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Ionarts in Florence: La Valchiria

In the second half of the mini-Ring cycle mounted by La Fura dels Baus at the Teatro Comunale di Firenze, sold out in its final performance on Friday night, it felt at first like a different production. The most controversial aspect of Das Rheingold, the gold itself, was not in evidence, of course, and for the first two acts we saw what amounted to a very traditional staging of Die Walküre, in many ways aided by well-made video effects (designed by Franc Aleu). In Act I, Hunding's house had no set, but the large tree with Nothung sunk into it (featuring a large vaginal knot in its trunk) glistened behind the singers on the video screen, as a fire flickered on the scrim in front of them. As Siegmund sang of his past, the flames took the hallucinatory shape of a wolf's face, its eyes glowing as it padded toward us. The same minimalistic approach was applied in the second act, which began with the stunning effect of seeing Brünnhilde (costumed like a mini-Wotan, complete with miniature spear) soar over the orchestra on her levitating platform while she sang her first Hojotohos. As Wotan summarized the action of Das Rheingold, the visual narrative also ground to a halt, as Wotan sat forlornly on his platform, the lights became dull and colorless, and the video background ceased except for a few images of the first opera in the upper right corner of the screen.

Video of a rehearsal of Ride of the Valkyries

The acrobats of the Fura dels Baus troupe did not make an appearance until the third act, when they represented the dead warriors being gathered up during the Ride of the Valkyries. In a powerful image, they were an immobile mass of bodies, swinging back and forth on a huge globe. Some bodies lay on the stage floor, pierced with arrows like pin cushions. In the most stunning display of the cycle thus far, four of the Valkyries soared around the stage on the levitating platforms as they sang. Because the battle-maidens could be extended out over the orchestra, as well as above one another and really into our faces (we were seated this time in a side box with an excellent view), this was truly the most convincingly staged Ride of the Valkyries I have ever seen. The eight women of the group, who were also the vocally strongest Valkyries in my experience, are to be congratulated for singing this difficult music while essentially on a roller coaster ride. The ring of fire at the operas's conclusion was also fairly traditional, except that the platform on which Brünnhilde was imprisoned was supported by the bodies of La Fura dels Baus.

Video taken from the inside of the Fura dels Baus pendulum during the Ride of the Valkyries

Even more than in Das Rheingold, the cast of this production excelled on Friday night. The Act I featured the heroically voiced Siegmund of Peter Seiffert across from a superlative Petra Marie Schnitzer as Sieglinde. The only drawback was that Schnitzer seemed to have lost steam, just slightly, by the time that her Act III exclamation "O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!" came around. It was a nice touch to see this Sieglinde, hunched over like an animal (even restrained by a rope around her neck) in Hunding's house, able to straighten her back and walk like a human during the gorgeous love duet that ended the act. The directing, in spite of Seiffert's somewhat cheesy hair and expressions, emphasized the redemptive qualities described in Winterstürme and Du bist der Lenz. Juha Uusitalo completed an altogether impressive Wotan (the premiere of this production in Valencia was his debut in the role), combining a resonant voice (the final consonants were still overdone, but not as prominent) with a sensitive dynamic scaling and range of expression.

Anna Larsson was back, with her thigh-high boots, and brilliant in her sexual and intellectual domination of Wotan in Act II. (Fricka sexy? Yes.) There were only a few points in the role's high range where her generally low and dark voice was not well suited. Matti Salminen was reincarnated (after his Fasolt was killed on Wednesday) as a snarling and heavyweight Hunding. Jennifer Wilson was vocally in good form as Brünnhilde, although perhaps fatigue tended to color her voice toward sharpness at loud points. Most happily, after causing me some disappointment on Wednesday night, the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino played with magisterial authority here, like a vast creature with one mind responding to the gestures of Zubin Mehta. The sound was always scaled to the singers when necessary but had ear-crushing power, too, as well as ethereal delicacy according to the score's demands. As expected, Mehta shaped both scores with his supremely experienced sense of color and scope.

Final dress rehearsal of Die Walküre in Valencia

The Rhinegold as DNA/fetus stands out as a strange part of this staging, which overall could be described as inventive and visually diverting more than avant-garde. At this point, it is appropriate to mention that the theme of this year's Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the 70th anniversary of this spring music festival in Florence, is Mito e Contemporaneità. Obviously, the idea of drawing a connection between the old German myths reshaped by Wagner in the Ring cycle and our own age makes perfect sense in this context. These legends are ultimately about how mankind was born and how the former age of the gods ended, and throughout the first two operas of the Fura dels Baus cycle, Wotan's dream of a new race, free from the binding contracts of his own existence, hangs in the background, in video imagery of the DNA helix and the partially formed framework of a man not yet created. Alberich's cloning of a golden army from the seed of the Rhinegold represents a violation of natural law, but it remains to see how that problem will be resolved at the end of the cycle. It is only then that we will be able to tell if this interpretation makes any sense.

The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino concludes officially this evening, with a free concerto di chiusura by the festival orchestra in Florence's Piazza della Signoria. Although Ionarts, of course, would like to hear Zubin Mehta and pianist Fazil Say's take on an all-Tchaikovsky program, there is this thing called the Palio this weekend back in Siena. We will back in Florence later this week, for two Mahler concerts with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden Berlin (July 3 and 4).


Ionarts in Florence: The Patter of Little Rheingold Feet

We arrived in Siena in enough time to catch some of the end of the magnificent series of concerts known as the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. So on Wednesday night, the bus to Florence made it possible to attend the first part of the half-Ring cycle staged in the Teatro Comunale di Firenze. What would La Fura dels Baus, the outrageous Catalan experimental theater troupe, do with Wagner's Das Rheingold? That was the question that brought a full house of enthusiastic listeners to this updated theater near the banks of the Arno.

As for the answer, take a moment to sit down, especially if you do not care for Regietheater and the re-imagining of venerable operas. As already reported when this production was premiered this spring at the Palau de les Arts "Reina Sofia" in Valencia, Spain, it is wild. Wagner's German mythological subject has already been set in the future, and so perhaps the concept of the gods as an alien master race, with outlandish silvery costumes (designed by Chu Oroz) that would not be out of place in Lost in Space, is not that shocking. (Dino Villatico called it "somewhere between Star Wars and 007" in La Repubblica.) The radical change to the story, in this version directed by Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus, comes in the decision on what to do with the Rhinegold.

How to handle the gold as a prop is often an awkward proposition. You need enough gold to be able to cover Freia, so that Fafner and Fasolt are convinced to give her back to the gods, but you also have to be able to get the gold on and off the stage easily. Wouldn't it be nice if the gold could just move itself? This is probably not how Padrissa came up with the idea of showing the gold as a floating golden fetus in the stunning backdrop of video sequences (designed by Franc Aleu). When the Rhinemaidens sing their memorable hymn to the gold ("Rheingold! Rheingold!"), the baby image appears, spinning in the background of space (right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey). The maidens, sung elegantly and athletically by Silvia Vázquez, Ann-Katrin Naidu, and Hannah Esther Minutillo, are suspended in boxes of water that rise up out of a very convincing Rhine setting combining video and a minimalistic set piece (designed by Roland Olbeter). They spread their legs and the gold color seeps into the water like menstrual blood. (I don't think this is what Wagner had in mind when he had Loge sing about the rotes Gold.)

