'

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.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Superconductor Gift Guide III: Some Stocking Stuffers

Johannes Brahms, looking less than jolly.
Drawing by Andrey Volkov

OK. Before you all start writing me letters about how all five box sets in this article are Deutsche Grammophon reissues, I want you to know that I'm aware of that. It just happens that these are five of the best CD box sets released in 2010. It's a coincidence that they're all on the same label.

Really. I swear on my little brass bust of Beethoven.

Anyway, here's the list:

Boulez Conducts Stravinsky
This set collects the Stravinsky recordings made by Pierre Boulez at the start of his fertile second summer as a recording conductor. They feature three great orchestras (Chicago, Cleveland and the Berlin Staatskapelle) and clarity of texture These performances were made in the 1990s, with great international orchestras: the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Staatskapelle.

These recordings range from the major Stravinsky ballet scores to dramatic poems and the lesser-known works from his neo-classical period. Everything here is played with exceptional clarity of texture, driven, yet not rushed tempos, and a keen understanding of Stravinsky's fearless experimentation from a composer known for his own avant-garde ideas.


Emerson String Quartet: The Complete Beethoven String Quartets.
This set leapt to the very top of the heap of Beethoven string quartet recordings when it was released in the late '90s. Here, it returns to the catalogue as part of DG's 'Collector's Edition' series, which helps music lovers save considerable amounts of shelf space.

The Emersons offer driving, muscular interpretations of the sixteen Beethoven quartets in glittering digital sound. Highlights of the cycle include a lyric trio of 'Razumovsky' Quartets, and a beautiful run-through of the famous 'Harp' Quartet.

The best part of the set is the Emersons' fearless exploration of the difficult final quartets. They offer both the 'Grosse Fugue' (originally written as the finale for Quartet No. 15) and the tamer 'alternate' movement, played with the same sence of precision and skill. By the time the last quartet is reached, the listener may finally understand why Beethoven scrawled "Muss es sein?...Es muss sein!" on the manuscript. If you figure it out, write in and tell us. We love mail.


Martha Argerich: The Collection 3: Chamber Music
This is the third installment in a series of box sets reissuing Martha Argerich's DG recordings. The first two focused on her solo recitals and recordings of the major piano concertos, and are also highly recommended.  The discs are repackagings of the original album releases, with the CDs coming in miniature replica LP jackets.

For those of you not familiar with Ms. Argerich's work, she is a brilliant, refreshing pianist whose fearless technique shot her to the top of the classical music world by the age of 21. In her maturity, she moved away from solo recitals, preferring to perform with other pianists or in small groups.

Here, the label says "chamber music" but a better title might be "Chamber works and music for two pianos." Of the six discs, the highlight is definitely a series of two-piano arrangements of works by Ravel, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. Most of these are performed in collaboration with Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev, and they offer an interesting angle on Ms. Argerich's piano skills. That they're gorgeous performances which kick major ass is also part of their appeal.


Vladimir Horowitz: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
Vladimir Horowitz is one of the most important pianists of the 20th century, a master of the instrument who specialized in Chopin and the knotty, cerebral music of Alexander Scriabin. These recordings were made in a fertile period of two years at the end of the great pianists' life, and preserves his final recital in Hamburg, as well as works by Schubert, Schumann and Mozart.

The major performance here is the Moscow Concert, which is also available separately. Vladimir Horowitz returned to his homeland in 1986 as part of a cultural exchange with the then Soviet Union. He performed a scintillating program ranging from the early keyboard compositions of Domenico Scarlatti to his standard Romantic repertoire of Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

This set was originally issued on just four discs, but this new version consists of seven seperate discs, each packaged in a replica of the original LP sleeve. (The content, however, is the same.) On the bright side, the label didn't jack the price of the music, which is priceless no matter how it's packaged.


Vladimir Horowitz playing Mozart in Moscow


Hugo Wolf: Lieder
If you're not conversant with German art-songs, the name Hugo Wolf may be entirely new to you. Wolf's music follows in the expression of Romantic ideals set forth by Wagner and Liszt, but with the musical ideas compressed into tight, powerful songs that say in five minutes what it takes Wagner six hours to express.

This brilliant collection is a welcome reissue from the vault, featuring the consumnate, intelligent interpretations by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The young Daniel Barenboim is an ideal accompanist--and would go on to become a great Wagner conductor in his own right.


Wolf's music isn't exactly Christmas-time listening. His songs are settings of dark, Romantic poetry, and the harmonic brilliance and chromaticism can take getting used to. But this is an essential set, folks, with the finest baritone for this music: a dramatic, intelligent singer who finds the soul in each one of these five-minute gems. 

Obituary: Peter Hofmann, 1944-2010

German heroic tenor Peter Hofmann died Tuesday in Bavaria. He was 66.
Peter Hofmann as Siegmund in Die Walküre.
The rugged, blond singer became a star in the 1970s and '80s, singing mainly the major roles in Wagner operas.

Peter Hofmann was born in Marienbad in 1944. He joined the German army and began singing rock music before taking voice lessons and learning he could sing opera. He made his operatic debut in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, singing the role of Tamino. Four years later, he sang Siegmund in the Patrice Chereau production of Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

His leonine mane of blond hair, imposing stage presence and powerful tenor voice made him a Bayreuth regular. In addition to Siegmund and Tristan, he sang the title roles in Lohengrin and Parsifal, starring in a controversial 1983 production designed by Götz Friedrich. He also sang Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1986, Mr. Hofmann sang Siegmund in the Metropolitan Opera in the company's new production of the Ring Cycle, a part he would reprise at the Met for the next three years. However, Mr. Hofmann never tackled the demanding role of Siegfried, long considered the toughest role in the Wagner repertory. When it came time to film and record the cycle, the role of Siegmund was sung by Gary Lakes.

After a disastrous 1989 performance at Bayreuth, Mr. Hofmann moved away from the operatic stage and went back to his pop roots, even recording an album of country music. He also had a successful run of 300 performances in the title role of a German-language production of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1994 and retired from the stage in 1999

His recorded legacy includes Die Walküre with Pierre Boulez, two recordings of Parsifal with James Levine and Herbert von Karajan conducting, and recordings of Lohengrin and Tristan. This last, which paired the singer with Hildegard Behrens as Isolde, was conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It is currently out of print.





