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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, February 28, 2010

DVD Review: The Boulez Ring: Das Rheingold

Hang fire: Heinz Zednik as Loge in Das Rheingold
This is the opening opera of the famous 1976 "centennial" Ring, a collaboration between conductor Pierre Boulez and enfant terrible director Patrice Chéreau, filmed in 1980 at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The first of many "high concept" Ring cycles at Bayreuth, this production moves the action to Wagner's own lifetime and stages the work as a struggle between the oppressed working class (the Nibelungs) and the patrician Gods who are moving into their new manor house (Valhalla) among a bevy of suitcases and hat-boxes.

Donald McIntyre plays Wotan as an embodiment of Wagner himself. It's all there: the majestic shock of grey hair, the penchant for silk dressing gowns and the tendency to destroy everything and everyone in his path. The voice is all there too, with mellow rich tones that momentarily put the listener under his sway.

Throughout, the New Zealand-born bass is a terrific actor as well as a commanding vocal presence, conveying the angst and guilt that consumes the King of the Gods as his wheelings and dealings fall apart. The moment where he takes the Ring (by literally hacking off the finger of Alberich, played by Hermann Becht) is chilling.

On this DVD (and throughout the Chéreau Ring) there is a greater emphasis on acting than vocal ability. However there are standouts. Hanna Schwarz sings the first of her many recorded outings as Fricka. Also among the Gods is future heldentenor Siegfried Jerusalem as Froh.

His performances as his namesake would become a Bayreuth staple. Heinz Zednik (who would go on to play Mime opposite Jerusalem) is an interesting choice as Loge, the "disreputable uncle" in this very dysfunctional family. His is an intelligent performance that brings much-needed panache to the goings-on. Finally, a young Matti Salminen is an excellent Fasolt, paired with the gruff Fafner of Fritz Hübner.

From the opening scene (staged with the Rhine held back by a giant hydroelectric dam), Pierre Boulez conducts a light-footed, idiosyncratic performance of the score. Boulez' steady approach keeps a foot on the acceerator so that certain momments (the revalation of the Rhinegold, the Giants' entrance) seem to flash by. Under his baton, some beautiful details and textures of the score reveal themselves, helped by the perfect acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. This is an essential document for Wagner lovers and one that must be seen to understand the growth of opera staging in the late 20th century.

The Gods enter Valhalla

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nixon in...Lincoln Center?

Met Announces 2010-2011 Season
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Metropolitan Opera has unveiled its slate for 2010-2011, and it looks to be an exciting season, even if the ticket prices have gone up, 6% for subscribers, 11% for regular seat-holders. Thank God I like the sound in the Family Circle.
Tricky Dick is psyched about the new opera season.

Seven new productions will tread the boards, including a new Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, starring Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt, who will sing Brunnhilde. The staging is designed by Robert Lepage as part of the Canadian director's new Ring Cycle. The complete Ring will arrive in 2012, and will hopefully not be the operatic disaster predicted by the Mayan calendar.

Other new stagings include Boris Godunov. The old staging was looking a little shopworn when the Met last produced Mussorgsky's historic tragedy. Don Carlo gets a face-lift courtesy of the Royal Opera of Covent Garden. Now, considering that the Met's classic staging of Verdi's longest opera ranked among the company's best productions, some might question the need for a new version. Also, the company will present a new La Traviata, which signals the end for Franco Zeffirelli's over-stuffed 1998 staging. Good riddance.

Two operas come to the Met stage for the first time. One is Nixon In China directed by Peter Sellars and featuring the composer, John Adams on the podium. The other is Rossini's comedy Le Comte Ory which reunites the spectacular team of Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau for a bel canto sing-off. Written in 1828, this lesser-known Rossini comedy has waited 182 years to be seen in the big house on W. 64th St.

In other opera news (sorry, couldn't resist) the company will bring Sir Simon Rattle in to conduct Pelléas et Mélisande. Acclaimed period/baroque conductor William Christie, best known for his recordings of numerous Handel operas, will bring a light touch to a revival of Mozart's Così fan tutte. Other revivals to look forward to include a return of Ariadne auf Naxos, Berg's Wozzeck and the company's acclaimed staging of Simon Boccanegra with Russian super-baritone Dmitri Hvrovstovsky in the title role. Subscriptions for the Met's 2010-2011 season are currently on sale, with individual seats available starting in August.

