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Monday, January 31, 2011

The Superconductor Top Ten: A Schubertiade

Franz Schubert. Portrait by Wilhelm August Rieder 
Today marks the 214th birthday of Franz Peter Schubert, songwriter, symphonist, and composer par excellence. So to celebrate, here's a list of ten really good pieces by this brilliant composer, who died at the age of 31. No particular order.

1) Symphony in B Minor ("Unfinished")
From its tremolo opening to the noble theme, sung forth in the cellos, this two-movement torso features everything that makes a Schubert work great: powerful, innovative use of modulation, and above all melodies that at first soothe and ultimately end on a disquieting, unfinished note. Schubert sketched a third movement, and may have planned a fourth, but the Unfinished stands as a masterpiece.


2) Der Doppelganger
Many of Schubert's best songs are horror stories in miniature. Schubert's second-to-last lied explores psychological horror: the idea of having to confront your own duplicate--and your own madness.

3) Erlkönig
With its difficult, galloping piano part, this song about a father trying to save his child from a demonic figure (the "Erl King") is one of Schubert's most popular Lieder. The singer has to play four parts: the narrator, father the terrified child, and the wheedling, seductive Erl King. All this in four minutes.

4) Der Wanderer
This soul-searching ballad is one of the most famous Schubert songs, from its introspective opening recitative, to the introduction of a lilting, almost gleeful 6/8 figure in the second half that brings the work to a climax. It also served as the launch-point for the later "Wanderer Fantasy", one of the composer's famous piano works.


5) String Quartet No. 12: Quartettsatz
Schubert spent much of his brief career pushing the boundaries of form in chamber music. (Often he would do so by simply not finishing works.) This is the first movement from the never-completed String Quartet No. 12. It stands on its own, especially with its warm, harmonized second subject. Premiered after the composer's death.

6) String Quintet in C Major D. 956
The best "gateway" to the music of Schubert is this exquisite, melancholy quintet that (unusually) replaces the traditional second viola with a second 'cello--allowing the two low instruments to interweave and comment on each other's basslines as the violins duel in the upper register. Genius.

7) Der Winterreise
The most famous song cycle ever written. The hero, rejected by his lover, begins a trek into white oblivion, slowly going mad in the freezing dead of winter over the course of 24 songs. Winterreise broke fresh ground when it premiered, and its narrative never fails to chill one to the marrow.

8) Piano Sonata No. 6 in E Minor
Like many Schubert works, this piano sonata shifts moods as it develops. An up-tempo opening gives way to the suffering brooding beneath the surface. Schubert wrote 21 sonatas. His work does not have storm and fire of Beethoven or the dazzling virtuososity of Liszt. But it has endured through the emotional, melodic nature of the music which speaks to listeners 200 years later.


9) Nachtgesang im Walde
Written for four horns and a male chorus, this short part-song is one of Schubert's fine examples of secular choral writing. The opening evokes the mystery of the woods at night, and the later pages shift to celebratory hunting music. The combination of chorus, nature images and mysterious minor chords points the way forward to Mahler.

10) Impromptu No. 2 in E Flat
This work opens rolling wave of arpeggiated notes displays Schubert the consumnate pianist. It requires fluid legato playing and a dexterous technique. Once the main theme arrives, the swift passage becomes expert accompaniment to the noble main theme. Played by the right pianist, the effect of this demanding piece is breathtaking.

Opera Review: Weekend at Bérénice

The only extant photograph of composer Albéric Magnard.
On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented the U.S. premiere of Bérénice, the final opera by nearly forgotten French Romantic composer Albéric Magnard. The concert performance was conducted by ASO director Leon Botstein.

Magnard was part of the post-Wagnerian movement in early 20th century France. He wrote in a sweeping, chromatic idiom and used a system of carefully developed leitmotifs. Like his countryman Ernest Chausson, Magnard's music is of the hothouse variety, a feverish brand of late Romanticism that sweeps over the listener with lush strings and noble brass. Bérénice, a re-working of a play by Racine is his third opera. Magnard was killed in 1914, defending his country home from invading German troops in the early days of World War One.


Bérénice (Michaela Martens) is the Queen of Judea. Her country is sacked by Titus (Brian Mulligan) the heir to the Roman Empire and son of the Emperor Vespasian. The story tells of the collapse of their love affair, caused by Titus' elevation to the position of Emperor. Eventually, she ditches him and Rome, and cuts off her hair in a self-sacrificing gesture as her ship sails back to Judea.

Unusually, this opera has no major parts for tenors or sopranos. Michaela Martens made a strong impression as Bérénice, despite being onstage for three hours and having to do battle with Magnard's weighty orchestration. The mezzo made an admirable effort, delivering a fine dramatic performance and conserving her energies for the peroration that ends the opera. As Titus, Brian Mulligan sang with a warm, powerful baritone in idiomatic French. The Emperor is a difficult role with a high tessitura, and the singer was clearly flagging in the final duet.

As Mucien, the Emperor's retainer, bass Gregory Reinhart showed a powerful, stentorian instrument, dark and sturdy.  Mezzo Margaret Lattimore reached down to the depths of her instrument for the role of Lia, Bérénice's lady-in-waiting. The Collegiate Chorale contributed strong choral support, but one wishes that Magnard had written more for his grand vision than a few short, supporting choruses.

It is a pity that these four fine performances were heard in an opera that is dramatically inert. Bérénice is a kind of Tristan in reverse, with the lovers engaged and passionate at the beginning. As the work develops, the Emperor and his would-be bride are driven apart by politics and their own choices. Unusually for a tragic opera, Bérénice and Titus survive the evening--a possible factor in the work's lack of popularity.

What really sinks Bérénice is Magnard's libretto. (He's no Wagner.) Crudely written, unintentionally hilarious dialogue ("Your logic is as sharp as a broadsword") contributes to leaden pacing, with each act culminating in a lengthy duet. Very little happens in three hours. Leon Botstein did his best with the American Symphony Orchestra forces. That said, the enterprising maestro might want to admit an unwelcome truth: some operas deserve their obscurity.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Opera Review: Thoroughly Modern Mosheh

Go down, Mosheh. Photo by Adi Shniderman
The Israeli composer Yoav Gal's new video opera ("videOpera" in the program book) Mosheh premiered at HERE this week. Saturday night's performance was powerful and effective, although the opera's musical strengths outweigh its libretto, which is in Hebrew with projected titles.

