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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, December 30, 2009

Opera Review: Home for the Holidays

Elektra returns to the Met for the 
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Never were there such a pair of sisters. Susan Bullock (top) and Deborah Voigt
in a scene from Richard Strauss' Elektra.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.

Elektra may seem like a weird choice for a holiday offering. The blood-spattered Greek tragedy brings the sledge-hammer orchestration of Richard Strauss to the bloody tale of Orest and his return to the House of Atreus, where he slaughters his mother and her lover in a series of events that wouldn't be ouf of place in a George R. R. Martin fantasy novel.

And now our guest columnist: Richard Strauss!

Richard Strauss on the podium

The son of an acclaimed horn player, Strauss was a famous conductor as well as a composer, leading his own works and acclaimed performances of Wagner, Mozart and many others. He had a short baton, a small beat, a professional attitude, and a razor-sharp wit. (If you don't believe me, watch this footage of Dr. Strauss conducting a rehearsal of Der Rosenkavalier.) With that in mind, we present his

Ten Golden Rules For the Album of a Young Conductor
(originally written in 1925)
  1. Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.

  2. You should not perspire when conducting. Only the audience should get warm.

  3. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Faerie music.

  4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.

  5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all, they are still too strong.

  6. If you think that the brass is now blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.

  7. It is not enough that you yourself should hear every word the soloist sings. You should know it by heart anyway. The audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words, they will go to sleep.

  8. Always accompany the singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.

  9. When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.*

  10. If you follow these rules carefully, you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.
* Amended in 1948: Today I should like to amend this: take the tempo half as fast. (Mozart conductors, please note!)

Originally published in Reflections and Recollections by Richard Strauss. © 1949 Cambridge University Press.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Opera Review: The Met's Tosca Telecast

Lost in the murk: Mattila and Álvarez in Tosca

I finally saw the telecast of the new Met production of Tosca. It's a disaster.

This ugly, gray staging looks as if it takes place in the South Bronx in 1979. Every building, every structure is made of drab tenement brick. Worse yet, each act is undermined by stage-y "ideas" that detract from Puccini's work. Director Luc Bondy is interested in playing with the opera's religious imagery, but his choices are ham-handed. Instead of jumping from the Castel di Sant'Angelo this production repeatedly jumps the shark, at least once at the end of each act.

In Act One, Scarpia (Carlo Guelfi) demonstrates his lust for Tosca (Karita Mattila) by molesting the statues during the "Te Deum." This recalls another famous fictional cop: Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) in The Naked Gun. It undermines the very menace of Scarpia himself, the mix of barbaric and suave is replaced with a gibbering fetishist who should be thrown head-first through the (still-closed) church doors.

The climax of Act Two, where Tosca kills Scarpia (also clumsily done) has very specific stage directions that originate in the Sardou play which gave Puccini his source material. She is supposed to lay out the body, put the cross over him, place the candles on either side and pray. But no, that's not what she does here. In Bondy's version, Tosca pauses in the window as if she is about to leap to her death an hour early. While this would have spared us the torture of watching the end of Act Three, this is not what the libretto calls for.

Act Three takes place mostly on a dark set with a brick tower. Since the actors are mostly in black or navy, it is impossible to see them through the murk. Cavaradossi is executed (standing in a corner no less!) at the back of the stage--the muzzle fire providing the act with its sole bright spark. Worst of all is the final leap, where Karita Mattila jumps off the tower and is held, in space by some kind of suspension rig, floating in the air as the curtain drops. Was the Met unable to buy mattresses? Crash pads? Trampolines?

The singing is adequate. Argentinian tenor Marcelo Álvarez is a personable Cavaradossi doing his best to make a mark through the gloom. Carlo Guelfi is an adequate Scarpia though what you really remember is his ridiculous play-acting. Karita Mattila is completely mis-cast in the title role. Her cool, icy demeanor lacks that flash of sexuality reined in by strict, Catholic religiosity that burns at the very heart of this opera. Tellingly, the telecast cut off just before the director took the stage and faced the wrath of the Metropolitan Opera audience.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Opera Review: Through a Stein, Darkly

Les Contes d'Hoffmann at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"I'll take you in my arms, Kathleen."
Kathleen Kim as Olympia in Act I of Bart Sher's  Les contes d'Hoffmann.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.

Veteran director Bart Sher has delivered again with this imaginative, outside-the-box staging of Offenbach's final opera, presenting this convoluted work with fresh dramatic insight. He is aided by a strong cast with three seperate female leads and a superb performance by tenor Joseph Calleja in the demanding title role.

Bart Sher approaches Hoffmann's stories as a series of surreal fever-dreams. Even the events in Luther's tavern that frame the action are a little weird. Spalanzani's toyshop (birthplace of the doll Olympia) is now a production-line facility for anonymous men to buy their own personal female playthings, a kind of cybernetic prostitution that recalls the film Blade Runner. Antonia's house is a wintry landscape with a piano and sheet music strewn across the stage. And the Giulietta act is set in a Venetian bordello with an orgy/ballet worthy of Tannhaüser.

Mr. Calleja has a pleasing tenor voice, ideally suited for the lyric expanses of Offenbach's score. However he would have been better served if James Levine had slowed down during the prologue, and allowed the opera's lyric, eldritch power to bloom. Kate Lindsey made the Muse the opera's true leading lady, switching genders with ease and working against Hoffmann and his romantic designs throughout the evening. Mention must also be made of character tenor Alan Oke, who made the most of his four roles. The short little aria for Franz is often cut from the score. It was a highlight of this performance.

