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


Happy 56th Birthday, Rossini

Fifty-six 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:


ABT returns to the Kennedy Center with "Swan Lake"

Daniel Camargo and Isabella Boylston in Swan Lake with American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

American Ballet Theatre brought its gorgeous version of Swan Lake back to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week. Last presented here in 2017, when it also sold out, Kevin McKenzie's choreography has not not been substantially altered in the Susan Jaffe. The only thing that stood out was in the introductory scene, which took place behind a scrim, when the evil antagonist, von Rothbart, seduced Odile. This bit of filling in the back story, during the otherwise unrelated orchestral introduction, is on its own merits a bad idea. Having the villain emerge from the cave, where he has taken the young woman, pretend wrestling with a stuffed swan added an unneeded note of absurdity.

Fortunately, most of the other elements of the ballet were in good hands. Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer since 2014, brought experience and subtlety to the leading role. Her Odette, the fragile white swan, was strikingly less human, more wild animal than woman in many ways. The swoops of her head in the tragic pas de deux of Act II, with gorgeous violin and cello solos from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, seemed a little stiff and unnatural. She was much more striking in Act III, flashy and seductive as Odile, the supposed daughter of von Rothbart who tricks Prince Siegfried into betraying Odette. Her sequence of thirty-some fouetté turns was impressively virtuosic.

The triumph of the evening went to Daniel Camargo, the Brazilian dancer who joined ABT as a guest artist in the 2021-2022 season. (Alexei Ratmansky had worked with Camargo at Dutch National Ballet, a connection that led him to approach Camargo about coming to New York when ABT had some injuries to deal with.) Named a principal dancer in the summer of 2022, he was something to behold as Prince Siegfried: an athletic presence with amazing vertical lift in his leaps, and a steady, upright axis in spins. This role is in many ways the dramatic focus of this ballet, and Camargo's emotional range was worthy of the spotlight.

The ABT corps continues to impress with the improved unity of its movements, particularly the women as the flock of swans, crisply coordinated and elegant in style. The men, featured in the divertissements, were uniformly strong as well, with an energetic turn by young dancers Jake Roxander and Takumi Miyaki in the Neapolitan dance of Act III. McKenzie's decision to split the character of von Rothbart into two personas remains as ill advised as before, with the monster version, rather cartoonish and silly, undermining the character's menace. Jose Sebastian's sebaceous performance as the human von Rothbart was way over the top: he seduced every woman on the stage, even Siegfried's mother along with all four princesses, and then leapt playfully onto Siegfried's throne. One may or may not need comic diversion in a ballet like Swan Lake, but there it was.

Swan Lake runs through February 25.


Critic’s Notebook: Anderszewski Recital, Musikverein

Also reviewed for Die Presse: Piotr Anderszewski: Chopin-Mazurkas verwandeln sich bei ihm in Muränen

A Masterclass in Relaxation and Rubato: Piotr Anderszewski at the Musikverein

available at Amazon
K.Szymanowski, B.Bartók, L.Janáček,
Mazurkas Op. 50, 14 Bagatelles etc.
Piotr Anderszewski

Piotr Anderszweski was only the replacement, at his piano recital at Vienna’s Musikverein: Maria João Pires had been scheduled to perform but had to cancel. Not a shabby replacement. Few patrons in the well-filled Golden Hall could have complained beforehand; fewer still afterwards. For one, it’s nice that he isn’t a piano-bench dancer, who tries to tell you with his contortions how you are supposed to feel about the music, rather than making you feel that way through how he plays. He’s got a steady hand at the wheel, and wields a (surprisingly) wild rubato with it, which turned the three Chopin Mazurkas op.59 into relaxed Nocturnes that would, every so often, suddenly, rear their head, and shoot forward like a moray eel aiming for the unsuspecting diver’s naked toe. At those moments, when, after stealing so much time in some places, he had to give it all back at the end of a phrase, the notes became pushed together to the point of cluster chords. Five (out of 20) of Szymanowski’s Mazurkas op.50 varied between relaxed and disembodied, almost indifferent on the one hand (metaphorically, not literally), and lively and besotted with tonal color on the other.

