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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.

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