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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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Met Slashes Costs, Solves Sword Issue

Opera Company introduces Properties Crossover Initiative.*
Paul Richter as Siegfried in a scene from Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen: Siegfried.
In a measure designed to cut costs and promote "creative synergy" between opera productions, the Metropolitan Opera has announced that its new productions will recycle props and costume elements from its other stagings of operas, re-using them as part of its new Ring cycle.

Known behind the scenes as Executive Order PCI 1138 (or, more informally, Operation: Nothung, the initiative will be introduced with the current run of Donizetti's Anna Bolena and the new production of Wagner's Siegfried, opening on October 27.


The plan calls for the sword from Siegfried (known to Wagnerians as "Nothung") to be used for the (offstage) decapitation of the soprano, who sings the role of doomed English queen Anne Boleyn in the Donizetti opera.

"The first time we tried this, the sword broke," said prop-master Aloyisus Kaputnik. "But then we realized that the prop sword" (from last season's new production of Die Walküre) "was designed specifically to shatter onstage."

"As a weapon, it's pretty useless", Mr. Kaputnik admitted. "I wanted to use the guillotine from Andrea Chenier but was voted down on grounds of historical inaccuracy."

"We have higher hopes for the sword for Siegfried", spokesman Peter Paul Mars said. "Robert Lepage's 'Machine' set is not just the centerpiece of our production. Plank No. 23 has inside it a fully functioning minature blast furnace, which can be used to forge a high-tensile weapon that can then decapitate any soprano."

"It was either that, or buy a sword online," Mars added.

*Don't believe everything you read. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Superconductor Road Trip!

Coming to a City Near You!
Don't you wish all tour buses were this groovy and train-like?
Concept bus © 2009 General Motors Inc.
< Superconductor is going on the road in the next week, with help from MegaBus, Greyhound, and our (unofficial, as in they don't know about it) sponsor 5 Hour Energy. I'm going to be seeing performances in Philadelphia, (Carmen on Sunday Oct. 2) Boston (Boston Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 6) and Cleveland, with two performances from the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst. This will be my first chance to visit historic Severance Hall, and I'll be there on Oct. 8 and 9.

You'll still be able to count on this blog for the best coverage of the New York classical and opera scene, with regular reviews of concerts at the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, and opera performances at the Metropolitan Opera (Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Anna Bolena) at the Met. October should be an exciting month.

In the meantime, please consult the new Short List (that's the funky Hunt for Red October graphic to the left), our comprehensive 2011 Opera Previews, and our guides to the season at Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic. Be sure to check back often for frequent updates, both from home and on the road.

Tchaikovsky Gets Boxed

Composer's Music Opens Carnegie Hall, Focus of New Box Set
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who conducted the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1871.
The always interesting budget label Brilliant Classics have unleashed their latest boxed set edition containing all (or most) of the published works of a major composer. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is the latest to get this treatment, in a 60-disc edition containing all of the orchestral works and most of the operas.

As with past Brilliant Classics editions, this set is a compilation from different labels. Here, the major operas and some of the minor ones are drawn from Russian opera companies, including a Bolshoi recording of Pique Dame and Mazeppa, and a pre-Valery Gergiev Kirov performance of The Maid of Orleans. Rare works include the early opera Oprichnik in an Italian radio recording under Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

The six symphonies are here, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under Rozhdestvensky and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio under Vladimir Fedoseyev. The ballet scores are the old (but excellent) recordings made by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The set is rounded out with songs, piano works, and other rare Tchaikovsky works, many drawn from the old Soviet archives.

On October 5th, Carnegie Hall is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its opening concert, which was conducted by Tchaikovsky in his one visit to New York City in 1871. The season kicks off with Valery Gergiev, leading his Mariinsky Orchestra forces in a gala performance featuring guest soloist Yo-Yo Ma.

The program opens with Shostakovich's Festive Overture, followed by Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations for 'cello and orchestra. Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral showpiece Scheherezade ends the program, which will be performed without intermission.

On October 6, the regular Carnegie Hall season opens with a week-long stand featuring Mr. Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. The first three concerts, on Oct. 6, 9 and 10 will feature all six Tchaikovsky symphonies, with two on each program. The final concert, on Tues. Oct. 11 features Prokofiev's ballet score Romeo and Juliet, the First Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with soloist Daniel Trifonov, and Shostakovich's First Symphony.

Sie auch sein mögen Riesen!

"Beckmesser Man", a Parody.
(with apologies to Richard Wagner, John Flansburgh and John Linnell.)
 This post is for my good friend Kelly Rach.
Hans Sachs (Franz Hawlata, seated) tells great composers about this awesome parody.
Image from the 2009 Bayreuth staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. © Bayreuth Festival/Opus Arte.
A totally unauthorized parody of "Particle Man" by
Brooklyn's own They Might Be Giants.
Original song released on the album Flood.
Original copyright @ 1990, property of Elektra Records.

Beckmesser man, Beckmesser man.
Beckmesser man hates noble man.
For the song contest, he has a plan.
Beckmesser man.

David man, Apprentice man,
David man sees Beckmesser man.
Hits him on the head with a garbage can,
Night-watch man.


Hans Sachs man, Hans Sachs man,
Sings about the world's wahn, man
Slaps David with his left hand,
Journey-man.

Cobbler man, Tailor man,
Big chorus sung for Hans Sachs Man
Wachet auf! Then the cobbler's plan
Deutschen mann.

Contestant man, Contestant man,
Walther von Stolzing's got a plan.
Get up and sing, with the bride he ran,
Ausgang mann.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Opera Review: A Long While in Babylon

Nabucco bows at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Over the top: Maria Guleghina as Abagaille in Verdi's Nabucco.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Opera opened Nabucco, the company's first revival of the 2011-12 season. Verdi's version of the Old Testament story of the Babylonian captivity features the chorus as a central character, but the opera has plenty of room for star turns in its two leading roles.

Maria Guleghina will never be the most subtle singer, but she impressed in the difficult role of Abagaille. The daughter of Nabucco (Nebachudnezzar) seizes the throne when her father goes mad, threatening to exterminate the Jews captured in the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem. It is a thoroughly unsympathetic part, but Ms. Guleghina brought raw emotion and occasional beauty of tone to the role. Her best singing came in the quiet passages, like the Act II cavatina. She also brought her laser-like chest-voice to bear on her big confrontation with Nabucco in Act III.

Baritone Željko Lučić tackled the role of Nabucco. His rash act of declaring himself God (in the second act) leads to madness, despair, and ultimately, conversion to the Jewish faith. Mr. Lučić sang with a rich, dark-hued voice, handling the role's stentorian, early passages with power and delivering his best singing in the Act IV prison scene.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Who Are You, New York City Opera?

