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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, January 31, 2010

Composer Birthdays

Today marks the birthdays of Franz Peter Schubert, and Philip Glass. In honor of the latter, we present the Minimalist version of "Happy Birthday."

(With apologies to Jessica Hill.)

Happy happy happy happy happy happy happy happy happy birth
Happy happy happy happy happy happy happy happy birth day
Birth birth happy birth day happy happy birth birth day day
To happy to happy to happy to birth to happy to birth to day
Birth to happy day day happy to birth happy birth happy birth
Happy birthday to you Happy birthday you to
Happy birth happy day birth birth day Philip happy birthday
Happy birth happy birth happy day day birth Glass day birth
Happy birthday happy birthday happy birthday to you.

Then repeat as needed for the next four hours.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bring On The Bad Guy: Matti Salminen as Hagen

Footage of the great Finnish bass, Matti Salminen, as Hagen in Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera. Filmed as part of the complete Ring Cycle, and now on Youtube for your viewing pleasure. The scene here is "Hagen's Watch", which is the bad guy's monologue in Act I of the opera, and his voice is making the speakers on this computer distort.

And since there's no titles on this film, here's a quick English translation:

Here I sit, on watch
Guarding the house. Guarding the hall from the foe.
Gibich's son sails away on the wind. Away to his wooing he goes.
He sails with a brave hero, who will face the danger for him.
He brings his own bride back with him,
But for me, he brings the Ring!

You sons of freedom, lusty companions,
Sail you on your way.
Though you deem him lowly, you will both soon serve,
this Nibelung's son.


Photo Credit: Matti Salminen as Hagen in 1988. 
Photo © 2009 Johan Elbers/ Metropolitan Opera.

Can of Brahms: The Analogue/Digital War

The new Complete Brahms Edition from Deutsche Grammophon is a 46-disc box set housed in a cardboard cube. The set opens with the four symphonies, recorded by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic. Unfortunately, these recordings have brittle string textures, compressed horns, and very little low end: common traits in the conductor's later recordings, especially those in the much-ballyhooed "Karajan Gold" series. Checking the label, these symphonies were recorded in 1987, two years before his death.

Classical music collectors know about the SPARS code, the three-letter system (developed by the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services) to indicate the recording source, mixing process, and mastering of a recording. Used throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the SPARS code is a useful tool in determining the quality of a classical or opera recording.

The codes are:
  • AAD Analogue Recording, Analogue Mixing, Analogue Mastering.
  • ADD Analogue Recording, Digital Mixing, Digital Mastering
  • DDD Digital Recording, Digital Mixing, Digital Mastering
A fourth code, (DAD) exists, but it's almost never used.

Recordings like this 1987 Karajan Brahms cycle were vaunted and marketed as being "all-digital"  DDD, and sold at a higher price. But that doesn't make them better than their predecessors. They were made in the first decade of digital recording, when the recording systems would break the sound down into pixels, taking the natural "curves" of sound-waves and rendering them as digital approximations.

The same problem occurred with early releases of the (analogue) LP catalogue on CD. Much audible detail was sacrificed in the pursuit of digital clarity, and these early masterings suffer from the same harsh, bright sound in place of the warm, full orchestra that was originally recorded on analogue equipment.

Starting in the mid-1990s, record labels bought faster computers with more memory and 20-bit mastering technology was born. Revamping their AAD and ADD catalogues (and re-issuing the new pressings at a much lower price) has helped matters for the classical collector. However, the early digital recordings still suffer from their source material, made on those early machines. These Karajan recordings fall into that category. As part of the big box set, they are serviceable, but far inferior to the analogue set made by the same conductor, with the same orchestra in 1978.

CD Review: The Lost Parsifal

The salvation of a great recording consigned to the vaults. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Rafael Kubelik
Rafael Kubelik was a great conductor who received shabby treatment from the Deutsche Grammophon label. In 1967, his studio recording of Die Meistersinger was shelved to make room for another set starring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. History repeated itself in 1980, when this  crystalline Parsifal was banished to the vaults in favor of Herbert von Karajan's set with the Berlin Philharmonic. Released in 2003 by the small Arts Archives label, this set is now out of print, and remains a lost Grail for Wagner aficionados.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Earl Wild: 1915-1990

Earl Wild, the stately, white-haired pianist whose formidable technique and flamboyant stage presence hearkened back to the virtuoso pianists of the 19th century, died on January 23 at his home in Palm Springs, California. He was 94.

