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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, February 29, 2008

Opera On Disc: Carmen vs. Carmen

Frame-grab of Teresa Berganza as Carmen.
George Bizet's Carmen is evergreen on the stage, an opera packed from end to end with memorable melodies and unforgettable dramatic moments. The electricity of a performance is difficult to replicate in the studio. Also, the use of spoken dialogue instead of recitative tends to confuse first-time listeners who may surprised to hear spoken French coming out of their living room stereo. That said, these are the two best Carmens in the catalogue.

Carmen
London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Claudio Abbado, (Deutsche Grammophon/DG Original 1978)


An Italian conductor, Spanish singers in the lead parts, an English orchestra and an American Escamillo add up to a cosmopolitan Carmen. Claudio Abbado's 1978 recording has plenty of red-blooded energy, which makes up for its lack of authentic French tone. From the first cymbal clashes to the tragic final scene, Abbado's conducting reeks of attitude and robustness, good qualities in a performance of this passionate opera. Teresa Berganza sings a lush, sensual performance, achieving genuine heat in her Act I solos and a full, rich characterization in the later acts. Her Don José is Placido Domingo, in his vocal prime. His tense, barely-in-control "Flower Song" is one of the tenor's best recorded moments, tender yet anguished.

Berganza and Domingo have terrific chemistry on this recording. The only thing that's better is the Act I scene between Domingo and Ileana Cotrubas as Micaëla--a heart-rending reminder of that failed relationship. Sherrill Milnes is a strutting Escamillo, singing the "Toreador" song with feline grace. The London Symphony Orchestra is in excellent form. This recording uses the authentic spoken French dialogue, as the composer intended. The only minus--some of the sound effects are overplayed and overwhelming.
(Note: In March of 2005, after a long absence from the label's US catalogue (I had to buy an import!), the Abbado/Bergana >Carmen was reissued as a 2-disc, mid-price DG Original.)

Carmen
Choeur et Ochestra National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise, cond. Sir Thomas Beecham, (EMI Classics, 1960)

Sir Thomas Beecham's recording has been the benchmark Carmen since it apeared in 1960. Its chief glory is the voluptuous singing of Victora de los Angeles. At this point in her career, de los Angeles had already recorded the definitive Bohème with Beecham at the controls. She undertook the role of the Spanish gypsy at the conductor's request, having never sung Carmen onstage. Her Carmen is a complex creature, playful and teasing in the Habañera, bewitching in the Séguedille. She is well matched with the great Nicolai Gedda, whose excellent command of French and cerebral approach to the character make him a fairly down-to-earth Don José. Of course, this makes the moment when he snaps and turns into a homicidal maniac all the more effective.

These two excellent leads are supplanted by a fine French cast, most notably Ernest Blanc (Escamillo) and Janine Micheau (Micaëla). Beecham leads his French forces in a performance that features the old-fashioned Giraud recitatives. This gives the performance an organic ebb and flow, highlighting the superb work of this quintessential British conductor . This Carmen never loses its momentum, or its sense of inexorable progress toward the final denouement.
(Note: This set is currently available, as a mid-price 3-disc box in EMI's Great Recordings of the 20th Century series.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

DVD Review: Cuckoo Cocoon

The Zurich Zauberflöte
Birdman of Zurich: Ruben Drole as Papageno
Image © 2008 by Hans Jörg Michel/Opernhaus Zürich
From the Zürich Opernhaus and music director Nikolaus Harnoncourt comes this new DVD performance of Mozart's Zauberflöte. Harnoncourt is an acclaimed conductor who built his reputation on performances with period instruments, and unusual textual decisions. However, this performance is on modern instruments, crisply played and note-complete.

Filming the opera before a German-speaking audience means that most of the spoken dialogue is present and accounted for, giving a proper frame to the gorgeous music. In general, the cast is very solid, with an entertaining group of young singing actors anchored by the veteran Sarastro of the great Finnish bass Matti Salminen.

While the performance filmed here is fairly traditional, the production is decidedly not. The team of director Martin Kusej and set designer Rolf Glittenberg have moved the action from Mozart's mythical Egypt to a strange, labyrnthine setting that is either an abandoned office building or an insane asylum. Sarastro is the hippie health guru in charge of this cuckoo's nest, a series of rotating, similar rooms separated by identical fire doors.

The Masonic priests (orderlies?) appear as white-clad social gadabouts who occasionally engage in onstage air guitar. By way of contrast, the mysterious temple slaves are presented as shirtless, axe-wielding grease monkeys who chase our heroes through the labyrinth until totally disarmed by Papageno and his magic bells.

At the curtain's rise, Pamina (Julia Kleiter) and Tamino (Christoph Strehl) appear as a formal, married couple. They spend the rest of the opera in and out of their wedding clothes. Are they meeting for the first time, or merely suffering a bad case of amnesia? Papageno (Ruben Drole) first appears in a chicken-wire cage, his black evening jacket stained with bird droppings.

The Three Ladies (Sandra Trattnigg, Martina Welschenbach and Katharina Peetz) are elegant blind socialites in fancy sunglasses. They serve a Queen of the Night (Elena Mosuc) who appears to be locked up for nymphomania--she seduces Tamino in their Act I scene together. Finally, Monostatos (Rudolf Schasching) is a slimy psychopath who first appears out of a bathtub. But that's nothing--the Queen makes her Act II entrance from inside a refrigerator!

Sarastro (Matti Salminen) scolds Monostatos (Rudolf Schasching) in Die Zauberflöte
Image © 2008 by Hans Jörg Michel/Opernhaus Zürich
All this business is highly controversial and makes for good crush bar conversation, but does it work? The answer is: most of the time. By putting the characters in a difficult situation and stripping away the usual Masonic/Egyptian trappings, the true dramatic depth of this opera is revealed. Too many Flutes fel like children's pageants aor a bad school play. This production, (which is emphatically for an adult audience) reveals and revels in the glories of Mozart's final opera. The two-DVD set includes a 45-minute television documentary with backstage interviews and a revealing look at the labyrinth from above.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Opera Review: Drop That Anvil!

The Met brings back Barbiere.
by Paul Pelkonen
The Metropolitan Opera's revival of Bartlett Sher's whirligig production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia isn't quite on the same level as its premiere in 2006. While the cheerful insanity and Looney Tunes physics remain intact, the production missed the presence of super-tenor Juan Diego Flórez and his effortless mastery of the difficult role of Almaviva.
Anvil, anvil in the sky...Act I of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Photo by Ken Howard 2009 The Metropolitan Opera
Here, his replacement is Jose Manuel Zapata, who is simply not in the same league. His voice is lyric, with a sweet timbre when at mezzo voce. But when he adds volume, it pinches in his upper register, producing an unpleasant sound. (Happily, Zapata elected to skip Cessa di piu resistere, the murderously difficult Act II rondo , a standard cut.)

Franco Vassallo was a characterful Figaro--a bit too mannered in "Largo al factotum" but good at the comic business the role calls for. The way he plays the barber, you wonder if Rosina would be better off marrying a man with his own haircutting emporium.