In this version, the Muse and the Four Villains are in cahoots, stacking the deck to to keep Hoffmann on the straight-and-narrow creative path. Alan Held was the living four-fold embodiment of evil, using his smooth, rich bass-baritone to good effect. Yes, he victimizes Hoffmann repeatedly, breaking Olympia, killing Antonia, and arranging for Giulietta to capture the poet's reflection in a mirror. But how can you hate a bad guy who can sing "Scintille, diamant" so beautifully?

Kathleen Kim gave a star-making performance as the doll Olympia, combining broad physical comedy with a tremendous coloratura technique, managing the tricky pin-point notes with a few "mechanical" effects. Anna Netrebko was everything an Antonia should be--sad, doomed, and beautiful. Wendy White made a surprise appearance as Antonia's mother and it was a pleasure to hear these great voices together. Ekaterina Gubanova was a sensuous, thoroughly corrupt Giulietta.

With the opera left unfinished at Offenbach's death, there are myriad versions of Hoffmann to choose from. When the opera premiered, the Antonia act was placed last, allowing the diva to end the work with a glorious death scene. However, this renders the Giulietta act, with its corruption and descent into depravity nonsensical. Mr. Levine and Mr. Sher opted to place Antonia in the middle of the opera (where she belongs) and omitted much of the extra music (including Giulietta's suicide) from the Venetian act. In this version the finale was staged as a confrontation and reconciliation between Hoffmann and his muse, bringing the curtain down on the image of the great writer, alone at his desk, and doing what he did best.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Joys of Operetta

Because we all need a laugh on Thanksgiving weekend (and the Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody is everywhere), we present:

Gilbert and Sullivan's "Baby Got Back."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Opera Review: The Death Trip

Don Giovanni at New York City Opera.
Stefania Dovhan and her father's bloodstain in Don Giovanni.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2009 New York City Opera.

Don Giovanni, a bold, dramatic interpretation that re-imagines Mozart's dramma giocoso as a meditation on life and death which takes place entirely in one room, possibly during the funeral service for the Commendatore.

By putting all the actors onstage during the overture, the director forces the audience to "play detective" and figure out who everybody is as the drama develops. But there was no missing the excellent assembly of voices present on the stage of the David I. Koch Theater on Friday night.

Daniel Okulitch and Jason Hardy have pleasing baritone voices, and they both carry off the sexual, physical nature of this staging. In fact, the two singers brought an erotic charge to the interactions of the Don and his servant Leporello. The jealous tension between them was played as if the Don's dalliances with thousands of women was merely him "stepping out" on a primary relationship--with his servant.

Stefania Dovhan was just one of the fine young voices who had to fend off the Don. Her Donna Anna is less the frigid avenging angel and more of a three-dimensional woman who knows that she is stuck with Don Ottavio (the pleasing tenor Gregory Turay) but clearly, really wants the man who murdered her father to finish carrying her off. Keri Alkema was a compelling Donna Elvira, playing up the character's religious mania. And Joélle Harvey sang a stunning Zerlina. The most sexual woman in the entire opera, she adroitly balanced her relations with the Don with attempting to appease her jealous, raging husband Masetto (Kelly Markgraf.)

The staging of this opera breaks with convention and tradition. There is no statue. Rather, the Commendatore (bass Brian Kontes) is brought onstage in his coffin, complete with mourners, wreaths and a big neon crucifix. Leporello literally invites the corpse to dinner in the funeral home. The Don dines, carouses, and even fornicates on the dead man's grave. Finally, when the hour of vengeance comes, the good Commendatore rises out of his coffin, takes the Don by his hand, and throws him into the grave.

That's right. There's no statue in this Don Giovanni.

The Commendatore, triumphant over his murderer, remains standing on the stage--like a statue. Meanwhile, Donna Elvira writhes in a religious vision, and Leporello suddenly "gets religion", holding up a prayer book in hopes that he won't be dragged down too. There is no fire, no angels and demons, just the terror of the grave. It's a bold solution to one of the trickiest finales in all of opera.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Opera Review: Prison Bound

From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
The cast cleans up the Gulag in Act II of From The House of the Dead.
Photo © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera
The French director Patrice Chéreau makes his long-awaited Metropolitan Opera debut with this staging of From the House of the Dead, the final opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. From the House of the Dead is based on an autobiographical novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It details life in a Siberian gulag, and has an all-male cast. However, this bleak story is set against gorgeous, uplifting music that manages to express the plight of the prisoners and the underlying humanity behind the snow, ice and violence.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Opera Review: The Unnameable.

Esther at New York City Opera.

Lauren Flanigan in a scene from Esther© 1993 New York City Opera.
Esther resurrects the New York City Opera in fine style. Lincoln Center's "other" opera company is known for exploring dangerous, "difficult" operas and making them wildly popular with its audience. Hugo Wiesgall's final opera, based on the Biblical story of the brave Queen who saved the Jewish people from slaughter, premiered at the former New York State Theater in 1993 but only ran for a few performances. Here, it returns in triumph, led by the incandescent performance of Lauren Flanigan.

Although the story of Esther is well-known to anyone who has ever celebrated the Jewish holiday of Purim, this is ultimately a serious opera which examines the inner lives of these famous figures, and the moral consequences of the story's violent resolution. Esther, herself sold into slavery and married off to the Emperor Xerxes (James Maddalena) saves her people from the machinations of Xerxes' prime minister, the diabolical Haman. Haman, is in turn hung by the neck, along with his ten sons, an image which greets the audience when the curtain rises.

Flanigan's high-wire performance carries the evening, making it seem as if City Opera did not go dark for an entire season. She sings this difficult music with ease, tossing off those high notes with energy and fervor. She delineates the Queen's spiritual crisis and complex personality through excellent acting and a genuine exchange of energy with Xerxes, played by Stephen Kechuius.

