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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.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Concert Review: Oedipus Rex at the Philharmonic

Valery Gergiev, looking priestly. Photo by Chris Lee.
Thursday night's installment of the New York Philharmonic's three-week festival The Russian Stravinsky featured a powerful performance of Oedipus Rex, the two-act "opera-oratorio" based on Sophocles' tragedy. With its unique structure short length and lack of dramatic action, Oedipus Rex is ideally suited to the concert stage. Mr. Gergiev used his characteristic, muscular approach to conducting this score. Although the balance of brass and chorus threatened at times to drown out the soloists, this was exciting music-making.

Anthony Dean Griffey and Waltraud Meier gave strong performances as Oedipus and Jocasta, the married King and Queen of Thebes who discover that they are actually mother and son. Mr. Griffey is an instinctive actor, even in the concert setting. He has a fine, ringing tenor that was well-suited to the note of false nobility that Stravinsky gives Oedipus before his downfall. Mr. Griffey's best moment though, was silent. When denying his guilt in Act I, he shifted, darted his eyes and looked Nixon-like in his guilt. Ms. Meier, the Wagnerian mezzo familiar from countless performances of Parsifal brought her steely, dramatic instrument to the short role of Jocasta. The rapid-fire duet between these two singers was one of the pleasures of the evening.

Oedipus Rex alternates Latin text with a Narration that moves the drama forward. In this case, Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons used his fine, Shakespearean voice to lend weight to the proceedings. He was aided by the all-male Mariinsky chorus and fine vocal soloists. Russian bass Ilya Bannik took the roles of Creon and the Messenger. His delivery of the news of Jocasta's death and Oedipus' self-blinding, backed by heavy chords in the brass and the response of the chorus, made a powerful close to the opera.

The concert opened with the rarely performed Le Roi d'Etoile, a Stravinsky work for chorus and orchestra that echoes the composer's admiration for the works of Claude Debussy. It was followed by the Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos as an exciting soloist. Mr.Kavakos showed great command of phrasing and Stravinsky's tricky rhythms, soaring through the four movements including the difficult final Capriccio. Met with rapturous applause, he returned and dazzled the audience with a violin transcription of the Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Spanish guitar virtuoso Francisco Tárrega.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lyric Opera of Chicago Announces 2010-2011 Season

The Lyric Opera of Chicago has a slate of eight operas planned for next season. Under the baton of Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, the company will present a wide variety of works, from baroque Handel to romantic Verdi and Wagner. Here's a quick look at their planned season:

Packing heat: Deborah Voigt in La Fanciulla del West
Barbara Gaines directs this production of Verdi's adaptation of the Scottish play. Thomas Hampson plays the ambitious Thane who kills his way to the throne and then pays for it afterwards.

Kate Aldrich, who has impressed at the Metropolitan Opera this season, brings her interpretation of Bizet's famous Gypsy to Chicago. Younghoon Lee sings Don José in the fall cast. Carmen returns in the spring, starring Nadia Krasteva and Brandon Jovanovich in the leading roles.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Benjamin Britten's adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy stars David Daniels. The countertenor will soar to new heights as Oberon, King of the Faeries and master of the woodland realm. British bass Peter Rose is a bully Bottom.

Un Ballo in Maschera
Renata Scotto takes the director's chair in this production imported from the San Francisco Opera. Frank Lopardo, Sondra Radvanovsky and Mark Delevan form the love triangle at the core of Verdi's most romantic drama.

The Mikado
Wotan himself: James Morris puts down his spear and picks up a snicker-snee in this production of Gilbert and Sullivan's wittiest operetta.

La Fanciulla del West
Deborah Voigt sings what William Berger called "the most difficult role in Puccini". Minnie is a hard-riding whiskey-drinking girl of the Golden West, but she's an angel at heart. Want proof? The character is onstage for three hours but never gets an aria.

Johann Botha catches a swan-drawn boat across Lake Michigan to sing the titular role in Wagner's famous drama. But sssh…you don't know what his name is, do you? Oh wait, it's on the marquee.

David Daniels closes out the season in this presentation of Handel's heroic drama. Peter Sellers directs.

For more information about the Lyric Opera, visit their official website at LyricOpera.Org

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

And now...Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

For your listening displeasure, the work of P.D.Q. Bach

From the biographical sketch, by Professor Peter Schickele.

P.D.Q. Bach once said that his illustrious father gave him no training in music whatsoever, and it is one of the few things he said that we can believe without reservation. His rebelliousness was such, in fact, that he avoided music as much as possible until he was well into his thirties (as a teenager he did assist in the construction of the loudest instrument ever created, the pandemonium, but he wisely skipped town before the instrument’s completion, having sensed with uncanny accuracy, that the Pavilion of Glass was perhaps not the most felicitous location for the inaugural concert). But by the mid 1770s he realized that, given his last name, writing music was the easiest thing he could do, and he began composing the works that were to catapult him into obscurity.

