CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Rocky Mountain High

Master Ionarts looking at Long's Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, July 31, 2009

Altitude achieved on the Alpine tundra on the only sunny morning of our Colorado trip: 12,090 feet


Paul Moravec, Full of Noises

Ionarts is in Colorado this week, for our first, long overdue visit to the Central City Opera summer festival (more about that to come). Fortunately, we managed to escape, just in the nick of time, the first real heat of this unusually temperate Washington summer, bringing Master Ionarts and Miss Ionarts to see America's big mountains -- well, what can be seen of them under some rather uncharacteristic rain and cold fronts. Yesterday was given over to a trip out Canyon Boulevard from Boulder for walks and (careful) rock climbing along Boulder Creek, as well as a visit with an old friend from our student of entomology days back in Michigan, who showed us her bug collection. The behind-the-scenes tour included boxes and boxes of bees, touching a live hissing cockroach, looking at live black widow spiders in a jar, and a sampling of the 11,000 grasshoppers!

available at Amazon
P. Moravec, Tempest Fantasy (inter alia), Trio Solisti, D. Krakauer

(re-released on March 27, 2007)
Naxos 8.559323
After Colorado, we will make our annual pilgrimage to Santa Fe Opera, where one of the main events is the world premiere production of Paul Moravec's new opera, The Letter. It may seem overkill to return to this Naxos CD, the now very available and affordable reference recording of the work that won Moravec the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, Tempest Fantasy. Jens and I both reviewed the piece's Washington premiere in 2006, and Jens has even written about the CD. The pieces recorded on it, however, fill out the picture of Moravec's compositional style gleaned from some recent study of the piano-vocal score of The Letter. The strengths of his instrumental pieces -- The Letter is Moravec's first attempt at opera -- are an animated, even frenetic rhythmic vitality (a benefit of having lived after the Minimalist revolution) and a willingness to embrace the triad. The style is not really tonal, although there is a sense at times of a key center, but while there are many triads they are not generally related to one another in conventionally tonal ways.

Sometimes Moravec indulges in truly syrupy, jazz-influenced harmonies -- there are moments in the fourth-movement Sweet Airs of the Tempest Fantasy (related by the composer to Caliban's "The isle is full of noises" speech) that one could easily mistake for Bernstein or Broadway. "Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not," indeed. The same is true of Mood Swings, the 1999 piano trio also on this disc, where the other typical element of Moravec's style, a sort of wrong-note pandiatonicism, is kept to a minimum. The key center of E minor is central to The Letter, as it opens and concludes in that area, but with plenty of obscuring notes, as in the confrontation of B-flat minor and E minor that runs through the end of the score, all the way to the final measures. That is why, although that E minor triad keeps returning at the end of scenes, Moravec mostly does not indicate a key signature. An E minor key signature appears in the seventh interlude, leading into Leslie's big aria in Scene 8, only to be canceled out as Leslie is stirred from her reverie by a knock at the door.

Conventional tonality also makes an appearance when Leslie tries to make her lover, Geoff Hammond, think back to the first night they fell in love, dancing together at a club in Singapore. The feeling of nostalgia is signaled by a swath of music notated in an E major key signature in the fourth scene. As Geoff comes out of the memory, remembering that he is trying to break up with Leslie, the key signature is again canceled out. The obvious influence for this use of chromaticism, both melodically and harmonically, is Wagner, who seems to be a model for Moravec in writing his first opera, although the length of The Letter, a taut ninety minutes, is hardly Wagnerian. It is probably not a coincidence that the famous Tristan chord (spelled F-A-flat-C-flat-E-flat) plays a part in Hammond's signature "I've loved you, ever, ever" music, which returns like an erotic tattoo throughout the opera. Planing triads sometimes recall Debussy, and there are some hair-raising extended-harmony chords, such as at the end of the third interlude, that shimmer like Messiaen's purple-orange prismatic sonorities. Slithering, chromatic melodies, also redolent of Wagner, even introduce the remembered meeting of Hammond and Leslie in the fourth scene. More to come after the first actual hearing of the opera next week.


Exit Interview: Gerard Mortier

Gerard MortierGerard Mortier's tenure at the head of the Opéra national de Paris officially came to an end on July 22, to be followed by the era of Nicolas Joel, who will take the reins this September. For all of the criticism of Mortier, especially by more conservative opera fans on this side of the Atlantic who were pleased that his plan to take over New York City Opera failed, his work in Paris will probably be thought a success. Mortier is proud to take responsibility for the average age of the audience at the Opéra de Paris decreasing from 56 to 42 and for the improvement of critical approval of the playing of the Orchestre de l'Opéra, now thought of as the best in France. Ticket sales have been exceptionally strong, 92.5% of the house for operas and 88.7% for ballets, meaning that the self-financing part of the company's budget, from ticket sales, is up from 39% to 45%. However, criticism against Mortier from conservative opera supporters has been strong. Christian Merlin asked him a few questions about it in an interview (Gerard Mortier : «J'ai voulu faire réfléchir» [Gerard Mortier: I wanted to make people think], July 22) for Le Figaro (my translation):

LE FIGARO. You have often been perceived as a provocateur who loves to shock the bourgeoisie.

It's a big misunderstanding. I have a passion, and I seek to share it. My intention is not to brutalize the listener, I believe deeply in what I do. That is not to say that I succeed every time. On my desk I always have a reminder of that saying of Beckett's, "Fail, fail again, but fail better." In any case, during the farewell cocktail given by the members of the Association pour le rayonnement de l'Opéra de Paris, those people told me that they were happy to have been bowled over by me, even if they had not always understood everything. One has to accept not understanding: does one understand everything when one reads Rimbaud?

People criticize you for programming what you like instead of a diverse selection.

It's not a question of liking but of my conception of opera. I know that all I have to do is program La Bohème or Tosca to fill the house, but I do not feel compelled to do so. I think first of what work can teach me something about our society. Richard Strauss is not one of my favorite composers, but I know that I must program him. In Madrid I will begin my first season with Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, a reflection on the economic model that is in crisis today, and I will end it with Saint François d'Assises. So, we will have the two poles of the contemporary world, materialism and spirituality. That is how I create a season, even if I sometimes have to bend over backwards to satisfy the artists: I did Werther at the request of Rolando Villazón and Susan Graham, and I am going to do Puccini's La Fanciulla del West because Eva-Maria Westbroek begged me to do it, even though I detest those operas.

You see it more as reflection than entertainment?

Reflection is essential. "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters," says the Goya painting, of which I have a reproduction in my office. And thus an opera theater is not an institution for entertainment, especially with public money. I have a mission: one cannot do Broadway with 100 million in government financing.

Do you have any regrets or frustrations from your time in Paris?

