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Roberto Alagna

Friday, December 9, 2016


My Classical Notes

December 1

December DVD of the Month, Romeo and Juliet

My Classical NotesGounod: Roméo et Juliette The cast of outstanding singers includes the following: Roberto Alagna (Roméo), and Angela Gheorghiu (Juliette). The Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra and Chorus of Prague, Anton Guadagno (conductor) and Barbara Willis Sweete (director). Shakespeare’s lovers never looked and sounded as good as in this romantic film adaptation of Charles Gounod’s beloved opera Roméo et Juliette, starring two of classical music’s most popular and successful couples, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. A spectacular medieval castle and its surrounding countryside provide the breathtaking setting for this timeless tale of warring families and star-crossed lovers. Conductor Anton Guadagno leads the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra through the opera’s beautiful arias and duets in this fresh interpretation of Gounod’s masterwork. Here is the marriage scene from this Opera:

parterre box

November 22

Once, Moore, with feeling

When Sonja Frisell‘s Met production of Aïda was new and starred Oklahoma native Leona Mitchell, the similarly-intialled Latonia Moore was nine years old, singing in the choir of her pastor grandfather’s church. Tonight, 28 years later, the Texas-born Moore will sing the title role in that production for the first time since her March 2012 Met debut, a one-night triumph of substitution. That performance was conducted by Marco Armiliato, who also returns Tuesday, leading Ekaterina Gubanova, Marco Berti, Mark Delavan, Dmitry Belosselskiy and Soloman Howard. Tuesday’s date brings to mind a story involving a third Aïda from a “red state,” a singer who blazed a trail for African-Americans such as Mitchell and Moore. On November 22, 1963, the nation and the wider world were plunged into shock and grief when President John F. Kennedy, 46, was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. The Met canceled the night’s performance of, poignantly, Götterdämmerung. It was evening in Vienna when news of the assassination reached three Met stars, Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli and Robert Merrill, as well as Mirella Freni, two autumns shy of her Met debut. They were recording a deluxe Carmen in the Sofiensaal under the direction of Herbert von Karajan and producer John Culshaw. In the account of Karajan biographer Richard Osborne, “The crew’s first thought that evening– and, to his eternal credit, that of the Don José, Franco Corelli–was for the one member of the cast who was American, black, and deeply committed to the Kennedy cause: Leontyne Price. Culshaw offered to postpone the sessions for a day or two, but Price insisted on going on. Just about the next thing they recorded was the Card Scene.” That set of Bizet’s opera can b e an argument starter to this day (as can many opera recordings), but it is little wonder that its Card Scene is as mournful a rendition as ever has been set down for microphones. In the Mississippian soprano’s smoky tones, the French words throb with tears subdued and a tinge of bitterness, appropriate for a day when a decade’s trajectory was altered: “Mais si tu dois mourir, si le mot redoubtable est écrit par le sort, recommence vingt fois, la carte impitoyable répétera : la mort!” Although this date even now has grim resonance for Americans, it was not always a sad one for the country or for the opera house. Here is a look back at just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on November 22nd through the years at the Met. 1884: As twilight advanced on the Arthurian age (Chester Alan Arthur, that is), Leopold Damrosch led the company’s second Tannhäuser. Tenor Anton Schott vacillated between the purity of Auguste Seidl-Kraus and the carnality of Anna Slach. The Times‘s 29-year-old W. J. Henderson, who would review Met performances until shortly before his death in 1937, had expressed reservations about the first performance, while lauding the young company’s effort and the audience’s focus: “[T]he continuous attention bestowed upon the entertainment indicated that the occasion was viewed as of far more importance than the opportunity for a brilliant social gathering offered by the inception of the habitual series of opera nights.” 1919: “There are only two beautiful voices in the Metropolitan company,” wrote James Gibbons Huneker in the World, referring to Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso. We might look back at the roster and disagree. Fortunately, Mr. Huneker was reviewing a new La Juive built around both of them. Artur Bodanzky “outdid himself, conducting with a nervous intensity that might better have been expended on a masterpiece instead of the unmusical fustian of La Juive. But then, he is not only a great conductor, but also a conscientious one and, with the cooperation of Caruso and Ponselle, made vital the faded music of Halévy.” The matinee audience was said to be “appreciative to fever heat,” and there was little time to cool down, with Claudia Muzio and Pasquale Amato lined up for an evening Trovatore. 