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Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Recordings Reissue: La Forza di Tebaldi

There is no disputing the fact that Renata Tebaldi and the Decca record company were a match made in heaven. She recorded many of the major Verdi and Puccini operas in the Decca studios. She is also one of the few artists to make complete recordings of operas that used to be repertory standards, i.e. Catalani's La Wally and Cilea's Adriana Lecouvrer. Her 1955 recording of La Forza del Destino has just been reissued, and, to use the technical language of operatic criticism, it's a doozy.



The huge cast required for this opera is filled out with nothing less than an all-star lineup of post-war Italian singers. Tebaldi's Leonora is one of her greatest roles, soaring and expressive, right on the edge between madness and piety in her quest for redemption. Her grand Act II aria and scena is a glorious, religious experience. Mario del Monaco enters the first act like a thunderbolt--he is always at his best in over-the-top roles and his Alvaro is no exception. He displays fine ringing tone throughout, building up to such a height of apoplexy that one expects him to force the opera to follow Verdi's original "suicide" ending just to he can hurl himself shrieking over a cliff!

As the manic Don Carlo (not to be confused with the equally manic Don Carlo in Don Carlo) Ettore Bastianini chews the scenery, managing the subtleties of the "Pereda" aria and then going toe-to-toe with del Monaco in the third act. Giulietta Simionato is a gorgeous, old-school Preziosilla, hitting the low "Buona notte" note that most mezzos avoid today. The minor parts are in good hands: two monks are the very capable Fernando Corena (as Fra Melitone) and Cesare Siepi (as the Padre Guardiano).

The idea for this recording came about in 1953 when Dmitri Mitropoulos conducted a legendary series of Forza performances in Italy. He is absent here, replaced by the pedestrian Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. Leading the Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Molinari-Pradelli takes a foursquare approach to the music. He lacks the rhythmic snap necessary for a great Verdi performance.

The other problem is the orchestral sound. In 1955, Decca had not yet perfected its stereo recording techniques, and the problems are readily apparent from the overture onward. The orchestral sound is compressed to an unacceptable degree, and the result is buzzing and rattling in the speakers when the brass and percussion come in at full blast. Even the much-vaunted Decca digital remastering has not cured the fact that for much of this recording, the orchestral forces are simply playing at levels which the recording technology of 1955 failed to capture.It is ironic that, of the major studio recordings of this sprawling opera, the one with the finest singers and best vocal performances is cursed with medocre conducting and worse orchestral sound.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Opera Review: Roads to Madness

Željko Lucic and Maria Guleghina as the Macbeths.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met's new Macbeth.
With his version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Verdi managed to break new musical ground in the middle of his difficult "galley years." The result: an opera with two murderously difficult leading roles. On Monday night, the premiere of Adrian Noble's new production featured baritone Željko Lucic and soprano Maria Guleghina as the Macbeths, in one of the most exciting performances of a young opera season.

Mr. Lucic is an imposing figure, with a big swagger in his manner and his voice. As his guilt slowly peels away the shell of his sanity, the performance rises in intensity until it becomes excruciating to watch.  Mr. Lucic's performance encompassed noble, deep notes, white-faced terror and all-out rage and despair, everything that is demanded by Verdi. He moved from high-powered grandstanding to the intimacy of deep dementia.

Maria Guleghina gave a strong performance as Lady Macbeth. She began the Letter Scene in spoken word, floated crazy, dissonant notes in the middle of the Act II brindisi and ranged her formidable instrument all over the stave in her final mad scene, giving an acting performance inspired by sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Barefoot, she walked on a long row of chairs, avoiding stepping on the cracks on the floor of the set. The whole time, she compulsively rubbed her hands.





John Relyea was a fine, resonant Banquo, with rolling deep notes and a warm, fatherly presence. His performance makes one wish that Macbeth's best friend could live a little longer--or at least have some music to sing as a blood-covered ghost! His final aria was magnificently sung, and he gave his murderers a heck of a fight before getting killed.  Finally, the large, burly singer made an imposing, terrifying (albeit silent) ghost in the banquet scene.

Macduff was the tenor Dimitri Pittas. This is a tiny part--one of Verdi's smallest tenor roles. But his Act IV aria was beautifully sung with longing for the character's murdered family. The final stage-fight between him and Macbeth was compelling to watch, bringing the rebellion to an exciting close.

This new production by Adrian Noble emphasizes drama and efficiency over visual splendor. The entire action takes place on a cracked, black obsidian disk, (very New Bayreuth!) with columns at the front and the trees of Birnham Wood toward the back. The trees-to-columns effect leads one to expect these sets (by Mark Thompson, who also designed the company's surreal black-on-black Pique Dame) to be recycled for the Met's next staging of Parsifal. Noble does a good job of coming up with powerful ways to stage the dramatic action of the play, and his inspired singing actors help make the production work.