The nightmare was the cancellation of the premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater because of a strike. During my tenure there has not been a single strike due to internal causes, only to national movements like the intermittents or the retirement issue. I would have loved to mount Zimmermann's Die Soldaten, but it is too difficult to stage in a theater where one routinely alternates among productions. Schoenberg's Moses und Aron and Wagner's Die Meistersinger would have been dear to my heart, but the main character in them is the chorus and the chorus of the Opéra de Paris was not exactly up to the task. Other than that, the great wound will remain the reception given to Sylvain Cambreling, even though he has been recognized in Germany as a great conductor.
Mortier is certainly right that he did not always succeed and his brash approach is often too confrontational and off-putting. At the same time, it is hard not to think that the upcoming Paris season looks a little, well, plain compared to most of the Mortier seasons, in which there were few tired revivals and lots of unusual things that seemed like yet another good reason to fly to Paris. The good news is that Marc Minkowski, banned under Mortier, will be back in the pit conducting Gounod's Mireille to open the season, in a production directed by Nicolas Joel himself. Also not bad are a Willy Decker production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt and the Bastille's first Ring cycle, directed by Günter Krämer. Of course, La Bohème is back, and so are L'elisir d'amore and Barber of Seville. Given Joel's record in Toulouse, however, seasons after the first, transitional one will surely be lots more interesting.

Mortier ends the discussion by saying that it is not true that he does not like being contradicted, that in fact he loves discussion and never hides what he thinks, although it is true that he "reacts viscerally" when he does not understand another person's likes. He gives as an example Merlin's high regard for the Bruckner symphonies as directed by Philippe Herreweghe: "That I cannot understand coming from you, who know this composer as well as I do. It's beyond me!"


Rediscovering Offenbach's 'La Haine'

In 2006 musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck discovered the lost score of Offenbach's La Haine, incidental music written in 1874 to go with a performance of the massive play of that name by Victorien Sardou, on the subject of the divisions between Guelphs and Ghibellines in medieval Siena. The work finally saw the light of day last week, at the Festival de Radio France Montpellier, and Marie-Aude Roux was there to report on the performance ("La Haine" toujours vivace d'Offenbach, July 23) for Le Monde (my translation):

Rape, violence, love, insults, and hatred accompany the love story of the beautiful and unbending Ghibelline Cordelia Saraceni (Fanny Ardant) and the Guelph Orso Sovagnano (Gérard Depardieu, whose arrogance gives way and explodes. Lost behind the scrim that separated them from the actors, the Orchestre national de Montpellier and the excellent Choeur de la Radio lettone, supported by the conducting of the young Dutch conductor Enrico Delamboye, gave their best for the pleasure of a grateful and convinced audience.
Armelle Héliot was also there (Un Offenbach sombre pour Ardant et Depardieu, July 21), for Le Figaro. The reviewers so far were all really moved and impressed but have not really said why. Do we dare hope for a webcast? A few bits of the rehearsal and interviews with the big stars in the clip below.

A commenter has noted that this concert will indeed be broadcast on France Musique, this Thursday (July 30) at 9 am (French time). One can listen to it streamed live on the Internet -- that would be at 3 am EDT for you American readers. Some of these programs are made available as webcasts, for a period of seven days, although I have yet to make their interface work properly. It worked just fine on the last attempt -- Offenbach's La Haine!--Ed.


Summer Opera: Wolf Trap's 'Ulysses' Beyond Thunderdome

Jamie Barton (Penelope, left) and Jamie Van Eyck (Melanto, rear center) in Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Act II, Wolf Trap Opera (photo by Carol Pratt)
It is no secret that Wolf Trap Opera's production of Claudio Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria was one of the most anticipated parts of our summer opera plans. Monteverdi (1567-1643), the father of opera, was a composer of genius who should be thought of as the Bach, the Mozart, the Strauss of his time, whose pioneering later compositional style in many ways provided the groundwork of tonal music. Il ritorno d'Ulisse, the first of three operas (concluding with L'Incoronazione di Poppea) from the final years of the composer's life (see my preview article for more background information), is one of those powerfully affecting twilight works, made by a composer at the height of his musical and dramatic powers but with only a short time left to live. Any performance of Ulisse is a work of reconstruction, and conductor Gary Thor Wedow's version, with credit also to viola da gambist Lawrence Lipnik, was no different in that regard. Beginning with Alan Curtis's edition, Wedow and Lipnik cut about 20 minutes of music, reordered some things, and added some instrumental pieces by Monteverdi and other composers.

The instrumentation followed many of Curtis's suggestions, with trombones and trumpet a nice substitution for cornetti, but also with an eyebrow-raising addition of xylophone (!) to the gods' scene in the third act -- evocative of magical power, I guess, but jarringly out of place. The orchestra, spilling out into the house, played with balanced tone and precision, from the strings (led by violinist Elizabeth Field) to the recorders (with some second and third parts actually played by the gambist, Lipnik, on recorder) to the brass, who played on the stage in some of the gods' scenes and even in the rear stairwell with the chorus in the sea. The recitatives were particularly beautiful, with pleasing variation of sounds between instruments, including Baroque organ, harpsichord, and two theorbos, and a sense of elasticity that allowed and encouraged the singers to sing this most dramatic (and often misunderstood) type of music with exciting and varied freedom.

available at Amazon
Ellen Rosand, Monteverdi's Last Operas: A Venetian Trilogy
(University of California Press, 2007)

Preview on Google Books
It worked to have Dominic Armstrong (Ulisse) double as L'Umana Fragilità in the prologue (with the oppressive figures of Time, Love, and Fortune imprisoning him in a mask and straitjacket), with the part transposed down for a male voice, but it was a misstep to conflate the roles of Eurimaco, Melanto's lover, and Pisandro, one of Penelope's suitors. This undercut one of the most important contrasts in Monteverdi's score, between Melanto and Eurimaco's "exuberant lyricism" and the "intransigence" of Penelope, expressed in her "austere and speech-like mode of expression, which suggests her reluctance (or inability) to release her voice in song" (the quotations are from Ellen Rosand's seminal book on the late Monteverdi operas, p. 268). Melanto's lover urges her to sway Penelope's cold-heartedness and then becomes one of the suitors attempting to seduce Penelope? Then Melanto (the lovely, nimble-voiced Jamie Van Eyck) hands the bow to Ulisse, becoming complicit in her lover's murder? Tenor David Portillo, a pleasing Ferrando in last month's Così, sang with a suave, measured upper register but could not dispel the nonsense this made of part of the story. Reconstruction, yes; obfuscation, no.

Ava Pine (Minerva, above) and Dominic Armstrong (Ulisse) in Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Act I, Wolf Trap Opera (photo by Carol Pratt)
The enormous cast had no real weak links, although it is a miscalculation to expect that these young singers, many of whom have had little training in early Baroque opera, could adapt perfectly to Monteverdi's different stylistic demands. Jamie Barton had a forceful, immovable, chest-placed resonance as Penelope, but a tendency toward forced production drove the intonation sharp at some points, most disastrously in the opera's final cadence. Unfortunately, the vampiric costuming, stringy red wig, and makeup (costumes designed by Andrea Huelse, hair and makeup by Elsen Associates) made her a figure more absurd -- a little too Elvira -- than regal. Tenor Dominic Armstrong showed a more heroic side to his voice, after his more lyric Macheath in the Castleton Festival's Beggar's Opera, although costuming Ulysses as Captain Ahab or the Gorton's Fisherman was also odd. Diego Torre was a completely grotesque and yet heroic (nice high note!) and almost sympathetic Iro: his spectacular death scene, broadly comic and yet sad, left the audience stunned into silence. The three suitors -- Portillo as Pisandro, Carlos Monzón as Antinoo, and Matthew Hanscom as a hilariously fruity Anfinomo -- had almost too much fun as 80s Eurotrash lotharios, complete with gold bling, headbands, and one ridiculous studded leather codspiece.