Image © Peter Barry Chowka.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Opera Review: Fabulously Butch

Fabulously butch: Diane Damrau as Marie

Photo by Mary Altaffer © 2010 Metropolitan Opera.
La Fille du Régiment at the Met

The final La Fille du Régiment of this season was a cause for operatic celebration, bringing together two great generations of singers. In the leading roles, tenor Juan Diego Flórez and soprano Diana Damrau treated listeners to an amazing aural fireworks display. But they were equalled by what may be the final appearance of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa on the Met stage, as the legendary soprano took the comic role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp.

Donizetti's first French opera requires tremendous vocal firepower. The tenor role of Tonio includes a difficult aria ("Ah, mes amis") with eight written high C's. Tenors traditionally sing nine, as Flórez did on Monday night. The Peruvian singer has been a welcome addition to the Met stage in recent years, with his tremendously sexy stage presence, natural acting ability and good comic timing.

 Then there is that voice--nimble, flexible and fearless through the dizzying tenor roles of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. He is the most important bel canto voice since Pavarotti. One hopes that he is sensible in the use of his remarkable gift and does not try to push his repertorial choices in the name of greed.

The title character is a bel canto heroine with astonishingly difficult, high-lying music to sing. Diana Damrau's portrayal was more than just a military canary mascot--she played Marie as a full-blooded, complex woman with genuine gender issues brought on by her upbringing as part of a French military regiment. When she came onstage in a dress in the second act, the effect was almost shocking. Damrau handled the rough-and-tumble drawing room comedy with same efficiency with which she washed drawers and peeled potatoes in the first act. Damrau also boasts incredible vocal gifts. Her patriotic arias were stirriing, and her Act II cavatina melted the heart.

Dame Kiri received an enthusiastic welcome as she entered at the start of Act II. The applause grew warmer when the audience realized that the great New Zealand soprano was about to sing. Her choice was the "Canción al árbol del olvido", a lovely 1938 song by Ginastera. Written 100 years after the premiere of this opera, it went surprisingly well with the rollocking Donizetti score. The great diva engaged in some comic business as well, and tossed off a memorable high note as her character rushed offstage at the opera's conclusion.

One more time! Juan Diego Flórez sings "Ah, mes amis" at the Vienna State Opera.

DVD Review: The Boulez Ring: Götterdämmerung

Siegfried (Manfred Jung) hooks up with Gutrune
(Jeanine Altmeyer) in Act II of Götterdämmerung.
Photo © 1979 Bayreuth Festival
The entry of the chorus in Act II of the final installment of Patrice Chéreau's Ring cycle marks the rise of the proletariat working class, under the leadership of Hagen, a political boss in a cheap suit. Their importance is emphasized in the third act, as they stare mutely, accusingly at the audience as Siegfried's body is carried off the stage, and as the old patrician order of the Gods perishes in flames. Unfortunately, weak vocal performances mean that this cycle ends not with a bang, but with a whimper in D major.

The biggest problem with this Götterdämmerung is Manfred Jung as Siegfried. While he managed in the first opera, its sequel finds the singer completely out of his depth. He doesn't even attempt the two most difficult moments in the score. One is the passage at the end of Act I where Siegfried, (disguised as Gunther) must pretend to be a baritone, singing a full octave below his range.

The other is in Act II, when he sings a full octave leap on a sixteenth note. (This often makes Siegfrieds sound like they are strangling cats instead of killing dragons.) Considering that this performance was done for posterity in front of an empty Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the absence of these difficult moments is inexcusable.

The Gibichungs are also weak. Fritz Hüber lacks the low, menacing bass notes required to sing Hagen, and he shouts himself hoarse in the second act. Franz Mazura looks corrupt as Gunther, and gives a convincing portrait of the King as a twisted old man desperate to marry. Jeanine Altmeyer, who sang Sieglinde earlier in this cycle, is a strong Gutrune. One wonders if the casting of the same actress who played Siegfried's mother was an innovative Oedipal twist on the part of the director.

