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Ionarts-at-Large: Ligeti Supplants Beethoven - BRSO & Sakari Oramo

The Ligeti experience:
available at Amazon
G.Ligeti, Concert Românesc et al.,
Nott / Berlin Phil
It is sad that Haydn, who I always like to see (if not always hear) on a Symphony Orchestra’s program, was the victim of the conductor-change—Sakari Oramo for the ill-disposed Mariss Jansons. But then it was well made up for in the BRSO’s second concert of the season by including instead György Ligeti’s “Concert Românesc” for Orchestra. It’s very, very early Ligeti, and especially the first movement sounds like straight forward folksy, a Bartók-influenced romantic concerto fully within the harmonic boundaries of music from the 19th century. In the second movement we get a first brief, eerie buzz from the solo violist that one could (want to) see as foreshadowing his later work. As the brief, energetic work moves on, we get more and more of haze and ambiguity, birds twittering among long-distance horn calls that create the atmosphere of a lost symphonic movement by Mahler. The work is terrific, just as its execution under Oramo was, and the orchestra presented itself in a particularly colorful mood.

Most exciting 9th on record:
available at Amazon
DSCH, Symphony No.9,
Kosler / CzPO
(+ 'fake' Mravinsky 5th)
Chant du Monde
Next up Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. Perhaps, perhaps DSCH wanted to one-up Stalin & Co with his Ninth, as claimed in and oft-quoted from Shostakovich’s utterly fraudulent ‘memoirs’ (courtesy Solomon Volkov). Naturally the political class expected something in the grand, overwhelming and pathos-laden tradition of Beethoven or Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler. The Ninth as a ‘great’ symphony, as a monumental statement… in this case also a claim to victory in World War II. But they would have expected that, even if DSCH didn’t mean to make a political statement. More likely, in any case, it was DSCH’s personal, non-political way of dealing with the looming forbearers of ‘Ninths’ that made him compose a quintessential anti-Beethovenish Ninth. Bruckner quipped about his Sixth Symphony to be the “sauciest”… well, that’s certainly true for Shostakovich’s Ninth. A short little firecracker of a classical symphony, it’s no more than thirty highly entertaining and amusing minutes long, more fit to consecrate a Ferris wheel than to celebrate the triumph of Soviet-heroism over Nazi-evil.

The symphony starts like a slapstick film with Charlie Chaplin and morphs, over five movements, to something more melancholic; more towards Buster Keaton. (Indeed, one Soviet critic complained much later about being presented in the Ninth with a “frivolous Yankee instead of the picture of a victorious Soviet comrade.”) The idea of Mariss Jansons, well possibly the foremost Shostakovich-conductor of our time, performing the Ninth here and then was very tempting. (On his recording cycle, the early 9th with the Oslo Philharmonic is not a good example of Jansons at his Shostakovich-best.) It was a fine achievement of Saramo’s to not make us miss Jansons in the first and third movements, where all the kicking liveliness and lurking dystopia was present, and splendid solo contributions from the BRSO players to boot. But the second, fourth, and fifth movements were sagging, lulled where they should have pulled, and missed that last kick that should never leave the piece, even in its slower, grayer moments.

The Perahia that couldda been:
available at Amazon
LvB, Piano Concertos 3 & 4,
Perahia / Haitink / RCO
Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto—part of the complete concerto cycle of the BRSO this year—was to have been played by Murray Perahia (followed by Paul Lewis, András Schiff, Maria João Pires, and Mitsuko Uchida in that cycle). He, too, had to bail out and a certain Francesco Piemontesi stepped in. He received a very generous reception from the audience after all was played and done, but the opening notes, unaffected by confidence, led to little more than dexterous anonymity, dotted with occasional, superb little touches and an equal amount of smudges. The slow movement was at once the most interesting in its interpretively oh-so-romantic way, but the tone Piemontesi elicited from the Hamburg Steinway was clattery, clanky, and bright. It didn’t in any true sense replace what one would hope Perahia to have deliverd.


Festival Musica in Strasbourg

While Renaud Machart came to New York to write about the Metropolitan Opera's opening night snafu with its new high-tech Ring cycle, the other critic from Le Monde, Marie-Aude Roux, was in Strasbourg. The Festival Musica there included a production of the recent opera by Peter Eötvös, Love and Other Demons, based on the novel by Gabriel García Márquez, presented at the Opéra national du Rhin. (The Festival also included performances of other contemporary operas, including Giorgio Battistelli's Richard III, Thomas Adès's The Tempest, Bruno Mantovani's L'Autre côté, and Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz, as well as several works by Austrian composer and organist Wolfgang Mitterer.) Here is a bit of what she had to say about it in her review (Peter Eötvös met en musique un opéra sur l'exorcisme, l'amour et le diable, September 28) for Le Monde (my translation):
We were looking forward to this production from the Glyndebourne Festival, where it was premiered on August 10, 2008, under the baton of the house's music director, Vladimir Jurowski. We still expected more from the composer of Three Sisters, Angels in America, even Le Balcon or Lady Sarashina. The Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, admitted after the premiere on September 25, "not knowing Peter Eötvös, but the surprise is that much better." The Hungarian composer is however far from unknown in France, where he served, from 1979 to 1991, as the music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, succeeding its founder, Pierre Boulez. For the past ten years, he has gained entrance to the select company of opera composers, in the manner of Philippe Boesmans, Salvatore Sciarrino, John Adams, and in a more fragmentary way, Pascal Dusapin.

This opera tells the story of a young 12-year-old marquise, bitten by "a gray dog with a full moon on its forehead" and suspected of being possessed by the devil. In turn she possesses the priest who is supposed to exorcise her and who falls in love with her. What is heard reveals a craftsmanship at the highest level. It plays with all forms of vocal writing, from cries to "bel canto" (according to Eötvös), from Gregorian chant to atomizations of Scarlatti. It is also plays with a particularly well-crafted orchestration of rainbow sound-colors, especially in slow passages of great sensuality, that the conducting of Eötvös himself, at the podium of the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg, renders even more clear so much did he seem to sculpt the score in real time.
For all her admiration of the craftsmanship, Roux found the opera and its production a little prosaic, noting that perhaps the composer fell prey to the Glyndebourne atmosphere, bringing together "all the ingredients for the perfect operatic picnic basket, spiced with avant-garde compositional techniques."