Peter Hoffmann singing 'In Fernem Land' from Act III of Lohengrin

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Superconductor Holiday Gift Guide II: Complete Operas

I didn't know Santa played the piano? 
Oh wait, that's Brahms again.
This has been a pretty good year for opera reissues. Two series of note are the Glyndebourne reissues (presenting classic live recordings from the British summer opera festival) and the Sony Opera House series, which are mostly classic studio sets from Sony and EMI put out with minimal packaging at a bargain-basement price.


Here's five picks for the opera lover on your list. And just for fun, they're all live recordings.

Bellini: I Puritani: Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra cond. Vittorio Gui
The loss of Joan Sutherland earlier this year is tempered by the latest historic release from the Glyndebourne Festival. This high-quality performance of Puritani preserves the Australian soprano's 1960 debut in the role of Elvira, a part which became a cornerstone of her long career.

It also gives the listener a chance to hear Sutherland without her usual recording partner: conductor (and husband) Richard Bonynge. The performance is conducted by festival director Vittorio Gui, who lends rhythmic snap to the big moments in the score but allows the singers plenty of room to float sweet legato lines above the stave. The cast is filled out by unknown singers, but Sutherland's presence and incandescent performance makes this set a must-own for fans of bel canto.


Beethoven: Fidelio
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan
Recorded in 1962 from an Austrian Radio broadcast from the Vienna State Opera, this performance stayed in the vault until 2008. Herbert von Karajan was a perfectioninst who preferred his studio readings of operas to the excitement of a live recording. The Austrian maestro was picky about what recordings he allowed to be released, but the high quality of this performance belies his judgment.

This is Christa Ludwig's debut in the title role. She is surrounded by a dream cast including John Vickers (whom she recorded the opera with for Otto Klemperer), Walter Berry, Gundula Janowitz and Waldemar Kmennt. Also, this recording follows the old-fashioned practice of inserting the Leonore No. 3 overture in between the scenes of Act II. Under Karajan's direction, what was often a crummy theatrical trick becomes a highlight of the performance. This is the Vienna State Opera at its best, and the whole set sounds terrific--even the applause at the end of each act.


Rigoletto and La Traviata
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Riccardo Muti
These live recordings from La Scala were released at the end of the "complete opera" boom in the ear;y '90s. Here, they're back as super-budget sets, reissued as part of the Sony Opera House series. Rigoletto features Renato Bruson as the title character--his second recording of the title role. He is supported by Andrea Rost as Gilda and Roberto Alagna in good, early form as the philandering Duke.

Alagna is at center stage in this excellent Traviata, recorded in '92 at the big house in Milan. This is Alagna as the young, budding artist, before he married Angela Gheorgiu and started getting marketed as a successor to Luciano Pavarotti. In other words, he's in his prime. He has good chemistry with Tiziana Fabbricini in the title role. Riccardo Muti's no-nonsense approach to the score and the live setting lend wings to the whole recording. Not a first choice, but a very fine one.

Monteverdi: The Coronation of Poppea
Sadler Wells Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Raymond Leppard
This is another radio broadcast, this one from the BBC in 1971. Monteverdi's final opera dates from the 17th century, but its music sounds fresh, especially when conducted by Raymond Leppard, an expert in works from the Renaissance and baroque eras. Poppea is set amidst the decadence of the Roman Empire.

Poppea is a demanding opera. It has a complicated plot, a huge cast, and tremendous opportunities for gifted singers. Mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker is incandescent in the title role.  She is surrounded by a fine cast of Sadler's Wells singers, some of whom may be familiar to opera lovers who have checked out that opera company's superb English-language recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

This set is an ideal introduction to Monteverdi for the novice listener or the lover of baroque music looking to explore the very roots of opera. For the aficionado, it is the chance to hear Dame Janet in another fine period role, bringing out the depth in a complex work that is almost 500 years old.


Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus cond. Karl Böhm
If you don't have a Ring or if you have a budding Wagner nut in your immediate circles, snap up this recording made at Bayreuth in 1967. Böhm was a very experienced conductor who was an expert Wagnerian. He recorded this Ring (originally for the Philips label) using quick tempos and a light touch with the orchestra to bring out the excitement and drama built into the pages of the Ring. The Bayreuth orchestra and chorus is in top form. As it's a production by Wieland Wagner, there's a minimum of movement by the actors, and less stage noise than your average live set.

It helps that this cycle has the best reading of Die Walküre in the entire catalogue. Birgit Nilsson shines throughout as an indomitable Brunnhilde.James King and Leonie Rysanek are a superb pair of Walsung twins. (This is the set that includes Rysanek's orgasmic scream when King pulls out the sword--a must-hear moment.) The last two operas are dominated by Wolfgang Windgassen's Siegfried, a brilliantly sung, cogent performance that is even more exciting than his studio reading for Georg Solti. And at $55, this set costs half as much as the legendary Solti Ring.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Superconductor Holiday Gift Guide: Mega Box Sets

Johannes Brahms after Black Friday.
Instead of battering down the doors of the local emporium this year, Superconductor presents our guide to great bargains, box sets, and musical experiences to lend the glorious sound of good music to the holiday season.

Gosh, that sounded pompous. Let's try that again. Here's some holiday stocking-stuffers for the music fiend on your Christmas list. And if any of them get returned, let me know.

We start with the box sets.

Verdi: Great Operas From La Scala
This set has been mentioned on my page a few times. It makes a great gift for the lover of Italian opera in your life. You get recordings of most of the major Verdi operas.  The "big three" are here (Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata) alongside essential recordings of Macbeth, Don Carlo, Aida, and Un Ballo in Maschera and a good Verdi Requiem. Most of these recordings were made in the heyday of vinyl, and about half of them are conducted by Claudio Abbado, a fine Verdi conductor.

The real picks here are the Boccanegra with Mirella Freni, José Carreras and Piero Cappuccili as the Doge. This is one of the best Verdi recordings ever made. The Trovatore features Carlo Bergonzi singing his lungs out in the title role. 21 discs for about $40.

Bach: Sacred Masterpieces and Cantatas


John Eliot Gardiner is one of the most important conductors working in the field of 'period' instruments: playing classics on the original instruments used in the 17th and 18th centuries or facsimiles thereof. Here is a reissue of all of his Bach choral masterworks: both Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, the Mass in B Minor

There's also twelve discs worth of cantatas. These were recorded as part of a projected plan to record the entire cycle of Bach cantatas. That plan was aborted by the label when the conductor and his orchestra were unceremoniously dumped from DG Archiv as part of the great classical music purge around the turn of the century. However, the English Baroque Soloists, the Monteverdi Choir and their conductor  recorded a complete cycle of the cantatas on the Soli Deo Gloria label.

