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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.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Concert Review: The Man of Steel

Marc-André Hamelin at the 92nd Street Y.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman © 2013 Marc-André 
There's nothing conventional about Marc-André Hamelin. The Canadian-born pianist is an authentic virtuoso. His recitals combine fierce technical chops with in-depth explorations of the dark corners of the catalogue. For piano cognonscenti, they are nearly sacred events.

On Wednesday night at the 92nd St. Y's Kaufman Auditorium, Mr. Hamelin  started with the G Minor Organ Fantasia and Fugue of Johann Sebastian Bach. Playing a transcription by Theodor Szántó, Mr. Hamelin hammered out the chords, lending a thunderous weight to Bach's musical ideas. The fugue emerged from this turmoil, putting the work's ideas back in order before revealing the cosmic concepts written into Bach's figured bass.

The Sonatina Seconda by Ferruccio Busoni is that composer pushing the envelope with a leaden bump of pianistic complexity. Mr. Hamelin seemed to relish the bleak colors called forth in this music, grim, almost atonal fragments that coalesce into a dark, coherent whole. Playing with muscle and drive, he made the sound of the Steinway like a crack of thunder in the intimate space of Kaufmann Concert Hall.

2013-2014 Preview: The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

The Garden State's oldest orchestra announces its schedule.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jacques Lacombe conducts the NJSO.
Photo by Fred Stucker © 2013 The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
When one thinks of large scale symphonic programs in the New York area, first thoughts are of the New York Philharmonic or perhaps the yearly visits from great orchestras at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. But just across the Hudson River, following a short ride on NJ Transit or the PATH train is the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Prudential Hall, a comfortable, acoustically splendid venue that is the regular home of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

The NJSO has offered concerts since 1922 (though its roots go back to the founding of the Eintracht Singing and Orchestra Society in Newark in 1846. Like its home city of Newark, the NJSO has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years under music director Jacques Lacombe.

For the coming year, Mr. Lacombe has planned  an innovative season-long schedule that combines bold programming with familiar classics. Each subscription concert is presented at NJPAC's Prudential Hall, a state-of-the-art facility that is only a short walk from Newark's Penn Station. (And yes, the streets are well-lit.)

This year's schedule includes a fourth series in the orchestra's popular Winter Festival and a celebration of the 150th birthday of German composer Richard Strauss.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Opera Review: Purple Reign

Pretty Yende rocks Le Comte Ory.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pretty Yende (center) stars with Juan Diego Flórez (with beard) in Rossini's Le Comte Ory.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera. 
The Metropolitan Opera season is a marathon. As such, there are always has cancellations due to injury, illness or personal and music differences. So when the company announced that the untried South African soprano Pretty Yende would be stepping in for Nino Machaidze as Countess Adele in all performances of the company's revival of Rossini's Le Comte Ory, audience members held their breath.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Opera Review: Trunk Music

The Met rolls out its "Vegas" Rigoletto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Diana Damrau and Željko Lučić in the final scene from Michael Mayer's new Rigoletto.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
When you think about it, certain operas allow a fluidity of time and place. Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto has always been one of these. In setting the banned Victor Hugo play Le Roi s'amuse, Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave moved the story from France to 16th century Mantua. (That Italian region's noble family, the House of Gonzaga, had long died out, and wouldn't sue.) The libertine King Francois I became a safely anonymous Duke, and the opera was allowed to go forward.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Concert Review: Cream and Sugar

Renée Fleming and Susan Graham at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Susan Graham and Renée Fleming. Susan is the tall one.
Photo by Melanie Buford © 2013 National Public Radio/WQXR.
On Sunday night, soprano Renée Fleming and mezzo Susan Graham gave a joint recital with pianist Bradley Moore. The concert, which opened Ms. Fleming's 2013 Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall, celebrated the long friendship and artistic partnership of these two fine singers with an emphasis on French chanson and operatic repertory.

Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham don't always appear together, but their careers are inextricably linked. They made early recordings together, like Handel's Alcina. In 2000 and 2009, they melted earts at the Met in Richard Strauss' sentimental comedy Der Rosenkavalier (Ms. Graham takes the trouser part.) However, the opportunity to see these two divas in a concert collaboration is rare indeed.