That particular redhead was in very good voice on Monday night, well sung and acted by Latvian mezzo Elìna Garanča. She sang in the authentic Rossinian manner, hitting lovely highs and characterful low notes. Maurizio Muraro was a good-natured, bumbling Bartolo. Ruggerio Raimondi, making a rare Met appearance wwas a fine Basilio. His sonorous low notes in "La Calunia"" and comic timing in the Act II quintet were highlights of the evening.

This spare staging traded in the big rotating house-set for sliding, moving door-frames, mobile orange trees and odd moments of Looney Tunes physics. Other than that, the stage is mostly bare and extends out over and around the orchestra pit. This brings the singers closer to the audience (well, the orchestra and the parterre boxes) but causes balance problems with the sound.
Silly anvil, you can't fly!" Act I of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Photo by Ken Howard. © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
There exists a (false) perception that Rossini is "easy" to conduct. That wasn't the case for stick-waver Frédéric Chaslin. He seemed to be having an awfully good time in the orchestra pit, but this was an inconsistent performance. The problems began with the first, wobbly chords. The overture was undermined by sloppy brass playing and ragged meters.

Apparently, Chaslin believes that fast tempos are somehow "funnier" (also false) so he barreled ahead, ignoring precision and textures in pursuit of an opera buffa ideal. Worse yet, the addition of clangy, distracting (and frequently, off-the-beat) percussion made the usually taut Met orchestra sound like an Italian town band after a few too many bottles of Chianti.

The lowlight of the evening: the addition of "Spanish" flamenco guitar embellishments to "Se il mio nome." That led to to an distracting shout of "¡Olé!" (from somewhere either onstage, in the pit or in the house) that nearly killed this lovely little aria. Completely unnecessary.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Unseen: Five Invisible Opera Characters

They're still waiting for their cue.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

There are characters in opera who do not necessarily have to appear onstage--or even sing!--to have a dramatic impact on a plot or story-line. Here's a look at five of these "invisible" characters. Without them, these operas would be dead in the water. To be on this list a character cannot have died before the plot of the opera begins. That disqualified Agammemnon (Elektra), Princess Lou-Ling (Turandot) and a long list of others.


The Duchess of Mantua
Rigoletto
by Giuseppe Verdi
Those who know Rigoletto know that Verdi's Duke of Mantua is a walking bundle of hormones who sleeps with any girl in a skirt. However, His Dukeness is married, to an unseen Duchess. She never appears onstage, but has a crucial part to play in Act II. When the Duchess sends her page in to give a message to the Duke, the distraught Rigoletto realizes that his kidnapped daughter is in his employer's bedchamber, being ravished by the Duke. He breaks down and eventually swears revenge. Of course, the jester's revenge backfires horribly, but that's in Act III.

Don José's Mother
Carmen
by Georges Bizet.
Yes, the doomed soldier from Carmen is good to his Mom. Having abandoned his military career for the life of a mountaintop smuggler, José then faces a terrible choice between three women in Act III of Bizet's most famous opera. There is Micaëla, a nice girl from his hometown in Navarre and his childhood sweetheart. In Act III, José's obsessive love for Carmen is stifling the title character. It's almost a relief when Micaëla shows up in the smuggler's camp (risking her life) and tells José that his mother is on her deathbed. He relucantly goes with her--the event that causes him to lose the fickle Carmen to the bullfighter, Escamillo. Although the romance is dead, José cannot stay away. He accosts Carmen outside the bullring, and stabs her to death.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Piano Pleasures: John Ogdon and the Busoni Concerto

Ferruccio Busoni. From the Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a titan of the early 20th century. He stands at a crossroads: the end of Romanticism and the start of modern neo-Classicism. Italian-born but German-trained, Busoni was a virtuoso composer/pianist, armed with a colossal technique forged in the fiery furnaces of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. His music is often complex to the point of obtusity, necessitating repeated listens to assimilate everything this Faustian artist was trying to say.


There are some big piano concertos in the concert repertory. But the Busoni work, like its creator, was a real original-- a five-movement megatherium lasting an hour and ten minutes. Busoni required a huge orchestra, a nimble soloist, and even a male chorus, in the final movement. This last had never been done in a piano concerto. When Busoni fell out of fashion following his death, the concerto went with him. It was long seen as a white elephant, a work whose very complexity defied performance. Worst of all, its solo part is hellishly difficult, but not flashy, Virtuoso players still avoid it today.

John Ogdon (1937-1989) was a titan among pianists. Throughout his erratic career, this ebullient virtuoso specialized in "unplayable" composers like Scriabin, Sorabji, Alkan and of course, Busoni. He played with a mix of delicate filigree and elemental power, and was ideally suited to champion the composer's lone piano concerto. Ogdon recorded this work at Abbey Road Studios in June of 1967 studios. It was an exciting session. Pink Floyd occupied one recording studio, working on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Ogdon and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had to face a series of musical challenges. Not the least was having the session's conductor, Daniell Revenaugh, "temporarily borrowed" by Paul McCartney to complete orchestral parts on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

John Ogdon recording at Abbey Road Studios, 1967.
© 2007 The John Ogdon Foundation
In the middle of all this psychedelic activity, Ogdon, Revenaugh and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra worked their own kind of magic. Ogdon skates through the first four movements with jaw-dropping ease. He plays with power and restraint, working with and not against the orchestra, blending into the thick contrapuntal textures before soaring above the orchestra in a burst of virtuoso fireworks. Revenaugh (who made no other major commercial recordings as a conductor) leads the huge score in a stirring, confident performance. The wordless choral finale (sung by the male voices of the John Alldis Choir) is a stunning final effect.

Happily, this recording is still in the EMI catalogue. It is available as a stand-alone piece on a single budget disc. Better yet, the Ogden recording was reissued in 1998 as part of a two-CD set, Vol. 72 in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century . (This is a series of 100 two-disc DigiPaks celebrating the importance of piano music. Mostly, it's pretty good.) Here, the Busoni Concerto is accompanied by the Variations and Fugue on Chopin's Prelude in c minor, a playful, yet technically challenging work. Recorded in 1960, its inclusion here proves to be an entertaining prelude to the Concerto itself. The set also includes an interesting performance of the Alkan Concerto pour piano seul along with works by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mahler in Space!

Classical Music on Star Trek.
Captain Jean-Luc-Picard (Patrick Stewart) records Mozart aboard the Enterprise-D.
In the 40 years that Star Trek has been on (and off) the air, classical music, pop music and opera have been an integral part of the show's journey through the public's imagination. The original show featured (admittedly silly) songs sung by Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and several episodes showcased the skill of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) on the Vulcan lyre. Albums were released featuring the (questionable) vocal talents of Nimoy (who released five records!) and series star William Shatner, whose 1968 album The Transformed Man regularly makes all-time "worst" lists.


Things got better in the '80s with the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise-D positively resounded with music. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) played the violin in a string quartet. Later, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) learned how to play an alien (Ressikan, for us Trekkies) flagolet. His skills on this small flute can be seen in two memorable episodes, playing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and a Mozart trio for flute, oboe and cello. Picard's second-in-command, William T. Riker (played by Jonathan Frakes) plays the trombone, but prefers Dixieland jazz.