The 2011-2012 New York City Opera Preview
Act III of Jonathan Miller's production of La Traviata from the Glimmerglass Festival. 
Photo by Richard Termine. © 2007 Glimmerglass Festival.
The New York City Opera has fleshed out some of the details of its skeletal 2011-2012 season, the company's first since its April announcement that it was leaving Lincoln Center.

However, as the company has not yet reached a deal with Local 806 or AGMA over union contracts for its musicians and choristers, these performances may be met with picket lines and large inflatable rats.

The Fall schedule (which, in happier days started in early September and ran into early November at the former New York State Theater) will consist of one concert.
The songwriter Rufus Wainwright, possibly thinking about Puccini.
Photo from his official site.
This show, entitled Who Are You New York: The Songs of Rufus Wainwright will be performed at the medium-sized Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center on Nov. 17. The concert will feature Mr. Wainwright and a collection of young City Opera singers. They will perform his song cycle All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, followed by selections from Mr. Wainwright's song-book.

"Who are you, New York?" is an apt question for this company, as it forges ahead into strange new territory under the guiding hand of general manager George Steel. The City Opera's Spring opera season will start in February of 2012, with two works performed in repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's historic Howard Gilman Opera House.

The first of these is Verdi's La Traviata, presented in a Jonathan Miller staging imported from the City Opera's old friends at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY. Tenor David Pomeroy makes his company debut as Alfredo. Brooklyn native Laquita Mitchell is Violetta. Steven White, who led this opera at the Met in 2009, will conduct.

La Traviata will play in repertory with the New York premiere of Mr. Wainwright's opera Prima Donna. Melody Moore will sing the lead in this French-language opera, which was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera until Met general manager Peter Gelb insisted that Mr. Wainwright write his libretto in English.

March sees the City Opera migrate to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, just two blocks away from their old digs at 20 Lincoln Center. The opera: Mozart's Così fan tutte in an eagerly anticipated new staging from director Christopher Alden. Mr. Alden's version of Don Giovanni (set in a funeral parlor) was the first success of Mr. Steel's term as general manager, and the company is hoping for a repeat of that success in this smaller theater.

In May, the City Opera packs its bags again and moves to El Museo del Barrio on the Upper East Side. They will perform Orpheus, another version of the myth about the legendary musician from Greek mythology. This one is by German baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann, and may prove to be an intriguing way to end this abbreviated season. Baritone Daniel Teadt makes his company debut in the title role.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Off With Her Head: Live-casting the Anna Bolena Premiere

Anna Netrebko as Anna Bolena. 
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
PRE-GAME SHOW: 
6:09 pm:
Hi folks and welcome to the live blog of tonight's Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera House. I'll be doing the same thing as last season, following the live broadcast and updating throughout the evening. Hope you all enjoy Anna Bolena which you can listen to here.
6:11pm:
Deborah Voigt interviewing Fabio Luisi on the red carpet in the pre-game show. Asking about the Don Giovanni and welcoming him to the Met family.
6:16pm:
Margaret Juntwait and William Berger talking about the new start times: 7:30pm Eastern Time is the new early start time. Got to get the audience home to Long Island and Westchester. So get to the theater on time or you'll watch the opera in List Hall. Now onto the three Russians singing the leads in the new Anna Bolena. Now WB is running down the season of HD broadcasts. Hope he read my preview.
6:18pm: 
Deborah Voigt interviewing Tyne Daly (Maria Callas in the revival of Master Class on Broadway).
6:23pm
DV talks to Enchanted Island designer Julian Crouch. Frighteningly good cast and hope it's better than it sounds. Plot is A Midsummer Night's Dream's lovers walking into the island of The Tempest. Would be better if it were Zerbinetta and Arlecchino added to the show to get it done before the fireworks go off.
6:26pm 
Pre-recorded featurette with Anna Bolena costume designer.
6:30pm 
Summing up the plot of Act I it's getting ready for game time. I've got £10 on the mezzo. Orchestra warming up.
6:35pm:
Plot analysis as they wait for the show to start.
6:40 pm:
Marco Armiliato to conduct the Star-Spangled Banner before the opera actually starts. Oh what heights we'll hit--but they really should play God Save the Queen.
6:44pm:
"and the hoooooome of the braaaaaave!" PLAY BALL!

ACT I: 6:46pm:
Marco Armiliato takes the podium. Anddddd.....
Dark chivvying figures in the cellos answered by woodwinds and horns. Establishing grim atmosphere of what is to come with that short bass solo, almost a recitative. Can hear how this points the way to Verdi's Don Carlo. Second half brighter, a Rossini-like crescendo as heard in a lot of bel canto. 
Last time I heard this it was played by 13 musicians--different with a full band!
6:55pm:
Curtain is up and dark castle atmosphere established by the Met Orch.--who sound really great tonight. Ditto the chorus. Guess having a new contract helps!
6:57pm:
Mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova makes her entrance as Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, Anna's lady-in-waiting and soon to be the next Queen of England. Gubanova was an 11th-hour replacement for a pregnant Elina Garanca.
6:59pm:
Audience applauds suddenly--La Netrebko enters. They trade recitatives.
7:01pm: 
Tamara Mumford as Smeton, with whom Anna may (or may not) be smitten. Nice mezzo cavatina.
7:04pm
Great theatrical device: the Queen interrupts Smeton (Smeaton?) for her own first aria, "Come, innocente giovine," Netrebko's instrument sounding fit and flexable with a strong center tonal column. Now to the upper register and you can hear the breaths being held. Bella.
7:08pm: 
Netrebko hitting those high intervals like a skier doing a sweeping slalom. Now for the fioratura and that first thrilling Family-Circle reaching high note--and a second, third and fourth. Damn she's floating 'em. Applause.
7:10pm: 
Next scene: Giovanna and Enrico's duet. Ildar Abdrazakov sounding impressive, now that he's not wearing a plumed light-up Prada helmet. Maybe he is. I only have audio.
7:24pm: 
Long, impressive duet between King Hank and Queen Jane ends with the feed punking out for 15 seconds. Curse you, Internet technology. E maleditto!
7:28pm:
Enter the tenor: Stephen Costello as Percy who is happy not to have any of his big scenes cut. Now, "Da quel dì che, lei perduta" gives him his first chance to strut his stuff. Nicely pushed high note with a little sforzando.
7:36pm: 
Tension rising and everyone in place for that big kick-ass quintet with chorus. Netrebko launches it with some gorgeous if breathy singing. Abdrazakov solid and deep a black-toned voice.
7:48pm: 
Mumford returns as Smeton for a big three-verse aria. (checks libretto) Queen will not interrupt him this time....I think.
7:51pm: Everyone behind the arras! "Dead, for a ducat! Dead!" Hmmm. Wrong opera. Plot thickening up 'til the king's entrance and the last ensemble that ends the act.
8pm: Netrebko injecting real emotion and heart-melting tone into "Per pietà del mio spovento." That's why the lady's face is all over town. Costello's pretty good too here with some rich delivery and just a hint of vibrato but not unsteady.
8:03pm: Heard a page turn. The prompter?
8:08pm: King Enrico VIII is now onstage for the final chorus from "How to Murder Your Wife." Make that the Act I finale where he accuses Anna of infidelity and has her escorted off to the Tower.
Action shot from the end of Act I. Those sets are really oppressive looking.
That's Netrebko in the red dress, Costello next to prompter's box. 
Re-posted from @MetOpera Twitter on Yfrog. © 2011 Metropolitan Opera.
8:15pm: And that's the curtain on Act I to a roar of approval from the house. Get the axe.


