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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.

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

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