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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.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Opera Review: High Notes From Underground

David Daniels as Orfeo. Photo by Marty Sohl.
© 2007 The Metropolitan Opera
Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met

Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera marked the welcome return of David Daniels as Orfeo in the company's Mark Morris production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.

Mr. Daniels is a countertenor, a voice type that sits close to the range of male alto castrato, the vocal type which Gluck had in mind when he wrote the opera in 1762. But his powerful, thrilling voice possesses none of the reediness or watery timbre that is so often heard in this kind of singing.

As Orfeo, Mr. Daniels spends this production clad in black and slinging an acoustic guitar, a Greek mythological equivalent of Johnny Cash, or perhaps, given the singer's good looks: Elvis Presley. He has a rich and flexible instrument has a full, round sound, akin to an alto flute, but more robust. He is also capable of feats of vocal agility, as displayed last night in his high-flying arias and long Act III duet with his Euridice, played by British soprano Kate Royal in her Met debut.

The opera follows his quest to retrieve his wife Euridice from the Hades, aided by Amor, (Lisette Oropesa) a high-flying represenatation of the God of Love. Mr. Morris' dancers make the most of Gluck's extensive, inventive ballet music, aided by the Met chorus in the depiction of Furies and heroes who block and aid Orfeo on his Chthonian quest.

The best part of the evening was the long duet between Ms. Royal and Mr. Daniels. Their voices intertwined perfectly, capturing the very human drama that Gluck was intending: a husband and a wife struggling to reunite under nearly impossible circumstances. When Orfeo finally brought himself to look at Euridice--an act which returned her to the underworld, it was a potent, moving moment that illustrated the dramatic power of this simple opera.

The action of this 90-minute opera takes place in front of a set of three tiered balconies, with 72 members of the Met chorus decked out magnificently as historical characters from disparate eras, from Genghis Khan to Abraham Lincoln and everyone in between. But given the crucial role played by the chorus in this opera and the high quality of their singing, they would have sounded great if they were in burlap sacks.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Ariadne auf Naxos

Kathleen Kim as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. 
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera presents its final revival of the 2010-2011 season: Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. Violeta Urmana sings the title role. Kathleen Kim is Zerbinetta, which is reason alone to see it. Joyce DiDonato is The Composer, another trouser role following the mezzo's successful run in Le Comte Ory. Fabio Luisi conducts.

Ariadne auf Naxos will never be Richard Strauss' most popular comedy (that title is held by Der Rosenkavalier), but this scintillating combination of backstage drama, commedia dell'arte and Greek drama is one of the Met's best productions.

Elijah Moshinsky does not spare the period detail in his recreation of backstage chaos at the private theater of "the richest man in Vienna", where the players in an Italian comic troupe are informed that they will be forced to share the stage with a new opera, a classical drama depicting the plight of the princess Ariadne, abandoned on the desert island of Naxos by Theseus.

When the opera starts, Moshinsky sets the action against a starry map of the heavens that manages to be modern and retro at the same time. It's visually impressive, especially with the three island nymphs singing twelve, fifteen, and twenty feet above the stage in long psychedelic gowns.

Anyway, Ariadne's repeated musings on death are interrupted by the comedians, who interpolate themselves into the action, led by Zerbinetta, a fearless coloratura. The show-stopper in this opera is her aria: "Grossmachtige Prinzessin," an 11-minute workout that makes "Die Hölle Rache" look like a walk in the park. Eventually, the princess is saved from her plight by the Greek god Bacchus, but not before Zerbinetta gets the final word.

Recording Recommendations:
Ariadne has been lucky on disc. With three plum female leads, the opera was a popular choice to be recorded in the studio, and the discography offers a panoply of great Strauss singing. Here's two reliable recordings, but there are also fine entries from Georg Solti, Kurt Masur and James Levine.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI. 1954)
Ariadne: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf
Zerbinetta: Rita Streich
Composer: Irmgaard Seefried
Bacchus: Rudolf Schock
The first studio recording of Ariadne has the benefit of Karajan's expert conducting and a glittering cast. Although La Schwarzkopf never sang the role of Ariadne onstage, this ranks with her other great '50s Strauss recordings of Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier.. Mono sound.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon, 2001)
Ariadne: Deborah Voigt
Zerbinetta: Natalie Dessay
Composer: Anne Sofie von Otter
Bacchus: Ben Heppner
The best modern digital recording of this opera features Debbie and Ben in their vocal prime, making the arduously long duet of Ariadne and Bacchus a pleasure instead  of a chore. Natalie Dessay flies as Zerbinetta. This was Giuseppe Sinopoli's final recording before the conductor's untimely death at the age of 54, and is a superb example of what he could do with Strauss and singers.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Concert Review: The Cost of Modernism

Debussy, Messiaen and Mahler at the New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert takes aim.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic
Friday's afternoon performance at the New York Philharmonic reunited the orchestra with pianist Emanuel Ax for a program exploring the links between three seminal composers of the 20th century: Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen and Gustav Mahler. The concert featured pianist Emanuel Ax. On the night before, Mr. Ax celebrated his 100th concert appearance with the New York Philharmonic.

"Pagodas", the first of Estampes, Debussy's "picture postcards" for piano, opened the concert. Mr. Ax played with flair, drawing out the delicate textures and smoky, Oriental flavor in this music. He then dived into the difficult Couleurs de la cité céleste  "Colors of the Celestial City", Olivier Messiaen's composition for piano, brass, winds and percussion.

Messiaen's music is generally not to the taste of the Philharmonic's über-conservative Friday afternoon audience. (One had the sense that these music-lovers would stream for the exit had there been a break in the program.) Mr. Gilbert led a vigorous performance with rich textures of heavy brass, gongs, and virtuoso clarinet playing. Through the contrasting sections of this piece, (which is meant to evoke a heavenly cityscape) Mr. Gilbert produced Messiaen's unusual clusters of sound: combining brass chords, bird-song and layers of tuned percussion with a deft flick of his baton.

Before the performance, Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Ax addressed their audience explaining the valid musical connection between Debussy and Messiaen, along with brief examples of the latter's work. This mystic French composer is one of the most important musical voices of the 20th century, having influenced everyone from Pierre Boulez to the film music of John Williams. But despite Mr. Gilbert's diplomatic efforts, his subscribers were having none of it.

They were far happier with the second half of the program, the thunderous (and more importantly, familiar) Fifth Symphony by Gustav Mahler. The solo trumpet kicked off the opening funeral dirge, answered by eructations of sound from the fully assembled Philharmonic and low ominous growls from tuba player Alan Baer. Then, Mr. Gilbert let his small army of musicians slide into the three-four lockstep, playing the demented death-waltz that makes up the second subject of the movement.

The second movement was played with thrust and power, the sound of a lumbering giant at play. The third is a Mahler scherzo, which means that it contains some of this composer's boldest, edgiest music. Its opening three-note drop serves a trapdoor, plunging the listener into a deep exploration of the dark corners of the psyche. Its soaring horn solo, played here by the great Philip Myers, was a highlight of the entire performance.