Opera plays a part on Star Trek as well. In the movie Star Trek: First Contact. Captain Picard listens to Berlioz before battlling the Borg--specifically "Vallon sonore," Hylas' song from Act V of Les Troyens. Worf is an aficionado of Klingon opera, a series of lengthy, violent heroic dramas listened to by devotees at ear-splitting volume--clearly inspired by Richard Wagner. Finally, on Star Trek: Voyager, the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo) developed as a (non-Klingon) opera aficionado, singing "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Boheme and "Dio, che nell'alma infondere" from Verdi's Don Carlo in various episodes.

The Doctor (Robert Picardo) sings opera on Voyager.
However, the composer who might be most important to Star Trek is Gustav Mahler. When Alexander Courage set out to write the theme for the show, he quoted themes from two different Mahler symphonies to create the famous "Star Trek fanfare" that opens almost every Trek TV episode or movie. First, the mysterious opening figure, a shimmering carpet of violins and violas playing soft, descending minor chords. This theme, with its distinctive chiming triangle, is a direct quotation from the opening of Mahler's Symphony No. 1.

The less said about this, the better.
The second theme follows quickly: an 8-note figure played on the trumpet and horn. Three rising notes, three descending and two coming back up at the end. Courage borrowed this theme from the development section of the first movement of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. In the original Trek theme, the eight-note fanfare repeats three times, before the music launches into its main melody.

When Jerry Goldsmith composed a new theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which became the theme for the Next Generation TV series), the fanfare is played only once as a prelude, before the whole orchestra kicks in. In either case, these two themes are combined to create a stirring moment, one that pleases Mahler aficionados and Trek fans alike.


"STAR TREK," "STAR TREK VOYAGER" and "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and images are © 1994 Star Trek/Paramount/CBS Television

Friday, February 22, 2008

CD Survey: Karajan Gold, Karajan Pyrite

With a recording career that stretched over half a decade, Herbert von Karajan did much, in and out of the studio to shape the modern classical music industry. The fiery Austrian did good things (pioneering the CD format) and bad (declaring that CDs should be 72 minutes, the length of his interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.) Karajan worked with the biggest orchestras in Europe and recorded for three different major record labels. Here's the best of Karajan, on CD.



Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra et. al., Vienna Philharmonic, (1959, Decca)
Here it is folks: the recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra that Stanley Kubrick used for 2001: A Space Odyssey.. Accept no imitations--not even Karajan's 1974 Deutsche Grammophon remake with the Berlin Philharmonic. Here, the cosmic opening is underpinned with an enormous organ stop, recorded separately at Coventry Cathedral. The huge bells in the Night-wanderer's Song will wake up the entire house and possibly the neighbors. The disc also includes nice recordings of Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, and the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9, Overtures Berlin Philharmonic (1963, Deutsche Grammophon)
Herbert von Karajan recorded the complete cycle of nine Beethoven symphonies four times in the stereo era. The 1963 cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic is a bargain that is never out of the catalogue. Recorded with crisp old-fashioned analogue sound and razor-sharp conducting, this set represents Karajan's best recorded work with his almighty Berliners. And it's a thousand times better than the ballyhooed Karajan Gold all-digital remakes made in the 1980s with the same orchestra. Note: This recording is available in two formats: a gold-and-maroon "doorstop" edition, as well as the newer, sleeker DG Collector's Edition set in a navy-and-white box with a black and white Karajan on the cover. They cost about the same.


Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Berlin Philharmonic (1972, EMI Classics)
Although props can be given to the Berlin Philharmonic Ring Cycle and the 1980 Parsifal, this EMI Tristan is probably the maestro's best Wagner on disc. With his big tenor voice and even bigger acting chops, Jon Vickers simply tears through the opera. Helga Dernesch is a little light-voiced for Isolde, but she was Karajan's choice. She sings radiantly in the Act II duet and achieves a special kind of transcendence in her Liebestod. Karl Ridderbusch is a sympathetic King Marke. The Philharmonic swoops and soars through Wagner's score. The third act is excruciating--Karajan draws out the music into long phrases that pulsate with genuine anguish. Less frenzied than Böhm's and better cast than Kleiber's, this is the best of the stereo Tristans.

Verdi: Otello, Vienna Philharmonic(1961, Decca)
This Otello is a masterwork of opera production that is guaranteed to knock you out. From the slam-bang opening chords to Mario del Monaco's gloriously over-the-top "Esultate!" this is a thrilling set that remains one of the best Otellos in the catalogue, and one of HvK's finest opera recordings. John Culshaw's production team creates all kinds of impressive aural effects, (as they did in an earlier Karajan Aida) including a deep organ bass note in the opening scene that requires a really good subwoofer to make the walls shake. Renata Tebaldi is a fantastic Desdemona. The only letdown is Aldo Protti as Iago--a mediocre baritone at best. In an era where opera recordings are repeatedly reissued and remastered, this Otello has never gotten the treatment--it stands on its own.

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo: Pagliacci, La Scala Orchestra and Chorus (1966, Deutsche Grammophon)
The best opera recordings in the lengthy Karajan catalogue. Karajan's conducting brings out the breath of mystic wonder necessary for the religious processions in Cavalleria. You can practically smell the incense. In Pagliacci he digs out the psychological nuances and grotesque comic moments with a kind of Mahlerian gusto. Each opera stars mega-tenor Carlo Bergonzi, and that's worth price of purchase alone. But Karajan and the La Scala forces are the stars here. Unlike his classic Tosca and Aida, the conductor never felt the need to remake these for another record company. Note: Currently, these operas are available separately as DG Originals. Look for the three-disc box set version that includes both operas and a bonus disc of lovely opera intermezzi recorded with the Berlin forces in 1968--a Karajan rarity!

OK. Those are all good ones. Here's three to avoid:


Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6, Berlin Philharmonic (1980, Deutsche Grammophon)
The strangest orchestral recording of Bach music ever made. Played with a too-large orchestra, in sparkling hyper-precise digital sound. Under Karajan, the taut polyphony and crisp rhythms of the Brandenburgs turn to aural mush. Worse yet, the crucial harpsichord parts get drowned out by the big Berlin band.

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (1981, Deutsche Grammophon)
Another early '80s mistake. There is no reason other than corporate greed that a recording of Mozart's Magic Flute needs to be on three discs. Especially this one, beset with a bizarre cast (Karin Ott as the Queen of the Night? Jose van Dam as Sarastro?) and the crisp, tinkly ambiance of early digital stereo. If you must have a Karajan Flute stick with the 1950 mono recording on EMI.

Bizet: Carmen (1983, Deutsche Grammophon)
Another surefire "hit"--let down by strange casting decisions (Agnes Baltsa in the title role, a rapidly declining Jose Carreras as Don Jose) and haywire studio engineering. The biggest problem: bringing in different actors to read the spoken French dialogue, a common practice at DG. The result is one messy bullfight.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

DVD Review: Der Rosenkavalier By Any Other Name

In these two Austrian productions, (one from Vienna and one from Salzburg), Otto Schenk and Robert Carsen take very different approaches to Strauss' evergreen comedy of sex and manners.


Manners is the focus of this beautiful 1994 Wiener Staatsoper production, conducted by the late Carlos Kleiber. Director Otto Schenk emphasizes tradition, with gorgeous rococo sets, elaborate wigs, and every detail of the libretto depicted with painstaking accuracy. The cast features Strauss specialist Felicity Lott, radiant and yet introspective as the Marschallin. Anne Sofie Von Otter is a boyish, enthusiastic Octavian. The Swedish mezzo brings all of her lieder skills to bear on Strauss' long vocal lines. Barbara Bonney is an equal vocal talent--her voice blends beautifully with Von Otter's. The Act II Rose Duet is glorious, as is the final trio and love duet.