James Levine conducted with brisk efficiency, letting the formidable Met brass tear into the score, while maintaining the delicate balance between the winds and strings. The Met chorus, whether portraying the Macbeths' party guests, the maniacal witches, or the oppressed people of Scotland, were both superb and tight.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Opera Review: Figaro Gets Hitched

The Metropolitan Opera's current revival of Le Nozze di Figaro is anchored by an extraordinary pair of male leads. As Figaro, Uruguayan singer Erwin Schrott gave a high-energy reading of the character, leaping and bounding across the stage. The physicality of his performance was matched by high quality singing, with ringing firm notes and genuine anger in the crucial Act IV betrayal scene. As the Count, Michele Pertusi's strong presence lent force to the nobleman's rage and frustration--yet he also shows the vulnerable side to the character in the opera's finale. In some ways, these two singers are similar. Each shares a swaggering stage presence, expert buffa delivery and fine comic instincts.

Canadian soprano Wendy Nielsen stepped in for an ill Hei-Kyung Hong at the October 10 performance, and the audience was not disappointed. Nielsen sang "Porgi Amor", "Dove sono" and the Letter Scene with a sweet, carefully modulated vocal tone that also blended well in the opera's many ensembles. This is not the frail, wilting Countess, but a robust woman who is determined to hang onto her man at any cost.



Lisette Oropresa sang a high-energy Susanna, pert and sparkling. Anke Vondung made her Met debut as Cherubino, investing the character with a strong mannish energy necessary for this trouser role. Finally, the other three comic leads of the opera (Dr. Bartolo, Marcellina and Don Basilio) were in the capable hands of Maurizio Muraro, Ann Murray and Robin Leggate. From the first act onwards, their comic business and double-dealing enhanced the events of Figaro's crazy wedding day.

Conductor Philippe Jordan led a brisk, egg-timer performance with a stripped-down Met band. The downsized orchestra responded with crisp tempi and exceptional woodwind playing. In keeping with the brisk tone of the evening, the opera was given with one long intermission (between Acts II and III) which made for two long stretches of music but enabled the orchestra to blaze through Mozart's score in three and a half hours, flat.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Operas of October

The opera season in New York is off to a strong start, with the Met's surreal Lucia competing for attention with the gritty new Cav/Pag at the City Opera. As October gets under way, highlights to look forward to include:




  • Alexander Zemlinsky's little-heard A Florentine Tragedy at the New York Philharmonic. Zemlinsky was the teacher of Schoenberg, and was long considered a lost example of early 20th century Austrian opera. His works have come under reassessment in recent decades, thanks to the efforts of conductor James Conlon. Maestro Conlon leads concert performances of this opera at Avery Fisher Hall, starting Thursday, Oct. 18.
  • The following week features the second new Met production of the season, a new staging of Verdi's Macbeth starring baritone Željko Lucic and Maria Guleghina as his lady wife. Based on Shakespeare's blood-soaked "Scottish Play," this is the first performance of this famously unlucky opera at the Met since 82-year old singing coach Bantcho Bantchevsky fell from the balcony during the intermission of a matinee performance in 1988. His death was ruled a suicide, the first and only to occur during a performance in the company's history. Hopefully, this new staging (by Adrian Noble) will keep opera lovers in their seats until the final curtain.
  • Handel's baroque showpiece, Agrippina, takes the stage at City Opera, a house that has become known for quality presentations of operas by the great baroque composer. The City Opera's 1997 production of Xerxes sparked the baroque revival in New York and spurred the careers of David Daniels and Lorraine Hunt. This Agrippina is a welcome revival, featuring the singing talents of countertenor David Walker.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Opera Review: Reality Blurs, Murder Occurs

Cav/Pag at the New York City Opera.
The New York City Opera's new Stephen Lawless production of Cavallieria Rusticana and Pagliacci takes the classic verismo double bill and turns it on its head. Led by house maestro George Manahan, this is a powerful one-two punch of these great operas, made all the stronger by Lawless's decision to integrate the characters of the two works, blending the lines of reality and increasing the dramatic power of the evening.

At first, the crossovers start without the audience realizing it, when Silvio (the lover of Nedda from Pagliacci, played by Michael Todd Simpson) shows up in Cavalleria as Turiddu's callous drinking buddy. Later, a visibly battered Lola (Alfio's wife in Cav, played by Rebecca Ringle) wanders through the carnival of Pag, suicase in hand.