Those in the audience who spent the intermission complaining about Messiaen were probably only there to hear the fourth movement of the Mahler Fifth: the famous Adagietto. Mr. Gilbert conducted Mahler's "greatest hit" with grace and charm. He then proceeded to make the finale fly like a well-swung wrecking ball. What emerged from the rubble was a triumph: not just for the composer conquering his demons but for Mr. Gilbert conquering his audience. After all, a hundred years ago, concert-goers sneered at Mahler, too.

Horse Opera: Another Wagner Accident at the Met

Ride My See-Saw: The Valkyries in Act III of Die Walküre at the Met. 
Eve Gigliotti (Siegrune) is all the way at the left. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Another onstage accident has been reported in connection with the Metropolitan Opera's new Ring Cycle: this time at Thursday night's performance of the Met's new production of Die Walküre.

In the third act, the famous Ride of the Valkyries features Brunnhilde's eight singing sisters mounting the planks of Robert Lepage's giant "machine" set, taking hold of "reins", and riding the see-sawing planks like bobbing horses' heads, across a digitally projected stormy sky. The singers let out their war cries in turn, as the computer-controlled planks move up and down. As the Valkyries arrive at the rock, the planks stop moving and the warrior maidens simply slide down the planks to the stage. It's simple and elegant, the best visual moment of this production.

According to several reports on Twitter, Eve Gigliotti, singing the role of Siegrune, fell off the machine, landing in the space between the stage apron underneath the still-moving planks. The audience gasped, and the scene continued with seven Valkyries until Ms. Gigliotti returned to the stage, to a wave of audience applause.

Ms. Gigliotti did not take her curtain call at the end of the opera. However, soprano Deborah Voigt, singing the role of Brunnhilde in the production, reported on her Twitter (@debvoigt) that the singer was OK. On her own Twitter account (@evegigliotti) Ms. Gigliotti said that she was "home and resting."

We here at the blog hope that Ms. Gigliotti was not seriously hurt, and that she stages a speedy recovery.

This is the second accident in this production involving the set. On opening night, Ms. Voigt was supposed to clamber up the set and hug her father, Wotan (Bryn Terfel) atop the contraption. But she slipped on the set before her opening "Hojotohos" and slid about two feet down to the apron. She picked herself up and sang an admirable set of battle-cries, continuing the performance without missing a beat.

In one of those weird operatic coincidences, this is also the second time that an accident has happened on April 28 during a performance of a Ring opera at the Met. The last such incident was in 1990, at a performance of Götterdämmerung, part of the Met's old Ring produced by the German team of Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen.

The late, great Hildegard Behrens was singing Brünnhilde in the last scene of the opera, beneath a towering set depicting the Gibichung fortress on the banks of the Rhine River. She was supposed to sing her last notes and exit as the Hall collapsed onto the stage. Ms. Behrens was hit on the head by a piece of canvas-wrapped styrofoam scenery during the final conflagration. The singer recovered, but had back and shoulder injuries that may have affected her later career.

Opera Review: Farce, In Any Language

L'heure Espagnole and Gianni Schicchi at Juilliard
by Paul Pelkonen
Costume design for Don Iñigo Gomez in  L'heure Espagnole.
Design and drawing by Vita Tyzkun  © 2011 The Juilliard School.
On Wednesday night, the Juilliard Opera finished their strong season with an unusual pairing of one-act comedies by Ravel and Puccini. Juilliard alumna Keri-Lynn Wilson conducted both operas in razor-sharp performances, expertly played and timed.

Time is at the heart of Ravel's L'heure Espagnole ("The Spanish Hour.") This is the story of an unfaithful clockmaker's wife (Cecilia Hall) who juggles three suitors while her husband is out setting the city clocks each week. This is pure French farce, with two of the would-be lovers hiding themselves in large clocks, while the studly young muleteer (Andreas Andriotis) carries them up and down the stairs.

Ms. Hall shone as Concepción, the young wife who is considering the poet Gonzalve (Daniel T. Curran) and the banker Don Iñigo Gomez (Alexander Hajek) who finds himself locked in his clock. The opera was lightly played, with crisp ensemble singing and a tight account of Ravel's intricate score.

This fine cast switched places for Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, with Mr. Hajek taking the title role. He made a brash, memorable Schicchi, with good comic acting and a commanding presence. He made Schicchi's ode to Florence (where he warns the gathered relatives of the perils of their scheme to rewrite the will of the deceased Buoso Donati) the emotional heart of the piece, displaying a fine lyric baritone laced with poisonous wit. And the idea of having Schicchi cue the light changes and set the scene? Perfect.

The Korean soprano Jung van Noon, a student of the great Renata Scotto, made a stellar impression as Lauretta. Her "O mio babbino caro" was sung with such melting beauty that half the audience (not knowing where the piece ended) applauded early. She made the prospect of throwing herself into the Arno River a realistic one, arching into the high phrases and pouring out the heartfelt emotion that is required for convincing Puccini.

Schicchi and daughter were surrounded by a memorable group of players. Daniel T. Curran was Rinuccio, Lauretta's suitor and the one good egg in the rotten Donati basket. Timothy Beenken and Carla Jablonski were strong as Simone and La Cieca, the oldest members of the family with their sights set on the biggest shares of the estate. The other members of he company gave good comic performances, including a brief, hilarious cameo by character tenor Said Pressley as the hapless Doctor.

Andreas Aroditis returned as the notary Amantio, a shady figure in leather and aviators. As appropriate for this modern-dress program, he was flanked by two straight-outta-Brooklyn witnesses: Pinnelino "the cobbler"(Drew Santini) and Guccio "The Dyer" (Philip Stoddard. This comic trio upped the level of humor and intensity. As this comic confection whirled to a close, the audience was cheerfully prepared to forgive the hell-bound Gianni Schicchi for his schemes. And with singing like this, why not?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

#OperaPlot Until You Plotz: THE ANSWERS

So I never got any entries to #OperaPlot Until You Plotz, my little contest based on the 25 posts I entered in this year's #operaplot contest on Twitter.

I didn't win either. Le sigh. Anyway, here's the answers. Please enjoy your nonexistent CD grab bag prize.

And it was easier than you thought. Ten of these were Wagner operas.

1) Peter the Great climbs the perch. Selling anti-Streltsy merch. Mother Russia's in the lurch. Time to go and burn a church. Khovanschina by Modest Mussorgsky

First prize was a night out...
with this guy. Well, not really.
2) Maybe I should make that deal with Samiel. The last magic bullet might hit that guy who arrived on the ghost ship last night. This was an "orphan"--could have been one of two operas. Der Freischutz by Weber or Der Fliegende Holländer by Wagner.

3) It's not a bad life. Have hot wild sex in a cave: win a no-frills round-trip package to Italy complete with tour of the Vatican Tannhäuser by Wagner.

