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Monday, January 19, 2009

Recordings Review: The Return of the Big Wagner Box

All Bayreuth, all the time.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Act II of the Wieland Wagner production of Tannhäuser, Bayreuth, 1962
Photo © 1962 Bayreuth Festival/Decca Classics
Back in the '90s (I seem to be starting a lot of articles with that sentence these days) the then-record-company Philips released a gigantic 18" long 32-CD box set called the "Richard Wagner Edition", consisting of live recordings of all ten of the major Wagner operas. (Höllander, Tannhaüser, Lohengrin, Tristan, Meistersinger, the whole Ring and Parsifal.

It was an expensive set, featuring only recordings made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Unfortunately some of these recordings, made in conjunction with video productions of Wagner's operas, were of mixed and middling quality. Most notably, the Pierre Boulez-led Ring from the late '70s featured grade-A conducting and a grade-C cast. At the same time, older, "historical" recordings of better quality were issued at premium prices, some of them only available as imports.

This new box set, clunkily titled Wagner: The Great Operas of the Bayreuth Festival (weighing in at 33 discs!) is a welcome arrival. Reasonably priced (given its size), this yellow cardboard box eliminate librettos, essays, booklets, jewel boxes and slipcases in favor of simple white envelopes for the discs. Tannhäuser, Tristan, Meistersinger. and Parsifal are the same as the earlier set. Let's look at those first.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Met Swings Economic Ax

Cuts four productions, revives Elektra

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb announced today that the company will be forced to make cuts in order to survive the current economic crisis. The crisis is caused by the disappearance of $100 million of the Met's endowment fund, lost in the current financial mess on Wall Street.

Ticket prices at the big house will remain stable, although an 8% increase was considered. Additionally, Met senior staff will receive a 10% pay cut and singers will be asked to negotiate lower fees. Also, it is possible, according to an anonymous source cited by Daniel J. Wakin in today's New York Times, that the company may ask its three big unions for 10% "giveback" cuts.

However, according to Gelb, the company instead chose to cut four high-end productions for the 2009-2010 season and replace them with less expensive ones. The four operas being cancelled are:

  • The company's elaborate, gorgeous Die Frau Ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss. It will be replaced by the equally gorgeous (but shorter) Ariadne auf Naxos in the Elijah Moshinksy staging. Yes, they are taking away one of my favorite Met productions but at least they are replacing it with another one that I really like!

  • Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District--another elaborate modern opera, this is a powerful drama by Shostakovich and not exactly a box-office champ. Will be replaced by a much-needed revival of Elektra.

  • A long-awaited reviva of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles is the last opera scrapped. It will be replaced by yet another revival of the Zefirelli staging of La Traviata.

  • Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz. This opera is something of a James Levine favorite. No word yet on a replacement, but I would love to see a concert performance of Beatrice et Benedict!

The last time the Met cancelled a production it was for the singer Marcelo Alvarez. He was supposed to sing the title role in Les Contes d'Hoffmann but the production was yanked in favor of the company's not-so-classic Carmen.

In more positive news, the City Opera, still operating without a home theater and struggling to survive the chaos caused by the sudden departure of Belgian theater director Gerad Mortier, hired a new general manager today. His name is George Steel (not to be confused with retired professional wrestler George "The Animal" Steele) and he used to be the director of the Dallas Opera. Steel takes over a company in chaos and crisis, but he is smart and experienced with a good reputation.

He plans to present a somewhat truncated schedule and will guide the City Opera as it returns to its newly renovated Lincoln Center digs.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

DVD Review: Schwann vs. Schwann

Two Bayreuth Lohengrins.
Cheryl Studer, Manfred Schenk and Paul Frey in Lohengrin.
Back in the misty era known as the 1990s, a humble young journalism student would go to the Tower Records in Boston and rent VHS opera performances, mostly released on the Philips label. Among those videos: two vastly different stagings of the Wagner opera Lohengrin from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, filmed eight years apart. Universal Classics has acquired the rights to the Philips catalogue, and has re-released both performances on DVD under the DG imprint.

"Mein Lieber Schwann" from Act III of the Friedrich production, with Peter Hoffman as Lohengrin

Gunther Uecker, the artist best known for his wood-and-nails sculptures, collaborated with iconoclastic director Gotz Friedrich to create a Lohengrin unlike any seen before. The opera is set in a futuristic torture chamber, its floor covered with a giant lead sheet, that looks like a leftover set from Star Wars. This is a high-tech, sci-fi world, where King Henry's Herald (Bernd Weikl) wields a ten-foot-long TV antenna and the King himself looks ready to take on Flash Gordon. When Lohegrin (Peter Hofmann) makes his grand entrance he steps out of a revolving, sparkling disc of light--in reality a spinning solid wooden wheel covered by Uecker's trademark nailheads.

Unfortunately the cast does not live up to the production. Peter Hoffmann was the Johnny Bravo of would-be heldentenors. Tall. Blond. Studly. Looked great with his shirt off in the 1976 Die Walküre. But here, he was already on the down-slope, his voice pinched and reedy in the upper register needed for this role. But boy, he sure looks good in that armor!

