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For Your Consideration: 'The Force Awakens'

"(sob) You mean I could have held out for a larger percentage of international residuals?"

Star Wars, in case you missed it, has become a Disney franchise. The company that specializes in putting trademarks on beloved folk stories, to further its attempts to extract cash from your wallet, paid a massive sum for the rights to your favorite childhood characters and stories. Most fans think only of the "restart" given to the film series, with this month's excessively hyped release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, but the effects of the buyout of Lucasfilm go much deeper.

available at Amazon
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directed by J. J. Abrams
Readers with children, like us at Ionarts Central, know that the mill turning the grist of Star Wars into pop pablum has been grinding away on the Disney Channel, where shows and specials can now make jokes and plot lines using the Star Wars characters and costumes. The iconic score by John Williams can be woven into Christmas music tags between idiotic kids shows, and there is even an animated series for kids, Star Wars Rebels, already in its second season, and a Star Wars Land in the works for Disneyland. The latest news about Disney's mounting financial woes can only mean that the Star Wars profiteering will accelerate. Lucas, who referred to Disney's purchase of the rights as "selling his kids to the white slavers," may not have gone too far.

What Disney trades on is the commercialization of nostalgia, betting that parents will shell out large sums to share prescribed sentimental moments with their children. For the most part, they are right, and that is where Episode VII comes in. All most fans wanted from the new film, directed by J. J. Abrams, was something to wash the bad taste of George Lucas's prequel films out of their mouths. Abrams co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, apparently with the goal of slavishly reproducing a long list of the average fan's favorite moments from the first classic trilogy of movies. Sure, it is fun to wallow in memories as cameo after cameo features every possible one-time character or beloved concept from the old movies, but at some point the story has to stop trying to cash in on fan cravings and generate its own interest, which it just did not. Not only was the script full of hard-to-swallow plot holes, the new characters are flimsy and forgettable. (Spoilers ahead.)

Other Reviews:

New York Times | David Edelstein | Washington Post | The Atlantic | A.V. Club
Christian Science Monitor | Los Angeles Times | Rolling Stone | Wall Street Journal

The new movie takes place thirty years after the end of Episode VI. General Leia, princess no more, and Han Solo have a son, Kylo Ren, who takes his obsession with his grandfather Anakin's legacy too far and turns to the Dark Side. Adam Driver, so memorably pissed off and weird in the delightful Girls, here is anodyne and devoid of menace in the role. Equally vanilla performances come from Daisy Ridley (an almost completely blank slate) as the feisty Rey, a scavenger who turns out to have a gift with the Force, and John Boyega (equally unknown) as Finn, an imperial stormtrooper with a heart of gold.

The talents of Oscar Isaac (so excellent in Two Faces of January and Inside Lleywn Davis) are wasted on the role of Poe Dameron, who is apparently a really good fighter pilot or something. Sadly, the most vivid character work is done by the new droid, BB-8, who is important because -- you can probably guess this -- he contains super-important plans (revealing the location of Luke Skywalker). All of this is a double-shame because so much about the movie is superb. The art direction and effects are the most gorgeously realized of any Star Wars film, and John Williams has again produced a top-notch score, weaving in his old themes in heart-moving ways.

This movie is playing everywhere, around the clock.


À mon chevet: 'The Lily of the Valley'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Alas! alas! was this the end of the keenest love that ever entered the heart of man? To the eyes of strangers my conduct might be reprehensible, but it had the sanction of my own conscience. It is thus that the noblest feelings, the sublimest dramas of our youth must end. We start at dawn, as I from Tours to Clochegourde, we clutch the world, our hearts hungry for love; then, when our treasure is in the crucible, when we mingle with men and circumstances, all becomes gradually debased and we find but little gold among the ashes. Such is life! life as it is; great pretensions, small realities. I meditated long about myself, debating what I could do after a blow like this which had mown down every flower of my soul. I resolved to rush into the science of politics, into the labyrinth of ambition, to cast woman from my life and to make myself a statesman, cold and passionless, and so remain true to the saint I loved. My thoughts wandered into far-off regions while my eyes were fastened on the splendid tapestry of the yellowing oaks, the stern summits, the bronzed foothills. I asked myself if Henriette's virtue were not, after all, that of ignorance, and if I were indeed guilty of her death. I fought against remorse. At last, in the sweetness of an autumn midday, one of those last smiles of heaven which are so beautiful in Touraine, I read the letter which at her request I was not to open before her death. Judge of my feelings as I read it.

Madame de Mortsauf to the Vicomte Félix de Vandenesse:

"Félix, friend, loved too well, I must now lay bare my heart to you,--not so much to prove my love as to show you the weight of obligation you have incurred by the depth and gravity of the wounds you have inflicted on it. At this moment, when I sink exhausted by the toils of life, worn out by the shocks of its battle, the woman within me is, mercifully, dead; the mother alone survives. Dear, you are now to see how it was that you were the original cause of all my sufferings. Later, I willingly received your blows; to-day I am dying of the final wound your hand has given,--but there is joy, excessive joy in feeling myself destroyed by him I love."

-- Honoré de Balzac, Le lys dans la vallée (trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley)
After this novel, which I have just finished, the "Scènes de la vie de province" portion of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine has only the Illusions perdues sequence left for me to read. In this novel Félix de Vandenesse, whom we have already encountered in Une fille d'Ève, recounts the story of his youth and first love. In this character's background, Balzac drew most heavily on his own early life: Félix, like Balzac, is from Tours, and he suffers as a child from the coldness of his parents, who show him no affection, trundle him off to cruelty-filled schools without adequate funds, and leave him entirely to his own devices. Also like Balzac, he tumbles into his first love affair with an older married woman, the Comtesse de Mortsauf, who like Balzac's first and greatest love, Laure de Berny, loves Félix in a way that is both passionate and maternal. The descriptions of the valley, one of many by Balzac of his beloved native Touraine, are remarkably beautiful.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Le Concert Étranger

available at Amazon
Conversations avec Dieu (Motets and Cantatas of Hammerschmidt, Telemann, others), Le Concert Étranger, I. Jedlin

(released on December 3, 2015)
Ambronay AMY045 | 77'17"
So far the concerts of the Festival d'Ambronay have come to my ears solely through the Internet streams from France Musique. Performances of opera and early music are sponsored there, many in the Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Ambronay, in the fall each year, and the festival has been recording some of its regular groups on its private label since 2005. The latest release is the first disc by Le Concert Étranger, an early music ensemble of instrumentalists and singers founded by Itay Jedlin in 2006. The group's latest appearance at this year's festival featured Jedlin's reconstruction of J.S. Bach's St. Mark Passion, recorded in the magnificent acoustic of the abbey church in Ambronay.

