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


Classical Music Agenda (September 2012)

If you, like me, spent the last couple concert-less weeks in withdrawal, be happy that September is just around the corner. Of course, we have already taken a look at the season to come and chosen the Top 25 concerts we most want to hear this season. Truth be told, your editor will likely hear four or five times that many performances between now and next June. For those of you new to how this works, each month I pick the ten most intriguing performances on the calendar. Keeping the number lower makes these agendas more selective, but you can always follow the complete calendar of everything we know about in Washington, in the right-hand column of this page.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan
We have written about Sondra Radvanovsky at the Metropolitan Opera and here in Washington. The American soprano is back at Washington National Opera this month, this time at the top of the bill, in the title role of Donizetti's Anna Bolena (September 15 to October 6). The Jane Seymour of mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi, heard last season in Massenet's Werther, should be a good foil for Radvanovsky's Anne Boleyn. Tickets: $25 to $300.

The weekend of the opening of Anna Bolena will have enough bel canto mad scenes to stun a small cat, since it also features Washington Concert Opera's performance of Bellini's La Sonnambula (September 16, 2 pm). Eglise Gutiérrez, heard in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi this summer, stars as the sleepwalking Amina, with René Barbera (Elvino), Ben Wager (Rodolfo), and Maureen McKay (Lisa). Tickets: $40 to $110.

One of the singers I am most looking forward to hearing again is tenor Aaron Sheehan, a clear and beautiful voice for early music, in a program called London: Music from the City of Shakespeare with the Folger Consort (September 28 to 30). The program of London-based music by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Morley, and William Byrd should fill the Folger Shakespeare Library's Elizabethan theater quite nicely. Tickets: $37.

One thing that did not make my season's best was the John Cage Centennial Festival, in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday on September 5. As I have written before, Cage is one of those composers whose influence is hard to overestimate but whose music can be insufferable: I can appreciate the ideas but often abhor the practice. That being said, the Cage celebrations (from September 4 to 10) will bring together a welcome selection of concerts, film screenings, and lectures at several of the city's cultural institutions. Highlights include recitals by Alexis Descharmes and Friends (September 5, La Maison Française), violinist Irvine Arditti (September 6, Phillips Collection), and pianist Stephen Drury (September 8, Kreeger Museum).

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter
We generally do not like to recommend gala concerts: with the focus on other matters, the music usually stinks. Christoph Eschenbach has actually made an effort to make his season opening gala concerts not stink, and once again the National Symphony Orchestra's Season Opening Ball Concert (September 30, 7 pm) has music we actually want to hear: Beethoven's overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in Mendelssohn's chestnut violin concerto and Sarasate's showoff Carmen Fantasy, and a reprise of Strauss's suite from Der Rosenkavalier, heard at the end of last season. Tickets: $47 to $125.

Speaking of good programming, the all-American season opener from the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra (September 22, 8 pm) gets a nod this month. Soloist Jeffrey Biegel joins for the local premiere of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's 2011 piano concerto Shadows, co-commissioned by eight orchestras in different countries, matched with short dance pieces by John Adams and Leonard Bernstein, as well as Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, at the GMU Center for the Arts in Fairfax. Tickets: $25 to $55.

The University of Maryland Chamber Singers join forces with members of the U.S. Army Band and Soldiers' Chorus for an all-Stravinsky program (September 24, 8 pm) at Clarice Smith Center in College Park. This free concert pairs L'Histoire du Soldat and the composer's concise setting of the Latin Mass. Tickets: Free.

It is a bit of a stretch to say that the first concert from the Washington Bach Consort features "music for the political season," a connection that would surely make me run the other direction. It does feature, however, English music for royal occasions by John Blow, William Boyce, Handel, and Orlando Gibbons, as well as two cantatas composed by J. S. Bach for the Ratswechsel, or inauguration of the town council, in Leipzig. Tickets: $23 to $65.


Bayreuth 2012: Parsifal, a Gift of Greatness

In 2008 I was stunned by Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal, into that year’s last performance of which year I had stumbled through dumb luck. Although underwhelmed by the hit-or-miss maestro’s—Daniele Gatti’s—conducting, I was mesmerized by the Parsifal-as-Germany-and-Bayreuth-through-the-ages superstructure that Herheim fits so seamlessly onto the opera. Five years later, in its second-to-last run at the Festival house, this well possibly greatest of Bayreuth productions since Chéreau’s Centennial Ring, impressed even more, with its impossibly ingenious blend of macro-, micro-, and meta-structures.

Herheim was unhappy with the means (rehearsal time, money) at his availability for his productions’ last revival (which is, strangely but tellingly disliked by the current Bayreuth administration), and he nearly didn’t come. Thankfully he did come, and he produced—again, with little touches and flourishes added while generally streamlining the production—something absolutely great. Grown men left the Festspielhaus after act 1 with tears in their eyes, so powerfully moving was the story of Parsifal, Herzeleide, and Gurnemanz (as the nucleus of the German family), and that of Germany mid 19th century to the outbreak of World War I, told. After Christmas celebrations at Wahnfried (‘looking for the redeemer’) towards the end of act 1, the Kaiser’s optimistic soldiers gather and march out into war, depicted with original footage at the back of the stage, to Wagner’s words of “Faithful until Death”. Making soldiers march off into a suggested or historical real war is not a novel idea for opera productions, it just hasn’t been made to work as powerfully. What would be camp in Aida, or unbearable kitsch in Giulio Cesare (more of Salzburg’s shockingly distasteful production later this week), becomes overwhelming here. Loss of innocence, calamity, and redemption turn out to fit like a glove on both, the Parsifal-, and the German-history narrative. At least if it is cunningly enough designed.

Profound humor and tangible drama are always at hand with Stefan Herheim, as are the bucket loads of German symbolism he throws in. What makes the production great, not just brilliant, is that you can miss a good lot of those allusions—Blauer Engel, Charlemagne, Palatine Chapel, Wagner’s original Parsifal set, Wieland Wagner’s neo-Bayreuth Parsifal set, Trümmerfrauen, Wilhelm Buschean archetypes, etc. etc., thanks to both Gesine Völlm’s inspired costumes and Heike Scheele’s ingenious sets—and still get the powerful drift of the production.