Kechulius is the picture of machismo (and kingly indecision) as Xerxes. Roy Cornelius Smith has surprisingly comic moments as the evil, scheming Haman. Most memorable is James Maddalena in the critical role of Esther's uncle Mordecai, lending gravitas to the plight of the Jews. Also, as Vashti (the deposed wife of Xerxes) and Zeresh (the wife of Haman) Beth Clayton and Margaret Thompson share a memorable duet which is a highlight of the score. George Manahan leads his City Opera Orchestra through this complicated score with his customary skill.

Like most operas written in the late 20th century, Esther is influenced by 300 years of musical history that went before it. Weisgall's work has a lyrical flow and memorable music, while still adhering to sophisticated modern techniques. This is in some ways, a post-Romantic work, balancing a serious story with the back-room politicking of Haman and the development of Esther's own relationship with Xerxes. Esther is a major 20th century work, and a fitting choice to re-open this great opera company after a year spent wandering in darkness.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Son of the Return of the Revenge of the New York City Opera

We here at Superconductor would like to take this opportunity to welcome the New York City Opera back among the ranks of functioning and open opera companies.

Based at the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) the City Opera is an important company and an important facet in the cultural life of opera-loving New Yorkers. The company, now under the direction of former Dallas Opera main man George Steel is playing a shortened four-opera season in their newly-renovated digs after spending the entire 2008-2009 season in an involuntary exile from Lincoln Center.

The new house (well really the old house) has had a total face-lift, with new seats, improved acoustics, the addition of elevators to the pit, and most importantly, the removal of the noxious amplification system that was put in under the direction of former Director Paul Kellogg. Kellogg had installed the system to cope with the notoriously opera-unfriendly acoustics of the State Theater, a theater that was, from its opening, always better suited to its other tenant, the New York City Ballet.

The fall City Opera schedule featuring a production of Don Giovanni and a revival of Esther, the Biblical opera by Howard Weisgall. Esther is based on the same Biblical story that is celebrated every year at Purim. The opera features NYCO house diva Lauren Flanigan in the title role, an exceptional vocal artist who is reason alone to get tickets. And the tickets are going fast--City Opera just added an extra performance in an effort to meet demand.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Opera Review: Straight Outta Mozart

The Met revives Der Rosenkavalier
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Renée Fleming (left) and Susan Graham in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier.
Image © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.

The Metropolitan Opera's current revival of its 1969 production of Der Rosenkavalier is a spectacular evening of Strauss, more than compensating for the bungled Tosca that hit the headlines at the start of the 2009 season.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Alicia de Larrocha, 1923-2009

The great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha died today. She was 86. Ms. de Larrocha was one of the premiere Mozart stylists of the 20th century. She also did much for the piano music of her native Spain, recording major works by Albéniz and Granados, cementing their place in the repertory. While famous for her Mozart and Haydn, she could tackle the big works of Liszt and Rachmaninoff with ease.

Ms. de Larrocha was born in 1923 and made her American recital debut in 1955. She died in a hospital in Barcelona. According to family friend Gregor Benko, her health had been declining since she suffered a broken hip two years ago.

On a personal note, I had the privilege of seeing Ms de Larrocha play in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall, about ten years ago. A diminutive woman, (she stood only 4'9") she was a formidable musical presence, whose liquid legato and precise phrasing infused joy into all of her performances. Over the course of her long career (she made her concert debut at 5 and her first Chopin recordings at the age of 9), she was a beacon of elegance and refinement in the often showy, male-dominated world of concert pianism.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Concert Review: Alan Gilbert conducts Mahler's Third

New maestro does orchestra's Mahler tradition proud.
Alan Gilbert. Photo © 2009 by Chris Lee.
On Tuesday night, freshly minted New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert led his forces in a sweeping performance of Gustav Mahler's mammoth Third Symphony. It was the orchestra's new leadership meeting its old, as Mahler ranks among the most famous music directors in the long history of the Philharmonic.

Despite its enormous size, the Third is an accessible Mahler symphony, setting aside the nightmares and religious ecstasy for a stately contemplation of nature, from the thunderous, primal birth of life to the heavenly realms and the mind of God. It is a dizzying ride, and Mr. Gilbert led his gigantic orchestra, double chorus, offstage musicians and mezzo-soprano, all without the benefit of a written score.

Judging from his podium performance on Tuesday night, Mr. Gilbert is an inspired technical conductor with an ear for the subtle textures that are often lost in the huge, blaring pages of the first movement. At thirty minutes, this is music for giants. It stops and starts, alternating enormous fanfares with huge slabs of chords and mysterious mutterings in the double basses and bass drums. Mahler's music evokes the mountains bursting forth from the earth, the awakening of the god Pan, and the swinging, brassy arrival of spring as the orchestra transforms not a gigantic marching band.

The remaining five movements of the symphony are on a smaller scale. Mr. Gilbert brought out in the delicate floral textures of the second movement, and the cavorting, parading beasts (complete with a trumpet solo played from the back of Avery Fisher Hall) in the third. Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang lent a mysterious gravity to the sung fourth movement, which fuses the primal rumblings of the first with a setting of Nietzsche. The fifth and sixth movements followed without pause, a choral setting of one of the Wunderhorn songs and a final cosmic movement dominated by the strings and brass..

The hiring of the 42-year old Mr. Gilbert represents a new start . He is a native New Yorker--the first to hold this post. He is the son of two Philharmonic musicians, and his mother, Yoko Takebe, still holds a chair in the violin section. (His father, also a Philharmonic violinist, is retired.) Finally, he is a gifted conductor with a bent for fearlessly programming new music. If Tuesday night's Mahler performance was any indication, the oldest orchestra in North America will be in good hands for many years to come.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

CD Review: Aida in the Temple of Doom

This 1983 Aida is made with the usual cast of Deutsche Grammophon suspects. Once again, Claudio Abbado leads the proceedings. He conducts another fine performance, watching his dynamic markings and occasionally outwitting the recording engineer to produce grand musical theater.

