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Monday, April 2, 2007

Classical Bargains: Czech It Out!

Costume design for the Vixen, Sharp-Ears
from the Barry Kay Collection.
It's April here at the blog, and it's moving into a third month of bringing you the best classical music coverage that I have time to do. Thanks for being patient--there will be reviews in the next few weeks and eventually I'll finish writing the review of Götterdämmerung--it is excellent but I got a little burned out on Wagner DVDs so I've been taking a little break.

I've picked up some new classical box sets. Ever since the untimely and depressing death of Tower Records I've been doing most of my shopping on Amazon--picking up some really good bargains in their Marketplace from distributors like Caiman.com and Newbury Comics. (Newbury is a lot more reliable to deal with.) Frankly, I've been hoarding, loading up on CDs and recordings in case the whole industry goes bellyflop in a whirlwind of tuxedos and music stands. As a result I have wayyy too much music to listen to. I'm gonna start writing about some of the things I've picked up, and maybe get around to doing full-on reviews as the summer progresses.

The big recent acquisition is a set of operas by 20th century Czech genius Leos Janáček, released on Decca and conducted by the great Sir Charles Mackerras. Most of these opera recordings were only available on massive, chunky "doorstop" box sets with the CDs in a thick double "jewel case" with a paperback booklet inside a slipcase. This was the standard format for classical CD box sets twenty years ago. The old sets would retail from $20-$35 depending on where you did your shopping--and probably take up a foot of valuable Brooklyn shelf space, which is why I never made the investment.

The new Janáček set (which I paid about $45 for!) includes his major operas: Jenufa, Kat'a Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, Vec Makropoulos, and From The House of the Dead along with overtures and other pieces. Unfortunately, the Mackerras series did not include Sarka, Osud and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek. These recordings (many of which star the great Swedish singer Elisabeth Söderstrom), are considered to be of exceptional quality, although the only one that I am really familiar with is Vec Makropoulos.

Some quick notes on Janacek:
  • The Met recently revived Jenufa with Karita Mattila in the title role. In 1999, I saw Act II of it performed at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. Anja Silja starred as the Kostelnicka, an overbearing mother from hell.
  • Kat'a Kabanova is also the subject of occasional revivals at the Met--it is a powerful domestic tragedy whose most memorable character is Kabanicha, another overbearing mother figure. I saw this opera sometime at the Met in the late 1990s in a stripped-down staging by Jonathan Miller.
  • The City Opera does a wonderful version ofThe Cunning Little Vixen (in English), the story of the life and death of a fox in the forest, and her peculiar relationship with a trapper. This is a child-friendly opera that is worth reviving.
  • Vec Makropoulos (known to most opera-goers as The Makropoulos Case, is occasionally revived at the Met, first with Jessye Norman and later with Catherine Malfitano. It is a soprano showcase on par with the major works of Wagner and Strauss. Sadly, the Met's revival of this opera was marred by the death of tenor Richard Versalle on opening night in 1996. Ironically, Versalle sang the line "You only live so long", had a heart attack and fell off a ladder, plummeting twenty feet to the stage in the opera's opening scene.
  • Finally, according to the Met Maniac wensite, the big house is presenting a new production of From the House of the Dead directed by the brilliant Patrice Chereau. The production is scheduled for 2009-2010.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.