Jordi Savall in the New World

Jordi Savall, members of Tembembe Ensamble Continuo (photo by Andreu Coca)
Given the intensity of my recommendation of last night's concert by Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XXI, and company in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, it may be surprising -- or more likely, of little surprise to anyone -- to learn of my disappointment at the result. The program of music, most of it drawn from Savall's recent disc El Nuevo Mondo: Folías Criollas but in a different ordering, remains ingenious, a selection of creole folías, that is, dance music on repeating bass patterns that represents a mixture of European and Native American forms. The collaboration with the folk music-oriented Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, exploring the boundary between art and popular forms of music in the 17th and 18th centuries, is just as laudable. Most of the musical contributions were just as pleasing as those captured on the CD, with a few downsides (like the decline of Montserrat Figueras's voice) that are not likely to be changed anytime soon. My disappointment stems from the decision to amplify the musicians with individual microphones and from just how badly it made the performance sound, bringing individual voices or instruments unnaturally to the fore and amplifying even minor errors and discrepancies far beyond their actual magnitude.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Jordi Savall ensemble revives exuberance of old Mexico (Washington Post, September 29)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, South of the Border (DMV Classical, September 29)
This concert was the start of a four-city U.S. tour for Savall and his associates, continuing in Ann Arbor, Houston, and Austin (Texas) -- the performance at the last venue will likely be particularly charged, following closely on the tragic events on the University of Texas campus earlier today. The Kennedy Center concert was presented as part of the Celebrate Mexico 2010 festival, marking the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence and the 100th anniversary of the 1910 revolution. Many of the pieces from the CD have had new texts, celebrating the heritage of the new world and the union of European and indigenous musical traditions, fitted to historical music, a fitting tribute to Mexican history. The peppy rhythms of much of this music, with that telling shift between duple and triple patterns, remained irresistible, with the talented traditional dancer Donají Esparza not only providing elegant visual diversion but sating the listener's impulsion to move to the sound.

available at Amazon
Alex Ross, Listen to This
There were some nice additions, like the hypnotic Andalusian lullaby sung by Montserrat Figueras, as well as the hilarious chacona by Juan Arañés A la vida bona, which concluded the first half. Alex Ross features a quotation of the text from the latter piece at the beginning of the second chapter ("Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blue") of his new book Listen to This, which hit shelves today: "Chacona lyrics often emphasize the dance's topsy-turvy nature -- its knack for disrupting solemn occasions and breaking down inhibitions. [In the Arañés chacona] a surreal parade of wedding guests ensues: a blind man poking girls with a stick, an African heathen singing with a gypsy, a doctor wearing pans around his neck. Drunks, thieves, cuckolds, brawlers, and men and women of ill repute complete the scene." The doctor is none other than Asclepius, and he is accompanied by Venus, two of the mythological and historical figures who mingle with mortals in the insanity described by the poem. The rollicking fun of this scene pulsed through most of the evening, in spite of the shortcomings made worse by bad amplification. The body mike on Figueras made even more apparent the pinched limitations of her upper range, and infelicities of intonation (especially from brash-voiced singer Ada Coronel) and rhythmic ensemble stood out (the echo effect in the Seguidillas en eco, suspended in the final verse for comic effect, was observed by everyone but one stray singer, for example), as did the unattractive thwack of strongly plucked harp strings or the metallic clang of the guitars. A smaller venue, where amplification would presumably not have been necessary, would have been preferable.


Plácido Domingo Hits the Road

After much speculation about Plácido Domingo's future with Washington National Opera, the legendary tenor announced his retirement as the company's artistic director, at the end of his current contract in June 2011. Domingo's tenure with WNO began in 1996, first as artistic director and then as general director since 2003, and he brought some much-needed star power to the company. This was nowhere more true than when he took the stage, in the roles he sang for many years to great acclaim, like Siegmund in Die Walküre, and the debuts that he continues to add to his repertoire in his seventh decade of life, like Bajazet in Tamerlano. There have been complaints, too, from subscribers who felt priced out by rising ticket costs, from those who felt that Domingo's many other duties as performer and general director at Los Angeles Opera made his work in Washington suffer. (In related news, Domingo also recently announced that he will extend his contract in Los Angeles until 2013.)

What Domingo's departure will mean for WNO's future, including the rumored discussions of a partnership with the Kennedy Center, remains to be seen. What it does mean is that anyone interested in savoring a bit of history should think about buying tickets to Domingo's only appearance on stage this season, in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride next May. It may be his final performance in Washington. Tickets are currently available only to subscribers.


In Brief: Orchestral Beginnings/Endings Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Riccardo Muti takes the reins at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Andrew Patner has a report. [The View from Here]

  • Christoph Eschenbach is coming, Christoph Eschenbach is coming! The season begins on Thursday. [Washington Post]

  • Mark Stryker has the news on the last-ditch efforts to resolve contract negotiations at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. [Detroit Free Press]

  • Robert Levin speaks about how he puts himself into a composer's skin, to reconstruct fragmented pieces and improvise cadenzas. [Wall Street Journal]

  • Did Milton actually write a prurient poem attributed to him in an 18th-century anthology? [The Guardian]

  • You should all visit the American Visionary Art Museum on your next visit to Baltimore. Now there is a major French museum dedicated to outsider art, with the reopening today of the expanded and renovated Musée de Villeneuve-d'Ascq, in Lille. [Le Monde]

  • Last year German artist Anselm Kiefer left his former studio, in the French town of Barjac, for a new warehouse-sized studio east of Paris, in an industrial town called Croissy-Beaubourg, reportedly in search of better schools for his children. [La Libre Belgique]


Strike at the Archives Nationales

During a visit to the Lascaux caves earlier this month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the a new Musée de l'histoire de France would be opened in 2015, in the Archives Nationales in Paris. The Archives Nationales is not an easy place to work as a researcher, as I know all too well, but now the unions of the staff there are going on strike in opposition to the plan to bring the new museum to the site. Here is an excerpt of the report by Florence Evin and Thomas Wieder, in an article (Les Archives nationales en grève contre l'arrivée du Musée d'histoire de France, September 26) for Le Monde (my translation):
The staff of the Archives Nationales in Paris voted on Friday for a renewable strike in a near-total majority (five abstentions of 160 votes). Their determination seems strong and they form a united front: representatives of the union syndicate have occupied the Hôtel de Soubise night and day since September 16. The same building where Napoleon installed the Archives, in 1808, in the heart of the Parisian neighborhood of the Marais.