The program opened with three songs by Camille Saint-Saëns. The black-gowned singers paused between numbers to explain that their intent was to recreate a salon atmosphere in the unlikely space of Stern Auditorium. Somehow, the interaction of their voices created that needed sense of intimacy as they soared through the long phrases of "Pastorale" and the rapid Spanish rhythms of "El desdichado."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Parsifal

The most eagerly anticipated Wagner event of the season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Knights of the Holy Grail congregate in Wagner's Parsifal. 
Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez © 2012 Opera Lyon, courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera has always had a special connection with Parsifal, Wagner's final opera. From the "bootleg" performances of 1903 (the Met was the first opera company to challenge the composer's decree that his "stage-consecrating festival play" should only be performed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus) to Otto Schenck's picture-realist production of the 1980s, this opera has always had an important place at the Met.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Concert Review: The Holy Egoism of Genius

Yannick Nézet-Séguin brings Bruckner back to Broad Street.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin in action. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
On Friday afternoon,  Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin re-introduced a rapt Verizon Hall audience to the music of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. Happily, the quality of Mr. Nézet-Séguin's performance indicated that Philadelphia listeners may have ten more Bruckner symphonies (including the "0" and "00") to enjoy in what will hopefully be a long and fruitful exploration.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin chose the Symphony No. 7 for this program, pairing it with the Siegfried Idyll. This gorgeous tone-painting by Richard Wagner is not an excerpt from the Ring. Rather it was intended as chamber music, and premiered as a private birthday present for Cosima, the composer's second wife. (The work does contains a number of key themes that were later incorporated into the final scene of Siegfried.)

Here, the Idyll was presented with a full symphony orchestra, adding weight to each leitmotiv. Mr. Nézet-Séguin took a slow tempo, allowing the music to breathe and painting tone-colors with a fine brush. With the expanded string section, previously buried themes from the Ring coalesced in the lower instruments. Woodwinds and horns produced a sound quality of dappled light. Bird-songs danced playfully around a  young hero's horn call. In the coda, a three-note figure appeared, hinting at the first bars of Parsifal.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Concert Review: The Road to Utopia

Lorin Maazel returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Once more, with feeling. Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2009 The New York Philharmonic.
Lorin Maazel has been entertaining music lovers for 75 years. Think about that for a minute. The American, Paris-born conductor, composer and former Music Director of the New York Philharmonic  will turn 83 on March 6. He started violin lessons at age 5. Conducting lessons began two years later. He appeared before an audience, baton in hand, when he was just 8 years old.

All that experience was brought to bear Thursday night in a concert that saw Mr. Maazel offer his last program with his former least for a little while. (He is not on the schedule for 2013-2014.)

The concert opened with one of Mr. Maazel's trademarks, the Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy that was also the first success of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In this performance, conductor and orchestra showed that there is more here than just the famous "love theme"--it is an effective retelling of the play that boils Shakespeare's tragedy down to a lean 20 minutes.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reflection: The Cool Kids

or...You Can't See...Everything!
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"Vhat do you mean vhe missed der recital?"
Arnold Schwarzenegger as "Mr. Freeze" in Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin.
Image © 1997 Warner Brothers.
So I saw a New Yorker column today about Radu Lupu and how he's the pianist that all the "cool kids" (not the words used in the article) are going to go hear in recital tonight. (He's playing at Carnegie Hall this evening.)

For a moment, I felt bad because I'm not going to be there. I'm scheduled to hear tonight's New York Philharmonic concert with Lorin Maazel leading the Shostakovich Fifth, along with the Tchaikovky Romeo and Juliet and Chain 2, a Lutoslawski piece played by soloist Jennifer Koh. Yes, it's the second night of the run, but I had another social engagement the night before

And then I sat and thought, and started to write this.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Opera Review: A Voice to Die For

Angela Meade sings Il Trovatore at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Die hard: Angela Meade as Leonora, having just drunk poison in Act IV of Il Trovatore.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Wednesday, Jan. 16. 

