management]
Posted by Gary at 9:57 AM

Schubert’s Winterreise, Wigmore Hall

James Gilchrist’s wandering poet-narrator is not a tormented nor angst-laden Romantic hero, rather an introverted, sincere individual, struggling to understand the wiles of the world in which he lives. Gilchrist’s presentation of the rejected beloved of Schubert’s celebrated song-cycle is characterized not by excessive solipsistic anguish or ardent emotional unrest; instead, restrained introspective sorrow and self-honesty, punctuated by brief eruptions of misery and resentment in the face of a hostile fate, mark his progress through an unremittingly unsympathetic landscape.

Gilchrist’s technique is assured and his command of Schubert’s expressive elements intelligent and well-considered. A seamless lyricism and even tonal palette establish a focused emotional ambience, and the diction is unfailingly clear while never mannered. His tenor has a baritonal quality - a richly expressive middle range complemented by a lighter upper register - although the lower passages sometimes lack support and weight. A tendency to use a quasi-falsetto at moments of quiet poignancy is affecting but, upon repetition, the weightless, floating delivery became less effective. Gilchrist’s tone is beautiful and the projection easeful, but at times the voice is rather ‘breathy’ at the top, as what might be an expressive gesture seems to be a technical compensation. But, an unfussy attention to detail, and a quiet intensity and pensive intimacy characterised this warmly received Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall.

Pianist Anna Tilbrook began ‘Gute Nacht’ with a purposeful tread, self-contained but resolute; and Gilchrist’s beguiling legato and fluid phrasing established a dreamy air and ensured our sympathy and compassion. Moments of rhetorical anger - ‘Was soll ich länger weilen,/ Daß man mich treib’ hinaus’ (Why should I wait any longer/ for them to drive me out’) - were heightened but not exaggerated, and ceded to more resigned delicacy, ‘Gott has sie so gemacht … Fein Liebchen, gute Nacht’ (God has made it so … my sweetest love, good night’). Subtle rubatos conveyed both indecision and hope.

Gilchrist employed a wide dynamic range and interesting vocal timbres. At the conclusion of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’, his eerie low tenor erupted dramatically as the poet-narrator imagines his beloved as a fierce heat that will spring from his heart and melt the winter ice, the contrasting vocal shades and dynamics underscoring the painful depths of such fiery passion felt amid the wintry chill of the frozen landscape. ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood) was the epitome of well-considered musicianship, full of movement and unrest but the jarring contrasts of emotion crafted and controlled. The falling octaves of the opening lines were sweetly anguished, and Gilchrist found an angry, burnished colour to underscore the contrast between the cold flakes of snow and the poet-narrator’s burning agony. The beautiful, soft stillness of the closing lines was vividly swept aside by the acceleration and crescendo of the final assertion, ‘Fühlst du meine Tränen glühen,/ Da ist meiner Liebsten Haus’ (when you feel my tears burning, that will be my loved-one’s house).

A similarly surprising outburst marked the conclusion of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (On the river). Gilchrist’s tenor was wonderfully contained and focused as the poet-narrator etches his beloved’s name upon the frozen surface of the silent stream, before turning his exasperation inwards, challenging his own heart, ‘Ob’s unter seiner Rinde/ Wohl auch so reißend schwillt?’ (is there such a raging torrent beneath its surface too?). And, this fury and momentum swept forth into the subsequent ‘Rückblick’ (A backward glance), where the animated piano figuration and alternating major and minor modes suggested the inner turmoil of the rushing, stumbling poet-narrator.

The perfectly coordinated vision of singer and pianist was apparent throughout. In ‘Die Wetterfahne’ (The Weather-vane) Tilbrook responded perceptively to the pictorial elements - the introductory flourishes mockingly conjuring the play of the wind - bringing gestures intermittently to the fore, then sensitively retreating. The turbulent introduction to ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness) was wonderfully even, depicting the wanderer’s frustration and emotional torment; the merest pause preceded the question, ‘Wo find’ ich eine Blüte,/ Wo find’ ich grünes Gras?’ (Where shall I find a flower, where shall I find green grass?), giving the line added poignancy. The piano’s echoing motif which penetrates ‘Die Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree) was clearly articulated, integrated into the song’s narrative but never overpowering the voice.

‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) had a spookily improvisatory quality; but in the following ‘Rast’ (Rest), Gilchrist’s enriched his tone - although to convey the wanderer’s weary distraction, he diminished to a wistful pianissimo floating gesture - the voice contrasting tellingly with the dry, mocking ambience of the piano accompaniment. Changes of tempo were perfectly controlled in ‘Frühlingstraum’ (Dream of Spring), the sweet lightness of the nocturnal visions of springtime undermined by the piano’s Gothic rumblings, as the crowing cock and screaming ravens interrupt the idyll of the dream.

Only in the central sequence of songs, which share the same slow tempo, was there a slight loss of momentum and energy. A moment of pause at the conclusion of the introverted ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness) conveyed the poet-narrator’s despair in the face of a seemingly indifferent natural beauty, but the steady tread of the subsequent songs occasionally lacked impetus. ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head) was, however, noteworthy for Gilchrist’s legato phrasing and the nuanced colours of Tilbrook’s accompanying chords, while in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last hope) the performers created a delicate, transparent texture, Gilchrist bringing deep sentiment to the drooping suspensions of the close: ‘Fall’ ich selber mit zu Boden,/ Wein’ auf meiner Hoffnung Grab’ (I too fall to the ground, weep on my hope’s grave).

Forward motion was regained in the concluding songs. Gilchrist revealed a commanding sense of the shape of the vocal phrases in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The sign-post), the pulsing piano gesture suggesting an unobtrusive but immovable fate, symbolised by the sign-posts which direct the wanderer as he staggers on and on, in search of rest. In ‘Mut!’ (Courage!), the tenor’s bitterly determined tone was enhanced by vigorous dotted rhythms, and complemented by Tilbrook’s repeated rubato which conveyed the desperate effort required to battle onwards against the hostile snow.

The poignant tenderness of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom suns) was deeply affecting, as Gilchrist modulated his well-supported mezza voce from initial dreamy illusion to more fervent assertion. ‘Die Leiermann’ (The organ-grinder) followed on without a pause, the slow pace and simple, unaffected vocal line conveying the poet-narrator’s utter exposure.

A long silence followed the final fading chords; indeed, it seemed a shame to break the mood of fragile vulnerability that the performers had so skilfully and sensitively crafted. But, Gilchrist and Tilbrook undoubtedly deserved the immensely appreciative applause which inevitably ensued, for this was a dignified and discerning Winterreise.

Claire Seymour

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Friday, 26th July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/james-gilchrist.png image_description=James Gilchrist [Photo courtesy of Buxton Festival] product=yes product_title=Schubert’s Winterreise, Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: James Gilchrist [Photo courtesy of Buxton Festival]
Posted by Gary at 9:30 AM

Something Rotten in the State of Arcady?

Nymphs and shepherds preferred. Giants only by invitation”. However, as with small ads, you don’t always get what you expect.........of which more anon.

The second surprise about Iford Arts’ current sell-out run of Handel’s Acis & Galatea is that they haven’t presented it since way back in the year 2000 - and if ever a place called out for a certain production it is the pastoral paradise that is Iford Manor with its garden designed by Peto and mock-classical cloister micro-theatre. Handel showed early his skills at word-painting, even in the “foreign” language of English, and the elegantly melodic lines must have equally perfectly suited the piece’s first performance at Cannons, Edgware, the country home of James Brydges, later 1st Duke of Chandos, for whom he wrote the music for Acis in the year 1717-18.

Much has been written about the origins of the libretto (John Gay, with contributions by Alexander Pope and others) and how in fact the story is a mix of myth and fabrication which has caught the public’s imagination down through the centuries. No other Handel opera has been so constantly on the stage and in the repertory. In his lifetime alone it is recorded that Acis was performed no less than fifty times - an amazing number for those days. Of course the length (a modest 90 minutes or so), small forces required (4 or 5 soloists depending on version, with equally small chorus), and little in the way of big scene-changes might have contributed to this longevity and popularity but I doubt they were the deciding factors. The sheer beauty of Handel’s melting melodies and hummable tunes must be of equal importance as the many tuneful arias follow fast upon each other with little in the way of recitative.

The Sunday night performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company and soloists certainly did not disappoint, even if the English weather kept everyone on their toes - after all, bubbling brooks need to be replenished even in Arcady and the River Frome is close by a garden full of its own tumbling waters. As before here, the tiny performance space brought out the best in terms of creativity and imagination on the part of director Pia Furtado and designer Georgia Lowe and this is where the evening took an unexpected turn: yes, there were elegant costumes suggesting 18th century pastoral fun and games with silk stockings, masks and frock coats - but why does sensible, pragmatic Damon (bit of kill-joy usually) have his faced glittered like a New Romantic of the 1980s? And why is he the only one wearing bright red among a throng of cream and white? And why is one of the elegantly dressed ladies of the chorus obviously a man in drag? And why does Galatea, our demi-goddess water sprite, appear caged like a pole dancer in a sleazy “gentlemen’s” club? As the story of poor Acis’ doomed love progresses we realise that this production isn’t going to give us that nice warm cuddly feeling come the end that we might expect. No, Furtado’s vision is very different and refreshingly so. In this version of Arcady there’s something rather nasty lurking in the river bank and it isn’t just that wicked lustful giant Polythemus; no, it’s all choreographed like a sex-show in the aforementioned club and although poor helpless Galatea manages to transform the dead Acis into a little stream, that’s about all she can do - for in the final scene she is returned to her gilded cage to be ogled and pawed over once again. Is this a post-feminist statement? Or just a witty imaginative take on a very old story? Come the end, after applause long and loud for the excellent cast and musicians, each member of the audience seemed to have a different view and maybe that’s exactly what was intended.

Ben Hulett as Acis, Chris Turner as Damon.gifBen Hulett as Acis and Chris Turner as Damon

Galatea was sung by the excellent young soprano Mary Bevan who used her agile voice with confidence and colour, and indeed some powerful emotion such as in “must I my Acis still bemoan....” whilst nimbly leaping in and out of wells, in various degrees of undress. If we missed some of the more technical demands which Handel places on his soprano - the trills in her opening aria “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire” - were somewhat lacking, this talented young performer made up for it with affecting characterisation and smooth production.

Tenor Ben Hulett is another young British singer on the way up and the role of Acis certainly showed off his range with some limpidly elegant singing at the top of his voice which nailed the essence of Handel’s writing for this most sympathetic of characters. His “Love in her eyes sits playing” was a bewitching moment, but the darker elements of his voice also worked well in the second half. Like Bevan, he is due to make his debut at the Royal Opera House soon and with singing like this, he should make a real impact in the lighter repertory.

Our not-so-friendly giant Polythemus was beautifully cast in the form of bass Lukas Jakobski whose impressive frame of six feet plus several inches and shaven head brought the required dramatic impact onto the scene. He nicely caught the essence of giant-ness with a rolling wide-spread gait and slowed-down body movements whilst his rich bass coped nimbly with the faster passages such as that old favourite of Victorian parlours “O ruddier than the cherry”.

Last but not least of the soloists was our slightly surprising Damon, ably sung by tenor Christopher Turner with some interesting stage business not usually associated with this role - one got the idea that he was perhaps some kind of Master of Ceremonies in this over-heated erotic world of myth and legend, rather than just the voice of reason. The idea certainly worked well and suggested an interesting alternative structure for the drama. His “Consider, fond shepherd” was particularly well-sung and in its inflections suggested more than an entirely altruistic motive.

The chorus and dancers, seven in total, made excellent use of the tiny space available and only occasionally seemed to overwhelm the soloists physically - there’s a finite limit at Iford as to how many bodies can work effectively in that cloister. They all worked and sang well as a company, coping efficiently with the fast costume changes imposed on poor Galatea (mainly stripping off her clothes it seemed), nipping in and out of the exits as required and only occasionally treading on any feet incautiously left out by patrons.

Christian Curnyn has had a good year with award-winning recordings, and his Early Opera Company goes from strength to strength both here and abroad with composers as varied as Monteverdi, Mozart, Britten, Cavalli and of course Handel. Working with a force so much smaller than normal here at Iford must be both a challenge and a delight, and it shows. Handel’s music is second nature of course to this band but Curnyn never lets that familiarity roll over into routine - lively and detailed playing is expected and achieved.

This was certainly an Acis & Galatea to remember and as the gardens emptied, and lights dimmed in the little cloister, the only sound left was that of the “gentle murm’ring stream” below, winding through the pastures of Wiltshire. And maybe the sound of a weeping water-sprite, back again in her gilded cage.

Sue Loder

G.F. Handel: Acis & Galatea. A New Iford Festival Opera Production. Libretto: John Gay. Sung in English. Iford Festival Opera, England. July 28th 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mary%20Bevan%20as%20Galatea.gif image_description=Mary Bevan as Galatea [Photo by Rob Coles] product=yes product_title=Something Rotten in the State of Arcady? product_by=A review by Sue Loder product_id=Above: Mary Bevan as Galatea

Photos by Rob Coles
Posted by Gary at 9:04 AM

The Aix Festival 2013

Don Giovanni as envisioned by director Dimitri Tchneriakov was first seen at the Aix Festival’s Archevêché theater in 2010. It created a sensation, and scandal in some quarters as do many Tchneriakov mises en scène. Don Giovanni was a somewhat sympathetic drunk who accommodated the sexual needs of a complicated household (in Tchneriakov’s Don Giovanni everyone is related or about to be, except Leporello).

It was a splendid production, conducted by Louis Langrée, music director of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart, with the period resources of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. It was a musically vivid if unique, far out take on the legend as told in the opera. A feeling of déja vu anticipated the revival, enough was enough. And besides it seemed only a couple of years since its premiere. It was too soon for the same thing.

Until the curtain rose. The same set, only a different atmosphere, now the silence of a funeral home, the formality of a law court. Then the downbeat. One of the hallmarks of the original production was the crashing of a show curtain to separate, or punctuate scenes and establish a precise time sequence (and, well, to take the place of a whole lot of recitative). In 2010 the moments in time were demurely indicated in French. Now, somehow, the crash was more brutal, the time indications were suddenly boldly typed out, in French and then in English. Sans serif.

The Don stumbled out of Donna Anna’s bedroom, crashed to the floor, dead drunk and he remained drunk for the several month duration of Tchneriakov’s action. American bass baritone Rod Gilfry who not so long ago was the St. Francis in Amsterdam embodied the Don. Mr. Gilfry is the charismatic performer ne plus ultra. Thus we were solidly in the presence of a drunk, a man useless to the world. We were not the only ones. The entire cast of well-known characters had lost patience with him, and finally sat at a grim household council to determine how to rid themselves of the problem. Giovanni himself solved the problem, he simply drank himself to death — il dissoluto punito!

DON GIOVANNI8043.gifA scene from Don Giovanni

No one particularly cared, except maybe Zerlina just a bit. After all he was no longer Don Ottavio’s more virile competition nor was he Masetto’s richer competition. These two, usually losers, reached a virile standoff at Giovanni’s Act I party that had nothing to do with the kiss they exchanged during the opera’s Act II finale in 2010. Ottavio now in fact had some real coglioni. Elvira was perfectly happy, in fact relieved to be passed off to Leporello in the complex serenade escapade. Anna and Ottavio had a little flirtatious moment after the Don’s demise and the opera ended.

This time it was the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marc Minkowski, a maestro of impeccable early music credential. There was a suavity of sound, an amplitude of color that only a fine modern symphony orchestra achieves. It was urged on by this once early music maestro who in recent years has taken on the gamut of colorful nineteenth and twentieth century repertory, and now maybe has left earth as well.

The maestro brought forth sugary sweet, sometimes incoherent sounds from the pit that created a sort of alcoholic musical haze through which a wacko continuo pounded. There was indifference to the often separate sonic worlds of the pit and stage, and the maestro seemed to be confusing conducting with arm flailing.

You surely understand by now that all this was art at its most sublime. It was the sequel, hardly the repeat of the brilliant 2010 Tchneriakov Don Giovanni. It had to be seen to be believed, Mozart’s Don Giovanni was not deconstructed, but Don Giovanni destructed as is, in fact, the intention of the opera. We all bought it with minimum booing.

As had been in 2010 the casting for the new Tcherniakov and Minkowski vision was impeccable, bass baritone Kyle Kettleman the only hold over, bridging with sensitivity and subtle emotional understanding the decline of his boss. Arias were sometimes whispered, sometimes almost spoken, never fully sung. Ensembles were dramatically inverted. The new Donna Elvira had withdrawn (no explanation given), and was replaced for the first four performances by the 2010 Elvira, Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and for the final four performances by Romanian soprano Alex Penda (lately known as Alexandrina Pendatchanska) who oozed Slavic disgust for her no-account husband (the Don).

There used to be an adage in the opera business — don’t mess with Verdi. Another adage was don’t produce Verdi if you don’t have the voices. But a few generations of new age directors have changed all that. Blame it on Jonathan Miller with his mafia Rigoletto, blame it on Calixto Bieito with his toilets in Un ballo in maschera, both emblematic new age productions of Verdi.

The wisdom of the ages still stands of course, but if you invite famous director Robert Carson to stage Rigoletto you take what the latest in operatic thinking gives you. To wit, a big confusion with the equally famous jester in I pagliacci, plus a relentless big top metaphor that offered a myriad of possibilities for creating stage excitement (acrobats, contortionists, a lion tamer [with eight or so scantily clad females (a few square centimeters of faux lion skin], the ninth was the Countess Ceprano, all of whom willing to go topless). Plus the ring master (the Duke of Mantua) willing to take it all off.

RIGOLETTO-718.gifA scene from Rigoletto

Young, reasonably fit Mexican baritone Arturo Chacón Cruz was the Duke of Mantua. His youth ensures powerful and secure high notes though his vocal production seems to preclude forming words. He projects youth and energy and even some charm, though no sweetness or delicacy, and no musical or vocal sophistication. Mr. Chacón Cruz is however experienced in the big-top metaphor having recently played Werther in circus language in Lyon (it worked a bit better for Werther there than for Rigoletto here).

Soprano Irina Lungu was the alternate Violetta to Natalie Dessay’s recent La Traviata in Aix. Russian born and trained, extensively schooled in Italy this young diva has secure above the staff capabilities though her voice sits more expressively in the full lyric range. Mlle. Lungu is indeed highly schooled, her Gilda created by exploiting style without plumbing sincerity either vocally or dramatically.

Georgian baritone George Gagnidze sang Rigoletto, his signature role that he has taken to the world’s major stages (in the U.S. at the Met and in L.A.). His is a consummate Rigoletto combining beauty and power of voice with a seemingly natural inclination to negotiate the emotional poles of the Rigoletto character. Much of this Rigoletto however disappeared amid the clamor of the big-top metaphor.

Robert Carson typically avails himself of fine designers, here the husband and wife team Radu and Boruzescu of Bulgarian origin who have made their professional lives in France. it is a big-top of long-ago atmospheres, colors that are emotional and shapes that are storybook traditional. The grandstands are steep thus adding a vertical plain to the staging surfaces. With consummate directorial skill Carson used every inch of the horizontal and vertical spaces to create stage pictures, including to highest reaches of the big-top for a floating trapeze swing from which Gilda sang her “Caro nome.”

The richness of directorial and scenic possibilities afforded by the metaphor however sabotaged Carson. His tricky staging failed to ignite the emotional lives of his protagonists, including, most harmfully, the courtiers of Verdi’s crucial Rigoletto chorus. Not that this seemed to bother enthusiastic audiences.

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda sometimes allowed his orchestra, the London Symphony to be covered by staging noises, and other times, too often, indulged in exploring and exploiting the sophistication of sound that has made this superb symphony orchestra famous. The Verdi orchestra however is purely dramatic, not an end in itself. It is a dominant player in Verdi’s tightly complex opera organism. Noseda did not and this orchestra could not fulfill their roles in Aix.

RIGOLETTO-711.gifA scene from Rigoletto

Don’t mess with Verdi.

Rarely in the annals of opera do forces converge to create a masterpiece. But this occurred just now in Aix. And no surprise. Patrice Chéreau created the stage and Esa-Pekka Salonen created the pit for the Strauss Elektra with extraordinary German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius.

The fire curtain rose to reveal a silence hanging over the minimally shaped classical architectural forms of the set. Von Hofmannsthal’s maids began sweeping and scrubbing the floors. The sounds of the broom, the running of water to fill pails slowly became apparent, even loud, focusing our attention on detail, smallest detail. It was to be an Elektra discovered through microscopic dramaturgical detail.

All hell broke loose in the pit, murdered Agamemnon the dominant musical force of the evening. The servants spread realistically throughout the courtyard discussed palace life. Their individual personalities were perceived by a striking diversity of age, body type and race, the “real” made more so by precise and complex staging, like the music. Real as well was the detail of the costume, vaguely middle European, vaguely mid-twentieth century, the socialist grit and survival feel against which all life must play.

Elektra rendered her opening monologue in stately, mythic terms of pre-written destiny, her idée fixe — the duty of her brother Orest to reek vengeance on their mother Clytemnestra for the murder of their father, Agamemnon. Chéreau’s Clytemnestra was soprano[!] Waltraud Meier, possessed also of her idée fixe — her fear of being killed by her son. Mme. Meier possesses a delicate persona making a vulnerable Clytemnestra. She was a personage and voice much reduced in magnitude from the usual monster.

She was visually and vocally neurotic rather than evil (after all she did have a justifiable reason to kill her husband). Elektra in fact actually embraced her mother during Clytemnestra’s monologue of fear, a coup de théâtre not withstanding its deeply human motivation. A second coup soon followed— Orest and his tutor ceremoniously entered the courtyard (unnoticed by Clytemnestra and Elektra) just as the Clytemnestra confession was concluding, adding frightening layers of now palpable physical threat.

Chrysothemis, sung by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, was of substantial personality and force, the only being on the stage who could see beyond the murder of Agamemnon. Of a vocal magnitude nearly parallel to that of Mme. Herlitzius Chrysothemis competed vocally with Elektra offering life instead of death.

Orest, Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko, held back from revealing himself to Elektra, the scene staged with Elektra blind to his presence. At this point we were somehow inside Elektra but deprived of understanding this reaction to her brother. Orest too was possessed by duty, his idée fixe, that in fact destroyed him emotionally (killing his mother). His beaten form was made visible to us as he walked slowly off the stage during Elektra’s dance.

ELEKTRA  7036.gifA scene from Elektra

Finally Chéreau left Elektra exhausted, sitting on a ledge, and we saw the tragedy not only as that of Elektra but of Orest as well, and of Clytemnestra who lay there dead, murdered by her son.

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen used the considerable resources of the Orchestre de Paris, 110 players (68 strings) to tell the Chéreau story. Nothing happened on the stage that did not happen in the pit, with the same intelligence of detail. The dissection of the Von Hofmannsthal libretto was echoed in Salonen’s immersion into the Strauss score, taking it well beyond what you may have perceived before. The delicacy of the chamber orchestra that Strauss inserted inside his massive instrumental forces was notably absent, having disappeared into this fortissimo colossus of neurosis and humanity.

The title is Elektra, she was 50 year-old Evelyn Herlitzius, who took the stage with the palpable energy of a post-adolescent and of voice that shown at momentous times with the beauty of youth. Mme. Herlitzius will have challenged Chéreau and Salonen to make use of these attributes. It is impossible to imagine this production without this phenomenal artist of unceasing physical and vocal stamina. The production now goes to Milan, Helsinki, Barcelona and Berlin with most of this same cast. Casting will be modified when it comes to the Met — a different Elektra most significantly).

Michael Milenski

For an account by Michael Milenski of the two smaller operas of the Aix Festival 2013, please see Elena and The House Over Taken at www.OperaToday.com

Casts and Production:

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni: Rod Gilfry; Leporello: Kyle Ketelsen; Donna Anna: Maria Bengtsson; Don Ottavio; Paul Groves; Donna Elvira: Alex Penda; Zerlina: Joelle Harvey; Masetto; Kostas Smoriginas; Il Commendatore; Anatoli Kotscherga. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Minkowski; Mise en scène et scénographie: Dimitri Tcherniakov; Costumes: Dmitri Tcherniakov and Elena Zaytseva; Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Théâtre de l’Archevêche, Aix-en-Provence, July 18, 2013.


Rigoletto: George Gagnidze; Gilda: Irina Lungu; Il Duca di Mantova: Arturo Chacon Cruz; Sparafucile: Gábor Bretz; Maddalena: José Maria Lo Monaco; Giovanna: Michèle Lagrange; Il Conte di Monterone: Wojtek Smilek; Borsa: Julien Dran; Marullo: Jean-Luc Ballestra; Il Conte di Ceprano: Maurizio Lo Piccolo; La Contessa di Ceprano: Valeria Tornatore. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The London Symphony conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Mise en scène: Robert Carsen; Scenery: Radu Boruzescu; Costumes: Miruna Boruzescu; Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Chorégraphie: Philippe Giraudeau. Théâtre de l’Archevêche, Aix-en-Provence, July 24, 2013.


Elektra: Evelyn Herlitzius; Klytämnestra: Waltraud Meier; Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka; Orest: Mikhail Petrenko; Aegisth: Tom Randle; Der Pfleger des Orest: Franz Mazura; Ein junger Diener: Florian Hoffmann; Ein alter Diener: Sir Donald McIntyre; Die Aufseherin/Die Vertraute: Renate Behle; Erste Magd: Bonita Hyman; Zweite Magd/Die Schleppträgerin: Andrea Hill; Dritte Magd: Silvia Hablowetz; Vierte Magd: Marie-Eve Munger; Fünfte Magd: Roberta Alexander. Coro Gulbenkian. The Orchestre de Paris conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Mise en scène: Patrice Chéreau; Scenery: Richard Peduzzi; Lighting: Dominique Bruguière; Costumes: Caroline de Vivaise. The Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, July 19, 2013.

image_description=Scene from Elektra [Photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt]

product_title=The Aix Festival 2013
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Scene from Elektra

Photos by Pascal Victor / ArtComArt

Posted by michael_m at 8:15 AM

July 24, 2013

Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walküre

Perhaps that makes sense in some endeavours, but in a performance of the Ring, the experience is cumulative. True, one might be disappointed after an excellent Rheingold; however, in this case, it offered the perfect preparation for an excellent first ‘day’ proper. Asin Berlin, an often ‘objectivist’ Rheingold was followed by a warmly Romantic Walküre, the dramatic contrast between godly prehistory and the realm of Wagner’s ‘purely human’ palpable from the outset. If anything, Barenboim’s Wagnerian mastery — and that is certainly not too strong a term — was more impregnable than in 2011. He was doubtless assisted by a kinder acoustic — how often does anyone say that of this venue — in the Royal Albert Hall than in the Schiller Theater, where he had also elected to have the pit semi-covered. Here, however, the Staatskapelle Berlin was rightly enthroned as the brightest star in the evening’s constellation, the benefits of a semi-staged performance once again manifest. In both cases, the only serious ‘competition’ — a horrible concept, but let that pass for the moment — from my experience had been provided by Bernard Haitink with Royal Opera forces, again at the Royal Albert Hall. Barenboim and Haitink are certainly the only conductors I have heard, at least in the flesh, to have shaped the architecture of the second act satisfactorily. Once again, it is clear that Barenboim has learned his Furtwänglerian lessons, without in any sense slavishly following that greatest of all Wagner conductors.