While not Christmas music exactly, this disc brings together intensely pious music from Baroque Germany, with texts often in the style of personal conversations between the soul and God, as the title implies. The music, none of it well known, is brought to life in vivid vocal performances, with all voices firing on all pistons in an energetic way. The bass line drops remarkably low in Telemann's fine cantata Ach, Herr, straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn, for example, all taken in stride by Nicolas Brooymans. The psalm settings, dialogues, and Latin motets by Andreas Hammerschmidt (1611-1675) are all excellent discoveries, none more than the solo motet Ergo sit nulla ratio salutis, with a standout performance by soprano Cécile Granger.

Instrumental pieces fill out the program, both for strings and especially pieces for organ, played here by Anne-Marie Blondel on the rather delicious new organ in the church of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption de la Très Sainte Vierge in Champcueil, to the south of Paris, where this recording was captured. This instrument, installed in 2010 and built by the Manufacture d’Orgues Thomas as an imitation of a 17th-century Franco-Flemish instrument, has a broad range of beefy sounds.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Stile Antico's Wondrous Mystery

available at Amazon
A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Music for Christmas (Praetorius, Clemens non Papa, Jacob Handl), Stile Antico

(released on October 9, 2015)
HMU807575 | 72'57"
The British choir Stile Antico has earned a spot in my Best of 2015 round-up, not the first time one of their concerts has been singled out in that way. Their new disc is devoted to Christmas music, perfect for your listening through January 6, by Renaissance composers from the Netherlands and farther east. The program is anchored on the motet Pastores quidnam vidistis, by Clemens non Papa, and the setting of the Ordinary of the Mass he derived from it. The group sounds the best in these selections, in five parts of intricately woven counterpoint, while in the more homespun pieces, like some of the Praetorius carol arrangements, individual voices are revealed in less pleasant ways.

Hieronymous Praetorius's delightful setting of the Magnificat is performed here as the prelude to the publication instructs, interpolating the accompanying Christmas carol arrangements (all in same double-choir format) between the verses. This is a practice not uncommon in German-speaking countries, a reminder of the popular nature of the feast of Christmas. The key they sing in for this piece puts the sopranos extremely high; although the intonation is fine, the tone sounds perilous.

In the opening Michael Praetorius piece, Ein Kind geborn in Bethlehem, the effect of the endless verses is mitigated by a pleasing cumulative effect of voices being added, so that it really rollicks by the end, quite dance-like. The two best motet discoveries are by Slovene composer Jacob Handl, beginning with Canite tuba, for five lower voices, which is full of trumpet-like fanfare motifs and features the group's male singers beautifully. The same composer's Mirabile mysterium, which gives its title (translated into English) to this disc, is filled with strange chromatic shifts one associates more with the style of Gesualdo, the piling up of triads from distantly related keys that musicologist Edward Lowinsky identified as "triadic atonality" in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum of Lassus, for example.


Perchance to Stream: St. Stephen's Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Watch Kurt Masur lead a concert by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and violinist Renaud Capuçon at the church of St. Nicholas in Leipzig, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with music of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach. [ARTE]

  • The late Kurt Masur leads the Orchestre National de France in Britten's Simple Symphony, Beethoven's violin concerto (with Vadim Repin as soloist), and Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony, at a concert recorded in 2006 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Excerpts from three concerts conducted by Kurt Masur, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1981, the New York Philharmonic in 1992, and the Orchestre National de France in 2008. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge. [BBC]

  • From 2014, Ton Koopman leads the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and soloists in Bach's Christmas Oratorio, in Brunswick. [France Musique]

  • Vaclav Luks conducts Bach's B Minor Mass with Collegium 1704 at the Festival d'Ambronay. [France Musique]

  • The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plays Tchaikovsky's music for The Nutcracker. [Avro Klassiek]


Briefly Noted: Sibelius and the Theater, Vol. 1

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Incidental Music, Vol. 1, P. Pajala, W. Torikka, Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released on June 9, 2015)
Naxos 8.573299 | 72'50"

[Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 | Vol. 6]
So here we are at last, at the first of the series of six discs devoted to Sibelius's music for the theater, recorded by Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic. (Presumably, a seventh disc will eventually appear with Stormen, the incidental music for The Tempest, the only score not covered so far, first recorded in its complete form by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Philharmonic in 1992.) The first volume includes Sibelius's first work of incidental music, composed for King Christian II by Swedish playwright Adolf Paul in 1898. The eponymous 16th-century ruler of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden had a common Dutch girl, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, as his mistress, for which he is remembered as much as for his part in the Stockholm Bloodbath, the massacre of Swedish nobles who opposed him. The popular suite Sibelius arranged has only five of the seven pieces that Sibelius composed for the play.

The Elegy movement, which served as the gloomy overture to the play, is a consummate example of lush writing for five-part strings, replete with intense, Wagnerian appoggiaturas and dissonant harmony. The bubbly wind-heavy Musette was played by street musicians outside Dyveke's window as the character danced inside, while the Menuetto, played as an introduction to the court scene in the third act, has melodic turns that remind me humorously of Jingle Bells. Baritone Waltteri Torikka, a fine singer, is perhaps too stentorian in the Song of the Cross-Spider, sung by a jester who mocks the imprisoned king in his cell, referring to Dyveke as the spider. The last three pieces (Nocturne, Serenade, and Ballade), added to the score the summer after the play's premiere, have the feel of more symphonic movements that stand quite well on their own.