Mr. Wild was known for a fearless ability at the keyboard, combining speed and attack with a singing legato line. He credited Arturo Toscanini for teaching him the discipline to understand great music, and his four years as a Metropolitan Opera repitateur with his love of operatic transcriptions. Mr. Wild received an installment in the landmark Great Pianists of the 20th Century series, which was devoted entirely to knuckle-busting operatic transcriptions, many of them of his own devising.

He was known around the world as a great interpreter of Liszt and Leopold Godowsky, whom he considered among his favorite composers. An eminent recording artist, he made records over the span of eight decades. His recorded repertoire included over 700 piano works, 35 concertos and 25 chamber pieces. Recently, his back catalogue and recent recordings have been issued on his own record label, Ivory Classics.

On a personal note, Mr. Wild was a gentleman, with a good sense of humor and a ready, self-deprecating wit. I was fortunate enough to interview him in 2007 for an article in the International Herald Tribune's Ear for Opera section. He gave freely of his time and admitted, as we closed the interview that, towards the end of his life, "I only practice a wee little bit."

The cause of death was congestive heart failure. He is survived by his companion of 38 years, Michael Rolland Davis.

For more about Earl Wild, check out his official website at

Footage from 1988 of Earl Wild playing the Liszt transcription of the waltz from Gounod's Faust.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Opera Review: A Fresh Take on Carmen.

Review of a Carmen telecast from Berlin.
Marina Domashenko and Rolando Villazón in Carmen

This innovative, wildly experimental Carmen directed by Martin Kusej was filmed in 2006 in Berlin. It featured Rolando Villazón's first performances as Don José, and a strong, domineering Carmen sung by the Russian mezzo Marina Domashenko. When Carmen begins and ends with the executon of Don José, anything can happen. And it does in this brilliant re-interpretation of Bizet's greatest opera.

Don Jose on death row is nothing new. In fact, he appears there in Prosper Mérimée's novella, where the whole story is told by José as he languishes in prison. Here, all the events are in flashback. This Don José is already around the bend when the curtain rises. Carmen does not destroy him. She is drawn into an abusive relationship and victimized by her decision to seduce José in the first act. The Card Song features a silent mass of choristers in white suits--harbingers of death. Micaëla dies in this version, killed by a smuggler's bullet, as does the bullfighter Escamillo, carried out by the chorus after being gored.

Villazón gives a harrowed, magnetic performance in the tradition of Domingo. His strong, flexible tenor navigates the treacherous Flower Song with intelligence and ease. He is a picture of wild-eyed intensity throughout, trapped between Carmen and Micaela, driven by his own mad urges. Marina Domashenko is a gorgeous, sexy, indomitable Carmen with good command of the French, natural acting ability and nimble feet. Although Domashenko dominates the actress from the Habañera onward, she is especially impressive in the quick-fire second act, with its gypsy dances and the acting out of her complex relationship with Don José. She saves her finest moment for the Card Song, mining the lower depths of the role to good psychological effect. And her sneering, spat "Tiens!" in the final scene becomes a searing last word before her death.

Norah Amsellem is strongly cast as Micaela, a pleasant-sounding soprano who wilts next to Domashenko's sensual Gypsy. Alexander Vinogradov is a pompous, popinjay Escamillo. The death of that character (killed in the bullring) is something that many Carmen lovers have wanted to see for a long time. Christof Fischesser is a memorable, bearish Zuñiga with a fine baritone voice. Daniel Barenboim leads the Deutsche Oper Berlin forces in a crisp reading of the score. The spoken dialogue is used here, preserving Bizet's dramatic structure and the flow of ideas in the music. The choral singing and orchestra are first-rate.

The final confrontation between Carmen and Don José

Opera Review: Haydn at the Hayden

Gotham Chamber Opera sets an opera in a Planetarium.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Sheer Luna-cy: Buonafede (Marcelo Nisticò) on the moon.
Photo by Richard Termine © 2010 Gotham Chamber Opera.

The Gotham Chamber Opera's extraordinary decision to stage Haydn's little-heard Il Mondo della Luna ("The World On the Moon") is a treat for anyone who likes 18th-century operatic comedies. That director Diane Paulus chose to stage the opera within the dome of the Hayden Planetarium (and make use of its superb projection facilities) is nothing short of inspired. Neal Goren conducted an incisive, warm performance. He trimmied about a fourth of Haydn's score, shaving the three-act opera down to one 90-minue act in two parts.

The cast was anchored by Metropolitan Opera veteran Marcelo Nisticò. He made the most of the role's comic opportunities as Buonafede, the miserly old nobleman who is hoodwinked into taking an imaginary trip to the moon, where he gives his blessing to marry off the opera's three pairs of lovers, while proving it is possible to sing and act convincingly while wearing a full NASA-issue space suit.

