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Monday, October 31, 2011

Concert Review: Norway, the Hard Way

The Grieg Festival Orchestra plays...Grieg.
Conductor Per Brevig. Photo by Randy Wilson © Grieg Festival Orchestra.
On Sunday afternoon at Alice Tully Hall, Per Brevig led his Grieg Festival Orchestra through a program commemorating the victims of the July bombings and shootings in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. Mr. Brevig, a former trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, displayed a commitment to the music of his homeland, programming a modern piece by composer Aarne Nordheim alongside the more familiar music of Grieg.

The performance opened with a Funeral March, written by Grieg in memory of his friend the composer Richard Nordraak. This was an orchestral transcription of the march, which Grieg originally wrote as a piano work. It was later played at Grieg's own funeral. With low strings and dark, growling brass, this was a somber performance, skilfully led.

It was followed by Grieg's lone Symphony, an early work that the composer had withdrawn, saying that there was too much of Schumann in its pages. Grieg may have been right in that assessment, but Mr. Brevig and his orchestra made a persuasive case for this neglected piece. The sprightly playing in the oboes and rhythmic snap in the strings gave the music an authentic-sounding  flair. The well-balanced orchestra sounded resonant in the crisp acoustic of Alice Tully Hall.

The second half of the program started with the composition by Mr. Nordheim. Tenebrae (the title means "Darkness") is a roving four-movement quasi-concerto for solo cello and orchestra. Darrett Atkins played the solo part with force, fraying the horse-hair off his bow. He stared fiercely at the sheet music as he played, whipping through the scraped tone-rows and occasional melodies required by this demanding piece.

Although the work had some memorable sections, there were points where the orchestral tuttis were played at such a volume that it was impossible to hear. Following another barrage of tone-clusters, Mr. Nordheim's quiet, almost monotone ending brought welcome relief and a soothing sonic balm.

Further relief was provided by the concert's closer, Grieg's evergreen Piano Concerto. The declarative opening bars brought smiles of recognition to the audience. Anne-Marie McDermott played the solo part with a forceful energy, working closely with Mr. Brevig over the four movements. 

In the second movement, Mr. Brevig's enthusiastic conducting was a little too forceful. At one point, his baton sprang forth from his hand and went flying into the first row of seats. A thoughtful audience member placed the little white stick neatly on the stage, and the concert continued uninterrupted.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Concert Review: The Rising Force

The Budapest Festival Orchestra takes Carnegie Hall.
Budapest Festival Orchestra conductor Iván Fischer.
This year the Budapest Festival Orchestra has built a strong reputation with New York audiences. Last spring, Iván Fischer's band roared through The Rite of Spring.  Last summer, they offered a compelling, fully-staged Don Giovanni at Mostly Mozart. Saturday night's concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring the music of Bartók and Schubert only added to that legacy.

Mr. Fischer chose an unusual seating arrangement for his players. Woodwinds were placed at the front, with the principal oboe in front of the concertmaster. All the bassists used five-string instruments. They were dead center, behind the brass. Other players moved around depending on which piece was being played.

The program opened with a Bartók rarity: settings of Hungarian Peasant Songs. These works were played with firm brass tones (especially from the trombones) and delicate, playful work from the oboe and clarinet. The tuba, moved to the front for these pieces enjoyed great prominence. Following what seems to be a trend among orchestras this year, Mr. Fischer had his violins and violas play these songs standing up.

The orchestra was joined by soloist András Schiff for Bartók's Second Piano Concerto. Mr. Schiff remains a sublime pianist, bringing out the lyric beauty in Bartok's high-speed, staccato keyboard figures and displaying a smooth legato. The solo part seemed to spill from his fingers in the slow second movement, accompanied by Mr. Fischer with a delicate, pointillist beauty. It's not surprising that these two Hungarian musicians work in a smooth tandem--they recorded all three Bartók concertos together for Teldec. Moreover, they were at school together.

Mr. Schiff held the Hall rapt in the last movement. His hands fluttered and dove over the keyboard, at one point bouncing out the melody in the high register with his right as his left raced up the lower regions. It was stunning playing, met with an enthusiastic reception. The soloist obliged the adulation with a pair of encores: a Schubert Impromptu and Liszt's lyrical Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5.

Schubert's Ninth Symphony sat in a drawer at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna for a decade. In 1838, ten years after Schubert's death, it was shown to composer/critic Robert Schumann. Dubbed the "Great" Symphony, the Ninth has since become an orchestra standard, the most popular Schubert symphony besides the "Unfinished."

Mr. Fischer's interpretation did much to blow the dust from this well-traveled score. Schubert's innovative combination of wind, horns and trombone stands at the core of this work, and Mr. Fischer's choice to move the winds forward led to a superbly balanced sound. 

A noble, searching horn theme started the first movement, taken here at a slightly fast pace. Mr. Fischer maintained this momentum through the work, letting the eloquence of Schubert's echoing conversation between winds and strings speak for itself. The climax of the opening movement surged with joy and power that belied the composer's dire last years. 

The two dance movements, a fleet-footed Andante and joyful Scherzo also featured expert playing from the Budapest winds. Mr. Fischer drew extra reserves of power for the final Allegro, bringing the argument of this long symphony to a giddy climax. The last phrases, with staccato trumpets and stomping tuba sounded like a happy round dance, a rustic celebration in the tradition of Beethoven's Sixth.

The orchestra ended with what Mr. Fischer announced as their traditional encore: a cheerful and very Hungarian dance. It was a strong end to a solid program, another feather in the cap for this excellent, innovative and rapidly rising European orchestra.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Concert Review: Full Silken Jacket

No tuxedos for Kurt Masur, just Schubert and Shostakovich.
Busted: Kurt Masur, 2009.
Sculpture by Bertrand Friesleben.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Former New York Philharmonic Music Director Kurt Masur returned to  the podium of Avery Fisher Hall this week. Mr. Masur is now 84. And he still doesn't use a baton. But he remains a thinking man's conductor, a compelling music maker of the old school who does not let his age or medical conditions affect the beauty of his performance.

On Friday night, the maestro looked pale, frail-looking, and his left hand trembled uncontrollably. However, he delivered a compelling performance of a compelling program, music that sounded comfortable as the tangzhuang jacket he wore instead of white tie.

The concert opened with a thoroughly Romantic reading of Schubert's 8th, the most famous torso in the orchestral repertory. These two movements were played at a broad pace, giving the orchestra's players room to luxuriate in Schubert's phrases. But the horns had trouble early, creating unattractive tones in the first movement's signature theme. The cellos, integral to the rhythmic makeup of this symphony, played superbly. 

