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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Opera Review: La Traviata at the Met

Ed. Note: This is a review of La Traviata from late March 2010. To read about the Met's new production of Traviata starring Marina Popvlaskaya and directed by Willy Decker, click this link. 

For the Superconductor review of the Met's new Willy Decker production of Traviata click this link.

Tenor James Valenti.
Photo © Jamesvalenti.com
Although Monday night's revival of La Traviata featured the return of Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu to the Met stage, the real story was the debut of tenor James Valenti as Alfredo. This was the debut of a possible future star: tall, photogenic, with a pleasing voice and good onstage energy.

Valenti is a tall, handsome leading man with a voice to match. He soared beautifully through the part of Alfredo, and generated real onstage heat with Ms. Gheorghiu in the first act. In one memorable moment, the much taller tenor picked the diva up and whirled her off her feet. His only small fault was a forced high note in the second act. He hit it, but it wasn't pretty.

Verdi's dying courtesan remains Ms. Gheorghiu's signature part, and Monday night's performance showed why. She sang with fire and warmth in the first act, intelligence in the second, and real passion in the difficult death scene.

Despite beginning "Sempre libera" with her back to the audience, she brought down the house with this soprano showpiece. Her acting is an equal footing with the singing, and she is not afraid to show illness and frailty in the role.

Thomas Hampson was perfect casting for Germont pere, singing this unsympathetic part with his customary musicality and intelligence. His "Di provenza il mar" was a clinic in lyric baritone singing, and his entrances in the last two scenes raised the bar for the two leads. It was also nice to see veteran bass Paul Plishka in the small role of Dr. Grenvil.

This is the last run for this Traviata which will be replaced by Willy Decker's spare Salzburg staging next season. It was picked as a last-minute replacement (for "economic reasons") for John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, which would have featured Ms. Gheorghiu as Marie Antoinette. Given the excesses of the Zeffirelli production, and its elaborate sets, ridiculous ballet and period costumes, it is hard to see where the money was saved.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Opera Review: Songs from the Big Chair

L'Etoile at City Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Jean-Poaul Fouchécourt as King Ouf, out for a stroll in L'Etoile
Photo © 2010 New York City Opera
Emmanuel Chabrier's charming opéra bouffe returned to the stage of the David Koch Theater to open the New York City Opera's spring season. If this sunny staging is any indication, the beleaguered company is back on its feet and headed in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Opera Review: The Bunnies Run Amuck

The Fairy Queen at BAM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A mask from The Fairy Queen. Image © Brooklyn Academy of Music.
It's quite an amazing experience to see a 400-year old four-hour opera and to not want to walk out of the theater afterwards. Thursday night saw the U.S. premiere of Les Arts Florissants' staging of Henry Purcell's legendary semi-opera The Fairy Queen. At its conclusion, company director William Christie paused in the middle of his bows, and led orchestra and audience in a reprise of the opera's final chorus. It was a glorious, inclusive way to end one of the finest operas of this spring season.

A "semi-opera" that borrows heavily from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the show alternates between spoken performance of the libretto (by a fine cast of Shakespearean actors) and a series of spectacular masques which comment on and interpret the action. This tradition of separating emotional reaction from narrative drive would form the root of opera seria and the influence of Purcell's work on the later operas of Handel is unmistakeable.

Jonathan Kent's staging of the work was aided by an unforgettable series of visuals: the giant spider that wrapped Titania in its webs, Apollo (Andrew Davies) descending on a golden winged horse from the flies. The entire production was set in a sort of library or study, with walls that slid in and out and a removable ceiling and floor. As the mind-bending masques began, a lake, a Monet haystack and even the Garden of Eden appeared. The comic business of the Mechanicals and the masques themselves were part high-flying Cirque de Soleil, part classic British holiday pantomime.