Kurt Moll is both charming and creepy in his fatherly approach to Baron Ochs. The veteran bass has great comic timing and resounding bass notes. His Act II waltz scene is both funny and beautifully sung. The fine supporting cast features tenor Heinz Zednik as Valzacchi, Keith Ikea-Purdy as the Italian Tenor, and Gottfried van Hornik as Faninal.

Carlos Kleiber conducts a benchmark performance of the score. Unfortunately, at two climactic moments, the camera cuts away from the onstage comic action to show the tuxedoed Kleiber gesticulating in the pit. This moment of brainless egotism does much to spoil an otherwise excellent performance. However, this is a solid traditional Rosenkavalier and a mid-price bargain. It was one of the first operas released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon.

Canadian director Robert Carsen moved Der Rosenkavalier from its 18th-century setting to 1911 Vienna. In some ways, this 2004 Salzburg production benefits from this dramatic update. Carsen's production reeks of pre-war sleaze. In Act I, the direction implies that the Marschallin may be um...self-employed while her husband (pimp?) is away. This changes her opening love scenes with Octavian to something much darker. Act II deposits Ochs and his retinue of drunken soldiers at the gaming tables in the middle of Faninal's house. Act III is set not in a country inn, but in a bordello with full frontal nudity of both genders.


The brothel scene caused a firestorm in Salzburg, but there is no controversy about the superb cast. All three female leads sing beautifully, both seperately and together, and the acting is excellent. Pieczonka is a ravishing Marschallin. (The updated setting makes dramatic sense of her Act I monologue, not to mention her sudden entrance in Act III.) Angelika Kirkschlager sings and acts well as the brash young Octavian, putting on a marvelously thick Viennese accent when disguised as the maid "Mariendel." She and Sophie (Mia Persson) make an attractive couple, but as they writhe on the bed in the finale of the opera (mirroring the opening sex scene between Octavian and the Marschallin) one wonders if it is going to last.

Franz Hawlata and Franz Grundheber are both fine baritones, perfectly cast as Ochs and Faninal. Ochs and Octavian are self-important military officers, which lends an air of "don't ask, don't tell" to the Baron's flirtations with the cross-dressed "Mariendel." Semyon Bychkov conducts a muscular performance, not delicate but most effective. This two-DVD set (released on TDK) has excellent stereo sound.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Five Really Dumb Opera Heroes (All-Tenor Edition)

The world of opera is vast, full of memorable characters, wily villains, and gorgeous damsels in various degrees of distress. (Some, like Brunnhilde or Salome, are in no distress whatsoever!) Here's a tongue-in-cheek look at five tenor roles who probably wouldn't score too high on the SAT's.

Siegfried (Wagner: Siegfried and Götterdämmerung)
Siegfried starts out as a bear-baiting muscle-head in Siegfried. The hero of the second half of the Ring Cycle re-forges his father's sword, kills the dragon, kills his stepfather Mime and then complains, in classic spoiled-brat fashion that he has nobody around to talk to. Then he follows a singing bird (don't ask) and wakes up Brunnhilde (technically his aunt--long story) and clumsily seduces her. By the time Götterdämmerung rolls around, he's learned wisdom from his night with Brunnhilde. Then he promptly drinks the wrong potion, forgets Brunnhilde, kidnaps her and marries her off to Gunther, setting up his own murder at the close of the opera. He even has a chance to avoid that murder by giving the Ring back to the Rhinemaidens. But no, not our hero. He takes a spear in the back instead.

Radames (Verdi: Aida)
Just because you're a great military commander doesn't mean that you're ideal husband material. A newly-minted general in the Egyptian army, Radames is part of a long line of Verdi heroes who coulda, shoulda known better. (See Manrico in Il Trovatore, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino and Don Carlo in...Don Carlo.) Our hero is torn between marrying the Pharaoh's daughter and his love for her slavegirl, Aida. Unfortunately, his main squeeze turns out to be the daughter of the Ethiopian king Amonasro, who is at war against Egypt. Aida gets Radames to spill the beans about the Egyptian battle plan. Radames is convicted of treason and sentenced to entombment. He finds Aida in the tomb. They sing together and asphyxiate.



Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton
(Puccini: Madama Butterfly)
A Navy man on leave in Nagasaki, ol' Pinky decides to marry a 15-year-old Japanese geisha (for 999 years, with a monthly option to annul), leases a nice hillside house (on the same terms), and sails off for the next port of call. While he's off on the high seas, Butterfly gives up her family, her faith, her profession, and an attractive "real" husband: the handsome Prince Yamadori. (OK, that last one was her decision.) When Lieutenant Loveypants returns to Nagasak three years later, he brings his "real American bride" Kate, and makes it clear that they are going to take Butterfly's child. Humiliated and desolate, Butterfly kills herself with her father's dagger.

Parsifal (Wagner, Parsifal)
When the swan-hunting Parsifal arrives in the domain of the Holy Grail, he doesn't even know his own name, even though it's the title of his own opera. He doesn't know who his father is, where he came from, or understand the power of the Grail Ceremony that concludes the first act of Wagner's final opera. But after killing a whole bunch of brainwashed knights, learning his name and surviving several attempted seductions, this "holy fool" gains wisdom through pity, and recovers the holy Spear. He gets lost on the way home, but eventually becomes King of the Grail.

Turiddu (Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana)
Another winner, folks. The so-called "hero" of Cavalleria Rusticana is your classic callow youth, an arrogant young heel who gets his girlfriend Santuzza pregnant (before the opera starts) and then dumps her for the wife of a local homicidal cart-driver, Alfio. It all ends in tears when Santuzza (who has been excommunicated for deciding to keep the baby) tells Alfio about the affair. Turiddu challenges Alfio to a duel and gets knifed offstage as the curtain rings down. At least the music's great.
top right:Come blow your horn: Siegfried takes a solo. © Arthur Rackham Estate
bottom left: Richard Leech as Pinkerton. © 1991 Metropolitan Opera. Photo by Winnie Klotz

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Opera Review: The Big O!

Otello at the Met.
I don't think this will last. Johan Botha and Rene Fleming in Act I of Otello.
Photo © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera.
The title role of Otello is the most challenging role in Italian opera, possibly in the entire repertory. Sure, Wagner's Siegfried has to sing at full blast for nearly eight hours, but Otello has to act with his voice, hitting soft pianissimos, low baritone notes. A good Otello must be able to shift in a heartbeat from tender, quiet lyricism to lung-busting power. And since this is Verdi, you can't shout. You have to sing beautifully over a huge orchestra, even in the opening "Esultate!"

Johan Botha met all of the above requirements on Monday night, and then exceeded them. The South African tenor (last seen at the Met as Walther in Meistersinger) has a fine, strong voice with precise control. He can sing gorgeous lyric notes, long legato lines, and hits the big, stentorian climaxes without wavering off pitch or drowning in wobble. Like many of his fellow tenors, Botha is a good actor, (not a great one) but he can act with his voice, which more than makes up for any lack in physical ability. This was a towering portrayal, from the triumphant opening to total collapse after he murders his wife.