Mr. Masur's second piece was Dmitri Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony, a choral symphony also known as Babi Yar. The orchestra was joined by baritone Sergei Leiferkus and the New York Choral Artists, the same team that recorded this symphony in 1994. The most political of Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies, Babi Yar is a setting five uncompromising poems from the acid pen of  Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

The poems and their symphony are products of the "cultural thaw" that took place in Russia under Khrushchev. But even the "thaw" froze on the Thirteenth, which was banned in Russia in 1963 after only a handful of performances. The music is tough and uncompromising with snarling brass, complex percussion and slamming chords dominating the titular first poem, a reflection on the Nazi massacre of over 33,771 Jews outside Kiev on Sept. 29-30 1941.

The poems were sung by Sergei Lefeirkus, a Russian baritone with a long history of playing villains onstage. He was grim and dark of tone in the opening movement, singing with passion, pleading the case that as the "true Russian" is he who attacks and condemns the anti-Semite. With its frightening descriptions of pogroms and figures like Anne Frank, this movement is hard going. Mr. Masur brought out the stark, black-and-white quality in Shostakovich's writing, helped by superb brass and percussion work from his old orchestra.

Mr. Lefeirkus did his best to inject a light note into the jaunty second poem Humor, with its brassy, Mahlerian march figure. The setting also recalls the nose-thumbing of Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel, although the Russian phrase "юмор показывал кукиш!" translates to something other than what appeared in the super-titles. Mr. Leiferkus returned to seriousness for the slow In the Store, accompanied movingly by Mr. Masur.

Fears is the toughest movement of this symphony, opening with a long 11-note tuba solo that recalls Wagner's dragon from Siegfried. Alan Baer played that difficult solo with superb breath control, laying groundwork for the dark movement that followed. Mr. Masur cast a familiar spell over his old orchestra, weaving his fingers in complex patterns, lifting an elbow, shifting a shoulder and drawing out Shostakovich's complex tonalities and instrumental textures.

Mr. Lefeirkus lightened up for the final A Career, a sarcastic meditation on the wisdom of speaking out against visionaries like Galileo, Newton and Tolstoy. His interaction at that point with the men of the New York Choral Artists ("Lev?" "Lev!") was a high point. As the symphony came to an end, Shostakovich brought back the "Humor" theme (as a chilly solo for bass clarinet) and the final "Babi Yar" motive, played very softly, with chamber-like textures by the principal strings and wind.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Only the Hunter...Survives

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried.
He will sing Götterdämmerung in 2012.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Substitute tenor to take leading role in Götterdämmerung.
Jay Hunter Morris, the Texan heldentenor whose debut in the title role of Siegfried is one of the more successful elements of the Met's new Ring Cycle, has been inked to reprise the role in the Jan. 27 premiere of Götterdämmerung

Götterdämmerung is the final chapter of the Ring, and the most technically challenging to bring off onstage. Although the vocal demands of the tenor part are not as demanding as in Siegfried, there are some treacherous passages that are the terror of any would-be heldentenor. The Jan. 27 premiere will be Mr. Morris' debut in this opera.

The first of these comes at the end of Act I, after our hero has dominated the action of the opera for about 90 minutes. In the last scene of the act, a drugged, amnesiac Siegfried uses the Tarnhelm (a magic helmet, acquired in the previous opera) to disguise himself as Gunther, the king of the Gibichungs in order to abduct Brünnhilde.

The problem is, that the singer has to then take the helmet off and sing in his natural register, revealing his identity as Siegfried. In other words, Wagner requires his tenor to turn himself into a baritone for  singing in a dark, hollow register that sounds vaguely Gunther-like.

The second pitfall comes in Act II, when Siegfried's drug-induced treachery is revealed. After singing the arduous oath on Hagen's spear (which is then matched by the soprano in a higher register) Siegfried addresses the stunned assembly of wedding guests, inviting them into the hall. In a cruelly written phrase, he must navigate a full octave drop, over a 16th-note. The effect makes most singers' voices crack, although a smart conductor will slow the orchestra at this point and allow the tenor to safely navigate this tricky passage.

According to a New York Times report by Daniel J. Wakin, Mr. Morris will replace Gary Lehman. Mr. Lehman is still suffering from the effects of a virus, contracted one year ago after consuming shellfish. Mr. Morris will platoon the role with tenor Stephen Gould, and will be featured in the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcast, to be shown in movie theaters on Feb. 11. The two singers will act as each other's covers for the winter performances of Götterdämmerung.

The change in cast has caused a shake-up at the San Diego Opera, where Mr. Morris was slotted to sing the demanding role of Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie's opera Moby-Dick. His replacement will be tenor Ben Heppner, who created the role of Ahab in the opera's 2010 premiere. Ironically, Mr. Heppner was the first singer under contract at the Met to sing Siegfried this season, but cancelled in February of 2011.

Opera Review: A Man, a Machine, and a Big Snake

The Met unveils its new Siegfried.
Snake-handler: Tenor Jay Hunter Morris confronts the serpentine Fafner in Act II of Siegfried.
Photo from the dress rehearsal, by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Even the most ardent Wagner addict finds Siegfried a tough pill to swallow. The necessary "middle chapter" of the Ring has a male-dominated cast, and its story of a genetically perfect super-man killing off dwarves and dragons presents problems for both the singers and the director.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Descent Into Nibelheim

An examination of intervals in the score of The Ring.
Page from the score of Götterdämmerung belonging to a sound effects engineer.
From Bamboquiri's page, © the photographer.
The other night, I was listening to the 1967 recording of Das Rheingold, specifically to the opening scene, when I heard something new in the score. This recording, made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and conducted by Karl Böhm is an old friend--I've owned one copy of it or another for the last 15 years. 

The Prelude to Rheingold is a single E Major chord, played by a pedal contrabass tuba and eight horns. The horns play the chord in an ascending eight-part canon for the first 90 seconds of the opera, breaking the chord into three notes: E, G, and B. This pattern repeats and overlaps as the horn calls sound together. 

Then Wagner pulls the most extraordinary sonic trick. As each horn climbs the ladder of the chord, you hear an artificial interval created: descending from B back down to E. This new interval foreshadows all the descending figures that will appear in the score of the Ring, from the atonal interval that indicates the enslavement of the Nibelungs by Alberich, to the minor-key drop intervals that characterize Mime (a third) and Hagen (a fourth) in the later operas.

It's no coincidence that the "rising" figures indicate Wagner's heroic characters. The Walsung motif ends on a higher note than its start, and the Sword theme (heard in the first act of Die Walküre) rises up a steep three-note climb. Siegfried's horn-call is another rising figure, as is the brash "heroism" theme that appears when he is first mentioned in Die Walküre. It only acquires any sort of descent when it it heard in Götterdämmerung, having been influenced by Brunnhilde's basket of motives and indicating the mature hero ready to do battle.