This most mini musical life has been divided into three creative periods: the Initial Plunge, the Soused Period, and Contrition. The middle period was by far the longest of the three, and was characterized by a multiplicity of contrapuntal lines and a greater richness of harmony due to almost constant double vision. It was during this period that he emulated (i.e., stole from) the music of Haydn and Mozart, but his pathetic attempts to be au courant were no more successful than his pathetic attempts to be passé had been during the Initial Plunge; having to cope with the problems that accompany immense popularity was something P.D.Q. Bach managed to avoid. It has been said that the only original places in his music are those places where he forgot what he was stealing. And, since his memory was even shorter than his sightedness, he was in point of fact one of the most original composers ever to stumble along the musical pike.

DVD Review: Il Turco in Genoa

Simone Alaimo (with turban) and Myrtò Papatanasiu in Il Turco in Italia.

Written in 1814, Il Turco in Italia has always lived in the second rank of Rossini's comic operas. A follow-up to his wildly popular L'Italiana in Algeri, the opera bombed at its Rome premiere, and was rarely performed until 1954. Then, it was rediscovered by Maria Callas, who realized that the role of Fiorilla was perfectly suited to her voice. This live DVD from the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa preserves a "classic-style" Rossini staging, which was originally presented in 1983 to celebrate the composer's 100th birthday.

In fact, although this is a Rossini comedy, Turco is more of a dramma giocoso, a serious opera about love and marriage that has its comic moments. The titular Turk arrives in Italy looking for a new bride for his harem. He is torn between Zaide, a gypsy woman who was once part of his harem, and Fiorilla, a married woman who is the romantic focus of no less than three men: Selim, her husband Don Geronio, and Narciso, the ardent tenor. Eventually, she reunites with her husband, Zaide sails off with the Turk, and everyone is happy. But Rossini was also an expert at writing tragic opera too, and his attempts to fuse the two styles here make this a unique opera.

The proceedings are dominated by Simone Alaimo, a veteran bass with much experience in the comic operas of Rossini. As Selim, the title character, Alaimo manages to combine heartbreak and nobility. He sings the virtuoso arias--most of them in classic patter style, with precise diction and flair, racing up and down through the figures with ease. He is well complemented by Bruno di Simone as Don Geronio, and their duet in the second act is a highlight.

Myrtò Papatansiu takes Fiorilla (the Callas role) and does very well with it. Her Act II aria, "Squallida, veste e bruna" belongs in a tragic opera and reflects her real dilemma of being emotionally torn between three men. Antonella Nappa makes the most of the smaller role of Zaida. As Narciso, tenor Antonio Siragusa is a throwback to the old-fashioned tenors of the 19th century, singing with his head voice and using his instrument like a silver rapier. Jonathan Webb does a competent job in the pit, leading a traditional Rossini-sized orchestra. The overture, with its long solo played on what looked like an antique valved horn, is excellent.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Met Appoints Fabio Luisi as Principal Guest Conductor

The Metropolitan Opera announced today that Fabio Luisi has been appointed to the post of Principal Guest Conductor. He is the first conductor to hold the post since Valery Gergiev, who had the job for a decade, ending in 2008.

According to a report in today's New York Times, Mr. Luisi has signed a three-year contract. He will appear at the Met for two to three months of the season. In the 2010-2011 season, he is scheduled to conduct revivals of Rigoletto and Ariadne auf Naxos.

The move should do much to shore up the musical and artistic side of the opera house, which has suffered recently along with its oft-injured Music Direcor, James Levine.

Full text of this article is available on
Photo by Barbara Luisi, © Boston Symphony Orchestra

Pyramid Scheme: The Aida Buyers Guide

Image © Rafael Olbinski

Aida is an opera that hits the wall whenever a studio recording was made. Verdi's Egyptian opera is at its most thrilling in a live performance. All of these sets offer considerable pleasure for the lover of Verdi's most spectacular opera.

Coro e Orchestra de La Scala cond. Tullio Serafin EMI 1951
Radames: Richard Tucker. Aida: Maria Callas
Mexico City Orquestra del Palacio de Bellas Artas cond. Oliviero de Fabritis EMI 1951
Radames: Mario del Monaco

Maria Callas recorded this opera twice in 1951. One set (black box) was made at La Scala with Tullio Serafin conducting, and Richard Tucker as her Radames. The other (blue box) has an inferior conductor and sketchy sound quality with the Oliviero de Fabritis occasionally audible from the podium. But it's worth it for fans of the hyper-masculine Mario del Monaco who sounds ready to invade Ethiopia, the Sudan and possibly climb Mount Kilamanjaro!

Callas only recorded this opera early in her career, so both sets are in monaural sound. She is in good voice, although she adds some sobs and mannerisms to the performance that seem to belong in another opera entirely. Neither is a first choice, but both are of interest for Callas fans and opera historians

Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Jonel Perlea RCA 1955
Radames: Jussi Björling. Aida: Zinka Milanov.

An early studio Aida, featuring the wonderful pairing of Zinka Milanov and Jussi Björling as Aida and Radames. The mono sound doesn't have the same "wide-screen" effect as more modern recordings of this opera, and the transfer is marred by audible hiss (especially in the Grand Consecration scene.) However, the singing (especially Björling's stunning "Celeste Aida" and Milanov's "O Patria Mia" with that famous, floated final note) makes this a compelling entry.

