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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Opera Review: Revived Hoffmann Receives New Blood

The Metropolitan Opera's first revival of Bartlett Sher's 2009 production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann was a showcase for new talent. Under the baton of newcomer Patrick Fournillier, the performance was led with an authentic French musical style that was absent from last season's run.
Spalanzani's Carnival in Act I of Hoffmann. Photo © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera
Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti anchored a strong cast as the opera's titular protagonist. He sang with a bright, polished tone and showed a willingness to go after the big moments, reaching for the optional high notes that are rarely heard in this modern era of cautious singing. His "Ballad of Kleinzach" was a highlight, performed with the proper rubato that is needed to make this fantastical opera take flight. Best of all, he had the stamina to lead "Hélas, mon coeur," the huge ensemble that brings the Giulietta act to its climax, and enough left in the tank to reprise "Kleinzach" in the opera's Epilogue.

Ildar Abdrazakov continues to recover from the disaster that was last year's Attila. He sang the Four Villains with a dark, stout-ish voice and a grim joy in Hoffmann's discomfort. From his evil "heh heh heh" laugh to a lush, glittering rendition of "Scintille, diamant," this was a strong performance. (He even did a good job of clinking the vials as Dr. Miracle, a low point in this opera.) In this version of the story, the Four Baddies are aided and abetted by the Muse, who conspires to end Hoffmann's doomed romances and get him back to his writing table. Kate Lindsey reprised her extraordinary portrayal from last season, and almost stole the show.
Hoffmann's chief attraction is the Three Lovers, the tryptich of Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta. Their presence serves as a triple foil for Hoffmann's obsessions. In this staging, the three heroines are played by three different singers. Antonia was the most successful, as Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava soared through the part in fine style. She sang softly and beautifully in the character's opening ballade, and then soared to dizzy heights in the final trio, before expiring with a lovely (and added) trill. This was an impressive debut, and her star will be rising after this performance. 

Anna Christy was less successful as Olympia. She sang "Les oiseaux" with caution, and fell short of the piping high Fs required of the singing doll. Her comic acting was not up to the standard established last season by Kathleen Kim. Mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa did not make much of a vocal impression as Giulietta (the part is too short) but blended beautifully with Kate Lindsey for a lovely performance of the Barcarolle.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Live Simulcast Review: Das Rheingold at the Met

Bryn Terfel as Wotan.

This is a blow-by blow writeup of the first night of the Met's new Das Rheingold, written as it happened on the Met's live Sirius Radio simulcast.

The Met's new Ring Cycle got off to a good start. The Prelude was played very slowly, with the Met orchestra sinking the listener into Wagner's tone-world. James Levine conducted the difficult opening bars with a sure hand, and the tonal glories extended to the revelation of the Rhinegold and the entry of the Valhalla theme.

Scene I:
As Alberich, Eric Owens is equipped with powerful, guttural tone and a minim of vocal affectation. He was ably flirted with by a trio of flying,floating Rhinemaidens. The new high-tech stage is efficient and silent, its movements inaudible over the broadcast. Whole underwater scene was played very slowly.

Scene II
Bryn Terfel's first, dreamlike notes were unexpectedly sweet. The steel in the great Welshman's voice emerged with his salute to Valhalla, noble and compelling in tone. He is ably matched by Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, who produces warm tone even when giving her husband the third degree about his shady real estate deals.
The Giants enter at ponderous speed. Everything is slow and heavy in this performance, as if Levine wants to give greater weight to the proceedings. But it sounds like the knights in "Parsifal." Fasolt (Franz-Josef Selig) has a pleasant, sonorous voice. with the requisite notes, marred by an audible vibrato. Fafner (Hans-Peter König) is better. Both giants rrrreally rrroll their r's.

Richard Croft's entry as Loge elevates the tone of the entire opera, with the welcome addition of a major tenor part. (Yes, I know Froh sings first, but that's a really small part and I don't know who's playing the God of Light.) Loge's narration holds the listener's interest throughout in a passage where Rheingold sometimes loses its initial steam. Best of all, Terfel floats a soft pianissimo on "Macht und Schätze schüf ohne Mass ein Reif.", managing to sound mysterious and a little bit evil.


Scene III:
OK. Freia carried off. (Nice little oboe solo.) Gods growing old slowly. And then cue the anvils and the big transformation to Nibelheim. This is played with a weight and rhythmic drive that was absent earlier. Eric Owens makes a welcome return to the stage dragging Mime in the person of character tenor Gerhard Siegel. Tarnhelm horns are gorgeous, and appropriately eerie. Lengthy dialogue in Nibelheim is always tough to stay involved in, though Terfel, Owens and Croft are all strong in the face-off.

When Alberich turns himself into a toad (kröte) and then gets stepped on and captured is the dodgiest moment in the Ring. At least the audience laughed. Now, more anvils. 
Gerhard Siegel and Richard Croft in a scene from Das Rheingold
Scene IV:
The second confrontation with Alberich, when he takes the ring is a great face-off. Terfel starts going up the stave, almost shouting as Owens stands his ground. (Now he sounds a LOT evil!) This is Wotan as villain, completely corrupted by his lust for the gold. Terfel sounds like Scarpia here, but this is villainy on a much larger scale. Magnificent. Owens is roaring and grunting in his struggle with Terfel, and screaming in agony as the Ring is taken away.  