Despite the photo of Katia Ricciarelli that appeared on the front cover of the original LP and CD box sets, it is Domingo who is the star of this show. Here, (in the second of three studio recordings he made as Radames) he sounds positively restrained--especially when compared to Corelli or del Monaco. And that's a good thing. Sensitive and thoughtful in the opera's opening act, he opens up the pipes later on to let floods of passion come roaring forth. In the studio, he sings with a level of care that doesn't always come across in the opera house.

Katia Ricciarelli's portrayal of the title role veers from mild to wild at the start of "Ritorna, vincitor." This is a fine, well-sung dramatic performance that ranges between extreme self-loathing and the pathos necessary for a truly sympathetic Aida. Oddly, Ricciarelli seems to achieve this latter quality through shorter phrases, not the traditional legato lines that one often hears in the opera house. She is, like many of her fellow Ethiopian slave-girls, best heard on record.

As Amneris, Elena Obraztsova remains a controversial choice. The Russian mezzo made a lot of DG recordings in the '80s and they all feature that bludgeoning, thrusting voice, an impressive instrument that could punch its way over the orchestra. Here, one wonders if she is about to punch out that two-timing Radames. Lucia Valentini-Terrani is perfectly cast here as the singing priestess in the temple of Fthà. She's the best female performance on this record.

This entire performance sounds like it is being played in the same echoing acoustic that is usually reserved for the Temple scene in Act I. The effect is claustrophobic, with solo violins, harps and even choristers echoing forth into the pyramidal void. This is an approach to recording Aida that was done first (and better) by John Culshaw on the first Karajan recording in 1959. But at least Culshaw knew the art of self-retraint. Dynamic ranges are extreme on this recording--the pianissimi are nearly inaudible and the big moments are right in your face--or eardrums--especially that final "Immenso Fthà!"

Friday, June 12, 2009

Recording Recommendation: Putting Don Carlos in Order

Released in 1990, the Claudio Abbado/Placido Domingo version of Don Carlos (DG) was the first commercial recording of this opera in its original French. Along with the five-act version of the opera (with the often-cut first act put back in its proper place, complete with "Je le vieux") the hefty four-disc set included the opera's famous "cut" scenes. However, in a classic example of record company weirdness, the cuts were relegated to the end of the fourth disc, as a series of extras. So with CDs or cassettes, it was almost impossible to listen to the full score of Don Carlos in order.

These trimmed scenes are pretty substantial--and include:
  • The opening scene of the opera, where a chorus of woodcutters in the forest of Fontainebleau bemoan their hunger, and then encounter Elisabeth de Valois. Verdi cut this on opening night for length, but it puts the events that follow (particuarly Elisabeth's decision to marry her fiancee's father, Philip II) in context, and changes the whole tone of the opera. The Met performs this scene, albeit in Italian.
  • The "Ballet of the Queen". A spectacular Paris Opera ballet, this has no effect except stopping the action in the middle of Act III for some nice music. Cut when the opera was revised for Italian performance.
  • The original "Insurrection" scene complete with thundering chorus of inquisitors. Trimmed down in performance, here it is similar to the "Radames Radames Radames" scene in Aida.

The Abbado recording is not the best Don Carlos on the market (Domingo's earlier recording with Giulini wins that particular bowl of nachos) but it is a solid enough performance, despite the oddity of an Italian cast and chorus singing in French. Domingo is in excellent form as the Infante, and Ruggerio Raimondi is an imposing King Philip. The ladies are less well served. The late Luciana Valantini-Terrani is a smallish, but competent Eboli. Katia Ricciarelli is past her prime here, a squally, and whiny Elisabeth--but she rebounds in the final act.

The chorus and orchestra of La Scala is in top form, although the whole recording suffers from too much knob-twiddling by the Deutsche Grammophon tonmeister. What's neat though, and what makes this recording worth revisiting is the IPod. If you upload the four CDs into your ITunes, you can then make a playlist and ut all the missing pieces in the correct order. Now, with the Woodcutter's Chorus at the opening, the ballet in its proper, interruptive place, and the Inquisitors back to work shouting at Carlos and Posa, this finally sounds like a proper Don Carlos. And best of all, the missing pieces fit perfectly, unveiling the breadth and scope of Verdi's grandest opera.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Die Frau Under Ground

OK, I admit it. I own multiple, working IPods. I keep one for rock and roll, one for classical and opera, and one that I consider "current listening"--a mishmash of just about everything in my collection that I need to have with me at any place and time.

Recently, I changed headphone brands, ditching my crappy buds in favor of 'phones made by SkullCandy. Their noise-blocking basic buds come with large silicone sound-mufflers that block outside noises better than any other brand of headphones that I have tried. And yes, I like them better than the ultra-expensive (and easily lost) Bose earbuds.

Anyway, with these advanced noise-blockers in my ears, I set aside the Metallica, Rush and Dream Theater (mmm...Dream Theater) for major operas by the two Richards (Strauss and Wagner) and Verdi. I started at the deep (loud) end with Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Opening the Songs list, I cued up the first track and turned Shuffle off. (the opening notes and the scene with the Nurse and the Messenger) I sank into an orchestral oblivion, a swirl of strings and the famous descending "Er wird zu stein!". Awesome. Then, without a moment's notice, my 'Pod quickly switched composers on me--it jumped to the next song alphabetically in the playlist.

The problem was easily solved. I took the three discs of Frau and loaded them onto the "On-The-Go" playlist. You scroll the wheel over the album you want, press the button, hold it down and it loads the whole thing. So now with the opera in the right order, I resumed listening.

