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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.

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

Monday, April 2, 2007

Classical Bargains: Czech It Out!

Costume design for the Vixen, Sharp-Ears
from the Barry Kay Collection.
It's April here at the blog, and it's moving into a third month of bringing you the best classical music coverage that I have time to do. Thanks for being patient--there will be reviews in the next few weeks and eventually I'll finish writing the review of Götterdämmerung--it is excellent but I got a little burned out on Wagner DVDs so I've been taking a little break.

I've picked up some new classical box sets. Ever since the untimely and depressing death of Tower Records I've been doing most of my shopping on Amazon--picking up some really good bargains in their Marketplace from distributors like and Newbury Comics. (Newbury is a lot more reliable to deal with.) Frankly, I've been hoarding, loading up on CDs and recordings in case the whole industry goes bellyflop in a whirlwind of tuxedos and music stands. As a result I have wayyy too much music to listen to. I'm gonna start writing about some of the things I've picked up, and maybe get around to doing full-on reviews as the summer progresses.

The big recent acquisition is a set of operas by 20th century Czech genius Leos Janáček, released on Decca and conducted by the great Sir Charles Mackerras. Most of these opera recordings were only available on massive, chunky "doorstop" box sets with the CDs in a thick double "jewel case" with a paperback booklet inside a slipcase. This was the standard format for classical CD box sets twenty years ago. The old sets would retail from $20-$35 depending on where you did your shopping--and probably take up a foot of valuable Brooklyn shelf space, which is why I never made the investment.

The new Janáček set (which I paid about $45 for!) includes his major operas: Jenufa, Kat'a Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, Vec Makropoulos, and From The House of the Dead along with overtures and other pieces. Unfortunately, the Mackerras series did not include Sarka, Osud and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek. These recordings (many of which star the great Swedish singer Elisabeth Söderstrom), are considered to be of exceptional quality, although the only one that I am really familiar with is Vec Makropoulos.

Some quick notes on Janacek:
  • The Met recently revived Jenufa with Karita Mattila in the title role. In 1999, I saw Act II of it performed at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. Anja Silja starred as the Kostelnicka, an overbearing mother from hell.
  • Kat'a Kabanova is also the subject of occasional revivals at the Met--it is a powerful domestic tragedy whose most memorable character is Kabanicha, another overbearing mother figure. I saw this opera sometime at the Met in the late 1990s in a stripped-down staging by Jonathan Miller.
  • The City Opera does a wonderful version ofThe Cunning Little Vixen (in English), the story of the life and death of a fox in the forest, and her peculiar relationship with a trapper. This is a child-friendly opera that is worth reviving.
  • Vec Makropoulos (known to most opera-goers as The Makropoulos Case, is occasionally revived at the Met, first with Jessye Norman and later with Catherine Malfitano. It is a soprano showcase on par with the major works of Wagner and Strauss. Sadly, the Met's revival of this opera was marred by the death of tenor Richard Versalle on opening night in 1996. Ironically, Versalle sang the line "You only live so long", had a heart attack and fell off a ladder, plummeting twenty feet to the stage in the opera's opening scene.
  • Finally, according to the Met Maniac wensite, the big house is presenting a new production of From the House of the Dead directed by the brilliant Patrice Chereau. The production is scheduled for 2009-2010.

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