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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Big Conch Awards 2007

My quick end of year commendations, strictly off-the-cuff:

Best Orchestral Performance: Boston Symphony Orchestra, "The Damnation of Faust" at Carnegie Hall.

Best Opera Performance: "Il Trittico" at the Met.

Diva of the Year: Deborah Voigt

Divo of the Year: Salvatore Licitra

Best Opera Recording: Due to the sad state of the music industry, we're skipping this category for '07. How about instead--best opera recording made in the last ten years that I actually spent money on: "Ariadne auf Naxos", conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli.

Best Opera Reissue: The Del Monaco/Tebaldi "La Forza del Destino", runner up "Das Wunder der Heliane" by Korngold, finally reissued.

Best Classical Box Set: Schubert sacred music, cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch, The Operas of Janacek, cond. Sir Charles Mackerras

Best Opera DVD: "Lohengrin" from Baden-Baden conducted by Kent Nagano.

Favorite opera moment of '07: Placido Domingo appears on the Simpsons

Much missed: Beverly Sills, Luciano Pavarotti

Deborah Voigt is proud to accept this giant conch!
Photo © Nick Heavican/Metropolitan Opera from

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Opera Review: Follow the Bouncing Ballo

The Metropolitan Opera's revival of Un Ballo in Maschera bowed on Monday night, anchored by a strong, well-sung performance by Salvatore Licitra as Gustavo III, the King of Sweden. Licitra stepped into the operatic limelight in 2002 when he took over Cavaradossi for an indisposed Luciano Pavarotti at the Met. Here Licitra sang a performance that the recently deceased Luciano would have been proud of. Gustavo is one of Pavarotti's signature roles with well-rounded tone and ear-pleasing high notes. He exhibited outhrusting sexual charisma and a magnetic stage presence--you truly regretted his death at the opera's climax. In other words Licitra's performance embodied the Pavarotti tradition from the singer's salad days.

Ballo had more problems with the censor than any other Verdi opera (except maybe or ). As a result, the house hs two options in performing it: go with the original setting. In the Swedish setting, the King is the historical (but historically homosexual) Gustav III of Sweden--not exactly who you want at the center of a love triangle. Possibly worse is the "censored" version, in which the King becomes "Riccardo", Duke of Warwick" and where the glittering masked ball is placed in the unlikely setting of Puritan-run colonial Boston.

In either Stockholm or Boston, this is one of the trickiest Verdi scores to conduct. It is light in its texture, with a frothy humor that is smewhat uncharacteristic for this master of the stage tragedy. This lightness proved difficult for conductor Gianandrea Noceda, whose lead-footed conducting slowed the opera's pacing and sense of dramatic flow, He also failed to pull back the orchestra at key climactic moments--the singers were either drowned out or forced to shout over the pit.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky brought his usual heroic presence to the role of Count Anckarström, whose jealous rage and decision to assassinate the King makes him this opera's true protagonist. Whether he is the Count (in Sweden) or Renato, a "Creole" (In Boston) it is this character's tragic development that makes this character spin. Renato/Anckarström goes from buddy and court lackey to a humiliated, enraged husband who is prepared to kill the King dead--in public!--to avenge his honor. His transition provides Ballo with its emotional core, and one cannot help thinking that Hvorostovsky's performance, while magnificently sung, seemed detached from the tragedy at hand. That said, his Act III aria was a highlight of the evening.

As Amelia, the woman caught in the middle between these two men, was American-born soprano Michele Crider. She displayed a fine, sweet toned voice, but unfortunately had to struggle over the orchestra at the climax of her Act II aria. Ofelia Sala made a fine debut in the trouser role of Oscar, the King's perpetually perky page. Stephanie Blythe rocked the house as Ulrica--it's a pity that this witchy woman only appears in Act I.

Salvatore Licitra does the hand jive.
Photo © Patrick MacMullan from Mastroianni Associates.

Monday, December 17, 2007

DVD Review: Songs From the Big Chair

Boris Godunov at the Liceu
In the capable hands of director Willy Decker and conductor Sebastian Weigle, this production of Boris Godunov (filmed at the Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona) , the Liceu Boris becomes more than a radical work that changed Russian opera forever. It becomes the first great political thriller of the stage.

Matti Salminen and Erik Halfvarson are both basses, and both known for their huge, round dark voices that have led them to build their careers around the role of the villain Hagen in Wagner's Götterdämmerung. Salminen takes the title role into his massive hands and delivers a thunderous performance, swinging between grim self-defeat and stark terror in the mad scenes. Halfvarson, as the monk, Pimen is the more emotionally stable of the two--his opening monologue is riveting. The two great basses finally confront each other in the Duma scene, now moved to the close of the opera.

This is Boris as Mussorgsky originally conceived it--seven tableaux clocking in at two and a half hours. In this production, there is no Polish act. Grigory's part is accordingly diminished. Princess Marina and the Jesuit, Rangoni are cut completely. Also cut out, the Kromy Forest scene--replaced here by the confrontation before St. Basil's. However, these cuts have their advantages. While Grigory (the appealing tenor Pär Lindskog) is reduced to a mere historical footbote against the grand drama of Boris, the shadowy schemes of Shuisky (the excellent Philip Langridge) now come to the fore.

Director Willy Decker has opted against the tradiitonal Russian look, choosing a quasi-fascist 20th century setting that opens with Boris in a well-cut business suit before he becomes tsar. The set consists of a wide open space dominated by an enormous, gilded wooden chair--which serves as scenery and blocking as well as the central image of the Russian throne. The seat is literally too big for any one man--perhaps that is the idea. The spare set gives the choristers plenty of space to move and act, allowing them to dominate this opera when the two great basses are not onstage.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Opera Review: Iphigenie en Tauride at the Met

The Met's new production of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride is an import from the Seattle Opera, anchored by two singers familiar to New York opera lovers. On Tuesday night, Placido Domingo (as Orestes) and Susan Graham (in the title role) were the stars of a powerful theatrical evening.

Written at the very end of Gluck's life, Iphigenie consolidated the composer's musical theories with its emotional arias, heightened dramatic tension, and unified flow of musical ideas. However, it fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century, and has been absent from the Met's stage for 90 years. The libretto is based on a play by Euripedes, telling of the further adventures of Iphigenie. She is the daughter of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who was willing to sacrifice her to get a favorable wind in order to sail to the Trojan War. When he "killed" her, Iphigenie was magically transported to Tauris (present day Crimea) and forced to sacrifice humans at the bidding of the king. She is also the sister of Orestes, who is in turn tormented by the Furies for murdering his mother, Klytemnestra. The next victim on the altar, she learns, is to be Orestes himself.

The family's murderous history is dealt with in this production, a stark, intense staging by Stephen Wadsworth, the director whose Santa Fe/New York City Opera staging of Handel's Xerxes helped revive interest in baroque opera while making stars out of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and David Daniels. Here, the action is set in a closed, claustrophobic space--bleak and dusty rooms that saw nothing but death. The ominous air was added to by the decision to shackle Orestes and Pylades--to the walls, to the altar--for much of the action--their struggles to escape the coming sacrifice evoked modern horror films like Saw.

Both Placido Domingo and Susan Graham put this intensity of feeling into their dramatic performance, fusing word and gesture in a way to make classicists proud. In addition to strong acting, their singing is to be commended: Mr. Domingo sounds more comfortable in the French than ever before--the idiosyncratic pronunciations were kept to a minimum. Susan Graham gave a powerful performance, baring a full range of emotions, from commanding priestess to tender, loving sister. This role has become a trademark of this American mezzo, and her rich voice showed command of the character's nuances. At the end of the opera, Graham's performance was capped by a post-traumatic stress breakdown onstage, showing the audience the trauma of Iphigenie's ordeal as a priestess of Diana.

They were aided by nimble orchestral support. Louis Langree did an exceptional job on the podium--this production marks his Met debut. and a strong secondary cast, particularly the Pylades of Paul Groves. Groves held his own with Domingo's mighty stage presence in a solid performance.