4) Mo-mo-mo-Moses, supposes, Jehoveses, he knowses, but Moses, supposes, Aron-eously.
Moses und Aron by Arnold Schoenberg

5) In the depths of a river, three mermaids did flit, singing "Weia-la-weia-la-weia." A dwarf hit upon them, they'd have none of it.
Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner

6) Vasco, Vasco, Vasco da Gama, brave as he could be. Vasco, Vasco , Vasco da Gama, watch out for that tree!
L'Africaine by Giacomo Meyerbeer

7) Crazy Middle East despot sings love song to tree, builds bridge to nowhere with government money.
Xerxes/Serse by Georg Friedrich Handel

8) Whisk flour, salt in bowl. Cut in cold shortening. Toss with fork. Roll dough flat. Put in pie plate. Add children. Bake.
Hansel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck

9) On top of a mountain, where sheep graze the lea, 'twas once a poor maiden, And now she's a tree.
Daphne by Richard Strauss

10) I love you. I believe you. I'll marry you. Have a glass of water.
Arabella by Richard Strauss

11) Cistern Christian oh your time has come. And I know that you're the only one to say....Auuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
Salome by Richard Strauss

12) The fish are in the pot. He's sleeping on a cot. He'd like to have a tot. But married bliss there's not. These rhyme with #operaplot.
Die Frau Ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss

13) I get knocked down. But I get up again. And then I think I'm gonna drown.
Wozzeck by Alban Berg

14) I'm spending all my time watching Fox. And if I see Fox, I'll shoot it.
The Cunning Little Vixen by Leos Janacek

15) Ethiopia invaded! Egyptian army captures military strongman--cites "pyramid power." Aida by Giuseppe Verdi

16) Breaking News: Operation: Haircut fallout: Thousands of Dagon Faithful Killed in Freak Temple Collapse.
Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Säens

17) Up Scheldt creek without a paddle. Or a swan.
Lohengrin by Wagner. Should have been "Up on Scheldt creek: Grail send me. If I spring a leak, swan mends me. I don't have to speak, if she offends me." Maybe next year.

18) To-do list: 1. Go to church. 2. Annoy tax collector. 3. Fix shoes. 4. Slap apprentice. 5. Beer und pretzels mit mein homies.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner

19) Figgy played guitar. Then he dressed up his boss, for some pace goia. While they're housebreakin' the ladder was tak'n.
Il barbiere di Siviglia by Gianachino Rossini

20) Stan: Join me on fiesta deck for cocktails. We can discuss Ireland-Cornwall tax problems and knock back a few.
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

21) Could you maybe pull out the sword and not sing loudly while doing it? My husband's trying to sleep.
Die Walküre by Richard Wagner

22) Oh how I hate to get up in the morning. Oh how I hate to come out and drink. Cos the tenor's waiting there. To stab my derry-air.
Siegfried by Richard Wagner

23) Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping? Hagen son? Hagen son? Time to kill the hero. World go back to zero. Ring is done. Ring is done.
Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner. Yes I tweaked this a bit.

24) Thr 1ce ws a grl nmd Kundry She rde for the knites 4 thr sundries Thn alng cm a fool Sh tht h ws cool. Bt died rt b4 Easter Snday
Parsifal by Richard Wagner

25) Julie: Mt me @ Father Larry's 4 wdng XOX--Romez
Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod

And there you have it. Thanks to Miss Mussel at The Omniscient Mussel for providing such a diverting fra diavolo divertissement. Congrats to the winners.

Opera Review: The Last Bitter Laugh

Rigoletto returns to the Met
Diana Damrau as Gilda in Rigoletto.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera

On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Opera presented its third Rigoletto cast of the season, featuring the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić in the title role and the German soprano Diana Damrau as Gilda. Verdi's hunchbacked jester is a frequent visitor to the Met stage. However, this is the final run of the classic Otto Schenk staging of the opera that premiered (with Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke) back in 1989. A new production is scheduled for 2012.

Mr. Lučić has become a familiar presence in recent Verdi performances at the Met. Here, he followed up his excellent Macbeth with a searing portrayal of the title character. Mr. Lučić ruled the Duke's depraved court from his first entrance, embodying the physical aspects of the role while adding the right amounts of leer and sneer. He was even better in the nocturnal encounter with Sparafucile and "Pari siamo", the monologue that followed.

His performance grew in stature in the second act. Panic underpinned his "La ra, la ra's." His address of the courtiers dripped with venom. As he drove the Duke's supplicants from the stage, this deformed figure suddenly ruled the court--exactly as Verdi and Piave intended. His lengthy duet with Ms. Damrau was marred only by her overacting when the baritone was singing alone. The third act was also moving, with Mr. Lučić making the most of the pauses before his discovery of Gilda's corpse. At his last cry of "Ah! La maladizione!" the tragedy was complete, and so was a strong performance.

Giuseppe Filianotti was a disappointment as the Duke. His tenor lacked bloom, sounding tight and compressed during "Questa o quella." He was an underwhelming presence in the first and second acts, gulping liquid between stanzas of "Ella mi fu rapita!" and the following "Parmi veder la lagrime." Although "La donna è mobile" was decent, he mangled the final note in the offstage reprise at the end of the opera. (Perhaps Sparafucile had had enough.) As for everyone's favorite assassin, bass Stefan Kocan sang a compelling first scene with Mr. Lučić, and provided ample bass support in the crucial Act III ensembles.

Fresh from her run in Le Comte Ory, Diana Damrau made a scintillating entrance with "Caro nome", navigating this aria's high coloratura with pin-point high notes and command over Verdi's leaps, trills and ornamentation. She was a distracting presence in the second act, clutching at herself like Lucia and threatening to break into tears at any moment . The third act was better, with moving contributions to the quartet and trio, followed by a heart-wrenching death scene.

Principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi led a drum-tight, rhythmic performance of Verdi's score. The familiar opera was conducted with real pop, from the bated pauses in the Act I prelude to a thundering storm scene in the final act. Mr. Luisi provided expert accompaniment to his singers, but also illlustrated the importance of competent conducting in a succesful Verdi performance. As with the revival earlier this season, this run of the opera continued to use the smaller "touring" set, to make room for the giant machine required for the Ring.

Monday, April 25, 2011

DVD Review: A Valkyrie with Broken Wings

The Copenhagen Ring: Die Walküre
(This is the second installment in our ongoing review of the Copenhagen Ring Cycle, directed by Kaspar Bech Holten, performed by the Royal Danish Opera conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Read the reviews of Das Rheingold and Siegfried,, also on Superconductor.)
Siegmund (Stig Andersen, left) and Sieglinde (Gitta-Maria Sjöberg) outside Hunding's hut.
Act I of Die Walküre from The Copenhagen Ring
Photo by Martin Mydtkalov Rosne © 2006 The Royal Danish Opera/Decca Classics
This Danish Die Walküre places the struggles of the Gods squarely in a banal world of family drama, like a TV network movie-of-the-week, shot on a low budget. It opens with a striking bourgeois image. Hunding's "hut" is an art deco apartment. Sieglinde as a cowed, bullied hausfrau desperate to get out. When Siegmund (Stig Andersen) enters, and she immediately seizes upon him as the means of escape. Hunding (Stephen Milling) is a loutish, violent alcoholic. The escape from his apartment is quite literal: Siegmund throws a chair through a plate-glass window and they find the sword stuck in a tree in the front yard.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Orfeo et Euridice

David Daniels as Orfeo.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2006
The Metropolitan Opera
The Met presents a late-season revival of this Gluck opera, featuring David Daniels' return to the Metropolitan Opera stage in the role of Orfeo.

