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Monday, February 28, 2011

City Opera Spring 2011 Preview: Pump Boys and Psychics

The New York City Opera is scheduled to open its spring season on March 22, with a slate of three productions.
Belcore (David Kempster) in a scene from the ENO L'Elisir d'Amore.
Photo © 2009 English National Opera
In the interests of artistic cooperation (and cost-saving), the City Opera will offer one revival, (L'Elisir d'Amore), and one import (Séance on a Wet Afternoon) The third is a tryptich of three Monodramas, one-act operas performed by one singer each. The three operas are by John Zorn, Arnold Schoenberg and Morton Feldman.

L'Elisir d'Amore opens on March 22. This production of Donizetti's bubbling romantic comedy is a collaboration with the English National Opera.

Jonathan Miller's production, first seen at City Opera in 2006, updates the action to the era immediately following World War II. Nemorino is a hapless pump boy, working next to Adina's Diner, somewhere in the American West. Belcore is an aggressive recruiter for Uncle Sam. Dr. Dulcamara's "elixir" is reimagined as Coca-Cola. But the music is still Donizetti, with one of his most imaginative and richly comic scores.

The Monodramas arrive on March 25. These three works include John Zorn's La Machine d'etre, a new work inspired by the drawings of Antonin Artaud; Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg; and the U.S. stage premiere of Neither by American composer Morton Feldman. The last is based on the writings of Samuel Beckett.

The three works feature (respectively) sopranos Anu Komsi, Kara Shay Thompson and Cyndia Sieden.
Lauren Flanigan goes beyond the infinite in Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
Photo by David Bazemann © 2009 The Santa Barbara Independent
The season wraps up with the April 19 New York premiere of Stephen Schwartz' Séance on a Wet Afternoon. The opera stars City Opera mainstay Lauren Flanigan as psychic Myra Foster. Ms. Flanigan sang the premiere of this work (in Santa Barbara, 2009) and has been with the opera ever since the piece was in its workshop stage.

The production stars City Opera mainstay diva Lauren Flanigan. Ms. Flanigan will bring the same level of intensity and laser-like soprano that is all to familiar to attendees  of past City Opera triumphs, including Intermezzo, Lizzie Borden and last season's revival of Esther. Myra is a psychic who resorts to kidnapping and fraud in a last-ditch effort to legitimize her gifts and social standing. We predict... that the opera will have a tragic ending.

Stephen Schwartz rose to fame as a Broadway composer. Among his credits include the scores for Godspell, Pippin, and the biggest show on Broadway at the moment: Wicked. This is his first opera.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Concert Review: A New Baton For Mahler's Threnody

Sean Newhouse.
Image © SeanNewhouse.com
Saturday night's concert at Symphony Hall featured Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Sean Newhouse leading the third of four performances of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Mr. Newhouse is a 30-year-old American conductor, who left the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2010 to assist BSO music director James Levine. He was promoted to the podium following 11th-hour back problems that incapacitated Mr. Levine, forcing the 68-year-old maestro to cancel his appearances this weekend.

The Mahler Ninth is a dark symphony, containing forebodings of the composer's imminent death. Although it is in four movements, its atypical structure (with the slow movements coming first and last and two fast movements in the middle) presents challenges to any conductor. The outer movements required the building of long, shining bridges of sound, delicate structures of strings and wind that breathe and yearn with longing. The central scherzo and Rondo-burleske walk the line between sentiment and grotesque parody.

Mr. Newhouse proved himself up to the task on Saturday night, leading a vigorous performance that balanced the extremes of this long, difficult work. From the faltering heartbeat that starts the first movement to the final, shimmering violin figures of the last few bars, Mr. Newhouse was firmly in control of his orchestra. But the young conductor did more than just beat time--he offered his own interpretation of the work, making Mahler's last completed symphony a profound and deeply humanistic statement.


Nowhere was this more apparent than in the third movement. Marked Rondo-Burleske, its bizarre structure allows Mahler to vent his rage with bitter irony. But under Mr. Newhouse, the burlesque became a subtle, almost Bach-like fugue. The theme was tossed nimbly from section to section. The entire orchestra took flight as the trumpets (led by principal Thomas Rolfs) came in to soothe the conflict, playing a warm, comforting theme. The entire orchestra took up this new theme, until a blast of brass and percussion ended the Rondo where it began.

The last Adagio expresses something far more difficult: the infinite. A heart-wrenching melody in the cellos sings out. It extends into a lengthy contemplation which includes quotes from three (and possibly four) other Mahler works. Robert Sheena's English horn offered thoughtful commentary throughout. And the harp part maintained Mahler's faltering heart-beat played by principal Jessica Zhou.

Mahler left his final thoughts to the strings, led by concertmaster Malcome Lowe. Given the late substitution on the podium, Mr. Lowe's role in the success of this performance cannot be overstated. As the great orchestra faded, brass players put down their horns, and percussionists laid their mallets to rest. All that was left were the strings, playing quiet bits of melody that quoted from Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. The great sonic space of Symphony Hall was suddenly empty of all but those thin musical threads. Mr. Newhouse slowly lowered his arms, and the piece ended in profound, reverent silence.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Back Issues" Sideline James Levine

James Levine onstage with the BSO, in happier days.
Photo by Michael Lutch © 2010 Boston Symphony Orchestra
Greetings from Boston, where your intrepid reviewer is braving winter weather and Boston traffic (OK, I took the bus) to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra tonight, in their "home" building of Symphony Hall. The program: Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The conductor: Sean Newhouse.
Sean Newhouse will conduct tonight's Mahler Symphony No. 9
Photo © SeanNewhouse.com
Sean Newhouse?

Yes. James Levine has cancelled this weekend's scheduled concerts. According to a statement by the BSO, the conductor was suffering "ill effects from a recent procedure addressing his ongoing back issues." Mr. Newhouse, an assistant conductor with the orchestra, led Thursday and Friday's performances, and will conduct the remaining two concerts as well.

An article in today's Boston Globe by Jeremy Eichler indicated that the conductor, who currently pulls double duty at the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera as music director for both organizations, is apparently willing to negotiate a "reduced" role with the venerable orchestra. In an interview with the Globe, the conductor's brother Thomas Levine confirmed the rumor that the BSO wants to negotiate a lesser position for Mr. Levine.

At a recent press conference announcing the Metropolitan Opera's 2011-2012 season, Met general manager Peter Gelb affirmed that Mr. Levine has no intention of relenqushing control or reducing his duties at the opera house, where he has conducted since 1971. Mr. Levine held the post of Artistic Director at the Met from 1986 to 2004.

This season, Mr. Levine is schedule to conduct the Met's upcoming productions of Wozzeck and Die Walküre. Nexthe conductor plans to unveil the new Met stagings of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, closing out the 2012 spring season with three complete readings of the Ring cycle. This ambitious schedule is in addition to his duties at Tanglewood this summer and with the BSO next season in the final year of his Boston contract.