Photo © Ken Howard, 2007

Friday, October 26, 2007

Recordings Reissue: La Forza di Tebaldi

There is no disputing the fact that Renata Tebaldi and the Decca record company were a match made in heaven. She recorded many of the major Verdi and Puccini operas in the Decca studios. She is also one of the few artists to make complete recordings of operas that used to be repertory standards, i.e. Catalani's La Wally and Cilea's Adriana Lecouvrer. Her 1955 recording of La Forza del Destino has just been reissued, and, to use the technical language of operatic criticism, it's a doozy.

The huge cast required for this opera is filled out with nothing less than an all-star lineup of post-war Italian singers. Tebaldi's Leonora is one of her greatest roles, soaring and expressive, right on the edge between madness and piety in her quest for redemption. Her grand Act II aria and scena is a glorious, religious experience. Mario del Monaco enters the first act like a thunderbolt--he is always at his best in over-the-top roles and his Alvaro is no exception. He displays fine ringing tone throughout, building up to such a height of apoplexy that one expects him to force the opera to follow Verdi's original "suicide" ending just to he can hurl himself shrieking over a cliff!

As the manic Don Carlo (not to be confused with the equally manic Don Carlo in Don Carlo) Ettore Bastianini chews the scenery, managing the subtleties of the "Pereda" aria and then going toe-to-toe with del Monaco in the third act. Giulietta Simionato is a gorgeous, old-school Preziosilla, hitting the low "Buona notte" note that most mezzos avoid today. The minor parts are in good hands: two monks are the very capable Fernando Corena (as Fra Melitone) and Cesare Siepi (as the Padre Guardiano).

The idea for this recording came about in 1953 when Dmitri Mitropoulos conducted a legendary series of Forza performances in Italy. He is absent here, replaced by the pedestrian Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. Leading the Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Molinari-Pradelli takes a foursquare approach to the music. He lacks the rhythmic snap necessary for a great Verdi performance.

The other problem is the orchestral sound. In 1955, Decca had not yet perfected its stereo recording techniques, and the problems are readily apparent from the overture onward. The orchestral sound is compressed to an unacceptable degree, and the result is buzzing and rattling in the speakers when the brass and percussion come in at full blast. Even the much-vaunted Decca digital remastering has not cured the fact that for much of this recording, the orchestral forces are simply playing at levels which the recording technology of 1955 failed to capture.It is ironic that, of the major studio recordings of this sprawling opera, the one with the finest singers and best vocal performances is cursed with medocre conducting and worse orchestral sound.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Opera Review: Roads to Madness

Željko Lucic and Maria Guleghina as the Macbeths.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met's new Macbeth.
With his version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Verdi managed to break new musical ground in the middle of his difficult "galley years." The result: an opera with two murderously difficult leading roles. On Monday night, the premiere of Adrian Noble's new production featured baritone Željko Lucic and soprano Maria Guleghina as the Macbeths, in one of the most exciting performances of a young opera season.

Mr. Lucic is an imposing figure, with a big swagger in his manner and his voice. As his guilt slowly peels away the shell of his sanity, the performance rises in intensity until it becomes excruciating to watch.  Mr. Lucic's performance encompassed noble, deep notes, white-faced terror and all-out rage and despair, everything that is demanded by Verdi. He moved from high-powered grandstanding to the intimacy of deep dementia.

Maria Guleghina gave a strong performance as Lady Macbeth. She began the Letter Scene in spoken word, floated crazy, dissonant notes in the middle of the Act II brindisi and ranged her formidable instrument all over the stave in her final mad scene, giving an acting performance inspired by sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Barefoot, she walked on a long row of chairs, avoiding stepping on the cracks on the floor of the set. The whole time, she compulsively rubbed her hands.

John Relyea was a fine, resonant Banquo, with rolling deep notes and a warm, fatherly presence. His performance makes one wish that Macbeth's best friend could live a little longer--or at least have some music to sing as a blood-covered ghost! His final aria was magnificently sung, and he gave his murderers a heck of a fight before getting killed.  Finally, the large, burly singer made an imposing, terrifying (albeit silent) ghost in the banquet scene.

Macduff was the tenor Dimitri Pittas. This is a tiny part--one of Verdi's smallest tenor roles. But his Act IV aria was beautifully sung with longing for the character's murdered family. The final stage-fight between him and Macbeth was compelling to watch, bringing the rebellion to an exciting close.

This new production by Adrian Noble emphasizes drama and efficiency over visual splendor. The entire action takes place on a cracked, black obsidian disk, (very New Bayreuth!) with columns at the front and the trees of Birnham Wood toward the back. The trees-to-columns effect leads one to expect these sets (by Mark Thompson, who also designed the company's surreal black-on-black Pique Dame) to be recycled for the Met's next staging of Parsifal. Noble does a good job of coming up with powerful ways to stage the dramatic action of the play, and his inspired singing actors help make the production work.

James Levine conducted with brisk efficiency, letting the formidable Met brass tear into the score, while maintaining the delicate balance between the winds and strings. The Met chorus, whether portraying the Macbeths' party guests, the maniacal witches, or the oppressed people of Scotland, were both superb and tight.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Opera Review: Figaro Gets Hitched

The Metropolitan Opera's current revival of Le Nozze di Figaro is anchored by an extraordinary pair of male leads. As Figaro, Uruguayan singer Erwin Schrott gave a high-energy reading of the character, leaping and bounding across the stage. The physicality of his performance was matched by high quality singing, with ringing firm notes and genuine anger in the crucial Act IV betrayal scene. As the Count, Michele Pertusi's strong presence lent force to the nobleman's rage and frustration--yet he also shows the vulnerable side to the character in the opera's finale. In some ways, these two singers are similar. Each shares a swaggering stage presence, expert buffa delivery and fine comic instincts.

Canadian soprano Wendy Nielsen stepped in for an ill Hei-Kyung Hong at the October 10 performance, and the audience was not disappointed. Nielsen sang "Porgi Amor", "Dove sono" and the Letter Scene with a sweet, carefully modulated vocal tone that also blended well in the opera's many ensembles. This is not the frail, wilting Countess, but a robust woman who is determined to hang onto her man at any cost.

Lisette Oropresa sang a high-energy Susanna, pert and sparkling. Anke Vondung made her Met debut as Cherubino, investing the character with a strong mannish energy necessary for this trouser role. Finally, the other three comic leads of the opera (Dr. Bartolo, Marcellina and Don Basilio) were in the capable hands of Maurizio Muraro, Ann Murray and Robin Leggate. From the first act onwards, their comic business and double-dealing enhanced the events of Figaro's crazy wedding day.

Conductor Philippe Jordan led a brisk, egg-timer performance with a stripped-down Met band. The downsized orchestra responded with crisp tempi and exceptional woodwind playing. In keeping with the brisk tone of the evening, the opera was given with one long intermission (between Acts II and III) which made for two long stretches of music but enabled the orchestra to blaze through Mozart's score in three and a half hours, flat.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Operas of October

The opera season in New York is off to a strong start, with the Met's surreal Lucia competing for attention with the gritty new Cav/Pag at the City Opera. As October gets under way, highlights to look forward to include:

  • Alexander Zemlinsky's little-heard A Florentine Tragedy at the New York Philharmonic. Zemlinsky was the teacher of Schoenberg, and was long considered a lost example of early 20th century Austrian opera. His works have come under reassessment in recent decades, thanks to the efforts of conductor James Conlon. Maestro Conlon leads concert performances of this opera at Avery Fisher Hall, starting Thursday, Oct. 18.
  • The following week features the second new Met production of the season, a new staging of Verdi's Macbeth starring baritone Željko Lucic and Maria Guleghina as his lady wife. Based on Shakespeare's blood-soaked "Scottish Play," this is the first performance of this famously unlucky opera at the Met since 82-year old singing coach Bantcho Bantchevsky fell from the balcony during the intermission of a matinee performance in 1988. His death was ruled a suicide, the first and only to occur during a performance in the company's history. Hopefully, this new staging (by Adrian Noble) will keep opera lovers in their seats until the final curtain.
  • Handel's baroque showpiece, Agrippina, takes the stage at City Opera, a house that has become known for quality presentations of operas by the great baroque composer. The City Opera's 1997 production of Xerxes sparked the baroque revival in New York and spurred the careers of David Daniels and Lorraine Hunt. This Agrippina is a welcome revival, featuring the singing talents of countertenor David Walker.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Opera Review: Reality Blurs, Murder Occurs

Cav/Pag at the New York City Opera.
The New York City Opera's new Stephen Lawless production of Cavallieria Rusticana and Pagliacci takes the classic verismo double bill and turns it on its head. Led by house maestro George Manahan, this is a powerful one-two punch of these great operas, made all the stronger by Lawless's decision to integrate the characters of the two works, blending the lines of reality and increasing the dramatic power of the evening.