From the opening duet with Mr. Botha, Renée Fleming gave a tragic, sensitive performance as Desdemona, underpinned with a sense of impending doom. Her work in the third act (when she confronts her jealous husband) carried devastating emotional weight married perfectly to gorgeous singing. . The Act IV "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria" featured floating pianissimo moments that left the Family Circle breathless. She fought like a wildcat in the murder scene, a physical performance that climaxed the evening with edge-of-the-seat suspense.


The libretto by Arrigio Boito (composer of Mefistofele) paints Iago as the snarling embodiment of evil. Those words aptly describe Carlo Guelfi's performance. Although he was not as silken-voiced as some interpreters of this role, his "Credo" aria was impressive. His scenes with Cassio (tenor Garrett Sorensen) were razor-sharp, particularly the trio in Act III. As Otello eavesdropped, these two singers made this grim scene ring with comic potential. Wendy White (as Emilia) was excellent in her small but crucial role.

Semyon Bychkov conducted a taut performance, letting the much-heralded Met Orchestra brass rip through the storm scene with gusto. He also summoned beautiful, subtle textures from the band. The English horn solo in Act IV (played by principal Pedro R. Diaz) was as eloquent as any aria. The only hitch: Elijah Moshinsky's production, which looks like a warmed-over version of the Met's staging of Don Carlo.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Tales from the CD Changer


Disc One:
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, (orch. Ravel)
(Berlin Philharmonic, cond. Igor Markevitch)

This is a 1958 DG stereo recording, reissued as part of the Yellow Label's commendable effort to bring its classic older recordings before the listening public. Markevitch directs the Berliners in an expressive reading of Pictures, infused with characteristic Russian timbre. Highlights include the woodwind playing on The Old Castle and a slow, heavy Bydlo with its famous tuba solo. Three nice Rimsky-Korsakov overtures (recorded with the Lamoreux Concert Association Orchestra) balance out the disc. (Note to readers--this recording is NOT included on the Markevitch box set which I wrote about last week.)


Disc Two:
Ralph Kirkpatrick: The Complete 1950s Bach Recordings. Ralph Kirkpatrick, Harpsichord
Among the best available sets of Bach keyboard music is this 8-disc extravaganza on DG Arkiv, part of that company's line of Original Masters box sets. Here, American harpsichordist, musicologist and Bach expert Ralph Kirkpatrick tackles the English Suites, the French Suites, the Goldbergs, the Partitas, and others. This is pretty much the whole literature of Bach keyboard works, except for the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Happily, those are also available as two-disc sets of DG Originals, and are an essential companion to this excellent compilation.


Disc Three:
Bach: Ein Musikalisches Opfer, Musica Antiqua Köln, (cond. Reinhard Goebel)
The Musical Offering is somewhat under-recorded compared to other Bach works. Here, it receives a pretty definitive performance from Reinhard Goebel and his reliable Musica Antiqua Köln ensemble. Bach composed this work as a set of harmonic and contrapuntal variations on a theme given to him by Prussian emperor Frederick The Great. It is in the form of series of fugues and musical movements that explore every possible variation on the Emperor's original theme. The composition also has a series of musical riddles written into the score. Goebel and company give a crisp, cleanly played account on this excellent disc.



Disc Four:
Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras (cond. the composer)
There aren't nearly enough Villa-Lobos recordings in the catalogue, but this one featuring four of his nine Bachianas Brasileiras is one to keep. The Brasileiras are works in which the Brazilian composer attempted (with varying success) to establish a correlation between the contrapuntal textures of Bach and the rhythmic complexities of Brazilian music. These mono recordings from the 1950s feature Villa-Lobos himself on the podium conducting Brasileiras Nos. , 2, 5 and 9, with mega-soprano Victora de los Angeles guesting on the famous No. 5. Nos. 1 and 5 feature superb cello playing, with featured soloist Fernand Benedetti, and the orchestral virtuosity in No. 2 is well worth hearing.


Disc Five:
Vaughan Williams: Lark Ascending: The Soft Sounds of Vaughan Williams (Various artists)
Great things sometimes come in really stupid packaging. That's the case with this superb Vaughan Williams sampler from Decca. It has all three of Barry Wordsworth's essential RVW recordings with the New Queen's Hall Orchestra: the titular Lark Ascending, (featuring violinist Hagain Shaham) the Fantasia on Greensleeves, and the best recording ever made of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Fans of the latter work (and there are a lot of you out there, you know who you are) will probably have this in their collection already. Those who don't know the piece need to start here in exploring the vast output of this brilliant British composer.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

DVD Review: Horse Opera

Susan Graham as Didon in Les Troyens.
Les Troyens from the Théâtre de Chatelet.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
No French opera has had a more difficult road to the stage than Les Troyens, the five-act magnum opus of Hector Berlioz. Based on Virgil's Aeneid, (with a libretto written by the composer) Troyens went through as many trials and tribulations as its titular heroes.

In2003, the Théâtre de Chatelet honored the 100th anniversary of Berlioz' birth, by giving the long-overdue Paris premiere of the full five-act version of the opera, played in one evening (with no cuts) as the composer intended.

Troyens has been dogged by bad reputation and worse luck. At the opera's 1863 premiere, the producers split the five acts into two nights, and then dropped the first half (The Sack of Troy) entirely. The five-act version did not premiere until 1890. These performances reinforce the brilliance of Berlioz' sweeping design.

Part One: The Sack of Troy mirrors the eventual fate of the Carthaginians at the hands of the Romans.Cassandra, (Anna Caterina Antonacci), the Trojan prophetess, has a spiritual sister in Didon (Susan Graham), the love-struck Carthaginian queen. (It is not a coincidence that both characters commit suicide onstage.) Énée (Gregory Kunde) is caught in the middle, torn between Trojan survivors' guilt, his genuine love for Didon, and the voices of the Trojan dead, urging him to sail for Italy and found the Roman state.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Piano Pleasures: Marc-André Hamelin Plays Reger

Max Reger (1873-1916) was not a popular composer during his brief life. He was an arch-conservative, a throwback more interested in Bach than Wagner. After his untimely death (at the age of 41), he fell hopelessly out of fashion, neglected in the face of the atonal and 12-tone revolutions of the Second Viennese School. In the modern age of classical music recordings where conductors and pianists fill endless CD catalogues with yet more recordings of Beethoven's Fifth, Mozart's 40th and the Ride of the Valkyries, Reger has been almost completely neglected.


Yet when his music is played--when a pianist comes along who can actually play it, Reger stands revealed. This exceptional disc, (recorded in 1997 and 1999 by Marc-André Hamelin and released by the Hyperion label) shows that each Reger variation, no matter how complex, forms part of a larger musical structure. These are important works, on a par with Beethoven's Diabelli Variations or Brahms' Haydn Variations.

The disc opens with the Bach Variations: a dizzying 28-minute workout. Reger starts with a theme from Cantata No 128, ("Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein"). This sweet legato theme is broken up and subjected to fourteen variations of increasing difficulty. The real wrist-buster is the final four-part fugue. Hamelin plays this last as a dizzying eight-minute tour de force, never losing sight of the overall structure as he adds detail upon detail to Reger's cathedral of sound.