These are fine recordings with strong casts, wonderful ensemble playing and a sense of overall guidance from the podium. If you want to start listening to Bach's vocal music, this is a good place to start. 22 discs for $55.

The Complete Brahms Edition and Schumann: The Masterworks
Two big white cubes of 19th century romanticism from Deutsche Grammophon. The Brahms box is a reissue of a project that originally came out in the '90s. You get songs, symphonies, piano works and more in a vast sweep of the Universal Classics vault. The Schumann is more interesting, even if the works herein are more obscure. Good symphony recordings (John Eliot Gardiner in Romantic mode) piano music, songs, and best of all, the rare vocal works: Scenes from Goethe's Faust and Die Paradies und die Peri. Great stuff for less than $100 apiece.

Bernstein: The Symphony Edition
A whole load of Bernstein recordings made in conjunction with the New York Philharmonic back in the salad days when "Lehnutt" was music director of the Big Apple's biggest orchestra. The Sony Classical set includes complete cycles of symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn's "Paris" and "London" symphonies, Mahler Schumann, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and of course, Bernstein. But there's also modern music by Schuman, Shostakovich, and others. 60 discs for about $100 and they've all been remastered.

Karajan 100th: The Complete EMI Recordings:
Vol. 1: Symphony and Orchestral. Vol. 2: Opera and Vocal
This was actually released in 2008 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Herbert von Karajan, the Austrian-born conductor who was instrumental in bringing recorded music into the digital age. The EMI recordings are available in two box sets, of about 80 discs each. The trade-off: all the discs packed tightly into cardboard sleeves.

The sets include many classic HVK recordings: his Der Rosenkavalier with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the Pelleas et Melisande with Frederica von Stade, and a vast legacy of symphonic recordings from Mozart to the modern age. Best of all, these recordings date up to 1984, before Karajan's late-career decline and the "Karajan Gold" series. Each set is about $130 apiece, which comes out to $2 a disc. Your ears will thank you.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Don Carlo on Disc: An Audio-da-fé.

Maybe I just like it for the cover art.
Don Carlo (in French, Don Carlos) is Verdi's longest and darkest opera. It's also beset by textual questions. Sing it in French? Italian? English? Five acts? Four acts? Add the ballet? Cut the first scene? All these versions are available on CD in one form or another.

There's something about Don Carlo that appealed to label execs and maestri. (Could it be the smell of burning heretics?) Some conductors (Riccardo Muti) tried to turn a mis-casting into compact disc gold. Example: the disastrous La Scala recording on EMI starring an out-of-his-depth Luciano Pavarotti in the title role. Others (James Levine, Bernard Haitink) went with lesser singers, with mixed results.

Either way, there's a lot of Don Carlos on disc. The really good ones are sung in Italian, and are the five-act versions. Considering that a four-act Don Carlo will also fit on the same number of discs (three) we can quickly eliminate the sets by Muti and Herbert von Karajan.


Two in Italian


Royal Opera House of Covent Garden cond. Carlo Maria Giulini
Don Carlo: Placído Domingo
Elisabeth: Montserrat Caballe
Eboli: Shirley Verrett
Rodrigo: Sherrill Milnes
Philip: Ruggero Raimondi
The Grand Inquisitor: Giovanni Foiani

This is a pretty definitive recording of the five-act version with a great Verdi conductor who knows the opera back-to-front. Placído Domingo and Montserrat Caballe are appealing together in the first two acts. Milnes and Domingo are a great pair in the big duet scenes. The late Shirley Verrett rocks the "Song of the Veil" and "O Don Fatale." Raimondi is great casting as the King, and his duet with Giovanni Foiani is kick-ass.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Gabriele Santini
Don Carlo: Flaviano Labo
Elisabeth: Antonietta Stella
Eboli: Fiorenza Cossotto
Rodrigo: Ettore Bastianini
Philip: Boris Christoff
The Grand Inquisitor: Ivo Vinco


(The Solti recording is most people's choice for an alternate. But I don't like his Verdi. I like this one!)

This long-out-of-print DG recording has Boris Christoff as King Philip and great stereo sound. The choral singing is a little rough, as is the erstwhile Carlo of tenor Flaviano Labo, but this version of the five-act score has a raw edge and vitality that makes it an intriguing alternative to the Giulini. It's been reissued as part of a mammoth (and dirt cheap) DG box set: Verdi: Great Operas From La Scala. If you spot the old set in the original red slipcase with the cool album art, (see above) grab it. No, you can't have mine.

And one in French:
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Claudio Abbado
Don Carlos: Placído Domingo
Elisabeth: Katia Ricciarelli
Eboli: Luciana Valentini-Terrani
Rodrigue: Leo Nucci
Philip: Ruggero Raimondi
The Grand Inquisitor: Nicola Ghiaurov

On the plus side, it's in French. On the minus, this gigantic four-disker features an Italian conductor leading an Italian orchestra with a (mostly) Italian cast. Domingo sounds terrific, as do the duelling "all-star" bass pair of Raimondi and Ghiaurov. Ricciarelli and Valentini-Terrani act well, and their singing is just passable. But the reason to track this relic is for the fourth disc, which features an appendix of six scenes that are standard cuts. The famous "Woodcutters" opening is presented here, along with the gorgeous (if long) ballet music and the original ending featuring a chorus of shouting Inquisitors putting poor Carlos through the wringer.

This is NOT a first choice. But if you fall in love with this opera (and I did, back in 1995) this is an interesting, if not essenital set to listen to. Especially because you can load it into a computer and program your IPod to play the "cut" scenes in the correct order. The booklet even shows you where to insert them--something that was technologically impossible when this set was originally released--if you were willing to stay up all night programming your CD changer. Not that I ever did anything like that of course....*ahem*.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Opera Review: The Royal Scam

The Met's New Don Carlo.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

"What do you mean, you changed the ending?"
Ferruccio Furlanetto (left) and Simon Keenlyside in Don Carlo
Photo by Catherine Ashmore © 2009 Royal Opera House of Covent Garden
Nicholas Hytner's new production of Don Carlo finally arrived at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night. For the most part, this is a successful staging of Verdi's darkest opera. The cast mixes new faces and veteran singers to effectively recreate the world of 15th-century Spain under the boot of King Philip II.