At first, the crossovers start without the audience realizing it, when Silvio (the lover of Nedda from Pagliacci, played by Michael Todd Simpson) shows up in Cavalleria as Turiddu's callous drinking buddy. Later, a visibly battered Lola (Alfio's wife in Cav, played by Rebecca Ringle) wanders through the carnival of Pag, suicase in hand.

Alfio (the killer in Cavalleria, played by baritone Andrew Oakden) crosses the stage at the start of Pagliacci, pockets his switchblade (the murder weapon) with a nod to the audience, unbuttons his jacket, vest and shirt, and reveals that, underneath he is dressed as Tonio, the evil clown who destroys Canio's marriage in the second opera.

Both operas were anchored by strong performances, and both featured the stellar baritone of Andrew Oakden, singing his first City Opera performances as Alfio and Tonio. This was a sturdy performance, brilliantly acted. He sang "Il Cavallo Scalpita" with feeling and rhythmic snap, and nailed the confrontation with Turriddu (tenor Brandon Jovanovich.) Oakden's second performance, (as Tonio) was creepy and malignant from the Prologue onward. The audience was aware that Tonio was really Alfio--not just the same singer but the same man who committed the murder in the first opera. This made Oakden's performance all the more disturbing.

Brandon Jovanovich displayed a fine, ringing voice as Turiddu in the first opera. He pulled real pathos from the opera's climax and treated Santuzza (Anna Marie Chiuri) with venomous contempt. The two did not shy from the physical aspects of playing the feuding ex-lovers--their chemistry and kinetic fight choreography enhanced Mascagni's music and practically leapt off the stage. As Santuzza, Chiuri was a powerhouse, the right mix of beautiful singing and pure rage. Susan Nicely was a moving Mamma Lucia, her final scene with Turiddu was the emotional climax of the opera.

Pagliacci was also blessed with good physical acting and fine vocal performances. Maria Kanyova was an athletic Nedda--making one wonder how she produces such beautiful vocal tone when contorting her way across the red velvet couch upon which she canoodles with Silvio.

The famous, murdering clown, Canio, was played as an alcoholic actor and sung by tenor Carl Tanner, who has a fine, round voice and chose his own interpretation of the "laughing sob", not resorting to hamming or cliché. It was interesting to see Canio do his clown bit in grease paint and a striped suit--the character was so depressed and angry that he didn't even bother to get into costume. The rest of the cast, Robert Mack as Beppe and Michael Todd Simpson as Silvio, provided some nice singing and able support.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

DVD Review: It's All About the Pants

The 1995 Bayreuth Götterdämmerung.
Mother Courage: Deborah Polaski as Brunnhilde. Image © 1995 Unitel.
A minor chapter in the history of Wagner Ring cycles at Bayreuth has finally arrived on DVD: a performance of Götterdämmerung from the infamous 1995 production of the Ring cycle directed by Alfred Kirchner and designed by German fashionista Rosalie. (That's "Roh-zal-yah" by the way, not "Rosalie")

I had read about this strange production over a decade ago, and like most Wagnerians, was curious to see if it was actually as bad as I had heard it was. Happily, the verdict, at least as far as this 2-DVD Götterdämmerung is concerned, is that the production is less than a total disaster. That is to say, musically speaking, it's pretty good, with one glaring exception.

Luckily, this is Deborah Polaski's Brunnhilde at a vocal peak, before her big soprano voice began to suffer from a regular wobble. She sings beautifully in comparison to her Siegfried, (considering that it's Wolfgang Schmidt, that's not difficult) and tries to act through the onstage silliness. Her apotheosis won't make anyone forget Nilsson (or even Anne Evans) but she sings well enough.

Vocally, Schmidt is the primary culprit here, although compared to a 1997 performance at the Met he is in passable voice. (That's not a compliment.) His is a tight, compressed instrument, given to stentorian shouts and squally notes, with very little legato and no room for the voice to expand and blossom. It's interesting that after he drinks the love potion in Act I, his singing gets worse! This is one of those performances where the audience feels pretty good about Siegfried getting speared in the back.

With a bad tenor and worse designer, Hagen becomes the hero of the evening, ('cos he gets to kill Siegfried!) I am happy to say that Icelandic bass Erik Halfvarson gives an iconic performance as the spear-wielding party-loving Son-of-a-Nibelung. His resonant tones and rolled deep notes are a welcome distraction--almost enough to make you forget that he is wearing roller-derby shoulder-pads and a fetching half-leather full-length black skirt.

Unfortunately, no one thought to hire Hagen to put a hit on Rosalie. Her strange costume ideas include:
  • A metallic "fake muscle" chestpiece for Siegfried, worn under an electric-blue vest with paper pants. (Little Lord Fauntelroy in disposable clothing?) I'm not even going to mention the sword which looks like a gigantic delta-vee cheese-grater. Mangia parmagiana!
  • Brunnhilde, decked out in four-foot-wide silver "diet pants" topped by a blue and white plasticized, fake-nippled corset. (This accentuates Deborah Polaski's considerable physical assets, inspiring the title of this review--I couldn't stop laughing.)
  • A quilted nylon mattress pad/cloak for Gutrune, which predicts the exact shade of Christo and Jean Claude's "The Gates," ten years before that project launched.
  • A single bright orange accordion sleeve for Gunther that looks like it will zip out at any moment like an Extend-O-Glove and pop Hagen on the nose.
  • The three Norns, looking like the inspiration for the forest critters in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. However, these costumes appear to be made from brightly-tinted bubble-wrap with over-long sleeves. Eek!
Falk Struckmann (who has since graduated to singing Wotan) is an excellent baritone and a solid actor when not encumbered by his costume. Anna Linden's Gutrune is more erratic than erotic (blame the quilt) and Waltraute is the ever-reliable Hanna Schwarz. The Bayreuth choral forces are able and willing, no matter how silly the production.

One wonders if the rest of this cycle is slated to be released on DVD, or if this was the only one of the four operas staged that summer to be deemed worthy of posterity. It's worth hearing for Halfvarson, Polaski, and James Levine's superb, if slow reading in the famous Bayreuth pit. Given some of the strange fashion choices made by designer Rosalie, the other three operas might be worth seeing, if only on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Opera Review: The Blood-Spattered Bride

Natalie Dessay in Lucia di Lammermoor.
by Paul Pelkonen
Natalie Dessay on her wedding night in Lucia.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera
With her performance in the Met's scintillating new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, French soprano Natalie Dessay joined the front rank of the world's great soprano singers. The diminutive coloratura sang one of opera's most famous roles with passion and pin-point precision on Monday night. She was sweet and girlish in the opening act, yet with a hint of something under the surface that indicated the instability and madness that is Lucia's fate.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Placido D'OH-mingo

Placído Domingo ("P. Dingo") as
drawn by Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
Image © Fox/Gracie Films
The great tenor Placído Domingo made an unexpected television appearance Sunday night, as special guest star in "The Homer of Seville", an opera-oriented episode of The Simpsons. Tonight's episode featured Homer's short career as a star tenor. After a catastrophic injury, Homer discovers that he can sing beautifully as long as he is lying on his back.