On Thursday, during a meeting with the Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, the two sides drew their battle lines: "After words of praise about the Archives as the 'beating heart' of French history, the Minister of Culture spoke of the natural and necessary marriage of the institutions, adding that it was 'my life's work'," says Wladimir Susanj, from one of the unions. For Michel Thibault, from another of the unions, the President's decision was an "abduction of memory."

The staff of the Archives have in effect several reasons to worry. The future museum, which may take up one-third of the 36,000 square meters of the building, endangers some projects. Like the movement of the collections of the Ancien Régime, one part of which remains piled up under the roof, with no concern for its proper conservation. Or the cataloguing of the notarial minutes of Paris, stalled for some years.
From the sound of it, this could get ugly.


'Magic Flute' Revived, Restored, Re-Imagined

available at Amazon
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, D. Behle,
M. Petersen, D. Schmutzhard, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin,
R. Jacobs

(released on September 14, 2010)
HMC 902068.70 | 2h47

Online score:
Mozart, K. 620
With his groundbreaking series of recordings of the Mozart operas, René Jacobs has forced serious listeners to rethink what they think they know about these most familiar works. Not every one of the recordings has been an unqualified success: Jacobs uses lesser-known singers, presumably for some quality of the voice he admires, or perhaps not to have to confront a star's expectations about how to perform a role. In many of the operas, the casting has worked, although there have been some cases, like Idomeneo, where the value of the recording is mostly musicological. This is not the case with his stellar new recording of the late Mozart Singspiel Die Zauberflöte, for which Jacobs has examined every relevant piece of evidence about the work and come up with a version that redefines the boundaries of the piece's basic identity.

René Jacobs's Mozart:
available at Amazon
Le Nozze di Figaro

available at Amazon
Così fan tutte

available at Amazon
La Clemenza di Tito

available at Amazon
Don Giovanni

available at Amazon
As is to be expected of a historically informed performance recording, Jacobs questions pretty much every assumption about the score. For his other Mozart recordings, he has already referred to some writers in the early 19th century who remembered how the works had been performed under Mozart and others near the time of the premieres: how later conductors stretched out and slowed many of the tempi. Some of these pieces Jacobs returns to their fleet original tempi, but others he stretches out himself. Many of the lengthenings and shortenings and other distortions routinely applied to the score are undone. At the same time, Jacobs himself introduces many other liberties, some of them quite odd but all justified by a close reading of the score and libretto. The singers and players add many embellishments, including an extended cadenza that Mozart wrote for the end of the Three Ladies's first ensemble, later deciding to cut it during rehearsal. I never want to hear the piece again without it, and Jacobs goes one step further by creating similar cadenzas for other pieces.

As noted of the other Jacobs recordings, the sound of the fortepiano in the orchestra, instead of harpsichord, now sounds so natural that it is hard to imagine not having it. Jacobs does himself one better in this recording, giving his excellent fortepianist, Christian Koch, considerable latitude to improvise effects and flourishes to help tell the story. (In his liner essay, Jacobs says that the idea of the recording was to create a "Hörspiel" or radio drama version of the opera, with sound effects to help create visual images in the listener's mind.) He retains all of the spoken dialogue, using the sound effects and considerable vocal freedom for the singers reciting it, almost burlesque in its excess. The singers or the fortepiano make references to other arias, drawing connections between different parts of the opera; an ad hoc discordant orchestra blast signals the arrival of the Queen of the Night; the sound of a blade being unsheathed accompanies references to Pamina's dagger. Jacobs refers to lines from the libretto and comments by Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist, to justify most of his ideas, or simply uses those cases as the basis for adding more such effects.

Musically nearly everything is laudable, beginning at the top of the cast with lovely contributions from the feisty but also angelic Pamina of Marlis Petersen, the clarion yet suave Tamino of Daniel Behle, and the rowdy and not entirely coarse Papageno of Daniel Schmutzhard. Anna-Kristiina Kaappola is a fine Queen of the Night if not an outstanding one, only because of a few minor issues in the top notes. Having to sing an 'eh' vowel on the famous melismas in Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen, to be faithful to the text (the word, after all, is "nimmermehr"), instead of the easier modified 'ah' vowel all coloratura sopranos use now, surely does not help. (She does make one very nice alteration to the end of the big aria in Act II.) Marcos Fink has perhaps a smaller voice than what one generally hears for Sarastro these days, but some of those Sarastros do seem to glory a little too much in the breadth of their voices. Not having Sarastro's O Isis und Osiris taken at the usual glacial tempo helps the piece intensely, often getting bogged down into a snooze-fest as it so often does. The superlative Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin produces a consistently incisive, stylistically aware, and impeccably balanced performance of the score.


Berenice, Regina d'Egitto

available at Amazon
Handel, Berenice, Regina d'Egitto,
K. Ek, I. Bohlin, R. Basso,
Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis

(released on July 13, 2010)
Virgin 6285362 0 | 166'35"

Online score:
Handel, Berenice, Regina d'Egitto

available at Amazon
W. Dean, Handel's Operas, 1726-1741
We always look forward to the roughly annual new release in the ongoing series of Handel operas from musicologist and conductor Alan Curtis and his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco. These recordings almost always recommend themselves instantly, a combination of musical beauty and musicological authority, either the first recording of the work or taking first place from older ones. That is certainly the case with this new recording of Berenice, Regina d’Egitto, not only better than the only other available recording but also less expensive. The premiere of this work, in 1737, coincided with the final decline of the Covent Garden company that produced Handel's operas and a stroke that left Handel without the use of one arm. Composed over a period of six weeks, the opera is an adaptation, possibly by Handel himself ("a botched piece of work, one improbable situation succeeding another," in the opinion of Handel scholar Winton Dean), of a libretto by Antonio Salvi, which Handel may have come across in Florence in 1709. In making his new edition of the score, Curtis reinstated some of the music that Handel cut before the premiere and corrected some of the omissions in the Chrysander complete works edition. What is heard here is definitive and it is hard to imagine a more beautiful recording ever being able to supplant it.