Tenor Roberto Alagna started singing Don Carlo in the '90s, in a Luc Bondy production of the opera at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. This production was filmed, and a French-language recording was released on EMI. This begs the question: with Mr. Alagna and Simon Keenlyside in the cast, and a French-Canadian conductor in Yannick Nézet-Seguin, why not do the opera in its original French?

But no, it's in Italian. Mr. Alagna sounded shaky and forced in the Act I romanza "Io lo vidi." As things got worse for his character (rejected by the Queen, attacking his father, thrown in jail, and mortally wounded) his performance got steadily better throughout the night. He sounded more comfortable in the duets, especially the ones with Posa (Simon Keenlyside) in Act IV and Elisabeth (Marina Poplavskaya) in Act V. At his curtain call, the tenor leaned down and shook hands with the prompter, Jane Klaviter. A classy gesture.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Concert Review: Anne-Sophie Mutter Conducts Mozart

Anne-Sophie Mutter opened her tenure as New York Philharmonic Artist in Residence with a series of concerts contrasting the violin concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with the modern music of German composer Wolfgang Rihm.
Anne-Sophie Mutter. Photo by Harald Hoffmann © 2007 Deutsche Grammophon
Saturday night's concert at Avery Fisher Hall featured the German violinist in exceptional form, leading a stripped-down version of the Philharmonic with maybe 18 players on the stage. The program, designed by Ms. Mutter as part of her residency, aimed at bridging the gap between centuries, using the three Mozart concertos to provide a contrast and context for the piece by Wolfgang Rihm, which was played second. Oh and she conducted.

Leading three Mozart concertos 'from the fiddle', Ms. Mutter opened the concert with the first Violin Concerto. This is an early work, and while it has the brilliance of a young virtuoso player testing the limits of the instrument, it does not have the substance of fully developed Mozart. The highlight is the slow movement, which Ms. Mutter played with a warm, singing tone.


Lichtes Spiel is written for violin and a small, Mozart-sized orchestra. Wolfgang Rihm paints with a fine brush, establishing a wash of hushed strings and a texture of flutes and oboe for Ms. Mutter to solo over. Her violin is the sad, keening voice, a golden thread in this tapestry of sound. Eventually, the work rises to a powerful climax, before gradually dying away into silence.

The Third Violin Concerto shows Mozart writing light, graceful melodies. Ms. M utter played with uncommonly sweet tone through a thrilling series of solo instrumental passages, verging at times on operatic recitative. The second movement features one of Mozart's warmest, most operatic slow movements, played here with real tenderness.

The "Turkish" concerto was taken at a very fast speed, with Ms. Mutter leading the Philharmonic players in a brisk, efficient performance. Ms. Mutter contributed stylish playing, uncommonly sweet tone, and fleet bowing to this tricky concerto, written at the very peak of the composer's powers.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Parsifal: Conducted by Siegfried Wagner

Siegfried Wagner
One of the things I try to do on this blog is share interesting performances I run into on my little excursions on the Internet. This is a recording of an excerpt from Act III of Parsifal made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1927. The conductor is Siegfried Wagner, the composer's son.

Born in 1869, during the Wagners' "exile" in Triebschen, Siegfried Wagner grew up in Bayreuth. He was 7 when the Ring premiered. And he was just 14 when his father died, leaving his mother Cosima Wagner (née Von Bulow, née Liszt) in charge of the Bayreuth Festival. His mother ran the theater until 1908, when she decided she was too frail to continue. Young Siegfried was 39. He took it over and ran the Festspielhaus until 1930, when he died of a heart attack while working on a new production of Tannhäuser.

By all accounts, the junior Wagner was an excellent conductor. He also wrote eighteen operas on fairy-tale themes. Some of these have been recorded and are available on CD from the Marco Polo label, which specializes in reviving obscure German repertory.

Richard Wagner made his reputation as a conductor before hitting it big with his operas. However, he was not known for conducting at the Festspielhaus, which opened in 1876 with a team of super conductors: Hans von Bulow, Hermann Levi and Hans Richter, sharing podium duties.

Apparently, Richard Wagner himself took the podium to conduct Act III of Parsifal at the last Festival performance in 1883, the same year he died. Of course there's no recording, but witness commented on the extremely slow tempos and the majesty of the reading.

As Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner and their various descendants and relatives were not known as conductors, there are no recordings of them either--and certainly none made at the Festspielhaus. So here it is. The Good Friday scene from Act III of Parsifal, conducted by an honest-to-goodness member of the Wagner family.


And in a lighter moment.

This is probably a wax recording, as it doesn't have the "scratch" noises associated with cylinder rolls. It was possibly made at a rehearsal as there's no banging from the stage or coughing from the audience.

Then again, there's very little movement in this scene. Gurnemanz stands there and sings, Parsifal sits on a rock and looks holy, and Kundry, who is onstage the whole time but doesn't have any music to sing, mostly spends her time washing Parsifal's bare feet.

The mono sound is a little thin in spots but the master tape has cleaned up nicely (probably a CEDAR treatment) to bring out the slow tempo and clarity of texture--characteristics that have been used by other writers to describe Richard Wagner's interpretation of the same music.

The cast, which features legendary bass Alexander Kipnis as Gurnemanz and Fritz Wolff as Parsifal, sing with exceptional clarity and beauty, and the whole performance has an uplifting, shimmering quality which is present in the best recordings of Wagner's final opera.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ten Reasons Why The Metropolitan Opera Needs a New Ring

So I got a message from a reader today:
James Morris as Wotan in Die Walküre. Photo by Johan Elbers © 2005 The Metropolitan Opera
"I want to know why they (meaning the Metropolitan Opera) re-staged the Ring. The Met was the only opera house in the world that had a staging that was as Wagner wrote it. People from all over the world came to see it and it was always sold out!! So, Why? I would really like your opinion."

And that sounds like a great excuse for a post about Wagner.

So here are some reasons why the Metropolitan Opera has decided to mount a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Ten reasons, in fact.