After the swastika flags of the second act (loss of innocence) unfolded and fell, Eva Pasquier-Wagner and Katharina Wagner appeared before a small group of eager, submissive American music critics. Seated at last, belatedly, they were ready to answer two, three questions, all on the deferential side of the potential spectrum. The sisters succeeded in saying very little per word spoken, cleverly exposing wanting questions for their inherent contradictions along the way, and spurning any suggestion of intra-sibling acrimony. They believably suggested, too, that their work was really a continuation of what Wolfgang Wagner had done, by similar if not exactly the same means. That’s plausible, but deserves the caveat that Wolfgang Wagner knew how to throw his conservative clients the occasional bone (by directing himself, if necessary), and never picked directors who were out to scandalize gratuitously (even if scandalize they did). Appointing Jonathan “My-Hitler-salutes-and-my-swastika-collection-are-cool-because-I’m-such-a-rebellious-intellectual-leftist” Meese as the next Parsifal director, or complete novices like J.P.Gloger for the current Dutchman, suggests at least a shift of emphasis. An interesting question to ask might have been whether the Wagner sisters—in light of the Wagner family’s history, Meese’s anointment, Herheim’s Parsifal, and the little Dutchman scandal earlier this summer—could elucidate the difference between a good swastika, and a bad swastika.

Instead, Herheim’s third act attempts to answer that question when it lowers a vast mirror, nearly as wide as the stage, and shows the audience, now facing itself, that they are the future, and thereby the answer to the questions that are still open. (This is an ending that, slightly transformed, Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin mirrors (as it were), when he makes the title character walk toward the audience, not away from them.)

Musically, Parsifal was in very good hands with Philippe Jordan, whose fluid and subtle musical direction fit right in with those of Thielemann and Nelsons. Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz started slightly wooden, but already by the end of the first act he so embodied his figure, and sang with such quiet command and regal authority, that any wistful memories of a Nostalgia-Gurnemanz of choice (Kurt Moll, in my case) were eradicated. Susan Maclean’s Kundry, much like her Ortrud, made more of her character dramatically than vocally… to which her voice, frayed on top notes but with luscious mezzo-lows, contributes on both ends: If that rawness makes Waltraud Meier’s Kundry/Ortrud/Klytemnestra great these days, why not Macleans’? She hasn’t, granted, Meier’s letter-perfect diction, but unlike her more famous colleague, she throws herself into productions in a way that place the director’s intentions well before her ego. The overall result is mesmerizing, which is what counts when viewed in the house. Burkhard Fritz valiantly performed the singing adult incarnation of Parsifal, for whom three youngsters do much of the excellent acting which was timed to fit notes and text exactly—such as Boy-Parsifal’s limp little hands slumping on the floor right on the double bass pizzicati to “Matt hängen die Flügel”.

This Parsifal is a gift, Wolfgang Wagner’s legacy from beyond the grave, and one of the truly great moments of Wagnerian drama. For the foreseeable future, any Parsifal at Bayreuth will do well if it can only avoid comparison to Herheim’s.

Pictures (below) courtesy Bayreuth Festival, © Enrico Nawrath

Bayreuth 2012: Tannhäuser is a Gasser

When Sebastian Baumgarten looks for truth in opera, he looks beyond the smooth execution of a stage apparatus, beyond settings that create a more or less creative tension to known and recognizable plots. He seeks out the cracks that allow a view behind the façade, at something more elementary, to the very core of the message he perceives in an opera. At the core of Tannhäuser he has found the conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

You could miss some of that, sitting through his Bayreuth Tannhäuser at the Festspielhaus. Disastrously received when it premiered in 2011, it was the production I expected the least from in this year’s run, deeply suspicious of Joop van Lieshout’s domineering set called “Technocrat”, a self-sufficient eco-fascist community that recycles its own waste and creates its own drug – alcohol – for regulated occasions of being wasted. (We recall Marxism 101: “Religion… the opiate of the masses.”) We are also supposed to think of Wagner’s prophetic, occasionally pathetic warnings against scientific and technological progress.

The Venusberg is the Wartburg’s own dungeon of experimentation, sexual and otherwise, which features strange creatures, some copulating like apes, others variously described as electric rays, amoebas, or dancing spermatozoa. (Hint: It’s the latter, and they go with the strangely transfixing x-ray videos projected at the back of the stage… Good thing I hadn’t put too much money on my electric ray-as-electricity-supply theory.) Because Baumgarten has much to tell, the action on stage starts well before the music, continues through the intermissions, and continues still, after the score says it’s all over. These pre-, post-, and intermezzi provide flavor (including a communal prayer of the Wartburg crew, set to the German anthem’s melody), but are missable. Fortunately: After all, intermissions are better invested in necessary drink, nourishing sausages, and revitalizing water-wading.

The essay “Bayreuth as Bioethics Laboratory: An Appreciation of Baumgarten’s Production of Tannhäuser” in “The Wagner Journal” is a splendid source for digging into the meaningful depths of this production, and gives answers and clues that will escape the roving eye of a one- or two-time concert-goer. For example that the self-inflicted, stigmata-like wounds of Elisabeth are (“possibly”) a result of child abuse by her uncle, Herrmann, Landgrave of Thuringia, or that Tannhäuser’s body is covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KSHV, associated with AIDS) in the third act. There is legitimate dispute as to whether Elisabeth suicidally gases and recycles herself (Wolfram helpfully closes the hatch and pushes her back in, when she briefly changes her mind), or merely leaves the Wartburg society through the workers’ and maintenance entrance of the biogas tank. The above mentioned essay takes the former view, in a newspaper article the production’s dramaturg Carl Hegemann, perhaps to diffuse German outrage, the latter.

On paper much makes sense, and it’s always good to give modern productions the benefit of the doubt for containing more clever thoughts than oneself could ever muster. But it is better still if many of these ideas communicate readily. That’s not the case in the first act, apart from the pregnant Venus (Michelle Breedt), who does make a ton of sense: Firstly Wagner designed her as a compendium-character that included Holle (with overtones of Fricka/Freia), the goddess of birth, death, and reincarnation. Secondly: For Tannhäuser (Torsten Kerl) to leave a pregnant Venus adds plenty, desirable tension to his return to the upper world, and makes Venus’ desperation at his abandonment considerably more poignant.

The second act, meanwhile, works splendidly on its own, even though it had been least changed from the year before. There’s little need for the set(ting) of van Lieshout, as Baumgarten makes splendid points about Tannhäuser through his Personenregie. The Dastardly provocation of Elisabeth, for example, as Tannhäuser dances to his song about free-wheeling love, ever more explicitly, with the pregnant, salaciously lollipop sucking Venus. Or about the moralizing racket of the Wartburg crew, who monopolize religion and righteousness to send people for repenting and rehabilitation to “ROM(E)”—a brainwashing procedure on the Wartburg premises (keep Clockwork Orange or Scientology in the mental background)—and charge good money, collected in trunks labeled “LOOT”,  for it, too. (Luther 101: keywords “Letters of indulgence.”)