Like any composer confronted with the Book of Exodus, Mr. Gal was forced to solve the problem of Moses' speech impediment. His solution: have the role of the prophet acted and danced, but mute. The muscled, shirtless Nathan Guisinger played the role, curling in fetal position to depict the infant Moses at the river-bank, majestically leading his people with staff in hand in the final scene.

With a mute central character, Mr. Gal's work relies on the women in Moses' life to provide narrative and dramatic flow. Luckily, this production has a quartet of impressive female leads: Beth-Anne Hatton, Judith Barnes, Hai-Ting Chinn and Heather Green. The women anchor and nurture the prophet as he develops into maturity, staging his finding by the river-bank, his circumcision, and his receiving of the word of God.

Musically, Mr. Gal's opera uses a nine-piece band, with saxophones, vibraphone and strings to create a hypnotic background for the singers to work against. They respond with strong performances, although several of these voices are too large for the small theater. (This is often a problem with "black box" productions.) The "burning bush" scene, which features Ms. Chinn and her brother, Wesley Chinn, a countertenor, singing in unision created an effect of terror and awe.

The video projections, on large screens behind and in front of the actors add to the work's hypnotic effect. Using images of the East River and yet-to-be-redeveloped sections of the New York waterfront, Mr. Gal ties the Moses story to the present day. In the work's final section, the projections stopped, the screen lowered, and the four singers recounted the ten plagues that struck Egypt. Given that country's current turmoil, Mr. Gal's work had a modern resonance.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Recital Review: Discovering Liszt at the Weill

No, Liszt didn't show up and play. But it's a cool picture!
Photo from PianoPleasures.com
On Saturday Afternoon, Carnegie Hall presented a "Discovery Day" featuring piano works and songs by Franz Liszt, bookended with appearances by noted Liszt scholars Alan Walker and Charles Rosen. The five-hour program also featured a dramatic reading with actors reading Liszt's correspondence, reviews, and personal accounts to form a sort of aural biography of the composer and virtuoso.

These performances marked the start of Carnegie Hall's 2011 Liszt initiative, celebrating the composer's 200th birthday with a series of concerts and lectures. Dr. Walker opened the proceedings with an engaging 50-minute lecture on Liszt's role as the cultural ambassador of the 19th century. The English musicologist and author of an exhaustive three-volume biography of the composer spoke with an engaging style, explaining the complexities of Liszt's life and illustrating his role in musical culture.


The concert proper opened with a slew of piano works, played expertly, if not always passionately by soloist Gregory DeTurck. The pianist focused on different aspects of Liszt' piano personality: the virtuoso, the traveler, the opera aficionado. The Reminisces de Norma were a highlight, as Bellini's operatic themes were reimagined and spun into dizzying piano arpeggios and pounding rhythms. The Legend No. 2 was stirring, highlighting Liszt's deep Catholic faith and ending with the suggestion of a key theme from Wagner's Parsifal. (The Liszt work predates Wagner's Grail opera by 20 years.)

The piano recital ended with the ground-breaking Bagatelle Without Tonality and the mournful, introspective Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, both written during Liszt's final, experimental decade. The heavy, decending piano chords of the latter work seemed to open a black abyss of sound, threatening to suck Mr. DeTurck down into the depths of Liszt's melancholy. The dramatic reading followed, with Broadway actors Michael Cumpsty, Robert Stanton and Wendy Rich Stetson trading off on anecdotes from Liszt's life, alternated with recorded piano and choral music.

The second half of the evening featured Angela Meade, an up-and-coming soprano with a powerful instrument that seemed outsized in the cozy confines of the Weill Recital Hall. The programme was all the more remarkable for being sung in four different languages, exhibiting Liszt's cosmopolitan style and affinity for diverse languages and cultures. The Three Petrarch Sonnets opened, in an almost operatic style. Pianist Bradley Moore, an assistant conductor at the Met (who will be working with Ms. Meade on the forthcoming revival of Armida) provided expert accompaniment.


"Go Not, Happy Day" (based on Tennyson) and two settings of Victor Hugo texts followed, with Ms. Meade soaring up to some impressive heights and tossing off lovely pianissimo notes. The song recital ended with the fascinating Three Songs on Schiller's William Tell. These powerful, dark songs from 1845 recall Liszt's affinity with Schubert and his mordant wit--the murderous water nixie of "Der Fischerknabe" seems to look ahead to Wagner's trio of Rhinemaidens.

The afternoon concluded with a fascinating back-and-forth between Mr. Walker and Mr. Rosen, who debated various issues within Liszt's works (the "kitsch factor" in the B Minor sonata, Liszt's debt to Chopin) in an engaging conversation. For piano aficionados, this was a meeting of the minds, and it only got better when Mr Rosen got up from his chair and went over to the concert Steinway to illustrate his points at the piano. Liszt, an educator as well as a showman, would have approved.

The Superconductor Top Ten: Mozart's Greatest Hits

Mozart as a boy. Painting by Joseph Grassi
January 27th marked Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 255th birthday. To celebrate, here's a completely arbitrary list of essential Mozart compositions, and some recording recommendations to  back them up. No particular order--they're as I think of them.

1) Die Zauberflöte
Mozart's last German opera is a hybrid of Masonic rite and rollocking music hall comedy. Packed with memorable arias, duets and choruses, The Magic Flute presents the story of a young prince on a quest to attain enlightenment: helped by his buddy, a bird-catcher who only wants to eat, drink, and get married.
Recording: Berlin Philharmonic cond. Karl Böhm

2) Piano Sonata in C Major K. 545
All of the Mozart piano sonatas are masterpieces--full of rich tunes that delight the ear and astound the listener as to the composer's mastery of the keyboard and technical facility. This one made the "cut" because it's the most famous.
Recording: Carl Seeman, Piano

3) Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor K. 491
Mozart is one of the fathers of the piano concerto. This minor-key work points the way forward to the great concertos of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. So it makes the list.
Recording: English Chamber Orchestra cond. Jeffrey Tate; Mitsuko Uchida, Piano

4) Bassoon Concerto K. 191
This was Mozart's first wind concerto (he was 18) and one of the few written for this low-voiced instrument. It remains a standard work for bassoonists, and one of the most enjoyable Mozart concertos.
Recording: Vienna Philharmonic cond. Karl Böhm

5) Missa da Requiem
Mozart's last composition has become the stuff of legend. Commissioned by an under-handed nobleman who wanted to pass the work off as his own (an idea used in the last act of the film Amadeus) the incomplete Requiem is a potent, experimental setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead.
Recording: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra cond. Robert Shaw