The Act I Prelude set the tone in more than one sense for what was to follow, Wagner’s music audibly founded upon the bass line, very much as Furtwängler would have understood it to be; moreover, it was music, not some mere storm ‘effect’, very much as Furtwängler — and Beethoven — would have understood. Almost infinitely variegated in terms of dynamic contrast, it subsided to the tenderest of ppp, again setting out Barenboim’s stall for a performance that would prove little short of all-encompassing. Soon a classically dark ‘old German’ string sound — think of Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic prior to Karajan’s internationalising tendencies — would take centre stage, both in sectional and solo (that cello) offerings. When Sieglinde brought her guest the drinking horn, the cello proved, may Wagner forgive me, as eloquent as in any Brahms chamber work. The cellos’ recitative at the end of the scene, as Sieglinde invites Siegmund to stay at the house where Unheil lives, audibly echoed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, straining in Wagner’s Opera and Drama terms, for the Word, and in Walküre terms, for the words to express already-burgeoning love. That takes both an orchestra and conductor steeped in central musical (that is, German) Kultur; would that either of our London houses could offer that at the moment. Similarly, the presentiment of Tristan (Act II) afforded from the strings as Wotan, in his farewell to Brünnhilde, told of the ‘üppigen Rausch’ (voluptuous intoxication) she had imbibed from love’s cup spoke of equally subtle contributions from composer, conductor, and players alike. Just as Wagner’s immersion in his harmonic world permitted him to steal from the future, so did Barenboim’s and the orchestra’s parallel immersion permit us to note that detail.

This great orchestra is far more than its string section, of course. Every section, indeed very instrument, shone — as would be acknowledged by Barenboim at the end, with the number of individual bows he allowed his musicians. Woodwind malevolence resounded to perfection, as if Tristan ’s potion were being brewed before our ears, as Hunding noted the same ‘glissende Wurm’ in the siblings’ eyes. How the horns terrified, as demented — Wagner’s own direction — as Sieglinde herself during her second act hallucinations; the ancient Wild Hunt itself seemed to have dawned. The brass would soon, of course, turn gravely beautiful, their part in the Annunciation of Death evocation of the most venerable of funeral equale. Moreover, the brass-led awakenings in the first act’s final scene, as if building upon new sunlit dawns from Lohengrin, were never crude in the way one must often fear from English orchestras; they were powerful, but never brash.

Such was the case even when Barenboim whipped up the fiercest agitation, for example when Sieglinde, ‘beside herself’, named her brother Siegmund. The ongoing accelerando during her rapture once again had one thinking of Furtwängler, so dramatically right and perfectly achieved was Barenboim’s accomplishment. In a very different mood, the darkness of the curse that resounded following Fricka’s departure in the following act was all the more troubling given its grounding in both timbre and harmony. Only a conductor who knows the score inside out, and knows where musically it has come from and in what direction it is tending will accomplish that. Wagner famously described the art of transition as his subtlest art, and so once again it proved here, as that between Act II Scenes 2 and 3 took us, line unbroken, from the slough of despond to the danger and exhilaration of our love-communist outcasts. The command of architecture in this act to which I previously referred was perhaps the greatest of Barenboim’s many achievements. Moreover, the sweetness of the Magic Fire Music allowed a final, properly phantasmagorical coming together of the orchestra as a whole: not rushed, as so often it is, but with an attentiveness on Barenboim’s part that revealed quite how disturbing this anything-but-innocent putting Brünnhilde to sleep truly is.

The only real fly in the ointment was Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund. Tireless and hard-working though the assumption may be, there is nothing in the way of tonal beauty, and the German continues to sound ‘learned’ rather than ‘lived’. Heroism is not evoked by simple loudness, let alone by shouting, as often endured. Even at his less abrasive, O’Neill sounded more like an ageing alderman than an alluring outlaw; one could not help but think that nine out of ten Sieglindes would have elected to stay with Hunding. The contrast at the beginning of the first act’s final scene between O’Neill’s voice and the ravishing beauty of solo horn and cello was especially painful. Likewise his ‘Wälsungen-Blut,’ the final word of the first act. Anja Kampe, from her first entry, offered a merciful contrast, in terms of vocal quality, imparting of meaning to the words, and general lack of crudity. She offered sexual and musical urgency in the moonlight, whereas O’Neill offered the charisma of a middle manager. The soft pregnancy of tone and expression when she told of what she had heard as a child had me keenly aware of my own heartbeat; in tandem with Barenboim, this Sieglinde, despite an occasionally unruly top register, offered societal rupture and sensual rapture. There were times when Halfvarson’s balance as Hunding tipped too far from the musical to the verbal, at least for my Wagnerian appreciation. (The director Keith Warner, however, has recently been contesting such claims, arguing that ‘acting’, considered broadly, should always come first.) By the same token, however, a beautifully dark, Martti Talvela-like voice was lavished on words such as ‘Die so leidig Loos dir beschied nicht liebte die Norn.’ Given the tonal quality of what we had just heard from Siegmund, it was indeed difficult not to agree that the Norn had felt little love for him. Occasionally, a little more balance to Halfvarson’s voice would have been welcome, but there were certainly pitch-black compensations to be had.

Nina Stemme offered a Brünnhilde keen in every sense, from her opening ‘Hojotoho’ onwards, never failing in tone, even if she forgot a few words in Act III. (In a display of equal acuity and generosity, Terfel acted as her prompter and normal service was resumed.) Her voice has no weaker register, or at least it did not on this occasion, thereby allowing equal expressiveness throughout. Stemme’s apparent tirelessness bodes well for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Ekaterina Gubanova once again proved an excellent Fricka. ‘So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern...’ was delivered with rare fury; this was a woman scorned, no ice-maiden. Likewise her ‘verlacht’, as in ‘derided’ of men, offered true bitterness, as the gods’ Feuerbach-inspired dethronement gathered pace. Moreover, the Valkyries were an excellent bunch. They and their conductor ensured that their ‘Ride’ was an infinitely more musical experience than one generally suffers; again, I had to think back to Haitink to recall something comparable. Even the laughter was musically delivered. Susan Foster’s Helmwige ‘Hojotoho!’ truly made me sit up and listen, but there were no weak links here.

Bryn Terfel’s Wotan had me initially fear the worst, his opening contributions somewhat coarse — and subsequent passages were not all entirely innocent of that charge. However, his musico-dramatic identification with the role won me over to acknowledge what may well be the finest performance I have heard from him. Singing ‘Nimm den Eid!’ as Fricka had her say, the ‘Eid’ (oath) that he offered was arguably over-emphasised, though opinions will differ. Other details, however, were spot on, for instance his despairingly whispered — following Wagner’s directions — ‘Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich’ to Brünnhilde, aided by the most sepulchral of brass. Likewise in that same monologue, the shading, visibly guided by Barenboim, on the word ‘Rhein,’ when he told of his failure to return the ring to its source: the word offered both a sign of a better world than that which now prevailed, and the hopelessness of ever (re-)turning to it. ‘Das Ende — das Ende!’ presented first vehement anger, then ghostly despair, shadowed by the unerring orchestra. I have rarely been impressed by Terfel’s Wagner but this highly distinguished performance was worth the price of admission alone. The desolation felt at the end of the second act was a tribute to him almost as much as to Barenboim, though of course it was the orchestra that sent the final shivers of terror down the spine.

The audience still provides too many unwelcome interventions of its own. There was far too much coughing, especially during the third act and, most unforgivably, the Annunciation of Death. And, intentional or otherwise, the opening of a fizzy drink — no one, repeat no one, should be eating or drinking during the performance in any case — was an unnecessary illustration of Siegmund sipping from his draught. Such, however, is part of the price we pay to hear the Ring at the Proms; no one in his right mind would think the bargain unholy and Wotan-like.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Siegmund: Simon O’Neill. Sieglinde — Anja Kampe; Hunding: Eric Halfvarson; Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme; Fricka: Ekaterina Gubanova; Gerhilde: Sonja Mühleck; Ortlinde: Carola Höhn; Waltraute: Ivonne Fuchs; Schwertleite: Anaïk Morel; Helmwige: Susan Foster; Siegrune: Leann Sandel-Pantaleo; Grimgerde: Anna Lapkovskaja; Rossweisse: Simone Schröder. Justin Way (director). Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/p01d6fvt.gif image_description=Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walküre [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC] product=yes product_title=Prom 15: Wagner — Die Walküre product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC
Posted by Gary at 9:19 AM

July 23, 2013

Glimmerglass’s rarely done ‘King for a Day’ a rare treat, well done

The heroes of the Glimmerglass production of Verdi’s rare — really rare — second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), are director Christian Rath, choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, and set and costume designer Court Watson. This trio has taken a work with a threadbare, unfunny plot, and only intermittingly inspired music, and transformed it into an afternoon of zaniness that delighted the audience in the Alice Busch Opera Theater in Cooperstown.

Verdi wrote this work in 1840 when he was 27. It is his only comic opera until Falstaff, the final masterwork of his old age. Un Giorno was booed by the audience in Milan, in part because of poor singing, and it received but a single performance.

Verdi bounced back from this disappointment with his third opera, Nabucco, which is about as far in spirit from Un Giorno as one could get. He was clearly not looking in the rear-view mirror. Just as he abandoned the comic path, so has the work been abandoned by opera houses in the last 173 years, although Europe has seen a few mountings.

The Rath team put the six principal singers and the chorus through all sorts of physical activity — climbing, jumping, boxing, kissing, dancing, and swinging chairs at each other in a chaotic closing scene to Act 1 that is reminiscent of The Barber of Seville and The Italian Girl in Algiers, both by Rossini, whose presence hovers over Verdi in this creation. The site gags come so thick and fast and are so ingenious that the audience forgets this soufflé could collapse at any minute if the temperature is not kept at a high heat.

KarliCadel-KingGeneral-6281.gifGinger Costa-Jackson as Marchesa

Rath signaled to the audience that a circus was about to start by projecting clown-costume circles of color on a white curtain during the toe-tapping overture. Then, in the English titling (for a production sung in English), the audience was invited to attend a double wedding and to allow four hours “to clear security.” Similar 21st century touches were interpolated in the text by Kelley Rourke, who did all she could to make this creaky story of young love thwarted (and then triumphant) relevant.

The stage business was so intricate, and non-stop, it was a wonder that the first performance went so smoothly. I expected the cast to fall off the steeply raked set at any moment and tumble into the orchestra pit, but no one did. Indeed, if anyone was ever out of place it wasn’t evident to the audience. The physical comedy delivered by the young cast assured a success.

Had Verdi not been the one to write this, however, no one would stage it today. So, is the great master present at all in the music? Here and there, yes. A few phrases from mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson (as the Marchesa) find their way into Gilda’s music in Act 1 of Rigoletto. Some of the choral work prefigures Ernani.

What is more instructive, however, is how Verdi assimilated Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini in this work, which is only to be expected given how wet behind the ears he was. The basso buffo singing of Doctor Dulcamara (The Elixir of Love) and Don Pasqualeare not far from the surface in the music for bass Jason Hardy as the Baron Kelbar, and baritones Andrew Wilkowske (as La Rocca) and Young Artist Alex Lawrence as the King of the title. One extended passage for the King and chorus in Act 1 is a close parallel to music from Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims. A promising duet for tenor and baritone in Act 1 could be plopped into Bellini’s I Puritani without much alteration.

And so it goes for about two hours of music — little Verdi, but lots of early 19th century Italian opera by other masters. What he did demonstrate at 27 was his ability to write for the voice. The tenor part (the love-sick Edoardo, sung by Young Artist Patrick O’Halloran) is particularly fine.

As the Marchesa, Costa-Jackson was the only “name” singer in the cast. Dolled up in a red sheath and a blond beehive wig, she vamped around the stage, often holding a twinkly gray toy poodle that adamantly refused to move at one point in the first act. Her part lies high for a mezzo, and Costa-Jackson had some problems at the top of the range. But given she was in a track meet of a production that must have sorely taxed her lung power, it’s surprising she sang as well as she did.

KarliCadel-KingStageOrch-57.gifClockwise from top: Jason Hardy as Baron Kelbar, Patrick O'Halloran as Edoardo, Jacqueline Echols as Giulietta and Andrew Wilkowske as La Rocca

None of the three low-lying males — Hardy, Lawrence, and Wilkowske — has the cavernous bass or baritone voice, or the agility in articulation, to do justice to the patter. Nor do they have the blustering style of a Doctor Bartolo. All were too light for their roles, but they threw themselves into the proceedings with gusto, particularly Hardy. His impersonation of a boxer alone is worth the price of admission.

The best singing came from the young couple (who would become Nannetta and Fenton in Falstaff in another 53 years). Young Artist Jacqueline Echols was a prim Giuletta in her modest patterned dress. She has a melting soprano voice and terrific stage presence, even when singing from under the raked stage. As her true love Edoardo, O’Halloran looked like Clark Kent in an argyle sweater, matching socks, shorts and black-frame glasses. He doesn’t yet sing like Superman, but he has much potential. His voice seems agile enough for Rossini, but also with sufficient heft for Donizetti and Bellini. For me he was the most rewarding singer on stage.

The two smaller parts of Delmonte and Count Ivrea (who totters around on a walker) were assumed by two more Young Artists, Andrew Penning and Joe Shadday.

The performance was conducted by Joseph Colaneri, the new music director of the Festival. He miraculously led a crisp, tidy performance in which everyone stayed together even as they were rocketing around the stage. I don’t know how this was achieved, but it was. The orchestra played very well for its new boss.

Un Giorno can be heard on CD in a luxury cast that includes José Carreras, Jessye Norman, Fiorenza Cossotto and Ingvar Wixell on Decca, under conductor Lamberto Gardelli. The score holds up in repeated listening, particularly with the manic images from Glimmerglass in one’s head. Even though Rath’s production book must be 5,000 pages long, other companies might want to take a look at this rarity — if the cast is young and fit.

David Rubin

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/KarliCadel-KingGeneral-5913.gif image_description=Jason Hardy as Baron Kelbar and Alex Lawrence as Belfiore in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2013 production of Verdi's King for a Day. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival. product=yes product_title=Glimmerglass’s rarely done ‘King for a Day’ a rare treat, well done product_by=A review by David Rubin product_id=Above: Jason Hardy as Baron Kelbar and Alex Lawrence as Belfiore

Photos by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Posted by Gary at 9:38 AM

Elena and The House Taken Over

In a festival dominated by Elektra directed by Patrice Cheréau, Don Giovanni directed by Dimitri Tcherniakov and Rigoletto directed by Robert Carson gratefully a place was found for a new opera. It was a commission by the Aix Festival through its Académie Européen de Musique to young (34 years old) Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça (by comparison the Mozart of Don Giovanni was 31).

The Aix Festival gave the new opera a substantial production by the esteemed British director Katie Mitchell who last summer imagined a brilliant production of British composer George Benjamin’s Written on Skin for Aix (since seen at the Nederlandse Oper and at Covent Garden). Sig. Mendonça is in fact a student of George Benjamin who was a student of Britten and Messiaen.

The libretto was contrived by British dramaturge Sam (short for Samantha) Holcroft on a novella by Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar. Cortázar emigrated from Argentina to France in 1951 when he was 36 years old. His muses were surrealism, improvisation and stream-of-consciousness. He translated Edgar Allen Poe into Spanish.

You get the idea — traditional genres and dramatic attitudes are out the window though Aristotelian unities were zealously respected. A brother and sister clean then eat and read in a room of an old house. Mysterious noises frighten them, so they transfer the same activities to another room where the same thing occurs. They take these activities onto the front doorstep where the sister realizes she must use a bathroom. They leave the house to embark on new lives.

The libretto in this production did no more than provide composer Mendonça with a structure on which to expound infinite combinations of tones, colors and rhythms that sometimes directly applied to the story telling, but mostly just percolated along as what seemed to be notated improvisation, or rather invention.

THE-HOUSE-409.gifScene from The House Taken Over [Photo by Patrick Berger]

The Asko Schönberg Ensemble from the Netherlands was here comprised of two violins, two violas, one cello, one bass, one flute, two clarinets, two trumpets, one trombone plus a myriad of percussion choices presided over by one virtuoso player (Joey Marijs). Etienne Stiebens was the production’s chef d’orchestra. One musical delight followed another in an astonishing array of variation elaborated by these instruments.

Fortunately the grandstand seating at the outdoor Domaine du Grand St. Jean gave us full view into the pit where the evening’s excitement took place. Plenty of it. Cerise sur le gâteau: the trumpeters at the finale abandoned their horns in favor of Melodicas (plastic keyboard harmonicas).

Director Katie Mitchell with her scenographer, British theater designer Alex Eales, shied away from the surrealism of the novella opting to evoke a commentary on the insignificant and suffocating, narrow lives of the English petite bourgeoisie. The production did not take us into the attractive sonic world of Sig. Mendonça’s music nor into the subtle philosophic atmospheres felt by an Argentine intellectual based in mid twentieth century Paris.

The Aix Festival provided two quite able, young British singers, mezzo soprano Kitty Whately and baritone Oliver Dunn, both done up to try to look dull middle-aged. These fine young artists managed the undistinguished narrative style delivery of text with crystal clear English diction, and veered into the opera’s very occasional ariosos with vocal gusto. It is not an opera about voices.

This talented young composer may yet find his operatic way, after all Richard Strauss was 41 before he hit his operatic stride with the Salome libretto by Von Hofmannsthal. Perhaps Mr. Mendonça should look beyond British theatrical forces.

Elena aka The Abduction of Helen by Cavalli is of course not about Helen of Troy even though it says it is. It is really about racy attitudes towards sex and marriage in 17th century Venice. All of Venice had been excommunicated when Cavalli was four years old, not for its free and easy morality but rather because this rich city had the confidence to ignore playing by rules imposed by others. Elena, the thirty-second of his forty one or so operas, is also about playing harmlessly outside the rules, those of restraint or civilized conduct in particular.

The operas that have made Cavalli famous these days — L’Ormindo, La Calisto and L’Erismena — are all earlier in the Cavalli oeuvre and exemplify the easy charm of stories about deities falling in and out of love with doses of sincerity here and there. Cavalli turned out Elena at age 57 when he was at the height of his fame (the next year Louis XIV lured him to Paris with a special, high tech theater built just for his Ercole Amante). At this point it was easy, too easy for Cavalli to make an opera. Elena seems far too contrived, and perhaps it is an opera best forgotten.

ELENA-109.gifScene from Elena [Photo by Patrick Berger]

Like all Cavalli operas Elena has a big cast of characters, all with lots to do. Casting is sophisticated at the Aix Festival, and with rare exception true to character and voice and with rare exception indifferent to fame. At the same time the Aix Festival knows the virtues and financial rewards of encouraging young artists. Thus the large cast was comprised of talented young singers all of whom were well nurtured indeed by the opera world’s elaborate and extensive apprentice system.

There was therefore a uniformity of relatively high level talent and technical ability. This was the limitation of the cast. Cavalli’s characters were created by generic, well trained young singers rather than by mature or finished artists with specific traits that qualify them to bring artistic life to human character. Those few with hints of greater artistry fell victim to a generic apprentice atmosphere of promise rather than accomplishment.

The production was in the Festival’s tiny Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, a relic in the Italian horseshoe style that is perfect for Baroque opera. It was staged by Jean-Yves Ruf, a young French theater pedagogue with acting credentials as well, in a stage space that resembled a bull ring in the first half and a macramé fantasy in the second. The scenery and costumes were fashionable, generic theatre designs that probed “look” rather than depth. It was a long, very long evening.

Ten members of Ambronay’s (a town between Lyon and Geneva) early music ensemble Capella Mediterranea plucked, sawed and tooted in finest, informed period style, led by its founder of Argentine origin and Swiss training, Leonardo Garciá Alarcón.

With the cost of tickets at one half that for major productions at the Aix Festival, productions like Elena and The House Over Taken open the festival to a larger public, those unable or unwilling to bear the $300 plus cost of a ticket for Don Giovanni or Elektra.

Michael Milenski

Casts and Production:

The House Taken Over

Brother: Oliver Dunn; Sister: Kitty Whately. Asko | Schönberg Ensemble conducted by Etienne Siebens. Mise en scène: Katie Mitchell; Scenery: Alex Eales; Lighting: James Farncombe. Domaine du Grand St. Jean, July 11, 2013.


Elena/Venere: Emöke Barath; Menelao: Valer Barna-Sabadus; Teseo: Fernando Guimaraes; Ippolita/Pallade: Solenn' Lavanant Linke; Peritoo: Rodrigo Ferreira; Iro: Emiliano Gonzalez Toro; Menesto/La Pace: Anna Reinhold; Tindaro/Nettuno: Scott Conner; Erginda/Giunone/Castore: Mariana Flores; Eurite/La Verita: Majdouline Zerari; Diomede/Creonte: Brendan Tuohy; Euripilo/La Discordia/Polluce: Christopher Lowrey; Antiloco: Job Tomé. Cappella Mediterranea conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón. Mise en scène: Jean-Yves Ruf; Scenery: Laure Pichat; Costumes : Claudia Jenatsch; Lighting: Christian Dubet. Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, July 17, 2013.

image_description=Scene from Elena [Photo by Pascal Victor]

product_title=Elena and The House Taken Over at the Aix Festival
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Scene from Elena [Photo by Pascal Victor]

Posted by michael_m at 9:28 AM

Prom 14: Das Rheingold

Though I saw Richard Jones’s Royal Opera Götterdämmerung at the old house, the only performance I saw before its closure, my first full Ring was at the Royal Albert Hall, with Royal Opera forces under Bernard Haitink. Travelling down from Cambridge each day, this sometime impoverished student standing up in the Gallery still considers it, from the relative comfort of the RAH Stalls, a formative musical experience of his life. It has certainly never been better conducted in his experience, nor better sung; and, given the vagaries of stagings, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the reactionary position that ‘a concert performance would be preferable’. Of course it is not; but the semi-staged solution adopted at the Albert Hall both then and now does afford us the great luxury of being able to concentrate entirely upon the score (words included). Justin Way’s direction was keen, but was limited, so far as one could tell, to placing of the singers and presumably at least some advice concerning their stage interaction. If one has any sense, one takes what one can from different performances and productions, ever aware that no one performance will ‘have it all’. What I can say, however, is that there was, with the possible exception of the production, not a single element of this Proms Rheingold that was not preferable to Antonio Pappano’s at-best-amateurish attempts at Covent Garden to act as Haitink’s successor.

There was actually one other aspect of the Proms experience that lessened appreciation: a heavy-breather seated behind me. Not once, despite the hardest of stares, did he relent. It might sound trivial, but, in a drama that requires of its audience total concentration, it is possible to ignore. How I wish there were some Stasi-style opportunity to report such selfish behaviour and have the miscreant banished for future performances. Moreover, the entry of audience members during the descent to Nibelheim should never have been permitted; I assumed at first that a highly conspicuous woman with shopping bag across the hall, seemingly heading for the stage, denoted a racy realisation of Mime. Such afforded amusement; others breaking the spell did not. Moreover, a telephone’s invasion of Nibelheim took the idea of Alberich’s technological breakthroughs far too literally.

Logistical matters detracted, but the drama remained the thing. Whereas, across town, Pappano has never proved able to maintain a Wagnerian line, Daniel Barenboim did so almost effortlessly. From the opening E-flat to the gods’ entrance into Valhalla, the drama unfolded as if heard in a single breath. If that sounds like the Fernhören of Barenboim’s idol, Furtwängler, then inspiration doubtless derives from that source, but the differences are at least as noteworthy. As I noted with respect to Barenboim’s Rheingold with similar forces in Berlin , there is perhaps a surprising degree of ‘objectivity’ that seems, given the evidence of two separate performances, to have become part and parcel of his conception. (On the evidence of Berlin, it is a feature only of Rheingold, but we shall see — or rather, hear.) It is a perfectly justifiable response to the frigid ‘pre-historical’ world of Wagner’s Vorabend, and has something in common with the readings of Karajan and Boulez. Some, at least, of the music one hears rather as if there were an aural counterpart to the veil that would, according to Wagner’s directions, conceal Valhalla until the end. (In Berlin, Barenboim actually adopted the Bayreuth practice of covering the pit.) There were, moreover, even within a highly flexible reading as a whole, certain passages that intriguingly hinted towards the Neue Sachlichkeit of a composer such as Hindemith; Schoenberg, another Barenboim speciality, can doubtless wait until following evenings. Barenboim’s reading, in keeping with the relatively ‘objective’ approach, was often on the swift side, yet anything but superficial; there was, though, no tendency to linger, just for the sake of it, Wagner’s textural variegation offering its own opportunities for æsthetic absorption. The conductor showed beyond doubt — not that there should ever have been any grounds for such naïve either/or oppositions — that a fully satisfying musical reading was perfectly consonant with, indeed dependent upon, dramatic communication of Wagner’s poem: to take but one instance, Barenboim almost punched the air on the ‘wiss’ Fasolt’s ‘Du Weiser, wiss’ es von ihm’, incitement to an accent that was musico-dramatic in the fullest sense of the term.

None of that, of course, could be accomplished without the burnished Staatskapelle Berlin. If this Proms Ring were to have but one lasting accomplishment, to have made London audiences once again aware of how Wagner might sound with the combination of a great orchestra and conductor would be achievement enough. The Prelude received a realisation — insofar as I could disregard the sub-Alberich breathing from behind — as close to perfect as anyone might reasonably hope for: neither Barenboim nor his orchestra offered ‘interventionism’, yet Wagner’s evolving vision of what his contemporary Marx termed ‘spontaneous generation’ told its own story, even when shorn of scenic realisation. As Wagner’s Dresden comrade-in-arms, Bakunin, put it in his earlier essay, God and the State, we hear ‘the gradual development of the material world … a wholly natural movement from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher,’ not ‘the vile matter of the idealists … incapable of producing anything,’ but ‘matter … spontaneously and eternally mobile, active, productive.’ The words might almost have been intended as a programme note — though they come a little more than a decade before Wagner’s composition.

The orchestral contribution was, a very occasional obscured entry notwithstanding, truly excellent: not in a quasi-narcissistic fashion, such as one heard sometimes with the Berlin Philharmonic’s Ring under Simon Rattle , but as a proper instantiation of Wagner’s Opera and Drama ‘Greek chorus’. A splendidly sepulchral Wagner tuba offered the deftest — a word one does not always necessarily associate with the instrument — upon Woglinde’s broaching the apparently absurd idea of renouncing love for gold. And how the brass and timpani let rip when permitted to do so — for instance, upon the arrival of Fasolt and Fafner: larger than life in more than one sense. The transformation between the first scenes, in which the ring motif is dialectically transformed into that denoting Valhalla, owed a great deal to the timbral sophistication of middle-range instruments such as that baleful English horn, violas, and of course the increasingly tender horn. Likewise the wind ageing of the gods upon Freia’s departure was second to none I have ever heard, effected with painful, cruel beauty, a telling comment upon Wagner’s Feuerbachian unmasking of delusions to immortality. (They looked increasingly frozen of aspect too, for which the director deserves credit.) It was a pity, then, that the anvils were so underwhelming: almost a case of spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. No matter: the horn-playing as Mime told us of old Nibelheim was so exquisitely, musically phrased that ‘wonnig Geschmeid’, nielichen Niblungentand’ came to life before our ears.

