This week in opera

1. I went to the concert performance this past Wednesday of Strauss’s Elektra at Carnegie Hall with Christine Goerke in the title role. I normally prefer my operas four hours long and highly stylized; there is however much to be said in favor of brief and terrifying. I believed every word Goerke sang. It was hair-raising, in the best possible way – hearing her voice at full power with the Boston Symphony right behind her instead of in a pit was unforgettable. We should have more concert performances of Strauss operas around here. Elevating the orchestra (literally and perhaps a bit figuratively too) really works.

2. I have been dragged – well, not really dragged – to a number of piano recitals recently. Maurizio Pollini a few weeks ago, and again tomorrow because I am married to a piano nut, and then we scored some free tickets to hear Andras Schiff on the 30th. Piano nerds are real, and I was surrounded by them during the last recital. They do air piano on their programs during the encores. I am not making this up.

3. I got stuck on the subway the other day – one of the less attractive qualities of the New York subway system is that if a butterfly in Brooklyn flaps its wings in the wrong direction, all the express trains in Queens start running local, and it takes me an hour to get anywhere – and I was listening to that Mozart arias album again. It gets better on repeated listening. I always end up in this distressing epistemological quandry whenever I form an opinion about anything: I am never sure afterward whether my opinion was formed under the right circumstances and whether it might not have been different and which one would have been right.

4. As part of training to be a volunteer tour guide at Carnegie Hall, you have to tag a long on a bunch of tours to absorb what the other guides are doing and what the route is (there is also a booklet). I’m starting to feel like a regular at screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – I know what all the jokes are going to be in advance.

Dorothea Röschmann and Mitsuko Uchida / Songs by Schumann and Berg

5119eS-4t8LThis recital is so very, very good that you just sit there stunned and then have to pick yourself up off the floor, regroup and sit there stunned for a little while longer. I heard the live version of this concert at Carnegie Hall last spring; this CD was recorded a few weeks later at Wigmore Hall, and I think the Londoners got the better performance, because again, while what I heard was good, this was utterly amazing. Every note of this performance is alive.

Röschmann and Uchida perform three sets of songs, Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis, Berg’s Seven Early Songs, and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben.

Uchida’s piano playing reveals that the piano part in these songs is not just “accompaniment” but rather a second voice in the piece. She brings out details that I had not registered before – the heartbeat pulse of the piano part in “Intermezzo” in the Leiderkreis, the way the piano lines wrap up the story of witch and wanderer in “Waldesgespräch”, the rushing of the little brook in “In der Fremde” or the simple glow of happiness in “Frühlingsnacht.” I was just listening to bits of the recital again as I write this (sometimes I can figure out what I was talking about in my original chickenscratch notes; other times – as is common with important historical documents – the notes are written in a left-handed scrawl so impenetrably awful that I have to go back and re-create the moment in order to interpret the record) and a second listen does nothing but confirm Uchida’s power to make the piano part speak.

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Röschmann – Mozart Arias

81+KhfgQcILThe material on this album will be familiar to those who caught the concert broadcast version last winter. I knew going in that it would be mostly the same selections, but I wasn’t sure whether Röschmann, Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony would record it separately in the studio, or whether the album would be pieced together from the recorded concerts. It’s the latter (minus the piano concerto that the live audience heard). One might not immediately realize that this was a live concert, though – all the audience noises and applause have been removed.

It’s a disc of Mozart arias from roles that Röschmann built her operatic career on – the Countess’s two arias from Figaro, Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì”, Vitellia’s “deh, se piacer me vuoi” and “non più di fiori” from La Clemenza di Tito. There are also two arias from Idomeneo, one of which die hard Röschmaniacs will have heard her sing before if they’ve got the bootleg of her as Ilia at the Met in 2006, and another of Elettra’s. The program finishes with a concert aria that I had never heard before the broadcast last year, “bella mia fiamma, addio”.