Nick Bottom and his band of mechanicals were the maintenance crew for Theseus' manor house--with Flute the bellows-mender (Robert Burt) operating the vacuum cleaner. They were played by a fine crew of actors, led by Desmond Barrit as Bottom. Their Pyramus and Thisbe was staged in classic, ribald Shakespearean fashion, with minimal cuts to the comedy. The four lovers were played by appealing young actors, with emphasis placed on the interchangeable nature of Lysander (Nicholas Shaw) and Demetrius (Gwilym Lee) as a cause of their romantic conflict. Finbar Lynch and Amanda Harris dueled as Oberon and Titania, and the shirtless Jotham Amman as a kinetic Puck.

William Christie led his crack period ensemble in a crisp performance, his ensemble's trademark clarity to the fore. Purcell's work requires both orchestra and singers to find their own place with respect to Shakespeare's play. The audience was treated to exceptional singing, with the company's key vocalists switching costumes and merrily taking on multiple roles. Ed Lyon (Adam in the final masque) Andrew Davies as as Phoebus Apollo (who sang his role in mid-air) and bass Andrew Foster-Williams were all exceptional. But the performance of Emanuelle de Negri brought down the house in her scene as the Plaint, whose aria stopped the ribaldry dead and brought down the house.
On his horse: Phoebus makes his descent in The Fairy Queen.
Photo © 2009 Les Arts Florissants

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Opera Review: Clinging to the Wreckage

Attila at the Met.
by Paul Pelkonen
Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila) surveys the wreckage.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.
The resilience of Verdi's operas, (even his lesser ones) never ceases to amaze.

Take the Metropolitan Opera's current production of Attila, a staging beset with ugly sets, hideous costumes, poor choral placement, bad blocking and difficult scene changes. On Monday night, the cast managed to catch enough of that Verdi magic in the last two acts to bring Attila to a rousing finish.

This ill-conceived staging by Pierre Audi elevates the principal actors well above the stage and orchestra, creating major balance problems in the large house. Even worse, the chorus are relegated to a Nibelheim-like "pit of despair" below the main level of the stage. As the chorus is important in this martial opera, this proved to be a mistake.

200th Post! Opera By the Numbers

Breaking down the math of going to the opera.
Last night, at a performance of Attila, a lady sitting next to us bragged that she had gone to see over 100 operas. Now, I'm 37 next month (and celebrating with the premiere of Armida at the Met!) So in honor of this blog's 200th post, I decided to break down my life at the opera...by the numbers.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Obituary: Wolfgang Wagner (1919-2010)

Wolfgang Wagner has died at his home in Bayreuth. He was 90. Wagner was the director of the Bayreuth Festival for 57 years. The sole surviving grandson of the composer Richard Wagner, he was also the great-grandson of composer Franz Liszt.

Founded in 1876, the Bayreuth Festival takes place in the town of Bayreuth, at the Festspielhaus designed and built by Wagner himself for the first performances of The Ring and Parsifal. Today, the theater is home to one of the most important opera festivals in the world.

Devoted to performing the ten "canon" operas of Richard Wagner (as well as occasional performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), Bayreuth attracts an international audience of devoted opera lovers, and has a ten-year waiting list for tickets.


Although the Festival fell under the shadow of the Nazis and closed in 1943, Wolfgang and his brother Wieland reopened the Festspielhaus in 1951. The renewed Festival was a an important workshop for opera in the second half of the 20th century, embracing experimentation and new theatrical styles, often to the consternation of its patrons. During his tenure, Wolfgang directed and produced his grandfather's operas, including The Ring, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal.


Wieland died in 1966, leaving his brother in sole control of the festivaVarious members of the next generation struggled to control the Festival, but Wolfgang ran things until 2008, when heUltimately, Wolfgang appointed his daughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier as co-directors of the Festival.

For more on Wolfgang Wagner, pick up his fascinating autobiography, Acts, available on Amazon.com.

Opera Review: Les Arts Florissants at BAM

Les Artists Florissants opened the BAM Opera Festival with a twin bill of works by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Henry Purcell. The two one-act operas, Actéon and Dido and Aeneas made an effective pairing. Although one is in French and the other in English, the two works were sung by the same cast.