Tenor Nicholas Coppolo had a breakout performance as Ecclitico, the trickster who sets the opera's lunatic plot in action. He has an agile, light tenor and is a good comic actor. As Cecco, the humble servant who suddenly finds himself King of the Moon in Buonafede's delusion, Matthew Tuell combined a pleasing voice and strong acting. Baritone Timothy Kuhn was also very funny as Ernesto, making the most of his Act I aria.

Of the three female leads, Rachel Calloway impressed the most as the sexy maid Lisetta. Her sweeping mezzo-soprano was ideally suited to seduction, whether manipulating old Buonafede or having a sensual moment with Cecco. Their Act I duet recalled that other "lunar" opera, Verdi's Falstaff. Soprano Hannan Alatar had the most difficult music to sing in as Clarice, and she scaled the dizzying heights of the role with pin-point accuracy. However, her voice had an unwelcome touch of metal in it.
Albina Shagimuratova also sang well as Flaminia, but her role was considerably shortened.

Throughout the evening, the spectacular effects appearing above the actors worked well with Haydn's opera and Goldoni's clever libretto. The old Zeiss Universarium (the projector used at the original Planetarium) provided "retro" images in the first act. The more modern, immersive ceiling system for the second act on the Moon.

The lunar setting was evoked through the clever use of light-up costumes inspired by cyber-punk and Barbarella. Clipped-on book lights illuminated the actors. Finally, Marcelo Nisticò proved that it is possible to sing and act convincingly while wearing a full NASA-style space suit.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Haydn and the Opera: An Appreciation

The Gotham Chamber Opera's current successful run of Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna at the Hayden Planetarium has shed new light on Haydn as an opera composer. Like his symphonies, string quartets and oratorios, Haydn's operas burst with life and vitality, an endless fountain of melodic invention that has gone largely unheard since his death.

Although Franz Josef Haydn is respected as the father of the symphony and string quartet, his operas have sunk into obscurity. As Kapellmeister to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn wrote 14 operas and ran an opera company that performed as many as 150 nights of the year. Unfortunately, Haydn's operas were written to be performed at Esterháza, the Prince's estate in Hungary. Mozart, by contrast had his works performed in Salzburg, Vienna, Prague and elsewhere. Haydn did not become an "urban" composer until he was released from service. This new-found freedom led to the "Paris" and "London" symphonies, and the fertile final period of the great composer's life.

The 1970s saw a renaissance in the recording and performance of Haydn's operas. The best place to start is this box set on Decca, featuring eight of his operas under the direction of conductor and Haydn expert Antal Dorati. Featuring the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne and singers like Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks and Luigi Alva, these excellent studio recordings of Orlando Paladino, Il Mondo della Luna and others bring Haydn's operatic world to vivid life. These operas are forgotten treasures, ideal for the listener who loves Mozart but is finally burned out on Don Giovanni.

Originally issued by Philips in the vinyl era, these operas first appeared on CD as seperate, fully-priced sets. Six years ago, they came out in the box-and-paper sleeve format, housed in two seperate box sets. The copy I have makes a cool picture of the Esterházy summer palace when you put the boxes next to each other the right way. The new issue, on Decca (which absorbed the Philips label as part of the consolidations and cutbacks at Universal Music Group) lacks that packaging finesse. That said, it costs half as much and sounds just as good.

It should also be mentioned that Antal Dorati's stellar set of all 104 Haydn symphonies has been reissued by Decca at a bargain price. Of course, if all that isn't enough Haydn for you, there's the Haydn Edition from Brilliant Classics. That set included the symphonies, operas, string quartets, piano sonatas and most of the chamber music. It's like a lost weekend at Esterháza, without the mud!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Opera Review: Bleecker Street Opera--The Barber of Seville

Gioachino Rossini

The closing of the Amato Opera in 2009 left a gap in the New York opera community. For 60 years, Anthony Amato ran a chamber-sized opera company in the East Village, presenting operas in a stripped-down format with minimal orchestra. With this sturdy production of The Barber of Seville, the Bleecker Street Opera (located a block away rom the old Amato house) has gone a long way towards filling that void.

In this tiny theater, the singers are almost right on top of you. In the title role, Garth Taylor was a finely tuned, comic Figaro, handling the buffo patter with ease and displaying an easy charm. Starting with his energetic arrival from the back of the house, he held the audience, even pulling two audiences members out out for a brief "participation" moment during "Largo al factotum." Let it be said that Figaro is a master of many trades, including self-aggrandizement!