6) Le Nozze di Figaro
One of the most important opera comedies ever written and still securely in the repertory over two centuries since its premiere. Packed with fine comic moments, great tunes, and class warfare--Figaro never disappoints.
Recording: Vienna Philharmonic cond. Erich Kleiber

7) Don Giovanni
The second collaboration between Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte combines tragic elements with comedy. And the Don's defiance in the face of eternal damnation inspired a whole generation of Romantic writers and composers.
Recording: Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Claudio Abbado

8) Symphony No. 39 in G Minor
Mozart's third-to-last symphony explored the possibilities afforded by working in what was, at the time of its composition, an under-used minor key. With strong melodic ideas (including an instantly recognizable "hook") this is one of the composer's most enduring creations.
Recording: Berlin Philharmonic cond. Karl Böhm

9) Violin Sonata in E Flat K. 481
As with most categories of Mozart compositions, all of the sonatas for piano and violin are splendid. The E Flat Sonata breaks new ground with ith its theme-and-variations final movement.
Recording: Radu Lupu, Piano; Szymon Goldberg, Violin

10) Serenade: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
This remains the most enduring and best-known melody written by this august composer. But what you may not know is that this four-part serenade was originally five movements. The Serenades were Mozart's laboratory for musical experimentation. More importantly, listening to them can just make you happy. Promise.
Recording: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Friday, January 28, 2011

CD Review: Lohengrin, Uncut

La belle dame sans merci, by J. W. Waterhouse
This was used as the original cover art for this set's 1998 release.
© 1898 The Estate of J.W. Waterhouse
In the 1990s, Daniel Barenboim recorded all ten Wagner operas for Teldec, the classical music company owned and distributed by Warner Brothers. Recorded in Berlin and Bayreuth, these recordings have been reissued by Naxos through a new distribution deal.

The 1998 recording of Lohengrin has a strong, if idiosyncratic cast. Emily Magee is an idiosyncratic, dreamy Elsa who does not match up to some of the more famous sopranos who have tackled this difficult role. However, she emerges from a dream-like state to evolve into a fully realized heroine.

Ms. Magee is well-matched with  Deborah Polaski, who is a favorite on Mr. Barenboim's recordings. Here, she is Ortrud, the villainess of the piece, and their clash in Act II makes for exciting aural theater.


Peter Seiffert is heroic in the title role, singing with noble tone. Unusually, Barenboim chooses to open the standard cut in the second stanza of "In Fernem Land." This verse gives Lohengrin's perspective on the events of the last three acts, and increases the tragic weight of the opera's final scene. And Wagnerphiles take note: this is only the second recording of Lohengrin to include the whole aria. (The cut was suggested by Wagner before the opera's premiere. He had doubts about an under-powered tenor in the title role.)

Falk Struckmann, another "regular player" in Mr. Barenboim's cast, is good, if not ideal as Telramund, the baritone villain who is caught in the machinations of his wife Ortrud's plot. He has a powerful, dark voice, and is especially strong in the big Act II duet with Ms. Polaski, as the two of them bicker beneath the castle walls and then mutually declare their villainous nature.

Mr. Barenboim is an expert Wagner conductor with pin-point control over his Staatskapelle Belin forces. He frequently uses rubato to speed and slow the pacing as needed. This pays off in Act III following the death of Telramund as the orchestra detonates with shattering force. The playing is top-drawer, as is the choral work. The choristers are crystal-clear, providing the flexible many-voiced instrument that is crucial for this opera's many public scenes.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Concert Review: Knickerbocker is a Slam Dunk

The Arrival of Peter Stuyvesant at New Amsterdam. 
From Our Country by Benson J. Lossing. Pub. Johnson & Bailey, © 1895.
As the snow battered New York on Wednesday night, the Collegiate Chorale warmed Alice Tully Hall with the second of two performances of Kurt Weill's 1938 musical, Knickerbocker Holiday.

Conducted by James Bagwell and featuring a stellar cast of Broadway performers, this concert version of the little-known Weill show made a strong case for its future, highlighting the book's humor, political relevance and array of memorable tunes. The most famous of these is "September Song," one of Kurt Weill's most enduring melodies. It was sung here by Victor Garber in the role of Peter Stuyvesant, and was a heartbreaking highlight of the first act.

Yes, that Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam before it was turned over to the British and renamed. Knickerbocker Holiday takes a satiric, Gilbert and Sullivan-like look at the governor's regime. The plot features corrupt politicians, arbitrary hangings, a proposed wedding and an invasion by gin-fuelled, rifle-toting Indians from what eventually became Harlem.

This is a uniquely American take on Mikado-like politics, filtered through Kurt Weill's tuneful score. Musically, the work is just on this side of opera, with audible influences of Beethoven, Verdi, and even Bizet peppering the music. James Bagwell conducted, balancing the jazz rhythms of the work with the more European classical influences. (The fugue in the second act astounded.)

Mr. Garber was surrounded by a game cast. Bryce Pinkham brought an intelligent approach to the role of narrator Washington Irving, who comments ironically on events and frames the story as one of his tales. Kelli O'Hara and Ben Davis were an engaging pair of lovers. Although Ms. O'Hara's voice battled the orchestra and occasionally the choral backing, she was an engaging, emotional presence as Tina, the love interest.

Mr. Davis (the star of the recent Broadway revival of A Little Night Music) has a rich, baritone, and he used it to good effect as the argumentative Bromm. The opera's hero, he runs afoul of the draconian laws of Governor Stuyvesant and the absurd policies of the fledgling city council. He was well matched with Mr. Garber, who does not have the same level of voice. Instead, he sang with intelligence and depth, nuancing every word of his songs and approaching the comic dialogue with a dry, deadpan delivery.

Knickerbocker sank into obscurity after its premiere. One reason was the book's merciless take on the leaders of the world in 1938. Hitler and F.D.R. are both skewered, with the show making fun of writers who churned out books in prison and Roosevelt's New Deal efforts. In these troubled times, with a highliy charged political atmosphere in Washington powered by ugly rhetoric, this acid take on American politics should be heard more often.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Nixon In China

(Ed. Note: This is a preview of the Met's staging of Nixon in China.
To read a full review, go to this link.)