Bartók’s 14 Bagatelles, op.6, are little character pieces that come in all shapes and colors, with cathedral-like grandness one second, prickly little will-o’-the-wisps the next, tickling the ears, turning in the wind this way, then that, and adding a share of lovelorn bitterness. Anderszewski made them come alive, just moving his fingers, entirely unfazed. Where the opening E minor Bach Partita BWV 830 had been so flexible, it had into something intriguing yet almost worryingly romantic, the concluding B major Partita BWV 825, was exalted and sublime, with a steady pulse and forward momentum, very lively (Courante), then exuding celestial peace (Sarabande), a tinkling of bells (Menuet), and dashing, compelling in the concluding Gigue. Bach and Bartók as encores, too, and especially the latter’s Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csík shone in coy, playful light, sounded almost like Mompou.


Music – It Has To Become Part of Me – An Interview with Piotr Anderszewski

This interview was conducted in 2011 in Salzburg and initially appeared as part of the long-defunct and deleted Classical WETA blog. I have rescucitated it now, to go with a Critic's Notebook review of a recital of Piotr Anderszewski's at the Musikverein.

Piano troubles? Piotr Anderszewski is preparing in the Mozarteum his concert later that night and is interrupted not just by me—late for my interview, coming from another interview and having gotten the time wrong—but by technicians that need to move the piano he had been playing on to another room. He near-imperceptibly rolls his eyes to an equally faint smile and sits down for a quick chat. Being late already, I lose no time: Are you a pianist or a musician?

P.A.: Hmhmmmmmmmmm. He takes a short while to take the question in, assess its treachery, and then continues quickly, almost as if in free verse: More musician than pianist / but even musician / I’m not sure / if I’m a musician… / Pianist / definitely not.

Did you start out with the piano?

P.A.: Yes. Well, I started composing a little bit, actually.

Before you took up the piano?

P.A.: Well, together with the piano. But I was more interested in the composition part and listening to music than I was actually fascinated by the instrument itself. It never really interested very much.

But it’s the way you can express yourself best in music, so that’s why you do it?

P.A.: Ahhhhhh, I guess yes… and it’s the most complete instrument, the most, maybe complex, in a way… and also the repertoire, you know, is so amazing and I think I would feel very frustrated on any other instrument.

Where you ever fascinated by the idea of playing the organ?

P.A.: I played the organ a little bit, yeah…” he says with distinct lack of enthusiasm… “yeah… uhh…” he winds down to a faint grunt before hitting upon a new thought and continues with unexpected vigor: “What I liked about the organ is the setting, the beautiful church, and there is this huge echo, and this whole atmosphere and this I like very much. But the piano has this incredible capacity of suggesting, you know. It can suggest singing—which is astonishing for a percussive instrument. It is an instrument about giving the illusion. And it’s truly a magical instrument. And I mean in a bad sense, as well. It’s a dangerous instrument, because it’s not real. The piano, if you look at the mechanism, at how it works… how to activate the whole mechanism just in order to produce the sound: it’s complex but extremely easy compared to, for example, the violin. Just extremely easy, you know. But then there’s everything that happens between the notes. How do you balance the chords? How do you space notes? It’s very, very… it’s a very mysterious instrument, I think. Why, for example, does one pianist play one note and another plays the same note and it sounds completely, completely different. Despite this mechanism where you’d think you would have very little impact on the outcome. But, in fact you, have a huge impact.

How do you satisfy your own desire for a certain sound?

P.A.: It’s of course linked to the music I play. For me, for example, when I work, when I practice, I always practice with the instrument. When you asked the first question, ‘are you a pianist’… frankly, I didn’t know what to say because in a way, yes, I am. I know some colleagues who study scores and they study it on the train or in the plane and they can really study their piece without actually touching the instrument, without actually activating the sound.

[He gets distracted for a moment by the worry that there is milk in the tea that is approaching—but there is not.]