When the scene descends to Nibelheim, we see that the fetus is being replicated into an army of golden clones. Under a girder of anvils, members of the Fura dels Baus troupe in skintight body suits hang upside down from an assembly line rail (the concept flirts with bondage imagery), as they are measured and cleaned off and have their golden color touched up. The background video shows pods moving along the upper part of the assembly line, as the golden race is cloned. When the gold is brought in to show the giants, they creep along the floor in a Dantesque mass and are heaped up into a pile. At the end, now lit by silver light (designed by Peter van Praet) and probably not to be confused with the gold, they form the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.

The gods usually are flown around the stage on levitating platforms at the end of machine-like booms. Loge zips around hilariously on a Segway-type scooter, which is an apt visual counterpart to his flickering, chromatic Leitmotif. The giants appear in giant robot machines, à la Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Video images projected on a scrim at the front of the stage are not too intrusive, at many points giving Wotan a sort of cosmic halo. Some of the stranger parts of the staging are actually perversely faithful to the libretto, like having the Rhinemaidens actually swimming in their tanks of water in the opening scene. Others seem more gratuitous than others, like the dragon of flames, representing the shape Alberich takes, complete with a fire-breather at its head.

Whatever you may think about the production (I am reserving a final opinion until I have seen the second opera), the singing was extraordinary, beginning with Juha Uusitalo's stentorian and arrogant Wotan, whose only sin, very slight, was to put a little too much bite into his final consonants. Franz-Josef Kapellmann was a brilliant, if a little slow-moving Alberich, matched by a magnificent and pathetic Mime from Ulrich Ress. The giants were resonantly sung by the highly respected and still powerful Matti Salminen (Fasolt) and the snarling Stephen Milling (Fafner). The statuesque Anna Larsson was the sexiest Fricka in recent memory, clearly loving her thigh-high boots and riding crop cum scepter as much as I did, while Catherine Wyn Rogers was a potent and dusky-voiced Erda.

The only disappointment was the orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentine. In spite of Zubin Mehta's vivid and enthusiastic conducting, they lagged behind his beat and the singers too much. The sound was generally impressive when they were on, especially the thunderous brass, except for some early missed notes in the horns. The tuba sound in the closing pages was brashly regal. It was a nice touch for Mehta to have the entire orchestra make its way up to the stage for the curtain call.

June 27 was the final performance of Das Rheingold, but Ionarts will be back in Florence tonight, reporting on the final performance of Die Walküre.


Dante in Siena: Inferno 1-4

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
As most Ionarts readers know, I am in Siena this summer, taking part in an NEH seminar on Dante's Commedia that is based here. We had a weekend of orientation, by people who have lived here a long time, on the traditions of the city, especially the absolutely insane horse race called the Palio. We also took a trip out into the Tuscan countryside to attend a Latin chanted Mass at the Monastery of Sant'Antimo near Montalcino. That monastic house is now occupied by Augustinians, and although they are not a particularly large community, they do sing the Mass and Office in Latin. It was an absolutely appropriate introduction to the medieval world of Dante, who situated the action of his Commedia on Easter weekend in 1300. The rhythm of the Latin liturgy informs much of what Dante wrote, especially in the Purgatorio, where the souls purge themselves of sin through a sort of monastic obedience.

Dante's Inferno:
Canto 1 | Canto 2
Canto 3 | Canto 4

Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore;
tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore.

You are my master and my author,
You alone are the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done me honor.

Featured Dante Link:
William Blake, Illustrations of Dante
In the first four cantos of Inferno, Dante finds himself in a dark forest, confronted by three ferocious animals. The exact meaning of the spotted leopard, the roaring lion, and the greedy she-wolf are not immediately (if ever) clear, but they make it impossible for Dante to escape. It is the shade of Virgil who comes to his aid, having been sent, as we learn later, by the blessed soul of Beatrice. Your Dante quote for today is from Dante's salutation of Virgil, where he gives homage to the Latin master for lo bello stilo that has brought him (Dante) honor. We spent a lot of time discussing the question of why Virgil is chosen -- by Dante, but in the poem, actually by Beatrice -- as Dante's first guide. Virgil can interpret Hell only by limited standards: at the end of Canto 1 he makes clear that he does not understand the Christian world order from his place in Limbo. He can only conceive of it in imperial terminology: creation as the Imperium, God as Imperator, and heaven as the Urbs. Whenever the pair confronts figures Dante converts from classical sources -- Charon, Phlegyas, Cerberus, the Furies (notably, all characters in Virgil's Aeneid -- Virgil commands them with ease. He is confounded only by the devils, because he just cannot grasp the Christian order.

This little mini-world of classical antiquity is preserved in the lightest part of Inferno, the Elysian Fields reserved for the greatest pre-Christian writers described in Canto 4. Dante places himself sixth in poetic rank in that world: Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Virgil, and Dante. After listing the morally worthy characters and personages of antiquity, Dante sees Aristotle, attended by Socrates and Plato, in a filosofica famiglia within the nobile castello encircled with seven walls. If you are thinking of Raphael's School of Athens, you have made the connection.


Bach as Early Music

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Bach, Motetten, Hilliard Ensemble
(released May 22, 2007)

Also Recommended:

available at Amazon
N. Harnoncourt, Bachchor Stockholm
J. S. Bach is one of the relatively few Baroque composers whose music is performed and recorded regularly, which means that historically informed performance (HIP) groups do not corner the market. The Hilliard Ensemble has released a new recording of some of the most beautiful compositions for choir ever created, Bach's unaccompanied motets, BWV 225-231 (replacing their 1980s recording with the Hannover Knabenchor, now out of print). The group's style of singing is idiosyncratic enough that unless this disk were truly extraordinary, it would not merit a strong recommendation. That is, alas, not the case. Still, I listened to it with considerable interest and, after a first hearing with cold ears, have grown to enjoy parts of it immensely. When they made this disc back in 2003, the Hilliards augmented their normal roster, of four men, to eight voices, including two women.

As the liner notes observe, this reflects the formerly contested and now generally accepted argument that Bach intended his choral works to be performed by a small ensemble of voices, perhaps only one on a part. If you have ever sung one of the Bach motets, the thought of being the only voice covering one part in that often fiendishly complicated texture is daunting. There are moments in these performances where that possible weakness sticks out, and others where the voices double (if Bach reduces the texture to four parts, for example) less than perfectly in tune. The sound (captured in the acoustically glorious Austrian monastery of St. Gerold, like many of the Hilliard's recordings) seems a little over-engineered, with voices artificially pushed into the background at times. Still, the moments I have come to love are ones in which the reduced number of voices clarifies those thickets of Bach sound. This happens most in Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, as well as the other motets in which Bach takes on the double-choir format and turns it on its head. So, if you have an obsession with these fascinating and endlessly beautiful pieces, you should find a way to listen to this recording for some new thoughts about them.

ECM New Series 1875

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Bach, Orchestral Suites, English Concert, Trevor Pinnock
(re-released May 8, 2007)
Fans of the HIP movement can also take a trip down memory lane, thanks to the re-release of this 1979 recording of Bach's orchestral suites. Recorded in two sessions, in London and Munich in 1978-79, Trevor Pinnock led the English Concert on original instruments in a historic performance. Back in those days of earlier recordings, played generally by large symphony orchestras, these tracks were a revelation. After almost thirty years, the sound is still fresh, although there are occasional infelicities on the older instruments, especially the winds and trumpets. The reduced number of instruments allows Pinnock's harpsichord and those wonderful breathy recorders to twinkle through the texture, and the tempi are often brisk but do not feel rushed, with the possible exception of the ouverture of the third suite, BWV 1068. Some movements even feel slightly deliberate, like some of the dances in the second suite. The awareness of Baroque dance forms comes through in the dance pieces, making the Gavotte and Forlane of BWV 1066 much different from its stately Menuett, for example. With Harry Bicket set to take up the position of Artistic Director of the English Concert in the 2007-08 season, the group's future looks bright.

