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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Concert Review: Pyramids and Floods

The Collegiate Chorale premieres works by Glass and Golijov.
by Paul J. Pelkonen


Pyramid scheme: James Bagwell (center) leads the
Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall..
Photo by Erin Baiano © 2013 The Collegiate Chorale.

Last night at Carnegie Hall saw the Collegiate Chorale offer two of the more interesting New York premieres of the 2012-2013 season. The concert, performed with the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Bagwell offered Philip Glass' Symphony No. 7 (the Toltec) with Oceana, a cantata by the Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Opera Review: Out Comes the Evil

New York City Opera presents The Turn of the Screw.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Benjamin P. Wenzelberg (seated), Sara Jakubiak (standing) and the cast of Star Wars
in Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw at New York City Opera.
Photo by Richard Termine © 2013 New York City Opera.
On Tuesday night, the New York City Opera took a further step towards reclaiming its identity with this new production (the second of four new shows this year) of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. City Opera has historically been a haven for important works of the 20th century that are too intimate for the cavernous stage at the Met. Screw, a chamber opera based on a famous ghost story by Henry James, meets all of those requirements.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The High Priest of Minimalism

Conductor James Bagwell interviews Philip Glass.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Toltec ruins at Tula, Mexico.
Fans of the music of composer Philip Glass should flock to Carnegie Hall tomorrow night, where James Bagwell and the Collegiate Chorale will give the New York premiere of Mr. Glass's Symphony No. 7 "Toltec." The work appears on a program of modern music that also features Oceana by Osvaldo Golijov, a work in the style and structure of a Bach cantata. Mr. Golijov is the current composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall.

The following is a brief interview between Mr. Bagwell and Mr. Glass, provided to Superconductor by the good folks at Michelle Tabnick Communications.

(No, I didn't do too much work on it, but how often do you get to run an interview with a composer like Philip Glass?)

Metropolitan Opera Announces 2013-2014 Season

New Productions: 6. Wagner: 0.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"What do you mean, no horned helmets?"
Ambrogio Maestri is Sir John  Falstaff in Robert Carsen's production
of the Verdi opera,  premiering at the Met Dec. 6, 2013.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore © 2012 The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
In continuation of its apparent determination to do things differently than every other arts organization in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera announced its 2013-2014 season schedule at 5pm tonight via the company's website.

It's an unusual schedule this year. Scratch that--it's downright weird. Some unloved productions from recent years return, including the Luc Bondy Tosca and Mary Zimmerman's controversial "rehearsal" version of La Sonnambula.  There are three operas by Bellini and three operas by Richard Strauss including the mighty Die Frau ohne Schatten. There are three Russian operas (two of them new productions) and one in Czech.

An article in the New York Times announced that ticket prices in the expensive seats will drop by 10%, with the burden being placed on Family Circle Balance seats--they go up 20%. Happily, the Rush Program will continue next year.

So what's missing? First of all, there is no Wagner on the schedule. Planned revivals of Tannhäuser and Parsifal were reportedly nixed in favor of Dvorak's Rusalka (starring Renée Fleming) and Berg's Wozzeck with Thomas Hampson and Deborah Voigt. And there's only two Verdi operas (Falstaff and a revival of the Vegas Rigoletto) after last year's slew of seven.

Also anticipated: the return of Shostakovich's The Nose, Sondra Radvanovsky and Angela Meade alternating in Norma and a much-needed revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream. But nothing is more eagerly anticipated than the return of music director James Levine to active duty after a long absence. He's scheduled to conduct a revival of Cosí fan tutte, the aforementioned Wozzeck and the new production of Falstaff.

That's one of six new productions. And here....they....are:

Opera Review: Five Hours, No Energy

The Met revives Verdi's Don Carlo.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ferruccio Furlanetto (in red) as Philip II in Act III of Verdi's Don Carlo.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Don Carlo, seen Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera is a behemoth among Verdi operas. The story of the Spanish prince and his unlikely struggle for personal (and sexual) freedom in the court of his father, King Philip II of Spain, clocks in at around four and a half hours, and that's with thirty minutes of music removed from the score. (The Met presents Verdi's final five-act revision from 1886 with some cuts.)