Argentinian mezzo Malena Dayen was a fierce, independent Rosina, armed with a flexible (if breathy) voice that could swell to great volume when needed. Less pleasing was veteran tenor Anthony Daino in the key role of Count Almaviva. He has a too much of a good thing, a tenore di forza that is not well-suited to an intimate comic opera performed in a small space. However, his performance got better as the evening went on. Once he came in as the drunken soldier in Act I, things improved as Almaviva went from being a romantic hero to another element in the comic lunacy onstage.

Bass-baritone Sam Smith is a minor discovery, giving an excellent performance as the scheming Don Basilio. In "La Calunia" and the Act II "Buona sera" ensemble, he displayed a resonant voice with a pleasing, fully rounded sound. As Dr. Bartolo, Richard Cassell sang an excellent, accurate "Un dottor della mia sorte", but relied on annoying comic schtick (including wheezing, gasping and coughing repeatedly) to get through the part. True, the libretto has jokes about sneezing powder, but this was a bit much to put up with. This Barber may assure that the tradition of intimate opera n the East Village will continue for some years yet.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

DVD Review: Don Giovanni from La Scala

It's all about Riccardo Muti.
(Well, not really but he likes to be seen while conducting.)
This 1987 film of Mozart's Don Giovanni is memorable for the superb , old-fashioned performance of Thomas Allen in the title role. Seductive and courtly without being oily or disgusting, Allen is a Don that captures everything that is right (and deeply wrong) with the character. And his damnation scene (more on that later) is a spectacular performance, struck with horror at his fate. He is well-matched by Claudio Desderi, who has a pleasant baritone, and more importantly, the right amounts of sleaze and comic timing to make a great Leperello.

Edita Gruberova is an odd choice for the role of Donna Anna. She hits the notes, but does not support them with enough bloom. The effect is that of a thin, column of sound, not the robust woman determined to get her revenge and kick the Don's ass in the process. Ann Murray is better as Donna Anna, blending beautfully in the arias and duets. Suzanne Mentzer is a smart, coquettish Zerbinetta, torn between her need for the Don and love for her new husband, Masetto (the excellent Natale de Carolis). Finally, Don Ottavio may be the most ineffectual tenor in opera, but Franceso Araiza is a perfect fit for the part.

If you are expecting Don Giovanni to end in a spectacular "zombie statue damnation", (something between Night of the Living Dead and Dante's Inferno) this is not your production. The good Commendatore (Sergei Koptchak) appears merely in the form of his statue, still on horseback. And the singer is off in the wings, or hiding behind the horse, or some other such nonsense. This scene does not sound right with one of the singers off-stage. And you never get to see him actually drag the Don down to hell--he just disappears, horror-struck into the smoke.

Aside from an annoying tendency to cut to Riccardo Muti in the orchestra pit (part of the "conductors as stars" trend that infected a lot of late '80s/early '90s opera videos) and some odd choices in the subtitles, this is a pretty good Don Giovanni. It's a basic, traditional production that explores the psychological issues of the characters. Its biggest flaw is the director's decision to ignore the spectacular, unearthly ending that Mozart and Da Ponte planned. Maybe they should have had the Don attacked by a giant statue of Riccardo Muti?

Watch Thomas Allen and Suzanne Mentzer in "La ci darem la mano."

Friday, January 22, 2010

DVD Review: 'Tis Sweet to be Remembered

The Met's classic Aida on DVD.
by Paul Pelkonen.

Everybody on stage: Act II of Aida at the Met.
Ten years ago, this Deutsche Grammophon release was one of the first operas released on DVD by the Yellow Label. It remains a stone classic, a performance that has lost none of its power to impress the viewer and the listener. And it's as good an interpretation of live performance to digital medium as you'll find. It was filmed at the Met in 1990, when Placído Domingo was at the peak of his powers, and there were no titles on the backs of the seats.

This production, is a tradtional Aida with everything except the elephants. The Triumphal Scene boasts over 200 people onstage, realistic looking temples and pyramids, and the Met ballet corps in white dresses and Cleopatra wigs. One prop, the statue of the god Ftha, is so big that you only get to see its ankles! Equally impressive are the small details and visual grace notes (a crumbling statue, wall paintings in the palace) that come to light on DVD, details that are only visible from the very best seats in the house.

Aprile Millo's career at the Metropolitan Opera was not without its share of controversy. (After all, she is the only singer besides Ezio Pinza to have a piece of the building named after her--the famed "Millo Pole.") This performance finds Millo in excellent form, floating out the big climaxes in "Ritorna vincitar!" and "O Patria Mia." She is well-matched with Dolora Zajick as an angry, shrewish Amneris who displays great emotional growth over the opera's four acts. Amneris is one of Zajick's signature roles, and this performance shows why.