But wait--there's more. The set features the late Leonard Warren as Amonasro and Boris Christoff as a wonderfully scary (if not very Italianate) Ramfis. Issued on RCA, this set is also available from Naxos as an import.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan Decca 1959
Radames: Carlo Bergonzi. Aida: Renata Tebaldi.

This was the first stereo recording of Aida. It's still the best. Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi are perfectly matched as the lovers. Karajan was at a peak with his Vienna forces, and although he recorded the opera again for EMI, that set was hurt by a cast which could not hold up against the orchestral assault of the Karajan Sound. Tebaldi is a marvelous Aida, singing with passion and intelligence. Bergonzi shows why he was one of the finest tenors of the 20th century.

This recording is a fascinating early example of Decca producer John Culshaw's "SonicStage" technique, with tiny aural enhancements added to create a virtual operatic experience.The tiny echoes when Radames and Aida are trapped in the tomb are chilling in their simplicity.

Coro e Orchestra de La Scala cond. Claudio Abbado Opera d'Oro 1972
Radames: Placido Domingo. Aida: Martina Arroyo.

If you must have Domingo as Radames (and he's pretty good!) the set to have is this this 1972 live recording opposite Martina Arroyo in the title role. Freed of the constraints of the studio, this is electric Verdi. The great tenor's voice was at an early peak, before it darkened. Claudio Abbado (whose 1981 studio set with Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli has its merits) demonstrates his sensitivity and skill as a Verdi conductor. Kick-ass.

Of the four (!) Domingo studio recordings of this opera, the ranking is: Abbado, Muti, Leinsdorf and Levine. The Muti set features Montserrat Caballe in the title role. Levine has a fine orchestra and chorus. The Leinsdorf recording has Leontyne Price.

Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Sir Georg Solti Decca 1962
Radames: Jon Vickers. Aida: Leontyne Price.
Leontyne Price recorded the role of the Egyptian princess twice. This was her first version of the opera, recorded prior to her Met debut in the role. She is surrounded by a strong cast, featuring Jon Vickers, Rita Gorr and Robert Merrill as Amonasro. Georg Solti conducts the Triumphal Scene as if it were a Bruckner symphony, with trumpets squarely to the fore. This set is a strong alternate to the Karajan recording from 1959. However, the first issue of it was inflated to 3 CDs and marred by a poor digital mastering job.

Happily, when Decca decided to re-issue the set as a 2CD bargain pressing (with a break in the middle of the Triumphal March) they also remastered the tapes with 20-bit technology, restoring the swell of the orchestra and the bloom to Ms. Price's voice. In other words, don't buy the one with the fancy packaging and the white slip-case.

Image: Rafal Olbinski's poster art for Aida.
© Patinae Inc/Rafal Olbinski.

DVD Review: La Cenerentola from the Met

Welcome to the layer cake: Lawrence Brownlee and
Elina Garanca in 
La Cenerentola.
Photo © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera/UMG
This 2-DVD set preserves Elena Garanca's breakthrough performance in the title role of Rossini's comic fairy tale, as well as this wonderfully surreal production., which was originally designed for Cecilia Bartoli.

The staging, by the Italian team of Cesare Lievi (production) and Marizo Balò, (costumes and sets) combines Magritte-inspired surrealism (closets full of clocks, inexplicable stage fires, and the chorus dressed in suits and bowler hats) with a sense of bold slapstick that is entirely suited to Rossini. A small regret: this 2008 revival failed to include the apocalyptic onstage spaghetti fight that brought down the house at the premiere. (The Met costume department may be tired of cleaning marinara stains from the costumes.)

Garanca shines as Angelina, the "Cinderella" of the title. She has a resonant, finely controlled mezzo with a a warm deep range, and is capable of reaching the heights required by the final aria of this opera. It doesn't hurt the presenation that she is a good comic actress with the fresh quality needed for this role. The acid test of this role is the final scene, a long and difficult rondo where the much put-upon Angelina forgives her family for their abuses and begins her new life in the arms of her Prince atop of a giant wedding cake.

Lawrence Brownlee is a regular player in the Met's current Rossini craze, appearing in this season's stagings of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Armida. He has a soaring bel canto instrument, and sings sweetly in the slower cantabile sections of his arias. Brownlee proves himself capable of navigating Rossini's difficult cabaletta sections, where the notes pile on top of each other in a dazzling display of  technique. However, his Act II aria was marred by a tendency to pull up sharp when he opened up his voice and reached for the highest notes. Things improved at the end of the act, and his Recognition scene with Garanca had this strong tenor back to form.

Alessandro Corbelli gives a magnificent performance as Don Magnifico. He plays the wicked father with more humanity, eschewing the cartoonish business that usually mars this character. Perhaps his experience in the role of the valet, Dandini gives him greater perspective?

In turn, Simone Alberghini is a fine Dandini, giving a comic performance that recalls Figaro at his very best. Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley are "absolutely fabulous" as the two evil sisters. John Relyea is a sonorous presence as Alidoro, the "golden angel" who takes the role of "fairy godmother" in this version of the tale. That man can really rock an ice cream suit with a pair of golden wings sprouting from his back.