1922: Two house favorites, tenor Giovanni Martinelli and bass José Mardones , were joined in Aïda by debuting leading ladies, Elisabeth Rethberg and Sigrid Onégin. The Times’s Richard Aldrich wrote of Onégin, “The new Amneris is a woman of majestic grace, broad gesture, brooding calm, while her voice was one of great power controlled with smoothness and beauty[.]” As for her onstage rival, amusingly, the Herald’s unidentified reviewer claimed that “Miss Rethberg was suffering so much from nervousness that she had almost no breath control,” while the World’s critic asseverated that “Miss Rethberg, not in least nervous, produced an abundance of fresh, brilliant tones.” On one point, all seemed in agreement: the German soprano was an important new voice. 1943: As the RAF began its air bombing of Berlin 4,000 miles away, the season opened with Mussorgsky’s bleak Boris Godunov. George Szell’s cast was headed by the tsar of Ezio Pinza. Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune lamented the decision to perform the opera in Italian, but appreciated “Mr. Szell’s fine understanding of this music and his ability to give shape to it (a quality it just possibly lacks a little bit in itself),” as well as “a certain good will on the part of the cast. It was amazing how carefully they all worked and how beautifully they all sang. If the opera sounded throughout like almost anything but a Russian opera, that was nobody’s fault that I could name.” 1947: Richard Tucker appeared in his first Met La bohème. Herbert Kupferberg of the Herald Tribune was equivocal: “He was in good voice, but he maintained a seemingly disdainful appearance, and most of his posturing was as absurd as the kiss he blew to the audience when it applauded his vocal accomplishments after the third act.” Rodolfo would be a frequent assignment for Tucker over the next quarter century. Kupferberg praised the “beautiful singing and unassuming demeanor” of Licia Albanese as Mimì. 1950: Margaret Harshaw, a mezzo for eight prior years with the company, made what Musical America‘s James Hinton Jr. described as a successful second debut as soprano, essaying Senta in Der fliegende Holländer. Fritz Reiner’s cast included Set Svanholm, Paul Schöffler and Sven Nilsson. Harshaw would carry on at the Met for another 14 years, alternating mezzo roles with the likes of Donna Anna, Isolde and Brünnhilde. 1951: Per Harold C. Schonberg in the Times, Alabama native Nell Rankin had a rough debut as Amneris in Aïda. “Her middle range sounded tentative, nor was there enough vocal authority for her to compete on even ensemble terms with Mr. [Mario] Del Monaco or Miss [Zinka] Milanov, both of whom virtually drowned her out in the first and second act trios.” Rankin would have other chances to impress, in this part and many others, through 1976. 1952: From a good seat, it may have seemed that Victoria de los Angeles was especially convincing in playing Cio-Cio San’s pain in Madama Butterfly. In fact, she was playing through pain, having injured her foot at some point in the second act. Her inadvertent “method” performance as Pinkerton’s faithful bride received a rave from the Times’s Noel Straus (“Never before at the opera house has this reviewer found the gifted soprano’s vocalism or acting so expressive or compelling”). 1957: “If you happen to have a friend with an aversion to opera houses, just take him or her to the Met for a performance of Der Rosenkavalier. If you don’t have a convert on your hands, we’ll attempt to eat a libretto right off a lobby stand,” wrote the Mirror’s Robert Coleman. The source of his folksy enthusiasm was a performance starring Lisa Della Casa, Hilde Gueden, Risë Stevens and Otto Edelmann. Karl Böhm conducted; the Herbert Graf/Rolf Gérard production framed. For New Yorkers feeling “kind of blue,” just a 20-minute walk away, the Miles Davis Quintet began a Carnegie Hall series. 1968: The release of the Beatles’ White Album was the day’s headline for the nation’s youth, but a new Rheingold also debuted, the second completed entry in a planned Ring from conductor/director Karajan and designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen. Debuting singers Josephine Veasey (Fricka), Zoltán Kelemen (Alberich), Gerhard Stolze (Loge) and Edda Moser (Wellgunde) joined Thomas Stewart (Wotan), Lili Chookasian (Erda), Martti Talvela and Karl Ridderbusch (Fasolt and Fafner). Baritone divo Sherrill Milnes took a holiday from Italian and French fare for a luxury Donner. Working with an orchestra a long way in 1968 from the ensemble it would become, Karajan drew a Rheingold praised for refinement, suggestiveness and buoyancy. “[Maria] Callas and Herbert von Karajan were the complete artists of my time at the Metropolitan, and I can criticize myself most effectively by complaining how few performances we got from either,” GM Rudolf Bing would write in his retirement memoir. 