Barenboim’s cast was more than equal to the task , as distinguished a complement to the orchestra as anyone might reasonably hope for. The Rhinemaidens were near-idea in blend, as fine a trio as I can recall having heard, Anna Lapkovskaja’s Flosshilde perhaps especially radiant. Their final lament was as beautifully, heart-rendingly piercing as I can recall. Iain Paterson made a distinguished debut as Wotan, perhaps less authoritative than many, but the god of Das Rheingold is a less weighty figure than he will become. Attention to the text was exemplary throughout. Ekaterina Gubanova once again shone as Wotan’s consort. The portrayal of Fricka’s tenderness, an intimate portrait of a wronged, anxious wife, blossomed into splendidly divine self-assurance where necessary, but this was so much more than a mere harridan. When she approached Wotan following Erda’s intervention, Gubanova showed just how expertly she could spin out a line, not for its own sake but for dramatic effect, Barenboim her encouraging and trusting partner. Stephan Rügamer’s Loge was a vivid assumption, sardonic yet not caricatured, indeed at times beautifully sung. The moment of shock upon Loge’s ‘Durch Raub!’ registered without being milked, testament to the artistry of both Rügamer and Barenboim. It verged upon a mini-caesura, at the very least a telling piece of punctuation, punctuation that nevertheless made sense in terms of the greater whole. (Alberich’s ‘Knecht’, as in his Act IV ‘als des Ringes Knecht’ curse, offered a telling parallel — and development, followed by the vilest orchestral fury, properly chilling.)

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich was lighter than one generally hears, but he made a virtue of that, drawing our attention to the intricacies of Wagner’s poem. This Alberich could shade into Sprechgesang, for instance on the ‘Lust’ of ‘doch listig erzwäng’ ich mir Lust?’ The alienating darkness had chilling dramatic effect, so long as it were not over-employed, which it was not. Especially notable was the colouring of every word in his Nibelheim threats to his band of wage-slaves — ‘Zögert ihr noch? Zaudert wohl gar?’ Every word told, yet without disruption to phrasing. Barenboim’s pointing of rhythms as Alberich poured out sarcastic scorn upon Loge — ‘Der Listigste dünkt sich Loge; andre denkt er immer sich dumm...’ — offered an excellent example of the indissoluble union of singer and conductor, words and music; this was music drama at its finest. Peter Bronder’s Mime offered a fine evocation of proto-Nietzschean ressentiment, his pitiful anger formed by his lowly position within the world — Wotan’s, be it noted, as well as Alberich’s. Eric Halfvarson and Stephen Milling made much of their roles as giants. Milling’s Fasolt was, quite rightly, more mellifluous, more sympathetic. Fafner’s insulting ‘Geck’ towards his lovelorn brother, the word veritably spat out, said it all. Nor of course, however predictable the assessment may be, should one forget Anna Larsson’s well-nigh definitive Erda, Mahler’s Urlicht palpably on the aural horizon. Everything, then, augurs well for Die Walküre this evening — not least the mendacious orchestral blaze for the gods’ closing Totentanz. A storm awaits.

Mark Berry

Production and cast information:

Wotan: Iain Paterson; Loge: Stephan Rügamer; Donner: Jan Buchwald; Froh: Marius Vlad; Fricka: Ekaterina Gubanova; Freia: Anna Samuil; Erda: Anna Larsson; Alberich: Johannes Martin Kränzle; Mime: Peter Bronder; Fasolt: Stephen Milling; Fafner: Eric Halfvarson; Woglinde: Aga Mikolaj; Wellgunde: Maria Gortsevskaja; Flosshilde: Anna Lapkovskaja. Justin Way (director). Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Monday 22 July

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Barenboim_Prom14.gif image_description=Daniel Barenboim, Prom 14 product=yes product_title=Das Rheingold, London product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Daniel Barenboim
Posted by Gary at 8:47 AM

July 22, 2013

A Music Of One’s Own: From The Diary of Virginia Woolf

Written in 1974 for Dame Janet Baker, the sequence of eight songs sets text drawn from Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (a condensed version of the diaries edited by her husband, Leonard Woolf), and adopts the model of Schumann’s Frauenliebe and Leben, presenting reflections and episodes spanning a whole lifetime. The intimate setting of the Wigmore Hall was perfectly suited to establishing the necessary air of privacy, as the audience ‘eaves-drops’ on the inner musings of the writer. In this instance, the introspection of the vocal ruminations was complemented and developed in readings and presentations between the songs of extracts from Woolf’s letters, diaries and her novel, The Voyage Out.

These are hugely testing songs for both singer and pianist, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and Julius Drake rose impressively to these challenges. Argento’s sensitive settings of the complicated prose texts are written in a densely motivic medium which combines tonality, atonality and a lyrical serialism, and the score contains a multitude of precise performance instructions. The passions and sensations conveyed are extreme, varied and abruptly juxtaposed, reflecting the composer’s desire to convey a ‘wide range of emotions yet whole and singular, something feminine but not hackneyed sentiments’.

The first song, ‘The Diary’, presents a passage from an early diary of 1919. Already married to Leonard Woolf, the young writer had suffered a mental breakdown in 1917 but subsequently resumed writing in the journal which she had begun at 15 years-of-age, and Argento’s setting is tentative yet hopeful. Above a sparse yet gentle accompaniment, Sarah Connolly’s opening tone row, lyrically undulating and repeated throughout the song in the piano texture, instituted a speculative mood, ‘What sort of diary should I like mine to be?’, while Drake’s delicate piano interplay suggested the writer’s internal thoughts. Connolly used colour to convey different ideas and feelings, the slight pauses between the words ‘solemn’, ‘bright’ and ‘beautiful’ emphasising her fluctuating deliberations. At times, the static vocal line and parlando style of delivery enabled the soprano to evoke Woolf’s serene isolation, but she was ever alert for the more lyrical nuances and arioso gestures, shaping the rising 7th of ‘mysteriously’ - as Woolf contemplates the way that thoughts revisited, though initially unsettling, can strangely cohere - with beautiful delicacy.

Connolly.gifSarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren courtesy of Askonas Holt]

The tranquillity was immediately shattered in ‘Anxiety’, where the dissonance, wide-ranging dynamics, shifting meters and unrelenting rhythmic vigour conveyed the writer’s inner turmoil. The piano’s agitated repetitive pulsing propelled the fleeting song to its distraught conclusion, while the right hand doubled Connolly’s unsettled vocal line with absolute rhythmic precision. The frantic question, ‘Why?’, was repeated again and again, building in emotional intensity as we were granted a transitory glimpse of a mind in psychological distress.

‘Fancy’ presents Woolf’s initial conception of the novel, The Waves (1931), the fragmented form reflecting Woolf’s ambition to write ‘prose which many of the characteristics of poetry. It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much more of the ordinariness of prose’. Argento responds to the text’s prosaic and mystical qualities; frequent changes of meter and tempo create an improvisatory ambience as the piano articulates a detailed motivic development of the principal ideas. After the dream-like sweetness of the tonally stable introduction, Connolly boldly declared with vocal pomp, ‘Why not invent a new kind of play?’. Her deliberations once again musically underscored opposing feelings, the lyrical triplet of ‘Woman thinks’ contrasting with the heavy ‘masculine’ tread of the piano chords which accompany, ‘He does’. Similarly, a focused forte for ‘They say’ diminished to a subtle pianissimo with the line ‘They miss’. Connolly used a luxuriantly expressive lower register in the song’s closing lines, painting the falling semitone in ‘Night speaks’ with an evocative tint, Drake’s subsequent postlude - the juxtaposed tonal colours a micro-version of the ‘interview chords’ in Billy Budd - supplying rich but equivocal suggestions.

The performers ranged through similarly diverse, extreme musical and mental moods in ‘Hardy’s Funeral’. The liturgical mood was launched by Drake’s plainchant-like chords bare fifths, and sustained through the song as the funeral service proceeded. Connolly suggested Woolf’s detachment from the ritual, and her sarcasm - ‘One catches a bishop’s frown and twitch’, before the appearance of the ‘over-grown coffin’ unleashed thick rolling chords signifying both the grandeur of the public ceremony and the insincerity of the melodrama. The unmeasured utterances of the final lines were poignantly introspective, as the soprano conveyed the writer’s melancholy resignation: ‘and then a sense of my own fame … and a sense of the futility of it all.’

fiona-shaw-profile.gifFiona Shaw

The sights and scenes which had made an impression during Woolf’s travels to Italy in 1935 were depicted in ‘Rome’, the spontaneous gestures of the piano evoking the randomness of the recollections. Drake exploited the word- and mood-painting to the full, the single word ‘Music’ triggering a dance-like lilting motif, while Connolly’s sliding tritones suggested the ear-grating squawk of ‘Fierce large jowled old ladies … talking about Monaco’. Light irritation turned to a darker annoyance at the close, as the writer, who scorned public garlands as false and meaningless, remembered ‘The Prime Minister’s letter offering to recommend me for the Companion of Honour’. A subtle pianissimo prepared for her reply: ‘No’ was stated three times, the final brusque low semi-quaver muted yet resolute.

Having known personally the bitter grief of wartime bereavement, Woolf recorded the anxiety and destabilisation which accompanied the approach and commencement of World War II. ‘War’, which Argento describes as a ‘long cadenza for voice’, was uncompromisingly concentrated. Connolly’s unaccompanied soprano, focused and perceptively expressive, powerfully conveyed the writer’s isolation and disorientation, the syllabic melody occasionally flowering into melisma at key points. Drake provided the impressionistic backdrop: a high, rapid repeating pattern evoked the shriek of falling bombs, screeching plans and screaming sirens, while a pounding bass articulated a menacing march, the latter forming in the final bars a tolling knell which faded into the silence.

In ‘Parents’ (the text drawn from A Sketch of the Past (1939)), Woolf recounts memories and wonders whether the events and experiences of childhood have shaped the emotions of her adult self, fluctuating between idealised illusion and disenchanting reality. The simple, lyrical ‘How beautiful they were’, with its tender Finzi-esque harmonies, is repeated throughout the song, indicating the writer’s thought processes; the reminiscences of a world so ‘serene and gay’ initiate a waltz-like accompaniment gesture. Connolly moved from reverie to more ecstatic recollections, as she mused upon ‘the children and the little hum and song of the nursery’ but a painful truth intruded. In low, static quasi-speech, she rejected ‘introspection’. Drake’s final repetition of the ‘How beautiful’ motif was similarly truncated, the incomplete and fragile dream slipping once more into reality, and air of incomprehension poignantly anticipating the final song and its tragic conclusion.

‘The Last Entry’ in fact sets text from the penultimate diary entry before Woolf’s suicide in 1941. Drake’s rippling, syncopated chords suggested the instability and inner conflicts of the writer’s mind, while Connolly effectively emphasised the repetitions of ‘No’ (‘No. I intend no introspection.’), in a manner evoking the mental distress of ‘Anxiety’ with its insistent questioning, ‘Why?’. A determined attempt to quell fretfulness culminated in a surprising and unsettling silence, followed by mundane reflections on the dinner that must be cooked. Connolly’s ever-quieter repetitions of the impenetrable assertion that ‘one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down’ conveyed the troubling complexity of the words - she seemed to drift into a spell-bound remoteness.

Woolf remarked Henry James’s instruction to ‘observe perpetually’ and, thus fittingly, the song restates material from the preceding songs, most powerfully in the final bars where the closing, yet inconclusive, lines of the opening song are reprised, form perfectly complementing meaning: ‘I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life …’

Kate_Kennedy.jpgDr Kate Kennedy, Girton College, Cambridge

Presenting the biographical and literary extracts (selected by Dr Kate Kennedy), actress Fiona Shaw illuminated the full range of Woolf’s moods, attitudes and reveries. Sharp humour and flippant sarcasm were juxtaposed with moments of melancholy and despair. And, emphasising the fact that Woolf’s diaries were both a personal, private record and, often, a technical writing exercise, Shaw moved from side- to centre-stage, now seated at her writing desk, poised pen in hand, now addressing us directly, ‘performing’ her text.

Shaw used her experience to modulate and modify her voice and, after the first few spoken passages, overcame the resonance of the Hall and communicated with clarity. Occasionally, however, as she slipped back into reverie and the music resumed its narrative, Shaw threw away the closing words of the extracts, where most meaning lay. More problematic was the fact that the spoken text added a ‘dramatic’ dimension which is not present in the song cycle itself; the latter emphasises the meditative solitude of the diarist and the singer’s daydreams should come across as a sort of indirect free speech which we are privileged to overhear. Indeed, Argento has himself suggested that ‘songs, I feel, are meant to be “delivered in”, addressed only to the singer and not “consciously” shared with the audience’. Shaw was at times too extrovert and direct, her presentations ‘filling in’ and developing hints and suggestions which are already ambiguously but satisfyingly intimated in the music.

Woolf’s prose is inherently, and deliberately, ‘musical’ in its rhythms, cadences and sounds, as she sought to replicate in language the perceived effects of music: ‘After all we are in a world of imitations; all the Arts that is to say imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see. Such is the eternal instinct of the human beast; to try and reproduce something of that majesty in paint, marble or ink. Somehow ink tonight seems to me the least effectual method of all - music the nearest to truth.’

In this impressively composed and moving performance, Drake and Connolly certainly allowed and enabled the music speak for itself, consciously crafting the constant interplay between voice and piano. It was a typically thought-provoking and accomplished conclusion to the Perspectives series.

Claire Seymour


Dominick Argento (b.1927): From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1974) .

Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Fiona Shaw, reader; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday, 20th July 2013 .


Argento, Dominick. ‘The Composer and the Singer’. NATS Bulletin (33), May 1977.

Woolf, Virginia. Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. Joanne Trautmann Banks. London: The Hogarth Press, 1989.

——A Moment’s Liberty: The Shorter Diary . Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1990.

——A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals of Virginia Woolf , ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. London: The Hogarth Press, 1990.

——A Writer’s Diary , ed. Leonard Woolf. London: The Hogarth Press, 1953.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Virginia_Woolf.gif image_description=Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=A Music Of One’s Own: From The Diary of Virginia Woolf product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 10:06 AM

July 20, 2013

Stockhausen at the BBC Proms

The Royal Albert Hall is an imposing building, designed on a grand scale. It is built in an unusual circular shape, which can cause acoustic problems. But it's ideal for Karllheinz Stockhausen's grand visions. The BBC Proms have done Gruppen four times, despite the logistics posed by the use of three orchestras. In 2008, there was an astounding Cosmic Pulses, the 13th Hour from Klang. Stockhausen sculpted sound. At the Royal Albert Hall, he had a huge canvas onto which he could project his experiments. The shape of the building means that sound waves have to travel longer distances than they might in a smaller auditorium. As they bounce off the walls and reverberate, the sound changes, becoming ever more subtle. Architecture becomes a component of performance.

In Gesang der Jünglinge (1955/6), the performers "are" the audience.The "music" happens when an audience processes the aural stimuli around them. The building goes dark. What's happening? Is the show over, one might ask? Slowly, out of the gloom emerge disembodied sounds, coming from many different, unexpected directions. The "performer" is a recording of a young boy, made many decades ago. He's an old man now, but on the tape he's immortal: another Stockhausen concept. The tape is spliced into myriad fragments and reconstituted into something completely different. Gesang der Jünglinge is the great great great grandfather of DJ mixes. Once Stockhausen himself adjusted the balances and frequencies at the mixing desk. Now his disciple Kathinka Pasveer does the sound projection. Stockhausen decreed that the stage should remain empty but for a few desks, to emphasize the idea that performance isn't something passive, but as blend of what's happening at the sound desk and what we hear, wherever we might be seated in the performance space.

Gesang der Jünglinge is based on a story in the biblical Book of Daniel, where three youths are condemned to die in a fiery furnace. But they're saved by their faith. In a heatwave, the Royal Albert Hall becomes a furnace. So the audience experiences the piece as all-round sensory endurance, in a way no-one could have imagined. The oscillating electronic sound waves quiver like flames. When disjointed words leap out “Sonne, Mond, Mund…..Frost und Eis, Frost und Eis”., we feel life-restoring deliverance just as the youths in the furnace might have felt. Karlheinz Stockhausen, wherever he is, must have been looking down with glee.

Last year, the Birmingham Opera Company produced the first complete UK performance of Mittwoch from Stockhausen's grand saga Licht. For this Prom 11 in 2013, the singers, Ex Cathedra, with Jeffrey Skidmore (director), recreated the first scene, Welt-Parliament. It was a good choice because the segment focuses on the variety of voices and vocal techniques. This is an extension of Stockhausen's concept of breaking sound into cells, reconstituting them into something new. Stockhausen is also deconstructing the idea of language.We hear words from recognizable languages, and randomly-generated noise. Just as in life, our task as listeners is to process for ourselves what we hear, not to take things as given. There are allusions to chorale, complete with liturgical bells, and red herrings, like when a man in a reflective jacket who materializes from the back of the Royal Albert Hall and calls out about a car with a number plate MITT2013WCH (!) Eventually, a consensus of sorts emerges. "Licht!" most of the singers conclude. The singers file out gravely. One remains "And now the next scene will follow" he says, but you have to decipher because he stutters to an extreme degree. Yet again, Stockhausen's breaking sound into minute fragments, so we have to really listen, not sit by passively and coast.

Although we're not likely to catch the complete 30 hour Licht anywhere soon, by studying fragments like this in detail, we can put together something of the whole, bit by bit. Indeed I wonder if Stockhausen meant for us to listen in this way, cell by cell, in random order. In conventional opera we follow a narrative where time and meaning are compressed. Stockhausen's approach replicates the way we experience real life. We put our own narratives together by listening and re-listening, backwards and forwards in time.

Anne Ozorio

Posted by anne_o at 4:57 PM

Capriccio, Royal Opera

La Roche, for instance, introduces the rival element of the stage — and seems, by the force of his panegyric alone, to have won everyone over. (Not, of course that that brief meeting of minds and souls whole; once discussion of the opera begins, æsthetic and personal bickering resume.) The question of staging inevitably came to mind, here, of course, given the curious decision to present Capriccio in concert. Even if, as rumour has it, the decision to perform Strauss’s last opera was made late in the day, as a consequence of Renée Fleming having elected not after all to take on the role of Ariadne, it is difficult to understand why, instead of a desultory couple of concert performances, a production from elsewhere might not have been brought in. The Cologne Opera’s excellent, provocative staging, seen first at the Edinburgh Festival, would have been one candidate; so, by all accounts, would be Robert Carsen’s Paris production. (That is to leave aside the question, worthy of Capriccio itself, of why a singer wields such power at all. Gérard Mortier in Paris had the healthier attitude that if ‘stars’ were willing to perform in and to throw themselves wholeheartedly into interesting repertoire and stagings, all the better; if not, a house could and should manage perfectly well without them.)

Anyway, we had what we had — and I missed a full staging far less than I should ever have expected. Part of that was a matter of a generally strong musical performance, Ton winning out perhaps, but it seemed also to be a credit to the acting skills of the singers, who edged the performance towards, if not the semi-staged, at least the semi-acted. Though most did not follow Fleming’s lead — she has recently sung her role on stage — in dispensing with their scores, there was genuine interaction between them and more than a little moving around the stage in front of the orchestra. Presumably those credited with ‘stage management’ — Sarah Waling and Fran Beaumont — had some part in this far from negligible achievement too. Moreover, Fleming’s Vivienne Westwood gown, granted a lengthy description in the ‘production credits’, might as well have been intended for a staged performance.

Fleming’s performance was more mixed than her fans would doubtless admit, or perhaps even notice. There was a good degree of vocal strain, especially at the top, accompanied at times by a scooping that should have no place in Strauss. It would be vain, moreover to claim that there were not too many times when one could not discern the words. That said, it seemed that there was an attempt to compensate for (relative) vocal deficiencies by paying greater attention to the words than one might have expected; there were indeed occasions when diction was excellent. She clearly felt the agonistic tensions embodied in the role, and expressed them on stage to generally good effect in a convincingly ‘acted’ performance. There were flaws in her final soliloquy, but it moved — just as the Mondscheinmusik did despite an unfortunate slip by the first horn.

It will come as no surprise that Christian Gerhaher excelled as Olivier. Both he and Andrew Staples offered winning, ardent assumptions of their roles as suitors for the affections of the Countess — and of opera itself. Gerhaher’s way with words, and the alchemy he affects in their marriage with music, remains an object lesson . His cleanness of tone was matched — no mean feat — by that of Staples, a more than credible rival. Peter Rose offered a properly larger than life La Roche, though vocally, especially during his paean to the theatre, it could become a little threadbare. Bo Skovhus may no longer lay claim to the vocal refulgence of his youth; he can still hold a stage, though, even in a concert performance, and offered a reading of the Count’s role that was both intelligent and dramatically compelling. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, whom I have had a few occasions to praise in performances outside this country, made a splendid Covent Garden debut as Clairon, rich of tone and both alluring and lively of presence. Graham Clark offered a splendid cameo as Monsieur Taupe, rendering the prompter’s late arrival genuinely touching. There was, moreover, strong singing, both in solo and in ensemble, from the band of servants, many of them Jette Parke Young Artists. John Cunningham’s Major-Domo faltered somewhat, but he had a good line in the brief declamatory. The audience clearly fell for Mary Plazas and Barry Banks as the Italian Singers, though I was not entirely convinced that some of those cheering understood that they were acknowledging Strauss in parodic mode.

Sir Andrew Davis led an estimable performance from the orchestra, the occasional fluff notwithstanding. There were moments of stiffness, not least in the Prelude; transitions were not always as fluid as they might have been. Davis, however, marshalled his forces well, and pointed up the myriad of references to other music, whether direct quotation or something more allusive. For all the perfectly poised nature of the ‘discussion’, we always know that Strauss (and thus music) will win out, as he did here. The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast: inevitable cavils notwithstanding, it remains highly recommended.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Countess Madeleine : Renée Fleming; Olivier: Christian Gerhaher; Flamand: Andrew Staples; La Roche: Peter Rose; The Count: Bo Skhovus; Clairon: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner; Major-Domo: John Cunningham; Italian Singers: Mary Plazas, Barry Banks; Servants: Pablo Bemsch, Michel de Souza, David Butt Philip, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Riches, Simon Gfeller, Jeremy Budd, Charbel Mattar; Monsieur Taupe: Graham Clark. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Royal Opera House, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Friday 19 July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Fleming-new-2012.gif image_description=Renée Fleming [Photo: Andrew Eccles/Decca] product=yes product_title=Capriccio, Royal Opera (concert performance) product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Renée Fleming [Photo: Andrew Eccles/Decca]
Posted by Gary at 10:37 AM

July 19, 2013

Glimmerglass premiere of ‘Camelot’ chivalrous, but hardly a knight to remember

Francesca Zambello’s courageous marketing decision to produce a blockbuster Broadway musical each season is not without its challenges.  Unlike opera, where audiences hope to be artistically engaged, Broadway musicals draw crowds expecting to be entertained.  As such, the pressure is on for the Glimmerglass Festival Artistic Director to provide musicals that keep pace with — or exceed — the entertainment appeal of the Festival’s prior efforts.  

Judged by the yardstick of its past successes, Glimmerglass’s latest venture has come up short.  Its current production of Camelot, though enjoyable, pales in comparison both to last season’s stunning production of The Music Man and the prior year’s Annie Get Your Gun.  

The finger pointing rightly begins with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe — whose 1960 collaboration can hardly be considered the pair’s best effort.  Camelot lacks both the depth of story and the number of memorable tunes of My Fair Lady, produced some four years earlier.  Still, it was Glimmerglass’s new production, not the story and the music, that ultimately underwhelmed those in the crowd who, like I, left the theater unfulfilled.  

The story, adapted from T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, centers on a medieval love triangle involving the enlightened King Arthur, his handsome wife Guenevere and the love-smitten knight, Sir Lancelot.  Themes of chivalry, romance, adultery, battle and ultimately forgiveness run through the nearly three-hour show.  Baby boomers no doubt will remember Camelot as all but having defined the Kennedy presidency.  According to Jackie Kennedy, JFK’s favorite line came at the end: Don't let it be forgot/ That once there was a spot/ For one brief shining moment that was known/ As Camelot.

The “one brief shining moment” in this production is David Pittsinger, whose stunning singing and acting throughout the performance as King Arthur is alone worth the price of admission.

Pittsinger, who from my seat in the theater looked curiously like political humorist Bill Maher, sang beautifully and carried himself well onstage — capturing the attention of the listener at all times.  His crisp speaking voice spread his lines across the theater with ease and grace, while his clean diction obviated the need for supertitles (which in this production accompanied the singing but not the dialogue).  

Pittsinger’s full-strength bass-baritone and strong delivery, which at times overshadowed the other singers, was apparent from his opening number, I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight, and his signature tune, Camelot.  Even his whistling (during the charming duo with the Queen, What Do the Simple Folk Do?) projected well.  The tender side of King Arthur’s character came out, loud and clear, in Pittsinger’s earnest and sensitive delivery of How to Handle a Woman, as the confused King seeks guidance and wisdom in dealing with his beloved Guenevere.

As an actor, Pittsinger captured the essence of Arthur as a well-meaning King seeking to make sense of the world and trying to do the right thing at any cost — even if that means watching Guenevere slowly slip away into the arms of Lancelot.  He forged a character whose ultimate decision to forgive the two greatest loves in his life (Guenevere and Lancelot) we may respect or reject.  Either way, Pittsinger’s Arthur is a flesh-and-blood character with whom we can empathize.

As Guenevere, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman has the looks to sustain the love triangle drama throughout the lengthy production, and her handsome voice — while by no means large — made for a pleasant listening experience during her principal numbers. 

Chuchman’s opening song, The Simple Joys of Maidenhood, set the bar high for those that followed — culminating in what I thought her best effort of the show: the sweetly expressive Before I Gaze at You Again at the end of Act 1.  Unlike Pittsinger, however, Chuchman could never quite abandon her trained operatic voice for something better suited to musical theater.  And the mellowness of her speaking voice made me wish that supertitles had been used for more than just the singing.

Next to Pittsinger, the most commanding performance of the evening came from Jack Noseworthy — a first-rate actor whose suave and calculating presence as Arthur’s nefarious illegitimate son, Mordred, was unforgettable.

KarliCadel-CamelotGen-2540.pngL to R: David Pittsinger as King Arthur, Andriana Chuchman as Guenevere, Wynn Harmon as Pellinore, Clay Hilley as Dinaden, Wayne Hu as Sir Sagramore, Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot and Noel Bouley as Sir Lionel

Noseworthy’s high-pitched tenor projected exceptionally well, and his diction was beyond reproach.  (He sounded the most “British” of the cast.)  Like Roddy McDowall in the original Broadway production, Noseworthy spoke his melodic lines during The Seen Deadly Virtues, shifting to pitches when singing along with the knights in Fie on Goodness.  But whether singing or speaking, Noseworthy maintained an imposing presence befitting his role as the show’s only true villain — staying in character even as the audience began hissing him, if only affectionately, at the curtain calls.