This production is an apt demonstration of one of the points made by Nikolaus Bachler in his interview with Jens Laurson for Playbill Arts, that in opera staging "all the developments from Europe come to the States ten, twenty years later." Indeed, this surreal, postmodern version of Ulisse, with the prologue's allegorical characters and the gods costumed like punk rockers, is quite like something one could have seen in Zurich or Brussels in the 80s and 90s. Penelope's court seemed to be living on the deck of the Starship Enterprise, and the gods with their metallic makeup, leather, and steel headgear and accessories were like refugees from a futuristic techno music video. Vocally, the gods were strong, especially the polished Nettuno of Nicholas Masters (doubling as the winged, platform-booted figure of Time in the prologue) and the booming, if oddly androgynous Giove of Daniel Billings.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Wolf Trap Opera's dynamic blast from past: Monteverdi's 'Return of Ulysses' (Clef Notes, July 27)

Mark J. Estren, Spirited 'Return of Ulysses' at Wolf Trap (Washington Post, July 27)

T. L. Ponick, A triumphant 'Ulysses' (Washington Times, July 27)
Ava Pine, so impressive as Morgana in last year's Alcina, handled the part's ascendant flights with panache but seemed a little unsteady balancing thigh-high boots and a metal-spiked helmet. Chad Sloan's (baritone) Telemaco was swallowed in tone and slightly clunky in melismatic passages, making his duet with Ulisse more bombastic than tender. He did not seem any younger than Armstrong's Ulisse, making one wonder if the casting should have been reversed. Paul Appleby's smaller, sweeter voice may have been a better match for Telemaco, but he made a gentle, forthright Eumete. Ultimately, while the production was certainly colorful and fun, it did little to enlighten the viewer about the work's significance. The video images reflected on a set of moving panels (scenic design by Eric Allgeier, projection and video design by S. Katy Tucker) seemed curiously fixated on close-ups of eyes. No, it was not a tribute to Ionarts (see the banner at the top of this page) but, as explained in James Marvel's director's notes, had something to do with the theme of blindness. For anyone who has watched Luis Buñuel's surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, this constant image introduced an unwelcome feeling of anxiety into the opera, as one waited for the eyes to be slit open with a razor.

One performance of Claudio Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria remains, tomorrow evening (July 28, 8 pm).

Merce Cunningham, 90

It is hard not to think that a certain age of experimentalism ends with the death of modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham last night. Sarah Kaufman has a long piece today in the Washington Post:

Where other choreographers looked to music and their own imagination for inspiration, Mr. Cunningham favored the creative strategies of a physicist, a Vegas high roller and a techno-whiz. He split the atomic unity of music and dance. No longer were the steps dependent on a beat; in Mr. Cunningham's works, the dancing and the music were utterly independent of each other, existing side by side "in space and time," that is, performed in the same spot for a set number of minutes, but coming together essentially as strangers.
As expected, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's appearance at Wolf Trap two weeks ago was its last. Rather than preparing a successor to lead the modern dance company that bears his name, Cunningham recently announced that it will die with him. In a column about the decision (Why Dances Disappear, July 7) in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout asserted that Cunningham's plan, to establish a trust to preserve his choreographies rather than having the company carry them on, will fail because it relies on the imprecise medium of choreographic notation. However, for many years, Cunningham has created his complex choreography with the aid of a computer program: combined with video recordings, one could certainly recreate what Cunningham told his dancers to do. Even so, it remains to be seen how long Cunningham's work will survive him.


In Brief: Beethoven and Everyone Else on Twitter Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • I already linked to my little piece at DCist about Emil de Cou's plans to have updates sent to his Twitter feed while he conducted Beethoven's sixth symphony at Wolf Trap on July 30. It was exceptionally fun to try my Photoshop skills on one of the famous portraits of Beethoven, shown here, for that article. [DCist]

  • Bryant Manning has a great interview with Lang Lang, who is celebrating the big break he had at the Ravinia Festival, ten years ago this summer, when he was asked to step in for Andre Watts. [Chicago Sun-Times]

  • Remembering James Gibbons (1834-1921), Archbishop of Baltimore, the second American prelate elevated to the rank of cardinal (and the first American to cast a vote in a papal election), one of the founders of the Catholic University of America, champion of the poor, leader of a protest that led to the Vatican reversing its ban on Catholics joining labor unions, trusted adviser of presidents and statesmen (Theodore Roosevelt called him "the most respected and venerated and useful citizen of our country"), and eloquent apologist of American Catholicism (H. L. Mencken said that "the best exposition of Catholic doctrine is probably The Faith of our Fathers, by the late Cardinal Gibbons"). [Whispers in the Loggia]

  • Having spent a couple days reviewing the libretto and piano-vocal score of Paul Moravec's new opera The Letter, which premiered last night at Santa Fe Opera, I'm looking forward to getting to hear and see it on the stage during our upcoming trip to the Great American West (stay tuned for reviews from Central City Opera and, of course, Santa Fe). The amount of media attention focused on this premiere is particularly great, not least from the librettist himself, Terry Teachout, a well-known journalist. It may be the first time in history that so much of the genesis of the libretto and score of a new opera has been opened to the public, through Terry's blog and Twitter feed, giving me plenty of nuggets of information that I have noted in my copy of the libretto and score. [#lettertweet]

  • The Château de Vincennes also has a Sainte-Chapelle, closed since December 1999 when it was badly damaged by 200-kph winds in the terrible storms of that winter. During the course of rebuilding, specialists discovered that the building's structure had weakened by the storm, as the winds whistling through the blown-out windows caused the vault vibrate and move. A special exhibit of icons, manuscripts, and sculptures on loan from Bulgaria is on view in the space through August 30. For anyone visiting Paris this summer, it's an easy Metro, RER, or bus ride to Vincennes, with a beautiful park, forest, and zoo to visit, too. [Le Monde]

Fringe Festival, Part 3: The Girl Who Waters the Basil

(L to R) Rebecca Ocampo (Irene), Robert Baker (The Prince), and Cory Davis (The Page) in The Girl Who Water the Basil and the Inquisitive Prince, 2009, Capital Fringe Festival (photo by Douglas Boyce)

The Capital Fringe Festival hosted the performance of three operas, the first two of which I reviewed for DCist. The last one was on my schedule to review for DCist, but I had to miss the Sunday performance to cover a different concert for the Post. So, before the trip out to Wolf Trap on Friday for the opening night of their new production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, I found myself in the sawdust-ridden ruin of the Apothecary at the Trading Post, in the block of warehouses and former store fronts that is Fringe headquarters, for the final performance of The Girl Who Waters the Basil and the Inquisitive Prince. Composer Douglas Boyce, who is an associate professor of music at George Washington University, describes the work as a "pocket opera," for its stripped-down cast and instrumentation and resulting portability. A few discrete musical numbers linked together by dialogue, it seemed to me much more like a musically complex cabaret act on a surrealist fairy tale, an impression reinforced by the noise of patrons at the bar next door.