Those descending themes come back in force in the score of Götterdämmerung, chiefly surrounding the evil machinations of Hagen--Alberich's son. This grim figure's music dominates the latter half of the first act and all of the second, from the swirling "Hagen chords" that dominate the begining of that act to the great battle cry of "Hoi-ho!" Even Siegfried, confronted by the plot against him, has to pull off an octave-drop in this scene (kind of the sword theme in reverse) to try to get out of the trap he has fallen into. It doesn't work.

With all of these ups and downs (and yes, I'm aware that the 12-note scale indicating Wotan's spear is a descending figure) what of items like the Ring, Valhalla, and the Tarnhelm? These are all represented by figures that undulate up and down, indicating their neutral status in the battle of good vs. evil. It's also interesting that the "Redemption of Brunnhilde" theme heard at the very end of the cycle ascends and descends before landing on the D Major chord that brings the Ring Cycle to an end.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Opera Review: All Mirth, And No Matter

Opera Boston mounts Béatrice et Bénédict.
Lady Disdain: Julie Boulianne (Béatrice) spurns Sean Pannikar (Bénédict.)
Photo by Clive Grainger © 2011. Courtesy Opera Boston.
Opera Boston continues to delve into adventurous repertory with Hector Berlioz' rarely heard Shakespeare opera Beatrice et Bénédict. Distilled from the pages of Much Ado About Nothing, the opera focuses on the romantic sparring of its two title characters. Tuesday night's performance, reviewed here, was the last of the run at the Majestic Theater. 

Tenor Sean Pannikar and mezzo Julie Boulianne made their company debuts in the title roles. Mr. Pannikar has a clear, pleasing tenor that compresses slightly when he rises above the stave. Forced to switch between sung French and spoken English for the duration of the opera, Mr. Pannikar's performance took flight the Shakespeare text yielded to Berlioz' music.

Ms. Boulianne faced similar problems, delivering the spoken dialogue with awkward flourishes. Her fine-pointed, dusky mezzo was suited to Béatrice's pert nature, but her mannerisms made this a difficult heroine to love. She improved in the second act, singing the gorgeous trio and bringing real warmth to her reconciliation and eventual marriage.

Although Béatrice is the opera's titular heroine, her cousin Hero (soprano Heather Buck) gets some of the best music to sing. The Nocturne, sung by Hero and her handmaiden Ursule, (Kelley O'Connor) wove a spell of Berliozian magic. In a manner reminiscent of the Dance of the Sylphs in La Damnation de Faust, it brought Act one to a subtle, gorgeous close.

One of Berlioz' better additions to the play is Somarone, a music master played here by baritone Andrew Funk. A conductor/composer (like Berlioz himself), this fellow's preening, fawning behavior allowed the composer to have little fun at the expense of his profession. Mr. Funk played the part for laughs, particularly the Wagnerian bit about using a particular baton to create darkness and light from his orchestra. As his performers left in disgust, one thought of Haydn's Farewell Symphony. Finally, he led the Act II Improvisation (a bawdy drinking-song) with gusto.

This is Berlioz' fourth and final opera, and his second entry in the genre of opéra-comique. In this style, spoken dialogue is used instead of recitative, interpolated between the arias and ensembles. Since French speech is usually delivered at a rapid clip, it can be challenging for an American audience to follow, even with surtitles.

The solution chosen here was to use an English translation, culled mostly from Shakespeare's text by director David Kneuss. Mr. Kneuss' treatment of the text was difficult for the actors. The characters delved in and out of Shakespeare's idiom, in a struggle to meet the needs of the libretto. The production moved the action to a 20th-century setting, in sets suggesting a Tuscan villa was a low-budget nod to Kenneth Branagh's movie version of the play.

All of the singers seemed uncomfortable delivering the dialogue, with even the lesser members of the cast falling prey to over-exaggeration. In the pit, music director Gil Rose did his best to compensate. Although the famous overture was curiously muted, the later pages of the opera sparkled, and the final double-marriage scene ended the evening on an upbeat note.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Concert Review: Reality Check

Britten's War Requiem at the White Light Festival.
Okey-Dokey. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda led huge forces in Sunday's War Requiem.
Photo by John Super © 2011 London Symphony Orchestra.
The enormous resources called for in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem were almost beyond the means of Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday afternoon. They included the full strength of the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, a small chamber orchestra (drawn from LSO players and squeezed in around the conductor's podium), three vocal soloists and the American Boychoir. The kids had to sing through a door leading offstage.

In these tight quarters, the spacious antiphonies of this complicated work (premiered in 1962 at the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral following the destruction of the original by Luftwaffe bombs in 1940) didn't quite work. Giandrea Noseda did an admirable job of marshaling his forces, achieving a remarkable aural balance of the four groups. He conducted with vigor.

The London Symphony Chorus was a force unto itself, declaiming the Latin text of the mass with the authority of the Metatron. The fiery incantations of the Dies Irae (featuring ear-splitting playing from the brass in the "Tuba Mirum") blazed forth with power. They were also key contributors to the success of the later movements, especially the slow-moving setting of the Agnus Dei.

The Offertorium is the dark heart of this strange piece. Here, the composer re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac. However, Isaac is sacrificed by his father in the accompanying Wilfred Owen poem: an echo of the horrors of war. This is Britten at his most cutting. The hollow fugue at the end was a grim, Shostakovich-like joke.

Tenor soloist Ian Bostridge sang repertory that was suited to his unique instrument. Mr. Bostridge took advantage of Britten's high vocal lines, airing them easily over the chamber ensemble. He added emotional weight to these words, making the bleak landscapes of war-torn Europe flicker with ghostly light.

He was paired with baritone Simon Keenlyside, an opera star in his own right. Mr. Keenlyside's smallish, dark-hued instrument was perfect for "At the thrust of Lightning in the East" in the Sanctus. Soprano Sibina Civilak also sang beautifully from the space between the orchestra and chorus, tossing off some glorious notes in the Lacrimosa.

The small cadre of boy trebles also made an important contribution from their offstage post. The two singers joined voices on on the last poem, "Strange Meeting." The scene: an encounter between two wounded enemy soldiers in a tunnel full of corpses. As Mr. Bostridge and Mr. Keenlyside sang out the lines of the poem, the women of the LSO Chorus echoed with  "In paradisum" from the Libera me section of the Mass. This made for a stratospheric, if icy climax.