For me, practicing the score doesn’t make any sense. I cannot—I tried… but for me it’s the score and immediately I have to hear it… it has to be both. I cannot practice on the piano without the score, either. For me it doesn’t work to practice the piano without looking at what I am playing in terms of the score.


P.A.: He squirms a bit: Ahyhhhww I don’t know, I need to have this connection of both, of what is written… Now I’m speaking not as an improviser or composer but an interpreter of a certain piece. I need to be in touch with the text, always.

Do you use the music when you play?

P.A.: No. Not during the concert.

Would you like to, if the audience didn’t care?

P.A.: No. I prefer not to use it. The performance is something else, you try to forget… try to forget everything, it’s a state of amnesia of sorts, in the best sense. The more I forget, the better I play.

So you distill the enormous complexities of a score into an impression which you then interpret?

P.A.: Yes… I suppose. Yes. It’s… there has to be the visual contact, somehow. It’s what the composer left us, so there needs to be this material contact. At the end of the day that’s all we’ve got. Of course we have biographies and we know about a composers’ life, more or less, but then practically what we are left with is the manuscript. Or a good edition, at least. And then that’s like a—how to say—it’s just like a drawing. Like a code that you need to decrypt. That you need to translate, actually properly translate, into the world of sounds. So I need to look at while I am translating, while I am doing the work, while I am deciding… I need to see this and be in touch with this text, even though I know it by heart, of course. For me, memorizing is not such an issue… the work really only starts when actually the music is memorized.

Are there any contemporary composer you particularly cherish, either to listen to or to play or both…

P.A.: Hmmm… not really. Honestly, somehow in the last years I haven’t explored this at all, you know. And, frankly, I don’t know why.

But you must be approached by composers?

P.A.: I’ve been approached, people send me scores… but I just feel saturated with all these possibilities… there’s so much already in the classical repertoire I feel I need to do and taking one small piece, taking a Chopin Mazurka, for example, it’s sometimes months of practice for me. I learn rather slowly and deciding to commit to a piece to learn a piece is a big decision for me because I know I will spend months and probably years with this. It’s sort of, well, it’s not a marriage, but almost. I internalize it, somehow—it has to become part of me. So it’s a very, very intimate process; basically a decision about who I let into my life. I don’t know why I am like this. I see other colleagues of mine that have a much lighter approach: ‘Well, it’s just a piece of music and you try to do it as well as you can.’ And for me, it really seems to affect me very personally and very deeply. Every piece has to become myself, somehow, otherwise I just cannot interpret a piece if I don’t have this feeling.

Is there a Liszt-piece you have ever internalized?

P.A.: No… Never. Not a composer that speaks to me, particularly. But maybe… you never know, these things change.

Photo #2 © K.Miura (2007)


Dip Your Ears: No. 274 (Songs of Morning; Piotr Anderszewski’s Schumann)

available at Amazon
Piano Music
Piotr Anderszewski
Virgin/Warner, 2011

The delightful unfunniness of Robert Schumann

Piotr Anderszewski’s 2011 album of Schumann for Virgin (now part of Warner) had me from the very first notes. That’s, granted, never solely down to the performance at hand: It’s partly a matter of mood, a combination of intangibles and good fortune to have one of those moments where with the first chord you are transfixed with a smile and listen to a whole album without your thoughts ever straying. But Anderszewski’s opening of the first “Einfach” in the 1839 Humoreske op.20 did just that. The Humoreske is not only not a funny work (not that we’d necessarily expect that from Schumann, despite the work’s title), it is one of the more contemplative and wistful pieces, even for Schumann. (A least among the earlier works of Schumann, who tends to get darker and more delicious with age.) But even more telling than the gloomy disposition are the turn-on-a-dime mood-swings, the restlessness and how, without warning, it may turn to the lyrically waxing and back again. Not the among the ‘greatest hits’ of Schumann’s piano output, this is still the most conventional Schumann on this disc.