1) The Question of "Authenticity": To start with, the production in question, designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and directed by Otto Schenk, was in no way "as Wagner wrote it." It was pretty close, but certain visual elements (and livestock) were eliminated. Herr Schenk created an innovative staging that used available 1980s technology to approximate what Wagner put in his librettos. But it was in no way the same as the first staging of the full Ring in 1876.
Set design for Act III of Die Walküre in the new Met stage.
Design by Carl Fillion, courtesy Metropolitan Opera Technical Department.
©2010 Metropolitan Opera Guild/Metropolitan Opera.
Following Wagner's death in 1883, Cosima Wagner maintained her husband's productions of the Ring and Parsifal until the sets practically fell apart. It wasn't until the 1900s, when her son Siegfried Wagner took over the management of Bayreuth, that new productions were allowed. And those were all based on the old ones. Authentic theatrical innovation did not come to Bayreuth until 1951, following the fall of the Nazis and the re-opening of the Festspielhaus under Wieland Wagner and his brother Wolfgang. And even their ideas ossified and were replaced, leading to the Bayreuth policy of new productions of the Ring every eight years.

2) Shelf Life: The Bayreuth Festival stages a new Ring every eight seasons, running a production for seven years and then taking a year off from the Ring before mounting a new one. Since the Met Ring's lifetime (counting the point from when the staging was first planned in the early '80s), Bayreuth has seen new Rings from Patrice Chereau, Sir Peter Hall, Harry Kupfer, Alfred Kirchner, and others while the Met has been duct-taping their show back together every few years or so.


By way of comparison, the Schenk Ring was on the boards of the Metropolitan Opera house for 22 years. (Die Walküre premiered in 1986, and the final performance of Götterdämmerung was in 2008.)

3) Boredom: Audiences, believe it or not, who live in New York, get tired of seeing the same show over and over. I saw the Schenk Ring in 1993 (in part), 1997, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Every time, the lighting was different. The cast was different. And the show got either better, or worse. The best I saw was that last cycle in May of 2008. While the last Ring I went to in 2008 had great singing, the show itself was getting tired.

4) Administration: The Met has a new general manager in Peter Gelb. He's still the new guy, and putting a new Ring on is part of him doing his job and making sure the Met remains a living, breathing, theatrical institution and not some dusty museum that caters to the tourist trade. And by the way, the Met's biggest money-maker is the Zeffirelli La bohéme, which has been running for 30 years as of this season.

5) Media: The old production has already been recorded and filmed with a cast of singers that are now either retired from the stage (Siegfried Jerusalem) or on the verge of calling it a career (James Morris, Jessye Norman.) It's exciting to have a fresh-voiced cast of new talent on the Met stage. They deserve a new production. And when Ben Heppner sings in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (planned for 2011 and 2012) opposite Deborah Voigt, I think that the results will be worth the wait.
The "Magic Fire" scene from Bayreuth, in the 1988 Harry Kupfer production of Die Walküre.
6) Storage and Wear: Sets have to be repaired. Props and costumes break, get lost, or decay. They have to be stored. Lights and visual effects (gels, gobos, magic fire machines) wear out and have to be replaced. Costume restoration and storage of the massive sets (all those mountains and valleys and castles and stuff, not to mention the two dragons) required expenditure on the Met's already tight budget. A new Ring, with the unit set, makes financial sense even if the Met had to pay to reinforce the left side stage in order to store the heavy set.


7) Money: Opera houses in America are not funded with government handouts, unlike in Europe. They rely on private and corporate donors in order to stay solvent. That is, open. It's more attractive to ask those donors to donate to a new staging (one that they can make their "own") then to ask donors and corporate sponsors to spend on the upkeep of the old one.

8) The Director: Robert LePage has fresh, innovative ideas about the Ring, that are actually conventional at heart and close to Wagner's own. And he's making a new Ring using modern technology to tell the same story Wagner did. He's doing the same thing as Otto Schenk. But using lights and projections instead of papier-mâché and fake rocks.

9) The Composer: Wagner himself would have been excited about the new production. After all, the old Meister once said: "Children! Go do something new!" Not that they listened.

10) Time: It's a new century, a new millennium and New York deserves a new Ring. I can't wait for Walküre.




Hagen's Watch, from the Otto Schenk production of Götterdämmerung.

Dearly Departed Dexter: Don Carlo Remembered

The next opera review coming to this blog (which will probably be written next Tuesday morning, is of the new Nicholas Hytner production of Don Carlo, which bows at the Met on Monday night at 7pm. But before that prima, I feel obligated to RANT say a few words of praise for the previous staging.
Act III of the John Dexter Don Carlo at the Met.
Photo from OperaChic.
The Met's previous Don Carlo was directed by John Dexter, and dates from an era before lavish Franco Zeffirelli stagings were the order of the day at the big house on 64th St. Dominated by a huge, black show curtain depicting the royal crest of King Philip II, Dexter's vision of Spain was of a series of increasingly bleak landscapes: the frozen forest of Fontainebleau in France, the tomb of King Charles V, and the King's private chambers in the Escorial. This Carlo felt like a feverish, five-hour nightmare, with powerful visuals and traditional costumes that actually made the characters look like Spanish nobles. And it was detailed with little historical accuracies, right down to a cute little eyepatch for the Princess Eboli.

The only break in all this darkness came in the second scene of Act II. The auto da fé (where King Philip celebrates his authority by having few sinners burned alive by the Inquisition) took place under blue skies and blood-red banners blowing in the breeze. The bright sound of the chorus, singing in celebration as the pyres were lit, underlined the chilling authority of the Catholic church, a central message of Verdi's darkest opera.

Don Carlo is a long opera--Verdi's longest, in fact. Written as a French grand opera, it's five acts with a ballet and a complete recording of the score clocks in at five hours. Most opera houses slash the whole first act, moving the tenor's big number up to Act II and presenting a four-act torso. But the Dexter/Met staging restored the entire first act, putting the tenor arioso "Io lo vidi" in its proper dramatic context.
Act III of the Hytner Don Carlo as staged at Covent Garden.
Photo from MostlyOpera.
Music director James Levine even insisted on adding a standard cut: the first scene of the opera featuring a group of woodcutters freezing in the forest. his made the whole evening clocked in at four hours and 35 minutes, but the results were worth it.

Now, a bunch of woodcutters may not sound like much. Truth is, they have little to do with the rest of the opera. Verdi himself (citing reasons of length) cut the scene before the opera's Paris premiere. But seeing the opera with the woodcutters scene restored, the bizarre choice made by Isabella (to marry Philip even though she is in love with Don Carlo, his son) makes dramatic sense. The people are freezing and starving, and she has to put her country ahead of her personal life.