In the valley between these two giants is a lovely, delicate set of five Humoresques (probably inspired by Reger's love of another conservative composer--Johannes Brahms. These works, played with grace and skill, show the lighter side of Reger's music, providing the listener with a welcome rest stop between the two mighty sets of variations which bookend the disc.

The disc concludes with the Telemann Variations. Hamelin takes a more delicate approach to this work, playing with lyricism and echoes of the galante style. These are not quite as difficult as their Bachian brethren, but they also demand a high level of technical skill tempered with lyricism and grace. Here, the Canadian pianist flies through each of these tiny, delicate variations. The final fugue closes the disc with another impressive display of tonal fireworks, executed with transcendent skill.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Oooh. Cake!

Guess what, dear readers? It's Happy Blogday here at the 'Conductor!

Today marks the one year anniversary of the birth of this blog--a GOOD IDEA that I happened to have in the shower.
This blog has been an interesting, exciting experience for me, marking the first time that I have written extensive, serious criticism in about five years. I hope you all have enjoyed reading it, and I know I've had a heck of a time writing it.

Today, we mark the anniversary with enhanced functionality. Added this week:

  • The new Amazon searchbox. Get your favorite recordings fast!
  • Technorati. Spread the love and tell them where you read me.
  • Feedburner: You can now read my blog as a daily feed.
  • E-mail subscription: Just what it sounds like--all the best in music reviews sent right to your mailbox.


OK. Back to working on the next review. But first...CAKE!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

BadFellas

Or: Five Lousy Dates for Valentine's Day
In honor of this most romantic of holidays, here's a list of five guys who you wouldn't want to be dating on February 14, or any day of the year. This was originally going to be "Five dumbest opera heroes" but I couldn't decide between Siegfried and Parsifal.

Baron Ochs von Lerchnau (Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss)
Ol' Ochs has more experience of the ladies than anyone on this list, but there's a reason this lecherous Austrian nobleman has stayed single. He's a relentless skirt-chaser, outdoing Don Giovanni himself in pursuit of a shapely female. But he's a boor, a coward, and a sufferer of romantic ADD! Witness: Act One of Rosenkavalier. Ochs gropes a crossdressing chambermaid while trying to negotiate his marriage contract (and add on a large emoulument for himself).


Lohengrin (um...Lohengrin by Richard Wagner)
At first glance, the courtly knight in shining armor looks like perfect hubby material. He's even a fan of love at first sight, defending women in single combat, and settling down and getting married. But there's a catch: he'll marry you but you're not allowed to ask him about his name, his lineage, or where he came from. Needless to say, he catches the next swan-drawn boat out of town.




Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers (L'Italiana in Algeri by Gioacchino Rossini)
The Bey has his heart in the right place. Unfortunately it's the harem. This rascally ruler spends most of L'Italiana in Algeri trying to seduce the lovely Isabella. She spends the opera trying to escape. Finally she convinces her would-be Lothario that the only way she'll ever have the Bey is if he joins the sacred order of the Pappitaci, those very Italian men who do nothing all day but eat, sleep, and ignore their women. Who said romance isn't dead?

The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi)
This guy is almost as bad a skirt chaser as Baron Ochs--but with even less morality. At the start of Rigoletto the Duke sends the Count of Monterone to the gallows/. Why? Monterone complained when the Duke deflowered his daughter. Our randy ruler then turns his attentions to Gilda, (the daughter of the titular court jester), claiming to be a poor student named "Gualtier Malde." When the Duke tosses Gilda aside for the slutty sister of a professional hitman, Rigoletto vows revenge. Since this is Verdi, a bloody ending isn't far away.

Wozzeck (Wozzeck by Alban Berg)
This Army private isn't a bad guy. He has a nice kid and a girlfriend named Marie. Wozzeck suffers from instestinal humiliation at the hands of his doctor (who makes him eat nothing but beans) and general abuse from his superior officers. Marie cuckolds him with the sexy Drum Major, who then beats up Wozzeck. He snaps, murders Marie, throws the knife into a lake, and then drowns looking for it. Not the sort you settle down with. (Ironically, about nine years ago, the Met scheduled a V-day performance of Wozzeck.)

Tales from the CD Changer

I admit it. I'm a completist, and I live in a New York apartment with limited Ikea shelf space. So I have a lot of box sets with the CDs in those little paper sleeves. They take up less space than the old doorstop CD sets. I could probably write six or seven columns on each of the sets excerpted below. They're all pretty good. Here's what I'm listening to at the moment.


Disc One:
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 1-3, The Emerson String Quartet.

Crisp, clean playing and rhythmic attack starts the Emersons' exceptional cycle of the fifteen Shostakovich quartets. These first three quartets are actually from the middle of Shostakovich's career. Following the Pravda attack on his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and the withdrawal of his Fourth Symphony, the composer hid his coded emotional reactions in the pages of these intensely personal works. These are live recordings from the Aspen Music Festival. While the audience applause at the end of each piece is a little distracting, it is certainly deserved.


Disc Two:
Mozart: The Symphonies, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Erich Leinsdorf

This is the famous Westminster set of Mozart symphonies, half in mono, half in stereo, that stand as the first complete recording of the cycle in the stereo era. Leinsdorf, who was a disciple of Toscanini, does his teacher proud with these brisk, no-nonsense performances, played with style and panache. One of the champs, and a very welcome reissue as part of DG's Original Masters box set series. All seven discs have been in and out of the changer in the last week.


Disc Three:
Couperin: The Complete Keyboard Works. Michael Borgstede, Harpsichord (Disc 1)

All four books of pieces for the clavecin, or harpsichord are packed into this dizzying 11-disc set on Brilliant Classics. Over 200 works are arranged into twenty-seven Ordres. Borgstede plays on replica harpsichords that are based on instruments from Couperin's own time. This music evokes the glittering halls of Versaille and the forgotten genius of Couperin. This is an invaluable contribution to recorded keyboard literature, and this set provides hours of fascinating listening.


Disc 4
Sibelius: The Symphonies and Tone Poems, Disc Six, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, cond. Neeme Järvi

There are a lot of Sibelius cycles on the market, but this set of the symphonies and tone poems by Finland's eternally popular national composer features Järvi's powerful, thrusting podium style. This disc features Pohjola's Daughter, Night Ride and Sunrise and Four Legends from the Kalevala. These are not as familiar to most listeners as the symphonies and "hit" tone poems like Finlandia and Tapiola. (Have no fear, they're included here as well.)


Disc 5
Igor Markevitch: Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, Weber Overtures. Berlin Philharmonic

Markevitch made a lot of great recordings in the '50s and '60s, including his exceptional Tchaikovsky symphonies. (There's a complete set of those on Philips, but it might be out of print.) This Deutsche Grammophon box features recordings that the great Russian conductor made with the Berlin Philharmonic in the early days of the LP. This is a slow, Romantic reading of the "Pastorale" symphony that ignores the metronome markings and lets the music breathe and swell. The Weber overtures are nice, too.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Composers At The Movies

It's Oscar season. So today I decided to do something a little different. Here are five quotes from movies that involve composers. The kicker is, the movies themselves have NOTHING to do with classical music. One is a Bond film. One is Arnold Schwarzenegger. You get the idea.
Enjoy....