Each opera was performed on a bare stage adorned with a giant mirror. Actéon was the rarity here, a work which relates the story of a hunter (the title character, sung by Ed Lyon) who falls in love with the goddess Diana (Katherine Watson). As punishment for his hubris, she turns him into a stag. He is torn to pieces by his own hounds. Entering the Harvey Theater through the audience, the exceptional cast of singers performed with great attention to detail, revealing the pastoral beauty and passionate music of this little-heard opera.

Dido and Aeneas is one of the most important operas written in the English language. The work tells the sad story of the Trojan prince Aeneas and his ill-fated love for the Queen of Carthage. The connection between the two operas is made tangible when a member of Dido's royal hunt relates the story of the ill-fated Actéon to illustrate a point to her Queen.

Baritone Konstantine Wolff was a convincing, doomed Aeneas opposite the Dido of Sonya Yoncheva. It's not easy playing two of the most famous lovers in history, but these singers connected from the moment they stepped onstage. They achieved real vocal and sexual chemistry, demonstrating why Purcell's opera is one of the great British works and one of the oldest operas to have a place in the standard repertory.

The chorus, crucial in each opera, was commendable for its attention to nuance and clear projection of the French and English texts, making the projected titles almost unnecessary. Mention must also be made of contralto Hilary Summers, whose performance in each opera added a dash of humor and a blend of otherworldly mystery and sexual ambiguity. Finally, the crack period ensemble played each work on original instruments, conducted with textural clarity by Jonathan Cohen.
Upper right: Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Lower left: Henry Purcell

Sunday, March 21, 2010

CD Review: Karajan's 1964 Die Frau Ohne Schatten

If any listener needs convincing regarding the transcendent podium abilities of Herbert von Karajan they need look no further than this 1964 recording of Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Made at the conclusion of Karajan's Vienna tenure, this live radio broadcast illustrate' the conductor's ability to draw the maximum amount of intensity and emotional impact from this admittedly difficult work.

It doesn't hurt that this fresh-sounding performance has a cast made up of some of the most important singers of the 1960's, caught here well before their decline. Jess Thomas is ideal as the Emperor.  His voice is the right size for this difficult part. There is a thrilling moment in his Act One aria when the orchestra swells so an enormous climax and there is applause before the music detonates in a flood of emotional rapture. This recording is full of moments like that where the inhabitants of Hofmannsthal' arcane world spring thrillingly to life.

Leonie Rysanek's Empress is ethereal, yet fully realized in a dramatic sense. She tracks the character's path to full womanhood with unerring clarity and the sweetness of tone that marks the best Strauss sopranos. She is well-matched by the Dyer's Wife, sung with characteristic intelligence by Christa Ludwig. Finally, Grace Hoffman is a cunning Nurse, delivering all facets of the most complex character in the opera.

The veteran of the cast is Walter Berry in the key role of the dyer, Barak. His baritone conveys the warmth and complex emotions of the character with nuance and respect for the text. The Vienna Philharmonic plays with intelligence and clarity, and their love for this music is obvious. Karajan intended these performances to be his farewell gift to Vienna upon his departure.

This is a live recording, and stage noises are audible, but not to the point of distraction. The only down side is a series of major cuts to the score, which are most noticeable in the latter two acts. Act Two has an entire scene excised, a cut taken by Karajan. The third act has the standard cuts, which render the drama a little confusing. However, the singing and superb orchestral performances make this a must-have for Strauss lovers.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Opera Review: Pick a Winner

The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
"This is the story of a man who lost his nose.
It ran away, grew to human size, and eventually came back to him."
Sketch for The Nose by William Kentridge
© 2010 The Metropolitan Opera/William Kentridge
An unlikely idea for an opera, Nikolai Gogol's story is one of the great comic works of Russian literature. Shostakovich set the work when he was 22, and it was quickly banned in Russia for 44 years. The Nose finally arrived at the Met this season, in a brilliant new production by William Kentridge.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Movie Review: Meeting Venus

The comedy chronicling a particularly troubled production of Wagner's Tannhaüser was mostly ignored when it was released in 1991. At long last, Warner Archives has released it on DVD for the U.S. market.

Venus is the story of Hungarian conductor Zoltan Szanto, (Dutch actor Niels Arestrup) who has come to the "Opera Europa", a Paris-based international company "where you can be misunderstood in six different languages" to lead a new production of Tannhaüser.