Don't get me wrong. I'm looking forward to seeing this production on Monday night. And I might go more than once if it proves itself to be worthy. But I'll miss that old Don Carlo and I'm sorry to see this classic production retired and replaced.

Besides, I've heard that the new staging cuts out the woodcutters.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Opera Review: Lust for Life

Poppaea Sabina, Empress of Rome
L'incoronazione de Poppea at Juilliard.
L'incoronazione de Poppea is Claudio Monteverdi's final opera. He died less than a year after its Venice premiere in 1643. On Thursday night, Juilliard's sexually charged new production showed that the first master of opera laid the groundwork for everything that followed.

Looking for sensuous arias that prefigure bel canto? They're here. Plot twists, assassination attempts, cross-dressing? Poppea has all those things. The first opera to eschew mythology for historical events, Poppea is the story of the Roman Emperor Nero and his attempts to upgrade his marriage. His intent: to replace his loving wife Ottavia with Poppea, ancient Rome's answer to Amy Fisher.

The student cast met the opera's decadence with a lush performance that caressed the ears for three hours. Korean soprano Haeran Hong made the most of Poppea, singing the high-lying music with a clear, sparkling instrument. She was ably matched with Cecilia Hall, in trousers and splendid mezzo voice as Nerone. In this opera, rampant lust leads to gorgeous duets. The Act II love scene where Poppea shaved Nero with a straight razor (while they're singing) explored the twisted depths of their relationship and produced the loveliest melodies of the evening.

Poppea has a complex cast of Roman politicians, mistresses, gigolos, would-be assassins, and even gods. As Ottavia, Naomi O'Connell has a bright, diamond-hard soprano which reflected her tenuous state in Nero's court. Nick Zammit's handsome countertenor suited the hapless Ottone, who gets suckered into the assassination plot. Devon Guthrie sang with warmth and lyric power as Drusilla, whose attempt to take the fall for the cross-dressing Ottone nearly lands her in Nero's torture chamber.

Liam Moran made a fine impression as Seneca, the philosopher and Roman senator who is rewarded for his hard work tutoring Nero with a death sentence. This might be the first serious role for a bass in the operatic repertory, and Mr. Moran hit some splendid low notes in his death scene. At the other end of the spectrum, tenor Daniel Curran nearly stole the evening as Poppea's female attendant Arnalta. He sang the role in full drag (a la Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie) and provided much-needed comic relief amidst all the backstabbing.

This production has opted for Roman columns, cafe tables and modern dress for its leads. The gods leap on and offstage, interfering with the already complex lives of the mortals. The modern dress makes the drama seem more relevant, and allows the cast to make the most of the gender-bending nature of casting Monteverdi in an age where there are no longer castrati.

Harry Bickett led the Juilliard415 Musicians. Conducting from the harpsichord, he lead a crisp, tight performance that made this opera's long running time fly by for the listener as the plot unfolded. This is one of the essential period-music performances of the fall season, and a chance to see one of the most brilliant, original operas ever written. Monteverdi was a genius. And with Poppea, he set the bar for everything that followed.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Healing Power of Beethoven: The Fourth of The Fifth

This afternoon, around 1:30pm, my girlfriend and I are in our 1999 Honda Civic ("Archie") often seen parked in the Lincoln Center Garage, getting to know the other Hondas, civic and otherwise. (He's a bit of a ladies' man, our Archie.)
Ludwig van Beethoven and some other people
Anyway, there we are driving down Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn when I flip the radio over to WQXR, and catch the last two movements of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, as played by Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.


This is proves to be a well-balanced, invigorating performance of one of my favorite Beethoven works, with exceptionally clear orchestral textures and a conductor with original, yet sensible ideas about tempos. It almost sounds like a period recording, but not quite at egg-timer speed.

The most thrilling moment comes at the start of the fourth movement of the Fifth. Having played the dour little march on flutes and pizzicato strings strings, the orchestra seems to take in a deep breath and expel it in a series of radiant notes for trumpets and horns. They are answered by a surging theme played by the horns with the violins in full flight right behind. But don't take my words for granted. Here's a clip:



It is one of the most unique moments in Beethoven, as the angst and worry is banished, replaced by a triumphant, and very human statement. In fact, it points the way forward for the Ninth, and that great finale that also begins with a blast of sound on the way to a blaze of sunlight.

On a grey, rainy day in Brooklyn, with tasks to perform, errands to run and no time until just now to write Superconductor, Beethoven was truly the best medicine. We stayed in the car (OK, I kind of begged) and left the radio on so we could listen to all of that starry final movement, and we had strength to go on with the labors of our day.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Debussy on the Beach

Cover of the original score of La Mer.
Thanks to the power of Google, I just found some YouTube footage of my favorite recording of Claude-Achille Debussy's La Mer.

This is a gorgeous cycle of what the composer called Symphonic Sketches, depicting the ocean in various stages of wind, rain, play, and sunlight. The footage is of the San Francisco Bay Area. The band is the Cleveland Orchestra, under the expert direction of Pierre Boulez.

La Mer premiered in 1905 in Paris. Although it was not well-received at the first performance, the cycle of tone poems eventually became one of Debussy's most popular showpieces. It is notable for the constant, shifting textures in the strings and wind, and the bright surge of brass and timpani that calls out the climax of the first movement.

So here's the three movements:






Part I: From Dawn til Noon on the Sea







Part II: Dance of the Waves






Part III: Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea


This 1995 recording won a whole mess of awards in a period when Pierre Boulez was starting to re-make a lot of his great recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. The Cleveland Orchestra are in excellent form here, and they respond well to Maestro Boulez' leadership.

For some reason, Debussy's impressionistic music always sounds right to me when conducted by Boulez--his precise style and crisp inflections sharpen the aural edges of each work, making the music clearer and to my ears, more enjoyable.

The disc also includes an ethereal reading of Nocturnes (sort of a sequel to La Mer) and a performance of the complex ballet score Jeux. I've had it in my collection (in one form or another) since my grad school days, and I can't recommend it strongly enough.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Concert Review: Philharmonic's Elijah Turns a Prophet

Gerald Finley
The New York Philharmonic made a triumphant return to Avery Fisher Hall this week with Mendelssohn's Elijah. This powerful Old Testament oratorio from the pen of Felix Mendelssohn has been a Philharmonic specialty since 1952, when Dmitri Mitropoulos brought the work to Carnegie Hall.