"You don't like Beethoven. You don't know what you're missing. Overtures like that get my...juices flowing. But sometimes he can be a little f__king boring. That's why I STOPPED!"
Beethoven, ready for his closeup.
Gary Oldman (who played Beethoven in Immortal Beloved) bursts into an apartment, kills three members of a family with a shotgun, and then goes up to the shaking father and rhapsodizes about the composer. These events start the plot of Luc Besson's film Léon, known to American audiences by its other title, The Professional.

"The bubbles...they tickle my...TCHAIKOVSKY!"
Russian agent Pola Ivanova (Fiona Fullerton) reacts to romantic music (in this case, Swan Lake) while sharing a San Francisco hot tub with 007 (Roger Moore) in A View To a Kill.

"You know that if Giuseppe Verdi had been born an Englishman, his name would have been...Joe Green."
Socialite (and murder suspect) Patrick Redfern (played by Nicholas Clay) translates the name of the famous composer for Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) in the all-star 1982 Agatha Christie murder mystery Evil Under the Sun.

"We'll come in low, out of the rising sun and about a mile out. We'll put on music...I use Wagner! Scares the hell out of the (Vietnamese)! My boys love it!"
Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) setting out his helicopter battle plan (in which he blasts "Ride of the Valkyries" while dropping napalm) in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now.

"Watch out, Jack. He killed Mozart!"
Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) warns Last Action Hero star Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that FBI agent John Practice may be more dangerous than he looks. Practice is played by F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for his starring role in Amadeus.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Big Man's Best (And Worst)

Luciano Pavarotti.
Photo by Judy Kovacs.
Pavarotti on Disc: The Good, The Bad, and the Cheesy.

The impact of Luciano Pavarotti's death is still being felt in the operatic world. It's hard to believe he passed away just over five months ago. Yet with all the scandal and weeping, not enough has been written about Pavarotti the recorded artist, who made some truly fine opera recordings before he died. Here's a quick sampling:

Mascagni: L'Amico Fritz (cond. Gianandra Gavazzeni)
This Covent Garden recording of a rarely performed pastoral comedy by Mascagni features the great tenor in full flower. Worth hearing just for the "Cherry Duet" between the young Pavarotti and Mirella Freni. And at 93 minutes, it's over before you know it.

Verdi: Rigoletto, (cond. Richard Bonynge)
A classic Rigoletto that makes up in singing what it lacks in dramatic spark. (I like the Sinopoli and Giulini recordings better.) But it does have the dream cast of Pav, Sutherland and Sherril Milnes in the title role. As in the theater, Pavarotti makes the most out of "Quest o quella" and "La donna e mobile". Both arias sound better in their dramatic context, anyway.

Puccini: Turandot (cond. Zubin Mehta)
This isn't the best Turandot on the market, but Pavarotti and Sutherland's Beijing showdown (with Montserrat Caballe as Liu) is one of their best recordings. This is a thoroughly satisfying Turandot and the best place to hear the great tenor sing "Nessun Dorma". Once again, dramatic context keeps the big tune from becoming a cliché.


Rossini: Gugliemo Tell (cond. Riccardo Chailly)
Rossini's final opera is criminally neglected today, mostly because no tenor can sing the role of Arnold without having an apoplexy. This is a long, slow opera that is tough on the singers. The duets with Caballe are sublime. His solo arias are even better. This gorgeous recording captures Pavarotti towards the end of his prime period, and offers a showcase for some of the best technical singing that he ever did. Great stuff.

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, (cond. Sir Georg Solti)
Just a cameo here, as Pavarotti takes the small role of the Italian Tenor from Richard Strauss' most famous opera out for a spin. This single aria, which embodies everything Strauss hated about Italian tenors, shows the listener everything that was good about Pavarotti's remarkable voice.

There are some recordings out there that are for the libraries of completists, apologists, and record company executives. In other words, avoid these:

Verdi: Otello (cond. Sir Georg Solti)
One can only wonder what motivated Pavarotti to tackle the the single most difficult tenor role in the Italian repertory. (Greed? Hubris? Rivalry with Placido Domingo?) No amount of studio trickery can make Pav into Otello. No wonder he ruined his voice.

Bellini: Norma (cond. Richard Bonynge)
Pavarotti is fine on this recording. The culprit is Sutherland, who was way too old to sing the title role in this opera in the 1980s. Get her earlier recording with Marilyn Horne.

Verdi: Don Carlo (cond. Riccardo Muti)
This is from the infamous attempt Pavarotti made on this grandest of Verdi operas at La Scala. He cracked noticeably on the opening aria, "Io lo vidi" and it was downhill from there. A complete and utter mess with a bad supporting cast. Happily, it is also available on DVD--so you can see the overstuffed Zeffirelli production in all its questionable glory.

Verdi: Il Trovatore
Manrico proved to be Pavarotti's Waterloo on CD. Both recordings, one with Bonynge and Sutherland, and a later one with Zubin Mehta, are to be avoided at all cost. If you want to hear this opera properly sung, get the del Monaco recording, or better yet, one with Franco Corelli or Carlo Bergonzi.

Monday, February 11, 2008

CD Review: The Trials of Hoffman

Jacques Offenbach
Last summer, the Metropolitan Opera sent a letter to its subscribers, announcing that the company had cancelled its planned (and long overdue) revival of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman in favor of yet another run of the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli production of Carmen. With Hoffman (temporarily) banished from the opera house here in New York, it's good news that EMI Classics decided to reissue their 1988 Belgian recording of the opera, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling.

Fans of Hoffman know that Jacques Offenbach died four months before its premiere, living long enough to complete the piano score for the entire opera and orchestrate the prelude and the first act. However, multiple revisions, additions and subtractions by half-a-dozen well-meaning editors have left opera houses with difficult decisions to make. Here's a few of the issues facing would-be producers of Hoffman:
  • Do you leave the opening Prelude with the Muse and have the Muse and Nicklausse sung by the same mezzo-soprano?

  • The four Evil Geniuses (Coppelius, Dappertutto, Dr. Mirakle and Lindorf) are usually played by one bass-baritone. Do you have one singer quadruple in all four female leads (as Offenbach intended), or do you split the role?

  • Which order of the acts do you use? I-II-III (Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta) as the composer intended) or I-III-II (Olympia-Giulietta-Antonia) which puts the big death scene at the end?

  • Which aria for Dapertutto: the authentic "Tourne, tourne miroir" or the crowd-pleasing "Scintille, diamante?"

  • Does Giulietta die in Act III as the composer originally intended?
The Cambreling recording, made in Brussels, attempts to give the listener the best of all possible worlds. The opera is played at a slow, often stately tempo with painstaking attention to the text. Neil Shicoff gives the recorded performance of his career as Hoffman, his signature role. Jose Van Dam gives four exceptional performances as the Evil Geniuses. Both Dappertutto arias are included, with "Scintille, diamante" as an appendix.