With Mr. Burns' guidance, the big guy becomes a bona fide opera star, working his way up through Puccini's La Boheme and Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.. (He did the final scene from La Boheme and the "Lindoro" aria from Barbiere during the episode, along with a Broadway selection and The Star-Spangled Banner Midway through the second act, Señor Domingo appeared as a towel-clad version of himself, giving Homer some useful career advice.

For you Simpsons fans who read this blog (and I know you're out there) this is at least the fourth time that opera has played a heavy part in an episode.

  • In Season 17, "The Italian Bob" featured Kelsey Grammar as Sideshow Bob, attempting to murder both Krusty the Klown and Our Favorite Family during a performance of Pagliacci in Rome.

  • In Season 15, "Margical History Tour" featured Bart as the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (author of the opera The Musical Fruit. Lisa is the jealous (and homicidal) Salieri and Homer takes the role of Mozart's overbearing father, Leopold.

  • Sideshow Bob attempted to kill Bart to the score of H.M.S. Pinafore in Season 5.

  • And finally, the very first episode, "Bart the Genius" has Marge taking the family out to see Carmen (in Russian, no less.)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Recordings Review: The Great Wagner Escape

How the Kubelik Meistersinger escaped from obscurity. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fear the beard: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger.
Photo © 1976 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group
Two recordings of the same opera are under scrutiny this week, and that opera is Wagner's sole comedy, the mighty Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (Yes, I know. Another Wagner article. If you're all very patient next week I'll be writing about Donizetti).

In 1967, Deutsche Grammophon eager to add a Meistersinger to its catalogue, commissioned conductor Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to record this opera. This was a live recording done in a theater with no audience. The set featured a solid cast, with Gundula Janowitz as Eva, baritone Thomas Stewart as Hans Sachs, Sandor Konya as Walther--great singers but not household names. However, this set was not released--it sat on the shelf until 1994.

That was a good year for classical music, and right before the end of the CD boom, when the market was getting flooded with "bootleg" recordings by small labels from Europe: Myto, Gala and Opera d'Oro. The first appearance of this Meistersinger was bootleg pressing was issued on CD by the tiny Italian label, Myto. Collectors snatched them up.

When the pricey Myto version disappeared, the Calig label issued a new version. This one was made from the actual DGG master tapes, and has the same clarity of sound as other contemporary DGG recordings.

This recording is currently available for a third time: on a German label, Arts Archives. Like many recordings made by Rafael Kubelik, this Meistersinger is conducted with a fresh approach to the music. Kubelik displays his usual command of rhythm, phrasing and texture, and the orchestra plays brilliantly. Stewart's performance as Hans Sachs is both genial and confident, and is one of the best recordings made by this underrated baritone.

With the Kubelik set completed (but relegated to the vault) baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau entered into negotiations with DGG to record Meistersinger, with himself as Sachs. This set finally appeared in 1976, with veteran conductor Eugene Jochum on the podium leading the Deutche Oper Berlin forces. The recording has some wonderful orchestral playing but is marred by weak choral singing and a series of acoustical tricks by the Tonmeister (the echoing, boomy church acoustic in the opening scene is the biggest culprit) that distract the listener.

As for the cast, Fischer-Dieskau, better known for his achievements in lieder and art song, made some memorable Wagner recordings. This is one of his better ones. His Sachis is warm and resonant if a little fussy. Domingo is at sea here, struggling with the unfamilar German diction. Catarina ligendza is a disaster as Eva. However, charming orchestral playing, intelligent interpretation and the magnificent David of Roland Herman are all redeeming factors.

Here's a few others worth checking out:
  • The 1950 London recording under Hans Knappertsbutsch features the sonorous Sachs of Paul Schöffler and some remarkable orchestral playing from the Viennese forces.
  • The two Karajan recordings from EMI have much to recommend them--the set from Bayreuth in 1951 is excellent, the studio recording in the '70s has great stereo sound and a solid cast with Karajan leading the Dresden forces.
  • Wolfgang Sawallisch's studio recording (also EMI--they have four in their catalogue) features Cheryl Studer and Ben Heppner as a raiant Eva and Walther. The set is marred by the slightly dry Sachs of Bernd Weikl who nevertheless sings the role with experience and good humor.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Concert Review: New York Philharmonic, Sept. 20, 2007

Thursday night of the New York Philharmonic's opening week featured Beethoven's sole Violin Concerto, bookended by two works that demonstrated the power of this great orchestra under the baton of Music Director Lorin Maazel. The program opened with a tribute to Italian modern composer Luciano Berio, who died in 2003. Berio's music can veer from the extremes of 20th century atonality to a sweet, neo-classical approach that is easy on the ears. That kinder, gentler Berio was in evidence in this piece: Four Original Versions of the "Ritirata alla nottturna di Madrid" by Luigi Boccherini. Berio adapts Boccherini's baroque, Spanish-inflected melodies for a large, modern orchestra, layering and repeating the themes in a manner that recalls the approach and retreat of a vast army. (The sonic effect is not unlike Ravel's Bolero.) Maazel conducted this seven-minute crescendo and dimuendo with verve, power, and no score in front of him.

The Beethoven was the centerpiece of the evening, and this performance featured the four-stringed skills of soloist Lisa Batiashvili. The Georgian violinist played this challenging concerto with glamor and fire, using the cadenzas written by Fritz Kreisler. The extended first movement presents difficulties for any soloist, and Batiashvili surmounted them with ease. Her lyrical phrasing came out in the second movement, and she blazed through the final rondo with an energy fitting this fiery music. Maazel demonstrated his command of phrase and rhythm, drawing a stirring performance from his orchestra. This is her first visit to Avery Fisher Hall this season--she is scheduled to return in October, playing Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with Vladimir Ashkenazy on the podium.

The evening ended with Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" Symphony. Powerful brass writing and rhythmic snap dominate this symphony, which veers closer to traditional Russian folksong and the sonic territory of the "Mighty Handful" than his later works. This performance showcased the mighty Philharmonic brass section, particularly the horn solos of first chair Philip Myers and the rumbling contrabass tuba and trombones. Mention must also be made of the double reeds: bassoonist Judith LeClair and Ronald Nye along with principal oboist Liang Wang . All three played particularly well in the manic final rondo, contrasting the powerhouse brass with nimble figurations and compelling ensemble texture. Under Maazel's baton, the result was a compelling orchestral texture and the capturing of the definite "Russian-ness" of the score.

Photo © 2007 by Kasskara, from

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti (Oct 12, 1935-Sept. 6, 2007)

The great Luciano Pavarotti is dead. He was 71.

The Italian tenor has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. He died at his home in Modena, Italy.

Pavarotti's round, gorgeous tone and command of the Italian bel canto repertory made him one of the most beloved tenors in the world. His arrival on the operatic scene (in 1963, when he stepped in for Giuseppe di Stefano at Covent Garden) coincided with the birth of the recording industry, and he left a substantial legacy of complete operas. His catalogue includes the major works of Donizetti, Puccini and Verdi, and various operas by Bellini and Mascagni. (My personal favorite is one of his few German-language recordings, as (what else?) the Italian Tenor in Georg Solti's recording of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. Of course, the great tenor sings a part written in Italian.)

Onstage, his forty-year career featured performances in works like L'Elisir D'Amore, Rigoletto, and Aida. These appearances, in venues all over the world, helped bring those operas into the consciousness of the world. In the last 20 years, he developed problems with his upper range and a disinclination to learn new operatic roles.

Undaunted, the tenor turned to the more lucrative venues of the stadium circuit, appearing in concerts around the world and helping to further popularize opera. His performance of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" became something of a signature tune for him at the 1990 World Cup and the 2006 Winter Olympics. He also formed the Three Tenors with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, further elevating the operatic standard to a world audience.