INTERMISSION:
8:16pm: Deborah Voigt interviewing Gubenova (Jane Seymour) and Abdrezakov (Enrico VIII, the ocho) "How do you embody the King of England?" "I have little bit of blood of Genghis Khan."
Say what?

8:33pm: Nice interview feature with Ira Siff, and now pre-recorded interview with Netrebko on the technical side of singing Anna. Character is "not a poor innocent victim. Let's not forget what she was, ambitious."
8:40pm: Apropos of nothing, Mariusz Kwiecien with a plug for Don Giovanni.
8:44pm: "And I love Manon." "And I love Manon." Orchestra is warming up....

ACT II: 
8:54pm: Conductor to the pit and off we go with Act II.
8:58pm: Long expository chorus of the Queen's retainers and ladies--this is kinda like Don Carlo.
9:01pm: Nice horn playing from the Met pit. Enter Gubenova. Here's the big duet: "Dio che mi vedi in core". Queen Anna vs. Queen Giovanna for all the (metaphorical) operatic nachos.
9:09pm: This duet is kicking so much butt right now I'm not sure what to be live-blogging about it. Um it's awesome and these ladies are burning up the stage? Yeah. That'll do.
9:16pm: And the crowd goes wild.
9:17pm: Back to the opera.
9:25pm: Fire-breathing confrontation between Enrico, Percy and Anna. Netrebko is exceptional here getting better as the opera goes on. Stephen Costello very strong here and Ildar getting a lot out of playing the King as a complete tool.
9:35pm: Trio ends with Netrebko tossing up some pretty awe-inspiring high notes matched by Costello.
9:38pm: Giovanna and Enrico where she learns she's being promoted and is probably not too happy about it. Abdrazakov rich and resonant in this rep, a dark, resonant quality that is not the prettiest sound but satisfying for this role--voice like a Guinness Stout.
9:41pm: Gubenova laying claim to this role and tossing off some inpressive legato singing pushing herself up for all that she's worth, fading soft, going deep and then heading back to the heights in this impressive duet. I don't think this third marriage will work out.
9:46pm: One of those tough Donizetti cabalettas that is like a rapidly rising staircase as she pleads with the King to be merciful to Anna. Really impressive singing here.
9:48pm: The Tower Scene and Stephen Costello's big aria. Hard to believe this important sequence was almost cut from the run of the show. Here we go: "Vivi tu." Go get 'em.
9:52pm: Impressive, if a little restrained. Here's the b section with some skyscraper notes. Up. Up, and...he took the Par 5. Still pretty good singing but not brain-melting. Still, good job.
9:55pm: La Netrebko back on stage for the tripartite Mad Scene. But first a chorus that goes on for five minutes.
10:01pm: Here we go. Some parallels with Lucia esp. the flute solo.
10:05pm: Feed punked for a second. She's out of the slow section and moving up on the steep rise and drop of the first climax. Sounded like she collapsed to the stage. Gorgeous, sultry tone laced with pain and heartbreak.
10:07pm: Conductor leading her very slowly and she's starting to produce these trills and tremolos. Not a wobble (she's doing this on purpose) and the effect is thrilling, almost hypnotic. Delicate, pointillist singing from an artist in total control of her instrument and at the top of her game.
10:10pm: Top deck for the a capella trope. Down the stairs, THERE's the big high note up at the top and and out of the aria. BRAVA!
10:11pm: The house being brought down. That was pretty + awesome = pretty awesome.
10:12pm: OK. Last scene.
10:22pm: My Internet ganked. Just went down completely. Got to catch the last bits of the final scene but not really the very last aria. Caught the last minute with some impressive, fiery singing from La Netrebko but not enough musical information to really make a judgment on her performance in the last part of that aria. Sigh.

Well, that's the peril of live-casting an opera folks. You can have two computers, everything set up to go and then Time Warner croaks on you and decides you don't get to hear the very last 10 minutes of the opera. Hope you've enjoyed the performance, of both this writer and of the live broadcast, which was really great until I couldn't hear it anymore.

Stay tuned to this blog for a review of tomorrow night's Nabucco where I'll actually be in the theater and not at the behest of the Internet. This was a great way to start the season and I hope you had as much fun reading it as I had doing it--until the last ten minutes, anyway.

Opening Night: Some Heads Are Gonna Roll

The axe used to execute Anne Boleyn in 1536.
Tonight's Anna Bolena opens the 2011-2012 Met Season.

Conductors have been booked, singers have been confirmed, and after a dramatic off-season filled with cancellations, heavy union negotiations, and a whirlwind of drama surrounding music director James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera opens its doors tonight.

The 2011-2012 season starts with the 6pm gala premiere of Donizetti's Anna Bolena. (Curtain time is 6:30.) Anna Netrebko puts her head on the block in the title role. The supporting cast includes Ildar Abdrazakov as Henry VIII and Stephen Costello as Percy.

The opera will be transmitted as a live broadcast in Lincoln Center Plaza (for an audience of 1,000 people) and to Times Square. 2,000 seats are available, first-come, first- served.

But fear not opera lovers, the Met will also carry this opening Anna as a live-stream telecast on the Met's Listen Live site.

Starting tomorrow, the Met season rolls forward with an exciting slate of 26 operas. Five of these are new productions. Here they are:
  • Don Giovanni (The new staging of Mozart's dramma giacoso) Oct 14.)
  • Siegfried (Oct. 27, part III of The Ring).
  • Faust (Nov. 29, with Jonas Kaufmann)
  • The Enchanted Island (Dec. 31. The Met's first pastiche, starring David Daniels and Joyce DiDonato)
  • Götterdämmerung (Jan. 27, 2012, the conclusion of the new Ring Cycle)
  • Manon (March 29, 2012) starring (once again) Anna Netrebko).

The slate of revivals for this year includes Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, and three full cycles of the new Robert Lepage staging of Wagner's Ring.