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Verdi – Otello / Metropolitan Opera 10-10-15

The Met’s new production of Verdi’s Otello makes use of their projection system; the first image on the stage is that of the stormy sea as the people of Cyprus wait for Otello’s ship. These waves reappear in Act IV – stormy seas, stormy feelings, forces of nature, unable to control, etc. etc. The stage set-up is simple, a reflective V that sometimes echoes the waves, sometimes looks merely like reflective metal, but not mirrors – it’s a much dimmer, distorted reflection. There is also a series of clear plastic slices of wall with halls and stairs inside that resemble nothing so much as narrow versions of those glassed-in waiting rooms on train platforms, complete with moderate fog on the inside. They slide around to create the spaces of the palace, garden, bedroom, and so on. Near the end of Act II, they close in for Otello and Iago’s duet, transforming a public area into a bedroom with the same bed used for Desdemona’s room in Act IV – it creates an intimate space for Iago to manipulate Otello about an equally intimate matter. These plastic wall slices also make the lighting more obvious – they glow chilly blue for Iago’s “credo” monologue and turn to red or yellow as Otello plots vengeance. But they’re gone entirely for the last act, in which Desdemona’s bed, prie-dieu and a few chairs are placed alone – looking rather small and vulnerable, much like Desdemona herself – in that larger open space.

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Verdi’s Otello

Ever have one of those moments where an opera you never paid an unusual amount of attention to before suddenly becomes more interesting? I had one of those this week with Verdi’s Otello. I have a ticket to see it on the 10th, and though I own both CD and DVD versions of this opera, it never really transfixed me. But I listened the other day to the CD version that I have (Domingo, Ricciarelli, Diaz at La Scala) and it became apparent that there was a lot of it that I somehow failed to really register before – most of the ensembles, for instance.

This impression was reinforced by a library DVD of a Met performance from 1995 with the ubiquitous Mr. Domingo in the title role, looking like he was dipped in deck stain beforehand – which has the effect not of making him look African, but of making him look like a white guy who was dipped in deck stain – and Renée Fleming singing Desdemona and James Morris as Iago (also: I kept registering the unusual mellifluousness of the tenor singing Cassio and I just looked to see who it was – Richard Croft! no wonder. The wig disguised him.) I am not a fan of the visual aspects of Fleming’s acting in this case – there is much cocking of her head in sweet puzzlement early on, and a lot of whimpering and cringing later – but if you shut your eyes, she’s pretty fantastic. I was listening with headphones instead of on the speakers, and this may be an artifact of my headphones or it may be the audio on the DVD, but the orchestra was more forward than on my CD recording, and this made a real difference for me. The whole thing jumped into focus.

I wonder if I’ll have to fake a New York accent…

2015-09-28 15.55.17This is a picture of the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall in the middle of a Monday afternoon. (Never mind the part of my thumb visible to the bottom left; that part of the image is not important.) I was there because I decided that it would be interesting to volunteer as a tour guide, and the new volunteers were being taken through the tour route, as prelude to further training. Unlike at Lincoln Center, you don’t have to pay (!) to be a volunteer at Carnegie Hall, so I’m out only subway fare and time. And one has been told that one occasionally might score some free tickets.

We will see how this goes. I have a lot of experience vis-a-vis conveying certain specific points of information in an entertaining way in less than an hour to people with varying levels of interest, but it’s been a long time since I’ve worn a name badge.

Donizetti – Anna Bolena / Metropolitan Opera 9-26-15

David McVicar’s production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena resembles his Maria Stuarda: there is a lot of gray and dull brown and white, with splashes of bright red. The red is hard to miss. Anna is wearing it for a while, and then at the beginning of Act II the red has moved to the bed in the room where Anna and Giovanna have their conversation, and by the time Giovanna is pleading with Henry (for consistency’s sake, I suppose I should refer to him as Enrico, but I can type Henry more times in a row without mistakes, so Henry he is) for Anna’s life she (Giovanna) is wearing a red dress, and the last time we see Anna she is wearing white – if red means you are the focus of Henry’s attention, for good or bad, Anna has escaped. The royal buck has been passed.

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Anna Prohaska – Sirène

51BspUnri6L Like Prohaska’s more recent recital disc, Behind the Lines, this one, recorded in 2010, is a collection of songs from a wide variety of time periods and in several languages, held together by theme. In this case, the theme is the figure of the siren. (Also, some day, I would like to see a soprano not sport five different come-hither looks in the album booklet. I’m sure it is possible. Actually, I know it is – I have a Handel recital CD on the cover of which Maria Bayo is wearing a woolly turtleneck and looking merely friendly; it can be done. But anyway.)

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Mostly Bach But Also Some Schumann: Joshua Bell, Andrew Manze, and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra 8-18-15

The first item on the program of Tuesday’s concert was Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, which, like the Schumann symphony after the intermission, used the full orchestra; a smaller set of musicians remained to accompany violinist Joshua Bell for the second item, Bach’s violin concerto in E major, BWV 1042, which Bell directed himself.

