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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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Opera Review: Smoke Gets in His Eyes

The Orchestra Now plays Respighi and Wolf-Ferrari.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Don't say we didn't warn you.
In his capacity as a musical archeologist, Leon Botstein unearths little-heard compositions, and leads them before the discerning ears of those who attend his orchestral concerts. In his other job, he is the president of Bard College, that bastion of liberal arts learning on the Hudson River near Peekskill. Starting last season, Dr. Botstein combined these jobs, emerging as the leader of The Orchestra Now, comprised of Bard's masters' candidates setting forth upon the concert stage. This ensemble played Carnegie Hall Friday night as part of its spring concert season, with Dr. Botstein on the podium.

The Orchestra Now is more than a student ensemble. It is an attempt to update and contemporize the concert-going experience. The program notes are written by members of the ensemble. Other orchestra members are given the opportunity to introduce each of the pieces with prepared remarks. The program comes with a long insert card, picked out in friendly blue and white, giving detailed information on tempi and program times, and even a short paragraph offering the first-timer a clue as to what to do at intermission in Carnegie Hall. (It recommends taking and tweeting hashtagged selfies and visiting the Citi Cafe.)

Dr. Botstein's dumpster dives into the deep corners of the repertory sometimes unearth trash, but more often, treasure. Friday night's concert featured works by Ottorino Respighi and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Italian post-Romantics of the 20th century whose reputations fell into shadow after their death. Respighi is remembered for his fiercely nationalistic Pines of Rome and Wolf Ferrari, a German-Italian composer with a lovely, light touch, is a footnote in the more densely-written opera guides.

The concert opened with Respighi's Rossiniana, a florid orchestration of Gioachino Rossini's autumnal piano pieces, a cycle of preludes that the composer called "the sins of his old age." Rossini was notable for an almost total cessation of composition at the age of 38 (following the premiere of the opera Guillaume Tell) but these works find him in fine fettle and good humor. However, drenched in Respighi's thick sauce of orchestration, the original flavor of this music was difficult to discern, making this first course a heavy appetizer.

Far more satisfying was Vetrata di Chiesa, Respighi's quartet of tone poems that are sort of an Italian answer to Pictures at an Exhibition. Initially conceived as pure music, Respighi (with the help of his publisher) tied each work closely to church windows depicting great events and individuals in Catholic history. Dr. Botstein's players caught the quality of translucence that Respighi was attempting to evoke. They had the right combination of upper-register lightness and lower-register weight. Even the use of an electronic organ for the last movement did not disrupt the performance, even as it revealed the single biggest flaw in Carnegie Hall.

The second half of the evening was Il segretto di Susanna ("Susanna's Secret"), a one-act opera conceived as an intermezzo and written by Wolf-Ferrari in 1909. Musically it's pleasant enough, evoking the sound-world of late Rossini and Mozart to tell the story of a couple torn apart by jealousy even though the wife is innocent. The rage-trigger for "Count Gil", the would-be Othello of the story is the smell of cigarette smoke, and the problem is resolved when his wife's little habit is revealed and the couple lights up together. Although the music is delightful, the story is very dated, even though the jealous hubby stops acting like an abusive jerk for one final scene.

Ugly though this story might be (by today's standards) that ugliness did not prevent baritone Michael Kelly from delivering a strong performance as the jealous Gil. Even better was mezzo Julianne Borg, whose supple voice and unflappable stage presence made Susanna a heroine to reckon with, with or without a lit cancer stick in her hand. (In deference to fire codes, neither singer had cigarettes.) The only thing missing was the third player, the couple's mute servant Sante but he was evoked by one of the first violinists, temporarily drafted for the role. Misogyny is an interesting little work, and an argument that more Wolf-Ferrari would be worth hearing in the near future. 

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