This DVD was originally released as a "Met Live in HD" broadcast, hosted by Thomas Hampson. The copy reviewed had the disc labels backwards, with Act I on Disc 2 and vice versa. Hopefully, this problem has been corrected in future pressings of this otherwise excellent set.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Opera Blogs Cause Cancer!

"They're just words, Marcelo. They can't hurt you."
Marcelo Álvarez in Carmen at the Met.

Tenor Marcelo Álvarez has smoke coming out of his ears.

In a recent interview in the London Times, the Argentinian singer says that opera blogs are "a cancer on the operatic world."

"Perhaps you sing one bad performance and these websites attack and blow it out of proportion. They always write: bad, bad, bad!” the tenor told the London Times reporter. “Some artistic directors read these sites and a lot of contracts go.”

Mr. Álvarez, appearing at Covent Garden in a new production of Aida by David McVicar. "It looks a little like Stargate!" he told the Times. He is planning to add Don Alvaro in Verdi's La Forza del Destino to his repertory in the next few years. Considering that Mr. Álvarez is a spinto tenor with a small-to-medium sized voice, singing the heavy Verdi roles may be a recipe for career disaster.

Opera lovers may recall that Luciano Pavarotti was engaged to sing Don Alvaro at the Met in 1997. When Mr. Pavarotti felt that he had not learned the role adequately, the Met replaced Forza with Un Ballo in Maschera, a work better suited to his voice. The Met made a similar accomodation for Mr. Álvarez in 2008, when the Franco Zeffirelli production of Carmen replaced Les contes d'Hoffman in the Met's lineup.

On a personal note, it's good to know that directors are reading our sites. Hopefully, Mr. Álvarez is reading this too.

In other news, my friend, colleague and fellow blogger James Jorden, author of the fabulous Parterre Box, is celebrating his 3,000th blog post!

I would say that this calls for a cigar! I recommend either the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos, or (pictured at right) CAO's new blend, the La Traviata.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Photo © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera

Opera Review: Der Fliegende Höllander at the Met

Metropolitan Opera audiences finally got their much-needed dose of Wagner on Friday night with the revival of August Everding's iced-over staging of Der Fliegende Höllander. Deborah Voigt sang the role of Senta in a performance that was clearly a warm-up for next season, when the diva will tackle the role of Brunnhilde in Die Walküre for the first time.

Ms. Voigt made some unconventional choices as Senta, the obsessed daughter of a sea captain whose love for the Dutchman ends in spectacular, Tosca-like suicide. She sang softly at the start of the Act II ballad, substituting dreamy introspection for full-bore hysteria. However, when it came time for the love duet, she opened up her full vocal register, letting the notes ring out. However, she nearly drowned out the Dutchman, played by Finnish baritone Juhi Uusitalo. The Act III trio featured some spectacular high notes, and the soaring finish gives one hope for her forthcoming performance as Wagner's most famous Valkyrie.

Mr. Uusitalo is a tall, handsome singer with a strong stage presence. However, Friday night's performance was somewhat anemic. Although this singer (who was an excellent Jokaanan in the 2008 revival of Salome) has a powerful low range, but runs out of vocal heft when he tries for the higher notes in this score. Wagner wrote the role of the Dutchman in a slightly higher range than the baritone parts in his later operas. That proved to be the singer's undoing. Finally, he lacked that note of creepiness that makes a great Dutchman. If the singer can scare the hell out of the audience during "Die frist ist um", it makes Daland's decision to marry off his daughter all the more questionable.

Fine performances were given from the rest of the cast. Hans-Peter König is a cheerful, sleazy Daland, the father who seems all too willing to let his daughter marry a sailor. Mr König displayed an impressive bass range and good acting ability. Even more impressive was the young tenor Stephen Gould, making his Met debut as Erik. His dream narration in the second act showed a noble voice,  but he started to lose power in the third act.

The Met chorus was also impressive, portraying cheerful Norwegian sailors, their wives, and of course, a chorus of shambling, green-lit zombie sailors that provided the evening's most entertaining moments. Kazushio Ono conducted, and although he was competent enough, his reading of Wagner's first important score failed to terrify or inspire.

Deborah Voigt as Senta in Der Fliegende Höllander.
Photo Credit: Corey Weaver © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera

Friday, April 23, 2010

Concert Review: Gergiev (of the Mariinsky) conducts Stravinsky

The second concert of the New York Philharmonic's three-week festival: The Russian Stravinsky,  featured Valery Gergiev leading his own Mariinsky Theater singers and the Philharmonic forces in three major works by the revolutionary Russian composer. 

The program opened with Les Noces, bumped from the Thursday premiere because of travel issues caused by the volcanic ash cloud over Europe. (Mr. Gergiev and his singers did not arrive in New York until Tuesday night.) This set of four dramatic pieces recalls the bustle and energy of a Russian peasant wedding, The four vocal soloists (all regulars at the Mariinsky Theater, Mr. Gergiev's St. Petersburg opera house) traded off in a series of almost conversational vocal fragments, backed by impressive choral singing, four pianos and the Philharmonic's redoubtable percussion players.