A rumor circulating on various opera blogs before the Met press conference speculated that Mr. Levine may soon accept the post of Music Director Emeritus at the Met, giving way to principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi and others, and staying on in an advisory position. Mr. Gelb vociferously denied rumors of this change at the press conference.

Watch this space for future updates concerning Mr. Levine, as well as a review of tonight's Mahler 9 featuring Mr. Newhouse on the podium.

Opera Review: Who's Afraid of Cardillac?

The Officer (Steven Sanders, l.) confronts Cardillac (Sanford Sylvan, r.) in a tense moment.
Photo from the dress rehearsal of Cardillac by Clive Grainger 

© 2011 Clive Grainger/ Opera Boston
On Friday evening, Opera Boston offered the New England premiere of Paul Hindemith's Cardillac, a rarely performed, but influential German opera. Baritone Sanford Sylvan gave a towering performance in the difficult title role.

Based on Mademoiselle de Scudéri, a story by the writer/composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, Cardillac is an early example of mystery fiction: the story of a goldsmith in the Paris of Louis XIV, who murders his customers in order to resume possession of his jewelry. Although a success at the work's 1926 premiere, Hindemith later revised the opera, adding a final act and softening the title character's sharp edges. The rise of the Nazis and the flight of Hindemith to America consigned Cardillac to obscurity.

The Opera Boston production made a good argument for the unrevised 90-minute Cardillac, playing the three acts without intermission. Director Nic Mumi updated the story to a modern jewelry boutique, some time in the "near future." Erhard Rom's set was dominated by three tilted white flats, surfaces that allowed the actors to cast gigantic shadows at climactic moments. A huge, reversed banner advertising René Cardillac as a "fashion name" like Fendi or Gucci adorned the proscenium. Hi-Def televisions advertised his wares, and a series of sculptures and flying tables raised and lowered, occasionally revealing the corpses of the homicidal jeweler's latest victims.

Sanford Sylvan showed exceptional versatility and range in the title part, taking his baritone down to the depths of Cardillac's depravity and floating pianissimo high notes when needed. His portrayal made the jeweler's decision to kill his customers seem almost reasonable, pulling the audience in as co-conspirators as he preyed upon the elite. The Canadian baritone controlled the stage every time he was on it, from his interactions with his daughter, to the final confession and death scene.

As Cardillac's Daughter, (in the tradition of many early 20th century German operas, most of the characters are nameless) soprano Sol Kim Bentley sang with a powerful, spirited instrument, never unpleasing to the ear. She was well paired with heroic tenor Steven Sanders as the Officer, a young buck who confronts Cardillac, wanting to woo his daughter, only to be seduced by the lure of gold. Mr. Sanders handled the high tessitura, and had an heroic stage presence. Although his fine instrument vanished for a few bars in the last act, the tenor recovered for a strong finish.

Part of the difficulty of staging Cardillac is in its music, which combines the chromatic complexity of Richard Strauss with the intricate polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach. By fusing these two clashing styles, Hindemith made that contrast the driving force of his 90-minute score. Cardillac demands heroic effort, not just from the brass (that's the norm in operas of this era) but also from the woodwinds, whose constant commentary on the action forms the backbone of the opera. Newly appointed Opera Boston music director Gil Rose never let the momentum slip, maintaining the air of mystery and intrigue throughout.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Roméo et Juliette

Hei-Kyung Hong will sing Juliette.
Photo © The Metropolitan Opera
Charles Gounod followed up the smash success of Faust with this ultra-romantic setting of William Shakespeare's tragedy. This is one of the most succesful operatic settings of a Shakespeare play. By paring down the drama and focusing on the two young lovers, the librettist team of Jules Barbier and Michele Carré created the ideal vehicle for a tenor and soprano to sing gorgeous French love-music on the stage.

The best known highlight from this opera is "Je veux vivre", also known as Juliette's Waltz, a lilting showpiece for the diva that remains one of the best tunes Gounod ever wrote. This revival of the Met's 2005 production by Guy Joosten and Johannes Lieckar emphasizes the work's Renaissance origins, putting the lovers in cosmic settings including an onstage orrery and an astrolabe. This revival pairs tenor Piotr Beczala (fresh off his successful Rodolfo in La bohème) with Korean soprano Hei-Kyung Hong. Ms. Hong has been announced as a last-minute replacement for Romanian diva Angela Gheorghiu, who cancelled the night before the premiere.

Did you know?
While this is the best known and most frequently performed version of the Shakespeare play, there have been 24 operatic adaptations of the play. Other notable versions include Hector Berlioz' symphonic drama of the same title, Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuletti e il Montecchi ("The Capulets and the Montagues") and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's musical West Side Story.

Recording Recommendations
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Emil Cooper (Sony, 1947, released 2010)
Roméo Jussi Björling
Juliette: Bidú Sayão
Friar Laurence: Nicola Moscena
Mercutio: John Brownlee
Fans of French opera have long known about this famous Feb. 1, 1947 broadcast recording which paired Swedish super-tenor Jussi Björling with Brazilian diva Bidú Sayão. And it's been available before on the German label Cantus. But this classic set, recorded from the stage of the old opera house is a welcome arrival in the catalogue. It captures the young Mr. Björling at his most ardent, soaring to new heights in Romeo's romantic music. He is well-paired with Ms. Sayão and the set crackles with the energy of their interactions. Conducted by Emil Cooper, who specialized in the French repertory at the old Met.

Orchestra and Chorus of Toulouse cond. Michel Plasson (EMI Classics, 1998)
Roméo Roberto Alagna
Juliette: Angela Gheorghiu
Friar Laurence: Jose Van Dam
Mercutio: Simon Keenlyside

The so-called "love couple" made a number of opera recordings in the 1990s for EMI. Among them, this much-needed three-disc set of Roméo et Juliette. Roberto Alagna always sounds better when singing in French. Here, he tackles the role of Shakespeare's ardent young lover. His performance is all the more convincing because he is wooing Angela Gheorghiu, his wife. Their chemistry is what drives this set. Michel Plasson offers his usual, expert interpretation of Gounod and there is a fine supporting cast.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, Renata Scotto!

Renata Scotto as Butterfly.
Photo © Metropolitan Opera Archives.
We'd like to take a moment to tip the top hat (a day late) to Renata Scotto, the great soprano who was one of the most powerful interpreters of Butterfly, Lucia, and other vulnerable ladies of the operatic stage up until her retirement from singing in 2002.

La Scotto was nicknamed "Little Renata" as she arrived onstage in 1952, several years after Renata Tebaldi. She made her debut as Butterfly but her breakthrough performance was in the title role of Alfredo Catalani's La Wally at La Scala, opposite "Big Renata" in the title role and tenor Mario del Monaco. Ms. Scotto received 15 curtain calls that night for her performance. Her colleagues received only seven each, and a star was born.