For non-Wagnerians, the schedule includes:

  • Nabucco (opens Sept. 27 with Zdneko Lucic in the title role.)
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia, (Bart Sher's madcap staging.)
  • Satyagraha (Philip Glass' version of the life of Gandhi, sung in Sanskrit)
  • Rodelinda (A Handel opera, starring Renée Fleming.)
  • La bohéme (The Zeffirelli classic,still packing 'em in.)
  • Madama Butterfly (Anthony Minghella's striking production.) 
  • La Fille du régiment (Donizetti's bel canto comic confection.)
  • Hansel and Gretel (featuring Robert Brubaker as the Witch.) 
  • Tosca (Luc Bondy's much-reviled, much-revised 2009 staging.) 
  • Ernani (starring Marcelo Giordani as Verdi's bandit chief.)
  • Aida (Verdi's Egyptian business, a testament to '80s excess.)  
  • Khovanshchina (Mussorgsky's political opera for these troubled times.)
  • L'Elisir d'amore (reuniting Juan Diego Flórez with Diana Damrau.) 
  • Macbeth (Verdi's take on the Scottish play starring Thomas Hampson.)
  • La Traviata (Natalie Dessay dons the little red dress.) 
  • The Makropoulos Case (Karita Mattila makes a bid for immortality.)
  • Billy Budd (with Nathan Gunn manning the topsail.)

(Whew!)

Consult the Superconductor Metropolitan Opera Season Preview, your guide to what's on, who's singing, and which recordings to pick up if you're building a collection. Each opera has its own page, so just click on the titles or search the site for the opera you're planning on attending.

Going to the Met for the first time? Then our Metropolitan Opera User's Guide is the article for you--some basic tips and tricks on dress code, opera etiquette and getting to the house on time.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Re-stocking the Bare Shelves

A look at upcoming classical boxed sets.
"My cans. My precious, antique cans. Look what you've done to 'em."
Every Fall, the classical music industry releases a new flood of boxed sets and reissues into the warehouses of Amazon.com and its competitors. (This line used to read "into the record stores" but since there are very few left age their stock is limited, I decided to update it for this barren decade.)

In times of limited employment and deep economic strife, suggesting which classical/opera boxed sets to collect might be as futile as buying a subscription to the New York City Opera's 2011 fall season. But we're still going to do it anyway, because writing about good music is a light in dark days.

Here's some new and notable box sets. Some are recently released. Others are coming in the next few months:

Rafael Kubelik conducts Great Symphonies
Schumann Symphonies 1-4, Bruckner Symphony No. 3, 4, Mozart Nos. 35, 36, 38-41

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik (RCA, 7 discs)
One of the great underrated conductors gets a reappraisal, thanks to the merger of Sony and RCA and a slew of accompanying reissues. Kubelik always had a unique take on major repertory, and he meshed perfectly with the Munich forces to produce gorgeous results. (Release Date: Sept. 6, 2011)


Schubert: Piano Sonatas and Impromptus, Andras Schiff, Piano (Decca, 9 discs)

This Hungarian pianist made these Schubert recordings in the 1990s. Crisp keyboard diction, beautiful digital sound and a sense of intimacy, especially in the beautifully played Impromptus. (Oct. 18, 2011)

Bruckner: Symphonies 0-9
Chicago Symphony Orchestra cond. Daniel Barenboim. (DG, 10 discs)

This set has been out of print for almost two decades, mostly because Daniel Barenboim decided to record a second Bruckner cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic. That set was released in the '90s on Teldec/Warner Brothers and is also currently available. This older, analog set made in the 1970s offers the conductor's fiery first take on these classic works and allows the listener to hear the early relationship between the young Barenboim and this great American orchestra. (Oct. 18, 2011)


EMI Sergiu Celibidache Edition Boxed Sets
Munich Philharmonic cond. Sergiu Celibidache (EMI Classics, Four boxed sets, 48 discs total.)

Four low-price boxed sets celebrate the "all-bootleg" recorded legacy of this idiosyncratic, but inspired Romanian conductor. Since Celibidache would not make studio recordings and openly disapproved of the process of making live recordings, he had to be recorded quietly, with everything released following his death.

The maverick Celibidache famously eschewed the recording studio, leading mystic, revelatory performances of major symphonic repertory. (Most of these recordings were made between 1982 and 1995, but not intended to be released.) Bruckner is the main attraction here, although this conductor applied his unique touch to Bach choral works, the Verdi Requiem and an astonishing range of repertory from Haydn and Mozart to Debussy, Bartok and Mussorgsky. (Oct. 25, 2011)


The Liszt Legacy: Benno Moisewitch, Alicia De Larrocha, Claudio Arrau, Raymond Lewenthal, Egon Petri, Piano (DG, 11 discs)
This year has seen a slew of Liszt boxed sets, from the scattershot anthologies of EMI and Sony to Hyperion's absolutely complete set of Leslie Howard's recordings, that weighs in at a hefty 99 discs. This ten-disc Liszt-a-thon celebrates the composer's bicentennial with rare and unreleased recordings of the composer's works from five great pianists. Many of these are previously unreleased.

The Chilean Claudio Arrau and the Spanish Alicia de Larrocha are the big names here, but the set is also notable for the inclusion of the underrated Benno Moisewitch as well as the more obscure Dutch-German pianist Egon Petri and the American-born Raymond Lewenthal.  (Nov. 15, 2011)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Opera Review: Storming the Capital

Tosca at the Washington National Opera
Extraordinary rendition: Baron Scarpia (Alan Held, right) terrorizes Tosca (Patricia Racette.)
Photo by Scott Suchman © 2011 Washington National Opera
Thursday night's performance of the Washington National Opera's current run of Tosca featured the dynamic presence of soprano Patricia Racette in the title role, opposite the dastardly Scarpia of baritone Alan Held. Legendary super-tenor Placido Domingo, the company's former director, conducted.

The production (imported to the nation's capital from the Dallas Opera) opened with a sharply drawn, well-played church scene, that, despite a few muffs in the orchestral pit, climaxed in a mighty Te Deum. The multi-leveled church set may have seemed like an odd idea, but it kept the crowd of bishops, churchgoers and choirboys well above the main stage, allowing Mr. Held to dominate the action. Tenor Frank Porretta sang a careful "Recondita armonia." His first scene with Ms. Racette had some spark, but their great love affair did not ignite.

The confrontation between Scarpia and Tosca in Act II was the centerpiece of the evening. Ms Racette, decked out in a tiara and gown that recalled the costuming of the late Maria Callas, fought bravely for the life of her beloved Mario Cavaradossi, the painter who has run afoul of the law. Mr. Held, in a black and silver frock coat, swung between oily charm and grinning, lupine cruelty as he toyed with Tosca in an ill-fated attempt to ravish the diva.


This scene boasts one of Puccini's biggest hits: Tosca's lament "Vissi d'arte." For this famous aria. Ms. Racette eschewed the traditional Callas-style sprawl across the stage, choosing to sit, shattered and grief stricken as she produced the first notes of the aria. As the vocal line changed, climbed and soared, Ms. Racette gathered fresh power, moving the audience with the depth of Tosca's conflict and the impossible choice she faced.