It's quite something listening to this gigantic score in the hurly-burly of the subways. All the magnificent orchestral sounds and orchestral detail came roaring forth, sounding absolutely magnificent. In fact, the swelling rush of one hundred and twenty VIenna musicians was a little hard to get used to--the sheer volume and breadth of auditory information made me feel intoxicated--pure sensory overload, Strauss-style.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's the End of the Ring as we Know It

(...and I feel fine)

A song parody by Paul J. Pelkonen
(based on "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine)") by R.E.M., original lyrics by Michael Stipe, plot by Richard Wagner)

That's great it starts when the rope breaks, Norns quake and Erda sleeps on unafraid. Brunnhilde horse-dealin', Siegfried he's free-wheelin', going on to mighty deeds, think he's got a few leads, going down the river Rhine, with horse, (of course) sail against the current on a mighty boat, false note, going to the Gibichung, Gibichung hall! Brother, sister kissing in the castle with Hagen breathing down their neck. He's got a wicked plan with a notion in the potion that'll wipe his brain. Siegfried shows up takes a drink from the cup, slipped a mickey not lime rickey, uh oh blood flow brüderschaft to the raft Hagen serves his own needs find out what in Act Three, thinkin' bout the Nibelung, Nibelung ring. You sons of freedom sail on gladly switch bitch not a hitch in the night Gunther gives a fright!

It's the end of the world as we know it,
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of Act One as we know it, and I feel fine

Wake up Hagen sleepy head, Siggy's back, not dead, Hoi-ho! Cow horn Gunther boat re-turn, sacrifice to the gods, beer drinking, hell-raising, Got the bride eyes are wide don't get on her bad side, marriage problems escalate, world will annihilate, fingers on a spear point, he said, she said, plan a murder what's the motive Uh-oh this means no fear, cavalier, next day with the spear, stab him in the, stab him in the, stab him in the back! Murder by the river death scene takes forever is he dead yet?

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of Act Two as we know it and I feel fine.

Brunnhilde by the Rhine build a fire, pyre time.
Hagen commits regicide, Dead man's hand? Nein!, Time for immolation scene, Wotan auf wieder-zeen Burn the castle flood the river, Valhalla boom!
Immolate, annihilate, regenerate. Late? Late!

It's the end of the world as we know it.
(Time for Gö-tter-däm-merung)
It's the end of the world as we know it.
(Let's watch Gö-tter-däm-merung)
It's the end of the world as we know it
(Everybody Gö-tter-däm-merung)
and I feel fine...fine...

The Last Ring: Part III: Götterdämmerung

Richard Wagner: it's all his fault!

On Saturday night, Götterdämmerung proved to be more of a mixed bag. At first, Jon Frederic West sounded harsher and more metallic than in Siegfried. He coped well with the two most difficult moments in this impossible role--the "baritone" scene when he poses as Gunther and the murderous sixthteenth-note octave drop in Act II. However, he summoned his resources and sang beautifully in the death scene. A good Siegfried makes listeners regret his death. Otherwise, you root for Hagen to kill him.

Speaking of Hagen, John Tomlinson had an off night. Unsteady pitch marred Hagen's Watch, and his Act II "Hoi-ho!" was drowned out by the thundering Met orchestra. Iain Peterson was an undistinguished, shallow Gunther. The Met chorus was its usual spectacular self, making a truly intimidating noise and banging their spear-butts on the stage with gusto in Act II.

Happily, any vocal shortcomings were annihilated (couldn't resist) by the gorgeous performance of Linda Watson, who was a thoroughly satisfying Brünnhilde. This is a tough role as well, with the big duet scenes with Siegfried and Waltraute, the scene where she is attacked by "Gunther", and the second act where she becomes a fully human woman, the Wagner equivalent of a betrayed Verdi heroine. Her Immolation scene was riveting, teetering between sexual ecstasy and fanatic devotion to her deceased Siegfried. Top-notch.

James Levine conducted with his customary skill, although one sensed that he was racing through certain passages in order to get to the more lyric ones. The brass, however, suffered from "fish" notes in the horns and the occasional sour note on the trumpet. However, the band rebounded with an excellent Funeral Music and a thrilling Immolation scene.

The Last Ring, Part II: Siegfried

Jon Frederic West as Siegfried.
Photo © 2009 by Beatriz Schiller

Thursday night's performance of Siegfried (the last ever at the Met in this current production) continued what has been a strong Ring Cycle. This Siegfried was anchored by superb orchestral playing, the unforgettable Wanderer of James Morris, and the burly, pouting lad of the title role, sung ably by American heldentenor Jon Frederic West.

West sang well in this most punishing of roles. His voice has a firm metallic bite, and he excels in the soft passages where lyricism is required to probe the psyche of Wagner's titular knucklehead. He evolves from pouting brat to manly hero, throwing himself into the part with abandon. While West is not the next incarnation of Max Lorenz or Lauritz Melchior, he is an able Siegfried.

He was surrounded by an excellent cast, led by Morris' resonant Wanderer. Although the bass-baritone did not seem as comfortable vocally as he did in Walküre, sounding harsh and pinched in the riddle scene and in his confrontation with Erda, this was still a memorable performance, and possibly the great singer's last bow with spear and eye-patch at the Met.

Linda Watson reprised her lyrical Brünnhilde, with gorgeous tone and sweet notes in the very long duet. Robert Brubaker's Mime was an able foil for West, eliciting genuine laughs from the audience. And Richard Paul Fink's Alberich continued to be a highlight of this cycle.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Last Ring, Part I: Das Rheingold and Die Walküre

James Morris as Wotan.

