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Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

How They Caught the Bronx Zoo Cobra

A cobra. Not the Bronx Zoo cobra. But a nice picture that I found on Google.
"Officer! Officer! I saw the whole thing. There was this guy named Tommy, from down on Prince Street! He had a buddy with him, Gino--we all call him papí. Anyway, he had just bought a whole bunch of live chickens from the Halal butcher down on Canal.

So there they was, they're runnin' through the park when these three old ladies, real Fifth Avenue types, jumped up from behind a rock and whacked the cobra just as it was about to strike...."

Or something like that. Anyway a video of the opening scene of the Met's old David Hockney production of "Die Zauberflöte" which features a menacing serpent. Or something. Tamino is Francesco Araiza. Papageno is Manfred Hemm. Kathleen Battle hasn't shown up yet. So enjoy.

Opera Review: Another Crack at the Rainbow Bridge

The Return of the Lepage Das Rheingold.
Scene Two of Rheingold with Bryn Terfel (center) as Wotan.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.
Wednesday night at the Met featured the return of the Robert Lepage production of Das Rheingold, with a few changes in the cast and in the orchestra pit. Principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi subbed in for an ailing James Levine.

It also brought some fresh perspectives on the staging, seen this time from the back row of the orchestra standing room. From eye level, Mr. Lepage's "Machine" set--24 computer-controlled planks that form the many landscapes of Wagner's imagination, remains curiously featureless.

The underwater opening still successful, helped this time by the presence of baritone Richard Paul Fink as Alberich. Mr. Fink played the dwarf with cunning, humor, and full baritone voice, managing to cope with sliding up and down the computer-generated riverbed as he chased the Rhinemaidens about.

The "rocks" configuration (used for Scenes Two and Four) is more problematic. Wagner calls for a mountain height, but this looks more like an aircraft carrier, with battleship gray Machine-planks looming like tank cannons aimed at the audience. The split-level staging ensures  distance between the gods and giants, removing the giants' ability to threaten the gods. There are also balance problems, with the basses Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt) and Hans-Peter König (Fafner) rendered inaudible at times.  On the bright side, a steep tilt of the set makes it easy to get Fasolt's corpse off the stage. (James Bond villains, take note.)


Despite the production issues, things are getting better on the road to Valhalla. Bryn Terfel seemed more secure of tone as Wotan. An experienced villain actor, the burly Welshman improves as Wotan gets meaner, culminating in a completely bloodless theft of the glowing Ring. Stephanie Blythe had a great night as Fricka, singing with ample, rounded tone. The tension between them was palpable, a portrayal of the classic bad marriage.

The best addition to this cast is Arnold Bezuyen, making his company debut as a pointed, sarcastic Loge. He brought interest and involvement to the fire god's Narrative, something lacking in October's performance. It's too bad the costume department made him look like the Baron Harkonnen from David Lynch's movie version of Dune.

On the podium, Mr. Luisi drew out some interesting textures. The bass trumpet was accented at the end of the Prelude. The anvil-driven Nibelung rhythms had punch. The conductor's best moment was in the Erda scene. At that point, all the hype about the cast, the Met and the Machine went away and you were drawn deeply into Wagner's mythological story. But that didn't come until two hours in.

The production continues to boast some innovative visual ideas--the descent into Nibelheim, the Gods' climb up the face of the machine to Valhalla. Unfortunately, like many Met stagings, the best visuals are well above the stage, and hard to see from under the overhang of the parterre boxes. But they probably looked great from the parterre seats.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Opera Within Opera...Within Opera?

The theater within a theater. Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in Le Comte Ory.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met's current run of Rossini's Le Comte Ory features a miniature opera theater (complete with stage-hands) in the middle of the big Met stage. The company is also reviving Richard Strauss' Capriccio at the moment, which tries to settle the case of Words v. Music in the genre. With that in mind, here's the Superconductor list of...

Five Operas...About Opera

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
The most famous (or infamous) response to musical criticism (not to mention the longest) Wagner's lone comedy is the story of a young knight whose radical ideas shake the staid burghers of Ye Olde Nuremberg. Meistersinger was also Wagner's way of getting back at acid-tongued Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, who championed Brahms even as he decried Wagner's so-called "music of the future."

The story goes that at a private reading of the libretto, the critic was so enraged at the appearance of a character named "Hans Licht", that he stormed out of the room. That character's name was later changed to Sixtus Beckmesser.
Read more about Die Meistersinger with the Superconductor review of a 2008 DVD from Bayreuth.

Offenbach: Les contes d'Hoffmann
The titular character of Offenbach's final opera was himself an opera composer. Hoffmann opens at a tavern next door to an opera house which is currently staging Don Giovanni. In fact, the poet spins his three tales during the performance, which features his current obsession, the singer Stella. Two of those stories involve singing: the tale of the doll Olympia (whose "Les oiseaux" never fails to bring down the house) and the doomed opera singer Antonia, who expires onstage after her final high C.
Read the Superconductor review of the Met's September performance of Les contes d'Hoffmann.

Puccini: Tosca
The title character of Puccini's drama is an opera singer. In the second act, she fulfills a professional obligation, singing a cantata underneath Scarpia's offices in the Palazzo Varnese. Tosca is enjoying a revival at the Met right now, which makes the big opera house even more "meta."
Read the Superconductor review of this season's revival of Tosca.

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
Fer cryin' out loud, the Prologue of Richard Strauss' opera opens backstage at an opera company, in a private theater in the home of "the Richest Man in Vienna." The harried Composer is a prominent character, along with the tenor, the prima donna, and the Dancing Master. The second half is the opera itself, replete with comic interruptions.
Read the Superconductor review of last year's Ariadne auf Naxos

Pfitzner: Palestrina
Hans Pfitzner's opera is set during the Council of Trent, and is about the crisis faced by a composer under pressure from the Catholic Church to produce music that will (theoretically) save the idea of church music and eventually pave the way for Pfitzner to write an opera called...Palestrina. You get the idea. The best moments of Pfitzner's opera come when a choir of angels descends and inspires Palestrina to get to work. It's at the end of the first act.
Read the Superconductor review of Palestrina, a 2009 DVD version made in Munich.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dudley Moore Plays the Colonel Bogey March


Footage from the 1964 BBC2 Beyond The Fringe special, with the late, great Dudley Moore playing a Diabelli Variations-style take on the Colonel Bogey March by F.J. Ricketts. (That's the theme that was used in The Bridge on the River Kwai.)

