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American Ballet Theater's Gothic 'Giselle'

Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in Giselle. Photo: Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theater returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week with a Giselle heavy on the supernatural side of this classic work. The Wilis, the angry spirits of jilted maidens, should inspire fear, something that many productions miss in their fluffy, white softness. The ABT Giselle, the Coralli-Perrot-Petipa choreography staged by Kevin McKenzie, definitely hit its stride in the ghostly second act.

Other Articles:

Sarah L. Kaufman, A ‘Giselle’ that whirls with unusual lyricism (Washington Post, February 12)

---, Ballet dancers have weird and quirky pre-show rituals that would put any sports star to shame (Washington Post, February 6)

Carolyn Kelemen, Former Howard County ballerina is back at the Kennedy Center, this time as a soloist in ‘Giselle’ (Baltimore Sun, February 12)

Gia Kourlas, Skylar Brandt: A Ballerina Invests in Herself (New York Times, February 6)
The company brought back the beautifully matched pairing of Hee Seo and Corey Stearns, who were so heart-breaking together in their Swan Lake in 2017. Seo had an ideal combination of characterizations for the role: pert yet shy as the lovestruck girl, unraveled and distraught when she learns that the lover who has stolen her heart is already engaged to another, and wispy as vapor as the cursed spirit. Besides the finely tuned dramatic sense, Seo's infallible technique put her among the finest Giselles seen here in the last decade, including EunWon Lee, Svetlana Zakharova, Aurélie Dupont, and -- still at the top -- Diana Vishneva.

Stearns was no less accomplished in either regard, his strong body lifting Seo effortless and forming beautifully delineated lines. The score, performed with panache by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, has rarely sounded this good, made more lush and polished in the orchestration by John Lanchbery, who died in 2003. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins, who did not seem in his element conducting a much more complex Strauss score in Whipped Cream in 2018, shaped each halting phrase of the love music with exquisite sensitivity, helping to make the Act II pas de deux so moving. At its climax, when Stearns held Seo perfectly still above him in effortless lifts, it was as if she floated above him in the spirit world, only temporarily visible to him.

The set design helped create the forbidding sense of a forest haunted by spirits, with lightning flashes behind a large hollow tree (scenery by Gianni Quaranta and lighting by Jennifer Tipton). It was the severe Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, of the tall and somewhat icy Devon Teuscher that brought out the harshness of the scene. The edge of her movements and sharp face seemed to inform the cold precision of ABT's well-drilled corps, all clad in the traditional white (costumes by Anna Anni). One could only feel sorry at the fate of Hilarion (the proud, defiant Roman Zhurbin) as he faced the implacable wall of these vengeful spirits.

Giselle runs through February 16 in the Kennedy Center Opera House, with different casts and conductors.


Mirella Freni (1935-2020)

The news of the death of beloved Italian soprano Mirella Freni reached my desk just now. In paradisum deducant te angeli...

In some ways La Freni is responsible for my obsession with opera. In 1990, as a young music major from Michigan, I drove with a friend on my first ever trip to New York City during spring break. We stayed with his father in Brooklyn and spent the week taking in as much of the culture of the big city as we could. One morning I showed up at the Metropolitan Opera box office, hoping to buy a ticket for that day's performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

The employee at the box office took one look at me and said the balconies were all sold out. What if price were not an issue, I asked, thinking of the credit card my parents had sent with me on the trip. He plopped down a fancy-looking ticket for a seat in a box, and I bought it. After all, Des Grieux bankrupted himself and ended up in debtor's prison, all for love of the frivolous Manon. What is money for, except to procure pleasures? I would not have to worry about paying off the cost until I got back to Michigan, and I didn't.

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Puccini, Manon Lescaut, M. Freni, P. Domingo, Philharmonia Orchestra, G. Sinopoli
As you may have guessed, Mirella Freni was starring in this production. The reviewer for the New York Times later wrote that she was by far the best part of the show, which is how I recall it. I sat in the box, treated very nicely by the mostly Italian family occupying it. I could not only hear every nuance of La Freni's voice, I could see the sweat rolling down her face. I had seen operas staged in Michigan, but nothing on the scale of what I saw on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera that day.