His later career was rocked by scandal--his second marriage to his secretary and open speculation about his weight. A Pavarotti feeding frenzy would often start in the press if the great man appeared at a restaurant. However, his charity work, including the opening of a Pavarotti Music Center in Bosnia and his fund-raising for the Red Cross did much to balance out his image.

Pavarotti was one of the great figures of opera, the most beloved Italian tenor since the days of Enrico Caruso. This unique voice, this generous man, this good-hearted ambassador of the opera is at last, silent.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

And AWAAAY WE GO (well actually, we're back!)

September is here and the opera season is nearly upon us. This week following Labor Day is when all of us opera-lovers take a deep breath before plunging headlong into the madness that is the 2007-2008 New York classical music season.

Highlights of the upcoming weeks include:

Opening Night at the New York City Opera. The City Opera opens its doors tomorrow night (!) with the Opera-For-All festival. For just $25 a seat, you can see La Boheme, Don Giovanni as well as a special Concert Celebration that features performances from everything coming up on that venerable opera company's schedule. The season proper opens with La Boheme on the 9th, folowed by Richard Danielpour's opera Margaret Garner and the company's production of Don Giovanni.

The New York Philharmonic opens their 2007 season on Sept .14 in fine cinematic style with a tribute to the film scores of John Williams. The composer, known internationally for the themes to Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter conducts a program of light favorites. Famed film director Stanley Donen is the special guest host. The season proper (you know, serious music, nudge nudge) opens the following week with an all Dvorak concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma.

Finally, the Metropolitan Opera throws open its doors at the end of the month. September 16 will mark a special tribute to the talent of Beverly Sills. The season proper opens on September 24 with a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor starring the fabulous Natalie Dessay as everyone's favorite crazed Scotswoman. Speaking of crazed Scots, the Met will feature a new production of Verdi's Macbeth er...Italian Version Of The Scottish Play, starriing Željko Lucic and Maria Guleghina as the unhappy couple. It opens on Oct. 22.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Traveling Critic: Boston's Back Bay

I was up in Boston last week on non-blog business last weekend, and wanted to take a moment to write about the state of music shopping along Newbury Street and Mass. Ave.

Bostonian music aficionadoes well remember the Tower Records that used to stand on this corner at the west end of the Back Bay. Occupying three full floors of a hi-rise condominium, this Tower had the best classical music department in the city. It served as a music library for me when I was a young graduate student. It was open 'til midnight. They played great music all the time. The staff was generally friendly and helpful, especially a clerk (and lute player) named Steve Bielski who I became good friends with over my two years in Boston.

There were also two good HMVs (one in Harvard Square, one downtown around the corner from Locke-Ober's) and another Tower in Harvard Square. All these stores are gone now, even the Virgin Megastore that moved in to replace the Tower Records in the Back Bay. It's now a Best Buy, the lowest of the low when it comes to music stores.

However, just when all hope seemed lost for those of us who still prefer CDs to MP3s, it springs forth anew. It turns out Newbury Comics, a store which specializes in comics, rock'n'roll, and DVDs (kind of like Kim's Video Underground crossed with Forbidden Planet, for you New Yorkers) has expanded and opened a big classical music department. Right in the back of the store, where the comic books used to be. So there's still a place in the Back Bay to find good quality new CDs. But now, like all the good things in Boston, you have to know where it is.

Now you know, too.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dusting off the Haitink Ring

Signed Photo of Eva Marton as Brunnhilde.
Photo owned by Andrew Howe.
There's been a lot of Wagner and Strauss-related content in the blog lately. These two great German composers number among my favorites, whether for the power of Wagner's mighty orchestral developments or the shimmering diversity of voices that Strauss wrung from the orchestra.

In the interest of continuing our summer program along the same vein, here's a look at Bernard Hairink's underrated version of Wagner's mega-mythological cycle.

When the Haitink Ring hit the market, it faced a lot of stiff competition. Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan had made classic cycles (in the '60s and '70s, respectfully). James Levine had unleashed his Metropolitan Opera forces on a set of audio and video readings of the four operas. And live recordings from Fürtwangler, Böhm, and Boulez peppered the already-overstocked shelves of the big classical music stores--Tower, HMV and (later) the Virgin Megastore.

All of those are now gone, and the classical music industry has reduced its output to a trickle of CDs and a flood of reissues. So it's time to re-assess Bernard Haitink's durable version of the Ring. Assets of the recording include a fine Siegfried sung by ex-bassoonist Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor-that-never-was Reiner Goldberg as his daddy Siegmund, and Matti Salminen as an impressive Hunding.

Theo Adam, who recorded Wotan for Karl Böhm, here shifts to Alberich. He was much older when this recording was made, but his snarls suit the dwarf. Waltraud Meier is an excellent, bitchy Fricka (only in Walküre) Marjana Lipovsek sings the role in Das Rheingold opposite the Wotan of James Morris. Morris, in turn sounds better on this set than on the Levine cycle. Finally, Götterdämmerung features a superb trio of Gibichungs. Thomas Hampson is an heroic, yet appropriately wimpy Gunther, Cheryl Studer as Gutrune, and John Tomlinson, is in fine, gruff voice as the treacherous Hagen.

Unfortunately, there is one big negative in this set, the stentorian Brunnhilde of Eva Marton. She sings most of the role without inflection, keeping her big, laser-like soprano on full blast even in the most lyrical passages. The decision to have her sing all three phrases of "Heil dir Sonne" (from Siegfried) at full fortissimo destroys Wagner's intentions and robs the Awakening scene of its beauty. However, she gets better in the later pages of Götterdämmerung, particularly the confrontation in Act II and the radiant finale. She is aided by the underrated Munich orchestra, in superb, shimmering form, led by a conductor who appreciates textures and nuances found in the more obscure corners of the score.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

CD Review: A Win For the Islanders

Giuseppe Sinopoli's final recording: Ariadne auf Naxos
Giuseppe Sinopoli
Giuseppe Sinopoli was one of the finest conductors of the latter half of the 20th century. Equally at home in the operas of Verdi and the symphonies of Mahler, he was one of many maestros to benefit from the surge in classical recordings in the first twenty years of the compact disc era. Although not every Sinopoli CD is definitive (much less essential) he always put his own stamp on the music he was conducting.

That maxim holds true for his final released recording, a studio recording of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, which was issued in 200_ by Deutsche Grammophon in commemoration of the conductor's untimely death. (And yes, I am reviewing a seven-year-old recording in this space but the set was added to my collection this year, and I finally got a chance to listen to it!)

It is a wonderful final testament. This Ariadne is an exquisite blend of light textures and majestic orchestral effects, Emphasis is on the somber drama of Ariadne's plight. Sinopoli, in his final complete Strauss recording, takes his usual iconoclastic approach. His freshly conceived tempos and subtle enhancements of woodwinds and strings bring out new sounds in a familiar score, enabling the listener to hear the opera as if for the first time.

This is an all-star cast. Deborah Voigt shows why Ariadne is one of her signiature roles. She is unquestionably the focus of this opera. Opposite her is the aerobatic Zerbinetta of Natalie Dessay, who nearly leaps out of the speakers for "Grossmachtige prinzessin."

Anne Sofie Von Otter's Composer dominates the opening Prologue--her interactions with Zerbinetta benefit from Von Otter's experience in trouser roles.Ben Heppner is suitably self-inflated in the Prologue; ringing and firm in the Opera. His Bacchus does not grate on the ears, and his his chemistry with Voigt is evident in the mighty final scene.

Sinopoli, like several great maestros before him, died on the podium. On April 20, 2001, he suffered a heart attack while leading Act III of Aida at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Ironically, he made his podium debut conducting this same opera in 1978.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Opera Review: Primitive Cool

Four Nights at the Mariinsky Ring.

Brunnhilde in Act II of Die Walküre.
Photo by Valentin Baronovsky © 2006 The Mariinsky Opera.
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera brought their innovative, iconoclastic approach to Wagner's Ring cycle to the Metropolitan Opera House in July. This production presented the Ring as a combination of proto-civilized pagan ritual and multifaceted family drama, set against the backdrop of primitive standing menhirs and gigantic, mummified figures suspended, god-like over the mostly bare stage.