Siegfried gets killed by Hagen (Fritz Hübner) in Götterdämmerung.
These performances were filmed and recorded a year before the other three operas in the cycle. Gwyneth Jones is shrill and occasionally suffers from wobble as Brunnhilde. However, her acting and interactions with Manfred Jung remain thrilling theatrical moments. Gwendolyn Killebrew is also an excellent Waltraute, making her long dialogue with Brunnhilde one of the riveting moments in this very long evening. It is also interesting to note future valkyrie Gabriela Schnaut in the cast--she sings the Second Norn.

Hagen summons the Gibichung vassals in Act II of Götterdämmerung
All photos and video © 1979 Unitel/Deutsche Grammophon.

Monday, February 22, 2010

DVD Review: The Boulez Ring: Siegfried

Workin' man: Manfred Jung at the forge in Act I of Siegfried
Technology and the industrial revolution seem to be the focus of this Siegfried, the third installment from Patrice Chéreau's landmark staging of Wagner's Ring cycle. Wotan (disguised as the Wanderer) seeking to help Siegfried with the forging of the sword Nothung, leaves an industrial-sized drop-forge in Mime's cave in order to automate the process. Fafner rolls into battle inside an enormous wheeled steel dragon. And the old order passes as Siegfried, the young lower-class proletarian, acquired the sword, the ring and the girl in rapid succession.

Vocally, this performance is something of a mixed bag, and a lot of its success hinges on the title character, played by veteran tenor Manfred Jung. Jung, a steely-voiced singer, is capable and energetic as Siegfried, playing the hero as a wide-eyed bumpkin at loose in the world. It;s not a bad conception. To some degree, he is outshone by Heinz Zednik, who here switches to the role of Mime and delivers a fine character tenor performances in this difficult, unsympathetic role.

Donald McIntyre is better suited to the Wanderer, the lowest of the three Wotan parts. His confrontations throughout the opera--with Mime in the Riddle Scene, with Alberich in the forest, and finally with Erda (Ortrud Wenkel) and Siegfried in the last act, are among the most electric scenes in this Siegfried.

Hermann Becht is vocally harsh as Alberich. Along with the Wanderer, he spends a lot of time hiding in the trees as Siegfried confronts Fafner. Fritz Hübner is a solid, if unmemorable dragon. This was one of the first productions to have the character show up in giant form after Siegfried slays the "dragon", and the image of his dead body lying across the forest floor reminds the viewer that Fafner got the Ring by killing his brother in the first place.

Ecstasy: Gwyneth Jones and Manfred Jung in Act III of Siegfried

Siegfried has always been the least popular of the four Ring operas. That may have something to do with there being no women (except for the offstage Forest Bird) in the first two acts. When Gwyneth Jones awakens in Act III, she sings with sharp, bracing clarity in this, the most challenging of the three Brunnhilde roles. The wobble that plagued her voice later on is not present here, and she is a fine actress. Manfred Jung manages to hold his own in their 37-minute duet, and the opera comes to a glorious close as they sing with radiance.

Heinz Zednik and Manfred Jung in the Forging Song from Act I of Siegfried

Friday, February 19, 2010

DVD Review: The Boulez Ring: Die Walküre

Donald McIntyre as Wotan in the Magic Fire scene from Die Walküre.
The second installment of the landmark Boulez/Chéreau Ring is a passionate, fiery performance that rockets forward with momentum, passion, and energy. From Peter Hofmann's entrance, the sense of sexual chemistry between Siegmund and Sieglinde (Jeanine Altmeyer) propels the first act, aided by delicate textures and precise orchestral playing. This is one of the fastest performances of Die Walküre ever recorded, but Boulez does not skip over the big moments--he just gives them a greater sense of urgency.

Hofmann, a sturdy Nordic blonde who looks the part of a Wagnerian hero, does not have the prettiest heldentenor voice--he later went into contemporary repertoire and country music. However, 1980 saw the singer at a personal peak, and this Siegmund is his legacy performance. Altmeyer (who has the distinction of singing Freia, Sieglinde and Brunnhilde in three different video productions of Wagner's operas) expertly conveys the weight of Sieglinde's plight. Matti Salminen is a fine Hunding, portrayed here as the leader of a gang of Mafia toughs who will help him hunt down the hero who steals his wife.

Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones in Act II of Die Walküre
Act II introduces Brunnhilde, sung by Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones. Jones is a singer with a powerful instrument who, through the course of a long career, was beset by vocal inconsistency. However, she is a consumnate actress, and although her voice isn't always pretty, she sings with passion and power. Few other Brunnhildes capture the character's blend of bravado, innocence and vulnerability. This comes across most strongly in the Annunciation of Death scene. Boulez makes that famous three-note figure shimmer in the air as Brunnhilde confronts (a now shirtless) Siegmund and informs him that he is going to die in the coming fight. This is the scene upon which the whole Ring turns, and the actors are superb.

Donald McIntyre remains one of the most intelligent interpreters of Wotan ever committed to videotape. The famous moment when he stares into a mirror and removes the covering from his mutilated eye remains a signature image of this Ring Cycle. His reliable bass-baritone lacks warmth and some of the sonorous depth associated with the part (although this may be due to Boulez' interpretation of the score.) However, this remains a deeply understood reading of the character that makes perfect dramatic sense. And he dominates the latter half of the third act, singing a moving Wotan's Farewell despite an orchestral accompaniment that wants to make it as brief as possible.

Hunding (Matti Salminen) deals with a domestic issue in Act I of Die Walküre

All photos and video footage © 1980 Unitel/Deutsche Grammophon.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

CD Review: Renee Fleming in Daphne

Daphne is one of many Strauss operas concerned with Greek mythology. This is the story of a young maiden who becomes the love-object of the god Apollo. When she spurns him, he strikes her mortal lover dead and has her turned into a tree, so that he may smile on her always. At 100 minutes, the one-act opera is a lesser work in the Strauss catalogue, but it shines through with a burnished glow that looks forward to the composer's final period and the Four Last Songs.

Renee Fleming gives Daphne the right mix of girlish innocence and womanly warmth, singing with full, rounded notes that thrill the listener when she soars into her highest register. She is well-flanked by strong male leads who are at home in the high tenor and baritone parts.

South African singer Johan Botha brings his fine heldentenor to the role of Apollo. More subtle is the fine Korean baritone Kwangchul Youn as Leukippos, who manages to navigate this incredibly high part and act with his voice as well. But the finest performance here is Swedish contralto Anna Larsson in the key role of Gaea--her duet with Fleming is a highlight of the recording.

Semyon Bychkov is an interesting choice to conduct this opera. From the opening passages where woodwinds and bassoons paint the idyllic, pastoral landscape to the glorious final pages, Bychkov does a good job of conveying the Straussian tonal picture. This score is filled with some of Strauss's prettiest music, textured sheets of strings and wind that evoke rustling, shimmering leaves, held up by sturdy tree trunks of brass and percussion. The finale, where Daphne transforms, is a textbook in complex orchestration--this is Strauss at his most transcendant, played at the highest level.

The era of record companies allowing singers and conductors to record and perform obscure repertory may be at an end, killed off by the bloating of classical music catalogues and the rise of the megalithic "complete edition" box set. However, this fine recording from 2005 is worth listening to, for fans of Ms. Fleming, for Strauss-philes and for those who remember when the artists and labels had the economic freedom to offer up a gorgeous work like this for the discerning ear.

Ten Great Opera Movies

From the Marx Brothers to 007--a history.
by Paul Pelkonen
The world of opera and Hollywood have a long association. Opera composers of the 20th century won Oscars for their work, and the epic sweep of Grand Opera led to giant spectacles like Ben-Hur, and even Avatar. With that in mind, here's a list of ten movies where you'll suddenly find youself at (or in!) the opera.
Feed my Frankenstein: Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera

  1. A Night At The Opera
    The Marx Brothers' classic farce has the boys trying to help a young opera singer make good in New York while at the same time doing hilarious damage to the Verdi war-horse Il Trovatore. Kitty Carlisle delivers some beautiful singing in the final "Miserere", a few bits of Pagliacci and of course that stateroom scene.

  2. Citizen Kane
    Orson Welles' dramatization of the life of William Randolph Hearst has his titular character attempting to make over his mistress into a successful opera singer. Watch their frustration build as she repeatedly mangles "Una voce poco fa" from Act I of The Barber of Seville.