As it turned out, I had caught the tail end of a glorious career, and this was (I think) the only production of Manon Lescaut that La Freni sang at the Met. It was the perfect combination to create a lifelong devotion to opera. The friend I went to New York with was a tenor, and being his accompanist in high school was how I first got hooked on opera. I had gotten to know Manon Lescaut by listening to a recording with none other than Mirella Freni. I could not believe that the voice I had heard through my headphones was now coming out of the person in front of me on that stage. I was starstruck. The word Diva was invented because of reactions like the one I had that day at the Met. I left the theater on a cloud.

Although I listened to La Freni's recordings somewhat obsessively over the years since then, I saw her on the stage only once more. It was what turned out to be her final production, Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans, mounted just for her by Washington National Opera in 2005. She was 70 years old, and she was still fairly sensational. Three decades and a mountain of operas viewed since then, my first will always be Mirella Freni. May light eternal shine upon her.


Dip Your Ears, No. 260 (Mendelssohn Delight)

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F.Mendelssohn-B., Piano Concertos et al.
Jan Lisiecki (piano)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

In the course of listening to Roberto Prosseda’s recording of the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos (ClassicsToday review here) and re-listening to some key competition (Brautigam, Helmchen, Perahia (polite), Schiff (terrific), Serkin, Thibaudet (playful) et al.), I also came across Jan Lisiecki’s account with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. *Hello Felix!* This is an extraordinarily sensitive account… subtle and nuanced and with nice shading throughout: It stands out for its little darling turns of phrases (none ostentatious) while keeping the clichéd big picture intact. The is a supple pliability in the Orpheus’ orchestral playing that you don’t get from the competition (although the slightly more broad-shouldered Schiff/BRSO connection is terrific, too) and a light, flirty festiveness about the proceedings. The cut is classical, nicely tapered, of light summer wool. But someone snuck some velvet detailing into the lining, too, giving Mendelssohn the dressing he needs. The addition of smartly pearled-off Rondo capriccioso and the Variations sérieuses op.54, is a very nice touch. Treat yourself!



Familiensache—Maisky Trio & Friends in Schumann und Franck: Latest @ Wiener Zeitung

Wiener Zeitung

Julian Rachlin entfesselte einen Funkenregen

Hochkarätig besetzte Kammermusik im Brahms-Saal des Musikvereins.

Kammermusikabend im Brahms Saal des Musikvereins mit dem Maisky-Familienklaviertrio, bereichert um Julian Rachlin und Bratschistin Sarah McElravy: Die vier Streicher - Sascha Maisky an der zweiten Geige und der unverwüstliche Mischa Maisky - bildeten eine Viererkette vor der hinten vom Steinway aus steten Rückhalt gebenden Lily Maisky.[weiterlesen]


On ClassicsToday: Christina Pluhar Goes To Heaven

Himmelsmusik: Christina Pluhar Goes To Heaven

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Christina Pluhar, whom a Spiegel magazine article once dubbed “The Domina of Early Music”, has made a name for herself with funky and very contemporary performances of ancient music—performances that tend to be divisive within the early music world and even among her admirers. Several 10/10 reviews on (Robert Levine), dotted with a “CD From Hell” review (also Robert Levine), speak to her ability to scratch an itch and itch a scratch.
The 2018 recording Himmelsmusik (Music of the Spheres) is a wide step toward (but not into) conventional territory, away from the most recent Classicstoday-reviewed album... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: The Well-Trebled Christmas Oratorio

The Well-Trebled Christmas Oratorio

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

If you like trebles in Bach—and specifically in the Christmas Oratorio—why not opt for those that Bach, a few generations back, worked with himself? Certainly, this latest production has much going for it, whether on CD, DVD, or Blu-ray. (I worked with the DVD.) The new Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz, visibly enjoying every indefatigable minute, leads his boys and the Leipzig Gewandhaus in a rousing, big-boned, but lively performance. On the conventional end it is solid and safe and booming and performed on modern instruments. On the HIP end, it is full of spiritedness and lively musical enunciation. It’s not unlike Riccardo Chailly’s hybrid or “third-way” Bach, but with fewer interpretive eccentricities and the large Thomaner Boys Choir—replete with treble-solos from a shaggy-haired cherub... [continue reading]