Wagner's opera is the story of the medieval knight who is torn between his love for the saintly Elisabeth and his unearthly lust for the goddess Venus. As the married conductor begins an affair with his leading lady (played by Glenn Close and sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa), his personal life begins to mirror the complex world of Wagner's opera.

István Szantó's film captures the vibrant energy and backstage chaos of post-Communist Europe as the opera company's members try to overcome ego issues and language barriers to mount Tannhaüser. When a last-minute stagehands strike nearly kills the performance, the opera company's unique solution makes the entire film worth seeing.

At its heart, this is a movie about making music, and Meeting Venus includes some excellent excerpts from the opera, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Marek Janowski. The soundtrack includes the Pilgrim's Chorus, Elisabeth's "Dich, teurer Halle", and Wolfram's "Song to the Evening Star." Soloists include Rene Kollo (Tannhaüser), Waltraud Meier (Venus) and Håkan Hagegård (Wolfram.) Unfortunately, this cast only recorded highlights for the soundtrack and never got around to doing the entire opera.

Meeting Venus is released under the Warner Special Products label. The only way to get a copy is to order it direct from the studio, who will then manufacture the DVD and send it to you mail-order. It's not a perfect solution, but this underrated comedy is worth the effort for the opera lover.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

DVD Review: Jazz Age Hustle

Don Pasquale at the Grand Theatre of Geneva
This energetic Swiss staging of Donizetti's comedy updates Don Pasquale to the jazz age. Everybody is in modern dress, with the action taking place at outdoor cafes, the servants in tuxedos, and the befuddled Don as a 19th century nobleman who runs smack into the modern age and gets a lesson he'll never forget. Evolino Pido leads the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in an entertaining, fizzy account of the score that perfectly captures Donizetti's playful spirit.

Happily, the singing here matches the high quality of the production. Simone Alaimo is a vigorous Don Pasquale. He combines a full, round bass, pin-point parlando singing and acting experience (gained from years of playing buffo villains) to excellent effect. And although he starts off as a blowhard, one feels sorry for the Don as he is rapidly victimized by the conspiracy to "marry" him off.

Part confidence artist and part dominatrix, Norina is the most important role in this opera. In order to marry her beloved Ernesto, she puts the Don through the proverbial wringer to help the foolish old man learn his lesson. Here, is not an actress, but a talented Bohemian painter who affects the style of Rene Magritte. Her redecoration of the Don's house looks like an attack by Piet Mondrian gone berserk.

Mezzo-soprano Patrizia Ciofi offers a dazzling display of Norina's vocal acrobatics, racing through Donizetti's most complicated passages with ease. The fact that she is a fine comic actress doesn't hurt either. Here, in her second DVD of the opera, she is well matched with tenor Norman Shankle, a plaintive, sentimental Ernesto. His "exile" aria has real pathos, especially the moment when he packs his suitcase and for a moment, holds up a teddy bear. Shankle has a fine bel canto tenor, with reserves of power underneath each delicately placed note.

Baritone Marzio Giossi makes a fine comic foil as Doctor Malatesta. His first appearance, as a cafe customer reading a large book titled "Freud", gives the viewer much information about his character--and a whole new dimension to the good Doctor's relationship with old Pasquale. It is yet another "modern" touch in this charming, comic staging of a brilliant comedy that deserves a higher place in the international repertory.



Watch a scene from Don Pasquale on YouTube!

Monday, March 15, 2010

So How Does It End? Dumas, Shakespeare and Hamlet

The Metropolitan Opera production of Hamlet bows on Tuesday night, with the company's first performance of the opera since 1897.




A poster for the 1868 premiere of Hamlet.


Controversy has followed Ambroise Thomas' opera since it premiere in 1868 at the Paris Opera. French audiences were delighted by its virtuoso writing for the soprano voice and faithful treatment of Shakespeare's famous soliloquies. However, the opera's ending, which differs radically from the last act of the play) continues to upset Shakespearean purists, scholars and critics.