At the top of the fine cast is the Swedish soprano Klara Ek, whose remarkable voice and virtuoso technique we have admired before. She is at her best perhaps in the great aria of this opera's third act, Chi t'intende, with its extended obbligato oboe part, written for Handel's oboist Giuseppe Sammartini and played excellently here by Patrick Beaugirard. (Handel transferred this aria from Fabio, in the original Salvi libretto, to Berenice, to brilliant effect: Dean observes that it "leaves the impression not of a da capo aria, but of a freely organized scena, [with] almost the impact of a mad scene.") Another singer often admired at Ionarts, mezzo-soprano Romina Basso, brings the role of Berenice's sister (and rival), Selene, to vivid life with her rich lower register (if perhaps a tendency toward overactive trilled 'r'). Rounding out the cast are the clear-toned soprano Ingela Bohlin as Alessandro (the suitor sent by Rome to seek Berenice's hand), the full-blooded countertenor Franco Fagioli as Demetrio (the prince Berenice wants to wed but who instead wants to marry her sister), suave bass Vito Priante as Aristobolo (Berenice's trusted counselor), and potent mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi as Arsace (who also seeks Selene's hand). Slightly less pleasing is the overly nasal tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as the Roman ambassador Fabio. The score can be austere, orchestrated with only two oboes and bassoon plus the strings, but has many passages of exceptional beauty.


Keeping an Eye on the Ball

Monica Yunus (Oscar) in Un Ballo in Maschera, Washington National Opera, 2010
(photo by Scott Suchman)

Online score:
Verdi, Un ballo in maschera
(Google Books)
Washington National Opera fielded a second cast for two performances in the middle of the run of its production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. (See our reviews of the first cast, by Michael Lodico on opening night and by yours truly on Friday night.) At the second performance on Monday night, the chorus and the few singers who were assigned to both casts -- especially the throaty Elena Manistina as Ulrica and Kenneth Kellogg as Count Ribbing -- made the same favorable impressions, in spite of having just sung with the first cast at the Sunday matinee, which was simulcast to Nationals Park.

The WNO, like many companies, often uses these second casts to give younger singers a shot at the big time. This was certainly the case for the standout performance of the evening, the Oscar of American soprano Monica Yunus, whom you may remember as the Novice in the Metropolitan Opera's Dialogues des Carmélites. In an impressive WNO debut, she had an active, slightly fluttery tone and a higher-octane power than her first-cast counterpart: in the sometimes inane direction of the character by James Robinson, she was also happily just flighty and fun rather than over the top. Bass Timothy Mix, taking over as Count Anckarström, had nowhere near the robust energy of Luca Salsi in the first cast, and the lack of squillo at the top of his voice made for a less thrilling and dramatic performance. John Marcus Bindel, who has done well by many small roles at WNO in recent years, was a distinct improvement over Julien Robbins as Count Horn.

Where the appeal of the second cast went flat, quite literally, was in the two leads. The other typical function of a B cast is to feature more established singers without taking too much of a risk on a longer string of performances. Whatever authority soprano Susan Neves may have had as a Verdi singer was not apparent on Monday night, a series of poorly approached and not always reliable high notes (including at least one that was not even attempted), intonation that was too often a few wobbles under where it should have been, and a shrill tone. Tenor Frank Porretta was better, if paling in comparison to Salvatore Licitra in the first cast, handling some of the difficult passages more smoothly than the sometimes uneven Licitra, but with a type of vocal production more shouted than is desirable in Verdi. We hope for better from the upcoming production of Richard Strauss's Salome.


C. P. E. Bach's Symphonies for Strings

Style masthead

Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

available at Amazon
C. P. E. Bach, Six String Symphonies, The English Concert,
T. Pinnock
Charles T. Downey, Ensemble plays dynamic set of string symphonies
Washington Post, September 21, 2010
The Vivaldi Project presented a rare concert devoted to the music of one of J.S. Bach's famous sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, on Sunday afternoon at National Presbyterian Church. This relatively recent addition to Washington's burgeoning early music scene played all six of the composer's string symphonies, W. 182, from his years as Kapellmeister in Hamburg.

Baron Gottfried van Swieten commissioned these pieces while he was Austrian ambassador to Hamburg, reportedly telling Bach not to be constrained by worries about whether musicians would struggle with the difficulty of what he wrote. The virtuosity of individual players in the Vivaldi Project was certainly not at issue, with the violinists under talented director Elizabeth Field mastering seemingly countless runs and spiraling figures. [Continue reading]
Vivaldi Project
C. P. E. Bach, Six Symphonies, W. 182 (see the new Complete Works Edition)
National Presbyterian Church


Skinny Models and Art

As the fall art season begins in New York and the last of the skinny models are sleeping off fashion week parties, I snuck into town and made a spin through Chelsea. I couldn’t stay around for the 50th anniversary party for Pace Gallery, but I understand it was star-packed. Fifty years is a good run for any business and Pace has consistently put up good shows and even expanded the brand to a very cool space in Beijing, which I mentioned from my trip last year. Happy birthday, Pace!

When I say a spin through Chelsea, it usually means I stop at 25 or 30 galleries. I either pop my head in or spend at least half an hour if the work is of interest to me. Here are the shows that stuck with me, in no particular order.

Since I’ve spent the summer gardening and drinking a lot of wine in a very nice garden, I really liked Joan Snyder’s new work at Betty Cuningham. They’re not just paintings but a profusion of splashed color, collaged berries, dirt, and twigs. They’re a physical, earthy embrace of the natural world. Joshua Marsh inaugurates Jeff Bailey’s new space on 27th Street, with his simplified but high-intensity colored (psychedelic-level) paintings. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, which is Marsh’s strength. He makes you pause just long enough to draw you in, and they reveal a gracious subtlety.

More subtlety exists within Kim Uchiyama’s paintings at Lohin Geduld. Small paintings of luscious bands of color, scuffed and layered, a little academic, but this painter enjoyed them. If you’re a Roy Lichtenstein fan, Mitchell-Innes and Nash has some early work, including some very cool study drawings for large paintings. The exhibit coincides with the upcoming Black and White exhibit opening at the Morgan Library and Museum on September 24th. Always keep the Morgan on your list when visiting the city: consistently some of the best exhibits in NYC.