The Symphony of Psalms shows Stravinsky bridging Russian liturgical music with Latin liturgical verse. The unique orchestral arrangement (there are no violins or violas used) created a  religious atmosphere well suited to the Latin text. Again, the Mariinsky chorus was superb, singing the  Psalms with power and conviction. Mr. Gergiev drew some unusually beautiful orchestral textures from the stripped-down band.

The concert concluded with the full 45-minute version of The Firebird, the ballet that made Stravinsky's name as a composer in the Western world. This marvelous score was played with Gergiev's power and the Philharmonic's customary precision, although Mr. Gergiev's freewheeling interpretation of the score caused more than one touch-and-go moment in the early movements. The conductor recovered, moving his fingers like the fluttering of a bird and drawing lovely sounds from the orchestra. 

Things improved even more when the orchestra hit the fortissimo passages that dominate the second half of this score. The thunderous "Dance of King Kaschei" shook Avery Fisher Hall. Just before the climactic phrase, Mr. Gergiev slowed the orchestra to a pianissimo crawl, drawing forth a shimmering carpet of sound before letting the heavy brass bring the work to its blazing finish. This was an auspicious beginning to a three-week festival which promises exciting interpretations of Stravinsky's music at Avery Fisher Hall.

Valery Gergiev. 
Photo © Marco Borggreve.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Russians Are Coming (well, one, anyway)

The New York Philharmonic opens a two-week festival celebrating the music of Igor Stravinsky, featuring the conducting of acclaimed Russian maestro Valery Gergiev.

Stravinsky emigrated to America in 1939. He settled in Los Angeles, following the outbreak of World War II. He lived in California until 1969. For the last two years of his life, he was a New Yorker, living in the Essex House on the south side of Central Park. He conducted, and recorded with the Philharmonic in 1948, leading performances of Fireworks, the Ebony Concerto, and other works.

The series kicks off with four performances of The Firebird paired with the Symphonies for Wind Instruments and the Symphony of Psalms. Gergiev has recorded most of this repertory for Philips--and much of it is currently being re-released on the London imprint. Later concerts include the opera Oedipus Rex and the popular ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

In other Gergiev-related news, Decca has released a set of the conductor's Mariinsky Theater recordings of the major operas of Serge Prokofiev. The budget box includes The Fiery Angel, War and Peace, and the comedies The Love for Three Oranges and Betrothal in a Monastery.

More information on the upcoming series is available at NYPhil.Org

Recordings Review: Sullivan (without Gilbert)

The Chandos recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe.
"Ivanhoe is the story of a Russian farmer, and his tool."
--Bart Simpson
Written in 1891, Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe is one of the most neglected English operas of the 19th century. Composed without his regular writing partner W. S. Gilbert, Ivanhoe is a serious adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's novel of knightly derring-do in mythical English history. Thanks to this recording from Chandos, it is now possible to hear what the great composer of comic operas sounded like when on holiday from the world of topsy-turvy. Ivanhoe is one of the most overdue recordings of a "lost" opera, and a necessary listen for lovers of opera and operetta alike.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Heaven, Hell, and the Berlioz Requiem

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) the fearless French composer whose achievements included the Symphonie-fantastique and La damnation de Faust was one of the most innovative composers of his era.

His Requiem, composed in 1837 is a radical setting of the Catholic Mass for the Dead. It is an enormous work, requiring a huge choir, large orchestra and four specially placed ensembles of brass instruments, used to stunning effect. The work is not performed often, but it influenced opera composers Richard Wagner and Arrigo Boito when it came time to announce the presence of divine influence in their operas.

The first section of the Requiem (Kyrie) opens with a series of mysterious, hushed chords. Played in a minor key, this introduction was appropriated by Wagner for the beginning of his final opera, Parsifal. The Parsifal prelude borrows the idea of suspended chords, shimmering curtains of strings and woodwind that seem to "hang" in space, pulling the audience into the work in preparation for a story about sinning, redemption and the revalation of the Holy Grail.

Berlioz encountered Wagner in 1842, and again in 1860 when the younger composer was giving concerts in Paris. Wagner eagerly shared his ideas for the 'music of the future.' (Berlioz referred to Wagner's ideas as 'L'école du charivari'--the "school of mayhem.") In 1858, Berlioz read the libretto of Les Troyens to Wagner. This five-act opera, based on Virgil's Aeneid, was the culmination of Berlioz' life's work. It was not performed in its entirety until 1924.) Neither composer quite understood what the other was doing. But that didn't stop Berlioz' Requiem from exerting influence on Parsifal.

Ideas from the Requiem also show up in Mefistofele (1868) the only completed opera by Italian composer and critic Arrigo Boito. Mefistofele is a setting of Goethe's Faust (which Berlioz set in 1846 as La damnation de Faust.) Boito and Berlioz both made their livings as music critics, and each composer wrote difficult works that met with hostility at first, but were eventually accepted into the repertory.