Here's why:

  • Laertes confronts Hamlet at Ophelia's funeral procession. (That's in the play.)
  • The Ghost appears, and urges Hamlet to kill Claudius.
  • Hamlet skewers Claudius.
  • Hamlet is crowned King.
When the opera was revised for performance at Covent Garden, Thomas made a few changes:

  • The Ghost was omitted from the last act.
  • Hamlet killed Claudius and then himself. This omits all that pesky nonsense about "to be or not to be."

Part of the blame for these un-Hamlet-like endings lies with the librettists. Jules Barbier and Michael Carré are the same team who re-wrote Goethe's Faust as an opera for Charles Gounod (an act which may have caused the Franco-Prussian War.) However, their libretto for Hamlet was based not on the original Shakespeare, but on a French edition of the play written by none other than Alexandre Dumas père.

Yes, that Dumas. The French novelist, best known for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, thought nothing of cheerfully altering the ending of the play, in the same entertaining style with which he bastardized history to write the Musketeers. Dumas' approach to Shakespeare omits many of the secondary characters, tightens up the action, and ends with Denmark being slightly less rotten. The librettists go even further, giving the prince a rousing drinking song, omitting the murder of Polonius, and letting Queen Gertrude survive the carnage at the opera's end.

But wait, there's another ending!
  • Hamlet still kills Claudius.
  • He perishes at the point of Laërtes' sword.
This approach was first conceived for the Decca recording of the opera, starring Sherrill Milnes and Joan Sutherland, and conducted by Richard Bonynge. (Unfortunately it's out of print.) It's still not strictly Shakespeare, but the tragic denouement is closer to the heart of the play. Either way, this rare opera (it has not been staged at the Met since 1897) is a welcome addition to the 2010 season, and the performance of Simon Keenlyside in the title role promises to be one of the highlights of the next few weeks.

Opera Review: Don Pasquale at the Regina Opera


Brooklyn's Regina Opera Company closed out its run of Donizetti's rambunctious domestic comedy Don Pasquale with a strong performance on March 14.

Luigi Lablache, the first Don Pasquale


One of the "big three" Donizetti comedies, Pasquale was written for bass Luigi Lablache in the title role. So a strong comic bass with command of the parlando style is required. Jorge Arcila filled the bill nicely, with a pleasing baritone and good acting chops. Don Pasquale, a 70-something bachelor who decides to marry just to stiff his nephew out of his inheritance is not the most sympathetic character in opera. But Arcila found the humanity behind all that hot air. His Act III duet with Dr. Malatesta (Andrew Cummings) was everything that opera buffa should be--a thrilling display of vocal pyrotechnics that thrilled the audience.

Cummings, for his part, excelled as the scheming Dr. Malatesta. His pleasing baritone and cool onstage demeanor (not to mention his towering height) made an excellent contrast to Arcila's apopleptic Don. In the key role of Ernesto, tenor Robert Arthur Hughes sang harshly at first, but warmed up to deliver some lovely arias in the third act. All three male leads had trouble being heard over the orchestra. Conductor Matthew Oberstein did his best to keep the volume down, but in a "live" room like the Regina Hall, it is a near-impossible task.

Soprano Michelle Trovato was a bundle of energy and vocal thrills as Norina. Unlike her male cast-mates, she had no trouble singing over the orchestra. As the duplicitous young widow whose sham marriage to Pasquale drives the opera's plot, Trovato delivered a balanced comic performance, handling each of the role's many facets with a diamond-sharp delivery and a voice capable of handling the most agile of passages. Mention must also be made of Linda Lehr, who made the most of the comic opportunities afforded by a mute role as the good Don's housekeeper.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Francesca Zambello to head Glimmerglass Opera

Francesca Zambello has been tabbed to replace Michael McLeod as Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival. One of the finest summer opera festivals in the Northeast, the Glimmerglass Opera is based in Cooperstown, NY, and offers four operas every summer in an idyllic setting by the banks of Lake Otsego.
The Alice Busch Theater, home of the Glimmerglass Opera

In 1992, Zambello came under fire for her coffin-strewn staging of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met. However, the director has received much critical acclaim since. She staged the Ring Cycle in Washington D.C., brought a successful Les Troyens to the Met and even took Broadway with her version of Disney's The Little Mermaid. Zambello's distinct visual and dramatic style can be jarring, but she often succeeds in finding hidden truths within the works she is staging.