This is essential viewing if you're a fan of stellar pianism--or P.D.Q. Bach-type humor.



Enjoy.

Opera Review: First the Words, then the Diva

Renée Fleming Reigns as the Met revives Capriccio.


Renée Fleming as the Countess in Capriccio at the Met, 2008.
(No, that's not the dress she wore last night.)
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 Metropolitan Opera
The first-ever revival of Capriccio at the Metropolitan Opera bowed on Monday night. This is a connoisseur's opera, heard only when a prima donna decides to tackle its length and difficult mix of witty dialogue and all-out soprano singing. Right now, Renée Fleming is that diva. On Monday night, she reigned supreme as the Countess Madeleine.

In just the seventh performance of this work in the company's history, Ms. Fleming brought intelligence and candor to the complex, ambiguous role of the Countess. Her voice isn't quite as golden as it once was, but she still sings Strauss with a burnished sheen and an intelligence of articulation that has become the trademark of her later career.

She was surrounded by a strong ensemble cast, and expertly accompanied by the Met orchestra, led by Sir Andrew Davis. Mention must also be made of the string players and chamber musicians who populated the Countess' salon throughout the opera.

If operas are meals, Capriccio might best be described as an exotic, rarely consumed dessert. It is Strauss' final opera, written in the midst of World War II. Amidst the horrors of Nazi Germany, the composer and his friend, conductor-turned-librettist Clemens Krauss found comfort in constructing a complex work that looks back to the days of Mozart to answer a series of intellectual questions about opera. The most important of these forms the work's plot: Which is more important? Words, or music?

The Countess represents the center of this debate, a widowed woman torn between her love for the composer Flamand (Joseph Kaiser) and the poet Olivier (Russell Braun). Judging from this performance, Mr. Kaiser won the contest with a pure, clear tone and a vivid characterization of the ardent composer. Mr. Braun, who excelled earlier this season as Chou En-Lai in Nixon in China, is a characterful singer. Last night, he seemed disconnected from the events onstage, and he didn't get a handle on Olivier.


Danish baritone Morten Frank Larsen impressed as the Count, as did mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who lent a movie-star vamp to her performance as the actress Clairon. As La Roche, the opera impresario inserted into the conversation as a thinly-veiled portrayal of Strauss' friend and producer Max Reinhardt, bass Peter Rose was effective, but ran out of gas in the middle of his big monologue. Finally, character tenor Bernard Fitch was both nasal and charming in the tiny role of M. Taupe, ("Mr. Mole") the prompter who spends most of the opera asleep under the stage.

At two hours and twenty minutes (with no intermisson), Capriccio is almost as long as Das Rheingold. And like that Wagner opera, it ends with a tremendous payoff: the Moonlight Music and the final scene for Madeleine. For this, Ms. Fleming had the stage to herself in a dazzling silver gown. More importantly, she brought out her full arsenal of voice, flooding the theater with that signature, silvery sound. Her voice rose and swelled with the orchestra, rising to a climax as she considered her character's romantic dilemma. Then she turned, singing her last words to the rapt audience, whose patience had been rewarded as Strauss' last opera came to a glorious end.

Five Movies Featuring the Ride of the Valkyries

The helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now. © 1979 American Zoetrope Studio/Lions Gate Pictures
In the 20th century, the surging strings and triumphant horn calls that open Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries have transcended the operatic stage and the Germanic gods of the Ring Cycle to become standard Hollywood accompaniment to movie scenes featuring Wagnerian amounts of butt-kicking. Let's take a look at movies that use the curtain-raiser as a different kind of dramatic device.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Old-School Mozart: The 1950 Karajan Vienna Recordings

The Man, the Maestro: Herbert von Karajan. © Universal Classics.
These two recordings of Mozart operas: Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte, rank among the earliest LP recordings of an entire opera in a recording studio. (Decca recorded Die Meistersinger in 1950 with Hans Knappertsbusch, but that's another column.) They are also the first two complete recordings led by Herbert von Karajan, at the start of his long association with the EMI label.

Both of these sets were made in Vienna in 1950. They are from the early days of LP records, and are in mono sound. (Stereo recording was invented in 1952)

As such, they offer the listener the chance to hear the Austrian conductor at his warmest and most innovative.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1950)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Photo by Fayer © EMI Classics

Le Nozze di Figaro
Figaro: Erich Kunz
Susanna: Irmgard Seefried
The Countess: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Count Almaviva: George London
Cherubino: Sena Jurinac

Die Zauberflöte
Sarastro: Ludwig Weber
The Queen of the Night: Wilma Lipp
Tamino: Anton Dermota
Pamina: Irmgard Seefried
Papagena Erich Kunz

Figaro was made in June and October of 1950. Erich Kunz is a dark-timbred, sardonic valet, who switches over to warm tone in his intimate scenes with Irmgard Seefried's terrific, pert Susanna. Selena Juranac is a fully embodied Cherubino. It is not an insult to say that this trouser role is sung with boyish enthusiasm. The ensembles bloom with warmth, especially in the second act.

An excerpt: Selena Juranac sing "Non s piu cosa son, cosa faccio" 
from Act I of Figaro. © 1950, EMI Classics

George London sings the Count with real menace in the early acts, which melts away at the opera's climax in Act IV. Karajan slows down the tempo for their reconciliation scene, allowing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to really shine in the final ensemble. She is a marvel here, helped by Karajan's choice of dead-slow tempos whenever she sings.

The Flute was laid down in November of that same year. Karajan takes an even slower tempo here, especially with the three stately chords that launch the Overture. Other key moments in the score: the March of the Priests, the Two Men in Armor scene are rendered in vivid color by the Viennese forces. The choral singing is firm and well-caught.

This set features essentially the same cast (with the subtraction of Ms. Schwarzkopf and the substitution of Wilma Lipp as the Queen of the Night.) And it's a good one. Anton Dermota and Ms. Seefried are an engaging, ideal pair as Tamino and Pamina. He really sounds panicked in "Zu hilfe," and his fine characterization continues throughout. She is warm in "Bei Mannern", reunited (temporarily) with her Figaro, Erich Kunz, now in the role of Papageno.

Mr. Kunz may be no match for later bird-catchers (the role became a favorite of lieder singers in the stereo era) but he is bluff and good-natured. (I'd love to hear him in the opera's comic dialogue.) Ludwig Weber is an authoritative, but not authoritarian Sarastro. This recording captures the Wagner veteran in fine form just before the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival the following year.