Benjamin Britten was a committed pacifist, and did not pull punches in his work that combines the Latin Mass for the Dead with battlefield poetry. This is one of the composer's most dramatic and most popular pieces, a work that is all too apt for today's audiences. The White Light Festival may be about bringing its audience out of their daily lives, but under Mr. Noseda the Requiem was a sharp reminder of reality.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Satyagraha

Philip Glass' opera retells the life of Sanskrit.
Soul man: Richard Croft as Mahatma Gandhi in Satyagraha.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera.
Richard Croft reprises the role of Mohandis K. Gandhi in this first revival of the company's 2008 production of Satyagraha: Philip Glass' operatic treatment of an early incident in the life of the Mahatma. The title refers to Mr. Gandhi's practice of passive resistance.

Satyagraha depicts Mr. Gandhi's early efforts fighting for civil rights in British-controlled South Africa, specifically the "Black Act" that restricted the rights of immigrants from India and elsewhere in that country. But the opera does not have a conventional libretto. Mr. Glass adapted the 700 verses of the Bhagavad-Gita for his story, having singers act out the story even as they sing the sacred texts.

The followup to Einstein on the Beach is a much more conventional opera, with an actual plot and tighter musical structure. This is classic early Glass-work, where small tight musical structures are repeated and built upon by the orchestra. These aural building blocks are used to build vast structures, a sonic temple of meditation that invites the listener in.

Did we mention? The work is in Sanskrit. The last time the Met performed Satyagraha (in 2008), the opera was offered with the house's multi-million-dollar Met Titles system turned off. Expect the same for this revival.

Recording Recommendation:
There's only one. Luckily it was reissued last year.

New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Christopher Keene
Back in the glory days of the 1970s and 80s, City Opera was instrumental in getting Philip Glass' operas performed and explored. The company hosted the first New York performances of Satyagraha and its sequel, Akhnaten, turning the former New York State Theater into Lincoln Center's own Glass cathedral. The late Christopher Keene, who also served as a general manager of the NYCO, conducts.
Return to the Metropolitan Opera Season Preview!

Concert Review: A Celebration of Birth and Death

Lang Lang celebrates Liszt's 200th at the Kimmel Center.
This didn't actually happen at the concert, but it's what Liszt sounds like.
Pianist Lang Lang. Photo © 2011 courtesy Sony Classical.
On Saturday night, the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit, celebrated the birth of a composer and the death of a dictator. The composer: Franz Liszt, whose 200th birthday was celebrated by guest pianist Lang Lang. The dictator: Joseph Stalin, whose systematic terrorization of Russian composers remains a black memory of the last century.

The program opened with Dmitri Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. With this work, Shostakovich broke a self-imposed silence following the second round of Soviet artist purges in the aftermath of World War II.  One of the composer's most popular and tightly constructed symphonies, the Tenth sets the composer's autobiographical "D-S-C-H" theme (D-E♭-C-B♮) against a whirling tornado of sound representing Stalin and his thugs. In the final showdown, the Shostakovich theme wins, sounding out triumphantly in the brass.

From its subtle, almost imperceptible opening in the double basses, Mr. Dutoit led this work with passion and authority. He bent almost double in the fast "Stalin" movement, driving the orchestra with precision where other conductors generate brassy noise. The last two movements featured stellar wind playing from the Philadelphians, climaxing in a driving reprise of the "motto" theme in brass and timpani.

The Liszt celebration started with a choice that reflected Liszt as a showman: Karl Müller-Berghaus' orchestration of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. This flashy piano piece (featured in Tom and Jerry cartoons and a memorable scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit) was played with charm by the full orchestra.

When Lang Lang took the stage, nobody fainted. Nobody threw their panties, room keys, or other fannish items. The lights in Verizon Hall were brightened to facilitate filming, and the genial pianist sat down at the Steinway to play Liszt's First Piano Concerto. 

Liszt built this concerto by folding four movements into one, which can create pacing problems that the conductor and soloist must work together to solve. Mr. Lang played the stentorian opening with a powerful attack, and then played the first lyric outpourings of his instrument with searching, Romantic tone. The thrilling effect, a trill at the high end of the keyboard, the sound of a butterfly landing on one end of the piano.

Mr. Lang attended the Curtis Institute and has great reverence for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Their skilled accompaniment showed that the respect was mutual. Pianist and orchestra down-shifted into the slow movement and then to the short Allegro with its chiming triangle. The finale brought all the movements together in a stunning display of virtuoso playing that also validated Liszt as a masterful composer for orchestra.

If Mr. Lang chose to, (or were allowed to) smoke cigars onstage at Verizon Hall, his stogie would be preserved in a jeweled reliquary. He played an encore instead: a lush, sensuous reading of the Liebestraum. The evening ended with pianist, orchestra and even audience joining for a bicentennial reading of "Happy Birthday" for Mr. Liszt, complete with a final trill.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Concert Review: The Struggle Within

The LSO conquers Beethoven's toughest work.
Sir Colin Davis leading the LSO.
Photo © 2010 London Symphony Orchestra.

When Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Missa Solemnis, the idea of playing a Roman Catholic Mass as concert music was a completely new one. On Friday night, Sir Colin Davis led the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a powerful, sometimes wrenching performance that shed light on the titanic forces at play in the pages of challenging choral work.

This was the second of three appearances by the LSO, at Lincoln Center this week, and the last under the baton of this brilliant 84-year-old maestro. It also marked the first major event of the three week White Light Festival. Now in its second year, White Light is a Lincoln Center event that seeks to bring listeners to contemplate their own lives through the experience of music, art, theater and dance.

At first approach, the Missa Solemnis seems to sprawl, shifting wildly in instrumentation and style over the course of five movements. The choral singing is central here, with the great shout of "Kyrie!" that opens the work. Two long movements: the Gloria and Credo are fervent expressions of rock-solid faith. These featured impressive solo singing from the four soloists: soprano Helena Juntunen, mezzo Sarah Connolly, tenor Paul Groves and bass Matthew Rose. Beethoven would use the same vocal arrangement in his Ninth Symphony.

Mentioning the Ninth at this point is relevant, as the complex choral structures found in the Missa Solemnis act like sketches for the much more famous final movement, the Ode to Joy. In both works, Beethoven calls for massive tuttis, a military march, and even a mighty double fugue (on the words "In vitam venturi") at the end of the Credo. Also, both works are taxing to the performers, the product of a composer who had lost his hearing completely and was now writing music that ordinary mortals would have to struggle to perform.