Alfio (the killer in Cavalleria, played by baritone Andrew Oakden) crosses the stage at the start of Pagliacci, pockets his switchblade (the murder weapon) with a nod to the audience, unbuttons his jacket, vest and shirt, and reveals that, underneath he is dressed as Tonio, the evil clown who destroys Canio's marriage in the second opera.

Both operas were anchored by strong performances, and both featured the stellar baritone of Andrew Oakden, singing his first City Opera performances as Alfio and Tonio. This was a sturdy performance, brilliantly acted. He sang "Il Cavallo Scalpita" with feeling and rhythmic snap, and nailed the confrontation with Turriddu (tenor Brandon Jovanovich.) Oakden's second performance, (as Tonio) was creepy and malignant from the Prologue onward. The audience was aware that Tonio was really Alfio--not just the same singer but the same man who committed the murder in the first opera. This made Oakden's performance all the more disturbing.

Brandon Jovanovich displayed a fine, ringing voice as Turiddu in the first opera. He pulled real pathos from the opera's climax and treated Santuzza (Anna Marie Chiuri) with venomous contempt. The two did not shy from the physical aspects of playing the feuding ex-lovers--their chemistry and kinetic fight choreography enhanced Mascagni's music and practically leapt off the stage. As Santuzza, Chiuri was a powerhouse, the right mix of beautiful singing and pure rage. Susan Nicely was a moving Mamma Lucia, her final scene with Turiddu was the emotional climax of the opera.

Pagliacci was also blessed with good physical acting and fine vocal performances. Maria Kanyova was an athletic Nedda--making one wonder how she produces such beautiful vocal tone when contorting her way across the red velvet couch upon which she canoodles with Silvio.

The famous, murdering clown, Canio, was played as an alcoholic actor and sung by tenor Carl Tanner, who has a fine, round voice and chose his own interpretation of the "laughing sob", not resorting to hamming or cliché. It was interesting to see Canio do his clown bit in grease paint and a striped suit--the character was so depressed and angry that he didn't even bother to get into costume. The rest of the cast, Robert Mack as Beppe and Michael Todd Simpson as Silvio, provided some nice singing and able support.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

DVD Review: It's All About the Pants

The 1995 Bayreuth Götterdämmerung.
Mother Courage: Deborah Polaski as Brunnhilde. Image © 1995 Unitel.
A minor chapter in the history of Wagner Ring cycles at Bayreuth has finally arrived on DVD: a performance of Götterdämmerung from the infamous 1995 production of the Ring cycle directed by Alfred Kirchner and designed by German fashionista Rosalie. (That's "Roh-zal-yah" by the way, not "Rosalie")

I had read about this strange production over a decade ago, and like most Wagnerians, was curious to see if it was actually as bad as I had heard it was. Happily, the verdict, at least as far as this 2-DVD Götterdämmerung is concerned, is that the production is less than a total disaster. That is to say, musically speaking, it's pretty good, with one glaring exception.

Luckily, this is Deborah Polaski's Brunnhilde at a vocal peak, before her big soprano voice began to suffer from a regular wobble. She sings beautifully in comparison to her Siegfried, (considering that it's Wolfgang Schmidt, that's not difficult) and tries to act through the onstage silliness. Her apotheosis won't make anyone forget Nilsson (or even Anne Evans) but she sings well enough.

Vocally, Schmidt is the primary culprit here, although compared to a 1997 performance at the Met he is in passable voice. (That's not a compliment.) His is a tight, compressed instrument, given to stentorian shouts and squally notes, with very little legato and no room for the voice to expand and blossom. It's interesting that after he drinks the love potion in Act I, his singing gets worse! This is one of those performances where the audience feels pretty good about Siegfried getting speared in the back.

With a bad tenor and worse designer, Hagen becomes the hero of the evening, ('cos he gets to kill Siegfried!) I am happy to say that Icelandic bass Erik Halfvarson gives an iconic performance as the spear-wielding party-loving Son-of-a-Nibelung. His resonant tones and rolled deep notes are a welcome distraction--almost enough to make you forget that he is wearing roller-derby shoulder-pads and a fetching half-leather full-length black skirt.