Librettist Jodi Kanter, who also directed this production, took the story from La niña que riega la albahaca y el príncipe preguntón, Federico García Lorca's dramatic reworking of a popular Spanish folk tale (part of an elaborate puppet show Lorca staged for children, with music arranged by Manuel de Falla). The narrator (a spoken role performed with intentional naïveté and awkwardness by Cory Davis) sells the audience a story about a cobbler's daughter, her basil plant, and the prince who fell in love with her. The three singers each had solo numbers, beginning with Don Gaiferros, the cobbler, sung with authority by veteran baritone James Shaffran. Washington's favorite character tenor, Robert Baker, last seen descending on an imperial pillow in Washington National Opera's Turandot, was suave and smart navigating the multimetric and ambitus-challenging part of the Prince. Although all of the sung parts were performed with the singers following the score at a music stand, soprano Rebecca Ocampo struggled the most with pinning down that wily downbeat, but with considerable flexibility and ease meeting the coloratura demands.

Other Reviews:

Maureen O'Rourke, The Girl Who Waters the Basil (D.C. Theater Scene, July 21)

Llewellyn Hinkes, Hip Shot (Washington City Paper, July 17)
Boyce himself presided over the small and skilled instrumental ensemble -- clarinets by David Jones, percussion by Richard O'Meara, and piano by Molly Orlando Palmiero -- wringing some interesting colors out of the tiny group. Hints of Spanish folk music crept into the score in the lovers' duet, the common 6/8 vs. 3/4 rhythmic pattern of countless folk songs (perhaps Bernstein's I Want to Be in America most famously) morphed into what sounded like 6/8 followed by 7/8 (grouped as 3-2-2) -- Boyce has worthy interests in historical music, too. The libretto had an absurdist bent, a nod to Lorca's puppet plays and Surrealism, with the wittiest textual play in the closing trio, much of which was lost in the maelstrom. One suspects that the libretto and score would likely reward closer study.


Thielemann to Leave Munich in 2011 (?)

As reported, the Munich cultural affairs department decided not to renew Christian Thielemann's contract as music director of the Munich Philharmonic beyond 2011. A Munich council spokesperson now claims that even though Thielemann shows signs of being ready for compromise, that's the last word.

As the lights go on in Bayreuth, the Wagner festival's new musical advisor, Christian Thielemann, is having trouble at home in Munich. Music critics say losing the star conductor is a tragedy for the city.

The writing had been on the wall for several days, yet the decision, when it came, still sent shockwaves through Munich's cultural scene and well beyond. Christian Thielemann, chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic since 2004, will not have his contract renewed when it expires in 2011...

Responding to the decision for the first time publicly on Friday, Thielmann held out the possibility of a compromise in the dispute, suggesting that performance decisions could be agreed upon by a committee of colleagues. In a statement released by his lawyer, he said he hoped the council's decision would not spell the end of negotiations, "as final as it sounds."

...continued at Deutsche Welle.


Return of Monteverdi

available at Amazon
Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on February 24, 2004)
Virgin Classics 7243 4 90613 9 2
Claudio Monteverdi settled in Venice, as maestro di cappella at San Marco, but was not to return to the genre of opera until a couple years before his death. It was in 1640 at the Teatro di SS. Giovanni e Paolo, the wildly successful Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria: it was, as Ellen Rosand notes in her extremely valuable book on Monteverdi's last three operas, "not only the first, but also the last Venetian opera to be heard in successive seasons throughout the entire seventeenth century" (Monteverdi's Last Operas, p. 7). Although the work was revived earlier in the 20th century, it was the production led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, an anniversary commemorated a few years with a new DVD from the Zurich Opera, that really put this opera back on the map. Harnoncourt even made his own realization of the score based on the skeletal manuscript, in the hand of a copyist and not Monteverdi, now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Wolf Trap Opera has selected the work for its second staged production (Kim Pensinger Witman, showing exceptionally good taste, admits that Monteverdi is one of her favorite composers). The production opens tonight, the photos look great, and we expect it to be the best part of that company's season.

In preparation for my review, it was good to revisit this recent performance by Les Arts Florissants, from the 2002 Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, now available on DVD. Monteverdi's opera was first performed at the Teatro di SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in February 1640, one of the early pieces that helped set the course of commercial opera in Venice in the mid-17th century, although Rosand notes that that development was already well under way when Monteverdi came on the scene. Giacomo Badoaro, a Venetian nobleman and member of the Accademia degli Incogniti, one of whose goals was to revive the classical Greek tragedy (and, according to Rosand, "the exploitation of history for political purposes"), wrote the libretto, apparently in the hopes of luring Monteverdi back into opera composition. The story is drawn from Books 13 to 23 of Homer's Odyssey, with an allegorical prologue that shows the figure of Human Frailty as the plaything of Time, Fortune, and Love, which helpfully instructs the audience in the opera's three ultimate lessons about the things one is unlikely to be able to change in life.

available at Amazon
Ellen Rosand, Monteverdi's Last Operas: A Venetian Trilogy
(University of California Press, 2007)

Preview on Google Books
Adrian Noble's production is admirably clear and beautiful, with terra cotta vases and orange sand evoking Ithaca (sets and costumes by Anthony Ward) and a few simple stage effects for some of the ancillary scenes, like an ingenious triangle of billowing fabric for the sail of the Phaeacians who bring Ulisse to his homeland and a blue-lit one over which Minerva flies with Telemaco on a suspended pole. The character of L'Umana Fragilità is memorably incarnated by the vulnerable nakedness and tiny thread of voice of countertenor Rachid ven Abdeslam, although as a teacher who sometimes shows opera DVDs to young students, that puts this production off the list for showing to middle or high schoolers. Rosand confirms that this allegorical character is quite rare in 17th-century opera libretti, although Cesare Ripa does describe Human Frailty in his celebrated Iconologia as "an old, afflicted woman, poorly dressed, with an emaciated face, holding icicles in her hand that symbolize the fragility of human life" (p. 137).