Her 1964 recording of Butterfly is the first of two that she made in the course of a long discography that also includes La Traviata, Andrea Chenier, and Cavalleria Rusticana. It was conducted by Sir John Barbirolli and recorded in Rome with a stellar cast remains the industry standard of that particular opera.


Ms. Scotto did not possess the spinto instrument that is ideally suited to Puccini. No, what made her interpretation so moving was the smaller, more vulnerable size of her instrument and her ability to act with her voice, drawing the character of the loved, then abandoned courtesan with a fine ink brush.

Part of the reason for that is the ardent performance of Carlo Bergonzi as B.F. Pinkerton. Mr. Bergonzi makes Pinkerton into the most charming schmuck to ever sail the seven seas. The duet at the end of Act I is medicine for the ears, and even leaves the listener believing (even for a moment) that this most poignant of Puccini tragedies will end happily.

The second act is completely dominated by La Scotto. Her rendition of "Un Bel Di" is heartbreaking because she points every word of the aria with sincere belief that the schmuck she married is coming back. The final suicide is devastating, aided by masterful conducting from Sir John Barbirolli in his first-ever opera recording.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Concert Review: A Little Nightmare Music

Gergiev's Mahler cycle continues with a shaky Seventh.
Valery Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Seventh on Wednesday night.
Gustav Mahler's five-movement Seventh Symphony has struggled to find its place in the repertory since its 1908 premiere. But the "Song of the Night", (as it is known to Mahler aficionadoes) is one of his most innovative creations, a work that maintains a distinct, nocturnal atmosphere until it blazes forth in bright sunlight.

Valery Gergiev conducted the Seventh on Wednesday night, leading the London Symphony Orchestra in the first of three concerts this week at Avery Fisher Hall. The concerts mark the end of the Ossetian conductor's complete survey of the Mahler symphonies, which began in October with a five-concert stand at Carnegie Hall. However, Mr. Gergiev's interpretive choices did a tremendous disservice to the work's already shady reputation.

The Seventh opens with a solemn call for "tenor horn", (Mahler's marking) played here on a Wagner tuba. The horn-call went off, but the movement, a night-time march, rapidly went askew. Mr. Gergiev would pick one tempo and then suddenly accelerate, moving back and forth between allegro and allegro assai. Unable to keep a steady pace, the LSO players shifted speeds at Mr. Gergiev's whim, making the music sound anarchic. Only in the coda, with its second horn call, did the orchestra (and audience) find peace.

The three central sections of the symphony consist of two nocturnes, (termed Nachtmusik by the composer) flanking a central scherzo. The first of these was sped up, from a stealthy patrol to a hurried tip-toe through the thicket. Mr. Gergiev has taken this approach to Mahler's slow movements before. It doesn't work.


The scherzo (marked schattenhaft, or "shadow-like") did not terrify. It was taken at a quick clip, and the sprung rhythms, squeaking winds and ominous rumblings failed to cohere into the stuff of nightmares. The central trio section offered some redemption, but this most difficult of Mahler movements lacked focus.

Things got better in the second Nachtmusik, some of the most profound love-music ever written by Mahler. The sense of bliss and secrecy, so central to this dark-toned symphony finally descended, as the orchestra's strings and winds got a chance in the spotlight. Accompanied by mandolin and guitar, the woodwinds sighed forth in a romantic outpouring. Here was music that Mr. Gergiev understood, but the bliss was not to last.

The final rondo is a blinding blast of brass and timpani. With broad, unblinking daylight, Mahler banishes the darkness that dominates the first four movements. He throws in quotes from Die Meistersinger, evoking an old-fashioned German-style celebration complete with Bach-style polyphonic sections. However, for this to work, the brass chorales and jogging fugato sections demand precise timing and control.

Mr. Gergiev displayed neither.

The London brass sounded enthusiastic, blowing hard but making forced, imprecise entrances that undermined the entire movement. The fanfares sounded like a drunken parade, an interpretive choice that suits the early Wunderhorn symphonies but not the Seventh. Perhaps that was Mr. Gergiev's intent: to emphasize the irony in Mahler's most sincere, naturalistic, and yes, optimistic work. Both composer and symphony deserved better.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A(nother) Look Ahead At the Met in 2011-2012

Visit the completed 2011-2012 Metropolitan Opera Preview.

A young opera-goer prepares for the Met's new production of Siegfried in 3D.
Five Things We're Looking Forward To:

1) The revival of The Makropoulos Case with Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty, a role that I'd travel across the country to see her sing. Luckily, I live in New York.


2) Benjamin Britten's powerful nautical drama Billy Budd, 'cos I've never seen it.

3) David Daniels in The Enchanted Island. The countertenor is among the greatest artists specializing in baroque repertory today.

4) Mussorgsky's Khovanschina, the powerful historic drama returning to the Met stage for the first time since 1999. Not as well known as Boris Godounov, this is the story of the Khovansky uprising against the Tsar Peter The Great. Needless to say, it doesn't end happily.

5) Anna sings Anna. (OK. Got the headline out of the way. Will try not to use it again.--Ed.) Ms. Netrebko sings the title role in Anna Bolena. Donizetti's drama of decapitation has never been performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and it's a century overdue. This David MacVicar production is the start of a trilogy of "Donizetti Queens", with Maria Stuarda scheduled for 2012 and Roberto Devereux planned for 2013.
Violetta (Marina Poplavskaya) knows that the operas
start 30 minutes earlier next year. Adjust your clocks accordingly.
Photo by Ken Howard  © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera
Some Things We're Not Looking Forward To:

1) Higher ticket prices. The Met is raising its prices by 2.7% for subscribers and 4.2% for individual tickets. The $25 seats in the Family Circle will not go up in price.

2) Operas next season will start at 7:30pm at the latest in an effort to get everybody home on time--and keep the musicians union happy.

3) The atom bomb Faust. Not three words I ever want to put in the same sentence.

4) The revival of Philip Glass' Satyagraha, which was performed without Met titles in its initial run. The opera's in SANSKRIT, folks. A translation would be helpful.

5) The Met chorus' difficult balancing act in Act II of the new "machine" production of Götterdämmerung.

Growing Up With Sibelius

My father was the son of Finnish immigrants. So I grew up with the music of Jean Sibelius. Finlandia, the Valse Triste, the Second Symphony were in regular rotation in our apartment, an old-style high-ceilinged Finnish co-op in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Today, I live in another apartment in the same building.
100 Finnish Marks, with Jean Sibelius on the bill.
These bills are no longer in circulation, since Finland uses the Euro.
It's hard to explain what Finlandia means to me--and still does. I've never been to Finland, much less Karelia where my family comes from. But this is ten minutes of music that "feels" like my national identity: the stern opening, the sturdy march, the tender, haunting center section, and the wild frenzy of brass and percussion that brings the whole thing home.