Her hiring is a bold and exciting statement for the Cooperstown-based company, which has a reputation for compact productions and innovative stagings of classic operas, baroque works, and rarities from the outer reaches of the repertory. Past successes have included:

  • Zambello's staging of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride
  • The Mines of Sulphur by Richard Rodney Bennett
  • The first American stage performances of Das Liebesverbot, an early opera by Richard Wagner based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

BAM Opera Festival Focuses on Purcell

Baroque opera is making a comeback in New York City in the Spring of 2010.

William Christie conducts Purcell's music at BAM.

On March 18, the Brooklyn Academy of Music places the work of Henry Purcell at the center of its BAM Opera Festival. Purcell was an English composer whose work predates that of the more popular Georg Friedrich Handel.

The acclaimed baroque performing ensemble Les Arts Florissants will perform Dido and Aeneas in conjuntion with Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Actéon. These two short operas will contrast the 17th century style of Purcell with that of Charpentier, and demonstrate how the elder composer influenced the latter work. Both performances will be led by Les Arts Florissants music director William Christie.

On the 23rd, BAM will present Purcell's The Fairy Queen, also presented by Les Arts Florissants in conjunction with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream the opera is a major example of Purcell's genis which was lost for over 300 years before being rediscovered by members of the Purcell society in 1901. These are the first New York performances of a special edition, premiered at Glyndebourne in 2009 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Purcell's birth.

Finally, New York City Opera continues its tradition of baroque opera performance with a revival of their production of Handel's Partenope, originally staged at the Glimmerglass Opera in 1999. Partenope features some of Handel's finest vocal writing. It opens on April 3.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Opera Review: Il Caso Mortara at Dicapo Opera

The conflict between Italian Jews and the Catholic Church is at the heart of this new work by Italian composer Francesco Cilluffo. This is the first new opera commissioned by the Dicapo Opera. Il Caso Mortara is a complex, emotionally raw work that offers powerful drama, even though its titular character remains something of a cipher.

The opera retells the story of one Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy who was baptized by his nurse-maid as an infant without the knowledge of his parents. At six years old, he was taken away from his parents by the Catholic Church, and eventually adopted as a son by Pope Pius IX. Edgardo took holy orders and became Padre Pio Mortara, who went around the world preaching and doing missionary work. He died in Belgum right before he was due to be arrested by the Nazis because of his Jewish heritage.

Cilluffo's first opera clearly carries the influence of Verdi and Puccini, with dissonant passages and spiky rhythms that belong to the latter half of the 20th century. Writing in Italian, Cilluffo blends liturgical music with traditional Jewish prayers, especially in an evocative scene in the first act. His goal throghout is to hammer home the conflict between these two worlds, and he does so with simplicty, clarity, and an ear for a good vocal line.

The strongest dramatic performances of the night were delivered by the singers playing his parents--Peter Furlong and Iulia Merca. Furlong has a powerful lyric tenor which was well suited to the role of the emotionally distraught father. Merca's soprano was almost too big for the theater, a dramatic instrument that conveyed her grief with power and authority. Also impressive was Christina Rohm as Rachele, a young Jewish girl who later converts.

Baritone Christopher DeVage did some fine work as the adult Mortara. The character does not sing until the second act, so it is difficult to judge his performance. His death scene was moving, with a sense of the emotional void left in the character by his conflicting religious upbringings. As Pope Pius, Chad Armstrong brought weight and depth to the role of the Pope, especially in his death scene, sung as a tenor-baritone duet with Mortara's father.

Photo of Edgardo Mortara (right) taken in 1880, with his mother and brother.

City Opera Announces 2010-2011 Season

The New York City Opera has unveiled its 2010-2011 schedule. The company will present another stripped-down season featuring five operas, two of them revivals, and three works new to the stage in New York City.

Self-portrait by Antonin Artaud.
His work inspires a new opera by John Zorn at City Opera this season.