"There is an old Vulcan proverb. 'Only Nixon could go to China.'"
--Captain Spock, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The Nixons arrive on the Spirit of '76. From the English National Opera production.
Photo by Alistair Muir, © 2006 English National Opera
On February 2, the Metropolitan Opera presents the first of six performances of John Adams' revolutionary opera. There's no mystery or allegory here: Nixon in China is about Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing (then Peking) in 1972. The opera premiered in 1987, bringing historic events to the operatic stage in a then-record 15 years.


Like many of the Met's newer stagings, this is a shared production, directed by the iconoclastic Peter Sellars. It was first seen at the English National Opera in 2006. James Maddalena, who sang the title role in the premiere, is Nixon. The composer conducts.

John Adams is an American minimalist. He builds music from small two or three-note melodic cells, creating a texture through repetition of woodwinds, strings, and even percussion. The score of Nixon is his best-known work. It is also among his most robust, with heavy, even Wagnerian brass figures, thrilling choral writing and a bravura part for the baritone in the title role.

The opera tells the story of Nixon's visit, accompanied by his wife Pat and Henry Kissinger. Act I retells the arrival of the President's party in China and his cryptic meeting with Mao Tse-tung. Act II focuses on Pat Nixon and her visit to an agricultural installation, followed by a night at the Chinese Opera where the American party is entertained by a socalist drama written by Madame Mao. In Act III, the historic peace accord is reached, and the characters express their doubts about their roles on the stage of history.

Nixon broke new ground in 1987 when it premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Houston Grand Opera. Its success reinforced the idea that opera could be about contemorary political situations or post-World War II events. Its arrival at the Met is a significant milestone for artistic achievement and for contemporary opera, and it promises to be an exciting evening.

Recordings Overview:
There are two major recordings of Nixon in China. The first, recently reissued, features the premiere cast accompanied by the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the baton of Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. This set is recommended for listeners who want to experience James Maddalena's portrayal of the 37th President first-hand.

The second, released on Naxos in 2009 is a live recording from Denver, Colorado. Robert Orth sings the title role, and Marin Alsop conducts. Ms. Alsop takes a more lyrical approach to John Adams' score, stretching out the textures to create an operatic feel. Both are recommended.

On February 12, Nixon in China will be presented as a Live in HD Broadcast at movie theaters across the United States. Like most of the Met's recent essays into filming their operas, the broadcast will eventually be released on DVD.

Concert Review: Budapest Festival Orchestra Straddles Two Centuries

The 18th and 20th centuries clashed at last night's concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra--with sexy results.
Iván Fischer
On Tuesday night, the orchestra explored the dichotomy between the genteel "classical" works of Franz Josef Haydn and the rough-and-tumble modernism of Igor Stravinsky. Iván Fischer, the kinetic Hungarian maestro who founded the orchestra 27 years ago, conducted.


The Haydn works found the orchestra in period instrument mode. The brass section used slide trumpets and natural horns, complete with replaceable crooks. Timpanist Dénes Roland sat at a small pair of period kettledrums, playing with wooden sticks. The Haydn Symphony No. 102 sprang to life, a work filled with genteel, yet earthy good humor. Crisp rhythms, warm strings and a bright contribution from the winds made this a distinguished performance.

The Piano Concerto No. 11 was written for an 18th century pianoforte. However, this performance pitted a modern Steinway (played by Alexei Lubimov) on a modern Steinway against the period band. Mr. Lubimov made the case for this anachronistic arrangement with fleet-fingered legato playing, and elegant turns of phrase. The final, rondo had an almost manic energy, as the orchestra supported Mr. Lubimov through every twist and turn of the work.


The full orchestra filled the stage for a raucous reading of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky's 1913 ballet is one of the cultural touchstones of the 20th century, a thundering, violent work that depicts the barbaric pagan rites of ancient Russia. Under Mr. Fischer's direction, the taut polyrhythms and blasts of brass acquired a fearsome, battering force, hammering at the senses in a frenzied dance.

A reprieve came with the second section of the ballet, but it was not to last. The quieter moments, featuring the elegaic horns (now playing modern instruments), lengthy bassoon solos and muttered honks on the bass clarinets. These gave way to the final, sacrificial dance, driven to an earth-shattering conclusion as Mr. Fischer exhorted his musicians to new heights of aural savagery.

To close the concert, Mr. Fischer returned and led his band in a work from the 19th century: the 21st (and last) of Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Shot through with rhythms of their homeland, the Brahms work served as a pleasant, high-energy palate cleanser after the controlled brutality of the Stravinsky: a fitting way to end this New York appearance by this excellent, underrated orchestra.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Opera Review: Simon Boccanegra and the Chamber of Doom

Dmitri Hvorostovsky: The Doge Abides
Photo by Pasha Antonov
The Metropolitan Opera's 2011 revival of Simon Boccanegra continues to be plagued by illness. For Monday's performance, it was conductor James Levine who was down with a bug. He was replaced in the pit by Met assistant conductor John Keenan, who had previously assisted Mr. Levine with preparing the score. Mr. Keenan was aided by a strong cast, anchored by the suave Doge of Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the forza della natura bass singing of Ferruccio Furlanetto.

The role of Boccanegra is a stretch for Mr. Hvorostovsky, and it taxes the outer limits of his instrument. He was strong in the Prelude, facing off with Mr. Furlanetto in a duel of extended bass notes at the end of their first duet. The handsome Russian baritone sang with warm, creamy tone in crucial father-daughter duet, floating a gorgeous "Figlia!" above the stave. But when it came to the Council Chamber scene, the very heart of this opera, Mr. Hvorostovsky seemed overwhelmed.


Giancarlo del Monaco's giant, Renaissance-inspired set is the showpiece of this production, but the bane of baritones. The Doge's throne is at the very rear of this vast, square-ceilinged chamber, which looks good on TV but is less than ideal for singing. For Simon's royal address to reach the audience, the voice must traverse fifty feet of faux marble and then punch over the orchestral brass and percussion at crucial moments. Mr. Hvorostovsky has a velvet glove of a voice, but it lacked the iron fist within it needed for this crucial scene.

In this performance, it was the more intimate second act that was the highlight: a fascinating essay in family dynamics and power politics that are at the core of the story. The Act II duet with tenor Ramon Vargas was thrilling as only great Verdi can be. And the final trio of that act, where the two political antagonists are forcibly separated by the Doge's daughter Amelia (Barbara Frittoli) was the evening's most thrilling passage. For her part, Ms. Frittoli made a strong contribution to the cast, with a pleasing soprano voice that develops an audible vibrato when above mezzo forte.