Those mortals were up to the task, particularly the LSO chorus under Sir Colin's sure baton. They created real religious mystery in the slow, wondering phrases that open the Sanctus. This led to the Benedictus, with an eloquent solo violin part played by LSO concertmaster Gordan Nikolitch. The Agnus Dei whipsawed between peace and a belligerent, martial stance with its drum-rolls and trumpet fanfares. Beethoven clearly favored a God willing to kick some ass in this mortal coil.

Sir Colin Davis has always had a reputation as a singer's conductor, and he assembled a good team of soloists for this performance. Tenor Paul Groves and mezzo Sarah Connolly are familiar to New York audiences from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Soprano Helena Juntunen is a talented singer whose clear sweet tone sometimes struggled to be heard over orchestra, chorus, and her fellow singers. Matthew Rose was an impressive bass.

In the final movement, the chorus were the real stars. Even as the orchestra thundered and brandished its brassy weapons upon Beethoven's apocalyptic landscape. the massed singers turned Dona nobis pacem into a cry for peace and a mighty shout of humanity. The brew of strong choral singing with the powerful, flexible orchestra made this finale a heady experience. This is music from a troubled time in history. It speaks volumes to today's war and terror-torn world.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Concert Review: Oh, What a Mountain!

Lorin Maazel ascends the Alpine Symphony.
The happy wanderer: former Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel.
Photo by Chris Lee, © 2009 New York Philharmonic.
On Friday morning, former New York Philharmonic music director led the orchestra in an assault on Richard Strauss' Eine Alpensinfonie, as part of an all-Strauss program at Avery Fisher Hall. This is the second week of concerts featuring Mr. Maazel, marking the first time he has returned to the orchestra since stepping down in 2009.

The Alpine Symphony is Strauss' final tone poem, and one of his more obscure large-scale works. It is a huge composition, built in 22 miniature movements, spanning an hour and played without pause. Strauss wrote for a giant orchestra: eight horns, quadruple wind, two timpanists, 12 offstage brasses and exotic percussion. The subject: the vigorous ascent and descent of a formidable Bavarian alp. Like Strauss' earlier Also Sprach Zarathustra, this work was inspired by the writings of Nietzsche. It quotes Zarathustra several times, and also recycles a theme from Der Rosenkavalier.

Mr. Maazel took a leisurely approach to the lower slopes, leading the orchestra through sun-dappled forests, aurally visiting a waterfall and a meadow occupied by cows. The offstage brass (representing a hunting party) played from up in the third tier. Their horn-calls were at a surprisingly slow tempo, which made the cinematic effect  proved more distracting than anything else.

As the climbers traversed a glacier and approached the peak, the pace quickened. The climax of this piece takes place halfway through, a thrilling moment on the summit marked by a gigantic surge of the main theme, accompanied by a clash of cymbals. A lone, stammering oboe solo followed: the aural equivalent of a tiny red arrow stating "You are here."

Now that he was at the peak of the composition Mr. Maazel slowed down again to take in the view. A spectacular storm in the last sections of the work brought the full fury of the orchestra, complete with whooshing wind machine, droning organ and a sixteen-foot-long thunder sheet shaken by percussionist Christopher Lamb. The ending was far more quiet, a symmetrical return to the opening pages without the offstage horns.

After a pause at base camp (presumably for oxygen) the concert resumed with principal horn Philip Myers playing Strauss' First Horn concerto. Mr. Myers brought noble tone and delivery to this potent, proto-Mozartean concerto, written for Strauss' father when the budding composer was just 18. This is one of the young Strauss' first mature works, and a concert favorite of Mr. Myers.

Mr. Myers returned to his usual chair for Till Eulenspiegel, the famous Strauss tone poem about the cheeky rogue whose mischief inspired memorable orchestral writing. Represented by the horn and clarinet, Till ran roughshod over the orchestra. Mr. Maazel seemed to fence the air with his baton as the band played this evergreen work with their usual élan. The hanging of Till was brought off with drama and power, with the clarinet blowing a last raspberry.

The Queen's Throat

Anna Netrebko Cancels Carnegie Hall Recital.
Fabulous, glamorous, cancelled. Anna Netrebko
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, whose appearances as Anna Bolena have provided a thrilling start to the Metropolitan Opera's 2011 fall season has bowed out of her Carnegie Hall debut. She was scheduled to perform a program of Russian songs by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, accompanied by pianist Elena Bashikirova.

A press release issued this morning by Carnegie Hall, revealed that Ms. Netrebko has been ordered to go on ten days of rest by her doctor.  No replacement artist is scheduled. Ticket-holders can receive a full refund through CarnegieCharge.

In the statement, Ms. Netrebko said: "I love this program of music from my home country, and no one is more disappointed and frustrated than me that I won't be able to perform for New York audiences next week."

This is the second time Ms. Netrebko has disappointed Carnegie Hall audiences. She nixed a recital in 2006, saying at the time that she did not feel "artistically ready" for the performance.

Ms. Netrebko sang the title role in seven performances of the taxing Donizetti opera this fall, starting with opening night on Sept. 26. She is the first singer to play Anne Boleyn at the Met. Ms. Netrebko also appeared before an international audience in the Met Live in HD broadcast of the opera on Oct. 15.

Angela Meade is scheduled to sing the next three performances of Anna Bolena at the Met this month. Ms. Netrebko returning for a three-opera encore in February.

Anna Bolena is just one role that Ms. Netrebko is singing this year at the Met. On March 29, she goes on the boards as Manon in a new co-production (with the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden) of the Massenet opera. Ms. Netrebko sang in this same production during its run at Covent Garden last year.

Concert Review: She Wore Blue Velvet

Yuja Wang makes her Carnegie Hall debut.
Fingers that can hammer or sing: the astounding Yuja Wang.
Photo by Felix Broede © 2011 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music.
Thursday night at Carnegie Hall saw the New York debut of Yuja Wang, the 24 Beijing-born sensation and darling of the Deutsche Grammophon label. Judging from this flawlessly played recital and its long string of encores, the hype surrounding this 24-year-old pianist is (so far) entirely justified.

For her debut, Ms. Wang chose a challenging program: five short pieces by Scriabin, Prokoviev's Sixth Piano Sonata, and the Liszt Sonata in B Minor. Taking the stage in four-inch platform heels and a long, body-hugging gown with a slit down one leg, Ms. Wang sat down at the Steinway, adjusted her shoes to the pedals, and went to work.

The five Scriabin pieces are not well known to listeners. One, the Prelude in B Minor (Op. 13, No. 6) made its Carnegie debut along with Ms. Wang. These are early examples of this composer's work, without the tonal weirdness and "mystic chords." That came later.

She played these works as a suite, alternating slow, diaphanous movements with dark, hard-charging movements that snarled like hell-hounds straining at the leash. Alternating between playing from the wrist and driving from the shoulders, she seemed to pour her personal energy into the three Preludes, the Etude and the Poeme, making them function as a unit.

Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata was next, a piece written in 1940 as World War II raged. Although it was composed and premiered before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, the first movement opens with a staccato alarm call that jolts the listener and prepares them for the sonic battle to come. 

Prokofiev's industrial-strength writing, with its grim, creaking waltz and apocalyptic finish (with a return of that alarm call) places considerable demands on the pianist. Ms. Wang took a gutsy approach to this rock-ribbed music, meeting the work's challenges head-on and playing with steely resolve.

Ms. Wang returned, (this time in a blue velvet gown) to play Franz Liszt's mammoth one-movement Sonata in B Minor, a composition that turned the very form on its head and showed the way forward to the chromaticism of Wagner. In fact, you can hear themes later borrowed for the Ring in the pages of this thirty-minute work, including the 12-step descending scale that indicated the power of Wotan's spear.

Liszt's Sonata draws its inspiration from Goethe. Ms. Wang dived into the opening theme (a representation of Mephistopheles) and brought the wild energy of Faust's ill-fated adventures out in the early pages. The plunge into the abyss was chilling, ending in grim, matter-of-fact low notes. But that set the stage for redemption and a heavenly ascent, played as a shifting, soothing balm by this brilliant artist. 

With the audience roaring its approval, it was time for encores. Ms. Wang obliged with four. She started with more Liszt: the Hungarian's transcription of Schubert's Gretchen am spinnerade. The centerpiece was her own transcription of Paul Dukas' famous tone poem The Sorcerer's Apprentice. She made the brooms march with astonishing speed, bringing out Dukas' rich tone paintings in this unconventional, but brilliant transcription. She followed with the Melodie from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Friedrich Cziffra's jaw-dropping take on Johann Strauss' Trisch-Trasch Polka, ended the evening with both substance and flash.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Concert Review: Flying the Blue Cross

LSO presents Sibelius at Avery Fisher Hall. 
Sir Colin Davis. Photo by Stephanie Berger © London Symphony Orchestra.
On Wednesday night, the London Symphony Orchestra opened their three-night stand at Lincoln Center  with a performance of two Sibelius favorites under the baton of Sir Colin Davis. The Finnish composer has always been one of this conductor's specialties, and Sir Colin has now recorded his seven symphonies twice over--once in Boston for Philips, and once on the LSO's LSO Live label.

Sir Colin is now 84, and moves slowly through the musicians to the adjustable chair on the podium. He conducts the orchestra (of which he remains president) sitting down. But this performance, of the Violin Concerto with Nicolaj Znaider and the Symphony No. 2 made the Avery Fisher Hall crowd stand up and cheer the British band as they played these quintessential Finnish works.

This Violin Concerto is a popular one, one that makes the soloist work on equal terms with orchestra and conductor. It stands at the transitory point between Sibelius' early nationalist works and the pure music that followed. The solo part is written in total cooperation with the orchestra, with the lengthy cadenzas acting as dramatic soliloquies.

Mr. Znaider launched the concerto, then wove a detailed narrative with Mr. Davis. The LSO provided robust support as the violinist weaved in and out of the melodic lines, occasionally pausing so Mr. Znaider could fire off a dazzling cadenza before diving back into the distinctive dotted  rhythm.
The second movement featured a darker, sweeter tone from Mr. Znaider,  through its slow passages, giving way to a warm, burnished sound. The finale whirled at the listener in mad dance over a jogging rhythm that sounded like a very fast Finnish polka. The violinist then asked the audience for the indulgence of an encore, dedicated to Sir Colin Davis. He played the Sarabande from Bach's Second Partita for Solo Violin.

The patriotic Second Symphony remains the most popular of the composer's seven. Sibelius, writing in Romantic and patriotic mode, used the Finnish struggle against Russian rule to paint an aural picture of victory over repression. The woodwinds played with great eloquence in the folk-dancing opening theme, answered by the brass and eventually repeated by the whole orchestra. 

Sir Colin brought grim purpose to the two central movements which depict the preparations for war. The wind solo in the Scherzo was particularly eloquent. The finale became a mighty song of triumph , roaring forth the anticipated Finnish victory over Russia, but also symbolizing man's achievements in the face of any obstacle.

UPDATED: Lehman Bailout Rattles Met's Siegfried

Heldentenor cancels due to illness, replacement announced.
Enter the Dragon: Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried at the San Francisco Opera.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2011 San Francisco Opera.
New York, meet Jay Hunter Morris. 

The Metropolitan Opera announced on Wednesday night that Mr. Morris, an up-and-coming heldentenor, will be singing the title role in the Oct. 27th premiere of the company's new production of Siegfried. In an update, Mr. Morris will also sing the remainder of the fall performances, including the Nov. 5 Met Live in HD telecast.

Mr. Morris replaces Gary Lehman, who cancelled all his fall performances of the role. Mr. Lehman's manager, Brian Jauhiainen, told Daniel J. Wakin in the New York Times that the culprit was a year-long virus contracted from eating shellfish in Oct. 2010. Mr. Jauhiainen said that the tenor was prepared to sing the role but was "physically exhausted." However, he is expected to sing in the Jan. 27 premiere of Götterdämmerung. Next spring, Mr. Lehman will platoon the role in both operas with Stephen Gould.

The late change poses problems with marketing Siegfried, a tough sell even to the most hardened Wagnerian. Mr. Lehman's blonde-wigged profile has dominated much of the company's promotional material for the production. As of this writing, the tenor is expected to sing the part in three spring performances, as part of the complete Ring. Those shows are being sold on a subscription-only basis.

Mr. Lehman was originally added to the Ring cast last year as a replacement for Ben Heppner. Mr. Heppner, who had sung every major Wagner role except Siegfried, was originally under contract to sing in this new production. In February of this year, the Canadian tenor announced that he had cancelled his plans to appear, and withdrawn the role from his repertory.

What's interesting about this cancellation and casting change is that Jonas Kaufmann is in town for a recital at the Met on Oct. 30. Mr. Kaufmann made a stir as Siegmund, the hero of Die Walküre, the previous opera in the Ring. The tenor has sung other Wagner roles such as Lohengrin, but has yet to tackle Siegfried. Then again, it might be weird for Siegmund to play his own son.

The title role in this opera is the summit of the German tenor repertory. The character wrestles a bear, beats up a dwarf, forges a sword, kills a dragon, kills the dwarf, beats up Wotan and then sings a 37-minute long duet with the soprano after having been onstage for about four hours. The role is so demanding that on occasion, each of the three acts have been taken by a different heldentenor.

