Posts Tagged ‘verdi’

Want not

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

By: James Jorden

Our old friend Heather Mac Donald is back, ostensibly to mourn the loss of “Petrarchan intimacy with the past“ in the study of the humanities, but, reliably enough, she can’t help taking a swipe at Regietheater while she’s at it.

Now, my contact with academia has been scarce and spotty since I last took a graduate course in… well, I don’t remember the year precisely, but I do know that everyone was talking about this controversial new pop singer called Madonna, so the math is easy enough to do. So, like the unreconstructed opera queen that I am I’ll skip over the dull bits of Mac Donald’s rant to get the juicy stuff. Let’s see, “…nudity and kinky sex on stage, as well as cell phones, Big Macs, and snide put-downs of American capitalism…. the detritus of consumer culture… sluts, psychopaths, and slobs…” Ah, here we are:

As the director of the Frankfurt opera declared, no one should care what Handel wanted in his operas; what matters is “what interests us… what we want.” Actually, the only thing that matters is what Handel, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky wanted.

Well, Christ only knows what “the director of the Frankfurt opera” was actually talking about, and I’m hardly going to get into whole thing of trying to parse the meaning of an badly attributed, unsourced translated quotation taken out of context. No, I’d prefer to examine Ms. Mac Donald’s reaction.

She says, “Actually, the only thing that matters is what Handel, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky wanted.” But how does she know what Handel, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky wanted? For that matter, how can anyone know what Handel, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky wanted?

Without the application of the art of necromancy, what these gentlemen “wanted” is purely a matter of conjecture. I have always thought that one of the most poisonous and destructive rationalizations in common use is “He would have wanted it that way.” This sentence almost invariably means, “Never mind  what he wanted, I want it that way, and I’m willing to drag a corpse into the argument to prevent you from answering me.”

We have at best an imperfect and partial idea of what this or that composer “wanted,” particularly in regard to the dramatic presentation of their opera. We may have some documentation on what the composer allowed in his own time, assuming he had control over his work. So far as we know, Mozart or Handel took no direct control over the staging and design of their operas. So do we decide from that negative information that they had no interest in how their operas were produced as theater, or do we assume that under different conditions they might have taken an active interest?

If there is documentary evidence of how Tchaikovsky wanted his operas staged, I’m not familiar with it. I don’t read Russian, and I’m unfamiliar with any of his letters or other writings available in translation in which he addresses issues of stagecraft relative to his operas. So for the purposes of this argument, I’m going to turn to two composers whose voluminous writings are widely available, and who clearly did take an active interest in how their operas were staged.

The letters of Giuseppe Verdi include many suggestions as to how his operas should be presented theatrically, though his ideas generally seem to be more derivative than original. For example, he saw or heard of a stage effect used in British productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a way of presenting Banquo’s reappearance as the ghost at the banquet, and he insisted that this effect be duplicated in the first production of his opera.

But what does that practical detail reveal to us of Verdi’s broader philosophy of how his operas should be staged? He chooses a technique that is tried and true and insists it should be applied, from which we may infer that his approach to opera staging is fairly conservative. On the other hand, he does not borrow his idea from a practice standard in the Italian opera houses of his time, or even from Italian spoken theater. No, his taste was eclectic and practical: if it had been effective in London for 200 years, it should be effective in Florence. This kind of open-minded approach suggests that Verdi might have been to say, “do whatever is effective, never mind about tradition.” That’s the opposite of “conservative.”

So was Verdi conservative or not? What did Verdi want? About the only answer we can reliably come up with is, “he wanted a good show.”

Given Richard Wagner’s enormous output of theoretical writings, we ought be able to come up with an answer to the question, “what did Richard Wagner “want?”  If only it were that easy!  Wagner’s thinking was bewilderingly polymathic, and so reading even his “practical” pieces, his instructions on how he wanted his operas to be produced, leads to a kind of sensory overload. He talks about cuts, about tempo, about scene-painting, about choreography, about declamation. In the space of a single sentence he jumps from step-by-step instructions on how to beat time in a tricky passage to a high-flown psychological and philosophical analysis of the character of Tannhäuser.