Mr. Furlanetto's portrayal of the embittered Fieschi ranks next to his King Philip in Don Carlo, seen earlier this season. Singing with a rich tone laced with heartbreak, the bass brought tragic weight to "Il lacerato spirito." In the later acts, his Fieschi was less a father figure than an implacable spirit of vengeance, cutting through ensembles as a stern reminder of the political forces that dogged the Doge. His final duet with Mr. Hvorostovsky, coming right before the death scene, rang with warmth and forgiveness.

This cast boasts another fine bass: Nicola Alaimo in the role of the villainous Paolo. This character gets some of the opera's best music--a narrative passage in the Prologue, the Curse Scene, and his snarling Act II aria where he plots Boccanegra's death. Also, tenor Ramon Vargas, (recovered from his illness at the prima) sang his first Gabriele of the season, an ardent performance. This Mexican tenor's sweet, lyric voice is a little light for the part, but he held his own with Mr. Hvorostovsky and Ms. Frittoli, singing two passionate duets with the soprano.

Although Mr. Levine's golden touch with Verdi was missed, Mr. Keenan led a solid, competent performance, marred only by odd slow-downs in tempo and the occasional bad note during the brass tuttis at the end of the Council Chamber Scene.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Concert Review: Old School Brahms and Dvořák

Radu Lupu.
The venerable Christoph von Dohnányi capped his two-week stand at the New York Philharmonic with Saturday night's concert, featuring Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, appealingly paired with Dvořák's Symphony No. 8. The Brahms concerto featured soloist Radu Lupu, a Romanian pianist who specializes in Romantic repertoire.

Mr. Dohnányi rearranged the Philharmonic for this concert, positioning the basses and cellos on stage right--the better to blend the sound with Mr. Lupu's piano. The new seating arrangement did not adversely affect the musicians, who played Brahms' long orchestral introduction to the concerto, tearing into the five-chord opening sequence with a muscular energy.


Mr. Lupu's entrance was quiet, almost subdued. He played with old-world elegance, using a light touch and fluid legato that recalled Mozart. His piano integrated smoothly with conductor and orchestra, echoing and commenting through the development, before breaking out for a lengthy, eloquent passage: a soliloquy in notes without the benefit of orchestral accompaniment. It ascended to a starry height before crashing back to earth amidst the recapitulation of the opening theme.

The best playing of the night came in the soulful slow movement, a work that cements Brahms' reputation as the heir to Beethoven. This Adagio explores the same cosmic territory as the slow movement of the Ninth, adorned with a ruminative piano part that only adds to its profound beauty. By contrast, the final Rondo was much more athletic, as pianist and orchestra charged home to the final resolution of the opening theme.

Dvořák's Eighth resounds with military fanfares, bird-calls and a boundless enthusiasm that markshis best work. The Eighth is one of his most famous symphonies, coming right before Dvořák's two year sojourn in America and subsequent change in style. It is a paean to life and nature, expressed through scenes from Bohemia's forests. The second movement, with its bird-call flute solos and lengthy violin solo, is one of the composer's most joyous, and featured fine playing from the Philharmonic soloists.

Mr. Dohnányi's interpretation lacked that last sense of gut-wrenching Bohemian rhapsody. However, this was four movements of honest, powerful music-making infused with a welcome energy. The Philharmonic's brass were at their best in the final movement, bursting forth into the main theme with a Mahlerian enthusiasm. The conductor kept a firm grip on the tempo through the final Rondo, which includes an impressive fugue that may surprise listeners unfamiliar with Dvořák's contrapuntal skill. As the brass returned to blast through the final pages, the Eighth thundered to a close in a celebration of life.

The Superconductor Top Ten: Obscure Composers

This is one of only two pictures
 taken of Alkan. Paris, ca. 1850.
In the world of classical music, there are the big names--the three "B's" (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) and reliable operatic favorites like Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. And then there are the "other" guys. The obscure composers who, for whatever reason, never had the same lasting impact on Western musical culture as their more famous contemporaries.

So here's my list of ten lesser-known composers. I'm always willing to be passionate about them (and others) in the pages of this blog and in the material world as well. Some may be new to you. Some may be old hat. All are worth your attention. Alphabetical order.


1) Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
One of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 19th century. Alkan's music rivals Liszt in complexity and harmonic invention. But unlike the flamboyant Hungarian, he was a recluse who avoided the spotlight. He is remembered for writing a symphony and a concerto (both for solo piano), and his Grand Sonata, ("The Four Ages") which attempts to encapsulate the experience of a lifetime in four dizzying movements.

2) Franz Berwald (1796-1868)
A Swedish composer, and one of the earliest important composers to be active in Scandinavia. Berwald is known for four cheerful symphonies that have cool nicknames (Sinfonie singulere, Sinfonie serieuse) and a warm compositional style that recalls the middle period of Beethoven. Under-performed and underrated.

3) Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
A predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach, Buxtehude was an important Danish composer whose works for voice, organ, and chamber ensemble contain brilliant counterpoint and great beauty. In 1705, a young Bach walked 250 miles (from Arnstadt to Lübeck) to meet Buxtehude and hear him play. (All you have to do is get some CDs). Start with the organ music.


4) Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
One of many post-Wagnerians who sprang up in late 19th-century Paris, only to fall out of fashion with the ascent of Impressionism and Claude Debussy. Chausson is remembered for Le Roi Arthus, a chromatic, gorgeous opera based on the legend of King Arthur. He is the epitome of the French late Romantic style, and his music deserves more attention for its rich orchestrations and sweeping melodies.

5) Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Korngold is one of the great prodigies in music history, writing operas like Violanta and Die tote Stadt ("The Dead City") to great acclaim. He fled the Nazis and wound up in Hollywood, where he became one of the fathers of modern film music. He won Academy Awards for his scores to The Adventures of Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse. Today, his best known piece is the moving aria "Gluck, das mir verblieb" from Die tote Stadt.



6) Max Reger (1873-1916)
Some composers never fall out of fashion. Reger belongs to the category of those who never fell in. In the late 19th century, this German composer went back to the complex contrapuntal ideas of Bach and Telemann for inspiraton, writing impressive chamber music and works for solo piano that require a tremendous keyboard technique. Check out his piano works, particularly his sets of variations.