That date was circled on the calendar for many New York opera lovers as the one night that soprano Angela Meade would sing Leonora in this year's revival of Verdi's Il Trovatore. In fact, it was the only night that the Met had scheduled for this talented soprano, in the middle of January. At the Met, January is where unloved revivals and obscure operas (La Rondine, Le Comte Ory) are sentenced to play before half-empty theaters. (Luckily, opera lovers know this, and plan accordingly!) While this performance turned out to be Ms. Meade's second Leonora of the season (she substituted for an ill Patricia Racette in the Saturday night broadcast) the Washington State-born soprano did not disappoint.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Opera Review: The Easy Life in Paris

La Rondine returns to the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She loves...lamp? Kristine Opolais is Magda in the Met's La Rondine.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Composed during World War I and premiered in 1917, Puccini's La Rondine ("The Swallow") has always struggled to find its perch in the repertory. Perhaps it's the work's cheerful appropriation of waltzes from both Strausses (German and Austrian) to serve an Italian libretto. The glittering Paris backdrop, inhabited by rich, cynical bourgeois is an obverse to the pain of La Bohème. Finally, the libretto, ignores operatic conventions of murder and revenge for an ordinary tragedy; it's La traviata without death.

Monday night's performance at the Metropolitan Opera showed that Rondine is a noble work, full of lush, hummable melodies, genuine comic warmth and jarring human drama in the final act. Ion Marin led a pointed, detailed performance that brought out the high points in this short but intensely packed score, the bright energy of the opening, the waltz rhythms in the second act and the light, delicate orchestration that accompanies the tragic denouement.

As Magda (the migrating "swallow" of the opera's title) Kristine Opolais displayed tremendous potential in a role that marks her house debut. The aristocratic Latvian soprano has a smallish instrument, wielded needle-like to create a sympathetic portrait of the courtesan who has to choose between true love with the country-born Ruggero (Giuseppe Filianoti) and the easy life in Paris as a courtesan. (She picks the latter.) Ms Opolais supplanted her instrument with her acting. In Act III, she made the audience realize that Magda's decision, while heartbreaking, was essentially the correct one.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Rigoletto

The Met unveils its new production...set in...Las Vegas?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Vega$, baby! Zeljko Lucic stars in Verdi's tragedy.
Promotional image for Rigoletto © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
When Verdi announced Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'Amuse as the subject of his 17th opera, Venetian forced the composer and his librettist to retitle the opera, change the names of all the characters, and move the action to Mantua. With this new production, director Michael Mayer goes the censors one better, moving the action to fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. (At least he didn't re-name the characters.)

Mr. Mayer's production (his first for the Met) is meant to evoke the "Rat Pack" era of the 1950s, when Frank Sinatra and crew held sway over the Strip. Wherever it's set, this remains the powerful tragedy of an overprotective father, his beautiful daughter and his lecherous boss. It is Rigoletto's own "fear and loathing" that inadvertently brings about the demise of the one person he truly loves.

Despite the uprooting of the characters, the cast is consistent with last year's Rigoletto. Zeljko Lucic returns as Rigoletto, opposite the Gilda of German soprano Diana Damrau. Piotr Beczala should be a handsome-voiced Duke, but don't expect him to break into "Fly Me to the Moon."

Rigoletto premieres Jan. 28, 2013.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Recording Review: There Will Be Blood

Oberto, Verdi's first opera indicates great things to come.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The young Giuseppe Verdi. He started work on Oberto when he was 23.
Oct. 10, 2013 marks the 200th birthday of composer Giuseppe Verdi. To celebrate that birthday in style, Superconductor will offer in-depth coverage of Verdi's long career and vast catalogue in coming months.

We start at the beginning, with Oberto.

Verdi's long career as a composer began with Oberto, Comte di San Bonifacio which had its debut at La Scala in 1839. He was 26, and had worked on the opera for three years.

According to Julian Budden's excellent The Operas of Verdi, this work may have originated under the title Rocester, a libretto by Antonio Piazza. He also hints at a libretto called Lord Hamilton that was making the rounds before Verdi settled on Oberto. Both of these earlier works are either lost or integrated into the structure of Oberto.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Concert Review: The Out-of-Towner

Alan Gilbert conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
(Yes, you read that right!)
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Stu Rosner © 2013 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Holding the position of Music Director at one of North America's "Big Five" orchestras is a time-consuming business. So it is rare to hear Alan Gilbert, who currently reigns at the New York Philharmonic, conduct an orchestra other than his own. When that "other" orchestra is the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra, that opportunity becomes an extraordinary one.