Mendelssohn presents Elijah's story as a series of operatic confrontations: as the prophet battles King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and in the scene on Mount Horeb, he confronts God and his own faith.

Throughout, the composer displays his command of harmony and invention, from the complex choral passages to the soaring arias, to the final ascent of Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind, an orchestral effect generated by the Philharmonic strings.

Gerald Finley sang the title role. The Canadian baritone renewed a creative partnership with Mr. Gilbert that started with the opera Doctor Atomic. Mr. Finley is a Canadian baritone with an impressive, resonant instrument. He is a capable actor, and his Elijah became a three-dimensional character, contrasting rock-solid faith in the first half with the spiritual crisis of the second.


The New York Choral Artists, under the leadership of Joseph Flummerfelt, sang the key choral passages of the work with power and warmth. Soprano Twyla Robinson sang most of the angelic voices in the score, with a pleasing voice that rose to celestial heights. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was particularly fierce in the role of Jezebel. Tenor Allan Clayton split duties between the roles of Ahab and Obadiah, singing with a high, lyric voice.

Elijah has been part of the Philharmonic's repertory for almost six decades, and enjoyed a revival in 1997 under the baton of Kurt Masur. Mr. Gilbert's performance on the podium was subtle and flexible. He colored in Mendelssohn's detailed orchestration and coordinating the oratorio's complex moments with a wrist-flick of his baton.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Concert Review: Vivaldi Through a Modern Glass

Robert McDuffie
Photo by Christian Steiner
On Wednesday night, violinist Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra brought their current tour to Carnegie Hall. The program explores the connection between Vivaldi's Four Seasons, arguably the most famous set of violin concertos ever written, and the Violin Concerto No. 2, a new work by minimalist Philip Glass.

The Four Seasons had an energetic, rustic style, choosing a very fast tempo and playing through his cadenza passages with precise, rapid-fire delivery. "Summer" featured slower, more languid melodies and an impressive thunderstorm from the cellists. The familar "Autumn"was graceful and more elegant, with the small orchestra providing able accompaniment. "Winter," which has the toughest rhythmic passages and some of the most difficult cadenzas in Vivaldi's work, provided a fitting climax to the cycle.


This new concerto, subtitled The American Four Seasons is an unusual Philip Glass composition. The shortened forms allow the New York based composer to experiment with neo-classical textures, shot through with echoes of Vivaldi's own style.

Driving, repeated notes (a hallmark of this composer's style) keep the engine moving and form a strong foundation for the soloist. The result is a series of concise movements with welcome pauses in between. Unlike Vivaldi's works, Glass chooses to let the listener figure out which season belongs to which concerto. (This writer guesses: 1) Winter, 2) Spring, 3) Summer, 4) Fall.)

Glass alternates the movements for orchestra with a series of soliloquoy passages for the violin, instead of the more conventional cadenzas. Mr. McDuffie played the articulated phrases with skill and fire, drawing beautiful sounds from his vintage instrument. As the movements played and the months passed, the orchestra built up momentum. In the final pages, the violinist led the band through racing glissando chords and swift, descending arpeggios, to thrilling effect.

Mr. McDuffie played the solo violin parts standing up, which is not unusual. However, the violinists and violists in his ensemble played standing up as well, which changed the balance of the sound somewhat and allowed more eye-contact interaction between the soloist and his fellow string players. (The lower strings, keyboard, and theorbo remained seated.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Obituary: Henryk Górecki, 1933-2010

Henryk Górecki
The Polish composer Henryk Górecki, whose contemplative, minimalist music made him one of the surprise success stories of the late 20th century, has died, as reported by the Associated Press. He was 76.

He died in the cardiology ward of a hospital in his home city of Kawotice. The composer had been in poor health for most of 2010, which had forced a London orchestra to cancel plans to premiere his recently completed Symphony No. 4.

Górecki was one of the most successful members of a group of Polish composers that emerged in that country in the years following the Second World War. He was originally an experimental modernist, exploring atonal and serialist ideas in a manner similar to his compatriot Krzyztof Penderecki. However, Górecki changed direction in the early 1970s, adding minimalist and religious elements to his music. It would prove to be a winning formula.


The Symphony No. 3 (subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) was written in 1976, and received its premiere in 1977. It consists of three slow movements, sung throughout by a solo soprano. The texts are drawn from songs and serve as an elegy for those killed during the Holocaust. The work was savaged by critics at its premiere, and lapsed into obscurity until a French television program used one of its movements as a soundtrack.

In 1979, the composer received a commission from Karol Wojtlya, the Archibishop of Warsaw who would go on to become Pope John Paul II. That work became Beatus vir, a psalm for baritone and orchestra which commemorated the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus, the bishop of Krakow.

In 1992, the Symphony No. 3 was recorded by the London Sinfionetta under the conductor David Zinman, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw. The CD became a runaway hit, selling over a million copies in the last two decades. This is an almost unheard-of level of success for any classical recording, let alone one of a work written after 1950. The recording has been referred to as a phenomenon of the CD boom of the 1990s, and continues to remain popular.

Henryk Górecki was born on Dec. 6 1933 in Czernica, a village in Silesia, a region of southern Poland that is also home to the German conductor Kurt Masur. He is survived by his wife Jadwiga, a piano teacher. His daughter, Anna Górecka-Stanczyk is a pianist and his son, Mikolaj is a composer.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Opera Review: Swing Time: The Met does Così

Nathan Gunn and Isabel Leonard share an intimate moment in Così fan tutte
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2010 Metropolitan Opera
Written in 1790, Così fan tutte is the third, and most troublesome child from the creative marriage of Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. The story of two soldiers who decide to test the fidelity of their fiancées in order to win a bar bet is not great comic material. The opera's strength is in the emotional performance of its leads, as they go through the "school for lovers" and come out transformed at the work's end. In fact, Così struggled for a century to find its place in the repertory, but with a cast of fine singers, it grows wings and uplifts its audience.

As Ferrando, Pavol Breslik displayed a lyric tenor with a sweet delivery and the ability to float his high notes. Nathan Gunn is a characterful, intelligent baritone and a Mozart regular at the Met. As Gugliemo, one of those rich baritone parts that Mozart wrote so well, Mr. Gunn displayed a wide range of emotions, from amorous seducer to jealous boyfriend as the plot developed. In the key role of Don Alfonso, William Shimell sang with a smallish baritone, commenting philisophically on the events that his wager set in motion. All three men blended well together in their Act I scenes together, and are good comedians.