In addition to Michael Mazur's paintings, Mary Ryan Gallery will often have a few gems on display in one of the side spaces. This month it's turn-of-the-century lithos and color woodblock prints.

Andrew Edlin is the exclusive representative for the estate of the outsider artist Henry Darger, and he therefore has some of the best works still in private hands. Darger is best known as the author-illustrator of The Story of the Vivian Girls, also known as The Realms of the Unreal, of The Glandeco-Angelininian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The story is comprised of over 15,000 single-spaced typewritten pages and over 300 drawings. Darger's long rambling scrolls of watercolor and pencil drawings depict a fantasy world as fragile as the paper he worked on.

A lot of painting has come out of East Germany since the Wall came down. Before the Wall tumbled, artists in the East were subjected to strict censorship; easel painting, associated with bourgeois conspicuous consumption, was discouraged. Communist officials encouraged printmaking and graphic design for its reproducibility and visual communication. Many East German artists toyed with the limits placed on them by party officials, producing some exquisite limited edition posters. Over a hundred are now on view at NYU's Grey Art Gallery through December 4th.

And lastly, just the chandelier I've been searching for!

Having a Ball with Verdi

Elena Manistina (Ulrica) and Salvatore Licitra (Gustavus III) in Un Ballo in Maschera, Washington National Opera, 2010 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Online score:
Verdi, Un ballo in maschera
(Google Books)
Washington National Opera, like most performing arts organizations these days, may be hanging by a thread. The company has scaled back its expenses quite wisely, suspending its first, long-awaited Ring cycle and cutting back its new season from the usual seven to only five staged productions. We hear that the number of singers who receive spots in the chorus has decreased significantly, and rumors even surfaced that the company was looking into the possibility of some sort of merger with the Kennedy Center. No one should expect anything too innovative or risky from an opera company in such a precarious financial position. The opening production of the new season fits the bill: Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, in a staging by James Robinson from Minnesota Opera, Opera Colorado, and Boston Lyric Opera. The production (and the director) are new to Washington, but little in this staging will stand out as truly new or even thought-provoking.

True, Robinson does return the opera's story to Verdi's intended setting, the court of Sweden, rather than the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the apparently less threatening location imposed on him by censors worried about a regicide on stage in an era of actual revolution. Verdi's librettist, Antonio Somma, based the libretto on an earlier libretto by Eugène Scribe, for Daniel Auber's opera Gustave III. It tells the true story, slightly altered, of the King of Sweden, Gustav III, who was murdered at a masked ball in the foyer of the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in 1792. The assassin, Jacob Johan Anckarström, was not actually the king's trusted friend but someone with a long-held grudge, and he did not stab the king but shot him in the back with a pistol. The king did not die immediately, as the opera tells it much more dramatically, but lingered until an infection killed him a couple weeks later. Anckarström was jailed and brutally executed not long afterward. The weirdest part of the story, that the murder had been foretold by a fortune-teller, is actually true, in at least that the king had received such a prophecy from Ulrica Arfvidsson, a medium (or very well informed society figure) in Stockholm, some years earlier.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO's 'Opera in the Outfield' event is a family-friendly day with Verdi (Washington Post, September 20)

---, Washington National Opera's 'Un Ballo in Maschera' (Washington Post, September 13)

Kate Wingfield, Sound, but No Vision (Metro Weekly, September 18)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera opens season with generally effective 'Masked Ball' (Baltimore Sun, September 16)

Terry Ponick, Verdi’s 'Masked Ball' opens D.C. opera's season (Washington Times, September 12)
The singing of the A cast, heard on Friday evening, was quite good, beginning with the robust Gustavo III of Salvatore Licitra. The Italian tenor, last heard in a 2008 Cavalleria Rusticana (and the 2005 production of Tosca and the 2004 Andrea Chénier before that), can still pack quite a wallop into his sound, with the same occasional lack of polish and true intonation. He was matched in power, if not the other qualities, by the Amelia of American soprano Tamara Wilson, living up to her very promising work at Wolf Trap more than her Alice Ford in last season's Falstaff, and the elemental mezzo of Elena Manistina as a particularly satanic Ulrica. Luca Salsi had the necessary power and suavity for Anckarström, although he did tend to be too often ahead of the beat. Of the main roles, only Micaëla Oeste was miscast as Oscar: she may have been physically right for the role, gamboling around the stage, but vocally she was several sizes too small, mostly inaudible in her solo moments and completely so in ensembles. Kudos to bass Kenneth Kellogg, whom we singled out for praise in Midsummer Night's Dream at Wolf Trap this summer, for some fine moments as Count Ribbing.

The set design by Allen Moyer spent most of the budget on a stage within a stage that broke into pieces to make scene transitions, transforming (more or less) into settings other than the king's audience hall. The 18th-century costumes (designed by James Schuette) emphasized the facelessness of the conspiracy with an overly gray uniformity, making the nobles almost into liveried servants. Guest conductor Daniele Callegari, making his company debut, led a suave performance by the Opera House Orchestra, not only with most of the kinks of the score worked out but also some fine individual playing, from the solo cello and low strings accompanying Amelia in Act III and from the offstage banda, ingeniously incorporated by Verdi into the ball music of the final scene. Ultimately, Ballo is a dramatic failure, no matter how strong the performance or staging, because the catastrophe -- the assassination -- happens to someone with whom we have very little sympathy until he is dying. Add to it that Amelia is not one of the distinctive Verdi heroines, and all that is left to admire is some gorgeous music. For the most part, that was the best part of this production.

This production will be repeated three more times, September 20, 22, and 25.