The song contest is very neatly and closely tailored to Wagner’s text and his characters, whether the jealous Wolfram (Michael Nagy), the tediously-virtuous Walther (Lothar Odinius), or the irascible, aggressive Biterolf (Thomas Jesatko) with his Dr. Strangelove act. The latter especially throws all his anger at Tannhäuser for having allowed at the moral rebel to make the virtuous Wartburg boys horny with his tales of physical love and gyrating dance. At Tannhäuser’s mention of the Venusberg, the circular lion cage of lust comes out of the floor again, for graphic illustration of his transgressions. Elisabeth, in reaching out from stifling morality to physical sensuality (within measure) is Tannhäuser’s pendant in the opera, not Venus’… Tannhäuser being the one who reaches for structured love from a state of licentiousness. Baumgarten makes the move explicit in that he has Elisabeth briefly visit the den of sin with Tannhäuser, to check it out, but ultimately reject it.

If this production was a success—and it was very well received by the increasingly indiscriminately enthusiastic audience—it had as much to do with more ideas coming through, or clearing out a few distracting elements from the first and third act since 2011, or the audience simply getting used to Baumgarten’s story-telling designs, as it did with the vast musical improvement over 2011. When Thomas Hengelbrock tried to bring his Historical Performance Practice approach and lots of sound ideas to the Green Hill, he was met with indifference, if not hostility by the orchestra, and got as far as the prelude with this approach, after which the music reverted to ‘the usual’, but less inspired. Hengelbrock withdrew, gave up, or was asked to be busy elsewhere—whichever the case, Bayreuth’s new house-conductor Christian Thielemann took over, and delivered at least as ravishing an account as he had in The Flying Dutchman; flexible, sumptuous, and ever supporting, never covering the singers.

The singers, too, had faltered by all 2011 accounts, which cannot be said of this cast, with its new and improved Tannhäuser and Venus. Pronunciation and especially diction was impeccable throughout, from the preachy Reinmar (Martin Snell) to the stoic, strapping, stentorian and mildly sadistic Herrmann (Günther Groissböck). That’s particularly pleasant in Bayreuth which, to the relief of veterans and chagrin of newbies, doesn’t believe in supertitles. Michelle Breedt, unleashed from her 1960’s Brangäne, was a dramatically most compelling, queerly seductive Venus, Michael Nagy a fresh-voiced, agile Wolfram (with room to develop dramatic nuance), and Torsten Kerl a hard working, ultimately very successful Tannhäuser, if dying of AIDS/guilt at opera’s end can be considered very successful. The same for the gas-recycled, clear and even-voiced Camilla Nylund, who sublimated her sexual longings in an ecstatic religious experience and shed, by way of ritually removing the ‘looted’ jewelry she had donned, her associations with the moralizing crooks of the Wartburg society.

With a high musical score, and effective if not always lucid drama, this so maligned Tannhäuser was a most happy surprise, a moving opera experience that effortlessly bested the veteran Tristan and newcomer Dutchman.

Pictures (below) courtesy Bayreuth Festival, © Enrico Nawrath


Briefly Noted: Lucy Crowe's Handel

available at Amazon
Il Caro Sassone: Handel in Italy, L. Crowe, The English Concert, H. Bicket

(released on November 8, 2011)
HMU 907559 | 74'33"
We have taken note of rising British soprano Lucy Crowe a couple times before, in her performance of the St. Matthew Passion at the Festival de Saint-Denis and at the Salzburg Festival. Although I have admired her contributions to ensemble recordings in the past, her recent Handel disc was the first solo outing that crossed my desk. It is a recording of consistent and often breath-taking beauty, with music that flatters Crowe's voice in almost every way. Hers is a soprano of clarity, in its minimal vibrato reminiscent in many ways of Emma Kirkby at the height of her powers, except that Crowe is not quite as colorless. In the final slow aria of Armida abbandonata and in Lascia la spina (adapted from Lascia ch'io pianga for Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno), for example, her voice hangs in the air like a laser, with no sense of agitation, just plangent incision. Some of the interpolated high notes in the more high-flying arias like Barbaro, tu non credi are thrilling, with everything in the middle and top of the voice clean and pure of intonation and effortless in sound. The only reservation vocally is some of the forays at the bottom of her range, where the tone becomes a little unstable. Harry Bicket, seated at the harpsichord, leads a generally fine accompaniment from the English Concert, with some lovely solos from violin leader Nadja Zwiener and oboist Katharine Spreckelsen in a couple of instrumental pieces. Some delightful discoveries include Handel's setting of the Salve Regina (HWV 241, performed for Marquis Ruspoli at the Chiesa San Sebastiano in Vignanello) and the enigmatic cantata Alpestre monte (HWV 81, possibly composed in Florence).


Bayreuth 2012: Tristan - Solid, Stolid, Staid, and Not a Little Boring

Bayreuth’s 2012 Tristan, directed by Christoph Marthaler, is now—after seven cycles—on its way to the recycling bin. It will go there with nary a tear cried after. The veterans among the usher-girls (the “Blue Girls”, even though their uniforms have been changed to an unpopular gray) who have seen this production some two dozen, thirty times, will heave a collective sigh of relief. Solid, stolid, staid, with a good and even cast, but without anything or anyone outstanding, except for Jukka Rasilainen’s excellently dramatized and very well sung Kurwenal, this Tristan is largely inoffensive, deliberately dour, and not a little boring.

Certainly the production’s heart is in the right place. Marthaler goes for deliberately minimalistic acting (already less minimalist now than originally), which should suit Tristan as an intimate opera about conversation very well. A glance or a touch of hands can and should be more powerful in this work than lofty operatic gestures. It’s just that the rest of the direction, including Anna Viebrock’s sets and costumes, doesn’t bring that quality out much. It focuses instead on the aspect of the passage of time and waiting. Dresses, hairdos, and the color schemes of mustard yellow, hunting green, and dark tan seem to come straight out of the 60s or—for whom that isn’t any longer a valid reference—Mad Men. Amid this: timelessness and aging by way of stasis.