Nathan Gunn started off with a bang, using his handsome baritone to capture the moment in his opening song, C’est Moi, where he defines his character as the cocky, self-centered would-be knight to Arthur’s newly created Round Table.  But Gunn never again sounded this good during the remainder of the show, and his signature song, If Ever I Would Leave You, sounded shaky and rushed, as well as lacking in any meaningful degree of expression.

Glimmerglass Young Artists Clay Hilley (Sir Dinahan), Wayne Hu (Sir Sagramore) and Noel Bouley (Sir Lionel) deported themselves well as the triumvirate of knights and interacted playfully with Chuchman in Then You May Take Me to the Fair.  I especially enjoyed the boys’ horsing around with Mordred in the Act 2 Fie on Goodness — which I thought was going to end as a Bud Light commercial.  

Wynn Harmon, in the non-singing dual roles as Arthur’s mentor, Merlyn, and the eccentric old knight, Pellinore, projected his lines well but sounded rather hoarse — making it difficult at times to hear his every word.  Young Richard Pittsinger, the real-life son of David cast as the young and impressionable Tom of Warwick, was a fitting choice to carry on the dream of his hero King Arthur, as the latter heads to France to battle Lancelot’s armies.

Director Richard Longbottom deserves praise for his charming staging of the joyous Then You May Take Me to the Fair — a delightful number in which Guenevere coyly coaxes the three knights to thrash newly arrived Lancelot in the upcoming jousting match, promising whoever succeeds a good time in her company at the Fair.  Longbottom nevertheless wasted several opportunities to enhance the action of this mostly static production.  

The second-act dueling scene between the knights and Lancelot, performed in slow motion, was utterly lacking in tension and anima.  The lightly choreographed dance scenes by Alex Sanchez, while visually appealing, had none of the pizzazz that ignited the stage in last season’s unforgettable production of The Music Man.  Lancelot’s miraculous healing of the fallen Lionel, which could have been milked for all it’s worth as a dramatically vibrant moment, was reduced to a simple touch of the wounded man’s chest — as if an abbreviated medieval version of CPR.  Longbottom’s decision to begin Gunn’s delivery of If Ever I Would Leave You from the very back of the stage was ill-advised, since the baritone could barely be heard until making his way to the front.

Kevin Depinet’s abstract minimalist sets don’t do much to enhance the drama, either.  An imposing structure in the shape of a right triangle anchors the set, with a Disney-like mural of a seemingly far-off castle resting below the top of the hypotenuse.  Standing at the base of the triangle is an oddity sprouting what appears to be a stack of giant linguini.  When King Arthur is seen hiding within the strands of linguini, we realize this is actually a tree.  Cooked al dente.

Depinet is less abstract in his design of the King’s chambers.  A pair of thrones sits on a lengthy tapestry, over which a large chandelier of candles, suspended by chains, hangs overhead.  In the final scene this chandelier will fall to the ground, if only slowly and deliberately, ostensibly to signal the demise of Arthur’s vision of the perfect Camelot.  (I much prefer the scene from Phantom of the Opera.)  Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes, while easy on the eyes, more closely resemble early Renaissance than the story’s sixth-century medieval period dress.

The 42-piece orchestra, directed by James Lowe, had a rough time fighting pitch problems during the instrumental ensemble sections.  There were also a few sloppy ensemble moments during the transitions into new tempos during the Overture and Entr’acte to Act 2, which I expect will disappear after another performance or two.

Audience reaction at the curtain calls sounded genuinely excited, particularly with respect to the three lead roles.  But it wasn’t until Pittsinger (the elder) came onstage that the crowd took to its feet in tandem — and justly so.  He was the knight in shining armor who almost single-handedly brought this production out of, well, the Dark Ages.

David Abrams

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/KarliCadel-CamelotGen-1638.png image_description=David Pittsinger as King Arthur and Andriana Chuchman as Guenevere [Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival] product=yes product_title=Glimmerglass premiere of ‘Camelot’ chivalrous, but hardly a knight to remember product_by=A review by David Abrams product_id=Above: David Pittsinger as King Arthur and Andriana Chuchman as Guenevere

Photos by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Posted by Gary at 4:27 PM

Don Pasquale, Glyndebourne

Clement originally directed the opera for Glyndebourne on Tour in 2011. Now she and designer Julia Hansen have revived the production for the main festival with Alessandro Corbelli in the title role, Danielle de Niese as Norina and Nikolay Borchev making his Glyndebourne debut as Dr Malatesta. Alek Shrader, who was due to sing Ernesto, was ill and the role was sung by Enea Scala who had sung the role with Glyndebourne on Tour. Enrique Mazzola conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The whole production was based around a revolve, displaying three different rooms, 18th century interiors with quirky modern detailing, and during the overture we saw Nikolay Borchev's Malatesta walking through each. Don Pasquale (Alessandro Corbelli) was asleep on the settee in his drawing room, his housekeeper keeping watch, Ernesto (Enea Scala) was asleep in his bedroom and Norina (Danielle de Niese) asleep at her dressing table. In each of the rooms Borchev examined everything, establishing his character's highly manipulative and rather mysterious quality. Hansen's sets had a plain elegance about them, with the interiors very spare, but each was full of quirky detailing and as Borchev moved from room to room he did not always exit via the door.

There were other quirky details to the production. Don Pasquale's rejoicing at the idea of children in the first scene was indicated by his acquiring a toy rocking horse which he carried about with him. He had a single servant/housekeeper (Anna-Marie Sullivan) and when Malatesta appeared with 'Sofronia' the housekeeper clearly thought she recognised 'Sofronia' and Malatesta shut the housekeeper in the cupboard.

Corbelli was superb as Don Pasquale, comically touching in act one rather than being objectionable. His performance was character based, and though there was plenty of comic business, we were laughing at the character not his antics. He also sang the role, no buffo bluffing here. Borchev's Malatesta was smoothly manipulative and superbly sung. Borchev made himself be almost self-effacing at times but you were aware of the way the character was manipulating everyone. We were introduced to Enea Scala's Ernesto lying on his bed, in his underwear, reading and playing the guitar. Scala looked every inch the part, though there was a little hardness to his tone. Technically his singing encompassed everything needed, but there was a lack lyric flexibility to his voice which I think is needed here.

We were also introduced to Danielle de Niese's Norina in her underwear, and she was not reading a romantic novel she was writing one. This does rather have an effect on the character, making Norina more of a schemer and less a romantic, which is on a par with Clement's view of the opera. Norina remained in her underwear when Malatesta appeared and there was clearly more than a spark between them, in fact at the end of the act the two ended up in the bath together! This goes against the strict confines of the plot, but it does make a great deal of sense to the interactions in the opera.

Don Pasquale Trailer 2013 from Glyndebourne on Vimeo.

De Niese was a great delight as Norina, her runs sparkling and with plenty of character, here was a Norina who was full of personality and charm. De Niese brought this out in the music, Donizetti's roulades were purposeful and captivating, with only a hint of hardness at the very top of the voice. Norina is a part which seems to suit her and she displayed a warm, appealing, fully rounded character; a real charmer.

Act two opened with Don Pasquale getting wigged and powdered, ready for his new wife. The result looked a bit ridiculous, and called to mind a similar scene in Death in Venice. A nice contrast to Ernesto, here Scala was touching in his short scene. The long scene where Malatesta introduces 'Sofronia' and she marries Don Pasquale, with Ernesto as witness was full of physical comedy, but also musically considered as well.All in all great fun, as this should be. James Platt, a soloist from the Glyndebourne Chorus, was the bumbling notary.

Clement and Hansen's other change was to make the chorus into bewigged 18th century aristocratic onlookers rather than servants. Clad in white with white hair and white painted faces these gave a surreal feel to act three, particularly as Clement crammed them into the set at the opening of the act. And their performance of the servants chorus was quite superb.

Click here for Gyndebourne’s podcast on Don Pasquale.

For the final scene, the duet between Scala and de Niese took place in a Watteau-like setting surrounded by other couples from the chorus.

Scala gave us a finely sung serenade, being joined by De Niese in delightful fashion. But throughout the opera, Clement had highlighted not only Malatesta's manipulativeness but the slight odd relationship the character has with Norina. Clement turned this into a fully formed relationship which took place in the gaps between the rest of the action, something the singers did brilliantly. De Niese, as Norina, was superb at showing the rather scheming minx side of the character and the result made for a nicely rich confection which was still true to Donizetti's music. Borchev was superb as Malatesta, and sang the role with an easy fluency and fine sense of line. At the end, both De Niese and Borchev made it clear that, no matter the conventional ending, their two characters were clearly going to continue their relationship.

And of course, Corbelli's Don Pasquale was a complete delight throughout. A richly detailed character, Corbelli ensured that we felt sorry for the old fool. As I have said, this was also a beautifully sung performance. He and Borchev turned in a spectacular account of the famous patter duet.

Here I must turn to the conducting of Enrique Mazzola. From the first there was a rather hard brilliance to the sound he got from the orchestra, and there were too many moments which sounded rather driven. In fact Mazzola took the patter duet at quite a lick. Corbelli and Borchev coped supebly, but the result seemed over done. Mazzola got some finely brilliant playing from the orchestra but he seemed to push too much and there were too few moments when he allowed things to relax.

The production is being broadcast live in cinemas on 6 August 2013, further information from the Glyndebourne website.

Clement and Hansen brought a quirky brilliance as well as a nicely humanising touch to the production, reflecting the way Donizetti's music gives the stock characters a depth. Clement's twists to the plot did not quite give us the Don Pasquale Donizetti wrote, but they provided an imaginative commentary on it. Clement and her cast made us laugh with the characters, but to care for them as well. We were treated to some fine characterful singing, bringing Donizetti's music to life, if only Mazzola had relaxed a bit.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Alessandro Corbelli: Don Pasquale, Danielle de Niese: Norina; Enea Scala: Ernesto; James Platt: Notary, Anna-Marie Sullivan: Servant. Enrique Mazzola: Conductor. Mariame Clement: Director. Julia Hansen: Designer. Bernd Purkrabek: Lighting designer. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 18 July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/130713_0029_donpasquale.png image_description=Alessandro Corbelli as Don Pasquale [Photo by Clive Barda] product=yes product_title=Don Pasquale, Glyndebourne product_by=A review by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: Alessandro Corbelli as Don Pasquale [Photo by Clive Barda]
Posted by Gary at 9:42 AM

Prom 8: Adès’ Totentanz

A tightly controlled and startlingly vehement rendition of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem opened the Prom, Adès pacing and crafting the three movements in a reading of the score which made a more than usually convincing case for the work. With clarity and precision, the conductor revealed extremes of colour, texture and weight. An intimate but disconsolate ‘Lachrymose’, was followed by a cynical, fleet-footed ‘Dies Irae’, the flute flutter-tonguing pounded by the mocking onslaught of the percussion. The conclusion of the ‘Requiem aeternam’ was beautifully affecting, as Adès found both serenity and sorrow in the return of the fragmented plainchant with which the work begins.

A similar disturbing combination of anguish and restraint characterised Paul Watkin’s magnificent performance of Lutoslawki’s Cello Concerto. From the quiet, monotonous pulses of the long cello solo which commences the work, Watkins kept the undoubtedly powerful emotional resonances of the work on a tight rein, only occasionally allowing the latent ‘suffering’ expressed in Lutoslawski’s intangible musical narrative to be released. Harmonics and glissandi were delicately transparent; strident pizzicato passages were delivered with directness and authority. Adès too focused more on the score’s detailed colourings than on its dynamic heaviness, allowing the cello to be an equal partner with the full orchestral forces, never struggle to articulate. The third movement cantilena was exquisitely lyrical but offered only a temporary repose before the furious rhythmic energy of the final movement welled up, driving the work to its wild conclusion.

In the second half of the programme, Adès conducted the world premiere of his own Totentanz, commissioned by Robin Boyle in memory of Lutoslawski and his wife, Danuta.

Adès’ musical portrait of a ‘Dance of Death’ draws its inspiration from a visual source: a 30-metre-long painted hanging, made in 1463 for the church of St Mary in the German Baltic city of Lübeck, which depicts Death linking hands with a cross-section of individuals, addressing each with his message of unavoidable doom.

In Totentanz, Death, a baritone (Simon Keenlyside) invites in turn a succession of human representatives - including Pope, Emperor, Cardinal, King, Monk, Usurer, Merchant and Parish Clerk - to join his inescapable and deadly dervish, delighting that, ‘When I come, great and small,/ no grieving helps you’. A soprano (Christianne Stotijn) adopts the diverse mortal roles, voicing their resignedly acquiescent replies as they cast off their worldly garb and accept their earth-bound fate. But Death is indifferent to their mortal weakness, ignoring their pitiful laments and turning disdainfully to the next recipient of his solicitation. In this way, Adès avoids a static interplay of invitation and response, creating a tense dialogue and a whirling, accumulating momentum which sucks us into a vortex of unstoppable energy.

At the start, the Preacher invites rich and poor, young and old, to ‘come to see the play’, and the work does have an inherently theatrical quality. Adès asks a great deal of his ‘players’, and the two vocal soloists rose to the challenges negotiating, singly and in duet, the angular, wide-ranging melodies with supreme assurance (although they were amplified - one wonders whether they could have risen above the panoply of percussive pounding without it, or conveyed the text so crisply).

Stotijn found a remarkable range of colours and moods to convey the various human ‘voices’, complemented by an ever-changing orchestral landscape - for example, lyrical gesturing from the violins accompanies the Pope’s submission, while the Cardinal’s mellifluous pleading is complemented by the high timbre of the flute juxtaposed with a grumbling bass. And, the composer avoids repetitiveness by varying Death’s proposition each time. Thus, Death’s proposals - sung with seductive charm by Keenleyside, mingled with imperious contempt - ‘duet’ with a range of instruments and groupings; trembling double bass as he addresses the Emperor, a repetitive pattern played by the celli when his words are directed at the King, a dialogue with trombones as the Monk is called to the dance.

Adès’ timbral invention, his ability to find new, astonishing orchestral colours, should not surprise. One thinks of the piano’s ethereal trembling in Darknesse Visible, or the startling bass oboe melody in Asyla, the latter also making use of cowbells and quarter-tone-flat piano. Here he calls upon an eight-strong percussion team to paint a kaleidoscopic canvas.

From the opening screeches of the piccolo, the astringent harmony, asymmetrical rhythms and percussive outbursts establish the grim reality which inevitably erodes and destroys human aspiration. As the dance proceeds across an increasingly wide harmonic and timbral expanse, an unstoppable accretion of dissonance builds up - almost painfully - culminating in an orchestral apocalypse, like a sonic black hole of terrifying magnificence and appalling horror.

Then, when our capacity for aural assault is totally depleted, the catastrophic silence is gently broken by more tender strains; as Death turns to the lower echelons of the social hierarchy, a gentler, more sentimental mood ensues. The Parish Clerk’s pianissimo melody is hauntingly beautiful and sorrowful. Following the Handworker, Peasant and Maiden, the Child is Death’s last ‘victim’, but now the invitation is more comforting, ‘Til the last day, sleep now: sleep on, consoled’. With the Child’s poignant, unsettling response, ‘O Death, how can I understand?/ I cannot walk, yet I must dance!’, the score hints at a cleansing, major tonality, the harmony and sound-world intimating a quasi-Mahlerian transfiguration. Ultimately the music slips into darkness, the dark, sunken tones of timpani and tuba recalling the spirit of the conclusion of the ‘requiem’ which opened the concert and, to this listener at least, the call of the sea which invites Peter Grimes and Aschenbach to their respective deaths.

In a NYT article, Richard Taruskin praised Adès’ ‘precocious technical sophistication and [an] omnivorous range of references’. In Totentatz these qualities are startlingly evident: the soundscape blends the new and the familiar in a score which first challenges the listener with its visceral impact - inflicting a savage aural and emotional battering - and then salves with bitter-sweet harmonic succour. Despite its emotional directness, the work retains an intriguing, enticing ambiguity.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available for a further five days on BBC Radio 3 online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b036vvk0 ; it will be broadcast on BBC 4 on 28th July.

Production and cast information:

Britten, Sinfonia da Requiem Op.20; Lutoslawski, Cello Concerto; Adès, Totentanz; Paul Watkins, cello; Christianne Dtotijn, mezzo-soprano; Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Thomas Adès, conductor; BBC Symphony Orchestra. Royal Albert Hall, London, Wednesday, 17th July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ades.gif image_description=Thomas Adès at the Proms [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC] product=yes product_title=Prom 8: Adès’ Totentanz product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Thomas Adès at the Proms [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of BBC]
Posted by Gary at 7:59 AM

July 18, 2013

Adriana Lecouvreur from Decca

The opera is commonly considered dramatically weak, its convoluted libretto further befuddled by Cilea’s own last-minute excisions in the interests, he believed, of dramatic flow, but which resulted in some obfuscating gaps. Perhaps this is unfair; the passionate melodrama is told in music of much enchantment and sensuousness, and if it lacks the ‘bite’ of contemporary verismo — the orchestrations ever-delicate and genteel, the harmonies sugary sweet — then maybe we should assess the score’s worth in terms of its effortless Italianate lyricism rather than its gritty realism.

The setting is 1730s Paris, behind the scenes at the Comédie Française. Adriana Lecouvreur, an esteemed actress, is worshipped by the theatre director, Michonnet, but she has eyes only for Maurizio, an officer in the service of the Count of Saxony and to whom Adriana presents a bouquet of violets. Maurizio’s own political ambitions make him prey to amorous temptations, and he becomes entangled in a complicated web of romantic intrigue and subterfuge, involving the Prince and Princesse de Bouillon, and the Prince’s mistress, Duclos — who is also Adriana’s thespian rival. A dropped bracelet alerts Adriana’s suspicions that Maurizio is dallying elsewhere and, at a palace party, a confrontation ensues between actress and princess, tender flowers and glittering trinkets brandished as evidence of betrayal. To distract attention from her own misdemeanours, the princess suggests that Adriana should recite a monologue. Cunningly selecting a passage from Racine’s Phèdre, in which the heroine denounces sinners and adulterous women, Adriana’s performance is targeted at the enraged princess, who determines upon revenge.

Things move on apace: Adriana retires from the stage, Maurizio is thrown into jail and his loyal admirer pawns her jewellery to pay off his debts, only for Michonnet to retrieve her treasures, presenting them to her at a company party to celebrate her birthday. A casket also arrives, labelled ‘from Maurizio’ and bearing a wilted bouquet which Adriana interprets as a symbol of their faded passion. Seizing the pitiful buds, she kisses them and flings them into the fire; only for Maurizio, summoned by Michonnet, to make a flamboyant entrance, begging Adriana to forgive and marry him. As she joyfully accepts, a pallor overcomes her; infected by the poison-laced violets which had been sent by the vengeful princess, she dies in Maurizio’s arms.

Death-by-wilted-violet hardly rivals the death-leaps from the battlements of other verismo tragedies. The dramatic frame will not bear any directorial conceptualising and in this production, seen at the Royal Opera House in 2010 (filmed at performances on 22 November and 4 December), David McVicar sensibly adopts a traditional approach, one which does allow for a little ironic self-referencing and eye-brow raising at the natural of theatrical artifice. The occasionally tongue-in-cheek approach is fitting for an opera about theatre which presents two performances-within-the-performance which, as convention demands, reflect the concerns of the main plot. In Act 1, mirroring history, the actors are to present a play by Jean-François Regnard, Les Folies amoureuses, while in Act 3, the ballet which entertains the palace guests relates the myth of The Judgement of Paris, encouraging them, and us, to judge Maurizio’s infidelities — though his self-serving indulgences at times lead us to question whether he’s worth all the trouble.

Charles Edwards’ beautiful and historically accurate set takes us to the heart of the theatre, and presents us with the stage the Comédie Française viewed from behind the scenes. Similarly, McVicar’s characteristically adept management of the secondary characters and chorus gives us a lively sense of a thespian world, its egos and posturing, gossip and rivalries, passionate jealousies and envious intrigues. Sets, properties and costumes (Brigitte Reifenstuel) are detailed and lavish (presumably the costs were shared by the multiple collaborators, the Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, the San Francisco Opera, and the Opéra Garnier, Paris); but, even in the visual design, with its abundant period minutiae — fans, wine glasses, mirrors, rapiers — there is a debt to ‘artifice’: the curtains, for example, are not luxurious velvet but painted onto wooden back-flats. Movements are stylised and showy; singers playing actors with light-hearted knowingness.

Only in Act 4 does the stage become more sparse as Adriana retreats from the limelight, convinced that Maurizio has abandoned her, and resigned to a simpler life away from the theatrical excesses of the stage.

It might seem natural to start with our thespian heroine and her romancing beloved. But, for me the stand-out performance on this disc is that of Alessandro Corbelli, as Adriana’s loyal devotee, Michonnet; his love unrequited, Corbelli’s Michonnet is a portrait of steadfast allegiance and constancy in a world of emotional fickleness and excess. His stuttering attempts in Act 1 to ask for Adriana’s hand in marriage are touchingly hesitant and naively hopefully; and, during Michonnet’s account of her performance — unseen and unheard by us, as offstage and onstage prove interchangeable — in Racine’s Bajazet, in a declamatory, sparingly accompanied aria, ‘Ecco il monologo’, Corbelli’s narration is full of intelligent sentiment. Convincingly, he seems to retain both an awareness and acceptance of his own aging and romantic hope; the latter blossoming in Act 4, as he reprises his ‘proposal melody’ to a sleeping Adriana, this time a model of pure, eloquent love.

The eponymous starlet is performed by a modern-day ‘diva’, Angela Gheorghiu, who was presumably attracted by both the dramatic character of the role and its fairly low tessitura, as well as the opening and closing show-stopper numbers. Not surprisingly she is a most effective prima donna; another fitting layer of meta-theatre, as the principal roles and several of the lesser figures in Scribe’s and Legouvé’s libretto were based on real-life figures: Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730) was the most famous actress of her era, an advocate for a more naturalistic style of expression and the first of her profession to be welcomed into polite society.

In Adriana’s first celebrated aria, ‘Io son l'umile ancella’, she sings of her fidelity to her art — she is the ‘humble servant of creative genius’; yet, I found Gheorghiu’s rendition lacking in dramatic force and sincerity. Though clean, generally accurate and not unpleasant in tone, there is little imaginative, responsive phrasing, few embellishments, the diction is a bit woolly and the voice lacks weight and centre — as if Adriana is going through the motions rather than truly living the role, as she professes. There are flashes of dramatic presence but, in the fiery Act 3 confrontation with the Princesse de Bouillon, Gheorghiu is out-scorned by Olga Borodina’s viperous onslaught, and though theatrically aggrieved, her Phèdre monologue lacks real declamatory energy and rancour.

Gheorghiu finds greater range and depth at the start of Act 4 when, among the bare theatre wings, simply but charmingly dressed, she her sadness and acquiescence to the patient Michonnet. But, later in the Act, in ‘Poveri Fiori’ — in which Adriana expresses sorrow at the fate of the lifeless flower which symbolises her own languished hopes of love — Gheorghiu seems emotionally indifferent, the phrases discontinuous, the timbre uneven and the consonants inaudible.

In contrast, Jonas Kaufmann’s Maurizio is every inch the ardent, romantic hero. His resonant dark timbre is employed throughout to elegant effect; in his Act 1 aria, ‘La dolcissima effigie’, the subtle dynamics and smooth lyricism suggests the sincerity of his professed love for Adriana, and if overall the tone is a little lacking in variety then Kaufmann is unfailingly technically assured.

Kaufmann seems more energised in his exchanges scenes with Olga Borodina’s Princesse than when courting the more passive Adriana. Hackles raised, attired in gleaming black like a vengeful Queen of the Night, at the start of Act 2 (‘Acerba vollutà, dolce tortura’) Borodina uses her impressive range to convey all the Princesse’s fury and fears, making a powerful impact at both the top and, especially the dark bottom. Such is the force of her emotions, and the extent of her political influence, that, arriving in her boudoir, Maurizio is impelled to bestow upon her the violets so recently imparted to him by Adriana.

Among the supporting roles there is much lively, detailed characterisation, with the singers interacting engagingly and often with shrewd humour. Company members of the Comédie Française, Mademoiselle Jouvenot (Janis Kelly) and Mademoiselle Dangeville (Sarah Castle) enjoy some animated competitive tiffs; as the Prince, an authoritative, resounding Maurizio Muraro reveals a sure sense of period gesture and comic timing, well-aided in his scheming by the rather camp Abbé de Chazueil (Bonaventura Bottone) — the latter not averse to some gentle flirtatious amusements of his own. The appropriately strong ‘company’ ambience keeps things moving along deftly.

Mark Elder coaxes a finely-drawn reading of the score from the players of the ROH orchestra, crafting the phrases with a gentle sensibility. The Act 3 ballet is exquisitely delicate. Occasionally one might long for a bit more raw passion: it’s all rather genteel and pretty, with none of the unrestrained, excessive outpourings, even vulgarity, which characterise the more hot-blooded verismo works.

Included in the DVD package is a 23-minute bonus feature, ‘All about Adriana’, in which the principals, director, designer and conductor discuss the production — which, it appears, was instigated and driven by Gheorghiu herself.

Overall, McVicar tells a convoluted story in a straightforward and direct way, making the most of the musical strengths of the score and overcoming its dramatic weaknesses.

Claire Seymour

Adriana Lecouveur, Angela Gheorghiu; Maurizio, Jonas Kaufmann; Princesse de Bouillon, Olga Borodina; Michonnet, Alessandro Corbelli; Quinault, David Soar; Poisson, Iain Paton; Mademoiselle Jouvenot, Janis Kelly; Mademoiselle Dangeville, Sarah Castle; Prince de Bouillon, Maurizio Muraro; Abbé de Chazeuil, Bonaventura Bottone; Mademoiselle Duclos, Barbara Rhodes; Director, David McVicar; Conductor, Mark Elder; Designer, Charles Edwards; Lighting Designer, Adam Silvermann; Costume Designer, Brigitte Reiffensteul; Choreographer, Andrew George; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House; TV Director and Producer, François Roussillon; Executive Producer, Toni Hajal; Sound Supervisor, Jean Chatauret

image=http://www.operatoday.com/0440_074_3459_8_DH.gif image_description=Decca 0440 074 3459 8 DH product=yes product_title=Francesco Cilèa: Adriana Lecouvreur product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Decca 0440 074 3459 8 DH [2DVDs] price=$32.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=725582
Posted by Gary at 1:49 PM

July 17, 2013

Cléopâtre and Les Troyens in Marseille

(And, yes, Roberto Alagna as Enée [Aeneas]).

French grand opera adores the mezzo-soprano voice, among its greatest roles are legendary personages who expound human warmth and honest sensuality. Just now there were three of these unique creatures in Marseille — Cléopâtre, Cassandre and Didon — all in the person of French mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon (born of a Spanish father).