Ten Recordings to Remember Mariss Jansons By

Photo of Mariss Jansons by Astrid Ackermann

Mariss Jansons died last month, on November 30th. His passing, at 76, comes earlier than we somehow would expect from a great conductor - since we tend to perceive great conductors bathed in a gentle glow of immortality. (And because conductors, despite exceptions, tend to live long and active lives.) But it did not come entirely unexpected, either, after his past and recent health failings and his preternaturally frail appearance. Between my first Mariss Jansons concert with Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in 2006 (ionarts review) until my last review of a Jansons-concert (with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Munich's Gasteig) almost exactly ten years later (ionarts review here), he had been one of the conductors I had followed the most closely and heard the most often. I cannot say that I was always entirely enamored by the results, but often enough impressed and on some occasions blown away. Much the same goes for his recorded output which isn't very even but which contains much quality, some of which truly stands out. These are ten recordings that I think represent Jansons rather well and include the four bands with which he worked the most (Oslo, Pittsburgh, Amsterdam & Munich) the best. Failing that, they are those recordings I am most

Alain Altinoglu in Rubbish Liszt and Crusading Prokofiev

Vienna, February 26, 2019; Musikverein—Liszt’s tone poem From the Cradle to the Grave is bound be one of those works that we will spasmodically “rediscover”, revive, hype, and – briefly – praise before forgetting again… because it really isn’t all that great. (Also see point 8 of David Hurwitz' “Classical Music’s Ten Dirtiest Secrets”.) It fails to deliver on what it sets out to do: It does *not* tell a story. It merely delivers episodes. That generic life that Liszt describes has little obvious development to it, nor even a particularly convincing end. Cradle to Grave (like the Faust Symphony) also lies awkwardly for the strings, which creates a unique, dark sound that does not project well – a color that does, however, befit the low woodwinds.

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Not entirely surprisingly, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed this tone poem for the first time in its 100-year history in a series of three concerts last February at the Musikverein… and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were another 100 years before it was performed again. Maybe Alain Altinoglu ‘lost the long line’—that canard of a complaint where you never know whether listener or performer deserves the lion’s share of the blame—but he couldn’t have blamed much: Only a magician could have kept the audience from losing track and Altinoglu is not a magician. It’s no fun to blame the composer for a performance that fails to spark because often it’s routine playing, lack of comprehension or articulation or a mix thereof that is at work. Here it might just have merit. All the same, one ought to be thankful for these periodic revivals. It’s still better than routine and same-old-same-old. Aside, every so often, a gem is among them, and the rest of the time it’s good to dismiss something on experience, not hearsay.

This concert’s de-facto overture made programming sense in light of the Liszt Piano Concerto No.2 that was put on for Denis Matsuev to fill the obligatory romantic-concerto slot of the concert with: A showman for a show concerto, plushly pushing the notes through their course; high-end luxury monochrome plodding through the work’s single movement. Happily, the fan-club was in place, setting off a ferociously banged Hall of the Mountain King transcription encore.

Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky to the rescue in the second half! A half that felt as if surgically decoupled from the first. Not that some of the ills the plague the classical music scene didn’t also rear their heads here. To assure the money stays in the family, Altinoglu had his wife—Nora Gubisch—hired to perform the short solo mezzo part of the piece. The saving grace on this act of common nepotism was that she is easy on the ears and did well, with a hollow-low, sepia-toned atmospheric voice. But the look is never, never good. Nevsky is a rousing work with a fun parody of Orff for the crusading Teutons and lots of musical rah-rah-ing. That the audience got loudness in lieu of raw energy was never really a detraction; the winds only slightly off in the trickiest passages. The Singverein aided and abetted the orchestra with rousing Russian and only very occasional missed cues.


News: Alain Altinoglu (1975) has just been named the new Chief Conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (hr-Sinfonieorchester, in German). He will begin he tenure starting with the 21/20 season. He will succeed Andrés Orozco-Estrada who is in turn coming to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.