Good and plain Tristan (the reliably voiced Robert Dean Smith, for whose personality this production seems to be tailored since he’s always that kind of Tristan) never ages, but the people around him do: Most notably Kurwenal, who starts virile and ends up a touching old dodderer by the third act. The latter brings by far the most moving couple of hours of this production, tenderly embedding the duologue between feverish Tristan and Kurwenal. Isolde (Iréne Theorin) is so lost in her own world that during the confrontation of the second act, she regresses into an infantile state and points, transfigured and transfixed, to a few flickering lights that promise to go out, as if the cloak of darkness might yet cover her illicit love, and instate a happy end. No such luck.

The sets grow out of the ground one level after another, each act’s set pushing the previous one’s one floor up… “like growth rings of a tree”, Viebrock suggests. By act three, the walls of an old ocean liner’s musty reading room tower above the dreary yellow office-building’s interior with decidedly hideous wallpaper, which in turn are situated above a modern day dungeon, on the water damaged walls of which Viebrock’s guiding stars – light tubes in various shapes (subtly spelling “TOT”) – hang and flicker. From the moving, suspended neon lamps of the first act, depicting a starry sky and ship’s passage, to the tubes that sputter in Tristan’s underground refuge (“ a storage depot for burned out bulbs”), light – “Day” – follow Tristan and Isolde, no matter how much they try to avoid it.

If you read Uwe Friedrich’s interview with Peter Schneider (Friends of the Bayreuth Festival 2012 Almanach), the 73 year old Austrian conductor comes across like a young radical, ever probing Wagner-discoverer. He reconsiders the scores anew every time he conducts them, he goes back to the original manuscripts, and he laments that famous colleagues of his take things for granted, only because ‘that’s how Knappertsbusch did it, so it is right.’ This cumulates with this statement: “To question tradition, over and over, and to come up with new solutions brings me a lot of pleasure, actually.” Had I conducted the interview, I might have had to ask: Who are you, and what did you do with Peter Schneider? This person sounds more like Thomas Hengelbrock or Pierre Boulez, than the predictable, reliable Kapellmeister we know.

Perhaps it comes as a relief then, that in the house, when the music plays, it’s back to the Peter Schneider one expects… except not at his best. The tempi of this Tristan were comparatively stiff (the extremely flexible Thielemann and even Nelsons being admittedly tough competition) and, a swift overture excepted, on the slow side. The orchestra was usually too loud and the singers were constantly covered. The latter mattered little for text-comprehension, though, since hardly anyone in the cast bothered much with diction, and by the time the Liebestod came around, Theorin, though vocally admirable throughout, might as well have vocalized her lines. Kwangchul Youn’s King Marke wasn’t half as superbly regal and authoritative as would is his Gurnemanz, much like Michelle Breedt couldn’t quite unleash her Brangäne from the dreary surroundings.

In 2015 Tristan will return to the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by the lady of the hill, Katharina Wagner.


Bayreuth 2012: Lohengrin, a Rat’s Tale About Humanity

“Three years may be the acid test for a production” says Hans Neuenfels about the 2012 performances of his Lohengrin in Bayreuth. That’s quite a reasonable statement in Bayreuth, where it is possible, up to a point, to continue fine tuning a production from inception to the end of its run. If it still – or especially – works, even after the cast has changed, it might be considered a success.

And Neuenfels’ Lohengrin is a success. For starters in its musical manifestation in 2012, with a good cast headed now by Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin, and utterly compelling, sensitive music-making from the pit, where Andris Nelsons held the reins of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Visually – “it’s the one with the rats” – the production is compelling and gorgeous (unless you suffer from acute musophobia), dramatically it makes wonderful sense, and the craftsmanship of every of its aspects is top notch. It doesn’t rival Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal for profundity (part of which lies in the nature of the respective operas), but it’s one of those productions that anyone who has seen it, shan’t be forgotten for a very long time.

The chorus of rats – large brown ones for the Brabantians, smaller white ones for the women’s chorus, and adorable little pink ones as flower girls and ring bearers – is the easy hook for those detractors who like superficial deviance from an expected norm to distract them. But they serve several purposes: They’re a good looking and diverting bunch of rodents. They make an accessible point about crowd- and collective behavior. And they make blocking of the chorus spectacularly successful: There’s not one awkward moment of parading choruses shifting uneasily onto and off stage – which is saying something about a Lohengrin production. Perhaps best of all, the chorus is obviously having a blast in their costumes, and such enthusiasm always helps.

When the rats finally shed their exterior and take human form (King Heinrich, a mild sufferer of musophobia himself, is now no longer disgusted by the crawling, clawing masses) they exemplify a general convergence to humanity: The rats upward from a lowly existence, Lohengrin human-ward from his lofty, god-like standing. The latter is touchingly illustrated when Vogt’s Lohengrin walks towards the audience in his final scene, rather than taking the next swan down the river Scheldt. One minor blooper of sorts: When Lohengrin reveals his name, the now humanoid Brabantians seem to have already guessed it, because they stand at attention wearing belts that brandish a big “L”. Perhaps they rashly assumed his name was “Ladislav” or “Leroy” and got lucky, except not lucky enough, since Lohengrin of course cedes all warring activities to Gottfried, who then climbs out of a large egg, looking half way like a bird fetus, and feeds the ex-rats with bits of his umbilical cord. (The latter being one of the production’s more obscure metaphors).

Whatever Neuenfels doesn’t say through directing his singers, Reinhard von der Thannen says through his impeccably aesthetic sets and costumes which are a pillar of this production’s (visual) magnificence. The black-swan/white-swan gowns for Ortrud and Elsa in Act II are one example, the sharp delineation between Ortrud/Telramund and Elsa/Lohengrin another, or perhaps most poignant in the last scene, where Ortrud, like a crazed Ophelia, wills herself a Queen against all realities by donning Elsa’s white, with a costume of plumes (but upside down), a white copy of Heinrich’s scissor-cut paper crown, and expressively smeared makeup. To complementary dress effect, Elsa appears in mourning-black.

Samuel Youn, in his third year as the Herald, managed to deliver the solid dramatic presence on stage he had lacked in the Dutchman, and rang out his part with clarity and brawn. The young Wilhelm Schwinghammer was the ARD Competition third prize winner just three years ago, and showed more promise than readiness then. Boy, how they grow up. Now he walked on stage as a sonorous Heinrich the Fowler, and filled the shoes of Georg Zeppenfeld, the production’s previous Heinrich, hitchlessly, and very impressively. Thomas J. Mayer, whom I found mildly lacking was Wotan/Wanderer in Munich’s Ring (Walküre/Siegfried), displayed a non-committal sounding voice that didn’t always definitively settle on a tone, but was helped by his dramatic abilities—much like Susan Maclean’s ultimately gripping Ortrud which started on the feeble side before reaching operating temperature.

