Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats."
Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Joys of Operetta

Because we all need a laugh on Thanksgiving weekend (and the Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody is everywhere), we present:



Gilbert and Sullivan's "Baby Got Back."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Opera Review: The Death Trip

Don Giovanni at New York City Opera.
Stefania Dovhan and her father's bloodstain in Don Giovanni.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2009 New York City Opera.

Don Giovanni, a bold, dramatic interpretation that re-imagines Mozart's dramma giocoso as a meditation on life and death which takes place entirely in one room, possibly during the funeral service for the Commendatore.

By putting all the actors onstage during the overture, the director forces the audience to "play detective" and figure out who everybody is as the drama develops. But there was no missing the excellent assembly of voices present on the stage of the David I. Koch Theater on Friday night.

Daniel Okulitch and Jason Hardy have pleasing baritone voices, and they both carry off the sexual, physical nature of this staging. In fact, the two singers brought an erotic charge to the interactions of the Don and his servant Leporello. The jealous tension between them was played as if the Don's dalliances with thousands of women was merely him "stepping out" on a primary relationship--with his servant.


Stefania Dovhan was just one of the fine young voices who had to fend off the Don. Her Donna Anna is less the frigid avenging angel and more of a three-dimensional woman who knows that she is stuck with Don Ottavio (the pleasing tenor Gregory Turay) but clearly, really wants the man who murdered her father to finish carrying her off. Keri Alkema was a compelling Donna Elvira, playing up the character's religious mania. And Joélle Harvey sang a stunning Zerlina. The most sexual woman in the entire opera, she adroitly balanced her relations with the Don with attempting to appease her jealous, raging husband Masetto (Kelly Markgraf.)

The staging of this opera breaks with convention and tradition. There is no statue. Rather, the Commendatore (bass Brian Kontes) is brought onstage in his coffin, complete with mourners, wreaths and a big neon crucifix. Leporello literally invites the corpse to dinner in the funeral home. The Don dines, carouses, and even fornicates on the dead man's grave. Finally, when the hour of vengeance comes, the good Commendatore rises out of his coffin, takes the Don by his hand, and throws him into the grave.

That's right. There's no statue in this Don Giovanni.

The Commendatore, triumphant over his murderer, remains standing on the stage--like a statue. Meanwhile, Donna Elvira writhes in a religious vision, and Leporello suddenly "gets religion", holding up a prayer book in hopes that he won't be dragged down too. There is no fire, no angels and demons, just the terror of the grave. It's a bold solution to one of the trickiest finales in all of opera.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Opera Review: Prison Bound

From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
The cast cleans up the Gulag in Act II of From The House of the Dead.
Photo © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera

The French director Patrice Chéreau makes his long-awaited Metropolitan Opera debut with this staging of From the House of the Dead, the final opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. From the House of the Dead is based on an autobiographical novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It details life in a Siberian gulag, and has an all-male cast. However, this bleak story is set against gorgeous, uplifting music that manages to express the plight of the prisoners and the underlying humanity behind the snow, ice and violence.


The opera opened with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen suddenly popping up in the orchestra pit and bursting into the overture. As the curtains rose quickly, prisoners shuffled around in the dimness, the only light provided by the occasional flare of matches.

The lights came up to reveal Richard Peduzzi's set, which consisted of moving, bleak gray walls, placing the prisoners in a bizarre B.F. Skinner box. Invisible doors opened and closed. White surtitles were projected on the blank surfaces, making the prisoners' dialogue appear as strange, authoritarian messages. Walls slid back and forward. Trash dropped out of the ceiling, The curtain dropped down like a guillotine.

Chéreau and Salonen have compressed this three -act opera into one 100-minute span. This intense, cinematic approach to what is already a very short opera has the unfortunate effect of weakening the opera's sense of time-lapse between scenes, and at the same time, exhausting the audience. What keeps the opera moving is Salonen's remarkable performance in the pit, sharply pointing out the spiky folksong melodies, characteristic off-meter rhythm and complex orchestral details.