Karan Armstrong and a young Elizabeth Connell are an effective, sisterly Elsa and Ortrud, two sides of the same coin. Leif Roar lives up to his name as Telramund. The choral work, under the direction of Wolfgang Pitz, is superb, as one would expect at Bayreuth.

Lohengrin's Act I entrance from the Herzog production.

Werner Herzog's production replaced the Friedrich in 1987. Herzog moves the opera to the winter, setting the action in a frozen wasteland more suited to The Golden Compass than the fields and castles of Brabant. This Lohengrin has a tribal, neo-pagan feel to it, with Telramund (Ekkehard Wlaschiha) decked out in furs and Ortrud (Gabriele Schnaut) as a primal priestess. It is also notable for its early use of onstage lasers and smoke, being one of the first opera productions at Bayreuth to add rock concert-style technology to its staging of the opera.

The singers are pretty solid across the board. Paul Frey is almost as good-looking as Peter Hoffmann, a dark, handsome Swan Knight with a better tenor. Cheryl Studer hits her brief peak as Elsa. Manfred Schenk, an underrated bass, is a phenomenal King Henry. As the Telramunds, Wlaschiha and Schnaut are both snarling and over the top. Schnaut actually does her Act II invocation to the pagan gods while standing shin-deep in an onstage water-tank. All the vocal principals are a considerable upgrade over the earlier production.

The earlier performance (Friedrich) is better, with more fire coming out of the pit under Woldemar Nelsson. In the Herzog, Peter Schneider conducts. He was brought in to replace another conductor at the last minute, and does not sound as confident or driven. Schneider maintains a solid, foursquare beat, he knows this opera back-to-front, but he does not compete with the three big K's (Kempe, Kubelik, and Keilberth.)

A final note: both of these productions were once available on CD during the classical boom of the '90s, the Friedrich/Hoffman/Armstrong from CBS Masterworks, the '90 from Philips. It should say something about their general quality that while the DVDs have been re-issued, the audio recordings remain deleted.
All video content © Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group. Reposted from YouTube. Used for promotional purpose only.

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra

Had to repost this just because it's really interesting.

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra
Interested in joining the first-ever collaborative online orchestra? Professionals and amateur musicians of all ages, locations and instruments are welcome to audition for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra by submitting a video performance of a new piece written for the occasion by the renowned Chinese composer Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). We have tools to help you learn the music, rehearse with the conductor, and upload your part for the collaborative video.

And how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice and upload. Send us your talent video performance from a list of recommended pieces. Finalists will be chosen by a judging panel and YouTube users to travel to New York in April 2009, to participate in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra summit, and play at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

The deadline for all video submissions is January 28, 2009.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CD Review: The Goodall Mastersingers

"Open The Shrine! "

Yes, we're back after a holiday absence. Welcome to the 2009 edition of the Superconductor blog-your source for the best classical music coverage that I can find time to write about.

I know things have been dead on this page for a little while--I think every serious writer goes through "down" periods of lesser creativity where you are grinding out words but, in the words of Roger Waters, "running over the same old ground." Rather than do that (and bore the audience), I sometimes take a break from blogging. Break's over. Back to work!

I'd like to open up this year's 'Conductor (yes, it's 2009, we are closing out our second year!) by writing about one of my favorite Wagner recordings. Yeah. There's a shock. I write a lot about Wagner because I happen to KNOW a lot about it--recordings, trivia, performances and those ten (yes, it's really thirteen but the canon is ten operas) magnificent mammoth musical edifices, which never cease to amaze, fascinate and sometimes stupify audiences into submission. There's lots of interesting stuff to write about, so let's get to it shall we?

This is the first-ever Chandos issue of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, a live radio recording made in 1968 at the Sadler Wells company, and, like everything else put out by that company, sung in English. 

This is from the days long before supertitle systems. Writers would make a "singing translation", one that had the same meter and rhythm as the original words of the libretto. Wagner, with his distinctive pseudo-high-German stabreim was particularly susceptible to this practice.

Like most Goodall recordings (the British conductor also preserved his English-language Ring and a German-language Parsifal recorded in Wales, the tempos are incredibly slow, even glacial. It's ponderous, carefully thought out music making that lumbers along and demands the utmost from players forced to slow and stretch notes to fit the conductor's design. However, slow conducting can often reveal some interesting sub-textures of the musical fabric of a piece, underthemes and buried motifs that may only be apparent through perusal of a full score. 

The cast includes an excellent Alberto Remedios (who would go on to record both Siegmund and Siegfried in the Goodall Ring) and Norman Bailey, whose superb Hans Sachs is better here than on the somewhat lead-footed Solti recording from the 1970s. Yes, it's for the completist, and yes the translation of the libretto is often awkward, but this is a fascinating Meister...excuse me, Mastersingers, making a welcome arrival in the catalogue after languishing in a British vault for forty years.


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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.