August 30, 2013

Patricia Racette on Dolores Claiborne

As Tobias has aptly stated, both of these women have made decisions that go against the conventions of societal propriety and acceptability, both to the peril of their own quality of life.

On Monday, August 26, 2013, San Francisco Opera announced a major change in cast for the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne which will take place on September 18, 2013. The title role will be sung by world-renowned American soprano Patricia Racette.

MN: When did you learn that you would be singing the role of Dolores Claiborne?

PR: I got official word sometime last weekend! It has been a real blur, as you can well imagine! The short answer is: NOT long ago!

MN: What is your concept of the character of Dolores? Is she more of a heroine or more of a villain?

PR: Definitely a heroine, of course! All joking aside, we all live as citizens of the world who face devastatingly difficult dilemmas. I have never personally experienced Dolores Claiborne's hardship, but I do find it relevant to address her conundrum. She DOES love her daughter; she does struggle with trying to make ends meet without the cushion that provides someone like her employer, Vera, with financial freedom. Dolores IS a victim of domestic violence, and her daughter HAS been molested by her father. Do we judge her for her actions or do we understand her reason for reacting?

MN: How does the tessitura of the role lie for you? Do many changes have to be made from the original mezzo version?

PR: This question seems to garner more response than I feel necessary! Tessitura is always a question for any role, whether for contemporary music, or for long-lived, tried, and hopefully true standard repertory as we know or perceive it. The original mezzo version is actually not definitively a mezzo role at all! It sits quite high in range with a frequent visit to the lower register, something with which I am frankly VERY comfortable. It is not unusual for a lyrico spinto soprano to enjoy great comfort with not only the upper range but also the lower extremities. Furthermore, it is typical as well as necessary for a world premiere, of which I have performed several, to involve collaboration between the LIVING composer and participating artists.

Perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of preparing (at lightning speed in my case right now!) a new work is the conversation. It's not about voice type per se, but it IS about voice and making the story tell-able. That is what any great composer does, whether in the nineteenth century or the twenty-first. The composer ultimately wants to make HIS/HER voice heard! This concept does not subscribe to the conventional categorization of what we consider vocal classification. So, to answer the question: the role of Dolores Claiborne written by Tobias Picker does not actually pose any big challenges for my voice that cannot simply be addressed with some minor tweaking to accommodate both Tobias's and my view of how to make this character come to life. Those kinds of changes were, are, and would have been relevant no matter who was tackling the title role. One might be surprised about how minimal these adjustments are. They are perhaps contrary to what you might expect!

MN: How long have you known Maestro Picker?

PR: Tobias and I go back to the genesis of his first opera Emmeline, the title role of which I originated in 1996. So what's the math on that? Seventeen years? A LONG TIME. And I, of course, also originated the role of Roberta Alden in his An American Tragedy for the Met in 2004. Apparently the first relationship lasted, which is always a positive sign in our industry!

MN: Was the role of Emmeline actually written for you? Are there parallels between Dolores and Emmeline?

PR: No, as far as I know, Emmeline was not written in its 'brainchild state' for me, but ultimately I believe it WAS written for me! My connection with that project and that part was huge for me personally and professionally. On a personal level, I feel that Dolores is almost like Emmeline grown up. Their circumstances are not exactly parallel (aside from their Northeastern U.S. settings and MINE, for that matter!), but they are both women at very different points in their lives whose stories involve dilemmas with life-changing outcomes. As Tobias has aptly stated, both of these women have made decisions that go against the conventions of societal propriety and acceptability, both to the peril of their own quality of life.

Maria Nockin

image_description=Patricia Racette [Photo by Devon Cass]

product_title=Patricia Racette Speaks About the Role of Dolores Claiborne
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Patricia Racette [Photo by Devon Cass]

Posted by maria_n at 1:45 PM

Tobias Picker Talks About His New Opera Dolores Claiborne

Tobias Picker has been composing significant pieces of classical music for more than thirty years. A marvelous pianist, he has written three piano concertos as well as a great deal of music for other instruments. However, he may be best known for four operas, which have been seen in opera houses from California to New York to Eastern Europe. On September 18, 2013, San Francisco Opera will stage the world premiere of his fifth opera, Dolores Claiborne, which is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.

MN: When did you know you wanted to be a composer?

TP: When I was eight years old I wrote a letter to Giancarlo Menotti telling him how much I admired his work and that I, too, was an opera composer! I had seen some of his operas on network television because in those days opera on TV was not that uncommon. Receiving a letter from him was the most exciting thing that happened to me that year. He told me that one of the reasons he responded to me was because of his fondness for the character Toby in The Medium. I had signed my letter Toby Picker because as a child I went by Toby, not Tobias. He offered to meet me at some point, but I did not follow through on that. I did meet him when I was fifteen and it galvanized my ambition to become a serious composer. I remember he said, “You don’t become a composer. You are either born a composer or you are not. If you are, you know it.” I got very busy after that!

MN: Where did you study music?

TP: I entered the Juilliard School’s Preparatory Division when I was nine or ten and studied there for quite a few years. I did my undergraduate work at the Manhattan School of Music and have graduate degrees from Juilliard and Princeton.

MN: Was Emmeline your first opera?

TP: No, because I had made some attempts at operatic music as a child. At that age I tried to write an opera on the life of Franz Schubert. I was very moved by his music and was disturbed to learn of his early death. That opera has never seen the light of day…nor will it! Emmeline did have a few precursors. In 1983, the Albany Symphony Orchestra played the premiere of The Encantadas, which combines spoken narration with original music. The text was drawn from Herman Melville's vivid and poetic descriptions of the Galapagos Islands. Sir John Gielgud, Will Quadflieg, and Mariko Miyagi have all recorded the work in English, German, and Japanese. It’s a theatrical piece, a melodrama, but it isn’t an opera. Since the words are spoken, it’s not a monodrama, either. When I narrate, the words have a certain kind of rhythm, but when others do it, they have a free hand in some ways about the rhythm.

My second symphony from 1986 concludes with a setting of a poem by Goethe for soprano or mezzo and orchestra, so it, too, is a non-operatic precursor. That final movement was my first experience writing for a singer with orchestra. Right before Emmeline I wrote a piece for Carol Wincenc and Barbara Hendricks called The Rain in the Trees, a setting of poems by W. S. Merwin.

MN: How do you go about finding a librettist and selecting a story to set to music?

TP: I have to write about subjects that I know and understand. I’ve worked with three librettists so far. My first was the distinguished poet J. D. McClatchy whom I met and whose work I read when I was thinking about writing Emmeline. He had just written one or two librettos, but I thought he would be great for me, not only because I liked his poetry, but especially because of his knowledge of the operatic repertoire. He had been going to the opera since he was very young and was familiar with much more of the canon than I was. I thought that was a great advantage.

That collaboration made for a very good marriage of words and music, so I also asked him to write Dolores Claiborne, our second opera together. I also wrote two operas with Gene Scheer: Thèrese Raquin based on the novel by Emile Zola and An American Tragedy, based on the book by Theodore Dreiser. Before choosing Scheer, I read his work, including some samples he wrote especially for me. As soon as we started working together, his writing inspired me to set it to music. A songwriter and a performer, he is very much a creature of the stage. Donald Sturrock, with whom I wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox, found me. That would probably never happen again, but he sent me a libretto and I fell in love with it because it was so clever and charming. It also came with a commission from Los Angeles Opera and that definitely did not hurt! In 1996, Sturrock had attended the premiere of Emmeline at Santa Fe Opera. He approached me with the libretto a month or two later. The premiere of Fantastic Mr. Fox took place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in December 1998. Since then it has been produced in several other cities and throughout the United Kingdom.

MN: Was it difficult to get the rights to make the opera from novelist Stephen King?

TP: It was not at all hard at that time, but now it might well be a different story. With the help of Andrew Welch, a London theatrical producer who had adapted several of King’s works for the stage, including this one, I got the rights to both Dolores Claiborne and Misery. King kept the right to approve the scenarios and the librettos for any operas made from the novels. He was happy to approve our work on Claiborne and we have his blessing to go forward.

MN: How did you and J.D. McClatchy select the scenes to be staged in Dolores Claiborne?

TP: First, we filtered out all the scenes that were not absolutely crucial to the plot. You can spend days reading a book, but an opera has to get its story across to the audience in a couple of hours. We only wanted to use elements of the story that moved the plot forward and would hold the attention of the audience. Because we were working in a different medium, we created our new structure using the scenes from the novel that revealed the most about the characters. Since the opera takes place as Dolores tells her story to the police, she walks in and out of the interrogation room as she tells of her past life. When she is out of the room, instead of reading her words we see the part of the story she is telling. Both the movie and the opera dramatize some of King’s most visual scenes, but the opera is most definitely based on the book. Since the words of the opera are sung, more has to be portrayed with far fewer words and only the most important material can be used.

MN: Since soprano Patricia Racette will be singing the role of Dolores instead of the previously announced Dolora Zajick, I take it there is a soprano version of the role.

TP: There isn’t a soprano version of the role. There’s a Patricia Racette version of the role. There wasn’t a mezzo version of the role, there was a Dolora Zajick version of the role. When voice ranges are so close it is just a matter of tailoring adjustments to make the role fit on one and another at the same time. I went through the score with Racette and we discussed a few adjustments that flatter her voice while they enhance the role. She is unique and uniquely special to me because I wrote Emmeline for her as well as the role of Roberta in An American Tragedy. She is one of our great actress singers. Not only does she have a beautiful voice with a big range, but when she sings you understand every word she’s singing.

MN: What are some of the musical differences between the Zajick and the Racette versions of the role?

TP: There are very few differences. Here and there something is lower or higher. That is about it. Whenever I have a new opera in production, there are changes and adjustments to be made in the last minute. This is also true of every other aspect of the show, but none of these are changes the public could possibly notice.

MN: How much control do you have over the creative team that stages one of your operas?

TP: I get to approve the stage director and the conductor. Once I approve the director my fate is in his or her hands, so I have to have faith in their choices. The conductor in San Francisco will be George Manahan who conducted the Santa Fe and New York premieres of Emmeline. Besides the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne, he will lead the premiere of the revised version of An American Tragedy in Glimmerglass. He has conducted three of my five operas.

MN: Is anyone performing your other operas these days?

TP: Glimmerglass in upstate New York is doing An American Tragedy next summer as I celebrate my sixtieth birthday. At that time they will premiere a new version of the work. Before that, The Microscopic Opera Company of Pittsburgh is doing a new production of Thèrese Raquin at the same time that San Francisco Opera does Dolores Claiborne. Actually, Thèrese Raquin has had the most productions of any of my operas. One of the best was in San Diego with Kirstin Chavez in the title role. Right now she is in Strassbourg recording my Cuatro Sonetos de Amor, the text of which is poetry by Pablo Neruda.

MN: Has there been much interest in Dolores Claiborne outside of San Francisco?

TP: Many general and artistic directors of opera companies are attending the premiere. That includes myself because I am the artistic director of The Opera San Antonio and I’m considering producing it there. Beginning in the fall of 2014, The Opera San Antonio will be performing at The Tobin Center, a brand new performing arts complex on the River Walk. We may want to stage Dolores Claiborne there, but I want to see it on stage before making that decision. It could be that I would prefer to do another of my operas first in San Antonio. Stephen King is one of America’s finest storytellers and Dolores Claiborne is a wonderful original story. Many people who have not previously been interested in opera want to see that story onstage, so it may bring new people to opera. Thus, I think the opera will find a home with a number of other companies. Like the book, it has quite a bit of R-rated language. If the opera is broadcast on National Public Radio or Public Television, the broadcasters will have to bleep out some words.

Maria Nockin

image_description=Tobias Picker [Photo © 2005 Harry Heleotis]

product_title=Tobias Picker Talks About His New Opera Dolores Claiborne
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Tobias Picker [Photo © 2005 Harry Heleotis]

Posted by maria_n at 12:52 PM

August 27, 2013

Hänsel und Gretel

Conductor Robin Ticciati demonstrates an impressive command of structure, both large-scale expanses and smaller musico-dramatic forms. The tempi are well-judged and the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra are unfailingly responsive as Ticciati skilfully controls the ebb and flow: accelerandi, subtle rubati and dynamic swells and falls are crafted so that they feel a natural element of the story-telling. The rich reedy opening of the overture establishes a calm sleepiness, the strings comfortingly gentle, the horns and woodwind to the fore, before a snappy pizzicato triggers a spark of vigour. Ticciati ranges fluently through the thematic material, each new melody or motif imbued with dramatic character. The textures are lucid, despite the sometimes dense instrumentation; indeed the balance within the orchestra, and between stage and pit is consistently good. Melodies soar freely and harmonies are opulent, but things never become sentimentally turgid. Ticciati misses no opportunity to remind us — a snarling horn, a biting pizzicato, an ominous tonal tint — of the bitter taste beneath the sugar coating.

The ‘Witch’s Ride’ is well-crafted: astute accents, driving repetitive rhythms, incisive string playing and the final eerily spiralling cello solo leave us in no doubt of the give us a foretaste of the ghastliness which the children may face in the wood. In the ‘Dream Pantomime’, in which fourteen shimmering angels arrange themselves in a shimmering tableau around the sleeping children, Ticciati crisply shapes the orchestral dialogues, as the mood and pace shift and sway. A fine horn fanfare is a warm springboard for the Act 3 Prelude, in which the motoring string textures are never pounding, always fleet.

The cast is uniformly superb, but it is the eponymous siblings who shine most brightly. From her first petulant outburst, wilfully interrupting Gretel’s nursery song, Alice Coote totally embodies the spirit of the impetuous and sassy, but lovable, Hansel. A gleeful cry of ‘Hurrah!’ as he flourishes a bursting basket of strawberries that will earn his mother’s praise, is refreshingly spontaneous; but the mischief-maker’s proud confidence fades with his reluctant, and touchingly forlorn, admission that ‘Gretel, I’ve forgotten the way’. This Hansel can certainly make a raucous din! ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo!’ he shrieks, when awoken prematurely by his sister’s lark-like, virtuosic trilling. Coote’s fiercely defiant rejoinder, ‘I’ll not go with you, you old hag’, as the Witch tries to entice the children into her sugar-drop abode, assures us of his vehement will.

Indeed, at times Coote dominates Lydia Teuscher’s more moderate Gretel. However, Teuscher’s clean, even soprano illuminates Gretel’s essential goodness, while also capturing her youthful freshness — for example, her wild abandon at the thought of the scrumptious pudding soon to be devoured when a jug of cream is discovered in the bare pantry. Teuscher wonderfully conveys the young girl’s tender innocence as she gathers ripe fruit in the forest; her folk-like duet with a smooth clarinet melody supported by light pizzicato strings affirms her naive joy in the beauty and abundance of the natural world. Waking from her dream, in Act 3, Gretel questions, ‘Where am I? Am I awake of dreaming?’; Teuscher introduces a marvellous note of wonder mixed with hesitation, as if young girl has not quite shaken off the otherworldliness of her nocturnal meanderings.

And, the siblings’ voices blend mellifluously, whether they are stealing the cream, dancing playfully, or stumbling across the cottage of their dreams — all candies, bonbons, buns and chocolate. Coote and Teuscher entwine artlessly and wondrously in the ‘Evening Prayer’, first in rich homophony and then in dialogue, Gretel’s pure melody aloft supported by Hansel’s chromatically sliding harmonies. Ticciati calls for a firm bass line but reins in the horns and clarinets until the children have finally drifted into their dreamland; the slightest hint of a rubato before the final extended cadence is stirring.

As the children’s mother, Irmgard Vilsmaier is emphatic without being pantomime-esque; her tone is full of character but gratifying; indeed her Act 1 aria is touching imbued with a convincing note of desperation in the face of unalterable poverty, hungry children and a reckless husband. The boisterous entry of the latter, sung by William Dazely, is prefaced by a crescendo-ing ‘Ral la la la’ refrain of ebullience, but Dazely does not offer a one-dimensional performance, modifying his tone to one of urgency upon the realisation that his children are missing. Sometimes the exuberance of the drunken broom-maker is achieved at the expense of accuracy; a tremulous concern when Dazely imagines his off-spring ‘wandering in the wood at night, with no stars nor moon’ wavers somewhat dangerously. And, while conveying a fitting anxiety and horror, he employs an overly wide vibrato at the top when describing the Nibblewitch who lures children to their deaths-by-gingerbread.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Witch is a monster; her gambit, ‘My name’s Rosina Sweet-tooth, the very friendliest of ladies’, is squirm-makingly unctuous, but grovelling enticements and faux tenderness flare inevitably unpredictably into raging threats and revelatory declarations of evil intent. Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s obsequious summons, ‘Come, little mousy, come into my housy’, may be alarmingly disingenuous but his evil laugh is absolutely spine-chilling! The Witch’s ‘Spell’, punctuated by deadly rasps from the brass, stabbing strings and a tolling timpani, is a masterpiece of vocal acting.

Tara Erraught’s Sandman floats a lovely legato line, finding a glossy allure as she promises the children that the stars will appear in ‘Heaven’s furthest sphere and angels bring you dreams of sweet delight!’ As the Dew Fairy, Ida Falk Winland exhibits a bright crispness but the voice is rather too large, and the vibrato ever-present, for a wispy sprite of the dawn. The children’s chorus achieve an appropriately sweet blend.

Claire Seymour

Recording details:

Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel . Alice Coote (mezzo soprano) — Hansel; Lydia Teuscher (soprano) — Gretel; Irmgard Vilsmaier (soprano) — Mother; William Dazeley (baritone) — Father; Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor) — Witch; Tara Erraught (mezzo soprano) — Sandman; Ida Falk Winland (soprano) — Dew Fairy; London Philharmonic Orchestra; conductor, Robin Ticciati. Glyndebourne Festival Opera. GFOCD 015-10, 2 CD set (58:37, 41:57), full German text with English and French translations, liner notes, colour production photographs.

image= image_description= product=yes product_title=Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=GFOCD 015-10 [2CDs] price=$29.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 9:03 AM

Magdalena Kožená: Love and Longing

The successes of Antonin Dvořák’s early months in America — his appointment as director and professor at the National Conservatoire of Music in New York in 1892, the gratifying reception of the New World Symphony the following year — were countered by loss and sadness. The deaths of two friends, Tchaikovsky and Hans von Bülow, (in November 1893 and February 1894 respectively) and the news of his father’s terminal illness deepened the composer’s nostalgia for his Bohemian homeland. Profoundly religious, Dvořák sought relief not only in his faith but also in his native language: his Biblical Songs, composed in 1894 in the space of just a few weeks, is a cycle of ten settings of the Psalms, the texts being taken from the Kralicka, the Czech Bible which dates back to 1579.

As a native speaker, Magdalena Kožená is perfectly placed both to appreciate the poetic beauty of these texts, and to convey the sincerity of the settings to the listener through Dvořák’s simple yet affecting melodies. Throughout she demonstrates an instinctive affinity with the composer’s means of expression, and the understated, restrained manner of her delivery captures the intently personal nature of Dvořák’s expression of faith. Aided by the superb Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Kožená’s husband, Sir Simon Rattle, Kožená captures myriad moods, her tone ceaselessly velvety.

The declamatory focus of the opening song, ‘Oblak a mrákota jest vůkol něho’ (Clouds and darkness are round about him) is typical of the controlled intensity of Kožená’s performance; the soaring recitative-like vocal pronouncements are punctuated by dramatic pictorial commentary by the players of the Berlin Philharmonic. In ‘Skrýše má a paveza má Ty jsi’ (You are my hiding place and my shield) the exquisite tenderness of the woodwind and high string accompaniment evokes the calm trust expressed in the text, but Rattle is alert to every twist and nuance of emotion, finding darker colours and impassioned movement to match the changes of timbre as Kožená conveys the interior intensity of the lines.

Woodwind solos entwine sweetly with the more sinuous vocal melody in ‘Slyš, ó Bože, slyš modlitbu mou’ (Give ear to my prayer, O God) — of particular note is some wonderfully mellifluous clarinet playing; as the voice rises and becomes more rapturous, ‘My heart is sore pained within me; and the terrors of death are fallen upon me’, Kožená never exaggerates the emotions of the text, her honeyed tone always pure and the sentiments convincingly honest. The mezzo-soprano’s lustrous dark lower register is used to magical effect in ‘Hospodin jest můj pastýř’ (The Lord is my shepherd); and, the sincerity of the plainchant-like opening is deepened by the subsequent enrichment of the instrumental fabric, and the folk-like nuances of the melodic line. The Bohemian idiom dominates ‘Bože, Bože, píseň novou’ (I will sing a new song unto you, O God), which begins with a burst of bright optimism from the full orchestra, as Kožená introduces a bright nimbleness into the lilting melody.

‘Slyš, ó Bože, volání mé’ (Hear my cry, O God) is more contemplative and the seamless vocal lines have a powerful yet restrained intensity. ‘Při řekách babylonských’ (By the rivers of Babylon) ranges across diverse moods whose emotional impact results as much from Rattle’s marvellous attention to the details of the instrumental texture as to Kožená’s affectionately inflected vocal line. ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’, she asks, the voice plunging on ‘strange’ before the accompaniment warms to provide some hint of consolation.

After the more rhetorical ‘Popatřiž na mne a smiluj se nade mnou’ (Turn you unto me and have mercy upon me), a folk-like ardency enriches ‘Pozdvihuji očí svých k horám’ (I will lift up mine eyes until the hills), before, in the concluding ‘Zpívejte Hospodinou píseň novou’ (Sing unto the Lord a new song) Kožená’s ringing pentatonic melodies, the jubilant horn interjections and vibrant pizzicato strings bring the cycle to an affirmative, exuberant conclusion.

Kožená and the Berlin Philharmonic slip with matching effortlessness into a more exotic, sensuous mode in Maurice Ravel’s magically evocative Shéhérazade; the orchestral players relish the composer’s luxurious but sharply defined sonorities, above which the mezzo-soprano — her French clearly enunciated and idiomatic — soars and floats, paradoxically blending innocence and ecstasy.

Only an overture remains of the young Ravel’s first operatic flirtation with this subject, but in 1903 he returned to the tales of the oriental seducer. At the time, Ravel belonged to a bohemian artistic society, Les Apaches, which aimed to promote cutting-edge culture; when one of his fellow Apaches Tristan Klingsor (born Arthur Leclère), published a collection of poems entitled Shéhérazade, Ravel eagerly set three of these poems: ‘Asie’, ‘La flûte enchantée’, and ‘L'indifférent’.

‘Asie’, substantially longer than the other two songs, was originally the concluding number. The text roves through a series of alluring, exotic experiences which the traveller desires and imagines, the dazzling instrumental realisation of such temptations tempered by a tone of pragmatic yearning. The inevitable introductory melody played by the ‘oriental’ oboe is arrestingly enticing, and Kožená’s recitation, in which she imagines Asia as ‘wonderland of nursery tales’ is bewitching — the French text rolling like syrup, the voice swooping to the depths, ‘in her full forest of mystery’ — while the gamelan-like instrumental colours tremble and pulsate.

As the wanderer imagines the unfamiliar, exhilarating travels which beckon, Rattle’s players provide an instrumental complement — violent sweeping harp glissandi, sensuously rocking string motifs; airy flutes and tremulous viola motifs, whisk us to Syria, Persia, India, China. Kožená’s mezzo soprano is gloriously uplifting and mellow; and the climactic vocal phrases, ‘Je voudrais voir des roses et du sang;/ Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien de haine’ (I should like to see roses and blood;/ I should like to see death from love or from hate) are accompanied by some disturbingly apocalyptic instrumental surges.

Then, there is silence; the traveller will return from wild places and relate her adventures to those ‘interested in dreams’ — her wild escapades contained within an evocative cello solo which articulates her tales with mournful poignancy.

In ‘La flûte enchantée’ the fluid transition from and between voice and flute is stunning, an uncanny embodiment of the song’s final lines: ‘Il me semble que chaque note s’envoie/ De la flûte vers ma joue/ Comme un mystérieux baiser’ (Each note seems to me to take flight from the flute to my cheek like a mysterious kiss). Mesmerised, then suddenly energised upon awakening, Kožená is by turns capricious and then languorous; the flute has the final word — an insouciant fragment, dissolving like an imaginary caress.

In the instrumental passage which opens ‘L'indifférent’, Rattle establishes a dreamy air, but one which becomes ever more infused with melancholy loneliness as the song proceeds. The dusky warmth of Kožená’s rich mezzo suggests a touching desire for human contact, but the tumbling fall of the command, ‘Entre!’, is refuted by the wistful, resigned vision of the stranger moving past and beyond the threshold.

Mahler’s Five Rückert songs are similarly dramatized with subtle but telling artistry. Kožená’s voice assumes yet more hues, by turns earthbound and ethereal, the fairly brisk tempo and breathily suspended instrumental support of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (If you love for beauty) conveying youthful impetuousness. The fleeting ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ (Do not look at my songs) allows Kožená to make much of the agile lightness of her voice; following the closing promise that when the rich honeycombs have been carried to the light of day, ‘you shall taste them first!’ is unnervingly enigmatic.

After the burnished, shadowy ambience of ‘Um Mitterbacht’ (At midnight), the translucent eloquence of ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (I breathed a gentle fragrance) quite literally transports the listener to another world. ‘Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen’ (I am Lost to the World) is perhaps the most movingly beautiful of all the songs on this disc; the performers are in perfect accord, and the result is deeply stirring.

Throughout this wonderful performance, Kožená’s melodic and linguistic ease create a sense of artlessness which belies profound musicianship and skill. The technicians of Deutsche Grammophon display similar levels of excellence: the quality of sound is a pristine as the recording studio, but the immediacy conveys the inimitable frisson of the concert hall.

Claire Seymour

Recording details:

Love and Longing: Dvořák, Biblické pisnê Op.99; Ravel, Shéhérazade; Mahler, Fünf Lieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Rückert. Magdalena Kožená, mezzo soprano; Simon Rattle, conductor. Berliner Philharmoniker. Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0065 8 [CD].

image= image_description=Magdalena Kožená: Love and Longing product=yes product_title=Magdalena Kožená: Love and Longing product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0065 8 [CD] price=$16.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 8:41 AM

Prom 57: Wagner — Parsifal

Gurnemanz is one of his signature roles. Now, he might bark, but he still doesn’t “park”. Age skills are enhanced by age, not diminished.

When Titurel sounds in better vocal health than Gurnemanz, it’s worrying. But Gurnemanz is probably even older than Titurel. John the Baptist knew nothing of Christianity but baptised Jesus himself. Like John the Baptist, John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz recognizes who Parsifal must be and anoints his mission. Tomlinson now portrays Gurnemanz as an Ancient, a witness to primeval mysteries that long predated formal religion. An Erda in male form!

The part is also huge, bigger even than Parsifal’s in many ways. Tomlinson still has stamina and stage presence, even if he makes us wince at his dry, constricted croaks, though they’re arguably in character. Tomlinson’s just back from singing The Green Knight in Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain in Salzburg. He’s tired, but he’s still giving us pointers in how to channel Gurnemanz. This Proms Parsifal was something to cherish because Tomlinson made us “feel” Gurnemanz’s soul, still idealistic, despite the ravages of time.

Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry, in contrast, was uncommonly seductive. Waltraud Meier’s wild animal Kundry remains a tour de force, defining the role at its most savage, but Dalayman’s more womanly portrayal is perfectly valid, bringing out the more human, vulnerable side of the role. This is important, for in Parsifal, Wagner reprises themes that persist throughout his career: motherhood, or the lack thereof, the distortion of sexual and family relationships, inter-generational power struggles and basic body fluids. Kundry is an outsider because she’s a sexual being in a repressed society. Dalayman blends the natural warmth of her voice with forceful delivery, so her crescendi rang out , reaching into the furthest recesses of the Royal Albert Hall. At times, she almost sounds like a Verdi heroine. But it’s a perfectly valid interpretation, which would benefit from a sympathetic staging which deals with the psycho-sexual emotional thickets that underpin the portentious pseudo-religiosity which has dominated Parsifal interpretation.

In Parsifal, there are three different Parsifals, just as there are three different Wotans in the Ring. We can’t gauge the whole Wotan from either manifestation. It’s a mistake to expect Parsifal to be glowing and luminous from the start . Like most Wagner heroes, he goes through a process of change. Lars Cleveman achieved this transition well. In the first Act, Parsifal’s a young Siegfried, instinctive and almost animal. He kills the swan because he knows no better. Lars Cleveman’s sturdy physicality suits this Parsifal . He’s cocky, confident and even sexy in a quirky way: a good foil for Dalayman’s mother/seducer Kundry. The second act brought forth the best singing of the evening, even from Tomlinson. Yet Wagner springs a surprise in the end. Once Parsifal is mature and takes on his mission, he doesn’t actually sing all that much. The mystical splendour of transfiguration comes from the orchestra. The Divine Presence is in the music. Parsifal kneels and listens, in awe.