On Friday afternoon at Symphony Hall, Mr. Gilbert offered a potent mix of comparative 20th century rarities with stolid favorites. He started with the most radical work on the program: Henri Dutilleux' four-movement Métaboles. Dutilleux writes spidery music, subtle yet capable of great impact on the listener. This work consists of four  connected movements, each building on the chords and key signatures of the one before to create an organic structure of sound.

Although the score of Métaboles employs enormous orchestral resources, its utterances are often cryptic. A stentorian, short theme is blared. In its wake, one hears the keening buzz of a violin or viola answered by taps of percussion, a blurted note from the heavy brass. This intricate work was played lovingly by the Boston forces, who clearly enjoyed meeting the challenges of the score under Mr. Gilbert's precise leadership.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Dare Gone (Horribly) Wrong

Orchestra chief resigns...after nine days on the job.
Yes this is a photo of British sci-fi hero Dan Dare, not disgraced exec Richard Dare.
But it's a lot more fun than a headshot of a guy in a blue tie.
Image © Dan Dare Corporation.
Richard Dare, the President of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has resigned his position with the orchestra after just nine days. According to a story in today's New York Times, Mr. Dare's sudden decision followed the revelation that in 1996 he was charged with an "attempted lewd act" on a 15-year old girl.

The Times story, by investigative reporter Daniel J. Wakin, cites a story in the Riverside Press-Enterprise. The Riverside piece recounts how Mr. Dare was caught "naked" with the future Mrs. Dare at the latter's home. An indictment was brought. Mr. Dare pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years probation. He was also registered as a sex offender in California. The case was dismissed in 1999.

The girl married Mr. Dare when she turned 18.

At a Friday press conference, Mr. Dare announced his resignation from his position with the  NJSO. In a prepared statement, he said "media attention to my family’s personal life will harm the organization and musicians I cherish, as well as needlessly embarrass my wife."

He did not take any questions.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Le Comte Ory

Juan Diego Flórez gets back in the habit.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Habit forming: Juan Diego Flórez returns in the title role of Le Comte Ory.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Opinions were divided regarding the first run of Bartlett Sher's production of Rossini's Le Comte Ory, a madcap staging that imported 19th century production values to the hi-tech stage of the Met. This reprise features the welcome return of Juan Diego Flórez in the title role. This bel canto tenor's handsome appearance and vocal agility remind some opera-lovers of the early career of Luciano Pavarotti.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Concert Review: The Philosopher's Stone

Christoph Eschenbach conducts Bruch and Bruckner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Knowing the score: conductor Christoph Eschenbach.
This week's New York Philharmonic concerts bring together the Romantic violin flourishes of Max Bruch with the staid, cathedral-like sound of Anton Bruckner. At first look, the two composers have nothing in common except for the first four letters of their last names.

It was the task of conductor Christoph Eschenbach to bridge these two very different sound-worlds. He accomplished that by juxtaposing Bruch's Violin Concerto, a stirring, Romantic favorite with the Bruckner Sixth, the shortest and least performed of the Austrian composer's mature symphonies. On Wednesday night, the two works proved to have a potent one-two punch under Mr. Eschenbach, the pianist-turned-conductor who currently heads the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.

For the concerto, the orchestra was joined by Pinchas Zukerman. Mr. Zukerman played the solo part with rich low tones and a supple sound that swelled in volume as it rose in pitch.Mr. Eschenbach kept the concerto flowing smoothly forward from the Introduction to the central Adagio, supporting the soloist with rich color in the brass and woodwinds. The strings formed a lush support for the solo line in this slow movement, allowing Mr. Zukerman room to expand the central theme. The final Allegro dance allowed fresh opportunities for virtuoso flights and rhythmic drive as Mr. Eschenbach led the orchestra in Bruch's kinetic dance.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Concert Review: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brahms

The Emerson String Quartet (and friends) play Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"We are laughing, and we are very good friends": The Emerson String Quartet.
(L.-R.: David Finckel, Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton.) Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.  
In light of the damage done to New York and New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy, the closure of Carnegie Hall in late October and early November seems a relatively minor effect this catastrophic storm. However, the venue was closed not due to flood damage but from the danger poised by a dangling multi-ton crane boom,  that dangled from One57, the new luxury skyscraper being built on W. 57th St. (right across the street.)