The Metropolitan Opera opened its final performance of its famous Otto Schenk/Gunther Schneider-Siemsen Ring cycle on Monday night with a definitive Das Rheingold. Too often, the Met Rheingold has felt like a perfunctory exercise in stagecraft. But from the mysterious opening notes of the Prelude to the majestic final "Entrance into Valhalla", this was a Rheingold that stood on its own merits. James Levine conducted with drawn-out tempos that exposed fresh textures in the score.

The cast was excellent. Most notable was the marvelous, nasty Alberich of Richard Paul Fink, complete with an old-style bone-chilling laugh after he stole the gold. James Morris, in what may have been his last Wotan at the Met, gave a resonant, finely acted performance. Face it folks, this is role that this capable American bass-baritone could sing with patches over both eyes. Two once-and-future Wotans--Rene Pape (Fasolt) and John Tomlinson (Fafner)--made a magnificent pair of giants. Kim Begley was a high-energy Loge, bounding about the stage and singing with a pleasing, lyrical character tenor--somehting that does not always happen with this part.

James Levine set a very slow tempo that brought fresh orchestral textures to the ear. His orchestra played like gods, from the lush carpet of strings to the firm, ringing brass. Even the odd sound effects (the anvils, the thunder-strike) that can make or break a Rheingold worked on Monday night.

The major hitch on Tuesday came when the stage manager announced that Placido Domingo was not feeling well, and asked our indulgence. Halfway through the first act of Walküre, the singer stepped off stage right, had a coughing fit and was quickly replaced by tenor Gary Lehman, who was in costume and ready to take over. This was the only hitch in a thrilling performance that stood as companion piece to the Rheingold of the previous evening.

Linda Watson was a thrilling Brunnhilde, with soaring high "Hojotoho's" and an emotionally sensitive portrayal of Wotan's favorite daughter. James Morris was in top form, injecting real pathos as he sang Wotan's Farewell, more so because this Ring may be his own farewell to Valhalla. As Sieglinde, Adrienne Pieczonka was free of mannerism and affect. Despite the first-act hitch, she had good chemistry in the second with Gary Lehman. Yvonne Naef was a stern, compelling Fricka. Finally, Rene Pape was a marvelous, slimy Hunding--his two fine performances this week make one regret his two onstage deaths.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Classical Music 101: Building a Music Collection

Five Tips For Getting Your Hands on the Best Recordings

Price: How Much Should You Pay?
Classical music CDs have traditionally been divided into three price levels: "Full" price ($15-$18/disc), "Mid-price" ($10-$12/disc) and "Budget Price" ($8 and below.) Some stores can charge lower prices because they don't have to pay rent, or they are selling promotional items or other gently-used products. Used CD stores (not many of these left) will sometimes allow shoppers to bring a portable CD player to check the discs before buying, but this is rare. More recently, super-budget labels (like Brilliant Classics and Gala Records) have been releasing venerable performances at super-budget prices.

Format: Vinyl, CDs, or MP3s?

Most collectors swear by the original vinyl for the sheer quality of sound. However, vinyl records are bulky, hard to maintain, and require a good system with a turntable. They're also hard to find, as many vinyl recordings were deleted from shops as the industry switched over to cheaper, easier to manufacture CDs. Most classical music is available on CD, from Bach's solo violin pieces to the Wagner's grandiose Ring Cycle. CDs are a good place to start. Unfortunately the CD Database (CDDB) is notably inconsistent when it comes to generating names and track titles of classical and opera MP3s, making music in this format hard to find.

Performance: Choosing the Artist
There is a bewildering array of performances and repertory available. Start with the basics--the 1962 Beethoven symphonies conducted by Herbert von Karajan, or the works of Debussy or Stravinsky led by Ernst Ansermet. Sometimes older is better--most recordings made before the CD boom are of very high quality, and you can save some money, get better recordings, and develop a really fine collection. Research is recommended: the Penguin Guide, the Rough Guide to Classical Music or the Gramophone Good CD Guide are all good places to start. Read the internet, the classical music blogs, or best of all, talk to the senior clerk in a large record store.

Analog vs. Digital vs. Remastered
When an older, analog recording (that is one made with ordinary tape and originally issued on vinyl) is burned onto a CD, there is always some decay of the signal as it is re-written ("remastered") for the digital format. Some decay also happens when a recording is issued as an MP3. Ironically, some of the recent "budget" series released by the major labels (DG Originals, Decca Original Masters, EMI Great Recordings of the 20th Century, etc.) combine a classic recording with a low price and scintillating digital sound. Seek these recordings and performances out.

"Period Performance" vs. Modern Instruments
In the 1970s and '80s, the trend emerged where conductors and performers would play works on authentic or replica instruments from the 18th century. Wooden flutes, finger-hole clarinets, and "natural" horns all have very different sounds from their modern orchestral equivalents, and this is something to take into account when shoping for a recording. Also, some conductors like to use "metronome markings" found in the score, which often results in Mozart that you can pace off with an egg-timer. Many of these so-called "period" performances have great artistic value, but they may not be what you are listening for if you are just starting out.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Recording Recommendations: Five Fabulous Figaros

Hermann Prey as Figaro. Album cover © 1968 Deutsche Grammophon.
As I am slowly working my way through Brilliant Classics' Complete Mozart Edition, I thought this would be a good time to talk about one of the greatest comic operas ever written, Le Nozze di Figaro. With many recording on the market, it can be confusing for the consumer, especially since those great havens of wisdom--record stores--are disappearing from our urban landscape faster than Kathleen Battle from the Metropolitan Opera roster. Better yet, none of these are full price recordings, except for the Gardiner, which is due for a cheap-o DG Collector's Edition reissue one of these days.