7) Josef Suk (1873-1935)
A Czech symphonist best known for his dark-tinted Symphony No. 2, a sweeping, majestic work that examines man's place in the cosmos and makes Asrael (the Islamic representation of the Angel of Death) its protagonist. Suk was a famous violinist in his own right, and a pupil of Antonín Dvořák. He later went on to marry his mentor's daughter, and dedicated the Asrael Symphony to Dvořák's memory.

8) Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998)
One of the more important British tonal composers in the second half of the 20th century, Tippett is remembered for complex operas like The Midsummer Marriage and The Knot Garden. His work is melodic and rewarding, written in a rich, satisfying musical language. Start with the Four Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage.

9) Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)
Ullmann is best remembered for being part of the Collegium Musicum, an arts colony in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. While incarcerated, Ullmann composed Der Kaiser von Atlantis, a biting, satiric opera that offered a skewed take on the Nazi madness. (The work was banned by the camp administrator.) Ullmann was killed in Auschwitz. His opera survived, and received its world premiere in 1975.

10) Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
The lover of Alma Schindler (before she met and married Gustav Mahler), Zemlinsky was an influential figure in Vienna, a composer of sensual, expressionistic works that seethe with harmonic invention. (They were banned by the Nazis.) In some ways, he is the bridge between Brahms' conservative, Romanticism and the outright experimentation of the Second Viennese School. (Schoenberg was one of his pupils, as well as his brother-in-law.) Thanks to the efforts of conductors, programmers and singers, the operas (including Der Zwerg), songs, and orchestral works of this great composer have returned to the repertory.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Happy 70th Birthday, Placído Domingo!

We here at Superconductor would like to wish a happy 70th birthday to tenor, conductor, impresario and Simpsons guest star Placído Domingo!
Homer Simpson and Placído Domingo. Art by Matt Groening.
Image © 2007 Gracie Films/20th Century Fox
And just for the heck of it, here's a list of roles (and operas) I've seen the great tenor in, in the course of 20 years of going to the Met. Yeah, I know. I missed Sly, Adriana Lecouvrer and Cyrano de Bergerac and a few others.


  • Radames in Aida.
    This was the broadcast performance, and the first performance I attended at the Met. It was filmed, and is still available on DVD. With Sherrill Milnes, Dolora Zajick, Paata Burchuladze and Aprile Millo in the title role.

  • Siegmund in Die Walküre (Four and 1/2 times.)
    I know that I saw Mr. Domingo in the '97 and 2004 cycles--I saw Poul Elming in the role at least once too--and was at the show in '09 when an ill tenor stepped off in the middle of the first act and was replaced by his cover--who hadn't changed his shoes yet.

  • Don José in Carmen. 1997 (?)
    I saw him in the Zeffirelli Carmen at least once opposite Denyce Graves. Probably in 1997--you lose count after a while.
  • Parsifal in um...Parsifal. (Two or three times.)
    Of the Wagner roles, this one lies very well for his voice. I have seen him as Parsifal a number of times--but I don't recall dates. Hell, that opera's so long I'm probably still there.

  • Idomeneo in Idomeneo
    The role of Mozart's tragic Greek king is well suited to ne of the better recordings he's made

  • Ghermann in The Queen of Spades. (Twice.)
    Placído plays his cards close to the vest--and sings this role close to the prompters' box. But he's surprisingly good in Russian!

  • Samson in Samson et Dalila.
    I saw him get the big haircut from Denyce Graves when this production bowed. I want it to come back.

  • Stiffelio in Stiffelio. (Once with him on stage, once conducting.)
    This is one of the great underrated Verdi operas and Domingo was instrumental in bringing it back to the Met (albeit in an ugly production by Giancarlo del Monaco.)
  • Gabriele Adorno and Simon Boccanegra in Simon Boccanegra (though obviously not on the same night.)
    I've seen at least one performance out of every run of Met Boccanegra since the Del Monaco production bowed. And I saw Domingo as the Doge last year in a late career foray into baritonal repertory.
  • Orest in Iphegenie en Tauride.
    Saw this Stephen Wadsworth production with the Big D opposite Susan Graham in the title role. Looking forward to the February revival.
12 different roles, in 11 different operas, in four different languages. In other news, Universal Classics is celebrating Mr. Domingo's birthday by releasing a giant boxed set next week featuring his complete recordings of:
Carmen, Lucia di Lammermoor, Cavelleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Les contes d'Hoffman, Tosca, Turandot, Samson et Dalila, Lohengrin and unaccountably, The Barber of Seville with the great tenor in the (baritone) role of Figaro. What? No Parsifal?

Opera Telecast Review: Pag Before Cav, from La Scala

"I'm gonna go build my own theme park! With blackjack! And hookers! In fact, forget the park!"
--Bender Bending Rodriguez

Daniel Harding on the podium
La Scala returned to Symphony Space on Thursday afternoon with a live broadcast of director Mario Martone's new double-bill production of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Mascagni's Cavelleria Rusticana. In an unusual decision, the live broadcast switched the verismo twin bill, leading off with Pagliacci.

Martone has set Pagliacci's troupe of players as modern urban gypsies, putting on their show out of the back of a broken down camper, parked under in a highway overpass patrolled by hookers. (What is it with directors who equate verismo with the oldest profession?) Picked out in ugly neon pink and green light this was a sleazy, sordid setting for the commedia dell'arte. And when Silvio (Mario Cassi) picked up a streetwalker while rollin' in his BMW, the director's unsubtle point was made.


The cast anchored by the superior Tonio of bass Ambrogio Maestri. He dominates from his opening "Si puo?" with a dark, rounded tone and a sarcastic leer. Unfortunately tenor José Cura'turns strident when he approaches forte, the voice spreading unattractively in the climactic phrases of "Vestia la giubba." He is not helped by the blunt soprano of Oksana Dyka as Nedda. She was unimpressive in her La Scala debut.

Leoncavallo's most famous opera blurs the line between actors, audience, and onstage spectators, creating a theatrical ambiguity at its climax that is this work's particular genius. Silvio is sitting in the front row of the orchestra when he gets knifed. But having a blood-drenched Canio say "La comeddia e finita" and exit up the main aisle of the La Scala house shattered that barrier completely.

Cavalleria had the opposite problem: an exceptional cast stuck in an unimaginative staging. Lucina D'Into was the chief attraction. Her large, powerful soprano voice copes well with Santuzza's histrionics and heroics, rising effortlessly over the lush orchestra and cutting through the big choral ensembles without sounding shrill or forced. She was ably matched by Salvatore Licitra's exceptional, amoral Turiddu who still somehow elicited sympathy before his death. Bass Claudio Sgura was a fine, dark Alfio--an easy winner in any knife fight.

