January 31, 2016

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

It is the brash, devil-may-care young Shostakovich (24 years old) who explodes in facile, brilliant music that sometimes may crash into the obvious but usually soars magnificently into the shimmering ethos of animal youth. Shostakovich’s music did indeed shine absolutely unfiltered through this sordid tale of desire in an ugly world.

At least this is the way director Dmitri Tcherniakov tells the story, making the Shostakovich score and conductor Kazushi Ono’s orchestra the protagonist of his staging, laying bare in 14 tableaux (the nine of the libretto plus the five musical interludes he staged as well) striking metaphors of this musical world, the mere facts of the libretto summarily sacrificed to the more powerful musical meanings of each of the scenes.

Tcherniakov boxed the nineteenth century world of an 1865 novel (à la Turgenev) of the libretto into the confines of a modern mechanized warehouse. Within the warehouse there was a love den box à l’orientale, and finally a grim, prison cell box. The action was not a narrative. It was fourteen boxes exploding in sexual acts and in brutal violence (think strong lights flashing, blinding you to what you knew was going on). This when the scenes were not sarcastic comments on the czarist Russian past, and surely the Soviet present as well.

LadyMacbeth_Lyon3.pngTableau 8, the wedding

The bright acoustic of the Opéra de Lyon favored its splendid resident orchestral resources for this piece, unabashedly unleashed by conductor Kazushi Ono in a precise reading of the score, of particular note the huge role of Shostakovich’s clarinets not to mention the shattering, unimaginably loud orchestral and percussion climaxes that made Stalin wince leading to the first official denunciation of Shostakovich.

It was three and one half hours of blatant musical eroticism and brutality laid bare by Tcherniakov. The missing atmospheres of the natural world and the human narrative of its book however made the evening seem very long and sometimes even painful.

Katerina Ismailova (aka Lady Macbeth) was Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte who has performed this huge role in the Calixto Bieito production at the Berlin Volksoper (the mind boggles imagining what this may have been). There had been whispers that San Francisco Opera was going to mount a Christopher Alden production — a project evidently sacrificed to SFO’s anti-opera business model. Ms. Stundyte gave a total performance, moving from the obvious frigidity imposed on her life to the heated passions of her murder of her rival in the riveting penultimate scene. Three police thugs then attacked and killed her in the maximally violent (think loud) final scene.

LadyMacbeth_Lyon2.pngAusrine Stundyte as Katerina, John Daszak as Sergei

The brutal tone of the production was established summarily by Katerina’s lover, Sergei, performed by the hulking body, shaved head and cutting voice of British tenor John Daszak (recently Loge in Bayreuth, and the Drum Major in Berlin). Sharply and urgently voiced Mr. Daszak was animal force and human cupidity personified. His too was a total performance, awarded by-the-way with less than appropriate applause at the curtain calls (at least it was not the outright hostility offered Tcherniakov’s equally unattractive Lady Macbeth [the Verdi soprano] at the Bastille a few years ago).

Russian bass Vladimir Ognovenko as the merchant and father Boris once again proved that there can be no Western substitute for a Russian bass. British tenor Peter Hoare convincingly portrayed Katerina’s impotent husband Zinoviy. All the supporting roles were cast with appropriately colored voices and personalities. This Lady Macbeth well sustains the Opéra de Lyon’s reputation as one of Europe's leading opera theaters.

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Katerina Ismaïlova: Ausrine Stundyte; Boris Timoféiévitch Ismaïlov: Vladimir Ognovenko; Zinovy Boorisovitch Ismaïlov: Peter Hoare; Sergei: John Daszak;
Le Pope / Un Vieux bagnard: Gennady Bezzubenkov; Le Chef de la police: Almas Svilpa; Le Balourd miteux, un ouvrier dépravé: Jeff Martin; Sonietka: Michaela Selinger;
Aksinya: Clare Presland. Orchestre et Choeurs de l'Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kazushi Ono; Mise en scène et décors: Dmitri Tcherniakov; Costumes: Elena Zaitseva; Lumières: Gleb Filshtinsky. Opéra de Lyon, France, January 29, 2016.


product_title=Lady Macbeth of Mzensk de Chostakovitch
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Photo: Ausrine Stundyte as Lady Macbeth [all photos courtesy of the Opéra de Lyon, copyright Jean-Pierre Maurin

Posted by michael_m at 9:43 AM

January 26, 2016

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Danielle de Niese and J’nai Bridges sing the diva Roxane Coss and the terrorist Carmen, Rafael Davila performs General Alfredo, Andrew Stenson is the translator Gen Watanabe, and Jeongcheol Cha takes the role of the Japanese magnate Katsumi Hosokawa. Anthony Roth Costanzo sings the young terrorist César, William Burden is Rubén Iglesias, Vice President of Peru, Jacques Imbrailo performs the Red Cross representative Joachim Messner, and John Irvin sings the role of Christopf, accompanist to Ms. Coss. Davila, Stenson, Cha, Roth Costanzo, and Imbrailo make their Lyric Opera debuts in these performances. The production is directed by Kevin Newbury, with sets, costumes, and lighting designed by Davd Korins, Constance Hoffman, and Duane Schuler. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Michael Black has prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus.

The opening scene of the opera depicts, in Lima, Peru, the arrival of numerous guests into a ballroom with staircases leading upward at stage right and stage left. The extended welcome of invitees is accompanied by a variety of instrumental combinations highlighting brass and percussion, leading into woodwinds with a steady, rhythmic backdrop of strings. As a scrim previously covering the stage now ascends, the chorus of those gathered for the occasion begin to sing about Peru’s past and future. As part of this collective comment, references are made to Japan as Peru’s future, its promise, and the sun. The Vice President declares the occasion in honor of the visiting dignitary Hosokawa’s birthday. Mr. Burden applies appropriate vocal decorations to herald the importance of the evening - high pitches are succeeded by an undulating melisma on the line “a voice you hold dear to your heart.” Here the entrance of Roxane Coss is anticipated, a singer who is scheduled to perform in honor of Hosokawa’s birthday. Ms. de Niese, as the featured performer and draped in a glittering blue gown, appears and descends the staircase right; she begins to perform the soprano Coss’s aria written for the occasion. As she sings, “Long ago you were destined to come here,” de Niese’s voice rises and descends in a quasi-Straussian line. The dedicatee of the music is sufficiently moved so that Mr. Cha, as a smitten Hosokawa, rises almost unthinkingly to greet Coss while she descends the staircase. Although he cannot communicate, given linguistic limitations, the reach of music has spoken to his heart. De Niese begins to sing “Welcoming winds” as a fitting lead to the next stanza, when shots or an explosion can be heard. A group of terrorists bearing weapons enters with the demand to see the President. From this point to the end of Act I the scene remains static with however the opportunities developing for individual relationships and attempts at allied communication. Since the titular leader of the country is not in attendance, the terrorists declare the others to be hostages and refuse to leave until “the President hears us.”