The whole was bathed in Gleb Filshtinsky's creative, polychromatic lighting design that recalled the "color organ" ideas of Russian composer Aleksandr Scriabin. This four year old production, by Gergiev and designer George Tsypin, both enthralled and befuddled the Lincoln Center audience.

Throughout the cycle (I chose the Friday-Saturday/Friday-Saturday option) Gergiev led his  forces in compelling readings of the four massive scores. But the performances were marred by an odd orchestral balance, a few flubbed solos and strange editorial decisions made during the conductor's preparation of the score. Wagner's Ring does not benefit from editing, and it benefits even less from editorial enhancements to the music.

The quality of the soloists varied from night to night. The kudos start with Brunnhilde, sung by Olga Sergeeva. Following a shrill opening "Hojotoho!", she settled down into a gorgeous, lyrical performance, not a knock-em-dead powerhouse but a singer who valued tone and placement of notes over stentorian blasts of sound. That sometimes made it a little hard for Brunnhilde to get over Gergiev's orchestra, but led to some lovely singing in the score's lyrical moments.

She was well complemented by Mikhail Kit's Wotan, who anchored Die Walküre. As Siegmund and Sieglinde, Avgust Amonov and Mlada Khudoley were a compelling pair of Walsung lovers. Amonov brought heroic tone to the role of the doomed Siegmund, Khudoley sang Sieglinde with sexual intensity.

Wotan enters Mime's cave in Act I of Siegfried.Photo by Valentin Baronovsky © 2006 The Mariinsky Opera.
Kit's Rheingold/Siegfried counterpart, Alexei Tanovitsky was a little shaky in the first opera, but rebounded as The Wanderer in the latter opera. He sounds more comfortable with the lower-ranged role. His riddle scene was a highlight, as was the confrontation with Erda (Zlata Bulycheva) at the start of that opera's third act.

Sergeeva was well matched on the third night of the cycle by Leonid Zakhozhaev, a magnetic and ringing Siegfried that only faltered (for one moment) in the final bars of his tenor-killing duet with Brunnhilde at the end of this five-hour marathon opera. Unfortunately, he was replaced for Götterdämmerung by Victor Lutsuk, who had plenty of energy but a voice that grated. However, Lutsuk plled it together to deliver a powerful death scene, singing Siegfried's final vision of Brunnhilde with lyric grace.

Brunnhilde's final scene in Götterdämmerung--a half-mad solo piece sung alone on the stage to Siegfried's corpse--made the whole cycle worth the price of admission. That said, the decision to keep her in boots, black leather gloves and a goth-style Valkyrie dress throughout the cycle undermined her appearance as a captured bride in Act II of Götterdämmerung. I half-expected Gunther (Evgeny Nikitin) to announce: "Fellow Gibichungs! I have brought home the dominatrix!"

And then there's Mikhail Petrenko's highly original take on Hagen. Possessed of a smaller bass voice than most Hagens, Petrenko skulked across the stage, whispering his plans and plotting Siegfried's death. He revealed his true nature in the murder scene, opening up his voice and meeting the score's vocal demands. This singer's focused acting and intelligent performance brought a fresh approach to Wagner's most famous bad guy, making him a worthy opponent for Siegfried and a fascinating character in his own right.

Other vocal standouts included:
  • Vasily Gorshkov's baritonal Mime in Siegfried, less shrill than most character tenors who tackle this part. He was also a terrific Loge.
  • Kirov veteran Nikolai Putilin's put-upon Alberich.
  • Evgeny Nikitin's regal Gunther who does a great job of falling apart under stress. He also sang a gorgeous Fasolt, complimented by Mikhail Petrenko's Fafner.
  • Anistasia Kalagina's Forest Bird, helped by the fact that the character actually appears onstage for once.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Get Out of the House! Go to Summer Festivals!

July is almost half over and the summer festival season for music lovers is now in full swing. Here's a fast rundown:

  • The Lincoln Center Festival and Mostly Mozart will get you out of the house and into the air-conditioned spaces of Lincoln Center. There's also some really great music in this annual summer tradition, but more on that in the weeks to follow.

    Lincoln Center's official site

  • The New York Grand Opera comes to Central Park. The company has left SummerStage and moved back down to the band shell on the west side of the Park near 72nd Street. They'll be doing La Traviata on the 18th and a performance of Tosca in early August.

    New York Grand Opera

  • Down by the banks of the East River, BargeMusic gives you the chance to listen to the great classics right on the edge of Cosmo Kramer's old swimmin' hole. All their concerts take place on an old coffee barge moored by the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

  • The Norfolk Chamber Music Festival is put on by Yale University in Norfolk, Connecticut. This year features the 30th aniversary of the Tokyo String Quartet.
    Norfolk Chamber Music Festival

    While you're in Connecticut, check out Music Mountain in Falls River, another excellent festival focusing on chamber music.

    Music Mountain

  • The cool shady trees of Tanglewood beckon you to Lenox, Massachusetts for this annual festival put on by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Whether listening to symphonies in the Koussevitzky Music Shed or chamber works in the Ozawa Music Hall, Tanglewood is an idyllic experience.

    Photo: Musicians performing outside BargeMusic. © 2007 BargeMusic

Monday, July 9, 2007

Notes from the Cheap Seats: Summer Festival Update

The Russified Ring
  • This opera lover goes back to the Met on Friday (after two much needed months away) to attend the first of four performances of the Kirov's staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle. Valery Gergiev will be in the pit, but the real treat will be seeing the spectacular visual effects and pageantry that are trademarks of the Kirov approach to the opera. Das Rheingold is Friday night and Die Walküre is on Saturday. More to follow on this exciting version of the famous German mythological drama as it develops!

Orpheus In Cooperstown
  • In other news, the Glimmerglass Opera Festival opened its four-opera summer season on July 7th, This year, the focus is on the Orpheus myth, with Offenbach's Orphee aux Enfers, Gluck's Orphee et Euridice, (presented in the Hector Berlioz version, very different than the production that bowed at the Met in May, Monteverdi'sOrfeo, and Philip Glass's Orphee. (Personally, I want to see some company do this with the Faust operas...but that's just me.)
Brushing Up Their Shakespeare

  • In related news, the Glimmerglass Opera has announced its 2008 season where the real cheese is a rare series of performances of Das Liebesverbot, an early Wagner comic opera based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. It will be staged in conjunction with three other Shakespeare-related works: Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Bellini's I Capuletti e Montecchi, and Cole Porter's immortal Kiss Me Kate. All four operas will be presented on a unit set designed by John Conklin meant to evoke an Elizabethan theater.

OK I've brought my harp--now which way to the Hall of Fame?

Orpheus. Image © 2007 Glimmerglass Opera

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Queen of Arts: Beverly Sills (1929-2007)

Beverly Sills.
Brooklyn's own Beverly Sills died last night. One of the most memorable soprano voices of the 20th century, Ms. Sills was known for her mastery of Italian repertory, particularly the works of Donizetti and Rossini. Her sweet, delicate tone and command of coloratura styling made her a star in the opera firmament. Her sunny personality and grace stood her well through a long reign as New York City's queen of arts. The soprano-turned-administrator was 78. The cause of death was reported as inoperable lung cancer.

Born Belle Silverman in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Ms. Sills enjoyed a long career on the operatic stage. Although she was singing in public as early as the age of five, it was not until 1955 when she became the star of the New York City Opera. In her greatest onstage achievement, Ms. Sills created (and recorded) the title role in Douglas Moore'sThe Ballad of Baby Doe, an opera which showed the way for American composers in the 20th century.

Her performances in the three Donizetti "Queen" operas: Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda were a landmark achievement in bel canto singing. She brought Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman to vivid life on the stage of City Opera, singing the roles of all four principal characters in that complex opera.