When Christoph Willibald von Gluck's adaptation of the Orpheus myth arrived on a Viennese stage in 1762, it signalled a new way of composing opera. Gluck's flawless fusion of music and text eschewed the baroque style, emphasizing storytelling over ornamentation.

This is a signature role for this fine American countertenor, one he created when this production premiered in 2006. Kate Royal is Euridice, and Lisette Oropesa is Amor, the winged representation of love. This performance uses the original version of the opera, with the Italian libretto.

Mark Morris' production features an astonishing array of costumed historical figures, arranged on tiers above the stage. These choristers help chronicle the story of Orfeo's grief at the death of Euridice, and his determination to go down into the underworld to get her back. Spectacular ballet sequences and astonishing images are reasons to see this innovative staging.

Part of the problem with recommending a recording of this particular opera is that most of the ones on the market are of different versions of the many revisions. This can be catnip for a collector but difficult to sort out at first. Here's a quick guide to the complexities of Orfeo on CD.

Recording Recommendations:

Orfeo ed Euridice
Munich Bach Orchestra cond. Karl Richter (DG, 1968)
Orfeo: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Euridice: Gundula Janowitz
Amor: Edda Moser
This intriguing recording of the 1862 version of the opera offers a unique solution to the problem of casting Orfeo. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the dark-voiced baritone reknowned for his interpretation of German lieder, offers a powerful interpretation opposite the soaring voice of Gundula Janowitz.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner
Orfeo: Derek Lee Ragin
Euridice: Sylvia McNair
Amor: Cynthia Sieden
One of John Eliot Gardiner's two versions of this opera on disc. Here, the English period performance expert pairs Sylvia McNair with countertenor Derek Lee Ragin with glorious results. This is the closest recording to the version of the opera being performed at the Met.

Orphée ed Eurydice
In 1774, the opera was rewritten for Paris, with the part of Orfeo changed from a castrato to a high tenor. This performance uses the original version of the opera, with the Italian libretto and a countertenor in the male lead.

Coro y Orquestra Sinfonica de Madrid cond. Jesus Lopez-Cobos
Orphée: Juan Diego Flórez
Eurydice: Ainhoa Garmendia
Amor: Allesandra Marianelli
When you're casting a high tenor in an opera, there are few better than Juan Diego Florez, who just completed a run in the Met's first-ever production of Rossini's Le Comte Ory. Mr. Florez' performance makes a compelling case for the French version of this opera, in this live recording under the experienced baton of Jesus Lopez-Cobos.

Orphée ed Eurydice (Berlioz version)
San Francisco Opera cond. Donald Runnicles
Orphée: Jennifer Larmore
Eurydice: Dawn Upshaw
Amor: Alison Hagley
In 1859, Hector Berlioz revised the opera further, rewriting the part of Orphée for a mezzo-soprano to sing and modernizing the orchestration in accordance with his own theories of instrumentation. Berlioz was a brilliant orchestrator, and his version is well worth hearing. Recommended for those who prefer their 18th century operas with a 19th century orchestration. Donald Runnicles leads an excellent cast.

Orfeo et Euridice opens April 29.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

DVD Review: The King of the Golden Hall

Discovering Beethoven: Symphonies 7, 8 and 9
with Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic

Christian Thielemann, leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein.
Photo © The Vienna Philharmonic/Unitel Classics
These recordings conclude a collaborative project between the Vienna Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann, the impressive conductor who, over the course of the past decade, has become the most eminent baton in German music. Here, Mr. Thielemann leads engaging performances of the last three Beethoven symphonies, the heroic Seventh, the humorous Eighth, and the Ninth, the composer's mighty shout for joy and brotherhood that ends the cycle.

The great opportunity here is to experience the Vienna forces playing in their home building, the legendary Goldensaal of the Musikverein in Vienna. Better yet, they're playing this beloved music in front of a live audience. Something is gained from actually recording in the bright, warm acoustic of the Musikverein, the chance for the home viewer to share in the unique communion between the audience and this ancient, brilliant orchestra.

In fact the whole endeavor, like Mr. Thielemann himself, is a bit of a throwback, to an age before tonmeisters and record company suits crammed the record shelves with mediocre Beethoven cycles led by egotistical conductors at the height of an unsustainable boom. By making honest music without the aid of modern machinery, the Viennese have done the impossible: they have come up with a fresh take on this well-known, well-loved music.

Mr. Thielemann leads a straightforward, über-Romantic interpretation, opting for a limpid clarity of texture that allows the listener to hear these sturdy works afresh. He is aided by the sterling acoustics of the hall, the quiet-as-mice audience, and of course the unique sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, whose well-documented use of "Viennese" horns, period oboes and goat-skin drums make them, in effect, an historic ensemble that chooses tradition over technology.

The Seventh hums with vibrant energy, throwing itself into its dramatic, frenzied dance movements with real fire and muscular good humor. The slow movement (made famous once more in the Oscar-winning The King's Speech--is it a coincidence that Mr. Thielemann looks like a larger, burlier brother of Colin Firth?) is produced here with all due weight and power, and the final movement whirls to a celebratory climax. It is well matched with its "little" brother, the Eighth. In Mr. Thielemann's hands, the least-known of the symphonies continues the air of heroic bonhomie, proving that Beethoven did indeed, have a sense of humor.

The Ninth may be famous, but given its choral requirements, difficult vocal writing and prodigious length, it is tricky to bring off. This is a near-flawless reading. There are some odd tempo changes: for example, a sudden accelerando in the Turkish March that serves only to build momentum into the climactic double fugue. The camera crew gives equal time to singers, musicians and Mr. Thielemann, and it is fascinating to watch this great opera conductor lead singers under full light, not hidden in an orchestra pit. The four vocal soloists (Annete Dasch, Mihoko Fujimura, Piotr Beczala and Georg Zeppenfeld) are strong, as is the accompanying chorus: a mighty shout of Austrian humanity.

It is a sign of bizarre musical times that these sterling performances are not available on that antiquated format, the CD. These are DVD-only readings, incorporating the joys of a live performance with visuals. (The Blu-Ray releases are single discs, the DVD sets are three discs each.) The symphonies come with copius bonus features, including a series of documentaries where Mr. Thielemann explains his tempo decisions in detail. It is a mark of their depth that the three films taken together are longer than the performances.