In Brief: Volo Papale Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • We are big admirers of Scottish composer James MacMillan, who is one of the most convincing composers of modern Catholic music. He was selected to compose a setting of the Mass for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, a Mass for a congregation to sing and dedicated to John Henry Newman. Today the Pope will beatify Cardinal Newman, one of the high points of the papal visit to Great Britain. See MacMillan explain his approach to writing music for a Catholic congregation. [The Guardian]

  • One has to love the British Parliament, for its free-wheeling grilling of the sitting Prime Minister and for its devotion to regular inebriation. Breaking with its long-standing practices, "the roughly 20 taxpayer-subsidized bars in the Palace of Westminster [were] shuttered on Friday" during the Pope's visit. It is also worth noting that the Pope spoke to the British people in Westminster Hall, the same place where Thomas More stood trial in 1535. The mind boggles. [Whispers in the Loggia]

  • Alex Ross examines a charge that the James Bond theme resembles a melody by Sibelius. [The Rest Is Noise]

  • For his monthly "Classic Poem" column, Robert Pinksy takes a look at what makes William Blake's poetry so interesting. One of the best part of this feature is the sound files of Pinsky reading the poems in question. [Slate]

  • Woody Allen on religious faith, related to his latest film: "Q. How do you feel about the aging process? A. Well, I’m against it. [laughs] I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don’t gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart, is what happens." [New York Times]

  • I would love to read the new Dictionnaire des injures littéraires edited by Pierre Chalmin (L’Editeur, 2010), a catalog of vitriol published about great writers. For example, Paul Claudel's response to the death of André Gide: "Public morality benefits greatly and literature does not lose all that much." [Libération]


Planning Your Fall Concert Schedule

Fall is here, and now that most of the season openers and galas are almost finished, the classical music season will soon be under way in earnest. Many good things are on the schedule (follow our calendar for a complete listing), far too many to feature here: what follows is the events that should be marked in red on your calendar for the rest of the year.

Valery GergievWashington Performing Arts Society continues its tradition of bringing the best visiting orchestras to Washington, beginning with the Mariinsky Orchestra (October 19), with Valery Gergiev leading a cast of thousands (really, hundreds) in Mahler's eighth symphony at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. (The work was last heard in Washington in 2006.) Next up is a conductor we have been wanting to see live, Daniel Harding, leading the Dresdner Staatskapelle (November 3), in a program of Schumann and Brahms, including pianist Rudolf Buchbinder in the former's piano concerto. That will take precedence in our book over the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, led by pianist Jonathan Biss the same evening at Strathmore, but others may disagree. Strathmore also hosts the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra (November 19) in a program that remedies the only deficit noted of their 2008 performance -- some Schnittke to go with the Shostakovich.

After a couple of seasons with programming that outdid her neighbors to the south, Marin Alsop's Baltimore Symphony takes a backseat this fall to the first season programmed by Christoph Eschenbach. The National Symphony Orchestra's season opens with three must-hear programs, including the pairing of Pintscher's Hérodiade-Fragmente and Beethoven's ninth symphony (September 30 to October 2), Christian Tetzlaff playing Beethoven's violin concerto, paired with Bruckner's sixth symphony (October 7 to 9), and an all-Mahler program with the fifth symphony and contralto Nathalie Stutzmann singing the Kindertotenlieder (October 14 to 16). We will want to see guest conductors Susanna Mälkki (November 18 to 20) and Emmanuel Krivine (December 2 to 4), although the music on offer is less interesting. To end the year we do have high hopes for Rinaldo Alessandrini, who will lead this year's performance of Handel's Messiah.

As for worthwhile programs in Baltimore, there is more Mahler to celebrate with Marin Alsop's take on the seventh symphony, paired with Mahler's adaptation of a Bach suite (September 24 and 25). We are also inclined to hear Stefan Jackiw play Mendelssohn's violin concerto, paired with another performance of John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony (September 30, October 2 and 3). However, it is not really until much later in the season that we get to something really tantalizing, the return of guest conductor Günther Herbig, leading Shostakovich's tenth symphony (November 20 and 21), with violinist Tianwa Yang in Prokofiev's first violin concerto.

Singers that make the cut include the countertenor Yuri Minenko (October 7), presented by Vocal Arts D.C. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Other Vocal Arts performances on our calendar include New York Festival of Song (October 24), with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Paul Appleby, and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote (November 4), who will also be appearing with the English Concert at the Library of Congress (October 14). Other noteworthy recitals are a Dichterliebe sung by tenor Christoph Genz (October 20) at the Clarice Smith Center -- an unusual version with legendary musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen at the piano. Rosen will also give a lecture (October 21) as part of the University of Maryland's Schumann Festival the following day. The Library of Congress will also present baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Craig Rutenberg for a free recital (October 28).

As for opera performances, the field is thinning out, and it remains to be seen if the smaller local companies can pick up the slack. From Washington National Opera the highlight is surely Richard Strauss's Salome, with Deborah Voigt making her company debut in a celebrated role (October 7 to 23). We would add to the short list Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, performed by Washington Concert Opera (October 24), which will feature two lovely singers in soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop.

Washingtonians are lucky to have the chance to hear many fine string quartets each season, but we will single out the free concert by the Arcanto Quartet, a group including cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and violist Tabea Zimmermann, at the Library of Congress (October 13). Also at the top of our list are the Talich Quartet in two concerts, at the Library of Congress (October 21) and with the Candlelight Concert Society in Columbia, Md. (October 23), and the Tokyo Quartet with pianist Jeremy Denk, hosted by WPAS at Strathmore (November 21). Other chamber music concerts we highly recommend are a recital by Stefan Jackiw at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville (October 17), cellist Gautier Capuçon and pianist Gabriela Montero at the Library of Congress (November 9) and again at Shriver Hall in Baltimore (November 14).


Pianist Till Fellner (photo by Francesco Carrozzini)
For your keyboard pleasure, we recommend the free concert by Håkon Austbø at the National Gallery of Art (October 6); the ultimate conclusion, deferred by snow, of Till Fellner's spectacular Beethoven sonata cycle, at the Austrian Embassy (October 17); as well as the WPAS-sponsored recitals by András Schiff (October 20) and Emanuel Ax (November 10), both at Strathmore.

For music by living composers, there will be another local appearance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, in an all-Steve Reich program at Strathmore (November 11). We also really look forward to the free concert of music by Louis Andriessen presented by the Great Noise Ensemble at the National Gallery of Art (October 24). Not all of the programs on the docket from the innovative Mobtown Modern series, in Baltimore, are quite our cup of tea, but one will never be disappointed there by routine programming.