Deutsche Grammophon 477 6348


Ionarts in Siena: Numerica

Numerica, Palazzo delle PapesseIonarts hit the ground running in Siena, but finding Internet access and getting settled in took a couple days. Even so, I have been out gathering things to tell you about, beginning with the opening of a new exhibit here in Siena, at the Centro Arte Contemporanea, an exciting contemporary art museum that opened about seven years ago in the Palazzo delle Papesse. This is one of the finest private houses in the city, the residence of a former pope's sister, whose powerful influence had the locals calling her the Papesse, or Popess. This opening, it turns out, was free, meaning that I forced myself to stay awake after the grueling journey here. The title of the show is Numerica (open through June 6, 2008), and all of the work on exhibit deals with numbers in all their forms.

The exhibit brings together some recent work with more classic pieces from the 20th century, like a wonderful numbers piece by Giacomo Balla. Some works explore the combination of numbers with chance, with pieces focused on the theme of dice. Others explore the numerals themselves, as well as our perception of their value. One of several videos shows a trained chimpanzee doing simple addition by selecting the correct numbered plaques. Several pieces explored the instability of numbers, with images of numbers that were in constant flux or in the state of passing from one number to the next. Among the many names in this interesting show are Ignasi Aballì, Mario Ceroli, Robert Indiana, Joseph Kosuth, Osvaldo Licini, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Wolfgang Tillmans. A free reception with a light dinner of pasta and various crostini things ensured a large attendance by the city's art students. This event, in the palazzo's cool and lovely courtyard, was refreshingly unpretentious.

Even more importantly, the Palazzo delle Papesse has one of the most extraordinary panoramic views of the city of Siena and the valleys around it. One of the benefits of getting in free was getting to go up to the rooftop terrace to take it in. There is no better way to get to know a city and appreciate its beauty. From that spectacular vantage point, one is almost equal to the height of the Duomo, with an excellent view of the facciatone, or big façade. This huge wall that can be seen at points around the Duomo is the remnant of an outlandish Sienese plan to expand the Duomo into the largest cathedral in Italy and finally outdo those damn Florentines. The existing Duomo was to be incorporated into a much larger cruciform building. The ground proved unstable, and all that remains are several sections of large walls, with columns that are bending awkwardly under the strain. So much for that plan.

More from Siena to come.


Ionarts at Large: Polish Rumbles of the Pleasant Kind from Munich

From Warsaw and Brussels have come less-than-pleasant tones these days. The idea that the dead of World War II should be counted (and apparently Purchase Power Parity adjusted, sort-of) when it comes to deciding on the weighing of voting rights in the European ex-Constitution was greeted with anything from shock, to aghast disdain, to annoyance and unnerved eye-rolling. But while the Kaczynski brothers vie for making the least harmonious political noises in Europe (apparently being afflicted with in-born political tone-deafness), the Eight Chamber-concert of the Munich Philharmonic's 2006/2007 season this Sunday offered the necessary balance that reclaimed the Polish stakes on beauty and pleasantry: Courtesy of an all-Polish program with music of Stefan Boleslaw Poradowski, Fryderyk Chopin, and Karol Szymanowski with members of the orchestra.

One might think of three dancing elephants at encountering a trio for double basses on your program - but Poradowski's op.56, which is just that, offered nimble wit, elegiac moments, subtlety (!) and grace. A first movement - melodic and fervid - with a lovely main theme that sounds so naturally familiar that it appears a musical quotation even though it is (presumably) original. The slow second movement, which didn't sound like 20th century fare, either, is of a darker shade, beautifully moving before it ebbs away in meandering anonymity... only to re-emerge with a vigorous and strong third movement that happily harks back to the theme of the first, interpolated with capricious ideas that further explore the capabilities of the double bass and its player(s). The work's cute - a happy little freak - and was executed with aplomb by Slawomir Grenda, Alexander Preuss, and Jesper Ulfenstedt.

Frederic ChopinFryderyk Chopin - spelled à la Polonaise - offers more conventional beauty in his g-minor Piano Trio op.8 which, if Chopin really did lack enthusiasm composing it ("chamber music is is only for show; good enough for salons and the ladies"), doesn't show it. In the hands of Ivana Svarc Grenda (piano), Namiko Fuse (violin), and especially the outstanding Isolde Hayer (cello), it appeared no less splendid than it must have to Robert Schumann, who praised the work to the skies upon discovering it. The first movement might be near-endless, but it's never boring; the length of the four-movement work presented a problem only for the fidgetiest of kids at the matinée. The Cello Sonata for Double Bass was next... still Chopin - op.65, also g-minor - but in Slawomir Grenda's adaptation for his instrument (hence my oxymoronic description). It might have looked odd and I regret not having heard the fine Ms. Hayer again, but the way Mr. Grenda made his instrument sing the Chopin was impressive enough to have made this departure from the norm well worth it. And the extra ooomph of the double bass' lower register (nearly) made up for heights that can turn squealy and nasal compared to the cello's ability to soar.

Szymanowski is a composer that I've always known should fascinate me, but who has, despite the will to embrace and love everything he composed, never quite captured my heart in the way other 'masters in the second guard' have: Atterberg, Busoni, Langgaard, Pfitzner, Rheinberger, Saygun, Schreker, Wellesz... to mention an eclectic bunch of my 'lovlies'.

But one day, Karol Szymanowksi, too, will be comprehended by me in the way that is necessary to tap into a whole new love. His Second String Quartet performed live was a good step into that direction. And liking this work is really tantamount to liking Szymanowski in toto: it's a work that is his musical personality become manifest. His harmonic language stretches to the outer reaches of tonality but, baring sloppiness or tuning accidents of the first violinist (Ms. Fuse), never boldly goes beyond. The first movement of Op.56 feels around in the dark, searching gently; the second movement moves matters pleasantly toward Bartók - an outbreak of energy and rustic joy somewhere rooted in distant folk-music sources. Lamenting, shivering, and its energy largely sapped, the third movement takes time before it re-awakens when a long cello trill marks the the opening of a lively ride toward a soft end. Ana Vladanovic-Lebedinski played second violin, Agata Josefowicz Fiolek, Viola

Volpone at the Barns at Wolf Trap

Celia (Anne-Carolyn Bird), Bonario (Steven Sanders), Corvina (Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller), Mosca (Jeremy Little), and Voltore (Museop Kim), Wolf Trap Opera
Premiered three years ago as part of a new mission to cultivate composers and librettists, Wolf Trap commissioned the comic chamber opera Volpone and is now giving the work another run. Volpone (composed by John Musto on a libretto by Mark Campbell) is loosely based on the work of the same name by Elizabethan dramatist and purported rival of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and explores the theme of unscrupulous greed. Indeed, the work opens with a ritual of Volpone bathing himself in gold coins while singing “art, love, sex cannot compare; though, the last one can come close.”