And so to Mark Elder and the Hallé. We don’t hear them enough in London, and they’re very distinctive. The music in the first act is notoriously hard to pull off. Haitink, for example, stretched the tempi so one could feel the comatose Grail community, so desiccated that it’s become fossilized. But inertia and dramatic thrust don’t sit naturally together. Elder’s approach allowed details to be heard, such as the sour wail of the brass. One of the percussionists leaned onto her timpani to dampen the sound. With a huge orchestra and several choirs, this act must be a beast to conduct. Elder held the orchestra back, giving prominence to Tomlinson’s long monologue. But the overall effect was more symphonic than operatic. Fortunately, once the drama got going, the playing gained pace. Klingsor’s magic castle was nicely conjured up. Theologically. Klingsor is off the wall. His battle with Amfortas is kinky, when you really think of it. But the scene sets the tone for the Parsifal/Kundry dialogue, so central to the deeper meaning of the opera.

The Hallé showed their real strengths in the Third Act, where music even dominates the singing. The orchestra evoked the complex images in the narrative. Parsifal’s on a mysterious journey, whose nature we don’t really know. The angularity in the music cuts against the dream-like chromaticism, suggesting pain and suffering. The Knights are dying. The Hallé express the savagery without the need for words. They were splendid in the Good Friday music, augmented by metallic “Parsifal bells” resonating into space. Despite the Communion imagery in the text, these shouldn’t sound “churchy”. Good Friday is the one time in the Christian year when the Mass is not celebrated and communion not re-enacted on site. Wagner created new instruments for a purpose.The original “bells” used in Bayreuth in Wagner’;s time were huge cyclinders. The Hallé used a more modern version, which resonated through the vast auditorium.

Detlev Roth replaced Iain Patterson at short notice. I was pleased, because Roth is highly regarded and experienced in a broad repertoire, other than Wagner. His voice has more natural colour than a traditional Wagnerian, so he sang Amfortas with more flexibility that we associate with the part. There are a lot of heavy low voices in this opera, and Roth’s relative brightness was different, but not wrong. Picking Roth was a wise choice. He was an interesting counterbalance to Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz of the Ages.

Anne Ozorio

Cast and production information:

Parsifal : Lars Cleveman, Kundry : Katarina Dalayman, Gurnemanz : Sir John Tomlinson, Amfortas : Detlev Roth, Klingsor : Tom Fox, Titurel: Reinhard Hagen, Knights: Robert Murray, Andrew Greenan, Flower Maidens : Elizabeth Cragg, Anita Watson, Sarah Castle, Ana James, Anna Devin, Squire/Voice from above/Flower Maiden : Madeleiene Shaw, Squires : Joshua Ellicott, Andrew Rees, Trinity Boys Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, Royal Opera Chorus, Hallé, Conductor : Sir Mark Elder, Stage Director : Justin Way. Royal Albert Hall, London, 25th August 2013.

image_description=Katarina Dalayman [Photo © Mats Bäcker]

product_title=Prom 57: Wagner — Parsifal
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Katarina Dalayman [Photo © Mats Bäcker]

Posted by anne_o at 6:12 AM

August 22, 2013

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon

Tappan discovered a love for Gordon’s emotionally raw compositions when they played through some of his songs between rehearsals of his new opera. The idea to record their collaboration and create Once I was emerged quickly thereafter. Unsurprisingly, as a new-music enthusiast and soprano I was attracted to the “deeply personal” songs written as “duets for piano and voice, in which the emotion of the piano speaks as clearly as the words of the singer, and both join in a dialogue to tell the story.” [*] Not only do the piano and voice directly interact in these songs, so does the voice and the clarinet, the lyrical wind instrument representing the singer’s love interest. Telling a story is exactly what this record successfully achieves by canvassing in broad strokes the basic human experience: maturing into adulthood, falling in love, heartbreak, and loss.

What makes this journey special, however, is that the songs communicate how music can help one through the most difficult of circumstances, a fact with which Gordon is extremely familiar. The death of his lover inspired many of his compositions, including Orpheus and Euridice (2005), Dream True (1998), and the song cycle Green Sneakers for Baritone, String Quartet, Empty Chair and Piano (2007). Also unique is the actual communication of this human story, where theater and music combine to create an elevated sense of intimacy and connection. The cycle, directed by Amy Hutchinson and staged with simple props and costume pieces, premiered at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011 to critical acclaim by Roger Pines of the Lyric Opera of Chicago who praised the work as “technically masterful and exquisitely expressive.”

The emotional journey begins with a bang in the song I Am Cherry Alive. Tappan sings with refreshing clarity and pronounces each word with ease. Her crystal clear voice and crisp diction capture Schwartz’s youthful text in an unaffected manner. The collaboration between Gordon and Tappan is immediately apparent through their sensitivity and equaled excitement. The following three songs continue to depict a child’s uninhibited emotional state and are each beautifully sung by Tappan. Her clear and bright vocal quality coupled with her honest delivery brings out the youthfulness of the poetry. The character begins to mature in Wild Swans when she asks herself what she feels in her heart and again in Joy when she unabashedly announces that she found happiness in the arms of the butcher boy. Text painting is apparent in both, particularly in Wild Swans when the piano line conjures the image of sea waves. The vocal melismas in Joy seem to burst forth from the lithe soprano, as if she can no longer pronounce syllables or contain her excitement.

The singer’s journey becomes difficult in the song Run Away during which she feels the pangs of heartbreak. This is the first song in which we can admire Tappan’s rich lower register after enjoying her easy top in the previous songs. She navigates her chest voice easily and brings an emotional depth to her sound that is open and vulnerable. The following four songs, Threnody, The Satin Dress, The Red Dress, and Recuerdo mark a reflective time during the human experience. While the songs are each well-written and beautiful, Tappan’s innately youthful sound does not best suit the poems, causing a momentary lull on the album.

The extremely well writtenThrenody is a highlight of the album. However, Tappan’s consistently bright color does not communicate the anguish inherent within the poem. Instead, her effortless vocal delivery seems casual and minimizes the pathos within the words.

Song marks the inclusion of the clarinet that engages the voice in a duet, repeating and elaborating upon the melody. The clarinet not only comments on the vocal line, but also represents the singer’s love interest as manifest through their interwoven musical lines. The four songs that follow, Just an Ordinary Guy, Poem, The More Loving One, and Otherwise, focus on the routine in which we find ourselves after being in a relationship for an extended period of time. The extremities of range in Poem are particularly exciting as well as the text painting in Just an Ordinary Guy. These songs exist during a transitory stage of the singer’s journey on the album; they blend together and are not particularly memorable.

Gordon and Tappan save the best for last, however, in the final six songs of the album that represent loss and healing through music. We will always walk together is a gem of a piece that features a closeness between the clarinet, piano, and voice. The emotionally poignant text is communicated not just through Tappan’s dedication to text, but also through the duet between the clarinet and voice. Once I was marks another high point on the album and features a breathtaking clarinet prelude as well as brutally honest yet uplifting poetry by Gordon. The dynamic trio ends their recital with upbeat blues and poetry by Langston Hughes. This final song encourages optimism and dreaming, two traits that surely helped the musicians through their own obstacles.

The songs on the album are well organized and tell the story of the human journey, one that is never easy but that is greatly alleviated through music. Tappan’s wide vocal range and sensitivity to the words stand out as well as the collaboration between the three musicians. Tappan excels in capturing youthful excitement and while her vocal quality is consistent and exceptional, she does not discover a different enough vocal color and quality for the nostalgic and pained songs. The pieces become predictable during certain points due to a lack of variety and musical contrast. All of the songs feature major modality and the piano accompaniment can be repetitive. Because the songs demand a theatrical performance, it was essential for the artists to find musical variety in order to maintain momentum and to avoid repetition without the added excitement of staging. Tappan could have experimented more with dynamics and vocal color to demonstrate the age and maturity differences between the characters of the poems. Nonetheless, the songs are touching and successfully capture the poetry’s meaning.

Sara LeMesh

image= image_description=Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon product=yes product_title=Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon product_by=A review by Sara LeMesh product_id=Blue Griffin 265 [CD] price=$19.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:30 PM

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2013

Two years ago Italian metteur en scène Davide Livermore (lee-ver-mo-ray) staged Rossini’s very first little opera, Demetrio e Polibio. The staging wasn’t about Demetrio e Polibio, it was about fire (live flames were passed about the stage and floated through the theater), surprising effects that distracted us from the slightness of Rossini’s adolescent attempt. Last year Sig. Livermore staged Rossini’s first tragedy, Ciro in Babilonia. The Livermore metaphor was silent film, likening the primitive moments of cinema to the primitive Rossini. The slight opera was told in startlingly complex early filmic image and color, the magnitude of which overwhelmed any tragic innocence that might have flowed from the young composer.

Just now the prestigious festival bestowed Rossini’s second full length comedy, L’italiana in Algeri (1813) upon Sig. Livermore. L’italiana is in fact Rossini’s first masterpiece though it does not yet host all of the musical and dramatic complexities that operatically deify the composer from Pesaro.

Sig. Livermore does not however lack in complexities. He smothered the Rossini comedy with sight gags, lazzi in commedia dell’arte terms. They were non-stop, some amusing, some really amusing, some annoying, some really annoying, and everything in between. It was an immense, astonishing catalog that towered in sheer scale above the simple comedic process of the libretto which Rossini had taken on after another composer had backed out.

The Mustafà, the bey of Algiers, accidentally shoots down a DC 6 (four propellers) carrying the Italiana to Algiers from where her distressed boyfriend had telephoned her for help. A section of the plane crashed onto the stage from which emerged two stewardesses who joined two platinum wigged ladies of the harem and one eunuch in non-stop backup routines à la Supremes through the curtain calls.

Mustafà took some pre-Viagra stimulus that so enflamed his prowess that smoke poured from his pants. However pages of women’s magazines from the 1960‘s were projected to inform women how to be beautiful, keep fit and cook good food, in short how to be the worldly and wily Italiana who could make short work indeed of a simple male libido.

Comic book style videos abounded to take us from place to place, and make us homesick for mamma, a real mamma seemed to be present most of the time (it looked like a guy in travesty) to remind us that mamma is not always beautiful. Sig. Livermore is nothing if not slickly theatrical. Rossini, come to think of it, is slickly theatrical too but these two theatrical minds did not seem to be talking to each other.

The Rossini Festival layered on the ironies casting an Italiana who was not Italian at all, but Russian! Mezzo soprano Anna Goryachova is a toothsome young singer from the Zurich Opera. She held the stage with her looks and her long legs more than with her voice which is of burnished beauty and capable of clean if not joyous fioratura. Her rival Elvira, young Italian soprano Mariangela Sicilia has much less to sing but has the obligation to top off the ensembles which she did with force of voice if not personality.

_DSC5867totale.gifA scene from Guillaume Tell

Italian bass Alex Esposito commanded our full attention as Mustafà with strong, firm fioratura that raged magnificently when necessary. Mr. Esposito in the prime of vocal estate, a spirited, charismatic actor of inextinguishable theatrical energy. Director Livermore did not wish to channel this splendid young performer into a character who would finally charm us with the warmth of his male simplicity, instead he turned him into a pig in the failed Pappataci finale leaving us bereft of sympathy for such a fine performance.

Young Chinese tenor Vljie Shi is a protégé of the Pesaro festival. These days he seems to be the festival’s artistic director Alberto Zedda’s tenor of choice for Rossini’s elegiac heros. Mr. Shi sang Lindoro with superb Rossini style if not with impressive voice. He is a willing if not convincing actor. His was the least vivid performance of the evening earning him the biggest ovation from an audience that had suffered way too much stimulus. Not to be overlooked was the fine performance of Davide Luciano as Mustafà’s lieutenant Haly, a character that director Livermore constantly paired with the silent eunuch for some reason. Mr. Luciano gave a fine account of his obligatory aria, included even though it was not penned by Rossini.

Festival culture vaunts risk, and risk always seems to be dramaturgical rather than musical. But the Rossini Festival threw caution to the wind and engaged Spanish conductor José Ramós Encinar for L’italiana. Mo. Encinar who is a specialist in contemporary Spanish orchestra music and opera informed Rossini with a clarity of tone developed by studious tempos, achieving at rare times a near Rossini delirium. Notable also was specific and unusual articulation in the ensembles. The dissatisfaction expressed toward Mo. Encinar at the bows of the second performance may have been a response to the stage rather than to his pit.

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell premiered in Paris in 1829. It was in the line-up of operas each year at of the Paris Opera until 1876, missing only 1849, the year of the Spring of Nations revolutions that pitted downtrodden Europeans against undemocratic authority. For good reason — Rossini’s opera is about abused Swiss peasants who rebel against tyrannical Austrian rule. It is a purely political piece that would have further fueled the fires of that particular French revolution.

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is a French “grand” opera, meaning there is a surfeit of ballet and spectacle, and there is a sentimentalism that is not at all Rossini. It is the final, and a unique moment in the Rossini operatic oeuvre signaling that the two centuries of opéra seria of which he was the final glory were now history.

These days it is rarely performed because it is simply too long — five hours plus — and impossible to cut without sacrificing dramatic integrity and extraordinarily fine music. The French grand opera form demands a ballet in the first act (here a peasant triple wedding) and a ballet in the third act (a peasant celebration). At the end there is a huge storm that must be staged to wipe out the villains so that everyone can live happily ever after or until another revolution is needed.

The Rossini Festival supplied brilliant solutions to the grand opera challenges. First and foremost the opera was staged in the Adriatic Arena, a sports coliseum that the festival transforms into a viable 1500 seat theater. Here a production is an installation rather than scenery placed behind a proscenium, and the installation space is immense. Over the past several years it has proven itself one of the world’s most challenging, spectacular and rewarding stages.

Graham Vick is one of opera’s most overtly political stage directors. With his designer Paul Brown he created a massive white space with a single point forced perspective into the corner of a museum exhibition space, its ceiling a reverse perspective thrust well into the auditorium enclosing the audience visually within the museum.

Along one wall huge glass windows revealed a diorama exhibition space, along the opposite wall was a high gallery opening. The museum image was complicated by the presence of a period movie camera in the Austrian public scenes and by a massive wooden trestle supporting huge theatrical lights that descended finally to the floor in the battle scene where realistic looking, life size horses were mounted by the chorus. It was a sculpted, onstage diorama.

These images insisted that the production was not fiction, it was actual documented history, illuminated on a stage. William Tell was not simply a mythical figure made a household word by the overture that bears his name but was an actual husband and father and martyr for freedom.

Without the famed ballet of the Paris Opera to execute about an hour and a half of dance Graham Vick worked with his long time collaborator, choreographer Ron Howell to create dance sequences that were pointedly political, therefore more acrobatic than balletic (abrupt, muscular rather than refined movement). Nine dancers plus one talented singer (the evil tyrant Gesler) were soloists with a corps de ballet made up of supernumeraries, and sometimes the chorus all of whom managed some smooth looking background dance movement.

Gesler and his Austrian cronies abused the peasants in the third act dances in a crescendo of ugly images of subjugation ever more painful to observe. Rossini’s Parisian divertissements became quite real representations of repression. Some of the spectators at the second performance really got the point (the very real need to rebel) and booed the dancers when finally (it was very, very long) we could offer some applause and move on to William Tell’s attempt to save his son’s life with the famous arrow/apple trick.

There may be only one person more appreciated in Pesaro than Juan Diego Flórez and that is young conductor Michele Mariotti (the son of Gianfranco Mariotti [the sovrintendente of the festival] and graduate of Pesaro’s Rossini Conservatory), already one of the world’s most sought after conductors for the bel canto repertory. The Rossini overture was played in front of the red fist of the show curtain, a balance of classical elegance, Rossini verve and dramatic intensity — forget the Lone Ranger, it was hearing a magnificent piece of music in perfect context for the first time.

Pesaro_L'occasione2.gifA scene from L’occasione fa il ladro

Conductor Mariotti paced the long evening carefully, carving Rossinian detail and new found sentimentalism in unhurried expositions of singing, the extended dramatic recitatives integral to French opera, the arias of course, and more particularly the ensembles — the huge male trio of the second act (Tell, his accomplice Walter Furst and the lovesick Arnold), the mind-boggling quartet in the third act (Tell, his son Jemmy, the tyrant Gesler, his henchman Rodulphe), and finally, many hours into the performance the stunning trio for three female voices (Tell’s wife and son Jemmy plus Mathilde [Arnold’s Austrian girl-friend]) still probing musical and dramatic depth with total indifference to audience fatigue.

Making an opera about Swiss peasantry was as uncontroversial back in 1829 as it would be now. Nonetheless Guillaume Tell is about oppressed peasants and there are always lots of them everywhere, plus French grand opera likes big music. Rossini responded with a huge number of complex chorus numbers and chorus in concert with soloists as in the magnificent finale when William Tell himself leads the emancipated peasants into a world reborn to freedom, to the rebirth of pure, enlightened nature. The outward point of the ceiling of the museum descended revealing a red staircase leading upward and outward of the museum. William Tell urged his son Jemmy into this pure world to Rossini’s moving, pastoral adieu to the tyrants and villains of opera.

There were no cuts made to the 1995 Fondazione Rossini critical edition so the performance began at 6 PM rather than at 8 PM — meaning we could get back to our hotels by midnight. There were no supertitles, in fact the program booklet (in which it is standard practice to include the libretto) provided the libretto only in French. The Rossini Festival provided a perfect cast, listed below.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, in Rossini parlance this means the sublimely ridiculous and that was L’occasione fa il ladro, one of the three, one act farces (about one and one half hours in length) Rossini composed in 1812. The truly dumb, incredibly complicated story defies summary, except to say that a petty theft resulted in two couples living happily ever after after just about everything had become therefore totally messed up.

Only a Rossini could make sense of it, and that sense was musical, stretched out into five major arias, one duet, one quintet and a finale. Of the six singers needed the Rossini Festival cast four who are in initial career stages, three of whom have participated in the festival’s Accademia Rossiniana. This is the festival’s young artist program that each year tutors young singers in Rossini style and results in the annual performance of Il viaggio a Reims.

Consistent with current vocal tastes at the festival the two female roles were cast with Russians! Soprano Elena Tsallagova of the Deutsch Oper Berlin sang Berenice (a proto-Rosina role) though her career seems to be heading well outside bel canto. Mezzo soprano Viktoria Yarovava who sings the maid Ernestina was in the Accademia in 2009, then invited to sing in Demetrio e Polibio on the main stage the next year. Her warm and supple voice and apparent charm are leading her to the more famous Rossini roles, notably Rosina and Cenerentola.

Consistent with the national genius all four male roles were sung by Italians! Don Eusebio was sung by tenor Giorgio Misseri, an Accademia participant in 2011 who proved himself here a singing actor of true promise. He is now a part of the young artist program at the Teatro de la Scala. Conte Alberto, Ernestina’s rather colorless protector, was sung by tenor Enea Scala, a former participant in the Pesaro Accademia who has embarked on a lively career.

Martino, Don Eusebio’s servant (the proto-Figaro role) was soundly executed by 41 year old baritone Paolo Bordogna, who has performed roles at the Rossini Festival since 2005. Don Parmenione, was sung by veteran baritone Roberta de Candia who seems now to be exploring buffo roles rather than the straight baritone roles of his earlier career.

The Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini was conducted by Mlle. Yi-Chen Ling, a young Taiwanese woman who comes out of the Accademia Rossiana as well. She seems to be very comfortable in the Rossini ethos, though providing a tight musical ambiance in which the singers were held in strict control and from which Rossini seemed to escape from time to time in brief flights of spirit.

The major interest in this production was however the revival of the 1987 production by the great French designer/stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988). Typical of many Ponnelle productions this one too was referential to staging techniques that had long sense fallen from use. In L’occasione fa il ladro he plays with sketches of painted canvas panels that used to be the basis of all scenery. These drops were hung inside the stage constructed within the Teatro Rossini stage. During the performance about 15 stagehands were busily at work, a vista, manipulating old ropes connected to an old style wooden grid (the skeleton of the roof structure of a primitive stage). The drops and props were changed, always a vista by the stagehands when the action moved from place to place.

Ponnelle acolyte Sonja Frisell, a stage director of great subsequent accomplishment, recreated the Ponnelle staging that played with the stage space, making use of the auditorium itself as an entrance (Martino started the proceedings by rushing down the aisle to hand the maestra her score). he later used the orchestra pit as a quick escape from the stage jumping into it and out of it as need be to move along the action. The floor of the stage within the stage was a low platform from which the singers stepped down onto the apron of the Teatro Rossini stage for the larger, purely musical events.

A sense of nostalgia was very present for the work of one of the 20th century’s most important and influential stage director, for a time when old opera as contemporary theater was finding its footing, and for a simplicity of concept that may now seem naive but back then seemed, and in fact was a brilliant way to give new life to old art.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production information:

L’italiana in Algeri

Mustafà: Alex Esposito; Elvira: Mariangela Sicilia; Zulma: Raffaella Lupinacci; Haly; Davide Luciano; Lindoro: Yijie Shi; Isabella: Anna Goryachova; Taddeo: Mario Cassi. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: José Ramón Encinar; Metteur en scéne: Davide Livermore; Scenery and projections: Nicolas Bovey; Costumes: Gianluca Falaschi. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. August 13, 2013.

Guillaume Tell

Guillaume Tell: Nicola Alaimo;  Arnold Melchtal: Juan Diego Flórez; Walter Furst: Simon Orfila; Melchtal: Simone Alberghini; Jemmy: Amanda Forsythe; Gesler: Luca Tittoto; Rodolphe: Alessandro Luciano; Ruodi Pêcheur: Celso Albelo; Leuthold / Un Chasseur: Wojtek Gierlach; Mathilde: Marina Rebeka; Hedwige: Veronica Simeoni. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Michele Mariotti; Metteur en scène: Graham Vick; Scenery and costumes: Paul Brown; Choreographer: Ron Howell; Lighting: Giuseppe di Iorio. Adriatic Arena, Pesaro, August 14, 2013.

L’occasione fa il ladro

Don Eusebio: Giorgio Misseri; Berenice: Elena Tsallagova; Conte Alberto: Enea Scala;   Don Parmenione; Roberto de Candia; Ernestina: Viktoria Yarovaya; Martino: Paolo Bordogna. Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini. Conductor: Yi-Chen Lin; Metteur en scéne scenography and costumes: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; Stage director: Sonja Frisell. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. August 15, 2013.

image_description=A scene from L'Italiana in Algeri [Photo courtesy of Rossini Opera Festival]

product_title=Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2013
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: A scene from L'Italiana in Algeri

Photos courtesy of Rossini Opera Festival

Posted by michael_m at 12:43 PM

Prom 51: Tippett, Britten & Elgar

It was a fitting choice with which to open a Promenade concert dedicated to the late Sir Colin Davis, who conducted the premiere of Tippett’s monumental oratorio in 1984, and who was to have returned to the Royal Albert Hall on this occasion, the scene of so many unforgettable Proms performances under his baton.

Replacing Davis, who sadly died earlier this year, Daniel Harding led fourteen members of the London Symphony brass section, plus two percussionists, in a vibrant performance in which the knotty dialogues between the contending voices were crisply delineated before melding satisfyingly in an expansive, homophonic surge towards the triumphant cadence.

This air of confidence and optimism was sustained in the subsequent Concerto for Double String Orchestra — a mood all the more remarkable when one remembers that the work was composed during 1938-1939 as war loomed ever more inevitably. Moreover, the young composer, perhaps more prone to cerebral intellectualism than outpourings of positivism, was himself only slowly forging his own language, hesitantly moving towards musical certainties.

There was certainly nothing tentative about the exuberant contrapuntal outbursts which heralded the first movement. The string players of the LSO delivered Tippett’s flamboyant rhythms with dynamic directness and a fresh, clean tone, as Harding sought to maintain clarity of texture as the flexible lines interwove and danced. Perhaps it was a somewhat too charming and genteel; I would have like a little more boisterousness to balance the lyricism. And, while Harding capably managed the transitions between the many contrasting episodes, more might have been made of the surprising, and wonderful, dovetailing of the end of the fugal section with the return of the main theme.

In the Adagio cantabile Harding placed more emphasis on the adagio than cantabile. The conductor took a risk not only with the tempo, but also with the dynamics, resisting the temptation to let the arching lines grow and swell, restraining the strings to a mezzo piano. The expansive tempo and quiet delicacy resulted in a pathos that was almost Mahlerian, but in a hall of these vast dimensions some of the intensity of the impact was lessened.

The third movement resumed the work’s propulsive energy; again, Harding’s textures were refined and lucid, and leader Carmine Lauri’s opening solo delightfully sweet, as major and minor modes piquantly intertwined. The Northumbrian bagpipe melody which inspired the closing passages was full of grace and air.

The work references a panoply of musical styles and forms — the contrapuntalism of Renaissance polyphony, the Baroque concerto grosso, Beethovenian sonata structures, the anticipatory rhythms and blue notes of jazz, the modality of British folk-song — and while Harding combined these into a pleasing whole he did not quite synthesise the polyphonic debates which drive the music relentlessly forward.

Benjamin Britten’s song cycle, Les Illuminations, also written in 1939, had rather more bite and a challenging tartness. Selecting and ordering some of the poems from French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s eponymous collection — texts very different to the English poetry that the composer had typically set in his songs of the 1930s — Britten seems to have relished the extravagant idiosyncrasies of the, at times, self-indulgent poetry, with its exotic, sensual imagery expressing the young poet’s defiance, excitement and elation in the face of the exhilarating potential of modernity and new frontiers.

Ian Bostridge was totally in tune with the rebellious theatricality, bordering on the surreal, of Britten’s inventive settings. In this commanding performance not one word of Rimbaud’s fragmented, often bizarre, phrases was overlooked or unconsidered. Bostridge’s voice has acquired a greater range and substance at the bottom of late — not ‘weight’ exactly, but an enriching of the colour and timbre — and every gesture was audible, throughout the dynamic spectrum. Often Rimbaud plays with sounds, the onomatopoeic echoes, swishes and crunches serving as a kind of erotic grammar, and Bostridge was unfailingly alert to the way Britten exploits the resonances of the words, confidently articulating the complex linguistic snatches. In this regard, the tenor was well-supported by Harding and the string players of the LSO; the on-going instrumental discourse was full of diverse colours and shades, at times assuming precedence over the voice but never engulfing the vocal utterances.

The tonal arguments of the opening ‘Fanfare’ were deftly settled by Bostridge’s assertive pronouncement, ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’ (Only I have the key to this wild parade), although the thoughtful decrescendo on the final word hinted prophetically at the changes to come, and subsequent repetitions of this refrain invoked darker moods.

‘Villes’, depicting the bustle of city life, was blithely light, the rushing string lines seeming almost airborne, punctuated by gripping pizzicati, until Bostridge relaxed the pace at the close, as the singer has what Britten described as a ‘prayer for a little peace’. The close of the short and pensive ‘Phrase’ — ‘Des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse’ — floated dreamily, high above the low cellos. Typical in its orchestral diversity and invention, ‘Antique’ was noteworthy for the dry languorous rhythms of the inner strings which provided a mysterious accompaniment to the simple fanfare-like vocal melody and the soft brushing pizzicati of the close.

Bostridge was exuberantly assertive in ‘Royauté’ and despatched the virtuosic twists and runs of ‘Marine’ with ease. The descending, interlacing string figures of ‘Interlude’ and the darkened repetition of the work’s opening line, led to a sensuous, intense rendition of ‘Being Beauteous’ (dedicated to ‘P.N.L.P.’ — Peter Pears), the erotic imagery of the ardent vocal declamation elucidated by the harmonic richness of the strings.

Bostridge totally immersed himself in this work, musically, emotionally and physically, at times leaning (dangerously?) far backwards, elsewhere thrusting his hands nonchalantly in his pockets, sometimes fixing his eye confrontationally on the audience. Willing to throw caution to the winds, Bostridge gave a technically flawless account, the arresting characterisation absolutely convincing. It is hard to imagine a better performance of Britten’s thrilling song-cycle.

Elgar’s Second Symphony, composed in 1911, is a dark and enigmatic work, its inward emotional narrative intermittently exposed but never unambiguously revealed. The composer called it ‘the passionate pilgrimage of a soul’ and it is often regarded as a signature work. Colin Davis’ 2002 recording with the LSO won accolades and a host of awards but here Harding, though offering a sensitive reading alert to the details of timbre, did not quite have the measure of the symphony’s emotional sweep. Ironically, originally Sir Colin Davis was to have conducted the 2 nd Symphony of Sibelius, whose final symphony Harding performed with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra earlier in the Proms season.

The opening of the first movement, with its proud thematic statement, signalled Harding’s appreciation of the majestic nobility of the work but the tempi throughout were on the slow side. While it is true that time and space is needed for the resolution of the complex and changeable harmonic relationships, Harding was less successful in managing the volatile changes of tempo and mood which create forward drive and impulsion (Elgar’s own recordings are characterised by numerous shifts, sometimes violent, sometimes subtle, and dramatic, frequent use of rubato).

The slow movement was passionate and refined, the moments of hushed meditation touchingly gentle; an exquisite oboe solo injected an air of tender nostalgia. But, overall there was a sense of reserve, not exactly aloofness but rather a coolness or formality, as if the emotional depths were not being plummeted.

The racing scherzo, by contrast, wickedly transformed the theme of the first movement into a nightmarish vision of horror, and there was plenty of pomp and majesty in the final ‘Moderato e maestoso’, although here again the recapitulation did not fully achieve a sense of liberating affirmation. But, the final bars were wonderfully contemplative and whispered; a shame, then, that the spell-binding silence that Harding desired was shattered by overly hasty, impatient applause.