BEL CANTO_IMG_4365_c.Andrew Cioffi.png

The external attempts to end the crisis peaceably - search lights and loudspeakers - and the internal tension resulting from the futile rescue are broken by the figure of Messner, representative of the Red Cross. In this role Imbrailo urges resolution to the captors with an extended vocal line [“I come to you in good faith”] and with securely placed emphases at distinct moments matching the text. Imbrailo summarizes his character’s frustration with the implacable mood of the terrorists, just as comic elements surface at times during the stand-off. As an example of this unpredictable tone, Ms. de Niese declares, in keeping with Roxane’s persona as diva, “This is so unnecessary!” In response, her captors state that they do not intend to give her “the pleasure of acting a death-scene.” Gradually individual characters begin to fall into place and the symmetry of two couples emerges. Hosokawa’s gestures of communication lead to a non-verbal, emotional proximity with Roxane, while his translator Gen is repeatedly distracted by a young soldier, who is eventually identified as Carmen and who wishes to be taught words. A swelling in orchestration and the line “Roots growing at my feet,” express the development of both couples falling in love.

As these private relationships burgeon, the confusing choice of possible evacuees from among the captives seethes in choral reflection. Despite his need for medication the accompanist Christopf, portrayed by Mr. Irvin with passionate loyalty, refuses to leave. The scene concludes with a quartet of the potential lovers musing on time, as “the hour rises into the air and vanishes.”

In the final scene of Act I the strands of previous music, political commitment, and emotion coalesce into a crisis. The captors have not achieved their demands yet refuse to yield to Messner’s advice to give themselves up. Instead Roxane is ordered to sing, the non-specific nature of her song summarized in “Forgive me if I wander from thought to thought, word to word!” Despite this statement, her singing causes general rapture; Hosokawa senses even greater attraction, and the soldier Carmen responds to the music, in turn enhancing the infatuation felt for her by Gen. A sudden interruption by the General accuses Roxane of attempting to “beguile them.” In reaction, the terrorists’ manifesto is declaimed with intricate verbal control gracing a complex orchestration. Although female prisoners are now allowed to leave, Roxane is detained as valuable; her devoted Christopf is killed while attempting to intercede. Music transforms into prayer, while Ms. Bridges’ Carmen delivers a touching oration in Quechua. The ultimate sentiment concludes the act with “There is no death, only a change of worlds.”

Central to Act II are aspects of time, memory, and music. In order to combat the atmosphere of tedium, games are played by both captors and captives. The descending fog, characteristic of the Peruvian climate, enhances the timeless march of days. Roxane’s lyric, “Between the past, between the present,” accompanied by spare strings and harp, renders inevitable the reaction to time, as it leaves aside the future. Messner continues to provide the only tangible link to the outside world; even though the female chorus of captives who have left continues to hold vigils, only Messner enters the building to continue his intermediary duties. Carmen’s prayer to Santa Rosa asks for guidance and leads her ultimately to Gen. During this sung prayer low pitches are matched with cello accompaniment, while Bridges’s top notes grow in intensity. Here the line, “open your eyes and come with me,” bears an emotionally rending pitch on “conmigo.”

Although Messner urges “Diplomacy is not a word, it is a vision,” he provides Roxane paradoxically with sheet music to alleviate this timelessness. The young César now isolates himself from the other terrorists and recalls his past and inspiration to sing "entre los árboles” [“among the trees’]. Mr. Roth Costanzo delivers a bravura performance, investing his memory of those earlier days in a natural setting with an exited trill. Pure top notes drift into a dream as he is overheard by Roxane. Young César’s musical talents are now encouraged by the diva, their practice sessions becoming part of the daily attempt to swallow time creatively. During one of these endless nights Hosokawa and Roxane, just as Gen and Carmen find themselves alone together. Each couple shares a willing intimacy, as “unseen this night … I get lost in your arms.” The awkwardness of their love is emphasized by the next morning’s game of soccer still being played to pass time. Roxane is about to provide a further lesson to César when the building is stormed and terrorists shot. Burden’s Iglesias cries out chillingly “No más sangre!” [“No more bloodshed!”], yet the swift resolution has already killed the “wrong three,” in the words of Roxane. César, Carmen, and Hosokawa have been shot by the government forces and now die as Roxane and Gen witness.

In her final aria Roxane comments on the painful conclusion of this human and emotional strain. Although she sings of the departed, she asks “how to sing in the language of the missing.” In her final, lyrically reassuring statement de Niese declares “I must move forward and ahead” with a climactic high note on the final word that seems to reach, finally, for the achievable future.

Salvatore Calomino

image_description=William Burden, Takaoki Onishi, Rafael Davila, and Danielle de Niese [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]

product_title=Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago
product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino
product_id=Above: William Burden, Takaoki Onishi, Rafael Davila, and Danielle de Niese [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]

Posted by jim_z at 12:48 PM

January 22, 2016

Tosca, Royal Opera

But, now that the tinsel has been returned to its box, it’s time to replace firecrackers with fiery passions, and so the main stage welcomes the seventh revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 Tosca (revival director Andrew Sinclair), which picks up the verismo violence where Damiano Michieleto’s Cav & Pag left off in December.

A ‘Welcome Note’ in the programme by Musical Director Antonio Pappano and Director of Opera Kasper Holten caught my attention: ‘… what would I not give to see and hear Tosca for the very first time — without knowing how it will end!’ What of the reviewer who has seen a particular production of this familiar opera several times, with singers returning to reprise roles: what is there to experience afresh?

On this occasion the return of Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, which she created in 2006 and has reprised several times since, offered instant reassurance that this is a production that merits re-visiting and still has lots to offer. From her first appearance in Act 1, Gheorghiu dominated the stage, but through strength of characterisation — vocal and dramatic — rather than any diva-ish mannerism or melodrama. The subtleties and nuances of her interpretation were notable: it was as if she could flick through a thesaurus of emotions and take her pick, by turns jealous, petulant, childish, playful, flirtatious, innocent, vulnerable and impetuous — often in close succession. Gheorghiu’s Tosca is beguilingly mischievous, as she teases Cavaradossi; peevishly mistrustful, as she waspishly demands that the artist re-paints the blue eyes of the figure in his fresco who so resembles her ‘rival’; understandably disgusted by Scarpia’s depraved advances. We forgive her flaws, understand the violence of her self-defence, and fear for her mental stability in the aftermath of murder.