The plot is based on the connivance of Volpone (while feigning grave sickness) and his servant Mosca to swindle three “legacy-seeking scavengers” by assuring that each would be named his sole heir. Volpone then asks Corvina (one of the scavengers) to disinherit her own son (Bonario) and name himself as heir. Volpone even persuades Cornaccio (another scavenger) to plan a sexual liaison with his beautiful, chaste wife (Celia), who is fresh from the convent. From this point – full of hyperbole, sexual innuendo, and shameless greed – the rhyming libretto cleverly becomes very complex, which results in multiple court scenes and prison sentences, Volpone’s faked death after signing his will over to his servant Mosca, and a happy ending.

Celia (Anne-Carolyn Bird) and Volpone (Joshua Winograde Joshua Jeremiah -- apologies!), Wolf Trap Opera
Overall, the strong libretto overshadows the music, which has appealing characteristics of Britten and Bernstein. Instead of conveying drama musically, the singers primarily convey a lot of witty text. This would be a different case if there were significant changes of tempo throughout the work and if Musto had used harmonic tools other than descending sequences. Such uniformity of musical texture was possibly a hindrance. Melismas were heard only on the word “Genoa,” the final destination of Volpone, Mosca, and Mosca’s mother, Erminella, at the work’s conclusion where they plan to share the gold (don’t hold your breath). Volpone’s value as entertainment is without question, though one yearns for the magical dramatic moments that opera can provide (even opera buffa). The potential of the Musto/Campbell pair is limitless, a recognition confirmed by their impressive list of new opera commissions in the pipeline. One is also keen to hear Musto's non-operatic works (piano concertos, Book of Uncommon Prayer, and chamber music, etc.) and more CD releases of his music.

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, 'Volpone': Putting On Heirs (Washington Post, June 25)

T. L. Ponick, Sly 'Fox' appears in Vienna woods (Washington Times, June 25)
Tenor Steven Sanders (Bonario) was musically and dramatically strong, as were Jeremy Little (Mosca), Rodel Rosell (Cornaccio), and Anne-Carolyn Bird (Celia). Surprisingly, Sanders was the only singer in the cast without the disappointing habit of singing ‘r’ in a closed American way. Besides those mentioned above, the rest of the cast were perhaps undersinging slightly because they were in an intimate 380-seat reconstructed 18th-century barn. Although audible for the most part, those that undersang were not able to counterbalance the orchestra in terms of musical strength.

Conductor Sara Jobin demanded and received a steady energy from the orchestra, while director Peter Kazaras and scenic designer Erhard Rom created an effective, efficient routine of multiple scene changes done by the singers during musical interludes. This involved turning the main platform on stage and allowed for momentum never to be lost due to the set.

See this opera for yourself (June 29 and July 1), and look forward to the upcoming premieres of this capable pair: Later the Same Evening in November 2007, inspired by five Edward Hopper paintings and co-commissioned by the National Gallery of Art and University of Maryland; Bastianello/Lucrezia in March 2008, two 50-minute comic operas commissioned by the New York Festival of Song; and another comic opera commissioned by Wolf Trap and the Opera Theater of St. Louis, scheduled for 2010.


In Brief: Ionarts at the Siena Office

LinksYour regular Sunday roundup of links to Blogville and beyond continues -- da Siena, durante la settimana del Palio. Molto pazzo!

Bonne fête de Saint-Jean à tous!

  • This is going to revolutionize musicological research. Liber floridus is an engine to search and view manuscript folio images from libraries in France. There are only two institutions participating at the moment, but they are the Bibliothèque Mazarine and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. [The Cranky Professor]

  • In related news, one of the cradles of the Carolingian creation we now call Gregorian chant, the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland, is putting its library of manuscripts online as the Codices Electronici Sangallenses. Be still, my heart! [Cronaca]

  • Queen Elizabeth II has named Emma Kirkby a Dame of the British Empire. I played her recording of Exultate, jubilate to celebrate. [Playbill Arts]

  • In other news about singers, Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman has been in Uganda volunteering with a program sponsored by the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) to connect with traumatized former child-soldiers. Oh, and she kept a (little) blog about it. [Measha's Diary]


Dip Your Ears, No. 81

available at Amazon
P. Moravec, Tempest Fantasy, et al.,
Trio Solisti, David Krakauer

Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy (for piano trio and bass-/clarinet) has been much written about - little wonder for a work that brought its composer the Pulitzer (2004) and has been picked up enthusiastically by groups that champion modern music. Especially so since the Tempest Fantasy is remarkably accessible music. Picturesque, conventionally beautiful at times, but without pandering to the ears' lowest harmonic expectations. Music that works with all the traditional tools from the composer's workshop which have changed surprisingly little since Bach - but Moravec uses them to create music anew. "Fresh" - as overused as that word must surely be - still has descriptive value when talking about his music.

In Washington alone the Tempest Fantasy has been played three, four times last season... including a performance at the Corcoran Gallery introduced by the composer himself.

One could try to hunt for influences in the music - or rather: discover accidental musical analogies. Telling or not as that may be, you might hear Mompou one moment, Debussy another, perhaps 'whimsical' Hindemith... even Poulenc. It could not be further removed from Adams, Reich, or Glass.
It would be failure on the part of the composer not to make a work of that title sound tempestuous and failure on part of the critic to find no other description for it. Alas, Mr. Moravec himself described the opening of the fifth and last movement (Fantasia) so and quoting him is my excuse for not coming up with descriptive prose more purple.

Fantasia, which might well have been titled “Prospero Prevailing,” sums up the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy’s first four movements: a spiky-joyous and flighty characterization of Ariel; the melancholic cello that is a lamenting Prospero; the limping dance of Caliban in the third movement (Peter and the Wolf just around the corner). And Sweet Airs, exposed on ‘Ariel’s’ violin and inspired by Caliban’s speech “The Isle is Full of Noises” (III.ii.130–138). G-D-A-E (the violin’s open strings) dominate Ariel, the Prospero cello-theme is prominently summoned in the Fantasia - but now imbued with the jazzy beat the first movement hinted at. Caliban, a “misshapen monster” (Moravec) is portrayed by David Jones’s bass clarinet. Apt, too – since the description “misshapen monster” equally applies to that absurd-looking instrument... a Three-Mile-Island love-child between a clarinet and a saxophone.
(ionarts, "Moravec and More at the Contemporary Music Forum")

You can find the humor of Carter - but at a smaller rate of admission as regards harmonic departure from what most ears are used to. And less of the knotty intellectualism that Carter displays. (At least compared to his American colleagues... compare Carter to Boulez and you will find the former a frivolous stroll along the beach of atonality.)

Naxos has now brought some of Paul Moravec's works, including the Tempest Fantasy and Mood Swings (the Washington Post's "best new Classical Composition of 1999) to a wider public by re-issuing the 2004 Arabesque recording on their "American Classics" line.

Trio Solisti (Alexis Pia Gerlach - cello, Maria Bachman - violin, and Jon Klibonoff - piano) and John Krakauer on clarinet(s) supply a performance that conveys all the glory of this music and cannot be faulted on any account. And where I found the third and fourth movements a bit longer than necessary in performance, this performance had me look for possibilities (much less necessary) judicious cuts in vain. Undoubtedly a highlight of the "American Classics" series - more reviews of which will be forthcoming.