Both recordings feature the Vienna Philharmonic in top post-war form, playing with warmth and their unique, characteristic timbre. And despite being six decades old, the engineering is excellent, from the rattling tone of the timpani to the warm tone of the singers. The distinctive Vienna brass and wind are also captured with clarity on these CD remasters.

There are a few drawbacks. Figaro is missing ALL of the recitatives, which means you have to know the opera to follow the plot. The same goes for Zauberflöte, as no attempt is made to record the spoken dialogue between scenes. A libretto is helpful when listening if you don't know the operas.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Opera Review: Three Faces of the Void

City Opera experiments with Monodramas.
Soprano Anu Komsi in La Machine d'etre.
Photo by Carol Rosegg ©2011 New York City Opera
On Friday night, the City Opera unveiled Monodramas, a triptych of modern operas, each with a single female protagonist. Though two of the works lacked anything resembling a plot, it was a fascinating evening of experimental opera--a bold gesture from a company that nearly went dark two years ago.

La Machine d'etre, ("The Machine of Existence") led off, the first opera by downtown jazz-rebel John Zorn. This was the world premiere of Mr. Zorn's piece, and served as the City Opera debut of soprano Anu Komsi. She was slowly unwrapped, appearing like a Wagner heroine to sing wordless melismas against Mr. Zorn's jagged rhythms and shifting tonal palette.

The plotless work, inspired by the drawings of Antonin Artaud, opened with a memorable image: the City Opera company concealed and rendered genderless by gray burkhas. The performance featured Mr. Artaud's illustrations, animated above the stage on two "flying" cartoon word-balloons. Beneath them, Ms. Komsi displayed an impressive vocal technique. It would be pleasing to learn how this Finnish soprano sounds when she has words to sing.
Kara Shay Thomson, lost in the woods in Erwartung.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2011 New York City Opera
Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung is the only familiar opera on this program. Written in 1909, it is the story of a nameless woman (Kara Shay Thomson, in her company debut) lost in a forest at night. Veering on the edge of madness, she encounters the dead body of her lover. Schoenberg's expressionist score captures the madness and torment of the woman. Ms. Thomson's performance was that of a promising dramatic soprano, navigating her big voice through the tricky, and often exposed passages of the half-hour work.

George Manahan emphasized the rich, melodic content of Schoenberg's score, and the City Opera orchestra was in top form. As with the first work, Ms. Thomson was slowly revealed from beneath her burkha. She was surrounded by a small group of silent, female doppelgangers, all wearing identical white dresses, a memorable image. The most mind-blowing moment of Erwartung arrived in the closing bars: an imaginative, superbly executed time-reversal effect that stopped the opera in its tracks.
Cynthia Sieden (left) and the mirrored boxes of neither.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2011 New York City Opera
neither is an apt title for the final work on the program, a lengthy excursion into form and function by American minimalist Morton Feldman. Feldman is an expert at writing stretched-out textures on an enormous canvas. (His String Quartet No. 2 lasts six hours if you play all the repeats.) neither is a setting of a text by Samuel Beckett, and true to this composer's style, each word is stretched out to its breaking point over a series of repeated figures in the orchestra.

Cynthia Sieden did a commendable job of singing the work, a formidable task since she had to hit the same pitch again and again for the first half with absolutely no melodic or harmonic development. The words are stretched distorted to the point where not even the supertitles help with comprehension.

The stage action featured skilled physical movement, at a glacial pace that recalled the productions of Robert Wilson. The action, such as it was, took place inside an iridescent, shimmering cube, adorned with colored lights and 66 (I counted) mysterious mirrored boxes that raised and lowered slowly from the ceiling, hanging in mid-air like miniature avatars of the 2001 monolith. It looked really cool. And it was all very mysterious.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Concert Review: Storm, Followed by Thunder

Salonen Ends Hungarian Echoes with Style
Your guide to Hungarian Echoes, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Photo by Nicho Rodig © esapekkasalonen.co.uk
For the last three weeks, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has led the New York Philharmonic in the "Hungarian Echoes" festival, juxtaposing the music of Haydn, Bártok and Ligeti. Friday's concert built in momentum throughout, and culminated in an old-fashioned Finno-Ugraic beat-down. (The Finnish term for this is takapuoli potkiminen.)

As before, the concert opened with one of Haydn's three symphonies celebrating a specific time of the day. This one, Le Soir is the evening symphony, a forward-looking work that predicts some of the musical innovations that Beethoven would incorporate into his Sixth. The symphony featured concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and bassist Eugene Levinson, playing extensive solo parts against the orchestra, and culminated in an afternoon aural thunderstorm.

The first Bártok work on the program followed: the kinetic First Piano Concerto. Its tricky rhythms were no match for the all-Finland team of Mr. Salonen and pianist Olli Mustonen, who made the three movements a thrilling experience. Mr. Mustonen thundered through the heaviest passages, with his hands flying up and down the keyboard. This is music that requires rhythmic virtuosity, particularly in the heaviest passages. With able support from Mr. Salonen and the Philharmonic players, he scored a triumph.


With Clocks and Clouds, Mr. Salonen finally offered his audience the type of spaced-out music that most casual listeners associate with the name György Ligeti. Featuring a contrast between repeated, wordless vocalises and repeated figures in the strings and woodwinds, this would be appropriate accompaniment to the final psychedelic journey in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As it was, the slow-building work climaxed several times before dying down to a moving silence.

The Philharmonic then brought its full force to bear on the Suite from Bártok's The Miraculous Mandarin, a shocking, violent work which deals with the collusion between a prostitute and two thugs who beat and rob her customers. Mr. Salonen's interpretation captured the force of every choreographed punch and kick, backed up with the "brass knuckles" of horns, trombones and tuba. With the conductor urging them on, the orchestra played with a precise brutality that would be the envy of any heavy metal band. It was a stunning end to Mr. Salonen's three-week Hungarian excursion.

Opera Review: The Finer Diner

David Lomelí triumphs in L'Elisir at City Opera.
David Lomelí as Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore at New York City Opera.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2011 New York City Opera.
If you're going to sing Nemorino, you need to be brave. The tenor role in L'Elisir d'Amore is not especially challenging for the voice. But it carries with it a legacy, the weight of association with the singing legacy of Luciano Pavarotti and before him, Enrico Caruso.