Mme. Uria-Monzon was the Carmen ne plus ultra on major stages twenty years ago. Her roles are now mature women of courage and resolve (like Tosca too, Mme. Uria-Monzon’s current rôle fétiche). At fifty years of age now Mme. Uria-Monzon reads as a beautiful woman in her vocal prime. Her sound is big and secure, beautiful and elegant, uniformly produced throughout the mezzo register. Her expressive subtleties, her musicianship are created by rhythm and volume gradation more so than by variation of color.

Not that Massenet’s Cléopâtre is among French grand opera’s greatest works. Having long since given the world his masterpieces Massenet kept turning out operas, the last opera, Cléopâtre, premiered posthumously in Monte Carlo (1914). It is almost the same story as Dido (beautiful woman entraps vulnerable man who abandons her). By 1912, the year of his death, Massenet knew how to write an opera, the final count was forty.

Cléopâtre takes place in a warring world (lots of fanfare) engendering wrenching farewells not to mention betrayals (lots of singing). It was therefore a very pleasurable afternoon if you like fanfares and arias (well, we all do) and you do not look to closely or expect too much. Marseille’s venerable metteur en scéne Charles Roubaud endowed this slight work with a perfect staging that would have pleased the monegasques (those who reside in Monaco) in the heady days just before the first world war.

Its hero, Marc Antoine was impersonated by handsome Canadian (Quebec) baritone Jean François Lapointe who sings well and seems most at home in giddy moments. His rival for Cleopatra’s attention, Spakos was keenly portrayed by Marseille born tenor Luca Lombardo, and Mark Anthony’s faithful and forgiving wife Octavie was beautifully sung by Canadian (Quebec) soprano Kimy McLaren. Conductor Lawrence Foster realized the maximum possible from Massenet’s score.

As Carthage’s Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens mezzo soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon towered in stature far above Egypt’s flighty Cleopatra. Berlioz’ endows his tragic queen with sublime music. The Berlioz muse is iconoclastic, quite personal, even naive allowing this heroine an emotional simplicity and honesty that explodes first in delicate sexuality and finally in rage at Aeneas. Mme. Uria-Monzon as Troy’s Cassandra on the other hand needed to threaten the Trojans with her prophecies. These menaces lie in an emotional range less present in Mme. Uria-Monzon’s persona, though such violent utterances did find resonance within her voice.


It was a concert version of Les Troyens in Marseille, within this format Mme. Uria-Monzon shined, creating first Cassandra and then Dido in her voice then adding minimal physical movement in gesture and expression that carefully etched and held character even in concert format. Overt physical action was however implicit in the Berlioz orchestra, the five trumpets and four trombones detailing its bellicose happenings (the finale of the Trojan War, the proto-Hannibal invasion of Carthage and, not least, the founding of Rome).

Seventy-two year old American conductor Lawrence Foster, the lone linguistically foreign presence (well, save a tenor from Texas), drew an always driving, rhythmically square, colorfully detailed performance from the Marseille Orchestra who skillfully created non-stop thunder, be it military description or deeply personal emotional statement. Mo. Foster is the new music director of the Marseille orchestra, its first in many years. He has the task of honing it into an ensemble of true stature. Much progress has already occurred, there is the assumption that obvious deficiencies will soon disappear as well.

The violins are solid (twelve firsts and twelve seconds), the cellos and violas sang quite beautifully. Berlioz makes much use of a wind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) in various combination to color his story, and these players proved fully capable of providing this big time maestro and Berlioz what they demanded. The French horn duet was intoned and echoed in appropriately sweet and supple tones, a very visible and very appreciated orchestral high point of the evening.

Among the high points of the five hour evening was the fourth act Anna (Dido’s sister) and Narbal (a government minister) duet discussing, no surprise, duty versus love. In this concert performance several roles were double cast, not just the tour de force of Cassandra/Dido. Bass Nicolas Courjal sang Narbal, Priam and the ghost of Hector. He is a beautifully voiced young singer who early in the evening had made Priam’s description of the sack of Troy especially moving.


Texas tenor Gregory Warren as Iopas softly sang the Ode to Cérès as well as the Song of Hylas in sweetly beautiful tones (he also urgently delivered a few messenger one-liners). In a staged performance both of these stand alone songs assume greater relief than in a concert performance. Here they were the only episodes where scenic atmospheres were sorely missing.

The field of mezzo-sopranos (not a soprano in sight) was completed by Clémentine Margaine as Dido’s sister Anna and Marie Kalinine as Aeneas’ son Ascanio. Mlle. Margaine is obviously a Carmen of stature whose bolder presentation served to underline the subtlety and delicacy of Béatrice Uria-Monzon’s Dido.

Not to forget the Trojans and the Carthaginians, the eighty or so voices of the Opéra de Marseille chorus who suffered and raged with Berlioz’ inimitable gusto and proved themselves an ensemble of true operatic stature. The tenors made an exceptionally beautiful sound.

That leaves Aeneas, Roberto Alagna. Sad to say this famous tenor was a black hole in an otherwise superb evening. He was obviously unprepared, losing his way in his big moment in the fifth act; unsure of himself he resorted to inappropriate tenorial vocal mannerisms (heaving the voice, exaggerated scooping); unable to trust his musicianship he compensated with non-stop gesturing; apparently unable to deliver the nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie he availed himself of sotto voce, vocal trickery that simply caricatured a lover. Most disappointing were the antics he affected as he was being booed.

Michael Milenski

For an appreciation of the Opéra de Marseille please see Marseille, Capital of European Culture

Cléopâtre: Cast and Production
Cléopâtre: Béatrice Uria-Monzon; Octavie: Kimy McLaren; Charmion: Antoinette Dennefeld; Marc Antoine: Jean-François Lapointe; Spakos: Luca Lombardo; Ennius: Philippe Ermelier; Amnhès: Bernard Imbert; Sévérus: Jean-Marie Delpas. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille conducted by Lawrence Foster. Mise en scéne: Charles Roubaud; Décors: Emmanuelle Favre; Vidéos: Marie-Jeanne Gauthé; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lumières: Marc Delamézière. Opéra de Marseille, June 23, 2013.

Les Troyens: Cast and Production
Didon / Cassandre: Béatrice Uria-Monzon; Ascagne: Marie Kalinne; Anna: Clémentine Margaine; Hécube / Polyxène: Anne-Marguerite Werster; Enée: Roberto Alagna; Chorèbe: Marc Berrard; Panthée / Mercure: Alexandre Duhamel; Narbal / Priam / Ombre d’Hector: Nicolas Courjal; Iopas / Hylas: Gregory Warren; Un Chef grec / 1ère sentinelle: Bernard Imbert; Prêtre de Pluton / 2ème sentinelle: Antoine Garcin; Helenus: Wilfried Tissot. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille conducted by Lawrence Foster. Opéra de Marseille, July 15, 2013.

Photos: copyright Christian Dresse, courtesy of Opéra de Marseille

image_description=A scene from Cléopâtre [Photo by Christian Dresse courtesy of Opéra de Marseille]

product_title=Cléopâtre and Les Troyens in Marseille
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: A scene from Cléopâtre

Photos by Christian Dresse courtesy of Opéra de Marseille

Posted by michael_m at 2:00 PM

L’elisir d’amore, Opera Holland Park

A rather prosaic setting for this tender tale of amorous affection, one might think, but in fact the backdrop of infinite fields of golden-headed sunflowers aspiring eagerly towards the fresh azure above, was a neat complement to the scorching summer sun outside.

Back in the factory, the workers busied themselves with seeds, samples and solutions, clad in trademark royal-blue industrial overalls, overseen by two advertising trailers bearing the portrait of the sunflower-goddess, Adina, amid a sunny pastoral paradise. Ordering the workers back to work, the boss herself overlooked the sneaky entry of a ragged brigand, one Dr Dulcamara, who proceeded to pilfer the pods and potions for his own chemical cocktails.

An interesting start, but sadly, despite designer Leslie Travers’ appealing vistas, one which didn’t really add up and quickly ran out of steam. By Act 2, with the ‘peasants’ stripped of their boiler suits and arrayed in their finery for the wedding of Belcore and Adina, the sunflowers seemed pretty irrelevant and the tray-laden trolleys, clumped together centre-stage, a redundant intrusion.

The charm of the work lies in its perfect balance of tenderness and wit, and both were somewhat lacking in this production. Only when Nemorino suggestively sponged the larger-than-life mascot-Adina — an endearing moment of naïve, dreamy wish-fulfilment — was a chuckle raised. Elsewhere the comedy — goose-stepping soldiers, some ‘racy’ goings-on in the trailer — was too slapstick, at times Monty Python-esque, and didn’t allow the humanity of the characters to shine through. The Holland Park Chorus, although accurate and well-marshalled, lacked the brightness of tone that was such an invigorating force in the season’s earlier production of The Pearl Fishers. There was little sense of a community of friends and fellows having fun, and too often the chorus were arranged in static clusters. Even the final chorus, when the opportunistic Dulcamara coolly cashes in on the success of his miracle medicine, was rather muted and restrained.

The sluggish tempi adopted by conductor Steven Higgins didn’t help matters. Higgins was practical and precise, and the players of the City of London Sinfonia performed, as they have done throughout the season, with customary clarity and a sure sense of a well-turned phrase. But Higgins used large gestures when small ones would have been more efficient, and didn’t quite pull off the Rossinian crescendo-accelerando, often labouring in four beats in a bar when slipping into two would have spurred things along more swiftly and slickly.

Fortunately a saviour was at hand, in the form of Sarah Tynan’s wonderful Adina. Following two recent, stellar turns in the role at English National Opera, Tynan is a total natural as the capricious minx with an essentially good heart. Factory owner or foreman, it wasn’t quite clear, but she was certainly master of the proceedings, the absolute star of the show. Coolly confident, there was not a note or nuance that was not fully in her command and, although Furtado seemed to have offered little direction, Tynan used every shade of her luscious soprano to sparkling dramatic effect, her voice agile, vibrant and unfailingly sweet.

She was well-matched by Aldo Do Toro as Nemorino. Returning to Holland Park after his well-received performance in a darker Donizettian mode, as Edgardo in Lucia, Do Toro once again revealed a warm, well-focused tenor, well-equipped to rise to the heights with no sense of strain. Simple and trusting, moving easily about the stage, he was an engaging and lovable dolt although, despite the pseudo-scientific interventions of Dulcamara, there was not much chemistry between Do Toro and Tynan.

Paradoxically, when things needed to settle back and unwind more languidly, Steven Higgins hurried along. Do Toro’s lines were smooth and well-shaped in the sentimental ‘Una furtive lagrima’, but he needed a few moments of relaxed expansion to do full justice to the Italianate lyricism.

Baritone George von Bergen was a consistent Belcore. One of the troops, as opposed to the commanding officer, this Belcore was more bluff and bluster than military might, but in his Act 1 aria, ‘Come Paride vezzoso’, von Bergen demonstrated a resonant lower register. An overly heavy vibrato occasionally marred the focus though, dulling the brightness and diminishing the impression of Belcore’s swaggering self-adulation. Rosalind Coad was a characterful Giannetta with an aptly mischievous tint to her voice.

Which brings us to the calculating chancer whose medicinal machinations are honoured in the opera’s title. Standing in at short notice for the indisposed Richard Burkhard, Geoffrey Dolton presented an idiosyncratic, but not wholly successful, interpretation of Dulcamara, far removed from the usual glib self-publicist and confident conman. Low-key, preferring to skulk in the shadows than parade in the spotlight, Dolton sang competently but rather blandly; assuming that the factory workers had a little scientific nous at their disposal, being familiar with tinctures to ‘make the garden grow’, it was hard to believe that they would be duped by Dulcamara’s rather lacklustre sales-pitch, ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’ (the anachronistic term ‘peasants’ being typical of the disappointing surtitles which also at times took considerable liberties with the libretto).

Dolton’s duet with Tynan, ‘Io son ricco e tu sei bella’, is intended to wow the wedding-feast guests and should be a show-stopping party-piece, but on this occasion there was little festive fizz; with his light and flexible baritone, Dolton can despatch Donizetti’s decorative flounces, but his voice does not really have the weight for this role. He was probably hampered too by Furtado’s sometimes underwhelming direction, particularly in Act 2, but this was a shame for an ironically masterful Dulcamara can convince us all that the tale is more than mere barmy nonsense.

L’elisir d’amore continues in rep until 3 August — go for Tynan’s dazzling Adina alone.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Adina, Sarah Tynan; Nemorino, Aldo Di Toro; Belcore, George von Bergen; Dulcamara, Geoffrey Dolton; Giannetta, Rosalind Cold; Director, Pia Furtado; Designer, Leslie Travers; Lighting Designer, Colin Grenfell; Conductor, Steven Higgins; City of London Sinfonia; Opera Holland Park Chorus. Opera Holland Park, Tuesday, 16th July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/HP_l%27elisir.gif image_description=L'elisir d'amore, Opera Holland Park product=yes product_title=L’elisir d’amore, Opera Holland Park product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above image by Opera Holland Park
Posted by Gary at 12:39 PM

Glimmerglass Festival’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ a voyage to remember

The sultry weather outside the Alice Busch Opera Theater in Cooperstown, New York moved indoors for an erotic and riveting production of The Flying Dutchman that put all the characters’ sexual frustrations front and center. Call it “Tennessee Williams meets Richard Wagner at the Glimmerglass Festival.”

This work, the first to announce Wagner’s distinctive style, is based on a nautical legend as retold by the poet Heinrich Heine. The Dutchman has been doomed to sail the world as punishment for uttering a blasphemous oath. Every seven years he is permitted to step on land to seek a woman who will be faithful to him and provide him release from the curse. So far, no luck.

As envisioned by Director Francesca Zambello, who is also the Festival’s Artistic and General Director, this Dutchman needs female companionship in the worst way, and who can blame him? As a result, one key prop in this production is a bed, specifically Senta’s bed. She is the latest object of his desire — and his hope for release.

Fortunately for him, Senta is obsessed with the legend of the Flying Dutchman. After the justly famous overture, Zambello places Senta on the bed in the midst of a nightmare as a storm rages off the coast of Norway. She is enveloped in a black cloud of cloth, flailing wildly as she foresees her own doom.

The bed returns when Senta gives herself to the Dutchman as a sign of her enduring fidelity. She will save him from his accursed wandering. Her Dutchman is bare chested — save for a large Gothic tattoo that covers most of his skin. (It is painstakingly drawn on his chest before each performance.) Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman has the abs and the arms to make this seduction convincing, although if this production had been staged in Germany, and not Central New York, Zambello might have taken more risks. Still, steam was coming off the bed.

Then Senta greets her sad sack, discarded boyfriend Erik, on this bed. He almost convinces her to remain faithful. The Dutchman spies on this scene of partial reconciliation and assumes Senta is like all the other women he’s met in his endless wanderings and abandons her, returning once again to the sea.

Finally, on this bed Senta in despair commits suicide using a rope — a second key image in this production.

Glimmerglass_Dutchman_02.gifJay Hunter Morris as Erik and Melody Moore as Senta

Ropes are everywhere. They hang from scaffolding that frames the stage both right and left. Sailors hang onto them for dear life to suggest the raging storm that has delayed their return to Norway and to their girlfriends. They pull on the ropes at the end of Act 1 to inflate the mast once a south wind has returned.

In the spinning scene, the village girls each have ropes suspended from the scaffolding to their laps. Rather than sew, they braid these ropes — often using them erotically to suggest their own sexual frustration as they await the return of their sailor-lovers.

The ropes also envelope Senta’s bed, as if they were bars to a jail she will never leave alive.

The Heine legend says that the Dutchman’s cursed ship had blood-red sails. Zambello’s lighting director Mark McCullough has suggested this through the frequent use of a red spotlight on the Dutchman and with red backlighting for the rigging of his ship. In the rigging one could see bodies — perhaps of the women who had already lost their lives by being unfaithful to the Dutchman, or perhaps of his ghostly crewmembers. Spooky it was. Had this been a Broadway show, McCullough’s lighting throughout the production was worthy of garnishing a Tony Award.

All of this was in service to a splendid cast that was strong from top to bottom. Wagner’s score was sung as well as one is likely to hear it in a house of this size (914 seats).

In the title role, McKinny was most effective when singing quietly, as when he first tells Senta his sad story in Act 2. He is a bit light of voice for the role, but this made sense given that he was portrayed as a young and ardent captain, seemingly not much older than Senta. McKinny is a good actor, able to make a real person of this mythical sailor.

Melody Moore was a sensational Senta. She hit all the exposed high notes of her famous Ballad without scooping or straining, as if nailing the notes was no big deal. She offered none of the blowzy singing that sometimes afflicts others who sing this part. She delivered the role with both power and lyricism.

The role of Daland, Senta’s father, was sung heartily by Peter Volpe, who has a cavernous but also agile bass voice. It was a clear contrast to the lighter voice of the Dutchman. He captured the comic absurdity of this money-grubbing father who is wiling to sell off his daughter to a rich, mysterious captain of a ghost ship, ignoring that this Dutchman might not be such a great son-in-law. Directors can’t do much with this character that Wagner didn’t make explicit, and Volpe seems to have found just what the composer intended.

Glimmerglass_Dutchman_03.gifPeter Volpe as Daland (left) and Adam Bielamowicz as the Steersman

Erik, Senta’s shunned boyfriend, is often played and sung as a wimp — as if Don Ottavio had wandered out of Don Giovanni and into the wrong opera. Not here. Jay Hunter Morris, who has sung Siegfried in both New York and San Francisco (with Zambello) to great acclaim, assumed the role. He was physically rough with Senta, no wimp at all. His voice was large for this house and thrilling, if a bit nasal. His Act 3 aria, in which he begs Senta to stick with him, was melting in its delivery. This was an Erik worthy of a forging scene. A bit more Bellini-type vocalism would have helped (this is, after all, an early Wagner work), but I’ll take it.

Glimmerglass Young Artist Adam Bielamowicz was a sympathetic steersman with a tenor voice as clear as spring water. A second Young Artist, Deborah Nansteel, was a most capable Mary, Senta’s nurse — a somewhat thankless part.

The men and women of the chorus sang and acted with polish. Conductor John Keenan led a fleet performance — about as far from the classic, lumbering, but celebrated Otto Klemperer EMI recording as one could get. Occasionally balances were off and the brass and winds rode over the strings. After a wonderful clarion opening from the horn in the overture, it was a hit or miss afternoon for the brass section. But overall the orchestra acquitted itself honorably. (This was the first time Glimmerglass has ever presented one of the 10 canonic Wagner operas.)

Oddly, Zambello chose to break the opera for an intermission at the point in Act 2, when Senta first sees the Dutchman. In dramatic terms this makes sense, since it leaves the audience wondering how she will react. It also splits the opera into nearly two equal parts. But for those who know the score, it was jarring. Wagner knew how to end his acts in slam-bang fashion, and this was not it. I would have preferred either a single two-hour performance with no break, or the three-act version with the endings Wagner wrote. But this is a small quibble.

Zambello’s reputation as a Wagner director was established, at least for me, in her San Francisco “Eco-Ring.” This production of The Flying Dutchman convinces me that she has a lot to say about this composer. She saw, as The New Grove Dictionary of Opera suggests, that Wagner identified with his “sexually unfulfilled protagonist.” This is a production Wagner would recognize, and no doubt appreciate.

David Rubin

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Glimmerglass_Dutchman_01.gif image_description=Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman [Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival] product=yes product_title=Glimmerglass Festival’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ a voyage to remember product_by=A review by David Rubin product_id=Above: Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman

Photos: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Posted by Gary at 9:10 AM

July 16, 2013

Cecilia Bartoli as Norma

Posted by Gary at 10:03 AM

Opera from Cambridge University Press

Starting with the Classical Greek and medieval precursors of the art form, Cannon takes the reader through a probing investigation of the development of opera, from its sixteenth-century Florentine origins, through its Enlightenment transformations, its Romantic revolutions, to its modern-day ‘radical narratives’.

The intention is to reveal to the reader ‘how opera works’. And, Cannon imagines two ‘complementary readerships’: the music student who ‘needs a basis for approaching this very particular and complex musical application’ and the experienced opera-goer who ‘want to know more than is provided by a history or synopses’. The latter is just the sort of reader who might have been a student on the Opera Studies degree programme, the first of its kind, which Cannon co-founded in 1997, and for which I was a tutor in its early days: that is, the opera enthusiast, with many years of experience ‘in the theatre’, who craves further technical explication and does not want to be patronised!

Indeed, the bullet-point format of the study’s four proposed aims — to develop understanding of a chronological ‘through-line’ and of the different way opera and its forms ‘work’, and appreciation of the formative role of opera’s major exponents and opera’s relationship to the world around it —resembles a set of academic ‘learning objectives’, but that does not make these ambitions any less worthy or relevant.

Cannon’s survey is chronological — although, he argues, the development of opera should not be seen as evolutionary — and the focus falls equally upon changes in operatic form and style and upon the philosophical and cultural debates, and social and political contexts, informing those changes. Thus, interspersed among the specialist explorations of seventeenth-century Reform opera, Grand opéra and nineteenth-century nationalism are ‘generic’ chapters, which arise naturally from the particular but which also relate to the general. In this way, consideration of matters such as dramaturgy, the libretto, the singer, tonality, ‘authenticity’ and the role of the director enliven and enrich the historical and musicological review, in a manner true to the reader’s own experience of opera.

So, following a chapter entitled ‘Comedy and the real world’, which explores the rise of eighteenth-century opera buffa culminating in an analysis of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, there comes a chapter on ‘Authentic performance’, introducing debates relating to the reliability of the score, technical elements of original performances, instruments and instrumentation, pitch and range, singers and techniques, and performance contexts and conditions. Such ‘diversions’ from the chronological path could have been disjunctive or distracting, but throughout Cannon immerses the reader in opera’s cultural and socio-political milieu, and thus these side-lines arise naturally; in this particular instance, the reader is encouraged to appreciate the differences between former and modern perspectives, and the issues involved in recreating that past in the present-day.

Cannon’s argument, persuasively articulated, is that the development of opera was integrally related to European cultural debates and movements, and influenced by contemporary social and political factors; as such, opera is not a ‘singular’ entity but a multifarious, hybrid medium capable of enabling a peculiarly rich range of expression and of producing a deep and influential impact upon individuals and societies. For example, opera buffa is shown to have both reflected and realised changes in sentiment and a shift towards a new ‘realism’ which mirrored social change during the eighteenth-century, as ‘trade became a social force which challenged the supremacy of the aristocracy’. The newly prosperous middle class was both thirsty for knowledge about the fields that supported its commerce — mathematics, geography (resulting in a shift from the traditional focus of high culture, such as religion, the classics) — and eager for political self-determination. Cannon argues persuasively that out of such conditions arose a ‘new form, the novel … that used the language of life to describe people and places as the middle class knew and valued them’, and consequently a new kind of theatre — and, in turn, opera — was also born.

The author’s breadth of knowledge and scope is impressive, and his own particular interest in art, architecture, and indeed all cultural manifestations of socio-political change, ever apparent. Hence an appraisal of the earliest operatic forms and the transition from the High Renaissance to the Mannerist world of the early Baroque places the work of Caccini and Monteverdi alongside complementary visual arts — Buontalenti’s Belvedere of the Pitti Palace in Florence, Maderno’s Façade of Santa Susanna in Rome, Rubens’ The Descent from the Cross — and the pastoral dramas of Guarini and Poliziano. Similarly, Goldoni’s libretti for the new comedic form is examined in the context of Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela. Moreover, reference to Diderot’s Encyclopedia, published between 1751 and 1780, reveals the relationship between the theoretical and the practical.

It is the nineteenth century to which most attention is devoted. Here, Cannon offers a detailed account of the social and political upheavals of the age of revolution and explores the way that operatic form was shaped both by nationalist ideologies which were mythologised through art and philosophical speculations on the sublime. Turning the microscope on Italy, he focuses on technical and formal matters; in France it is the role of Grand opéra in forming a distinct political and cultural identity which takes centre-stage. Wagner is the only composer to be assigned an entire chapter: standing half-way through the book, this is also the heart of the thesis, as Cannon suggests that Wagner’s endeavour to change the musical and dramatic content of opera resulted in a change in its aesthetic and social function that in turn created a new ethos for evaluating opera.

There is an engaging chapter on late-nineteenth-century Nationalism, noting that the fluidity of European national boundaries makes the notion of ‘pure’ national styles somewhat problematic and drawing interesting correlations between events and themes, with particular appreciation of the enormous influence of Pushkin at this time. Typically, the discussion of vernacular musical language and form integrates the musicological and the general. Chapter 12, ‘The role of the singer’, explores both the technical — range, vocal types — and the practical: dramatic ability, the ‘star’ singer, the relationship between singer and composer, and the influence of the singer upon repertoire and the popularity of particular works.

Only when turning to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries does Cannon become more eclectic and, naturally and understandably, there is less sense of shared ideologies and contexts. Following a useful explication of modernist aesthetic (‘Where Puccini’s scores are designed to hold a series of dramatic fragments together within a lyrical whole, in Janáček they are contained purely within the dramatic continuum.’), the spotlight shines inevitably on Strauss, Debussy, Weill, Berg, Britten (afforded a lengthy section), Henze, Stravinsky, Tippett, Turnage, Stockhausen and Birtwhistle; but there are also less obvious choices — Sallinen, Dusapin, Nono and Zimmerman. There are inevitably omissions — there is no Ravel, Les Six, Bartok, Menotti, Prokofiev, Ligeti, Szymanowski, Mawell Davies for example — and the landscape is distinctly European with Adams and Glass the only, brief, American representatives.

The text is accompanied by frequent tables, providing structural breakdowns of whole works, detailed analyses of individual acts and scenes, illustrating parallel developments in different European centres, and presenting chronologies of a genre or composer’s oeuvre. These tables are designed ‘as frameworks within which ideas and interconnections can be studied’ and they do present and summarise material in a concise and readily absorbable manner. But, the tabular analyses of particular works are necessarily selective: Gluck is represented by Alceste, Mozart by Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte, Verdi by Macbeth, Rigoletto and Otello. Some of these analyses are more obviously useful than others: few readers, I imagine, will make practical use of the lengthy tabular explication of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. But, these are small quibbles; and the frequent summarising bullet points that draw attention to the essentials are particularly helpful for the reader with less prior knowledge.