Annette Dasch struggled for her Elsa to break through to the audience, but she did that commendably, helped by the keen support from Nelsons. Dramatically at least, it’s better when Elsa is on the weak side and partnered with a Lohengrin like Klaus Florian Vogt’s, than when even a fine Lohengrin like Jonas Kaufmann’s is out-sung by his Elsa, as the latter was by Anja Harteros in Richard Jones’ Lohengrin from the Munich Opera. Vogt, whose acquired taste of a glass-bell like voice is becoming increasingly accepted, appreciated, and loved, was made for roles like Lohengrin. Already in the 2006 Lenhoff’-Braunfels Baden-Baden production under Nagano he showed how the introverted Wagner characters are right up his alley, and how his uncanny ability to have the chorister-flavored voice float above the orchestra’s emissions rather than powering straight through them, enables him to imbue these roles with a great lyrical quality. On top of that he brought real force to the table, which led to the most enthusiastic reception of any artist in the whole fifth week of the Festival.


In Brief: End of Summer Festivals Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.) There is so much this week that you had better get started.

  • It is time for the Annecy Classic Festival, beginning with Charles Dutoit leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in music by Berlioz and Dvořák, plus Denis Matsuev as soloist in Beethoven's third piano concerto. []

  • More Dutoit with the RPO from Annecy, this time with cellist Henri Demarquette. []

  • Watch Nikolai Lugansky play a solo recital in Annecy, with music by Chopin, Liszt, Janáček, and Rachmaninoff. []

  • Vladimir Spivakov leads the Moscow Virtuosi and a gaggle of soloists in a varied program of Mozart, Boccherini, and many others. []

  • From the Proms in London, Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev's score for Cinderella. [France Musique]

  • From the Abbaye de Saint-Michel en Thiérache, the Chœur de Chambre de Namur and the Cappella Mediterranea join the Ensemble Clematis to perform Spanish polyphony from the late Renaissance and early Baroque. [France Musique]

  • Also from the Abbaye de Saint-Michel en Thiérache, Jean-Luc Ho plays a recital of Renaissance and Baroque music on the Jean Boizard organ, built in 1714. [France Musique]

  • The festival of ancient music at the Abbaye de Saint-Michel en Thiérache also featured soprano Raquel Andueza and the Ensemble La Galania in early music on Castilian texts. [France Musique]

  • The Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic and conductor Michael Schönwand celebrate the Debussy sesquicentennial with the composer's La Damoiselle élue and other music. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From the Salzburg Festival, Matthias Goerne joins the NDR Sinfonieorchester and conductor Christoph Eschenbach for music by Berg, Schubert, and Zimmermann. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • The Talea Ensemble plays a concert in the Orangerie at Darmstadt 2012, with music by Pierluigi Billone, James Dillon, and Jen Wang. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Watch Khatia Buniatishvili play Schumann's piano concerto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Paavo Järvi, from the Rheingau Musik Festival. [ARTE Live Web]

  • A classic performance of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, with Montserrat Caballé, Ezio Flagello, Alfredo Kraus, and Shirley Verrett, made in Rome in 1966. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Listen to Andris Nelsons lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the Proms, in a program centered on Shostakovich's seventh symphony. [France Musique]

  • Also at the Proms, Osmo Vänskä leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Nielsen's fifth symphony, Delius's Eventyr, and Mozart's clarinet concerto with Michael Collins as soloist. [France Musique]

  • The Ensemble De Caelis performs medieval polyphony and the world premiere of a new piece by Martin Matalon, Formas in pulvere, for five female voices, percussion, and electronics, from the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon. [France Musique]

  • Also from the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon, David Fray plays a recital of music by Mozart and Beethoven. [France Musique]

  • From London, the BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC Singers perform Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard. (Note that the Proms broadcasts are available for only seven days.) [BBC Proms]

  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Oliver Knussen, performs Helen Grime's Night Songs and Debussy's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. [BBC Proms]

  • Knussen also leads performances of his own third symphony and Goehr's Metamorphosis/Dance. [BBC Proms]

  • Alice Coote sings Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski. [BBC Proms]

  • Stuart Skelton sings the title of Britten's Peter Grimes, with the English National Opera at the Proms. [Act I | Act II | Act III]

  • Vasily Petrenko leads the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Shostakovich's tenth symphony, Peter Maxwell Davies's ninth symphony, and Delius's violin concerto, from the Proms. [Part 1 | Part 2]

  • I Fagiolini performs music by Viadana, Bassano, Grandi, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi. [BBC Proms]

  • From the Chopin Festival in Warsaw, Concerto Köln performs music by rarely heard composers from the late 18th or early 19th century: Franciszek Lessel (1780-1838), Ignacy Feliks Dobrzynski (1807-1867), and Antonio Rosetti (1746-1792). [France Musique]

  • Mario Brunello plays Nino Rota's cello concerto with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana at the Lugano Festival, with George Crumb's Toccata as a first encore. [France Musique]

  • French children who want to study music in the official conservatory system must pass a rigorous set of exams in studies of theory and solfege known as formation musicale. It counts for three times more instruction time than applied lessons, and students are winnowed out of classes when they cannot pass it. A woman named Murielle Radault, a music teacher and mother, has published an op-ed piece asking that the system be relaxed because it drives students away from music. The comments are almost all positive. [Le Monde]


Briefly Noted: Some Recent Bagatelles

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Bagatelles (opp. 33, 119, 126; WoO 52, 56, 59-61), S. Osborne

(released on May 8, 2012)
Hyperion CDA67879 | 67'19"

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete Works for Solo Piano, Vol. 10 (Bagatelles), R. Brautigam (fortepiano)

(released on July 5, 2011)
BIS-SACD-1882 | 71'07"
While spending a lot of time listening to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations recently, I was struck by scholar Jean-Paul Montagnier's comparison of the mostly concise movements of that work to something akin to bagatelles. It was a reminder that pieces that might seem on the surface like amuse-bouches can actually make a full meal served together, and it made me want to listen to Beethoven's actual bagatelles with a different ear. It gave me a good excuse as any to write about Steven Osborne's curious new recording of all of them. The programming choice is hardly new, although this has more of the pieces Beethoven actually called bagatelles than Brendel's classic set (Philips). Somewhat strangely, Osborne omits only WoO 54, substituting two Allegretto movements (WoO 61 and 61a) and the famous little piece in A minor known as "Für Elise" (WoO 59), while Ronald Brautigam's set, part of a generally fine complete Beethoven cycle on fortepiano, is exhaustively complete.