Mefistofele opens with a scene set in the heavens, depicting the Devil's famous wager with God. The stakes: Faust's soul. God is offstage, represented by singing choirs of angels (also offstage) echoed by huge slablike chords in the brass. This idea of trumpet choirs, echoing back and forth with the main orchestra, shows up in the most famous moment in the Requiem. In the Dies Irae section of the mass, (which depicts God's wrath and the Last Judgement) the brass choirs announce the Tuba Mirum--the blowing of the last trumpet. In both works, the effect is unforgettable.

Watch the Tuba Mirum from the Requiem.

Watch the Prelude to Parsifal here.

Watch the opening scene of Mefistofele here.

Top: Hector Berlioz. Middle: Richard Wagner. Bottom: Arrigo Boito. All photos from Wikipedia.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Because Everyone Needs Mahler

Here's footage of the late (and I think, great) Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 1 (The 'Titan').

Sinopoli's Mahler cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra was released in a deluxe super-bargain boxed set to commemorate the conductor's untimely death in 2000. He had a heart attack while conducting Act III of Aida in Berlin. His eccentric way with tempos and insistence on personal interpretations of the repertory he conducted frustrated some and delighted others. Love him, or hate him, a Sinopoli recording always allows the listener to hear the score with fresh ears. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Opera Review: The Redemption of Tosca

A strong cast saves the Met's new production...for now.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bryn Terfel as Baron Scarpia in Tosca.
Photo by Corey Weaver © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera revived the ill-received Luc Bondy production of Tosca on Wednesday night. Armed with an exceptional cast and expert conducting by Fabio Luisi, the company may yet succeed in changing the public's perception of this production.

Opera Review: The Other Magic Garden: Partenope

The garden scene from Partenope. Photo © 2010 New York City Opera

The City Opera closed out its spring season with a strong revival of Handel's Partenope. Baroque opera has been a forte at this house for some time now, and Tuesday night's performance gave listeners the chance to discover some exciting new singers in this under-performed genre. This revival was notable for a strong young cast, and the expert period performance leadershop of Scottish conductor Christian Curnyn in the pit.
Partenope is one of Handel's early baroque works. It presents, in comic fashion, the struggles of the city of Venice, its queen (the title character) and the attempts of three men to woo her. It is remarkable for having two difficult parts originally written for castrato singers. Today, opera houses use countertenors, but casting the work still presents difficulties in finding two countertenors who can navigate Handel's heights.

Cyndia Sweden gave a bright, sparkling performance in the title role, adroitly juggling men in between as coloratura runs. Her rivals, Arsace, Armindo, and Emilio were played by three fine young singers. Iestyn Davies was Arsace, the cad who spurns his original lover Rosmira for Partenope's hand. This is the more challenging of the two roles and Davies rose to the occasion with a flawless high range and command of the difficult vocal leaps required in Handel's da capo passages.

Anthony Roth Costanzo sang with pathos and delicate beauty as Armindo, the "nice guy" who eventually wins the girl. Tenor Nicholas Coppolo is a rapidly rising star in 18th century repertory. He brought a welcome charge of sexual energy to the proceedings as Emilio, and some fine singing in his Act II aria. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzel switched genders with ease as Rosmira, the origanal lover of Arsace who spends most of the opera in drag. Finally, baritone Daniel Mobbs sang well as the servant Ormonte, although his character does not have an aria to sing.

Watch a trailer for Partenope here.

Opera Review: The Magic Garden

Enter sand(wo)man: Renée Fleming in a promotional image for Armida
© 2009 The Metropolitan Opera
Armida bows at the Met.
by Paul Pelkonen
One year ago, the Metropolitan Opera's decision to present an obscure Rossini opera as a vehicle for star soprano Renee Fleming was met with anticipation. But, as the opening night of Armida attests, the opera house may regret the decision to indulge their star's wishes.

Armida has a threadbare plot, involving a Circe-like sorceress and her attempts to beguile crusaders in medieval Palestine. Grounded in an 18th century sensibilty, Armida also suffers from a vague sense of deja vu: the story was used for operas by Lully, Handel, Gluck, and probably others. And all of those are better than this Rossini effort.

Let's face it: this is a tough opera to sell to a modern audience. There is plenty of virtuoso writing and the work requires a star diva and six tenors. The music is of high quality and rewarding to lovers of bel canto style. But ultimately, there isn't enough magic in Armida to make up for its serious dramatic flaws.

Only a star with the magnitude and talent of Renée Fleming could carry off this opera. On Monday night she almost managed it. She sang beautifully throughout, producing rich, creamy tone and handling the work's dizzying heights (and one breath-taking low note) with little visible effort. But the great American diva held back until the final scene, when her character unleashes all the powers of hell against the errant knights. At this point, the opera caught fire. Unfortunately, that was with ten minutes to go in a four-hour work.

On Monday night, the six tenors required for this opera surrounded La Fleming like the Met's famous constellation of Swarovski chandeliers. Lawrence Brownlee led the pack as Rinaldo, the opera's hero. Fresh off a run in Barber of Seville, Mr. Brownlee has a smooth, agile instrument, ideally suited to Rossini's bel canto. Less pleasing (but still strong) performances were given by fellow tenors John Osborn, Kobie van Rensburg and Barry Banks. As the leader of Armida's demonic forces, Keith Miller's fine bass provided a welcome contrast to the opera's surfeit of tenor madness.