Claire Seymour

Programme and production information:

Tippett: The Mask of Time — Fanfare No. 5, Concerto for Double String Orchestra; Britten: Les illuminations; Elgar — Symphony No. 2 in E flat major. Ian Bostridge, tenor; Daniel Harding, conductor; London Symphony Orchestra. Royal Albert Hall, London, Tuesday, 20th August 2013.

image= image_description=Ian Bostridge [Photo © Ben Ealovega] product=yes product_title=Prom 51: Tippett, Britten & Elgar product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo © Ben Ealovega]
Posted by Gary at 12:27 PM

August 20, 2013

Anna Netrebko: Verdi

Posted by Gary at 10:24 AM

August 19, 2013

Amore e Tormento

Kraus was perhaps the last of the truly great tenors to enjoy a tremendous career in a repertory that was by the standards of most of his contemporaries quite small: Kraus’s understanding of the capabilities of his own voice was legendary, and he maintained the fluidity of his upper register and the agility of his voice to the end of his career by only singing rôles that were within his technical comfort zone.  In this age in which operatic productions are conceived along cinematic lines, when the attractiveness of faces and figures sometimes take precedence over the quality of voices and techniques, versatility is perhaps the primary requirement for making a significant career in the world’s major opera houses.  Too many of today’s promising young singers are squandering their natural gifts in pursuit of the sorts of fame and celebrity that are, except in the rarest of instances, elusive to opera singers, stretching their voices to fit whichever rôles they are told that they need to sing in order to achieve a well-publicized television appearance, a cover story, or that next high-profile engagement.  Among all of this arrogance and cut-throat competiveness, it is gratifying to encounter a young tenor whose versatility is genuine, a product of artistic curiosity and exploration of the capabilities of his voice rather than an exercise in commercialism.  The singing of Massimo Giordano recalls the open-throated, heart-on-the-sleeve style of previous generations, and his artistic versatility—a choice informed by his adherence to his own artistic standards rather than an act of necessity—is a refreshing recollection of great singers of the past who expanded the boundaries of their artistries without overextending their vocal endowments.  Amore e Tormento, Mr. Giordano’s début recital disc, alluring explores nearly seven decades of Italian tenor repertory, ranging from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra to Puccini’s Turandot.  It is not uncommon for a modern tenor’s active repertory to include both Gabriele Adorno and Calàf, along with many of the rôles that were created between them, but it is rare for performances of the arias from many of these parts to be sung as beautifully as Mr. Giordano sings them on this disc.

Born in Pompei, Mr. Giordano has already lent his talents to performances in many of the world’s major opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, where he débuted as des Grieux opposite Renée Fleming in Massenet’s Manon in 2006.  In subsequent MET seasons, he has sung Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore (in which rôle he had the unenviable task of replacing the indisposed Rolando Villazón, a favorite of New York audiences), Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La bohème, and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi.  These assignments reveal the variety that has shaped the first decade of Mr. Giordano’s career.  This variety is also in evidence in this recital, but few other performances of these arias have displayed the unbroken musical lineage among the works of Verdi, Ponchielli, Puccini, Cilèa, and Giordani with such clarity.  Particularly in Europe, Mr. Giordano is celebrated for his portrayals of bel canto heroes, and he has been acclaimed in Europe and America in lighter Verdi rôles: Edoardo in Un giorno di regno, Alfredo in La Traviata, the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto, and Fenton in Falstaff.  In this recital, he takes on arias from heavier rôles; rôles that he is perhaps wisely reserving for later in his career or will ultimately forgo altogether.  All of these arias are ‘chestnuts,’ but they offer tantalizing glimpses at how Mr. Giordano’s career may progress as his voice expands and darkens.

This disc was recorded in live takes, and Mr. Giordano’s performances of the arias benefit excitingly from the immediacy of these circumstances.  The acoustic in which the voice is recorded is natural and avoids the closeness which inaccurately reproduces the voices of many singers and mars their recordings.  The players of the Ensemble del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, instrumentalists associated with one of Italy’s most venerable musical institutions, have this music in their blood, and it shows in their spirited, idiomatic playing.  The demands of the accompaniments of these arias are quite different, but the members of the Ensemble adapt their playing to every style.  Also advantageous is the insightful leadership of young conductor Carlo Goldstein.  With successes in Boris Godunov in Valencia and Carmen at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice to his credit, Maestro Goldstein is one of the most promising conductors to have emerged onto the musical scene in recent seasons, and his sensitive support of Mr. Giordano’s performances on this disc portends a notable career in opera.

Mr. Giordano pays homage to Verdi with performances of arias from Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra.  In Carlo’s aria ‘Io la vidi,’ Mr. Giordano finds especially congenial vocal territory, Verdi’s melodic line recalling the bel canto models of earlier generations.  Mr. Giordano’s diction in his native language is excellent, and his phrasing is unfailingly musical.  There is an audible element of aristocratic grace in his singing of ‘Io la vidi,’ but there is also a bracing dose of Italianate passion.  Gabriele Adorno’s aria ‘Sento avvampar nell’anima’ from Simon Boccanegra is an explosion of fury that punishes the tenor with tessitura that centers in the passaggio.  Traditionally, the rôle has attracted dramatic voices, but Mr. Giordano’s more lyric tone fills the vocal lines gorgeously.  Mr. Giordano’s vibrato and method of producing an even, balanced tone across his range recall the singing of Giuseppe Campora, who successfully took on a carefully-selected handful of dramatic rôles with his essentially lyric voice.

Francesco Cilèa undeservedly remains in the shadow of Puccini, and aside from productions of Adriana Lecouvreur mounted for self-indulgent divas his operas are now seldom performed.  Perhaps surprisingly considering the esteem in which he was held in Italy in the first decades of the 20th Century, Cilèa completed only five operas, two of which are represented on Amore e TormentoAdriana Lecouvreur is Cilèa’s most popular opera and arguably his best: its synthesis of Italian verismo with elements of French Impressionism conjures a decadent musical setting in which an ambitious soprano can chew the scenery like a genuine luminary of the Comédie-Française.  The tenor rôle of Maurizio, created by Caruso, received from Cilèa a number of pages of fine music, and Mr. Giordano here sings ‘La dolcissima effigie,’ an impassioned outpouring of Maurizio’s love for Adriana.  The urgency of Mr. Giordano’s vocal expression is invigorating, and the spin of his tone is magical.  The ‘Lamento di Federico’ (‘È la solita storia del pastore’) from L’Arlesiana receives from Mr. Giordano a similarly ardent performance.

The operas of Umberto Giordano, like those of Cilèa, are infrequently performed—with the exception of Andrea Chénier, of course.  Few operas in the Italian repertory are more obvious vehicles for tenors than Andrea Chénier, but few performances in recent years have justified the faith shown in the drivers of this vehicle.  His singing of ‘Come un bel dì di maggio’ suggests that Mr. Giordano’s Chénier will be unusually poetic.  His phrasing of the aria displays a mastery of the text, and his placement of the tone as the vocal line builds to the climactic top B-flat is authoritative.  Loris’s brief aria ‘Amor ti vieta’ from Fedora is a favorite number in many tenors’ recital and concert repertories.  Like Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora occasionally turns up on the boards when there is a soprano—a soprano of a certain age, in most cases—on hand who wishes to show off her histrionic command of the verismo repertory.  It is a score with many felicities, however, and ‘Amor ti vieta’ is a refulgent eruption of Italianate melody.  Mr. Giordano sings the aria spaciously, rising with fervor to the top A.  Marcella is a veritable operatic ghost town: long uninhabited, it awaits a repopulation by singers capable of revealing its unique charms.  Giorgio’s aria ‘Dolce notte misteriosa’ is included on Amore e Tormento as a ‘bonus track,’ and it receives the finest performance of any of the arias on the disc, Mr. Giordano’s voice glowing with subtle inflections inspired by the text.

Not unexpectedly for a recording by an Italian tenor, the music of Puccini is at the core of this disc.  The arias that Mr. Giordano selected cover the entire span of Puccini’s creative activity, from Le Villi, the composer’s first opera, to Turandot, the final masterpiece of his maturity.  Mr. Giordano opens the disc with ‘Donna non vidi mai’ from Manon Lescaut, the sort of flowing, melodic aria that seems so easy until one actually attempts to sing it.  Mr. Giordani’s attempt is a triumphant one, his phrasing of the aria long-breathed and evocative of young love.  Both of Cavaradossi’s arias from Tosca are included.  ‘Recondita armonita’ is particularly successful: so artful is Mr. Giordano’s depiction of Cavaradossi’s hymn to picturesque beauty that the listener can practically smell the drying paint on his portrait of the Maddalena.  The top B-flat is ringing but not over-emphasized, the note serving as the natural climax of the phrase rather than being sustained merely for show.  The singer’s voicing of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ is moving, the sound of death in the voice even as recollections of Tosca’s love warm the vocal line.  ‘Torna ai felici dì’ from Le Villi is, despite its early place in the composer’s output, a quintessentially Puccinian tenor aria: Mr. Giordano sings it broadly but with with rhythmic vitality.  Pinkerton’s ‘Addio fiorito assil,’ added to the score to give the rôle greater balance when Puccini revised Madama Butterfly after its lackluster première, is another aria that is typical of its composer, but the emotional directness that Mr. Giordano lends the number in this performance is very moving.  Mr. Giordano is to be congratulated for preferring Calàf’s ‘Non piangere Liù’ to the over-familiar ‘Nessun dorma’ for his selection from Turandot.  ‘Nessun dorma’ is a fine aria, undone to an extent by its popularity: musically, ‘Non piangere Liù’ is the superior number.  Calàf might prove a perilous rôle for Mr. Giordano, especially in larger theatres, but his singing of ‘Non piangere Liù’ is gorgeous, the tone at once robust and carried on the breath.  Dramatically, Mr. Giordano seems to connect with the sentiments of the aria on a very personal level, and he gives a scintillating performance with an unaffected morbidezza that often eludes larger-voiced tenors who sing Calàf.

Enzo’s ‘Cielo e mar’ from Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is also a gem of the repertory that is often included by tenors in their concerts and recitals.  The irony is that, for so popular and musically straightforward a piece, it is frequently poorly sung.  In this performance, the aria is anything but poorly sung, Mr. Giordano bringing rare mastery to the music and singing the aria as though it has been in his voice since birth.  Something in the phrasing of the aria seems to unnerve many tenors, but its unhurried climax and ascent to an exposed top B-flat make it irresistible.  While the aria is often the least successful portion of many tenors’ performances of the rôle of Enzo, Mr. Giordano’s singing of the aria constitutes several of the finest minutes on this disc.  As in ‘Recondita armonia,’ the top B-flat crowns the aria not as an act of tenorial showboating but as an inevitable resolution of the penultimate phrase.  Mr. Giordano encounters no difficulties with phrasing, and his timbre provides intriguing layers of richness to the performance.

In both the basic sound of his voice and the way in which he sings, Massimo Giordano is a welcome reminder of the tradition of Italian tenors that developed with Caruso and Gigli and has been lamentably endangered since the retirement of Ferruccio Tagliavini.  There are minor imperfections in Mr. Giordano’s singing in this recital, but he shows the same wisdom and cognizance of his vocal abilities in his selections of the arias on this disc that he has thus far exhibited in his career in the world’s opera houses.  Amore e Tormento offers an ambitious programme, and Mr. Giordano explores every vocal and dramatic nuance of the ‘amore’ and ‘tormento’ expressed in these arias with virility and sensitivity.  Ample torment there is in these songs of men bolstered and betrayed by love, but no torment is there to be had from hearing Mr. Giordano’s singing.  His is the sort of voice, and this the sort of singing, that is balm to wounded hearts and ears offended by the vacuous performances of singers pursuing acclaim rather than art.

Joseph Newsome

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901), Amilcare Ponchielli (1834 - 1886), Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924), Francesco Cilèa (1866 - 1950), & Umberto Giordano (1867 - 1948): Amore e Tormento - Arias from Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra, La Gioconda, Le Villi, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Turandot, L’Arlesiana, Adriana Lecouvreur, Andrea Chénier, Fedora, and Marcella—Massimo Giordano, tenor; Ensemble del Maggio Musicale Fiortentino; Carlo Goldstein [Recorded ‘live’ in the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence, Italy, in 2012; BMG 53800781 2]

image= image_description=BMG 53800781 2 product=yes product_title=Amore e Tormento product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=BMG 53800781 2 [CD] price=$15.76 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 11:29 AM

Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co.

Today, the same circumstances of a young singer entering the recording studio to record a first recital of Italian music would be rather more likely to produce a performance of music by Monteverdi.  Somehow, while the cognoscenti were lamenting the dearth of great Verdi and Wagner voices, there emerged a generation of extraordinary young countertenors for whom the often sexually-ambiguous rôles conceived by 17th- and 18th-Century composers for the star castrati of the day offer cherished opportunities to exercise the natural abilities of their voices.  When the likes of Bernacchi, Caffarelli, Carestini, and especially Farinelli mounted the stages of Europe it was to waves of acclaim that reshaped the Baroque musical landscape.  Music was increasingly tailored to the unique technical abilities of the singers for which it was created, enabling these physically-modified songbirds to compile troves of specially-crafted arias with which they conquered city after city.  With the twilight of the castrati, the music composed for them also fell into darkness, not only because it was increasingly out of fashion but also because voices capable of executing it were no longer cultivated.  In the years just after World War II, the sun again slowly rose on this fascinating repertory, its rays reflected by the twin beacons of Sir Alfred Deller in Britain and Russell Oberlin in the United States.  In subsequent generations, singers such as James Bowman, Michael Chance, and René Jacobs lent their gifts to operatic stages, but the success of David Daniels ushered in a new generation of countertenors from every corner of the world who are not occasional visitors to the world’s opera houses but have become permanent residents.  From among the ranks of many fine countertenors, the Australian David Hansen has distinguished himself with singing of intrinsic beauty and technical brilliance.  This exploration of music composed for Farinelli and his contemporaries Bernacchi, Caffarelli, Carestini, and others is Mr. Hansen’s début recital disc, and what a rewardingly auspicious introduction to this young singer’s gifts it is!

Born Carlo Broschi in 1705, Farinelli is the best-remembered of the scores of widely-acclaimed castrati who ruled musical Europe like veritable monarchs from the earliest stirrings of opera until the early 19th Century, when tenors supplanted castrati as operatic heroes.  The tradition of high voices in male rôles that began with the singing of castrati retained prominence well into the modern era with parts such as Richard Strauss’s Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos.  With the rôle of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed for Sir Alfred Deller, a renaissance of interest in the particular timbral possibilities of employing high voices in male rôles—countertenors rather than castrati, of course—was launched in earnest and has persisted into the 21st Century with notable parts for countertenors like the Herold in Aribert Reimann’s Medea, created in Vienna by Max Emanuel Cencic.  With the appearance of artists of the caliber of Mr. Hansen, singers capable of both sustaining high tessitura and portraying operatic heroes with genuine rather than feigned masculinity, the revival of interest in Baroque opera was perhaps inevitable.  Only sporadic primary-source accounts offer 21st-Century observers with suggestions of how the voices of Farinelli and his rivals sounded to the ears of their contemporaries.  The music composed for these astounding voices offers a myriad of clues, however.  By the time of Farinelli’s death in 1782, the Golden Age of the castrati was already waning, but the musical heritage left by these wonders of nature and man’s opportunism is a lofty peak on the operatic landscape.

In the pared-down environment of historically-informed performances of Baroque music, niceties of instrumental timbres and choices of tempi are of great importance.  The work of fine singers has too often been undermined or even completely spoiled by clumsy instrumental playing and conducting that substitutes idiosyncrasies for legitimate scholarship.  Mr. Hansen is fortunate to have in this début recital the support of Academia Montis Regalis and Alessandro De Marchi.  The Fondazione Academia Montis Regalis, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2012, has as its goal the promotion of Baroque traditions of teaching and playing, and the instrumentalists of the Academia orchestra are extraordinary virtuosi who nonetheless combine to create a seamless ensemble.  Indeed, much of their playing on Rivals is outstanding.  String tone is pointed without being acidic, and the horn playing in the version of ‘Son qual nave’ with obbligato horns, recorded here for the first time, is almost without parallel in recordings of Baroque music.  Rhythms are ideally taut but never forced or exaggerated.  Much of the credit for the incredible rhythmic vitality of the performances on this disc must be given to Maestro De Marchi, whose experience in Baroque opera and oratorio is evident in every track.  Maestro De Marchi, who also plays the continuo harpsichord, supports Mr. Hansen superbly, adopting tempi that respect the composers’ music and known conventions of Baroque practices but also enable Mr. Hansen to deliver each aria as his technique and interpretive choices dictate.  Maestro De Marchi’s conducting is happily free from the quirks that mar some other Baroque specialists’ work.  Focus is always on the music at hand, and this concentration shows in performances that simply sound right for both the music and the singer.

Of Mr. Hansen’s voice it should be said at the start that it is an ethereally beautiful instrument that would be welcome in virtually any repertory but is particularly well-served by the music composed for Farinelli and his contemporaries.  Mr. Hansen’s range is astonishing, all the more so for the registers being so completely equalized: there are no breaks as he ascends into the upper register—and quite an upper register it is, extending comfortably to soprano top C—or in his dips into a fully-supported but never exploited low voice.  Though his range is higher than many of his countertenor colleagues, Mr. Hansen’s voice possesses a natural balance that is not heard from squawky falsettists and male sopranos.  The timbre is bright but not strident, and his method of singing places vowel sounds on the breath in the best bel canto manner.  This allows Mr. Hansen to sustain cantilena with power equal to that with which he delivers bravura passages.  His ventures into his upper register on this disc are not mere stunts: music composed for Farinelli suggests that the tessitura of his voice extended at least to top D—the vocal territory of Beverly Sills and Dame Joan Sutherland—and could, at least for a time, reliably sustain notes to top C.  Contemporary commentators often remarked as flatteringly about the beauty of Farinelli’s tone as about the magnificence of his technique.  In combining a gorgeous timbre with formidable technical prowess, Mr. Hansen is as compelling a modern stand-in for Farinelli as might be heard, and he possesses the additional benefit of unmistakable machismo that likely eluded Farinelli and his castrati counterparts.

Along with ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato,’ ‘Son qual nave’ constituted Farinelli’s ‘calling card’ repertory, consisting of arias that he would often insert into performances of whichever opera was at hand.  Both arias were composed by his brother, Riccardo Broschi: ‘Son qual nave,’ which originated in the 1734 pastiche Artaserse with music by Broschi and Johann Adolph Hasse, was instrumental to Farinelli’s conquering of the London musical scene and, according to legend, so enchanted Senesino when Farinelli sang it in the first-night performance that the great alto castrato broke character and embraced the younger singer, much to the delight of the audience.  ‘Son qual nave’ is hardly unknown to 21st-Century listeners, but Mr. Hansen sings a rediscovered manuscript version of the aria which features obbligato horns and Farinelli’s own ornaments, noted in the singer’s hand.  [Mr. Hansen employs a combination of Farinelli’s and his own ornaments.]  The aria’s alternation of time-suspending cantilena passages with cascades of roulades is perfect for Mr. Hansen, as it apparently was for Farinelli: singing with absolute mastery of the music, Mr. Hansen rips through the aria in stunning fashion, artfully but never willfully ornamenting the da capo after reaching dizzying heights in his B-section cadenza.  Some of the finest singers of Baroque music—Cecilia Bartoli, Verónica Cangemi, and Simone Kermes among them—have recorded ‘Son qual nave,’ but none has surpassed the performance given here by Mr. Hansen.

Antonio Maria Bononcini’s opera Griselda was first performed in Milan in 1718.  The rôle of Gualtiero was created by alto castrato Domenico Tempesti, about whose career almost no details survive.  Gualtiero’s recitative ‘In te, sposa, Griselda, carnefice mi uccido’ and aria ‘Cara sposa, col tuo core’ in Act Three suggest that Tempesti was a very fine singer.  Building upon a beautiful string ritornello, ‘Cara sposa, col tuo core’ is a an exquisitely expansive aria, its harmonic progression expressive of touching pathos.  Mr. Hansen’s voice glows with the character’s affection for his maligned wife, the plaintive sound of his voice proving very touching.  In the aria’s B-section, ‘Sol resiste nel fier dolore,’ Mr. Hansen effectively contrasts his upper and lower registers.  His tasteful embellishment of the da capo enhances the depths of emotion that he brings to his performance of the aria, one that deserves a place alongside the greatest of Händel’s ‘pathetic airs’ in the repertories of the best singers of Baroque music.

Gaetano Majorano (1710 - 1783), known as Caffarelli, was, like Farinelli, a pupil of Nicola Porpora, who considered Caffarelli the finer singer.  The tessitura of the music composed for Caffarelli by Leonardo Leo suggests that the Bitonto-born castrato—one of the few castrati whose enjoyment of singing as a boy was such that he asked to be castrated—had a range similar to that of Farinelli.  Certainly, Oreste’s aria ‘Talor che irato e il vento’ from Leo’s opera Andromaca, premièred in Naples in 1742, makes considerable demands on the singer’s upper extension.  Mr. Hansen meets these demands with ringing tone and confident management of the melodic line’s tricky intervals and staccato effects.  The final cadenza covering slightly more than two octaves is a formidable example of Mr. Hansen’s vocal prowess.  Caffarelli also participated in the first performance of Leo’s Demetrio in 1732, again in Naples, and the aria ‘Freme orgogliosa l’onda’—sung by Olinto, created by soprano castrato Giovanni Manzuoli (1720 - 1782)—shows that Leo’s bravura style changed little in the subsequent decade.  The vocal leaps are here even wider, and tones at the top of his range approached without the benefit of preparation are occasionally snatched out of the stratosphere with apparent effort, but Mr. Hansen maintains the integrity of the line throughout the aria.  His preference for an understated resolution to the B-section enables his placement of top notes—including his superb top B-flat—and negotiation of ornaments in the da capo to dazzle all the more.  His singing of a trill high in the voice in the final cadenza is reminiscent of feats brought off by Maria Callas in La Sonnambula, not those of a countertenor.

Leonardo Vinci was one of Italy’s most celebrated composers of operas in the 18th Century, and performances of his operas attracted top talent.  Semiramide riconosciuta was first performed in Rome in 1729 with Giacinto Fontana (1692 - 1739), known as Farfallino, in the title rôle—a prominent example of a soprano castrato singing the part of a female heroine—and Carlo Scalzi (circa 1700 - after 1738), also a soprano castrato, as Mirteo.  The aria ‘In braccio a mille furie,’ sung by Mirteo in Act Three is a thrilling number with trumpets, and Mr. Hansen brings to his singing of the aria precisely the ringing martial quality that the music requires.  ‘Risveglia lo sdegno,’ sung by Poro in Act Three of Vinci’s Alessandro nell’Indie, premièred in Rome in 1730 with Giovanni Carestini (circa 1704 - circa 1760) as Poro, is a bravura showpiece similar in range and musical profile to ‘In braccio a mille furie.’  Mr. Hansen’s technique faces extreme tests, but his singing proves equal to the composer’s challenges.  Vinci’s Il Medo, premièred in Parma on the occasion of a ducal wedding in 1728 with Bernacchi in the title rôle and Farinelli as Giasone, is the most explored opera on this disc, and Vinci’s music justifies the opera’s prominence.  Giasone’s aria ‘Sento due flamme in petto’ is another time-stopping slow number, the singer seconded by a richly-scored obbligato oboe.  Mr. Hansen sings the aria with heartrending intensity of expression, his long-breathed phrasing building from the opening descent from D at the top of the staff to the G a fifth below to create impeccable arcs of sound.  Medo’s lilting aria ‘Taci o di morte,’ the accompaniment aptly conveying the nuances of the text, also makes use of an expansive vocal line launched by a descending figure suspended by a fermata, and Mr. Hansen takes advantage of this device to beautifully execute crescendo and decrescendo effects.  Here and elsewhere, the accuracy of Mr. Hansen’s intonation ensures that chromatic harmonies are sounded with full potency.  The ease with which he descends into his lower register in ‘Taci o di morte’ without the baritonal snarling heard in the lower voices of many countertenors is beguiling.  Interestingly, ‘Non è più folle lusinga’ breathes the same musical air as slow arias from Vivaldi’s operas.  The poise with which Mr. Hansen sings the aria highlights the gracefulness of Vinci’s melodic invention.  As in his singing of all of the arias on this disc, Mr. Hansen’s voice shimmers as he moves into his upper register in ‘Non è più folle lusinga,’ particularly in his attractive embellishments of the da capo.

Recitals of music composed for Farinelli and other famed castrati are no longer infrequent occurrences: with the advent of a generation of gifted countertenors capable of stylishly singing the music in the proper register, increased attention has been granted to this long-neglected repertory by female singers, as well.  In the high-lying music written for soprano castrati like Farinelli and Caffarelli, the efforts of female singers have often been preferable to those of countertenors, in fact, the voices of the latter being ill-equipped for the tessitura of the music.  In this regard, David Hansen is indubitably an exceptional singer: the sparkling brightness and facile placement of his upper register is one of the glories of his artistry.  As this début recital disc proves, though, he has far more to offer than top notes that shame the efforts of his high-voiced male colleagues.  It is obvious that he has devoted much study to the arias sung in this recital, and his resourcefulness in adapting his technique to the demands of each number, ensuring that all of the arias are ‘in the voice,’ is indicative of an innate musical curiosity that is likely to continue producing incredible performances as his career progresses.  The inquisitive modern listener has only the late-career recordings by Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato in the Sistine Chapel choir, to provide a glimpse into the elusive world of the great castrati, and sadly Moreschi’s surviving recordings offer but a feeble view.  It is impossible to know how the voices of Farinelli, Bernacchi, Caffarelli, and their rivals sounded in the arias on this disc: it is doubtful that even they could have sung this music better than David Hansen has done on Rivals.

Joseph Newsome

Antonio Maria Bononcini (1677 - 1726), Riccardo Broschi (1698 - 1756), Leonardo Leo (1694 - 1744), and Leonardo Vinci (1690 - 1730): Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co.—David Hansen, countertenor; Academia Montis Regalis; Alessandro De Marchi, conductor and harpsichord [Recorded in the Oratorio di Santa Croce, Mondovì, Italy, 12 - 16 June 2013; deutsche harmonia mundi 88883744012; 1CD, 76:17]

image= image_description=Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co. product=yes product_title=Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co. product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=deutsche harmonia mundi 88883744012 [CD] price=$9.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 11:05 AM

Prom 47: Brahms — A German Requiem

It was apparent from the first quiet, probing pulses of the basses, accompanying the gentle rise and fall of cellos and violas, that the choice of period-instruments for Brahms’ German Requiem — a work of magnificent power and spiritual grandeur — was a wise one. Above this mild, mellifluous platform every word of the Choir of Enlightment’s calm opening pronouncement was crystalline. This is not a liturgical mass for the dead but rather a personal testament designed to console the living — it was composed after the death of the composer’s mother, and inspired also by memories of his beloved friend, Richard Schumann — and Brahms’ ‘message’ was nobly evident in the Choir’s opening words: ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,/ den sie sollen getröstet werden’ (Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted). Alsop consistently gave the text — garnered by the composer himself from Luther’s German Bible and from the Apocrypha — room to speak without undue force, and the result was a remarkably intense quietude matched elsewhere by an equally dignified and moving radiance.

The second movement, ‘Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras’ (For all flesh is as grass), began with fateful gravity, the timpani’s dark, funereal pulses sensitively articulated by Adrian Bending. Legend has it that a pre-premiere run-through of the first three movements of the Requiem were somewhat sabotaged by the relentless fortissimo pounding of an over-enthusiastic timpanist; here, and throughout the work, Bending offered a master-class in percussion playing, achieving tense restraint, insistent power, and building to perfectly judged, thrilling climaxes. The movement roved through alternating passages of despair and resignation before the Choir’s grandiloquent outburst, ‘Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Weigkeit’ (But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever).

Baritone Henk Neven intoned the opening words of the third movement, 'Herr, lehre doch mich,/ dass ein End emit mir haben muss’ (Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days), with composure tinged with anxiety. Deftly crafting the humbling exchanges between soloist and chorus, in which Neven wonderfully conveyed both the fears and hopes which define human mortality, Alsop effectively controlled the structure and accumulating tension, before the latter was released by the timpani’s affirmative pedal Ds in the vigorous, up-lifting — but never bombastic — fugal conclusion, ‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand,/ und keine Qual rühret sie an’ (But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall be torment touch them).

After the joyous simplicity of the subsequent assuring chorus, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth’ (How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts), the radiant purity of soprano Rachel Harnish’s graceful, floating lines wonderfully expressed the restful comforts of the text, a quiet confession of the composer’s faith. Neven’s interchanges with the Choir in ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ (‘Now we have no dwelling place’) resumed the forward motion, the chorale-like rhythms and blend of traditional and fresh harmonies driving the music purposefully towards the fugal conclusion. In the final movement Alsop reasserted the solemn, but sweet, nobility of the opening bars; the quiet benediction of the close, ‘Selig sind die Toten’ (Blessed are the dead) was deeply affecting.

This was a wonderful performance in which Alsop drew forth the underpinning mood of the Lutheran chorales which are the foundation for so many of the melodies, sustaining a consistent aura of lyrical splendour and combining the movements, which can sometimes feel disparate and lacking a clear dramatic progression, into a convincing whole.