2741ashm_0488 SAMUEL YOUN AS SCARPIA © ROH. PHOTO BY CATHERINE ASHMORE.pngSamuel Youn as Scarpia

Gheorghiu’s voice may lack a little of its former glossiness and lustre, but it is still a well-modulated instrument which she can manipulate at will, seeming to hold back at times to make the moments of dramatic impact yet more compelling. In Act 1 she began with slenderness and reticence, yet in her duet with Cavaradossi a bloom shone forth, revealing the passion within her soul while not, at this stage, giving it full voice. Lyricism gave way to tense brightness in the final moments of the Act in the face of Scarpia’s evil insinuations. She withheld during the interrogation scene in Act 2 which meant that when the angry outburst did arrive, we were shocked by our realisation of the passions within. The delicate thread which she spun at the start of ‘Vissi d’Arte’ confirmed her vulnerability, but she built to the soaring climax with hypnotic emotional and vocal power.

While Gheorghiu’s Tosca was nuanced and three-dimensional, Korean baritone Samuel Youn, in his debut at the House, was very much a ‘flat’ portrait of ‘evil’; he conveyed little sense of the sadist’s emotional complexity or recognisable human emotions — or even of an unfathomable psychology such as Iago’s ‘motiveless malignancy’. (After all, Scarpia himself does identify with Shakespeare’s sinister schemer: ‘Iago had a handkerchief, and I a fan/ To drive a jealous lover to distraction!’)

In fact, we need to perceive the motivating forces which lie deep within Scarpia’s twisted psyche, in order to understand the erotic perversion which drives him to sadism. Unfortunately, while Youn sang with impressive strength and depth — well-supported by the ominously dark, low growls of the orchestral horns — the emotional engagement between this Scarpia and his quarry was weak. And, at times, as he turned to face the audience, snarling his venom with ferocity, he seemed in danger of becoming a pantomime villain, his evil ‘larger than life’ but lacking in genuine moral ugliness.

Gheorghiu found herself in a similarly ‘cool’ partnership with her beloved Cavaradossi, sung by the Italian tenor Riccardo Massi. Vocally Massi was a good fit for the role: he seemed comfortable with the high-lying passages, phrased cleanly and convincingly, and has a pleasing, if somewhat characterless, tone. Initially a little hesitant in ‘Recondita armonia’, he grew in confidence and ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was movingly anguished. But, Massi’s acting, and vocal acting, is somewhat low-key, resulting in an impression of youthful inexperience, even disengagement, that conveyed little of Cavaradossi’s characteristic confident swagger; and Massi was never a match for Tosca’s passionate persona. Though touching direct and tender in their Act 1 duet, ‘Qual’occhio’, he was a long way from capturing the ‘erotic lyricism’ — termed ‘pornophony’ by one commentator.

2741ashm_0413 ANGELA GHEORGHIU AS TOSCA, RICCARDO MASSI AS CAVARADOSSI © ROH. PHOTO BY CATHERINE ASHMORE - Copy.pngAngela Gheorghiu as Tosca and Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi

The supporting roles were consistently excellent. Donald Maxwell fussed and fretted as the Sacristan, his baritone strong and the diction clear. The Australian tenor and former Royal Opera House Young Artist, Hubert Francis, reprised his unpleasant and menacing Spoletta, while Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk — a current Jette Parker Young Artist — was especially convincing as the anxious Angelotti, using his lovely tone to garner our sympathy. Harry Fetherstonehaugh was a clear-voiced Shepherd Boy and the ROH Chorus put great effort into a rousing Te Deum.

Director Jonathan Kent and his designer Paul Brown begin with realism and shift gradually towards representation. The sets are extravagant and detailed. In Act 1 we are in the crypt of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, with the High Altar visible above, behind an ornate, candle-adorned balustrade, and Cavaradossi’s fresco stage-right, decked in scaffolding. The altar is reached by means of a dual-staircase which encloses an outsized statue of the Virgin, the latter concealing the door to the Attavanti Chapel. I found that I took more note of the ecclesiastical comings and goings aloft on this occasion, perhaps because I was seated in the Amphitheatre, and found the suggestion of ongoing liturgical ritual as a backdrop to the tragic melodrama to be a convincing one. I was rather perplexed, therefore, by one critic’s observation that the set is for ‘some unfathomable reason, on split levels so that characters have to scurry up and down stairs’ … the stairs in question permitted further realistic touches, as when the Sacristan, making a hasty descent, stumbled on his robes. Act 2 introduces some symbolism in the form of the monstrous statue in Scarpia’s apartment at the Palazzo Farnese, an intimidating mass which dominates and threatens; and the symbolic mode is strengthened in the final Act, when a statue fragment hangs dauntingly over the Castel Sant’Angelo.

I began by noting Gheorghiu’s superb performance but French conductor Emmanuel Villaume was equally responsible for the excitement generated. Privileged with a direct view down into the pit, I watched Villaume stir up an immediate frisson in the opening bars, inspiring tremendously vigorous and propulsive playing by the orchestra of the ROH. He used his left hand like a whip which flashed to individual orchestra sections, demanding, and receiving, a thrillingly alert response. Villaume was not afraid to conduct a little ahead of his singers, confident that his urgent drive would impel them along. But, there was sensuousness and suavity, too, and a gripping dramatic sweep. This production (which is double cast) is worth seeing, however well you ‘know the show’.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Floria Tosca: Angela Gheorghiu, Mario Cavaradossi: Riccardo Massi, Scarpia: Samuel Youn, Angelotti: Yuriy Yurchuk, Spoletta: Hubert Francis, Sacristan: Donald Maxwell, Sciarrone: David Shipley, Gaoler: John Morrissey; Director: Jonathan Kent, Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume, Revival Director: Andrew Sinclair, Designer: Paul Brown, Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 18th January 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/2741ashm_0333%20ANGELA%20GHEORGHIU%20AS%20TOSCA%20%C2%A9%20ROH.%20PHOTO%20BY%20CATHERINE%20ASHMORE.png image_description=Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca [Photo © ROH. Catherine Ashmore, photographer.] product=yes product_title=Tosca, Royal Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca

Photos © ROH. Catherine Ashmore, photographer.
Posted by Gary at 10:52 AM

January 21, 2016

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

Stepping in for Karel Mark Chichon, who cancelled due to illness, young Italian conductor Pietro Rizzo led the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in a exciting, if imperfect, performance. It was evident that he had had very little time with the orchestra. The first bars sounded rather scrabbly. There were unsteady woodwind attacks, especially in the wedding scene, and the horn section repeatedly lagged behind in Act III. Mr Rizzo’s signalling to the Netherlands Radio Choir, who ushered in Butterfly with some heavenly sounds, also suffered from their belated acquaintance. The Humming Chorus, sung backstage, was adequate musically but lacked dynamic subtlety. Flaws aside, however, the performance had a pulsating energy and was enriched with carefully crafted details. Mr Rizzo can suspend a phrase in mid-air and then let it glide down as gracefully as the folds of a kimono. He also whipped up some thrilling Puccinian crests, although climaxes were hard-edged and needed more roundness in the brass. Altogether, Mr Rizzo’s was an exciting Concertgebouw debut. It was also his first time conducting in the Netherlands, and hopefully he will return soon. There were excellent contributions from some of the principals, in particular concertmaster Joris van Rijn’s tender solos, Ellen Versney’s softly glittering harp and Paul Jussen’s portentous timpani.