In 1967, Sills starred in an acclaimed City Opera production of Handel's Giulio Cesare. Not only did this production revive interest in baroque opera in New York City, but it led to the brightest, most glowing reviews of Sills' career. Finally, at 50, she retired from the stage following a performance in Menotti's La Loca. Starting at City Center and ending at the company's current home in the New York State Theater, "Bubbles", (as she was known from infancy) brought the City Opera to a prominence which it still enjoys today.

But her involvement with the arts only increased and expanded. She became general director of the City Opera, saving that company from financial ruin in a ten-year reign that saw the production of rare operas like Mozart's L'Oca del Cairo, (paired with Oliver Knussen's operatic version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are) and modern works like Philip Glass' Akhnaten and Anthony Davis' X. Ticket sales were also helped by a reduction in ticket prices and the introduction of classic Broadway fare like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd to the State Theater stage. The City Opera also became the first opera company to introduce supertitles in 1983. (I remember well what it was like, the year before, to be a nine-year-old kid with no translation available.)

Ms. Sills left the City Opera in 1989. Five years later she became the Chairwoman of the Board of Lincoln Center. In 2002 she accepted the post of Chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera, a move that ultimately led to the arrival of new Met General Manager Peter Gelb in 2006 and the dawn of a new era for that company. The Queen of Arts may be dead, but the artistic legacy of her long reign over Lincoln Center will resonate well into this current century.

Beverly Sills. Photo from

Friday, June 29, 2007

All Quiet on the Opera Front

Hi folks,

Hope the summer has found you all healthy and happy--with the end of the season and hiatus over I'm back and ready to dish the latest in news and opinion on the opera front. Highlights of the cupcoming month of July will include reviews of the Kirov Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera and features about other summer festivals. I'd also like to do a fall preview but we'll see how much time I have in the next couple of weeks.

In other opera news I'm really excited about The Ring and about the City and Met 2007-08 schedules. I'll start doing some previews on here soon and maybe write about some great recordings.

All for now

Paul Pelkonen

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Opera Review: Three on a Match

Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
Barge-music: Juan Pons in Il Tabarro, Part I of Il Trittico.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.

Long before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez brought Grindhouse to your local movie theater, Giacomo Puccini conceived the idea of three disparate operas, performed together in the course of one evening. The three operas have had mixed fortunes since their 1918 premiere. They have been performed together, seperately, and paired off with works by other composers (Suor Angelica has been paired with Salome!). With this spiffy new Met production by Broadway director Jack O'Brien, this new Trittico scores three solid goals over the course of a long evening.

Opera Review: Down I Go

David Daniels as Orfeo.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
The dress rehearsal of Orfeo et Euridice at the Met.
As part of my subscription for the 2007-2008 season (more on what I'm seeing in a future edition of this blog) I was lucky enough to get tickets for the Monday dress rehearsal of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, one of the hottest tickets in the final weeks of the spring opera season. I know that we critic types aren't realy supposed to write about dress rehearsals, bit it was such a significant performance that I am going to share my thoughts below. Yes the review is running a little late, but, here it is. Enjoy.

The star of this new Orfeo is the superb countertenor of David Daniels. Daniels specializes in baroque opera, singing with a high-pitched "head voice" (not unlike Jon Anderson of the rock band Yes). In 1997, his performance as Arsamene in Handel's Xerxes at the City Opera (opposite Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) was almost single-handedly responsible for the baroque opera revival that New York has enjoyed in the last ten years. Ms. Lieberson was originally supposed to sing Orfeo in this new Met production. She died last year, and Daniels stepped in to sing her commitments. The production is dedicated to her memory.

Gluck's opera retells an ancient myth, one of death and rebirth. Orpheus is the greatest musician the world has ever known. When his wife dies, he goes down into the Underworld to reclaim her. Unfortunately, he disobeys the edict of the Greek gods and looks at and speaks to Eurydice. When he does, she is lost to him forever. The opera adds a happy deus ex machina ending, where Eros restores the lovers to life. Historically, Orfeo marked a turning point for opera, away from the filigrees of the baroque era and toward the clean classicism of Mozart and Haydn.

David Daniels gives a powerful performance in the title role, with notes of Elvis and Buddy Holly in this modern staging. His countertenor remains a smooth-flowing, flexible instrument that can negotiate the highest parts of Handel and Gluck with dizzying speed and accuracy. Heidi Grant Murphy, descending (literally) from the heavens, brought perk and energy to the role of Amor, the God of Love who makes all things possible. Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska blended well with Daniels as Euridice.

The new production is spare, with choristers arranged on three stadium tiers above the action, commenting and singing like an old-fashioned Greek chorus. They are dressed as various historical figures, from Queen Elizabeth I and Abe Lincoln to Babe Ruth and John Lennon. The Met's choral forces were a powerful storm surge in this opera. Mention must also be made of the ballet forces. Director/choreograher Mark Morris created challenging choreography to dance, and they made the most of this ballet-heavy opera. James Levine led an exuberant reading of the score in the pit.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Opera Review: Start the Revolution Without Me

Andrea Chenier at the Met.
The historic Andrea Chenier.
The final performance this season of Umberto Giordano's most famous opera, Andrea Chenier, featured a strong performance by Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner in the title role, opposite the emotional Maddalena of Violetta Urmana. Heppner is known primarily as a Wagner tenor (he is scheduled to sing Tristan at the Met next year) but has roots in verismo. (His first complete opera recording was an RCA Turandot conducted by Roberto Abbado) Here, he was in excellent lyric voice, conveying the title character's mix of poetry, politics and passion with a full flood of tone underpinned by a strong, flexible voice.

Violeta Urmana began her Met season with a tremendous performance in the title role of La Gioconda in September. On Wednesday night, her Maddalena presented a suitable followup. She sang a beautiful, heartfelt "La mamma morta" (an aria which became famous in the 1990s after being featured in the Tom Hanks film Philadelphia and portrayed Maddalena with nobility and tragic resignation. Her final vocal face-off with Heppner's Chenier recalled the final act of Siegfried a vocal apotheosis of joyous love laughing in the shadow of la guillotine.

Veteran baritone Juan Pons was rock-solid as Gerard, the servant, turned revolutionary. The Spanish baritone, following up his superb December run in Rigoletto captured all the facets of this character who is almost as complex as Verdi's jester. Gerard starts the story as an idealistic revolutionary, striking down Maddalena's family of French nobles and whipping the people into a frenzy.

As Chenier skips five years and develops, the French Revolution devolves into the Reign of Terror. Citizen Gerard (as he is now known) becomes a zealous politician, corrupted by his desire to possess Maddalena. This motivates him to write out the false confession that sentences the poet to death. However, there is a redemptive side to Gerard. In front of the tribunal at Chenier's trial, Gerard chooses to recant his testimony in front of the entire court, putting his own neck on the line. (His withdrawal of the evidence is ignored, and Chenier is sentenced to death anyway. Vive la republique!

All three singers needed all of their strength on Wednesday night, because conductor Marco Armiliato was off his leash in the orchestra pit. The conductor recalled the later years of Herbert von Karajan with his mix of slow tempi and stentorian volume, both of which threatened to wear out and drown out the singers. (In a show of maestro-itis, Armiliato came out and took a solo bow in front of the curtain, something that most Met conductors are loathe to do. To their credit, the audience in the Balcony and Family Circle greeted him with faint applause.)

Both Heppner and Urmana are well equipped to cope with such adverse conditions, but other singers had trouble penetrating this wall of sound. Despite the orchestral overkill, strong character performances were given by David Cangelosi (as the spy Le Incredibile), Kirstin Chavez (as Bersi) and most movingly, mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura in the small but scene-stealing role as the widow Madelon.

Right: Portrait of the poet, Andrea Chenier.
Left: The Radical Arms, 1819 political cartoon by George Cruikshank

All images courtesy Wikipedia.