Luciana Serra is a decidedly Italian Olympia, soaring through the doll's difficult music. As the doomed Antonia, Rosalind Plowright is in remarkable voice before her decline.. Giulietta is the indomitable Jessye Norman. (She survives in this version.) Ann Murray doubles as Nicklausse and the Muse. And character tenor Robert Tear tackles four roles also, playing Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Piano Pleasures: Marc-Andre Hamelin Plays Alkan

Charles-Valentin Morhange, better known as Alkan (1813-1888), is one of the great, lost piano composers of 19th century France. Great, because his challenging, complex music is written on an epic scale with technical virtuosity that rivals the works of Franz Liszt. Lost, because Alkan was a misanthrope, and quite possibly an agoraphobe. He was also an Orthodox Jew who studied the Talmud and music with equal fervor. The opposite of the flamboyant Liszt, Alkan gave recitals infrequently, taught occasionally, and disappeared for years at a stretch, either travelling abroad or holed up in his Paris apartment, receiving no visitors.



Thanks to a few, brave pianists with fingers and nerves of steel, Alkan's dizzying music is now available to sample on CD. A good place to start is this 1994 recital disc by Marc-Andre Hamelin on Hyperion, featuring the Grande Sonate (Les Quatres Ages) and the Sonatine. The French-Canadian pianist meets the vast technical challenges of this music, but chooses fearsome accuracy over flashy showmanship. This is a performance of extreme dynamics. The artist slams the hammer down at the appropriate climactic moments, but then slows down with an elegant, expansive lyric touch.


The Grande Sonate is a vast, 38 minute piano workout. It depicts four ages of man, at 20, 30, 40 and 50 years old. Each movement is in a different key, and at a slower tempo than the one before it. The opening is a breakneck scherzo, with Hamelin blazing all over the keyboard, tossing off runs of arpeggiated notes. The second movement (marked Quasi-Faust) is a march. The third slows down further with the onset of middle age, and the fourth, (marked Prométheé enchaîné) is a somber, slow finale.

The four-movement Sonatine is half the size of the Quatre Ages. But it has its own charms, drawing in the listener and displaying some of Alkan's melodic ability. Like its big brother, this work is technically demanding, with fortissimo passages, dance movements, and a difficult final coda.

The disc is filled out with two smaller works, a lilting Barcarolle (inspired by Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words) and Le Festin d'Esope, the finale of Alkan's 12 Etudes for the piano. This last is a set of dazzling variations on a Jewish folk melody, reflecting the composer's Orthodox heritage and command of incredible technical skill. The performances are top-notch, and the sound of this disc is everything that a piano recording should be, full, round and thrilling.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

The Los Angeles Opera has announced a new opera based on the David Cronenberg version of The Fly. Yes, that's the gooey/gorey version where Jeff Goldblum turned into a giant fly monster after an accident with his teleportation machine. The opera, scheduled to premiere on Sept. 7, features music by Howard Shore and libretto by M. Butterfly scribe David Henry Hwang. David Cronenberg will direct.



In light of this announcement, here's a list of other possible horror-movie-to-opera adaptations that may be coming in the future.

Saw: Has the advantage of a dramatic situation and a minimal set: two men trapped in a basement bathroom. To save budget, producers could recycle the Act II set from the Met's current production of Fidelio. Unlike Beethoven's prison opera, this one doesn't have a happy ending.

The Shining: A three-character drama with a ghostly chorus--this could be a 21st century version of The Mines of Sulfur or The Turn of the Screw. Floyd the Bartender could be a bass villain like Hagen or Scarpia. For stage effect, bring back Stephen King's original moving topiary animals--they were left out of the Stanley Kubrick movie. Sounds like a Julie Taymor production!

Jaws: We're gonna need a bigger stage. This Spielberg fish tale could join Billy Budd and Peter Grimes in the fine tradition of naval operas. It already has great leitmotivic music by John Williams. And the shark could be the biggest ocean-borne opera star since Richard Strauss put an Omniscient Mussel in the first act of Die Ägyptische Helene. Who wouldn't pay to see a singing shark?

Friday The 13th A better choice for a "slasher" opera than Halloween as Jason Voorhees' mother could be written as a low contralto, and the cast of about-to-be-slaughtered teenagers could revive the careers of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorgiu. Get Rob Zombie to direct and we'll be in business.

And finally:



Aida II: The Mummy's Revenge Researchers exploring Egypt find an Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian general asphyxiated and mummified beneath the altar in the Temple of Ptha. Their mummies come to life and go on a Verdi-style rampage. Egypt always does well at the box office. Of course, the sequel could feature The Rock in his operatic debut as The Scorpion King.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

DVD Review: Don Carlos at the Chatelet

Luc Bondy's 1996 production of Don Carlos was staged, recorded and filmed at the Chatelet in Paris. These seven performances were blessed with an all-star cast, loaded with important singers either starting their careers (Roberto Alagna) or at the height of their dramatic powers (Karita Mattila, Jose Van Dam.)

After a long delay, this critically important Carlos was finally released on Kultur DVD in 2003. It's not a first choice--the Met DVD from the early '80s with Domingo is better. However, this is the best French-language version of the opera available--and this opera is better in French, the language in which the libretto was originally written.


This recording was made early in Alagna's career, and shows him at his best. He always sounds better in French, and this Carlos is a dramatic highlight of his career. He sings with passion and verve, hopeful during "Je le vieux" and powerful in the character's three showdowns with the King.

Baritone Thomas Hampson branched out into dramatic roles with this complex turn as Posa. Here, clad all in black with stubble and hair extensions, he comes across as part freedom fighter, part rock star. (In the real Spanish court, he'd never last a minute.) His fourth death scene shows how smart a singer Hampson is, the command of emotion and power elevates this Spanish tragedy to the next level of emotional involvement.

As Philip, Jose Van Dam is more baritone than bass. He misses that last bit of bone-shaking gravitas that one expects from this character. He is at his best when vulnerable--the Act IV monologue and the confrontation with the Inquisitor (Erik Halfvarson). When Halfvarson limps onstage, hooded and stooped, accompanied by little bursts of hellfire, the effect makes one wonder: is the King is really having this conversation, or has Verdi's Grand Inquisitor become the demonic figure from The Brothers Karamazov?

Don Carlos only has two major female roles, but they are both in capable hands. Karita Mattila's performance as Elisabeth de Valois is even better on DVD. She is heartbreaking in the Fontainebleu scene with Carlos. But when she arrives in Spain, Elisabeth is a different, transformed woman. She is a Queen, and that is how Mattila plays it--she has become part of the opera's icy, aloof power structure. Waltraud Meier plays Eboli as the fiery opposite. The acclaimed Wagnerian mezzo chews the scenery, and she's vocally unreliable, picking her way slowly through the many pitfalls of "O Don Fatale". But she brings down the house, and importantly, looks the part as the most beautiful woman in Spain.

Thomas Hampson and Roberto Alagna sing the duet from Act II of Don Carlos
Mr. Bondy's production has its share of controversial moments. For once, Elisabeth is on present onstage--asleep for the first half of the King's Act IV monologue. She wakes up and walks out in disgust halfway through. When she re-enters, she nearly trips over the Inquisitor in her haste. The entrance of the Monk in Act II is also effective--the eye is drawn to no less than three different monks (including one who is assiduously scrubbing the monastery floor) before you realize which character on stage is actually singing. It's a great trick, and one that points toward the opera's ambivalent ending, when the forces of heaven and hell intervene to save Carlos from the Inquisition.

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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.