On Thursday night, in the New York City Opera's revival of the Donizetti opera, tenor David Lomelí proved himself worthy of that legacy. Mr. Lomelí has a firm, dulcet instrument, capable of adding a little steel beneath the velvet to lend force to his character's wine-fueled outbursts of passion.


He is also is a good comic actor, holding the center of Jonathan Miller's Route 66-inspired production, which transports this country bumpkin to the American Southwest of the 1950s. In this version, the hapless Nemorino is a long-suffering pump boy (with lashings of James Dean) attempting to win the affections of Adina, owner of the diner and its attached gas station.

The City Opera has surrounded the tenor with a fine supporting cast, led by Ukrainian soprano Stefania Dovhan as Adina. She has a soaring bel canto instrument under her movie-star blonde wig. Baritone José Adán Pérez was a bantam-like, cocky Belcore, re-imagined as a U.S. Army sergeant who recruits all of Nemorino's co-workers. Meredith Lustig provided able, sexy support as Giannetta.

Next to the leads, Elisir rises or falls on Dr. Dulcamara, the quack doctor who markets cheap vino as the original funky cold medina. Marco Nistico is a comic character actor of considerable charm, with a fine baritone and the quick eyes of a confidence man. His best moments came in his Act Two duets with Ms. Dovhan.

Brad Cohen conducted Donizetti's famous score with wit and charm, giving voice to sprightly rhythms and ensuring that the chorus was tight. Mention must also be made of the excellent supertitles by
A. Scott Parry, which helped in translating the action to the high lonesome of the desert.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Of M*A*S*H and Motivation

Charles Emerson Winchester III, played by David Ogden Stiers.
Image © 1980 20th Century Fox Television/CBS.
I woke up early this a.m. and flipped on a re-run of M*A*S*H*. And I caught what happens to be the best music-related episode of that long-running series.

The episode, "Morale Victory" is from the show's eighth season, right before the decline of the later seasons. And it features my favorite character on the show, Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, the classical music-loving Boston surgeon, played by David Ogden Stiers in the later seasons of the show.

This also happened to be the first episode I saw as an 11pm re-run in 1985, starting a life-long love affair with the show. M*A*S*H became a bed-time ritual for many years. In the dark days following the September 11, daytime re-runs of the show provided familiarity, comfort, and that all-important sense of time passing in a world numbed with shock.

Winchester operates on Pvt. David Sheridan's leg and injured right hand. He saves the leg, restoring full mobility, but the injury causes ever damage to three fingers on his hand. Problem is this soldier is a concert pianist, and feels that he has has now lost his ability to play music.
The pianist Paul Wittgenstein.
Charles brings his patient to the Officer's Club and its rickety old piano. He presents him with sheet music: the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written by Maurice Ravel for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. Private Sheridan is reluctant at first, but Winchester persuades him to play:

"Don’t you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be... The gift does not lie in your hands. I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music.

"You have performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live. Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul.

"Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world--through the baton, the classroom, or the pen. As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one."

Despite the piano being old and beaten up, the beauty of Ravel's music comes through, and the young man discovers that he hasn't lost his gift.

In the last scene, Charles is back in the Swamp having a brandy. Hawkeye and BJ come in and tell him he missed a great party--the clambake that the two doctors spent the rest of the episode organizing. He answers.

"Each of us must dance to his own tune."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An Argument for Gun Control

Carl Maria von Weber and Der Freischütz.
The free shot: Bruce Willis and friend in The Jackal. Image © 1997 Universal Studios. 
Today we're looking at that favorite opera of the National Rifle Association: Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. Premiered in 1821, Freischütz (the title doesn't translate well--"The Free Shooter" is close) was instrumental in the development of German opera in the early Romantic period.

Max is the hero of Der Freischütz, a young hunter determined to win a shooting contest and with it, the hand of his beloved Agathe. To do so, he gets help from Kaspar, an older hunter. Kaspar helps Max cast seven magic bullets, with help from the demon lord Samiel. But there's a catch. The first six bullets will hit whatever target Max wants. The seventh is under Samiel's control.

With its folk-tale plot and brilliant orchestral coloration, Der Freischütz was also a huge influence on the young Richard Wagner, who conducted the opera many times early in his career. (His first success in the genre, Der Fliegende Holländer, owes much to Weber.)

Although this opera uses old-fashioned spoken dialogue (like Mozart's Die Zauberflöte) the writing for low strings and especially woodwinds point the way forward. This is an important, neglected opera, due for a revival in these trigger-happy times.

Recording Recommendations:
With its hunting chorus, soaring arias, and stirring overture, Der Freischütz is well represented on disc, especially by experts in German repertory. In fact, given that the Met hasn't performed this operas since the early 1970s, a recording is the best way to currently experience this opera.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Eugen Jochum (DG, 1960)
Agathe: Irmgaard Seefried
Änchen: Rita Streich
Max: Richard Holm
Kaspar: Eberhard Wächter
This is a classic early recording of the opera under Jochum, a fine conductor of the old German school. Features the great (and underrecorded) Elisabeth Grümmer as Agathe. And it's a bargain at two discs for one.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Carlos Kleiber (DG, 1973)
Agathe: Gundula Janowitz
Änchen: Edith Mathis
Max: Peter Schreier
Kaspar: Theo Adam
This 1973 recording was Carlos Kleiber's first venture into opera on CD. The cast is pretty good, as is the recorded sound and the playing of the Dresden forces under their young conductor. The only caveat is the use of actors instead of singers to perform the work's German dialogue. It's kind of distracting.

Zurich Opera cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec, 1996)
Agathe: Luba Organosova
Änchen: Christine Schäfer
Max: Eric Wostricch
Kaspar: Matti Salminen
This live recording came amidst a flurry of releases from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the cellist-turned-conductor who made his name with historically informed Bach recordings in the 1970s. With the intimidating Matti Salminen as Kaspar.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Music: The International Language

"All right gentlemen. Let's make it a good one. The world is listening."
--Russell Mulcahy in Highlander 2: The Quickening.
I wanted to step out from behind the curtain for a moment, to express my pleasure and amazement at the international character of the readership of this blog. Although the majority of my page-views come from the United States (I'm based in New York) it is a welcome thrill each time I see a new country pop up on the Google page view tracker.