Just as gorgeous is the score Sibelius composed for Kuolema (Death), a play by Arvid Järnefelt, brother of Sibelius's wife, Aino, premiered at the National Theater in Helsinki in 1903. Heard here in its original form -- played from the composer's manuscript score -- it opened with the famous Valse Triste, during which Death appears to the sick mother of the main character, Paavali, as her dead husband. They dance together, and in the morning she is dead. Paavali's song to the cold, sung as he enters a witch's house in Act II, is no more flattering to Torikka, although Sibelius's settings of translations of two Shakespeare lyrics work better for his voice. Pia Pajola, Segerstam's go-to soprano in this cycle, is quite affecting in the song sung by the mysterious woman who becomes Paavali's wife, to whom a child is brought by the cranes in the lovely movement titled The Cranes, again with luscious string writing. Segerstam opens the disc with the Overture in A minor, premiered in 1902 on the same concert with the composer's second symphony but never approved by him for publication. It opens with a brilliant brass fanfare, transitions into a sort of Galop that is less memorable but fun, and returns triumphantly to that mysterious brass material.


Merry Christmas 2015

"He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy."

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)

Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Gradual 1 for San Michele a Murano (folio 38v), c. 1395
Tempera and gold on parchment, 570 x 380 mm (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)


Best (and Worst) of 2015

We have reviewed our last performance of 2015, which means it is time to take stock of the year that was. The following is a list of the Top Ten live performances I reviewed this year, arranged in chronological order. We conclude with a few other year-end honors (and dishonors) in several categories, as well as a remembrance of the notable people we lost this year.

available at Amazon
Bach, Goldberg Variations, A. Tharaud
1. Alexandre Tharaud, piano (Phillips Collection, January 25)

Alexandre Tharaud continues to surprise me. At his latest recital here, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, it was not surprising to hear him play jewel-like Couperin (his opening set) or a delightful Scarlatti sonata as an encore (the guitar-like K. 141). The bulk of the program, though, showed the French pianist going in new directions, with composers not previously associated with him, at least by these ears.
2. Mahler, Symphony No. 3, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, J. Barton, M. Alsop (Strathmore, January 31)
Gustav Mahler may not have written any operas, but his longer symphonies approach, perhaps even surpass, opera in their metaphysical scope. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s excellent performance of the composer’s Third Symphony, heard Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, certainly had the feel of epic drama: funereal grief, ecstatic awakening, hushed birth of self-awareness and, finally, consummation. Best of all, music director Marin Alsop has found her Mahler groove after her rocky first efforts on an unofficial symphony cycle with the BSO a few years ago. Both this performance and the season opener of Mahler’s fourth symphony last September have been excellent.
3. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Charles Dutoit (Washington Performing Arts, Kennedy Center, February 21)
The orchestra from Geneva, which last visited Washington in 1989, shone immediately in Debussy's Ibéria, with glimmering washes of string sound and polished contributions from the woodwind section. Dutoit shaped the perfumed second movement with its murky, incense-heavy sighs of sound and guided the orchestra seamlessly into the third movement. The ensemble traded on its history by performing Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, which was premiered by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1919. With top-notch solo work from celesta and principal flute, the musicians revealed this sensationally colored music in all of its riotous variety.
available at Amazon
Mozart, Requiem / Vesperae solennes de confessore, C. Sampson, M.B. Kielland, M. Sakurada, C. Immler, Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki
4. Mozart, C Minor Mass, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Masaaki Suzuki (Strathmore, March 12)
Suzuki coaxed an incisive and beautifully balanced performance from the Classical period-sized orchestra. The smaller number of strings played almost entirely without vibrato, and the well-drilled University of Maryland Concert Choir sang in a mostly straight, white tone, with the soprano sound especially light. Crowning their work was a stupendous performance by Slovak soprano Simona Šaturová, her voice laser-precise and perfectly placed from a firm low A-flat up to a crystalline high C in her two solo movements.
5. Evgeny Kissin, piano (Washington Performing Arts, Strathmore, April 22)
Kissin remains at the top of my list among living interpreters of the music of Chopin, an impression maintained by this performance. In his hands, these pieces had an extemporaneous feel to them, right from the gesture of beginning the first nocturne on the program (B-flat minor, op. 9/1) with the right hand almost from nothing, hesitant even to start the piece. Kissin has a fluidity of rubato that sounds like improvisation, not rushed or dragged out sentimentally, but hesitating and impetuous in equal measure, with even the embellishments to the melody sounding not practiced but added on the fly.


Classical Music Agenda (February 2016)

February is a day longer this year, but the shortest month would have had more than enough good concerts in any case. Here are the ten we think are the most important, plus some freebies and two dance events that are must-see.

Opera Lafayette continues its work excavating musical rarities, with two performances of Emmanuel Chabrier's one-act opérette Une Éducation Manquée (February 2 and 3), presented in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Bernard Deletré directs the staging, with costumes by Patricia Forelle.

The French connection continues the following weekend with a rare local appearance by French soprano Sandrine Piau, in a recital with pianist Susan Manoff (February 7) at the Phillips Collection. The program will include songs by Debussy, Poulenc, Wolf, and others.

Leah Crocetto made an excellent Washington National Opera debut in Dialogues des Carmélites last season. The American soprano returns to the area for a solo recital with pianist Mark Markham (February 26), presented by WNO in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Her program will include art songs and opera arias.

Mid-month Washington Performing Arts presents the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth in a program centered around Partita for 8 Voices, the piece that won its member Caroline Shaw the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. The concert, in collaboration with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, also features music by Purcell and Gavin Bryars, at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue (February 13).

The regular series by the Emerson Quartet offers a concert of quartets by Haydn and Beethoven (February 6), at the National Museum of Natural History. The program combines two quartets from the former's op. 76 and two from the latter's op. 18.

In the infancy of Ionarts, the Juilliard String Quartet, then in residency at the Library of Congress, was often reviewed in these pages. Washingtonians have gotten out of the habit of hearing the group all the time, which is now in a new formation, with Joseph Lin and Ronald Copes on violin and Roger Tapping on viola. This season will be the last for veteran cellist Joel Krosnick, who will be replaced next year by Astrid Schween, so their free concert at the Library of Congress (February 27) will be a valedictory lap. They will play quartets by Schubert, Carter, and Beethoven.