Finlandia played an important role in my birth. The "B" melody was the alma mater of the Brooklyn high school where my parents taught, met and married. And when I went with my buddies to see the Bruce Willis action flick Die Hard 2, the presence of the work on the movie soundtrack (orchestrated and arranged by Michael Kamen) had me ignoring the crashed airplanes, machine-gun battles and wisecracks of the film. (The director, Renny Harlin, is another Finn.)

Sibelius is the most famous composer to come from Finland. His music was heavily influenced by the folklore of that country, the epic poem Kalevala, and the snow-swept pine forests and frozen lakes of this northeast corner of Europe. Most importantly, his works, (particularly the tone poem Finlandia, became the soundtrack of Finnish national identity and independence from Russian rule, achieved in 1917.

As I grew up and found myself working in the music industry, I came to learn and love not just those childhood tone poems, but the major works of this great composer. His output is centered around eight symphonies: the "song symphony" Kullervo and seven numbered examples of the genre. Each of the seven is an exercise in brevity, from the patriotic early symponies, to the tight-lipped Fourth, to his Seventh, which packs an entire four-movement sonata form into about 17 minutes with each movement flowing into one another like fast-running water.
Sibelius in later life.

I started today with the juxtaposition of the Fourth and Fifth, two very different works. For the record, I was listening to the Paavo Berglund recordings on EMI with the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra, though I also own good cycles from Sir Colin Davis (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra--currently out of print) and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladmir Ashkenazy. The Fourth (as I mentioned above) is a dark, cynical exercise in tragedy, where themes are expressed, developed, and then curtly cut off in mid-expression, like a blooming flower snipped at the stem.

The Fifth is a much warmer piece, rich and expansive. The final movement, where a stately, down-shifting theme on the horns plays as accompaniment to an elegaic outburst in the strings, stands as the most beautiful, most noble thing ever written by this composer--and that includes the second theme in Finlandia.

A statue in honor of Sibelius, part of the
Sibelius Monument in Helsinki.
Sibelius stopped composing in 1926, (my Dad was three years old) following the premiere of his tone poem Tapiola and incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest. He lived for another three decades. His music, championed by conductors like Eugene Ormandy and Serge Koussevitzky, remained a popular staple of concert repertory in the United States, even though his work was savaged by German and British critics. Then again, Sibelius once said:

"Pay no attention to what the critics say. Remember, there has never been a statue raised in the honor of a critic."

Alex Ross' excellent book The Rest Is Noise has a terrific chapter on Sibelius. Mr. Ross mentions that the composer was working on an expansive Eighth Symphony, which he planned as a choral work along the same lines as Beethoven's Ninth or Mahler's Resurrection. The composer decided one morning to burn the score, along with a number of other musical manuscripts. His decision was our irreplaceable loss.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Lucia di Lammermoor

Natalie Dessay as Lucia, the bride of Lammermoor.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera
The bride of Lammermoor returns to the Met stage, in Mary Zimmerman's entertaining yet controversial production. Natalie Dessay reprises the title role.

Gaetano Donizetti's opera is (along with Bellini's Norma) the most important, most beloved example of bel canto tragedy. Bel canto means "beautiful song," and the Donizetti style requires just that: long vocal lines, a high tessitura, and above all, a sweetness of tone and delivery, even in the most histrionic moments.

Lucia has the most famous of these: the 17-minute "Mad Scene" where a stunned, blood-splattered Lucia retreats into insanity rather than confront the fact that she's just killed her husband. Natalie Dessay has made this role something of a specialty in the last five years, and she sang the prima of this Mary Zimmerman production in 2007.

Mary Zimmerman opted to set the first half of Lucia against a serie of filmed backgrounds representing the lochs, mountain crags, and natural scenery of the Scottish highlands. As Lucia descends into madness, things start to get weird. The Mad Scene is sung beneath a giant moon. And as to the fate of Edgardo (tenor Joseph Calleja): you'll just have to see for yourself.

Recommended Recordings:
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1955)
Lucia: Maria Callas
Edgardo: Giuseppe di Stefano
Enrico: Rolando Panerai
Maria Callas made three recordings of Lucia: in 1953, '55, and '56. The '55 recording pairs La Stupenda with conductor Herbert von Karajan and tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. This is an exciting live recording of the opera. There are some traditional cuts, stage noises, and mono sound.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Thomas Schippers (ABC/Westminster, 1970)
Lucia: Beverly Sills
Edgardo: Carlo Bergonzi
Enrico: Piero Cappucilli

One of the great Beverly Sills recordings of the major Donizetti operas from the 1970s, this set boasts a knockout pairing of Carlo Bergonzi and Piero Cappucilli. Sills takes more of the bel canto "songbird" approach to the role, navigating the Mad Scene with fearless control and dazzling coloratura. Back in the catalogue, thanks the the Universal Classics decision to reissue recordings from the defunct ABC label.

Orchestre de l'Opera National de Lyon cond. Evelino Pido (Virgin Classics, 2002)
Lucie: Natalie Dessay
Edgar: Roberto Alagna
Henri: Ludovic Tezier
Natalie Dessay in the role of Lucia--make that Lucie. Yes, this is the French version of the opera, and the only recording of Gaetano Donizetti's 1838 revision of the opera for the Paris stage. Featuring Roberto Alagna (who always sounds better in his native language) and Ms. Dessay's fearless assault on the Mad Scene, this set makes an engaging alternative.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Songs from Steeltown, USA

Two songs from Marc Blitzstein's superb (and pro-union) musical Cradle Will Rock, which was subject to a government shutdown before its premiere, and then taken down the street and performed anyway. Ms. Patti LuPone as Moll.




"I'm Checking Home Now"





"The Nickel Under Your Foot"


Two songs from Marc Blitzstein's superb (and pro-union) musical Cradle Will Rock, which was subject to a government shutdown before its premiere, and then taken down the street and performed anyway. Ms. Patti LuPone as Moll.

The story of the show was made into a movie by Tim Robbins, also called Cradle Will Rock. For the movie, Emily Watson played Moll opposite John Turturro as the actor who originated the role of Larry Foreman in the show. Hank Azaria played piano and did his own singing as Marc Blitzstein.

Posted in support of the Wisconsin union workers, and their struggle in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin against Governor Scott "Mr. Mister" Walker.

To help the protestors, and make a donation to make sure they stay fed in their fight for  collective bargaining rights,  visit Pastrami for Protesters and make a donation today!