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Roberta Invernizzi and Craig Marchitelli – La Bella Più Bella

GCD_922902_cover_HD Another day, another early baroque song recital. This one is by Roberta Invernizzi, whose Handel and Vivaldi stylings we are all probably already familiar with. (Right? RIGHT?)

This collection of baroque songs for soprano and lute doesn’t have the manic bravura of some of Invernizzi’s opera aria performances – but then again, it’s not that kind of music. Probably the challenge with a recital like this is to introduce enough variety into the programming and enough subtlety into the performance to bring out the contrasts among these early seventeenth-century selections.

Invernizzi and lutenist Craig Marchitelli succeed in doing so. Many of these songs are miniature cantatas, with dramatic shifts of mood and tone, e.g. Giacomo Carissimi’s “piangete, aure, piangete” or several of the Barbara Strozzi selections. There are also some neat contrasts between pieces – the tone lightens with track five, “della porta d’oriente,” for example, and there are are a number of shifts between delicate and introspective songs and pieces that feel more popular in tone, or – alternately – a bit more sturm und drang (autocorrect: did you mean “strum and dang”?* Actually, since there is a lute and it’s very good, yes, in a way, but leave it alone please) like Strozzi’s “udite, amanti”.

Invernizzi is completely in her element here in terms of style, sound and vividness of expression; I also enjoyed hearing the lowest notes of her voice, e.g. at the end of the aforementioned “udite, amanti”. The recital also includes some solo pieces for lute, both brief little interludes and one or two longer and more dramatic items like track 10, a toccata by Kapsberger. This is one of those albums that sucks you in before you even realize what has happened.

*”Strum and dang” also refers to the less well known country-western version of the German Sturm und Drang.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail – Damrau, Villazón, Prohaska, Selig / Nézet-Séguin

page_1_thumb_largeThis live recording of Die Entführung aus dem Serail conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin follows those of Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni, the latter of which I bought because Joyce DiDonato was in it, and the former because why the hell not, and also Miah Persson. Both of those proved to be mixed bags. So is this one. There is some overlap of casts, but the only singer common to all three is Rolando Villazón, which choice – well, as they say, nobody likes it, but it keeps happening.

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Weekend Dead Soprano Bulletin

So, following up on my Maria Callas experience earlier this week, I made some use of that stupid free trial of Apple’s subscription service (I have also enjoyed the odd Patricia Petibon album and some Fauré, but I swear, I’m going to wean myself off this thing by the time the trial period ends) to listen to a few recordings of Renata Tebaldi. She sang a lot of Verdi, which is fine by me, but also Puccini and a lot of other verismo stuff that that I have little taste for.

510s0gE4UsL._SS280I found a collection of bits of opera recordings of hers from the 1950s – some Verdi, some Puccini, and some other things that I had never listened to, e.g. excerpts from Adriana Lecouvreur and La Wally both of which operas are I suspect not as much in fashion as they were a generation or two ago. Possibly there is a good reason for this. (Some things do remain in fashion, however. Between Tebaldi and my Sondra Radvanovsky Verdi CD, which would be worn out by now if CDs and/or digital files could wear out, I have certain sections of La Forza del Destino nearly committed to memory at this point. I think that Ms. Radvanovsky needs to record a few more recitals, yes?)

Tebaldi doesn’t have Callas’s take-no-prisoners approach to either music or drama. That said, this collection of excerpts does offer a sense of what die-hard fans of older recordings are talking about when they refer to the style or standard of opera performance of the 1950s and 60s. There is something about this that sounds different than very recent performances of this material, though I would be hard pressed to articulate precisely what.

Which raises another question – if there truly was some kind of golden age for certain types of opera so many decades ago, when did it end? Most of the singers associated with that time had retired by the 1970s – perhaps then. Or is this just a simple case of rolling nostalgia, and there are folks out there who talk up the performances of the 1980s?

That said, I will now be returning to modern recordings in which the orchestra does not sound like mush

I spent yesterday afternoon alternately fainting from the heat and listening to a recital from the 2015 Schwetzinger Festival by Christiane Karg and the ensemble Arcangelo, which I downloaded a while back and forgot about. It’s a pleasant mixture of Handel’s Nine German Arias and some Bach and Buxtehude concertos. I hadn’t heard the Handel in a while, and what stood out to me was the clarity and delicacy of the ensemble – or maybe it’s just hearing a different recording of these that did it. I don’t know. Karg’s performance offered some nice interpretive touches too, e.g. the energy, almost urgency of “Das Zitternde Glänzen.”