But, stepping back at a distance of more than a century, there are some generalizations we can make. One in particular is striking. Even as early as 1852, Wagner’s notion of the task of the operatic stage director is radically modern, decades ahead of what even the most avant-garde theaters in Europe were then putting into practice.

Theater history ordinarily credits Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen as the prototype of the modern theater director. Wagner knew Saxe-Meiningen’s work but it’s problematic to say that he was influenced by it; rather, the composer and the nobleman indepently arrived at convergent conclusions. Their vision of theater was director-based, under the control of a sort of production czar whose vision informed every aspect of the production: costumes, scenery, blocking, lighting, sound effects, even the widely-derided notion of completely darkening the auditorium during the performance.

At the time these two artists were active, their form of director-driven theater was the most avant-garde concept imaginable, a style of production that frankly most audiences found bewildering, at least at first. So what, then, can we say Wagner “wanted?” Was he striving for a hodgepodge of minutely detailed psychological naturalism with tatty pantomime visual effects (as the first production of the Ring turned out to be)? Or was Wagner’s goal rather to create a truly modern theatrical experience, a production so vivid and powerful that the audience would apprehend it as a sort of waking dream?

Well, the thing is, we don’t know. But in the meantime, here are these masterpieces that don’t exist until they are performed. I prefer to think that Wagner and Verdi and Mozart and even Tchaikovsky would prefer to have their operas performed as opposed to unperformed. And when those works are performed, I would hope that the creators would want each new production to be done thoughtfully and creatively, not simply following a rote formula determined by tradition.

Every opera production needs to make a case for itself: does it communicate with the specific audience is is targeted to? That production may look like something Mozart or Verdi or Wagner would recognize or it may not, but the deciding factor should not be the imagined whims of someone who died long before any of us were born.

Or, worse, the expressed whims of a Heather Mac Donald.

‘Il Trovatore’ at the Staatsoper Berlin

Friday, December 6th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid


While Il Trovatore counts as one of Verdi’s most gripping scores, the libretto’s sprawling tale of love and vengeance is not without dramaturgical challenges. A staging by Philip Stötzl which opened at the Staatsoper Berlin on Nov.29 featured several first encounters with the opera. Anna Netrebko, who attended the premiere of the co-production with the Wiener Festwochen last spring, decided to make the performance her role debut as the lady-in-waiting Leonora. The sinister Conte di Luna marks a first for Plácido Domingo, better known for his portrayal of the troubadour Manrico during his heyday as a tenor. Staatsoper Music Director Daniel Barenboim had never tackled the score, and Stötzl—a film director by training who has mostly staged Wagner—also found himself on new terrain.

Stötzl deals with the rapid jumps in plot and formulaic approach of Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto to a tragic love triangle in 15th century Spain by creating a series of caricatures. The action is confined to an open cube tilted downstage (sets by the director and Conrad Moritz Reinhardt), with doors on all sides for the characters to spontaneously emerge. The aesthetic creates a tone at once classic and comic: The count’s army frolics with spears and top hats, while Leonora and her confidante, Inez, twirl around in cartoonish blonde wigs and oversized bustles (costumes by Ursula Kurdna). Azucena and her band of gypsies appear as clown-like hooligans—wearing not rags but ruffs.

The production is visually captivating from start to finish—with choreography by Mara Kurotschka to animate choral scenes such as the famous anvil number; expert lighting by Olaf Freese which casts colourful shadows in mirror-image; and video projections by fettFilm that transform the otherwise static set with optical illusions, dismantling the walls into a starry sky in the final scene. However, one could have done without the childish vignettes featuring the characters in miniature and fake blood dripping down the walls after Leonora has stabbed herself.

Despite Stötzl’s tight emphasis on the inter-personal relationships of the opera, his tongue-in-cheek tone ultimately detracts from its pathos. It was hard to take Azucena, in an unusually youthful but powerfully sung portrayal by Marina Prundenskaja, seriously when she tells Manrico (Gaston Rivera) how she accidentally burned her own son. And despite Netrebko’s heartfelt delivery in the final scenes, there lacked a sense of tragedy when she dies at Manrico’s feet, followed by the troubadour himself. Perhaps because Stötzl emphasized fairy-tale farce over the primal elements of the story—class struggle, blood-thirsty revenge, the continuity of death and life—the characters remained trapped in a bubble of theatrical whimsy.