The production team of Mary Zimmerman and Richard Hudson presented a simple setting, a half-circle of pillars that could have doubled for Wagner's Grail temple or a cut-rate I Lombardi. Other Parsifal-like touches abounded, including a spear-toting knight in Act III and a field of flowers with an unfortunate tendency to bob up and down. Mr. Hudson's costume designs were imaginative, although the Act II chorus and ballet (with the male dancers in horned-devil body stockings) caused some of the Met's more conservative patrons to skip the third act.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Opera Review: Die Zauberflöte at the Met

Nathan Gunn as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte.

The Metropolitan Opera's revival of Julie Taymor's imaginative staging of Die Zauberflöte is a complete success. Mozart's final opera is a tricky one to bring off in the theater, but Monday's performance saw this talented young cast throwing themselves into the story and bringing this symbolic "quest opera" to shimmering life.

Matthew Polenzani is a natural fit as Tamino. His high, lyric tenor voice lies easily on the vocal line, and he sings with great natural beauty and tone. However, it is Nathan Gunn's expert Papageno that invariably steals the show. Gunn brings his experience in art songs to the role of the energetic bird-catcher. As the "natural man" who isn't interested in the mythic pretensions of Tamino's quest, he is the very soul of the Flute.

Bass Hans-Peter König is an impressive as Sarastro. Displaying a noble tone and full, rich bass voice, he was an imposing presence. One hopes that this fine German singer will be a key part of the new Met Ring Cycle, beginning next season. Character tenor Greg Fedderly made the most of his comic opportunities as Monostatos. Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova was an accurate, laser-toned Queen of the Night. Not the prettiest voice, but she hit all those high Fs.

Adam Fischer led the Met forces in a stripped-down reading of the score. Conducting with the pedal firmly on the floor, he kept the action moving. This enabled the actors to expand and improvise, livening the ritualistic second act. Julie Taymor's production with its impressive puppetry (designed by Taymor and Michael Curry) continues to impress with its original vision of this opera.

Watch a scene from Act II of Die Zauberflöte.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Opera Review: Dead Again, for a Ducat

Simon Keenlyside is Hamlet
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Simon Keenlyside gets stabby in Hamlet.
Photo © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera. 

The arrival of a major new artist on the stage of the Met is a cause for celebration for opera lovers. Monday night saw the Met debut of Canadian soprano Jane Archibald in the role of Ophélie, the doomed love interest in Ambroise Thomas' opera Hamlet.

A Fright at the Opera

So last night, we're at the performance of Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera House, sitting in the front row of the Family Circle. (That's the upper balcony.) It's the middle of Act II, and Jennifer Larmore and James Morris are onstage singing their duet as Gertrude and Claudius. When two things happened.

We noticed a funny smell in the air. Burning rubber? Burning plastic? Burning insulation? Then, the elderly couple sitting next to us got up and left. There was the smell of smoke in the theater. Definitely noticeable. We got up to leave. And so did most of the people seated in the Family Circle.

We quickly got our bags from under our seats, went up the steps, down the Family Circle stairs, and out of the auditorium.  We went down the winding lobby stairs to the Parterre level. As we went down those stairs, I noticed three house detectives running up to investigate. We continued down the Grand Staircase to the Plaza exit. There, we were handed re-entry passes. We found a dry spot on the refurbished Lincoln Center Fountain and watched.

Several fire trucks pulled up. A squad of firefighters went into the opera house, followed by the fire chief in his white hat. Unbelievably, most of the audience that had left the auditorium stayed in the lobby. Some of them even filmed the arriving fire trucks. They were perched like birds, on the four lobby levels of the atrium. People also gathered on the balcony of the Grand Tier.

Now, granted, the Met had not made an announcement. The opera had not stopped. And the ushers had not told people to evacuate. But when you smell smoke in a theater--any theater, you evacuate! It's the first, most basic rule. Get yourself (and hopefully your loved ones) out of the building!

The second act ended, and it was intermission. More people gathered in the atrium. We saw the firemen come back out, looking relieved. When the fire chief came out with his clipboard, we decided to go back in, and handed in our passes to the usher.

We rode up in the elevator to the Family Circle and resumed our seats. There was still a faint smell of burnt plastic in the air.

A Met official came out and made an announcement. He explained that during the first act, one of the gels (the clear plastic filters that color the lights) had ignited, and was quickly extinguished. "There was no emergency," he said. The house management had decided not to lower the fire curtain, and not to stop the opera, since the fire was out. He apologized, and thanked the audience on behalf of the Met. And the opera went on.

So there you have it, an eyewitness account of the great Metropolitan Opera fire incident of 2010.

Monday, April 5, 2010

More Conducting Changes at the Met

Reposted from

The Metropolitan Opera has announced that James Levine will be unable to conduct Berg's Lulu next month.

His replacement is Fabio Luisi, the chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony. Earlier this season, Mr. Luisi conducted performances of Hansel und Gretel, Le Nozze di Figaro and Elektra at the Met.