In a nice bonus on this DVD, William Christie gives a ten-minute interview, from the pit, about the opera, in which he describes, among other things, how he did not think it appropriate to cast all of the roles in this work with major voices. In keeping with that aim, the lead roles are all vocally quite striking, while the supporting cast and chorus are hit and miss. The striking mezzo-soprano Marijana Mijanović is perfect as long-suffering Penelope, her unusual voice, admired in Floridante and other recordings, matched by an unquestionably regal stage presence. So much of the dramatic weight rests on Penelope, making the role crucial to the success of the opera in many ways. Mijanović's husband, the Croatian tenor Krešimir Špicer, is a convincing Ulisse, although eclipsed in many ways by the vocally and dramatically amazing Olga Pitarch as Minerva (and completely different as Amore in the prologue and when disguised as the shepherd). Tenor Cyril Auvity, whom we last heard in Christie's most recent performance in Washington (in 2004 -- sob!), was in as sweet and guileless a voice as we remembered, nowhere more than in the touching duet of father and son, as Telemaco is reunited with Ulisse. There are other worthy performances, if not necessarily for their vocal qualities.

The only real drawback of this version, in terms of what Ulisse to own if you want to own only one, is the sound (video direction by Humphrey Burton). The camera work involves a lot of closeups, which adds to the intimacy of the setting (the small theater of the Jeu de Paume at Aix-en-Provence), but the microphones return a sound that is too varied, as singers move in and out of range. It may be realistic in terms of preserving the sense of watching a staged opera, but for anyone primarily interested in hearing the music, it is very frustrating to have to set the volume far above what should be required just to hear the singers. For the record, Christie uses Alan Curtis's edition of the opera, published by Novello in 2002; Rinaldo Alessandrini also made an edition for Bärenreiter in 2007, which leaves the matter of instrumentation unresolved but has more suggestions of figures added in the continuo line. Any performance of the opera is going to involve significant reconstruction.

Rosand draws many connections between Ulisse and Monteverdi's penultimate opera, Le nozze d'Enea in Lavinia, which has no surviving musical sources. She describes them as part of a trilogy about Venice as the divinely appointed successor to Rome, thus tracing epic history from the Trojan War to the voyage of Aeneas to found Rome. The same legend about the founding of Venice was referenced in other operas produced in La Serenissima in the 17th century, by Giulio Strozzi and others. Rosand argues that by analogy, Monteverdi's last opera, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, is the last in a trilogy, although Monteverdi never explicitly called them a trilogy, and its story relates to the downfall of Rome, the last act of Venice's ascendancy.


Concert Hall Not Just for Adults Anymore

We welcome this review of one of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's summer concerts from Mrs. Ionarts and Master Ionarts.

A lot of parents are (understandably) nervous about taking their young children to classical music performances. They worry that their children will be bored and will behave badly. However, I am here to tell you it can be done. Longtime readers of Ionarts will already know that Master Ionarts (now age 7½) is already a seasoned concert- and opera-goer, and Miss Ionarts (4¾) is not far behind him. Last night, Master Ionarts and I went eagerly to hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Günther Herbig, perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the Music Center at Strathmore. Our choice of this particular concert goes along with my first recommendation about taking a child to a classical music concert: pick a concert with familiar repertoire. Master Ionarts has listened to Beethoven’s Ninth dozens of times and consequently is quite familiar with and quite excited by the piece. He was reluctant to miss Tae Kwon Do but was quickly convinced by the promise of the Ninth.

After a good night of sleep and a restful day at home (two more crucial parts of successful child concert-going), he had a hearty dinner and then we headed out with plenty of time to spare. It is important to arrive at the venue with plenty of time to stretch those energetic kid legs and hit the bathroom and water fountain one more time before sitting down. An extra bonus was the excellent café at Strathmore, which sells the magic combination of candy and soda. Fully loaded up on sugar energy, we took our seats and waited for the magic to unfold.

The Beethoven was, of course, transcendent. It is difficult to find another word more appropriate to describe the Ninth Symphony. The first two movements were exciting enough to keep Master Ionarts engaged, but the third movement brought yawns and requests to sit in my lap. The lull was quickly replaced by excitement when Master Ionarts’ ears picked up the first strains of the “Ode to Joy” tune. I took him to the concert primarily so that I could see the look on his face when the chorus started singing and it was a look that made it completely worth it. He looked like a boy who had just been given a puppy and the keys to a toy store. I love the Ninth myself, but hearing it through the ears of a young child made it doubly enjoyable.

The Baltimore Symphony played extremely well. There were a few shaky notes in the trumpets in the first movement, but the overall excitement of the players made any small errors unimportant. They and the chorus were clearly enjoying the choice of music, which is always nice to see. The soloists were excellent as well, especially soprano Heidi Stober, who had a particularly lyrical voice. Tenor Gordon Gietz has a beautiful voice that was sadly drowned out by the orchestra and chorus at some points of his solo. The 100+ members of the Baltimore Choral Society (we counted!) formed an impressive wall of sound that was enough to make the most disinterested child sit up in his seat.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Baltimore Symphony closes summer season with Beethoven's Ninth (Clef Notes, July 24)

Robert Battey, The BSO's Triumphant Ninth (Washington Post, July 24)
At the end of the concert, we did as all parents with kids in tow should do: we stood up as soon as the applause started and headed for the parking garage. It’s far preferable to miss the crowds and be one of the first cars out than to stand through the multiple ovations (that were certainly well deserved) and then try to shepherd a young child out through a big crowd. Anyone who has ever had a child in his life will understand why you are making a beeline for the exit.

The Baltimore Symphony is trying to attract young audiences with its summer offerings. Earlier this summer it put on a program of Disney tunes, sure to attract an audience full of children. The Beethoven was sold out, and I counted many other young children in the audience. Easily accessible pieces such as these are an obvious way to introduce children to the classical concert hall in a way that is appealing.

This concert will be repeated this evening (June 24, 7:30 pm) at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. Grab your favorite 6+-year-old (concert hall rules) and head to Baltimore to catch this family-friendly performance.


Ionarts Turns 6: State of the Blog

The improbable adventure of Ionarts began six years ago today. I thank all of the people, especially Jens Laurson, Mark Barry, Michael Lodico, and Todd Babcock, who have put in a lot of time and work, without any real remuneration, to make Ionarts what it is. We also thank all of you who read, comment, link to us, and have helped put Ionarts on the map. Keep telling people you know about Ionarts: sign up for the weekly newsletter and forward it to your friends.

For the record, over the course of the past six years we have published 3,880 posts, including this one, and received over 1.7 million visitors from all around the world. Just in the last 24 hours, people have read this site in Seattle, Provo, San Francisco, Wichita, Milwaukee, Cedar Rapids, Albany, and Montreal; in Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Santiago; in Leeds, Magdeburg, Paris, Brussels, Skellefteå, Utrecht, Rome, Valencia, and Lisbon; in Hong Kong, Chennai, Seoul, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Dubai, Brisbane, and Wellington. In our sixth year, we have published 571 posts from Santa Fe, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, Beijing, Rome, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and of course Washington, D.C. We have gone on to publishing cultural pieces in mainstream publications, including the Washington Post, Opernwelt, Playbill Arts, and Musical America, and we have seen more print journalists try their hand at blogging. We have reviewed opera, orchestras, chamber music, jazz, recordings, DVDs, art, movies, and dance, and we have linked to odd tidbits of cultural reporting, by ourselves and others around the world.