Mr. Morris, whose other Wagner roles include Erik in Der fliegende Holländer,  sang the role in this year's San Francisco Opera production of the Ring. However, he only played the character in Siegfried. Another tenor, Ian Storey, sang the role in Götterdämmerung. 

This is the second Met production this month to lose its leading man in the week before the premiere. Earlier this month, Peter Mattei replaced Mariusz Kwiecien in Don Giovanni after the Polish baritone suffered a back injury in rehearsal. Mr. Kwiecien is due to return Oct. 25. Both productions are conducted by new Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi, himself a replacement for injured music director James Levine.

Watch for the Superconductor review of the Oct 27 performance of Siegfried.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Concert Review: The Hero and the Prince

Bartók and Dvořák at Symphony Hall.
Hero with a cello: the astonishing Yo-Yo Ma.
Photo not taken in Symphony Hall. © 2011 Sony Classics.

The orchestra roster printed in this year's Boston Symphony Orchestra concert programs still has a blank space by the words "Music Director." But Tuesday night's concert (the fourth of this program with guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma) proved that the BSO is moving on from the departure of James Levine.

Mr. Ma was at Symphony Hall to play Antonín Dvořák's Cello Concerto in b minor, an inspired product of the Czech composer's three years spent teaching music in America. Mr. Ma once described this concerto as "a hero's journey." He lived up to his description, playing the vivid solo part with fire, emotion, and total involvement with the music.

Dvořák wrote passages of great lyric beauty for both orchestra and soloist, with treacherous cadenzas for the latter. The formidable double-stops and trills up on the neck of the instrument can push any cellist's capabilities. Mr. Ma's responded with playing that seemed to get better with each movement. Playing with head thrown back and fingers flying, his cello wept in the slow section of the finale, before bringing the work to a triumphant close.

Juanjo Mena, who first conducted the BSO at Tanglewood in 2010, made his Symphony Hall debut with these concerts. Mr. Mena proved a skilled accompanist, helped by strong playing from the BSO. The horns deserve praise for the noble reading of the second subject of the Allegro, and the mystic, almost Wagnerian chorale heard in the finale. The subscription audience were enthusiastic, and adoring of Mr. Ma.

They were less happy about the second half of the program. The Wooden Prince is an early work by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and a work that was new to the orchestra. Mr. Mena displayed an unerring grasp of Bartók's tricky time changes. The Spanish conductor navigated the oversized orchestra (extra percussionists, celesta and saxophones) through the score's hairpin curves. 

Instead of sonic overkill, Bartók produces a wide palette of tonal colors, from the lurching percussive rhythm of the Prince himself to a long lyric pas de deux for the lead dancers. The work includesme lodies inspired by Hungarian folk-tunes, as well as the wry humor evident in his later, more popular ballet score The Miraculous Mandarin.

Mr. Mena's own podium performance was fascinating to watch, combining traditional time-beating with the herky-jerky movements of the ballet's title character. But at 50 minutes, and in 12 sections with no pauses, The Wooden Prince is a heavy meal for the first-time listener to digest. It was greeted with polite applause. Work, composer, and orchestra deserved better.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Opera Review: Hunk City

The new Don Giovanni at the Met.
"Nobody move or the baritone gets it!"
Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni (with knife) threatens Luca Pisaroni's Leporello.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's new Don Giovanni has been beset by injuries. First, music director James Levine was replaced by new principal conductor Fabio Luisi. Then the star, rising "bari-hunk" Mariusz Kwiecien injured his back at the dress rehearsal, three days before the premiere.

Luckily, the Met had the also-hunky Peter Mattei on the roster this year, singing Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.. But with almost no time to prepare, rehearse, or work with Mr. Grandage, Mr. Mattei's vocally handsome performance felt like he had stepped in from another production. That said, he sang a lovely, genuinely seductive "Deh! vieni alla finestra." in the second act, and cut a striking figure in the fiery climax.

With the Don a cipher, the role of leading man falls to Leporello, sung by Luca Pisaroni. Mr. Pisaroni raises the energy level whenever he is onstage. The servant is as lecherous as his master, played with a curiously moral core that is straight out of Beaumarchais. Mr. Pisaroni brought a raw vitality to the proceedings, and has the makings of a great Don himself.

Michael Grandage's direction has the singers manage the negative space between their characters. The air seems to crackle between the pairs: Ottavio and Anna, Masetto and Zerlina. The opera's best couple? The disguised Leporello (posing as the Don) and Donna Elvira, played as a slightly manic stalker by the talented Barbara Frittoli. 

Don Ottavio is the weakest character in this opera. (Mr. Grandage compensated by arming him heavily.) Ramón Vargas' best weapon though, was his voice, a smooth, supple tenor that sang Ottavio's two difficult arias without seeming to pause for breath. The "optional" Act II aria  "Il mio tesero" was outstanding, with all of the ornamentation brought out and shining. 

Two young sopranos make their Met debuts in this run. Marina Rebeka sang "Non mi dir" with control and strong, if slightly shrill tone. At least she made Donna Anna more than a one-note character. Mojca Erdmann was a Zerlina from the coquette school, with a voice too small for the cavernous house. As Masetto Mr. Bloom, (a budding bari-hunk), made the most of playing a wife-beating shmo. Stefan Kocán's serviceable Commendatore would be better without the amplified echo on his voice in the graveyard scene. 

This is an urban Don Giovanni. The streets of Seville are presented on Christopher Oram's rotating set, consisting of high, curved tiers of multi-colored, louvred doors, each with its own balcony. (It looks like a seedy motel.) Occasionally, the "motel" opens to reveal a large courtyard, used for the wedding reception, the cemetery, and the Don's villa. The best visual: during the Catalogue Song, when all the doors open to reveal the Don's conquests in a manner reminiscent of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle.  

Conducting from the harpsichord (and playing the continuo himself) Fabio Luisi made a case for his recent promotion, alternating between light comedy and the orchestral firestorm in the opera's climactic scene. The hellfire whooshed out of the stage, threatening to incinerate Mr. Pisaroni as Mr. Mattei was dragged down through a hole in the floor. But Mr. Luisi proved that the real heat was in Mozart's music, not in rock concert special effects.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Blues for a Monster

(or, when Wagner meets Star Trek.)
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A view of the space entity "V'Ger" from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Image © 1978 Paramount Pictures.
The second act of Wagner's Siegfried, (the third opera of the Ring Cycle, opening at the Met on Oct. 27) starts with a long, dark prelude, depicting the dark forest cave ("Neidhole") that is the resting place of the dragon Fafner. The prelude was dubbed  "Fafner's Repose" by musicologist Ernest Newman in his invaluable book The Wagner Operas.