  3. Charlie Chan at the Opera
    One of the better examples of the early Chan movies, this thriller stars Warner Oland as the cheerful Chinese sleuth, and Boris Karloff as a Mephistophelean baritone who has escaped from an insane asylum to another haven for the insane--the opera house. The opera in this one is called "Carnivale" and was written for the movie by singer/pianist/composer Oscar Levant.
  4. The Tales of Hoffmann
    This is a haunting, fairly straightforward adaptation of Offenbach's unfinished final opera. It follows the old-school practice of placing the "Antonia" act last, and for some reason she is a ballet dancer, not an opera singer. The music is gorgeous and the visuals (by The Red Shoes directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) will haunt you after the credits roll.
  5. Hannah and Her Sisters
    Puccini is the order of the day in this Woody Allen comedy--one of his best films of the 1980s. In this case, Sam Waterston plays an opera-loving architect who briefly dates Diane Wiests character and takes her to a performance of Manon Lescaut at the Met. He brings in a bottle of wine and two glasses, something that today's bag-searching security strictly forbids. But hey, it was 1983.
  6. Amadeus
    This Oscar-winning film is historical hokum, but an excellent examination of the relationship between rival composers Mozart and Salieri. Includes scenes from Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte and even an excerpt from Salieri's little heard opera Assur.
  7. Meeting Venus
    Currently out of print, this excellent Hungarian film chronicles a troubled production of Tannhaüser at the "Opera Europa" in Paris, an international company where "you can be misunderstood in twelve different languages." The plot resembles Wagner's opera, with a conductor torn between his marriage and a passionate affair with the soprano, played by Glenn Close and voiced by Kiri Te Kanawa.
  8. The Fifth Element
    Luc Besson's futuristic Bruce Willis vehicle features a rendition of Donizetti's "Il dolce sono." Yes, the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor sung in an opera house on an intergalactic luxury liner by an eight-foot bright blue diva with tentacles growing out of her head. As a cabaletta, the Diva Plavalaguna sings the "Diva Dance", a blend of techno, rock and dizzying vocal acrobatics. Brava!
  9. Topsy-Turvy
    Operetta is the focus here, specifically the partnership between W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Alan Corduner). The movie chronicles the pair's creative split and eventual reunion, which occurred during the writing of The Mikado. You also get to see scenes from Princess Ida and The Sorcerer performed by an excellent cast.

  10. Quantum of Solace
    James Bond has been to the opera before (notably in 1987's The Living Daylights), but a Bregenz performance of Tosca fuels a key plot point in this most recent Daniel Craig theater. As Bond discovers members of the secret organization "Quantum" hiding in the audience, the villain takes off his identifying "Q" pin, turns to his date and drily says "I guess Tosca isn't for everyone."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Back to Egypt: The Met Telecast of Aida (2009 Edition)

Dolora Zajick and the Temple of Doom: Act III of Aida at the Met.

It's not every day that a major opera company gets to present a second video version of one of its signature prroductions, but that's just what is offered in this new video of Aida. Shot almost 20 years after its predecessor, "Aida II features a strong cast and a much-needed rethink of the opera's two Act II ballets by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. It's not as good as the classic Domingo/Millo/Zajick/Milnes performance from 1990. However, the innovative direction by Gary Halvorson, who uses fearless camera angles and in-house cameras to give the viewer a fresh perspective on Verdi's Egyptian business, gives opera lovers and fans of this classic production the opportunity to see Aida in a whole new way.

Alexei Ratmansky's dances replace the embarrassing, dated choreography that used to stop Act II dead--twice. The dancer's motions are kinetic, tribal, and more naturalistic. This is a major breath of fresh air for this show. The cast is strong, led by the redoubtable South African tenor Johan Botha as Radames. He is well-matched with Violeta Urmana, a passionate Aida. The ex-mezzo floats some very nice notes in her two big arias and blends perfectly with the other singers. However, she is eclipsed by the Amneris of Dolora Zajick. The American mezzo has sung this role at the Met for 20 years, and her intelligence, musicality and sheer bitchiness are enough for her to walk away with the fourth act and give the best performance of the opera.