In short, the state of the blog is good, very good, and we continue to gain ground in all of those things bloggers care about. Ionarts has continued this year as one of the Top 10 Classical Music Blogs, according to some rankings of such things:

Who knows where this is all going, but for now we are content to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Well, it took the better part of a day, but Mrs. Ionarts has finally agreed to put her widow's black back in the closet and allow me to continue Ionarts for another year. In all seriousness, none of what I do here could happen without her support and love. And indulgence, miles and miles of indulgence of my least whims. Gros bisous, ma biche!

Interview with Nikolaus Bachler (Part 2)

Edit: The short--and altogether rather different--version of the interview with Klaus Bachler for Deutsche Welle can be read following this link.

Fresh from Playbill Arts, the second part of the interview with Nikolaus Bachler, GMD of the Bavarian State Opera.

Nikolaus Bachler
photo by Christian Kaufmann
Bachler makes the very point on the impossibility of non-interpretation which Jorge Luis Borges’ wrote about in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”: A sentence like “History, the Mother of Truth” written in the seventeenth century means something radically different from the same penned by “a contemporary of William James.” Likewise seeing a 17th century costume means something radically different to a 18th century audience than it does to a 21st century audience.

Bachler continues:
“The discussion among a normal theater audience—I don’t mean that kind of conservative public that doesn’t want anything moving on stage—always starts when something is considered wrong about a performance. When we look back to the last 20 years, we easily can agree that the Ring of Chérau, or a Ruth Berghaus production is the equal of the opera’s subject. There is no question that kind of quality is the only way to do it. Because the rest is just putting on costumes and singing. Concert in costumes and makeup. That’s what most things are....”

Continued at Playbill Arts.

Emil de Cou to Text While Driving, Sort Of

Dcist logo
See my article on Emil de Cou's Twitter plans published at DCist today:

Emil de Cou All A-Twitter, July 23

A few American orchestras have been experimenting with ways to engage the digital generation during their concerts, with interactive program notes that appear in real time through the hand-held or seat-back devices normally used for showing translations of foreign-language operas. As related by Baltimore Sun classical music critic Tim Smith over at his blog, the National Symphony Orchestra will be attempting something along those lines during its concert at Wolf Trap on July 30.

The NSO's Associate Conductor, Emil de Cou, has already made the news for technological innovation in 2007, when he created a podcast that listeners could follow on their iPods during an NSO concert at Wolf Trap. In a move that makes a lot more sense, as far as something to do while listening to a concert, de Cou's conducting of Beethoven's sixth symphony will be accompanied by his thoughts about the structure of the work via Twitter. [Continue reading]


Castleton Festival Comes to a Close

The Festival Tent was filled to the brim for the closing concert of the inaugural Castleton Festival, by the Castleton Festival Orchestra. The air-conditioned space, a new addition for this summer’s Festival, could pass for a barn given its location in the middle of a picturesque field and its resident tenor frog, who joined in for the second half of the performance. Musicians from the Royal College of Music, the Qatar Philharmonic, and Charlottesville High School took up the majority of the Tent’s floor space, making for an up-close-and-personal musical experience in works of Bartók, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Britten, and Verdi.

Festival Artistic Director Lorin Maazel began at the podium for Bartók’s Giuoco delle coppie movement from the Concerto for Orchestra, with a patient demeanor teaching and guiding the orchestra with a light touch. Along with the audience, Maazel assumed good intentions from all participants, who played their hearts out in a work offering a virtuosic moment for everyone. An example of this supportive atmosphere occurred when the flute duo was more than a bit behind Maazel: instead of a sneer, roll of the eyes, or scrunch of the nose, one sensed acceptance and encouragement from Maazel and fellow musicians. Kudos to Maazel for creating an un-stuffy, positive teaching environment for all.

Cellist Han-Na Chang’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations was particularly intense, given the immense resonance of her instrument. Chang at times appeared detached from her instrument, often spending more energy listening than playing, the outcome of which was exceptionally sincere. Maazel enjoyably offered a great flexibility in tempo. At one point, Chang overshot a high note by one tone and subtly turned it into an appoggiatura, while making a forgiving look, a handful of the cellists in the orchestra smiled in complete sympathy.

Fifteen-year-old Korean pianist Seongjin Cho joined Associate Conductor Andreas Weiser in Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Cho’s approach was to play simply, beautifully, and perfectly, though often lacking invention and at times power. Weiser’s tense conducting featured gestures equally large for both loud and soft material, and overall he did not offer the orchestra much with which to connect; however, Weiser poetically set up the orchestra’s mysterious emergence from Cho’s second movement cadenza.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Orchestra Concert Sets Castleton's Double Bar (Washington Post, July 21)
Associate Conductor Timothy Myers, who had deftly conducted the afternoon performance of Albert Herring, took the podium to lead Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which opens with Agincourt’s Hymn and then soon falls apart into a virtuosic wonder, frog included. The winds and brass had much flair while the orchestra responded rapturously to Myers’s quiet, poised conducting. Most of the Herring cast was standing to the sides of the tent -- not enough chairs -- hooting and hollering in support of Myers when he entered the stage. By the work’s end, they again were again euphoric in praise of Myers, which again was an example of the camaraderie and positive relationships built through the Festival. Maazel closed the concert with Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, complete with The Godfather soundtrack phrasings, pungent brass, powerful percussion, and, of course, the frog pervading the dramatic silences between the opening brass chords.

Christian Thielemann Leaves the Munich Philharmonic

Because the Munich city council and Christian Thielemann could not agree on a clause in a proposed new contract, the head of Munich’s culture department Hans-Georg Küppers has announced that Christian Thielemann will not be the Munich Philharmonic’s Music Director after his current contract runs out in 2011. (In a strangely condescending aside, the city council added that this did not preclude Thielemann from appearing with the Munich Philharmonic as a guest conductor.) The contentious clause related to the boost the role of General Director Paul Müller (allegedly) at the expense of the Music Director. In the Süddeutschen Zeitung, Thielemann said today: “It can’t go on that I have say over 30 concerts and the Intendant over 60. That would negate my position as chief conductor.” (Thielemann apparently wanted to retain his last word on guest conductors and their repertoire.)

Thielemann, in Munich since 2004 and by many accounts the best thing that has happened to “the city’s orchestra” (the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is under the auspices of the Bavarian Broadcasting Service, the Bavarian State Opera under that of the State of Bavaria) since Sergiu Celibidache (who died in 1996), was never not controversial, ever single minded in his pursuit of power and quality, but he was also a guarantor of musical excellence. The fickle orchestra may not have loved Thielemann, but they played exceedingly well under him and rarely as well with other conductors. Replacing Thielemann with a conductor who can coax the orchestra to similar levels of excellence will be the most difficult task of the city council, yet.