What didn't work in this Cav was the director's idea of adding a brothel to the village (Alfio was a customer) during the opening scena. (The hookers strike again!) This took away from the lush, succulent phrasing under the baton of Daniel Harding, who led both operas with theatrical flair. Following the church processional, most of the action took place in front of the villagers, gathered in prayer under a giant crucifix. This dark, dull production ended on an empty stage, as if the director had finally run out of ideas.

The Superconductor Top Ten: Composers

Ludwig van Beethoven,
making sure he's on top of the list.
In The New York Times, music critic Anthony Tomassini spent a week working on The Greatest: his list of the top ten composers of all time. And his is a good list, carefully thought out.

Since this is a brilliant, self-written classical music blog (and since I'd never do something so gauche as to borrow an idea in the world's most reliable newspaper) I'm just going to do my ten favorite composers. And I'm going to do it in five minutes.

As always, this lis(zt) is purely biased (or biased and puerile) and reflects nothing more than the opinion of the entire Superconductor editorial staff.

Which is me.

It's roughly in order of preference and how much time I spend listening to the composers on it.

1) Ludwig van Beethoven
The father of the Romantic movement and the great symphonist. Beethoven's music resounds with a shout of humanity and warms the spirit with endless humanism and hope.

2) Richard Wagner
We won't sugar-coat it. Richard Wagner takes second place on our list, despite the fact that he was an egotistical, hate-filled huckster who couldn't write a piano sonata to save his life. Not that he wanted to--he was too busy working on the Ring.

3) Richard Strauss
Another ethically questionable person, but Strauss could write for the orchestra like nobody else. But his best work was for the soprano voice. Small wonder--he was married to one.

4) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The genius whose reputation and personality were both assassinated by the film Amadeus. Mozart's music speaks with an eternal beauty that is timeless and brightens even the darkest day.

5) Giuseppe Verdi
Stirring tunes, emotional duets, and some of the cleverest theatrical ideas that are still copied from, borrowed and revered today. ("Why not a singing hunchback?")

6) Franz Joseph Haydn
'Papa', as he was called was an endlessly inventive melodist who worked at a lightning pace--and birthed the symphony and the string quartet. But he also wrote operas, oratorios, and enchanting piano sonatas.


7) Giaochino Rossini
The Barber of Seville would be enough to ensure this master of Italian comedy a place on this list. His tragedies are pretty good too. And then there's his greatest opera, William Tell.


8) Hector Berlioz
Along with Wagner, Berlioz did his bit to expand the voices and possibilities of the symphony orchestra. An unabashed classicist who directed music back towards the unfashionable ideals of the 18th century, Berlioz was also an acidic critic who made his share of enemies. He died, a great man who was unappreciated in his lifetime--and Les Troyens is his masterpiece.

9) Franz Liszt
The god of the piano. Ten fingers, lightning speed, and a seven-decade career replete with musical invention. A great writer of orchestral music. A genius, a teacher, a philanthropist. And he could play almost anything--from his own atonal works to Beethoven's nine symphonies on the 88 keys.

10) Claude-Achille Debussy
Debussy's music surges with power, emotion and inspiration, even in the quietest moments.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Liszt At 200: Five Essential Works

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a prolific composer, making vast contributions to the international repertory of piano and orchestral music. Here are some great examples of his art to get the curious listener started.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Flat Major
From its majestic opening figuration, Liszt set out to make a grand statement with this, the first of his three piano concertos. As usual, the composer broke new ground, giving the piano equal voice in the opening moments and bringing the role of the instrument deeper into the orchestra.

Polonaise from Eugene Onegin
Liszt wrote many opera transcriptions, setting works by Wagner, Verdi and others for the piano. This version of a dance from Tchaikovsky's opera is one of his finest. It bursts with the same enthusiasm and rhythmic joy as Tchaikovsky's work, bursting with a propulsive force from the keys.

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C Sharp Minor
Liszt decided to explore the music and national identity of Hungary with his set of 19 Hungarian rhapsodies. The No. 2, with its sturdy rhythms and glissando passages, is among the most famous--and not just because it's featured in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

La lúgubre gondola No. 1
This dark composition for piano depicts a Venetian funeral procession. Composed in 1882, it prefigured the death of Liszt's son-in-law Richard Wagner. (Wagner, married to Liszt's daughter Cosima von Bülow, died in Venice in 1883.) The piece also exists in an orchestration (by contemporary composer John Adams) called The Black Gondola. Both are recommended.

Bagatelle Sans tonalité
This short piano piece, written in 1885 (a year before Liszt's death) is characteristic of the composer's late style. It is also one of the earliest examples of a work without tonality, relying on shifting chromaticism instead. Liszt was part of the "music of the future" movement during his lifetime. With this late composition, he predicted what was to come.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Liszt at 200: Nine Symphonies...for Ten Fingers

Cyprien Katsaris at the piano.
Photo © Carole Hellaiche, from his website.
It was one of those purchases you don't forget.

I was in a used CD store in Boston. (Might have been Cambridge). And there it was: an ugly teal-and-navy striped slipcase with a blue-tinted black and white photo of an intent-looking pianist sitting in profile at a long, black concert grand.

"Beethoven/Liszt: Symphonies Nos. 1-9",
the text said.
"Cyprien Katsaris, Piano."

Now, I was a young grad student with a love of classical music and a habit of spending his off hours in the rush tickets line for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And I had heard of some of the great pianists. But not Katsaris. I asked my friend who worked at Tower Records about it, and looked up the recordings in the store copy of the Penguin Guide. They seemed legit.

I held off purchase at first, but eventually brought some trade-in items to the store to get credit towards my new purchase. And I took the box--two double jewel cases holding six discs--home with me.

I loved those recordings. And I still do. Mr. Katsaris opened a whole new way of listening to Beethoven. Using the spare notes of the piano instead of a massed orchestra, I learned how to hear musical architecture--the way a theme, a phrase, a counter-melody was introduced by that wily old German composer (and the clever Hungarian who transcribed the works for piano.)


Liszt was just 11 years old when he met Beethoven in Vienna. The date was April 13, 1822. (Stories vary, he might have been 12 and it might have been a year later.) According to a story Liszt told, the young virtuoso was brought to an arranged meeting at the composer's home.  He played several works for Beethoven, including a Bach fugue and a movement from the elder composer's own concertos. According to Liszt, Beethoven watched his fingers and listened with his hand on the piano. He was impressed.