And then I did something I do not normally do: I listened to a Maria Callas recording. I have several, and they don’t see a lot of action. I think there is something in me that is deeply suspicious of a soprano who appears not to have liked Mozart (I remember one modern reviewer discussing a recording of hers in positive terms, but noting that she sang only what she liked, and much of what she liked was “junk like Tosca and Lucia.”) There is also something me that is deeply suspicious of the whole adulation of dead sopranos thing. Every time I read an older critic complaining that singers of the 1950s and 60s were profoundly superior to those performing now I just think – dude (it is usually but not always a dude), you were young then. Opera was new and exciting for you. And you got used to a certain style of performance. We folks under 40 will probably be saying the same thing about current performers decades from now.

But as far as Maria Callas is concerned, the thing is, in the 1950s at least, girlfriend could sing. The recording I listened to was one of Cherubini’s Medea, recorded live in Dallas in 1958. It’s got all the issues of something recorded live in Dallas in 1958 – that is to say, it sounds like I have cotton balls in my ears and someone has turned on the shower. Even so, Callas’s complete dramatic commitment shines through, and I admit, I find her voice interesting. Not a voice I think I could listen to for hours on end without developing a headache, but interesting. And having Jon Vickers and Teresa Berganza in the cast too doesn’t hurt either.

Emerson String Quartet / Alice Tully Hall 8-3-15

Have you ever worried on entering a concert hall that your perfectly good ticket will be rejected for no reason? This actually happened to me yesterday – sort of, anyway.

I got an email from the Mostly Mozart Festival late yesterday afternoon informing everyone who had tickets for the evening’s concert that there was a pre-concert recital at 6:30, at which the Emerson Quartet would perform one of Haydn’s Op. 76 string quartets. Have you ever seen that movie Run, Lola, Run? (I think in German it’s Lola rennt). Anyway, my trip from my house to Alice Tully Hall which began slightly after 5:40 resembled that movie, in that there was some running – this is why we wear Converse to concerts, and not high heels – but it was mostly just sitting in the subway looking jumpy and then darting and weaving around people in Manhattan. So if there was a 1998 German movie about my experience, it would be probably called Ohrwurm eilt and other than my dramatic dash down the subway steps and explosion through the closing doors of an E train, it would probably actually be kind of boring.

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Strauss – Daphne / Lincoln Center Festival 7-18-15

I went to see a concert performance of Strauss’s one-act opera Daphne last night, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, directed by Franz Welser-Möst, and a series of soloists. I’d never seen – or, to be honest, ever even heard of this opera before, but what the hell, right?

This is one of those “Apollo and Dionysos”-themed things that writers and artists in the late 19th and early twentieth century were so fond of writing about – basically, if my memory of that college Literature and Arts B survey from 1999 is correct, there is a conflict and a balance between the Apollonian (the beauty of order and reason) and the Dionysian (wildness, irrationality, wine, love and so on). They are as distinct and mutually dependent as day and night. The plot of this opera is built around this idea, and around that story we all know about the young woman Daphne who is pursued by Apollo and gets turned into a laurel tree.

The story here is a little different than the tale as told by Ovid. (There are quite a few versions of the story; the librettist, Joseph Gregor, did not come up with what follows on his own.) Daphne is still woodsy and doesn’t want a boyfriend, but here she has a recorder-playing childhood buddy named Leukippos who has fallen in love with her and Apollo does not pursue her because he has been clipped by the arrow of a miffed Eros. He just sort of shows up for some reason and decides that he and Daphne would be great together, because they like some of the same things, like sunshine.

It’s the evening of the festival of Dionysos, and Daphne does not want to go. She has rejected both the disguised Apollo and the earnest Leukippos, but during the festival Leukippos, now also in disguise, gives her a sip of wine. Apollo flips his shit, he and Leukippos get into a fight, with the young man claiming that drinking wine at the festival has turned him into Dionysos himself, and Apollo loses his temper and zaps the poor kid with a lightening bolt.

Daphne performs her final aria in what one can only assume is a sort of smoking blast crater, in which she explains that she realizes this was all her fault (because of course it is, what with her being in charge of and responsible for other people’s behav– oh, wait, no it isn’t) and she is very sorry. And then Apollo turns her into a laurel tree.