On Monday night, Carnegie Hall opened its 2013 schedule with the first make-up concert of the year, featuring the sturdy Emerson String Quartet and special guests in an exploration of the chamber music of Johannes Brahms. The vast spaces of the Isaac Stern Auditorium became suddenly intimate, as the rapt audience focused on these complex pieces, striving to penetrate the inner thoughts of this notoriously private composer.

In the first half of the program, Philip Setzer played the "first" violin part. (He alternates with fellow violinist Eugene Drucker. (The Emerson men play standing except for cellist David Finckel, a policy they adopted in 2002.) The first thrill of the night came when the main theme coalesced in the first movement, led by Mr. Finckel's cello. The Andante came in at a quick walk, carrying the listener safely through its turbulent middle section.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: La Rondine

The Met presents the return of Puccini's bittersweet rarity.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
On the couch: Kristine Opilais as Magda in La Rondine.
Image © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
La Rondine ("The Swallow") is not a complicated story, but it has the misfortune of being neither tragedy (nobody dies) nor comedy (it has a sad ending). The opera falls between two stools, and as a result has never earned a place at the table.

Rare bird though it is, this is still a mature product of Giacomo Puccini's later years. (It premiered in 1917, and follows La Fanciilla del West in the composer's catalogue.) Puccini's heady music is redolent of the gilded age, depicting the world of a "kept woman" in early 20th century Paris with gorgeous dance rhythms. There are parts for two leading sopranos--and two leading tenors.

This stylish production was originally conceived in 2008 for the so-called "love couple," Angela Gheorghiu and Roberta Alagna. With Ms. Gheorghiu currently persona non grata at Peter Gelb's Met (not to mention in the middle of a nasty divirce with Mr. Alagna) this revival offers Kristine Opilais her chance for a house debut. Giuseppe Filianoti is Ruggero, the man she loves and ultimately, rejects.

La Rondine opens Jan. 11, 2013.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

DVD Review: The Shoe Must Go On

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from Glyndebourne.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cobbler Hans Sachs (Gerald Finley (r.) tries to get some work done as
Beckmesser (Johann Martin Kränzle) warbles in Act II of
Die Meistersinger. Image from the Glyndebourne Festival © 2011 OpusArte.
This DVD performance (released on two discs or a single Blu-Ray by OpusArte) was shot in June 2011 at the Glyndebourne Festival. It is just the second Wagner opera to be performed at Glyndebourne following a 2003 Tristan und Isolde. (It marks a collaboration between this house, San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, who will mount this staging in February 2012.)The show features a youthful, energetic cast who exhibit a thorough dramatic involvement in this vast comedy, anchored by the Sachs of Canadian baritone Gerald Finley.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Opera Review: Reign of Error

The Opera Orchestra of New York presents Andrea Chénier.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Roberto Alagna sings with the Opera Orchestra of New York in Andrea Chénier.
Photo by Stephanie Berger © 2013 Opera Orchestra of New York.
The unthinkable happened on Sunday night, at the Opera Orchestra of New York's concert presentation of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, starring Roberto Alagna in the title role. This was the company's first performance of the season at Avery Fisher Hall.

Concert Review: Space Walk

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra explores The Planets.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Astronaut Ed White making the first "space walk" on the Gemini 4 mission, June 3, 1965.
Photo by James McDivitt © 1965  NASA.
The late Michael Tippett ranks as one of the most important British composers of the latter half of the 20th century. Tippett (1905-1998) is remembered for his World War II pacifism (which resulted in a prison term) a series of excellent (if underperformed) operas and the 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time. Self-taught, his unconventional, thoroughly tonal style looks back to the 18th century and forward to the 21st.

On Friday night, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra did much to resurrect Tippett's reputation as an orchestral composer with a performance of his Fourth Symphony. The Fourth was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1974 and written for the strengths of that famous ensemble. NJSO music director Jacques Lapointe paired the Fourth with Holst's The Planets, (1917) another massive British work that has remained an audience favorite for almost a century.