In 1838, Liszt received a request from his publishers to transcribe Beethoven's Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. He played them alongside his own compositions and opera transcriptions. The Hungarian virtuoso was instrumental in getting Beethoven's music heard--even in towns that didn't have symphony orchestras. In 1863, it was suggested that the pianist transcribe the remainder of the Nine. He completed the set in 1865.

These recordings are astonishing performances, and remain an under-valued jewel of the catalogue. They're great listening if you are a Beethoven aficionado, hearing how Liszt translates Beethoven's orchestral effects to be played by ten dexterous fingers. The best of the set are the Eroica (which sounds even more powerful on the piano), the Pastorale (dreamy and lyrical, almost impressionistic in the Scene By the Brook) and the jaw-dropping Ninth--the last to be completed.

Cyprien Katsaris was the first pianist to record that Everest of transcriptions: the Beethoven Ninth for two hands. Liszt originally transcribed Beethoven's final symphony for two players--four hands. At his publisher's request, Liszt completed a two-handed version. The movements are difficult and astonishingly long (each is the size of a piano sonata) and Mr. Katsaris' athletic, and yes, emotional performance of the final "Ode to Joy" belongs in any self-respecting record collection.

The Incredible Life of Franz Liszt

French caricature of Franz Liszt at the piano, circa 1845
Ed. Note: This article marks the first in an ongoing Liszt at 200 series, celebrating the bicentennial birthday of Franz Liszt in the year 2011.

Oct. 22, 2011 marks the 200th birthday of Franz Ferenc Liszt, the Hungarian composer, pianist, and showman whose prestidigitative playing marked the dawn of a new era in piano music. Liszt's meteoric career signalled the rise of the piano virtuoso as a public figure equivalent with kings, generals, and minor gods.

Franz Liszt was the greatest pianist of the 19th century, a formidable performer who could play anything, from all nine Beethoven symphonies (re-arranged for solo piano) to the operatic works of Verdi, Wagner, and Johann Strauss. But his own music came first.

Famous Liszt piano compositions include the Annéés de la pèlerinage (Years of Pilgramage), the Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Transcendental Etudes, finger-busting works inspired by the violinist (and fellow showman) Niccolò Paganini. He even experimented with atonality in late works, setting the stage for the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.


Liszt's concerts (he popularized the concept of the "piano recital") caused women to scream and throw clothes in a precursor of Beatlemania. They were his primary source of income. But he found time to compose orchestral works. Deciding that symphonic form was too restrictive, he created the "symphonic poem." (This may have been the idea of Belgian composer Cesar Franck.) The popularity of Liszt's tone poems (which include the Faust Symphony, the Dante Symphony and Les Preludes) showed the way for later composers like Richard Strauss.

Liszt only wrote one opera: Don Sanche. It premiered when he was 14 and quickly dropped from sight. However, he remained heavily involved in that genre. During Wagner's Swiss exile, Liszt conducted the world premiere of Lohengrin. Still later, he became Wagner's father-in-law and most prominent musical advocate. Liszt's transcriptions of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the Pilgrim's Chorus from Tannhäuser led to this "music of the future" being played outside the opera house in the century before recordings existed.

This bicentennial year promises a great deal of exciting Liszt music. There are concerts scheduled, (Jean-Yves Thibaudet at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 2, Evgeny Kissin in March), and of course, new recordings on their way. The most prominent of these is from the acclaimed British label Hyperion: Leslie Howard's 99-disc Complete Piano Works of Liszt. It comes out on February 8.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

DVD Review: Blood Bath in Baden-Baden

Linda Watson as Elektra. Photo by Andrea Kremper © 2010 Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
This DVD of Richard Strauss' blood-drenched Greek tragedy was filmed in June of 2010 at Baden-Baden. This is a successful, almost clinical staging of the opera, staged by Herbert Wernicke without the usual gore and decay.  Mr. Wernicke's set is stark and geometric, dominated by a giant rotating, black rectangle that turns on its diagonal axis to reveal bright hues. It's like a Robert Wilson production, unhampered by awkward body movements.

In the opening monologue, soprano Linda Watson pushes her instrument to the absolute limit, and beyond. Elektra is a murderously difficult role, and this American soprano sings with a searing sound when at full voice over Strauss' gigantic orchestra.  Ms. Watson achieves command of Strauss' tricky waltz rhythms in the second part of the aria, and manages a full, powerful presence, never leaving the center of attention. She is sweet, even cloying in her scenes with Chrysothemis. Finally, she opens up her voice for an impressive "Recognition Scene" with Orest, raising her voice high against the (temporarily) lightened orchestration in a soaring arch of sound.

Klytaemnestra is played with a grandiose, Sunset Boulevard decadence by Jane Henschel. Strauss reserved his most difficult music for this mother-daughter confrontation, sinuous, ear-scraping orchestral figures that broke the limits of tonality and inspired many modern composers.

The confrontation is masterfully acted and powerfully sung, with impressive, almost growled low notes from Ms. Henschel. Klytaemnestra's scarlet-and-gold train is put to good use as a as a symbol of power and a surrogate bloodstain for the murder that is to come.

As Chrysothemis, the "good" sister embroiled in Elektra's plan to avenge the murder of her father, Manuela Uhl makes a solid impression. Ms. Uhl has a hard, bright instrument that is also taxed by the heavy orchestra. Emotionally, she is limited to fear and confusion, caught between her mother's machinations and her sister's raw blood lust, but those are the two central emotions of this weak character. One clever touch: after Klytaemnestra is axed, her younger daughter wastes no time in appropriating the baubles, charms and beads from the Queen's corpse--effectively taking her mother's place.

In an opera with three leading ladies, it is sometimes hard for the men to be noticed. Rene Kollo is Aegisth, the latest in a line of faded heldentenors to be led to the slaughter. Albert Dohmen is a powerful, if unemotional Orest, determined to kill his mother and steeled to the task at hand. This sturdy Wagner baritone does not have time to give much more information than that.

On the podium, Christian Thielemann shows great command of rhythm and Strauss' rich orchestral detail. He leads the Munich Philharmonic with a light, airy touch, letting the orchestra waltz in demented triple time before letting the brass smash out great, slab-like chords. Mr. Thielemann is a fine Strauss conductor, who follows the composer's advice about Elektra: to conduct "as if it were by Mendelssohn: fairy music."




Opening monologue from Elektra, sung by Linda Watson

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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.