It then gets only better by the inclusion of two considerably lesser played works—the “Canonic Études for Pedal Piano”, which Anderszewski transcribed himself for solo piano, and the late, 1853 Gesänge der Frühe (“Songs of Morning”). Debussy loved the Études and wanted to rescue them from obscurity after the pedal piano—really just a device of practicing organ pedaling at one’s grand piano at home—went out of fashion and hence transcribed it for two pianos. Asked about whether he knew of, or had looked at, the Debussy transcription before transcribing it himself Anderszewski replied nicely to the point: “Yes… I heard the Debussy transcription. Don't like it at all. But very keen on transcriptions in general...” It shows. While I don’t share Mr. Anderszewski’s distaste for the Debussy transcription (recorded to wonderful effect by Tzimon Barto & Christoph Eschenbach), I adore this lighter, nimbler transcription just as much—just as I do appreciate the contrast that his quicker tempi bring to the work and which ‘infuses the stringency of Bach with all the romantic essence of Echt-Schumann.

The “Songs of Morning”, just about as devastating and torn as the “Ghost Variations” (his last lucid composition), are Schumann’s second to last work for piano. The calm opening seems to plunge deeper into the soul of their composer than even the most brazenly emotional of Schumann’s preceding works. This, along with other late works, was once derided as ‘showing the ensuing madness’ (a few months later Schumann jumped into the Rhine from whereon his life trailed sadly toward its end at the Endenich asylum). The work is filled with the desperate to embrace ‘everything and al’l—or at last Anderszewski’s interpretation is. And for as long as I listen, it makes this dark and bleak delight, not the flitting Schumann of the Papillions or Arabesque, the most satisfying, most beautiful Schumann to listen to. It is difficult to come up with a pianist better suited than Anderszewski to make that point.


Critic’s Notebook: Of Bruckner and Scaffolds with the Vienna Symphony

Also reviewed for Die Presse: Gotteslob und Fallbeil: Constantinos Carydis setzt im Konzerthaus auf Kontrast

Great Contrasts and Constantinos Carydis' missing bells of brass

On paper, the program didn’t look all that promising. In one half Anton Bruckner’s tricky Te Deum – too short to be the main ingredient, too large – full orchestra, choir, four soloists, organist – not to be. In the other Berlioz’ “me-me-me”, secular-as-can-be Symphonie fantastique. A smidgen of Arvo Pärt (Psalom) before the former, a soupçon of obscure Bruckner (Perger Präludium) before the latter. It was on Constantinos Carydis and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra to show that this somehow worked in concert. And so he did.

Thunderously bombastic Te Deum

Psalom for strings and chorus, which featured tenacious, sinewy string playing from the first desks and appears to be quietly working to a climax long in the coming (it never comes), led directly into the opening of the Te Deum which hit like a thundercloud. Chorus and timpani hammered away with such fury and pitch-black basses from Vienna’s Singakademie, that many a Verdi Requiem couldn’t have measured up against it. That’s how to work that piece, which doesn’t respond that great to too much nuance. With sheer granitic power, however, it stood there like an unquestionable monolith. Soprano Louise Adler sailed above the Vienna Symphony’s raucous contribution. Alto Sophie Harmsen was almost too elegant in this context, but her part is limited, which is why the Te Deum is one of the best checks for a mezzo per note. The bass rumbled, in its way more suitably, through the music; the tenor sounded strained and uneven – but it didn’t really matter, amid the glorious, sulfuric performance.

For Whom the Bells Toll

Where Psalom is a simplistic piece of haunting charm that worked well as a prelude to the Te Deum, Bruckner’s Perger Präludium, is as short as it is banal, and does little to prepare for Berlioz – but it’s a check mark on your Bruckner-2024 bingo card and the organist was already in the house. Perhaps the C major was meant to pivot nicely into the C minor of “Rêveries, Passions“. The latter, however, was an auspicious, terrific start into the Berlioz, as finely nuanced, elegant, and effervescent as the Bruckner was monumental, while still probing the whole dynamic bandwidth of the orchestra. But there’s also no performance I have ever heard of this work that can fully exorcise the work’s narcissism or the lacunae of the pastoral third movement, after which a cannonade of coughs revealed the fading powers of concentration. The wonderfully terse brass interjections and bone-dry timpani explosions in the “March to the scaffold” dispelled this in no time, though.

The only real disappointment were the bells. Not tubular bells, thankfully, but still, the big bell in G sounded like a glorified dinner gong; more amusing than frightening and decidedly not like something emanating from Saint-Sulpice as heard through the windows of an opium smoker. The bell in C (still too high to sound realistic, even if thought was a real cast bell) was penetrating, loud, and direct, as both were placed on the balcony behind the orchestra. Only the second high bell that was employed, from above and behind the audience, gave a nice spatial dimension to the sound and at least hinted at sounding from an indeterminable location. Maybe for its next birthday, the orchestra could wish for a bigger pair of bells of brass.

Photo © Vienna Symphony


Critic’s Notebook: Foerster’s Nightingale of Gorenjska

Also reviewed for Die Presse: Habsburger Melange an der Grazer Oper: „Die Nachtigall von Gorenjska“

Charming, lovely, adorably old-fashioned, well-played, soundly directed, and slightly forgettable: Slovenia's 'national opera'received its belated Austrian premiere.

The music sounds like the theaters and opera houses of the firm Fellner & Helmer, which are dotted all around the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, look: You don’t necessarily know which one you are standing in front of, but you are reminded of a whole lot and feel, for all the minor differences, at home. A Habsburg mélange. That’s Anton Foerster’s opera The Nightingale of Gorenjska, which was given its Austrian premiere last week at the opera house (a Fellner & Helmer building, naturally) in Graz. This Upper Carniolan thrush, initially composed as an operetta in 1872 and then turned into an opera at the end of the century, is sold as Slovenia’s national opera.
It's a pleasant enough work, by all means, and good, easy light fun, from the bubbly overture onward. We’re dealing, subject-wise, with Minka (Sieglinde Feldhofer), who has the loveliest voice in the entire North-Eastern Slovenian valley. A French impresario (Markus Butter) happens to overhear her (just the voice, at first, to stretch out the plot) and wants to sign her up. Butter had this Jean Mathieu Chansonette character down pat, from head to toe and back to the horn-rimmed glasses, with the ease of a seasoned actor. Minka had been enticed to let her voice flow because her fiancé Franjo (Roman Pichler) had just returned from his little sojourn abroad. But now she’s got the prospect of a career and good money dangled before her (much needed to subsidize mother’s loss-making farm) and briefly develops a proto-feminist attitude (“If I want it, I get to do it!”). She wants her fame, or at least try. This, naturally, makes the whole village cringe, and Franjo and the boys set out to prevent it. After all, if you truly love someone, you make sure to hold them back in the dank little valley lest they get airs. They arrange for a kangaroo trial of the Frenchman to scare him and his foreign ways away. Chansonette duly leaves, but not without letting Minka keep the downpayment (not that this adequately addresses the presumably structurally unsound economic underpinnings of her homestead), gets a gift basket from the happy villages, after all, and voilà, a happy end à la 1872. No woman is happier than when she gets the fulfillment of being a wife and a mother. Aside, he’s already seen the world for her. In the production’s defense, they squeak in an ambiguous note, here and there, and the whole farce shouldn’t be taken too seriously to begin with. It’s just easy to poke fun at it.

It's tough business for a soprano to play one on stage – where she is constantly hailed for her glorious voice and that high A, in particular. Especially when that high A isn’t all that secure and much of the delivery is on the verge of being strained, despite commendable efforts on Feldhofer’s part. In that sense, Roman Pichler had it rather easier, playing a provincial wannabe tenor who wants that career himself but hasn’t what it takes to interest Mr. Chansonette. This, Pichler did well, without hesitation and gusto.

The music, niftily performed by Marko Hribernik and the Graz Philharmonic, has a little harmless kick and remains in the general sphere of (lots of) Bedřich Smetana (who was Foerster’s teacher), Franz von Suppé, and Oskar Strauss. It’s chock-full of Slovenian folk songs, some of which reputedly stem from the opera itself, and many which sound like Foerster poured out a bucket of folk hits over the fourth-act finale. Just before this folksy carousing, there’s a chorus of an Ave Maria – Foerster appeared to be feeling his inner Puccini here – that sounds as if plopped into the set from a helicopter above. If that wasn’t one of the pieces meant to make it more serious so that it may graduate to “opera”, I’ll eat my shorts. Janusz Kica’s production struck a fine balance between folk-nostalgia and modernity, traditional costumes and a clean, abstract stage, avoiding kitsch to an extent this opera might never have before. Little will remain in the memory down the road, but nothing hurt on this very reasonably diverting evening. A recording of the performance(s) will be released in the near future on the CPO - Classic Produktion Osnabrück label. P.S. To prepare for this performance, I went to my shelves and pulled off all my music by Foerster. I was twice through the piano trios, some of the piano music, and the five outrageously good string quartets, before I realized: Josef Bohuslav Foerster ≠ Anton Foerster. Uh well, close enough, if not musically. (Anton is J.B.'s uncle.)

Photo © Oper Graz, Werner Kmetitsch. Sieglinde Feldhofer (Minka)


Critic’s Notebook: Kill Tosca! (Or Don’t)

Also reviewed for Die Presse: „Tosca“ in der Staatsoper: Scarpia als stiller Sieger

The production of Vienna's Tosca is so old, Joe Biden considered it for his running mate. Should the Staatsoper elect to keep it?

Tosca, oh Tosca. Very possibly the most singularly annoying character in opera, to the point where one wonders, if Puccini had meant to create the caricature of a soprano after an unpleasant experience or 99. In Vienna, on February 2nd, Tosca was allowed to roam free on the set of Margarethe Wallmann’s production again, for the 647th (!) time. The production must be one of the longest running at any major opera house, beating even the (long-retired) classic Franco Zeffirelli “Callas” Tosca at Covent Garden, six years younger, by 20 years… and it is still going strong. If you have been to Vienna’s Staatsoper for the first time at the age of 14, you’d have to be at least 80 years old to have seen Tosca in a different direction.

available at Amazon
Tosca (1953)
Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi, De Sabata
L'Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala

available at Amazon
Tosca (1953)
Price, Di Stefano, Taddei, Karajan
Vienna Phil

And yes, the sets look musty, in olive-greens and brown grays. The costumes look like they smell of naphthalene, all liveries and powdered Mozart-wigs. And yet, if the Staatsoper were to replace it with a newfangled work that detractors derisively (usually ignorantly) call “Regietheater”, you’d probably have a minor revolt on your hands on the Ring Road. It’s a museum piece, a production as much about the work as it is about how productions used to look, historical more than historic. Not my cup of tea, granted, but popular and very, very rarely not sold out. After I had, in more tempered form, suggested as much in my most recent review (for Die Presse), I got a letter to the editor, a fairly courteous one, actually, begging to differ and pointing out much of the above-cited success of the Wallmann-Tosca and that it served perfectly well to let the work be presented “as intended by its creators”. The letter served as a fine reminder that for all my moaning of old-fashioned productions being inherently incapable of conveying any original intentions from a 100+ years ago, and that only ‘translations’ into a modern visual, dramatic language stand a chance at truly getting to the core of any message a given opera might contain, these productions have a place. They are safe, they ‘work’. They are what opera means to many opera-goers.

Value in Safety

Yes, a modern-yet-conservative production – which is to say one that stays true to the message (that being the conservative part) but relates that message intuitively to a contemporary audience’s reality – can do so much more. If well done, an old Chrysler Saratoga in, say, Don Giovanni or the German Parliament in Parsifal or neon signs and a leotard in La Calisto not only do not detract, they can be essential elements of revelatory nights out at the opera. But while it’s easy for critics and those, like me, who have been pretending to be one for over 20 years, to proclaim our willingness to take the risk of 10 middling, awful, forgettable modern productions only to see one truly glorious one, that’s not as attractive a proposition for those who actually pay for their tickets, especially if they’ve just forked over €264 for two seats. There’s value in safety. Especially if your primary concern is to enjoy the music – and, on this occasion, hear Elena Stikhina, Piotr Beczała (Mario), and Erwin Schrott (Scarpia). Well, mostly Beczała, probably, because he’s a glorious singer, sonorous, comfortable, with a nice dynamic bandwidth, and very decent, if not brilliant acting. In that case, the setting, without offering any distractions, is (and was) perfect to sing your “E lucevan le stelle” to the crowd and repeat it, after the minute-long applause forces you to. Mme. Stikhina was a fine vocal, sumptuous, velvety Tosca, unwittingly betraying and backstabbing Mario all the way (and, of course, front-stabbing Scarpia) until her final date with gravity.

A Quiet Scarpia for the win

Ah, Scarpia! Erwin Schrott used to be the hot ticket as Don Giovanni et al. Mister Netrebko, but actually good. A voice of manly seduction in a broad-shouldered, irrepressibly sexy package who elevated his characters to new heights of appeal; an outlet for projected desires in a time where Dorian Gray hadn’t arrived yet. (Also an irresistibly vivid Leporello in the above-linked Salzburg Don Giovanni.) And then he seemingly disappeared. At least he sang less prominent parts in less prominent houses, which meant that I had heard him for the first time since that 2010 experience of perfection. Yes, the voice is, while not gone, two sizes smaller. It does not, however, sound frail or painfully pushed (à la post-vocal-problems Villazon). It’s just not as loud. While that meant that he couldn’t get above the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, in one of their climactic outbursts, it also meant an unexpected dramatic boon. For starters, he is still the broad-shouldered, in-shape hunk, the kind that Anthony Tommasini would have invariably called “strapping” and who actually made his silly costume and wig look good. That’s a dramatic must, if Scarpia is to be the serious, sexually threatening force he is meant to be, and not just a meanie Falstaff. In that sense, mere physique does wonders to the character in the way that a Günter Groissböck has transformed Ochs, or Georg Zeppenfeld King Marke. But singing quietly, involuntary or not, had the added benefit of making Scarpia truly threatening. A quiet villain is ever so effective. A brutish loud one merely banal. Being able to act helped, too. And in that sense, he might just have been the quiet highlight of the evening – for me, anyway.

Not quiet but in good shape was the orchestra under Bertrand de Billy, who conducted this Tosca for a second run and knows the orchestra well. The band was reasonably explosive, above-average sensitive, surprisingly on point, and downright sensitive, especially the cellos. And the nifty forward thrust Billy created, meant that the whole thing moved more fleetly towards its inevitable end and subsequent elations. If I don’t witness a different Viennese Tosca in my lifetime… who knows: Maybe it’s not such a terrible thing.

Photo © Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn. Erwin Schrott (Scarpia), Elena Stikhina (Tosca)


Dip Your Ears: No. 273 (Rameau’s Glorious Temple)

available at Amazon
Le Temple de la Gloire (1745)
Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, Soloists
PhilharmoniaBP, 2018

Neglected but fun, this is Rameau for the whole family!

In 2018, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, led by early music expert Nicholas McGegan out of Berkeley, put on Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera-ballet Le Temple de la Gloire (to Voltaire’s text) which you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that it is surrounded by editorial controversy: To play the moralist original 1745 version or the revised-for-entertainment 1746 version, that is apparently the editor’s question. It’s the former, here, but even French baroque-opera aficionados might not care particularly, given the amount of topsy-turvy musical gayety – some of his very best – that this Rameau work contains. The Californian forces give it a lively, very live (literally; lots of applause) reading: Light, over-the-top fun. Careful: the thick, informative booklet, not affixed to the digipack, will plonk on your feet upon opening the 2-CD set. The (only?!) available rival recording is on Ricercar, with Guy van Waas; Jean-Claude Malgoire’s pioneering recording hasn’t made the jump to the digital age.


Dip Your Ears: No. 272 (La Clemenza di Rolando Villazon)

available at Amazon
La Clemenza di Tito
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe Joyce DiDonato, Tara Erraught, Regina Mühlemann, Adam Plachetka, Marina Rebeka, Rolando Villazon
DG, 2018

The Nézet-Séguin Mozart opera project was doomed from the start.

It’d be easy to blame Deutsche Grammophon for having insisted on making their Nézet-Séguin Mozart operas a vehicle for Rolando Villazon, as a case-book study of marketing over musical sense. But these Baden-Baden performances were Villazon’s project and DG was stuck with their biggest star being the crassly weakest link—whether they care or not. It’s been rough-going with the releases so far (Don Giovanni fared best, the Entführungreview on Forbes – was pretty bad) and this La Clemenza di Tito is no better. After Villazon’s comeback from his vocal crisis, Mozart made sense. Except he still pushes it like French high-romanticism. Now the voice sounds strained, rudderless, devoid of nuance, ill at ease. The good-to-great supporting cast (Joyce DiDonato!) can’t salvage this, and neither can Nézet-Séguin’s splendid, traditional-but-energetic conducting of the responsive Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Shame.


Critic’s Notebook: "Gran Toccata" Receives its Belated Premiere in Vienna

Also reviewed for DiePresse: So entsteht ein „moderner Klassiker“

Dieter Ammann's Piano Concerto has unrelenting bite, but also what it takes to become a modern audience favorite.

Five years after it was meant to have been given its world premiere in Vienna, Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto Gran Toccata was finally given its first Austrian outing courtesy of the co-commissioning team of Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna’s Konzerthaus, last Tuesday. In the intermittent years, the concerto has made its way through the world’s concert halls, gotten a recording, and become something of a trademark work for its soloist, Andreas Haefliger, to perform. If anything might keep this work from becoming a modern classic, it’s perhaps the fiendishly difficult solo part that brought Haefliger – perhaps – to the brink of regretting ever having beseeched Ammann to write one in the first place.

available at Amazon
Piano Concerto: Gran Toccata
Andreas Haefliger, Susanna Mälkki,
Helsinki Philharmonic
BIS Records

Conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra was Susanna Mälkki, who is a also veteran of this concerto by now, who appears to have conducted every performance, except for the premiere at the BBC Proms, in 2019, including performances in Munich which I reviewed here. Toc-toc-toc: Like woodpecker and echo, Haefliger pecks at the piano to open the work, for the orchestra to respond in kind. The stage is set for a concerto that reminds us, that the piano is (also) a percussive instrument. In keeping with that percussive strain, the orchestral apparatus crackles and rustles like a mouth full of pop rocks. Lyrical beams of sunlight hit the general tumult at various points, daubing surprisingly lyrical patches onto the turbulent musical canvas. There’s no letting up for the soloist, nor for orchestra, except the former’s three extended cadenzas. A brass chorale makes the ears perk. Ditto a duet between piano and marimba. Sometimes it appears as if Haefliger was playing the orchestra as an extension, at times as if the orchestra was subsuming the soloist. There is an in and out of prominence, rather than a back and forth.

It’s a truism, that not the premiere of a work is the important event, but its tenth, fiftieth performance. It reveals different aspects of a work, enables a composition to come into its own, to grow up, even to slip away from its creator’s grasp. Not yet quite from Dieter Ammann’s, who was present and made sure that balances were more to his liking on the second night, but even with balances less to his liking, the performance sounded mightily impressive. At the German premiere, it had still made a much brasher, harsher, hyper-virtuosic impression. In Vienna, perhaps in part due to the increased aplomb of the performing protagonists, it sounded kinder, more colorful, warmer. There will be more opportunities, surely, to hear how it might adapt as it ages in future performances, the world over.

The Schubert Ninth Symphony – announced in central European musicologist fashion as the Eight – was an afterthought. It was performed well enough, a bit on the brash side, with an attempt on fleetness that didn’t quite take, and it couldn’t get out of the shadow of the concerto that had preceded it. If I could have had my way, I would have wanted to hear a Paris Symphony, instead, and before Gran Toccata, not afterward… and intermission-escapees be damned.

Photo © Manuel Chemineau