The free concert series at the National Gallery of Art is under new leadership, and the last days of February will feature an entire festival of concerts devoted to all of the instrumental trios of Beethoven (February 25 to 28). Performers featured include members of Inscape, the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, the DEKA Trio, and the North Carolina Symphony Trio, concluding with the NGA Orchestra and West Garden Trio performing Beethoven's Triple Concerto.

Pianist Jenny Lin is an Ionarts favorite, known for her ferocious technique and her daring programming choices. She plays a free concert on the Steinway series at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (February 14). Her program this time, The Composer-Pianists: The Art of Transcriptions and Arrangements, sounds right up our alley.

András Schiff has been playing the three final sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, beginning last March. We had to miss the middle installment of the series because of health issues, but the final recital should be the best (February 24), presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Music Center at Strathmore.

We are fans of Steven Osborne's recordings, so it is easy to recommend the British pianist's next recital at the Phillips Collection (February 28). The program includes Schubert (Impromptus), Debussy, and Rachmaninoff (Études-Tableaux).

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin headlines the concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (February 15). In addition to Liszt's first piano concerto, Iván Fischer will conduct Weber's overture to Der Freischütz and Prokofiev's fifth symphony.

We never miss the chance to see the Mark Morris Dance Group, which returns to the GMU Center for the Arts this month (February 19 and 20). The program features The (Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1), Whelm (Debussy piano pieces), and Cargo (Milhaud's La Création du Monde), all but the last new to the Washington area.

The annual visit by the Mariinsky Ballet features something a little bit unusual, Marius Petipa's choreography, with revisions by Konstantin Sergeyev, to Glazunov's Raymonda (February 23 to 28), in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

See the complete calendar after the jump.


Sensory-Friendly 'Hansel' a Success

Cast members Daryl Freedman (Mother), Ariana Wehr (Gretel), and
Aleksandra Romano (Hansel) with Master Ionarts (photo by CTD)
From a critic's point of view, I had reservations about Washington National Opera's most recent revival of their holiday production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. At the same time, also noted in my review, enough of this gorgeous score's charm comes through, even in the reduced orchestration, for most listeners to enjoy. Miss Ionarts certainly did on opening night, and even Master Ionarts, who has not been to a musical performance in a few years, had the chance to appreciate it on Saturday afternoon.

Although Master Ionarts went to many kids concerts with me when he was small, including to the first WNO Hansel in 2007, in recent years he has balked at going to performances in theaters. Diagnosed on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, he has pronounced sensitivity to auditory and visual stimuli. When WNO announced that they were going to host their first-ever sensory-friendly performance on Saturday afternoon, Master Ionarts agreed to give it a try. We can report that both the musicians in the pit and the singers made an effort to lower the volume of the music, with only a few moments that bothered sensitive ears. The lights in the theater were kept on but dimmed, so that kids could move around or leave the theater as they needed. The only slight misstep was to keep the flashing lights used for the explosion of the witch's oven: although the sound of the explosion was dampened, the light flash was too much for many of the kids.

Just knowing that this was a performance intended for kids like him put Master Ionarts at ease. As the show began, he smiled as he heard kids shifting in their seats and asking questions loudly, sometimes getting up from their seats and moving around the theater, knowing that all of this was OK during this performance. He himself asked me several questions about the story and the characters, relating it to his favorite topics in math and science, including noting that given the shape of the earth in relation to the sun, the Sandman and the Dew Fairy would always have to be on opposite sides of the planet. During most of the second half, one young girl paced nervously at the edge of the orchestra pit, moving her hand back and forth in the repetitive behavior known as "stimming." All of the performers, and most of the audience members, took all of this in stride.

Master Ionarts insisted that we stay after the performance for the chance to meet some of the performers. He especially wanted to ask Keriann Otaño, who kept her Witch's magnificent cackling to a minimum, what it was like to play such an evil person, but since she could not make an appearance he was happy to speak to the other cast members. Best of all, near the end of the performance, he put his hand on my arm and said he was glad that he came to see the opera because he had "forgotten how enjoyable this was." To see him back in a theater was the best early Christmas gift this father could have received, so the Ionarts family thanks the WNO family for being open to giving this special performance. It meant a lot to many kids and their parents.

The Kennedy Center has announced two more sensory-friendly performances this season. Master Ionarts and I will try to make it to the National Symphony Orchestra concert in April.


'Matilda the Musical'

Bryce Ryness (Miss Trunchbull), Mabel Tyler (Matilda Wormwood), and Company in
Matilda the Musical National Tour (photo by Joan Marcus)

A holiday musical at the Kennedy Center is a fun tradition, especially during those days when children are home from school. It is even better when the work in question is a solid one, entertaining for all ages, and that is certainly the case with this year's option, Matilda the Musical, now playing at the Kennedy Center Opera House. A British show premiered in 2010 and showing on Broadway since 2013, it is now on its first United States tour, after having won a pile of awards, all well deserved.

available at Amazon
Matilda the Musical, Broadway Cast Recording
(Yellow Sound Label, 2013)
Roald Dahl's books are a household favorite at Ionarts Central, featuring children who understand the truth about the world their parents so often try to hide from them. It's a nasty place, filled with rotten people who have no reason to be anything but mean to you, and the only person you can rely on is yourself. Dahl's Matilda is a brilliant little girl whose parents openly loathe her. When she finally gets out of her awful home, it is to go to school, which all children, including Dahl himself, know is the most horrible place imaginable. Crunchem Hall Primary School is run by a tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who instead of the caning used as corporal punishment during Dahl's childhood in Great Britain, locks children in a torture cabinet known as the Chokey. A former Olympic athlete in the hammer throw, the brutish Miss Trunchbull is also known to hurl children across the schoolyard.