Monday, February 21, 2011

CD Review: Domingo's Verismo Hat Trick

The Hat Squad: Placìdo Domingo, Angela Gheorgiu, conductor Alberto Veronese
Photo © 2008 Universal Classics/Deutsche Grammophon
Placìdo Domingo adds the umpteenth recorded role (actually his 35th or 36th, I've lost count) to his repertory with this stellar recording of Fedora, an almost-forgotten opera by Umberto Giordano, the verismo composer whose best known work remains Andrea Chenier.

This set from Deutsche Grammophon, (recorded in January of 2008) is the tenor's third collaboration with conductor Alberto Veronesi, the innovative Italian maestro who is digging up lost operas by important composers in the early 20th century. Some of these works (Puccini's Edgar) are early products of the composer. Others (Leoncavallio's I Medici) were the beginnings of ambitious Wagnerian projects that never reached fruition.

Fedora is neither of these. Written in 1898, it is a sort of a cousin to Tosca, although the Puccini opera came out two years later. Both works are based on plays by Victorien Sardou. Sardou wrote both parts: Fedora Romazova and Floria Tosca for the divine French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Because of its theatrical heritage and the Tosca connection, the role is something of a favorite with divas who can handle its difficulties and sing the opera's libretto with a straight face. Renata Tebaldi recorded it, and Mirella Freni chose Fedora as her final bow at the Met.


Here, the Countess is played by Angela Gheorghiu. The Romanian soprano swoops through the role, coming across as a blend of aloofness and passion. She is at her best in the last act, when the showpiece aria "La montanini mia" allows her voice to bloom. This is not the most distinguished performance of the role--it lacks the fire of a Tebaldi or a Freni, but it is a good performance. And the pairing  with Mr. Domingo makes for interesting listening.

The role of Loris has been a favorite of Mr. Domingo's for many years. In fact, he has preserved it before, on the  Met DVD opposite Mirella Freni. On this recording, he sings with the same freshness and vitality that he brought to the other projects in Maestro Veronesi's series. He is clearly enthusiastic about playing the role of a nobleman turned nihilist hitman, and skates blithely over the absurdities and anachronisms of the opera's libretto.

Considering that Mr. Domingo made this recording two years ago, his tenor range is intact. The voice has darkened over the past two decades, but he still pulls out the top drawer of high notes when the work calls for them. This is a canny tenor making the most of his remaining resources and his knowledge of the studio to deliver an exciting performane that he might not be able to reproduce onstage. His Act I reading of "Amor ti Vieta" makes one reach for the back button to hear it twice.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Heroes Anonymous: Five Recordings of Lohengrin

"I want to know your name. Tell me your name."
--Brenda Strong, Catch Me If You Can
Johan Botha and Emily Magee in Act I of Lohengrin
Photo by Dan Rest, © 2011 Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lohengrin is one of Wagner's most popular operas. The medieval of a maiden in distress rescued by a (literal) knight in shining armor was transformed into a grand opera of mythic proportion, and one of Wagner's greatest successes.

The opera is currently playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with South African tenor Johan Botha in the title role. To warm your ears up for the Swan Knight's arrival, here's a list of great recordings of Lohengrin.

This opera has been lucky on disc. That's to say, there are some awesome recordings out there. Here's the top five:

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (Decca/Philips 1962)
Lohengrin: Jess Thomas
Elsa von Brabant Anja Silja
Friedrich von Telramund: Ramon Vinay
Ortrud: Astrid Varnay
Heinrich: Franz Crass
In and out of print, this live recording was made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1962, a very good year for opera. Anja Silja was maybe 20 when she recorded this, lending a youthful vulnerability to the role of Elsa. Jess Thomas is in good form as Lohengrin. But the real attraction here is Astrid Varnay as the villainous Ortrud. Her added sprechstimme cackle ("Gott?! Hech-heh!") in Act Two is worth the price of the set alone. Also, this is the best of the four Lohengrins recorded at Bayreuth, taped in front of an actual audience with a minimum of stage noise.


Vienna Philharmonic cond. Rudolf Kempe (EMI, 1964)
Lohengrin: Jess Thomas
Elsa von Brabant Elisabeth Grummer
Friedrich von Telramund: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Ortrud: Christa Ludwig
Heinrich: Gottlob Frick
This is pretty much the "standard" recording of the opera, and it gets re-released about once a decade. Jess Thomas again, this time in a studio setting. He is surrounded by a solid cast, (Grummer is etheral, Fischer-Dieskau and Frick perfect casting) and this captures the Vienna Philharmonic at their peak, right around the time they were finishing the Solti Ring. The recorded sound is excellent and the choral singing, superb. Rudolf Kempe is an exceptional conductor, and this is his finest hour on the podium. A first choice in most record guides, but not my personal favorite.


Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik (DG, 1971)
Lohengrin: James King
Elsa von Brabant Gundula Janowitz
Friedrich von Telramund: Gerd Neinstedt
Ortrud: Gwyneth Jones
Heinrich: Karl Ridderbusch
This is probably my favorite of the bunch--another "unknown" DG recording led by Maestro Kubelik. Except that this one actually got released. The attraction here is the second act, with the pairing of Gundula Janowitz and Gwyneth Jones as Elsa and Ortrud. La Jones has never sounded better, using her demented soprano to great effect in this villainous role.

James King is an effective Swan Knight. The cast is filled out by Bayreuth veterans Gerd Neinstedt and Karl Ridderbusch. Kubelik leads a sweeping, stylish performance of the score.


Staatskapelle Berlin: Daniel Barenboim (Teldec/WBC, 1998)
Lohengrin: Peter Seiffert
Elsa von Brabant Emmy Magee
Friedrich von Telramund: Falk Struckmann
Ortrud: Deborah Polaski
Heinrich: Rene Pape
This is one of only two Lohengrins that opens up the "standard" cut in "In Fernem Land," including the second half of the aria, which was cut by conductor Franz Liszt at the opera's premiere for fear that the singer could not cope with the high range of the part and the extra exposition. This is part of Daniel Barenboim's survey of the ten "mature" Wagner operas for Teldec (now Warner Brothers Classics) and features his signature conducting style.

The cast features Emmy Magee as Elsa (a role she is currently singing in the Chicago production), Peter Schreier as a rich-toned Lohengrin. Falk Struckmann and Deborah Polaski are in fine snarling form as Friedrich von Telramund and his scheming wife, Ortrud. Full review here.



WDR Symphonie-Orchester Köln cond. Semyon Bychkov (Profil-G. Haenssler, 2009)
Lohengrin: Johan Botha
Elsa von Brabant: Adrienne Pieczonka
Friedrich von Telramund: Falk Struckmann
Ortrud: Petra Lang
Heinrich: Kwangchal Youn
This was a welcome surprise, made in Cologne over several concert performances. Johan Botha is at his best as Lohengrin--he is effective in the concert setting and sings with solid tone and understanding of the character beyond being a knight in shining armor. Adrienne Pieczonka is a suitable, dreamy Elsa.