All the soloists sang the music by heart, which is always a boon, and entered and exited in character. Most of the supporting cast ranged from acceptable to competent. As Goro tenor Ho-yoon Chung sang very well indeed, but nothing in his characterisation suggested the marriage-broker’s base, money-grubbing nature. He sounded more like a friendly next-door neighbour. A cut above the rest were bass Miklós Sebestyén as the Bonze and the three Dutch singers playing Kate Pinkerton and Butterfly’s relatives. Mr Sebestyén was vocally commanding in his short scene, storming in to renounce Cio-Cio-San for converting to Christianity. Maria Fiselier, Ruth Willemse and Julia Westendorp were all outstanding.

Tenor Arnold Rutkowski has an attractive lyric voice with an interesting, bittersweet chocolatey timbre. His Pinkerton was young and foolish and completely unaware of the havoc he was wreaking. He was on solid ground as long as he sang mezzo forte or louder. Softer singing resulted in quality loss. Mr Rutkowski is very musical, but more dynamic control would increase his expressive possibilities. He had all the high notes, which he jettisoned with great physical energy, but the dicey trajectory they sometimes took made one wish for more technical grip. Baritone Angelo Veccia was a suave and humane Sharpless. His refined phrasing amply made up for some throatiness, mostly evident in the upper third of the voice. Mr Veccia’s restrained Sharpless found a dramatic foil in Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who brought her potent dramatic presence to Suzuki. The extremes of her acerbic top and plunging contralto made Butterfly’s maid and companion both fierce-tempered and fiercely maternal. The orchestra was often a little too loud—a common issue at the Concertgebouw, where sound carries further than some conductors realise—but Ms Lemieux could easily counter the volume.

So could Lianna Haroutounian, who gave a world-class performance as the abandoned teenage bride. Her Butterfly was trusting but dignified, and devoid of simpering silliness. With its rich, silk-wrapped vibrato, even focus from top to bottom, and that ductile quality Italians call morbidezza (softness), Ms Haroutounian’s voice is ideal for the young heroine. And she is a true spinto soprano, with enough power and stamina to tackle the onerous third act. Her full top notes are confident and lustrous. She did not take the high D flat at the end of the entrance aria, but the composer-sanctioned lower alternative, and quite beautifully too. “Un bel dì vedremo” (One fine day) was vocal perfection. She effectively built up the tension during Butterfly’s imagined reunion with Pinkerton and ended the aria in a stunning high B flat. Visibly emotional in the suicide scene, she veered a little sharp in “Tu, tu, piccolo iddio” (You, you, my little god). Halfway through, she refocused her voice and sailed through to a secure finale. Unsurprisingly, the hall gave her a clamorous ovation. San Francisco Opera has already announced that Ms Haroutounian will be their Butterfly next season. No doubt she will be invited to sing this role at several other houses. As many Puccini fans as possible need to hear her in it. In fact, opera fans of all types need to hear Ms Haroutounian, in any of her roles—hers is one of the major voices of our time.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Cio-Cio-San — Lianna Haroutounian, Suzuki — Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Arnold Rutkowski — Pinkerton, Sharpless — Angelo Veccia, Goro — Ho-yoon Chung, Prince Yamadori— Yujoong Kim, The Bonze— Miklós Sebestyén, Yakusidé — Hee-Saup Yoon, The Imperial Commissioner — Enseok Choi, The Official Registrar — Kyung-Il Ko, Cio-Cio-San’s Mother — Ruth Willemse, Kate Pinkerton/Aunt — Maria Fiselier, Niece — Julia Westendorp, Conductor — Pietro Rizzo, Netherlands Radio Choir, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on Saturday, 16th January, 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/_MG_7810.png image_description=Lianna Haroutounian [http://www.liannaharoutounian.com] product=yes product_title=Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri product_id=Above: Lianna Haroutounian
Posted by Gary at 1:34 PM

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

This ambitious ‘journey’ — which will not conclude until 2041! - began with an exploration of works composed in 1765, a year which was fortunate to offer gems such as J.C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria (Adriano in Siria). 1766 apparently delivers slimmer pickings. It was a little disconcerting that Artistic Director Ian Page’s ‘Welcome’ in the programme read like an ‘apologia’ — ‘In many ways, and for no discernible reason, 1766 seems to have been a less rich musical year than those either side of it.’ — and was accompanied by an apparent vindication of the programme, ‘we are not pretending that every work that we perform within MOZART 250 is a masterpiece’. But, there was much of interest in this varied programme, and the presence of names such as Vanhal, Beck and Guglielmi in the list of works to be performed added an intriguing ‘rarity’ factor too.

It was Mozart’s concert arias which, despite the composer’s youth — and that fact that 1766 was an itinerant year which saw him dashing between the cities of Europe with his sister Nannerl, to show off their prodigious talents — impressed most. Soprano Louise Adler, a current Associate Artist with the company, combined crystalline definition of the phrases with a warm, appealing tone in ‘Per pietà, bell’ idol mio’ (For pity’s sake, my beloved’), in which the two oboes (James Eastaway and Rachel Chaplin) engaged in a tender dialogue with the voice, enriching the colour palette. The sentiments of the final line, ‘Abbastanza il ciel mi fa’ — as Artaxerxes begs not to be charged with ingratitude, for Heaven has left him ‘unhappy and unlucky enough’ — were heightened by the superb contribution of horn player Roger Montgomery, in perfect unison with the voice, while the tight trills of the oboes and first violins demonstrated the young Mozart’s sharp eye for meaningful detail.

‘O temerario Arbace … Per quel paterno amplesso’ (Oh reckless Arbace … With that paternal embrace’ followed, in which the striking harmonic twists and instrumental textures of the accompanied recitative (the first surviving example by Mozart) confirmed the composer’s innate dramatic instinct. The strength of characterisation was enhanced by Alder’s confident delivery, distinctly off-the-score. The soloist’s rapid cascades, which launch unexpectedly, and rather paradoxically, with the line ‘Placami l’idol mio’ (console my beloved), were fluid and bright, conveying urgency; and, while I felt that Alder held back at times, the delicacy of her high pianissimos was impressive. I wasn’t convincing by Page’s tempo, though; overly brisk, it denied us the subtle grace of Mozart’s triple-time, lilting phrases.