Having recommended Steven Osborne's recital at the Phillips Collection last March, I was disappointed to miss it because of having other fish to fry (Joan Reinthaler was there for the Post). Osborne's bagatelle disc is a fizzy breeze of a recording, with polished technique and uniformly diverting interpretations, generally preferring brisk and devil-may-care over the occasionally melancholy approach of a player like Brendel, closer in some ways to the fine recording of Rudolf Buchbinder (Warner Classics, 2002). A few unusual moments stand out, as in the blurred pedal effect in the B section of op. 33/7 (Beethoven's marking is "senza sordino," meaning to depress the pedal to lift the damper mechanism), with a gossamer-light touch at breakneck speed in the main section. One complaint comes in op. 119/4, where the piano's upper treble range sounds a little out of tune. This is not unusual at the top extreme of the keyboard, but it happens in other places, too.

It strikes me as somewhat odd that Osborne's hand is lighter, cleaner, and more evanescent than Brautigam at the fortepiano (on instruments built by Paul McNulty), who is generally more explosive and pointed in tone. Osborne has nicer voicings in the rather plain op. 33/4, for example, and Brautigam pushes some tempos too far, like op. 33/5 (Allegro, ma non troppo), to obtain a sort of velocity-drunk effect. Osborne generally hits a more pleasing balance of tempos, while Brautigam's articulations tend to be closer to the score (as in the last note of op. 33/5). Brautigam does have the advantage of his instrument in some unusual articulations, like the harp-like sounds of the short notes in op. 119/2 and the arpeggios of op. 119/3, but rushes through the cantabile of op. 119/4. Both Osborne and Brautigam hit op. 119/10, a tiny wisp of a piece, with all of the speed they can muster, finishing in 12 and 11 seconds, respectively. Brendel, who interpreted the tempo marking "Allegramente" as something like "cheerfully" more than "manically," took four times as long.

In the six bagatelles of op. 126, one gets an intimate glimpse at some of Beethoven's final musical thoughts, as they are the last work for piano that he completed. While listening, don't miss the chance to study Beethoven's manuscript of op. 33 set and op. 126 set (.PDF files), made available by the Beethoven-Haus Bonn. The latter source is difficult to decipher, but the severity of the composer's exacting hand is no less pronounced. Glenn Gould's eccentric recording of this set -- made for the CBC, in not great sound but with exceptionally short timings -- gets at the enigmatic nature of some of these pieces, the bagatelle not as tossed-off trifle but as compressed aphorism. Scholar Lewis Lockwood, in his study of Beethoven, notes that the opp. 119 and 126 bagatelles are "like decorative ornaments to the great jewels of opp. 110 and 111." That Beethoven worked so diligently on them at the time as he was working on such vast works as Missa Solemnis and the ninth symphony "shows that these are serious little compositions, representing his miniaturist side as explorer of aesthetic extremes."


Bayreuth 2012: Dutchman, Faltering Captain of Industry

The Bayreuth Festival remains a myth, people come in droves, every show is filled to the last seat. But since being forced by a German court to open the books on ticket distribution—much and mostly to the chagrin of American Wagner Societies—anyone who requested entry to the vaunted halls seems to have got as much or more in tickets than they bargained for. Assuming those who used to got gray-market tickets (i.e. by donating to their local Wagner Society) stoop to requesting through the normal channels, the eight-year waiting-list that helps so much in the myth-building, might yet remain intact.

It also helps in making Bayreuth a little more accessible that the productions have been increasingly more miss than hit (or at least perceived as such), which is difficult to sustain for a festival that habitually serves modern productions to a fairly conservative audience: Daring, modern, or re-interpreted failure is more acutely felt by those patrons, than boring, traditional, and inoffensive failure.

Failure, incidentally, is a natural and necessary byproduct of producing good opera and trying to keep the taxidermists at bay (“If I can’t tell from looking at the set which opera it is, I know it must be a bad production”). Naturally not every risk taken pays off with epic success like the Chereau’s centennial Ring (much maligned at first, now rightly and universally hailed as the Ring of Rings), superbly intelligent theater like Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal (the finest production Bayreuth has seen in decades), or accidentally ingenious de- and re-constructions like Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger (a minor miracle where the product seems possibly cleverer than its creator’s intentions). But amid all the natural risks, there are unknown unknowns and known unknowns (™ Donald Rumsfeld). One such known unknown is hiring a director so young (*1981) and inexperienced that he had but one opera production under his belt (a Le Nozze di Figaro in Augsburg) by the time he was asked to produce Bayreuth’s new Flying Dutchman.

In his interview with Klaus J. Kalchschmid (2012 Friends of Bayreuth Almanac) the head of drama at the Mainz State Theater Jan Philipp Gloger comes across as something of a brat; choc-full of opinions, facts optional. But there was something he said that spelled out great promise for his Dutchman, or indeed any opera production of his: “I have to find something from my world in [an] opera, which is why I consider myself a translator. I don’t need to deconstruct a work—I much rather get to work like an archeologist.”

That approach of translating the meaning and core idea of an opera (all presuming it has one) into a vernacular intuitively understood by the necessarily contemporary audience (although in a sea of purple hair, one is tempted from time to time to question whether the audience is in fact still contemporary), is the principal ingredient of a successful opera production… the others being intelligence, a sensitive Personenregie, and musical understanding.

As a theater director Gloger ought to know all about blocking and Personenregie, and he is said to be very musical, able to read the scores and illustrate his points on the piano. To his intelligence I cannot speak, but even if we were to cruelly assume he is more willing than able in the noggin, three out of four ain’t bad! What a pity that such fair hopes don’t materialize on stage: What an emasculated dud this Dutchman is!

It begins promisingly enough: The curtain stays down during the overture. Perhaps he was encouraged during the abovementioned interview to just let the music work on the imagination of the audience, which it does plenty well. Better that, than some half baked idea to illustrate the overture, only because most other directors feel like they have to. Kudos.