Of course, you could just leave the television off and connected to the stereo, but that would deprive one of the full experience of attending a concert at this famous hall, without the benefit of a Viennese benefactor, a job at Musical America or a decade on the orchestra's waiting list for tickets. Still, an audio-only version would be welcome.

DVD Review: The Master of Puppets

Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly from the Met
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San, holding her puppet child
in Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera
This innovative staging of Madama Butterfly was the first staging of Peter Gelb's tenure as general maager of the Met. Staged by Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) set the tone for much that has followed: bright colors, stripped-down sets, and above all, a Big Name at the helm of a much-hyped new production of a repertory staple. But whatever weird turns the Met has taken in the last five years, this remains the visual record of an important Butterfly that marked the start of a new artistic era.

This two-disc set, released on Sony Classics earlier this year, preserves the Met Live in HD broadcast of Butterfly, starring Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San and Maria Zifchak as her faithful housemaid Suzuki. It also serves as a fitting memorial to Mr. Minghella, who died one year before this telecast was filmed. Happily, this is a brilliant rendering of Puccini's opera, with dramatic and scenic focus on the tragedy at hand.

Rather than some attempt to recreate the landscape of pre-atomic Nagasaki on the Met's vast stage, Mr. Minghella took this work back to its Japanese roots, incorporating elements of Noh theater. Butterfly's hillside house becomes a "zoned" acting space, cut through with small, sliding shoji. Black-clad kuroko stagehands move, ghost-like through its movable walls. Colorful, authentic Japanese costumes are very much a feature, from the elaborate kimonos to Goro's bobbing kanmuri hat, worn to inappropriate, (and hilarious) effect by this glorified pimp. The most famous effect though, is the controversial use of bunraku puppets, most notably to play Butterfly's son, "Trouble."

This is a high-level performance of the opera, anchored by the veteran soprano of Ms. Racette. She understands every aspect of the character, creating a Cio-Cio San who rapidly travels the downward slide from innocent geisha bride to unwed mother and suicide. Her potent "Un bel di" is the keystone of the entire performance, but it is the seemingly spontaneous moments like her Act II interactions with Sharpless (Dwayne Croft) and Yamadori (David Won) that help this Butterfly soar.

Mr. Giordani is in good voice as Pinkerton, portraying one of the most ungrateful louses to grace the operatic stage. The Act I interactions with Goro (Greg Fedderly) and Butterfly's large family show the character's blithe ignorance of Japanese culture, which contrast with his noble, ringing tenor with just the right amount of squillo for "America, Forever!" Mr. Fedderly is just right as Goro, an absolute sleaze, decked out an overdone costume complete with bobbing kanmuri hat. As Sharpless, Dwayne Croft is a fine actor, although his once keen baritone sounds faded and dull.

When Butterfly's child is unveiled, the performance jumps to a higher energy level. Ms. Racette draws on new reserves of power as Butterfly's downward skid gets steeper. The fact that she is focusing all her maternal and musical energies on a puppet makes the scene even more moving and disturbing. The flawlessly sung flower duet with Suzuki acquires a demented, surreal aspect as the flowers are plucked from silent, black-clad stagehands. The image underscores the difference between Butterfly's forced optimism and the harsh reality of the final scene.

When Lt. Jerkwad (excuse me, Pinkerton) shows up with his wife in tow, the bottom drops out of Butterfly's heart. Ms. Racette sings the hollow realization with dark, dusky tones, undercut with terrible resolve as she sings her farewell to Suzuki. Patrick Summers is particularly good here, letting the silence speak for itself after leading two hours of stellar music in the orchestra pit. Finally, the anger and despair comes out as Butterfly chooses her honorable end. The ending is devastating in its power, as all performances of this great Puccini tragedy should be.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Opera Review: Machines (Back to Humans)

The new Die Walküre bows at the Met
Father knows best: Bryn Terfel and
Deborah Voigt  in Die Walküre.
Photo by Ken Howard,
© 2011 The Metropolitan Opera

The best thing about Robert Lepage's new staging of Die Walküre (which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night) is that the performances are so absorbing that you simply forget about the hype and the problematic multi-million dollar set, and get pulled into the great drama of the Wälsungs, Wotan, and Brünnhilde.

The Met has assembled a strong cast. Deborah Voigt's voice has widened and developed a steely edge, both of which helped her Brünnhilde. She sings the role rather than screams through it, tossing off ringing battle-cries and achieving real tenderness in her lengthy scenes with Bryn Terfel's Wotan.

The Annunciation of Death (taken at a very slow tempo by James Levine) was her best scene of the evening. She entered slowly, like a reluctant little girl who did not want to do her father's dirty work. In her dialogue with Siegmund, (Jonas Kaufmann) she was torn between loyalty and emotion as Brünnhilde discovered her budding humanity. The low point: a stumble-and-tumble at the bottom of the set, just minutes into Act II. Ms. Voigt recovered adroitly, and it did not affect the rest of her performance.

Mr. Terfel is a dark and stormy Wotan. The voice is just a shade under-sized for this part, never opening out into the smooth, ardent richness that is heard in the best interpretations of the role, However, he is a strong actor, and is willing to drop all the way down to a hissed pianissimo in the most anguished moments. His monologue (helped by some interesting visuals) was a riveting experience, even though his anguished shouts at the end had trouble getting over the raging orchestra.

This was Mr. Kaufmann's first Wagner performance in New York, and he was by far the best part of this cast. He was desperate from the rise of the curtain, cautious during his long narrative scene, and then he opened out his big voice with a clarion "Wälse!" as he looked frantically for a weapon. Mr. Kaufmann's sturdy stage presence and perfect German diction make him the best Siegmund to sing at this house in many years. As he seized both the sword and his sister Sieglinde, his final cry of "so blühe denn, Wälsungen-Blut!" rose to an ecstatic, swelling high note. Then, he held it, riding over the crashing wave of the orchestra and drawing a storm of applause.

There were two Sieglindes on the stage last night. Eva-Maria Westbroek was suffering from illness, although it did not appear to affect the strength of her performance in Act I. Her cover, Margaret Jane Wray, was excellent in the second and third acts. Hunding, accompanied by a posse of hunters, was sung with power and menace by Hansr-Peter König. Mr. Lepage's decision to make the Neiding warlord an older, almost grandfatherly figure made the villain even more chilling.

Stephanie Blythe was a regal Fricka, appearing on a red leather throne surrounded by supplicating rams. Ms. Blythe's scene with Wotan brought out the complexities of power dynamics within their marriage, especially when the King of the Gods knelt at her feet. Her final address to Brünnhilde was a melodic feast, as her sturdy mezzo dripped scorn upon Wotan's bastard daughter.

Much has been made of Mr. Lepage's set, the multi-million dollar device dubbed "The Machine". These two dozen spinning, moving, computer-controlled grey planks that serve as a canvas for digital imagery of the natural world, and as a stormy backdrop for a spectacular Ride of the Valkyries. While Rheingold was dominated by abstract rocks, Walküre featured the birch forests and rocky landscapes of Mr. Lepage's native land.