For these performances, the Met brought back 82-year old former New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel for his first conducting gig at the Met since a 2008 run of Die Walküre. On Monday night, Mr. Maazel led a troubled performance. Sluggish tempos predominated, with none of the spring and snap needed to make this massive opera move forward. It should be noted that the conductor was accurate and within the lines, leaving room for his singers to expand notes and melodies as needed. But he failed to pick up the slack elsewhere. The result was a flabby Fontainebleau scene that made one long for Verdi's 1882 four-act version, which omits the whole first act.

The problems grew worse in Act III, with the massive auto-da-fé that depicts both the coronation of King Philip and the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition. The big choral themes plodded at a turgid pace that was again, musically accurate but dramatically uninspired. Matters improved in the last two acts, (which are predominantly carried by the singers) but the damage had been done. Mr. Maazel became the first conductor in this writer's memory to be booed from the house...twice.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Francesca da Rimini

The Met dusts off a forgotten production of a forgotten opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Eva-Marie Westbroek (l.) courts Marcello Giordani in Francesca da Rimini.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
No doubt about it: this is the most surprising revival of the 2012-2013 season. This production of Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca di Rimini, one of the few important Italian operas of the 20th century not written by Giacomo Puccini. This production, was originally mounted in 1984 for Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto. The opera's lone 1986 revival featured Nicole Lorange and Ermanno Mauro. (Yes, I had to look them up.) It received just four performances and has never played since. This revival will play six times and include a Met Live in HD broadcast.

Zandonai's opera retells the doomed Renaissance romance of Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and Paolo (Marcello Giordani) against the backdrop of a power struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Francesca is introduced to Paolo, who is substituting for his deformed brother Gianciotto, her actual future groom. Everything goes south when Paolo and Francesca fall passionately in love.

This is a rarely performed, and neglected work. From what I've read, Francesca is sort of Tristan und Isolde (love) crossed with Simon Boccanegra (politics) written in a (post-romantic) musical idiom that has been compared to Richard Strauss. The wordless love duet at the end of Act I is the best known part of the score.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Opera Review: Tristan: The Hot Parts Version

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents Act II of Wagner's opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen 
Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Clive Barda © EsaPekkaSalonen.com
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a long tradition of presenting Wagner operas, from its 1891 stint accompanying the touring Metropolitan Opera (in an Italian-language performance of Lohengrin) to a 1995 concert performance of Die Meistersinger  (which became a Grammy-winning 1997 recording) with the late Sir Georg Solti.

On Thursday night, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen offered his own spin on this tradition with a 90-minute, intermission-less concert that paired the Prelude from Act I of Tristan with the complete second act of that opera. Performing  the work in this fashion allowed the audience to hear this familiar music in a new way and focus on the grand love duet that dominates the second act. More importantly, Mr. Salonen, an award-winning composer himself showed the connection between the famous Tristan chord and the tragic events that end the opera's second act.

Mr. Salonen took an idiosyncratic approach to the Act I Prelude, He waited for absolute silence in Orchestra Hall before launching into the three-note figure that forms this opera's orchestral signature. The conductor sped up as the swell sound increased, leading the heaving central climax at a passionate clip. Throughout, there was a perfect, limpid clarity of strings, wind and horns, right down to the two cello plucks that lead into Act I.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Opera Preview: The Turn of the Screw

New York City Opera gambles on young talent. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
What about the boy? Benjamin P. Wenzelberg (center) finds himself in a supernatural
custody battle in this new City Opera production of The Turn of the Screw.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2013 New York City Opera.
The Turn of the Screw is Benjamin Britten's creepiest operas. The British composer (who celebrates his centennial later this year) transformed Henry James' Gothic ghost story into a tale of innocence corrupted and evil triumphant. The clock-like score is one of Britten's tightest creations, a concise re-telling of the story with key changes that serve to increase dramatic tension, placing stress on the listener.

Britten's opera (the libretto is by Myfanwy Piper) is not a straightforward adaptation of  Henry James' ambiguous ghost story. In Ms. Piper's version, the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are actual supernatural forces, preying on two innocent children at the Essex country estate of Bly. (James' novella leaves the reader unsure if the Governess is seeing things or slowly going insane.)