The evening had its strengths and weaknesses vocally. After warming up in the opening scenes, Netrebko was best in the full-blooded lines of ensemble numbers, such as when the count abducts her from a convent in the second act. But her hushed tones the Adagio “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” which she sings to the imprisoned Manrico, were brittle. Domingo struggled with the role of the Count—producing a raspy tone which left listeners worrying about his health—although his beautiful diction and sensuous phrasing remain intact.

Rivera, stepping in for an ill-disposed Aleksandrs Antonenko, gave an admirable performance as Manrico, bringing a penetrating tone and agile lines to the cabaletta “Di quella pira.” The voice has a fast vibrato, however, that is not always attractive. As Ferrando, the count’s officer, Adrian Sâmpetrean brought a true basso profondo and excellent rubato to the opening scene in which he warns the troops about the troubadour. Staatsoper ensemble member Anna Lapovskaja gave a pleasant account of Leonora’s confidante, Inez.

Barenboim led the Staatskapelle with gripping forward drive and elasticity of phrasing. The brass section was at times too Wagnerian, and tempo transitions such as that from Leonora’s exchange with Inez into the slow aria “Tacea la Notte” were not smooth, but his first take on the opera counts as a triumph. The Staatsoper Chorus, challenged by some of the precisely-timed choreography, was not as polished as it could have been in rhythm and diction, but the anvil scene and a-capella female number in the convent were beautifully delivered.

Martha Argerich at the Musikfest

Friday, September 20th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The Musikfest, Berlin’s 20th-century music festival, took a welcome occasion to revisit the opus of Lutosławski upon his centenary this year. Following the appearances of guest ensembles such as the Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Symphony, the Staatskapelle Berlin performed his Mi-Parti (1976) under Music Director Daniel Barenboim alongside works by Beethoven and Verdi at the Philharmonie on September 15. The main event, however, was the appearance of Martha Argerich as soloist. The pianist is famous for her last-minute cancellations; health problems in recent years have further diminished public performances. She seemed in high spirits, however, as she and Barenboim took the stage. It is not to any pianist that he would cede the bench, having made the Beethoven Concertos something of a signature in performances which he has conducted from the piano with both his own orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Argerich’s touch can be feather-light or bold and spontaneous, much like Barenboim, but never sloppy. She created a playful atmosphere in the opening movement of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, in C-major, which reflects the composer’s high spirits shortly after arriving in Vienna. The orchestra responded with a hefty but elegant sound. In the following Largo, Argerich’s pianissimo was uncanny in its gentle quality that nevertheless carried to back of the hall. The strings of the Staatskapelle in fact struggled to match its beauty until the end of the movement, while solo clarinet passages were sensitively phrased. The musicians’ energy exploded in the Rondo. Barenboim revealed one of his main strengths as he leaned back and let the orchestra go, only to dig in unexpectedly to create powerful climaxes. At times he was clearly following Argerich’s lead as she swept through the galloping chords with a tremendous freedom but immaculate articulation.

In the wake of thunderous applause, Barenboim had to grab her elbow and force her to bow a second time. He also coaxed her to give an encore before joining for a four-hand work by Schubert. Their rapport was evident in the easy coordination between registers and homogenous phrasing, although Barenboim seemed to enjoy the spotlight more than Argerich. Mi-Parti, one of the most important works from Lutosławski’s middle period, opened the program in a finely-wrought execution which speaks to the care Barenboim has invested in every section of the orchestra over nearly two decades. The strings created a transparent, glassy backdrop for the fragmented entrances of individual wind instruments, a tapestry which recurs in a rigorous structure emulating medieval fabric that is colored differently on either side.