Unfortunately, no one thought to hire Hagen to put a hit on Rosalie. Her strange costume ideas include:
  • A metallic "fake muscle" chestpiece for Siegfried, worn under an electric-blue vest with paper pants. (Little Lord Fauntelroy in disposable clothing?) I'm not even going to mention the sword which looks like a gigantic delta-vee cheese-grater. Mangia parmagiana!
  • Brunnhilde, decked out in four-foot-wide silver "diet pants" topped by a blue and white plasticized, fake-nippled corset. (This accentuates Deborah Polaski's considerable physical assets, inspiring the title of this review--I couldn't stop laughing.)
  • A quilted nylon mattress pad/cloak for Gutrune, which predicts the exact shade of Christo and Jean Claude's "The Gates," ten years before that project launched.
  • A single bright orange accordion sleeve for Gunther that looks like it will zip out at any moment like an Extend-O-Glove and pop Hagen on the nose.
  • The three Norns, looking like the inspiration for the forest critters in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. However, these costumes appear to be made from brightly-tinted bubble-wrap with over-long sleeves. Eek!
Falk Struckmann (who has since graduated to singing Wotan) is an excellent baritone and a solid actor when not encumbered by his costume. Anna Linden's Gutrune is more erratic than erotic (blame the quilt) and Waltraute is the ever-reliable Hanna Schwarz. The Bayreuth choral forces are able and willing, no matter how silly the production.

One wonders if the rest of this cycle is slated to be released on DVD, or if this was the only one of the four operas staged that summer to be deemed worthy of posterity. It's worth hearing for Halfvarson, Polaski, and James Levine's superb, if slow reading in the famous Bayreuth pit. Given some of the strange fashion choices made by designer Rosalie, the other three operas might be worth seeing, if only on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Opera Review: The Blood-Spattered Bride

Natalie Dessay in Lucia di Lammermoor.
by Paul Pelkonen
Natalie Dessay on her wedding night in Lucia.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera
With her performance in the Met's scintillating new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, French soprano Natalie Dessay joined the front rank of the world's great soprano singers. The diminutive coloratura sang one of opera's most famous roles with passion and pin-point precision on Monday night. She was sweet and girlish in the opening act, yet with a hint of something under the surface that indicated the instability and madness that is Lucia's fate.

Her Act Two duet with Enrico (the burly, dark-voiced baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) was compellingly acted, not the display of wooden singing and staging that has cursed the Lammermoor story in recent years. And she dominated the Act Two sextet, evoking pity in the audience and hints of the character's forthcoming psychotic snap.


When the breakdown finally came, (in the 17-minute Mad Scene which dominates Act III) it was a superb piece of acting supported by top-notch singing. Ms. Dessay made her entrance in the blood-spattered wedding gown, knife in hand, like a little girl gone very wrong who knows she has done something bad...but cannot bring herself to face reality. As she made her way down the winding, wooden staircase, the illusion of her acting never let up even as she soared through the vocal demands of "Il dolce suono". Each moment was carefully considered, yet sung with abandon, the power of her voice being given full rein as she blazed through the scene.

A great Mad Scene is not enough to save a Lucia, but this imaginative, photography-based production is blessed with a strong cast. Veteran tenor Marcello Giordani is no stranger to Edgardo, and his able, sturdy voice made the final Tomb Scene as compelling as the Mad Scene just before it. Too often, this powerful finale is an afterthought. That was not the case here. In fact, it was in the finale that director Mary Zimmerman pulled an effective trick on the audience. leaving the viewer unsure if it was reality or hallucination playing out across the stage.

The performance of Mariusz Kwiecien, a product of the Met's Young Artists Program, was a compelling argument for the program's existence. With a strong stage presence, Mr. Kwiecien communicated Enrico's plight, with acting instead of the usual mustache-twirling villiainy. His rich, dark voice matched well with Ms. Dessay's in their big Act II duet. Bass John Relyea made much of the smaller role of Raimondo, with ringing, firm notes and a warm, fatherly stage presence straight out of a Verdi opera.


Surprisingly, this is James Levine's first run conducting Lucia at the Met. It has been worth waiting for, as he demonstrated his flawless sense of musical architecture and his expertise at gudiing singers through the treacherous waters of Donizetti's score. Nothing demonstrated this better than the Act II sextet, a difficult ensemble piece in which each character expresses a different simultaneous emotion. Under Mr. Levine's guidance, the singers moved smoothly together, creating a vocal orchestra on the stage that was filled with meaning and human emotion.

Mary Zimmerman's concise, well thought out staging is based on photographs of Scotland. Through straight, simple representations, she makes the reality of the first two acts very believable, setting the audience up for the hallucinations of the third. This final act is a wild ride under an enormous cold moon, a trip through the psychological fun house that compares with a good production of Wozzeck in its relentless exploration of human madness. If the rest of the Met's new productions this season are up to the high standards set by this Lucia, then the opera-lovers in New York are in for a wonderful year.

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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.