In the cast seen last Friday night, young Mabel Tyler was a spirited Matilda, doing remarkable things as actor, dancer, and singer. Part of the appeal of the show is that the creators -- Tim Minchin (lyrics and music) and Dennis Kelly (book) -- bet on the ability of a group of kids of varying ages to be a reliable and entertaining ensemble in this show. It could be a disaster, but thanks to the cleverness of the show, it somehow is not. The best song in the score, which is full of jazzy fun but not always memorable, is an ensemble one, the bittersweet but not saccharine When I Grow Up, which opens the second act.

Other Articles:

Peter Marks, Matilda, can you hear me? (Washington Post, December 21)

Kristen Page-Kirby, The smartest student at the Kennedy Center has special powers. What’s a teacher to do? (Washington Post, December 9)

Elaine Liner, Say What? Matilda the Musical Is Visually Stunning, Audibly Failing at the Winspear (Dallas Observer, September 25)

Misha Berson, Inventive, energetic ‘Matilda’ visits the 5th Avenue Theatre (Seattle Times, August 21)

Charles McNulty, The real magic of 'Matilda' is in the story of a spirited, bookish girl (Los Angeles Times, June 9)

Jordan Riefe, 'Matilda': Theater Review (Hollywood Reporter, June 8)

Ben Brantley, Children of the World, Unite! (New York Times, April 11, 2013)
Still, it is the adults that make the show so funny. Matilda's parents are so dense that they do not even realize that their gifted daughter is already far beyond them in intelligence. Cassie Silva's Mrs. Wormwood is ditzy and superficial, mincing around with her amateur dancing partner, the sebaceous Rudolpho (Jaquez Andre Sims). Quinn Mattfeld is both morally bankrupt and absurdly stupid as Mr. Wormwood, opening the second act with a scene speaking to the audience about how kids should not try these dangerous, disgusting things in the show at home -- "I mean reading books, of course," he adds, deadpan. The only saving graces in Matilda's life are Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones), the librarian who keeps her plied with books, and her new teacher, Miss Honey, played by the meek and angelic Jennifer Blood. It was an ingenious decision, though, to have Miss Trunchbull played by a cross-dressed character tenor, and Bryce Nyness pulled off the role with just the right combination of venomous hatred and dainty reserve, effectively stealing the show.

The staging is smart and snappy, with a handsome book-themed set (Rob Howell, who also designed the costumes) and breathless choreography by Peter Darling. The story's macabre turns mean that this musical is definitely not for small children. Miss Ionarts, who is 11, was quite frightened by Miss Trunchbull and the Chokey, even though the latter is not even shown on stage. After Miss Trunchbull appeared to whirl one of the children around in a circle and fling her into the wings, a younger child not far from us could be heard crying in fright. Even for children nine and up, a refresher talk about the illusion of theater is in order on the way to see this musical.

This production continues through January 10, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Best Recordings of 2015 (#1)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2014 . My lists for the previous years: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 1 - New Release

Joseph Haydn & Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas - “Chiaro e scuro”, Olivier Cavé (piano), æon

available at Amazon
J.Haydn & D.Scarlatti, “Chiaro e scuro”

One of the most gratifying events in music-reviewing is a CD like this: Out of the wrapper. Into the CD player. And immediately it hops into the soul, pulling heartstrings along the way, and dancing and doing a few pirouettes. Not all music is like that, nor should every music experience be like that – there is and should be room for the difficult, for the dark, for the dense after all – but goshdarnit, it’s very nice when it happens that way. Well, this in so many words describes this CD by Olivier Cavé whose records hitherto I have enjoyed, but nothing like this. Putting together Joseph Haydn and Domenico Scarlatti (two of my favorites, which helps my positive bias along quite nicely) is an ingenious move. At the danger of ignoring the very considerable moody and gloomy side which Scarlatti possessed as well, this pairs the most upbeat, daringly jolly, musically glowing works of these composers… or at least they sound the way, given how Cavé treats them.

Charles Burney, the 18th-century musicologist, described the Scarlatti Sonatas (those he knew, at any rate) as “original and happy freaks.” He was on to something. And Haydn is, in any case, the quintessence of the musical smile. There are points where I ceased to notice where Scarlatti ended and Haydn began. If you want a disc that makes you grin from ear to ear like an idiot, this is as good a bet as any, this year, to accomplish the job. The exemplary liner notes deserve a prize, too, establishing the circumstantial but strong evidence for Haydn have been reared on a diet of Scarlatti.

# 1 – Reissue

Anton Bruckner, Symphonies 00-9, Stanislaw Skrowacewski (conductor), Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, Oehms

Perchance to Stream: Advent IV Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Watch a performance of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco, recorded on St. Ambrose's Day at La Scala in Milan. [ARTE]

  • Watch Thomas Hengelbrock conduct the Orchestre de Paris in Bach's Magnificat and other works, with Anna Lucia Richter and other soloists. [ARTE]

  • Torsten Kerl and Catherine Nagelstad star in a performance of Berlioz's Les Troyens, recorded in September at the Staatsoper Hamburg with Kent Nagano at the podium. [ORF]

  • John Eliot Gardiner conducts a performance of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice starring Juan Diego Flórez, Lucy Crowe, and Amanda Forsythe, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, recorded at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. [RTBF]

  • Listen to a rare performance of the opera Hans Heiling by Heinrich Marschner, starring Michael Nagy, Angela Denoke, and Katerina Tretyakova recorded at the Theater an der Wien. [ABC Classic]

  • Renaissance polyphony performed by the Capella Sistina Choir, joined by the Choir of New College, Oxford, recorded in Rome, and by the Tallis Scholars at St. John's Smith Square in London. [ORF]

  • Franz Welser-Möst is joined by soprano Christine Brewer and bass-baritone Alan Held for Wagner opera excerpts with the Cleveland Orchestra, recorded in 2013. [France Musique]

  • A Christmas concert after my own heart, with Holland Baroque and Vox Luminis performing Baroque music for Christmas by Vulpius, Hassler, and members of the Bach family, in the Oratoire du Louvre. [France Musique]

  • Miles Davis and John Coltrane play the Olympia in Paris, with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, recorded on March 21, 1960. [France Musique]

  • Two recently discovered performances by Frank Sinatra, at Knokke le Zoute in 1953 and in New York in 1951. [France Musique]

#morninglistening: Happy Fourth Advent Sunday (BWV 132)


CD Review: David's 'Herculanum'

available at Amazon
F. David, Herculanum, V. Gens, K. Deshayes, Brussels Philharmonic, Flemish Radio Choir, H. Niquet

(released on September 25, 2015)
Ediciones Singulares ES1020 | 122'04"
Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Exhuming an operatic ‘Herculanum’ (Washington Post, December 20)
Félicien David (1810-1876) was a celebrated composer in the 19th century, but after his death his music was almost immediately forgotten. Since 2010, the Venice-based Centre de Musique Romantique Française has been sponsoring performances of David’s music, including this live recording of his opera “Herculanum,” captured during performances last year at the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels. Premiered in 1859, it would remain David’s only opera produced by the Opéra de Paris, after which he turned to works for the Opéra-Comique, like the charming and much lighter “Lalla Roukh,” recorded last year by Washington’s own Opera Lafayette.