Opera Review: The Song Contest Remains the Same

The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Die Meistersinger. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Generation gap: Amanda Majeski and James Morris in Lyric Opera of Chicago's
new Die Meistersinger. Photo by Dan Rest © 2013 Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Wagner's  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is one that might be familiar to Superconductor readers. It's by David McVicar, and it's the same one that premiered at Glyndebourne in 2012 and was recently released on DVD. The Chicago version is pretty much the same show--with a few changes and tweaks from director Marie Lambert. (Most notable: the elimination of the stilt-walking fire-breathers following a rehearsal accident earlier this month. They now juggle tenpins.) Sir Andrew Davis conducted a brisk, muscular performance.

On Wednesday night, James Morris returned as Hans Sachs, a role the 66-year old bass-baritone has specialized in his post-Wotan years. He still keeps bottles, wine glasses and tankards handy to wet his instrument--just as he did in 2007. However, all that refreshment does not change one fact: the voice has hardened. Much of the luster and bloom that used to make Wagnerians swoon is missing. This performance, at the head of a generally strong cast was a textbook example of what a fading star can do with his remaining resources.

In Act I, Mr. Morris' lines had a hard-edged tone. There was little supporting the notes in his first address to the Mastersingers, and the voice sounded forced.. However, Act II's Flieder monologue, (gently accompanied by Sir Andrew) showed that the singer had merely been saving his instrument for the long haul of this marathon work. He sounded downright jolly in the Cobbling Song, trading barbs with Beckmesser (Bo Skovhus) and generating Wagner's particular brand of medieval urban mischief.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Opera Review: The Precious Cure

The "new" Met finally gets Wagner right.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Blood simple: Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann) encounters
Kundry (Katherine Dalayman) in Act II of Wagner's Parsifal.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
There are any number of ways to interpret François Girard's new production of Wagner's Parsifal, seen Monday afternoon and evening at the Metropolitan Opera. One argument is environmental: the Knights of the Holy Grail are holding on to a precarious existence in a barren wasteland, having suffered the misfortune of their king Amfortas' injury. These knights spend all their time in what looks like an encounter group, hunched on black plastic chairs on one side of the stage. The female chorus is shrouded in black, segregated from the men. In Act III, the landscape has become a graveyard.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Opera Review: Acts of Congress

City Opera opens its season with Powder Her Face.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bangers and buns: Alison Cook as the "Dirty Duchess" in Powder Her Face.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2013 The New York City Opera.
The New York City Opera (finally) opened their 2013 season at BAM this weekend with the company's first production of Powder Her Face, the controversial 1995 opera that is the first stage effort of bad-boy British composer Thomas Adès. In keeping with the company's entrümpelung philosophy under the stewardship of general manager George Steel, Powder featured a cast,conductor and director all making their City Opera debuts.

This opera is an account of Mrs. Margaret Campbell, the British debutante, socialite (and eventually) the Duchess of Argyll. She lost that title in 1963 when her (very public) divorce was granted for her "perverse and insatiable" behavior, including  reported acts of congress with eighty-eight other men. (This production, in a nod to good taste and the stage limitations of the Howard Gilman Opera House, includes twenty-five naked dudes in the Act I finale.) What really did her in though was a set of Polaroids obtained by her husband, that showed the good lady engaged in sexual acts while still wearing her trademark triple strand of pearls.

Mr. Adès sets these events against a brash, spiky musical fabric that incorporates a wide variety of musical styles. There are liberal references to other 20th century composers (most prominently Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich.) Jonathan Stockhammer supervised the sometimes unusual orchestral and percussive sounds emanating from the pit. Although Powder earned a BBC ban for his graphic Act I portrayal of oral sex, (a half-hummed, half-sung number) but Strauss wrote better simulated sex in his Viennese comedies.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Opera Review: The Aged and the Restless

Don Pasquale at the Juilliard Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bad romance: Deanna Breiwick, Tobias Greenhalgh and Jeongchal Cha
in Act II of Juilliard's new Don Pasquale. Photo by Nan Merriman © 2013 The Juilliard School.
Among the mature comedies of Gaetano Donizetti the most enchanting of these is his last: Don Pasquale. This is a morality play about a covetous septeguenarian who decides to disinherit his callow nephew and enhance his love life--by getting married. It's also the latest comic treat put before a discerning New York opera audience by the Juilliard Opera, a student ensemble whose Lincoln Center productions are among the highest quality works that performing arts complex has to offer.