The coda evokes a spiritual realm, moving from a celeste and harp rhythms that are picked up by the timpani until the harp is plucked over muted but screeching strings. Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri (Four sacred songs), alternating devotional a-cappella with fully scored operatic drama, were more uneven in performance. The first sopranos of the Rundfunkchor Berlin sounded uncharacteristically under the weather in numbers such as Ave Maria and Laudi alle Vergine Maria, while the brass section in numbers such as Stabat Mater was slightly too Wagnerian for this listener. Nevertheless, it was impossible to resist the dramatic power of the final Te Deum as a male a-capella ensemble cedes to full chorus and orchestra, a direct expression of the personal faith Verdi managed to sublimate in his art.

Requiem aeternam

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid
The Festtage of the Staatsoper Berlin, founded by Daniel Barenboim in 1996, is not officially an Easter Festival. But while the Berlin Philharmonic left the Philharmonie for some mountain air (taking up residence for the first time this year in Baden-Baden), the maestro— between conducting the first full cycle of the Cassiers/Bagnoli Ring production, which has unfolded between the German capital and Milan since 2010—presided over ensembles of both the Staatsoper and La Scala in two different Requiem masses.

The pianist and conductor, currently music director of both opera houses, opened Mozart’s Requiem on April 1 with W.A.’s last piano concerto, KV 595. The Staatskapelle’s rich warm, strings lent the music great strength—particularly in forte passages—while gentler nuances could have been more florid and secretive. Still, the balance with the piano was ideal in the opening Allegro. Barenboim brings a wonderful spontaneity to his performances—even if there were a couple of smudges on the keyboard—and he masters the Staatskapelle’s full-bodied sound with a firm but giving hand. The final Allegro movement, which opens deceptively with a variation of the chirping song Komm, lieber Mai, attained a mysterious quality that provided a captivating bridge to the Requiem, where Mozart could no longer take refuge in the childlike playfulness that masks a complex spectrum of emotions in other late works.

The mass, which lay unfinished on the composer’s deathbed, conveys a God-fearing sense of his own mortality. It is not until the bright E-flat major triad of the Sanctus movement, completed largely by Mozart’s contemporary Frank Xaver Süßmayer, that the light of day shines. There is nothing operatic about the work—one of several masses Mozart wrote between 1768 and 1791. As penetrating as the voices of the Staatsoper chorus were, one almost wished for a more penitent approach. Of the soloists, it was René Pape and Bernarda Fink—respectively the lower male and female voices—who captured the music’s demands for internal spirituality.

Rollando Villazòn seemed to vie for attention with his hystrionic facial expressions, so it was all the more excruciating when he switched suddenly from head to chest voice mid-entrance in Tuba Mirum. He managed to push above the ensemble later but it seems unlikely his timbre will ever recover the luster it bore pre-vocal crisis. Soprano Maria Bengtsson lent every line a pretty, creamy sound, but her inflections were often mannered. The Staatskapelle performed with increasing intensity, investing Domine Jesu Christe with an incision that drove to the heart of the music. Barenboim brought the final Lux Aeterna to a spaciously paced close.

Verdi’s Requiem, performed March 30 with the orchestra and chorus of La Scala, is unarguably the more theatrical of the two masses, emerging in the 1870s when the composer wrote no new operas. Verdi, moved to complete the work upon the death of his literary hero Alessandro Manzoni in 1873, nevertheless commented modestly that with so many Requiem Masses “there’s no point to writing one more.” He was wrong. His Dies Irae is one of the most petrifying moments in musical history, the chorus descending into a fiery pit of swirling strings and brass so demonic that even Wagner looks tame. The effect was nearly ear-numbing from my seat on the balcony above the stage, but I couldn’t miss the chorus’ homogeneity of tone and commitment to every syllable.

Daniela Barcellona gave a lesson in rich shading, carrying effortlessly across the hall in her solo of the second Dies movement. Soprano Maria Segreta, stepping in last minute for Anja Harteros, has a sweet timbre that sometimes struggled to hold its own alongside the voluminous mezzo, although it’s impossible for me to judge properly given the acoustics from my seat. They struck a placid balance in Agnus Dei. Pape was his usual serene self, and tenorissimo Fabio Sartori rounded out the ensemble with a penetrating but unpretentious tone. The musicians of La Scala made clear how deeply this music flows in their veins, phrasing with an unforced fluidity worthy of the highest Kunstreligion.