Domingo is Radames, the Egyptian general caught in the middle. He starts strong in "Celeste Aida" and that golden voice gets better as the evening goes on. In the Tomb Scene, he blends carefully with Millo as the two singers use up all of their oxygen in the most beautiful way possible. As Amonasro, the great baritone Sherrill Milnes does not enter until Act II, but when he does the opera's energy level jumps. The third act is terrific Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze giving one of his finest recorded performances as the high priest, Ramfis. Twenty years on, this performance of Aida remains as compelling as it was in the theater.

I should know. I was there.

Watch Aprile Millo in a reel of highlights from Aida
Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

DVD Review: When the Children Cry

Die Gezeichneten from the Salzburg Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Die Gezeichneten, Act III
Photo © Bernd Uhlig/Salzburg Festival
Franz Schreker's most famous opera (the title translates to "The Branded Ones" or "The Stigmatized") finally comes to DVD in this Salzburg production filmed in 2005. Schreker was a composer of brilliant, shimmering operas that probed the psyche. Since he was half-Jewish, his music was banned by the Nazis and quickly sunk into oblivion. This is the first DVD of Die Gezeichneten and a compelling opera by a critically ignored composer.

Opera Review: To Rule, He Must Lower Himself

Placído Domingo in Simon Boccanegra at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Placido Domingo as Boccanegra.
Photo © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera
The season premiere of the Met's revival of Verdi's political drama Simon Boccanegra gave New Yorkers the rare opportunity to see Placido Domingo as the star baritone in a Verdi opera. Now 69 years of age and nearing the end of his singing career, Domingo, (who first auditioned in Mexico as a baritone) lowered his range and took a chance tackling the toughest baritone role in the Italian repertory.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New Facebook Page

That's right, you can now get Superconductor on Facebook! Here's the link and a really great caricature of Richard Wagner, doing what he did best.

CD Review: The Italian Wizard

The wizard waves his wand: Claudio Abbado
Mozart's final opera, Die Zauberflöte is both philosophical parable and music-hall comedy. Veteran conductor Claudio Abbado balances those two aspects on this live recording, made in 2005 with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and a cast of (mostly) unknown European singers. Abbado brings out the robust energy in this fiery music and drawing an inspired performance from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Christoph Stehl is the best Tamino on record since the untimely death of Fritz Wunderlich. He is a strong, fully realized hero who makes the journey from jüngling to mensch believable over the course of two discs. Stehl has the right voice for this part, and a feel for Mozart's tricky lyric lines.

His counterpart is Hanno Müller-Brachmann, a Papageno who knows the importance of comic timing and connection with the audience. He sings well, draws laughs, and never sounds like a buffoon. And he does the "Mmm mmm mmm" bit with great comic flair. Bass Rene Pape (the one "star" in the cast) is a resonant Sarastro, paternal without sounding ancient.

Dorothea Röschmann has a great voice, but it is an ill fit for Pamina. Her singing is full, rich and loud, an over-sized performance that sounds too big next to the other voices in the cast. Soprano Erika Mikósa is much better as the Queen of the Night, fearless in the two death-defying coloratura arias. She makes this difficult character a real, human woman as well as a bloodthirsty night goddess--not an easy combination when you have to hit all those high Fs.

This was made in front of an audience in Modena Italy. (Stage noises and audience laughter are audible.) The sound is excellent, pulling the listener in with a warm, immediate acoustic that favors the singers. The Arnold Schoenberg Chor sounds distant at their first entry, but rallies with a mighy hymn to Sarastro and a strong conclusion to the opera. The only real flaw in this recording is the spoken dialogue, which is trimmed down and sounds like it was added later in an echo chamber.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Philip Glass + Stephen Colbert’s Are We At War » Synthtopia

Philip Glass does the Colbert Report.

Glass does the Colbert Report Philip.

does the Colbert Report Philip Glass.

the Colbert Report Philip Glass does.

Colbert Report Philip Glass does the

Report Philip Glass does the Colbert

Philip Glass does the Colbert Report.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

DVD Review: Die Meistersinger von Deutsches Oper Berlin

Mention Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg to the casual opera-goer and you will either get a smile of appreciation or a shudder of dread. DMvN is Wagner's longest opera, and its score is written in such a way that the conductor cannott speed it up or slow it down. It always clocks in at four and a half hours, and that's without intermissions. (Then again, TV viewers spend even more time watching American Idol or The X Factor!) The plot of Meistersinger is similar to those shows: a singing contest where the prize is the hand of the lovely Eva. And in the Simon Cowell role: Hans Sachs, a real-life cobbler and composer who is one of the most beloved characters in German opera.