Falk Struckmann is a stentorian Telramund, especially in Act I. However, his scene with Ortrud (Petra Lang) is chilling. Semyon Bychkov's orchestra features exceptionally warm brass playing, recorded at high, but not overwhelming dynamic levels. The chorus kicks ass. A compelling modern alternative, and the first Lohengrin to be released in SACD.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Opera Review: Cashing the Czech

The Bartered Bride Marries Met and Juilliard.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Layla Claire and Alexander Lewis in Act II of The Bartered Bride.
Photo © 2011 The Juilliard School/Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera's new collaboration with the Juilliard School got off to a winning start with Stephen Wadsworth's production of The Bartered Bride, seen Thursday night at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The Czech opera was performed in a new English translation by J. D. McClatchy, and incorporated 20th century references into the libretto.

Bedrich Smetana's comedy of small-town romance and arranged marriages has been away from New York stages for the last 15 years. This thrilling performance, conducted by James Levine made this writer wonder why we've had to wait so long. Maestro Levine led an enthusiastic reading that brought out the charm, laughter and joy in this underrated score. And he was a little caught up in it: the Met's music director was heard merrily singing along with the score.


He was helped by a fine young cast, led by soprano Layla Claire as Marenka, the bride-to-be who finds herself at the eye of a romantic hurricane when her planned marriage to Jenik is thrown over in favor of an arranged match with the son of Mischa, a rich farmer to whom her father owes money.

This is a complex, multi-dimensional role with a high tessitura and a number of rapid-fire emotional changes that can challenge any singing actress. Ms. Claire mined the rich comic vein of the score but also generated pathos, particularly in the heartbreaking spotlight aria that serves as the (serious) climax to the final act.

Marenka is deeply in love with Jenik, (tenor Paul Appleby), who manipulates events throughout the opera to produce a happy result. Mr. Appleby brought a brash attitude to the part and a pleasing tenor with light baritonal coloring. His performance took wing in his rapid-fire "contract duet" with the marriage broker Kecal, played with great comic gusto by bass Jordan Bisch.

Jenik's competition is Vacal, the most challenging part in this opera. Smetana was a fearless innovator, and he created what might be the only tenor role to be hampered by a musical stutter. As played by Alexander Lewis, Vacal's handicap became a source of charm, and the opera's most uplifting moment comes when the singer overcomes his alalia syllabaris and sings out. When he starts dancing in the third act, it is a moment of real joy.

Mr. Wadsworth's staging moved the action to a chic Czech café, sometime in the 20th century. The choristers slowly change from street garb to traditional kroje costumes. When a "real Czechoslovakian" circus hits the sleepy little town in the third act, the whole production takes a welcome turn for the surreal, complete with dancing bears, a bearded lady (dancer Miles Mykkanen, on point, like a ballerina) and a remarkable contortionist (Jacob Stainback).

This thrilling revival of one of the greatest operatic comedies of the 19th century plays for only one more performancer, but fear not, opera lovers, it's slated for the Met--sometime in 2014.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Opera Review: Bishop Takes Sacrifice

Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met
Paul Groves (left) and Placìdo Domingo, trapped in Iphigénie en Tauride
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera
The dreaded "backstage plague" struck the Met on Wednesday night, sidelining mezzo-soprano Susan Graham for that evening's performance of Iphigénie en Tauride. Placìdo Domingo went on as Orest, although he too was suffering from a cold.

The story of Iphigénie picks up where Elektra leaves off. Orestes is hounded by the Furies, running for his life in the company of his friend Pylade. He winds up in Tauride (modern-day Scythia) where he is scheduled to be sacrificed by the high priestess of Diana. What he doesn't know is that this is his sister, Iphigénie.

The Metropolitan Opera makes a policy of hiring cover singers to take over a role at the last minute in the event of illness. On Wednesday evening, it was Elizabeth Bishop in the title role. Ms. Bishop, a winner at the 1993 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, made a strong impression as the Greek princess-turned-priestess in Gluck's drama.

Like Ms. Graham, she is an American singer, with a good command of French and a strong onstage presence. However, she was at her best in the lower reaches of the role, as her voice tended to compress and develop a vibrato whenever she reached for her higher range. She was well matched with the ailing Mr. Domingo as Orestes. The 70-year-old super-tenor managed some fine, heroic singing despite his illness. There was nothing wrong with his acting.


With one star down and another suffering, that left tenor Paul Groves to carry the evening as Orestes' best friend, Pylade. Mr. Groves has a fine heroic instrument and an idiomatic command of French. He took the lead in the third act, singing his ensemble with the other two leads as Orestes and Pylade each attempt to be first on the altar under Iphigénie's knife.

The second half of the show had more momentum than the first, with a driven dynamic intensity as the cast settled into their roles. Patrick Summers led a crystal-clear performance in the pit, allowing the audience to hear the radical, almost revolutionary nature of Gluck's score, which paved the way for every opera that followed in the next 250 years.

Stephen Wadsworth's production remains an imaginative exercise in grimness that combines elements of Indiana Jones and Saw--imagining Diana's temple and its bloody altar as a chamber of horrors. That said, the imaginative use of actual torches on the stage, carefully choreographed ritual dances and (unaccountably) a ballet that takes place behind a big, solid wall (thus, invisible to the audience) makes this one of the more innovative productions of the Peter Gelb era.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Announces 2011-2012 Season

This is all very exciting, but you can now visit the 2012-2013 Metropolitan Opera Season Announcement.


Visit the Superconductor 2011-2012 Metropolitan Opera Season Preview, with profile pages on all the operas being done at the Met this year.


"We try to keep drama confined to the stage, but as you know this is an opera house, which is why your eyes are constantly glued to the opera blogs. I check them myself to make sure I haven't retired."
--Met general manager Peter Gelb, at today's press conference.
Gary Lehman is Siegfried.

The Met announced its 2011-2012 season with a press conference that was broadcast in live streaming audio on the Internet. Since I'm a subscriber, I got to listen, and since I'm a blogger, I get to write about it.

Here's what's on tap for next year:

The Met has announced seven new productions for 2011-2012, counting the forthcoming stagings of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung that will take the boards next Fall and Winter.

The other five new stagings include (badly needed) new productions of Don Giovanni and Faust, which will hopefully be better than their predecessors: the terminally dull brick-and-mortar Don and the ridonkulous 2005 Faust that featured Rene Pape prancing around the stage in a foam rubber "devil suit" inspired by a William Blake painting.
Deborah Voigt is Brunnhilde in
Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

THE NEW PRODUCTIONS:
Anna Bolena Sept. 26 (Opening Night)
Anna Netrebko goes under the axe in the Met's first-ever production of the Donizetti drama based on the life of the unfortunate Tudor queen who was indirectly responsible for founding the Church of England. This is the first of a projected Donizetti "Queens" trilogy: Maria Stuarda is planned for 2012, and Roberto Devereux for 2013. David McVicar is scheduled to direct all three productions.