Pasquale is part con game and part rough-and-tumble farce, with the old man (played here by the vigorous Korean bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha) turning rapidly from suitor to victim as his new wife turns out to be a spendthrift and worse yet, a shrew. Mr. Cha (star of last year's Juilliard Don Giovanni) proved adept at both sides of the character, bumptious and unlikeable in the first two act and a rather pathetic figure once the tables are turned. He also proved adept at the role's low tessitura and difficult patter, spouting the rapid-fire parlando lines with ease.

Mr. Cha also proved an adept physical comedian. In the first act, he makes use of an onstage personal trainer to get pumped up for marriage, engaging in physical comedy with a jump rope, an iron barbell and even a medicine ball to get ready for his big night. When the wedding goes to hell, he incorporates a stooped posture, a walking stick and even a wheelchair to age and deteriorate before the eyes of the audience.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Concert Review: Size Does Matter

Mariss Jansons conducts Bartók and Mahler.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pushing the boundaries: Mariss Jansons conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night. Photo © Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Every concert season, the Carnegie Hall Corporation arranges for a wide selection of world-class orchestras to come to New York. Wednesday evening at Isaac Stern Auditorium saw the welcome return of Amsterdam's finest band, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under the baton of their music director Mariss Janssons. The program offered a pair of 20th century classics.

The first work on the program was Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 with Leonidas Kavakos. The harps set up a gentle pulse. Then, the Greek soloist bit into the meaty texture of this complicated concerto, built from the seed of its opening bars. Mr. Jansons and the orchestra provided expert architectural support in the long opening, allowing Mr. Kavakos room to express Bartok's folksong rhythms, jagged intervals and extended lyric lines.

The second movement was played with the utmost tenderness, with the solo violin's lament coming eerily close to the quality of the human voice. The finale was played with energy and bravura fire, as Mr. Kavakos leaped into the fray of this complicated finale. Soloist and orchestra battled for the spotlight, working against each other until the coda with its final ascent into a blaze of brass. The tender phrases of the final bars recalled the contemplative opening, bringing the piece full circle.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Grail-Shaped Beacon

Some (more) thoughts on Wagner's Parsifal.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"You know where you can find me again." Jonas Kaufmann in Act II of the Met's new Parsifal.
Rehearsal photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Why is it that whenever I'm having one of these days where I'm feeling blocked and vaguely like I can't write anything, that I can always turn to one opera for support?

That opera is Parsifal. Wagner's final stage work not only has amazing music, but it also has a timeless, quasi-religious quality to it, the sound of spiritual meditation and yes, even prayer. Regular readers of this blog know that this is an opera I write about regularly, when a new CD or DVD recording comes out. With the Met about to open a new François Girard production tomorrow night, this is the time to stop and think about what this work means, both to me and in general.

I own a lot of Parsifals. (Eleven at last count.) In fact, it was the first opera that I ever owned a recording of on CD when I was in college. That was the 1985 James Levine recording from the Bayreuth Festival, a set I first encountered because it featured the beautiful Waltraud Meier as Kundry, the opera's principal female character. (This recording is among the longest in the catalogue, timing out at 4 hours and 26 minutes. Mr. Levine's Parsifal is not for the faint-hearted.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Opera Preview: Powder Her Face

She slept with 88 men...and had the Polaroids to prove it.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Three views of Margaret Campbell, the "Dirty Duchess."
Photo montage by the author, who no longer owns a Polaroid.
The New York City Opera is back, once again operating a short split season with performances at BAM and City Center.  On Friday night, the company kicks off its 2013 season with Thomas Adés' Powder Her Face, a saucy English opera from 1995 that takes on the scandalous subject of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll.