Filmed in 1995 at the Deutsches Oper Berlin, this two-DVD set is a reliable introduction to this opera. Meistersinger is a simple comedy with a lot of complex comic business, and here it is well-suited to the particular directing skills of Götz Friederich. Friedrich adds a lot of original ideas that work (Beckmesser trashes Sachs' cobbler's bench) and a few that don't (the inexplicable jugglers and tumblers cluttering up the Festival Meadow scene at the end of the opera.) Peter Sykora's spare set centers around a circular window with a curving, miniature depiction of Old Nuremberg set within its frame. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts a solid, workmanlike performance, punching up the four-square diatonic rhythms of the score.

Wolfgang Brendel gives the legendary cobbler a fresh dose of energy and comic vigor. His relationship with Beckmesser (the wonderfully insufferable Eike-Wilm Schulte) is one of the evening's comic highlight. (The best moment: a last-minute reconciliation between the two rivals that ends the opera on a triumphant, comic note.) Decked out in a shabby hat, Brylcreemed hair and pencil mustache, Schulte is the picture of pomposity. This vaudevillian approach to the town clerk is thankfully devoid of the unfortunate clichés that have dogged this character in the past.

As the young lovers Walther and Eva, tenor Gösta Winbergh and soprano Eva Johannsson look better than they sound. Johannson's voice is a bit too large for her namesake, and she over-powers the more lyrical moments. Winbergh has a fine, bright tenor voice which lacks the honey that could seduce an entire town with his lyric poetry. He delivers a high, bright "Fanget An!" and a solid Prize Song, and has good onstage chemistry with Johansson. However, the finest tenor performance on this DVD is Uwe Peper as David, who transforms the long Act I list of "tones" into a comic tour de force.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Opera Review: Pulpit Fiction

The Met revives Verdi's long-lost Stiffelio.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Cura-te: José Cura sings the title role in Verdi's Stiffelio.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.

Two tenors are featured in this Met revival of Stiffelio, the Verdi opera from 1850 that had to wait until the 1960s to enter the repertory. The first is José Cura, who sings the title role in this revival. The second is Placido Domingo, who sang the part of the preacher Stiffelio when the opera premiered at the Met in 1993. Here, Mr. Domingo did duty at the podium, guiding the cast through the opera he helped make famous.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Roots of Romantic Comedy: Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier

Sir Georg Solti grabs his head.

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote six operas together. Their two great romantic comedies, Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Arabella (1932) are great-great grandfathers of the romantic comedies and so-called 'chick flicks' that fill the multiplexes today. It is small wonder that last Saturday's matinee performance of Rosenkavalier was not only sold out in the house, but filled movie theaters across the country as well in its live high-definition telecast.

The two operas were written 21 years apart, yet have much in common. Der Rosenkavalier is a classic romantic triangle, with an older, married woman handing off her young lover Octavian to Sophie, a girl of more suitable age. Complications arise with the arrival of the boorish country cousin Baron Ochs who has arrived in town to marry Sophie, whose approach to seduction involves milk stools, haystacks, and being quicker than his prey. Through a series of deceptions, (and Octavian's cross-dressing) the Baron is sent home empty-handed and the young lovers are together as the curtain falls.

Arabella puts a fresh twist on its older brother. Also set in Vienna, here the titular leading lady winds up with the baritone from the country! Mandryka is a decent sort befuddled by the "sophisticated" Viennese. He woos Arabella, who comes from a family so poor that the parents force her younger sister Zdenko to cross-dress as a boy (Zdenko) in order to spare the family the expense of introducing two young ladies into Viennese society. Much misunderstanding abounds, but in the end everything wraps up happily.

Although these two fine comedies are best experienced in the theater, a pair of classic recordings have recently been re-issued. Both are conducted by Sir Georg Solti, leading the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra that always sounds happiest playing Strauss' music. This Der Rosenkavalier features a solid trio of leads, with Regine Crespin, Yvonne Minton and Helen Donath all giving commendable performances. Solti leads an absolutely un-cut performance of the score, recorded in the magnificently restored 24-bit Decca sound. And look out for Luciano Pavarotti, he makes a brief appearance in Act I as the Italian Singer.