1976: “Without Love, there’s nothing you can do,” warned Aretha Franklin in a song of this era. Well, the Met had to do something: Shirley Love was unable to continue as Meistersinger‘s Magdalena after the first act. She was replaced by Cynthia Munzer, and the glorious quintet of Act Three remained a quintet, possibly a glorious one. Its other voices were Stewart, tenors Gerd Brenneis and Kenneth Riegel, and (in her first Met role) Eva Marton. 1983: The audience got its first exposure to Gösta Winbergh, Ottavio in a Don Giovanni with Carol Neblett, Kathleen Battle and James Morris. The Swedish tenor, whose “sweet tone[,] aristocratic style and technique” earned him an appreciative notice from the Times’s John Rockwell, would return periodically over the next 15 years for Mozart and Bizet. 1985: James Levine led the first of his 77 Met performances of Le nozze di Figaro, the occasion being Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s new production with Battle, Carol Vaness, Frederica von Stade, Thomas Allen and Ruggero Raimondi. This autumnal reconsideration of the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece was controversial for its imposing classical sets, stark costuming (“[T]hose who watch [a telecast] on black-and-white television sets will not miss very much,” quipped Tim Page in the Times) and liberties of character conduct taken by the director. Martin Mayer of Opera found it “generally nasty and ill-considered” but extolled the cast, especially the three female principals, and felt that “for the orchestra and Levine, no praise could be too high.” 1997: “Hungarian hardball” was how GM Joseph Volpe, in his retirement memoir, described Marton’s self-imposed exile following the 1988-89 season, when, “despite what [Marton had] been led to believe,” a rival was cast as Brünnhilde in the Met’s studio Ring recording. Marton finally returned for three dates in Franco Zeffirelli‘s overstuffed Turandot, in which she had been memorably filmed a decade earlier. Nello Santi‘s cast for Puccini’s valediction featured Ruth Ann Swenson and Kristián Jóhannsson as slave and prince, respectively. Marton would be back two Novembers later as Tosca, but the performance of the 22nd was her final Met Turandot. 1998: To mark his 30th Met anniversary, Luciano Pavarotti performed an act apiece from L’elisir d’amore, La bohème and Aïda, assisted by Levine and an array of this era’s vocal talent: Swenson, Ainhoa Arteta, Daniela Dessì, Maria Guleghina, Dolora Zajick, Leo Nucci, Dwayne Croft, Paul Plishka. At the evening’s close, Volpe presented Pavarotti with a Puccini autograph with music from Turandot. The beloved tenor, beset by recent health and personal concerns and not in best voice, was philosophical about criticism: “When a young man falls down in the street, they say he stumbled because he was looking at the sky. When a 60-year-old man falls down, if he is well known, they say it is because he is old.” 1999: After nearly 16 years on the shelf, Tristan und Isolde returned in a new production by Dieter Dorn, Maestro Levine at last having what he considered a worthy cast (Jane Eaglen, Katarina Dalayman, Ben Heppner, René Pape). The Observer’s Charles Michener awarded top honors to König Marke: “Mr. Pape’s riveting intensity of gesture, his nuanced articulation of the text and the force of his huge, burnished tone jolted the opera out of a dreamscape and into the painful here-and-now.” 2010: The 1979 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo gave way to a new one. The Observer‘s Zachary Woolfe felt that director Nicholas Hytner’s work suffered from lapses in tone (“Sombre splendor there is frequently not”), but he praised the royal couple of “rich-voiced and eloquent” bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and young soprano Marina Poplavskaya (“[A] single motion of her hand […] was a model of operatic gesture: stylized yet true, tiny yet able to register across an auditorium. She gets it”). The brotherly love of Carlo and Rodrigo was enacted by Roberto Alagna and Simon Keenlyside. In his second Met opera, future music director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew acclaim from the Times’s Anthony Tommasini as “a born communicator who brought youthful passion and precocious insight to his work.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera




Royal Opera House

November 14

Les Contes d’Hoffmann musical highlight: The Doll Aria

Sofia Fomina, Christophe Mortagne and Vittorio Grigòlo in Schlesinger’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’, also known as the Doll Aria from Les Contes d’Hoffmann , is infamously difficult to sing. It is sung in Act I by Olympia, a mechanical doll who the hapless Hoffmann believes to be human. For much of the act, Olympia simply says ‘oui’ (yes) to anything asked of her, but Offenbach more than makes up for this in her aria. Written for the French soprano Adèle Isaac – a star of Paris’s Opéra-Comique known for her interpretations of challenging roles such as Marie (La Fille du régiment ), Isabelle (Robert le diable ) and Juliette (Roméo et Juliette ) – it is a virtuoso tour-de-force, packed with stratospheric coloratura. Where does it take place in the opera? The Doll Aria takes place in Act I, when the inventor Spalanzani hosts a party at his Paris home. In the previous scene, the gullible Hoffmann – deaf to the warnings of his friend Nicklausse – is duped by Spalanzani into believing that Olympia is the inventor’s daughter. Spalanzani is helped in his ruse by the fiendish scientist Coppélius, who sells Hoffmann a pair of magical glasses that make Olympia appear fully human. When Olympia performs her song for Spalanzani’s party guests, Hoffmann is so impressed that he determines to marry the doll. What do the lyrics mean? The words of Olympia’s two-verse aria are self-consciously sentimental and repetitive, as befits her mechanical state. In the first verse she sings of how the songs of birds awaken thoughts of love in her young soul; in the second of how her loving heart is moved by songs and sighs. Both verses end with the coy refrain ‘this is the lovely song of Olympia’. Read Jonathan Burton’s translation below, created for The Royal Opera: Les oiseaux dans la charmille, Dans les cieux l’astre du jour Tout parle à la jeune fille d’amour! Voilà la chanson gentille, la chanson d’Olympia!Les oiseaux dans la charmille, Dans les cieux l’astre du jour Tout parle à la jeune fille d’amour! Voilà la chanson gentille, la chanson d’Olympia! The birds in the bower, The sun in the sky To a maiden everything speaks of love! This is Olympia’s pretty song. Everything that sings and echoes and sighs in turn Stirs a maiden’s heart that trembles with love. This is Olympia’s sweet little song. What makes the music so memorable? Offenbach’s music perfectly characterizes a mechanical doll, with a pretty melody sung to a waltz rhythm, and delicate harp and flute accompaniment reminiscent of the sound of musical boxes (possibly mimicking the real musical clockwork dolls popular in late 19th-century France). However, Olympia isno ordinary automaton; her melody line becomes progressively more ornate during the aria’s first verse (particularly in the flamboyant vocalise that ends its refrain) and by the second verse she’s in full exhibitionist mode, decorating her melody with as many trills, flourishes, roulades and stratospherically high notes as any coloratura soprano could wish for. She pays the price for this display though – during both refrains her mechanics run down, causing her to collapse until Spalanzani winds her up again. The second time, he clearly does his job rather too well, as Olympia soars to new heights in the hyperactive closing cadenza. Hoffmann’s other musical highlights Les Contes d’Hoffmann contains a glut of wonderful arias, duets and ensembles. The protagonist’s solo numbers include the Prologue’s ‘Chanson de Kleinzach’ in which the poet moves from wit to romantic reverie and back, and the hedonistic Act II aria ‘Amis, l’amour tendre et reveur, erreur!’. The devilish villains naturally get plenty of good tunes, including Lindorf’s cynical and boastful ‘Dans les rôles d’amoureux langoureux’. Among the duets, the best known is perhaps the sensual Barcarolle ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour’ that opens the Giulietta act; a lesser-known treat is Hoffmann and Antonia’s poignant ‘C’est une chanson d’amour’, one of the opera’s few genuinely romantic episodes. Other highlights include the Prologue’s ebullient drinking chorus, Act II’s dramatic septet (sung as Hoffmann realizes that Giulietta has stolen his reflection) and Antonia’s nostalgic aria ‘Elle a fui, la tourterelle’ that opens Act III. Classic recordings Les Contes d’Hoffmann doesn’t lack good recordings. EMI’s bargain box-set conducted by André Cluytens features Nicolai Gedda as Hoffmann, one of his greatest roles; his duet with Victoria de los Ángeles ’s Antonia is unforgettable. Domingo fans can enjoy the 1972 Decca recording with the inimitable Joan Sutherland as the three heroines; another Domingo option is the 1981 live Salzburg recording , with José van Dam in devilishly good form as the four villains, conducted by James Levine . Kent Nagano ’s 2011 recording (Erato) features Roberto Alagna as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay on sparkling form as Olympia, among other delights. There’s a good choice of DVD recordings too, including The Royal Opera’s production with Domingo as Hoffmann . More to discover Offenbach’s only other opera (Die Rheinnixen ) hasn’t ever entered the repertory, but several of his operettas are easily available on CD and DVD. Orphée aux Enfers (with its famous can-can ) and La Belle Hélène offer a hilarious take on Greek myths, or you can luxuriate in the hedonistic Paris party scene with La Vie parisienne . La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is worth a listen too, particularly for the heroine’s rousing arias. On a more serious note, Massenet ’s opera Werther offers another take on the romantic artist searching for the ideal woman, as does Gounod ’s Faust , where the hero is prepared to sell his soul to the devil for love and youth. And if you’re after operas about artists and their love affairs, there’s always Puccini ’s much-loved La bohème . Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs until 3 December 2016. Tickets are still available. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 15 November 2016. Find your nearest cinema . The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet and Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston.