The opening image of the forests outside Hunding's hut recalled the paintings of Tommy Thompson and the Group of Seven. The hut itself looks like a winter cottage in the Laurentians, with wooden beams and a realistic ash-tree. The first scene of Act II evoked the rocky Canadian Shield. The Valkyrie Rock recalled the high Rockies of Alberta and the photography of Ansel Adams, with the addition of a slow-falling avalanche. The Magic Fire is ignited digitally, on a lava waste. The effects are impressive, and a vast improvement on Das Rheingold.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Concert Review: Recipe for Heavy Matzah

The U.S. Premiere of Haggadah shel Pesach at Carnegie Hall
American Symphony Orchestra maestro Leon Botstein. Photo by Dan Porges
In New York homes, the celebration of Passover is often a quiet, family affair. On Thursday night, though, Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra, the Collegiate Chorale, and 13 vocal soloists in the U.S. premiere of Haggadah shel Pesach, a thunderous choral work by the obscure German-Jewish composer Paul Dessau.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

DVD Review: A Handful of Dust

Die Walküre from Bayreuth, 2010
Star Wars: Episode III? No, it's Act III of the Tankred Dost Die Walküre, with Albert Dohmen as Wotan.
© 2010 Opus Arte. Image from the Bayreuth Festival.
This DVD of Die Walküre shot live in front of an audience at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on August 12, 2010, is a fascinating visual record of the august Wagner Festival's most recent production of Wagner's Ring, directed by German theatrical auteur Tankred Dost.

Opera Review: The Psychic Fiends' Network

Séance on a Wet Afternoon bows at City Opera
Lauren Flanigan (seated) and Michael Kepler Meo
in a scene from Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2011 The New York City Opera.

The business of psychics, mediums and other forms of for-profit communication with the spirit world often involved trickery. Magnets under tables. Hidden switches to trigger vibrations or unearthly sounds. Or someone in the next room moaning into a tube, a popular, and low-tech device which originated on the operatic stage.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the compelling new opera by Stephen Schwartz (which arrives at the New York City Opera this week) needs no such chicanery. Its central special effect is the spectacular performance of Lauren Flanigan as Myra Foster, a San Francisco medium whose decision to kidnap a little girl in order to help her business has disastrous, and ultimately tragic consequences.

Myra Foster is a plum role, a fully-realized, deeply flawed heroine who is struggling to balance the kidnap victim, her failing business as a medium, a hapless husband, and what may or may not be the spirit of her dead son. This is a rich, complex portrayal that travels from parlor confidence tricks to the deep, dark end of the operatic spectrum. She is a monstrous figure, but one portrayed with great affection by Mr. Schwartz and total commitment from Ms. Flanigan.

Ms. Flanigan has served as the City Opera's flagship soprano for the past two decades. Her voice (best described as a dramatic spinto) has plenty of power for the big moments in Mr. Schwartz' score, but is capable of crooning lullabies to her kidnap victim, and controlling her husband Bill. As the cops close in and Ms. Foster finds herself in hot water, her performance builds in intensity. The conclusion is set with a kind of Wagnerian redemption: not a happy ending but one that packs dramatic punch.

In an opera centered around a child kidnapping, the victim in question becomes the second lead. Ms. Bailey Grey brought considerable talent to the role of Adriana, the terrified child being kept sedated in the Fosters' Victorian house, locked in what she's told is a "hospital" room. Finally, the boy treble Michael Kepler Meo gave a creepy performance as Arthur. His haunting presence evoked another operatic ghost story: Benjamin Britten's setting of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

The City Opera has assembled an excellent cast. Kim Josephson, a singer new to the company, is by turns pathetic and powerful as Bill, caught in his wife's web of kidnapping and deceit. The aptly named Melody Moore, paired middleweight tenor Todd Wylander drew sympathy as the mother and father whose daughter is kidnapped. Bass-baritone Philip Boykin is a rising talent: the gruff cop who is smarter than his hat size indicates.

This is the first operatic effort from Mr. Schwartz, who is known for his work on Broadway, having Godspell, Pippin and Wicked on his c.v. He is working in a much richer, darker musical idiom here, with soaring show-tune type melodies contrasted with rich orchestral backgrounds and carefully chosen tonalities that recalled the post-Romantic film scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Mr. Schwartz has not sacrificed his ability to write a memorable melody on some obscure altar of high-minded operatic art. However, his sweet tunes develop into poisonous flowers of sound, acquiring new, and sinister meaning as the story hurtles toward the inevitable. If more modern American operas sounded like Séance, there would be less hand-wringing about the art form dying out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Funny Games in Valhalla?

Teaser poster for the remake of Funny Games.
Image © 2007 Celluloid Dreams/Halcyon Pictures
According to a report on the Handelsblatt website, (and brought to this writer's attention by Zerbinetta's Blog) Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke may be on his way to Bayreuth.

The director is currently the leading candidate to direct the Bayreuth Festival's 2013 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Mr. Haneke would replace Wim Wenders, who was originally scheduled to direct the bicentennial Ring, but dropped out in recent weeks.

Michael Haneke is known for bleak, disturbing films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Funny Games (1997) the brutal story of two psychopaths who invade a family's vacation cabin and proceed to torture them in a series of sadistic "games." It was remade by Mr. Haneke in a shot-for-shot 2007 "American" version starring Michael Penn, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth.

He is also experienced as an opera director, following a controversial 2006 version of Don Giovanni, mounted in Paris.

The challenges of mounting a Bayreuth Ring are considerable. Directors have to produce all four operas at once, premiering the entire cycle in the course of a week. Past Ring-meisters have included Patrice Chereau, Sir Peter Hall, Harry Kupfer, and of course, Wagner himself.

This production will celebrate Richard Wagner's 200th birthday. Other possible directors include Oscar-winning filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmark (The Lives of Others) and theater director Christof Loy.

DVD Review: Battle for the Radioactive Donut

Der Ring des Nibelungen from Valencia, with La Fura dels Baus.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Rhinegold appears in the form of a large baby in La Fura del Baus' staging of Wagner's Ring.
Photo © 2009 © Unitel Classics.
This 2009 Unitel release of the complete Ring, filmed in 2008 in Valencia, Spain under the baton of Zubin Mehta is a compelling, visually arresting, and best of all, well-sung version of Wagner's mythological cycle. It should appeal to Wagnerians who want to hear the next generation of singers, and those curious opera-lovers who want to see what a modern Ring looks like without stage machinery that goes "clunk."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Once Fabulous, Now Bankrupt

The Philadelphia Orchestra Board Files Chapter 11

Poster art for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Image © Milton Glaser.
The big (if awful) news in music this weekend was the announcement that the Philadelphia Orchestra's board has elected to file Chapter 11 and begin bankruptcy proceedings. This decision follows a week of concerts where musicians lobbied against the decision, even staging a "play-in" impromptu concert in protest.