Click here for the full article.

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Opera Review: Don't Sniff the Cherry Blossoms.

Shu-Ying Li as Cio-Cio San.
© 2007 New York City Opera
Madama Butterfly at New York City Opera
The Spring 2010 revival of the City Opera's Spartan staging of Butterfly is anchored by the roof-raising performance of Shu-Ying Li in the title role. This is an opera that rests squarely on the slim shoulders of its teenaged protagonist. Ms. Li displayed exceptional technique and acting ability, turning the suffering of Cio-Cio San into a tour de force.

Her Act I entrance was impressive, surrounded by her Japanese family. Butterfly is only 15 here, a professional geisha who suddenly falls in love with her new "husband." Ms. Li's voice burst into full flower in the big love duet that ends the first act.

Despite the vocal issues suffered by Steven Harrison (Pinkerton was battling an allergy attack) this was a compelling portrait of Butterfly's wedding night, setting the audience up for the tragedy to come.

Starting with Act II, Ms. Li did what any soprano must in the role of Butterfly: she took over the opera. With "Un bel di", Ms. Li opened up her instrument even further and displayed her full dramatic range. As she rose up the scales, her voice increased and swelled to full-throated volume, a stunning sound in the improved acoustics of the David H. Koch Theater. Conductor George Manahan was able to let Puccini's lush orchestrations wash over the audience. Ms. Li simply soared over the top, her powerful performance: equal parts passion and obsession.

She was aided by a strong supporting cast. Nina Yoshida Nelsen was a compassionate, authentic Suzuki. Mr. Harrison was a convincing Pinkerton, despite his health issues. Jeffery Halili was a slimy, obsequious Goro. Baritone Quinn Kelsey was an amiable Sharpless, able to see the disaster coming but unable to do anything about it. A performance like his makes one wish Puccini had given the ineffectual American consul an aria of his own.

Finally, the young Eddie Schweighardt gave a brilliant, funny performance as "Sorrow," the young product of the union between Pinkerton and Butterfy. This mute, but important character (who is played by a puppet in the Met's current production) was given extra acting responsibilities in the second and third acts, and this promising young actor met them admirably.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Overcoming Opera Obstacles

Reposted from my Examiner page.

Would-be Metropolitan Opera attendees are often inimidated by certain myths and legends that have grown up around the opera house.

Let's take a look at some of these misconceptions.

I don't want to dress up!
The only "required" formal wear at the Met is on the stage and in the orchestra pit. Male members of the Metropolitan Opera Club attend in either tuxedos or white tie and tails. (They have their own set of box seats, on the north side of the Dress Circle.) Most audience members wear ordinary street clothes. And some people have been known to wear little plastic Viking helmets to performances of Wagner's Ring.

Click here for the full article

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What Should I See First?

The garret set from Act I of La bohéme.
Photo © Johan Elbers, 2008

Reposted from my page at

One question that gets asked frequently by people new to the world of opera is:
"What should I see first?"
(The second is: "Are they all six hours long?")
Here's a quick look at five (relatively short) operas to get you started.

Five "Starter" Operas

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Out of Egypt

Reposted from my Examiner page. Click for the full article.

Five Operas Set on the Nile

This week marks the Metropolitan Opera's final performances this season of Verdi's Aida and Mozart's The Magic Flute. (And it's Passover.) So let's take a look at five very different operas that are set in the Kingdom of the Pharoahs.

The Magic Flute
Mozart's fantastic tale of a Prince seeking spiritual enlightenment (with help from an itinerant bird-catcher) is rich with Masonic symbolism. Both Mozart and his librettist (Emanuel Schikaneder) were Masons. The Masons are very into pyramids, the number three, and other such symbolism. So it's only natural that the opera is set in Egypt. As to why the Prince enters dressed in a "Japanese hunting costume", you're on your own.

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Original costume design by Auguste Mariette for the premiere of Aida.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Traviata Travesty

Leonard Slatkin Withdraws at the Met

My piece for about Leonard Slatkin's withdrawal from the Met's current run of La Traviata. Not an April Fool.

The Metropolitan Opera has announced that conductor Leonard Slatkin has withdrawn from all the remaining performances of Verdi's La Traviata this season.

The news was first reported by New York Post opera critic James Jorden in his blog Parterre Box....

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Seven-Part German Opera to Replace New Ring

Not a scene from Licht.
The Metropolitan Opera plans to replace Robert Lepage's already controversial new staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle with an even bigger work--the first North American stagings of Karlheinz Stockhausen's seven-part opera Licht. "Budget considerations" were listed as the official reason for the change.

'Tis the season....

Krzyztov Penderecki

A most enjoyable video adaptation of Krzyztov Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima", perfect music for a sylvan Spring afternoon.

(Unfortunately there's no embed code!)

Click here to watch it on YouTube.

Penderecki is one of the most powerful compositional voices of the late 20th century. His remarkable works for large orchestra, chorus, and chamber ensemble perfectly encapsulate the agony of Poland in the period of the Cold War.

This piece and several other compositions will be featured in a concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale on April 30th at Carnegie Hall. The composer will conduct.

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