JPG: The storm-music of the overture has such an enormous force… how am I ever supposed to find any pictures for that?
KJK: You don’t have to illustrate the overture…
JPG: No, I don’t have to, true…

When the curtain does open, the set by Christof Hetzer is a stunning black wall of shapely curves (that may, or may not suggest the prow of a huge ship), lit by strings of electronic connectors and nodes that suggest infinite black behind them. It’s one third disco in an oversized, dissected microchip, and two thirds Tron (1982), and the lights twitch along the interconnections in absolutely exact correlation with the music.

Daland and his steersman—Franz-Josef Selig and Benjamin Bruns—help that fine impression. Singing from a little tilting skiff on the polished black floor, they don’t just make a well-directed impression, their voices, too, are splendid… much better than what the broadcast of the premiere had suggested. Unfortunately, that’s vocally and dramatically as good as this Dutchman gets. The Dutchman of Samuel Youn, who had to jump in at short notice (see “Bayreuth and its Swastikas”), is a businessman (with a hint of techno-zombie, like his crew) caught in the storm of high finance and restless dealing and wheeling, wandering about with his trolley and constantly being bribed by extras. A restless captain of industry, if you will. It’s easy to see how the grittier, rougher persona of Nikitin would have brought some much needed tension to the production, but hard to see how such a welcome nuance could have saved it.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Flying Dutchman,
F.Konwitschny / Staatskapelle Berlin
D.F.Dieskau, G.Frick, F.Wunderlich et al.
Eterna / Berlin Classics

When a mobile platform with an intimated factory rolls unto the stage for the spinning scene, interest in the development of the characters is zapped. Only a few comic and dramatic touches remain notable, such as the Daland’s interruptions of Senta and the Dutchman, or when the Dutchman starts bleeding exactly as Senta stabs herself for mutual redemption.

The spinning-ladies in the factory are assembling desk fans, or rather: handing them from stage left to right, winding the power cable around the base, and plopping them into boxes. It’s a superficial reference to ‘rotating things’, entirely devoid of the profundity with which Konwitschny’s Munich Dutchman combines a witty play on words and deeper meaning. Nor is the ‘big-bad capitalism’ line of thinking spun any further, because the commercialism of the Duty Free bag-clutching, empty-glasses- wielding seamen and the happy, carefree 70s factory ladies with their deliberately camp, stylized gestures of a 1930s Broadway show, are as superficial as, presumably, Gloger’s view of world finance.

Amid the cardboard box idyll, Adrianne Pieczonka stands, sings, and acts as static as the figurine atop a wedding cake, rarely moving (in both senses of the word), and occasionally unable to cope with the slow tempi in her arias. Her voice had a hard time getting off the stage, much like her acting didn’t take flight, despite the bloodied angel-wings she crafted out of those boxes. Her partner in salvation, Youn, similarly proved himself capable without excelling or making the text audible.

The figure of Erik is either neglected or outright misunderstood: Casting a struggling power-tenor of hefty built as Erik (Michael König), unflatteringly dressed, and made out to look like a lowly janitor who spends his leisure time with Zelda, Dungeons & Dragons, and masturbation, it makes it too easy—indeed natural—for Senta to ignore him. That undermines the whole point of the figure of Erik, which is supposed to represent at least superficially the much more logical, eligible choice for Senta (steady income as a huntsman, not dangerously sea-bound like most men in the society) than Senta’s teeny-fantasies of the Holländer.

All of the above make for a production that’s ‘all right’, which really is the worst kind of boring—neither enthralling nor outraging… and incredibly, instantly forgettable. Too much of the production feels like a tame rehashing of Calixto Bieito’s Stuttgart production, just without the incredibly remarkable moments, like that of the Dutchman’s chorus responds: devastating and maddening with Bieito, dull and thin with Gloger. One expects more from any director in Bayreuth, but especially from a theater director intent on “translating”, however young and inexperienced. The best part just about salvaged the evening, though: The orchestra and its responsiveness to Christian Thielemann’s very light touch. A very quick overture was foot-tapping material—impetuous, not a slow motion storm. Elsewhere his vastly varying tempi livened the Dutchman up, but without those changes being very noticeable.


Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 9, 10, 11 )

Three Concerts • August 15th

Wiener Philharmoniker 3 • Riccardo Muti

It’s no good putting together orchestral programs a year or two in advance, as if they were regular symphonic concerts in the evening when two out of two (or sometimes two out of three) are matinees. What the ear may happily digest at eight or nine in the evening is not the same it wants to hear at 11 in the morning. (Nor an orchestra play.) A double bill of Liszt and his buddy Berlioz, in any case, is decidedly not suitable AM-fare.

Still, it is Riccardo Muti at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic—quality musicianship I can appreciate, even if more in theory than the mildly anemic reality of the opera or concert programs I’ve encountered with the Neapolitan maestro. And a work by Liszt was on the bill thatI had not only never heard, but never heard of: His 13th and last symphonic poem Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (“From the Cradle to the Grave”), composed in Rome in the early 1880s; a three-partite depiction of a drawing by Michály Zichy.

available at Amazon
F.Liszt, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, Three Funeral Odes, et al.,
I.Volkov / BBC Scottish SO

The first movement, “The Cradle – Andante”, is economical with its instrumentation to the extreme—the violas and second violins set a simplistic, dark tone; the first violins add sparse, melodies that vaguely intimate an awakening. Aggressively bored coughs from the audience, unwilling to follow the long, patient musical line, interrupted that movement, much to the irritation of the twitching maestro who tried as best he could to work that elegiac episode as smoothly as possible. Then comes the nervous, tense “Struggle for Existence”, at various times aggressive and loud, with fierce trumpets and a storm of timpani salvos. After that it’s back to “The Grave, Cradle of Future Life”, which is almost an inversion of the first third… upon which the work, to this listener’s piqued befuddlement, was over.

Gratefulness was still sloshing within me for having heard a real novelty as part of a mainstream-appeal Festival concert, when the Franz Liszt-Joachim J. Raff co-production Les Préludes blurted into that appreciation. Muti’s performance was smooth and homogenous, subtle and delicate (this being the conductor’s finest contribution), but robust and heroic as needed. The well known but rarely performed orchestral work seemed a little self-satisfied, and content just with itself. If only: Les Préludes has suffered considerably after the War from its association with the weekly news reels from the Wehrmacht’s latest exploits on the Soviet front. Thus the little excerpted bit towards the very end of Les Préludes became known as the “Russia Fanfare”. And how well it was received at the Grosses Festspielhaus, this Wednesday morning! It would have taken a less cynical soul than mine not to think: “Boy, aren’t they liking that… they haven’t been allowed to cheer after that music for such a long time.”