Philadelphia is one of the premium American orchestras, a member of the elite cadre known informally as the "Big Five." (The others are the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.) It rose to fame thanks to a series of great music directors (including Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Muti) and a distinct "Philadelphia Sound", a rounded, warm tone that permeates their performances.

This announcement comes hard on the heels of the decision by the Pew Charitable Trusts to not participate in the band's fiscal reorganization. Pew has long been a major fiscal contributor to the orchestra.

The orchestra is the first major American orchestra to engage in such a filing. The board's decision comes despite the band having a $140 million endowment. Orchestra personnel are worried that the filing may negate their pensions, and cause the best players in the ensemble to seek positions with other orchestras. Also, the board has announced a new fundraising effort in addition to the restructuring process.

The economic collapse of 2008 and the end of steady recording contracts with the classical music industry have combined to make this a difficult time for classical music. Unlike their European counterparts, American orchestras are almost entirely dependent on donations and subscriptions for their continued survival.

The decision does not affect the orchestra's imminent concert schedule, which includes a May 3 appearance at Carnegie Hall.

Concert Review: The Rose Lines of...Vienna?

Daniele Gatti conducts the Orchestre National de France
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Photo © Guy Vivien
Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall featured a concert by the Orchestre National de France, which rang down the curtain on this year's Symphonic Masters series sponsored by Lincoln Center itself. The concert saw the French orchestra offering a unique perspective on German music. Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto was paired with the dancing waltz rhythms of Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel. Daniele Gatti conducted.

The concert opened with the Beethoven, switching the normal order of putting the short piece (Ravel's La valse) first and the concerto second. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet played the solo part with great intensity of attack, making a staccato entry in the first movement and taing a relentless approach to Beethoven's cadenzas.

In this opening movement, M. Bavouzet  kept his foot off the pedal, preferring to let the notes jump from his fingers. He played with great dexterity if not especial warmth. It was as if he chose to take all of Beethoven's inspiration and hone it to a single keen point.

The performance was more lyrical in the next two movements: the laid-back Largo and the lilting Rondo. M. Bavouzet's tone also mellowed in the slow movement, sweeping through Beethoven's challenging cadenzas and playing with a somewhat sweeter tone.

Mr. Gatti provided skilled, if not especially distinguished accompaniment, letting M. Bavouzet dominate the proceedings. If the ONF has a distinctive section, it is in their woodwinds. The French bassoons (most American orchestras use the German Heckel models) provides a different timbre to these ears, a rich, ruby sound that complements the strings and warm brass.

The orchestra doubled in size for the Suite from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, twenty minutes of potpurri from the German composer's popular comic opera. The problem with playing these exceprts was two-fold. By eliminating the voice, the silvered, lyric quality of a soprano (or mezzo) soaring over Strauss' scintillating orchestration is lost. (An English or French horn does not cut it, no matter how beautifully it is played.) Mr. Gatti also struggled to bring his band to a ribald, Viennese climax--but the overall effect was one of politeness and competence.

The musicians looked and sounded a lot happier playing La valse, Maurice Ravel's 1919 ballet score. It was with this piece that the potential and power of this French orchestra finally barrelled forth. La valse is a less famous cousin of Bolero, with more musical development as it surges to a fortissimo climax.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Classical Music Goes to the Movies...Again

(or..."Hey, isn't that Sibelius?")

Classical music has been a big part of film ever since the early days of silent movies played to piano accompaniment. But works by the great masters show up in some pretty unexpected places. Here's a quick look at some (less than) famous appearances of the great composers' works in Hollywood.
On the run, with a cello. James Bond (Timothy Dalton)
and Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo) in The Living Daylights. 
© 1987 EON Productions/MGM-United Artists/Danjaq S.A.
The Living Daylights (1987)
Timothy Dalton's first Bond film was John Barry's las, and the late great British soundtrack composer loaded it with classical music. There's excerpts from Act II of Le Nozze di Figaro, the andante from Borodin's String Quartet No. 2, and the finale of Dvorak's Cello Concerto. Small wonder: the "Bond girl" in Daylights is a Czech cellist played by Maryam D'Abo.

The movie's most memorable music-related image: Dalton and D'Abo escaping into Austria...riding on a speeding cello case.

Die Hard 2 (1990)
Michael Kamen's score for the first Die Hard movie made extensive use of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to accompany its tale of a lone-wolf cop (Bruce Willis) trapped by terrorists in an L.A. skyscraper. The sequel (yes it's also known as "Die Harder") was directed by Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin.
"Whaddya mean there's no Beethoven in this one?" Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2.
© 1990 20th Century Fox/Silver Pictures
Like the first, Die Harder is set at Christmas. Our hero is at Dulles Airport, during a snow storm, when it gets taken over by (you guessed it) terrorists. Inspired by the winter setting (and possibly the Finnish director) Kamen chose to make Finlandia, the nine-minute tone poem by Jean Sibelius, the heart of the soundtrack. The ominous opening chords accompany the terrorist takeover, while the triumphant final march section bursts forth as Bruce Willis (once again) saves the day.

Anaconda (1997)
Verdi's least popular, least-performed opera, Alzira, is set in South America. But that didn't stop the makers of Anaconda from using the opera composer's music in their film about hapless explorers and one very big, very hungry computer-generated snake.

As their boat chugs up the river, one of the characters blasts ""Dio Che Nell'alma Infondere", the friendship duet that comes early in Don Carlo. It's the Metropolitan Opera recording with Michael Sylvester as the Don and Vladimir Chernov as the Marquis de Posa. The giant snake doesn't attack during this scene. Guess it liked opera.

The fountain scene from Ocean's 11. © 2001 Warner Brothers Pictures.
Ocean's 11 (2001)
This star-studded remake of the classic Vegas heist flick makes extensive use of Debussy's Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamesque. It first appears on the soundtrack in a modified electronic version when Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts) makes her entrance, and represents her character throughout the movie.

Later, you hear Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in the orchestral version of the piece, as the gang celebrates a successful triple casino robbery by standing and contemplating the fountains in front of the Bellagio. If this seems familiar it is: director Steven Soderbergh included the scene as an homage to the ending of The Right Stuff.

Vin Diesel's hyperkinetic take on spy movies and extreme sports culture features live performances by German metal band Rammstein and the British electronica duo Orbital. But when he's brought in for a briefing with the "M"-like Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) you hear...Mozart?
"Oh you've gotta be kidding me." Vin Diesel as Xander Cage (Agent XXX) in xXx.
Frame capture from xXx, © 2002 Revolution Studios.
Gibbons conducts his briefing in a Prague opera house, where he's enjoying a dress rehearsal of Don Giovanni. (Never mind that these two guys are talking through the first act.) Vin's response to this cultural exposure? The famous "Oh, you've gotta be kidding me."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Opera Review: Unhinged. Unmoored. Unsurpassed.