All three operas are being staged at the Met for the very first time.

Hey, it only took them 180 years.


Don Giovanni Oct. 13
The Met has taken a few cracks at Giovanni in the last few decades. Franco Zeffirelli tackled the opera, with mixed results--in fact the Zeff Don was the first of his mega-productions to get tossed on the dust-heap. Its follow-up (by Marthe Keller) was a dull brick-and-mortar affair that put audiences to sleep. The new, sexed-up Don will be directed by Michael Grandage, the Tony Award-winner who staged Red. Mariusz Kwiecien sings the title role in the fall. Gerald "Doctor Atomic" Finley will sing it in the spring. James Levine conducts.

Siegfried Oct. 27
(Now in eye-popping 3-D!)
Despite the late-hour decision by Ben Heppner to cancel his appearance in the title role, this installment of Wagner's Ring should allow director Robert Lepage a chance to show his stuff. Gary Lehman sings Siegfried opposite Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde. This is also the first Met production to make use of 3D digital "fractal" technology projected onto the planks of the Machine. 3D glasses will not be required, robbing the Met Opera Shop of a marketing opportunity.

Faust Nov. 29
Jonas Kaufmann sings the title role in Faust.
This new staging by Canadian director Des MacAnuff is a co-production with the English National Opera Mr. McAnuff updates the opera to the 20th century and makes Goethe's medieval mystic into a mad scientist working to finish the atomic bomb, is bound to be some improvement over the Met's 2005 version of Faust, as mentioned above.

Faust stars Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and René Pape as Méphistopheles. According to a March 7 announcement, soprano Angela Gheorghiu, originally cast as Marguerite, will be replaced, by  Marina Poplavskaya. The Russian diva-on-the-rise made an excellent impression at the Met in 2010 productions of Verdi's Don Carlo as well as the lead role in La Traviata. Hopefully, Ms. Poplavskaya will be able to sing in French as well as she does in Italian.
David Daniels and Joyce DiDonato in The Enchanted Island.
The Enchanted Island Dec. 31, 2011
Directed by Phelim McDermott (whose last Broadway show was The Addams Family) Enchanted is a pastiche, built Frankenstein-style from little-known operas by Handel, Vivaldi, and others. It is a showcase for countertenor David Daniels, soprano Joyce DiDonato and other baroque specialists. Oh, and Placído Domingo is in it.

The story is a Shakespearean "interquel" with the lovers from A Midsummer Night's Dream winding up on the unknown island from The Tempest, playing off the clash between Prospero (Daniels) and Sycorax. Why the Met chose this path instead of just reviving and performing some of the complete operas, we'll never know.

Götterdämmerung Jan. 27
Robert Lepage has called this the most "social" opera of Wagner's massive Ring cycle. The Lepage Ring comes to its apocalyptic finish with the six-hour marathon of Twilight of the Gods.
  • What happens when a giant Wagnerian chorus meets Mr. Lepage's giant machine? 
  • Is there room for everybody on the stage? 
  • Will the digital Rhine flood virtually drown the assembled audience? 
  • Will Mr. Lepage light the Machine afire by plunging his broken spear into its breast as it collapses at the end, only to be renewed for the beginning of the next Das Rheingold
Stay tuned for the answers.
Anna Netrebko gets locked up in Manon.
Manon March 29
This is another Met co-production, this time with Covent Garden. Anna Netrebko is the latest diva to don Manon's finery. Piotr Beczala is her des Grieux. The production also stars Paulo Szot as Lescaut. (The baritone has apparently found his nose.) Featuring fabulous singing, fabulous outfits, and in the orchestra pit, Fabio Luisi. This new staging is directed by Laurent Pelly, whose production of La Fille du Regiment is also enjoying a revival this year.

With that, on to the Notable Revivals!

Here's the rest of the repertory, broken out by composer.


Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
Gaetano Donizetti: L'Elisir d'Amore, La Fille du Regiment
Philip Glass: Satyagraha
Georg Friedrich Händel: Rodelinda
Engelbert Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel
Leoš Janáček: The Makropoulos Case
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanschina
Giacomo Puccini: La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca
Gioachino Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia
Giuseppe Verdi: Aida, Ernani, MacbethNabucco, La Traviata
Family-friendly holiday production: Hansel & Gretel ("You know, for kids!")


The Complete Lepage Ring:
In addition to the premiere of the Lepage productions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, three complete Ring cycles are scheduled for the Spring of 2012. Hopefully, the much-ballyhooed $65 million dollar "Machine" set is up to the challenge--not to mention the singers. The Met Orchestra shouldn't have a problem, especially with James Levine conducting.

Live in HD Schedule:
Anna Bolena: Oct. 15, 2011
Siegfried: Nov. 5, 2011
Satyagraha: Nov. 19, 2011
Rodelinda: Dec. 3, 2011
Faust: Dec. 10, 2011
The Enchanted Island: Jan. 21, 2012
Götterdämmerung Feb. 11, 2012
Ernani Feb. 25, 2012
Manon April 7, 2012
La Traviata April 14, 2012

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Comparative Listening: Mahler's Symphony No. 9

Gustav Mahler's final complete symphony is a difficult, extremely personal work. Structured around an arrhythmic figure in the harp and cello (Leonard Bernstein said it represents the the composer's own failing heart), this is a massive, anguished symphony that even intimidates some Mahler aficionados.

So it was not without trepadation that I decided to make the Ninth the focus of an exercise in comparitive listening. I would listen to five of the recordings I own, in search of some understanding of what makes these recordings different and what compels the record buyer to own different versions of the same piece. This is a new feature on the site, and I hope you like it.


The contenders:


First movement: Andante comodo
The first movement of this symphony is a massive statement that starts quietly. A soft thump of harp, flute, and strings. An echoing, muted trumpet. The mood is quiet and contemplative. Slowly it builds, to a jarring, dissonant climax: the sound of a heart breaking. The climactic chords clash with the slow theme, and the whole dies away to silence.

Most conductors average about 29 minutes in this movement, a slow ramp-up of the 'heartbeat' theme followed by interjections of brass and percussion. The difference comes in how they choose to phrase the opening figure, which usually sets the pace for the whole movement.


Leonard Bernstein opts for the poetic approach. Pierre Boulez makes the minor-key brass fanfare at 11 minutes in a terrifying, forceful moment. Riccardo Chailly is slow and reflective, more restrained. Giuseppe Sinopoli, the surgeon turned conductor, is clinical and precise. However, his odd tempo choices and lack of rubato comes across as emotionless. Rafael Kubelik phrases the music with eloquence and sentimentality without tearing at itself.