The singing was generally strong. Nancy Maultsby as Daphne’s mother Gaea, started out wobbly in what is an alarmingly low alto part; Andreas Schager was a dramatic and passionate Apollo – he was was one of the highlights for me. Daphne was sung by soprano Regine Hangler, who sounded appropriately girlish, but not small. Her voice had a powerful bright edge; most of the time, when soaring above the orchestra was called for, she soared. The last bit of the opera, where Daphne is turning into a tree (and the libretto has her keep talking long after she should stop, what with having ceased to be a person – I mean, explaining that you are now a symbol is probably not strictly necessary, especially when you’re a tree, and also, opera audiences know about symbols) contains a lot of high floaty business, and she sounded a little pinched now and then, but on the whole I was impressed.

Strauss being Strauss, the orchestral music alone is worth the price of admission – nice touches included the metallic-sounding violin representation of Daphne’s leaves at the end when she has turned into a tree, and a section earlier on where a solo violin is interacting with the soprano part. I wouldn’t mind hearing more concert performances of Strauss.

Finally, the middle name of one of the singers portraying shepherds is “Speedo.” I tried several times to find a way to work this detail into the above discussion, but I couldn’t. So there it is at the end.

Deep Thoughts About Ticket Retrieval

Over the past few days Lincoln Center has sent me a series of alarming emails about the length of the will-call line for tonight’s concert – highly unusual number of will-call tickets, get there an hour early, etc. etc. Even though my ticket was mailed to me and I have it.

There is definitely a line inside, but it’s still just a line. It’s not a scrum, or a mob, or a roiling sea of shrieking symphony patrons. That said, it’s only 6:35. Maybe the scrum comes later.

While we wait, let us consider what might be happening.

1. Mix-up with that MC Hawking song so instead of “all my shootings be drive bys” it’s “all my tickets be will call.”

2. Willy Wonka ticket machine that belches out the tickets broke, so all purchases within the past three weeks necessarily will-call b/c Oompa Loompas need time to hand-write tickets.

3. Cruise ship.

4. Only one person working counter; everyone else has fucked off to the beach.

5. That weird thing with the fountain happened again.

6. Welser-Möst claque up to its usual tricks.

7. The concert is actually oversold; they’re looking for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for a voucher for future opera.


Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – Alice Tully Hall 7-15-15

Sometimes I wonder if chamber music isn’t a bit like art songs – it loses its force a bit when performed in a large concert hall (as opposed to a little space where the piano makes your molars vibrate). I usually wonder this at the beginning of chamber music concerts and have entirely forgotten about it by the end, which is what happened yesterday.

There were three works on the program, the last of which, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, I missed bits of because I started thinking about the fact that I would have to move my car so as not to fall afoul of the street cleaners the next morning, and got into a bit of GOD DAMN FUCKING CAR I HATE THAT CAR mode that was difficult to snap myself out of. But the first two pieces, Mozart’s violin sonata in B-Flat major K. 378 and Beethoven’s piano trio Op. 70, no. 2, had my entire attention the whole time. Particularly the pianist, Juho Pohjonen, who was really something extraordinary. My note taking skills fail me a bit on details here – I remember the little flashes of the “trout” theme in the Andantino of the Schubert, for example, and the dialogue with the violin in the Mozart, and – well, all of the Beethoven; more of that in a minute. Anyhow, that guy can play that piano. He doesn’t have any albums out yet that I could find, but I suspect he will soon.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the first half of the program is how the first piece set up the second. The Mozart, performed by Erin Keefe on violin and the aforementioned Juho Pohjonen was light and engaging, particularly the last two movements – it was a good preparation for the Beethoven trio, which was much heavier and richer. With this one, you really got a sense of how a trio of musicians can fit together as precisely as puzzle pieces, even though the puzzle is constantly moving. The rapport among this ensemble was excellent. The music seemed to be anchored by the piano and cello (Jakob Koranyi), though the violinist (Paul Huang), was no slouch either. I particularly enjoyed the little key shifts at the end of the second movement.

Also, have you ever noticed how sometimes some really weird shit goes down in Beethoven’s chamber music? It’s like:

Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]

Listener: [Beethoven!!]

Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]

Listener: [Beethoven!!] [mind wanders for an instant as someone unwraps a cough drop]

Sonata: [checks over shoulder to see if anyone is watching and then bolts for modernity, skids around corner, kicking up a shower of key changes]

Listener: What the –

Sonata: [operates within normal classical-period specifications]

Listener: You were –

Sonata: No I wasn’t. Here, have a cadenza.

Listener: Beethoven!!