This was the first concert that this writer had attended at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in well over a decade. The performance was prefaced with a short statement from Mr. Lapointe, who explained the personal significance of this work, a 30-minute single-movement essay on the meaning of life from cradle to grave. The musicians, he explained would be accompanied by taped samples of real human breath, slow, steady and amplified.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Concert Review: A New Conductor for a New Year

Manfred Honeck debuts with the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Manfred Honeck made his New York Philharmonic
debut on Thursday night with Braunfels, Beethoven and Grieg.
Image framegrabbed from a webcast. 
The New York Philharmonic got 2013 off to a brisk start with a Jan. 3 concert led by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck. This marked the Austrian conductor's debut with the orchestra. He came armed with a work the Philharmonic had never played before: his Suite from Walter Braunfels' Fantastic Apparitions on a Theme by Hector Berlioz. The program also featured two well-traveled favorites: Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto (with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) was an underrated German composer whose large body of work has been virtually ignored since he fell out of favor with the Nazi regime. He wrote a number of operas and orchestral works, the best known being the comic Aristophanes-inspired Die Vogel. This composition, finished in 1917)  is built on Mephistopheles' "Song of the Flea" from Berlioz' La damnation de Faust. The whole work is roughly fifty minutes. Mr. Honeck's version includes the Introduction and three variations and lasts just ten.

Braunfels' work re-imagines the Devil's aria as a series of increasingly complex orchestral variations. The original Berlioz melody played on the cornet before yielding way to a languorous tone poem for the whole orchestra, overlaid on a lush carpet of strings that would make Richard Strauss proud. (That composer's influence is also audible in the harmonies, which echo some of the more sensual pages of Der Rosenkavalier.) The final variation brings back the original theme, charging forward with vigor and renewed purpose. This movement recalled Berlioz' own anarchic spirit, and made one curious to hear the entire piece.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Opera's "Love Couple" Calls it Quits

Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu announce divorce.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Better days: Robert Alagna (l.) and Angela Gheorghiu as Ruggero
and Magda in Puccini's La Rondine.
Image © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
Tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu, whose 1996 marriage catapulted both singers to operatic stardom, have announced their "imminent" divorce after 16 years of marriage.

The report comes from an interview the soprano gave with the news agency Mediafax.

"We have decided to divorce by mutual agreement and in perfect friendship," Ms. Gheorghiu said. (Her remarks are translated here from the French.)

The Alagna-Gheorghiu story begins at Covent Garden, when the singers met in a performance of Puccini's La bohème.  They played Rodolfo and Mìmi. She was a divorcée and he was a widower with one daughter.

 In April of 1996, they were performing the same roles at the Metropolitan Opera, marking Mr. Alagna's house debut. Ms. Gheorghiu had bowed in La bohème in 1993.

On April 27th, the singers arrived at a gala concert celebrating James Levine's 25 years at the Metropolitan Opera. They had been married that day. They celebrated by singing "Suzel, buon di" by Pietro Mascagni, (also known as the "Cherry Duet" from L'Amico Fritz) and brought down the house. The marriage was blessed by then-Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Opera Review: An Exchange of Queens

Maria Stuarda premieres at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Elisabeta (Elza van der Heever, l.) menaces Maria (Joyce DiDonato)
in the Met's new production of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England never met in real life. However, that imagined meeting came to vivid life last night in the Metropolitan Opera's first performance of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda starring Joyce DiDonato in the title role. The New Year's Eve performance also marked the house debut of promising South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth of England.

The opera's libretto (based on an 1800 play by Friedrich Schiller) takes some liberties with history, but yields wonderful results. At the heart of the story is a fictional love triangle between Maria, Elisabetta and Robert Dudley (Matthew Polenzani). That affair becomes Elisabetta's excuse to send her rebellious cousin to the execution block. It may not be history, but in the hands of a master composer it works as great drama.

Maria puts the voices of its three leads to the stern test. First among these is the pliant, sweet mezzo of Ms. DiDonato. Whether engaging in solo fioratura above the stave or plunging to the lower depths required for this role, she produced a firm, smooth tone with great vocal agility. Her arrival halfway through Act I elevated the dramatic action of the show, making it easy to understand why Maria's exile was a political sore point to her reigning cousin.

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