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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.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Big Conch Awards 2007

My quick end of year commendations, strictly off-the-cuff:

Best Orchestral Performance: Boston Symphony Orchestra, "The Damnation of Faust" at Carnegie Hall.

Best Opera Performance: "Il Trittico" at the Met.




Diva of the Year: Deborah Voigt

Divo of the Year: Salvatore Licitra

Best Opera Recording: Due to the sad state of the music industry, we're skipping this category for '07. How about instead--best opera recording made in the last ten years that I actually spent money on: "Ariadne auf Naxos", conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli.

Best Opera Reissue: The Del Monaco/Tebaldi "La Forza del Destino", runner up "Das Wunder der Heliane" by Korngold, finally reissued.

Best Classical Box Set: Schubert sacred music, cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch, The Operas of Janacek, cond. Sir Charles Mackerras

Best Opera DVD: "Lohengrin" from Baden-Baden conducted by Kent Nagano.

Favorite opera moment of '07: Placido Domingo appears on the Simpsons

Much missed: Beverly Sills, Luciano Pavarotti

Deborah Voigt is proud to accept this giant conch!
Photo © Nick Heavican/Metropolitan Opera from DeborahVoigt.com

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Opera Review: Follow the Bouncing Ballo

The Metropolitan Opera's revival of Un Ballo in Maschera bowed on Monday night, anchored by a strong, well-sung performance by Salvatore Licitra as Gustavo III, the King of Sweden. Licitra stepped into the operatic limelight in 2002 when he took over Cavaradossi for an indisposed Luciano Pavarotti at the Met. Here Licitra sang a performance that the recently deceased Luciano would have been proud of. Gustavo is one of Pavarotti's signature roles with well-rounded tone and ear-pleasing high notes. He exhibited outhrusting sexual charisma and a magnetic stage presence--you truly regretted his death at the opera's climax. In other words Licitra's performance embodied the Pavarotti tradition from the singer's salad days.



Ballo had more problems with the censor than any other Verdi opera (except maybe or ). As a result, the house hs two options in performing it: go with the original setting. In the Swedish setting, the King is the historical (but historically homosexual) Gustav III of Sweden--not exactly who you want at the center of a love triangle. Possibly worse is the "censored" version, in which the King becomes "Riccardo", Duke of Warwick" and where the glittering masked ball is placed in the unlikely setting of Puritan-run colonial Boston.

In either Stockholm or Boston, this is one of the trickiest Verdi scores to conduct. It is light in its texture, with a frothy humor that is smewhat uncharacteristic for this master of the stage tragedy. This lightness proved difficult for conductor Gianandrea Noceda, whose lead-footed conducting slowed the opera's pacing and sense of dramatic flow, He also failed to pull back the orchestra at key climactic moments--the singers were either drowned out or forced to shout over the pit.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky brought his usual heroic presence to the role of Count Anckarström, whose jealous rage and decision to assassinate the King makes him this opera's true protagonist. Whether he is the Count (in Sweden) or Renato, a "Creole" (In Boston) it is this character's tragic development that makes this character spin. Renato/Anckarström goes from buddy and court lackey to a humiliated, enraged husband who is prepared to kill the King dead--in public!--to avenge his honor. His transition provides Ballo with its emotional core, and one cannot help thinking that Hvorostovsky's performance, while magnificently sung, seemed detached from the tragedy at hand. That said, his Act III aria was a highlight of the evening.

As Amelia, the woman caught in the middle between these two men, was American-born soprano Michele Crider. She displayed a fine, sweet toned voice, but unfortunately had to struggle over the orchestra at the climax of her Act II aria. Ofelia Sala made a fine debut in the trouser role of Oscar, the King's perpetually perky page. Stephanie Blythe rocked the house as Ulrica--it's a pity that this witchy woman only appears in Act I.

Salvatore Licitra does the hand jive.
Photo © Patrick MacMullan from Mastroianni Associates.

Monday, December 17, 2007

DVD Review: Songs From the Big Chair

Boris Godunov at the Liceu
In the capable hands of director Willy Decker and conductor Sebastian Weigle, this production of Boris Godunov (filmed at the Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona) , the Liceu Boris becomes more than a radical work that changed Russian opera forever. It becomes the first great political thriller of the stage.