Here comes the second baritone's big moment: the curse that will hang over the Ring until the final bars of the last opera. (Considering that the Met's Götterdämmerung bows in in 2012, that's a looong curse.) It's delivered with appropriately evil laughter and ultra-slow again--James Levine is giving the singer all the time he needs.

The Gods are back on stage. Froh (who is this?) is singing his little non-arietta. Gold is being piled up. Wonder how they're staging that this time? Computer animated gold bars? Or something James Bond-like? Oh well. Will find out next week. Erda scene is memorable with Patricia Barden as the mysterious earth goddess. Nice high note that makes ol' One-Eye come to his senses and give up the Ring.

Wow, we're at the final scene. Dwayne Croft and the Wagner tubas kicking major Wagnerian cloud-butt. Sounds great with that big wide carpet of strings. 

Nice lightning strike. ZZzzzzapp! But why does Dwayne Croft sound underwater afterwards? Something to do with the stage? And now the gorgeous Rainbow Bridge Theme which is never heard again in the Ring after this. Horns are in very fine form sounding out the Valhalla theme. 

Terfel at his heroic best as the Sword theme appears and he names the hall. Nice high note sung at full throat. Very steady even though this is the upper push of the bass-baritone's range. And he injects sweetness into his words to Fricka, stretching out the "Mit mir" as if he were Baron Ochs. The Rihinemaidens sound pretty good--though they are probably offstage. The final chords are stately, played for all they're worth as the trumpets ring out over the heavy brass. It's over.

And the audience sounds like they're approving the cast of this new Rheingold. Some boo-birds for the director, but that's tradition, isn't it? This sounds like a mostly positive reception. We'll be writing about the production next week after the Monday performance. 

All photos by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera. Used for promotional purposes only.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Concert Review: Perlman and the Philharmonic

The third concert of the 2010 New York Philharmonic season featured the welcome pairing of Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert on the podium with the redoubtable violin skills of Itzhak Perlman. 
Itzhak Perlman

Mr. Perlman soared through the sweet melodies and difficult cadenzas of Mendelssohn's famous Violin Concerto, applying a personal touch of warmth to each note drawn from his instrument. He was particularly compelling in the final cadenza of the last movement, using the low strings of his violin to provide propulsive force to the orchestra. 

The morning concert kicked off with an exuberant Don Juan, the tone poem that solidified the reputation of Richard Strauss while providing horn players reason to live. Philharmonic principal Philip Myers was that horn player, launching the famous theme with a flood of glorious tone.
Mr. Gilbert shifted focus to the 20th century for the second half. Dutilleux's Métaboles allowed each section of the orchestra to shine before bringing its main themes together in a thunderous display of sound.

Its most memorable moment was the jazzy pizzicato solo for double bass, played by Philharmonic principal Eugene Levinson. This solo formed the basis for a virtuosic string fugue (also played pizzicato) which looked backward to the works of Beethoven and Bach while maintaining a distinctly modern idiom. 

The Symphonic Metamorphasis of a Theme by Weber was written by Paul Hindemith during his American period as a ballet score. The Metamorphosis, based on a series of little-known works by German Romantic Carl Maria von Weber, consists of a series of movements featuring atmospheric winds, mysterious, hushed string chords and muted rolls on the timpani.

The work concludes with a brassy march, which may have inspired the theme music of a certain fedora-wearing archeologist. Leading this complex composition without a score, Mr. Gilbert made a strong case for the presence of this work in the Philharmonic's repertory. After all, they're the orchestra that premiered it!

Recording Recommendation: Two Tales of Hoffmann

Kathleen Kim and Joseph Calleja
in the Met's Tales of Hoffmann.

Offenbach did not live to finish this opera.

As a result, there are numerous 'completions' of the score available, and alternate arias and choruses are frequently incorporated into performances. At least three different musicologists worked on 'completions' of the opera, and there are textual issues galore. Hence the need for articles like this one.

Some versions of Hoffmann feature one singer taking on the challenge of all four female leads: Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta and Stella. When one soprano sings all four heroines, it is common practice to move Antonia (the second act) to the third (and final) position.

Offenbach intended the Giulietta act to follow Antonia, showing Hoffmann's moral descent into the arms of a courtesan following his lover's death. However, he didn't reckon with sopranos who want to end an opera by singing until they (literally) drop dead. 

The role of the Muse/Nicklausse changes, depending on which version of the opera you hear. In some productions, she/he is merely Hoffmann's companion and protector. But Offenbach may have meant this gender-bending character to be more of an antagonist, working with the Four Villains to destroy Hoffmann's relationships in order to help him get back to work on his writing.

The Four Villains often have alternate music to sing, particularly Dapertutto, the evil sorcerer in the Giulietta act. The famous aria "Scintille, diamant" was actually written for another opera and added to Hoffmann after Offenbach's death.

Anyway, here are two very different takes on Hoffmann for your consideration.