The Year of Orfeo

available at Amazon
Monteverdi, L'Orfeo / L'Incoronazione di Poppea / Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
(re-released March 13, 2007)

available at Amazon
Monteverdi, L'Orfeo
Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not one of my favorite conductors among the historically informed performance (HIP) crowd, although I have always respected his contributions to the early music movement. Not least among his achievements was the Monteverdi cycle that he conducted back in the 1970s at the Zurich Opera, in stagings by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. (A box set of the three Harnouncourt-Ponnelle stagings has just been released, or they can be purchased individually.) Like almost all of Ponnelle's productions (for example, his La Clemenza di Tito, Idomeneo, and Mitridate), they have dated poorly. Orfeo is very 1970s, with Pet Halmen's poofy and sometimes garishly cartoonish costumes, the lutenist who wanders around the stage (someone should slap him), and Harnoncourt's sideburns (he appears on camera often, as does his wife Alice, who led the violin section of their Monteverdi Ensemble, as it was known).

The hokey qualities are made worse by the fact that the sound was recorded in the Opernhaus Zürich several months before the film was shot in Vienna (this was 1977 and 1978), and the lip-syncing is as unrealistic as ever. So this is not the DVD to buy if you only want one, but it is of obvious interest to a collector or a Baroque specialist. This marks the arrival of the HIP movement in many ways, one of the earliest residencies (I am inclined to think it was the first) of a specialized ensemble in a regular opera theater, a model that is now quite common in Europe. All the more unusual, then, that Harnoncourt's ensemble provides the musical fabric for a cast drawn more or less from the Zurich Opera's regulars. None of them would fit the stereotype of the "early music singer," and they are almost uniformly good. (Yes, that is the sweet tenor of Francisco Araiza singing the parts of a shepherd and a spirit.) By all accounts, the stage premiere of this production, in 1975, was an extraordinary success with audiences and critics alike. Monteverdi's operas were reborn.

Monteverdi's Orfeo, premiered in Mantua in 1607 (400 years ago this year), represents in many ways the beginning of the genre of opera: although there were operas before Monteverdi, he was the first to grasp the dramatic potential of opera and move beyond the mind-numbing predominance of the stile recitativo. Not to discount the importance of the pioneering works of the Florentine Camerata, but it is really in Orfeo that we first recognize what we will know as opera for the following four centuries. Here are not only arias with memorable and vocally virtuosic melodies like the stunning Possente spirto (.PDF file of the score) in the third act (by which Orfeo almost convinces Charon to allow him to enter Hades), but ensembles, choral numbers, love duets, a wedding divertissement, and instrumental sinfonias.

Of course, this is the summer in which I will be noticing references in everything to Dante, and Orfeo has a direct citation of a famous line from the Inferno. When Orfeo reaches the gate of Hades, to the sound of those famous trombones (sackbuts), he meets the allegorical character of Hope, La Speranza. She encourages Orfeo along his way to find Euridice's shade but stops where Charon blocks the way. According to law, she tells Orfeo, she is not allowed to enter that realm. "LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, VOI CH'ENTRATE," she sings twice, quoting the final verse of the three-stanza inscription that Dante reads on the gate of Hell (Inferno, Canto 3). In this production, a sign with that inscription, topped with a skull and cobwebs, drops in front of the camera. La Speranza, reciting, clasps her hands to her face in horror. If you intend to enter nella città dolente, she tells Orfeo, again alluding to the words of Dante, you must do so without me. It's a great moment.

Monteverdi's Orfeo on DVD
available at Amazon
John Mark Ainsley, Bernarda Fink, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Amsterdam Opera
available at Amazon
Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona, Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall
available at Amazon
Simon Keenlyside, Concerto Vocale, René Jacobs
available at Amazon
John Mark Ainsley, Toby Spence, Sandrine Piau, Christophe Rousset
available at Amazon
Kobie van Rensburg, Philippe Jaroussky, La Grande Ecurie, Jean-Claude Malgoire

The selection of Orfeo DVDs now available includes a couple that have been released this year, in connection with the anniversary. The musical and dramatic interest of any one of them is greater than the Harnoncourt classic, but his was the first and will always be a monument in the history of operatic staging. Surely, the 400th anniversary of the real birth of opera warrants owning more than one.

Ionarts will be bringing you reviews of two performances of Monteverdi's Orfeo next month, with Concerto Vocale and René Jacobs at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and with Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini at the Settimana Musicale Senese in Siena.


Colin Graham's Swan Song: Anna Karenina

David Carlson, Anna Karenina, Opera Theater of St. Louis Florida Grand Opera, photo by Debra Gray Mitchell
In my Opera in the Summer preview (U.S. | Europe), I expressed the opinion that David Carlson's new opera Anna Karenina was the main reason to visit the Opera Theater of St. Louis this summer. The reviews are in, beginning with George Loomis (Anna Karenina, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Missouri, June 14) for the Financial Times:
David Carlson’s opera Anna Karenina to a libretto by Colin Graham, which premiered at the Florida Grand Opera three weeks after Graham’s death in April, could serve as an epitaph for an illustrious career. As a project originally conceived for Benjamin Britten, it reflects Graham’s service to that composer’s operas as a producer and to new opera generally. Anna’s current venue at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis crowns his long association there as artistic director. And as an opera based on Tolstoy, it recalls one of his greatest productions, Prokofiev’s War and Peace for the English National Opera in London. [...]

Carlson underlies the dialogue with a Janácek-like orchestral tapestry of inventive motivic content that proves capable of blossoming into expansive lyrical pieces. And his gift for expressive melody deepens scenes such as the moving one in which Anna lies near death while her husband Karenin and Vronsky almost patch up their differences. Some will be concerned that his highly polished neo-romantic score, excellently realised here under Stewart Robertson, largely turns its back on anything modernistic. But perhaps the real problem with Anna Karenina is that it moves too fast for its own good. Without a more detailed psychological picture of Anna, you’re left wondering whether her suicide under a locomotive is the only answer to her problems.
Other Articles:

Heidi Waleson, Two New Operas, Two Troubled Heroines (Wall Street Journal, June 14)

Lew Prince, From Russia, with Deepest Sympathy (Riverfront Times, June 6)

Sarah Bryan Miller, OTSL presents 'Anna Karenina' (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 27)

The cast and musical performance were generally very good, according to Loomis. The widely traveling Scott Cantrell saw the opera, too (A 'Karenina' à la Graham, June 16) for the Dallas Morning News:
Mr. Carlson's musical language might be labeled Debyusky, Russified impressionism: surprisingly voluptuous rustles and cascades and washes of sound sometimes punctuated by tangy, pulsing winds. One doesn't walk out humming tunes, but the vocal writing is gracious. Anna Karenina is yet another musically retro American opera, but it's one of the more satisfying of the newer crop. With the same principal singers as in Miami, the cast is superb – and by now well-steeped in the opera. Kelly Kaduce's performance in the title role is a tour de force. She captures Anna's every nuance, from frustrated propriety to foolhardy infatuation to morphine-fueled disintegration, all the while singing gloriously.
You can see more pictures in this photo journal by Matthew Westphal and Matt Blank for Playbill Arts.


Little Women, Summer Opera Theater

Composer Mark Adamo (b. 1962)
Photo by Martin Gram, courtesy of G. Schirmer, Inc.
Mark Adamo's opera Little Women began life here in Washington, as a subject suggested to the composer by Elaine Walter, artistic director of Summer Opera Theater Company, when Adamo was still in Washington. For various reasons, Adamo withdrew the opera from the little company, in favor of a later premiere in 1998, at Houston Grand Opera. This was a wise decision, because the greater media exposure from the larger company undoubtedly played some part in the opera's astounding success. Little Women has received some forty productions since its premiere, an impressive number for a modern opera in less than a decade.