Matti Salminen and Erik Halfvarson are both basses, and both known for their huge, round dark voices that have led them to build their careers around the role of the villain Hagen in Wagner's Götterdämmerung. Salminen takes the title role into his massive hands and delivers a thunderous performance, swinging between grim self-defeat and stark terror in the mad scenes. Halfvarson, as the monk, Pimen is the more emotionally stable of the two--his opening monologue is riveting. The two great basses finally confront each other in the Duma scene, now moved to the close of the opera.

This is Boris as Mussorgsky originally conceived it--seven tableaux clocking in at two and a half hours. In this production, there is no Polish act. Grigory's part is accordingly diminished. Princess Marina and the Jesuit, Rangoni are cut completely. Also cut out, the Kromy Forest scene--replaced here by the confrontation before St. Basil's. However, these cuts have their advantages. While Grigory (the appealing tenor Pär Lindskog) is reduced to a mere historical footbote against the grand drama of Boris, the shadowy schemes of Shuisky (the excellent Philip Langridge) now come to the fore.

Director Willy Decker has opted against the tradiitonal Russian look, choosing a quasi-fascist 20th century setting that opens with Boris in a well-cut business suit before he becomes tsar. The set consists of a wide open space dominated by an enormous, gilded wooden chair--which serves as scenery and blocking as well as the central image of the Russian throne. The seat is literally too big for any one man--perhaps that is the idea. The spare set gives the choristers plenty of space to move and act, allowing them to dominate this opera when the two great basses are not onstage.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Opera Review: Iphigenie en Tauride at the Met

The Met's new production of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride is an import from the Seattle Opera, anchored by two singers familiar to New York opera lovers. On Tuesday night, Placido Domingo (as Orestes) and Susan Graham (in the title role) were the stars of a powerful theatrical evening.



Written at the very end of Gluck's life, Iphigenie consolidated the composer's musical theories with its emotional arias, heightened dramatic tension, and unified flow of musical ideas. However, it fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century, and has been absent from the Met's stage for 90 years. The libretto is based on a play by Euripedes, telling of the further adventures of Iphigenie. She is the daughter of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who was willing to sacrifice her to get a favorable wind in order to sail to the Trojan War. When he "killed" her, Iphigenie was magically transported to Tauris (present day Crimea) and forced to sacrifice humans at the bidding of the king. She is also the sister of Orestes, who is in turn tormented by the Furies for murdering his mother, Klytemnestra. The next victim on the altar, she learns, is to be Orestes himself.

The family's murderous history is dealt with in this production, a stark, intense staging by Stephen Wadsworth, the director whose Santa Fe/New York City Opera staging of Handel's Xerxes helped revive interest in baroque opera while making stars out of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and David Daniels. Here, the action is set in a closed, claustrophobic space--bleak and dusty rooms that saw nothing but death. The ominous air was added to by the decision to shackle Orestes and Pylades--to the walls, to the altar--for much of the action--their struggles to escape the coming sacrifice evoked modern horror films like Saw.

Both Placido Domingo and Susan Graham put this intensity of feeling into their dramatic performance, fusing word and gesture in a way to make classicists proud. In addition to strong acting, their singing is to be commended: Mr. Domingo sounds more comfortable in the French than ever before--the idiosyncratic pronunciations were kept to a minimum. Susan Graham gave a powerful performance, baring a full range of emotions, from commanding priestess to tender, loving sister. This role has become a trademark of this American mezzo, and her rich voice showed command of the character's nuances. At the end of the opera, Graham's performance was capped by a post-traumatic stress breakdown onstage, showing the audience the trauma of Iphigenie's ordeal as a priestess of Diana.

They were aided by nimble orchestral support. Louis Langree did an exceptional job on the podium--this production marks his Met debut. and a strong secondary cast, particularly the Pylades of Paul Groves. Groves held his own with Domingo's mighty stage presence in a solid performance.

Photo © Ken Howard, 2007

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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.