The opera is set in the Roman town of Herculaneum. It is the summer of 79, and the Romans have no idea that Mount Vesuvius is about to send deadly pyroclastic flows their way... [Continue reading]
Félicien David, Herculanum
V. Gens, K. Deshayes, and H. Niquet
Brussels Philharmonic and Flemish Radio Choir

The libretto by Joseph Méry (collaborating with T. Hadot) is set in the Roman town of Herculaneum. The opera's explosive conclusion was an even more dramatic evocation of the power of Vesuvius than that featured at the end of Daniel Auber's grand opera "La Muette de Portici." This limited release includes a lavishly produced book with several excellent essays, including one by American musicologist Ralph P. Locke, and a review of the opera's premiere, published by none other than Hector Berlioz in the "Journal des débats."

Charles T. Downey, Mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, February 5)

---, Félicien David (1810-1876) (Ionarts, June 18, 2014)

---, Briefly Noted: 'Lalla Roukh' (Ionarts, April 26, 2014)

---, La Gens (Ionarts, May 25, 2007)


NSO 'Messiah'

available at Amazon
Handel, Messiah, Choir of King's College, Cambridge, S. Cleobury

available at Amazon
T. F. Kelly, First Nights: Five Musical Premiers
Charles T. Downey, Guest conductor invigorates ‘Messiah’ in spirited NSO program (Washington Post, December 18)
Handel’s “Messiah” is one of the few pieces that the National Symphony Orchestra performs every year, like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” on the Fourth of July. With something so familiar, surprise is a welcome sentiment for a listener. Nathalie Stutzmann made her NSO debut as conductor Thursday night, leading a whirlwind rendition of “Messiah.” It had its ups and its downs, but one seldom had any reason to doze off.

Stutzmann is a favorite singer of NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach. The French mezzo-soprano last sang with the orchestra in 2012, and she will return to Washington to sing Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder” with Eschenbach in June. In 2009, Stutzmann founded a chamber orchestra called Orfeo 55, based in Metz, France. She has had some stints guest-conducting larger orchestras, including performances of “Messiah” this year with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

The quartet of soloists, all making their NSO debuts, was led by the fine tenor Lawrence Wiliford, best when he floated dulcet high notes and in melismatic passages but less effective when he tried to be forceful. Baritone Stephen Powell thundered and raged admirably, while contralto Sara Mingardo was sometimes covered by the orchestra. Airy soprano Emöke Barath wafted her way easily through the showpiece “Rejoice greatly,” at breakneck speed, yet oddly without much virtuoso panache.

Stutzmann seemed to connect most directly with the University of Maryland Concert Choir, superbly prepared by Edward ­Maclary. Stutzmann found in these young singers an enthusiastic partner, and they followed her gleefully, over cliff after cliff in some exceedingly brisk tempo choices. She may not have broken the speed record set for “Messiah” by Rinaldo Alessandrini in 2010, but she came close, clocking in at a performance time of two hours and 15 minutes, with fewer cuts than you might think.

“Messiah” is an odd duck among Handel’s oratorios in that the soloists do not take on roles in the scriptural narrative. Stutzmann centered her performance on the chorus, using all the tools of dynamics and articulation she had to give a vital urgency to what they were singing. “Who is this king of glory?” they sang in “Lift Up Your Heads,” pressing the listener for a reply. In “He Trusted in God,” they jeered at Christ’s sacrifice, with a nasal braying tone and laughing rapidity.

Stutzmann tried to soften some of Handel’s less-than-elegant English text setting, especially noticeable in the choruses he adapted from his own earlier Italian duets. She apparently decided there was nothing to be done with that awkwardly accented first word in “For unto us a child is born,” directing the chorus just to hammer it each time they sang it. The text Handel composed that phrase for began, quite humorously, “Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi” (No! I don’t want to trust you!).

The orchestra at times seemed less convinced by Stutzmann’s interpretation, and for the most part, she kept the musicians quite subdued whenever the chorus was singing. Her somewhat over-the-top gestures did not always communicate clearly, resulting in a few slightly confused beginnings to new pieces or sections. Violinist Alexandra Osborne, from the second violin section but seated as concertmaster for this performance, did an admirable job keeping the small group together at a few crucial spots. The continuo part, shared between organ and harpsichord as Handel did at the premiere but here with two players, was varied and fun, including a spry kick of the hooves at the line “Then shall the lame man leap as an hart.”
National Symphony Orchestra
Handel, Messiah
With Emöke Barath, Sara Mingardo, Lawrence Wiliford, Stephen Powell
University of Maryland Concert Choir
Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Thả Diều, Nathalie Stutzmann conducting Händel Messiah in Detroit (thadieu, December 13, 2015)

Alfred Hickling, Messiah review – scripture and showbiz (The Guardian, January 11, 2015)

Charles T. Downey, More of Eschenbach's Bruckner (Ionarts, October 12, 2012)

NSO Messiah:
2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007

#morninglistening: The Sibelius Fraterinity

Best Recordings of 2015 (#2)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2014 . My lists for the previous years: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 2 - New Release

Karol Szymanowski, Symphonies 1 & 3, Love Songs of Hafiz, Ben Johnson (tenor) / Edward Gardner (conductor) / BBC Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, Chandos SACD

available at Amazon
K.Szymanowski, Symphonies 1 & 3, Love Songs of Hafiz
E.Gardner / B.Johnson / BBC SO & Chorus
(Chandos SACD)

Szymanowski is a composer I always wanted to love and – on CD, at any rate – only ever got to appreciate. This disc has finally changed it. It’s almost as if I had never heard Szymanowksi’s Love Songs of Hafiz, for tenor and orchestra, before: So more obvious does this most ravishing fin de siècle (though actually 1922) vocal symphony jump out of the speakers here: Right up there with Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and not that far from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (except more economical). It’s the centerpiece on Chandos’ third disc of their orchestral Szymanowski survey, and alongside the (snappy) First and (choral) Third Symphonies, it’s given a simply enrapturing account by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony forces. No other recording has brought Szymanowksi so close to my heart and ears yet!