Anyone familiar with Tosca knows that this scene ends in bloodshed--when the diva stabs the evil police chief with a dinner knife and takes the signed pass that (may) allow her and Cavaradossi to escape. The entire scene burst with kinetic energy, and enough chemistry between Mr. Held and Ms. Racette to suggest that in another, non-Puccini universe, that the copper and the show-stopper had the makings of a smoking couple.

Mr. Porretta has a promising instrument. But the singer lackedthe ringing, clear notes necessary to cut a convincing figure as Cavaradossi. Puccini lovers hold their breath for big moments like the "Vittoria!" monologue or the final bars of "E lucevan la stella," but neither number carried the force and conviction that makes this character go from a dilettante painter, to a fiery revolutionary, to a martyr in the course of three acts. He was better in his Act III duet scene with Ms. Racette, singing "O dolce mani" with affection instead of irony.

With its massed Act I chorus, offstage cantata in Act II and Act III sunrise over Rome, Tosca presents a serious challenge to any conductor. Puccini packed dense ideas into the score's pages. For the most part, Plácido Domingo did an effective job in the Kennedy Center pit, However, there was an audible, muffed brass cue in the first act and the last section of the Te Deum failed to achieve blast-off. The climax, with Tosca's leap to oblivion, was tautly presented, traditional, and most satisfying.

Last night's performance was the subject of a live telecast shown on a big screen at nearby Nationals Park, the home of Washington DC's Major League Baseball team, the Washington Nationals. In a gesture to the fans watching the show from the ballpark, Mr. Held remained in costume, joining the entire cast for a rare bow after Act III. Along with Mr. Domingo, the artists donned scarlet Nationals hats for a photo-op. However, Mr. Domingo tossed his into the audience.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Opera Review: Here Comes the Sun King

Les Arts Florissants revive Atys at BAM.
Ed Lyon as Atys (kneeling) mourns the death of Sangaride (Emanuelle de Negri, foreground)
as Cybéle (Anna Reinhold) looks on. Photo by Stephanie Bamberger courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music opened their 2011 season with the welcome return of Les Arts Florissants, the period performance troupe specializing in French opera of the 1700s. The program: a revival of Atys, the wildly successful fourth opera of Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to Louis XIV.

Today, Lully is better remembered for his ignominous death than for his masterful work writing the first French operas: then called tragédie en musique. (He contracted gangrene after wounding his own foot with a large steel-tipped conducting baton.) But a listen to Atys reveals tightly constructed melodies, clever contrapuntal writing and an over-arching musical vision that looks as far forward as Wagner, Debussy, and even Philip Glass.

Composed and premiered in 1676, Atys is a long way from what most people think of as opera. The purpose of this classical drama is to establish an allegory (using classical figures) to reinforce how awesome Louis XIV was. The result is part music drama and part political statement, and the production (which features a ballet with four gilt-clad avatars of the Sun King) reinforces this idea.


Ed Lyon sang the title role, a priest of the goddess Cybéle who draws her wrath when he falls in love with the mortal (not to mention engaged) Sangaride. Although the character does not develop the same way as later operatic figures, (spending much of one act literally sleeping on the stage) Mr. Lyon shone in the final act, bringing passion and pathos to the murder-suicide that concludes his dramatic arc.

Soprano Emmanuelle de Negri impressed as Sangaride, the luckless lover of Atys. Her grand love duet with Atys in Act IV was one of the opera's strongest moments, as the mythological marble dressing was brushed aside to reveal the human drama at the core of this work. Her voice melded beautifully with Mr. Lyon's providing blueprints for almost every French operatic love duet that followed Atys.

The goddess Cybéle was sung by the stunning mezzo-soprano Anna Reinhold, serene, mysterious and ultimately enraged at Atys' betrayal. Her final peroration over his corpse anticipated the last scene of Götterdämmerung by some 200 years. Bass-baritone Bernard Deletré also had a strong evening, in the duel role of Le Temps (the allegorical figure of Time) and the drunken river god Sangar.

Les Arts Florissants director William Christie conducted, drawing crisp sounds and warm melodies. Lully employed unconventional configurations, dropping the strings altogether to create marches of percussion and wind. Most unusual was the Act IV ballet, a rambunctious affair of jesters and ladies accompanied only by voices and an onstage guitar.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Devil in a Black Dress

René Pape as Mephistopheles at Covent Garden.
Photo © 2011 Royal Opera at Covent Garden
Rene Pape breaks out the new Fall line for Faust.

The opera blogosphere is buzzing today over this photo from the revival of David McVicar's 2004 Covent Garden production of Gounod's Faust. The opera  had its season premiere on Sept. 18.

The German bass-baritone sings the role of Méphistophelès, the devil who spends five acts negotiates for possession of the title character's soul. The Prince of Darkness is less successful in his attempts to ensnare Marguerite (Faust's love interest.) But by the looks of things, he manages to acquire the soul of her couturier.
René Pape (seated) as Mephistopheles at the Met.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2005 The Metropolitan Opera



The dress shows up in the Walpurgisnacht scene in Act IV, a huge ballet sequence with Méphistophelès leading all of the demonic powers of hell in a terpsichorean celebration of how cool it is to be the Devil. Most productions, including stagings at the Met over the last three decades leave the sequence out entirely.

Whatever one thinks of Mr. Pape playing the Devil in drag, the sartorial results are infinitely better than the 2005 production of Faust mounted at the Met. This production put the German bass in a clumsy, rubber suit covered with fake, rippling muscles.

This monstrosity (for there is no other word) appeared in the Church scene the intense moment in Act III where Méphistophelès tries to collect Marguerite's soul. The costume was a visual reference to William Blake's famous painting, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed With the Sun.

The result: an audience that couldn't stop laughing during the church scene in Act IV. Their laughter was audible during the live broadcast.

The production appeared for one season, and was never revived.

Its replacement arrives at the Met this November, a collaborative staging between the Met and the English National Opera. The staging (by Jersey Boys director Dez McAnuff) reimagines Faust as a metaphor for the creation of the atomic bomb in the mid-20th century.

Mr. Pape will reprising the role of the devil at the Metropolitan Opera opposite tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Marina Poplavskaya in the role of Marguerite. Luckily for the singer, the Devil in this staging gets to wear some nice white and black suits and a collection of spiffy hats. Ms. Poplavskaya was a late replacement for Angela Gheorghiu, who was to sing Marguerite but backed out earlier this year.

There is no word yet on whether the Walpurgisnacht ballet will be included. But if it is, wouldn't it be cool if René Pape showed up in a radiation suit?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Another Opening, Another Season, Another Show

Philharmonic opens with concert, free dress rehearsal.
The diva: Deborah Voigt sings at the
New York Philharmonic on Wed.

The New York Philharmonic season opens on Wednesday night, with a concert featuring Deborah Voigt singing "Dich, teure halle" from Wagner's Tannhäuser and the final scene of Richard Strauss' Salome. Alan Gilbert will conduct. 