This is a valuable book which makes an excellent attempt to balance the long and near views. Detailed studies of the particular rest comfortably alongside energetic sweeps of the contextual landscape, revealing the broader concerns informing specific works. The operatic novice may prefer to begin with a ‘Rough Guide’, but the informed, experienced listener will find much here to stimulate and satisfy.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Cambridge_Opera.gif image_description=9780521746472 product=yes product_title=Opera — Cambridge Introductions to Music product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Cambridge University Press; ISBN: 9780521746472 price=$26.99 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/0521746477
Posted by Gary at 9:35 AM

July 13, 2013

Ermonela Jaho — Singing and Character

In 2011, she sang a wonderful Suor Angelica, astonishing audiences with her passionate portrayal. Now she’s back at the Royal Opera House again, singing Magda in Puccini’s La Rondine

Although Puccini’s La Rondine is very different from Verdi’s La Traviata, Magda and Violetta are both ladies with a past who sacrifice themselves for others. Violetta is one of Jaho’s signature roles, which she has created many times all over the world. How does she approach Magda ? “I did the role ten years ago” she says. “and I thought, but’s it’s operetta ! I usually do big dramatic parts. So why have they chosen me? But now I understand Magda. Puccini is writing a different kind of heroine. Magda does not die. There’s no big catharsis. Magda does not die physically. But she’s dying inside, slowly. Her body is alive, but her heart and soul are quietly dying. But it’s a choice that she made for herself. Everyone of us, we make choices in life. We’re all trying to do our best. But sometimes we don’t have the maturity and experience, and sometimes the choices might not be right in the end”.

“’Chi il bel sogno di Doretta Potè indovinar! ‘? How will the story end? When we are young we are influenced by society, conservative convention, by what other people think. So she thought she wanted money and security. Now she has everything material, jewels, dresses, money. But now she knows that love is priceless. No-one can buy the feeling of happiness that love gives you. Prunier is just singing a song, but for Magda, the song is like a trigger that trips off memories and emotions she can’t hide any more. In the beginning of the first act, she’s a little sad but she has to play the games people expect. But by the end of the act, when she is alone, she decides to do something about her dreams.”

“So she changes her clothes and goes to Bulliers, dressed as a young girl. And the past happens again in exactly the same way. She meets Ruggero. He doesn’t know who she is but loves her for what she is. They kiss, and she wants that wonderful moment to last forever. So she tells him she’s called Paulette, a simple name like Lisette, her maid. Lisette is very down to earth, unlike Prunier, who lives in fantasy. Puccini is really sharp, he writes something funny when something dramatic is going to happen. So the past happens all over again and she makes the same mistake, she cannot face the truth so she tries to stay mysterious. But you can understand, she doesn’t want the cream to end.”

“In the last act, Magda and Ruggero are in a chic resort. It’s Spring and in the sunshine, flowers are blooming, they are making love, they are so happy. But Ruggero is a country boy, so he takes things seriously and he wants to marry her. When Magda hears how his mother thinks she’s a pure girl, who will have babies, she knows that she cannot play the dream any more. The beautiful bubble must burst now. She has to face reality even though her heart will break”

“Magda knows that she can’t be the kind of woman Ruggero needs. So she tells the truth. In those moments, you can see Ruggero’s face change with disappointment and shock. He is losing his dream, too. But he is young, he might have a different future. So she sings tenderly, like a mother soothing a child. ‘Quando sarai guarito, te ne ricorderai. Ti ritorni alla casa tua serena, io reprendo il mio volo e la mia pena”. She loves him so much that she doesn’t want him to make the wrong choice like she did when she was young”.

“Every time I sing this role, even in rehearsal, it takes a lot out of me. I need to be totally honest with my emotions. When I sing those last lines, I feel my heart and vocal chords pulling. If we are human beings, it’s impossible to become detached. Puccini closes the opera with pianissimo, but for me that is not a beautiful sound. It is the sound of Magda’s heart screaming from deep inside her soul.”

Magda and Violetta are really quite different. Violetta knows that she is going to die, so when she gives up Alfredo, she will not survive anyway. She is coughing blood, she has tuberculosis. You can’t sing her lines in a pretty way because that’s no true to the drama. We singers have to have integrity, we can’t sing just to please the public. The music, the role, that comes first. When Violetta dies, she finds peace. But Magda has to live, maybe many more years, knowing that she gave up her moment of love. She is a truly noble soul. She is strong because she could make that choice. She will be empty, a long, slow sadness in her life, but she also knows that Ruggero will be happy. That is the proof of her love. She doesn’t have a physical death, she doesn’t have a catharsis. But her pain makes her stronger and more mature.”

“When I was a child, I was so shy. You can’t imagine. I kept everything hidden inside me. Maybe it was destiny that I learned how to sing. It was like psychotherapy. I found a way to channel my feelings. In society, we are always under pressure to follow rules, and we can’t be so open about our feelings. But with music, we can tell the truth !”

“Suor Angelica, for example, she is a kind of prisoner in the convent. She can’t tell anyone her secret. Suor Angelia’s catharsis is her vision. To be artists, we have to carry some deep feelings in ourselves. Puccini understood. He visited convents, he saw the nuns as women who had made choices, though some of course didn’t have a choice. The opera was written a hundred years ago, but the human side is universal.“

Another of Jaho's favourite roles is Madama Butterfly. "Cio Cio San is only 15 years old, but she's not completely a victim. She wants her dreams to become reality. She even goes to the Consulate and wants to become American. She kills herself when her dreams fall apart. It's extreme, but we all know what teenagers can be like, and so did Puccini"

Singers put so much of themselves into their art. They have integrity. Ermonela Jaho emerged from our interview tired, but radiant. Facing feelings, finding strength - would that we all had the courage to sing !

Anne Ozorio

Ermonela Jaho sings Magda in Puccini’s La Rondine at the Royal Opera House. For more details, visit her website.

image_description=Ermonela Jaho

product_title=Ermonela Jaho — Singing and Character
product_by=An interview by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Ermonela Jaho

Posted by anne_o at 7:48 AM

July 11, 2013

Britten: The Canticles

Twenty-seven years separate the first and last Canticles and in some ways these intimate, dense narratives represent a composing life, exhibiting Britten’s stylistic preoccupations and expressive concerns at various points in his career. There are certainly musical and thematic links between the individual Canticles but, performed as a sequence, do they cohere? In a programme article, Paul Kildea finds common ground in their dramatic concentration, their ‘opulent’ poetic language, and the fact that each Canticle is dedicated, ‘in name or spirit, to one of Britten’s heroes’.

By assigning each Canticle to a different director, Bartlett and Constable perhaps make their task even more difficult; then there is the further problem that, with their varying moods and energies, when performed in sequence the Canticles do not form a naturally persuasive dramatic form.

Bartlett remarks that the Canticles ‘get a great deal out of the simplest musical resources, they excavate extraordinary and multiple levels of sense from their words’. And so they do; the rich textual imagery is translated into densely evocative music, which is why they do not need further visual accompaniment. Indeed, concrete embodiments of Britten’s musical images risk either distracting from the musical performances, or being ignored as the audience focuses inevitably on the medium which expresses the composer’s meaning most directly - especially when it is communicated through vocal and instrumental performances as powerful as those heard here.

Such problems were most apparent in the first Canticle, ‘My Beloved is Mine’, a setting of text adapted from theSong of Solomon. Written for and first performed by Peter Pears, this is a lyrical, joyful celebration of love and sexual passion. Ian Bostridge’s beautifully unfolding raptures faded sweetly into relaxed whisperings; alongside this Bartlett offered a mundane morning routine, as two men (actors Peter Bray and Edward Evans) enjoyed a demure breakfast before departing for a day in the office. Presumably Bartlett wished to suggest a natural, everyday union of the spiritual and the sexual, but the darkness which divided the stage, separating the music from its visual interpretation, embodied the huge chasm between the expressive register of the music and the mime.

Scott Graham’s balletic interpretation of the second Canticle, a retelling of the biblical father-son drama, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, was less intrusive, the tender gestures of his two dancers (Chris Akrill and Gavin Persand) forming a reserved yet affecting dramatization of the narrative as recounted and enacted by the richly blending voices of Bostridge and countertenor Iestyn Davies.

Canticles-12.gifJulius Drake and Ian Bostridge

The third Canticle, ‘Still Falls the Rain’, was accompanied by John Keane’s video illustration of the manufacture of weaponry and the carnage wrought by aerial bombardment juxtaposed with Christian iconography. The visual oppositions and associations were an apt expression of Edith Sitwell’s vehement poem with its bitter diction and insistent repetitions. Moreover, the striking visual contrasts complemented the musical antagonism of voice and horn, as Bostridge’s hesitant, lamenting ‘refrain’ meandered seemingly unaware of Richard Watkins’ eerie horn calls from afar, until the two strands united peacefully at the close. But, the images were an adjunct rather than integral; to be glanced at but not too deeply reflected upon, for it was the music which commanded one attention and shaped one’s emotions.

The fourth Canticle involved no extraneous diversions, and for this reason Constable’s presentation of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ was the most powerfully suggestive. Bostridge and Davies were joined by baritone Benedict Nelson, and the three singers, weary travellers with scuffed suitcases by their sides, reflected hauntingly on their life-journey, which has brought them not knowledge, understanding and faith, rather anxiety, incomprehension and disenchantment.

Britten returned to Eliot in the final Canticle, a setting of ‘The Death of St Narcissus’. Responding to Eliot’s lines, ‘So he became a dancer to God/ Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows/ He danced on hot sand/ Until the arrows came’, Wendy Houstoun presented a single dancer (Dan Watson) spinning ceaselessly, as if spurred on by the troubling dissonances between Bostridge’s striving melodies and the eloquent interjections of Sally Pryce’s harp. In the final moments, harp and voice were reconciled, as the dancer’s spirals and the harp’s expansive ringing octaves faded into the oblivion of shadows.

Musically this was a stunning performance, underpinned by the intelligent, responsive piano accompaniment of Julius Drake. Singers and instrumentalists unfailingly communicated the urgent drama of each Canticle, sensitively alert to every contradiction and inference. No more was needed.

Claire Seymour

There are two further performances at the Linbury Studio, ROH, on 11th and 12th July, at 7.45pm.

Cast and production information:

Ian Bostridge: tenor; Iestyn Davies: countertenor; Benedict Nelson: baritone; Julius Drake: piano; Richard Watkins: horn; Sally Pryce: harp; Neil Bartlett: Scott Graham: John Keane: Paule Constable: Wendy Houstoun: directors; Edward Evans: Peter Bray: actors; Chris Akrill and Gavin Persand (from Ignition Physical Theatre): Dan Watson: dancers. Royal Opera House, London, Wednesday 10th July 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Canticles-88.gif image_description=Edward Evans and Peter Bray [Photo © ROH/ Tristram Kenton] product=yes product_title=Britten: The Canticles product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Edward Evans and Peter Bray

Photos © ROH/ Tristram Kenton
Posted by Gary at 9:46 AM

July 10, 2013

Anna Netrebko 10 Years @ DG celebrating Verdi 200

Posted by Gary at 3:03 PM

Central City Opera: Rocky Mountain High

Clearly the production team has endowed the staging with top-notch values, starting with Ken Cazan’s fluid, meaningful, resourceful stage direction. Thornton Wilder’s play that is the basis for this adaptation is, of course, celebrated for its non-linear theatricality, for breaking the fourth wall, for espousing profound truths with pithy means. Mr. Cazan has not only mined all the humanity in the well-known tale, but has even expanded its impact by nurturing a good deal of ‘poetry’ to emerge from Wilder’s deliberately homey prose.

He was enabled in his achievement by a nonpareil design team that made uniformly splendid contributions starting with the scenic environment created by Alan E. Muraoka. The choice of a plain stage floor and upstage wall of rough-hewn planks ably suggested New England, and proved a suitable neutral milieu that was a welcoming space for the addition of minimal set pieces placed by the actors. Mr. Muraoka also incorporated telling projections of sepia-toned photographs, some of the actual cast, that immeasurably added to the clarity of the narrative without ever overpowering the live action.

OURTOWNDrMrsGibbs.gifKevin Langan as Dr. Gibbs and Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Gibbs [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

Costumer Marcy Froehlich has attired the cast in appropriate period regional dress that conveys their characters, singly and collectively, in highly nuanced and meaningful ways. Ms. Froehlich’s brilliant look for the minor personage of Mrs. Soames, all frills and finery and anything-but-the-usual-matron, was remarkably fine. Only one costume choice nagged at me: the Stage Manager in modern black disco-ready-dress with contemporary two-way headset and even a thermal drink cup. I appreciate the thought, but with the rest of the palette so subtly unobtrusive, this one anachronistic touch seemed self-conscious.

David Martin Jacques designed a lighting plot that was nothing short of exquisite. His subtle uses of pinpoint accurate isolated spots, gobo washes, perfectly calibrated fades, chilling back-lighting, and varied color filters was a veritable stage lighting Masters Class. Perhaps the highest praise for the collective technical achievement of Mssrs. Jacques and Muraoka, and Ms. Froehlich is how effortlessly and inevitably it all unfolded to the point of being sensed rather than noticed. Bravi tutti!

Mr. Rorem was fortunate indeed to have a (mostly) young and thoroughly accomplished cast to ennoble his score. The anchor of the piece was the accomplished soprano Anna Christy as Emily Gibbs. Ms. Christy is radiant in the part, believably youthful, sweetly endearing, and displaying a soaring lyric soprano that has never been heard to better advantage. The local mines around these parts can’t have an ounce of silver left in them since it all seems to have taken up residence in her throat. There was not a phrase Anna sang that was not deeply affecting, whether it was the conversational exchanges casually tossed off during courtship, the despairing post-mortem plunges to the depths of the chest voice, or the enchanting arcs and leaps to the stratosphere. Emily owns the last act, and Anna Christy made the extended scena her own with a traversal of such intense and flawless vocalization I can hear it still.

OURTOWNWedding2.gifBehind, L to R: Anna Christy as Emily Webb, Vale Rideout as Stage Manager, William Ferguson as George Gibbs, Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Gibbs, Kevin Langan as Dr. Gibbs; in Foreground: Claire Shackleton as Mrs. Soames. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

William Ferguson was a perfect match as her love interest, the slightly gangly, earnest George Gibbs. Mr. Ferguson modulated his pure, clear tenor to good effect and exerted utter control in flights to the upper regions. Although the tone is slender, he has excellent projection and superb diction, and his collegial musicality made the important George-Emily duets real highpoints of the evening. Vale Rideout made an indelible impression as the Stage Manager, mastering some cruelly high and exposed pronouncements with professional skill, and meandering his way around multiple Britten-esque melismas with aplomb. Mr. Rideout has had considerable success with such parts and it is easy to see why. He has a reliable technique and he skillfully uses it to master every challenge of such wide-ranging, musically diverse vocal writing. Moreoever, Vale has an easy, natural stage demeanor that is effortlessly engaging.

Kevin Langan’s solid, orotund bass was an excellent match for the role of Dr. Gibbs, and he memorably dominated the scene chiding his son to chop the wood for his mother. Phyllis Pancella proved a thoroughly lovely Mrs. Gibbs, her plangent mezzo falling easily on the ear. Her graveyard advisories and weighted asides were hauntingly beautiful. As Mr. Webb, John Hancock not only had a towering physical presence but had a voice to match: a mellifluous, responsive baritone that rang out soundly in the house. Sally Wolf was a fine partner with her sympathetic Mrs. Gibbs, her individual, opaque mezzo adding variety and texture to the vocal roster.

This performance also featured two talented young artists whose stock is no doubt on the rise. As Mrs. Soames, Claire Shackleton wrung every possible effect out of her brief turn while singing with a ripe mezzo of polished sheen and warmth. And Kevin Newell treated us to an appealing, well-focused tenor, and proved to be a touching embodiment of the drunken choir master Simon Stimson. Both singers made mighty, moving contributions to the graveyard scene ensembles. Though having less meaty assignments, there were solid additions to the evening’s success from Robert Murphy (Joe Crowell), Alexander Elliott (Frank), and Isaac Bray (Sam) whose horse play, high spirits and robust singing enlivened Act One.

Whether Our Town is a great opera, time will tell. What I can tell you now is that this was a great production, owing in no small part to the assured and sensitive conducting from Christopher Zemliauskas. The Maestro got maximum effect from Rorem’s small orchestration, eliciting a great variety of color and even a suggestion of plush ensemble from his small, talented group. His coordination with the stage was immaculate, and he drew exceptionally sensitive singing from the soloists as well as Levi Hammer’s well-tutored chorus.

OURTOWNFuneral.gifVale Rideout as Stage Manager, Claire Shackleton as Mrs. Soames and Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Gibbs. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk.]

I have great admiration for Ned Rorem as one of America’s finest, most prolific song writers. He is almost unmatched at setting texts and creating accessible yet fresh melodies. While his harmonic vocabulary comes across to me as largely neo-classical, and while there are moments in the compact score that recall other big name composers, he has proven over the years to have his own voice. Still, as the evening progressed, I did wonder if Mr. Rorem was too often taking an easy, “accessible” way out. Themes that have an initial appeal seem to either get truncated or fail to fully blossom into something more engaging or enduring. J.D. McClatchy’s libretto, while functional, occasionally slips into rhymes of the “Roses are red, violets are blue” ilk that are jarringly not Wilder. At opera’s end, I found myself wondering if the authors just might have set out to simply create a piece with a popular title and modest requirements that may encourage wider performances. I think that they could have been substantially more diligent in meaningfully serving the source, Our Town.

For proof positive that a composer and librettist can not only perfectly serve their source material, but actually improve upon it, we had only to wait until the sparkling performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Since my last experience with Rossini’s classic comedy was a dreary and charmless production at the very festival named for the composer, I can happily report that CCO has out-Pesaro’d Pesaro with a bustling, effervescent, laugh-out-loud-funny staging peopled with some of today’s best young singers.

Daniel Belcher was a firecracker of a barber, and his bright, vibrant baritone served the role of Figaro well. Animated and witty, Mr. Belcher showed off an uncommonly wide range which encompassed some astonishingly easy, ringing high phrases. While his Largo al factotum was the usual crowd-pleaser, truth to tell it came across as just a bit noisy and rhythmically unruly. But once past that well-beloved set piece, Daniel settled down to a finely-drawn vocal portrayal that was steady and incisive.

BARBERAlmavivaRosina.gifDavid Portillo as Almaviva and Jennifer Rivera as Rosina. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

Statuesque Jennifer Rivera was not only the very funniest Rosina I have ever seen, she was also one of the most musically impressive, starting with a tone as sumptuous as heavy cream. Moreover, she commands a striking ability to retain an evenness of production from top to bottom and back again as she tosses off coloratura with aplomb and distinction. This was clearly not Ms. Rivera’s first encounter with the role since she brought a wealth of seasoned detail, effortless grace, and practiced humor to her characterization. Jennifer can execute a dead-pan ‘mug’ with a comedic accuracy that would rival Carol Burnett, and her ‘take’ after Lindoro reveals his true identity was alone worth the price of admission.

As Almaviva,/Lindoro David Portillo was so dapper and well-scrubbed that it was easy to understand why he would intrigue the oppressed heroine. The fact that his well-schooled tenor is sweetly communicative completes the seduction. Mr. Portillo has stage savvy to spare and he throws himself into his disguised visits to Bartolo’s house with abandon. His lisping, over-the-top music master yielded especially fun-filled results. In a role that can be the most ungrateful in the opera, David scored a solid success owing to his winning personality and committed, balanced vocalizing.

Arguably the show’s very finest singing came from the accomplished Bartolo, Patrick Carfizzi (and how often can one say that about a Barbiere performance?). Mr. Carfizzi’s impressive bass is as powerful as it is handsome. Make no mistake, he certainly knows how to use a full arsenal of buffo vocal tricks and colors to nail his laughs and etch his scheming Don, but then he can suddenly take our breath away with a finely sung declamation that is remarkably elegant. This was Rossinian (or ‘anyone-else-ian’) singing and acting of the highest order, a sublime accomplishment.

BARBERBartoloBasilio2.gifPatrick Carfizzi as Bartolo and Grigory Soloviov as Don Basilio. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

If Grigory Soloviov’s Basilio was not quite in the same league, it nevertheless had much to recommend it such as a lanky physicality and an equally imposing, sonorous bass instrument. La calunnia was a bit under-characterized and the sustained top tones, though well-tuned, tended to turn diffuse. Once past this first scene however, Mr. Soloviov seemed to noticeably relax his stage deportment, and a pleasant ping ingratiated itself into his increasingly pointed singing. Alexandra Loutsion’s bounteous mezzo gave much pleasure and contributed substantially to the ensembles. Given an usual amount of stage time, Ms. Loutsion relished the opportunity and she landed every recurring sneeze gag with precise timing. There is a velvety richness and refinement in her voice that madeIl vecchiotto cerca moglie a real pleasure (rather than the more usual audience endurance test as a character mezzo “acts” her way through it in the late autumn of a career).

Shea Owens began the afternoon with great promise, his turn as Fiorillo well-served by his smoothly produced baritone with its attractive youthful bloom. And Ian O’Brien actually threatened to steal a scene or two (or three) with his scruffy, bewildered Ambrogio. Indeed when he was given a lengthy sustained note to sing in an improvised moment of recitative, Mr. O’Brien not only stopped the show, but his accomplished outburst left us wanting more. Much more.

Conductor John Baril kept the musical side of things percolating along. Maestro Baril accommodated and partnered with his singers with skill, and he made some bold choices of tempo for a few of the most well known moments. The orchestra acquitted themselves cleanly if without a distinctive flair. If I had one wish, it would be that the large ensembles, especially the Act One finale, could have been tighter. Perhaps it was the busy staging, but there seemed to be few avoidable lapses in coordination that briefly marred an otherwise wholly creditable afternoon of bubbly music-making.

BARBERFigaroRosina.gifDaniel Belcher as Figaro and Jennifer Rivera as Rosina. [Photo by Mark Kiryluk]

How does a director approach such a thrice familiar repertory staple? I always find that first it is best to stay honest to the piece, and if you can’t be, then at least stay out of the way. Director Marc Astafan was most successful when his staging was most truthful which is to say much of time. He also excelled at creating fresh business during the recitatives that filled out the individual characters, their motivations, and their unique quirks.

But Mr. Astafan was less accomplished at the large group scenes that were prone to busy-ness for its own sake. Some of the amassed forces are required by the score, but others were invented and imposed on the comedy, sometimes to its detriment. Figaro’s entrance involved his pulling an elaborate traveling salesman’s wagon on and attracting a crowd. Not a bad idea but it got reduced to bopping and bouncing mute choristers pulling focus from one of opera’s most famous arias. Wiggling rumps back and forth in unison is not a visual counterpart to Rossini’s wit.

I do applaud the individualization of ensemble members but let’s please keep them in character and in the character of the work. Having nuns hike up their skirts and goofily hoof it out of the rainstorm is more American vaudeville shtick than 19th Century Italian operatic performance practice.

On the other hand, making the would-be lovers act undeniably horny in the lesson scene yielded excellent opportunities. Their outrageous smooching and rolling around behind Bartolo’s back seemed aptly inspired by commedia dell’arte. I didn’t envy Mr. Astafan’s need to move his cast around a crowded, smallish stage. It sometimes required “blocking by the inch” and the traffic management of both finales was expertly managed.

Arnulfo Maldonado provided a very workable set design, dominated by a spectacular two-tiered, circular wrought iron structure that at once suggested a birdcage and a Spanish mansion. That magnificent framework afforded surprisingly many uses of levels and entrances with the simple addition of a flown front gate, suitably effective set pieces, and a scrim as the grand drape. Sara Jean Tosetti’s lively, fanciful costumes added immeasurably to the audience-pleasing success of the proceedings, although when Figaro donned his hat something about his look found me recalling Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, a Freudian leap best left unexplored. Mr. Jacques’ well-judged, vivid lighting left nothing to be desired, and Dave Bova’s wig and make-up design served the performers well.

At eighty-five hundred feet above sea level, if the ‘high’ quality of these two festival productions is any indication, Central City Opera is scaling the heights in every way.

James Sohre

Production and cast information:

Our Town

Stage Manager: Vale Rideout; Dr. Gibbs: Kevin Langan; Mrs. Soames: Claire Shackleton; Geroge Gibbs: William Ferguson; Emily Webb: Anna Christy; Mrs. Webb: Sally Wolf; Joe Crowell: Robert Murphy; Frank: Alexander Elliott; Sam: Isaac Bray; Lady in Balcony: Leah Bobbey; Man in Audience: Jason Ryan; Mr. Webb: John Hancock; Simon Stimson: Kevin Newell; Mrs. Gibbs: Phyllis Pancella; Conductor: Christopher Zemliauskas; Director: Ken Cazan; Set Design: Alan E. Muraoka; Costume Design: Marcy Froehlich; Lighting Design: David Martin Jacques; Wig and Make-Up Design: Dave Bova; Chorus Master: Levi Hammer

Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Fiorello: Shea Owens; Count Almaviva: David Portillo; Figaro: Daniel Belcher; Rosina: Jennifer Rivera; Don Bartolo: Patrick Carfizzi; Berta: Alexandra Loutsion; Ambrogio: Ian O’Brien; Don Basilio: Grigory Soloviov; Official: William Dwyer; Notary: Welsey Gentle; Coductor: John Baril; Director: Marc Astafan; Set Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design: David Martin Jacques; Wig and Make-Up Design: Dave Bova; Chorus Master: Levi Hammer

image=http://www.operatoday.com/OURTOWNEmilyGeoSoda.gif image_description=Anna Christy as Emily Webb and William Ferguson as George Gibbs [Photo by Mark Kiryluk.courtesy of Central City Opera] product=yes product_title=Central City Opera: Rocky Mountain High product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Above: Anna Christy as Emily Webb and William Ferguson as George Gibbs [Photo by Mark Kiryluk.courtesy of Central City Opera]
Posted by james_s at 9:28 AM

Macbeth, Blackheath Halls

Children from nearby primary schools, avid amateur singers and actors from the local community and the instrumentalists of the Blackheath Halls Orchestra are joined by a cast of stellar professionals and young soloists from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance; the standards reached are remarkably high and the experience, for performers and audience, alike richly rewarding.

Previous years have seen the community ensemble adopt the guise of Spanish bandits (Carmen, 2007), Parisian freethinkers (La Bohème, 2008), pastoral nymphs (Orpheus and Eurydice, 2009) and Russian serfs (Eugene Onegin, 2011). This year it was all witchery and warfare, as director Christopher Rolls unveiled a fast-paced, thrilling production of Verdi’s Macbeth, transferring Shakespeare’s tragic drama of self-destructive deceit and ambition to the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of a modern-day battlefield and banquet room.

This was an effective shift - and presumably shrewd financially too, cutting down considerably on the chorus’s costume costs. Similarly, electing for a ‘Gothic minimalist’ approach to the staging allowed the well-known story - played in the round - to unfold directly and without distraction. A deep darkness embraced the Hall, creating an apt sense of intimacy; the crimson velvet of the stage curtain, illuminated now and then by beams of blood-red light (Lighting Designer, Mark Howland), intimated the violent evil at the heart of the drama.

In the centre of the black-carpeted floor stood a circular raised dais (Designer Oliver Townsend), which would later become the platform for a series of murders and deaths, the visual repetitions suggesting an unbreakable pattern of betrayal and violence.

Throughout, the community chorus was in fine voice: confident, alert and well-coordinated, they had clearly been well-drilled by the director, his assistant Natalie Katsou and Musical Director, Nicholas Jenkins. If the white-draped witches initially lacked a little menace and bite, the war-worn combatants were convincingly wrecked and weary from their military exertions, and the banqueting aristocrats, celebrating their new leader’s prowess and good fortune sang with a gleam which matched their glossy black ball-gowns.