The Solti Arabella has been a staple of the catalogue for many years. Lisa della Casa and George London are more than capable in the leads. She made the role of Arabella something of a specialty--it lies perfectly for her silvery voice and yet she makes 'Bella into a real, three-dimensonal woman who blossoms to full adulthood as the opera progresses. London's voice is at its peak here, with none of the wear that characterized his later performances. And Hilde Gueden is a compelling Zdenka/Zdenko, trapped between genders and desperate. Both recordings are now available at mid-price in the Decca Originals series, and are an excellent addition to any serious opera collection.

Opera Review: Sex and Duct Tape

Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Renee Fleming (left) and Susan Graham in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 the Metropolitan Opera.
Saturday's high-definition telecast of Der Rosenkavalier was a definitive performance of Strauss's romantic comedy. (While I already reviewed an October performance of this production when I saw it in the theater, this was my first time going to a "Met Live in HD" telecast in a movie theater with a live audience.) Opera on the big screen is no substitute for the live experience of the opera house, but it is a fascinating alternative, whose potential is finally being harnessed by the Met in the Peter Gelb era.

These Met telecasts have a raw, "unedited" feel to them. Opera on video should be as close to the "live" experience, not the splice-and-dice "editing wizardry" that characterized VHS releases in the 1980s and '90s. The live feel is helped by interesting "intermission segments" which combine cast interviews (conducted here by Placído Domingo, who is not conducting the performance) with backstage footage of the opera's set changes and technicians at work. My favorite moment: watching a stage tech repair a crack in the 42-year old set with a roll of duct tape--something the audience would normally never see.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Box Set Review: Puccini: The Operas

This doorstop box set surveys EMI Classics' efforts to record almost every opera written by Puccini. Although some of these recordings are not top-flight or essential, the budget price alone and the overall quality of the contents make this a must for the serious opera collector.

The set includes re-issues of two major performances by Birgit Nilsson. First: the 1965 Turandot where she squares off with tenor Franco Corelli. This is not the greatest recording of the opera in terms of atmosphere and orchestral color, but the singing is white-hot, especially when you add Renata Scotto as Líu. Second: a 1958 recording of La Fanciulla del West. Minnie is a treacherous role. It requires a lot of power, has many tricky passages and worst of all, she doesn't get an aria. However, Nilsson saddles up and charges into the thick of it, and is backed by a solid (if not first-rate) La Scala cast.

Next, the "other" Maria Callas Tosca made in 1965 when the singer was more svelte but starting her vocal decline. Teamed with Carlo Bergonzi and Tito Gobbi, La Callas gives a more over-the-top, hysterical performance in the title role, yet sings the best "Vissi d'arte" in the catalogue. Carlo Bergonzi is everything a tenor should be ("E lucevan la stelle" is heartbreaking) and Gobbi's snarling Scarpia is always welcome. The sound effects are good too, if no match for the Decca set starring Leontyne Price conducted by Karajan and produced by John Culshaw.

"Everything Else" is a strong bag of recordings indeed. The Il Trittico is simply awesome, pairing the classic 1958 Tito Gobbi recording of Gianni Schicchi with worthy 1996 recordings of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica made by Antonio Pappano. The Alagnas show up (briefly) in Il Tabarro as the offstage lovers, and their recording of La Rondine is also included. Solid performances of Manon Lescaut (featuring Caballé), La Bohéme (with Freni and Nicolai Gedda) and Butterfly (with Björling and de Los Angeles) complete the lineup.

However, this set does not contain the Big Three EMI Puccini recordings:
  • 1966 Madama Butterfly conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, with Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Scotto
  • 1953 Tosca conducted by Victor de Sabata, with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano.
  • 1956  La Bohéme conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, with Jussi Björling and Victoria de Los Angeles

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Down to the Minors: More Problems at New York City Opera

Sometimes, a sign says it all

This is a sad day for opera lovers. According to recent news reports in the New York Times and on, the New York City Opera will cede four weeks of its fall season to the New York City Ballet, the primary tenant at the recently renamed and renovated David I. Koch Theater. In exchange, the struggling company gets a $9 million dollar payment. Apparently, the change is permanent.

Founded in 1943 the City Opera has traditionally "kicked off" the opera season for New Yorkers from its Lincoln Center home, as it would open three weeks before the Met. Known for producing many modern and off-beat works, City Opera has been home to notable singers like soprano Lauren Flanigan, bass Samuel Ramey and mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose 1997 appearance in the title role of Handel's Xerxes spear-headed the baroque opera revival of the last decade.

However, since moving to Lincoln Center in 1966 the company has always toiled in the shadow of the Metropolitan Opera next door, competing with the bigger house for artists, donations, and audiences. The competition became one-sided when City Opera went dark for the 2008-2009 season, following the abrupt departure of artistic director Gerard Mortier. Under union contract, the company was forced to pay its singers and orchestra members--which resulted in a catastrophic drain of $23.5 million.