Tomorrow morning at 8am, the Philharmonic will make tickets available for the orchestra's open rehearsal at 9:45am. Fans wishing to attend may line up in Lincoln Center's Josie Robertson Plaza in order to get tickets. Sponsored by Credit Suisse, the open rehearsal will feature a complete performance of that evening's concert. 

Music lovers lining up for tickets will also be elegible to receive an ITunes download card containing excerpts from last year's performances of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Some lucky fans will also receive IPod Shuffles, pre-loaded with the orchestra's performance of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, conducted by Alan Gilbert.
The concert, which also includes two pieces by American composer Samuel Barber will be broadcast (with tape delay) at 8pm on Wednesday night. The performances will be shown on PBS as part of the Live from Lincoln Center series, and will also be carried on WQXR 105.9FM and as a live audio webstream on WQXR.org.

The Philharmonic's subscription season begins on Thursday evening with encore performances of Gustav Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, featured in the ensemble's Sept. 10 concert honoring the first responders, survivors and deceased of the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Alan Gilbert conducts. 

For further information and tickets to the New York Philharmonic, visit NYPhil.org.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Concert Review: The Critic's Day Off

The Big Four (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax) at Yankee Stadium
Metallica play "Seek and Destroy" at the end of a seven-hour concert.
Photo by the author, taken from the Grandstand, Section 420, Seat 17.
Whether it's Metallica or Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla, playing music in a stadium built for football, soccer or baseball is a problematic situation at best. For the Big Four, the occasional festival bringing together '80s speed-metal bands Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, filling Yankee Stadium with the sound of white noise proved a serious technical challenge.

The bands provided speaker stacks on the empty infield, rising up toward the grandstand like siege towers on a battlefield. The audience was in the seats and on the outfield, with the stage at dead center. And the stadium security, convinced of the risks of peace-loving metalheads, made it hard for some audience members to get into the stadium to see their beloved bands.


As a result the venue was half-empty when Anthrax took the stage at 4pm. The New York-based band came on in re-branded Yankees uniforms, celebrating the venue and the declaration of "Official Anthrax Day" in the Bronx. They tore into "Fight 'Em if You Can't," the first single from their new record Worship Music. A too-short set featured two covers: "Antisocial" and Joe Jackson's "Got The Time.  Brisk punk energy boiled and mosh pits started as Scott Ian and Frank Bello did their best to mask the cracks in singer Joey Belladonna's voice. However the singer found his groove with "Indians" and the crowd led the way in a strong "I Am The Law."

Megadeth came on next, playing with their trademark precision, despite singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine's recent recovery from neck surgery. Chris Broderick's laser-like guitar solo over "Hanger 18" set the tone early. "A Tout le Monde" got the stadium singing, and "Sweating Bullets" took the set to a new energy level. Band mascot Vic Rattlehead showed up, "calling his shot" Babe Ruth-style. Their set ended with "Holy Wars/The Punishment Due" with strong double riffs from the two guitarists.


Slayer remain one of the darkest bands in the world. Sure, other groups with lamer names play faster and sing pages out of medical textbooks, but no-one matches the California quartet for sincere observation of the evils of men. Their subject matter ranges from the insanity of war ("War Ensemble", "Mandatory Suicide") to the banality of man: "Dead Skin Mask" chronicles the depradations of serial killer Ed Gein with a guitar line that sounds like a sobbing child.

Fittingly, the band played in total darkness except for the stage lights: eerie and effective. With one hour to squeeze in 14 songs, some (slightly) slower tracks ("South of Heaven," "Dead Skin Mask") were sped up to fit them all in. Bassist/singer Tom Araya can't headbang anymore (he has a steel rod in his neck) but his scream was intact on the closer, "Angel of Death" (about Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele.) Kerry King and guest guitarist Gary Holt (subbing for Jeff Hanneman, who is recovering from illness) led the charge with pell-mell soloing and tight riffs.


Metallica solved the problem of having to follow Slayer by breaking out their "A" material. The band tore in to "Creeping Death" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls", never letting up in a 18-song set that featured four songs each from classic records Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets. The surprise: the nine-minute instrumental "Orion" as a tribute to late bassist Cliff Burton. (My eleventh show in 22 years and I've never seen them play it.) Often-grim singer James Hetfield was positively jovial, grinning as the crowd responded and cracking a (rare) onstage joke.

Spectacular visuals: fire-pots for "Fuel", cannon-shots for "One" and a criss-cross of lasers during "Blackened" cemented the band's status as hosts of the evening. The encore started with most of the "Big Four" coming back onstage to jam on the Motörhead classic "Overkill." Then Metallica finished with two more songs: the high-speed "Battery" and the crowd favorite "Seek and Destroy." As the last song played with the lights on and the crowd throwing inflatable black balloons, the message was clear: Metallica had hit one out of the park.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Nabucco

The Met revives its production of Verdi's first hit.
The Met's staging of Nabucco. Photo by Marty Sohl. © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Italian audiences yearning to breathe free loved Verdi's opera chronicling the Jews' escape from Chaldea and the eventual conversion of King Nebachudnezzar (the titular "Nabucco.") Nabucco was Verdi's third opera, and his first success. Although the work is not as polished as later masterpieces from the composer of Aida and Rigoletto, it crackles with raw energy and enthusiasm.

The fame of Nabucco rests largely on the back of the famous chorus "Va, pensiero", which became the unofficial theme of the Risorgimento, the movement to unify the Italian peninsula in the 19th century. It still serves as a sort of second Italian national anthem, and was recently sung at La Scala as a protest against government cuts to the arts. Here, Željko Lucic sings the title role in a revival of Elijah Moshinsky's production.
Nabucco opens on Sept. 27.

Recordings Recommendations:
Vienna State Opera Orchestra cond. Lamberto Gardelli (London, 1965)
Nabucco: Tito Gobbi
Abagaille: Elena Souliotis
Zaccaria: Carlo Cava

Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 1984)
Nabucco: Piero Capuccili
Abagaille: Ghena Dimitrova
Zaccaria: Evgeny Nesterenko

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Riccardo Muti (EMI, 1986)
Nabucco: Mateo Managuerra
Abagaille: Renata Scotto
Zaccaria: Nicolai Ghauriov

There are three studio recordings of Nabucco. The first is in crisp Decca sound from the 1960s, with Tito Gobbi in the title role, a good supporting cast and a reliable Verdian in Lamberto Gardelli.

The Berlin recording features the great baritone Piero Capuccili in the lead. Sinopoli's sometimes unpredictable approach to the music is always entertaining. The tiny tenor part features an in-his-prime Placìdo Domingo.