Orchestre de la Theatre Royal cond. Sylvain Cambreling. EMI Classics
Hoffmann: Neil Shicoff. Four Villains: José Van Dam. Nicklausse: Ann Murray; Lucina Serra; Olympia: Rosalinde Plowright Giulietta: Jessye Norman

This is a slow, elegant reading of the score by Cambreling and his forces, using much of the completion material  published in 1976 by Fritz Oeser. Tempos are sometimes glacial, especially during the prologue and the gorgeous barcarolle

Neil Shicoff is an American tenor with good French. His "Kleinzach" aria is close to definitive. Splitting the roles of the three heroines allows for the casting of very different vocal types--the most idiosyncratic being the choice of Jessye Norman for the role of Giulietta. The set includes an appendix at the end with alternative numbers from the score, including a glittering "Scintille, Diamant" from the exceptional Jose Van Dam.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Julius Rudel. Westminster/Deutsche Grammophon.
Hoffmann: Stuart Burrows. Antonia/Giulietta/Olympia/Stella: Beverly Sills. Four Villains: Norman Triegle. 

This Westminster recording from 1972 presents the 'unrevised' Hoffmann in all of its musical glory. This recording is a tour de force for the great (and under-recorded) Beverly Sills, who swoops and soars through this difficult music with giddy ease. Her "Doll Song" (complete with old-fashioned "wind-up" sound effects) is stunning.

Norman Triegle, the resident bass of the New York City Opera in the early '70s, appeared many times opposite Ms. Sills and that experience shows in his superb performance. He gleefully snarls through the four villainous roles, unleashing a seductive, creamy tone during "Scintille, diamant" (restored here to its place in the Giulietta act). Julius Rudel is an expert in this repertory, and he leads a fine performance. The Antonia act goes last, and Sills expires during the final trio, in utterly splendid fashion.



Thursday, September 9, 2010

And now a word from...our pants.

This is a new commercia for Levis jeans, shot by Australian director John Hillcoat (The Road) in the economically destitute city of Braddock, PA. Since The Road was shot in and around Braddock, it's likely that Mr. Hillcoat shot the commercial while working on the film.

The music of course is the "underwater" prelude to Scene I of Wagner's Das Rheingold.

Thanks to William Berger for the heads-up on this.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Return of Seiji Ozawa

Seiji Ozawa, the internationally acclaimed conductor whose career has been interrupted by a battle with esophageal cancer, is the subject of a fascinating interview in today's New York Times.
Seiji Ozawa.

The 75-year old Japanese maestro previously served as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, holding the Boston post for 29 years. He is also the former chief conductor of the Vienna State Opera, although he was forced to cancel all of his 2010 appearances for medical reasons.

Mr. Ozawa's career began as music director of the Toronto Symnphony Orchestra, helping to put that ensemble on the musical map. A pupil of Leonard Bernstein's, his distinctive skill with the romantic works of Beethoven and Mahler made him a podium star. And his interactions with students at the BSO's Tanglewood campus made him a beloved figure.

Although continued frail health has forced Mr. Ozawa to cancel his remaining concerts for 2010, he plans to return to Carnegie Hall in 2011 to conduct Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. He cannot walk for more than five minutes at a time, and has to sit down to conduct.

This month also marks the release of a career retrospective for Mr. Ozawa, the Anniversary boxed set on Decca. Mr. Ozawa made many recordings for Philips during the classical music "CD boom" of the 1990s. However, with the folding of the Philips label, a lot of these are out of print. The eleven-disc set features Mr. Ozawa's readings of Strauss' Alpine Symphony and Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, along with major works by Poulenc, Rimsky-Korsakov, Berlioz and Leonard Bernstein. A complete track listing is available here on the Decca Classics website.

New York City Opera Fall Season Preview

Reposted from my page at Examiner.com.
Lauren Flanigan falls in a scene from Intermezzo.
Although the New York City Opera is currently operating a shortened season schedule, they are still breaking barriers with innovative new works and exciting revivals. We take a look at the Fall Season, which opens on Oct. 27.

A Quiet Place
The New York stage premiere of Leonard Bernstein's final opera.

Written by: Leonard Bernstein

A Quiet Place is the story of a dysfunctional family brought together by the loss of their mother. Bernstein's opera incorporates much of the music from his earlier opera Trouble in Tahiti, presenting the events of Tahiti as a flashback in the second act. The staging is by the same team that did last season's successful Don Giovanni at the City Opera.

Running time: Three hours. Sung in English with English supertitles.
Performed on: Oct. 27, 30; Nov. 4. 6, 12, 14, 16, 21

Intermezzo
Richard Strauss' domestic opera is based on a real incident from his marriage.

With his eighth opera, Strauss turns from Greek mythology to domestic comedy. He wrote the libretto himself, and the portrayal of Christine Storch is based on his own wife. A mix-up over tickets lands a world-class conductor in hot water with his wife. The City Opera's innovative staging of this overlooked Strauss opera makes a welcome return.

Running time:
Two hours, 50 minutes. Sung in English with English supertitles.
Performed on: Oct. 31; Nov. 5, 9, 13, 18, 20

Thursday, September 2, 2010

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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.