Second movement: Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers.
The second movement of the Ninth is "in the form of a Ländler", the Austrian peasant dance that pops up in the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner. Mahler has added dissonant passages and squeaking clarinet trills, distorting the dance to an almost unrecognizable shape. He then interrupts himself with a boisterous trio that runs out of energy--replaced by the faltering "heartbeat" motive.

Chailly, Bernstein and Kubelik seem most at-home in this music, with Bernstein taking the most rubato in the movement. Kubelik has excellent command of Mahler's typical rhythm, as he does throughout his underrated cycle. Boulez and Sinopoli don't quite make the orchestra dance.

Third movement: Rondo-burleske
Mahler pulls out all the stops in this manic movement, reminiscent of the last movement of his Seventh. A rondo is simply a "round", a short theme repeated and usually subjected to variation. Here it is twisted into a "burlesque" form--not a stripper's dance but a grotesque, comic caper, a grimace. This is the "blowout" movement of the symphony, filled with the violence and manic emotion of the death-struggle. Or is it just the composer laughing at the cosmic joke that is life?

Leonard Bernstein is well ahead of his peers here, stepping on the accelerator in a go-for-the-throat performance that still manages to make the one slow variation sound elegaic. Pierre Boulez gives this move a clock-like precision and power. He has the best brass section.

Fourth movement: Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend. (Very slowly, and cautious)

The composer breaks convention with this final Adagio, placing the slow movement at the end. Impassioned outpourings in the strings argue with a reflective second melody played by the low winds and basses. This is followed by a very slow fugue that quotes several of the earlier Mahler symphonies and the Kindertotenlieder. The last bars fade to a reflective silence. Interestingly, the final notes are resolved by the opening of the first movement.

Bernstein and Chailly average out at 29:30 each. Theirs are diametrically opposed approaches to this music: one is impassioned, and the other contemplates infinity. Sinopoli in the middle of the pack at 25 minutes. Boulez and Kubelik are even faster: their interpretations are both eight minutes shorter at about 21:25 and 21:46 (respectively) compared to the other three conductors. All five recordings end with the gorgeous pianissimo fade-out that seems to transcend this mortal plane.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Five Operas for Valentine's Day

He's dead, Jim.
It's February 14. In addition to being Renée Fleming's birthday, today is a good day to talk about that all important component of opera.

L'amour. Amore. Liebe. любовь.

Mozart: Don Giovanni
Sure it all goes to hell for the amorous Don in Mozart's Dramma giocoso. Mozart and da Ponte conjured this libretto based on the old Spanish legend of a nobleman whose romantic conquests range into the thousands. But Mozart's greatest opera has some of his most romantic music, including the unforgettable "La ci darem la mano."

Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia
This prequel to The Marriage of Figaro finds the titular character playing cupid for Count Almaviva, who is determined to marry Rosina out from under her guardian: cranky old Dr. Bartolo. This is an immortal comedy, with memorable melodies, the famous "Largo al factotum" aria, and much manic comic business. And unlike some of the operas on this list, it ends happily!

Donizetti: L'Elisir d'Amore
There are a number of great Donizetti comedies--and this is the greatest. Elisir is the tale of a country bumpkin who woos the prettiest girl in town armed with nothing but a bottle of cheap vino (which was sold to him as a "love potion" by the duplicitous Dr. Dulcamara). And it features "Una furtiva lagrima", a signature aria from Caruso to Pavarotti to Juan Diego Florez. And it's coming to City Opera in March!

Gounod:Roméo et Juliette
Shakespeare's tragedy reimagined as French opera. There are a few operatic adaptations of the play floating around (Bellini's I Capuletti i il Montecchi comes to mind) but this version by the composer of Faust comes closest to capturing the spirit of the play. Coming to the Met next month, with Angela Gheorghiu and Matthew Polenzani in the title roles.



Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Love potions also figure prominently in Tristan, which Wagner wrote in a fit of passion for Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his patron. The romance didn't last, but the opera resulted in Wagner creating a four-hour paean to passion and adultery in medieval Cornwall.

The three-act opera starts with a famous, dissonant chord (known as the "Tristan Chord"). The dissonance then remains unresolved for three acts, up until the final apotheosis: when Isolde achieves a state of post-Romantic transcendence while singing gloriously over Tristan's corpse.

In other words, this is Wagner's "unending melody": four hours of shifting tonalities and tectonic plates of brass, strings and voices. While it's unbearably gorgeous, the score of Tristan may not be the best music to make out to. Unless that's your thing, of course.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Concert Review: Berlioz Requiem Tears the Roof Off

Robert Spano. Photo by Andrew Eccles.
Of all the major settings of the Latin Mass for the Dead, the one by Berlioz presents the thorniest problems for the conductor. On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, Robert Spano and the Orchestra of St. Luke's met those challenges with a roof-raising performance of the Berlioz Requiem, to celebrate this year's Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop.

Written in 1837, the Berlioz Requiem requires immense forces to depict the Day of Judgement. In addition to a large orchestra and massive, multi-sectional chorus, Berlioz requires sixteen kettledrums and four brass bands, stationed in different parts of the hall. In this case, they were stationed in the first and second tiers of Carnegie Hall, two on each side. In other words, in addition to all his other musical innovations, Berlioz was one of the first composers to write spatial music--a technique developed in the 20th century by such diverse artists as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pink Floyd.


The climax of this work comes early with the Tuba Mirum, a depiction of the sounding of the Last Trumpet from the Book of Revelation. As the brass blare out the wrath of God, the sound carries across the void and is tossed from group to group, whirling around the audience's head in counterpart with the pounding of the bass drum and the hammering timpani. The audience is literally in the middle of the events from the last book of the Bible: a profound, if deafening experience.

Mr. Spano focused his energies on the orchestra and choristers before him: four groups assembled: the Carnegie Hall Festival Chorus, the Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School, the Concorde Vocal Ensemble, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus. The energetic conductor, who is celebrating his tenth year as head of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, seemed to have eyes in the back of his head--he didn't turn around once in the 90-minute performance.

Throughout the performance, the choristers popped up and down from their tiered seating as needed. Their singing had the mark of good sacred choral music--it made you believe in something higher thant the notes of the paper. Particularly moving were the hushed asides, in which the decidedly secular Berlioz uses every trick in his toolbox to contemplate the mysteries of the beyond. Tenor Thomas Cooley sang with warmth and power during the Sanctus. Perched above the brass bands in the Dress Circle, he was a literal voice from on high.

The St. Luke's forces provided expert accompaniment. The strings and woodwinds balanced well with the legion of kettledrums and brass, the shouts of glorious orchestral noise providing contrast with the work's most lyrical, reflective passages Even if the spatial and practical issues of the performance caused some of the brass antiphonal passages to go slightly awry, the work lost none of its impact.

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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.