The programme began with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. Alsop captured the sombre mood but did not quite sustain the momentum, especially in the slower developmental central section, and she struggled to gather the various, sometimes extensive, episodes into a structurally coherent whole. Here the choice of period instruments seemed less successful, not fully able to summon the oppressive weight or dynamic contrasts of the composer’s orchestral canvas. The textures were crisp, however, and there was some beautifully relaxed piano playing from the horns and woodwind. The surge towards the terse conclusion was fittingly stormy.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony completed the programme, in which Alsop’s tempi were brisker and this helped to define the thematic links between the movements and create a strong sense of a unified whole. Those who disparage the composer’s overly dense instrumentation were here refuted by the lightness and clarity of the OAE’s orchestral conversations and the even balance of timbres. The dark brooding of the double basses (all eight of them) was neatly countered by the sheer sonorities of the upper strings and woodwind solos. An enchanting oboe solo from Michael Niesemann introduced the second movement, a graceful Romance in which the violins found a translucent elegance, inspired by some wonderful playing by leader Kati Debretzeni. A spirited Scherzo gave way to more temperate Trios, before an upwelling into the robust, exuberant Finale, in which Alsop — who conducted from memory throughout the concert — demonstrated an energetic enthusiasm which bodes well for September 7th, when she will become the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

There was much fine playing from the OAE. But, it was the precision and thoughtful poise of the Choir of Enlightenment which lifted this performance from ‘good’ to something special.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Brahms: Tragic Overture; Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor; Brahms: A German Requiem; Rachel Harnisch, soprano; He nk Neven, baritone; Marin Alsop, conductor; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Choir of the Enlightenment. Royal Albert Hall, London, Saturday, 17th August 2013.

image= image_description=Marin Alsop [Photo by Grant Leighton] product=yes product_title=Prom 47: Brahms - A German Requiem product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Marin Alsop [Photo by Grant Leighton]
Posted by Gary at 10:50 AM

Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera produced it several times in the seventies, but this year's staging was definitely not your grandmother's version.

On Wednesday August 7, Santa Fe Opera presented an energetic, fun-loving production of Jacques Offenbach, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. First seen at the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris, its singable tunes and military satire made it a big hit. Santa Fe Opera produced it in the seventies, but this year's staging was definitely not your grandmother's version. Director Lee Blakely's colorful, energetic production took place at the Gerolstein Military Academy located somewhere in the US Midwest. He and Choreographer Peggy Hickey added gymnastics and cheerleading to the usual singing and dancing. There are plenty of cartwheels and even a new Offenbach can-can. Adrian Linford's arched sets made a good background for the active staging while Jo van Schuppen's costumes were wonderfully decorative and exquisitely detailed. Although the music was sung in the traditional French, the updated English dialogue was full of double entendres.

Susan Graham was the Grand Duchess, a role made famous by Paris's best-loved singing actress of the 1860s, Hortense Schneider. The Duchess, who loved men in uniform, took a whirl with practically every male on the stage, but since she was a good woman at heart, she dropped them when told they had families. In the meantime, she flirted deliciously, sang in idiomatic French style and danced gracefully with an occasional high kick! Graham is a super-star mezzo-soprano in her prime and this role was perfectly suited to her vocal and histrionic abilities. Her impressive second act aria was the focal point of the evening.

Lyric tenor Paul Appleby, who sang with beautifully colored tones, was a warm hearted, if clueless, Fritz who only wanted to marry his girlfriend Wanda. Sung by radiant, clear-voiced Anya Matanovič, Wanda is eventually united with Fritz at the end. Much of Gerolstein's comedy was fomented by the demoted General Boum, sung by sonorous bass Keven Burdette, the amusing Baron Puck, interpreted by effervescent tenor Aaron Pegram, and Prince Paul, the lanky, reluctant bridegroom, sung by smoky-voiced baritone Jonathan Michie. Numerous apprentices excelled in small solo parts while others formed Susanne Sheston's fine chorus. Emmanuel Villaume led the admirably precise orchestra in this well-paced rendition of Offenbach's exhilarating music.

Maria Nockin

image_description=Susan Graham as the Grand Duchess [Photo by Ken Howard]

product_title=The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at Santa Fe Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Susan Graham as the Grand Duchess [Photo by Ken Howard]

Posted by maria_n at 10:33 AM

Santa Fe Opera Revives The Marriage of Figaro

Although during the overture servants picked flowers that had sprung up from the bare stage, the production was completely traditional. Paul Brown's scenery and costumes set the story in the time and place established by its original author, Caron de Beaumarchais.

On Thursday, August 8, Santa Fe Opera revived the Bruce Donnell production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Although during the overture servants picked flowers that had sprung up from the bare stage, the production was completely traditional. Paul Brown's scenery and costumes set the story in the time and place established by its original author, Caron de Beaumarchais.

Lisette Oropesa is an up-and-coming soprano who has established an excellent reputation for singing with luminous tones and precise coloratura. Her Susanna was flirty, saucy and passionate. Zachary Nelson's Figaro was somewhat less authoritative because of the size of his voice, but his interpretation was persuasive. Susanna Phillips was a smooth, sumptuous-voiced Countess who sang a slow, drawn out 'Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro' ('O Love, give me some remedy') and an artfully phrased 'Dove Sono, I bei momenti' ('Where are the beautiful moments?'). She was every inch the beautiful, loving, but neglected, wife.

As the Count, Daniel Okulitch was a most forceful character, you really felt that he would harm his wife if he saw evidence that she was unfaithful. He commanded the stage every moment he was on it and sang a most impressive 'Vedrò mentre io sospiro, felice un servo mio!' ('While I suffer, shall I see a servant of mine happy?'). He was not a nobleman to be trifled with.

Veteran mezzo Susanne Mentzer's Marcellina was a youthful cougar who would not be denied a chance at married bliss. I wish they had included her aria. Dale Travis was a bumbling but robust-toned Bartolo who sang his piece with gusto. In the travesty part of Cherubino, Emily Fons really gave a boyish impression and sang her arias with solid tones. Kittenish apprentice Rachel Hall was the perfect mate for 'him' as she sang her simple aria with a clear, sweet voice. Keith Jameson was a nosy Basilio, while apprentice Adam Lau created a memorable character as the drunken gardener. As usual, Susanne Sheston's apprentice chorus sang with precise harmonies. Conductor John Nelson's tempi varied greatly, sometimes rather fast, at other times slow enough to require the utmost in breath control. Although this was not a perfect performance, it was a most enjoyable one.

Maria Nockin

image_description=Zachary Nelson as Figaro and Lisette Oropesa as Susanna [Photo by Ken Howard]

product_title=Santa Fe Opera Revives The Marriage of Figaro
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Zachary Nelson as Figaro and Lisette Oropesa as Susanna [Photo by Ken Howard]

Posted by maria_n at 10:18 AM

Dolora Zajick on New Opera Written for Her

Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, best known for her powerful renditions of Italian dramatic roles, will sing Dolores. She says she always wanted a role in which she could grow gracefully. Since she wasn’t looking for a glamorous character she thinks his Dolores is an ideal fit.

On September 18, 2013, San Francisco Opera will present the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s opera, Dolores Claiborne, which has a libretto by J. D. McClatchy based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, best known for her powerful renditions of Italian dramatic roles, will sing Dolores. Her fans may not all be aware that she is also the founder of The Institute for Young Dramatic Voices that takes place in Utah every summer and that she is a composer and a watercolor painter as well. On June 19th, 2013, I spoke with Dolora who was at her home in Reno preparing to go to this year’s session of the Institute.

MN: How did you get the role of Dolores Claiborne?

DZ: Since I was in the opera that Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, the composer knew my voice. It’s a long story, but I have always wanted a role in which I could grow gracefully. I wasn’t looking for a glamorous character and I think his Dolores is an ideal fit. I don’t think San Francisco Opera will have any trouble filling the theater because I’ve never had so many people come up to me to say they couldn’t wait to see the opera. I’ve even heard it from folks who have never been to an opera before. They’ve read the book or they’ve watched the movie. That story is part of popular consciousness. It’s an interesting work and the stage settings, which I’ve just now seen, are wonderful. Stage Director James Robinson has given us a thoughtfully planned production that makes the opera work.

MN: What kind of production is it?

DZ: It’s a production that tells the story. I think that concept productions are just a phase that will pass. I’m sure today’s director’s concepts will be replaced by something else in the future. Do you know what I think is going to happen? As we get more and more sophisticated special effects, opera companies will be able to do more realistic productions. Realism will then become a new craze. Since operas have not been done that way for a while, the new realistic productions will be considered works of genius.

MN: When did you know you would be singing Dolores Claiborne?

DZ: About a year go, or before that, actually. There had been talk of turning that book into an opera for a long time, maybe ten years. At this point, we are in a collaborative phase and I think Tobias is paying special attention to what will make me sound good. Everybody wants this to be a great show so it’s important to see that each of us has what we need. Making it the best possible show is all that counts. I told him where my best range is. I noted what I do best and what I don’t do as well, so he wrote Dolores for me with that in mind. It’s tailored to my voice.

The part is pretty big but not as long as Wagner’s Isolde. The opera is based on the book rather than the movie and it doesn’t have such a happy ending, but it’s a wonderful role based on a fascinating book. I wanted to play the part of an unglamorous woman. Glamor has its place in opera, but it isn’t the only possibility. Old people have lives, fat people have lives, and disabled people have lives, too. Many of them can be set in operas. Leading roles don’t always have to be sung by pretty ingénues. I thought I would like a role designed for me and it’s happening! San Francisco Opera is staging it and I’m very excited about it. Once it’s been seen there, I think many other opera companies will want to produce it because this opera will speak for itself.

MN: Is it more difficult to learn a role in a contemporary opera than a new role in a well known one?

DZ: It’s all hard. When you do something at a very high level it’s never easy.

MN: What is a singer’s responsibility if a rehearsal is not going well?

DZ: You have to remember that there are people who only do what they are told and never have much to say. I’m not a difficult person in the sense that I have to be in control. It’s not that, but if something is simply not working, I always address it. If everything is working well it doesn’t matter who is in charge. The bottom line is that we have to please the audience because basically they provide us with employment. Even composers have to please the audience. Ticket buyers have to feel that they are getting their money’s worth. That does not involve playing down to the lowest denominator. It’s high quality performances that bring converts to opera. If you bring in a new audience and you don’t perform at a high level they will not come back. A good performance happens when each and every one in the production is good at what they do and works hard to do his or her best. You might have a good stage director and a poor conductor or it might be the other way round. You might have a fine director, an excellent conductor, and a star singer who upstages colleagues because he or she can get away with it. Some things just happen: an artist gets sick, the set was improperly made, or the budget no longer allowed what was planned. Sometimes you don’t know where the monkey wrench is going to come from!

MN: Have you found many serious dramatic voices for your institute?

DZ: Yes, we have found a significant number of large and unusual voices. We look for different skills from different age groups. For the very young, raw talent is enough. They may not have musicianship, but they have to be musical. They may not know another language, but they have to have an ear for sound. We have discovered that dramatic voices show up very early. By the time a girl is seventeen or eighteen, you know if she will have a dramatic voice. With boys it can vary more. We had one who was a heldentenor at fifteen. With others, we might not be sure until they are nineteen.

We also take rank beginners up to age twenty-three at the Conservatory Level, but they have to have certain abilities as well as prodigious voices. If they don’t read music and have never sung opera, even if they have the right talent, it will take them three years to catch up with their colleagues. Our Emerging Singer Level is for students from twenty-four to thirty-two years of age. Here I sometimes make an exception for those who have truly exceptional voices. This group is for singers who have finished school but have not yet established careers. They don’t have management and probably don’t have more than one contract. They are not yet sure they will have singing careers. One of our voice teachers, Darrell Babidge, has managed to get some of these singers engagements on the international level. He is the director of our Emerging Singers and Young Professionals division. The Young Professional Level is for managed singers who have some contracts and just need the finishing touches before they make their debuts. Sometimes they come for specific projects or to work on stylistic matters.

We help students get into schools and we help them when they get out of school. We help them get into programs and we are there if they need us when they come out. We also have some joint ventures with opera company programs but our relationship with each company is different, just as each individual singer is different. Although there are dramatic voices out there, right now most of them just don’t make careers. That’s the problem we’re trying to fix. It will be nice to have a successor. We have a stage director from Italy who coaches diction and stages opera scenes in Italian with the students. Another Italian coach works on stylistic matters. We teach our students what makes an aria stylistically Verdi. That’s important. People have been paying less attention to style lately, so we are making a major effort to make sure it is imparted to our singers. The world is becoming smaller and the provincial sounds are going away.

MN: Who are some of your graduates?

DZ: Rachel Willis just had a major success as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden. This summer she is singing Elsa opposite the Lohengrin of Jonas Kauffmann in Salzburg. Issachah Savage, who is in the Merola Program, will be singing Radames in Aida for Houston. What makes our program unique is our age range. We cover both younger and older students than most opera companies, but we only deal with dramatic voices. Since we deal with diamonds in the rough, we lose more people than programs that look for polished singers to begin with. We also get bigger winners that way.

MN: Do you come in contact with many people who have never seen an opera?

DZ: You’d be surprised. I know lots of scientists and geologists, many of whom have never been to an opera. I have many interests that go outside of opera. My art friends like opera, but some of my other well-educated friends don’t know much about it.

MN: What is your favorite medium for painting?

DZ: I really like watercolors. Occasionally, I use some gouache, but I’m a very fast painter and watercolors suit my style. I’m fascinated with washes and I like working in layers. At first glance it might look like I’m laying the paint on thickly, but I’m not. Right now, however, I’m concentrating on Dolores Claiborne and the Institute because it’s all I have time for at the moment.

MN: Do you also compose?

DZ: When I finish Dolores Claiborne I go back to working on The Road to Zion, the composition I wrote for the Carmelite Monastery in Reno. It will be presented in San Jose, California to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Avila and it will be played at the National Symposium of American Carmelite Nuns. All the national representatives will be in San Jose for the concert. The piece will also be recorded. There is a version for a large chorus and another for chamber group. Much of the text is in Teresa’s own words. The first of its three sections is called Teresa Encourages the Silkworms. She likened the development of the soul to the progress of the silkworm becoming a butterfly. The worm does not know it is progressing until it spreads its wings and takes flight. In the same manner the soul does not realize it is making progress until it is able to leave the body behind.

I modeled my work on chants from Herez. In it, the nuns sing their office in the way it is done in Spain. They begin with Psalm 84, which talks about the desire for spiritual union with God. Then a solo voice sings a poetic paraphrase of the saint’s words in which she explains one of her mystical experiences. That is followed by an interlude for string quartet, harp, and piano that features the cello. It starts out almost like the dark night of the soul. Someone, who is longing for God and wondering if there is a God, is not getting any answers. Finally, the soul makes the connection and takes flight.

When Teresa then wonders how such grandeur could come to as lowly a soul as hers, God replies that what He has made in His image is not lowly. Then, a small group of nuns returns to the chapel to sing of their longing. By this time they are wailing because of their frustration at not getting any closer to their goal and they wonder if Teresa simply made up her tale. Then, a part of the chorus sings that Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Suddenly the bell rings. It is the rude, obnoxious bell that orders all activity in the convent and sometimes tyrannizes them. The rest of the nuns come into the chapel and sing the finale in which they all realize that the mystical can also be found in the mundane, even the routine singing of the office.

MN: Will you be seen Live in HD from the Met during the 2013-14 season?

DZ: Yes, I will be singing Ježibaba in Dvořák's Russalka on
February 8, 2014. People should realize that the Live in HD presentations are a different art form. I think it will eventually follow its own trajectory. Right now it’s a hybrid of live performance and video that’s too much of both and not enough of either. When singers are being videoed, they have to make choices between pleasing the opera house audience and the people in the cinemas. Sometimes what would look good to the Met audience would be far too big for video. You can convey tons of meaning with a lifted eyebrow in a video, but the audience in the opera house would not even see it. HD is a new art form that his not yet matured. Right now opera companies are still trying to find their feet with it.

MN What will you be singing after Dolores Claiborne?

DZ: I go to Houston for Amneris in Aida and then I will take an eight-week vacation. I’ve not had a vacation in several years and I really need one. I’ve been doing all my projects non-stop for a long time, so I’ll just crash for two weeks and then record my composition.

MN: Do you have an amusing anecdote for us?

DZ: When I sing Ježibaba I have a mechanical cat on my shoulder in one scene. Its head rotates and its tail moves from side to side. It digs into my shoulder and its motor makes a whine. In the scene, I’m singing and throwing things into a cauldron. One time, I hit the cat’s head with a wooden spoon and it fell off but the body was still moving. I had to finish the scene with a headless cat, so I shrugged my shoulders and tossed the head into the cauldron.

image_description=Dolora Zajick [Photo by David Sauer]

product_title=Dolora Zajick on New Opera Written for Her
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Dolora Zajick [Photo by David Sauer]

Posted by maria_n at 10:06 AM

Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform

the reputation of the German-Jewish composer, Kurt Weill, has rested largely on the popular success of his satirical collaborations with the playwright and lyricist Bertolt Brecht, during the 1920s and 1930s (Die Dreigroschenoper, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) — with Lotte Lenya’s rendition of ‘Mack the Knife’ ubiquitous and perennial.

Noting that critical opinion has been divisive along cross-Atlantic lines, with German critics in the post-war period discounting Weill's American works as ‘historically and aesthetically negligible’ while their counterparts in the US showered praise primary on the composer’s Broadway works, in this densely informative book the esteemed Weill scholar Stephen Hinton sets out to challenge the misleading conception of the ‘two Weills’ — the European modernist and the American popularist. Hinton argues that it is only in the last couple of decades that scholars have done justice to the works written after Weill left Germany. Refuting the biographer who declared that Weill was ‘a composer without a stable identity, someone who “seemed to change styles more often than countries”’ (1), he aims to show that the development of Weill’s style, form and theatrical concerns was in fact continuous, consistent and coherent.

Hinton begins his comprehensive, immensely detailed, inter-disciplinary study of the works and aesthetic of Kurt Weill with a quotation, citing Weill in 1947, three years before his death at the age of 50: ‘Ever since I made up my mind, at the age of 19, that my special field of activity would be the theatre, I have tried continuously, in my own way, to solve the form-problems of the musical theatre, and through the years I have approached these problems from all angles.’ (ix)

This statement offers a clear guide as to the ambitions of this book, which explores the composer’s achievements from biographical, musicological, philosophical and historical ‘angles’, and whose intended readership comprises not only music historians and the lay reader interested in Weill’s music, but also ‘theatre practitioners, especially those considering future productions’ (xv). Through analytical case studies which illuminate Weill’s compositional methodology, comparative evaluations of other scholarly biographies and musical enquiries, scrutiny of the composer’s own writings, and consideration of the influence of significant collaborators and aesthetic theories, Hinton presents a discerning and enlightening account of Weill’s contribution to the theatre — its forms, reforms and aesthetics. He examines the inherent tension in the ‘hybrid’ forms of musical theatre which the composer employed and devised, noting that often this tension - between the works themselves and their generic traditions — is often at the heart of the work’s ‘meaning’. And, in exploring Weill’s engagement with the ‘Urform’ — what Weill described as a ‘“prototype” of opera that combines the traditional elements of the genre, its rudimentary forms and conventions, in a novel and provocative way’ (xiii) — Hinton raises interesting structural and institutional questions about opera itself.

We begin with some ‘Biographical Notes’ which are less a survey of the chief events of the composer’s life and more an evaluation of how previous critical histories have contributed to the formation of Weill’s posthumous reputation, and a reassessment of that reputation. Hinton refutes the commonly held view of Weill as a ‘chameleon’, and challenges those who question the calibre of Weill’s American works. Admitting that Weill’s own artistic positions were at times contradictory, he turns to the primary evidence — Weill’s letters, statements and writings — to show how the composer evaluated his own compositional processes in relation to both the past and present. Thus, Weill compared himself, a composer who needed ‘“words to set my imagination in motion”’ (3), to Beethoven, a ‘paradigmatic composer of instrumental music; and, he engaged optimistically with contemporary technology and culture, in works such as a cantata marking Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and Railroads on Parade, a ‘pageant-drama of transport’ written to celebrate the Transcontinental Railroad.

Hinton notes those works which established Weill first in Europe and later on Broadway, and examines the formation of Weill’s own personal and musical identity, considering the composer’s ambiguous response to his Jewishness, his early interest in studying with Schoenberg, and his desire — in contradiction to Schoenberg who ‘“said he is writing for a time fifty years after his death”’ (6) — to write for contemporary audiences, engaging enthusiastically with the new media of radio and motion pictures. Referring frequently to Weill’s own writings, the author ranges widely, and includes an exploration of Weill’s aesthetic ideology — for example, the distinction he made between Verbrauchmusik (music which would be short-lived) and Gebrauchsmusik (‘genuinely useful music’) and Kunstmusik (‘art music’, which ‘might eventually be erased’ (7)).

Hinton also presents a review of previous biographies and studies of the composer, evaluating not only their content and conclusions, but also their critical methods and intent. There are some ‘side-tracks’, such as a discussion of the relative merits of Weill and Hindemith, and the reader needs to work quite hard to follow all the balls that the author keeps aloft, but the style is engaging and the various threads absorbing.

The influence of Weill’s teacher, Busoni, introduced in the first chapter — for example, Hinton notes Weill’s concern for good ‘craftsmanship’ and voice-leading — is explored in detail in the second, ‘The Busoni Connection’, and it is here that Hinton perhaps risks losing his reader’s attention, as Busoni’s profound influence on Weill’s compositional practice and artistic priorities is examined through a comprehensive account of Busoni’s theories. Certainly, Weill’s response to the man he termed ‘the last renaissance man’, in essays such as ‘Busoni and the New Music’ sheds interesting light on the personal debt that the composer felt: Weill described his teacher as a man with a ‘“cast of mind whose very integrity already placed him above his contemporaries … the enchanting harmony of this artist cause[d] people within his immediate orbit to feel happier … [his] serene goodness would disperse any malice or badness”’ (40). As Hinton remarks, Weill clearly viewed Busoni as a luminary or, even, a prophet, and eulogised his artistic achievements; interestingly, Busoni also seems to have contributed to Weill’s interest in film; in this context, the composer’s observations illuminate his own modernity: ‘“He had a vision of the changing social order. He foresaw the enormous possibilities of the form as a vehicle of a new form of tone-drama”’ (41). Here we see the formation of Weill’s belief in the socially regenerative power of music (gesellschaftsbildende Kraft, literally ‘socially formative’) which could have an active effect upon ‘the masses’, evident for example in the composer’s remark that radio music could ‘directly oppose “superficially oriented concerts that are full of pomp and circumstance, and which have become superfluous”’ (57).

The accounts of Weill’s idealisation of Mozart, his rejection of Wagner, and his early interactions with Bertolt Brecht are thought-provoking. Things get more challenging for the reader, though, when Hinton describes Busoni’s philosophy of art, ‘New Classicality’ or Junge Klassiztät, and a digression into the linguistic distinctions between Klassizismus and Klassik may be a tangential step too far for many. But, the account of Busoni’s influence on Weill’s concept of the ideal Urform of musical theatre is instructive, particularly as Hinton shows how the composer’s desire for the creation of a new, popular form of music theatre was connected to his cinematic aspirations. And, the ideas presented do inform the reader’s understanding of the musicological and analytical studies which follow. For example, we see how Busoni’s aesthetics of opera — ‘when and how should music be implemented on stage’ (70) — may have influenced Weill’s use of ballet in the early one-act entertainment, Zaubernacht.

The main body of the book comprises a more or less chronological survey of Weill’s works, the case studies gathered together under ‘generic’ titles: ‘One-Act Opera’, ‘Songspiel’, ‘Plays with Music’, ‘Epic Opera’, ‘Didactic Theater’, ‘Musical Plays’, ‘American Opera’. Hinton describes Weill’s various collaborations with writers and directors, the creation of libretti and Weill’s musical responses to the texts, the circumstances of composition and Weill’s musical processes and techniques, musical influences (such as Stravinsky’s instrumentation, formal structures, and use of rhythmic ostinati), as well as the themes and ideas presented in the narratives and dramas. Comparisons with works by other composers support Hinton’s sustained examination of genre and form, and his consideration of the structural and expressive function of dance and film sequences in Weill’s compositions.

Chapter five, ‘Plays with Music’, not only vividly illuminates Weill’s personal and professional relationship with Brecht — and the radical nature of their artistic experimentation and programmatic reform — but also engages the reader in a debate about genre, as Hinton considers the function of music in opera and in ‘play with music’, and the changes, if any, wrought upon an existing play when music is added. Hinton is keen for the reader to make connections and recognise the integration of Weill’s influences. Thus in ‘Epic Theatre’, he argues that the relevance of the concept of ‘epic theatre’ extends far beyond dry theory or actual practice (i.e. the plays and operas he wrote with Brecht): ‘Busoni’s teachings, which foreshadowed some of Brecht’s ideas about epic theater, exerted a vital influence … Another defining influence came from the music-theater works of Stravinsky, in particular L’histoire du soldat, but also Oedipus rex.’ (138) Throughout, Weill’s own commentaries underpin Hinton’s ideas and theories.

In the penultimate chapter, ‘Concept and Commitment’, Hinton’s account of Weill’s last two works for the musical theatre, Love Life (a ‘vaudeville’, 1948) and Lost in the Stars (a ‘musical tragedy’, 1949) affirms his conviction in Weill’s achievements in uniting past and present, and in assimilating styles, structures, musical language, media in richly inventive, socially and culturally progressive ways — and in so doing creating theatrical forms for the future. Thus he observes, ‘By looking back to earlier forms of American theatrical entertainment, Weill’s “vaudeville” also looks forward. Its subversion of conventional linear plot-construction foreshadows a genre that would not become commonplace until a couple of decades later, the “concept musical.” In this, Weill, was building on recent trends in musicals, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro and his own Lady in the Dark, as well as on innovations in dramaturgy evinced in plays such as Thornton Wilder’sOur Town, all of which have demonstrable connections to Weill’s own earliest German stage works’ (403). Such arguments are impressive and convincing.

As Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, Hinton’s research has focused on modern German music history and in this book his knowledge of his subject is second to none. He is the author of Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera, the founding editor of the Kurt Weill Edition presenting the first critical study of Weill’s complete stage works, and the co-editor of Weill’s collected writings.

This is a valuable and engrossing re-assessment of the depth and range of Weill’s career, one that bridged Europe and America, and which embraced opera, singspiel, theatre, ballet, musicals, radio and film, often over-riding or eradicating distinctions between the genres. And, Hinton shows how what he terms Weill’s ‘protean gifts’ (ix) enabled the composer to balanced aesthetic idealism with commercial pragmatism.

The scholar of music theatre will undoubtedly find this book richly rewarding; a wealth of information about Weill’s artistic achievements and intentions is supplement by an integrated evaluation of the work of numerous scholars, interwoven with Weill’s own commentaries, and Hinton does indeed present a persuasive case for the coherence of Weill’s dramaturgy in conception and evolution.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform product=yes product_title=Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform product_by=A book review by Claire Seymour product_id=Stephen Hinton, Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), ISBN 978-0-520-27177-7, hardback, xvi, 569pp, 78 music examples, 7 b/w illustrations, appendix, notes, index. price=$47.66 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 9:27 AM

August 17, 2013

Prom 45: Tiippett’s The Midsummer Marriage

But you only have to listen to the music to be entranced. From the opening moments of Sir Andrew Davis's performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall on 16 August 2013, you knew that you were in for a very special occasion. The BBC had assembled a very strong cast, with Paul Groves and Erin Wall as the Mark and Jenifer, David Wilson-Johnson (standing in for Peter Sidhom) as King Fisher, Ailish Tynan and Allan Clayton as Bella and Jack, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Sosostris, and Madeleine Shaw and David Soar as the Ancients, with the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus. The performance was billed as semi-staged, directed by Kenneth Richardson.

The stars of the show, though, were undoubtedly Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, bringing out all of Tippett's dancing rhythms and giving a lovely sheen to the complex orchestral textures. The music for the entrances of the Ancients, with the celesta, were simply magical. Without any dancers, we were left to our own imaginations for the Ritual Dances, and Davis brought out the full range of drama and danger in these pieces. I had forgotten how richly and imaginatively they were written, but throughout the performance I came back to Tippett's rhythms. Davis clearly loves the opera and he and the orchestra gave us Tippett as his rhapsodic and entrancing best.

The roles of Mark and Jenifer are tricky ones, they are archetypes more than protagonists and once the long first act is over, we hardly see them again. Both singers need to be capable of singing Tippett's complex, rapturous coloratura whilst being able to carry over the large orchestra, a particular requirement with the orchestra on the concert platform. Paul Groves was ideal for Mark. He has what I think of as rather an old fashioned voice, with a focussed edge to it which can cut through orchestral texture without pressing the voice too much and causing the tone to lose focus. He sang with that gorgeous straight tone familiar from his performances as Gerontius, moving flexibly round Tippett's vocal lines and seemingly having no trouble at all rising over the orchestra without pushing the voice. His interaction with the Ancients at the opening was just on the right side of pert and his outburst of 'I love, I love, I love' was rapturous. This was re-captured in the closing moments, when both Mark and Jenifer have a short, but important contribution to crown the proceedings. He looked, perhaps, a little mature for 'a young man of unknown parentage' but this mattered not in a concert performance and his performance was wonderfully ardent and enthusiastic in the right way.