parterre box

November 11

Stage beauty

What does a great opera production do, and what does a bad production fail to do? Discussions of this subject reveal divisions as deep as those in arguments about the 2016 presidential election, and the discussions can be almost as acrimonious. Some operagoers believe a production should recreate what a composer and librettist would have seen in their time, albeit with modern technical capabilities. To the most conservative of these fans, even a cosmetic change to the prescribed time period (19th century instead of 18th or 13th, for example) is a betrayal. Others accept a new production as an individual response to the material, and will embrace Regietheater rethinkings of familiar works if the results are absorbing as theater. Still others find a middle ground: do what you like with the sets and costumes, but stay faithful to the narrative. We all have to decide where we are on this spectrum, and placement on it is not necessarily fixed. I know that in 2016 I enjoy things I would not have expected to enjoy in 2006. Sometimes I return to a Regietheater production that actually made me angry when I saw it at an earlier point of life and experience with the medium, and while I still do not like it, I have a mellower view. I can criticize it in a different way and see how it fell short, rather than being affronted that it was allowed to happen at all. Similarly, a lesser traditional production that may have satisfied me years ago, because it stuck to the script and did not get in the way, now may displease me because it does not do or give enough. Those who resist Regietheater often ask a good question when confronted with a production that takes liberties: “What if this were someone’s first performance of [title]?” The implication is that such an audience member would be confused and alienated, would get the wrong ideas about the work ostensibly being produced, perhaps would never set foot in an opera house again. Of course, we all have to jump in somewhere, and in theater there are always risks. I remember the first Don Giovanni I saw. I already knew the music well from recordings, and I saw a local production with a good young cast. As the singing went, I was more fortunate than I could have known at the time. The Donna Anna went on to Wagner/Strauss success in Europe and has appeared at WNO and the Met in recent years. The Leporello (the clear crowd favorite) sings Leporello and Escamillo everywhere now. The Don Giovanni also has had a good career. The production was as traditional as anyone could have wanted. If you looked at a still picture, you would have correctly guessed the opera immediately. Giovanni even had a plumed hat. But as I sat through scene after scene comparing what I was seeing to what I had heard on my recordings, and what I had read and knew, I thought, “Is this opera always so…dumb?” I do not think Don Giovanni is Mozart’s greatest opera, and I did not think so at the time, but it deserved better than this. The performers had been directed to behave like idiots. Unfortunately, I was sitting close enough for all the idiocy to land with force. Most of the examples have left me, but one I remember was at the conclusion of the first act. Anna, Ottavio and Elvira, huddled together, advanced on a cornered and unarmed Giovanni like timid rabbits. All he had to do was raise his hands and let out a threatening yell and they scampered offstage in terror while he laughed. Making these characters so cowardly undermined their continuing search for vengeance in the second act to come. The whole evening was like that. It was “traditional,” but it was ill-considered shtick with no dimension to it, no dignity about it. Maybe some people went home talking about how beautiful the clothes were, but I did not like to imagine it was “what Mozart and Da Ponte intended.” I never held my bad first production against Don Giovanni. I went on to see better ones, and some that were equally bad in other ways. I recently decided to put the “first performance” question to the test. I frequently have friends over to watch streams and DVD performances, and also have invited friends to Met HDs and to live performances within driving distance. I have had more than 40 unique guests since 2009, some of them being “one and done” (opera is not for everyone), others becoming regulars. This outreach is something I think every opera buff should do. We can spend all our time worrying and complaining about attendance figures and criticizing pop music, or we can try to be part of the solution. You never know. Maybe someone you had over to watch Madama Butterfly in your living room will buy a ticket to Fanciulla del West sometime down the line, and one more seat will be filled. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7tqdwFVdMQ Stefan Herheim‘s 2012 La bohème for Den Norske Opera is a “radical” production I think highly of. It has been available on DVD for four years. I will not formally review the production (which I call “La bohèmatology“), as that would extend this article to punishing length, and there would be no improving on Henson Keys‘s review in the parterre archive. I encourage you to pause and read Henson’s review if you are unfamiliar with the DNO Bohème. I agree with him on every point. One thing I will add is that in Bohème and in other operas (Meistersinger, Pikovaya Dama), Herheim combines very old and more modern devices and techniques in a way that makes me think of another Scandinavian director, Ingmar Bergman. The term “Bergmanesque” has come to mean something narrow in popular usage: austere settings, a tone of solemnity, anguished monologues, the contemplation of women’s faces. This is reductive. Bergman was about much more than that. He mingled psychology and dreams, eroticism and belief, magic and mystery. He grappled with big questions, and his body of work in film and on the stage had uncommon scope and vision. Herheim has similar audacity, and the comparison is intended as high praise. I hope someday to see original work by Herheim, who is still only in his forties. If I have a criticism, it is that he can pour so much creativity into the vessel of a repertory work that it is spilling over. I had intended to show this production to three friends who had never seen Bohème (two were familiar with Larson’s Rent) and a fourth who had seen two traditional productions, a DVD of the famous 1981 Franco Zeffirelli and an undistinguished local performance. The friend who already knew Bohème ended up being otherwise engaged for the evening. He is a young philosophy professor, so I lost my Colline. I asked the other three to brush up on a synopsis of the opera beforehand, which I always consider a good idea with a new opera, even in this age of simultaneous translations. It seemed especially advisable this time. While we watched this Bohème, the level of engagement was high. Everyone was paying close attention, but I was aware that some good detail was passing for nothing. Some things Herheim does will only register if you know Bohème well, such as assigning ironic meanings to specific lines, and blocking “Oh! sventata, sventata!” in an almost satirically by-the-book fashion. For a few minutes, we could be looking at any Mimì and Rodolfo of any time since 1896, and the familiarity is comforting, both to the grieving hero and to us. Then Mimì sheds her period costume and wig and is again gowned, chemo-bald, dying. Again and again, reality intrudes upon the dream. Two of three guests admitted in a break at the midpoint that they were confused by the production. We talked a little about what we had seen so far, and I encouraged them not to make up their minds until they had taken in the whole show. The second half went better. The small crowd (in my living room, not in Oslo) clearly found Mimì’s “Donde lieta uscì […] Addio, senza rancor” very affecting as sung and acted by the gifted soprano Marita Solberg, and also as Herheim directs it: the spectral heroine’s granting of forgiveness from beyond, to her lover left behind. The death scene was likewise effective, with the ghostly Mimì appearing to strengthen the bond between the oft-quarreling Musetta and Marcello (a nurse and a maintenance worker in the production’s “outer” story), drawing their hands together. I told the group I would be sending them a few questions to answer in writing once they had had a day or so to mull it over, and I encouraged them to be honest. All have graciously complied. “Schaunard,” 47, works for a large law firm. He had seen eight prior operas within the last year, from which his favorites were Weinberg’s The Passenger (for “the compelling story and the brilliant set design,” despite 20th-century music he found challenging), Richard Jones‘s production of the complete Trittico (for the music and the commentary on human nature), and the David McVicar Roberto Devereux (“beautiful staging and costuming,” pleasing music, and an easy story to follow). Of the three guests, Schaunard was least receptive to Herheim’s Bohème. “I found the first half confusing, didn’t appreciate the sterile modernism of the present-day hospital bed sitting there throughout the piece, and found the male lead’s unrelenting and exaggerated physical expressions of grief from beginning to end (dare I say) tedious. I would much prefer to have seen the story as a progression rather than a retrospective. I did, however, appreciate the “death figures” being portrayed by the same singer [Svein Erik Sagbraten]. In any event, I wouldn’t mind seeing a traditional version for comparison. I enjoyed the music, and appreciated the singing talent. It would be defensible to label me a philistine, I suppose. The more difficult to access a piece of art is, the more impatient I get.” “Marcello,” 26, recently completed graduate school and works as a system/network administrator. Marcello has been the most enthusiastic of these three for seeing operas, even being willing to see two or three in a month. The Passenger was a previous favorite for Marcello too, among his 18. Two