In our favorite specialty, historically informed performance practice, there are many good things to recommend, starting with the always rewarding Noontime Cantata Series, presented by members of the Washington Bach Consort at the Church of the Epiphany (October 5, November 2, December 7), free concerts convenient for those who take their lunch downtown. We also look forward to some concerts by violinist and Georgia native Robert McDuffie: a solo recital at the Phillips Collection (October 3) -- nota bene, this concert series is no longer free -- and an appearance at the head of the extraordinary Venice Baroque Orchestra, in a program of music by Vivaldi and Glass, at Strathmore (November 14). Another superb violinist, Rachel Podger, headlines the concert by the English Concert, with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, at the Library of Congress (October 14). Local favorite Opera Lafayette presents a rarity, Clérambault's La Muse de l'Opéra, with soprano Judith van Wanroij, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (November 15). Finally, the vocal quartet Anonymous 4 returns to Washington for a concert also at the Terrace Theater (December 16).


Paavo Järvi under Way in Paris

Christoph Eschenbach just left Paris to come to the National Symphony Orchestra, and his successor, Paavo Järvi, has just inaugurated his first season at the Orchestre de Paris. Critic Renaud Machart notes that, unlike "the Anglo-Saxons," French audiences do not make things easy for new music directors. Far from being a gala celebration, Järvi's opening was under-attended, as noted in Machart's review (Le nouveau directeur de l'Orchestre de Paris, Paavo Järvi, imprime sa marque, September 17) for Le Monde (my translation):
Perhaps one should attribute the cause of this disaffection to the character of a program that, at first blush, may appear to be off-putting to the least adventurous music-lovers: Paul Dukas's ballet La Péri (1911), of which people only know the introductory Fanfare, and the seventy-five minutes of Kullervo (1890-91), the first major symphonic work of the Finn Jean Sibelius, for soprano, baritone, male chorus, and orchestra.

Paavo Järvi seems to be a curious and eclectic conductor, something he affirmed himself in the program: "I will defend the plurality of styles -- avant-garde, minimalism, spiritualism, without favoring one or the other, provided that novelty and quality go hand in hand." It is not clear that this nutritional balance will produce unheard-of artistic breakthroughs, and it appears that Järvi will favor consonant music of the 20th century (he reveres the music of Arvo Pärt) over the avant-garde scores preferred by his predecessor, Christoph Eschenbach. Still, better this colorful cocktail than a turn back to the grayness of an over-familiar repertory.
Järvi, Machart concludes, "has neither the profound lyricism of his father, Neeme Järvi, nor the electric fantasy of his younger brother, Kristjan Järvi. His concerts have often been boring, but one still recognizes his savoir-faire, the clarity of his conducting, and his musical authority." Where Eschenbach began his term in Paris with concerts that were "sometimes miraculous," he did not go on to produce such strong results. Hopefully it will be the reverse with Paavo Järvi.


Patricia Petibon: Redhead

available at Amazon
Rosso: Italian Baroque Arias,
P. Petibon, Venice Baroque Orchestra, A. Marcon

(released on August 3, 2010)
DG 477 8763 | 75'24"
Redheads should not be famous only for being crazy, even if some of the most notorious ones -- Achilles, Caligula, Elizabeth I, Lucille Ball, Beverly Sills, Vivaldi, Sarah Bernhardt, Van Gogh, Cleopatra, Emily Dickinson -- are known for their fiery temperaments. For her new album of Italian Baroque arias, French soprano Patricia Petibon plays on the popular assumptions about her own hair color, incarnating some volatile personalities in an astounding range of music, by some of the big guns (Handel, Vivaldi, Alessandro Scarlatti), as well as a few lesser-performed composers like Sartorio, Porpora, and Stradella. We have admired Petibon's singing before: in Haydn's Orlando Paladino and as a flighty Sœur Constance in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. Like her reportedly dynamic Lulu at this summer's Salzburg Festival (even while costumed in lingerie), her success is often more dramatic than purely vocal. Certainly the promotional videos released by Deutsche Grammophon, which show Petibon gesticulating wildly, rocking from side to side, with the face of a person possessed or disturbed, indicate that that side of her performing personality prevailed even in recording.

A recital of assorted opera arias is unlikely to be of much interest to a serious collector, although opera fanatics will surely want to hear this disc. Petibon's sense of drama does carry into the music, as she embellishes her melodic lines with every imaginable elaboration and variation, whispering, growling, soaring to a clear top, and descending to a gravelly bottom. The sense of brilliant dramatic contrast in many ways sums up the aesthetic goals of the Baroque period, and this extravagance, at the service of the emotional punch of each work, is the musical counterpart of the dramatic tenebrism of a painter like Caravaggio. The playing of the Venice Baroque Orchestra is beautifully scaled to these extremes, from a full-bore rhythmic tussle to the gentle accompaniment of lute or therbo. Specialists will also be pleased to read the disc's liner essay, contributed by Philippe Beaussant, the musicologist who founded the Centre de Musique Baroque in Versailles.


Jordi Savall in the New World

available at Amazon
El Nuevo Mundo: Folías Criollas, M. Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, Tembembe Ensamble Continuo,
J. Savall

(released on August 10, 2010)
Alia Vox AVSA 9876 | 76'11"
Regular readers will recall that I have already previewed the upcoming performance by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI by reviewing two recently re-released discs last month. Savall and his associates -- the voices of La Capella Reial de Catalunya, the instrumentalists of Hespèrion XXI, and the Mexican chamber group Tembembe Ensamble Continuo -- will present a new program in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater (September 27, 8 pm) as part of the cultural celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence. The program of that much-anticipated concert will be drawn from Savall's new recording, El Nuevo Mondo, an assortment of creole folías, that is, dance music on repeating bass patterns that represents a mixture of European and Native American forms. Recommending this outstanding disc is a no-brainer, as it is not only of significant musical interest -- Latin American secular and dance music drawn mostly from 17th- and 18th-century sources, performed with historically informed performance expertise from both the musicological and folk music perspectives -- but also just sheer fun as listening.