With enough Liszt under my belt, knowing what a third rate work Berlioz’ Messe solennelle is (Muti performed the work that Berlioz burnt in embarrassment in 2007 with the BRSO), and with the prospect of two more concerts on my agenda that day, I took my marching orders and retreated from the Festspielhaus.

Salzburg contemporary 10 • Family Concert

Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 8 )
Simon Rattle conducts Carmen

Georges Bizet • Carmen

Miscast, well conducted: Salzburg’s Carmen was smoothly and accent-free performed by Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic. Anyone expecting musical exoticism might have disappointed, but then how exactly do you authentically fake faux-Spanish flavor with an Austrian Orchestra led by an English conductor, supporting an international cast in a French opera? The singers meanwhile weren’t able to distinguish themselves quite as much.

This Carmen (in the Oeser edition) is something of a road show, first aired (and recorded) in Berlin, with the same cast but the Berlin Philharmonic. Then it traveled to the Salzburg Easter Festival, where it had Aletta Collins’s production fitted. [Edit: The other way 'round: First at Salzburg's Easter Festival, then on the road in Berlin.] And on August 14th it was billed as a premiere (again) at the Summer Festival. To imagine Collins’s work, think Baz Luhrmann, minus any excitement: An ever so slightly modern take on the most traditional-imaginable concept; a laborious direction that relies almost entirely on its perfectly gorgeous sets (Miriam Buether); the dreamt-up early 20th century idea of a tobacco factory in act one; the sumptuous, velvety red-and-black lounge and bar with mini-stage in act two; the conveniently hygienic sewer under the border wall in act three; and finally the embarrassingly campy, colorful Spanish pre-arena cityscape / costume-processional of act four.

Magdalena Kožená as a tall, read-headed Carmen, is cast against the grain, intentionally, not unlike Anne Sofie von Otter was, ten, twelve years ago. Instead of being a counterintuitive revelation, she ended up a decent Carmen, but a vulgar one that never quite clicked. The part was successfully enough sung and with redeeming fourth-act moments of character-maturation, largely stipulated by a dowdy red, tulip shaped skirt (costumes Gabrielle Dalton) that prevented her, at long last, from squatting like a two-dime hooker, which had been her modus operandi in the first two acts. Apart from her barefooted ‘look-at-me-I’m-a-hooker’ gyrations, Kožená wasn’t an eventful Carmen. As a thin-lipped redhead of attractive maturity, she could have developed a particular sensuality, indirect and quite different than would a sultry black-maned wildcat. But neither she nor the direction played to those strengths. Her smoky, heaving Habanera was tarter than it was seductive.

Jonas Kaufmann wasn’t at his most impressive, or even anywhere near it; on this occasion his tenor, slightly fuzzy and lachrymose, noodled along harmlessly, only occasionally rousing, ma non troppo. He did look ever so lovely, though, which suited the production in its shallow ways.

available at Amazon
G.Bizet, Carmen,
S.Rattle / Berlin Philharmonic
Kožená, Kaufmann, Kühmeier et al.

Kostas Smoriginas, who had already struggled through the part of Escamillo during the Easter performances, was truly out of his depth: He cracked and whimpered, capitulated before the low notes, and was substituted at half time since a sudden allergy attack (so we were told), left him in no condition to sing any further (this we didn’t need to be told). He still got to play-act his part on stage, limply mouthing his words vis-à-vis Kaufmann and Kožená, while Massimo Cavalletti (Marcello in Salzburg’s Bohème) belted the music very impressively from the sidelines.

Genia Kühmeier, who has a lovely voice—in fact the most impressive of the night: clear and responsive through the entire range she needs—and she uses it well. But unless a part is dramatically spelled out for her, she’s as interesting as watching paint dry. Christina Landhamer and Rachel Frenkel as Frasquita and Mercédès, in lush comparison, provided a dash of diversion as kinky blonde twin entertainers. The Salzburg Festival kid’s chorus (directed by Wolfgang Götz) was well coached and—very unusually—nearly believable in their dramatic hoppings-about.

So safe was this production, so seemingly inoffensive, so very eager to please—and yet the Festival audience booed poor Aletta Collins, who doesn’t at all seem the kind of director who thrives on-, or even expects boos. As I quietly watched myself, I gained some newfound respect for the Salzburg audience, apparently unwilling to be pandered to, all-too explicitly.

All pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, All © Forster, except (excerpted) picture of Jonas Kaufmann above, © Luigi Caputo

Misia at the Musée d'Orsay

available at Amazon
A. Gold and R. Fizdale, Misia: The Life of Misia Sert
Misia Godebska (1872-1950) knew everyone in Paris, and everyone knew her. Her life, told in an entertaining book by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, placed her at nearly every significant event in art and music history, near to creative artists of all kinds. A talented pianist, who studied as a young person with Gabriel Fauré, she did not pursue a concert career. She was the subject of many portraits by great artists, and she helped fund the Ballets Russes. Raphaël de Gubernatis wrote an article (Misia Sert, reine de Paris, August 9) for Le Nouvel Observateur about an exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay on Misia's life (my translation):
Having had a wealthy press magnate for her second husband -- Alfred Edwards, founder of the Le Matin -- she used her fortune to finance some famous productions of the Ballets russes. She filled the treasury of Sergei Diaghilev, always at the edge of bankruptcy, and received at her home or on her yacht Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Picasso, Laurencin, Massine, Nijinska, Lifar, and many others who contributed to the glory of the Ballet russes, evoked by the costumes created by Picasso for Parade.

One of the best parts of this exposition was to bring life back to a woman who even in the last photographs taken of her in Venice in 1947 was always elegant, with hard features. We also see her as a young woman in a canvas by Bonnard and even better on location at the Théâtre du Châtelet, drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec seated in a box with Satie, Diaghilev, and Cocteau. Coco Chanel, who was very close to her, said that she had a taste for her more than real friendship. Chanel nicknamed her friend "Madame Verdurinska," an appropriate name, even if Proust took Misia as the model for the Princesse Yourbeletieff in Sodome et Gomorrhe, while Cocteau would evoke her as the Princesse de Bormes in Thomas l'Imposteur.
The exhibition Misia, Queen of Paris continues at the Musée d'Orsay through September 9. It includes portraits by Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Toulouse Lautrec, and Félix Vallotton, as well as photographs.