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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, 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.

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