The fascinating history of the learned European music created in the cathedrals and city streets of colonial settlements in the New World is of regular interest here at Ionarts, something that came on my radar screen during graduate school, because of the presence of the Latin American Music Center here at the Catholic University of America. This disc has the unlikely possibility of being recommended both by me and the folks at NPR Music, most of whose discussions of music on air cause me to turn off the radio. The performances are so infectiously vivacious, with the historical sources refracted through more recent folk music traditions, but never following that unfortunate assumption that folk music has to be crude or ugly in sound. These performances are both refined and subtle, while simultaneously being joyous, rollicking, even raucous. Improvisations are woven into the program, taking up some of the same patterns as the basis for historically inspired new creations. The vocal performances are all lovely, both from the traditionally "classical" singers like Arianna Savall, Furio Zanasi, Daniele Carnovich, and others and from those from more popular traditions, mostly on more recent traditional songs performed by members of Tembembe Ensamble Continuo. The most "inauthentic" part of the program, it should be noted, is that in some of the pieces new words have been fitted to historical music. This is not only a standard historical practice, yielding pieces known as contrafacta, but the new words give added meaning to the program, celebrating the union of old and new worlds in this music.

Jordi Savall will preside over La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo in this program at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater later this month (September 27, 8 pm). It receives one of our warmest recommendations of the coming year, and tickets cost only $15.


Podger's Latest Bach

Bach, Violin Concertos, R. Podger, Brecon Baroque

(to be released on October 12, 2010)
CCS SA 30910 | 51'18"

Online scores:
J. S. Bach, Violin concertos
Channel Classics is celebrating its 20th anniversary with this new Bach recording by Rachel Podger, set to be released next month (not available on Amazon). The performance of the four violin concertos here is quite elegant, pairing Podger with the select ensemble that has often come together at the Brecon Baroque festival Podger directs in Wales. The small size of the performing forces -- two violins, viola, cello, violone, harpsichord, plus Podger on the solo -- conforms to current thinking about many Baroque concertos, including those of Bach and Vivaldi, and can be very satisfying in terms of the flexibility and clarity of sound. The playing is sensitive but dynamic, the pulse percolating and varied in weight, and Podger is generally up to her extraordinary best, with only some of the fast movements (the final movement of BWV 1042, for example) perturbed by some imprecision in difficult passage work, not quite up to the fleet tempi sometimes settled on by the group. The virtuosity of a player like Anne-Sophie Mutter may be greater in these pieces, but Podger captures more of the dance-like character of the music.

So this may not be a necessary purchase for anyone, but certainly anyone who already owns and loves Rachel Podger's Bach recordings -- like her solo Bach and her sonatas for violin and harpsichord with Trevor Pinnock -- will want to add this to the set. While you are doing that, you should probably also add the Academy of Ancient Music recording of Bach violin concertos, with Podger playing second fiddle to Andrew Manze, which would be a worthy companion (especially at that budget price) even if there is an overlap of two concertos. Podger will be making a rare appearance in Washington next month, leading the English Concert in their upcoming performance on the outstanding free concert series at the Library of Congress. The program does not feature any of the music from this new CD, but Podger will play the solos in a Vivaldi concerto and a few other pieces. The concert is also noteworthy because it will feature British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, singing some Dowland lute songs and a Handel cantata.


Opening Night Verdi

Salvatore Licitra (Gustavus III, in foreground), Tamara Wilson (Amelia), Luca Salsi (Anckarström), and Julien Robbins (Count Horn) in Un Ballo in Maschera, Washington National Opera, 2010 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Online score:
Verdi, Un ballo in maschera
The Washington National Opera opened their season Saturday evening with Verdi’s dramatic Un Ballo in Maschera. Following WNO General Director Plácido Domingo’s welcome and the National Anthem, the overture began darkly, in a temperament similar to the opera’s regicidal end. The work begins and ends in Swedish King Gustavus III’s palace parlor as stage director James Robinson, true to Verdi’s desires, reversed the constraints of Italian censors by setting the opera in 18th-century Sweden, instead of the Boston Colonial Governor’s Mansion as was demanded for the 1859 premiere.

Though full of gorgeous musical moments and flowery verbiage, such as “Rescue me from my love for you,” the production lacked cohesiveness. Tenor Salvatore Licitra's blazing instrument, as King Gustavus III, boasted Hummer-like impact yet handled like a Hummer being sped through old Roman streets by someone used to driving a Maserati. An uncontrolled voice, no matter how big and commanding, will seldom melt hearts, particularly when out of tune and with somewhat awkward phrasing. These shortcomings allowed the intensity of baritone Luca Salsi, in Count Anckarström’s relationship with his wife Amelia (soprano Tamara Wilson), to supersede that of the King’s requited infatuation with Amelia. Furthermore, the Count and Amelia sang with a refined, effortless expressiveness that did not require them to strain.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Washington National Opera's 'Un Ballo in Maschera' (Washington Post, September 13)

Terry Ponick, Verdi’s 'Masked Ball' opens WNO season (Washington Times, September 12)

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger [The Reliable Source], Elena Kagan makes her social debut as a Supreme Court justice at the Opera Ball (Washington Post, September 13)
The blind fortuneteller Ulrica (mezzo Elena Manistina), singing with frightening veracity and control, predicted the King’s fate to him personally. Not only was Ulrica rebuked by the King pompously that “I would happily die for my country,” she was molested and murdered with less due process than a Salem witch. The King’s page, Oscar (soprano Micaëla Oeste), innocently provided colorful musical beauty, while the capable chorus helped reinforce the plot and principals, albeit at times ragged due to conductor Daniele Callegari’s tendency to ram brisk tempos uncomfortably through the eye of the needle. More care should have been given to the singers when Callegari would arrogantly flail ahead with the orchestra nearly being on board and the singers regularly left in the dust.

The clever set (designed by Allen Moyer) had a palatial parlor break apart to become the underworld, and Robinson's staging produced effective moments of trio singing with the chorus. Yet creative stagecraft could not overcome the disappointment of catching sight of the drearily uniform gowns, suits, and masks for the ball (designed by James Schuette) in the final scene of the murder. During a painfully slow death, the King intensely sang to pardon his murderer, which showed Licitra at his best dramatically and musically. The audience, no matter how relieved to be back in the Kennedy Center Opera House after a long summer, was sluggish to stand in praise of this production.

This production of Un Ballo in Maschera will be repeated on September 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, and 25, with next weekend's matinee (September 19, 2 pm) being simulcast for the free screening at Nationals Stadium known as Opera in the Outfield.