The continuation of Munich Philharmonic’s Bruckner tradition will almost inevitably suffer; Thielemann’s style and love for Bruckner was a perfect match for the Celibidache-Brucknerized Philharmonic. Fortunately some of that will be preserved on a complete Bruckner Symphony cycle (to be) recorded by Unitel in Baden-Baden. The other great historic tradition of the Munich Philharmonic—Gustav Mahler—can only improve, meanwhile. Mahler is a composer Thielemann eschews; finding that Mahler tends to coagulate his orchestra’s blood. Even if there is more Mahler planned for the next two seasons, that composer had gotten short shrift, given that the Munich Philharmonic is one of the four orchestras—next to Amsterdam, New York, and Vienna—with a great historical Mahler tradition.

With his departure, speculations about his successor and Thielemann’s future are officially opened. The natural, perhaps ideal, fit for Thielemann would be Dresden where the job at the Staatskapelle will free up in 2012 because Fabio Luisi will then move to the Zurich Opera. The Staatskapelle is, like the Munich Philharmonic, one of the very few orchestras left with a ‘typical German’ sound and additionally offers opera duties Thielemann could rarely indulge in with the Philharmonic. The Staatskapelle is known for its great Richard Strauss tradition and in desperate need of someone to re-instill the immediately identifiable, sumptuous, romantic character the orchestra has lost amid a hectic performance schedule and a conductor who was never up to the challenge. Munich’s loss would be Dresden’s gain.(Incidentally the new GD at the Dresden Opera also comes from Munich.) The only successor for the Munich Philharmonic I can think of off as not being a step down (and perhaps even up) would be Daniele Gatti whose reputation would match the aspirations of the orchestra and most recent appearance with the orchestra was simply incomparable.

William Christie

It is well known how much we love William Christie here at Ionarts, so much so that we have suggested he be appointed American ambassador to France. Now that he is a French citizen, perhaps he should be the French ambassador to the United States. If it meant having him and Les Arts Florissants resident in Washington for a change, I'm all for it. Do not miss Christie's interview with Norman Lebrecht, broadcast on Monday night on BBC Radio 3 and available by streaming webcast for five more days. Memorable moments include Christie's memories, mostly bad, of studying with Ralph Kirkpatrick (with reference to Kirkpatrick's bad memories of studying with Wanda Landowska), the recounting of how he came to leave the United States because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, his near-miss with Nadia Boulanger, and especially his account of working with Peter Sellers on that infamous production of Handel's Theodora (in which he more or less accuses Sellars of provoking his mild heart attack just before that production's premiere, by sending him a book on The Art of Dying).

After you listen to the interview, tune in for Christie's appearance at this year's Proms, last night's semi-staged performance of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, with Carolyn Sampson and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It will also be available, along with the rest of the Proms concerts by webcast, but only for a week after the radio broadcast.

Other Prom webcasts not to miss this week before they disappear: Paul McCreesh's performance of Haydn's Creation (the same cast as his gorgeous recording except a different Gabriel and different Eve, through July 25); Handel's Partenope with the Danish Opera cast, including Andreas Scholl, under Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Concerto Copenhagen (through July 26); music for the Henry VIII anniversary, with Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall's Musick (through July 26); Bernard Haitink's Mahler 9 with the London Symphony Orchestra (through July 27); and two settings of the Seven Last Words, by Haydn and James Macmillan, with Manchester Camerata (through July 27).


Summer Opera: Castleton Festival 4

(L to R) Jennifer Check (Lady Billows), Benjamin Bloomfield (Superintendent Budd), Ashleigh Semkiw (Miss Wordsworth), Tyler S. Nelson (Mr. Upfold), Alexander Tall (Mr. Gedge) in Albert Herring, Castleton Festival, 2009 (photo by Leslie Maazel)
The first year of Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival came to a close this weekend, meaning one last road trip to Rappahannock County for me to see the final production: Michael Lodico will have some thoughts about the festival's closing day tomorrow. Of the four Britten chamber operas on the schedule, Albert Herring, composed in 1947, is my least favorite. At its best, it is a very funny opera, making it a favorite for collegiate opera companies, with a charming, if somewhat overlong libretto by Eric Crozier, adapted from Guy de Maupassant's short story Le rosier de Madame Husson (translated into English as Madame Husson's Rosebush). In a way, Albert Herring is the obverse of the Peter Grimes coin, a little like a slapstick parody of that much greater work, with the social outcast transformed from sociopath to awkward mama’s boy (in fact, Claire Seymour noted numerous self-borrowings Britten made from Grimes in Albert Herring). Although Crozier's first impulse was the thought of writing a comic opera after seeing performances of Così fan tutte and The Bartered Bride, is Albert Herring really a "parable of liberation," as Philip Brett once described it?

One suspects that the attraction Britten, Pears, and Crozier felt to Albert was, on some level, returning to the idea of a man who knew he did not fit in. Is the reason that Albert has remained so virtuous and pure that he simply does not like girls, as suggested in a homosexual reading mined from the opera by Michael Wilcox? If that was in the back of their minds, the creators did not go in that direction as the work took shape, and a certain distance between Britten and Albert always strikes my ears. Albert Herring Anglicizes the Maupassant tale, making the prudish busybody Madame Husson into the imperious Lady Billows, transferring the day of the festivities from August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, to May Day, and moving the story from the provincial closed-mindedness of Gisors to a hypocritical Suffolk village (given the imaginary name Loxford, likely based on Yoxford, a town not far from Aldeburgh). It also removes some of the French original's caustic bite -- Maupassant's Isidore, after losing all of his prize money on an all-night bender after the festivities, becomes the town drunkard and later dies in an attack of the DT's, leading the locals to name all of the local drunks le rosier de Mme Husson -- and that sanitizing seems a little dishonest in Britten.

Adrian Kramer (Sid), Tammy Coil (Nancy), Benjamin Bloomfield (Superintendent Budd), Jennifer Check (Lady Billows), Alexander Tall (Mr. Gedge), Rachel Calloway (Mrs. Herring), Tyler S. Nelson (Mr. Upfold), Kristin Patterson (Florence Pike), Ashleigh Semkiw (Miss Wordsworth), Brian Porter (Albert Herring) in Albert Herring, Castleton Festival, 2009 (photo by Melody Mudd)
Rising soprano Jennifer Check, who may not have impressed in recital a few years ago, has had considerable success at the Met and other opera houses. On Friday night, she reigned over the cast as a most potently voiced and absurdly draconian Lady Billows, slicing effortlessly through the many, generally noisy ensembles and reacting with good comic timing to the direction of William Kerley. The other women, somewhat overshadowed, included a slightly strained but husky Kristin Patterson as Lady Billows's assistant, Florence Pike, the flutey soprano of Ashleigh Semkiw as Miss Wordsworth, and the edgy bite of Tammy Coil's Nancy. Among the men, the gullible, sweet-voiced Albert of Brian Porter was upstaged by the more stentorian voices of Adrian Kramer's Sid, a little roughshod, and the more subtle Mr. Gedge of Alexander Tall. Much like Così fan tutte this is an ensemble opera, and the cast was a cohesive and well-balanced group, giving clear renditions of the vocal fugues of the opening scene, for example.