One part of the work's appeal can be credited to the popularity of the story, adapted from the Louisa May Alcott novel, read by just about every bibliophilic young person raised in the United States. The rest is due to Adamo's neo-Romantic compositional style, equal parts Hollywood film score and Sondheim musical, with easily digestible dashes of dissonant spices here and there. The lengthy introduction on Saturday night by the production's director, David Grindle, nervously beseeching the audience to give their ears a chance to get used to this challenging modern opera, was utterly unnecessary. It says something about the company's conservative audience, and one hopes that Summer Opera is not punished financially too much for programming something even a little different. Adamo's style is not as saccharine as The Light in the Piazza, thank God, but this is certainly not Ferneyhough or Saariaho, after all.

Adamo's opera comes back to its birthplace in a co-production with Opera Delaware, in a frilly, decidedly unadventurous staging directed by David Grindle, with sets by Frederick M. Duer and costumes that were not created specifically for this production. If the opera looked a little precious, the music was a significant success. Having now heard the entire opera live (I heard the stunning closing ensemble a couple years ago), it is easy to see why so many companies have chosen to mount it. The libretto, adapted by the composer, is a clever repointing of the Alcott story, cutting and reshaping the essential story, while capturing some of the original's nostalgic appeal. Little Women retains an essentially modern, seamless narrative flow, while Adamo does allow his score to break into several recognizable operatic conventions.

Related Articles:

Daniel Ginsberg, A 'Little Women' That's A Little Too Familiar (Washington Post, June 18)

T. L. Ponick, 'Little Women,' big opera (Washington Times, June 18)

Lauren LaRocca, Frederick native earns lead role in 'Little Women' (Frederick News-Post, June 14)

Charles T. Downey, Mark Adamo, Four Angels, World Premiere by the National Symphony (Ionarts, June 9)
The ensembles, especially those for the four sisters, are well constructed, and there are memorable set pieces one might call "arias." One of the best is Jo's "Perfect as we are" number, in which the character, in a sort of stream of consciousness, composes one of her potboiler stories and makes connections between words and life. The Goethe aria in the second act, in which Prof. Bhaer recites Mignon's Kennst du das Land to Jo, is another great moment. The only musical component that was not immediately appealing was the wedding piece ("Ours the hours"), which sounded just a little too kitschy. The story is weighty, with plenty of tragedies, but Adamo also made the opera quite funny. Little Women will almost certainly be remembered as the first opera to contain a joke about supertitles.

The cast of this production was a dedicated ensemble of young singers, and it is appropriate to mention only those who excelled. Jenna Lebhers was in fine form in the lead role of Jo, dramatically convincing and vocally strong. Of the other sisters, Ashleigh Rabbitt was strongest as Amy, with a pure and incisive high soprano presence. Kelly Smith was a sweet and fragile Beth. James Biggs's bright tenor worked very well in the role of Laurie, who falls in love with Jo but settles for Amy. James Shaffran lent some veteran experience as Gideon March, Jo's free-thinking literary father. The sounds from the pit -- all that celesta and percussion to evoke memories of the past -- were generally very good, except for a somewhat canned electronic piano. Conductor Kate Tamarkin, who recently left the music faculty of Catholic University after a disappointingly short tenure, led convincingly and with sensitivity from the podium. If you are interested in new opera, and even if you are not, you should see this production. While not perfect, it will be your only chance to see Little Women on the stage, perhaps for a long time.

The remaining performances of Little Women are scheduled for Wednesday night (June 20, 7:30 pm) and Sunday afternoon (June 24, 2:30 pm). Summer Opera Theater returns to more traditional fare for its second production, Puccini's Tosca, on July 14, 18, and 22.

Seeing Art, Drawing Conclusions

This past weekend of art viewing began on Thursday evening in Baltimore with John Ruppert’s exhibit of new sculpture at the Grimaldis Gallery. John’s most recent work has been the elegant shapes he forms from chain link fencing. I’ve shown them here in my previous post on Art DC. There are a few small wire pieces in this show in addition to cast metals, the type of work he is most noted for.

Ruppert is a great technician with a passion for blurring the line between organic materials, wood and stone, and casting them in iron, aluminum, copper, or bronze. This is evident in Iron Split Rock ll, where a large weathered granite stone sits beside an identically cast version in iron. It’s not easy at first glance to tell them apart. My favorite piece in this show is the gorgeous example of alchemist love, Horizontal Strike-vista. Here Ruppert cast long slender strips of wood, one in aluminum and the other in copper, and displays them on the wall together, seemingly fused as one; a stunner, shown above.

On Friday the art viewing moved to Chelsea in NYC, first for an incredible piece of pecan pic at The Little Pie Company on 14th St. Then to see Zoe Strauss’s photo show at Silverstein Photography, before it closes this week. Someone put lots of red dots on the exhibit listing: don’t worry, Zoe, I removed them for you; no need to thank me. There will be a closing party and outdoor slide show, weather permitting, on the 22nd.

Other shows of note: the late Charles Steffen’s large pencil drawings on brown paper at Andrew Edlin. This is the first exhibit of Steffen’s work and well worth a visit. Betty Cuningham’s latest exhibit could easily be in a museum, and perhaps it should be. It’s All Spiritual, Art From Tribal Cultures is a fabulous but fragile display of functional and ceremonial pieces dating from 1100 BC to the early 20th century. Some of the work is from private collections and not for sale, while the mid-19th century coat made of tapa cloth and Macaw feathers from the Amazon can be purchased for $45000 (shown here). I think I saw someone resembling the Nkondi power figure at a club recently.

I began the day with drawings and ended my Chelsea swing at the opening for Sarah Peter’s show of drawings at Winkleman Gallery and a nice glass of wine or two. It's difficult to take in the work during an opening, but what I did see I enjoyed. Very detailed flowing stories with some nice drawing. I'll get back for another look before it closes.

To the Drawing Center in SOHO I went on Saturday -- while Mini-me shopped; that can have scary consequences -- to see Gego, Between Transparency and the Invisible. Gego -- Gertrud Goldschmidt (1924-1994) -- was a German-born Venezuelan artist, not well known in this country, but with a strong following throughout Latin America. She was part of the Kinetic Artist movement in Venezuela. In addition to drawings on paper, this exhibit also has several of her wire sculptures, which she called drawings without paper. The Drawing Center is a total gem. For more images of this exhibit, the Cuningham Gallery, and galleries I didn't have time to mention, visit my Flickr site.

Good luck and safe travels to Charles, as he goes off on a dream trip to Italy. I am sooo jealous. Next week I'll open the Ionarts Maine outpost, to keep you all in touch with the latest trends in lobster art.


BSO’s Season Finale at Strathmore

Marin Alsop
Maestra Marin Alsop
In the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's final regular season program, Marin Alsop conducted the music of Korngold, Dvořák, and Brahms before a full house at Strathmore. Possibly due to the recent pressures of the recording microphone, Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations on an Original Theme was performed impeccably well. It makes one wonder why this unified solidity of playing has not been present at all BSO performances. The tempo relationships between each variation were naturally balanced, contrasts emphasized, and Alsop seemed to be emoting more than directing. Even the fugue subject entrance by the double-basses was clear. A rare absence of flubs (not that there is anything wrong with one here or there) in Saturday’s live performance might promise that the recording will not require heavy editing. Look for a series of BSO Dvořák CDs to be released by Naxos -– I would suggest considering the disc containing the Symphonic Variations.