As their lovers (and targets) Miah Persson made the strongest impression in the role of Fiordiligi. This is the character in the opera whose presence owes to most the the opera seria tradition. She puts up real resistance to Ferrando, producing melting tone and dramatic depth to the key moment when she succumbs to his charms. As her sister Dorabella, mezzo Isabel Leonard has a pleasing instrument. Her Act II duet with Mr. Gunn had warmth and charm, and she was a perfect match for Ms. Persson in the many unision lines sung by the sisters in the first act.

Ever since this production opened in 1996, (making a household name out of Cecilia Bartoli) Cosí at the Met has been anchored by Despina, the sisters' maid. Here, the role was taken by Australian mezzo-soprano Danielle die Niesi. The role of Despina requires more than just pretty singing: it is a bustling comic part with multiple costume chages and much slapstick humor. Ms. die Niesi made the most of the role's comic opportunities, working with and against her employers to maneuver them into romantic misunderstanding.

William Christie made his house debut on the podium. Taking the opera's overture at a brisk pace, Mr. Christie led a rapid-fire performance of the Mozart comedy, allowing the winds and brass to blend with the six voices onstage and drawing transparent textures from the orchestra. His performance made the cavernous theater seem like a much smaller venue, one more appropriate to this intimate comic masterpiece.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Opera Review: Carmen's Latest Flame

Elīna Garanča as Carmen. Photo © 2010 Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The presence of Elīna Garanča in the title role of the Met's new Carmen is one of the major reasons for its success. On Monday night, the latest tenor to fall victim to the wiles of the  Latvian mezzo-soprano was Brandon Jovanovich, who makes his Met debut in this run of performances as Don José.

Ms. Garanca has been roundly criticized for taking a 'cool' or 'cerebral' approach to the role of Bizet's hot-blooded Gypsy temptress. However, Monday night's performance had punch, power and passion, with electric undertones accenting the Habañera and Séguedille. She has a pleasing, agile voice, capable of powering through and adding to an ensemble, while dropping down to the lower ranges needed for the later acts of the opera. The highlight of her performance was the Card Song, sung with intelligence and resonant low notes from the chest.

The arc of Don José's descent--from ordinary soldier, to romantic bandit, to madman was expertly played by Mr. Jovanovich. His performance jelled in Act II, when he sang the Flower Song, that K2 of French tenor repertory. He was sure-footed throughout the shifting tonalities and textures that illuminate the diseased landscape of the character's mind. His Don José was a good soldier who went a little nuts in prison, only to have his attraction for Carmen flower (pun intended) into full-on obsession. In Act III and IV, as the obsession turns violent and abusive, Mr. Jovanovich's performance only got better. He made the final murder seem matter-of-fact, which is precisely what made it so chilling.


It is always interesting to hear a full bass as Escamillo. John Relyea had some rocky moments in the first part of the Toreador Song but settled in nicely at the first chorus. Mr. Relyea, who has branched into French repertory after singing many buffo parts at the Met, gave a dark, manly performance as the vain bullfighter. His Act III scene with Don José--made all the more convincing by a well-choreographed knife fight, was the best part of his performance.

Nicole Cabell has a pleasing, if smallish soprano. She gave a gutsy performance as Micaëla, José's long-suffering girlfriend. The Act I "Letter Duet" found her voice melding harmoniously with Mr. Jovanovich's. In Act III, with the aria "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" nearly stole the opera from her dark-eyed rival..

This run of Carmen features a conductor new to the Met, English National Opera music director Edward Gardner. His rhythms were not quite as crisp as one might desire, but he found the deep textures within Bizet's orchestrations and kept the opera moving at a lively clip. The Met Orchestra played with its usual panache and the chorus, always important in this most public of operas, were in top form.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Opera Review: Strong Singers Make Noise in A Quiet Place

The first New York City Opera production of Leonard Bernstein's final opera A Quiet Place features strong performances in a deeply problematic work.
Ghost busting: Patricia Risley haunts Louis Otey in A Quiet Place
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2010 New York City Opera
This three-act opera originated as a sequel to Bernstein's  1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, a one-act drama depicting the life of a typical American family. A Quiet Place checks in on the same family three decades later, following the death of Dinah, its matriarch, in a car crash.

The family consists of the widowed Sam, (Louis Otey) his troubled kids Junior (Joshua Hopkins) and Dede, (Sara Jakublak) and Dede's French-Canadian husband François, (Dominic Armstrong) who happens to be Junior's lover and caretaker. The libretto, written by Stephen Wadsworth, also incorporates much of the Tahiti material in the second act. All this makes for a heavy, sometimes turgid story. The two  flashbacks contribute to the opera's general incoherence.


Sara Jakubiak has a high-lying soprano, and her "Good Morning" monologue at the start of Act III was a show highlight. Patricia Risley shines in the Tahiti act, where she has some wonderful vintage Bernstein music to sing. Otherwise, she spends most of the outer acts prowling the stage as a ghost in high heels and slacks. Mention must also be made of mezzo Victoria Livengood in the smaller role of Mrs. Doc. Her angry drunk act is the best thing about the funeral that opens this opera.

City Opera mainstay Louis Otey is right for the role of Sam, bringing neurosis and paternal comfort in equal parts. But it is Joshua Hopkins, as the OCD-afflicted son Junior, who steals the show. Although his couch-jumping psychotic freakout in the second act recalls Tom Cruise, this is otherwise an intelligent performance by a fine singing actor.

Bernstein is still Bernstein, and he makes an heroic effort to salvage his subject matter. Once past the opening "car crash" chords, the opera provides surprisingly smooth sailing, all the way to the Tahiti material. At that point, the younger, brash Lenny take over the writing duties, with a couple of great arias and "Island Magic", a funny Broadway pastiche that takes gratuitous shots at South Pacific. The final act (when the family's conflicts are resolved in a glowering, then glowing ensemble) is among his finest writing for the stage.

A final note on the sensible production design by Christopher Alden, who did last year's Don Giovanni at City Opera, also set in a funeral home. It would be wonderful to see this talented designer work on a piece that does not involve funeral homes or coffins. Unless of course the company is planning to put the HBO series Six Feet Under on stage for next year?

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Translate

Superconductor's Greatest Hits

Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

My Photo

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.