The three important low parts were a dissappointment. As Ramfis, Roberto Scandiuzzi sounded woolly and baritonal. Stefan Kocán's Pharoah wasn't much better. In the role of Amonasro, baritone Carlo Guelfi sounded high and pinched in the second act. But his Act III duet with Violeta Urmana is a highlight of the performance, and his voice swells to fullness as he warms up. The Met chorus and orchestra play at their usual high standards under Daniele Gatti, although his conducting lacks tht last degree of Verdian bang necessary to make this opera more than a pageant.

The high-definition picture picks up the dim reverentlial lighting of the temple scene, and small, charming details, like the fact that Radames' helmet is looking a little tarnished after being on the heads of tenors for almost two decades. And if you've ever wondered what the view is like from the Met catwalks, this DVD provides the answer. By placing the cameras where audience members could not possibly go, the directing team creates a fascinating viwewing experience. It's an impossible birds-eye angle--opera filmed by Google Earth.

Aida vs. Amneris: Urmana and Zajick square off.

Photo © 2009 Marc Stohl/Metropolitan Opera

Friday, February 12, 2010

DVD Review: Il Trovatore at the Vienna State Opera

Raina Kaibavanska as Leonora. 
That's the famous poison ring on her finger.
This 1978 performance of Il Trovatore from Vienna is a definitive performance of Verdi's war opera, under the stern direction of Herbert von Karajan.

Placído Domingo is at the height of his powers here, singing the title role with power and passion, his dark-tinted tenor ideally suited and still capable of the vocal leaps and bounds required by some of Verdi's most challenging music. His Manrico is a mix of neurosis and sex appeal whose death in the fourth act leaves the viewer feeling hollow. It should say something about his performance that his "Di quella pira" rings down the curtain on Act III with so much gusto and energy that the aria feels like the climactic finish of the opera. You almost forget that there's a fourth act to come.

Domingo may be on the marquee at the Wiener Staatsoper, but all four leading parts in this opera are rock-solid. (Since this is a requirement for a great Trovatore, there are a lot of bad recordings of this opera!) Raina Kabaivanska is more than able in the part of Leonora, tossing off high notes and building the role to a glorious, suicidal end. Her Act III duet with Domingo stops the opera dead for applause.

Even better though, is Fiorenza Cossotto in the role of Azucena. Manrico's gypsy mother must have an incredible chemistry with her son for this opera to work, and their duet in Act IV brings their relationship to a powerful climax. Cossotto skates on the edge of mania here, suffering guilt, grief, and a kind of dizzying dementia that you only see and hear in Italian opera.

Piero Cappuccilli was a great Verdi baritone, well-known for his excellent recordings as Rigoletto and Boccanegra, Here, he appears in fine voice as Conte di Luna, using his refined, smooth baritone to make this a fairly sympathetic villain with a minimum of mustache-twirling. It is nice to hear Karajan stalwarts Jose van Dam and Heinz Zednik in the tiny supporting roles of Ferrando and Ruiz.

Herbert von Karajan conducts his crack Vienna orchestra as if he is leading his own invasion of Spain. The maestro always dd well with Trovatore and here he shows his skill as an accompanist. Rarest of all, at the very end of this DVD, Karajan smiles.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Opera Review: Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met

A new set of bright stars shone in the Met's revival of Ariadne auf Naxos, the story of a princess abandoned on a desert island which is suddenly invaded by a troupe right out of Cirque de Soleil. Fine German singing was the order of the day, and once more this reliable Elijah Moshinsky staging (one of the prettiest in the Met's arsenal) did not disappoint. Conductor Kirill Petrenko led a balanced, intelligent performance that perfected the chamber-music dynamic of Strauss's intimate score.

Anne-Carolyn Bird, Tamara Mumford and Erin Morley as the Three Nymphs in Ariadne auf Naxos
Photo by Andrea Mohin © 2010 the Metropolitan Opera.
The opera's Prologue takes place backstage before Ariadne's premiere, and deals with the problems faced by a troupe of opera players and a young Composer (played superbly by Sarah Connolly) faced with their patron's last-minute decision to "decorate" the desert island of Naxos with Zerbinetta's comedy troupe, in order to liven up the proceedings and ensure that a planned fireworks display goes off on time. Connolly dominated the Prologue from her first notes, capturing the wistful, intellectual presence of the Composer who is under pressure from both the Soprano and the Tenor (played by Nina Stemme and Lance Ryan) to slash the other's part in the score.