others were Carmen with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, and Manon Lescaut with Kristine Opolais and Alagna. He disliked the Wourinen/Proulx opera Brokeback Mountain and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride (a Regietheater take by Dmitri Tcherniakov). Marcello, who had admitted to being confused by the Herheim Bohème in the early going, ultimately found it “incredible” for the way the unusual structure added layers of poignancy and grief even to what are happy moments on the page. He did say he might have preferred first to see Bohème the way it was “supposed to be done,” and then to see how it can be “altered to give a different meaning.” He liked the performance of the lead tenor (Diego Torre) more than Schaunard did above, and enjoyed the music. He would recommend this Bohème to someone who knows Bohème well. Marcello’s thoughts on what makes a good production: he is interested in set design, and cited the Met’s sparse yet luminous Madama Butterfly (Michael Levine for Anthony Minghella) as well as the old-fashioned opulence of Julian Crouch‘s sets for the same theater’s Merry Widow. However, his favorite productions are the ones he remembers for having amazing acting and singing with a real star turn at the center, “such as Carmen. That woman [Garanca] was able to dance, sing and seduce anyone. ” “Rodolfo,” 29, is a process consultant with a healthcare corporation. He had seen 12 operas prior to Bohème. The only one he had disliked was, again, Wourinen’s Brokeback Mountain. Favorites were the Jones Trittico, the Mariusz Trelinski-directed double bill of Iolanta/Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, and the Otto Schenk Rusalka as seen in its final Met revival. Rodolfo seemed the most affected by the Herheim Bohème when it was over, and asked if he could borrow the DVD to watch it a second time before submitting his thoughts. He ultimately wrote that it was “radical [but] interesting,” and believed it would work best for someone who had seen the opera before. “I was very grateful to have read a detailed synopsis of the work. Otherwise, I would have been lost in the blending of fantasy and reality. […] Instead of the sudden, gut-wrenching loss of Mimi in Act 4, the viewer has to deal with [the protagonist’s] bereavement through the entire opera. ” Rodolfo too would recommend the production to others, because it “brings a new life to an old classic.” However, “a novice viewer would have to be able to actively think on her feet and pay close attention to the nuances of this production.” Rodolfo does not feel he yet has “the critical ear to detect a fantastic vocal performance [as opposed to] a mediocre one.” He commented that, being used to the kind of entertainment that Hollywood offers, he is drawn to scenic beauty and stagecraft. On those levels, he appreciated the Herheim Bohème, with its vivid colors and ingenious transformations from hospital room to imaginary 19th-century Paris and back. Henson wrote in his 2012 review: The first lines of the essay in the DVD’s accompanying booklet […] are these: “Who among us doesn’t already have a personal relationship to La bohème? Probably a deep and intimate one: this opera, more than any other, strikes a chord that resonates in us where we are most sensitive.” Well, I think this is certainly true of those who love opera, but I’m not sure that goes for newbies or those attending one of their first operas. I therefore would not necessarily recommend this DVD to those who want the sentimental story of young love and tragedy (though I think my acting students and many of their generation would love it). I would say that my experiment gives validity to his comments. All three guests would have preferred their introduction to Bohème to be something more orthodox. The extreme-Regie treatment did give them problems orienting themselves, problems I have not seen with milder interventions such as putting Carmen in the 1930s or Falstaff in the 1950s. That said, no one checked out on it. It held attention and there was appreciation for its qualities, even a few superlatives. Everyone present would gladly see another Bohème. Maybe there is a follow-up piece in that. The opera’s conclusion remained powerful, and there were some watery eyes. I suppose there is no point in deciding whether to give the credit to singers Solberg and Torre, conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen and the orchestra, director Herheim and his production collaborators, composer Puccini and librettists Illica and Giocosa, or the author of the source book, Henri Murger. When a standard-repertory opera still works, it does so because of what everyone involved, living and dead, brought to it. We in the audience, who bring our own life experiences and feelings in with us, make a contribution as well. Special thanks to “Rodolfo,” “Marcello” and “Schaunard” for making this piece better by contributing their time and their words. I hope it has been of some interest to the parterre readership.