Known in the British tabloids as the "dirty Duchess", Mrs. Campbell hit the headlines when her 1963 divorce erupted in the courts as her husband brought forth accusations of infidelities with eighty-eight other lovers and a set of naked Polaroids including one of the Duchess engaged in oral congress with a "headless" man who might have been a son-in-law of Winston Churchill. To be fair, the Polaroids featured Mrs. Campbell still wearing her signature triple strand of pearls.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Concert Review: Death by Chocolate

The ASO presents an apocalypse of...whipped cream?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
What a dessert apocalypse might look like. Image of actor William Atherton as "Walter Peck"
in the last reel of Ghostbusters. Film still © 1984 Columbia Pictures/Sony Entertainment.
On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, the always adventurous Dr. Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a concert marketed as Truth or Truffles. The program juxtaposed two works that stood at absolute polar opposites on the wide spectrum of 20th century musical achievement. The featured composers were Germans: Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a symphonist who defied the Nazis only to sink into obscurity, and Richard Strauss, whose two years as president of Hitler's Reichsmusikkammer remains an indelible blight on his legacy.

The program opened with the United States premiere of the 1961 composition Gesangsszene, the last (and unfinished) work by Hartmann. This is a setting for baritone and orchestra of the Jean Girodoux poem Sodom and Gomorrah, which recreates the fall of those two Biblical cities through the filter of World War II and the age of atomic anxiety.

Hartmann wrote a grim final testament. Jagged stabs of woodwind and violin filled the space between slab-like brass chords. Hartmann, who wrote eight (mostly) forgotten symphonies, was a conservative modernist, following in the orchestral tradition of Mahler and Berg. His music recalls the heavier passages of Shostakovich without the Russian composer's wit.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Concert Review: Double Reed Gonzo

Andris Nelsons conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Andris Nelsons. Photo by Marco Borggreve © 2012 AndrisNelsons.com
Before delving into today's review of the New York Philharmonic's concert of Thursday, February 7th, let us take a moment to consider...the oboe.
Image © Musicians Friend Catalogue.

Approximately two feet in length, this black double reed instrument is the softest and most difficult to play of all the woodwinds. Its unique, plaintive tone quality requires very fine breath control and the ability to blend expertly with other instruments and yet stand out as a solo voice when needed.

On Thursday night, New York Philharmonic principal oboist Liang Wang played a key role in all three works on the program. The concert, conducted by Latvian maestro Andris Nelsons, featured three works: Antonín Dvořák's orchestral fairy tale The Noon-Day Witch, Johannes Brahms' Violin Concerto, and finally Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra which gave Mr. Wang and most of his fellow musicians a turn in the limelight.

The program opened with the Dvořák, a work added to the orchestra's repertory by music director Alan Gilbert in 2011. Mr. Nelsons conducted with broad, bold strokes, capturing the rustic spirit of this music without resorting to vulgarity. Mr. Wang represented the playful voice of the child whose mischief comes to a terrible mortal end at the hands of the titular witch. Powerful playing from the brass marked the child's end, and the work was spurred to a massive rhythmic climax.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Opera Review: Finding Nemorino

Anna Netrebko returns in L'Elisir d'Amore.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The guy behind her has a bigger hat: Anna Netrebko as Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera has revived its season-opening production of L'Elisir d'Amore for a few performances, giving more opera-goers a chance to see director Bartlett Sher's take on Donizetti's most famous comedy. (An earlier Superconductor review was of the opening night telecast, seen among the neon and bustle of Times Square.)

For no apparent reason, director Bartlett Sher refashions this opera buffa as a Verdi-esque clash between oppressive soldiers and would-be guerrilla fighters during the Risorgimento. As Dr. Dulcamara (Erwin Schrott) sells his brand of snake oil to the local peasants, his two assistants distribute single-action rifles from the back of his pushcart. The soldiers under Belcore's command are more threatening than usual, underlining the idea of political and personal tensions that will eventually erupt in violent revolution.

This production (seen Wednesday, Feb. 6) continues to revolve around its two leads, the inspired pairing of tenor Matthew Polenzani and star soprano Anna Netrebko. They both seem more comfortable in their roles, with the show-boating and jitters of opening night ditched in favor of a more natural style of comedy. There's a sweetness that wasn't there before in Ms. Netrebko's performance--she seemed more involved in the character even as she tossed off a virtuosic display of bel canto singing. Her tone was firm and assured in the big solo numbers yet rich and melting in her final duet with Nemorino.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Concert Review: Five Thousand Fingers

Daniil Trifonov makes his Carnegie Hall recital debut.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Daniil Trifonov. Photo © 2012 Decca Classics.
For any young musician making their way in the world of classical music, a first solo recital at Carnegie Hall is a big deal. For the young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who started his lessons at the age of five and now makes his first solo appearance at the legendary concert venue at the age of 21, the stakes on Tuesday night were huge.