I know that those pv's just reflect clicks and may not necessarily mean that people in those countries are reading my articles on a daily basis. But it's still exciting to play "world traveller", even as I stay here on the east coast of the United States, pretty much year-round.

So here's a quick shout out to the people in countries that read this blog (so far.) As far as Google can tell, the penguins, scientists, and Shoggoths in the Antarctic aren't reading Superconductor. But anything can happen.

It's an interesting list. Some surprises.

North America: Canada, Mexico, United States.
Thank you. Gracias. Thanks.

South America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay.
Gracias. Obrigado.

Europe: Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Macedonia, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom
Danke schön. Děkuji. Tak. Kiitos. Merci. Köszönöm. Grazie. Blagodaram. Ačiū. Dank je wel. Tusen tak. Dzienkuje. Obrigado. Spazeba. Gracias.


Asia: China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, The Philipines, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.
Xie xie. Dhanyawaad. Arigato. Sagolin. Shokran gazilan. Ca om.

Africa: Egypt, Kenya, South Africa
شكرا لك Dankie. Darokomano.

Australia: Australia, New Zealand.
Wiyarrparlunpaju-yungu. Tika hoki.

Thank you all for reading. Kiitos paljon. Now, back to the headphones.

Paul

Bargain Basement Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven in 1805. Painting by Joseph Willibrord Mähler.
Collection of the Historisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
In the mid-1990s, at the close of the CD boom, a flurry of complete cycles of Beethoven recordings were released, featuring smaller orchestras and so-called "original" instruments mimicking the technology of the 18th century.

Two of those are considered here.

The contenders:
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies
Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv 1994, 5 CDs)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec/Warner Brothers, Download)

These recordings feature John Eliot Gardiner's 60-piece Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique, a group assembled specifically to perform 18th and 19th century music with instruments that were contemperaneous to when these compositions were written.
The booklet cover for John Eliot Gardiner's Beethoven cycle.
© 1994 Universal Classics/DG Archiv 
Gardiner's players use authentic strings, which have a slightly rougher tone than modern instruments. The wind section features wooden transverse flutes, and finger-hole bassoons. Oboes and clarinets are shaped a little differently, and lack the complex key systems of modern instruments. Finally, a period orchestra uses copper kettledrums with goatskin heads, played with hard wooden drumsticks. The brass players use "natural" horns, where pitch is changed by removing a section of pipe (called a "crook") and replacing it with another.

The other difference between these recordings and "modern" sets by Herbert von Karajan or Claudio Abbado is the use of "metronome markings", the original tempo numbers specified by Beethoven on the scores of his later symphonies. Using these marks sometimes means that the works (particularly the Seventh and Eighth) hurtle along at a merry pace. The last movement of the Ninth is so fast that it's almost as long as the entire First Symphony.

The Teldec cycle was conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the Austrian period performance specialist and cellist who was a pioneer of the period instrument movement of the '70s and '80s. The set is different. Harnoncourt chose to blend instrumental styles, placing modern strings and winds next to 18th century brass and percussion. This is a contrivance, but it makes for a blend of sounds that makes this cycle unique.
The reissue cover for Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Beethoven cycle.
Harnoncourt's choice of tempo is sometimes idiosyncratic, and generally slower than Gardiner, by an average of about three minutes. (The "Eroica" is three minutes slower. In the Fifth, there is almost five minutes difference. Harnoncourt's opening movement of the Sixth Symphony (the Pastorale) clocks in at 13'22" with all of the repeats intact.

Gardiner's performance takes 11'13", and his whole performance is three and a half minutes faster than Harnoncourt's. The Ninth is even more radical in Gardiner's hands. But again, the difference totals three minutes, with the English conductor finishing first.

The Gardiner set is currently available as a 5-disc box, with the discs in envelopes for about $20. That's a hell of a discount, considering that the set retailed for about $60 when it was first released. The Harnoncourt is available on Amazon as a digital download: with the whole set for just $15.

Monday, March 21, 2011

James Levine Cancels (some) Met Performances

James Levine.
Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine has withdrawn from upcoming performances of Das Rheingold and Il Trovatore, according to a Metropolitan Opera press release.

The Met statement said that Mr. Levine needs time “to recover from recent procedures to alleviate back pain", as reported in the New York Times by Daniel J. Wakin.

The announcement comes amidst preparations for a special May 1 gala celebrating James Levine's 40 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera.

The 67-year old conductor, who rocked the classical world earlier this month when announced that he would be stepping down as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as of September, has been suffering from complications following spinal surgery last year. These back problems are the latest in a slew of injuries for Mr. Levine.

Mr. Levine last conducted in New York at the Juilliard School, where he led enthusiastically received performances of Smetana's The Bartered Bride. One week later, he was forced to cancel a Boston Symphony Orchestra run of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, as well as appearances at that orchestra's short spring tour.

Met principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi
will lead Das Rheingold.
He will be replaced for the two upcoming performances of Das Rheingold (March 30th and April 2nd) by Met principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi.

Marco Armiliato will conduct the four scheduled performances of Il Trovatore on April 20, 23, 27 and 30.

As of this writing, Mr. Levine is still scheduled to conduct the upcoming revival of Berg's Wozzeck (opening April 6) and the company's forthcoming run of Die Walküre starring Deborah Voigt and Bryn Terfel.

Norwegian Wood: Inspiration From the '80s

a-ha: Mags Furuholmen, Morten Harket, Pål Waakatar,
on the cover for "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." © 1985 Warner Bros.
It's a cold, rainy day here in New York City, and I thought I'd do a little change-of-pace today. On a morning like this, even the cheeriest works (Beethoven's Sixth, Mahler's "Titan") just aren't cutting through the gloom. No, this job will require...a drum machine.

It might surprise readers to learn that your faithful Superconductor doesn't just listen to classical music from Adams to Zimmerman. And this morning, I'm listening to an interesting collection of songs from 1985 from the trio of Morten Harket, Mags Furuholmen and Pål Waakatar, better-known as...a-ha.

In 1985, I was 12 years old, I made the great leap of going into a record store and actually...buying a rock album. And it wasn't an album. It was a cassette!)

The first one I bought was Tears for Fears' Songs From The Big Chair. The second...was Hunting High & Low by a-ha. (And yes, I'm having fun with HTML but they really wrote their logo that way.)