Riccardo Muti brings Otello to Carnegie Hall.
Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony in Otello.
Photo by Tim Rosenberg © 2011 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Otello, distilled expertly from Shakespeare by composer of  Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito, is the culmination of Verdi's art. This concert performance, featuring the Chicago Symphony led by Riccardo Muti, was vivid in its sweep and Shakespearean in its execution: the culmination of Maestro Muti's considerable skills.

Friday night also marked the conductor's triumphant New York return. Maestro Muti has had a rough 2010-2011 season, with health problems hindering the start of his tenure as the CSO's new music director. For their part, the orchestra responded brilliantly to his direction, with a muscular reading of the score that hummed with power and flexibility, from the fortissimo chords that kick off the storm scene to the haunted bass figures that presage the murder of Desdemona.

Over four acts, Maestro Muti led his audience down the emotional rabbit hole of Otello's decline. He was helped by a strong young cast, anchored by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the difficult title role. Mr. Antonenko has sung this role under the Muti baton in Salzburg and Chicago. He has the right voice for this part, a dark-tinged, baritonal instrument that can rise up, find its volume and upper pitch, then slice heroically through a Verdi orchestra raging at full blast. He was especially chilling in the long Act III aria that follows Otello's degradation of Desdemona before the court, and the murder-suicide that ends the opera.

He was well matched with Krassimira Stoyanova, a picture of despair, emotional confusion, and more despair as Desdemona. Ms. Stoyanova brought warmth to the Act I love duet, creating the illusion of a perfect marriage before its methodical destruction. She sounded fresh and innocent in the Act II garden scene, interacting smoothly with a children's chorus and the men of the CSO Chorus. Her bewilderment in the third act, and resignation in the fourth felt entirely realistic, culminating in a Willow Song and Ave Maria that wrenched the heart.

Orchestrating events was Carlo Guelfi, a snide Iago whose chief quality was his eloquence of manner in his dirty dealings with the rest of the cast. Mr. Guelfi got off to a good start in Act I with a compelling Brindisi with Cassio (sung by the lyric tenor Juan Francisco Gatell.) He then poured everything he had into the Act II Credo: Iago's big aria where he tells the audience what an evil badass he is. However, his vocal level declined slightly over the course of the evening, failing to dominate the big ensembles of Act III. This was a competent performance, but not a great one.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus were one of the stars of the evening, forging the chain of "hit" choruses that raise the curtain on Act I into a cohesive whole. Whether they were singing about shipwrecks, victory, bonfires or the joys of wine, these singers lent a mighty voice, matching the orchestra in volume and power, creating tight sonic structures that struck the audience with the force of a raging maelstrom. Under Maestro Muti, the first and third acts were thrilling, but credit must also be share with chorus director Duain Wolfe.

Friday, April 15, 2011

#OperaPlot Until You Plotz

"I'm out. I'm out of the contest!"--Cosmo Kramer
The original "omniscient mussel" from
Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helene.
Poster art by Rafal Olbinski ©

Over on Twitter, The Omniscient Mussel is holding the second annual #operaplot contest. Hopefuls (like myself) are allowed a maximum of 25 entries in the annual "do." So I decided (just for fun and in the interests of disclosure) to run a little contest of my own.

Here's my list of 25 submissions to this year's contest, from my own Twitter account.k

Dear readers, feel free to comment and guess as many of the operas as you can. The reader who gets the most right might get something nice sent to them from the Superconductor grab bag.

Here's the list. You have til 12am Friday April 22. Eastern Standard Time.

Answers will be posted in a week.

1) Peter the Great climbs the perch. Selling anti-Streltsy merch. Mother Russia's in the lurch. Time to go and burn a church. #operaplot
1 hour ago

2) Maybe I should make that deal with Samiel. The last magic bullet might hit that guy who arrived on the ghost ship last night. #operaplot
1 hour ago

3) It's not a bad life. Have hot wild sex in a cave: win a no-frills round-trip package to Italy complete with tour of the Vatican #operaplot
1 hour ago

4) Mo-mo-mo-Moses, supposes, Jehoveses, he knowses, but Moses, supposes, Aron-eously. #operaplot
11 hours ago

5) In the depths of a river, three mermaids did flit, singing "Weia-la-weia-la-weia." A dwarf hit upon them, they'd have none of it. #operaplot
20 hours ago

6) Vasco, Vasco, Vasco da Gama, brave as he could be. Vasco, Vasco , Vasco da Gama, watch out for that tree! #operaplot
14 Apr

7) Crazy Middle East despot sings love song to tree, builds bridge to nowhere with government money. #Operaplot
7 hours ago

8) Whisk flour, salt in bowl. Cut in cold shortening.Toss with fork. Roll dough flat. Put in pie plate. Add children. Bake. #operaplot
15 hours ago

9) On top of a mountain, where sheep graze the lee, 'twas once a poor maiden, And now she's a tree. #operaplot
18 hours ago

10) I love you. I believe you. I'll marry you. Have a glass of water.#operaplot.
18 hours ago

11) Cistern Christian oh your time has come. And I know that you're the only one to say....Auuuuuuuuuuuuuugggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!#operaplot
18 hours ago

12) The fish are in the pot. He's sleeping on a cot. He'd like to have a tot. But married bliss there's not. These rhyme with #operaplot.
20 hours ago

13) I get knocked down. I get up again. And then I think I'm gonna drown. #operaplot
20 hours ago

14) I'm spending all my time watching Fox. And if I see Fox, I'll shoot it. #operaplot
20 hours ago

15) Ethiopia invaded: Egyptian army captures military strongman--cites "pyramid power." #operaplot
20 hours ago

16) Breaking News: Operation: Haircut fallout: Thousands of Dagon Faithful Killed in Freak Temple Collapse. #operaplot
21 hours ago

17) Up Scheldt creek without a paddle. Or a swan. #operaplot
22 hours ago

18) To-do list: 1. Go to church. 2. Annoy tax collector. 3. Fix shoes. 4. Slap apprentice. 5. Beer und pretzels mit mein homies. #operaplot
22 hours ago

19) Figgy played guitar. Then he dressed up his boss, for some Pace Goia. While they're housebreakin' the ladder was tak'n. #operaplot
13 Apr

20) Stan: Join me on fiesta deck for cocktails. We can discuss Ireland-Cornwall tax problems and knock back a few. XOX- Izzy#operaplot
13 Apr

21) Could you maybe pull out the sword and not sing loudly while doing it? My husband's trying to sleep. #operaplot
13 Apr

22) Oh how I hate to get up in the morning. Oh how I hate to come out and drink. Cos the tenor's waiting there. To stab my derry-air.#operaplot
13 Apr

23) Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping? Hagen son? Hagen son? Time to kill the hero. Stab him back to zero. Ring is won. Ring is won.#operaplot
13 Apr

24) Thr 1ce ws a grl nmd Kundry She rde for the knites 4 thr sundries Thn alng cm a fool Sh tht h ws cool. Bt died rt b4 Easter Snday#operaplot
13 Apr

25) Julie: Mt me @ Father Larry's 4 wdng XOX--Romez #operaplot.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats