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


Briefly Noted: The Dover Quartet Starts on Beethoven

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete String Quartets (Vol. 1), Dover Quartet

(released on July 18, 2020)
Cedille CDR90000-198 | 154'56"
It begins. The Dover Quartet's programs in Washington have not featured much Beethoven yet, including their last (canceled) appearance at the Kennedy Center in April. The single glimpse of their approach to this most revered string quartet composer was the third movement of Beethoven's final quartet, op. 135, played as an encore at their Washington debut. It was "a light-filled performance like a hymn of peace," according to my review: clearly, the experience whetted my appetite.

Finally adding to their excellent but limited discography, the Dovers have launched a complete traversal of the Beethoven quartets with this 2-disc set of the six quartets of op. 18. It is an exceptional beginning to what promises to be one of my favorite cycles. They would not supplant my two favorite approaches to the Beethoven quartets, the fiery Takács Quartet and the mellow, gut-strung Quatuor Mosaïques (incomplete), but they are in their company.

Overall, the Dover feels not as brash as the Takács, less impetuous because there is not that slight edge of rhythmic uncertainty, exciting but unsettling. The time and care are worth some slightly slower timings, as in the sweetly affecting slow movement of Op. 18, no. 1, but the group also avoids tempos as expansive as those sometimes chosen by Quatuor Mosaïques. The least pleasing to my ear is their no. 4, too anguished in the first movement and frantic Menuetto, but balanced by the sweetly dancing Scherzo in between them.

At the same time, there are few string quartets in which all four cylinders, as it were, fire with such uniformity, as in the relaxed finale of no. 4, capped by an exhilirating Prestissimo coda, striking just the right contrast between the two tempi. Grace and balance are the Dover's greatest strengths, as in the poised and sunny no. 5, with its melting slow movement of extended variations.

For a few years now the Dover Quartet has been one of the ensembles I never want to miss hearing live. Among other cultural devastations, the coronavirus seemed poised to wipe out the entire second half of the group's residency at the Kennedy Center, which began in 2018. Last week, the Kennedy Center announced that 50 listeners will be able to hear the Dover Quartet, joined by the Escher Quartet in an octet program, October 20 on the Opera House stage. Sadly, that concert will not be livestreamed to a broader audience.

For other music to hear this fall, see my pandemic round-up of live and streamed concerts at Washington Classical Review.


Briefly Noted: Christmas in the Pandemic Summer

available at Amazon
Christmas Carols, SWR Vokalensemble, M. Creed

(released on August 10, 2020)
SWR Classic SWR19094CD | 59'10"
How keenly music's absence is felt during the pandemic struck me recently listening to this little disc. It is nothing spectacular in terms of programming: an hour's worth of English Christmas carols. The singing is excellent, done in beautiful sound by the SWR Vokalensemble, about thirty voices in size, under the direction of Marcus Creed.

A German choir stealing the lunch of their British colleagues is fair payback for the perennial "Christmas Around the World" programs heard every year, and the English pronunciation here is impeccable. A tribute, this, to the teaching of their English-born director, an alumnus of both King's College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford, whose tenure with this distinguished radio choir ended this summer.

The group's women sound better on their own (in Emily Elizabeth Poston's rich Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, for example) than the men, who are featured less. The same applies in solo voices heard, although on this account the more demanding writing, as in The Fayrfax Carol of Thomas Adès, taxes both equally. The echo quartet in Britten's gorgeous A Hymn to the Virgin, happily, is top-notch. The effect of this simple but effective carol service is a sweet reminiscence of the days before coronavirus (the recording was captured in the fall of 2018). Sadly, it is also a bitter reminder that we may spend a bleak Christmas without "the playing of the merry organ" or "sweet singing in the choir," in the nostalgic words of the The Holly and the Ivy.


Dip Your Ears, No. 261 (Satie Vexation)

available at Amazon
Erik Satie, Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (piano)

Erik Satie’s Vexations is an aptly named work that you have to have heard in order to know that you’ll never need to have heard it. Simple, repetitive, and demanding endurance from the performer, not skill. 18 notes, harmonized, inverted. Just one page of brutalist-simplistic music, but rinsed and repeated – by disingenuous fiat of the composer’s pen – 840 times. The Vexations deserve to be recorded for the archive’s sake, because everyone ought to have the chance to reject this misinterpreted gag of a composition on their own; the only other reason to perform them is to achieve a cheap if exhausting publicity stunt.

It delivers all the stupefying effect without any of the ‘transportive’ qualities of a Philip Glass film score and is bound to inflict pain on anyone of musical sensibility. You’d be just as well off drinking a bottle of cheap booze for such a dulling of your senses. It is, in short, an exercise in masochism and no spin of its alleged “Zeb Buddhist” qualities (as the work’s first champion, John Cage, suggested) or of it being a “study in immobility” (so would be staring at paint dry) can salvage the thing. It’s ironic and telling that Satie, derided for his best music as a mere ‘salon composer’, should be celebrated by some for his worst. Sort of goes to show that if you pump up the crazy just enough, someone will be there to declare you a genius. The truth is that we don’t know what Satie’s intent was when he scribbled the page of music and the absurd instructions down; sarcasm is as good as any; a mocking musical jest of sorts. If you listen to the whole thing, though, the joke’s on you.

That said, what about the performance? For starters, Noriko Ogawa plays on a beautiful sounding Érard, beautifully recorded. For some 70 minutes she is merciless in her rigor and – though I dare not say “refreshingly” – brisk. At the tempo she takes for 142 variations, she’d be done with the whole thing in six (SA)CDs. A far cry from the alleged aimed-at goal of 24 hours, that Satie may have had in mind. (For that, you’d have to go to Jeroen van Veen’s download of the whole thing on Brilliant Classics.) In any case, carping about this would be akin to the joke of two ladies in a restaurant complaining: “The food’s terrible here.” “Yes, and the portions are so small!” But no have fears: Happily, the artist and record label have the good sense to consider this nod towards Satie’s Vexations exhaustive and final, which it more than is. Late in the game, Noriko Ogawa adds some more obvious dynamic variation and shifts in voicing and eventually also the tempo, speeding things up as if to come to a quicker end. If you’ve made it through those 75 minutes, the last five might induce chuckles of relief and acquiescent glee. But three quarters of an hour seem a high price for that.

At the heart of taking this seriously at all is the John Cage dictum that “if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Well, if something is boring after 80 minutes, you could double down until you lose your mind or have invested so much time that you cannot allow yourself to consider it having been time wasted. Eventually, I suppose, Cage will be right. But will it have been worth it? I suggest sticking to Virgil Thompson’s take on the matter, instead: “Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.”



On ClassicsToday: Another Vivaldi Edition Violin Concerto Must-Have

Another Vivaldi Edition Violin Concerto Must-Have

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Unless you are a cetologist, all whales of a species look alike to you. The seasoned eye, meanwhile, will take one glance at a disappearing dorsal fin and immediately conclude: “Oh, look, there’s Laura!” Same thing with Vivaldi violin concertos: The more we indulge, the greater the differentiation and joy. Having arrived at Vol. 63, Naïve’s Vivaldi Edition does just that with this exemplary disc: Six seldom recorded concertos, all of theatrical quality but for the calm and simpler RV 321, all late Vivaldi, written sometime after 1724... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Best Recording of Hans Zender's Superb Winterreise

Best Remembrance Of Hans Zender

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Composer/conductor Hans Zender, who died last October (2019), is better known for his “composed re-composition” of Schubert’s Winterreise than for any of his other work. That’s not to sell those other “original” compositions short, or his work as a conductor (a fine Mahler Ninth and excellent Schubert First, among them). It’s simply a credit to how spectacularly well-made his orchestral reworking of the Schubert classic is. Sure, there always will be those who find the idea of futzing with an original masterpiece objectionable. And in many cases where a mediocrity latches onto a work of genius, the critics have a point. Not here... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Haydn & The Harp: Light Delights

Haydn & The Harp: Light Delights

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

“Haydn and the Harp” is a delightful disc of music written for the harp based on works and themes of Haydn by the composer’s contemporaries, as well as compositions of Haydn’s where the harp can (or was always meant to) be an alternative to the piano. All the music is tied in some way to Haydn, either biographically or musically. Exupère de La Maniere, for example, grabbed a theme from Haydn’s Symphony No. 63 (“La Roxelane”) and sent it through the variation-wringer for harp solo. Ditto Sophia Dussek with “God Save Emperor Francis”, the tune best known from the slow movement of the Op. 76/3 string quartet or the German national anthem. Nicolas-Charles Bochsa, meanwhile, created a virtuosic “Petite mosaique” of famous melodies from The Creation for harp solo... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Mayseder, a Viennese Bridge Between Classical and Romantic

Mayseder: A Viennese Bridge Between Classical And Romantic

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

The late classical/early romantic Viennese composer Joseph Mayseder is a wonderful discovery whose music is being methodically made available by the Gramola label. He was the concertmaster of the predecessor of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and of the Wiener Hofmusikkapelle–an ensemble that still exists (albeit as a loose ensemble of singers and instrumentalists from the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the State Opera Chorus) and that performs the musical duties on this disc that couples his musical legacy, a Mass in E-flat major, with an early violin concerto. [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Margherita Torretta's Bang-On Scarlatti

Margherita Torretta: Bang-On Scarlatti From Out Of Nowhere

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Scarlatti recitals on the piano are no longer a rarity, but really great ones still are. Since Horowitz’s groundbreaking disc, outstanding recordings have been made by Mikhail Pletnev, bursting-with-wilful fantasy, Ivo Pogorelich absorbed in his dynamic wonder-world, and Sergei Babayan, with refined insight. More recent additions to the top of the heap, many reviewed on, have come from Alexandre Tharaud, Konstantin Scherbakov, Zhu Xiao-Mei, and Yevgeny Sudbin. A very recently received new recording of 20 Scarlatti sonatas did not look particularly promising, much less like it might break into the phalanx of a dozen superior discs–rather it seemed more likely to be just another vanity recording by yet another young artist. [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Strauss' Enoch Arden in a new Reference Recording

Granitic Enoch Arden From Bruno Ganz And Kirill Gerstein

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Monodramas are tricky to pull off. The text has to be very good and the music has to be better still, to fulfill its dual duty of underscoring the drama and offering enough interest on its own, when it does pipe up. The results vary: from the rare best, like the ingenious masterpiece that is Viktor Ullmann’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, to the tawdry and banal, like Liza Lehmann’s The Happy Prince (based on one of Oscar Wilde’s lesser efforts). One of the few gems that works quite well is Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ballad by that name. [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Josephine Knight in Lovely Piatti World Premieres

Self-Serving Schumann And Lovely Piatti World Premieres

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

This new release of the Schumann Cello Concerto purports to be the premiere recording of its absolute original version–a faithful reconstruction of the 1850 “Concertstück”. After cellist Josephine Knight found the autograph in Krakow, she set about to discern the differences from the modern version we know, which apparently include some alterations made or suggested by Robert Emil Bockmühl on whom Schumann relied for advice, and several subsequent performers’ changes. She found “hundreds of differences”, mostly accents, dynamic markings, bowings. The notes, but for a handful, are the same, though. She’s since made this her vehicle and this recording is meant to propel the original version–and presumably her–into the limelight. [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Evan Johnson compositions on Kairos

CD From Hell: Evan Johnson’s Sound Installation (With Sadistic Toy Piano)

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Amid the sea of beautiful, intelligent, vigorous contemporary music, which has at long last recovered from the damage that ideologically charged academicism and anti-sensual strands had successfully inflicted on it, there are still plenty of exponents of yesteryear’s avant-garde music.... [continue reading + sound samples]
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On ClassicsToday: Jazzrausch Bigband Inspired by Beethoven

On Beethoven’s Beat: “Ludwig Van, House Remix”

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Before the year is out, 2020 will see Beethoven-themed everything, so it’s perhaps not so surprising to find non-classical acts having some fun at the master from Bonn’s expense: Jazzrausch Bigband, for example, which has released “Beethoven’s Breakdown” on the fine jazz label ACT, which itself has a track record of excellent classically inspired jazz. (Dieter Ilg’s Parsifal or Otello suites come to mind). It’s an album full of surprises, starting with the name: Whatever you might be expecting “Big Band Beethoven” to mean, that’s decidedly not what you are getting here... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Supreme St. Gallen Bach Cantata Cycle with BWV 105

Reference Recording: St. Gallen’s Bach Cantatas, Vol. 30

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Every release of the St. Gallen Bach cantata cycle-in-the-making is a joy. And every volume only raises the project in my estimation. But just as all animals are equal, some are more equal than others. This applies to these volumes... [continue reading]
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Excerpt from the opening Chorus of BWV 105. Bach Stiftung St. Gallen

Excerpt from the Aria of BWV 105. Bach Stiftung St. Gallen


On ClassicsToday: Antheil Serenades on CPO

Major Discoveries: The Wonderful, Gentle Side of George Antheil

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
CPO’s series of George Antheil's music has been a boon to music lovers and very successful in showing the composer's softer side, as musically he wasn’t so much the bad boy he liked to present himself. As Robert Reilly points... [continue reading]
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The Diabelli Project - Buchbinder bringt Neues über Diabelli: Latest @ Wiener Zeitung

Wiener Zeitung

Buchbinder bringt Neues über Diabelli

Pianist Rudolf Buchbinder hob Variationen aus der Taufe.

Im Musikverein hob Rudolf Buchbinder das "Diabelli Projekt" aus der Taufe, das auf seine Initiative mit zehn Konzerthäusern von Wien bis Peking entstanden ist: Elf neue Variationen zeitgenössischer Komponisten über den Walzer von Anton Diabelli. Faszinierend, was dabei herausgekommen ist: Lera Auerbach versenkt den Ausgangswalzer in dunklem Klaviermorast; wie eine Ruine im Nebel ragt das Thema aus dem schwarzen Moor. Nach Brett Deans sich schnell verflüchtigendem Wirbelwind einer Variation wirkten die leichten, entschleunigten Pinselstriche eines Toshio Hosokawa berührend; bedrohlich tiefe Noten setzten dabei immer wieder Zäsuren. Christian Josts Beitrag klingt, als hätte sich ein experimentierfreudiger Jacques Loussier das Thema geschnappt. Philippe Manoury hat energetischen, kurz gehaltenen Pointillismus beigesteuert.... [weiterlesen]

Photo © Marco Borggreve


Martha Argerichs virtuose Nonchalance. Die Pianistin interpretierte im Wiener Konzerthaus Sergej Prokofiews drittes Klavierkonzert: Latest @ Wiener Zeitung

Wiener Zeitung

Martha Argerichs virtuose Nonchalance

Die Pianistin interpretierte im Wiener Konzerthaus Sergej Prokofiews drittes Klavierkonzert.

In gleichem Maße populär und von Kennern verehrt ist Martha Argerich seit über einem halben Jahrhundert einer der ganz wenigen Superstars der klassischen Musik. Ein musikalisches Phänomen, das auch mit 78 Jahren noch zu beindrucken weiß, wie sie im Wiener Konzerthaus mit Prokofjews drittem Klavierkonzert - und eingebettet von gut aufgelegten Wiener Symphonikern unter der Leitung von Lahav Shani - zur Schau stellen konnte.... [weiterlesen]

© apaweb/apa/afp/dpa/Soeren Stache


Happy 55th Birthday, Rossini

Fifty-five is no age for a composer and so it is little wonder that Rossini - or at least his music - is alive and well. Born on February 29th, 1792, Gioachino Antonio Rossini soon discovered a penchant and talent in culinary appreciation as well as note-churning. The latter he put to use for the creation of almost 40 operas, the former to support his stately appearance.

So much has been written about Rossini, that I would not likely contribute anything new on this special Rossini-day - so instead I list below all that has been written about Rossini on Ionarts over the last few years.

Except, before I do that, I still want to rehash some reasonably well known stories about Rossini, just because they are too good to pass up on - and because they endear the composer to me, if not always his music.

There is, of course, the story that when Rossini laid on bed composing and he dropped a sheet of freshly written music, rather than making the effort to climb off the bed and pick it up, he simply wrote the music out, again. Consider this - and that tiny little Rossini's daycare consisted of a pork butchery, where he got to watch the production of sausages - and listen to his music carefully...

The most enduring story about Rossini may well be his admission to having cried only three times in his life: Once after his first opera (La cambiale di matrimonio) had a disastrous premiere. Then again when he heard Paganini play. And finally when he witnessed a truffle-stuffed turkey fall overboard in a picnic boating accident. (Sharp tongues might point out that Rossini would have known all about turkeys, but that's just not a nice thing to say on such a rare birthday.)

Rossini on ionarts:

Lawrence Brownlee, classical voice

Another evening of Arias
CDT, October 20, 2016

Lawrence Brownlee Returns to Wolf Trap

An evening of Arias
CDT, March 28, 2016

Rossini's 'Semiramide' in Concert

CD Review
CDT, November 24, 2015

Dismally Banal 'Tell' at Covent Garden

CDT, July 03, 2015

Second Opinion: 'Cenerentola' at WNO

Opera Review
RRR, May 13, 2015

In Search of the Perfect Mousetrap: WNO's 'La Cenerentola'

Opera Review
CDT, May 11, 2015

Ionarts-at-Large: Rossini in San Francisco

Opera Review
RRR, November 26, 2013

Briefly Noted: More of Pappano's Rossini

CD Review
CDT, August 27, 2013

Ionarts at Santa Fe: The Lady without a Lake

Opera Review
CDT, August 02, 2013

Operatic Threesome, Damrau Glitters in 'Ory'

DVD Review
CDT, June 21, 2012

Guillaume Tell

DVD Review
CDT, October 14, 2011

Briefly Noted: Julia Lezhneva

CD Review, Rossini Arias
CTD, October 6th, 2011

Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 9 )

Concert Review, Stabat Mater
jfl, August 15th, 2011

8½ Turks in Italy at Wolf Trap Opera

Opera Review, Il Turco...
CTD, July 14th, 2010

'Cinderella' Not a Dream Come True

Opera Review
Sophia Vastek, September 28th, 2009

'Barber of Seville' as Cartoon, and Not with Bugs Bunny

Opera Review
CTD, September 15th, 2009

Wall of Horns (Munich Opera Festival 2008)

Concert Review, Works for Horn Octet
jfl, August 19th, 2008

Washington Concert Opera: Bianca e Falliero

Opera Review
CTD, April 15th, 2008

Opera on DVD: Il Viaggio a Reims

DVD Review
CTD, November 27th, 2007

Ionarts in Siena: Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Rossini's Otello, Washington Concert Opera

Sonya Harway, May 1st, 2007

Flórez's Breakthrough

Two Comedies of Errors

Il Viaggio a Reims, Kirov Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington

Siege of Baltimore

L'Assedio di Corinta, Baltimore Lyric Opera
CTD, October 16th, 2006

Frolics and Frippery: A Roll in the Hay with Rossini

Le Comte Ory, Wolftrap
Richard K. Fitzgerarld, July 22nd, 2006

Summer Opera 2006: "Barber of Seville" in St. Louis

Il Viaggio a St. Petersburg

Il Viaggio a Reims, Kirov Opera, Mariinksy Theater, St.Petersburg
Oksana Khadarina, May 30th, 2006

Let's Do Silly Things in Algeria

Tancredi: Sounds Good

Summer Opera: La Cenerentola at Wolf Trap

La Cenerentola, Wolf Trap
CTD, August 21st, 2005

Summer Opera: Barber of Seville in Santa Fe

Even Google celebrates Rossini today:


NHK-Orchester: Lauschen über den Tellerrand hinaus: Latest @ Wiener Zeitung

Wiener Zeitung

NHK-Orchester: Lauschen über den Tellerrand hinaus

Das japanische Ensemble gastierte mit Chefdirigent Paavo Järvi im Konzerthaus.

Spitze Zungen behaupten, Japan habe eine längere Brucknertradition als Wien. Fest steht, dass Japanische Orchester - über den legendären Takashi Asahina und seine Osaka Philharmoniker hinaus - zu Bruckner einen ganz besonderen Bezug haben. Alleine schon deswegen war die Konstellation des NHK-Orchesters mit Bruckners Siebenter Symphonie im Konzerthaus von besonderem Interesse - und auf doppelte Weise ein Heimspiel im Ausland.... [weiterlesen]


Anna Netrebko: Schönklang und Eheglück: Latest @ Wiener Zeitung

Wiener Zeitung

Anna Netrebko: Schönklang und Eheglück

Der Opernstar begeisterte im Konzerthaus, Gatte Yusif Eyvazov sang auch mit.

Bei bis zu 400 Euro pro Karte für die Anna-Netrebko-Show im Wiener Konzerthaus fallen zehn Euro für die Selbstdarstellungshochglanzbroschüre - vulgo Programmheft - wohl nicht mehr ins Gewicht. Dafür gibt es zwar keine Texte der gesungenen Verdi- und Puccini-Arien, aber großformatige Fotos von ihr, ihrem Mann Yusif Eyvazov, vom glücklichen Pärchen. Auf die Sozialmedienkanäle wird mitteldezent hingewiesen.... [weiterlesen]


George Benjamins Oper "Written on Skin" im Wiener Konzerthaus: Latest @ Wiener Zeitung

Wiener Zeitung

Mord und Lust, karg vertont

George Benjamins Oper "Written on Skin" im Wiener Konzerthaus.

George Benjamins "Written on Skin", eine der erfolgreichsten Opern des jungen Jahrhunderts, ist keineswegs schmeichelnde oder gar leichte Kost. Inhaltlich zwischen "Frau ohne Schatten" (Anerkennung der Frau als Individuum durch Konflikt-Zuspitzung) und "Titus Andronicus" (kulinarische Feindverwertung), fällt die Oper musikalisch "Elektra"-gleich mit der Tür ins Haus. "Blaubarts Burg" kommt in den Sinn und "Peter Grimes". Benjamins Lehrer Messiaen ist bestenfalls in der transparent-exotisch gehaltenen Klanggestaltung zu erahnen.... [weiterlesen]


American Ballet Theater's Gothic 'Giselle'

Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in Giselle. Photo: Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theater returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week with a Giselle heavy on the supernatural side of this classic work. The Wilis, the angry spirits of jilted maidens, should inspire fear, something that many productions miss in their fluffy, white softness. The ABT Giselle, the Coralli-Perrot-Petipa choreography staged by Kevin McKenzie, definitely hit its stride in the ghostly second act.

Other Articles:

Sarah L. Kaufman, A ‘Giselle’ that whirls with unusual lyricism (Washington Post, February 12)

---, Ballet dancers have weird and quirky pre-show rituals that would put any sports star to shame (Washington Post, February 6)

Carolyn Kelemen, Former Howard County ballerina is back at the Kennedy Center, this time as a soloist in ‘Giselle’ (Baltimore Sun, February 12)

Gia Kourlas, Skylar Brandt: A Ballerina Invests in Herself (New York Times, February 6)
The company brought back the beautifully matched pairing of Hee Seo and Corey Stearns, who were so heart-breaking together in their Swan Lake in 2017. Seo had an ideal combination of characterizations for the role: pert yet shy as the lovestruck girl, unraveled and distraught when she learns that the lover who has stolen her heart is already engaged to another, and wispy as vapor as the cursed spirit. Besides the finely tuned dramatic sense, Seo's infallible technique put her among the finest Giselles seen here in the last decade, including EunWon Lee, Svetlana Zakharova, Aurélie Dupont, and -- still at the top -- Diana Vishneva.

Stearns was no less accomplished in either regard, his strong body lifting Seo effortless and forming beautifully delineated lines. The score, performed with panache by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, has rarely sounded this good, made more lush and polished in the orchestration by John Lanchbery, who died in 2003. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins, who did not seem in his element conducting a much more complex Strauss score in Whipped Cream in 2018, shaped each halting phrase of the love music with exquisite sensitivity, helping to make the Act II pas de deux so moving. At its climax, when Stearns held Seo perfectly still above him in effortless lifts, it was as if she floated above him in the spirit world, only temporarily visible to him.

The set design helped create the forbidding sense of a forest haunted by spirits, with lightning flashes behind a large hollow tree (scenery by Gianni Quaranta and lighting by Jennifer Tipton). It was the severe Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, of the tall and somewhat icy Devon Teuscher that brought out the harshness of the scene. The edge of her movements and sharp face seemed to inform the cold precision of ABT's well-drilled corps, all clad in the traditional white (costumes by Anna Anni). One could only feel sorry at the fate of Hilarion (the proud, defiant Roman Zhurbin) as he faced the implacable wall of these vengeful spirits.

Giselle runs through February 16 in the Kennedy Center Opera House, with different casts and conductors.


"Tosca" an der Staatsoper: Staub und Stimme: Latest @ Wiener Zeitung

Wiener Zeitung

"Tosca" an der Staatsoper: Staub und Stimme

Die Wallmann-"Tosca" zum 616. Mal an der Staatsoper.

Nach einer von Dominique Meyer angeführten Schweigeminute für die jüngst verstorbene Sopranistin Mirella Freni ging es unter dem Dirigat von Marco Armiliato schwungvoll in die 616. (!) Aufführung von Margarethe Wallmanns Einrichtung der "Tosca" aus dem Jahr 1958. Die Kulissen wackeln und die Kostüme stauben in der liebgewonnenen Inszenierung, die schon lange nur noch den harmlos-konventionellen Bilderrahmen zum Gesang bietet. Das "Tosca"-Publikum will weiße Perücken, hübsche Kostüme, Sant’Andrea della Valle Interieurs, und Kerzen um den Leichnam Scarpias. Und sie bekommen es. Absetzen und etwas Neues machen wäre teuer und würde nur Ärger bringen.... [weiterlesen]


Mirella Freni (1935-2020)

The news of the death of beloved Italian soprano Mirella Freni reached my desk just now. In paradisum deducant te angeli...

In some ways La Freni is responsible for my obsession with opera. In 1990, as a young music major from Michigan, I drove with a friend on my first ever trip to New York City during spring break. We stayed with his father in Brooklyn and spent the week taking in as much of the culture of the big city as we could. One morning I showed up at the Metropolitan Opera box office, hoping to buy a ticket for that day's performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

The employee at the box office took one look at me and said the balconies were all sold out. What if price were not an issue, I asked, thinking of the credit card my parents had sent with me on the trip. He plopped down a fancy-looking ticket for a seat in a box, and I bought it. After all, Des Grieux bankrupted himself and ended up in debtor's prison, all for love of the frivolous Manon. What is money for, except to procure pleasures? I would not have to worry about paying off the cost until I got back to Michigan, and I didn't.

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Puccini, Manon Lescaut, M. Freni, P. Domingo, Philharmonia Orchestra, G. Sinopoli
As you may have guessed, Mirella Freni was starring in this production. The reviewer for the New York Times later wrote that she was by far the best part of the show, which is how I recall it. I sat in the box, treated very nicely by the mostly Italian family occupying it. I could not only hear every nuance of La Freni's voice, I could see the sweat rolling down her face. I had seen operas staged in Michigan, but nothing on the scale of what I saw on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera that day.

As it turned out, I had caught the tail end of a glorious career, and this was (I think) the only production of Manon Lescaut that La Freni sang at the Met. It was the perfect combination to create a lifelong devotion to opera. The friend I went to New York with was a tenor, and being his accompanist in high school was how I first got hooked on opera. I had gotten to know Manon Lescaut by listening to a recording with none other than Mirella Freni. I could not believe that the voice I had heard through my headphones was now coming out of the person in front of me on that stage. I was starstruck. The word Diva was invented because of reactions like the one I had that day at the Met. I left the theater on a cloud.

Although I listened to La Freni's recordings somewhat obsessively over the years since then, I saw her on the stage only once more. It was what turned out to be her final production, Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans, mounted just for her by Washington National Opera in 2005. She was 70 years old, and she was still fairly sensational. Three decades and a mountain of operas viewed since then, my first will always be Mirella Freni. May light eternal shine upon her.


Mauer Silvester-Beethoven. Die Neunte mit den Wiener Symphonikern: Latest @ Wiener Zeitung

Wiener Zeitung

Mauer Silvester-Beethoven

Die Neunte mit den Wiener Symphonikern.

Alle Jahre wieder. "Dinner For One" vor dem Fernseher, "Fledermaus" in der Oper, oder Beethovens "Neunte" im Konzerthaus: Das gutbürgerliche Wiener Traditionstriumvirat bevor es korkenknallend und raketenbestaunend in die Silvesternacht geht. Mag mancher mangelnde Abwechslung bemängeln, Tradition hat Wert an sich und verbindet. Nur gut gespielt und gesungen sollte es - in diesem Fall die Beethoven Neunte der Wiener Symphoniker - schon sein. War es leider nicht und darüber konnte der besondere Anlass nur bedingt hinweghelfen.... [weiterlesen]