Now, the immediate appeal of this record was the incredibly catchy "Take On Me"," the group's first single buoyed by the MTV video--the one with the cool black-and-white rotoscoping and the girl trapped inside the comic book. But it was the group's second single, "The Sun Always Shines on T.V." that really blew my mind. The video--a sort of sequel where the dude runs away from the girl and rocks out with his band in an abandoned church--wasn't bad either. Here's the video:


The video for "The Sun Always Shines on T.V.", directed by Steve Barron.
"Sun" combines a driving beat, operatic, countertenor vocals from lead singer Morten Harket, and a memorable chorus that is built around a dropping perfect fifth in C major. (G to C, try the piano at the bottom of the blog to see what I mean.) The singer then goes up a third, back down to the tonic, and down another third to send shivers down the listener's back. In musicologist terms, it's the same set of intervals as the opening to Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. Just backwards.

But the best part of the song (which comes at in 3:47") is when a string orchestra (generated by keyboardist Mags) comes barrelling in for an extended, Wagnerian flight that wouldn't be out of place in Lohengrin.

By the way, "Take On Me" is built around the same interval.

The whole album as some interesting instrumental touches. "And You Tell Me" is built around a different set of Beatles-like minor intervals. The title track has some soaring lines and a serious workout for Mr. Harket's crystalline falsetto. And (my other favorite track) "Living a Boy's Adventure Tale" has a sad, insistent hook for English horn. Yes, that's an actual English horn on there. Listen:

A-ha weren't the only band to use English horns in the '80s. But that's another column.

Happy Birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach!

Johann Sebastian Bach
Today is the 326th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer of the baroque era, and one of the most influential musicians to ever walk the Earth.

Bach composed complex, contrapuntal music, firmly rooted in music theory and tradition, anchored by a rock-solid belief in God. His vast catalogue of compositions includes cantatas, concertos, keyboard compositions and a veritable textbook of organ music. Along the way, he invented the cello suite and wrote the Passions of St. Matthew and St. John, among the most powerful religious music ever written.

And four of his kids grew up to be famous composers.

For some listeners, Bach's mathematically perfect works suggest a divine, ideal form, with carefully constructed spires of counterpoint rising toward Heaven. For others, the precision of Bach can be used to define the triumph of man's reason over superstition. So in other words, the genius of Bach can be used to defend almost any argument.

Luckily, Bach lovers have many options to explore the master's music on disc and mp3, from esoteric high-end performances to giant budget box sets that offer a complete overview of Bach's genius.

Here's a quick look at the best Bach boxes.

Various Artists: Complete Bach Edition (Brilliant Classics, 155 CDs)
This authoritative compilation features the entire Bach ouevre, recorded in high digital quality. These performances do not feature the flashy, big label stars, but the musicians and singers range from adequate to exceptional. Mostly recorded in Holland and Belgium, this massive set will provide two solid weeks of musical education, and that's just at one sitting. Whew.

Ton Koopman, Organ: Complete Organ Works (Warner Brothers Classics/Das Alte Werk 16 CDs)
An exhaustive survey of Bach's works for organ. This reissue features the Dutch organist Ton Koopman, an organist and conductor who also recorded the complete cantatas for Erato. Koopman plays on eight different organs in Holland and Germany. Two of them (the organs in Freiburg and Hamburg) were played on by Bach himself. Other organists that are worth checking out include Simon Preston and the legendary, blind Helmut Walcha.

Concentius Musicus Wein cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt;
Leonhardt Consort cond. Gustav Leonhardt:
Complete Cantatas (Warner Brothers Classics, 60 CDs)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a former cellist who rose to fame by conducting Bach. (Incidentally, he's also a count, and a descendant of Holy Roman Emperors.) He's also a gifted conductor who built an international recording career on the back of these recordings. This was the first complete cycle of Bach cantatas ever recorded and is a milestone in the catalogue of Bach works.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner: Sacred Choral Works and Cantatas (DG Archiv, 22 CDs)
This one's been mentioned before. Recently reissued, this set combines all of Gardiner's stellar recordings of the major Bach choral works: the two Passions, the Mass in B Minor and the oratorios, alongside the first few discs in his cycle of Bach cantatas before the conductor left DG and started his own record label. Crisply played performances in sterling sound.

Glenn Gould, Piano: Glenn Gould Plays Bach (Sony, 6 CDs)
When the 22-year old Glenn Gould recorded his 1955 run-through of the Goldberg Variations, he unknowingly made the first runaway classical hit of the LP era. He also put the pieces on the map as essential repertory for pianists.


Historical performance: Glenn Gould plays Bach's Third Partita for Piano.
Historical importance aside, the idiosyncratic (OK, downright weird) Canadian pianist had a unique interpretative touch. There are other exceptional Goldbergs in the catalogue, but none are as famous. This newly issued set includes Gould playing the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Inventions, Toccatas and Partitas. Not complete, but essential.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Capriccio

This is a preview of Capriccio, with a brief summary and CD recommendations. To read the Superconductor review of the March 28 performance, click here.
The final scene from Capriccio. That's Renée Fleming at center.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera.
"Frau Gräfin, das Souper ist serviert."
Renée Fleming sings the leading role of Countess Madeleine in this rare revival of Capriccio, the 15th (and final) opera by Richard Strauss.

Capriccio was labeled as a "conversation piece for music." The subject of that conversation is the art of opera itself. Set in a big house in 18th-century France (when the musical reforms of Christoph Willibald Gluck were sweeping Europe) the work takes the form of a day-long debate about the importance of words vs. music in the construction of opera. Eventually, the participants decide to write an opera based on the day's events. It's very "meta."


The debate is framed as a romantic comedy, where the Countess is torn between the passions of the poet Olivier (Russell Braun) and the advances of the composer Flamand, (Joseph Kaiser) two best friends who are playful rivals for their hand. Also present at the house are the impresario LaRoche, (Peter Rose) the actress Clairon, (Sarah Connolly) and the prompter, M. Taupe ("Mr. Mole") who lives under the stage.

While there is only one really memorable aria in Capriccio (and it comes at the very end!) the opera is two hours of beautiful music. It is written in Strauss' late, post-Mozartean style, combining complex harmonic techniques with the galant music of the 18th century. This is an intricate score that opens with a string sextet and retains that chamber-music characteristic all the way to its final bars.








Watch Renée Fleming sing the final scene of Capriccio.
And then go get tickets.