Erin Wall, making her Proms debut, sang with a finely honed, slim but focussed tone. An experienced Fiordiligi, Konstanze and Donna Anna, she floated over the orchestra rather than cutting through it, singing Jenifer's coloratura with beautiful care and attention. Her performance on stage seemed a little stiff, as if she wasn't quite comfortable with the semi-staging. But Jenifer is an awkward character and Joan Sutherland (who created the role) famously did not really understand the opera.

David Wilson-Johnson, standing in at a weeks notice as King Fisher, was returning to a role he'd last sung 25 years ago. You couldn't really tell, Wilson-Johnson gave a masterly performance, full of character. His King Fisher had all the bombast needed and we could hear all the words. This was true of all three singers in the character episodes (Wilson-Johnson, Ailish Tynan and Allan Clayton) and helped to establish the drama. Wilson-Johnson combines singing 20th century music with a career with period ensembles. This shows in his performance where his navigating of the actual notes was nicely accurate and thankfully lacking that element of bluster. Wilson-Johnson is a fine singing actor and his performance was a master-class in how to make character work in a space as big as the Royal Albert Hall.

The lighter couple, Jack and Bella, were equally well cast with Allan Clayton and Ailish Tynan. Tynan brought a delightful pertness to the role, filling out the character and charming entirely. It is Bella who gets some of Tippett's arch colloquialisms, dealt with in dead-pan manner by Tynan. The interchange (between Bella and King Fisher) 'Who's Jack? Oh - he's a honey' remains one of my favourite in all opera and Tynan was equally delightfully in Bella's paen to artificial womanhood, with her mirror and face powder. But Tynan also sang the notes, with a bright focussed tone which brought out the ancestors of Tippett's character and brought Bella alive. Her interactions with Wilson-Johnson were just right, hinting at the long back story to their relationship. Tynan was also ably abetted by Allan Clayton as her boyfriend Jack. Clayton sang with lovely tone and shape, making a mark even though the role is quite small. Clayton is another artist who has impressed in both baroque and contemporary performance. His combination of vocal flexibility and penetrating (in the nicest possible way) tone, being just right for both.

David Soar and Madeleine Shaw were suitably grave and mysterious as the Ancients, with Soar bringing a a nice touch of asperity to the character which set of the dark and dignified tones of his voice. Shaw was equally dark and mysterious but added touches of humour in her interactions with Tynan.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Sosostris sang her aria from the organ console above the orchestra, which had a wonderfully dramatic effect especially when combined with the striking kaftan that Wyn-Rogers was wearing. But the placement so far behind the orchestra was a little inhibiting to the sound. Nonetheless, Wyn-Rogers joined the ranks of Helen Watts and Alfreda Hodgson in delivering a fine, dramatic and highly mysterious account of this fascinating but complex aria.

The smaller roles were all finely taken by singers from the BBC Singers, Michael Bundy, Christopher Bowen, Charles Gibbs and Margaret Cameon. The chorus, combining the BBC Singers with the BBC Symphony Chorus, was perhaps slightly larger than ideal but they sang with a will and clearly carried away with the drama. The off-stage chorus in act two was sung by the BBC Singers.

But it is to Davis and the orchestra that I will return in my memory, giving the work a glow and contributing some very fine orchestral playing.

Doing a semi-staging of an opera like The Midsummer Marriage is a thankless task as a large chunk of the action has to be missed off, we had no Strephon and no dancers. But director Kenneth Richardson marshalled his forces imaginatively, giving them entrances and exits and and suggesting the drama. He also benefitted from the fact that his singers clearly interacted with each other and in dramatic terms made it far more than a concert.

This was a long evening (6.30pm to 10.10pm, including two intervals), but a glorious one. The resources needed to perform the opera mean that it is only every likely to be a special occasion work. So we must be doubly glad that the BBC decided to perform it. Andrew Davis and his forces gave us a truly mesmerising account of Tippett's idiosyncratic midsummer rapture.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Paul Groves: Mark, Erin Wall: Jenifer, David Wilson-Johnson: King Fisher, Ailish Tynan: Bella, Allan Clayton: Jack, Sosostris: Catherine Wyn-Rogers, David Soar: He-Ancient, Madeleine Shaw: She-Ancient, Michael Bundy: Half-Tipsy Man, Christopher Bowen: Dancing Man, Charles Gibbs: A Man, Margaret Cameron: A Girl. BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sir Andrew Davis: Conductor, Kenneth Richardson: Stage Director. Friday, 16 August 2013, BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London

image_description=Sir Andrew Davis [Photo by Dario Acosta Photography]

product_title=Michael Tippett : The Midsummer Marriage
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=BBC Prom 45, Royal Albert Hall, London 16th August 2013

Above: Sir Andrew Davis [Photo by Dario Acosta Photography]

Posted by anne_o at 4:45 AM

August 13, 2013

La Donna del Lago at Santa Fe

DDL_0706.gifJoyce DiDonato as Elena and Marianna Pizzolato as Malcolm

It tells of James V of Scotland (1512 - 1542), the father of Mary Queen of Scots, and his relationship with the family of his estranged tutor, Duglas of Angus. The Lady of the Lake was Duglas’s daughter, Elena, who often enjoyed boating on Loch Katrine.

Not many United States operagoers have seen Gioachino Rossini’s 1819 opera, La Donna del Lago. Thus, when performances were announced at Santa Fe Opera, all six were sold out before opening night. As a result, the company added a performance at the end of the season. Based on Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, the opera by Rossini and librettist Andrea Leone Tottola was first seen in 1819 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. It tells of James V of Scotland (1512 - 1542), the father of Mary Queen of Scots, and his relationship with the family of his estranged tutor, Duglas of Angus. The Lady of the Lake was Duglas’s daughter, Elena, who often enjoyed boating on Loch Katrine.

Director Paul Curran described the work as a medieval story based in Arthurian legend but seen through nineteenth century eyes. He told the story in realistic terms without any updating. Kevin Knight’s scenery was plain, but evocative of the ambience of the heather-strewn Scottish countryside. His costumes set the action in the unrest of the sixteenth century. Lighting is always of optimum importance in this open-sided theater and Duane Schuler’s designs added much to the visual quality of the piece.

Santa Fe Opera’s production featured an all-star cast in which coloratura mezzo-sopranos Joyce DiDonato and Marianna Pizzolato sang with agile-voiced tenors Lawrence Brownlee and René Barbera. DiDonato was a tall, elegant Elena, who rendered the most difficult coloratura with exquisite taste and beauty of tone. Brownlee was brilliant as Uberto, the disguised King James V. The flexibility of his voice is truly amazing, but even though he was a ruler, he did not get the girl! Neither did Barbera as Rodrigo di Dhu, whom Duglas had chosen to be Elena's husband. While Brownlee’s voice is smooth and his tones burnished, Barbera’s is light and bright. The suitor who finally wins Elena is Malcolm, a pants-role character. Pizzolato sang the part with smooth tones and wonderful vocal flexibility.

DDL_3144.gifRene Barbera as Rodrigo, Joyce DiDonato as Elena, and Lawrence Brownlee as Uberto

Duglas, portrayed by Wayne Tigges, was the main villain in the piece. He sang with dark menacing tones and commanded the stage while keeping his daughter apart from her true love. Three apprentices acquitted themselves well in this performance. Lucy Sauter was a sweet-sounding Albina, while Joshua Dennis and David Blalock were effective in their roles as servants. Every year Susanne Sheston makes a first class opera chorus out of the diverse group of apprentices who come to Santa Fe for the summer. This year she has succeeded beyond all expectations. Although the work was new to them, the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra conducted by Stephen Lord played Rossini’s difficult score in exquisite bel canto style. There were many solos, particularly for wind instruments and all of them were perfectly rendered. With Rossini’s fabulous music and this wonderful cast, perhaps we will be able to become more familiar with this beautiful opera and hear it in other settings.

by Maria Nockin

Cast and production Information:

Elena, Joyce DiDonato; Uberto (James V in disguise), Lawrence Brownlee; Albina, Lucy Sauter; Serano, Joshua Dennis; Malcolm, Marianna Pizzolato; Duglas, Wayne Tigges; Rodrigo, René Barbera; Bertram, David Blalock; Director, Paul Curran; Design, Kevin Knight; Lighting, Duane Schuler; Chorus Master, Susanne Sheston; Conductor, Stephen Lord.

image_description=Joyce DiDonato as Elena [Photo © 2013 Ken Howard]

product_title=La Donna del Lago at Santa Fe
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Joyce DiDonato as Elena

Photos © 2013 Ken Howard

Posted by maria_n at 11:45 AM

Billy Budd at Glyndebourne

We are dragged down into the deep, dark, timbered underbelly of the vessel — an airless, light-deprived pit, where human emotions are, ironically, simultaneously repressed and magnified. The stratified hierarchies of the ship’s upper decks which loom above this suffocating netherworld oddly invert the more tranquil orders of the theatre’s own wooden interior, the blanched hues and cruel undercurrents of this submerged, Hadean abyss an unsettling counterpoint to our own comforts and civilities.

It is a world of callous, merciless severity, but one alleviated by communal understanding, simple shared pleasures, and surprising acts of kindness amid the rough company. Billy’s selfless sharing of his ‘baccy’ to ease old Dansker’s despondent stoicism is later matched by the old sea-dog’s gentle ministrations to the imprisoned and condemned ‘Baby’. Similarly, as Billy’s friends skilfully tie the knots that will imminently break his neck, the painful tenderness of their actions contrasts heartbreakingly with the wretched ruthlessness of their superior officers.

Mark Padmore — View from the Bridge on Vimeo.

Grandage and Oram recreate wartime naval life — its routines, deprivations and brutalities — with detailed exactitude and veracity: ropes are bundled and pitched; riggings are pulled and tugged; seamen heave and haul, then seek meagre rest from their troubles and toils in paltry swinging hammocks. Movement director Tom Roden deserves much praise for the polished choreography: the swarming sailors go about their humdrum exertions with grace, spryly eluding the biting flick of a whip, the threatening thud of a baton; Billy Budd nimbly flings himself from balcony to deck, dangling from guard-rail and banister with gymnastic litheness; and the choral set-pieces are masterpieces of physical narrative. The crew assuage the gloom with a sprightly sea shanty which is toe-tappingly infectious in its expression of life’s humble joys. At the start of Act 2, the men’s excitement during the pursuit of the French ship is wonderfully complemented by the ceremonial scarlet of the musketeers and drummers (costume supervisor, Sarah Middleton; wig supervisor, Sheila Slaymaker) and the animation of the ship’s proud red flag in the blustering breeze, and the extinction of this flash of colour and hope by the returning hoary mist emphasises the mood of bitter disappointment and futility.

The large cast are uniformly excellent, individually defining their roles, collectively bonding in adversity. The ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, is supported by a highly competent and professional naval team: the crisp bellows of Darren Jeffery’s Lieutenant Ratcliffe are a clarion call to order and discipline, while Mr Flint (David Soar) and Mr Redburn (Stephen Gadd) prowl menacingly among the men, their commands glowing with potent intimidation. There are many welcome role reprisals from 2010, including Colin Judson’s squirming Squeak, Alasdair Elliott’s exuberant Red Whiskers and Richard Mosely-Evans’ Bosun. Jeremy White is once again a powerfully dignified Dansker, his voice full of wisdom, quiet honour and weary resignation. Peter Gjsbertsen, who sang Maintop in 2010, is here a movingly pathetic Novice, driven by a desperate fear to betray Billy, against instinct and love. Duncan Rock, another returnee from three years ago, is particularly note-worthy as the Novice’s Friend, singing with heartfelt warmth tinged with a levelling pragmatism. The several soloists from the Glyndebourne Chorus — Benjamin Cahn (Second Mate), Brendan Collins (Arthur Jones) and Michael Wallace (First Mate) — all acquit themselves very well.

Which brings us to the three central characters — two of whom are singing their roles for the first time — whose tortured triangle of emotional entanglements brings about such wasteful death and tragedy.

Brindley Sherratt is a disturbing John Claggart, his dark bass paradoxically beautiful, its lustrous sheen painfully at odds with the sentiments of his malicious utterances. This Master-at-Arms lurks and skulks among his underlings, tense and discreet, a ticking time-bomb unleashing flashes of malevolence which reveal the monstrous depths of his loathing for those whose fates he rules — a revulsion which, in his ‘Credo’, is turned upon his own degenerate soul. Sherratt’s bristling self-containment is eerily disconcerting: he presents his mendacious denouncement of Billy to his scornful Captain with an unsettling blend of subservience, humility and contempt.

Vere himself remains an elusive figure — withdrawn, reticent, absorbed by his erudite library but distanced from the men whose lives depend upon him. Indeed, in Mark Padmore’s highly original interpretation, Captain Vere is less a ‘Starry’ leader, a man of action inspiring loyal devotion from his seamen, than a philosophising recluse, introverted and evasive, angered by the unavoidable circumstances of war, and by his own reflections and motivations.

Padmore is characteristically thoughtful and dramatic in his delivery of the text, dispensing with surtitles in the self-scrutinising prologue and epilogue which frame the action aboard ship. When alone, Vere’s furious self-reproaches are astonishing vehement, his outburst during the Epilogue, ‘What have I done?’, a ferocious vocal punch. And while at the top Padmore’s tone is sometimes strained, the characterisation never wavers. The reserved self-possession which Vere displays when presenting his account to the drumhead court is shockingly cold; but such restraint does present some problems in terms of the coherence of the narrative. For, it is not clear why a man of such apparent moderation and self-control, educated and articulate, would stay silent, denying his ineloquent devotee a fair and balanced hearing. Why does this Vere arouse such affection among his men, and particularly from Billy? What is the nature of his feelings for the boy he calls ‘an angel’ — fatherly fondness, or something more? When his officers plead for his guidance, knowledge and wisdom, ‘Sir, we need you as always’, why does he refuse to save his protégée?

Grandage and Oram neglect not a detail of the practicalities of naval life, but do not venture far into the psychological complexities of Melville’s narrative, and the homosexual tensions of both the novella and Forster’s libretto are somewhat disregarded. Similarly, Paule Constable’s lighting is typically sensitive and atmospheric but essentially a visual complement, rather than an active element in the drama.

Melville’s ironic insinuations, Forster’s symbols and suggestions, and the musical inferences of the score are not really explored. Thus, Claggart’s ‘sickness’ — what Melville elusively termed ‘natural depravity’ — seems merely an inhuman ‘evil’; like Iago he is driven not by covetousness or passion, but because he perceives in another a ‘goodness’, one that he does not wish to possess (in either sense of the word) but which he must destroy because he recognises that ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life/ That makes me ugly’. Padmore’s inscrutable Vere similarly offers few hints of any erotic undercurrents between the three men; the ‘foul word’ that the officers ‘scarcely dare speak’, is simply ‘mutiny’, the threat not within, insidious and ineradicable, but straightforward and easily oppressed by violent domination.

Reprising his 2010 Billy Budd, Jacques Imbrailo is absolutely splendid, his mature, strong voice complementing an honest openness and youthful physical charm. Billy’s cheerful blue shirt and fancy red neckerchief bring a splash of colour into the sailor’s grey lives, just as his breezy good humour and bright optimism alleviate the dour, dull days with sunny hope. Imbrailo’s phrasing is full of buoyancy and vigour, his tone pleasing and fresh, but not without the occasion touch of realistic roughness to bring credibility to the portrayal of innocence. It is immediately obvious why his fellow seamen hold him in such warm affection, and also why he so easily falls prey to Claggart’s Machiavellian deceptions. Awoken by the Novice, whose gleaming guineas are designed to tempt him to rebel, Billy’s faraway, fragmented remembrances of the deep fathoms into which his dream had lulled him are achingly prophetic. And, condemned to die, enchained in the darbies, his tender strains as the rays of moonlight stray through the porthole are touchingly pure, full of sweet sorrow.

Conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Davis has a good grasp of the narrative thrust of the score and makes much of its cinematic scene-painting: the shriek of wind and whistle, the thump of surging wave and rolling drum, the cries of suffering and of battle. If he never quite winds things up to a fever pitch of intensity, anguish and paranoia, this is an unfailingly controlled and clear reading. The saxophone’s roving dirge during the flogging of the Novice has a paradoxical and painful mellifluousness; and the recollection of the ‘interview chords’ as Billy accepts his fate —‘I’m contented’, ‘I’m strong, and I know it … and I’ll stay strong’ — powerfully underline the Amen of forgiveness evoked by the original plagal sequence.

The even rocking of the string lines which open the Prologue effectively conveys both the inexorable lapping of the ocean and the insistent urgings of Vere’s memory. In this regard, the masterstroke of the production comes in the final scene when Vere oversees Billy’s execution, not from a platform aloft but from amid his men, dressed as an old man: it is clear that what we have seen is a re-enactment of the past as experienced by a man who is plagued by regret, guilt and futile contrition.

This is a consummate production, exemplary in terms of its dramatic and musical consistency. There are still a few tickets available for performances on 15, 17 and 22 August. Don’t miss out.

Claire Seymour

Listen to Billy Budd podcast:

Cast and production information:

Captain Vere, Mark Padmore; Billy Budd, Jacques Imbrailo; Claggart, Brindley Sherratt; Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Darren Jeffery; Mr Flint, David Soar; Mr Redburn, Stephen Gadd; Red Whiskers, Alasdair Elliott; Dansker, Jeremy White; Squeak, Colin Judson; Novice, Peter Gijsbertsen; Novice’s Friend, Duncan Rock; Bosun, Richard Mosley-Evans; Donald, John Moore; First Mate, Michael Wallace; Second Mate, Benjamin Cahn; Maintop, Dean Power; Arthur Jones, Brendan Collins; Cabin Boy, Charlie Gill; Midshipmen, Sebastian Davies/ Tom Foreman/ William Gardner/ Quentin-Zach Martins/Will Roberts; Conductor, Andrew Davis; Director, Michael Grandage; Revival Director, Ian Rutherford; Designer, Christopher Oram; Lighting Designer, Paule Constable; Movement Director, Tom Roden; London Philharmonic Orchestra; The Glyndebourne Chorus. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Saturday 10 August, 2013.

image= image_description=A scene from Billy Budd [ Photo Richard Hubert Smith] product=yes product_title=Billy Budd at Glyndebourne product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: A scene from Billy Budd [ Photo Richard Hubert Smith]
Posted by Gary at 11:04 AM

Oscar: A Viable New Opera

The opera deals with Oscar Wilde’s decision to stay in England and face trial on grounds of “gross indecency” when he could easily have slipped away to France.

OSCR_3325.gifDavid Daniels as Oscar Wilde and Heidi Stober as Ada Leverson

In 1893, before his trial and incarceration, Oscar Wilde wrote in The Duchess of Padua: "We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell." If only he had capitulated and fled to France… but then that was not in his character.

On July 27, 2013, Theodore Morrison’s opera Oscar had its world premiere at Santa Fe but I did not see it until the third performance on August 9th. The opera deals with Oscar Wilde’s decision to stay in England and face trial on grounds of “gross indecency” when he could easily have slipped away to France. The work depicts his conviction, his two years at Reading Gaol and his release into a Victorian society that was not ready to accept him. The role of Oscar was written for countertenor David Daniels and it was a fine showcase for his talent.

John Cox and Theodore Morrison's opera begins as narrator Walt Whitman, portrayed by Dwayne Croft, tells of his encounter with Wilde who was in the United States on a lecture tour. He gives us some necessary background on the events that culminated in the infamous trial. By encouraging accurate character portrayals, director Kevin Newbury transported the audience back into Victorian London and showed some of the horrors of that era. David Korins’ scenery, much of which looked like wrought iron, was readily mobile and allowed quick changes of the stage picture from hotel lobby to home and from courtroom to prison. David C. Woolard’s costumes placed the action firmly in the final decade of the nineteenth century.

OSCR_0012.gifDwayne Croft as Walt Whitman

David Daniels was a most sympathetic Oscar. He sang with exquisite phrasing and the sweet tones for which he is most justly famous. Wearing all white as the spirit of Whitman who had died before the opera takes place, Croft was a commanding character who pointed out the salient parts of Wilde’s story with robust dark tones. Heidi Stober sang the lyrical role of Ada Leverson with easy high notes, and her voice soared over the orchestra with a lustrous, radiant sound. In a circus of a courtroom, Kevin Burdette was a comical Jack-in-the-box as Mr. Justice Sir Alfred Willis. Later he returned as a dark toned, evil-minded prison governor.

Lyric tenor William Burden was an understanding Frank Harris whose beauty of tone signified his compassion. It was he who tried valiantly to help Oscar. First he offered to take him to France on a private yacht. His lover, Bosie, was already there. Dancer Reed Luplau portrayed Bosie as imagined by Oscar. Dancing Seán Curran’s choreography, Luplau gracefully whirled and jumped about in what would have been uncomfortably confining spaces for most dancers. His athletic portrayal allowed the audience to see Oscar’s vision of Bosie, the man the Irish poet loved with all his heart. Since Oscar would not agree to run away, Harris used his political influence to ameliorate prison conditions for him and for others like him.

Tenor Aaron Pegram and apprentice bass Rocky Sellars were nasty detectives and sadistic prison warders. Written for Santa Fe, this opera had a great many small parts for the company’s numerous talented apprentices. Ricardo Rivera was a spineless hotel clerk, Patrick Guetti an obsequious butler, and Yoni Rose a tough bailiff. Reuben Lillie was an implacable jury foreman, Christian Sanders an unsympathetic chaplain, while David Blalock and Benjamin Sieverding were infirmary patients whose own tragedies formed interlocking puzzle parts with Oscar’s sad tale.

OSCR_2299.gifThe Trial

Evan Rogister conducted the most excellent Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in this performance of Morrison’s first opera. Since the composer had written numerous choral works, he was accustomed to writing for the voice, but it was his orchestration that fascinated me. In the first act, the writing was often bi tonal with some excursions into coloratura to showcase the countertenor’s ability to sing florid music. Although we could occasionally hear sonorities that were reminiscent of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss, generally the music was in Morrison’s own particular style. Act One seemed a bit long, but the second act kept the audience’s interest all the way to the end. Rogister and the orchestra played Morrison’s difficult music as though it was a walk in the park but we know it must have taken a great deal of time to learn. Oscar was co-commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, which will stage it in 2015.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production Information:

Walt Whitman, Duane Croft; Oscar Wilde, David Daniels; Bosie, Reed Luplau; Detectives, Aaron Pegram and Rocky Sellers; Hotel Manager, Ricardo Rivera; Ada Leverson, Heidi Stober; Leggatt the Butler, Patrick Guetti; Frank Harris, Willian Burden; Bailiff, Yoni Rose; Mr. Justice Sir Alfred Willis, Kevin Burdette; Jury Foreman, Reuben Lillie; Prison Warders, Aaron Pegram and Rocky Sellers; Colonel Isaacson, Kevin Burdette; Chaplain, Christian Sanders; Infirmary Patients, David Blalock and Benjamin Sieverding; Warder Thomas Martin, Ricardo Rivera. Conductor, Evan Rogister; Director Kevin Newbury; Scenic Design, David Korins; Costume Design, David C. Woolard; choreographer, Seán Curran; Chorus Master Susanne Sheston.

image_description=David Daniels as Oscar Wilde and Reed Luplau as Bosie [Photo © Ken Howard]

product_title=Oscar: A Viable New Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: David Daniels as Oscar Wilde and Reed Luplau as Bosie

Photos © Ken Howard

Posted by maria_n at 10:52 AM

Glimmerglass: Major League Move

The cause for celebration begins with an uncommonly fine cast, surely among the top tier of today’s Dutchman interpreters. As the title character, Ryan McKinny has served notice that he is poised to be the Heldenbariton of choice for the punishing requirements of the demanding role. Mr. McKinny boasts a solid, even instrument that rolls forth with a hint of darkness and substantial weight. The inherent gravitas in the tone did not keep him from hurling out important dramatic declamations with a bright laser beam intensity and welcome purity of line. But, Ryan could also reel in the volume and ravish us with sotto voce phrasing that was warm, lyrical, and bewitching.

His traversal of “Die Frist ist um” was a mini-drama-within-a-drama, varied, well-shaped, empathetic and undeniably moving. I have never been quite so involved with the doomed man’s plight, or more involved with his journey. The handsome Mr. McKinny is also blessed with a personal charisma and stage magnetism that characterize the greatest performers. Mark my words, you will hear much much more in very short order about this exciting singer.

Every bit his equal, Melody Moore was a marvel of a Senta. Her well-focused tone had appreciable ‘ping’ but more important, there was an endearing womanly warmth in her sound, imbuing her vocalizing with great appeal at all volumes and in all registers. Like her co-star, Ms. Moore limned an unusually varied and effective introductory aria, which at once captured our interest and pleased our ears. In their great duet, the pair seem to inspire each other to even greater heights, with each successive phrase urging on the next resulting in confrontations of mounting intensity.

As Erik, we were fortunate to have Jay Hunter Morris, one of the most celebrated Wagnerian tenors of the day. He brought to Erik a shining, steady, youthful tone with ample steel, and unflagging stamina for the sustained tessitura. Mr. Morris also looked strapping and youthful, and he found more than the usual amount of dramatic variety in his two pivotal scenes. Peter Volpe’s Daland was an excellent foil for the Dutchman, his mellifluous, round bass filling out the character with insinuating, powerful calculation.

Two accomplished soloists from the Young Artists program made strong impressions in smaller parts. Adam Bielamowicz’s appealing tenor had sweetness and clarion punch as Erik and Deborah Nansteel’s solid mezzo made for a sassy, gutsy Mary.

John Keenan did yeoman’s work in the pit, helming a taut, propulsive account of what may be Wagner’s most accessible score. The musicians responded with beautifully judged solo passages and an awesome sense of ensemble. His judicious use of rubato with his solo singers added immeasurably to their communication of the drama. If the lower strings occasionally sounded a bit thinner than usual, it could be owing to the somewhat dry acoustic, or perhaps the space limitations of the pit. Nevertheless, this was overall a very fine interpretation.

I don’t think stage director Francesca Zambello is capable of doing anything that is uninteresting, and her work here was exceptionally fresh and thought-provoking. Set designer James Noone devised for her a clever and effective environment for the work’s disparate visual elements. Mr. Noone has elevated a large square stage platform and surrounded it with a large metal “box” of legs and trussing. Numerous tie lines hang from each overhead side bar. The backdrop is a large staircase rising from up right to high up left, which is fronted by a stylized “ship” shape. A set of black drapes upstage can iris in or out, revealing a further stylized image of an old sailing ship’s rope ladder. Backlit by blood red light, extras (and the Dutchman himself) can crawl up and down the structure, or simply hang lifelessly.

Ms. Zambello imagines the tale as Senta’s dream. Or perhaps her delusion? We first see the heroine in a white slip for a fleeting unscripted moment at the very start, in bed, in a confused state as sailors run all about her pulling on ropes. We return to this stark setting at opera’s end. Is she in fact, institutionalized? The decision is left open and that is the production’s strength. The basic story is told quite comprehensibly while the subtext and disorienting elements allow us to speculate, drawing us into what’s at stake.

L 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 in Camelot

The ropes prove to be an important visual motif, at once unsettling and ordered. There are rows of dangling lines flown in various combinations. In a brilliant choice, the spinning chorus finds the women sitting in rows and slowly braiding the ropes like an overhead macramé project. At another time, cast members riff the rows of lines in opposite directions creating a riot of motion. Mark McCullough chills our bones with an austere, changeable lighting design that seems to suggest the wanderings of a troubled mind (Senta’s, not his!).

The director seemed to find unlimited use for every inch of the space, which found nimble Young Artists even climbing the supporting legs of the truss during the famous choral numbers. Indeed, the work of the ensemble was flawless, marked as much by earnest acting, potent vocalism and restless motion as it was by controlled choreography devised by Eric Sean Fogel. Erik Teague’s costumes were picture perfect. The exotic, jacketed but bare-chested look for the Dutchman, displaying a prominent chest tattoo, was just the right combination of sex appeal and danger. Wagner lovers should fuggedaboutbayreuth and beat a path to Glimmerglass if they want to see the master well-served.

The ebullient, non-stop inventiveness on display in the Verdi rarity King for a Day (Un giorno di regno) made for what is possibly the most fun one can have inside an opera house with one’s clothes on. The creative team seemed to take a page, make that a Big-Ass-Page from the 60’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and exploited that formula brilliantly.

That hit TV show, you’ll recall, bombarded viewers with op-art visual images, blackout sketches, and manic dances that were as sudden and as tempestuous as a Cooperstown rainstorm. I have seen this “kitchen sink approach” fail with many a comic opera staging when the excesses have exhausted the viewers and left us wanting less. But not here.

Director Christian Räth has thoroughly evaluated his source material, and while remaining true to the silly plot, he has mined every last guffaw possible by re-imaging the stock characters and investing them with more personality than Verdi ever did. Kelley Rourke added to the goofs with a breezy translation that was colloquial and laced with a welcome hint of irony (although it has to be said for the first half of Act One, diction was variable). Mr. Räth was also fortunate to have had the collaboration of a gifted and thoroughly whacked-out design team.

From the git-go, the look of Court Watson’s tongue-in-cheek set design was comically akimbo with a stage platform (atop the existing stage) steeply raked from left to right, and poking out at us from under a diaphanous slanted white drape like a schoolgirl’s slip that was showing. Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel flooded the drape with a profusion of psychedelic circles that were set in motion as soon as the allegro portion of the overture began. Mr. Wierzel’s tight area lighting and isolated specials contributed mightily to punching up comic moments, and enhanced the overall joyous frivolity of the proceedings.

Once the main curtain opened, we were treated to a skewed gilt proscenium-arch-within-a-gilt-proscenium-arch, this opening tilted in opposition to the downstage slanted platform. And this image established the concept for the rest of the show which featured ornate picture frames large and small, manually carried or flown, that appeared, disappeared and re-configured to “frame the action.” Most often they were used to capture fleeting family portraits, but characters crawled in and out of them at will, sometimes sitting on them like a trapeze, other times soloing in front of a tableau that might abruptly spring to life.

Other than the basic structure and the ubiquitous frames, locales were suggested with such economical means as red and gold ballroom chairs, a red-carpet runner that became a running gag, and a red velvet pouffe topped with an unruly fern. Mr. Watson frequently upstaged his clever sets with eye-popping post-Nehru jacket costumes that are a riot of color and ingenuity.

In the pit, recently appointed Music Director Joseph Colenari led a taut, idiomatic reading that captured the juvenile buoyancy and good lyrical intentions of Verdi’s second opera. Some judicious cutting of repetitive music tightened the score to good effect and whatever was there to be mined for musical interest, Maestro Colenari found it, and urged the cast to appealing musical accomplishments. Indeed, all concerned seemed hell bent on treating the opus like a masterpiece it isn’t!

Although announced as indisposed, Alex Lawrence as Belfiore (the impostor king) sported a sturdy, forthcoming baritone with a warm presence that was as handsome as his appearance. His easy demeanor and animated antics enlivened every scene he was in. Jason Hardy’s reliable bass served the role of Baron Kelbar ably, and his twitchy acting style aptly conveyed the motives of the mercenary noble who is trying to get the best deal in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Jason should only be attentive to pushing too much in upper forte passages lest his tone become diffuse with pitchy results.

With a hair-do like a hood ornament on a Pontiac (splendid make-up and hair courtesy of designer Anne Ford-Coates), Andrew Wilkowkse is having a whale of a time as the daughter’s undesirable suitor La Rocca. His burnished baritone pleases in a part that is more usually barked by a buffo, and he pairs up successfully with Mr. Hardy for a nutty, well choreographed boxing match (yes, with gloves) in which his supple singing floats like a butterfly and his left hook stings like a bee.

Joe Shaddy sings the character part of Count Ivrea (the other unsuitable suitor) more beautifully than we could reasonably expect for such a comprimario role. Mr. Shaddy also scores big with his mastery of physical comedy as he presents the Count as a crusty old fart who has considerable difficulty negotiating his walker. His spontaneous entanglement in the apparatus elicited a show-stopping laugh. Andrew Penning sang cleanly as Delmonte and made the most of his expanded stage time as a frequent conspirator in comic plot complications.

Jason Hardy as Baron Kelbar and Alex Lawrence as Belfiore in Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day)

As the young love interest Edoardo, Patrick O’Halloran had it all: a Verdi-sized tenor, seamless technique, innate musicality, physical stature and freshly-scrubbed good looks. If the voice sounds a bit anonymous at this point, age and experience will no doubt provide some individual patina, but Mr. O’Halloran likely has a bright future. One design quibble: as engaging as it was to have Patrick costumed as an overgrown schoolboy in horn-rimmed eyeglasses, shorts, and argyle knee socks, eventually I wanted him to have matured a bit and perhaps looking more responsible than all the crazies around him.

Jacqueline Echols was perfection as the Baron’s bargained off-spring Giulietta. Ms.Echols is possessed of a lustrous, wide-ranging lyric soprano, that can sound round and dusky at one moment, then incisive and gleaming the next. Ms. Echols’ bubbly personality and killer smile, her lovely physique du role, and her charm factor recalled all the assets of the young Kathleen Battle. She not only partnered effectively with her Edoardo but warranted one of the night’s most enthusiastic responses for her spot-on rendition of her first act aria. Ginger Costa-Jackson is giving a tour-de-force, take-no-prisoners performance as the spurned diva. . .er. . .um, I mean Marchesa. Looking as glam as a vintage Vogue cover girl, Ms. C-J prowls the playing space like a tigress in search of a cage just so she could finally lock down and get some rest. Vocally, she is hard to categorize and while the commitment and overall effect of her singing is engaging, she can also be inconsistent. Just when you have her pegged as a mezzo with a rich, plangent lower voice, she will drop a line on you that totally thins out at the bottom. Then she will pop out a note above the staff that would be the envy of Gheorgiu. A moment after she fudges a straight-forward melismatic passage, she dazzles with an accurate flash of coloratura.

There is no denying that she has any number of compelling effects in her vocal arsenal and that she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. In a performance chockfull of wholly dedicated performers who achieved wonderful results, no one else came close to her definitive portrayal. Ginger Costa-Jackson is a singer, stylist and actress of tremendous gifts. I only urge her to get all of her substantial strengths completely ironed out and she will be a star ne plus ultra.

For all the superlative contributions from the performers, there is no doubt that the triumph belonged to director Räth. At the end of the day, when we thought we were laughed out, goofed out, and pooped out, the text sang one last time of “the King” and he brought on Belfiore in an Elvis mask. Helplessly, perhaps in spite of ourselves, we burst into a final tribute of appreciative belly laughs. Although King for a Day is not a great opera, it is most definitely great fun.

If you had told me that the staging of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater would be the knockout of the Festival, I might have thought you mad. However, from its rather gentle source material, the artistic team has indeed wrought a mesmerizing creation of enduring beauty, worthy of inclusion in the repertoire of the world’s ballet companies.

At curtain rise, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s evocative set consists of a large ashen tree trunk standing center stage, framed by a triangular opening, fronted by a matching log hovering high above, parallel to the stage floor. A lone sorrowful dancer is at the foot of the tree draped in an oversized grey veil as the mother of Christ.

With economical means and telling dance moves, director-choreographer Jessica Lang has found inspiration in the text and tone of the score’s various movements to devise meaningful, and at times devastating expression of Pergolesi’s opus. Ms. Lang seems to set up a visual theme, then breaks it apart into variations, changes group sizes, inverts certain steps, and subsequently expands upon then to give us an overall experience of potent emotional impact.

The well-schooled dancers, simply clad in what might pass for rehearsal clothes, embraced the concept and committed to it with whole-hearted expertise. The re-positioning and angling of the two pieces of the tree, and the frequent re-purposing of the veil were highly effective. I will not soon forget the descent of the large vertical log to serve as the cross beam upon which one male dancer suggests the crucifixion. Other dancers drape the wood with the gray cloth consistent with familiar Christian imagery, and that effect slowly raised skyward as the “corpse” remained earthbound. Stunning.

No less over-powering was the perfection from the two vocal soloists. Nadine Serra’s appealing soprano has almost a spinto thrust and spin at times, but she also has an uncanny ability to scale it back to execute masterful Baroque effects with no loss in quality or sweetness. I have long admired Anthony Roth Constanzo and his countertenor has never been heard to better advantage. Mr. Constanzo can sing with full-throated abandon with no loss of color, his florid passages are dramatically charged perfection, and his introspective musings are achingly beautiful. Both singers are well integrated into the dance movement, and Anthony was especially entrusted to execute some graceful choreography with skill and conviction.

The small period orchestra was expertly paced by Speranza Scappucci, who showed a real affinity for musical subtlety and effective dramatic pacing. Audience response to this unexpected jewel of a performance was immediate and vociferous. As soon as the curtain fell a cheer rose up that could probably be heard in Cooperstown.

Stabat Mater was followed after intermission by the staged premiere of David Lang’s the little match girl passion (sic), the double bill marketed under the heading Passions. There was much to admire in Lang’s writing, especially the unique palette of vocal sounds and purposefully controlled use of limited intervals and harmonies.

As part of finding theatrical expression for match girl director Francesca Zambello commissioned Mr. Lang to compose a sort of curtain warmer that featured the excellent Glimmerglass children’s chorus (Tracy Allen, Chorus Master). The result was the opening chorus when we were children. This was played in front of a main scrim with a row of red-lacquer benches (Ms. Kellogg again designed the set). Ms. Zambello had the ragamuffin children enter through the audience with house lights still on, and variously take their places sitting on the long expanse of benches until every seat was filled. The house lights dimmed and the children intoned a haunting, layered unaccompanied chant of few pitches and limited harmony.

When the curtain rose, there was little to reveal within the Pergolesi’s left-over triangular frame save a few platforms stage right with a bank of percussion instruments. These were played by the four adult vocalists as they sang in place. These Young Artists meticulously executed the complex vocal demands and were uniformly terrific: Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson, Christian Zaremba.

With the eventual addition of only the mournful thudding of a solo bass drum, and witnessing the blackened pit, it became evident there would be no other musical accompaniment forthcoming other than what might emanate from the onstage instruments. Festival Chorus Master David Moody conducted and admirably kept the whole piece tightly knit. Mr. Lang has a distinctive style here, which deconstructs words and divides phrases almost on a syllable-by-syllable, note-by-note basis. This poses a real challenge in understanding the text, and all necks seemed to be craned to read the super titles.

This is a fascinating score, with memorable moments and painful dissonances, and unsettling open harmonies. With something this minimal however, it is incumbent upon the performers to execute the rhythm, intervals, and chords with absolute accuracy to make a complete effect. While the adult quartet succeeded admirably, I believe that the composer set the bar just a mite too high for this (or any) children’s chorus, who nonetheless performed conscientiously.

For her part, Ms. Zambello wrung every possible bit of dramatic possibility out of the fragmented narrative with constantly evolving stage pictures and confrontations that emerged from almost cinematic dissolves. From all I read, I believe that Mr. Lang meant truly to move us with his composition. For all its admirable aural complexity, its original voice, and its accomplished staging, the piece fully engaged my intellect but could not engage my heart.

Rounding out the Festival was the annual classic American musical entry Camelot, which was treated to a handsome production. I am not sure Camelot is a “classic” since it is so plagued by book problems, narrative holes, and a couple of weak tunes. Over the years, there were so many songs and scenes excised, then randomly restored that there does not seem to be a definitive performance version. Never mind, director Robert Longbottom exerted a sure hand and paced the show well, imbuing as much clarity as is possible.

The show was blessed to have the highly appealing performer David Pittsinger as its King Arthur. Mr. Pittsinger has one of the most impressive baritones in the business and his treatment of Arthur’s songs was luxurious to say the least. While the role is written primarily for an actor who can sing (a little), David also proved to have the chops to pull off the King’s great speeches with unaffected grace, looked youthful and appealing, and was the anchor that the production required him to be.

Lovely young Canadian soprano Andriana Churchman was a delectable Guenevere with a voice of more solid radiance than I have ever encountered in this part. When she was allowed to sing a few optional notes in her gleaming upper register, we were keenly aware that Ms. Churchman has operatic abilities way beyond the requirements of Lerner and Loewe. Mr. Longbottom surely re-instated You May Take Me to the Fair to give Andriana another chance to shine and she made the most of it.

Nathan Gunn’s well-documented physical appeal and his alluring baritone are a near-perfect match for the preening Lancelot. It was a joy to discover the unforced sense of humor and subtle French accent that Mr. Gunn put to fine use in a well-calculated C’est Moi. Curiously, Nathan did not opt for a full-voiced ending to If Ever I Would Leave You which is decidedly more effective than a crooning finale. Still, he sang sweetly and acted with sincerity and purpose.

Victoria Munro (center) with the children's chorus in The Little Match Girl Passion

Jack Noseworthy was a definitive, boyishly spiteful Mordred, sprinting about with a dancer’s wiry poise and singing in a firm character tenor. Jack managed to make an art song out of the score’s weakest number, The Seven Deadly Virtues. We were lucky that he was also included in a re-instated Fie on Goodness as the primary soloist, a directorial choice that paid extraordinarily good dividends. Wynn Harmon, doubled as King Pellinore and Merlin, found a way to mine every possible laugh with his savvy delivery, although we were not fooled for an instant that the same actor played both roles.

Clay Hilley, Noel Bouley and Wayne Hu made solid contributions as Sirs Dinadan, Lionel and Sagramore, respectively, with Mr Bouley particularly notable for his virile bass-baritone. Richard Pittsinger (King Arthur’s real life son) was a sincere Tom of Warwick, characterized by excellent diction.

Everything was dispatched with great efficiency and, in spite of reclaiming two numbers, the legendary lengthy playing time was kept in check with other substantial cuts. Dance music was partly affected, but I didn’t mind so much since Alex Sanchez’s choreography was more pleasantly ‘functional’ than it was ‘inspired’. Other nips and tucks were internal save for the total elimination of Arthur’s visit to Morgan Le Fay and the Enchanted Forest in Act Two. This deprived him of stage time which seems really necessary to keep him a central figure in an act that is dominated by other characters. Conductor James Lowe kept things bubbling along in the pit, once past an overture that had muffled brass fanfares and a somewhat odd balance.

If there is any baggage accompanying Camelot it is likely the expectation of a lavish physical production. Set Designer Kevin Depinet makes a very good first impression. The tree stage left that conceals Arthur in Scene One was a very exciting, gorgeously stylized interpretation, almost suggesting a wave, and a true work of art. The mid-stage drop featured a slanted girder hung with a lovingly painted castle and an eroded hem that presaged the strife to come.

But oddly hanging over this outdoor scene was a huge brass chandelier. This later dropped lower for the study scene with the addition of a draped tapestry and some ornate chairs, but for the interiors the tree stubbornly remained in sight. In fact after about thirty minutes it was clear that with the exception of some other furniture, we had seen all we were really going to see, and that the big chunks were never leaving our sight.

Too, the chorus was on the small side, with Pellinore even pressed into service as a vocal participant in The Joust. With all the Young Artists at their disposal, and given the history of having large casts in the musical series, my only thought is that budget constraints may have dictated keeping the cast size smaller to avoid needing too many more of Paul Tazewell’s lavishly beautiful costumes. Side note: when Guenevere, extravagantly clad in a dazzling, perfectly tailored bugle-beaded gown tells Lancelot she has to change for dinner, I would love to know what she had in her closet since she already looked beyond ‘spectacular’!

Still, the capacity audience loved it all, there was the predictable standing ovation, and it was all entirely professional. But I kept having the nagging sensation that, for whatever reason, I was at a performance of Cam-e-Lite.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day)

Baron Kelbar: Jason Hardy; La Rocca: Andrew Wilkowske; Delmonte: Andrew Penning; Belfiore: Alex Lawrence; Edoardo: Patrick O’Halloran; Marchesa: Ginger Costa-Jackson; Giulietta: Jacqueline Echols; Count Ivrea: Joe Shadday; Conductor: Joseph Colaneri; Director: Christian Rath; Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel; Set and Costume Design: Court Watson; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Ford-Coates; English Adaptation: Kelley Rourke


King Arthur: David Pittsinger; Guenevere: Andriana Churchman; Lancelot: Nathan Gunn; Mordred: Jack Noseworthy; Sir Dinadan: Clay Hilley; Sir Lionel: Noel Bouley; Sir Sagramore: Wayne Hu; Merlin/Pellinore: Wynn Harmon; Tom of Warwick: Richard Pittsinger; Conductor: James Lowe; Director: Robert Longbottom; Choreographer: Alex Sanchez; Set Design: Kevin Depinet; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Ford-Coates

Passions: Stabat Mater, Little Match Girl Passion, When We Were Children

Set Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; Costume Design: Beth Goldenberg; Lighting Design: Mark McCullough; Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Ford-Coates; Stabat Mater soloists: Anthony Roth Constanzo, Nadine Sierra; Conductor: Speranza Scappucci; Director/Choreographer: Jessica Lang; little match girl passion & when we were children Vocal Ensemble: Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson, Christian Zaremba; Conductor: David Moody; Director: Francesca Zambella; Choreographer: Andrea Beasom

Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)

Daland: Peter Volpe; Steersman: Adam Bielamowicz; Dutchman: Ryan McKinny; Mary: Deborah Nansteel; Senta: Melody Moore; Erik: Jay Hunter Morris; Conductor: John Keenan; Director: Francesca Zambella; Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel; Set Design: James Noone; Costume Design: Erik Teague; Lighting Design: Mark McCullough; Hair and Make-Up Design: Anne Ford-Coates

image= image_description=Jay Hunter Morris as Erik and Melody Moore as Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer, Glimmerglass Festival 2013 [Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival] product=yes product_title=Glimmerglass: Major League Move product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Above: Jay Hunter Morris as Erik and Melody Moore as Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer, Glimmerglass Festival 2013

Photos by Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival
Posted by james_s at 10:03 AM

Un ballo in maschera at Orange

Un ballo in maschera was maybe the first opera to be strikingly if arbitrarily translocated in place and time — Verdi first moved his story and characters from Stockholm to Pomerania, then from there to New England, all this for political rather than dramaturgical reasons! The raisons d’état for such moves and their ramifications are in fact quite theatrical (censors and lawsuits), in fact far more so than what small theatricality can be eked from the opera.


There is however a lot of singing that results from a reworking of an old libretto by Eugène Scribe about the assassination of Gustavo III of Sweden. Scribe is the famed creator of the “well-made play” which meant back in the early 19th century construing a series of emotional moments into a reasonable flow of happenings. But such reasonable intention can become an end in itself, and Verdi’s ballo seems such an exercise.

Such lack of dramatic sincerity was evident in Claude Auvray’s production for the Chorégies d’Orange. There was no telling where or when the action takes place, maybe back in Stockholm though the characters use their Italian names from the Pomeranian version. The king and his courtiers were in modern business suits, cell phones at their ears, the decor was a sort of 19th century theatrical drape painted on the stage floor, the masked ball was 18th century powdered wigs. Riccardo (identified as Gustavo on political posters) was enveloped in a massive nordic looking mantle from time to time, Ulrica and her acolytes were in big black gowns with weird gray fright wigs.

It is big at Orange, the stage a few hundred feet wide, its pit (orchestra in Latin) is correspondingly huge and for this ballo housed the accomplished Orchestra National Bordeaux-Aquitaine with a fully symphonic contingent of strings. French conductor Alain Altinoglu, well known to international opera audiences through Live in HD from the Met, responded with ample tempos that stressed size rather than intensity.


Voices were of smaller scale, Riccardo, that is Gustavo, was Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, one of the more musically accomplished tenors who frequent international stages. He was in fine voice and delivered a well executed performance. His voice remains sweet and supple without the force of production one might expect from the King of Sweden, particularly on a Roman proscenium.

Amelia was young American soprano Kristen Lewis (born in Arkansas) who went directly from the University of Tennessee to Vienna where she has blossomed into a proto-Verdi soprano who also sings Mimi. She possesses a voice of pure, sweet sound, of ample force that she uses in high Italianate style. Plus she has mastered natural looking acting gestures appropriate to big singing. It all seemed the Cinderella moment of an important career until she disappeared at the end into her huge white ball gown and remained a mere Mimi.

Renato was bespectacled Italian baritone Lucio Gallo notable as the first Italian singer to be invited to the Bayreuth Festival (as Lohengrin’s Telramund in 2010). In Orange just now he apparently was seduced by the grandness of antiquity as he attempted volumes beyond his capacity and lost all possibility of actually forming words. He accepted his hueés (boos) with dignity.

Oscar, French soubrette Anne Catherine-Gillet took the stage from the start and made Verdi’s opera about the page (it was she who supported Gustavo during his dying moments, Amelia showed no reaction at all discreetly distanced on the arm of her husband, the murderer). French mezzo soprano Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo created an Ulrica of little distinction (by the way it was in 2005 that she added the Sicilian surname to her French one when she discovered the identify of her father).

Singing and mise en scéne at Orange is about size, not about detail. Over the years the various musical and staging techniques have become apparent, though the secret of the impeccable ensemble of chorus with the pit remains a mystery (the combined choruses of the operas of Nice, Nantes-Angers and Avignon number well more than a hundred). Staging however is done to recognized formulae that have proven effective over the decades, notably choristers pour onto the stage from both sides in colorful costumes to make scenic effect given that any real scenery would compete with the magnificent Roman stage wall and no one would want that. Principals remain down stage center and sing.


There is always a coup de théâtre event at the finale, here projections brilliantly lighted the huge Roman stage wall with its original sculptural detail. But the wall slowly darkened from the top down during the several minutes it took Riccardo aka Gustavo to expire. Magnificent is the word. The scenography was by Rudy Sabounghi and the exceptionally moody lighting by Laurent Castaingt, artists primarily active in the south of France and Monaco).

Light sprinkles of rain stopped the show from time to time but did not dampen the enthusiasm of the 8000 or so spectators. The stage crew, apparently unprepared for even the slightest precipitation, resorted to using toilet paper, a Calixto Bieito touch, to wipe the stage floor.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production information:

Amelia: Kristin Lewis; Ulrica: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo; Oscar: Anne-Catherine Gillet; Riccardo: Ramón Vargas; Renato: Lucio Gallo; Samuel: Nicolas Courjal; Tom: Jean Teitgen; Silvano: Paul Kong; A judge: Xavier Seince; A servant: Bo Sung Kim. Orchestre National Bordeaux-Aquitaine and the choruses of the operas of Nice, Avignon and Angers-Nantes, plus the Compagnie Fêtes Galantes conducted by Alain Altinoglu. Mise en scène: Jean-Claude Auvray; Scénographie: Rudy Sabounghi; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lighting: Laurent Castaingt; Chorégraphie: Béatrice Massin. Le Théâtre antique d'Orange, August 6, 2013.

image_description=The Roman Theatre in Orange [Photo © Philippe Gromelle Orange]

product_title=Un ballo in maschera at Orange
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: The Roman Theatre in Orange

Photos © Philippe Gromelle Orange

Posted by michael_m at 9:28 AM

August 8, 2013

A Very Real Traviata

On Monday August 5 Santa Fe opera presented a revival of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata with Brenda Rae in the title role. Since there is no curtain in Santa Fe, the entering audience saw a stage full of boxes with varying heights. Conductor Leo Hussein, like many of the artists in the production, was making his debut. His take on the story was immediately ascertainable when he played parts of the overture with an earthy tone. This was Violetta’s world, where otherwise refined men wined, dined, and cavorted with the most expensive Parisian courtesans.

The women’s costumes were colorful with extensive décolletage, tiny waists, and huge slits in their full skirts. Director Laurent Pelly acknowledged using costume design to help tell the story. Rae was a totally uninhibited Violetta who was smitten with Alfredo as she sang “Ah forsè lui” but repented her momentary lapse in an emotional “Sempre libera”. She has a good-sized voice and, except for one or two notes, her coloratura was neat and clear. Rae is a fine actress who easily communicates her feelings across the orchestra pit.

TRAV_0835.pngMichael Fabiano as Alfredo and Roland Wood as Giorgio Germont

Michael Fabiano sang Alfredo with innumerable gradations of dynamics and Hussein kept the orchestra’s sound level at a point where the lyric beauty of his voice could best be heard. He is a tenor whose talent promised much and in this performance he gave us even more than what was expected. Roland Wood was an officious Germont who began with a rather gruff sound, but his tone improved as he sang the part’s more lyrical moments, however. Despite the constant presence of the boxes instead of space and furnishings, Stage director Laurent Pelly and his artists succeeded telling the story in a most convincing manner.

Brenda Rae is a consummate actress who used halted phrasing and variations in dynamics to depict Violetta’s weakness. When she read Germont’s letter in the last act, she sang “è tardi” (it’s late) and dropped the mirror in her attempt to sit up. Then leaning over the bed in her distress, she looked into the fallen mirror to sing “Oh, come son mutata” (how I have changed). That brought the immediacy of her heartbreak to everyone in the theater. Verdi brought his message home by showing the stark contrast between her anguish and the cheerfulness of the masked chorus of holiday celebrants. The presence of Dale Travis as Doctor Grenvil was a bit of luxury casting. His bass-baritone voice added a great deal to the opera’s finale.

TRAV_1497.pngJennifer Panara as Flora and Jonathan Michie Baron Douphol

Several of this season’s apprentices had solo roles in this performance and all of them performed well. As Flora, Jennifer Panara was a lively, party-loving member of the demi-monde. The Annina, Rebecca Witty, on the other hand was a stolid but faithful servant who would not desert Violetta in her last hours. Tenor Joseph Dennis and bass Rocky Sellars were the obsequious servants of Violetta and Flora. Bass-baritone Andre Courville was a suave Marquis d’Obigny and bass Adam Lau was an effective messenger. This rendition of La Traviata gave a good start to this week’s five opera sequence.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Violetta, Brenda Rae; Alfredo Michael, Fabiano; Germont, Roland Wood; Flora, Jennifer Panara; Marquis d'Obigny, André Courville; Gastone, Keith Jameson; Baron Douphol, Jonathan Michie; Doctor Grenvil, Dale Travis; Anina, Rebecca Witty; Conductor, Leo Hussein; Director and Costume Designer, Laurent Pelly; Scenic Design, Chantal Thomas; Lighting design, Duane Schuler; Chorus Master, Susanne Sheston.

image_description=Brenda Rae as Violetta [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]

product_title=A Very Real Traviata
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Brenda Rae as Violetta

Photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

Posted by maria_n at 11:20 AM

Bryn Terfel: Homeward Bound

Posted by Gary at 10:51 AM

August 6, 2013

Verdi at the Old MET

While it may be true that in 2013 it is easier to encounter a consistently well-sung, compellingly-acted performance of an opera by Händel than of any of Verdi’s mature masterpieces, many of the performances that have emerged from dusty archives and personal collections during the past few years have revealed that the ‘Golden Ages’ of previous generations of Verdi singing show more tarnish than some listeners might care to remember. When Verdi performances at the Metropolitan Opera during the past few seasons have been only fitfully satisfying, these three releases in Sony Classical’s series of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts—Un ballo in maschera from 1955, Il Trovatore from 1961, and Don Carlo from 1964—are welcome reminders of the standards to which performances of Verdi’s most popular operas aspired during Sir Rudolf Bing’s tenure as the Company’s General Manager. The choral singing and orchestral playing are rarely of the quality that MET forces achieved either in previous decades, when the influence of Gustav Mahler’s leadership was still felt, or under the subsequent guidance of James Levine. These performances are cut; viciously so in the case of Don Carlo. These performances do not always find their ‘star’ singers at their considerable bests, but they are representative of one of the world’s most important opera companies at a time in its history when, on almost any night of the week, an operagoer could enjoy an idiomatic, musically satisfying performance of a Verdi opera. None of these performances is unknown to collectors, having circulated in ‘pirated’ editions of quality not markedly inferior to the sonics offered by Sony, but in this year in which the music of Verdi is in the ears of most opera lovers it is wonderful to renew acquaintances with these old friends.

History was made at the MET in January 1955, when legendary contralto Marian Anderson made her début as Ulrica in the Herbert Graf production of Un ballo in maschera. Prejudice and discrimination regrettably persist in the world’s opera houses, but it is no hyperbole to state that Ms. Anderson changed the musical world with her eight performances of Ulrica. By the time of the broadcast released here by Sony, eleven months after her début, Ms. Anderson’s nerves had settled. Many critics expressed regret that Ms. Anderson’s début did not come earlier in her career, when the voice was stronger and more pliable. She was nearing sixty at the time of the Ballo broadcast, but her Ulrica is a compelling creation. The voice remained on excellent form, the lower register appropriately earthy and the upper register focused and impactful. Indeed, Ms. Anderson produces some brilliant top notes in Ulrica’s brief appearance and injects a welcome sense of occasion into the performance. Zinka Milanov first sang Amelia in Ballo at the MET in December 1940, when the première of the Graf production opened the season. Her opening-night performance in 1940 did not meet with critical approval, but in the intervening seasons she became a favorite of New York audiences in the part. Ms. Milanov was a prime example of a star soprano of the ‘old school’ in that vocal production took precedence over dramatic verisimilitude. In this performance, however, she reminds the listener that an exceptional voice can convey all of the emotions that are expressed in the composer’s score via vocal means alone. In that regard, Ms. Milanov is an uncommonly satisfying Amelia, the voice mostly steady and the celebrated pianissimi deployed sparingly but to splendid effect. The voice is slightly ungainly in the lower register, as it ever was, and there is evidence of the scooping that increasingly affected Ms. Milanov’s singing as the voice aged. Excursions above the staff are usually luminous, however, the top C in ‘Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa’ rushed and slightly shrill but dead on the pitch. There are fewer instances in this performance of the singer’s much-cited habit of abandoning text in favor of unspecific vowel sounds in moments of greatest stress, particularly in the upper register: her diction is good in general despite some ferociously trilled r’s. Jan Peerce’s tenor was a nasal instrument, which mitigated even his best efforts at conveying Italianate ardor. Consonants are slightly swallowed in his method of vocal production, but he, too, displays concerted efforts at producing good diction. The voice is rock-solid throughout most of the compass, and Mr. Peerce’s rhythmic precision is appreciable. He and Ms. Milanov work up a froth of passion in their great duet in Act Two, ‘Non sai tu che se l’anima mia,’ the soprano unleashing the full power of her spinto voice unforgettably. Mr. Peerce comes to grief on top A, and Ms. Milanov avoids the top C that ends the duet in the score. Vibrant in Act One, vital and touching in his death scene in Act Three, and unimpeachably musical throughout the performance, Mr. Peerce is a finer Riccardo than has been heard at the MET in a number of years. Robert Merrill is a pillar of strength as Renato, his voice on its finest mid-career form. He never overdoes the conviviality in early scenes, but the breadth of his anger upon discovering Amelia’s seeming betrayal is formidable. Mr. Merrill’s performance of Renato’s aria ‘Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima’ is for the ages, the line sustained effortlessly by one of the great Verdi baritone voices of the 20th Century. Mr. Merrill’s singing in the final scene should be played to young baritones with Verdian pretensions as a masterclass in the art of Verdi ensemble singing. Roberta Peters is a pert, perky Oscar, fluent of tone and text and confident in her voicing of the high lines in ensembles. Her timbre and dramatic profile are unapologetically feminine, but she sings delightfully. Samuel and Tom, Verdi’s endearingly collegial conspirators, are excellently sung by Giorgio Tozzi and Norman Scott. The presence of singers of the quality of James McCracken, Calvin Marsh, and Charles Anthony in secondary rôles reminds the listener of one of the principal glories of the Bing Era at the MET, the sustenance of a company of ‘house’ singers who were accomplished performers in their own rights and could be called upon not only to take comprimario parts but also to pinch hit in principal rôles as required. In 2013, one is unlikely to hear a Judge in a MET performance of Un ballo in maschera who seems completely capable of getting through the part, let alone one who, like James McCracken in this 1955 performance, would within a decade sing Manrico and Otello. All three of these vintage broadcasts benefit from the incredible depth of Bing’s roster. Ultimately not a Ballo in maschera that forces other performances from the memory, this recording preserves a typically heated performance led by Dimitri Mitropoulos, of whose 208 appearances at the MET only eleven were at the helm of Ballo in maschera. If the Athens-born conductor was sometimes inclined to push the music rather hard, it was always in the interest of dramatic effectiveness, and his pacing of this performance boils with passion and unmistakable affection for the score. As the first MET broadcast to feature an artist of color in a principal rôle [Robert McFerrin made his début as Amonasro in Aida three weeks after Ms. Anderson’s début, but Aida was not broadcast in the 1954 - 55 season], this performance is of tremendous importance: as an idiomatic performance of Un ballo in maschera that is representative of the MET on best mid-Century form, it is thoroughly enjoyable.


On 27 January 1961, Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli made their MET débuts in a performance of Il Trovatore of which opera lovers still speak in hushed tones. It was surely a momentous occasion, and much of the triumph remained in the air a week later when Trovatore was broadcast on 4 February. Fausto Cleva was a stalwart conductor at the MET whose musicality is now under-appreciated. His best efforts at shaping an idiomatic Trovatore on the afternoon of 4 February are undermined to a degree by the excitement coursing through the house. Maestro Cleva made the best of the circumstances, keeping ensembles as tight as possible but also giving his singers latitude to strut their vocal stuff. The Trovatore cast also exhibits the richness of the MET roster during the Bing years: with the young Teresa Stratas as an atypically full-voiced Ines, Carlo Tomanelli as a sonorous Gypsy, Robert Nagy as a ringing Messenger, and Charles Anthony as a vibrant Ruiz, secondary rôles are all in more-than-capable hands. Bass William Wilderman sang 232 performances at the MET in eleven seasons, with a gap of fourteen years between his appearances. During that absence, he was acclaimed at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, where he was essentially the ‘house’ bass in both German and Italian parts. He was also a familiar presence at Chicago Lyric Opera. As Ferrando in this performance, Mr. Wilderman launches the performance powerfully. He also starts Act Three with winning menace. His partner in crime, so to speak, is the Conte di Luna of Mario Sereni. Mr. Sereni débuted at the MET as Gérard in Andrea Chénier in 1957, and he was one of the baritones to whom Bing turned to fill the void in the MET roster left by the on-stage death of Leonard Warren in 1960. Particularly in comparison with Warren, Mr. Sereni’s voice was not of extraordinary proportions, and its timbre was somewhat generic. The voice also had a quick vibrato that recalled the voices of Italian baritones from earlier generations. In this performance, Mr. Sereni is a manly, fluent di Luna. With only the audio element of the performance at hand, his interjections in Act One seem like those of a comic-book villain, but his singing of ‘Il balen del suo sorriso’ in Act Two is capable, his technique largely equal to the considerable demands made by Verdi. He is none too subtle about his intentions towards Leonora in Act Four, but he sings with genuine Italian slancio in ‘Mira, di acerbe lagrime’ and ‘Vivrà! Contende il giubilo.’ An admired Kundry at Bayreuth, mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis’s two-decade MET career encompassed an almost even split between German and Italian rôles. As Azucena in this performance, Ms. Dalis is on barnstorming form. The trills in ‘Stride la vampa’ in Act Two are only suggested, but the gypsy’s spooky craziness is always in evidence. Ms. Dalis throws herself into the drama in Act Two, though like most singers she ducks the top C that Verdi wrote for Azucena in ‘Perigliarti ancor languente.’ Her irony in ‘Giorni poveri vivea’ is cutting, but Ms. Dalis transforms Azucena into a womanly, beautiful figure in Act Four, her tenderness for Manrico always apparent. There is an element of horror in her expression of triumph over di Luna at the final curtain, and on the whole her performance, though not completely idiomatic, is marvelous. The voice of Leontyne Price was from her first note in Trovatore in 1961 until her last note in Aida in 1985 one of the greatest natural instruments ever heard at the MET and one of the few over which its owner had near-absolute control. The lower register was never the strongest part of Ms. Price’s voice, and there are passages in this performance that display the huskiness in the lower octave of the voice that was heard throughout Ms. Price’s career. When she reaches the ascending phrases of ‘Tacea la notte placida,’ however, it is apparent that this is a Verdi soprano of amazing quality. Leonora in Trovatore was one of Ms. Price’s best rôles, and this performance wholly reveals the evidence for the acclaim. Ms. Price has the technical acumen to achieve the part’s frequent top notes (including an interpolated D-flat, on which she is joined by Mr. Corelli, in the coda of the Trio that ends Act One), the roulades, and the trills. The ease with which Ms. Price voices the cruelly-exposed lines in the Act Two Finale is breathtaking, and her accounts of ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ and one stanza of its frequently-cut cabaletta, ‘Tu vedrai che amore in terra,’ are superb. The voice smolders during the ‘Miserere’ and in the scene with di Luna. Ms. Price’s voice pulses with emotion in Leonora’s death scene, her singing of ‘Prima che d’altri vivere’ rivaling the finest ever heard. Ms. Price’s understanding of Leonora’s musical and dramatic progress would deepen with time, but this performance is a smashing freshman effort by one of the 20th Century’s greatest singers. From an operatic perspective, the term ‘swagger’ that is so frequently encountered in today’s popular culture might have been coined to describe Franco Corelli. By the time of his MET début, Mr. Corelli had a decade of singing leading rôles in Italy behind him. Mr. Corelli was regarded as one of Bing’s most significant acquisitions for the MET, and his début was greatly anticipated. Though critics expressed reservations about his singing, audiences gave Mr. Corelli their complete affection. In this Trovatore broadcast, Mr. Corelli is a riveting Manrico, the voice on rafter-rattling form. Considering his association with the part, it is interesting to note that only eleven of Mr. Corelli’s 369 MET performances were as Manrico. Following the success of Ms. Price’s opening aria, an electric charge audibly passes through the house when Mr. Corelli is first heard, singing ‘Deserto sulla terra’—capped, expectedly, by a ringing interpolated top B-flat—from off stage. Mr. Corelli reaches his stride in his Act Two exchanges with Azucena. The Mozartean grace of ‘Ah! Sì, ben mio coll’essere’ eludes Mr. Corelli, as do the aria’s trills, but the aria receives a stirring performance. ‘Di quella pira’ is the part of the performance for which the audience was collectively waiting, of course, and Mr. Corelli does not disappoint: even transposed down by a semi-tone, the aria gives Mr. Corelli an opportunity to flex his musical muscles, the high Bs hurled out into the house like grenades and shamelessly sustained. In Act Four, there are moments of genuine emotion from Mr. Corelli, not least in his ardent attempt at reassuring his mother and his shame at having doubted the devotion of the dying Leonora. A poetic Manrico Mr. Corelli is not: a grandly exciting one he is. Like the Ballo in maschera broadcast, this is not the finest Trovatore in the MET’s history, but it is a glamorously satisfactory performance.


Three months after his début in Il Trovatore, Franco Corelli sang his first performance of the title rôle in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the MET. Of Mr. Corelli’s four MET broadcast performances of Don Carlo, the March 1964 broadcast was selected by Sony and the MET for release in this series. It is regrettable that the February 1970 broadcast was not preferred, this being the least-circulated among Mr. Corelli’s broadcasts of the opera and offering a rare opportunity to hear the wonderful Raina Kabaivanska as Elisabetta. Though perhaps not as treasured by collectors as Mr. Corelli’s 1970 Wiener Staatsoper performance or the 1972 MET broadcast (in which Montserrat Caballé famously sustains her concluding top B-flat for an eternity), this 1964 Don Carlo has much to recommend it. There are too many cuts in the performance to allow a true assessment of Kurt Adler’s way with the score, but he adopts credible tempi for what remains of Verdi’s music. This performance, too, benefits from the work of excellent singers in secondary parts. The Count of Lerma is strongly sung by Hungarian tenor Gabor Carelli, who also sang principal rôles such as Alfredo in La Traviata and the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto at the MET. Baltimore-born soprano Junetta Jones made her MET début in this production of Don Carlo in 1963: she is a radiant Celestial Voice in this performance. Robert Nagy, the firm-toned Herald in this Don Carlo, would go on to sing the Kaiser in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and other leading parts at the MET. Marcia Baldwin’s Tebaldo is above the recorded average. The young Justino Díaz is luxury casting in the Friar’s few but critical lines. Among the principals, the acerbic Grand Inquisitor of Hermann Uhde is an astounding performance, Mr. Uhde’s voice moving through the part with chilling cruelty and granitic tone despite lacking the lowest notes required by the score. His encounter with Giorgio Tozzi’s Filippo is rightly the dramatic climax of the performance. A MET stalwart, Mr. Tozzi never sang better than in this performance, in which the richness of his timbre is allied with a complete connection with the emotional development of his part. Mr. Tozzi was not a singer whose work was always marked by great dramatic depth, but this performance reveals a thoughtful sensibility, his singing of Filippo’s towering ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ mined from the recesses of the singer’s soul and aimed squarely at the hearts of the listeners. It is difficult to believe that the head of such a sensitive monarch could have been turned by an Eboli as unhinged as the one depicted by Irene Dalis. Eboli’s tessitura stretches Ms. Dalis’s vocal resources, but she blows through the part with the force of a tornado, uprooting all of the characters she encounters. The Veil Song is not a good fit for Ms. Dalis’s vocal skills, but her singing of ‘O don fatale’ is exhilarating, the top notes landing dead-center on the pitches. Another of the baritones brought to the MET by Bing as replacements for the fallen Leonard Warren was the Romanian Nicolae Herlea, whose MET career sadly extended to only twenty-four performances. It was in this broadcast performance of Don Carlo that Mr. Herlea made his MET début, and the timbre of his voice is immediately arresting. Debutant nerves affect Mr. Herlea at his entrance, but when he reaches the celebrated ‘friendship’ duet with Carlo, ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor,’ he is singing with the rare strength of a true Verdi baritone. ‘Per me giunto è il dì supremo’ and ‘Io morrò, ma lieto in core’ receive from Mr. Herlea thrilling, moving performances, his account of Rodrigo’s death displaying his magnificent breath control. Though his MET performances did not consistently find Mr. Herlea on best form, his was one of the finest baritone voices heard at the MET in the 20th Century, and none to equal its quality has been heard in the house in the first thirteen years of the new century. Elisabetta di Valois taxes the great Leonie Rysanek, the lower reaches of the part demanding greater security and freedom than the Viennese soprano could reliably provide. Unsurprisingly, there are some startling top notes, however, especially in Ms. Rysanek’s unidiomatic but broadly-sung performance of ‘Tu, che la vanità.’ The go-for-broke nature of the performance as a whole compels Ms. Rysanek to sing at full-throttle throughout, Verdi’s lines exacerbating the register breaks that were less apparent in the higher lines of the her usual territory of music by Wagner and Richard Strauss. Her encounters with each character in turn show Ms. Rysanek making commendable efforts at varying her dramatic approach, and she is an impressively regal presence in the opera even when the voice—or, more aptly, the manner of wielding it—falters. Mr. Corelli’s Carlo was a famous portrayal, but it was one that relied upon vocal largesse far more than any perceptible insights into the character’s psychology. Mr. Corelli bulldozes through Carlo’s entrance aria, ‘Io la vidi e il suo sorriso,’ without a hint of elegance, but the tone is golden. Still singing vibrantly, Mr. Corelli responds to Mr. Herlea’s superb singing in ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor’ by infusing his performance with an added air of competitiveness. Opera with Mr. Corelli was ever a spectator sport, and he fires a volley at Mr. Herlea and the MET audience with an interpolated top C in the duet’s coda; not one of his better efforts at the note but one that audibly excites the audience. There is little in the way of brotherly affection between this Carlo and Rodrigo, but there are moments of dramatic identification with his rôle in Mr. Corelli’s performance. His confrontation with Eboli blazes with exasperation, albeit of a type more appropriate for Turiddu and Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana: Carlo is the Infante, heir to the Spanish throne, after all, and the Princess of Éboli was widely considered the most beautiful noblewoman in Spain (her husband, to whom she was married at the age of twelve, was Don Ruy Gómez de Silva, who figures in Verdi’s Ernani). Mr. Corelli’s exchanges with Ms. Rysanek’s Elisabetta are intense but lack the subtext of dangerous erotic energy. Similarly, Mr. Corelli’s Carlo seems impetuous and spoiled rather than genuinely threatening in his scenes with his father, Filippo. Still, the appeal of a voice as secure as Mr. Corelli’s, combined with a native Italian temperament, is undeniable, and, vocally, Mr. Corelli’s Carlo streaks through the performance like a flash of lightning. This broadcast has what on paper seems like one of the most distinguished casts that could have been assembled for Don Carlo in 1964. Aside from Mr. Herlea’s first appearance with the MET, however, the performance never adds up to much more than the sum of its parts: nothing is embarrassing or musically catastrophic, but this is a verismo -tinged performance of one of Verdi’s most ambiguous operas. The extroverted passions are there in spades, but the inwardness that gives the principal characters such bracing humanity is largely absent.

Before the dissolution of the MET’s system of having French, German, and Italian ‘wings’ staffed by singers and conductors whose artistries were built upon the foundations of those nationalistic traditions, New York was a bastion of effective, idiomatic performances of Verdi’s operas. Perhaps the sheer size of the new opera house at Lincoln Center has contributed to the decline of performance standards in Verdi’s music in recent seasons. It cannot be denied that a voice like Leontyne Price’s is of the quality that emerges, at best, once in a generation. It cannot be said that the voices heard on these three vintage MET broadcasts are irreplaceable, but it would be difficult to argue that a Milanov, a Merrill, a Price, an Herlea, or a Corelli has been heard at the MET in the past thirty years, especially in Verdi repertory. In the context of preserving the work of these important singers in assignments typical of their MET careers, these Sony recordings are valuable documents that appeal not only to the nostalgia of those who heard the broadcasts live over the airwaves but also to those who are curious about how Verdi’s operas sound when sung by singers who know more about these scores than what they were told in conservatory lecture halls.

Joseph Newsome

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901):

Un ballo in maschera —J. Peerce (Riccardo), Z. Milanov (Amelia), R. Merrill (Renato), M. Anderson (Ulrica), R. Peters (Oscar), G. Tozzi (Samuel), N. Scott (Tom), C. Marsh (Silvano), C. Anthony (Servant), J. McCracken (Judge); Dimitri Mitropoulos [Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee broadcast of 10 December 1955; Sony 88697 91002 2; 2CD, 124:46]

Il Trovatore —F. Corelli (Manrico), L. Price (Leonora), I. Dalis (Azucena), M. Sereni (Conte di Luna), W. Wilderman (Ferrando), T. Stratas (Ines), C. Anthony (Ruiz), C. Tomanelli (Gypsy), R. Nagy (Messenger); Fausto Cleva [Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee broadcast of 4 February 1961; Sony 88697 91006 2; 2CD, 124:52)

Don Carlo —F. Corelli (Don Carlo), Leonie Rysanek (Elisabetta), G. Tozzi(Filippo II), N. Herlea (Rodrigo), I. Dalis (Eboli), H. Uhde (Grand Inquisitor), M. Baldwin (Tebaldo), G. Carelli (Count of Lerma), J. Díaz (a Friar), R. Nagy (Herald), J. Jones (Celestial Voice); Kurt Adler [Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee broadcast of 7 March 1964; Sony 88697 91004 2; 2CD, 155:49]

image= image_description=Sony 88697 91002 2 product=yes product_title=Verdi at the Old MET product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=Above: Un Ballo In Maschera price=$18.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 12:13 PM

August 3, 2013

Coleridge Taylor: The Song of Hiawatha, Three Choirs Festival

The Three Choirs Festival is the world's oldest music festival. For over three hundred years, the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester have been coming together to sing.

In many ways, British music was defined by the Three Choirs Festival well into the mid 20th century: it is the epicentre of a grand tradition. Hearing Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha in Gloucester Cathedral was significant, because the Festival was instrumental in bringing the composer to prominence. While still a student, Coleridge-Taylor came to the attention of Alfred Jaeger and Edward Elgar. The Three Choirs Festival gave him his first big commission in 1897, on the express recommendation of Elgar. Hiawatha's Wedding Feast followed soon after, then the full Song of Hiawatha we were privileged to hear. By the age of 25, Coleridge-Taylor was a resounding success.

Coleridge-Taylor is sometimes called "The Black Mahler" but it's a silly marketing gimmick. It's musically illiterate. Coleridge-Taylor didn't conduct opera and didn't write symphonies. The Song of Hiawatha sits firmly in the oratorio tradition. If anything, Coleridge-Taylor was the "Black Elgar". The Three Choirs Chorus sang with such fervour that the Elgarian aspects of the score shone with great conviction, even if the words were a little indistinct. But what joy it must have been for them to tackle this strange, almost hypnotic chant, and words like Pau-puk-Keewis, Chibiabos, Shaugodaya, Kuntassoo and Iagoo! Hiawatha is a Grand Sing and needs to be done on this grand scale.

The soloists stand forth from the chorus. Twenty years ago, Bryn Terfel sang the baritone part for the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, under William Alwyn. He was brilliant, defining the whole piece with his presence, all the more striking because he sounded so young, No-one could compare, though Benedict Nelson did his best. Robin Tritschler sang the tenor part, negotiating the cruelly high cry "Awake ! my beloved" with ease. Hye-Youn Lee sang the soprano part with exceptional freshness and vitality. She's a singer we should be hearing a lot more of.

Orchestrally, The Song of Hiawatha is rousing. London's Philharmonia Orchestra played for Peter Nardone as if they were playing grand opera. The horn call that introduces the piece and runs throughout suggested Wagner. Both Siegfried and Hiawatha are Noble Savages, setting out on voyages of discovery. The pounding timpani, however, suggest the type of drums white people assumed Red Indians would play. They also anchor the orchestra in a way percussion would not perhaps control symphonic form for many years to come. The Song of Hiawatha is oratorio, but also influenced by new European influences. Englishmen didn't really write opera until Peter Grimes in 1948. The Philharmonia were much livelier and more vivid than the WNO Orchestra on the recording.

Although Hiawatha hands his people over to missionaries to be civilized, it doesn't sit well with the pious religious values of its time. Even Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, completed two years after Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, was considered racy in many circles because of its Catholic connections. But Hiawatha is important, not just for its exotic subject. Coleridge-Taylor may have chosen Longfellow's text because of its unique syntax, imitating the repetitive chant of oral traditions. "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, by the shining Big Sea Water". Even the strange names come over like incantation. For a musician, this syntax translates into musical form. Coleridge-Taylor adapts the syntax into short rhythmic cells. Coleridge is experimenting, tentatively, with new form. How he would have responded to Stravinsky, to Picasso, to Diaghilev and to Ravel!

There are lyrical passages in Hiawatha that evoke the freshness and wonder of Dvorák's Symphony From the New World, written only five years before, and definitely "new" music. Yet Coleridge-Taylor's style is distinctively his own. At this stage, Vaughan Williams, though slightly older, was still under the thumb of Charles Villiers Stanford and Delius was yet to find himself. Unlike, say, Granville Bantock, whose exoticism operated like fancy dress costume, Coleridge-Taylor absorbed alien ideas into his very artistic core. He listened to Black American music and adapted to create something original. Years later Bartók would turn to Hungarian folk music to create new music, but Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way earlier. Perhaps he was attracted to Black music as a kind of atavistic quest for identity, since he never knew his father. But every time he looked in the mirror he must have been reminded that part of who he was remained a mystery. Vaughan Williams's later discovery of English folk song seems very tame in comparison.

When Coleridge-Taylor collapsed and later died, on Croydon Railway Station in 1912, aged only 37, British music lost a true original, perhaps, even, its greatest hope after Elgar. Although he should not be judged by the colour of his skin, it's an inescapable part of what he means to us today in multicultural Britain. He's probably also influential in the United States where he was welcomed into the White House by the President, at a time when blacks entered only by the back door. When Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875, being illegitimate was scandalous. Even though he wasn't "deprived", and there weren't enough Black people around for prejudice to develop beyond curiosity, Coleridge-Taylor would have had to live with other people's stereotypes, however veiled. So I hope we'll be able to get away from the British music ghetto and the "Black Mahler" cliché and respect Coleridge-Taylor in a wider music and social history context.

Coleridge-Taylor's The Song of Hiawatha from The Three Choirs Festival will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in September.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1905)

product_title=Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: The Song of Hiawatha
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=The Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, England, 1st August 2013

Posted by anne_o at 3:42 PM

August 2, 2013

Italo Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre re

The first performance, conducted by Arturo Toscanini and featuring Lucrezia Bori as Fiora, was acclaimed by both audience and critics, the opera widely acknowledged as an important addition to the MET’s repertory.  Subsequent seasons found Toscanini and Bori returning to the piece, along with performances conducted by Tullio Serafin with Rosa Ponselle as Fiora and Ezio Pinza as Archibaldo.  The opera was selected to open the MET’s forty-fourth season in 1928, and the composer himself conducted the score in New York in 1941, when the glamorous Grace Moore brought her Fiora to the MET.  Fiora was sung by the marvelous but too-little-remembered Dorothy Kirsten in the 1948 - 49 season, and thereafter L’amore dei tre re disappeared from the MET stage.  Sixty-four years later, the opera still awaits its sixty-seventh performance at the MET.

One of the underappreciated gems of contemporary European music is Warsaw’s Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival, an ambitious project that has granted welcome focus to underappreciated operas.  A particular highlight of previous Festivals was a concert performance—also recorded and commercially released by Polish Radio—of Donizetti’s rarely-heard Maria Padilla with Nelly Miricioiu, and the centerpiece of the 2012 Festival was Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re.  Musically, the quality of Montemezzi’s score offers unique rewards to dedicated performers, its combination of elements of Italian verismo with Wagnerian influences creating an unique sound that is duplicated in the music of no other composer.  Precisely why popularity has eluded L’amore dei tre re since the middle of the 20th Century is an enigma.  The opera has virtually every quality that endears a score to audiences: brevity, passion, betrayal, violence, and music that challenges all of the principal singers.  What the opera might be said to lack is true melodic distinction, but the repertories of many of the world’s important opera companies include frequently-performed works without a single melody—or any of originality or true quality—to be heard.  L’amore dei tre re, regarded a century ago as one of the finest operas of its generation, deserves reassessment, and a more compelling argument in its favor than this performance by Maestro Łukasz Borowicz and a distinguished cast can hardly be imagined.

Since the erosion of Communism throughout Eastern Europe, the musical world has been greatly enriched by the emergence of excellent artists and institutions whose work was largely hidden from the West by the Iron Curtain.  The history of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra began before World War II, but the devastation suffered by Poland during the War and five subsequent decades of Communist rule sadly limited the Orchestra’s reach beyond Poland’s borders.  The fall of Communism in Poland in 1989 opened the way for Polish artists to share their cultural wealth with the wider world, and the launching of the Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in 1997 brought together many of Poland’s finest artists for a musical celebration of the resilience and artistic survival of the Polish people.  The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra has been central to the success of the Ludwig van Beethoven Eastern Festival, and the Orchestra’s playing in this performance of L’amore dei tre re confirms the extraordinary quality of the ensemble.  Montemezzi’s score presents many challenges to all sections of the orchestra, and the brass players offer performances that rival the best playing of their colleagues in Berlin and Vienna.  String tone is consistently robust and beautifully-sustained, the players’ intonation never faltering.  The singers of the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir, prepared by Henryk Wojnarowski, perform with laudable fervor, their singing contributing effectively to the mystery and menace of the opera’s final Act.  The efforts of both Choir and Orchestra are aided immeasurably by the assured, idiomatic conducting of Łukasz Borowicz, principal conductor of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2007.  Maestro Borowicz has vast experience in conducting opera, but his work in this performance surpasses the efforts of many of the most famous conductors active today.  It seems that Italian opera, encompassing styles as divergent as bel canto and verismo, is in his blood.  In terms of pacing the performance and highlighting phrasing in dramatically-crucial passages, Maestro Borowicz’s approach resembles that of the opera’s composer as preserved in the 1941 MET radio broadcast.  In a score in which many conductors would be lured into frenetic pursuit of melodrama, Maestro Borowicz allows climaxes to occur naturally, as the composer intended.  The inventiveness and marvelous spookiness of the score are manifested without being unduly emphasized, and the soloists receive the support needed to deliver their parts with maximum musical integrity and emotional impact.  Worries about the survival of opera in general would be far fewer if more performances benefited from the immediacy and commitment brought to this performance by Maestro Borowicz and the choristers and orchestral players over whom he presides.

Secondary characters in L’amore dei tre re are given limited opportunities to make impressions, but each of the singers engaged for this performance makes the most of every bar of his or her part.  In the rôles of a handmaiden, a young girl, and an old woman, sopranos Joanna Gontarz and Magdalena Dobrowolska and mezzo-soprano Anna Fijałkowska offer voices of greater quality than their parts require, each lady singing excellently.  Also impressive is treble Tomasz Warmijak in the few lines of a youth.

Spanish tenor Jorge Prego sings Flaminio with vocal freshness and genuine emotional involvement.  His voice has a lovely timbre, and only a pair of his highest notes are slightly troublesome.  It is to Flaminio that the unenviable task of attempting to preserve semblances of honor and order falls, and the anguish with which Mr. Prego sings as he guides the blinded Archibaldo—knowing well that the old king eerily perceives what he cannot see—is touching.  Mr. Prego delivers the texts that he sings with the insightfulness of an accomplished Lieder singer, and a sense of Flaminio’s symbolic service as Archibaldo’s eyes is aptly conveyed by Mr. Prego’s performance.

Avito, to whom the beautiful Fiora was betrothed before the kingdom of Altura was conquered by Archibaldo, is sung by Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry, an engaging young singer who has been acclaimed in rôles as varied as Arbace in Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème.  Lyricism never persists for more than a few bars in the tense world of L’amore dei tre re, but Mr. Barry’s fluid lyric tenor fills his musical lines expressively.  The voice is perhaps somewhat small for a rôle sung at the MET by Enrico Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli and recorded by Plácido Domingo, but the appeal of Mr. Barry’s voice in Avito’s music is undeniable.  Ascents into the upper register are not always completely comfortable, with occasional pinching of the tone intruding into the singer’s otherwise unimpeachable command of line, but he avoids forcing the voice even in moments of greatest passion.  Lyric tenors with voices of quality who do not squander their gifts in pursuit of major careers are rare: this performance increases the hope that Mr. Barry will achieve the prominence that his talent deserves without being tempted to damage the voice.

American baritone David Pershall discloses a vibrant, ringing voice in his performance as Manfredo, Archibaldo’s son and Fiora’s husband.  Considering that, for all of its composer’s musical inventiveness, L’amore dei tre re is an Italian opera and that Fiora’s hand was formerly promised to Avito, it likely does not need to be stated that Manfredo’s deep love for his wife is unrequited.  Perhaps the most dramatically significant element of the opera’s plot is Manfredo’s near-success in inspiring his wife to an act of affection towards him: touched by his sincerity and obvious devotion, she agrees to wave goodbye to him as he departs for battle but is ultimately intercepted and convinced to abandon her goodwill mission by Avito.  Concerned by Fiora’s failure to appear upon the parapet, Manfredo returns to the castle to find that in the interim his father has discovered his wife with her lover and strangled her.  Dutiful husbands rarely receive the most glorious music in an opera, but Montemezzi gave Manfredo impassioned, pained music that demands both nobility and raw emotion.  The rôle receives from Mr. Pershall a performance of tremendous strength.  Mr. Pershall’s voice is a beautiful, well-knit instrument that sounds particularly impressive in moments of repose.  The subtlety of Mr. Pershall’s performance suggests that suspicion does not come naturally to Manfredo, making the character’s plight all the more wrenching.  Mr. Pershall’s diction is very good, with vowels attractively on the breath, and the allure of his tone in Manfredo’s exchanges with Fiora make the character far more than a dullard from whom any wife might seek refuge.  The manly high spirits with which he greets his father and the tenderness with which he returns to his wife’s side, failing to notice the coldness of her welcome that is so obvious to his blind father, are eloquently conveyed by Mr. Pershall’s singing.  His most impressive singing, both musically and dramatically, is accomplished in the scene in which, having confronted his dead wife’s lover, he purposefully kisses Fiora’s poisoned lips in order to join her in death.  Not unlike Mr. Barry, Mr. Pershall may not possess the sheer weight of tone brought to Manfredo’s music by his illustrious predecessors in the part, who include Carlo Galeffi, Pasquale Amato, and Lawrence Tibbett: on his own terms, however, he is a thrilling Manfredo who inspires great sympathy.

Like many operatic heroines, Fiora is a complex woman, neither wholly condemnable nor free from blame for her actions.  The biting cruelty of her exchanges with Archibaldo portray her as a calculating vamp determined to enjoy her assignations with her lover at any cost, but the reluctant grace with which she agrees to grant her husband’s simple wish of waving goodbye as he returns to battle at least suggests that a certain softness resides in her heart.  Musically and dramatically, Fiora is a distant relative of both Debussy’s Mélisande and Puccini’s Tosca.  Ambiguity is her only consistent trait, and Montemezzi painted her musical portrait in muted tones occasionally splashed with explosions of color.  American soprano Sara Jakubiak, successful in an uncommonly eclectic repertory ranging from Mozart to Philip Glass, throws herself into Fiora’s music with abandon and gives a performance of spine-tingling power.  Montemezzi hinted that Archibaldo’s loathing of Fiora and tireless pursuit of proof of her infidelity were derived from the old king’s latent lust for his daughter-in-law.  Indeed, modern psychologists might suggest that Archibaldo’s very physical act of strangling Fiora is a manifestation of sexual sadism, his sole opportunity at possessing her body.  The disgust in Ms. Jakubiak’s voice in Fiora’s exchanges with Archibaldo suggests that she is all too aware of the intentions that lurk in the recesses of the blind king’s mind.  The deadened tone with which she sings in response to Manfredo depicts boredom and exasperation more than genuine hatred.  When in Avito’s company, however, Ms. Jakubiak’s tone expands gloriously, her blossoming femininity and eroticism bringing to mind Nedda’s meeting with Silvio in Pagliacci.  Ms. Jakubiak makes of Fiora’s defiance of Archibaldo as he closes in on her a scorching catharsis, her voice slashing through the orchestra.  When she sings that her lover’s name is ‘dolce morte’ (‘sweet death’), Ms. Jakubiak seems already in transition to another plane of existence.  The soprano’s wide-ranging musical experience notwithstanding, Fiora is a rôle that might have been composed specially for Ms. Jakubiak: she possesses the vocal opulence of Lucrezia Bori, the glamor of Grace Moore, and the earthy appeal of Dorothy Kirsten.  The genius of Montemezzi is revealed by the way in which he shaped a formidable operatic femme fatale with declamatory music that offers few opportunities for the sort of unfettered vocal display that makes so many Italian soprano rôles memorable.  The histrionic prowess of Ms. Jakubiak is confirmed by the fact that her Fiora is a portrayal that is not likely to be forgotten.

Archibaldo is a magnificently complicated amalgamation of several of opera’s flintiest bass rôles.  With Wagner’s Alberich, he shares unfulfilled carnal desires.  From Verdi’s Jacopo Fiesco, he takes a revisionist approach to his own history.  From Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, he receives the burden of being a troubled monarch whose past is almost certainly reflected in his present.  From Debussy’s Arkel, he inherits the curse of seeing more in blindness than in sight.  Musically, he is a sort of Wagnerian in translation, complete with his own Leitmotif, and like Wotan he is the master of a social order that is crumbling around him.  Into this microcosm of moral duality, Russian bass Nikolay Didenko enters with a dark, firm voice that moves through Montemezzi’s music with consummate ease.  A few of his lowest notes lack absolute authority, but Mr. Didenko produces stunning top notes.  The paternal warmth with which Mr. Didenko’s Archibaldo awaits his son’s return from battle is quite moving and superbly contrasted with the chilling nastiness with which he addresses Fiora.  Responding to Ms. Jakubiak, Mr. Didenko audibly portrays a man whose motives for violence are as much inspired by thwarted desires as by righteous indignation.  There is also an element of calmness in Mr. Didenko’s singing in scenes with Ms. Jakubiak that suggests that Archibaldo is aware of having found in Fiora a worthy adversary.  The basic timbre of Mr. Didenko’s voice is tinged with the black rotundity that is his legitimate heritage as a Russian bass, but his delivery of text is untroubled by any heaviness of approach.  He is, in fact, a more effective villain for displaying very welcome verbal and tonal dexterity.  He is occasionally inclined to shout at climaxes, but his understanding of his rôle is never in doubt.  If Mr. Didenko lacks the vocal charisma of an Ezio Pinza or Cesare Siepi, he carefully avoids making Archibaldo a base thug.  He portrays Archibaldo as a man whose own neurotic system of morality justifies his actions.  After so much rage and snarling violence, there is in Mr. Didenko’s singing in the final scene a true sense of heartbreak and regret: through the efforts of the singer, the character ultimately evokes empathy for his self-imposed tragedy.

This sensationally enjoyable recording of L’amore dei tre re offers the attentive listener several important lessons about both the art and the business of opera in the 21st Century.  There are in so many cities throughout the world, and especially in Eastern Europe, under-explored troves of outstanding musical talent.  In that vein, prohibitively expensive assemblages of ‘star’ singers are not necessary to reveal the finest qualities of a musical score.  There are in the cast of this deliciously persuasive performance of L’amore dei tre re no household names, but there are many moments in the ninety-four minutes of this recording that dazzle with star quality.  Good musicians have the ability to make even bad music sound appealing, but no apologies need to be made for the quality of Montemezzi’s music.  This recording is a demonstrable boon to those who treasure the opera despite its unmerited absence from the world’s stages, and little doubt can remain after hearing this performance that a fresh outing of L’amore dei tre re is inarguably preferable to another poorly-sung Bohème.

Joseph Newsome

Italo Montemezzi (1875 - 1952): L’amore dei tre re—N. Didenko (Archibaldo), S. Jakubiak (Fiora), E. Barry (Avito), D. Pershall (Manfredo), J. Prego (Flaminio), J. Gontarz (Handmaiden), M. Dobrowolska (Young Woman), A. Fijałkowska (Old Woman), T. Warmijak (Youth), P. Ronek (Offstage Voice); Chór Filharmonii Narodowej; Polska Orkiestra Radiowa; Łukasz Borowicz [Recorded ‘live’ during a concert performance in the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall on 2 April 2013; Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-1563; 2CD, 94:38]

This review first appeared at Voix des Arts. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image= image_description=Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-3 product=yes product_title=Italo Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre re product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-3 [2CDs] price=Polish złoty 85.00 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 11:49 AM

Così fan tutte from DG

The première production was interrupted by the death of Emperor Joseph II and the subsequent period of mourning that closed Viennese theatres.  Not long thereafter, Mozart’s own death was nigh, and the increasingly ill and paranoid young composer was hard at work on both La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte.  As a result of this redistribution of resources relatively soon after its première, Così was less subject to revisions than either of Mozart’s other operas set to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.  There are considerations of which passages, if any, are to be cut, but the primary complication of Così concerns its plot and the implications thereof.  Da Ponte’s examination of the supposition that absolute fidelity among amorous partners is a state that is contrary to human nature was considered insightful and entertaining by the Viennese in 1790, but later generations—even extending well into the 20th Century—found the story considerably less palatable, deeming it immoral, uncouth, and unworthy of Mozart’s genius, many of the few performances between Mozart’s lifetime and the revival of interest in the opera in the mid-20th Century even substituting ‘improved’ libretti that softened or wholly eliminated the sting of da Ponte’s social criticism.  Virtually from the time of its first performance, the looming question has concerned to what extent the opera is to be taken seriously.  Whatever the social implications of da Ponte’s libretto, neither the significance nor the quality of Mozart’s contributions to Così fan tutte can be doubted: the composer lavished on the score some of his most inspired music for the stage, and despite the complexities of its dramaturgy the musical legacy of Così fan tutte is one of true genius.

Recorded during concert performances in Baden-Baden, this Così benefits from the wonderful sound quality for which Deutsche Grammophon recordings are justifiably legendary.  There are only the faintest hints of audience noises in the form of laughter during recitatives, and these enhance the listening experience rather than in any way detracting from one’s enjoyment of the performance.  DGG’s engineers have carefully recreated a natural theatrical ambiance in which the performance plays out without ever sounding artificial.  Critical to the success of passages of secco recitative is the accompaniment of fortepianist Benjamin Bayl and ‘cellist Richard Lester.  Rather than seeming to inhibit the progress of the performance, the secco recitatives in this recording flow with the semblance of spontaneity.  Though their opportunities are few, the choristers of Vocalensemble Rastatt sing with fine tone and winning involvement.  The players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe again prove themselves to be worthy of comparison with the most celebrated of their colleagues.  Anyone who feels that the demands on orchestral players in Mozart’s operas are less daunting than those of later repertory has never played any of Mozart’s scores; or has not played any of them as well as the instrumentalists of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe play Così fan tutte, at least.

Perhaps more so than in any other of Mozart’s mature Italian operas, Così cannot be successful when it is conducted indifferently.  With a charismatic singer in the title rôle and a trio of ladies who are sensitive to the musical and dramatic pitfalls of their parts, Don Giovanni can easily survive wayward conducting, and Le nozze di Figaro has proved almost immune to poor conducting and pedestrian singing.  Perhaps because of the complicated psychology of da Ponte’s libretto and the brilliance with which Mozart depicted the ambiguities in his score, Così is a different matter entirely.&bbsp; Pacing of the opera is crucial to the ability of the singers to both deliver the music correctly and connect with the audience effectively.  From the first bars of the Overture, Yannick Nézet-Séguin displays complete affinity for Così, his choices of tempo unfailingly reflecting an insightful perception of the opera’s dramatic progress and an alertness to the needs of the cast.  Even the most accomplished Fiordiligi needs the absolute support of her conductor in order to meet the formidable demands of ‘Come scoglio immoto resta’ and ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona,’ two of the most fearsome arias in the soprano repertory.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin proves a master of dramatic timing within the confines of good taste, shaping the performance with the sure hand of a practiced Mozartean.  It has become fashionable to entrust Così to conductors—and casts—that specialize in historically-informed performance practices, and while ‘period’ performance ideals yield valuable results in Mozart’s operas, not least among which is clarity of ensemble that can reveal Mozart’s extraordinary gifts for counterpoint and orchestration, conductors with experience in later music can bring to Così a welcome sense of the opera’s importance in the development of the genre.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin, whose repertory is quite vast despite his youth, synthesizes elements of historically-appropriate practices with broader sensibilities born of acquaintance with operatic and symphonic repertories of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  Phrasing is adapted to the needs of the singers, who, having the support from the podium that allows them to focus on the details of what Mozart asked of them, avoid the willful distortions of line that mar so many performances.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin exhibited great promise with his leadership of the performance of Don Giovanni that launched DGG’s series of recordings of Mozart’s mature operas: that promise is fully realized in this performance of Così fan tutte.  Few conductors have achieved the balance of lightness and seriousness that elucidates the description of Così as a dramma giocoso.  Supporting his cast with dedication both to their success and to Mozart’s music, Maestro Nézet-Séguin makes it unusually clear that there are very serious, perhaps even life-altering emotions hiding behind the smiles and laughter of Così.

Mozart created in Despina and Don Alfonso two of opera’s most enigmatic but endearing schemers.  The impetus for Despina’s all-too-willing participation in Don Alfonso’s plot to embarrass his friends’ blind faith in their paramours is made most clear: ‘è l’oro il mio giulebbe,’ she sings—‘gold is my weakness.’  Don Alfonso’s deep pockets facilitate Despina’s complicity in deception, but precisely what inspires Don Alfonso’s duplicity is never revealed.  In this performance, Alessandro Corbelli’s Don Alfonso sounds too good-natured to intend any serious damage to his friends’ happiness, but the conspiratorial relish with which he sets his business in motion is unmistakable.  Traditions gleaned from 19th-Century opera dictate that lovers should be baritones and world-wise roués basses, and many productions of Così adopt this arrangement.  Mozart’s music for Don Alfonso has a slightly higher tessitura than that for Guglielmo, however, and the casting of this performance tellingly contrasts the timbres of Mr. Corbelli’s baritone and a bass-baritone Guglielmo.  A veteran of Italian opera buffa, Mr. Corbelli knows his way round a part like Don Alfonso, and the wry humor that he brings to his performance is delightful.  He never pursues laughs at the expense of musical integrity, however, and his contributions to ensembles—whether comedic or more serious in tone—are adroit and carefully judged.  Don Alfonso is given only one aria, ‘Vorrei dir e cor non ho,’ which Mr. Corbelli sings well, but it is the ensembles in which his finest work is done.  Mr. Corbelli’s voice is no longer as firm or as smooth as it was earlier in his career, but the skill with which he uses his voice is unimpaired.  Indeed, the artistry with which he builds performances around articulation of text has only become more pointed with time, and in this performance the rare moments in which the security of the voice falters slightly are put to touching use by Mr. Corbelli.  The Despina of Mojca Erdmann is rather more daft than cunning or charming.  The brightness of Ms. Erdmann’s timbre gives both the voice and the character decidedly hard edges, and the excursions into the vocal stratosphere that the singer employs whilst disguised as the mesmerist and the notary are not improvements on more conventional performances of the music.  Ms. Erdmann’s command of Despina’s notes is never in doubt, but her understanding of Mozartean style is seemingly a work in progress.  Both of Despina’s arias are delivered capably but without the elegance that shapes performances by the most accomplished Mozart singers, even in broadly comic rôles.  Like Mr. Corbelli, Ms. Erdmann is at her best in ensembles, in which she responds to her colleagues with increased sensitivity and vocal warmth.  She possesses a good natural voice and a technique capable of meeting the challenges of virtually any rôle within the scope of her voice type: as her career as a Mozartean develops, she will hopefully learn to place more of her trust in the composer and his music.

Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka brings to Guglielmo’s music more voice than the rôle has enjoyed in many performances.  Mr. Plachetka has no problems with the lower reaches of Guglielmo’s tessitura, and the darkness of his timbre lends his performance compelling seriousness.  ‘Non siate ritrosi’ and ‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti,’ Guglielmo’s arias, receive from Mr. Plachetka assured performances, the former in particular benefiting from the virility of the singer’s timbre.  In turn bemused, beguiling, and exasperated in ensembles, Mr. Plachetka responds to his colleagues with finely-judged singing.  The brawny masculinity of his singing makes his perceived betrayal and despair all the more touching, and the depths of emotion with which Mr. Plachetka shapes his performance are consistently apt to the texts that he sings.  His singing in the duet with Dorabella, ‘Il core vi dono,’ is a model of Mozartean grace.  Occasional hints of bluntness intrude into Mr. Plachetka’s delivery of secco recitatives, but his excellent diction contributes meaningfully to the overall success of his performance.  Guglielmo is the sort of rôle that proves more complicated in performance than it seems in a glance at the score, and admittedly the Così discography is not brimming with great performances of the part: Mr. Plachetka brings Guglielmo to life with greater animation and musicality than most of his recorded rivals, and ultimately his is an uncommonly satisfying performance of this deceptively nuanced character.

In such an ambitious, well-prepared performance, it is disappointing that the tradition of cutting Ferrando’s aria ‘Ah, lo veggio’ is perpetuated, not least because this recording’s Ferrando could likely have given a credible account of it.  The aria is not truly comfortable for any tenor, with its cascades of coloratura and high tessitura centered in the tenor’s passaggio (demanding more than a dozen top B-flats), and would not have been easy territory for Rolando Villazón, but the winning fortitude with which the Mexican tenor approaches Ferrando’s other challenges suggests that, at least in the context of concert performances being recorded for commercial release, he might have attempted the aria.  The presence of Mr. Villazón in this performance of Così is perhaps even more surprising than was his appearance as Don Ottavio in the recording of Don Giovanni that launched this DGG series.  As he did as Don Ottavio, Mr. Villazón approaches Ferrando’s music with energy, dedication, and legitimate attempts at achieving and preserving Mozartean lines.  The singer’s natural good humor is evident throughout the performance, especially in ensembles, and the sparkle that he brings to secco recitatives is invaluable.  When the emotions darken, the bronzed, slightly nasal timbre of Mr. Villazón’s voice combines with a seriousness of approach to infuse the performance with airs of genuine heartbreak and life-or-death intensity.  ‘Un’aura amorosa del nostro tesoro,’ one of the most exquisitely beautiful and technically demanding arias in the tenor repertory, receives from Mr. Villazón a lovely, refined performance.  Though his approach to the upper register is cautious, he avoids resorting to falsetto in high lines.  Bravura passages are capably, even confidently handled, and he makes an appreciable attempt at trilling.  ‘Tradito, schernito dal perfido cor’ is a brief cavatina in which, like Händel, Mozart stopped time with an outpouring of undiluted emotion.  The directness with which Mr. Villazón sings of his lover’s betrayal is tremendously effective.  His Ferrando is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and the authentically Latin passion that Mr. Villazón brings to his performance, though atypical for a Mozart rôle, is superb.  It is clear in this performance that, at least to Mr. Villazón’s Ferrando, the things that transpire in Così are of dire significance, and though his is not the sort of voice that comes to mind as an ideal Mozart instrument Mr. Villazón proves to be an exceptionally musical and uncommonly moving Ferrando.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower is a Dorabella who walks at the edge of peril with every appearance of carefree glee.  Accomplished both as Dorabella and as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Ms. Brower is no stranger to Mozart repertory, and her experience complements her natural abilities to produce a most enjoyable Dorabella in this recording.  The voice has an attractively rounded quality and evenness of tone that portend future success in heavier repertory.  In this performance, Ms. Brower sings with great charm, particularly in Dorabella’s first aria, ‘Smanie implacabili.’  Dorabella is without question the more free-spirited of the sisters, and the smile in Ms. Brower’s tone as she flirts and cajoles is captivating.  Like Ferrando, her beloved, Dorabella’s high spirits also conceal a core of seriousness, and Ms. Brower’s singing in the Quintet in which she and her sister bid their lovers farewell and, especially, in the sublime ‘Soave il vento’ is poised and tinged with sadness.  Dorabella proves less resilient than Fiordiligi when under siege by the faux Albanians and expresses her philosophy of the transient, tricky nature of love in the wonderful aria ‘È amore un ladroncello,’ which Ms. Brower sings brightly.  Like the other characters in Così, Dorabella faces her greatest challenges in ensembles, and Ms. Brower meets every demand unflinchingly.  To her credit, Ms. Brower creates a more three-dimensional Dorabella than many performances enjoy, and such is the youthful accomplishment of her technique that she needs to employ none of the compromises that many singers must make in singing Dorabella’s music.

Soprano Miah Persson is also an acclaimed Mozart singer, and her performance as Fiordiligi in this recording verifies the legitimacy of the esteem in which she is held.  From Hyacinthus and Melia in Apollo et Hyacinthus—composed for trebles—to Pamina and the Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte, none of Mozart’s operatic soprano rôles is without musical difficulties.  Comparing Fiordiligi to her sisters in the other da Ponte operas, she might be said to be a fusion of the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni: possessing both the aloofness and repose of the Contessa and the fire of Donna Anna, Fiordiligi has music that requires both long-breathed lyricism and command of rapid-fire coloratura and wide intervals.  The soprano who created the part, Adriana Ferrarese, was appreciated by contemporary critics for both her powerful lower register and her reliably steady upper extension, both of which were exploited by Mozart in his music for Fiordiligi.  Taking the high lines in ensembles demands of the singer great breath control, which Ms. Persson displays impressively.  Though the voice occasionally sounds slightly ungainly, the daunting slopes of both arias are successfully scaled.  ‘Come scoglio immoto resta,’ an aria that rivals Konstanze’s arias in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ and ‘Non mi dir’ in Don Giovanni in difficulty, inspires Ms. Persson to splendidly alert, shapely singing.  The Rondò ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’ draws from Ms. Persson a very personal, introverted performance that explores the conflicting emotions that Fiordiligi feels as her resolve begins to crumble.  Ms. Persson’s voice is completely secure throughout the wide range required by Fiordiligi’s music, and her technique—honed through performances of Händel rôles—encompasses every musical weapon deployed by Mozart.  Only a few of the lowest notes lack resonance and bloom.  Comparing their timbres in their respective rôles in this performance, it would be interesting to hear Ms. Persson and Ms. Brower exchange parts.  This is indicative of the levels of excellence that both ladies achieve in their music, and Ms. Persson is an impeccably stylish Fiordiligi who clears every one of Mozart’s hurdles with the skill of an Olympian.

It was not so long ago that death knells were rung for the Classical Music recording industry.  Thankfully, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the demise of high-quality recordings of Classical and operatic repertory were greatly exaggerated.  Deutsche Grammophon’s series of recordings of Mozart’s mature operas began auspiciously with an excellent Don Giovanni: this recording of Così fan tutte raises the bar for the series to an even higher rung of achievement.  Superbly played, intelligently conducted, and expertly sung, this is a Così fan tutte that ravishes the ears and touches the heart.

Joseph Newsome

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791): Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola deglia amanti, K. 588—M. Persson (Fiordiligi), A. Brower (Dorabella), M. Erdmann (Despina), R. Villazón (Ferrando), A. Plachetka (Guglielmo), A. Corbelli (Don Alfonso); Vocalensemble Rastatt; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances, July 2012, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany; Deutsche Grammophon 479 0641; 3CD, 178:10]

This review first appeared at Voix des Arts. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image= image_description=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0641 4 3 [CDs] product=yes product_title=Così fan tutte from DG product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0641 4 3 [CDs] price=$40.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 11:28 AM

August 1, 2013

Glimmerglass’s handsomely staged ‘Passions’ expands the boundaries of oratorio

Passions seem to be running high at Glimmerglass Festival.

The company’s ambitious double-bill program, carrying the title Passions, takes a pair of sacred vocal masterpieces written some 270 years apart and turns up the drama by adding staging and costumes. The finished product produces a handsome visual experience that complements the music.

The title of the program is somewhat misleading, given that neither Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater nor David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion fits the definition of a passion: a story recounting the suffering of Christ at the Cross. Nor do these works fit the definition of an oratorio or cantata, due to the staging. But whatever you prefer to call it, it’s clear that the present reworking of these pieces adds an appealing visual element to an already potent musical experience.

The Stabat Mater in C Minor, which gets my vote for the artistic highlight of the evening, was Pergolesi’s final composition: He succumbed to consumption in 1736, shortly after finishing the work. He was 26 years old. The oratorio for soprano and alto soloists with strings and continuo enjoyed widespread popularity — both within and beyond the Baroque era. (Listeners familiar with the film Amadeus will no doubt recognize the final measures of the concluding Amen, which is quoted in the film.)

The quality of musical performance in this Glimmerglass production, buoyed by a pair of first-rate vocal soloists and the meticulous direction of conductor Speranza Scappucci, was outstanding. So, too, was Jessica Lang’s choreographed body movement — which resonated well with the deep pathos of the music.

The dancers were often synchronized in coordinated motions with the vocal soloists, as if paired in a dramatic pas de deux of pain and anguish. Indeed, the writhing and twisting of bodies, along with contrasts of shadow and light made possible by Mark McCullough’s lighting effects, reminds me of figures in a Caravaggio painting. The minimalist set comprising two giant logs slowly changed position to suggest everything from trees to The Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

The decision to substitute a countertenor for the more customary alto or mezzo-soprano soloist afforded Anthony Roth Costanzo an opportunity to showcase his considerable powers of expression. Costanzo, whom some may remember as Ferdinand in the Metropolitan Opera’s Baroque fantasy pastiche, The Enchanted Island, simulcast live in HD a year ago January, produced a pure and creamy male alto that blended smoothly with Nadine Sierra’s silky soprano.

The flexibility of Costanzo’s vocal timbre was especially apparent in those numbers involving trills and other ornaments — such as theQuae moerebat et dolebat, which he performed handsomely in-sync with the dancers. His stark dynamic shifts in the Quis non posset contristari at the end of the duet with Sierra were particularly effective. I was especially moved by Costanzo’s deeply expressive vocal delivery, and the smoothly shaped movement of his arms and torso throughout the dramatic and stately Eja mater fons amoris.

Like Costanzo, Sierra’s soprano was full of expression and color, and the movement of her body in tandem with the dancers looked natural and effortless. This combination of sweetness and passion was apparent early on, beginning with the Cujus animam gementem — a lamentful aria that shows off her rich and mellow lower register. Sierra is secure in the higher register as well, as evident in her tender duet O quam tristis, sung in thirds with the second vocal part. Sierra’s dexterous execution of the rapid trills and ornaments in the duet Fac, ut ardeat con meum (one of the rare fast numbers in this oratorio) was particularly impressive.

The most effective use of the set comes at the mournful final number, Quando corpus morietur — the evocative duet that precedes the concluding Amen. For me, this was the most emotionally charged number in the piece. Here, the staging helps capture the mood of resignation as the logs join together to forge a long table that seats the dancers —symbolizing The Last Supper.

Audience reaction to the performance was swift and uniform — an immediate andprolonged standing ovation peppered with voracious shouts of approval for the soloists, conductor, instrumentalists, dancers, choreographer and set director (Marjorie Bradley Kellogg).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, based largely upon a Hans Christian Anderson tale, tells the story of a poor young girl (Victoria Munro) forced by her cruel father to sell matches in the streets on New Year’s Eve. Barefoot, cold and hungry, the little girl strikes match after match trying to keep warm, but — spoiler alert! — she will not live to see the start of the new year.

As was the case with the Stabat Mater, dramatic potency is heightened as a direct result of the staging — which in this case is dominated by the presence of a 24-voice children’s chorus costumed to look like characters in the Broadway musical, Oliver! A steady stream of falling snowflakes (a nice touch by Director Francesca Zambello) evokes the coldness of the streets and reminds us that the warmth of the Christmas season is not within reach of all.

In spite of the handsome visuals, however, Lang’s music — which is remarkably effective in the sparsely voiced original with a quartet of singers doubling on percussion instruments — loses much of its intimacy and focus in the larger, staged setting of the work. Indeed, it was the chamber version of The Little Match Girl Passion, and not Lang's subsequent choral arrangement, that earned the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music. (A convincing recording of the original version with Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices is available on the Harmonia Mundi label.)

Lang’s writing in this piece may best be described as a synthesis musical styles from both past and present, bonded together with post-minimalist techniques such as unrelenting repetition of melodic patterns, overlapping rhythms and painstakingly slow harmonic motion (speed of the chord changes).

Critics have likened the meditative quality of Lang's music to plainchant, but a more accurate comparison would be the vocal polyphonic styles of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, including 13th century cantus firmus techniques (where the lower part moves much slower than the rest), as well as elements from 15th century motets and 16th century madrigals. But once you abandon the intimacy of a one-on-a-part performance, you forfeit much of its meditative and personal appeal, as well. In the end, the presence of the chorus in Lang's work provided more of a distraction than a musical complement.

Because Lang treats the four voices as quasi-contrapuntal independent melodic lines, it's a constant challenge for the singers to blend sound and match pitches with any degree of consistency. The four Glimmerglass Young Artists program soloists — soprano Lisa Williamson, mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer, tenor James Michael Porter and bass Christian Zaremba — did justice to this work, and each delivered an impressive individual effort. There were occasional moments where blend of tone sounded choppy and pitch among the four was questionable. Still, the overall effort was impressive. Credit James Michael Porter with navigating the upper tenor register with apparent ease and stability.

The large but well-disciplined children’s chorus moved about the stage gracefully under the preparation and guidance of choreographer Andrea Beasom (another Glimmerglass Young Artist), and the chorus maintained a pleasant and homogenous blend of tone. Many of Lang’s sonorities, however, proved a bit too challenging for the youngsters, who struggled with intonation issues throughout the performance.

I expect many of these performance problems will iron themselves out over the course of the production run. The Little Match Girl Passion is a masterpiece of contemporary dramatic vocal writing, but it takes a first-rate performance to do it justice. It's well worth the effort. And passion.

David Abrams

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

image= image_description=Victoria Munro (center) with the children's chorus in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2013 production of David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival. product=yes product_title=Glimmerglass’s handsomely staged ‘Passions’ expands the boundaries of oratorio product_by=A review by David Abrams product_id=Above: Victoria Munro (center) with the children's chorus in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2013 production of David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion. [Photo: Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival]
Posted by Gary at 9:28 AM