For this program, Mr. Trifonov chose a program balancing standard repertory with the flashy musicianship one hopes to see from a promising young piano-slinger. With long, seemingly boneless fingers and a keen musical mind, Mr. Trifonov has formidable physical tools that allow him to follow in his country's long tradition of pianistic skill. This concert was his chance to show that he is the next potential carrier of that flame.

The concert opened with Alexander Scriabin's dream-like Sonata-Fantasie, a piece with contrasting slow and fast movements. Mr. Trifonov hunched his lanky frame over the keys, seeming to burn with concentration as he drew this composer's unique, diaphanous textures out in the slow movement. Notes peeped through the gossamer of sound, coalescing into themes. In the second movement, the left hand rhythms were played with an almost over-eager drive, propelling the work's rhythm to a blazing finish.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

DVD Review: It's Not Delivery

It's Un Giorno di Regno, Verdi's second opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The wife of bath: Anna Caterina Antonacci as the Marchesa in Un Giorno di Regno.
Image © 2012 C Major Entertainment
(Ed. Note: This is the second step in a planned Superconductor celebration of Verdi's 200th birthday. The idea is to write about different recordings or DVDs of all of the Verdi operas plus the Requiem, ideally ending with Falstaff in October. The series started in January with a review of Oberto.)

Un Giorno di Regno ("King for a Day") was Verdi's second opera and his first attempt at comedy. It was also the first catastrophic failure of his career, premiering to hisses and boos at La Scala in 1840. Faced with a choice of libretti, the young composer selected a text originally titled La Finta Stanislao. This was an attempt at madcap, Da Ponte style comedy, the story of a a young nobleman who has to pretend to be a Polish king at a French court so the real King can slip off to Warsaw and legitimize his reign. And yes, it's based on historical incident.

This DVD was shot at the Teatro Regio di Parma in January of 2010. It is the first release of Un Giorno for home video, and the second of Tutto Verdi: a series of DVDs of all the Verdi operas on the C Major label. With a young cast of singers and an energetic conductor in Donato Renzetti, one had hopes that this lost Verdi comedy might be the latest of his many operas to be rehabilitated for the world stage.

Recordings Review: Efficient German Sex

Marek Janowski's Berlin Tristan und Isolde.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Love, Cornwall Style. This is a detail from Salvador Dali's Mad Tristan, created
as a ballet backdrop for the Metropolitan Opera in 1944.
Image © 1944 The Estate of Salvador Dali.
Marek Janowski's new recording of Tristan und Isolde has arrived, marking the midpoint of the conductor's ambitious plan to issue new live recordings of the ten mature Wagner operas on the PentaTone label in a three-year time-frame. (In case you're wondering, Tannhäuser is next.)

This set features the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in a live concert performance (from March 27, 2012) at the Philharmonie in that city. Like its four predecessors, this recording preserves the visceral thrill of live opera with manageable semi-staged conditions and minimal intrusions from stage noise or audience.

Tristan is at once the most mysterious and unapproachable of the "middle" Wagner operas, an internal drama of disastrous courtly love that is also a length meditation on longing and death. It requires five top-flight leads, but the success or failure of the opera rests squarely on the shoulders of its title characters. Wagner's flexible, chromatic musical idiom and heady philosophical libretto leave this opera open to interpretation from artists and listeners alike.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Concert Review: Peace, Love and Beethoven

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra plays Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Daniel Barenboim. Photo © 2013 EMI Classics.
This past week at Carnegie Hall featured one of the most eagerly anticipated events of this young calendar year, four concerts by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Founded by the Israeli conductor in 1999, the orchestra is an assemblage of young musicians from Spain, Israel, Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries. Its goal: promoting peace, love and understanding between the peoples of the Holy Land through Western classical music.

For these concerts, Mr. Barenboim chose the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, which range from wry humor to inconsolable rage, ending in the profound, mystic choral finale of the Ode to Joy. This review is of Saturday performance, which featured the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, and the Sunday matinee with the Second and the Ninth.