The 2010 Fall season features two operas. Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place documents domestic strife in a small suburban home. One of the composer's few "serious" operas, the work has its origin as a short one-act drama called Trouble in Tahiti.

Richard Strauss' Intermezzo also examines family strife, albeit from a comic perspective. Based on a real incident in the composer's life, and with rare libretto from Strauss himself, Intermezzo takes the listener inside the world of a busy conductor in the roaring Twenties.

The 2011 Spring season opens with a revival of the Jonathan Miller staging of L'Elisir d'Amore. On the serious side, the company presents a triptych of three operas by John Zorn, Arnold Schoenberg, and Morton Feldman:
  • The Zorn work is La Machine de l’Être, a ten-minute solo work with no words in its libretto. 
  • The Schoenberg is the nightmarish drama Erwartung.
  • Morton Feldman's opera Neither is based on the bleak work of Samuel Beckett. \
The final premiere of the season is the first opera by Stephen Schwartz, known for Wicked contributions to Broadway. Mr. Schwartz' work is entitled Seancé for a Wet Afternoon.

The company expands its season with five concert performances, including a long-overdue revival of Oliver Knussen's operatic version of Where the Wild Things Are.


Photo: Philippe de Gobert, Brüssel, © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2008. Image from ArtTattler.com

Friday, March 5, 2010

Opera Review: Orange Crush

Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Met.
by Paul Pelkonen
The lovers make their escape in Act II of the Barber.Photo by Andrea Kremperer
© 2009 Baden-Baden Festspiel/The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met's final 2010 performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia was an occasion for sparkling vocal performances and robust comedy. In this kinetic staging by Bartlett Sher, the opera is re-imagined as Dr. Bartolo's fevered nightmare. The curtain rises during the overture, with Rosina's guardian asleep on the stage, accompanied by the mute Ambrogio (played to good slapstick effect by dancer Rob Besserer). Doors shift around mysteriously, explosions go off for no reason, and a gigantic anvil descends from the rafters, to destructive, if comic effect.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

DVD Review: Attila at La Scala

Stud Muffin: Samuel Ramey bares it as Attila at La Scala.
Screen capture © 1991 La Scala/EMI/RAI Recording
Twenty years ago, the bass Samuel Ramey was assocated with the role of Attila the Hun, whose invasion of Italy is the subject of the Verdi opera that bears his name. This DVD, filmed at La Scala by RAI, is compelling solely for Ramey's magnificent performance as the Scourge of God. With his bellowing bass, raw sexual charisma and that famous bared chest, Ramey dominates the action from the barbarian's arrival onstage to his murder in the final scene.


Written in 1846, Verdi's eighth opera falls squarely in the "galley years", (between Alzira and Macbeth) a decade when the composer was forced to churn out operas quickly in order to meet the demands of theaters all over Italy. Although this is a short opera (just about two hours) Attila towers above its predecessors, with its commanding leading role, stirring choruses and patriotic spirit. When the Roman general Ezio (here played by Giorgio Zancanaro) sings "Take the world, but leave Italy for me", Italian audiences took it as a battle cry.

Ramey is joined by Giorgio Zancanaro and Cheryl Studer, two singers who also starred in La Scala  recordings of Guglielmo Tell and I Vespri Siciliani under the baton of Riccardo Muti. Zancanaro sings with power and magnificent stage presence, enough to make you forget what a rat bastard his character is. Studer is in decline here, with her once fine soprano turning squally as she navigates the high ranges of this difficult role. And while the recently-reissued La Scala CD recording of the opera featured Neil Shicoff as Foresto, this video features the forgettable, wooden tenor of Kudali Kudalov.

This is a personal opera for Riccardo Muti. He chose it as his Met debut this season, and even has a theme from the opera as the ring-tone on his cell phone. Here, his conducting brings out the glories of Verdi's score, the big martial choruses, the ensembles and the remarkable dream sequence where Attila is visited by the spirit of Pope Leo. This is a towering performance on the podium, and one that makes a case for Attila as one of the finest products of Verdi's early period.

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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.