The short 2009 Fall season was a successful comeback, with a revival of Esther starring Flanigan and an acclaimed re-thinking of Don Giovanni that packed in audiences and presented the kind of audacious theater that the NYCO is known for. This latest announcement, however, may drive this once-great opera company deep into the minor leagues.

DVD Review: I due Foscari at La Scala

Renato Bruson as Francesco Foscari.

This is a fascinating DVD, filmed at La Scala in 1988 and originally broadcast on RAI Rome Television. Written right after Ernani, I due Foscari is based on a play by Lord Byron, andremains one of the least-known early Verdi operas. Frankly, while the music is quite wonderful, the libretto (an early Piave effort) lacks drama. It is a story of power and politics, the wheels of justice in 15th century Venice, and of a father and son caught in their gears.

One reason to see this opera is the performance of baritone Renato Bruson in the leading role Francesco Foscari, the Doge of Venice. Old Foscari is a father who is about to lose his son, who has been convicted of murder. Instead, he loses everything, including his crown and his life. Bruson is simply towering in the opening scenes and then frail and vulnerable in the final act. This role is ideally suited to the great baritone, and is one of his finest performances available on home video.

The role of Jacopo Foscari is an ungrateful one. The Doge's son copes with his murder conviction by singing a lot of treacherous high notes. (That's the other reason you don't see this opera too often.) Tenor Albert Cupido hits the notes, but his piercing delivery and stiff "tenor-ish" acting fail to draw the viewer's sympathy, especially in the crucial prison scene. As Lucrezia, soprano Linda Roark-Strummer sings with a sharp, incisive attack that makes the character memorable, if not always likeable.

The production is a curious modern staging with all the action of this very dark opera taking place in…the dark. Even thes simulated grand canals of Venice look as if they have seen better days in this grim setting , dominated by a huge throne and giant staircase. The whole affair is ably conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who displays mastery of the early Verdi style. I due Foscari is not the most interesting or spectacular of Verdi's "galley years" operas, but this DVD may be your only chance to see it.

Watch a scene from I due Foscari

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

DVD Review: The Swiss Miss

Guglielmo Tell filmed at La Scala.

by Paul Pelkonen
Is this the DisneyWorld ride "Soarin'"? No, it's Gugliemo Tell from La Scala
As of this writing, this is the only DVD performance available of Rossini's final opera.  Tell is better known for its overture than the work itself, which was one of the most important grand operas of the 19th century and the final stage work by Giacchino Rossini. This is a magnificent score, with Rossini at the height of his powers, presented here by an excellent conductor with absolute respect for the composer's written notes. The results are entirely mixed.

To start with, it's in Italian. Rossini intended for his opera to be sung in French, and while the transliteration from Guillaume to Guglielmo is an acceptable one, the opera works better in its original language. (Compare it to this superb French recording conducted by Lamberto Gardelli and then let me know what you think.) The three leads are acceptable, but not great. (For "great", pick up the Chailly recording with Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé in the lead roles.)

Chris Merritt's high-range tenor passes the vocal torture test that is the part of Arnold. He has a slight metallic bite to his voice, but he shines in the big Act II duet. Cheryl Studer, then in her brief prime, sings well as Mathilde but lacks emotional warmth. Giorgio Zancanarai is a solid Tell, tender and militant at the same time. In the treacherous "Resta immobile" Zancanari slips easily into the high tessitura and does not miss a single note.

The team of director Luca Ronconi and designer Gianni Quaranta opted to place the action in front of huge projection-screen televisions, that are used to place the actors against lakes, rivers, forests and even a huge medieval church. However, this method serves to neutralize the acting space. Singers are confined to wooden pews in the opening scene. An enormous tree rises out of the stage in Act II, unfolding like Fafner the dragon. The church scene looks like Cheryl Studer and Chris Merritt are warbling in a movie theater. The finale jumps the shark completely, when the Swiss scenery is replaced by shots of conductor Riccardo Muti toiling in the orchestra pit. We waited four hours, just to look at the conductor?

With its killer tenor role, long part for soprano and heroic baritone lead, the story of the legendary Swiss revolutionary leader is almost impossible to put on the stage today. And as this DVD shows, it was damn near impossible twenty years ago. Singers who can handle Arnold's Act IV cabaletta are few and far between. Mathilde isn't an easy sing either. It's a miracle that we have any performances of this opera at all, so this La Scala production (filmed in 1988) despite its flaws, will have to do.

Don't believe me? Watch the finale here.

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