Quentin Hayes was a tense, introverted Macbeth; compact of physique, he prowled the floor first with proud majesty, then suspicious apprehension. Dark of tone, his baritone swelled impressively at moments of intense anger and despair. Miriam Murphy was his ruthless Queen, and she brought all her experience of the role to bear (she has previously sung Lady Macbeth at Opera Holland Park and the Royal Opera House), presenting a focused, controlled study of callous calculation and mental disintegration. Powerful but never strident, Murphy negotiated the wide-ranging compass with ease, displaying an even focus across the registers. At the top she was potent and incisive, conveying the persuasive confidence of Lady Macbeth; in the lower depths she revealed an appealing smoky timbre which hinted at inner emotions kept in check by a rigid self-will.

Matthew Rose was a superb Banquo, serious and sincere. Convincingly destroyed by disillusionment as Macbeth’s malicious scheme unfolded, Rose’s final aria was troubling and moving. Susanna Buckle (Lady-in-Waiting) and Simon Dyer (Doctor) provided a sensitive commentary during the somnambulant Queen’s disintegration, while Thomas Drew was a vibrant, positive Malcolm. All three have been or are students at Trinity Laban, where Rose will himself become a visiting teacher later this year.

Making up the strong cast were Charne Rochford, a clear, ringing Macduff, and Tony Brewer as King Duncan. Assaulted off-stage, this King surprised his alarmed subjects, appearing blood-soaked upon on the stage before staggering the length of the Hall to collapse in death throes upon the dais at the end of Act 1. Unfortunately, this necessitated a ‘resurrection’, and his subsequent slow walk from the auditorium was one of the few moments when the mood of sombre intensity slipped.

Nicholas Jenkins led his players through a rousing reading of the score and gave constant encouragement and clear direction to the entire cast. If the intonation wasn’t always spot on, then the summer heat and crowded venue were probably partly to blame. The small string forces were sometimes overwhelmed, but played with precision; and there were some lovely solos from clarinet, bassoon and piccolo.

This community project was launched by General Manager, Keith Murray, and is driven by the passion and invention of Rose Ballantyne. In this ‘age of austerity’, such ventures are undoubtedly a long way down funding bodies’ list of priorities, and it takes considerable energy and commitment to get a project like this off the ground, let alone to attain such tremendous standards of professionalism year upon year. For the members of the adult and children’s choruses, the experience will have been immensely edifying and invigorating, and perhaps for some, life-changing. No doubt, they are already looking forward to next year.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Macbeth: Quentin Hayes; Lady Macbeth: Miriam Murphy; Banquo: Matthew Rose; Macduff: Charne Rochford; Malcolm: Thomas Drew; Lad-in-Waiting: Susanna Buckle; Doctor: Simon Dyer; Servant: Andrew Crozier; Assassin: David Calpan; Herald: George Lusty; King Duncan: Tony Brewer; Director: Christophe Rolls; Designer: Oliver Townsend; Musical Director: Nicholas Jenkins; Halls Chorus and Orchestra. Blackheath Halls Opera, London, Tuesday, 9th July 2013.

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Posted by Gary at 8:36 AM

July 8, 2013

Lawrence Brownlee’s Spiritual Sketches

To risk committing another offense to political correctness, it cannot be denied that only a number too few to mention of Caucasian artists have done Spirituals justice. The first piece of advice that any aspiring writer is likely to receive is that the successful author writes about the familiar, all of a writer’s work containing elements of autobiography no matter how fanciful the subjects at hand. Similar sentiments might reasonably be extended to a singer’s career. For an opera singer, choices of repertory are—or should be—centered upon the qualities and capabilities of the voice, but a singer’s personality and individual heritage are vital aspects of his artistry. Thankfully, the hateful traditions of slavery in America are now 150 years in the past, but Spirituals connect all who hear them, regardless of race, to the unforgiving fields of the Antebellum South, where these songs were not only expressions of hope and perseverance, outlets for spiritual ardor, and means of survival under unfathomably soul-breaking conditions: these songs, as simple as they are profound, were in many cases the only connections between people and their families and homelands. Today, these remarkable songs are as stirring as they were more than a century ago, but there is now the added joy of hearing in this music the triumph of a people who were too strong to be destroyed by even the basest cruelty of their fellow men. Joy and triumph ring out in every note that Lawrence Brownlee sings on this disc, which offers ten traditional Spirituals in performances that ravish the ears and take the heart on a journey from bleakest despair to the summit of exuberant faith, from which it seems possible to see beyond eternity into the welcoming embrace of salvation.

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, Mr. Brownlee is rightly acclaimed as one of today’s foremost exponents of the bel canto tenor repertory. In terms of range and technique, he has few rivals, the tessitura of his brightly-hued but warmly resonant voice allowing him to ascend with freedom to Arturo’s infamous top F in Bellini’s I Puritani. The intricate roulades and top Ds of Rossini rôles like Rinaldo in Armida and Giacomo in La donna del lago pose challenges to even the most accomplished singers, but the ease with which Mr. Brownlee meets these demands is awe-inspiring. It is significant that, in 2006, Mr. Brownlee’s talents were celebrated by his winning both the Marian Anderson Award and the Richard Tucker Award. In addition to being the first African-American artist to perform on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, Anderson was a noted interpreter of Spirituals and European Lieder. Tucker was the greatest American tenor of the 20th Century but also a deeply spiritual man for whom his Jewish heritage was not merely incidental: he performed and recorded Cantorial music throughout his career, not as a novelty but as an integral part of his artistic constitution. An artist of great personal charm and intense concentration, Mr. Brownlee is an apt successor to both Anderson’s and Tucker’s legacies. Whether or not Mr. Brownlee feels any particular connection to the suffering and circumstances of brutality and inhumanity in which the Spirituals that he has recorded were created and preserved, the dedication and sense of purpose audible in this performance are as impressive as those that he brings to his operatic repertory. This performance is far greater and more artistically important than any effort by an opera singer ‘moonlighting’ in a more popular style. Mr. Brownlee’s singing in this performance is as visceral as any ever recorded, and the immaculate condition of the voice permits the singer to take any risk with the assurance of success.

All of the Spirituals recorded here are sung in arrangements by Damien Sneed, who also accompanies Mr. Brownlee. Mr. Sneed’s arrangements are superb, his consummate musicality apparent in the both the idiomatic power and adroitness of harmonic progressions and his sense of drama evident in his frequent but unerringly effective demands upon Mr. Brownlee’s upper register. As a pianist, Mr. Sneed plays with absolute command of the material, shaping phrases with the rhapsodic dash of a great jazz pianist and supporting Mr. Brownlee with the collaborative precision of a Lieder accompanist. Mr. Sneed’s arrangements are occasionally unconventional. The familiar ‘Deep River,’ for instance, opens with a figuration for the piano that mimics a pensive jazz riff before settling into an understated account of the melody that unfolds with the naturalness of a Lied by Hugo Wolf and contrasts Mr. Brownlee’s lower and upper registers very effectively. At the bridge, there is a moment when it seems as though Aaron Copland’s setting of ‘Simple Gifts’ is close at hand. It is an appropriate reference, even if unintentional: the text of the Spiritual, singing of wanting to ‘cross over into campground,’ is a suitable companion to the Shaker song’s extolling of ‘find[ing] ourselves in the place just right.’ ‘Come By Here, Good Lord’ has all the swing and exuberance of a Scott Joplin rag. The obvious success of Mr. Sneed’s arrangements is that they would sound equally at home in Carnegie Hall and Preservation Hall, as would his pianism.

Like the most elegant European art songs, Spirituals are driven by text, and Mr. Brownlee’s diction is so clear that his storytelling is splendidly immediate. Every emotion in ‘Here’s One’ pours out with palpable sincerity, Mr. Sneed’s arrangement pacing the vocal line conversationally over a Gershwin-like accompaniment. Mr. Brownlee’s vocalises, employing his exquisitely beautiful mezza voce, are ideally integrated into the melodic line. ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ is sung with a quiet conviction that makes the song’s message of the possibility of healing a ‘sin-sick soul’ extraordinarily vivid. ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit’ fizzes with energy, Mr. Brownlee’s voice ringing excitingly at the climaxes. ‘Down By the Riverside’ has all the soul of a performance by the young Ray Charles and the tireless delight of a Rossini patter aria. ‘Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass’ progresses with the tension and release of a Torch Song, Mr. Brownlee’s chestnut-colored lower register adding an element of mystery to the prospect of dying and ‘los[ing] your soul at last.’ ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ one of the most widely-known of all Spirituals, is sung with great poignancy, the restless harmonies conveying the sense of feeling ‘a long way from home.’ ‘Soon I Will Be Done,’ its tone slightly menacing, builds to an explosive coda that takes Mr. Brownlee into his upper register to thrilling effect.

Even among such wonderful performances, Mr. Brownlee’s singing of ‘All Day, All Night’ is a thing apart. Supported by a simple, hymn-like accompaniment, the wide-ranging vocal line is marked by a delicacy that recalls the singing of Mahalia Jackson. The effect of hearing Mr. Brownlee’s wordless vocalise give way to the voice at full throttle in the song’s last refrain can only be described as stunning. It is the sort of singing that seems to stop time; the sort of singing to which it seems that Nature itself stops to listen. Then again, it almost seems not to be singing at all: it is, in the very best sense, emotion and the lifeblood of humanity inevitably expressed in sound, like the mighty, ever-changing voice of a waterfall.

One of the most profound joys of song is that the colors in an artist’s voice are the only important contributors to the value of his artistry. It seems unthinkable that not so long ago the color of Mr. Brownlee’s skin might have placed restrictions on his career. A voice such as his cannot be silenced, however, and a performance such as he gives on this disc cannot be forgotten. Whatever one’s race, Spirituals are as much a part of America’s native musical heritage as the music of Mozart is of Austria’s. Every recording in which Mr. Brownlee has participated to date has been treasurable for his contributions if for nothing else. Spiritual Sketches is an achievement of a quality that cannot be overstated. It brings to mind the words of Celia to Rosalind in Act One of Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘Now go we content / To Liberty, and not to banishment.’ In this inexpressibly moving performance of Spirituals, Lawrence Brownlee becomes the voice of a people scarred but content finally in liberty; a people neither black nor white, neither slave nor master. Stripped of artifice and agendas, this disc reveals how powerful Music can be. Lawrence Brownlee takes the listener who hears Spiritual Sketches by the hand and leads him down a dusty road to a little country church sweltering in the heat of summer, everyone fanning in uncoordinated time with the music and all the faces shining with smiles and tears.

Joseph Newsome

Spiritual Sketches—Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Damien Sneed, piano [LeChateau Earl Records 888174029597; 1CD, 38:12]

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Posted by Gary at 1:09 PM

Britten’s Curlew River and The Prodigal Son

So, it is perhaps not surprising that the triptych is rarely performed as a unified entity.

This triple bill, performed over two nights, by Mahogany Opera directed by Frederic Wake-Walker was therefore a welcome proposition. Commencing their tour in Russia, at the Hermitage and the Church of St Catherine in St Petersburg (presumably because the former was where Britten and Pears first saw the Rembrandt painting, ‘The Prodigal Son’, which inspired the third parable), Mahogany have since visited the venue of the first production, Orford Church Aldeburgh, and will conclude their performances in Buxton in mid-July.

The long, narrow nave of Southwark Cathedral was the venue for this round of performances, as part of the City of London Festival — a suitably solemn setting, especially as these interpretations emphasised the sombre, religious gravity of the works.

Curlew River , performed on Wednesday 3rd July, transfers the narrative of the Japanese Nō play, Sumidagawa. A Noblewoman, driven made by grief when her son is kidnapped, comes to a ferry. The Ferryman refuses to take her across to the shrine on the further bank, until her despair moves him and the other pilgrims to feelings of guilt. During the journey, he relates the miracles that have occurred at the shrine, the grave of a young boy, and the Madwoman recognises that her son is the boy in these stories. Upon reaching the tomb, the mother is confronted by a vision of her child, and is relieved of her madness.

All the principals were on fine form. Samuel Evan’s Traveller’s Prayer was full of restive yearning; Rodney Earl Clarke’s Ferryman offered a moving counsel to the Madwoman to pray for her child.

But it was tenor James Gilchrist who was the musical and dramatic linchpin of these performances. From his opening, Grimes-like, fragmented cries, he was entirely in sympathy with the role of the Madwoman — and in tremendous voice, his vocal exclamations simultaneously dramatically agitated and vocally focused. The tenor soared in pitch and dynamic, at times angry, elsewhere full of doubts; this performance was an impressively controlled rendition of intense love and inner crisis.

Unfortunately, Gilchrist was draped from head to foot in an assemblage of dishevelled, grey rags which would not have disgraced a 1940s BBC ghost-costume department. Robert Tear — who was Pears’ understudy at the first performance — remembers Pears complaining, “Really, Ben, I just can’t work in this frock”, to which Ben replied to Colin Graham, “Oh for Christ’s sake, Colin, give her a crin”, but even the composer can’t have envisaged that such a clichéd visual statement of psychological distress was necessary. [1]

There was some assured playing from the small band of instruments, performing without a conductor, supported by Roger Vignoles’ well-shaped chamber organ accompaniment. Alex Jakeman’s flute flutter-tonguing perfectly complemented the unstable psyche of the Madwoman, and the glissandi and portamenti of the cadenza that accompanies her arrival at the ferry ramp, were expertly executed. The flute’s symbolic curlew cries were poignantly lyrical, and flute and voice came together affectingly during the mother’s sparse soliloquy before her son’s tomb. There was some warm, expressive playing from violist Max Baillie, and the percussive colours of the score were ably and evocatively executed by Scott Lumsdaine.

The following evening Gilchrist was similarly fine as the Lucifer-like Abbot-Tempter in The Prodigal Son, the most overtly ‘Christian’ of the three parables, and perhaps the ‘weakest’ in terms of musical concision and tightness. As the Abbot, addressing “people, listening here today”, he disturbingly intoned the disconcertingly simple modal line, “Do not think I bid you kneel and pray … I bring you no sermon/ What I bring you is evil”, accompanied by the liturgical resonances of the organ and exotic cymbal whisperings. As Gilchrist urged the Young Son to ‘Imagine, imagine/What you are missing. … High living, secret delights,/ And beauty, beauty/ To kindle your senses”, glistening harp textures (Tanya Houghton) and chilling double bass portamenti (Ben Griffiths) added a portentous sheen. The instrumentalists were technically assured throughout: during the journey to and arrival at the city, when the Young Son is accompanied on his path to dissolution by the Tempter, was marked by a virtuosic palette of striking orchestral colours.

Rodney Earl Clarke was a strong presence as the heartless Elder Son. John McMunn’s Young Son was full of persuasive self-confidence as he justified his desire for freedom, but this was replaced by a melancholy introversion and despair when he realised the extent of his errors, in a moving duet with the viola.

The over-riding sentiment throughout these performances was earnest solemnity, with the emphasis on the moral framework of the works, rather than their emotional or dramatic dimension.

Yet, despite some fine instrumental playing, an accurate and resonant Chorus of Pilgrims, and some arresting designs by Kitty Callister which were as economical yet impressive as Britten’s own orchestration, things felt just a little too controlled and repressed — the restless uneasiness which permeates the score was not always present.

Moreover, the elongated nave further distanced many of the audience from the action, and the acoustics of the venue played havoc with the text. On the first evening, I was seated at the rear of the nave, and the only singer whose words were on occasion audible was Gilchrist — and in this regard he was not helped by the rags which covered his head and face throughout the performance. Things improved when a front nave seat on the second evening permitted many more of the words to come through but, even so, the action still seemed overly remote.

The processionals and rituals certainly emphasised the renewal of faith which is achieved in each parable. But, the pace seemed overly ponderous, the choreography too stylised; it’s worth remembering that Britten himself express his concerns “lest the work should seem a pastiche of a Noh play, which however well done, would seem false and thin”. [2]

Exiting the dimly lit cathedral into the urban clutter of London Bridge Station and the Shard was a rather dislocating experience; mystic power gave way to modernity all too quickly.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

James Gilchrist (tenor); Rodney Earl Clarke (bass); Samuel Evans (bass); Lukas Jakobski (bass); John McMunn (tenor); Frederic Wake-Walker (director); Roger Vignoles (musical director); Principal Players of Aurora Orchestra. Mahogany Opera. City of London Festival, Southwark Cathedral, Wednesday 3rd and Thursday 4th July 2013.


[1] Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography (Faber, 1982), p.430.

[2] Letter to William Plomer, 15 April 1959.

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Posted by Gary at 10:23 AM

Musical Fireworks in Iowa

Long considered a jewel of the Midwest, the enterprising company seemed determined to break out of regional status with a world-class production of Elektra.

Everything about this Strauss one-acter was first rate, starting and ending with the polished sweep of a firing-on-all-cylinders orchestra that embraced its full partnership in the drama. To document merely a few of their extraordinary moments, witness the unearthly skittering of strings as we awaited the two off-stage executions; the snarling, sneering brass that underscored the characters’ deadly mental instabilities; and especially, the impeccable winds (both in solo and ensemble) performing as knowing commentators in the unfolding plot.

Conductor David Neely shaped the piece superbly and elicited virtuosic playing from his excellent instrumentalists. This was a reading fully invested with the psychological import, musical colors, and emotional content that mark the greatest performances. Maestro Neely carefully balanced this towering achievement in the pit with his sensational cast of vocalists.

If Brenda Harris does not yet ‘own’ the title role, she will. I know of no one singing Elektra today that is performing it this well. Ms. Harris has a full-bodied soprano that ‘speaks’ in all registers and at all volume levels. The top has a laser-beam intensity and pinpoint accuracy that rides the orchestra without strain. Her tossed off comments and bitchy asides were equally present. And owing to her solid technique, Brenda sounds as fresh at the end of the night’s challenges as she was at the start. Today’s ‘Elektra of Choice’ has arrived.

Julie Makerov’s Chrysothemis perfectly complements and contrasts our Elektra, showcasing a perfectly round, warm, youthful tone. Ms. Makerov, too, has a commanding instrument that soars above the band with ease. There are rare moments when she presses a little harder then needed and some releases of sustained high notes thereby go a little wild, but hers was a solid achievement.

Joyce Castle commands the stage as Klytemnästra, deploying a voice with a freshness and poise that belies her age. After forty years, Ms. Castle still boasts one of the finest mezzos in the business, with a reliable upper register of polished bronze that retains its richness all the way down into a well-knit baritonal chest voice. Moreover, Joyce proved yet again that she is a consummate actress as she etched a completely thought out characterization of nuance and depth. Why beat around the bush: I have seen some heavy-hitters take on this pivotal role over the years but Joyce Castle is as fine a Klytemnästra as you will likely ever see.

I urge you to peruse the full cast list carefully since all the Maids and the Overseer were uniformly terrific. Their well-projected and well-matched singing was urgent, edgy, and firmly declamatory. They perfectly established the tone of the piece in the important opening scene. Corey Bix’s frenetic Aegisth was completely drawn and pointedly sung. As Orest, Philip Horst’s potent baritone embodied a steady heroic stature. While all of the small roles were well-taken by DMMO’s Apprentice Artists, David Margulis made an especially fine impression with his clear, pleasing tenor, making the most of his brief turn as the Young Servant.


Set Designer R. Keith Brumley filled the thrust playing space with a huge, jarring, deconstructed face of Agamemnon. The eyes were the windows in which the menacing assassins appear, where Aegisth begs for rescue, and where torchbearers take residence during the Queen’s comings and goings. A nostril-opening at stage level affords a Maid an escape route before she is drug back declaring they are beating her. The vertical crack in the middle of the King’s visage allows prime placement of the main palace door, and the lips decorate a sort of cistern on the passerelle/apron of the space. It is here that the axe is buried.

Barry Steele has devised a lighting plot of great variety and specificity. The use of projections was effective and further supported the unsettling shifts of the story and morphing character relationships. Melanie Taylor Burgess’s character-specific costumes were augmented by Robin L. McGee. Especially telling was Klytemnestra’s removal of her lavish, jewel-encrusted cape and crown to have a girl-to-girl, down-to-earth chat with Elektra.

Director Dugg McDonough imposed great clarity on the proceedings with tight blocking that utilized the entire playing space to fine effect. Mr. McDonough created some excellent stage pictures to boot, like the restless pacing and interaction of the Maids in the opening, and Orest’s re-appearance at the ending, with Chrysothemis hovering above Elektra’s body. All points in between were mounted with the same attention to detail and thoughtful story-telling.

JEN_8246.gifScene from Roméo et Juliette

The season also numbers a perfectly lovely Roméo et Juliette among its accomplishments. Cast from strength, lovingly conducted, and imaginatively staged in evocative sets (adapted from Kansas City Lyric Opera’s production), this was a near ideal combination that made a very strong case for Gounod’s opus.

Sara Gartland’s Juliette was wondrously sung. Her big, responsive, gleaming lyric tone proved to have plenty of ravishing sound for all the big moments, cresting the orchestra with ease. True, like many a Juliette, Ms. Gartland fudged the trills and passage work a bit in the tricky Je veux vivre, but spent the rest of the night inviting comparison to the great interpreters of the part. She scored big with a compelling account of the potion aria, and her deeply felt final scene was the most honestly commnicated passage of the entire piece. And Sara’s lovely, poised presence proved a perfect fit for the young heroine. You will be hearing more from and about this outstanding talent.

Matching her accomplishment was Jason Slayden’s idiomatic, coltish Roméo, characterized by glinting high notes and a beautiful tenor instrument. Mr. Slayden cut a handsome, boyish figure and paired beautifully with his love interest. His singing was imaginative and varied, and his interpretive skills are wide-ranging. That said, while his top is a thing of beauty (especially in tandem with Ms. Gartland), I am not sure it is always freely produced, the price of the intense momentary aural pleasure being a hint of unsteadiness in the descent, and occasional notes that were ‘just’ under the pitch. Still, all told, for musicality, gorgeous singing and dramatic credibility, Des Moines has fielded an impressive pair for their title roles.

Craig Verm’s strapping Mercutio threatened to dominate his every scene, his throbbing baritone powerfully utilized to entertain us mightily with a winning Queen Mab aria. Mr. Verm totally immerses himself in the drama which, when things got heated up in the duel, led to his bullying a high note or two. But this was a memorable role assumption. As Tybalt, tenor Heath Huberg was experiencing some tightness at first, but rapidly warmed up to contribute a propulsive confrontation with Roméo and a touching death scene.

Sarah Larsen’s Stéphano combined good stage presence with a supple mezzo, yielding a stylishly sung and imaginatively acted Que fais-tu, blanche tourtourelle. Tony Dillon brought a plush cushion of a bass-baritone voice to Capulet, although he might at times watch the rhythmic pulse of certain phrases. Jeffrey Tucker’s solid, incisive bass served Frére Laurent well. Kyle Albertson brought our full attention to the brief role of the Duke thanks to his rolling, mellow bass sound. Character mezzo Susan Shafer added immeasurably to the proceedings with her witty traversal of Gertrude. Christopher Scott was effective as a securely voiced Paris.

Once past a slightly scrappy contrapuntal segment in the prelude, conductor Kostis Protopapas settled the assembled orchestral forces for a loving, luminous reading. The Maestro partnered the singers exceedingly well, allowing them to shine, with the all-important duets notable for their spontaneity and meaningful interaction. The choral work was of a high standard indeed, thanks to Chorus Master Lisa Hasson.

R. Keith Brumley has effectively adapted Kansas City’s scenery to this venue’s unique stage, and the simple, attractive components more than met the requirements of all the signature moments. An especial success was having the plinth of the tomb on the apron to start the show with a flash forward of the lovers in lifeless repose upon it, and then to close the evening in real time with the same imagery.

While Barry Steele’s lighting was a complete success, his video projections were less so. With orchestra lights in my eyes, I could not read any but the one or two very largest of the quotes that were projected on the front scrim at the start of scenes. The gorgeous period costumes were coordinated by Robin L. McGee. John de los Santos livened the ballroom scenes with effective choreography that was well executed. And Brian Robertson created some of the best stage combat ever, athletically and cleanly performed by an enthusiastic young cast.

Director Linda Ade Brand created meaningful blocking, and fostered relationships between her players that were believable and inevitable. A minor quibble: Once past the effective, grief-imbued opening ‘flash forward,’ there was not always a fully committed internal life to the proceedings until the first lovers’ duet. This is a challenge of Gounod’s writing, of course, and the overall effect of this sincerely delivered performance was nevertheless remarkably fine.

PG-Photo-Call-4.gifScene from Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes poses its own set of daunting challenges, which were largely met head on by this enterprising company. Since ‘environment’ is so all-important to the tale, let me begin by admiring set designer Brumley’s handsome suggestion of a British fishing village. The huge, steeply raked ‘walk’ that occupied the upstage went from floor level on stage right to what looked like ten feet high on stage left. Damn, it was steep! It was backed by a well-textured sea drop that occasionally lowered to allow for complex expressionistic images to be projected on the cyc above it.

Complementing this were groupings of detailed houses, a church, tavern walls, etc. that were flow in and out as necessary. Grimes’ hut rose out of the apron and a trap door in the hut’s floor enhanced our belief that Apprentice two ‘fell’ to his death. Grimes’ boat also spent some time here, as much an ominous presence as a prop. Mr. Steele once again provided fine lighting effects that were tight, moody, and well-considered. Ms. McGee designed costumes that enhanced and communicated the characters.

I appreciated director Kristine McIntyre’s bold, consistent choices, even as I did not always agree with them. Ms. McIntyre chose to often stylize the movement of the chorus and there is no denying that they executed their assignments with admirable skill and elan. However, having three lines of choristers lock arms around shoulders and rock from side to side like a “sea” of humanity seemed self-conscious. Later, when there was similar synched movement by street revelers, matched by the flown buildings “dancing” in partnership (no kidding), well, the semaphoric gesturing began to less resemble Britten’s opera than say, Jersey Shore: The Musical.

Our director did display considerable success with interaction of the principals, and almost all of them limned effective individualized portrayals. Alas, the one that did not, was the very tragically flawed central personage for whom the opera is named.

From the git-go, Roger Honeywell’s Grimes was too controlled, too ‘normal.’ Instead of suggesting a hint of dementia, or at least an incomplete understanding of the import of his apprentice’s death at sea, Mr. Honeywell seemed genuinely saddened and contrite. In an expository scene that is designed to establish that the judgmental local populace has long had an aversion to this fisherman who is not ‘quite right,’ we were instead wondering how they could not feel sorry for him. An interesting angle, but one that does not ground the drama.

The good news is that the tenor has acquitted himself very well in the vocal department by bending the role’s challenges to his strengths. This includes relishing his ability to hurl out savage top notes with ping and power, but not overusing the effect. Mr. Honeywell, also melds a slightly heavy croon with a weighted emotional delivery that mines a potent effect out of all those pesky repeated tones in the passaggio (damn Peter Pears for having that skill!). And Roger wisely kept his mid-range cleanly conversational and resisted the urge to press the tone. While absolutely focused and consistent in his approach, I would hope that he further develops his understanding of this complex character for I think he could become a memorable Peter Grimes.