# 2 – Reissue

Franz Schubert, Symphonies 1-9*, Frans Brüggen (conductor) / Orchestra of the 18th Century, Decca


Briefly Noted: Writing on the Wall

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Music for the Theater, Vol. 2, Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released on July 10, 2015)
Naxos 8.573300 | 63'01"

[Vol. 3 | Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 | Vol. 6]
Sibelius actually composed the incidental music for Belshazzar's Feast after that for Pelléas et Mélisande, under review yesterday. The formula for Leif Segerstam's definitive collection of discs devoted to Sibelius's theatrical music has generally focused each volume on a major work of incidental music, rounded out with little pieces that may or not have had their genesis in the theater.

The centerpiece here is the incidental music for Belshazzar's Feast, a play by Sibelius's friend Hjalmar Procopé for the Swedish Theater in Helsinki, produced in 1906. The story follows Leschanah, a Jewish woman sent to assassinate Belshazzar, king of Babylon. The best numbers are early in the score, especially a lovely flute solo with delectable harmony in the prelude ("Nocturno") for Act II, as Leschanah listens to the royal palace at night, seduced by the king's power. Soprano Pia Pajala sings the mournful Song of the Jewish Girl, a paraphrase of Psalm 137 in a way similar to Verdi's chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco. Less memorable is the dance music to accompany Leschanah's attempt to displace the king's favorite slave girl, Khadra.

The disc opens with a barn-storming overture that is a fun listen, paired here with a Scène de ballet, both of which Sibelius drafted in 1891 as movements for an aborted attempt at a first symphony. (This makes for a fascinating comparison with his actual first symphony, finished in 1899 and revised in 1900.) The dance especially has a sort of eastern flavor in its melodic nuances and percussion choices, which make suitable companions for Belshazzar's Feast. Sounding more like the Sibelius we all think we know is a short "Wedding March" (not really what it sounds like), composed for Adolf Paul's play Die Sprache der Vögel in 1911. Segerstam rounds out this volume with a couple of other short processional pieces. The most curious of them is a "Processional," first composed in the 1920s for Finland's new Masonic Lodge, where Sibelius was a member.


Briefly Noted: 'Pélleas' and More

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Music for the Theater, Vol. 3, Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released on August 14, 2015)
Naxos 8.573301 | 57'49"

[Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 | Vol. 6]
Sibelius's score for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande is likely his most famous work of incidental music. It is heard most often, though, in the suite version, as when Leonidas Kavakos conducted it with the National Symphony Orchestra earlier this year. The suite has almost all of the music Sibelius wrote for the play, shortly after his move to Järvenpää in 1904, in a Swedish translation by Bertel Gripenberg premiered at Helsinki's Swedish Theater in 1905. Segerstam instead performs the original score, including the sixth number missing from the suite, Mélisande’s song in Scene 2 ("De trenne blinda systrar" [The Three Blind Sisters]), sung here by soprano Pia Pajala.

As noted before, this is a mesmerizing score, with poignant English horn solos (the instrument representing Mélisande in the score) and unsettled orchestral effects that capture the disturbing quality of life in Allemonde, which appears normal but is anything but -- a score that all film composers should study closely. The third number, for the fourth scene in Act I, is set at the sea's edge, with a tidal motif in the muted strings, alternating between two dominant seventh chords with roots a tritone apart (B-flat and E) over a pedal point on D (the section is nominally in D minor, although a cadence in that key never materializes). Periodically, Sibelius creates a shivering effect for the cold winds that come from the sea, combining a roll on the bass drum (played with timpani mallets), a low-set run in the first violins, and a tremolo played near the bridge by the double basses. Segerstam and his musicians capture this effect with spine-tingling subtlety, and there are many others one could mention.

Of the other five pieces that round out this volume, only one, Musik zu einer Szene, was intended to accompany a theatrical scene, a piece quite redolent of Tchaikovsky and that Sibelius later made into a version for piano. Two waltzes and a little Romantic piece are later orchestrations of piano works or otherwise not of great interest. Pajala is joined by mezzo-soprano Sari Nordqvist for Autrefois, a setting for two voices and orchestra of a poem by Hjalmar Procopé in the same Symbolist fairy-tale vein as Maeterlinck.


Briefly Noted: More of Sibelius's Theater Music

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Incidental Music, Vol. 4, Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam

(released on September 11, 2015)
Naxos 8.573340 | 72'50"

[Vol. 5 | Vol. 6]
Last Tuesday a massed choir of Finns marked the 150th birthday of Jean Sibelius by singing his choral version of the Finlandia hymn in Helsinki's Senate Square (video embedded below). My delectation of Leif Segerstam's ongoing cycle of Sibelius's music for the theater, with the Turku Philharmonic, continues with the fourth volume, released in September.

In the midst of World War I, the Finnish National Theater commissioned incidental music from Sibelius to accompany Jedermann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal's adaptation of The Somonyng of Everyman, the 15th-century morality play. Sibelius held this score, premiered in 1916, in high esteem, but because he never made a suite arrangement of it (other than three sections arranged for piano), it is less often heard in performance. Sibelius maintained, in subsequent performances of the score with the play, that the music had to be matched exactly with the lines spoken by the actors, phrase for phrase. (Von Hoffmannsthal's play is still performed every summer at the Salzburg Festival, on the steps of the city's cathedral, but not with Sibelius's score, as far as I know.)