Mr. Barenboim's conducting has been a matter of divided opinion over the course of a long podium career. Like his hero Wilhelm Furtwängler, Mr. Barenboim takes a loose, organic approach to the tempo of a piece, with the result of unusually fast or slow music-making. Occasionally he will bend and scoop the air, drawing a swell from a particular section, or point and thrust with his baton to indicate volume from a woodwind. Otherwise, he appeared almost nonchalant, leaning back and letting the orchestra do their jobs without vigorously beating time.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Once Bitten...Twice Shy

New York City Opera jumps the shark.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The image speaks for itself. Photoshop by Marcus Grundahl from
the blog Infrequent Updates on Things You Don't Care About. 
Original elements © ABC Television and Universal Pictures.
I couldn't believe it.

Here I was, putting up a nice new Google Adsense banner on my blog, (from the New York City Opera, no less) when I took a closer look at the animated art unfurling in my (hopefully) valuable cybernetic real estate.

"Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades" it blurted.

OK. They spelled Mr. Adès' name slightly wrong but that's forgivable. A font error or a case of whoever made the banner doesn't know how to use the option key.

"The Turn of the Screw...by Benjamin Bitten."

Bitten? BITTEN?

Don't believe me? Here's a screen-shot, taken earlier this evening. This is NOT an ad banner in the middle of the article (although it's frame-grabbed from my site.)

I can't make this up. Framegrab from Superconductor. (Wow, that's so meta!)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Concert Review: Taking the Beethoven Cure

Christoph von Dohnányi returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christoph von Dohnányi. Photo © Decca Classics/Universal Music Group.
When Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was first heard by a Vienna audience, it was on a freezing cold night in the Austrian capital and part of a four and a half hour concert that also featured the premiere of the Sixth. So perhaps it was fitting that temperatures outside Avery Fisher Hall were bitter cold on Friday night for an all-Beethoven concert at the New York Philharmonic.

The program started with Beethoven's Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. The venerable Christoph von Dohnányi (he's 83 and vigorous) led this brief work with vigor, creating clean orchestral textures to support Beethoven's rhythms and melodic ideas. It was the epitome of this veteran conductor's style: every note of the work's architecture crisply played, clearly balanced and driven forward with firm purpose.

If Prometheus was the young Beethoven's first public success, then the Piano Concerto No. 1 cemented his reputation as a budding orchestral composer and piano soloist. Here, Mr. Dohnányi was joined by pianist Radu Lupu, the eminent Romanian virtuoso who applies his skills strictly to music of the Classical and early Romantic eras.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Opera Review: The Golden Road to Samarkand

Opera Lafayette unearths Félicien David's Lalla Roukh.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Exotic: the dancers of Kalanidhi brought color to the opera Laila-Roukh,
performed Thursday night at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater by Opera Lafayette.
Image © 2013 Kalanidhi Kuchupuru Dance Troupe.
The annual Lincoln Center visits from Washington D.C.'s Opera Lafayette allow New York's opera lovers the chance to hear something exotic. Ryan Brown's company specializes in modestly scaled productions of lost classics. Their latest offering is Félicien David's 1862 opera-comique Lalla-Roukh. Although this work has vanished into obscurity in the last century, it was once among the most popular light operas in 19th century Paris.

To underline the exoticism of the setting, the performance opened with the Kalanidhi dance  troupe performing a brief two-part ballet to taped accompaniment, with jingling ankle-bells in the soft glow of blue lights. When the overture actually started, David's score proved to be a slice of "Indian" exoticism, leavened with humor and authentic French romantic melody. Although David's music fell out of favor with the rise of Wagnerism and the popularity of Massenet, a performance like this shows that a revival of interest is long overdue.

Lalla-Roukh is a perfect example of how imperial Europe saw the far East it had conquered. The story transports the classic boy-meets-girl scenario to the Silk Road, playing fast and loose with locations and history. (In case you're interested, the journey here starts in Kashmir and ends in Samarkand, a major trading point that is still a large city in present-day Uzbekistan.) David's music falls somewhere between Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio and Bizet's Carmen. In other words, this is a lightweight piece that is blessed with some good melodies.

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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.