The Well-Tempered Ear

November 11

Classical music: Madison Opera’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” excelled in singing, orchestral playing, drama and other aspects that redeemed a largely unmemorable work. Plus, what is good music for Veterans Day?

ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section. By Jacob Stockinger Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera ’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson . More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae ” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone. By Larry Wells Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.) But we go to the opera for music and drama. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial. However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected. The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument. He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche. The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for. As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning. Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance. The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet . I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous. I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place. Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”? Tagged: Alfredo Kraus , Angela Gheorghiu , aria , Arts , Characters in Romeo and Juliet , Charles Gounod , choral music , chorus , Classical music , conductor , costume , death , drama , Emily Birsan , friar , Grant Johnson , harp , Jacob Stockinger , John DeMain , Juliet , lighting , Madison , Madison Opera , Madison Symphony Orchestra , Maestro , melodrama , Music , nurse , opera , Orchestra , Overture Center , photo , Puccini , Requiem , Richard Strauss , Richard Wagner , Roberto Alagna , Romeo and Juliet , Ruth Anne Swenson , San Francisco , San Francisco Opera , set , Sidney Outlaw , soprano , staging , swordfight , tenor , The Ring , Tokyo , tragedy , Turandot , United States , University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music , University of Wisconsin–Madison , Veterans Day , vocal music , War Requiem , William Shakespeare , Wisconsin , YouTube

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