The Dvořák, which contains an abundance of melody, has a strong fabric of counterpoint beneath it; Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major does not. This makes the Korngold structurally weaker. Despite all of its lush orchestration (bass drones, vibraphone, and harp) and melody, one largely hears simple harmonies underneath. As soloist, BSO Concertmaster Jonathan Carney’s portamenti were lovely and unhurried, and his high-register playing was done with accuracy and ease. Korngold took many of the melodic lines from prior film scores, while the final movement contains material resembling Turkey in the Straw.

Alsop led Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E Minor with admirable weight and intensity from beginning to end. While the orchestra broadly matched the Maestra’s intensity, an overly dominant violin section created unbalance and a lack of the unity heard previously in the Dvořák. Memorable moments included the rich tone and broad phrasing of the principal oboist (though sometimes not present enough in the room), rhetorical flute solos (fourth movement), and a graceful horn section (second movement). By comparison with the National Symphony Orchestra's offering last week, the BSO presented the best weekend of season finale concerts in the region.


Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Handel, Floridante, M. Mijanović, J. DiDonato, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis
(released April 10, 2007)

Other Reviews:

Anthony Holden (The Observer, April 15)

Tim Pfaff (Bay Area Reporter, April 12)

George Loomis (Disc of the Month, Opera Magazine, May 2007)

Mark Sealey (Classical Net)
Last summer, I reviewed a new opera recorded by musicologist Alan Curtis's Il Complesso Barocco, Vivaldi's Motezuma, and the year before that Jens reviewed two Handel operas by the group, Radamisto and Rodelinda. The operas of Handel should dispel the idea of a Baroque opera score as fixed in any way, as the composer reused and recast his works and pieces of his works so much. A musicologist, Hans Dieter Clausen, had to tease apart the various versions as part of his work on the critical edition of this opera, Il Floridante (HWV 14), for Die Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, the excellent new Handel collected works edition from Bärenreiter. A venerable Handel authority, Prof. Clausen wrote his dissertation on the autograph "conducting scores" that Handel used and annotated (Händels Direktionspartituren, U. Hamburg, 1969).

This recording is the first to use Clausen's new edition, and in it Curtis and his musicians attempt "to return to Handel's original conception" of the opera, as Clausen writes in his informative liner notes (The ideal Floridante). Most importantly, Handel initially planned to cast soprano Margherita Durastanti in the role of Elmira, but she was unavoidably detained in Italy at the time of the premiere. Ultimately, Handel was forced to recast the opera with the seconda donna, contralto Anastasia Robinson, as Elmira. The English singer was originally given the role of Rossane, which was now reworked for a new soprano, Maddalena Salvai. Paolo Antonio Rolli freely adapted the libretto (.PDF file) from an earlier Venetian opera, Francesco Silvani's La costanza in trionfo, set to music by Marc'Antonio Ziani. The synopsis may help you make more sense of the plot, but it's complicated, if still dramatically compelling, in a Baroque opera kind of way.

Il Complesso Barocco:

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Motezuma

available at Amazon
Handel, Radamisto

available at Amazon
Handel, Rodelinda
Here we have the unclassifiable Marijana Mijanović taking the role of Floridante, created by the alto castrato Senesino. We have already admired Mijanović's almost countertenorish contralto in Vivaldi's Bajazet and in other operas with Il Complesso Barocco: here she is at her best, least troubled by some of the quirks of her voice, in the luscious slow arias Se dolce m'era già and Questi ceppi e quest'orrore of Act III. Floridante, Prince of Thrace, seeks the hand of Elmira, who was adopted by Oronte, the usurper King of Persia. The ravishing mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato handles the soprano version of the role with panache, as in the dazzlingly dramatic exit aria Barbaro, t'odio a morte in Act II. The problem is that now Oronte, sung by the vibrant bass Vito Priante, is pursuing his own adopted daughter. Rossane, Oronte's actual daughter (sung by Sharon Rostorf-Zamir), hopes to be united with her betrothed, the Prince of Tyre, Timante, a role created by the soprano castrato Berselli. The singing from soprano Roberta Invernizzi in this role is the other major standout of the recording, after DiDonato and Mijanović. This arrangement means that Floridante is yet another opera where both pairs of lovers are all sung by treble voices.

This is a singular recording, of exceptional musicological interest and beautifully sung and played. Curtis draws another fine performance from his instrumental ensemble (this opera's overture is a gem) and plays the harpsichord for the recitatives. His style is more judicious than the flashier Christophe Rousset and not as intellectual as the distant (but glorious) William Christie. The embellishments on the da capo repeats, probably the work of Alan Curtis, are extensive and impressive, while sounding appropriate to each voice. Much of the most memorable music is in the second act, like Rossane's perky Gode l'alma innamorata, Floridante's fiery exit aria Bramo te sola, the gorgeous duet Fuor di periglio with Water Music-like horn obbligati, and Elmira's murky arioso Notte cara. Listen to some excerpts to judge for yourself.

Archiv 477 6566


In Brief: Leaving for Siena

LinksThis may be the final regular Sunday roundup of links to Blogville and beyond for a while. I will be reporting from the ground in Siena starting later this week and through the beginning of August.

  • As Tyler Green reported, Montgomery County, outside Philadelphia, is pulling out all the stops to try to keep the Barnes Collection on Latches Lane. Of course, this is after years of the neighborhood around the museum seemingly doing their best to keep art lovers away from the museum by limiting the number of visitors through zoning laws. [Modern Art Notes]

  • When we say that Strauss and von Hoffmanstal were one of the greatest composer-librettist pairings in operatic history, we mean that they were a team. Now it's a legal fact. The heirs of Richard Strauss were ordered to share the royalties with the heirs of Hugo von Hoffmanstal, and this covers all of the operas on which the two men collaborated, including Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra. Considering how often those two operas are performed, especially the former, that must be a pretty penny. [Associated Press]

  • In related news, Joyce DiDonato is making her debut at San Francisco Opera, as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. She has pictures of her costume and powdered wig at her blog. [Yankeediva]

  • Brian has seen the SF Rosenkavalier: singers up, production down. [Out West Arts]

  • Roberto Benigni is touring a new one-man show called "Tutto Dante." It combines stand-up comedy with, and I am not making this up, dramatic readings from Dante's Inferno. [Washington Post]

  • France may have lost François Pinault and his art collection to Venice, but a new contemporary art museum has just opened in Paris, at the Place de la Madeleine. The Pinacothèque de Paris opened on June 15 with a Roy Lichtenstein exhibit. Great, now I have another reason to visit Paris. [Le Monde]


New Opera Notes: Hindemith

Hearing more of the Hindemith operas -- any of them, actually, when you live in a land of conservative opera like Washington -- would be fine by me. His 1921 Sancta Susanna gets produced very rarely by adventurous companies: the only recent one mentioned here was at La Scala in 2005. The scandalous photograph shown here is from a recent production at the Opernhaus Köln in 2001. The New York Philharmonic gave its first-ever performance of this opera, in a concert version, this month, and we have Riccardo Muti to blame (or thank). Martin Bernheimer sounded bemused in his review (Muti/Sancta Susanna, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, June 11) for the Financial Times:

Talk about musical exhumation. Riccardo Muti, an Italian maestro revered for his patrician civility, returned to the New York Philharmonic on Thursday and brought with him a rather horrific example of arcane Germanic expressionism. The vehicle, never performed by this orchestra and seldom performed anywhere, was Paul Hindemith’s opera Sancta Susanna, a youthful indiscretion dating back to 1921. It turned out to be shamelessly, heroically sleazy, yet often fascinating, a psychosexual period piece dabbling in sacrilegious Grand Guignol. The score seethes eerily for 25 minutes with taut post-Straussian ardour, while the lip-smacking text by August Stramm graphically explores dark doings at a sinister cloister. The protagonist is a chronically repressed nun who, one moon-drunk night, rips the loincloth from a huge crucifix, nakedly embraces the Jesus figure, recoils from a symbolic spider and ecstatically begs to be buried alive amid stones and brick. No, this isn’t The Sound of Music.
Hee hee. Other reviews, which do not lead with the Hindemith (Lang Lang also played the Emperor Concerto), were by Allan Kozinn (Tortoise Meets Hare at Lincoln Center, June 9) for the New York Times, Jay Nordlinger (A Triple Threat, June 11) for the New York Sun, and David Patrick Stearns (A super-hair team-up: Muti and Lang Lang, June 9) for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Welcome, Stile Antico

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Music for Compline (Tallis, Byrd, Sheppard), Stile Antico
(released January 16, 2007)
This is the first recording from Harmonia Mundi by an up-and-coming British choir called Stile Antico. Following a trend among chamber orchestras, the group performs without a conductor: in the words of their Web profile, they "rehearse and perform as chamber musicians, each contributing artistically to the musical result." The selection of Tudor polyphony and some plainchant is unified by the fact that it was (almost, with a few qualifications) all intended to be sung during Compline, in my opinion, the most symbolically and textually beautiful service of the Divine Office. The close of the day, the Psalms reserved only for the night (4, 90, 133), the Nunc dimittis (Simeon's canticle from Luke, You now send away your servant in peace), the Marian antiphon, and then the stillness of the Great Silence. For a recently formed group composed of such young musicians, this disc is extraordinarily good (you can listen to a few excerpts at their Web site), and it has already won the Diapason d’Or and the Choc du Monde de la Musique.

The CD opens with a piece that is a favorite of many singers who sing a lot of polyphony, John Sheppard's two settings of the Trinity antiphon Libera nos. The composer's style is thick, a dense thicket of contrapuntal layers, with few of the breaks into homophony or less than full textures used to great effect by Palestrina and others. Stile Antico includes five other Sheppard pieces, none of which I had ever heard before. The group tunes the crushing cross-relations (intended dissonant intervals that arise out of contrapuntal interaction) in the Tallis selections with skill. The greatest composer of those featured here, William Byrd, has only three motets, although they are great ones, including the only setting of the Nunc dimittis. Two other minor composers get single selections, including one hymn setting by Robert White and the longest piece on the disc, by far, Hugh Aston's Marian motet Gaude virgo mater Christi. The only slight disappointment is the singing of the plainchant, which is performed by solo voices or smaller groups, sapped of all its vitality by comparison with the linear-minded, full-voiced polyphonic selections.

One could point out a few tuning issues here and there, but this small group has a beautiful and balanced sound. There are 13 singers credited on this recording, and three of the women have the last name Ashby. Sopranos Helen Ashby and Kate Ashby, who happen to be twins, helped found the group while they were students at Cambridge. Their sister Emma Ashby sings in the alto section, and according to the group's Web site, younger sister Laura Ashby is now the third member of the soprano section. With a group this size, one hardly misses the presence of a conductor, and the intimate nature of the music is certainly suited to a close-knit group able to explore the piano side of the dynamic spectrum. This is warmly recommended listening.

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907419

Stile Antico will perform a concert of music by William Byrd at the York Early Music Festival, on July 11. Their next CD, to be called The Desire of Heavenly Harmonies, will combine English hymns by Tallis and Catholic motets by Byrd. It will be released in early 2008.


Herreweghe's Schütz

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Heinrich Schütz, Opus ultimum (Schwanengesang), Collegium Vocale Gent, Concerto Palatino, Philippe Herreweghe
(released June 12, 2007)

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Schütz, Opus ultimum, Hilliard Ensemble et al.
The Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe has recently celebrated his 60th birthday. Harmonia Mundi has recognized Herreweghe's contribution to music with a dual release embracing the two sides of his musical personality: the early Baroque in this Schütz 2-CD set and the Romantic in a new CD of Schumann symphonies, as well as a retrospective 2-CD/1-DVD set (reviews forthcoming). The fabled Opus ultimum -- Schütz's final work, a set of 11 motets on the text of Psalm 118 (Beati immaculati in via) plus late settings of Psalm 100 and the Magnificat (all in German) -- is offered in a stylistically sensitive performance by Collegium Vocale Gent, recorded in exquisite sound in 2005 in a former seminary chapel in Ghent.

The Hilliard Ensemble's recording, from the 1980s, is the only competition, and it combines voices and instruments, too. As Peter Wollny explains in his informative liner notes, the elderly Schütz offered the Opus ultimum to his Dresden employer in 1671, at the end of a distinguished career, by which point his music had become outdated. Never published, the work survived only by haphazard, rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century in a forgotten manuscript in a small Polish church's archive. In 1930, a continuo part for the motets turned up, which allowed the reconstruction of the two missing partbooks. Looking backward stylistically, Schütz returns to the Venetian polychoral style, composing for two balanced four-part choirs. He did recommend in his instructions that a complement of instruments could perform with the singers. In this recording, there are three singers on each part (two choirs of twelve singers each), whom Herreweghe occasionally reduces to one on a part to provide textural variety. Here it is mostly the continuo instruments that play along (organ, lute, and viol), with occasional doubling contributions by one cornetto and three trombones from the superb Concerto Palatino.

Heinrich Schütz
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
Why did Schütz choose Psalm 118? As Joshua Rifkin has shown, Schütz planned his own funeral and chose to have Psalm 118's 54th verse as the motto of the eulogy: carmina erant mihi praecepta tua in domo peregrinationis meae (Your laws have been songs for me in the house of my wandering). Schütz was a Protestant, and he was the Kapellmeister in Dresden before that court reverted to Catholicism. However, at least from his time in Venice, studying with Gabrieli and later with Monteverdi, he must have been familiar with the Divine Office. The singing of Psalm 118, broken up into several sections, each with a different antiphon and psalm tone and its own statement of the Doxology, is suspiciously Catholic, even if the text is in German. In his Regula (Chapter 18), St. Benedict specified that Psalm 118 was to be broken up into sections and sung over the course of the Little Hours (the brief services of Prime, Tierce, Sext, and None) on Sundays and Mondays. Schütz has the first verse of each psalm and the first half of the doxology sung in a Gregorian psalm tone. He even uses the Gregorian psalm tone as a cantus firmus occasionally (for example, in the end of the doxology of the eighth motet).

All throughout his life, Schütz was pioneering ways to adapt the innovations of Italian Catholic church music to a Protestant setting. The "appendix" of the Opus ultimum adds a setting of Psalm 99 (Jubilate Domino omnis terra), apparently performed as early as 1665, and the German text of the Magnificat. This magnificent recording is now the gold standard performance of his last work of genius.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901895.96