Recording Recommendations:
There are just three recordings of this opera in  the catalogue, with several more on video. But the best video of the opera, a film from Vienna starring Anna Tomowa-Sintow, has never been put out on VHS or DVD in the United States.


Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI, 1957)
Countess Madeleine: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf
Flamand: Nicolai Gedda
Olivier: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
LaRoche: Hans Hotter
This was EMI producer Walter Legge's last-ditch effort to ignore the rise of stereo technology by producing opera recordings in monaural sound. Yes it's in mono. but this is a benchmark recording with a near-unbeatable cast of great opera singers in top form. Look for a young Christa Ludwig as Clairon, and the maestro himself making a rare appearance as the Servant in the final scene.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon, 1972)
Countess Madeleine: Gundula Janowitz
Flamand: Peter Schreier
Olivier: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
LaRoche: Karl Ridderbusch
This is a comparable reading of the opera, with an excellent Countess in Gundula Janowitz and its own all-stars (Hermann Prey, Tatiana Troyanos) in smaller roles. Fischer-Dieskau reprises his performance as Olivier. The underappreciated Karl Ridderbusch is also featured as LaRoche. If I had to choose between the two, I'd take Böhm--I like his conducting, and it's in pristine DG analog stereo

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Concert Review: The Doors of Perception

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Bluebeard's Castle
Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Nicho Södling.
If Friday night's concert at Avery Fisher Hall is any indication, the three-week marriage of the New York Philharmonic and Finnish maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen is proving to be an effective match. Friday evening featured Béla Bartók's one-act opera Bluebeard's Castle, which presents a French fairy-tale marriage in stark, 20th century terms.

Under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the New York Philharmonic gave its audience a thrilling performance of this one-act, symbolist opera. As the tension built, the audience was perched on the edge of their seats, held in the grip of the drama of Bluebeard and his latest wife, Judith, and her exploration of the dark reaches of his castle. With help from a strong cast and an effective light show, Mr. Salonen made the opera not a horror story, but an exploration of the complexities of marriage and the dark depths of the male and female psyches.

Bartók started work on Bluebeard's Castle in 1911, but the work took a decade to find its way to the stage. His sole opera combines heavy, Wagnerian orchestration with clever use of woodwinds and unique textures that can only be described as "Bartókian." The libretto is based on the 1901 play Ariane et Barbe-bleu by Maurice Maeterlinck, which was  first set as an opera in 1907 by the composer Paul Dukas.


Mr. Salonen was blessed with a strong cast, considering that there are just two characters and a narrator (played by film actor Richard Easton.) Judith was sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. She rose to the occasion, pulling off the climactic high C that Judith hits at the midway point of the opera, and gave a convincing portrayal of fear and dread despite the formal evening wear and the concert setting.

As Bluebeard, bass Gábor Bretz displayed fine Hungarian diction throught. But he sounded slightly overmatched in the early pages of the opera, battling huge, dissonant chords as the doors of his keep are opened to reveal a torture chamber, armaments, and a garden. Mr. Bretz found his voice at the opening of the fifth door, singing with noble tone through the final pages of the opera. He was firm and resonant in Bluebeard's final peroration to his wife, and chilling in the final bars.

Mr. Salonen drew out the beauty in Bartók's score, making the work's most dissonant pages sound appealing. He conducted the work with an ear for detail and a sweeping, late-Wagnerian style that let the complex music bloom in the lush language of the full orchestra.

The Philharmonic players had their share of heroic moments. These included the titanic, hall-shaking brass fortissimo at the opening of the fifth door, and the eerie, mind-bending chords that accompany the opening of the sixth and the revelation of Bluebeard's lake of tears. Colored lights, electronic effects, and one memorable use of the house lights on full blast added to the complex presentation, pulling the Philharmonic audience into the drama.


The opera performance was part of Mr. Salonen's Hungarian Echoes festival, which matches Bartok's music with the 18th century symphonies of Haydn and the modern works of Györgi Ligeti. The evening opened with the latter's Concert Românesc, a playful composition in four movements. The 12-minute concerto featured a bravura violin part played by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, and a pair of echoing horns in the slow movement, meant to echo the sound of alphorns.

The Ligeti piece was paired with the Seventh Symphony by Franz Joseph Haydn. Nicknamed Le Midi, ("Noon") the work forms the central part of Haydn's "Times of the Day" triptych, which is being programmed throughout the festival by Mr. Salonen. Like the Ligeti work, Le Midi featured a thrilling series of violin solos, adroitly played by Mr. Dicterow. One could stretch the idea that these three symphonies echoed Bluebeard's wives--one for each time of the day, but otherwise it was difficult to see how Le Midi fit into this adventurous program.

Friday, March 18, 2011

New York Philharmonic Pays Tribute to Tsunami Victims


Hi folks. Paul here.

For the last week, I have been watching the horrifying events happening in Japan.

Earthquake.
Tsunami.
Nuclear disaster.

I would like to ask all of our readers, (you know who you are) to please visit LivingSocial.com. There, a $5 donation to the American Red Cross relief fund for Japan will be matched by a $10 donation from LivingSocial. Donate more, and they'll match it.

It's the very least you can do.

In related news, New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert took the podium last night at Avery Fisher Hall to conduct a special performance of Toro Takemitsu's Requiem for Strings before the scheduled Hungarian Echoes program.

Here's the performance:



Hungarian Echoes continues tonight with a performance of Béla Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Review to follow this weekend.

Please donate. And thank you for reading Superconductor.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Concert Review: Child Is Father...to the Symphony

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at TullyScope.
Sir Roger Norrington.
Johann Sebastian Bach had twenty children, if you don't count P.D.Q. Bach. Ten of them survived into adulthood. Of them, four of his sons grew up to be famous composers. Wednesday evening's concert at Alice Tully Hall offered argument for the reappraisal of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, whose work serves as an important bridge between the music of his father and the classical style as developed by Haydn and Mozart in the latter half of the 18th century.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is an acclaimed period performance ensemble from the United Kingdom, under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington. Sir Roger is now 77, and has had a long career leading period performance ensembles. Although he has met with wide criticism for his dry-toned, unromantic accounts of Beethoven, Wagner and even Mahler, these four symphonies and two concertos were ideally suited to his plain-spoken approach. They were played by the small orchestra (about two dozen, all told) with melodic drive and energy throughout.