A slow tremolo in the 'cellos and basses, and the timpani player taps out a dark, five-note theme representing the dragon. This is followed by a taxing contrabass tuba solo that pushes player and instrument to the utmost. This solo takes tremendous skill and breath control.

The curse theme (first heard in Das Rheingold) rings out in the bass trumpet and then gets a thorough working-out in the bass trombones. The timpani rhythm returns, setting the stage for the coming battle between the Wurm and the title character.

Here's what's going on in the scene: Fafner possesses the Ring of the Nibelung, and has done so for at least 40 years (counting from the birth of Siegmund and Sieglinde before the last opera Die Walküre.) Transformed by the Tarnhelm into a fearsome dragon, the ex-giant spends most of his time sleeping in a cave, contemplating the fact that he achieved ownership of the Ring, Tarnhelm, and Nibelung hoard by killing his brother.

Here's the music:

This  prelude was echoed, 100 years later, by Hollywood composer Jerry Goldsmith in his score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the scene (depicted below) the Enterprise has its first close encounter with V'Ger, the 59-mile-long alien spacecraft that is threatening Earth.

Watch the scene below:

The Trek score makes use of similar orchestration, dark, growling strings and a lung-busting tuba solo that lets the viewer know what a majestic and totally badass Alien Entity this is. It also makes use of the Blaster Beam, a 20-foot long electric instrument (like a giant pedal steel guitar) that is either struck or played using an artillery shell as a slide.

Like the Wagner score, Jerry Goldsmith's music for V'Ger has a quality of dark loneliness brought on by absolute power. There is a grim, uncertain yearning in this music that makes it among the younger composer's best work.

V'Ger has travelled across the galaxy in search of its "creator." The giant craft, which obliterates everything it encounters (digitizing ships, space stations and whole planets as "data storage") lives in a giant "power cloud" twice the size of the distance from Earth to the Sun. 

Yet for all its impressiveness, V'Ger proves to be cold and empty inside. Both pieces, with their majestic but mournful tuba solos, do not inspire dread but a very human pity for the creature, hiding in the dark.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Opera Review: Giving Mary Magdalene a Black Eye

Dicapo Opera celebrates 30 years with Tosca.
Kristin Sampson stars in Tosca.
Photo by Sarah Shatz. courtesy Dicapo Opera.

There is a moment in Act I of Tosca that I've never seen, until last night. It came when the title character (played by Kristin Sampson) nagged her lover Mario Cavaradossi to paint the eyes of Mary Magdelene black, (like hers) instead of blue. 

In this new production by Dicapo general director Michael Capasso, (staged in celebration of the Upper East Side company's 30th year) Cavaradossi  (played by tenor Peter Gage Furlong) actually mixed paint and blackened Mary's eyes, succumbing to Tosca's demands. It was just one of many small details that made this modest version of Puccini's opera a success. 

If you're not familiar with Dicapo, this company puts on operas in a small "jewel box" theater on W. 76th St. in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Church. Founded in 1981, it has proved a valuable resource for lovers of chamber operas, modern works of modest size, and repertory favorites staged with an intimacy unavailable at the 4,000-seat Met. 

Kristin Sampson is an experienced singer in this house. She struck the right balance between fiery passion and loopy rage as Floria Tosca. She was tender in the first act, growling and determined in the second (with a pause for a lyric "Vissi d'arte") and positively loopy in the third. In her scene with Cavaradossi on the battlements, she seemed unusually collected as she explained the "staged" execution that was to come. But you could see the doubt in Mr. Furlong's eyes.

Mr. Furlong started with a lovely "Recondita armonia," keeping his lyric tenor voice right in the passagio. He had one shrill moment in the Act I duet with Tosca, when he lifted his voice up to its full height and found that its top was lacking in bloom. Like may tenors before him, he was defeated by "Vittoria!" the stentorian mini-aria that Puccini, (Scarpia-like) may have added just to torment his singers. But "E lucevan le stelle" shone forth in all its glory, with real emotion in the cavalier's farewell to life.

Guido LeBrón's Scarpia was not particularly suave, or seductive. He might have been more at home in Roberti's torture chamber, tightening the spikes himself during the interrogation scene. But he struck an imposing figure in his Act I entrance, thundering out his lust for Tosca in the middle of the Te deum. The second act revealed the police chief as a drooling psychopath, nearly raping Tosca as the room (a turntable set) literally spun around them. His death was staged in the same whirling, distracting manner.

Although the sound of Puccini-sized voices in a small theater can result in balance problems, this Tosca was blessed with a good supporting cast This extended to the smallest roles, with a good performance  from character tenor George Kaserjian (a Mime-like Spoleta) and up-and-coming bass Brandon Coleman in the brief, ill-fated role of Angelotti. The choral work was solid.

It worked well for the Te deum, but the noisy turntable set proved distracting in the later acts, offering different views of the action but putting obstructing scenery in the way of the audience's line of site. In the second and third acts, Puccini's complex orchestrations were forced to battle with mechanical noise. In a small opera house like this one, less is sometimes more.

The Giovanni Shuffle

Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien ready to tackle Mozart opera.
Back to work: Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni.
Photo by Nick Heavican © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Mariusz Kwiecien is coming back to the Metropolitan Opera.

The Polish baritone, who suffered a herniated disc in an Oct. 10 dress rehearsal of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Don Giovanni, has been cleared to make his debut as the libertine Spanish nobleman on Oct. 25.

Mr. Kwiecien was taken to the hospital on a back board, and underwent surgery earlier this week. He was heard to be in good spirits as he was being lifted off the stage, predicting that he would see the cast "next Thursday." Recovery for this kind of operation can take from two to four weeks.

However, the Oct. 13 season premiere featured Swedish baritone Peter Mattei in the title role of Mozart's opera. Mr. Mattei was under contract to sing Figaro in the Met's current revival of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. He switched roles at the urging of Met management.

According to a report by Daniel Wakin in the New York Times Mr. Kwiecien has been cleared by his doctors to do all the physical activity required in this new staging, with the exception of a climb down a ladder in the opening scene. This includes the mandolin playing, sword-fighting, and the occasional attempted sexual assault.

The prognosis means that Mr. Kwiecien will be able to sing the role in the performance on Oct. 29, which will be broadcast live in movie theaters around the globe as part of the Met's Live in HD series. It is standard practice for the company to film the performance before the broadcast as "backup", so expect to see cameras in the house on Oct. 25.

The new production of Don Giovanni is by Tony-winning director Michael Grandage. It opened on Oct. 13. You can read a live blog of the opening night here. Mr. Mattei will be singing on Monday night. That performance will be reviewed on Superconductor next week.

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