We had to wait for the final bars of ‘Sento, ahimè, nè so ch sia’ (I feel, alas, and I don’t know what it is) from Pietro Alessandro Guglielmi’s opera buffa, Lo spirito di contradizione - which was premièred in Venice in 1766 — for Alder to unleash the full power of her soprano; she fittingly evoking the fevered desperation the Countess Flaminia who, deceived by the dastardly Don Cesarino, vows to remain single and laments her fate: ‘Meschinella già deliro,/ Il respire più non ho’ (now I am a delirious wretch, and I can breathe no more). Alder varied the vocal colours effectively, accompanied by the palpitating pizzicatos of cello and first violin — her ‘trembling heart’. J. C. Bach’s pleasure garden song, ‘Ah, why shou’d love with tyrant sway’, was delivered with simple directness, a smooth line and nimbleness; and the interplay between voice and strings in the closing phrase was charming.

Tenor Benjamin Hulett, a former Associate Artist, also presented a Mozart concert aria, but though he made a valiant attempt to suggest earnestness and nobility, he could not make a convincing case for the repetitive, unctuous eulogising of the Licenza (homage) ‘Or chi il dover m’astringe … Tal e cotanti sono’ (Now that day obliges me … So great and so many), which Mozart composed to mark Sigismund von Schrattenbach’s ascension to the Archbishopric of Salzburg. Haydn was represented by the ‘Et incarnates est’ from his Missa Cellensis, which Hulett sang with poise and profundity; he was relaxed in the higher-lying passages but also found a surprising gravity and intensity in the lower register. The long lines of the second verse showcased his confident breathing, while the chromatic inflections of the third verse, and its large leaps, demonstrated Hulett’s technical assurance and good intonation.

Most interesting of Hulett’s contributions was Niccolò Jomelli’s ‘De’ miei desire ormai … Che faro?’ (Now I see myself … What shall I do?’) from the composer’s opera Il Vologeso. The complexity and inventiveness of the upper strings during the recitative suggested a composer striving to use all the resources at his disposal to capture an evolving emotional discourse — as the Roman General Lucio Vero recognises the misguidedness of his attempts to force the defiant Berenice, wife of the defeated Parthian King, to love him. Hulett wove the General’s distressed fragments into convincing extended phrases, and this performance made one eager for the opportunity to hear Classical Opera’s performance of the entire opera at the Cadogan Hall in April ( Il Vologeso).

Instrument works performed by the twenty-piece Orchestra of Classical Opera completed the programme. It was good to have the opportunity to hear Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Symphony in G minor in which Page encouraged the players to make the most of the dynamic and textural contrasts. The Adagio placed Eastaway’s beautifully shaped solo above the ‘tick-tock’ pizzicato of the lower strings; in the Trio of the third movement there were appealing melodic exchanges. Page worked hard to create energy and vigour in the fast outer movements, but while the pianissimo beginning of the Finale: Allegro pulsed excitedly, I’d have liked Page to have determined consistently upon a two-in-a-bar pulse: his intermittent reversions to four beats held things back. Similarly the horns might have been even more unrestrained, to convey the exuberance of the movement. The first movement of Franz Ignaz Beck’s Symphony in D was also characterised by contrast: first rhetorical chords, then quiet descending scales, which grew into increasingly busy counterpoint culminating in the explosive entrance of the horns. But, overall the movement lacked lightness and air, and I longed for Page to take a few more risks with tempo and articulation.

We had symphonies from Mozart, too, beginning with the Symphony in Bb No.5 in which there was not always a good balance between upper and lower voices, the bass line occasionally overpowering. Here, as elsewhere, there was some strong individual playing: horns were vibrant at the start, the strings’ trills were vivacious, and there was grace in the antiphonal motivic exchanges between the first and second violins. Yet, there was often an unwelcome weightiness, and the Andante was heavy and ponderous. Mozart’s ‘Old Lambach’ Symphony in G Major K.45a concluded the concert, prefaced by Page’s inauspicious account of its premiere, at which the composer’s father, Leopold, complained that the music and players were equally dreadful! On this occasion, the performance was certainly not lamentable; and Page did his best to draw forth the moments of musical interest, though once more I felt that the results were worthy rather than truly engaging.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Classical Opera: Ian Page — conductor, Louise Alder — soprano, Benjamin Hulett — tenor, the Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Mozart: Symphony No.5 in B flat major K.22; Niccolò Jommelli: ‘’De’ miei desiri ormai … Che farò?’ from Il Vologeso; Mozart: ‘Per pietà, bell’ idol mio’ K.78, ‘O temerario Arbace … Per quel paterno amplesso’ K.79; Johann Baptist Vanhal: Symphony in G minor; Haydn: ‘Et incarnatus est’ from Missa Cellensis; Pietro Guglielmi: ‘Povera me! … Sento, ahimè, nè so che sia’ from Lo spirito di contradizione; Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphony in D major Op.4 No.1, I. Allegro maestoso; J. C. Bach: ‘Ah, why should love with tyrant sway’; Mozart: ‘Or che il dover ... Tali e cotanti sono’, K.36 Symphony in G major K45a (Lambach). Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 19th January 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/mozart-250.png image_description=Mozart 250 [Courtesy of Classical Opera] product=yes product_title=Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Mozart 250 [Courtesy of Classical Opera]
Posted by claire_s at 12:40 PM

January 14, 2016

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Being a BBC New Generation Artist, guarantees high level coverage. Careers are launched, though in some cases one wonders if marketability isn't part of it. Benjamin Appl, though, is probably the real thing. Several of my friends, some of whom go to dozens of Lieder recitals each year, certainly think he has the potential. He has a very good "instrument", to use a rather unpleasant term, as if voice exists disembodied. Many successful careers have been based on sounding good, but in Lieder, the paramount virtue is Innigkeit, the expression of "inward" nuance, often subtle and complex. The Romantic revolution - upper case "R" not lower case - transformed European culture, and Lieder was part of the vanguard. If Appl takes more risks and captures its spirit, he has the potential to be not just good, but great.

But what pressures that creates! Appearing for the first time in a high-profile evening recital at the Wigmore Hall, with its formidable reputation, especially in place of Pisaroni, must be quite overwhelming. Sensitivity is essential in a good artist, but it has its downsides, too. Once Appl settled in, he seemed much more at home. The gentle An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte D 197 (1815), allowed Appl's singing to gently unfold, like the "heilig Säuseln" in Holty's poem, where the poet uses outward images to allude to feelings he can't articulate. It's possible that the lovers have been separated by death: these perfumed memories are spookier than they seem. The mood continued with An den mond D193 (1815), a far more sophisticated setting of Holty. Nice pairing, which indicates that Appl knows what he's doing when he compiles a programme.

Appl was accompanied by Jonathan Ware, who has worked with Appl (and Pisaroni) before. He's very assertive, even forceful, which can be a good thing. He challenged Appl, pushing him to give his best. The pace was, at times, quite frantic, but well judged. In Der Musensohn D764 (1822), the son of the muses flies along swiftly, like the turbulent winds of early Spring, awakening the world. Yet the Musensohn is driven by forces greater than himself. "Wann ruh' ich am Busen, auch endlich weider aus? ". Last week, in his recital of Eichendorff settings at the Wigmore Hall, Appl was accompanied by Graham Johnson, the doyen of Schubert accompanists, but the partnership between Ware and Appl might be more stimulating in the long term.

Viola D 786 (1823) made a good contrast to Erlkönig D328 (1815). Goethe and Mayrhofer were very different poets. Viola, a long strophic ballad, can be rather twee, with its images of flowers talking to one another. But consider its deeper meaning. Those that come out before their time deserve respect. The song works best when performed with equal daring. Appl and Ware followed this with another good pairing, Totengräberlied D 44 (1813) and Totengräbers Heimweh D842 (1825), the latter a masterpiece. It's a song so strong that it can support a far more powerful interpretation than it received here. That's a direction in which Appl should be heading.

Appl and Ware then performed a selection of classics: Der Wanderer an den Mond D870 (1826, Seidl), Abendstern D806 (Mayrhofer), Der Wanderer D489 (1816 Schmidt von Lübeck) and Nachstück D672 (1819 Mayrhofer) . Schubert's finest songs worked their magic.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=BENJAMIN APPL photo: David Jerusalem

product_title=Franz Schubert — Benjamin Appl, Jonathan Ware, Wigmore Hall, London 11th January 2016
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Benjamin Appl [Phobo by David Jerusalem courtesy of Askonas Holt]

Posted by iconoclast at 8:16 AM

January 13, 2016

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

Quite apart from the technical challenges surmounted and the diversity of musical idioms mastered, Summerfield also proved herself to be an excellent linguist, moving confidently from German to French, from English to Finnish, and back to German.

This concert was one of a series of song recitals being given by past prize-winners of the Kathleen Ferrier Award, which Summerfield won in 2015. She began with Mendelssohn, whose ‘Hexenlied’ she had performed in the Ferrier Award Final and which here closed a group of five songs by members of the Mendelssohn clan. ‘Neue Liebe’ (New Love) was a difficult song with which to begin, requiring precision and composure from the singer, who presents Heine’s pondering on the truth of the legend that a mortal who sees the elfin Queen will either find new love or die. Summerfield swooped and leapt effortlessly, and with pinpoint accuracy, conveying the protagonist’s concern that the horns and bells he hears may prove deathly, while Lepper sharply picked out the sound of pounding hooves. ‘Die Liebende schreibt’ (The beloved writes) was notable for the gentle phrasing of the vocal line, and the deep, dark colours with which Summerfield imbued the protagonist’s feelings of loneliness: ‘Enfernt von dir; entfremdet von den Meinen/ Führ ich stets die Gedanken in die Runde’ (Far from you, estranged from my family, I let my thoughts rove constantly). Lepper employed subtle rubatos while maintain a flowing accompaniment, using the bass line to provide guiding direction, particularly in the piano postlude. In ‘Winterlied’ (Winter song) and ‘Hexenlied’ (Witches’ song), Summerfield showed that she can tell a compelling tale. The former had a touching pleading quality which grew to urgency in the second stanza, as the young boy begs his mother to let him search for his sister outside in the snow and wind. The slightest of pauses after the line, ‘Der Wind ward still, die Nacht verging’, in the final verse, was typical of the thoughtful gestures which gave stature and weight to these small forms. Each verse of the strophic ‘Hexenlied’ was clearly defined; the catalogue of gothic imagery — broomsticks, goats, dragons and Beelzebub — took us to the realms of the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fanny Mendelssohn’s ‘Die Mainacht’ (May night) gave Summerfield the opportunity to display the glossiness of her gleaming soprano, which slipped smoothly through the unusual harmonies of the second verse — ‘Suche dunklere Schatten’ (Seek darker shadows); Lepper impressively negotiated the busy accompaniment, articulating the elaborate figuration clearly but never overwhelming the voice.


In Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten airs) Summerfield showed a similarly acute sense of the spirit of the text, and an innate feeling for the evocative idiom. ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’ (It is languorous rapture) showcased the soprano’s wonderfully burnished lower range, as she sank sensuously through the opening phrase; she seemed to relish the chromatic nuances and descents, particularly in the second stanza, and when the vocal line rose to its height — ‘Cela ressemble au cri doux/ Que l’herbe agitée expire …’ (It is like the sweet sound/ The ruffled grass gives out …) — her voice had a thrilling shine, full of passionate feeling. Lepper’s oscillating semiquavers delicately conjured the falling rain in ‘Il Pleure dans mon coeur’ while Summerfield remained focused during the recitative-like sighs of the middle part of the song, and as the harmony wandered through distant tonalities. In contrast, the chords which open ‘L’ombres des arbres’ were weighty and ponderous, suggesting the density and of the ‘shadows of trees’ in the misty stream. In ‘Chevaux de bois’ (Merry-go-round) Summerfield’s vivacious voice sparkled above Lepper’s tight trills and whirling arpeggios, and this gave the slowing of the tempo in the pianissimo final verse a mischievous edge — a frisson which ‘exploded’ in the playful piano postlude. The complex structure of ‘Green’, with its constantly shifting tempos, was well-controlled, and the final line — low in the voice and accompanied by tender chords — was very lulling: ‘Et que je dorme un peu puisque vous reposez’ (And let me sleep a while, since you rest). The final song of the cycle, ‘Spleen’, began enigmatically, with its fragmentary piano introduction and low, unaccompanied monotone recitation. Summerfield found a lovely veiled quality to suggest mystery in the first couplet, ‘Les roses étaient toutes rouges/ Et les lierres étaient tout noirs’ (All the roses were red, And the ivy was all black), before lifting and brightening her voice for the subsequent verses. I was impressed during these Debussy songs by how skilfully she conveyed the way that Debussy translates poetic nuance into musical expression.

After the interval, Summerfield return to the platform alone, for a performance of Jonathan Dove’s Ariel, in which she showed her theatrical instinct, deftly capturing the mercurial character of the eponymous sprite. Dove sets the three songs that Ariel sings in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, along with other text from the play. Prospero’s isle is, as Caliban tells us ‘full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not’, and Summerfield exploited Dove’s recreation of these haunting, beguiling sounds to the full, with impressive technical control, singing with great power and imagination. The score contrasts earthy dance-like passages with long lyrical lines, and the soprano captured this duality of idiom and personality: her Ariel was both ethereal and sensuous, defiant and pliant. The onomatopoeic devices and effects of ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ were executed with commitment, and the song’s rapid text repetitions and wide range posed no problems. Summerfield used the consonants effectively in the clanging bell mimicry of ‘I boarded the King’s ship’ — ‘Dong dadang dong’ — her voice resonating powerfully. The vocalise ‘O, O, O’ ranged from magisterial to wistful, and Ariel’s complicated relationship with his master — simultaneously rebellious and servile, insolent and indebted — was effectively conveyed in ‘All hail, great master’, a song whose large vocal leaps present their own challenges. ‘Is there more toil?’ brought renewed freshness, excitement and wonder: ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I.’ In the final lines — ‘I drink the air before me!/ I go, I go, I go./ Ssshhh. Ssshhh. Ssshhh.’ — Summerfield acted impressively with her voice. Through this demanding set of songs, she captured the strange paradoxes of the magical slave, who is at once both deeply sensual and eerily asexual.

Summerfield not only won First Prize in last year’s Ferrier Competition, but was also awarded the Song Prize for her interpretation of Sibelius, and it was good to have the opportunity to hear again her engaging interpretation of ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ (The girl returned from meeting her lover), which relates the tale of the girl who, returning from an amorous assignation, must confront her angry mother. The Romantic mode of the song was enhanced by Lepper’s swelling, between-phrase interjections and swaying syncopations, as Summerfield forcefully conveyed the girl’s yearning sadness and turbulent, angry anxieties. Both ‘Vilse’ (Lost) and ‘Se’n har jag ej frågat mera (Since then I have stopped asking) intimated a burdensome weight of feeling.

The four songs of Richard Strauss’s Op.27 Lieder concluded the programme. In ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ (Rest, my soul!) Lepper’s dissonant opening chords established a mood of distance and alienation which characterised the reticent vocal line, though there were moments of illumination, as when Summerfield traced a clear arc of ‘bright sunshine’, ‘Sommerschein’. Later, the piano’s ponderous chords punctuated a vocal line which was weighed down with weariness. In contrast, ‘Cäcilie’ (Cecily) was imbued with impetuous capriciousness, and was sung by Summerfield with fluency and ease. This song ran straight on into ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ (Secret invitation), with its delightfully rippling accompaniment, leading to the final song, ‘Morgen!’ (Tomorrow!), the melody of which was spun with poignant reflection.

It was good to have the opportunity to hear again a young artist of such promise and potential. Summerfield will perform the role of Ginerva in Handel’s Ariodante in this year’s London Handel Festival (Royal College of Music, Britten Theatre (8-14 March) and will perform with Classical Opera in their presentation of the UK premiere of Niccolò Jommelli’s Il Vologeso at the Cadogan Hall on 28 April.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Gemma Lois Summerfield, soprano; Simon Lepper, piano.

Felix Mendelssohn: ‘Neue Liebe’, ‘Die Liebende Schreibt’, ‘Winterlied’, ‘Hexenlied’; Fanny Mendelssohn: ‘Die Mainacht’; Debussy: ‘Ariettes Oubliées’; Jonathan Dove: ‘Ariel’; Sibelius: ‘Vilse’, ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’, ‘Se'n har jag ej frågat mera’, R. Strauss: 4 Lieder Op.27.

St. John’s Smith Square, London, Sunday 10th January 2016.

gemma_lois_summerfield_sebastian_wybrew_69-e1439293926767.png image=http://www.operatoday.com/gemma_lois_summerfield.png image_description=Gemma Lois Summerfield product=yes product_title=Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Gemma Lois Summerfield
Posted by Gary at 11:48 AM

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

His doubtless ‘well-meaning’ productions may have reached their nadir with ENO’s The Indian Queen; but we can nevertheless do without a Pelléas et Mélisande which exchanges metaphysics and textual subtlety for EastEnders-style melodrama. The plot really is not the thing here, and it certainly does not benefit from absurd exaggeration. Entirely ignoring the work, Sellars has Mélisande and Pelléas all over each other at an early stage; their kiss therefore counts for little. Arkel seems primarily to be a pervert who cannot keep his hands off his grandson’s wife. Many seem to be convulsed by trembling, indicating ailments about which I should rather not speculate; poor Mélisande’s death is more graphic than any semi-staging is likely ever to attempt again. For some reason, all of this takes place in an environment marked out by multi-coloured neon lights: how Debussyan! And yes, you have doubtless guessed: the lights eventually all go off.

All of the cast throw themselves into Sellars’s bizarre vision with admirable dedication. If it could work, they would have made it do so. One could hardly not respect their artistry, even when, as in Magdalena Kožená’s case, the artist seemed miscast. At her best, she showed up intriguing, twitching correspondences with Kundry. Her flagrantly sexual performance of ‘Mes long cheveux’, however much it adhered to Sellars’s apparent concept, could hardly convince, given the doubtless frustrating presence of the opera ‘itself’. Christian Gerhaher and Gerald Finley both gave ardent performances, Finley’s sadism as Golaud especially chilling; again, though, I could not help but think that, however beautifully he sang, Gerhaher was not ideally cast in the role, or at least in the production. His conception certainly seemed more Romantically poetic than that of Sellars; admittedly, it would be difficult not to be. Franz-Josef Selig gave a wonderfully compassionate performance vocally; what a pity he was saddled with such incongruous acts to perform on stage. Bernarda Fink and Joshua Bloom were both very impressive in their smaller roles too.

I was surprised, especially before the interval, by Simon Rattle’s conducting. There could be little doubting the excellence of the LSO’s performance, although I should have expected Rattle to draw at times softer playing from them. Yet Rattle, whose Debussy has in my experience always been very much Debussy to be reckoned with, too often left phrases hanging, seemingly reluctant to insist upon a longer, Wagnerian line. He certainly brought out Wagnerian echoes, as much of Tristan as of Parsifal, much to the score’s benefit; yet they did not always come together as tightly as they might; it was almost as if he wished to portray Debussy as negatively Wagnerian (that is, an heir to Nietzsche’s ‘greatest miniaturist’). Coherence was greater later on, although I could not really reconcile myself to the almost Puccini-like vulgarity of the climaxes. Surely if there is one thing Debussy avoids at almost any cost, it is playing to the gallery. Perhaps, though, Rattle was, not entirely unreasonably, offering an interpretation tailored to his director’s concept. His 2007 Pelléas for the Royal Opera was nothing like this at all. I hope we shall have chance to hear him — and indeed the LSO — in this opera again in better circumstances.

Rattle spoke movingly at the beginning of his esteem for Pierre Boulez, to whose memory the performance was dedicated.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Mélisande: Magdalena Kožená; Pelléas: Christian Gerhaher; Golaud: Gerald Finley; Arkel: Franz-Josef Selig; Geneviève: Bernarda Fink; Doctor, Shepherd: Joshua Bloom. Director: Peter Sellars; Assistant Director: Hans-Georg Lenhart; Lighting: Ben Zamora. London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)/London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Kozena_2014.png image_description=Magdalena Kožená [Photo © Harald Hoffmann, Deutsche Grammophon] product=yes product_title=Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Magdalena Kožená [Photo © Harald Hoffmann, Deutsche Grammophon]
Posted by Gary at 10:50 AM

January 11, 2016

A Chat With Up-and-Coming Conductor Kathleen Kelly

While there, she was the recitative accompanist for new productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro. She has curated recital series at both the Vienna State Opera and Houston Grand Opera. Last year she joined the faculty of the University of Michigan as that school’s first Coach and Conductor of Opera. She will conduct Cosi fan tutte there in March 2016.

MN: Kathleen Kelly, does one call you Maestra or Maestro?

KK: I prefer Maestra. Either word means teacher. When I was studying, the convention was to call every conductor “Maestro.” “Maestra is what you call your elementary school teacher!” said one of my mentors. Well, not if that teacher is a man! In my opinion, that old convention was a way of saying that men should not be teachers of little children, and women shouldn’t be on the podium. Old sexism was reflected in the language, but the language itself doesn’t make the sexism. The Italian word for teacher is a noun that shows gender, nothing more. And my gender is female, so I’m proudly Maestra Kelly.

Classical music is an inherently conservative art that preserves the music and traditions of former times. Maybe that is why change is so slow in our profession. But change does happen! I remember when I was ten years old, my Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota had its first female pastor. I remember all the talk, pro and con, about her. Such a controversy—and now, a generation later, female pastors are everywhere. Classical music is slower than the Lutheran Church. Wrap your head around that!

MN: Tell me about how you got started as a musician.

KK: Growing up in Northfield was such an important part of my musical life. The first great music I heard was from the St. Olaf Choir. I loved its sound quality and the expressive way the singers used words. We moved to Phoenix, Arizona, when I was a junior in high school. After that, I attended Arizona State University from which I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance. I feel fortunate to have gone to college in the nineteen eighties when tuition was low. To support myself, I had the usual array of freelance piano gigs, voice lessons and church jobs. I always found myself drawn to work with singers.


MN: Are there some artists of the past whose work has influenced you?

KK: I’m joining a not-very-exclusive club when I say Leonard Bernstein. He commanded all styles. He was a fantastic pianist, a great musical theater composer, and a wonderful conductor of serious music. He was a renowned music educator. He wanted to bring knowledge of the repertoire that he cared about to everyone. He remains the great beacon of the classical tradition in American culture. Who does not hold him in front as a standard?

MN: Who were your most influential teachers?

KK: One was Patrick Summers, the artistic and general director of Houston Grand Opera. He was the very young music director of the San Francisco Opera Center when I joined that company as an apprentice. He was instrumental in introducing me to opera. I had always played for singers and I was a good pianist, but I didn’t know the opera repertoire or how to approach it as a coach. He was one of my most important mentors in that regard. He taught me how to study a score, study a language, and study a character. He showed me how to put it all in historical context. Also, I learned a great deal from Kathy Cathcart who directed the Center. Later, I worked with James Levine at the Met and learned even more from him.

Sylvia Debenport was the head of the opera workshop at ASU during the late seventies and eighties. I played for a couple of operas during my last year at that school. That is where the opera bug first bit me. Sylvia was a magnificent teacher and one of the most innovative that I have ever seen. She did not merely translate. She used specific coaching and acting techniques to consolidate a language into students’ bodies. A true taskmaster, she had very high standards. She was kind but exacting. I admired her enormously and she remains a model for me.

MN: Where do you now teach?

KK: Now I am very happy to be the first Conductor of Opera at the University of Michigan. I also coach at the Michigan Opera Theater’s new resident artist program, which is right in the university’s backyard. I’m also a regular guest coach for the Domingo-Cafritz Program at the Washington National Opera. I regularly make my way around to YAPs at Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, and Wolf Trap. Now I’m adding universities to that itinerary: Vanderbilt, Baylor, Western Ontario, Toronto. I love being the regular teacher in one place, and the visitor in many others. It keeps the blood flowing!

MN: What did you learn from your teachers that you are passing on to your students?

KK: I want my students to engage in a successful method of combining their text with its music. They need to understand how the composer was inspired by the story, the words, and how the words drove the musical line. Human beings have so many coloristic and expressive resources that are hard wired in us. Think of how much variety there is in the expression of human speech. We don’t plan that variety. It comes out as we are inspired by what we are saying as each of us follows our own creative spark. In a way, as re-creative musicians, we work backwards from the result to the inspiration. We replant it back into all those hard wired processes. What we want to have come out the other side should feel like a spontaneous creation. It’s hard work but it’s endlessly interesting. It’s the work of a lifetime. If I can help people engage in that, to me that is the essence of teaching and collaboration.

MN: How much work did you have to do to make Emmerich Kálmán’s Arizona Lady ready for performance by Arizona Opera?

KK: A lot! The premiere in 1953 occurred during a still-difficult time in post-war Europe. There were things to be addressed in the orchestration that certainly were addressed at the premiere but which weren’t reflected in the orchestral material. There were problems with making the piece ready for American audiences, too. The second act has a ton of dialogue and very little music. That can work in a small theater, with stars that are well loved by the audience, but in the big barns where we perform in the United States it could be deadly!

For Arizona, we consolidated some characters and eliminated others. We moved a duet from Act I to Act II and interpolated some music from the appropriate era into a party scene, much as many companies do with Die Fledermaus. I adapted almost all the dialogue and lyrics into English, but with the help of the poet and fellow ASU alumnus, Alberto Rios, we also had some dialogue and lyrics in Spanish for the Mexican characters, and left some in the original German for our heroine, Lona. All of this was done with the goal of helping the audience connect with the piece in a more personal way, which is part of the tradition of operetta.

MN: Do you have an anecdote from the “Opera Wars” for us?

KK: I don’t like to tell tales out of school! We’re so intimate in our work with one another, that we have the chance to see each other at our most vulnerable, and sometimes at our worst. A creative rehearsal space has to have room for that, and I feel strongly that we must protect this. I will take this opportunity to talk about one thing, which is the increased tightening of rehearsal time in our profession. Much of that is simply due to financial constraints. However, another factor is plain old boring money. Singers and conductors at the top of the profession, because they can draw audience, have the chance to fit as much work in as possible. They often join the rehearsal process late. This forces the music toward an ever more safe and conservative middle road. There’s no substitute for taking time to know each other, experiment, take chances, fail, and find the road. The world is a huge and diverse place and there are so many interesting artists out there. I hope we continue to invest in creating chances for their voices to be heard.

image_description=Kathleen Kelly

product_title=A Chat With Up-and-Coming Conductor Kathleen Kelly
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Kathleen Kelly [Photos courtesy of Kathleen Kelly]

Posted by maria_n at 2:55 PM