Sinéad Mulhern has a warm and full soprano with a generous vibrato that made Ellen more womanly and assertive than is often the case. Her heartfelt, soothingly melismatic Embroidery Aria was one of the evening’s highpoints. Ms. Mulhern was somewhat challenged in her task by the addition of a rather passionate kiss with Peter at the culmination of their opening duet (The truth. . .the pity). If we are thus led to believe that the two may have already had a physical relationship, it does make hash of other ‘usual’ subtext dealing with Grimes’ sexual ambiguity, another reason he is shunned by the town. And it does raise questions about Ellen’s character and motivation that become distractions.


Todd Thomas turned in a marvelous account of Balstrode, his burnished baritone evenly produced and well modulated to the character’s vocal portrait. Susan Shafer was a plucky, plummy Auntie, who knew how to make every salty line count. Sara Ann Mitchell and Dana Pundt were highly effective as Nieces 1 and 2, respectively, and their superbly controlled phrasings in the upper register wove threads of pure silver through the quartet. Corey Bix was suitably blustery as Bob Boles, and Jeffrey Tucker relished his turn as Swallow.

Kathryn Day made a mighty impression as the meddling Mrs. Sedley, and she colored her well-schooled mezzo to fine, insinuating effect. As the Reverend, George Ross Somerville’s characterful tenor provided a nice variety. Talented baritone Craig Verm gifted us with a notably well-sung Ned Keene, confirming my favorable impression in the Gounod that Craig’s star should soon be on the rise.

Ms. Hasson once again worked magic with the choral preparation so critical to the success of this masterpiece. While I cannot say that the young Apprentice group of hopeful soloists fully congealed like a professional opera chorus might after years together working as an ensemble, I certainly applaud their fine achievement.

Maestro Neely was presiding in the pit, and he drew forth a highly charged, yet tightly controlled reading, encompassing all the drama in the score that the staging sometimes missed. DMMO should be justly proud of a festival orchestra that would be the envy of many a major house.

James Sohre

Production and cast information:


Elektra: Brenda Harris; Chrysothemis: Julie Makerov; Klytemnästra: Joyce Castle; Confidante: Emily Holsclaw; Trainbearer: Lindsey Anderson; Young Servant: David Margulis; Old Servant: Brad Baron; Orest: Philip Horst; Tutor: Tony Dillon; Aegisth: Corey Bix; Overseer: Megan Cullen; 1st Maid: Kathryn Day; 2nd Maid: Jill Phillips; 3rd Maid: Sarah Larsen; 4th Maid: Cassie Glaeser; 5th Maid: Rebecca Krynski; Conductor: David Neely; Director: Dugg McDonough; Set Designer: R. Keith Brumley; Costume Designer: Melanie Taylor Burgess, executed by Seattle Opera Costume Shop; Additional Costumes: Robin L. McGee; Lighting and Video Designer: Barry Steele; Make-Up and Hair Designer: Sarah Hatten for Elsen and Associates, Inc.; Choreographer: Eve Summer; Stage Combat Director: Brian Robertson

Roméo et Juliette

Juliette: Sara Gartland; Roméo: Jason Slayden; Frére Laurent: Jeffrey Tucker; Mercutio: Craig Verm; Stéphano: Sarah Larsen; Capulet: Tony Dillon; Tybalt: Heath Huberg; Gertrude: Susan Shafer; The Duke: Kyle Albertson; Paris: Christopher Scott; Grégorio: Kenneth Stavert; Benvolio: Stefan Barner; Frére John: Anthony Udrovich; Conductor: Kostis Protopapas; Director: Linda Ade Brand; Chorus Master: Lisa Hasson; Set Designer: R. Keith Brumley (from Lyric Opera of Kansas City); Lighting and Video Designer: Barry Steele; Costumes: A.T. Jones and Sons, Inc., Baltimore; Costume Supervisor: Robin L. McGee; Make-Up and Hair Designer: Sarah Hatten for Elsen and Associates, Inc.; Choreographer: John de los Santos; Stage Combat Director: Brian Robertson

Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes: Roger Honeywell; Boy Apprentice: Zachary Koeppen; Ellen Orford: Sinéad Mulhern; Captain Balstrode: Todd Thomas; Auntie: Susan Shafer; Niece 1: Sara Ann Mitchell; Niece 2: Dana Pundt; Bob Boles: Corey Bix; Swallow: Jeffrey Tucker; Mrs. Sedley: Kathryn Day; Rev. Horace Adams: George Ross Somerville; Ned Keene: Craig Verm; Hobson: Kyle Albertson; Dr. Crabbe: Dan Jacobsen; Conductor David Neely; Director: Kristine McIntyre; Chorus Master: Lisa Hasson; Set Designer: L. Keith Brumley; Costume Designer: Robin L. McGee; Lighting and Video Designer: Barry Steele; Make-Up and Hair Designer: Sarah Hatten for Elsen and Associates, Inc.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Elektra-396.gif image_description=Scene from Elektra [Photo by Jen Golay courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera] product=yes product_title=Musical Fireworks in Iowa product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Above: Scene from Elektra

Photos by Jen Golay courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera
Posted by james_s at 9:53 AM

July 7, 2013

La Rondine, Royal Opera House

So when an artist like Angela Gheorghiu revives the role, she brings a much-needed extra dimension to the opera. This is the role that helped propel her to stardom together with Roberto Alagna. Now they’re having a bitter divorce, fanned by media sensationalism.

Art imitates life. Ironically, that human background adds poignancy to what is essentially, a fluffy vacuum of an opera, despite its surface charm. Magda sings of her first love, and the kiss that sealed their passion. When she sang this with Alagna the extra-musical frisson must have been intense.It must take incredible courage to revisit this role now, when every note tears open old wounds. For that alone, Gheorghiu deserves respect. So what if her voice isn’t at its resplendent peak? She creates a far more accurate Magda because she accesses the underlying pain that animates the character. Gheorghiu shows that there is more to Magda than her fawning, false friends realize. Pretty and superficial might apply to them. But not to her. When Gheorghiu sings the long sequence beginning with “Ore dolci et divine” the strain isn’t vocal, but emotional. She breaks off the last lines a little abruptly, rather than letting them linger. But that’s far truer to Magda’s true personality.

Artists are not gladiators in an arena. They exist for their art, not for the mob. Some singers attract nastiness that goes far beyond artistic criticism, and descends into vicious personal abuse. It’s bullying, and usually the abuse of women, worse than anything Alagna may or may not have done. If opera is based on human feelings, sensitivity is essential. If we care about opera as art, we should respect the human beings who sing and create it. Gheorghiu is in a difficult position at the moment, so it’s all the more to her credit that she went on at all.

Having braved the personal demons Act One would have awakened in her, Gheorghiu settled into the role ever more comfortably as the opera continued. In the Second act, she felt genuinely fresh, and by the end, she was almost radiant. Her Ruggero, Charles Castelnovo, supported her well. If his voice isn’t quite as lovely as many who have done the part before, he compensated by being a solid foil to the lead. Perhaps the all-important kiss worked its magic, for Gheorghiu’s Magda blossomed again, like the roses in the song. Castelnovo seems genuinely nice, so Magda’s eventual renunciation seems quite natural. Magda has come to terms with her past and doesn’t need illusions of youth and love. Gheorghiu seems to find strength in Magda’s maturity. For once the ending convinces, even though it’s not written with the depth Puccini might have given to his other heroines.

Sabina Puertolas sing Lisette, Magda’s maid. The rapport between Gheorghiu and Puertolas seems genuinely affectionate: they bounce off one another merrily, singing with palpable warmth. The dynamic lifts the opera , defusing the mood. Some of the wittiest musical passages illustrate Prunier’s attempt to turn Lisette into what she can never be. Edgaras Montvidas sang a very good Prunier. He made us hear the “Poet” who thinks in terms of dreams, not reality, casually changing names and identities. Ultimately, La Rondine is a warm-hearted, humane opera where pretensions are overturned. Lisette goes back to being a maid, and Magda (presumably) goes back to being Rambaldo’s good friend. Good nature prevails over delusion.

Marco Armiliato conducted. The production is the Nicholas Joël perennial, as flashy as the life Magda and her friends seem to live. It’s telling that when Magda and Ruggero share their brief happiness that the backdrop shows fake flowers. The real beauty in La Rondine lies in the portrayal of Magda as a human personality. As such, Angela Georghiu is truly vindicated.

Anne Ozorio

Cast and production information:

Magda de Civry: Angela Gheorghiu; Lisette: Sabina Puértolas; Ruggero Lastouc: Charles Castronovo; Prunier Edgaras Montvidas; Rambaldo Fernandez: Pietro Spagnoli; Périchaud: John Cunningham; Gobin: Pablo Bemsch; Crébillon: Ashley Riches; Yvette/Soprano Solo: Dušica Bijelic; Bianca: Hanna Hipp; Suzy: Justina Gringyte; Conductor: Marco Armiliato; Director: Nicolas Joël; Set designs: Ezio Frigerio; Costume designs: Franca Squarciapino; Lighting design: Vinicio Cheli. Royal Opera House; London; 5th July 2013.

image_description=Angela Gheorghiu as Magda [Photo © ROH / Catherine Ashmore]

product_title=Giacomo Puccini : La Rondine
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Angela Gheorghiu as Magda [Photo © ROH / Catherine Ashmore]

Posted by anne_o at 6:02 AM

July 5, 2013

Great Wagner Conductors from DG

With recording dates that range from 1927 to 1962, the consistent excellence of the recorded sound is remarkable even for Deutsche Grammophon. Not unexpectedly, sound reproduction is not as detailed or expansive in the earliest recordings in this compilation, but the music of Wagner is brilliantly served both by the original recordings and by the mastering of Lennart Jeschke.

Discs One and Two are devoted to the conducting of Hans Knappertsbusch (1888 - 1965), still regarded by many critics as the undisputed Wotan in the Valhalla of Wagner conductors. Much of Maestro Knappertsbusch’s career was devoted to conducting Wagner, and his 1951 Bayreuth Parsifal —recorded by John Culshaw for DECCA—remains a touchstone of Wagner interpretation. From November 1962 recording sessions with the Münchner Philharmoniker emerged the featured performances of the Overtures from Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer, and Tannhäuser ; the Act One Vorspiele from Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Parsifal; the Siegfried-Idyll , and the Act One Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. From 1927 or 1928 recordings with the Berliner Philharmoniker come performances of the Acts One and Three Vorspiele and the Tanz der Lehrbuben (Dance of the Apprentices) fromDie Meistersinger von Nürnberg; the Walkürenritt ( Ride of the Valkyries) from Die Walküre; the Act One Verwandlungsmusik (Transformation Music) from Parsifal; and the Venusberg (Bacchanale) from Tannhäuser. One of the most interesting opportunities offered by these selections is that of comparing Maestro Knappertsbusch’s 1927 or 1928 performance of the Act One Vorspiel from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with the 1962 performance. Clocking in at 10:55, the later performance is more than two minutes longer than the earlier recording, which has a duration of 8:34. Timings are of course somewhat deceptive when comparing recordings of these vintages, especially considering that side lengths remained limited in the early days of electrical recording. These constraints led to cutting music and perhaps adopting speeds before the microphones that were rather quicker than those that would have been employed in the theatre. Not unlike Herbert von Karajan, Maestro Knappertsbusch exhibited an increasing expansiveness of approach as his career progressed. Despite the difference in durations, the two recordings of the Meistersinger Act One Vorspiel are surprisingly similar: brass fanfares are given the prominence they deserve, but the inner voices and colorations of Wagner’s cleverly-deployed counterpoint are also completely evident. All of the excerpts conducted by Maestro Knappertsbusch explore the ‘inner demons’ of the music. In the Fliegende Holländer Overture, a sense of mystery is pervasive without being overwrought. The Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde tingles with emotional immediacy. The Act One Verwandlungsmusik from Parsifal has audible senses of wonder and spiritual fervor. The Rienzi Overture is a rarity in the repertories of most great Wagner conductors, but Maestro Knappertsbusch’s pacing of the piece reveals fleeting glimpses at Wagner’s mature style, confirming that the opera was an important step in the composer’s musical development. Maestro Knappertsbusch’s reputation as a Wagnerian is perhaps sufficient to justify his prominence in this collection of the work of great Wagner conductors. The excerpts on offer here that were recorded under his baton justify that reputation.

The third disc celebrates the Wagner conducting of Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886 - 1954). To Maestro Furtwängler went the accolade of conducting the first commercially-issued Ring Cycle, taken from concert performances recorded for broadcast by RAI Roma in 1953. He was also contracted to conduct the first complete Ring recorded in studio, but at the time of his death only Die Walküre had been recorded. All of the performances conducted by Maestro Furtwängler in this compilation were recorded ‘live’ with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the ensemble of which he was named Principal Conductor in 1922. Recorded eight years into Maestro Furtwängler’s tenure at the helm of the Philharmoniker, the Act One Vorspiel from Lohengrin is as ethereal as the sound quality allows, the string tone mostly free from distortion in the highest register. An aspect of Maestro Furtwängler’s conducting from which today’s Wagnerians could learn much is the way in which flexibility of rhythm is put to telling use in passages of greatest dramatic emphasis, the hairpin turns in rhythmic profile serving the composer rather than earmarking the idiosyncrasies of the conductor. Maestro Furtwängler’s command of rubato is masterful, and he displays even in the Act One Vorspiel a cognizance of the fact that, its Teutonic dramaturgy notwithstanding, Lohengrin is in many ways an Italianate score, with the preponderance of 4/4 time and the concerted Act Finales. Taken from performances recorded in Berlin’s Titania-Palast on 19 August 1949, accounts of the Act One Vorspiel from Die Meistersinger and the Trauermarsch (Siegfried’s Funeral March) from Götterdämmerung reveal Maestro Furtwängler at the zenith of his abilities as a Wagner conductor, the great melodic arcs of both selections built upon sturdy foundations of richly-textured sound. Also recorded in the Titania-Palast, the performances of the Act One Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde date from 27 April 1954, only seven months before Maestro Furtwängler’s death. Lacking nothing in terms of energy, these selections find the conductor pushing the music slightly too hard: missing are the ambiguity and disquietude that simmer in Maestro Knappertsbusch’s recordings of the same pieces, as well as in Maestro Furtwängler’s complete recording of the opera with Ludwig Suthaus and Kirsten Flagstad. The account of the Tannhäuser Overture was recorded in Rome on 1 May 1951: Maestro Furtwängler displays a clear knowledge of where the music starts and ends, and his pacing of the performance ideally conveys the journey between those two points. A few days before the Tannhäuser Overture was recorded in concert in Rome, on 25 April 1951, the Philharmoniker played the Karfreitagszauber (Good Friday Spell) from Parsifal in what seems an unlikely venue: Alexandria, Egypt. This excerpt from Parsifal is an especially welcome selection, the paucity of recorded evidence of the conductor’s way with the score rendering it tremendously valuable. Maestro Furtwängler conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1936 and 1937, assuming the mantle of Richard Strauss, who had conducted the opera on the Green Hill in 1933 and 1934, and returned to the opera for five performances at La Scala in 1951. Wagnerians and admirers of the conductor’s artistry have long clung to rumors that at least one of the La Scala performances was recorded: some contemporary sources suggest that one of the Parsifal performances was intended to be transmitted live over Italian radio, but in the event a recording of the 1950 RAI concert performances conducted by Vittorio Gui was broadcast—thankfully so, as that broadcast facilitated preservation of Maria Callas’s performance of Kundry under decent recording conditions. In the performance recorded in Alexandria, Maestro Furtwängler brings great weight of tone to the Karfreitagszauber, the sound being constructed in layers with the sureness of touch of a true master. Somewhat perplexingly, Maestro Furtwängler’s conducting of Wagner repertory is often compared to similar efforts by his contemporary Arturo Toscanini, who conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1931. It is often said that Maestro Furtwängler strove to create magnificent cacophonies of sound, whereas Toscanini pursued leaner orchestral timbres and stricter rhythm. These selections reveal that Maestro Furtwängler possessed his own unique concept of rhythmic pacing which enlisted adaptability of the beat as a vital component of effective interpretation of the music of Wagner. Even when the recorded sound does not permit the listener to enjoy a complete appreciation of the dynamic ranges and sheer power of sound that Maestro Furtwängler sought, it is apparent that he was a Wagnerian of phenomenal importance.

Selections on the fourth disc are divided among three undoubted masters of Wagner repertory who, to Twenty-First-Century observers, might nonetheless seem slightly out of place in company with Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler. Düsseldorf-born Karl Elmendorff (1891 - 1962) is deservedly remembered by Wagnerians for having conducted the first studio recordings of Tristan und Isolde in 1928 and Tannhäuser in 1930, as well as for having presided over memorable performances at Bayreuth, where he was a frequent presence from 1927 until 1942. His work did not earn him the adulation enjoyed by Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler, however, and he is increasingly overlooked as the years pass. In June 1941, he recorded orchestral excerpts from the Ring with the Orchester der Staatsoper Berlin and the Staatskapelle Berlin. With the former ensemble, he recorded theEinzug der Götter in Walhall (Entry of the Gods into Valhalla) from Das Rheingold and the Walkürenritt and Feuerzauber (Magic Fire Music) from Die Walküre. With Staatskapelle Berlin, he recorded Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt (Siegfried’s Rhine Journey) from Götterdämmerung. All four selections reveal an unquestionable skill with shaping Wagnerian phrases, the Walküre and Götterdämmerung numbers in particular bristling with energy but never veering out of control. Victor de Sabata (1892 - 1967) is now perhaps most remembered for his conducting of Verdi and Puccini repertory, but it is worth noting that, owing to the complex dynamics of European politics, Maestro de Sabata was an Austrian citizen at the time of his birth in Trieste. His sensibilities were decidedly Italianate in the tradition of Toscanini, in whose footsteps he followed when he conducted Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth in 1939. It is with the Act One Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde that Maestro de Sabata is represented in this compilation. Recorded in April 1939, less than four months before he débuted at Bayreuth, the pieces are superbly played by the Berliner Philharmoniker, Maestro de Sabata’s disciplined but impassioned conducting wringing every ounce of emotional impact from Wagner’s music. Eugen Jochum (1902 - 1987) belongs to the Kapellmeister tradition that has unaccountably taken on negative connotations in the years since the beginning of the era of ‘star’ conductors. Like Maestro de Sabata, Maestro Jochum made his début at Bayreuth conducting Tristan und Isolde, but it is primarily as an advocate for Anton Bruckner’s Symphonies that Maestro Jochum is remembered. In this compilation, Maestro Jochum is honored with the inclusion of 1951 recordings of the Vorspiele from the First and Third Acts of Lohengrin with the Berliner Philharmoniker and 1957 performances of the Act One Vorspiel and Karfreitagszauber from Parsifal with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Maestro Jochum perhaps lacked the larger-than-life charisma of his Wagnerian counterparts, but he was second to none in preparedness, musicality, and knowledge of the repertory. His readings of the selections from Lohengrin and Parsifal are appropriately complementary: poise and careful attention to the nuances of Wagner’s phrasing reveal the similarities of the structures and sound worlds of these excerpts despite Lohengrin and Parsifal occupying opposite ends of Wagner’s artistic career. The subtle but bracing vitality of Maestro Jochum’s conducting reminds the listener that traditions persist because there is inherent validity and power in the approaches that they perpetuate.

It has become all too common for the Wagnerian efforts of conductors to prove either anonymously inept or damagingly idiosyncratic. Perhaps the greatest fallacy that has pervaded the music of Wagner across the generations is that it requires a specialized approach that borders on proselytism. Though Hans Knappertsbusch and Wilhelm Furtwängler are admired for setting standards by which other conductors of Wagner’s music are still measured, their trend-setting also extended to the music of Mozart and Beethoven. During his tenure as Principal Conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Elmendorff was celebrated for his conducting of wide-ranging operatic and symphonic repertories. The legacy of Victor de Sabata is immortalized by the 1953 studio recording of Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, still recognized as one of the greatest operatic recordings ever made, but he was also acclaimed for his conducting of Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Respighi. Eugen Jochum was an idiomatic, intelligent conductor of a varied repertory who, in his career as a Wagnerian, presided over the 1954 Bayreuth début of Birgit Nilsson as Elsa in Lohengrin. In short, all of these eminent Wagnerians were also respected for their work beyond the Wagner canon. This observation is critical to understanding why these five conductors towered over their contemporaries as interpreters of the music of Wagner. To these five men, Wagner’s music was not an exalted institution to be quarantined and approached with special reverence. These conductors understood the position that Wagner occupies in the development of Western music and, rather than regarding his works as antiseptic, pseudo-religious experiences, approached Wagner’s music as a fantastic menagerie of creatures, their life drawn from the common genetic ancestry of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and Schumann and their destinies devoted to influencing all the music that followed. No man is an island, it is said: these five conductors helped to row Wagner to shore, where his music became an integral part of the musical landscape both in the world’s theatres and on records.

Joseph Newsome

Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883): Great Wagner Conductors—Orchestral Music from Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer,Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, and Parsifal; Berliner Philharmoniker, Münchner Philharmoniker, Orchester der Staatsoper Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Karl Elmendorff, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Eugen Jochun, Hans Knappertsbusch, Victor de Sabata [Various recording venues and dates; Deutsche Grammophon 479 1148; 4CD, 301:01]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/4791148.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Great Wagner Conductors product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 1148 7 [4CDs] price=$24.49 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=916498
Posted by Gary at 5:12 PM

July 2, 2013

Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie, Glyndebourne

When Hippolyte et Aricie was premiered in 1733, it was considered radically inventive. So it's appropriate that Glyndebourne should present Rameau with the same spirit of adventure. William Christie has shown many times before that baroque thrives on daring and panache.

Thus the Prologue in this production starts with a shock calculated to shake things up. Diana, the Goddess is in a refrigerator. But she's the Goddess of frigidity. Why not show her in a Frigidaire? She has a frigid, rigid mindset. For her, feelings should be sealed in air-tight compartments. So Diana comes out of the freezer cabinet. Her colours are those of frost, and the pale moon. Nature, though, is having nothing of artificial cool. In the egg compartment, Cupid is breaking out of a shell, challenging Diana with bright hues and joyously lively song.

Hippolyte, the son of Theseus is in love with Aricie, who has dedicated herself to the service of Diana, the Virgin Queen. Hippolyte's stepmother, Phaedra, lusts after him. Ironically, her husband Theseus is off saving a friend who has committed adultery with the wife of Pluto, Lord of the Underworld. We enter l'Enfer, where hell fire reigns: the reverse of the refrigerator, where overheated workings splutter in darkness and dirt. Is death more colourful than Diana's sterile temple? The denizens of the Underworld have merrier dances. A group of Flies.with elaborate wings, pirouette gleefully. Decay is part of the cycle of Nature. Without it, no rebirth. Theseus calls on his father, Neptune, for help and escapes. The Parques (The Fates) warn "Tu sors de l’infernal Empire, pour trouver les Enfers chez toi."

Rameau writes a tempest into his music, which even now, when we're used to extreme music, is strikingly dramatic. At Glyndebourne, we get strobe lights, Rameau's audiences, who loved mechanical special effects, would have been thrilled by electricity. Neptune is the God of the Ocean, so his minions are "matelots". At Glyndebourne, they appear as a chorus of French sailors. This is perfectly in keeping with the music. Rameau adapts a hornpipe jig. It's meant to be gay (in the old sense of the word) "Tous les cœurs sont matelots ; On quitte le repos : On vole sur les flots;"

Theseus blames his son for his wife's infidelity. Hippolyte follows Aricie into Diana's world. A dead stag hangs from the rafters. Diana, despite her disdain for passion, is also the Goddess of the Hunt, and an agent of death Aricie is initiated into the cult by being blooded. It's not gruesome, though, for Rameau's sense of elegance precludes overt barbarism. At Glyndebourne, Diana's followers are seen in hunting reds, the men's wigs oddly peaked as if they were foxes. Hippolyte disappears in a puff of smoke, presumably dead. Phaedra dies, too. This time, the Underworld is depicted as a morgue, pointedly designed like Diana's chilled-out Temple. But Hippolyte is no more dead than Theseus was when he went into hell. The lovers are reunited happily ever after. In this production, the ghost of Phaedra appears to observe proceedings. It's a nice touch, which fits in with the mood of healing and kindness. No grand showpiece arias here. Instead, the exquisite "Rossignols amoureux" a delicate air for soprano accompanied only by flute, exceptionally beautifully played by a soloist in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Ed Lyon sang Hippolyte, fresh and youthful but no ingénue. Lyon's voice is assertive, suggesting strength in the character beyond the restraints of the text. That's perceptive. With his genes, Hippolyte is no wimp. Christiane Karg sang Aricie with charm and energy. Katharine Watson sang Diana, and Ana Quintans sang a vivacious Cupid. Emmanuelle de Negri sings the crucial Nightingale Song in the guise of a shepherdess. We know that Cupid has triumphed. François Lis was a magnificently characterful Pluto/Jupiter, well supported by Loïc Felix's Tisiphone. Sarah Connolly (Phaedra) and Stéphane Degout (Theseus) were exceptional, wonderfully assured singing and stage presence.

Together with Lis, Connolly and Degout (one of the finest French singers of his generation) sang their parts in the Paris production last year with Emmanuelle Haïm, where the set was a reconstruction of what the opera might have looked like in 1733. That was important because it clearly showed the cast in costumes that were "modern" at the time. Rameau wasn't depicting Greeks or Greek Gods but archetypes in a setting his own audiences could relate to. So much for the notion of period specificity.

True period authenticity is fascinating, for me, anyway. But it doesn't necessarily do much for modern audiences, who might find the succession of dances less easy to take. The Glyndebourne production, directed by Jonathan Kent, with designs by Paul Brown, doesn't actually "update", to use the much misused term, but treats the opera as something fresh and exciting, as it might have seemed to audiences nearly 300 years ago Like the cycle of Nature, life goes on when things renew. The humour is entirely appropriate, and the dances are brightly characterized. One other good moment: when Sarah Connolly descends off the stage as Phaedra preparing to die, the auditorium goes completely dark for much longer than usual. She's such a big star that audiences expect an exit as dramatic as that. She doesn't get to sing any more, but the memory lingers on.

Most credit, however, to William Christie. What animated, vivid playing he draws from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. How the singers seem inspired by his enthusiasm! He's visionary. He understand the baroque and its aesthetic so well that he can teach us a great deal about the idiom. His Rameau Les Indes Galantes (preserved on DVD) is an education. Christie brings out the vivacious, almost anarchic vigour that is at the heart of French baroque. He's worked with Jonathan Kent before (Purcell Fairy Queen, Glyndebourne). My companion said "If this is good enough for Bill Christie, it's good enough for me". By sheer coincidence we bumped into Christie himself a few minutes later, and told him. He beamed. "That's the sort of feedback I like to hear!". I hope it helped to make his day. Certainly, with this performance, he made mine.

Anne Ozorio

Listen to Hippolyte et Aricie podcast

Click here for cast and production information

image_description=Ed Lyon as Hippolytus [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival 2013]

product_title=Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, Glyndebourne
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Ed Lyon as Hippolytus [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival 2013]

Posted by anne_o at 5:50 AM