Opera Review: Peking Bling

A Note From the Management (G sharp): It's catch-up day here at the Superconductor blog...there is lots to write about and I hope you've got your reading glasses on. Two opera reviews and maybe a CD review if I have the energy. So, without further ado, hoodoo, or to-do, awaaay we go...

Turandot at the Met
Everyone onstage: the finale of Turandot. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
OK. Let me start this review by saying that Turandot has a special place in my heart. It was the first opera I ever saw (at the City Opera in 1983) with my parents, and I fell in love with the three riddles (it helped that I was reading The Hobbit at the time) and the antics of Ping, Pang and Pong, the three masque characters who provide this opera with comic relief. That said, for the past 20 years, I have been (more or less) annoyed with Franco Zeffirelli's creaking, cacophonous, overbaked production of this opera, which has held the stage at the Met since 1987.

OK. Enough about the production (for now) The performance:

Despite the technical issues with Ye Olde Beijing, the cast sang very well. Andrea Gruber, heavily made up like the Bride of Frankenstein, sang with a ringing tone, firmly establishing her icy presence as the murderous Princess Turandot. She hit all the big notes in "In Questa Reggia" and charged into the riddle scene, holding the center of the stage despite the distracting-annoying choreography-business that kept taking the eye away from the drama of the opera.

Opposite her, Richard Margison sang with beauty of tone, cutting through the big choruses but never spiraling down towards shrillness. I have seen this singer many times and always found his voice annoying, but not on Monday night--it appears that his voice has aged well and mellowed a bit in recent years. And yes, Virginia, he nailed "Nessun Dorma".

Despite the ferocity of the two leads, the star of the evening was Hei-Kyung Hong, following up her superb Eva in Meistersinger with a sweet, heartbreaking Liu. She floated the pianissimos, (Tebaldi-style) and brought on the heartbreak with her big suicide scene in the final act. It is the sign of a good Turandot (which this was, despite the production) when that scene becomes the emotional climax and core of the whole night, enabling listeners to (for once) ignore the bling and onstage business and focus on the opera.

Unfortunately for the whole cast, their excellent performances were hamstrung by a production that epitomizes pretty much everything that is wrong with big opera productions--bloated sets, bad sight lines and poor decisions on the part of the producer and director. Some examples:

  • A stage design that does not allow people in the Family Circle seats (at the very rear and top of the big house) to see Turandot herself in the first act, nor the Emperor in the second. Apparently, one is only worthy to be in the Royal Presence if one buys more expensive seats. Opera lovers don't sit in the Family Circle because they're cheap--we sit there because those seats, for either $15 or $26, give you the best, warmest sound in the entire house. As Deborah Voight told me in 1997, that's "where all the singers are aiming."

  • The pop-up palace in Act I, (not to mention the pop-up gong, probably added so Luciano Pavarotti wouldn't stagger into it while entering the dark, stairway-filled set) shatters one's suspension of disbelief.

  • Having so many choristers on the cramped set denies the actors playing Liu, Timur, and Calaf an opportunity to act and react to the goings-on. It's pageant without dramatic meaning. No meaning + no terror = no impact.

  • The walkways. Last point, I promise. In building his version of legendary Peking, Zeffirelli decided to add walkways which resemble Japanese nightingale floors--the kind used as burglar alarms in Japanese castles--they crack and creak (loudly) when you walk on 'em. That's especially amusing in the first act, when the children's chorus comes onstage carrying the lanterns and singing a soft melody. They are then drowned out by the Met's own version of Snap, Crackle and Pop!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Recordings Review: Heliane in a Handbasket

A great opera by Korngold returns to the catalogue.
Lotte Lehman and Jan Kiepura in the premiere of Die Wunder das Heliane.
Photo © Vienna State Opera.
 This month's current slate of Decca reissues features Erich Wolfgang Korngold's little-heard opera Die Wunder das Heliane. This opera (The Miracle of Heliane in English) is a strange symbolic story of a legendary princess, a despotic Ruler, (her husband) and the mysterious Stranger, whom Heliane is in love with. The Christ-like death and resurrection of both Heliane and the Stranger that enable the lovers to escape the Ruler's dark kingdom in a swirl of gloriously orchestrated music.

This recording was made in the early '90s, just at the end of the boom period for the big classical labels. It stars Bulgarian diva Anna Tomowa-Sintow in the demanding title role opposite tenor John David de Haan. Both singers cope admirably with the difficult vocal score and demanding roles.

They are ably supported by Reinhild Runkel, Hartmut Welker and, in one of his very last recordings, Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda. John Mauceri is a bit of a specialist in Korngold, having regularly conducted the composer's film music in concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. Here, he leads the Berlin RSO in a sumptuous performance that pulls out all the orchestral stops.

Heliane had a difficult birth. When it arrived in Vienna, Korngold's opera was presented in competition with the far more populist Jonny Spielt Auf, a jazz opera by Ernst Krenek. Krenek's opera proved more popular with the Viennese, not least because Korngold's father, Julius, a music critic, unleashed a vicious series of attacks on Krenek that backfired against Heliane.

Both operas were banned when the Nazis came to power, along with wonderful works by Schreker, Schoenberg, and anyone else who didn't meet the Third Reich's ridiculous standards of "artistic purity." Korngold, a child prodigy best known for composing the opera Die Tote Stadt fled to Hollywood and became a film composer, scoring classic films including The Sea Hawk, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and Anthony Adverse.

Although Tote Stadt is considered to be an early masterwork, his later operas have had difficulty finding an audience. As a tonal composer who refused to embrace serial methods, Korngold's music was out of fashion in the 20th century. He has been rediscovered in recent years. Hopefully, the reduced-price reissue of Heliane will lead to more listeners discovering the glorious complexity of this underrated genius.

To learn more about Korngold, check out the official website of the Korngold Society!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Concert Review: Sakari Oramo conducts Shostakovich and Sibelius

Thursday Night's New York Philharmonic concert featured Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, a difficult composition that requires both athletic and musical ability from its soloist, in this case the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili. Led by Finnish maestro Sakari Oramo (currently the principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), it was perfectly paired with two Sibelius compositions that evoked the power and spirit of the Finnish woods.

Composed in 1947-48, the First Violin Concerto is, like many major orchestral works from Shostakovich's pen, a series of mixed and coded messages. Bitiashvili attempted to decode the work for the audience, and for the most part she succeeded. The concerto's somber opening echoes the composer's emotional torment. Having survived the Second World War he still lived in terror of the Soviet government. featured mournful legato phrases, melting into each other in a cry from the heart. Exceptional playing and phrasing made this a compelling opening, ably supported by Oramo and the orchestra.

Literally living in fear of another Soviet artistic purge, Shostakovich was, understandably, reluctant to make political or personal statements in his work. They are present but hidden in the codes of the music, in the choice of a manic scherzo or a grim passacaglia movement. This concerto, written for 20th century violin virtuoso David Oistrakh) contains both, shot through with some exceptionally difficult violin writing. Lisa Batiashvili played with energy and vigor, never forgetting the emotional pathos which is at the core of all great Shostakovich works.

The second half of the concert featured the music of Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer. His Sixth Symphony is the most cheerful of Sibelius' seven essays in that genre. (OK, it's Sibelius so it's not exactly milk and cookies but the Sixth seems to avoid the obsession with death and self-destruction that characterized much of that composer's work.) This is a pastoral composition, evoking the lighter side of the Finnish wilderness, traipsing through the great forests of the north with a sunny outlook and cheerful orchestral colorings expressed through the use of church modes instead of the more conventional key system.

Here, the Sixth served as perfect counterpoint to Tapiola a powerful invocation of the dark side of forest living. The piece is named after Tapio, the god of the forests who appears in the Kalevala, Finland's national epic. Sakari Oramo conducted with vigor and a strong sense of rhythm. The big gestures were played with punch and power, but none of the magnificent little details were missed. From the carefree passages of the Sixth to the terrifying arctic wind that cuts through the final pages of Tapiola, this was an excellent interpretation of Finland's national composer.
Photo: Sakari Oramo in action. © 2006 Warner Classics

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