Angela Meade makes Berlin Debut; Peaches takes Opera Underground

Friday, May 11th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

The Deutsche Oper maintains a dedicated West Berlin following not only for its provocative stagings but sober concert operas showcasing star singers. Of nine “premieres” this season, four are in concert, and in the best scenario feature works known for their dramaturgical weaknesses. The house claimed in a press conference last season that it turned to concerts because of a need to repair stage machinery, although the format has also occupied programming in the past. The renovation has since been delayed until next season (rumors about the house’s financial woes aside). Following a performance of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles with Patricia Ciofi and Joseph Calleja in December, the company opened Verdi’s I Due Foscari on May 9 featuring Angela Meade in her Berlin debut alongside the tenor Ramon Vargas and the legendary baritone Leo Nucci.

Verdi’s sixth opera has struggled to meet with popular acceptance since its 1844 premiere in Rome, according to scholarly speculation because it followed on the heels of his more dramatically gripping Ernani. The composer himself wrote to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave early on that the work did not “possess the stage qualities that an opera demands,” particularly in the first act, and later admitted that the opera suffers from being too gloomy. The story centers upon a political struggle in fifteenth-century Venice in which Jacopo Foscari, son of the Doge Francesco Foscari, is falsely accused of murder by the Council of Ten. Despite the pleading of Jacopo’s wife Lucrezia, the Doge lawfully goes along with the orders decreed by council member Jacopo Loredano, a family rival, and his son is sent into permanent exile. Jacopo subsequently drops dead, and his father follows suit just after relinquishing power to the council.

Much in keeping with the apocalyptic tone, the score is an interesting study in the early use of Leitmotifs, which lends the opera ideally to a concert staging. A lamenting clarinet foreshadows Jacopo’s tragic fate already in the overture, subsequently appearing to usher in the character before several of his numbers. Verdi designates Lucrezia with a fiery series of rising triplets in the violins, while the Doge is assigned a ruminative motive in the celli and violas. Even the council is indicated with a recurrent procession of woodwinds. The opera closes in on the intimate, inter-personal relations between the main characters, launching from arioso to cabaletta to duetto while revolving around an overwhelmingly grief-stricken tone.

Vargas was not in his best voice for his opening cavatina “Dal più remoto esilio” but warmed up to prove himself as touching and vocally assured a Jacopo as one could hope for in the preghiera “Non maledirmi o prode” of the second act, in which he begs for mercy after being haunted by a ghost of another victim of Venetian law. He brought a great deal of tenderness to the following duetto sequence with Lucrezia (Meade), in which he declares that their suffering is worse than death, with the singers bringing their voluminous voices into fine chemistry with each other. Meade captured the distraught heroine with warm, powerful tone, sensitive dynamic shading and velvety legato that did justice to the emotional range of Verdi’s deceptively simple melodies. She initially belted out a couple of climatic high notes that were overwhelming in this house—this young spinto may be one of few singers who is truly destined to sing at the Met—but she found the right restraint in her romanza with the Doge (Nucci) in the first act, and the ease with which carried easily above full ensemble numbers was a delight.

Leo Nucci, Angela Meade and Ramon Vargas at the Deutsche Oper © Bettina Stöß

Despite the fine performances of Vargas and Meade, it was Nucci who captured the soul of this opera most convincingly (at least for this listener). Though no longer in his prime, he has this role in his bones, evoking the authoritarian yet tortured nature of the Doge with diction and phrasing that threaten to be a lost art. His third act aria “Questa dunque è l’iniqua mercede,” in which he confronts the chorus about Jacopo’s innocence, consumed the audience in a sense of irreversible doom. Even when he grabbed his music stand upon Lucrezia’s announcement that Jacopo had died in exile, there was nothing forced about his performance. It takes an artist of this vintage to anchor a concert staging in which the audience only has the singers’ vocal and facial expression as dramatic reference.

The conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli also harnessed the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, directly onstage behind the singers, to fine effect. While Les Pêcheurs de Perles had suffered from some untamed brass playing and steely phrasing under the young Spanish conductor Guillermo Garcia Calvo, Brignoli coaxed well-balanced, flexible lines, producing the most authentic Italianate inflections I have heard from this orchestra and never overwhelming the singers. The chorus of the Deutsche Oper lived up to its consistently excellent standards under director William Spaulding. The audience could not hold back its applause and “bravis” throughout the evening, an unequivocally warm response that contrasts sharply with the reception of the house’s Regietheater-prone premieres, although this was a particularly well-mannered, mostly retired crowd drawn from Berlin’s bourgeois boroughs.

Sick Peaches at HAU1

James Jorden, covering the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Anna Bolena on his blog Rough and Regie last fall, observed that lazy critics often veer toward the adjective “handsome, descriptive of any production that doesn’t feature actual vomit as a design element.” As I live one of the continental capitals of what could easily be designated as Eurotrash, I’ve been subjected to some pretty outlandish productions. But I never thought I’d ever see an actual simulation of vomit at the climactic moment of an opera. Then again, I did decide to go and see a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo starring Peaches, a kind of underground post-modern Madonna whose sexually charged raps have designated her as Berlin’s notorious enfant terrible (at least according to a scathing review in the local paper Der Tagesspiegel). The opera was conceived for her in the title role at the HAU1 Theater in Kreuzberg, with preparation including a half-year of voice lessons and language coaching (the Canadian native had never sung opera and didn’t know a word of Italian). The production also featured an original Peaches ‘composition’ (read: rap) which she called “Sick Bitch,” and yes, she got sick at the end.

So much for preserving the innocence of what some consider the western world’s first opera (although it was really Jacopo Peri’s Euridice). Of course, it would be ridiculous to judge this wacko Orfeo, seen during its third run on May 4, through the lens of a real opera critic. The Tagesspiegel’s observation that the efforts to prepare Peaches for an opera “led to shockingly little”—calling her the production’s “big negative” rather than an asset—is posited on the idea that someone who has made a career as a punk rapper could learn to sing opera in six months and that the intention was to have her do so in the first place. The production featured a cast of young singers and the experimental chamber ensemble Kaleidoskop in the pit under Swedish conductor Olof Borman, but this Orfeo was above all a vehicle for Peaches to shock and provoke much as she does in her own acts.

The opera is cut heavily and lasts under two hours. Apollo never appears, and the score includes a Lachenmann-esque composition by Timo Kreuser to represent the stark conditions of the underworld—an interesting idea in principle, but it is hard to make the argument for cutting Monteverdi in favor of this uninspired squealing and creaking. Monteverdi’s opening ritornello was played as the audience entered the theater, with some initially shabby bowing and phrasing but more finesse as it recurred sporadically after the entrance of Euridice catwalking as she poured pieces of styrofoam into a circle. Following the heroine’s aria “Io la musica son”—during which a banner of pithy anarchic precepts such as “no leader” and “screw in the streets” descends—she pulls Orfeo, Peaches, into the circle and strips her down to a skin-colored nylon suit.

The ensemble numbers quickly turn into orgies with heavy stroking; during “Qui le Napèe vezzose…Fu viste a coglier rose” (Here the charming wood nymphs…were seen picking roses), Peaches (who was wisely left out of the ensembles) tosses latex gloves onto the singers who are already in the process of tying each other up. The centerpiece of the staging (directed by Daniel Cramer and designed by Mascha Mazur) is a brown hut entitled “prospect cottage” that looks straight out of a kindergarten; it is here that Eurydice will be nursed from illness in the underworld. Surgical masks and an oxygen machine are necessary to survive. Peaches, descending with a lyre with chains for strings, breaks the spell with some electronically-modified chanting and her rap: “Hell’s hot/I’m getting a cold…” while Eurydice bops around in the background. Orfeo’s magical powers enable her to exorcise his (her?) lost beloved, manifested ever so elegantly with what I’ve described above.