Finally, Riccardo Muti conducts a great "Va, pensiero." for EMI. The drawbacks: a lesser Nabucco in Mateo Managuerra and a weak pair of ladies, with a faded Renata Scotto and the odd casting of Elena Obraztova as Fenena.
Return to the Metropolitan Opera Season Preview!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Concert Review: Honoring (and Raising) the Dead

Alan Gilbert leads the Philharmonic's 9/11 Memorial Concert
The Rising: Alan Gilbert conducts Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2010 The New York Philharmonic
Music director Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in an expansive performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on Saturday night. The free concert at Avery Fisher Hall was to recognize the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11th. The audience was divided between first responders, survivors, families of those killed, and those music-loving New Yorkers who started lining up in Lincoln Center Plaza at 7am.

The history of the New York Philharmonic is intertwined with Mahler and his Second Symphony, a weighty, 85-minute piece requieing two vocal soloists and a large chorus in its concluding movement. Mahler served as the Philharmonic's music director in the last two years of his life. Another music director, Leonard Bernstein, built his reputation (and Mahler's) with frequent performances of the Resurrecton, often leaping into the air at climactic moments.

Mr. Gilbert didn't leap, but he brought tension and energy to the Totenfeier, the long funeral march that opens the symphony. The growling low strings were answered by the orchestra's brass, establishing a solemn mood and driving up towards a mighty climax. Then the palette lightened, as the strings and wind introduced uplifting melodies that anticipated the work's transcendent finish. When the movement paused before the start of the development, the audience, thinking it was over, applauded the players for a moment.

Gustav Mahler.
The second movement offers contrasting lyricism as the strings stepped lightly through a pastoral andante. Mr. Gilbert then drove hard into the scherzo, an instrumental re-working of the song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt ("St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes") from the song-book Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The orchestra recreated the evangelical efforts of Saint Anthony, who preached to the fishes when no-one else would listen. These two movements represent a farewell of sorts to the good things of earthly life, setting the stage for the cosmic apocalypse to come.

The fourth movement is another Wunderhorn song: "Urlicht." Accompanied by a slow, breathing orchestra, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung rose to sing this text with slow, gravid majesty. The singer spooled out the rich melodic lines, injecting real faith into the poet's plea for redemption amidst the suffering of mankind. The orchestra played Mahler's complex, shifting accompaniment with power, warmth, and a golden flow of sound.

The finale of the Mahler Second is longer than Beethoven's Fifth. It is several movements in one: a massive structure that narrates the revelation, the day of judgement, the last trumpet, and the dead physically rising from their graves and marching up a metaphysical stairway to heaven. And all that happens before the chorus comes in.

The heavy, stentorian opening blared out with emphatic force. Mr. Gilbert drew inspired music-making from the veteran winds and strings, playing the uplifting main themes with emotion missing with some other conductors. But the drive and momentum slowed down in the middle, making Dorothea Roschmann's gorgeous soprano solo sound a little vague. The movement picked up only with the exquisite nightingale-song that announces the arrival of the chorus.

The choral part of this symphony builds slowly, entering with quiet phrases and eventually building to a triumph of the forces of light. The singers seemed to find fresh inspiration as they moved from Klopstock's poem Resurrection into the extended stanzas written by Mahler himself. It was as if the composer's words suddenly brought his dynamic presence to the proceedings. Soprano Dorothea Roschmann and Ms. DeYoung joined the triumphant surge of sound, and this mighty symphony ended with a powerful, rising swell that left the audience, and perhaps the entire city, in an elevated state.

When Mozart Meets Fantasy Football

Yeah. You read that correctly.
Former Chicago Bears QB Kyle Orton, after meeting a large dragon.
Uniform and image © National Football League/ Chicago Bears.
So I'm watching the ESPN pre-game show for Week One of the 2011 NFL season. In between the hand gestures, football analysis and season-opening hype, I catch the following commercial:

Commercial for NFL.com © 2011 National Football League

That's former NFL coaches Steve Mariucci and Dennis Green, having a little subterranean fantasy football draft. The soundtrack: the opening scene of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. For those of you who don't play fantasy football, Coach Mariucci selected Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to his team in the second round, a smart move.


The operatic excerpt features Mozart's young hero, Tamino. As the curtain rises, he enters, like some NFL quarterbacks, literally running for his life. The pursuer: not James Harrison or Ray Lewis but a big ol' dragon, which (for no apparent reason) is patrolling the banks of the river Nile in Egypt. Of course, you could imagine your favorite NFL defenders in place of the beast.

The prince faints, rather than be sacked for a loss. The monster is defeated by the Three Ladies of the Queen of the Night. We're not sure whether the three spear-carrying warrior-women represent the other team's chop-blocking offensive line, or the on-field officials that pull the dragon off the prince with a well-placed  yellow flag.

By the way, the commercial features the 1954 recording of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte available as a bootleg from the European label Myto. The set features Rudolf Schock as Tamino, Theresa Stich-Randall, Josef Griendl and Hans Hotter. The perpetually underrated Joseph Keilberth conducts.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hatchet Job

Fabio Luisi appointment triggers Roman blood-bath
Fabio Luisi. Photo by Matthias Creutziger courtesy IMG Artists.
The Met's recent decision to elevate Fabio Luisi to the post of Principal Conductor is having repercussions in Europe.

In a recent press conference, the Metropolitan Opera announced that the maestro had been promoted from Principal Guest Conductor, and would be taking over for James Levine in the Met's new productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Wagner's Siegfried, premiering next month.


Mr. Luisi's appointment to the role of Principal Conductor (a job previously held by Mr. Levine in the 1970s) has brought relief to New York opera lovers worried about the health and status of the company's music director. In recent years, James Levine has battled cancer, back probems and a shoulder injury. Last year, Mr. Levine ceded his postion as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a prestigous post that he held concurrently with his job at the Met.

But the announcement and extended commitment at the Met has met with blowback and disapproval from European houses, particularly the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. The Roman house had hired Mr. Luisi to conduct its forthcoming staging of Elektra. Mr. Luisi has also been forced to nix engagements with the Vienna Symphony, the Teatro San Carlo Fellice in Genoa, and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Luisi's cancellation came as a shock to the Roman house. Elektra is slotted to open on Sept. 30.

In a statement, the Teatro dell'Opera condemned Mr. Luis's last-minute cancellation as "an unfortunate affair that harms the world of classical music and opera. The direction of the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, in stigmatizing the incident, is considering actions to be taken to protect the image of the Foundation, its workers, and their audience."

62-year old Hungarian conductor Stefan Soltesz, music director of the Opera Theater in Essen, Germany is slotted to step in. The cast features Eva Johannson in the title role, Felicity Palmer as Klytämnestra, and Melanie Dehner as Chrysothemis. The staging, first seen at the Salzburg Festival, is directed by Nikolaus Lehnoff.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Concert Review: Mahler, Without Bombast

Chamber arrangement of Das Lied von der Erde performed for work's centennial.
The Burial of Gustav Mahler.
Painting by Arnold Schoenberg.
 © 1911 The Arnold Schoenberg Foundation.
On Thursday night, the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble performed Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in a stripped-down verson for 14 musicians and two singers. This orchestration, created by Mahler's contemporary Arnold Schoenberg, brought the voices of tenor Paul Groves and Jennifer Johnson Cano to the fore. The result: an unexpected intimacy in Mahler's music.

Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") was originally planned as Mahler's Ninth Symphony. It marks the beginning of Mahler's final years, a race against time and his own, defective heart.Its text is drawn from The Chinese Flute, a German translation of seven Chinese poems. The songs offer poignant, sometimes bitter descriptions of nature, everyday life, and the occasional drinking binge.

Arnold Schoenberg began, but did not complete, his arrangement of Das Lied in 1920, intending the work for a series exploring contemporary music in Vienna. (It was finished in 1980 by composer Ranier Riehn.) The spare arrangement (five string players, three winds, horn, piano, harmonium, glockenspiel, and percussion) emphasizes the connection between the late music of Mahler and the works of Schoenberg were made very clear by the reduced orchestra.


A chuckling, splashing horn-call opens Das Trinklied von der Jammer der Erde. ("The Drinking-song of Earth's Sorrow") The small orchestra revealed fresh details in the score, including quotations from earlier Mahler works. Paul Groves soared over the orchestra with a strong heldentenor delivery, rising blissfully through each verse. With remarkable control, he subdued his instrument to deliver the grim refrain: "Dark is love, dark is death!"

He was ably supported by the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble under the baton of George Manahan. The veteran conductor attained clarity from his little band, working hard to correct the balance problems caused in the bright-sounding hall. The second movement, Der Einsame im Herbst ("The Lonely One in Autumn") brought Ms. Cano's fervent mezzo to the fore. She sang with sweet, pliant tone, handling the long vocal phrases with power and ease

Two little movements (Von der Jugend ("Of Youth") and Von der Schönheidt ("Of Beauty") followed, depicting folksy images Chinese art, accompanied by Mahler's development of the traditional Asian pentatonic scale. Each movement was delivered with warmth and humor by the vocal soloists. Mr. Groves surged to the fore again for Der Trunkene im Frühling ("The Drunkard in Springtime"), navigating expertly through the tricky "off" rhythms that indicate the singer's inebriated state.

Mr. Manahan achieved stunning effects in the final Der Abschied ("The Farewell") making his chamber ensemble breathe and thunder like a huge Mahlerian band. This extended movement, lasting just over half an hour, features the final two songs from The Chinese Flute bridged together with a complex, almost atonal central passage.

Ms. Cano displayed remarkable vocal stamina, lasting through to the final passages of this marathon movement. She phrased the final, repeated" Ewig, ewig" unwinding the notes as if they were the white wrappings of a funeral shroud. The work ended on somber, trascendant chords, resolving the questions posed by the composer even as it lulled the audience to a state of bliss.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Green Hill Loses Greenbacks

Major Sponsor Pulls From Bayreuth Festival
The Bayreuth Festspielhaus opened in 1876
The Bayreuth Festival, founded in 1876 for the presentation and performance of the operas of Richard Wagner, has lost a major sponsor. 

Siemens, the German conglomerate which had regularly donated 1 million Euros to the Festival since 2008, announced yesterday in German newspaper Die Welt that their relationship with Bayreuth had ended.
The company had pumped the money into the festival in order to expand the festival's media presence under the leadership of Wagner's two great grand-daughters, Katerina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier. The two sisters  succeeded their father Wolfgang Wagner, who kept an iron grip over his grandfather's opera house for almost half a century.

In recent years, efforts to raise the profile of the festival have included a DVD release of Katherina Wagner's controversial staging of Die Meistersinger and a live web-cast of this year's Lohengrin, which reimagined the citizens of Brabant as lab rats trapped in a giant, horrifying experiment. The Festival's recent staging of Tannhäuser reimagined Wagner's medieval world as a series of biogas tanks. It met with a mostly negative reception.

The Bayreuth Festival opened in 1876 with the first production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. All operas are performed in the Festspielhaus, a unique, acoustically perfect auditorium designed by Wagner himself and funded by Ludwig II, the mad monarch who ruled Bavaria in the late 19th century.
Tanke Schön: Camilla Naylund as Elisabeth in the new Tannhäuser.
Photo by Enrico Nawath © 2011 Bayreuth Festival
Following the 1883 premiere of Parsifal and the subsequent death of Wagner himself, the Festival has remained a "family" business. Wagner's widow Cosima, his son Siegfried, and Siegfried's widow Winifred ran the opera house until 1943, when it was closed in the last years of World War II. Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner re-opened the house in 1951, recreating Bayreuth as a venue for experimental treatment of their grandfather's operas.

Since re-opening in 1951, Bayreuth has transformed itself from a hide-bound living museum, to become one of the most important venues for theatrical experimentation in staging Wagner's operas. In the 1970s, following the death of Wieland Wagner, his brother Wolfgang established Werkstatt Bayreuth to encourage experimental stagings of these great works. The repertory remains limited, confined to the ten mature Wagner operas and a season-opening performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The Festival maintains a ten-year waiting list for tickets.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

James Levine Falls, Cancels Fall Performances

Fabio Luisi named Principal Conductor at the Met
James Levine will not conduct Don Giovanni and Siegfried this fall.
Conductor James Levine has suffered another setback on his long road to recovery. At a press conference this morning, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb announced that Mr. Levine will not conduct the company's new productions of Don Giovanni and Siegfried.

In addition, Mr. Gelb promoted Fabio Luisi as the Met's new Principal Conductor, effective immediately. Mr. Luisi, who spent much of 2010 and 2011 subbing in for Mr. Levine, will conduct the premieres of Don Giovanni on Oct. 13 and Siegfried on Oct. 27. Mr. Levine will remain as Music Director.

Mr. Levine was rushed for emergency surgery after falling while on vacation in Vermont. The conductor has a long history of medical problems, including shoulder injuries, back injuries and a battle with cancer. These medical problems have forced Mr. Levine to conduct while sitting down, and ultimately cost him his position as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

However, Mr. Levine bounced back in April, focusing on his Met commitments and leading spectacular readings of Berg's Wozzeck and Wagner's Die Walküre. However, he stepped down from the BSO and cancelled his commitment to this summer's Tanglewood festival, citing doctors' orders and the need for six months of rest. The BSO was forced to scramble to find conductors for its summer season.

According to a report in the New York Times, the Met's 2011-2012 Don Giovanni performances will be split between Mr. Luisi and Louis Langrée, the French conductor who leads Mostly Mozart. Mr. Luisi will conduct Siegfried, with one performance led by up-and-coming conductor Derrick Inouye.

This morning's rehearsal of Götterdämmerung (which is scheduled to premiere on Jan. 27, 2012, completing the Met's new production of the Ring) was cancelled. It is not known whether Mr. Levine will be recovered in time to conduct these winter performances of the six-hour opera, or whether he will be able to lead the three complete Ring cycle slotted for April and May of next year.

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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.