Last night, the fireworks were provided by Kathleen Kim as Zerbinetta. This is one of the most difficult soprano parts in the repertory, and she was ideally suited as Strauss' quicksilver coquette. She rose admirably to the dizzying aria "Großmächtige Prinzessin," scaling its merciless, silvery heights and making the giant stage hers. Ms. Kim's Zerbinetta was aided and abetted by a skilled comic cavalcade who combined balletic skill with juggling, fire twirling and even singing as the players struggled to fit their shenanigans into the dramatic frame-work of the main opera.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme was not to be outdone. After all, Ariadne is the title role, and she sang the part with regal bearing and a full, rounded voice that soared to the heights and plunged easily, into the lower mezzo-like passages at the start of "Er gibt ein Reich." Nina Stemme was well complemented by tenor Lance Ryan, who made his company debut in the role of Bacchus after being sidelined last Thursday night. Bacchus is an ungrateful, difficult part with a series of gut-busting high notes. Ryan coped well with the high tessitura though he was not quite the god-like presence that the role requires.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Roots of Horror

Richard Strauss and the 20th Century.
"A viper in my bosom." That is how Kaiser Wilhelm II described Richard Strauss, following the 1905 premiere of the shocking, bloody opera Salome. In 1909, he offended the ears of English monarch George V with the slashing score of Elektra. Upon hearing a 'selection of themes' played by the Buckingham Palace band, the King sent out his major-domo with instructions that the music was "never to be repeated."

Fraught with tension, atonality, brilliant orchestral effects and bloody climaxes, Salome and her sister Elektra are the most notorious among Strauss's 15 operas. These two one-act dramas each laid the musical framework for much of the 20th century, particularly the horror-movie scores of Hollywood composers like Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), John Williams (Jaws) and Wendy Carlos (The Shining).

Strauss used atonal harmonies, minor-key chords and dark, menacing figures in the woodwinds to create an atmosphere of depravity, decay and dread. Salome is all orchestral color and faux-Oriental shimmer, until Jokaanan (John the Baptist) gets decapitated. His head is then served to the title character as a reward for the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Elektra is built from heavy, monolithic chords with slithering strings and winds that preface the matricidal revenge of Elektra's axe-wieding brother Orestes. Composers in Hollywood took inspiration from Strauss, culminating in Bernard Hermann's use of shrieking violins in Psycho as Janet Leigh is murdered. The idea was borrowed from Salome, where scraped double basses evoke the sawing noises as the prophet Jokaanan (literally) loses his head.

Two excellent recordings made by Birgit Nilsson, Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic provide the best opportunity to hear these "shock operas" in all their glory. Each set was recently remastered and reissued as part of Decca's mid-priced The Originals series, and they sound (nearly) as good as the original vinyl. Nilsson is the ideal singer for both operas.

In Salome it is no insult to say that she is surrounded by an appropriate freak-show cast, featuring the twisted Herod of Gerhard Stolze. The Elektra features a demented performance by Regina Resnik as the heroine's mother, Klytaemnestra.

Both were recorded using the much-ballyhooed "Sonicstage" stereo technique developed by John Culshaw for the famous Decca recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle. They are must-haves for Strauss aficionadoes and horror fans alike.

Georg Solti and producer John Culshaw. Photo © Decca.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

DVD Review: The 1973 Karajan Das Rheingold

Hammer time: Vladimir de Kanel as Donner.

This fascinating 1973 film of the first opera's of Wagner's Ring provides a window into another era of Wagner singing, while detailing Herbert von Karajan's lyric approach to the score. Intended as the first film of a complete cycle, Das Rheingold combines cinematic techniques and crude Star Trek-style special effects to give us a detailed version of the first night of the Ring in all its spear-carrying glory.