There are great voices in this cast, soaring above the score like an eagle above the frozen gulag. The cast features baritone Willard White, tenor Stefan Margita, and (in my favorite bit of casting) an appearance by veteran character tenor Heinz Zednik. All are excellent dramatic actors.and the spiky, folksong textures, driving Czech rhythms and unique melodies emerged beautifully under Salonen's baton.  Compelling acting kept the audience riveted. This is not necessarily a "fun" night at the theater, but it is an awe-inspiring one.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Opera Review: The Unnameable.

Esther at New York City Opera.


Lauren Flanigan in a scene from Esther© 1993 New York City Opera.
Esther resurrects the New York City Opera in fine style. Lincoln Center's "other" opera company is known for exploring dangerous, "difficult" operas and making them wildly popular with its audience. Hugo Wiesgall's final opera, based on the Biblical story of the brave Queen who saved the Jewish people from slaughter, premiered at the former New York State Theater in 1993 but only ran for a few performances. Here, it returns in triumph, led by the incandescent performance of Lauren Flanigan.


Although the story of Esther is well-known to anyone who has ever celebrated the Jewish holiday of Purim, this is ultimately a serious opera which examines the inner lives of these famous figures, and the moral consequences of the story's violent resolution. Esther, herself sold into slavery and married off to the Emperor Xerxes (James Maddalena) saves her people from the machinations of Xerxes' prime minister, the diabolical Haman. Haman, is in turn hung by the neck, along with his ten sons, an image which greets the audience when the curtain rises.

Flanigan's high-wire performance carries the evening, making it seem as if City Opera did not go dark for an entire season. She sings this difficult music with ease, tossing off those high notes with energy and fervor. She delineates the Queen's spiritual crisis and complex personality through excellent acting and a genuine exchange of energy with Xerxes, played by Stephen Kechuius.

Kechulius is the picture of machismo (and kingly indecision) as Xerxes. Roy Cornelius Smith has surprisingly comic moments as the evil, scheming Haman. Most memorable is James Maddalena in the critical role of Esther's uncle Mordecai, lending gravitas to the plight of the Jews. Also, as Vashti (the deposed wife of Xerxes) and Zeresh (the wife of Haman) Beth Clayton and Margaret Thompson share a memorable duet which is a highlight of the score. George Manahan leads his City Opera Orchestra through this complicated score with his customary skill.

Like most operas written in the late 20th century, Esther is influenced by 300 years of musical history that went before it. Weisgall's work has a lyrical flow and memorable music, while still adhering to sophisticated modern techniques. This is in some ways, a post-Romantic work, balancing a serious story with the back-room politicking of Haman and the development of Esther's own relationship with Xerxes. Esther is a major 20th century work, and a fitting choice to re-open this great opera company after a year spent wandering in darkness.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Son of the Return of the Revenge of the New York City Opera



We here at Superconductor would like to take this opportunity to welcome the New York City Opera back among the ranks of functioning and open opera companies.

Based at the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) the City Opera is an important company and an important facet in the cultural life of opera-loving New Yorkers. The company, now under the direction of former Dallas Opera main man George Steel is playing a shortened four-opera season in their newly-renovated digs after spending the entire 2008-2009 season in an involuntary exile from Lincoln Center.

The new house (well really the old house) has had a total face-lift, with new seats, improved acoustics, the addition of elevators to the pit, and most importantly, the removal of the noxious amplification system that was put in under the direction of former Director Paul Kellogg. Kellogg had installed the system to cope with the notoriously opera-unfriendly acoustics of the State Theater, a theater that was, from its opening, always better suited to its other tenant, the New York City Ballet.

The fall City Opera schedule featuring a production of Don Giovanni and a revival of Esther, the Biblical opera by Howard Weisgall. Esther is based on the same Biblical story that is celebrated every year at Purim. The opera features NYCO house diva Lauren Flanigan in the title role, an exceptional vocal artist who is reason alone to get tickets. And the tickets are going fast--City Opera just added an extra performance in an effort to meet demand.

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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.