The following ensemble number “E’ la virtute un raggio/Di celeste bellezza” (Virtue is a ray of celestial beauty) emerged like balsam to the senses, and indeed the musical quality of the actual classical musicians present had increasingly held its own. Ulrike Schwab was a coquettish Eurydice, with a pleasant lyric voice that probably would have been even more effective had she not been so consumed with the director’s instructions. The countertenor Armin Gramer, managing to elegantly pull off a tight, strapless gown, gave a stand-out performance as Speranza and in two other small roles. The mezzo Sabine Neumann warmed up by the second half to give a fine cameo of Proserpina. I won’t even bother criticizing Italian diction because there are simply too many areas where a critic could nitpick, not to mention the less than ideal acoustics of the theater. As far as Peaches’ attempts to sing opera, she was irritating at best with the exception of the opening lines of “Tu sei morta” upon losing Eurydice. She managed to convey some poignant emotion and carry a slightly legato tune, which was a relief after the rasping and muted shrieking to which she subjected her vocal chords throughout most of the evening.

Finding the Right Gimmick

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark

Shaham’s 1939 Dark Horse

Gil Shaham had an epiphany. After years of recognition as one of the brightest young lights of the concert circuit, the Israeli-American violinist conjured one of the most imaginative programming concepts in years. He had been struck by how many violin concertos written in the 1930s had entered the basic repertoire: Stravinsky (1931), Berg and Prokofiev Second (1935); then, in 1939 alone, the same year that Hollywood produced perhaps its greatest year ever, the Bartók, Hindemith, Walton, Britten, and Barber concertos. Since 2009 he has performed all of these but the Hindemith and Britten, and in December, when he received Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award for 2012, he promised that he would get to those too.

But there are many other concertos on the periphery waiting to be discovered—as Dennis D. Rooney mentioned in his tribute to Shaham in the Musical America Directory—waiting for the right performer to bring them alive to a public that loves the tried and true but welcomes a little spice too. The Szymanowski Second (1932) is one; Henryk Szeryng introduced it to me at a New York Philharmonic concert nearly 40 years ago. And after four decades of over a hundred concerts a season, countless radio broadcasts, and the collection and partial deaccession of over 20,000 LPs and 10,000 CDs, I’m about to be introduced to another ’30s violin concerto at a Philharmonic concert—this time courtesy of Gil Shaham, who gave the Walton concerto such a virtuoso turn with this orchestra last spring. The work is Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funebre (1939). Astonishingly (to me, anyway), I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a note of Hartmann’s music. Shaham will perform this concerto with the New York Philharmonic and David Zinman on March 15, 16, 17, and 20. Who knows? As with Szymanowski it may be a new love affair. I’ll let you know.

As a warmup to hearing Gil again in concert, I listened this past weekend to two Shaham CDs on his own Canary Classics label, which he founded several years ago when his previous label, Deutsche Grammophon, didn’t want to record a disc of Fauré chamber music. An all-Prokofiev disc (ATM CD 1555) includes the two violin sonatas, Opp. 80 and 94, the Five Melodies, Op. 35, and three Heifetz transcriptions sandwiched between the larger works. It’s a great CD, with the violinist contributing subtleties of dynamic shading and phrasing that elevated these works far beyond my previous estimation; he is ideally partnered by his sister, Orli Shaham. The sound, superbly produced by Eric Wen, matches the performers in its breathtaking realism. My preferred recording of the sonatas was previously the ’70s Perlman-Ashkenazy (most recently paired on an RCA CD with Perlman’s peerless recording of the Second Concerto with Leinsdorf and Boston). Henceforth, I’ll reach for the Shahams. Another superior Shaham CD on Canary is called “Virtuoso Violin Works” by Sarasate (CC07). This time Gil shares violin duties with his wife, Adele Anthony, and the pianist is Akira Eguchi. The four tracks requiring orchestral accompaniment feature the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León conducted by Alejandro Posada.

The Rest Is Noise in London

Another brilliant programming connection will dominate London’s Southbank Centre next season. It takes the subject of American music critic Alex Ross’s award-winning book The Rest Is Noise as a stepping-off point, and I quote:

“In 2007 Alex Ross wrote the seminal book The Rest Is Noise – listening to the Twentieth Century. Throughout 2013 we bring the book alive, with nearly 100 concerts, performances, films, talks and debates. We will take you on a chronological journey through the most important music of the 20th century to dramatise the massive political and social upheavals. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, with over 30 concerts, is the backbone of the festival that reveals the stories behind the rich, exhilarating and sometimes controversial compositions that have changed the way we listen forever.”