The highlight of the performance was the C Major harpsichord concerto. It is difficult to play with lyricism on the harpsichord, but soloist Steven Devine overcame the limitations of that instrument. His cadenzas were played with beauty and skill, an impressive blend of dexterity and phrasing as he made the harpsichord sing.

C.P.E. Bach. Image © Naxos.
The same could not be said for the A Major cello concerto, with Richard Lester playing the solo part. Mr. Lester played with passion but hit some number of wrong notes in the first movement. Although he settled in and played the next two movements with singing tone and skilled bow-work, the errant opening undermined the whole performance.

When Haydn referred to Bach as the "father of us all", he was referring not to Johann Sebastianm but to C.P.E. Bach. This was proved by the four string symphonies on this program, which were written for a patron (Baron Gottfired von Swieten) who wanted Bach to push the envelope of instrumental writing farther than it had ever been pushed before. Using only strings and harpsichord, the younger Bach creates a riot of emotional color in the course of three movements each. Impressive, since each symphony is an average of just ten minutes in length.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Concert Review: Canciones Con Gusto

The New York Festival of Song at Merkin Concert Hall

Wallis Giunta. Photo by Barbara Stoneham, 
from Wallis.Giunta.Ca
The New York Festival of Song kicked off its final concert series of the season on Tuesday night, with Spanish Gold, a thorough exploration of the music of the Iberian peninsula, curated and led from the piano by Festival director Steven Blier.

Aided by fellow pianist Michael Barrett, Mr. Blier led what he termed a "whirlwind tour" through the many genres, languages and traditions that, taken together, comprise the vast world of Spanish song. Well-known composers like Enrique Granados and Xavier Montsalvatge were represented, next to Basque folk melodies and Sephardic songs. The singers sang in Basque, Catalan, Ladino (the language of Spanish Jews) and of course, Castilian Spanish. 

The evening featured four young soloists on their way up. Corinne Winters has an impressive instrument, and she and mezzo Wallis Giunta sounded at their best when they were allowed to sing in duet. Ms. Giunta is a young Canadian mezzo-soprano on the rise. She was by turns fiery and moving, delivering her finest singin in "Maig", a Catalan song by Eduardo Toldrá.



Baritone Carlton Ford sang the "Canto negro" by Xavier Montsalvatge with rapid-fire delivery and gusto. He has a dark-colored baritone, agile enough for patter songs, and he is good at acting with his eyes. Tenor Andrew Owens had several opportunities to display his fine lyric instrument, most notably in Fernando Sor's "Mis descuidados ojos" and Turina's "Al val de Fuente Ovejuna."

The formal program ended with a set of excerpts from the Zarzuela, the far-reaching genre of Spanish light opera that enjoyed a vogue in that country from 1800 up until the mid-20th century. These excerpts allowed the fine cast to both sing and act. Most notable was Mr. Ford in "Despiarte negro", a dramatic aria about a black man trapped on a slavers' ship, and the erotically charged duet "Caballero del alto plumero" sung by Mr. Owens and Ms. Winters.

The concert concluded with "El arreglito" (The Little Arrangement) by composer Sebastian Yradier. This duet is best known as the inspiration for "L'amour c'est un oiseaux rebelle", the Habañera from Bizet's Carmen.. As Mr. Blier explained, a desperate Georges Bizet, confronted by a difficult demanding lady before the Carmen premiere, appropriated "El arreglito" with new lyrics, thinking it an old folk tune. It wasn't--and a lawsuit settled the matter. This was a charming, passionate ensemble for the four singers, and the Cuban-flavored encore that followed served as salsa on the paella.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Le Comte Ory

Juan Diego Flórez makes a welcome return to the Met in the title role of Le Comte Ory.
The Metropolitan Opera continues its trend of reviving Rossini rarities with this staging of Le Comte Ory, the composer's last comic opera. This is the Met's first production of this infrequently heard opera.

Le Comte Ory was written in 1828 for the Paris Opera, right before Rossini's retirement from active opera composition. In some ways it stands alone in the composer's canon of works as a comedy written in French. It tells the story of a nobleman, determined to win the hand of Countess Adèle, through disguise, deception, and more disguises than Bugs Bunny.

At the MetTalks presentation on March 10, director Bartlett Sher explained his concept of the new production. He is taking the work back to its 1828 roots: a wooden stage within the Met's cavernous auditorium. The second act, in the convent, will be staged by candlelight. Yes, you read that right.

The production reunites the team of Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau, the tenor and soprano who wowed audiences with a stunning display of bel canto fireworks in the company's 2008 staging of Donizetti's La fille du Regiment. The opera also features mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the trouser role of Isolier, the page who is also attempting to woo the Countess.



A video clip of Juan Diego Flórez in Le Comte Ory.
The staging is by Bartlett Sher, and is the third collaboration between the Met and the Tony®-award winning director.

Recordings Recommendation
I don't really know this opera. But there are three recordings of Le Comte Ory available. I haven't heard them, so I've included what I could learn about them. They are:

Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra cond. Vittorio Gui (EMI, 1956)
Count Ory: Juan Oncina
Countess Adèle: Sari Barabas
Isolier: Cora Canne-Meuer
A mono recording made at Abbey Road, and based on a staging at the tiny but wonderful Glyndebourne Festival, a gem set in the English countryside. This set was originally released by EMI and can be purchased from Amazon as a download, with each disc forming one MP3 track. Yes, that's a pain, but on the bright side, you get the whole opera for $1.98. Caveat emptor!

Orchestre et Choeur de l'Opera de Lyon cond. John Eliot Gardiner (Philips, 1988)
Count Ory: John Aler
Countess Adèle: Sumi Jo
Isolier: Diana Montague
This was one of John Eliot Gardiner's early opera recordings. The period performance expert accompanies the sparkling soprano of Korean soprano Sumi Jo. This was an award-winning recording and has long been considered an industry standard of this rare opera. Since the entire Philips catalogue was effectively deleted when that label was absorbed into Decca, this set was re-released by ArkivMusic in 2006.

Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna cond. Jesús López-Cobos (DG, 2004)
Count Ory: Juan Diego Flórez
Countess Adèle: Stefania Bonfadelli
Isolier: Marie-Ange Todorovitch
This recording was made at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in 2003, and was one of Mr. Flórez' first exposures on the internatonal operatic stage. Featuring Maestro López-Cobos, an experienced Rossini conductor who brings charm and sparkle to this composer's music. The rest of the cast is middling--it is Mr. Flores' presence that is the selling point here.

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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.