None of the possible dark subtext of Albert Herring figures in the Castleton production. Not that it should, since on the surface, the opera is a simple comedy of manners, although the ambiguity of the conclusion strikes the ears as at least inconclusive. Maazel has made a point of railing in print, on many occasions, against the excesses of directors who apply the rules of Regietheater to opera. In his new Resident Stage Director for the Castleton Festival, William Kerley, Maazel has found a traditional director after his own heart. Like his other three festival productions, Kerley's vision of Albert Herring is mostly traditional, down to the meticulously coached English accents (only in The Rape of Lucretia, not actually set in Great Britain, were American accents allowed). The set, designed once again by Nicholas Vaughan, features a grass-green sloping staircase at the back, with miniature building shapes that evoke the cozy village. Little details bring out comic moments, like the hell-flash lighting that highlights the copy of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs given to Albert at the May King ceremony.

Other Reviews:

T. L. Ponick, 'Herring' sparks festival (Washington Times, July 20, 2009)

Anne Midgette, Lorin Maazel, Fostering Artistry at Home (Washington Post, October 13, 2008)
Young conductor Timothy Myers, who was also at the podium for Wolf Trap's production of Così earlier this month, stood in for Maazel at all three performances, shaping the score confidently and managing to get everyone back on track after a nervous slip by Florence Pike put her ahead of the pit. The talented musicians from the Royal College of Music seemed mostly to go with Myers, who not only conducted the production but prepared it, having fun with the many comic effects of whistles, clunky string harmonics, timpani glissandi, and giving a pleasant swing to the jazz-influenced courting music of Sid and Nancy. The horn calls that open the second act, played by Samuel Pearce, were especially fine, as were the wild warbling of running notes in the winds and the lengthy interscenic dialogue of bass clarinet and (alto?) flute.

American Opera Theater and the Pilgrims

Style masthead
Read my review today on the Washington Post Web site:

Charles T. Downey, American Opera Theater Offers "Solace" at Artscape
Washington Post, July 21, 2009

On Sunday, amid the zany chaos of Artscape, Baltimore's wide-ranging free arts festival, American Opera Theater presented "A Pilgrime's Solace," a dozen of John Dowland's gorgeous lute songs, in a sort of pantomimed recital at Corpus Christi Church. AOT Artistic Director Timothy Nelson credits the genesis of the idea to the cage-rattling director Peter Sellars, whom he met at Santa Fe Opera last summer, during the American premiere of Kaija Saariaho's "Adriana Mater." [Continue reading]
A Pilgrime's Solace (songs by John Dowland)
Monica Reinagel, mezzo-soprano
Timothy Nelson, director
American Opera Theater
Corpus Christi Church, Artscape

Previously from American Opera Theater:
Cabaret de Carmen | David et Jonathas | Messiah | Acis and Galatea | La Didone | Ground


Interview with Nikolaus Bachler (Part 1)

Fresh from Playbill Arts, the first part of an awfully lengthy interview with Nikolaus Bachler, GMD of the Bavarian State Opera.

Nikolaus Bachler
photo by Christian Kaufmann
Nikolaus Bachler knows why he moved the Munich Opera administration's offices to the new building behind the opera house. When he started his new job as the Intendant, the general artistic and managing director of the Bavarian State Opera last year, he came in saying:

“People have to go new ways. Literally. For 30 years they were used to taking the elevator to the 5th floor of the old building… now everyone doesn’t know where to go. That was strategically done, and it’s very creative, in a way.”

I cast my eye around Bachler’s spacious corner office overlooking—through two floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows—the plaza in front of the former Royal Stables to the English Garden and reckon that he couldn’t have been too displeased with some of the side-effects from achieving this creative confusion...

Continued at Playbill Arts.

Washington Early Music Festival Fights On

Style masthead
Read my review today on the Washington Post Web site:

Charles T. Downey, DC's Early-Music Groups Join to Pass the Hat
Washington Post, July 20, 2009

The Washington Early Music Festival is doing its best to endure uncertain financial times. To raise money for the 2010 festival (which will focus on France), seven groups and one soloist donated their talents for a gala benefit concert Saturday night at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, a hodgepodge that was entertaining, often lovely but overall unspectacular.

Among the vocal selections, the Countertop Consort gave the most consistently beautiful performance, with eight voices evenly balanced in a section of Tallis's "Lamentations." The Hebrew letters before each verse, likely because of their exotic inscrutability, inspired the composer to create some of his most mysterious and imaginative music -- rendered here as luscious vocalises, unfurled like the whorls of a manuscript's elegantly illuminated capital letters. [Continue reading]
Washington Early Music Festival
St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill

Washington Early Music Festival: 2008 | 2006


In Brief: A Breeze Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • So sorry to have missed Mobtown Modern's performance of Mauricio Kegel's Eine Brise at Artscape this afternoon. Here is what it looked and sounded like from aboard one of the 111 bicycles it takes to "play" the piece. [TwitVid]

  • Andrew Clark reports on an exhibition at Aldeburgh's Red House, on the youth and youthful compositions of Benjamin Britten. The Britten-Pears Foundation is sitting on piles and piles of primary sources in their collection, which they are hoping to have fully recorded in an online catalogue planned for the Britten centenary, coming up in 2013. [Financial Times]

  • Oh, good Lord -- Rufus Wainwright camped it up -- pretentiously -- at the Manchester International Festival for the premiere of his new opera, or whatever it is. "Sure enough, while a crowd milled in the lobby before the performance, Mr. Wainwright arrived meticulously made up as Verdi, in a formal 19th-century black suit, complete with white silk scarf, black top hat and a bushy beard grown for the occasion. Mr. Wainwright’s companion, Jorn Weisbrodt, a German theater director, was dressed as a young Puccini in a cream-colored summer suit and a straw hat. The crowd erupted with applause, and lights flashed as people took pictures." Il a le melon -- if Rufus Wainwright actually thinks he can be compared to Verdi... I'm at a loss for words. [New York Times]

  • We hope all our friends francophones and francophiles had a good Fête Nationale earlier this week. Reading Adam Gopnik's piece about the festivities in Paris made me really miss France. [New Yorker News Desk]

  • This is so dumb. Angelinos just celebrated the musical achievements of a recently deceased man widely believed to be a pedophile, but Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has called for L.A. Opera's upcoming Ring Festival not to focus on the works of Wagner. He does understand that it is a festival devoted to the Ring, right? Why? Because the festival will "glorify the man whose music and racist anti-Semitic writings inspired Hitler and became the de facto soundtrack for the Holocaust." Mark Swed rejects the dumbness. [Los Angeles Times]

  • Wait, just checking the date -- no, it's not April 1. Oscar Wilde's deathbed conversion to Catholicism has apparently caused the Vatican to overlook the rest of the writer's decidedly secular life, at least as expressed in an article recently published in L'Osservatore Romano. [The Times]

  • "A Progressive Congressman Promotes Bill In 7/8 Time." [The Onion]