Although Thomas Stewart sang Wotan on Karajan's recordings of Die Walküre and Siegfried, he was replaced by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for Das Rheingold. So this is the sole record of his collaboration with Karajan in this opera. Stewart is an imposing, noble Wotan, using his fine baritone to tremendous effect. The reliable Brigitte Fassbaender is solid, if unconventional casting for Fricka. The young Jeanine Altmeyer, who would later graduate to singing Sieglinde and Brunnhilde, is a good choice for Freia.

The greatest treasure in this performance is Peter Schreier, a Mozart and Bach specialist who dons the red leather suit to play Loge. His is the finest voice on display here and his entrance lifts the opera to the next energy level. It is also wonderful to have a visual record of Zoltan Kelemen, the Hungarian baritone who was one of the great Alberichs of the 1970s. Here, he is paired with character tenor Gerhard Stolze, whose harsh, grating Mime is all too familiar to owners of the classic Solti cycle or Karajan's underrated recording for Deutsche Grammophon.

The biggest flaw in this film is the decision to have two of the actors dubbed in the studio. Vladimir de Kanel is Donner, but the part is sung by Leif Roar and the lips do not match. This is especially noticeable at his entrance in Scene II. Also, Gerd Nienstedt's fine bass is dubbed by Karl Ridderbusch in the role of Fasolt. Karajan may have wanted a more lyric sound, but why didn't he just get Ridderbusch to appear in the film?

This is prime Karajan, conducting his crack Berlin Philharmonc in a razor-sharp performance. The strings are lyric, the horn players are everything they should be--even the percussion effects are stirring. Ever the control freak, Karajan also directs the film and the stage action, which is competent, but not brilliant or ground-breaking.It's all a little dated, but this is a compelling look at the way Wagner operas were done before Patrice Chereau's revolutionary Bayreuth Ring of 1976.

Loge's narrative, sung by Peter Schreier

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Opera Review: Under a Bloodlight

Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The dancers from the opening of Richard Eyre's Carmen.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.
Richard Eyre's new production of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera moves the action of Bizet's opera to the war-torn Spain of the 1930s, but that is just one innovative touch in this remarkable staging. Each act opens with a scena played out by two dancers, an idealized version of the relationship between Carmen and Don José. The opera's action is compressed in and around a crumbling, Romanesque arena that moves and rotates with the needs of the staging. It is the sort of bravura high-tech staging that the Met does well, and although the turntable noise can be distracting, the whole thing generally works.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Opera Review: Anna Bolena at the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

Enrico VIII and his second queen, Anna Bolena.
Bel canto tradition came to the Theater 80 St. Marks this weekend, when the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble staged a thoroughly successful "black box" production of Anna Bolena. The first of Donizetti's "English Queens" trilogy, "Bolena" dramatizes the disgrace and execution of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. With its difficult title role and high tenor part, this is a challenging opera to cast. Under the direction of Christopher Fecteau, the Dell'Arte company made a good case for Donizetti's genius. They knocked us dead, and then off with her head.

This opera's success rests on the soon-to-be-headless shoulders of Anna herself. Donizetti's score requires a lyric soprano who can project a majestic presence, sing with dramatic power and navigate the ornamental passages that dominate the finale. Jill Dewsnup was up to this challenge, singing with fierce accuracy and shattering high notes, soaring through the passagio with ease and maintaining a regal presence all the way to the final mad scene.

The role of Percy presents its own challenges and problems for the tenor. The writing is demanding and high, calling for a strenuous high E♭ above the stave. Following the opera's premiere, Donizetti transposed the part down two whole steps, in order to make it performable for most singers. Kirk Dougherty rose to the challenge. Although the results were not always pretty, he went up and grabbed that murderous high note, and finished the aria in style.

Cherry Duke was a picture of inner conflict as Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, Anna's best friend who replaces her on the throne. As Smeton, the smitten court musician who betrays Anna to the king, Blythe Gaissert was convincing in the trouser part and had some lovely music to sing in the first act. Matthew Anchel was a ponderous King Henry--he sounded best in the big Act III trio with Anna and Percy.

Isaac Grier gave a very strong performance as Percy's doomed brother Rochefort--this bass has potential and is a singer to watch for. The entire performance was accompanied by Hellgate Harmonie, a stripped-down ensemble of amateur and freelance musicians. They played a stripped-down version of Donizetti's score as a wind band, the only strings being a double bass.

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