Anyway, to launch a new semi-regular feature here at the blog, we are going to look at five recommended recordings of this great opera, in chronological order. Next week, we'll do another. And so on. Enjoy!

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Erich Leinsdorf. (Decca 1955)
Studio recording.
The heavyweight champion. Finally given a proper CD mastering in 1999, this effervescent performance by the senior Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic is anchored by a phenomenal cast, which includes Hilde Gueden, Cesare Siepi and Fernando Corena. And did we mention the Goddess of Vienna, Lisa della Casa, radiant yet mournful as Mozart's Countess.

Chor und Orchester der Deutsches Oper Berlin cond. Karl Böhm (DG, 1968)
Studio recording.
With Hermann Prey as Figaro and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Almaviva, this German-flavored recording has a pair of very strong leads. Rich comic timing, crisp, nimble performances and a great Mozartean at the helm. A loveable Figaro and the first one I reach for. And with a cast that includes Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis and Tatiana Troyanos, can you blame me?

Drottingholm Court Orchestra and Chorus cond. Arnold Östman. (L'oiseau-lyre 1988, now Decca)
Live recording.
Originally pressed on Decca's now-defunct period label L'oiseau-lyre this was the first Figaro on period instruments. Östman is a sure hand at the podium, leading his radically reduced orchestra and a fresh cast (featuring future superstar Barbara Bonney) through a complete performance of this opera. Includes an appendix with the often cut arias for Basilio and Marcellina in the final act. A marathon Figaro but a satisfying experience. Currently available (with three of Östman's other Mozart recordings) as a super-bargan box set from Decca.

1994: English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner. (DG Archiv 1994)
Live recording.
Gardiner's fussy, quicksilver conducting dominates this live recording made at the Theatre du Chatelet and filmed for release on VHS and DVD. In fact, this was one of the first opera DVDs released by DG back in 2000. The recorded debut of Bryn Terfel as Figaro, alongside a strong cast of future stars that includes Rodney Gilfrey and Alison Hagley. Pamela Helen Stephen is an excellent Cherubino. Hillevi Martinpelto gives an emotional, carefully weighted portrait of the Countess, the perfect, irresistible compliment to the macho bluster of the two male leads.

La Petit Bande cond. Sigiswald Kukijen. (Brilliant, recorded 1998)
Currently available in the Complete Mozart Edition, Brilliant Classics
This is a finely-balanced recording that is currently available as part of the mammoth Complete Mozart Edition from Brilliant Classics. Recorded in Belgium, it features period playing of exceptional clarity and beauty from Le Petit Bande, and a cast of mostly unknown singers that excel in the opera's complicated ensembles. Well-recorded and well performed, with excellent choral singing. When the audience applauds at the end of Act I, it's a pleasant shock as there is little stage noise.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Opera Review: No One Here Gets Out Alive

Il Trovatore at the Met.
by Paul Pelkonen
Detail from Pilgrimage to St. Isidro's hermitage by Francisco Goya, 
used as the show-curtain in the current Met production of Il Trovatore.
The new David McVicar staging of Il Trovatore is the perfect fuel for Verdi's fiery drama. It may not meet the Enrico Caruso standard of "the four greatest singers in the world," but last night, Marcelo Àlvarez, Sondra Radvanovsky, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Dolora Zajick came pretty close.

The dramatic excesses of Trovatore make perfect sense in McVicar's wasteland staging. Past Met productions of this opera (most recently, the unmitigated, never-revived Graham Vick disaster of the 2000 season) chose to mock the excesses of Salvatore Cammarano's superb libretto. But this production (inspired by the late "black" paintings of Goya) embraces them, creating a war-torn wasteland dominated by a giant depiction of Christ tortured on the cross.

The bleak, rotating set (by Charles Edwards) consists of crumbling walls and damaged iron gratings, not to mention a huge witch-burning stake that echoes the upstage crucifix and reminds the audience of the opera's central tragedy of mistaken identity. In this hell-world, the forces of destiny are the only things that seem to make any sense. Everyone is doomed, and no one here gets out alive.

Libretto, sets, and staging are only a framework to hang great vocal talent upon. This production has four aces up its sleeve--all spades. Marcelo Àlvarez has evolved into a full, rich spinto tenor, fulfilling his potential with a Manrico that is equal parts bel canto singing and vocal heft. His "Di quella pira" ended on a high B, not a high C, and he did run out of breath holding it. But, he recovered nicely and hit the pitch squarely the second time. Better yet was his seductive offstage opening aria and the emotional heights of the Miserere scene.

Sondra Radvanovsky rocked the house as Leonora, one of two difficult Verdi heroines of that name. Like the Forza Leonora, Radvanovsky's character ricochets through the Spanish landscape, from lady-in-waiting to aspiring nun, blushing bride and finally, resigned suicide. Her opening "Tacea la notte" (ably aided by the restrained conducting of Gianandrea Noseda) was a gorgeous flood of sweet, creamy tone and delicate soprano filigree.

She was facile and nimble in the cabalettas: those old-fashioned high-speed arias that have flummoxed many a would-be Leonora. And her final "D'amor sull'ali rosee" drew in and involved the audience, making it seem like drinking poison (rather than marrying the baritone) was, at that point, a girl's only reasonable option.

On the other hand, Dmitri Hvorostovsky was visually and vocally gorgeous as Count di Luna, exuding the right blend of sexuality and madness that makes one question Leonora's decision to off herself rather than marry him. He cut an imposing physical and vocal figure, and floated an amazing pianissimo phrase in the middle of "Il balen del suo sorriso", a moment where lesser singers elect to blast through the notes and hope for the best. Sublime.