After an expansive opening, Sibelius creates some rather forgettable song and dance music that symbolizes the empty-headed pursuits of Everyman's life. When Death takes the scene, the score becomes much more interesting (tracks 12 to 17), with intertwined chromatic string lines seeming to separate Everyman from the dippy music that came before. The music underscores the lessons Everyman is forced to learn when he dies: nothing and no one he held dear in his life can help him now. Only Good Works and Faith agree to go with him on this final journey.

While not technically created for a theatrical production, two shorter instrumental scores are in keeping with the religious tone of the Jokamies (Everyman) score: Two Serious Melodies for violin and orchestra, op. 77, and In memoriam for orchestra, created after the composer underwent an operation on his throat and played again at Sibelius's funeral -- an apt tie-in to the story of Jedermann.


Best Recordings of 2015 (#3)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2014 . My lists for the previous years: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 3 - New Release

Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations , (after Busoni’s Edition), Tzimon Barto (pianist), Capriccio

available at Amazon
Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations (after Busoni’s Edition)
Tzimon Barto (pianist)

This is wacky stuff that will horrify the purist: First it was Ferruccio Busoni, the Germano-Italian late-romantic composer and pianist who got a hold of them and made his very own edition of them. Double an octave, add a trill, spell out dynamics… that sort of thing. Then Tzimon Barto, known for doing things his way, goes from there and gets playful with it. A reviewer of this disc, unimpressed, suggested that “the wilful treatment betrays Baroque sensibilities”. Incidentally I agree, but I think we have a different meaning of “betray” in mind. I happen to think that this indeed wilful, this liberal, almost naïvely sensuous, improvisatory, on-the-moment, whimsical way with the work is, in its 21st century way, a very close approximation of the fluidity that distinguished baroque attitudes. (One need only think of the traditions of ad libitum adornment.) It does betray baroque sensibilities in Barto, whether he’s aware of them or not. The tempo of that Aria, in hushed pianissimos, is slow enough to make you check if the Capriccio release isn’t a 2CD set, after all. But no… 56 minutes and Tzimon Barto is done with it; repeats are for suckers.

Actually, I would have liked to hear what he does with repeats, assuming he’d have gone all kinds of different places with them… repeats should never sound the same, after all. No time for wistful thoughts, though: Barto crashes right into the first Variation with such vigor, you’d think he’s checking the instrument for sawdust. And so he goes on, following his nose for beauty and effect, arriving, for example, at Variation 28 where he depicts a music-box, steadily tinkling away in Debussy-esque colors until it slows down on the last notes, coming to a halting stop and then leads right into the steroid-induced brawn of Variation No.29: Part Bach, part Colonel John Matrix from Commando.

Perhaps most telling about the album: It gets better with every listening and doesn’t outstay its welcome. That compared starkly to another recent recording of the Goldberg Variations (by a well-regarded up-and-coming pianist with a consumer-friendly life-story) which were very impressive on first listening and then ground down to banality after repeat exposure. | Charles’ review of this album can be read here.

# 3 – Reissue

Igor Stravinsky, The Complete Columbia Album Collection, Igor Stravinsky (conductor) / Various artists and orchestras, Sony Classical

Holiday Opera: WNO's Half-Baked 'Hansel and Gretel'

Aleksandra Romano (Hansel) and Ariana Wehr (Gretel) in Hansel and Gretel (photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera)

Washington National Opera tried two new holiday operas in recent years, and both of them were disappointing flops. It seemed like a good sign that the company was returning to Engelbert Humperdinck's evergreen Hansel and Gretel this year, but it has missed the mark by sticking with the chamber ensemble reduction of the score it used in 2007 and 2012, by Kathleen Kelly (strings one on a part, horn, clarinet, flute, and piano). While I have complained about this pale imitation of Humperdinck's rather wonderful Wagner-tinged score before, the third time around was the final straw. The opera frankly sounds pretty awful without the four horns, percussive touches, and symphonic sweep of the full score, especially in the interludes, and there is certainly more room in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater pit, if perhaps not enough for the full orchestration. As heard at the second performance on Saturday night, the musicians play well, but the effect falls far short.

This time around, the voices were all fairly large in scope, which made the imbalance with the mealy-mouthed sound from the pit more evident to the ears. The title roles featured the same pairing of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists who played Mercédès and Frasquita in this fall's Carmen, with similar results. Mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano's Hansel was more sure if a little pushy in the smaller theater, and Ariana Wehr's Gretel was absolutely adorable and with enough power, if slightly unclear at the top. Soprano Kerriann Otaño, whose voice was not quite right for the Countess in Wolf Trap's Marriage of Figaro last summer, here made a delightfully poisonous, overbearing witch, with a cackle that terrified Miss Ionarts. Impressive mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman was a viperous Mother, with Aleksey Bogdanov's happily tipsy Father lightening the mood. Soprano Melissa Mino was appropriately flowery of tone as the iridescently costumed Dew Fairy, while Raquel González's Sandman was the only voice occasionally eclipsed by the small instrumental consort.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO fires up ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ in a polished but uninviting performance (Washington Post, December 14)
The opera remains an easy sell for kids, especially in this kind of lollipop-flavored staging, with off-kilter sets that are cartoonish and fun (designed by Robin Vest) and equally multi-colored costumes (Timm Burrow). Sarah Meyers directs this time around, with a different spin but similar feel to how David Gately did it last time. The supernumerary animals that menace the children in the forest -- a wolf, boar, vulture, all rebuffed by a protecting owl -- were a particular treat, as was the sound of the WNO Children's Chorus. While there is none of the disturbing imagery aimed more at adults seen in the productions from Virginia Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, for example, there was still enough menace in this version to keep Miss Ionarts on the edge of her seat.

This production is repeated on December 18, 19, and 20, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. In a praiseworthy move, WNO is offering the 2 pm performance on December 19 as a sensory-friendly event, for families with children on the autism spectrum or with other sensory sensitivities. This is a most welcome development for families of special-needs kids, a community that includes Ionarts Central.