BBC Four is also involved in the project, assuring that the Foggy City will be awash in 20th-century music next season (see link).

NOW, I ask you, my good friends at Lincoln Center: Here’s a concept inspired by an internationally acclaimed book by an American author, published in America (Farrar, Straus, Giroux). With all your resources and a campus made for a project of such scope, why . . . ? But that’s a hopeless query. The Brits beat us to it, and no arts org on this coast is likely to jump off the 20th-century music cliff in today’s economic climate.

A New Carlos Kleiber Bio—in ENGLISH!

Alison Ames informs me that Corresponding with Carlos: A biography of Carlos Kleiber by Charles Barber has been published by Kindle, available through Amazon for $52.69. The reader reviews, which seem astute, are raves, and two of the reviewers find the price well worth it. Here’s the link:

American readers frustrated by the existence of three bios in German may click on this link for info (they’ll still be frustrated, of course, but at least the info will be available to them):

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

3/15 Metropolitan Opera. Verdi: Macbeth. Gianandrea Noseda (cond.). Thomas Hampson, baritone; Nadja Michael, soprano; Dimitri Pittas, tenor ; Günther Groissböck, bass.

3/16 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/David Zinman; Gil Shaham, violin. Hartmann: Concerto funebre. Beethoven: Symphony Nos. 1 and 3.

3/17 Walter Reade Theater.1:30 The Callas Effect. 3:00 Callas on Film.

3/17 Alice Tully Hall. Vadim Repin, violin; Itamar Golan, piano. Janácek: Violin Sonata. Ravel: Violin Sonata. Violin Sonata No. 2. Chausson: Poème. Ravel: Tzigane.

3/18 Carnegie Hall. American Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein; Stephen Powell, Lori Guilbeau, Robert Chafin, Burak Bilgili, Corey Bix, soloists; Collegiate Chorale Singers. Schmidt: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (in concert).

3/21 Rockefeller University. Rachel Barton Pine, violin. Paganini: Caprices (24).

Peter’s Principles

Friday, November 4th, 2011

by James Jorden

“I’ve almost come to the conclusion that this Mr. Hitler isn’t a Christian,” muses merry murderess Abby Brewster early in the first act of Arsenic and Old Lace, and to tell the truth I’m beginning to think I’m almost as far behind the curve as she was. Recent new productions at the Met suggest strongly that Peter Gelb either doesn’t quite know what he’s doing or else, if he does know, has some wildly inappropriate ideas about what music drama is supposed to be.  (more…)

To boo?

Friday, December 31st, 2010

By James Jorden

The opening of a new production of La Traviata at the Met tonight offers an ideal opportunity to address a fact of modern operatic life, the booing, apparently reflexive, of the director and production team at the first night’s curtain call.

Now, booing and other expressions of disapproval have a long history in the opera house. Likely the public was booing opera singers long before anyone booed professional wrestlers or baseball players. I’ve always thought that the famous climactic scene in Dangerous Liaisons, when Marquise de Merteuil gets read to filth by the audience at the opera house, gains in power when we remember that their hissing actually has a specific meaning in the context of a theater.   (more…)

Time Bandits

Friday, November 12th, 2010

By James Jorden

When stage directors decide to intervene (as opposed to merely curating) there are a number of approaches they can take: deconstruction, gloss on the text, invention of an entirely new narrative. Or they can take the somewhat safer route of changing the epoch of the action, setting La bohème during World War I, or in the 1950s, or even the present.

Now, in general, I’m not a fan of strict (i.e., realistic) updating, for a couple of reasons. For one, there are changes in technology and in society in general that have to be taken into account. An opera whose plot relies upon the urgent exchange of letters (e.g, Werther) tends to fall apart if the audience is given a chance to wonder why nobody just picks up the phone.  (more…)