Despite a run of bad stagings of Trovatore (we're not even going to mention the 1980s "giant staircase" production by Ezio Frigiero), the Met has always had a great Azucena: Dolora Zajick. From "Stride la vampa" to her final confrontation with di Luna, this is one of the great portrayals in opera, filled with hysteria, horror, rage and tender moments with her "son." Zajick hit some astonishing low notes last night, and produced a solid, dramatic performance that never once veered into cliché. Neither did this superb Trovatore.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Recordings Review: The Return of the Big Wagner Box

All Bayreuth, all the time.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Back in the '90s (I seem to be starting a lot of articles with that sentence these days) the then-record-company Philips released a gigantic 18" long 32-CD box set called the "Richard Wagner Edition", consisting of live recordings of all ten of the major Wagner operas. (Höllander, Tannhaüser, Lohengrin, Tristan, Meistersinger, the whole Ring and Parsifal.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Met Swings Economic Ax

Cuts four productions, revives Elektra

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb announced today that the company will be forced to make cuts in order to survive the current economic crisis. The crisis is caused by the disappearance of $100 million of the Met's endowment fund, lost in the current financial mess on Wall Street.

Ticket prices at the big house will remain stable, although an 8% increase was considered. Additionally, Met senior staff will receive a 10% pay cut and singers will be asked to negotiate lower fees. Also, it is possible, according to an anonymous source cited by Daniel J. Wakin in today's New York Times, that the company may ask its three big unions for 10% "giveback" cuts.

However, according to Gelb, the company instead chose to cut four high-end productions for the 2009-2010 season and replace them with less expensive ones. The four operas being cancelled are:

  • The company's elaborate, gorgeous Die Frau Ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss. It will be replaced by the equally gorgeous (but shorter) Ariadne auf Naxos in the Elijah Moshinksy staging. Yes, they are taking away one of my favorite Met productions but at least they are replacing it with another one that I really like!

  • Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District--another elaborate modern opera, this is a powerful drama by Shostakovich and not exactly a box-office champ. Will be replaced by a much-needed revival of Elektra.

  • A long-awaited reviva of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles is the last opera scrapped. It will be replaced by yet another revival of the Zefirelli staging of La Traviata.

  • Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz. This opera is something of a James Levine favorite. No word yet on a replacement, but I would love to see a concert performance of Beatrice et Benedict!

The last time the Met cancelled a production it was for the singer Marcelo Alvarez. He was supposed to sing the title role in Les Contes d'Hoffmann but the production was yanked in favor of the company's not-so-classic Carmen.

In more positive news, the City Opera, still operating without a home theater and struggling to survive the chaos caused by the sudden departure of Belgian theater director Gerad Mortier, hired a new general manager today. His name is George Steel (not to be confused with retired professional wrestler George "The Animal" Steele) and he used to be the director of the Dallas Opera. Steel takes over a company in chaos and crisis, but he is smart and experienced with a good reputation.

He plans to present a somewhat truncated schedule and will guide the City Opera as it returns to its newly renovated Lincoln Center digs.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra

Had to repost this just because it's really interesting.

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra
Interested in joining the first-ever collaborative online orchestra? Professionals and amateur musicians of all ages, locations and instruments are welcome to audition for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra by submitting a video performance of a new piece written for the occasion by the renowned Chinese composer Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). We have tools to help you learn the music, rehearse with the conductor, and upload your part for the collaborative video.

And how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice and upload. Send us your talent video performance from a list of recommended pieces. Finalists will be chosen by a judging panel and YouTube users to travel to New York in April 2009, to participate in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra summit, and play at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

The deadline for all video submissions is January 28, 2009.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CD Review: The Goodall Mastersingers

"Open The Shrine! "

Yes, we're back after a holiday absence. Welcome to the 2009 edition of the Superconductor blog-your source for the best classical music coverage that I can find time to write about.

I know things have been dead on this page for a little while--I think every serious writer goes through "down" periods of lesser creativity where you are grinding out words but, in the words of Roger Waters, "running over the same old ground." Rather than do that (and bore the audience), I sometimes take a break from blogging. Break's over. Back to work!

I'd like to open up this year's 'Conductor (yes, it's 2009, we are closing out our second year!) by writing about one of my favorite Wagner recordings. Yeah. There's a shock. I write a lot about Wagner because I happen to KNOW a lot about it--recordings, trivia, performances and those ten (yes, it's really thirteen but the canon is ten operas) magnificent mammoth musical edifices, which never cease to amaze, fascinate and sometimes stupify audiences into submission. There's lots of interesting stuff to write about, so let's get to it shall we?

This is the first-ever Chandos issue of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, a live radio recording made in 1968 at the Sadler Wells company, and, like everything else put out by that company, sung in English. 

This is from the days long before supertitle systems. Writers would make a "singing translation", one that had the same meter and rhythm as the original words of the libretto. Wagner, with his distinctive pseudo-high-German stabreim was particularly susceptible to this practice.

Like most Goodall recordings (the British conductor also preserved his English-language Ring and a German-language Parsifal recorded in Wales, the tempos are incredibly slow, even glacial. It's ponderous, carefully thought out music making that lumbers along and demands the utmost from players forced to slow and stretch notes to fit the conductor's design. However, slow conducting can often reveal some interesting sub-textures of the musical fabric of a piece, underthemes and buried motifs that may only be apparent through perusal of a full score. 

The cast includes an excellent Alberto Remedios (who would go on to record both Siegmund and Siegfried in the Goodall Ring) and Norman Bailey, whose superb Hans Sachs is better here than on the somewhat lead-footed Solti recording from the 1970s. Yes, it's for the completist, and yes the translation of the libretto is often awkward, but this is a fascinating Meister...excuse me, Mastersingers, making a welcome arrival in the catalogue after languishing in a British vault for forty years.

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