Thursday, July 30, 2015

Quick (subjective) take on what draws me to opera

Operas that appeal to me strongest are those in which the music for individual roles seems to convey the most intensely intimate and well-rounded characterization. When I feel that the music for an opera (however clunky the libretto) has given me as deep an emotional knowledge of the psychological core of each character as I have of my closest friends, that opera then gets slotted at or close to the top, and stays there. I also note that the vividness of musical characterization tends to trump, for me, considerations like tautness of narrative, dramatic structure, etc. If time stands still while the music is seeing inside a character, I'm perfectly happy to stay there as long as the composer likes.

The composers whose operas usually give me an intimate feeling for their characters are Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti, Berlioz, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Janacek. So these eight would be in my top slot.

Just the tiniest step down from those are the composers whose operas often, rather than usually, give me this intimacy: Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel, Bach (I view the Passions as operas, and the most intimate feelings are expressed in their music), Rameau, Gluck, Cherubini, Rossini, Weber, Bellini, Verdi, Mussorgsky, Boito, Leoncavallo, Puccini and Richard Strauss. To have as many as sixteen in slot Two may be a bit cumbersome, but I freely admit that these two tiers are guided more by my feelings than by logic.

-- Geoffrey Riggs

Saturday, July 25, 2015

COSI FAN TUTTE engages the intellect and the senses

Part of the genius of Mozart's COSI FAN TUTTE is the way it leads the spectator through just as startling a journey as the one that two pairs of lovers take in this opera.  We, as spectators, seem invited to take a detached stance at first, reflecting, although not the same as, the detached stance of Don Alfonso, who sets the disturbing events of this work in motion.

However, at a certain point, the very music these characters sing almost becomes a separate character of its own, especially in the dazzling second act.  Mozart's music comes to the aid of two pretenders who may not -- or may? -- genuinely experience the feelings they are trying to express.  It's as if the music in the second act slyly contradicts the Alfonso within each of us, inviting us to marvel at the depth and beauty in just being human, instead of sneer at the human foibles an Alfonso despises.  In a very real sense, the "character", Mozart's music, actively gives the lie to everything we've been "told" in Act I.

The heart of this magic is worked in the Dorabella/Guglielmo and Fiordiligi/Ferrando duets, which show the intoxication, beauty and magic inherent in all romantic love, putting aside the "superior" sneer of the earlier scenes.  We end up with a renewed appreciation for the human experience in all its loveliness.

Only when these two duets are performed in intimate and tender earnestness can Mozart's genius be realized.  This happened at the opening of the Geneva Light Opera English-language production of COSI FAN TUTTE this past Thursday, when mezzo Andrea McGaugh and baritone Jimi James gave a rapt hypnotic quality to the Dorabella/Guglielmo "seduction duet", and soprano Alexis Cregger and tenor Victor Khodadad also achieved the same effect in the Fiordiligi/Ferrando duet, which is arguably the climax of the whole score.  These four artists proved worthy of Mozart's finest music, and I feel sure that readers will be hearing these singers soon enough throughout the Grade A houses of this country, and very likely beyond as well.

With these two duets as the heart and soul of this production, everything else fits neatly into place.  Director Neil Eddinger and Conductor James Blachly have mounted a COSI of uncommon clarity and integrity.  The two intriguers, the Don Alfonso of Wilbur Lewis and the Despina of Michelle Seipel, are both uproariously funny and vocally imposing in their roles, which carry the chief comic burden in this masterpiece.  They seem all brain and the lovers end up all heart in this production -- which is as it should be.

Don't miss this production, which has two more performances this weekend, Saturday evening at 7:30PM and Sunday afternoon at 3:00PM.  It is being performed at the historic Smith Opera House, 82 Seneca Street, in Geneva, New York.  A 19th-century landmark, the acoustics of the Smith Opera House easily rank among the best acoustics for any opera house of its vintage.

-- Geoffrey Riggs

Saturday, January 11, 2014


STIFFELIO  (New Production)
19 December 2013 


1813 was an annus mirabilis for opera: both Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were born that year. The Musical Theater of Krefeld and Mönchengladbach has been saluting the birthday boys in their 200th year of immortality with productions of their lesser known works. 

What is surprising about the company's first-ever mounting of Verdi's Stiffelio (1850) is that the singers -- at least at the performance I attended -- are cast from the company's own ranks. An achievement in itself in a day and age when so-called world-class companies are hard put to assemble a vocally creditable Traviata

Cutting to the chase, the home-grown leads were up to the challenge. I have occasionally wondered why exposure on a larger scale has eluded Kairschan Scholdybajew (as the cuckolded protestant clergyman Stiffelio) and Janet Bartolova (his erring wife Lina), but they appear content to carry out their assignments, stay close to their respective nests and maybe have some semblance of a life. They must be doing something right, because neither shows palpable signs of vocal aging, sounding as fresh and energetic as they did when I first heard them in Maria Stuarda over ten years ago. 

For all their effort and the uniformly competent work from the other principals -- Stankar: Johannes Schwärsky, Raffaele: Michael Siemon Jorg: Hayk Dèinyan Federico von Frengel: Jerzy Gurzynski, Andrey Nevyantsev Dorotea: Eva Maria Günschmann, the serviceable production mounted by Helen Milkowsky fails to catch fire. Some diffident playing among members of the orchestra under Mikhail Kitson's direction may have had something to do with it. An off-night for the pipers. 

But the quiddity of the deficit may ultimately lie within Verdi's score and its variorums. His 16th opera has been familiar primarily to Verdi freaks, while its predecessor Luisa Miller (1849), has become better known. and its successor Rigoletto (1851) turned into an instant smash. Neither fragments of its score nor its story of a dysfunctional marriage have caught the public's imagination. Verdi also reworked the score so many times that it ultimately became his 22d opera (Aroldo, 1857). Of course, the original work didn't have much chance of catching on, because it was rarely performed in Verdi's time, thanks to harassing censors, who forced librettist Francesco Maria Piave to alter the controversial story repeatedly. (Stiffelio finally arrived at the Met in October 2003. where it has received 23 performances to date.) 

Net-net: the company works hard to bring Stiffelio to life, but the score lacks the signature melodies that grace Luisa Miller, Rigoletto and other works of Verdi's fecund middle period. Even at the premiere performances at the Met in 1993, the cast headlined by Placido Domingo fell short of fueling the music with vitality, possibly because Stiffelio is ultimately a stiff. A belated Happy Birthday Joey!  

And to you too, Rick!  The company has also mounted Wagner's Rienzi in a version that drops nearly half the music from the original score.  Which amounts to a series of highlights that still runs nearly three hours.  I long to experience a production of this promising work that presents only the music that's most frequently cut. 

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Saturday, April 13, 2013


PARSIFAL    New Production 
Opera Cologne
11 April 2013
Plus: Short Takes @ The Met
March 2013
© Sam H. Shirakawa 

Musikalische Leitung Markus Stenz / Inszenierung Carlus Padrissa (La Fura dels Baus) / Bühne Roland Olbeter / Kostüme Chu Uroz / Licht Andreas Grüter / Dramaturgie Georg Kehren & Tanja Fasching / Chorleitung Andrew Ollivant 

Amfortas: Samuel Youn 
Titurel: Young Doo Park 
Gurnemanz: Matti Salminen 
Parsifal: Marco Jentzsch 
Klingsor: Samuel Youn 
Kundry: Silvia Hablowetz 
1. Gralsritter: Martin Koch 2. Gralsritter: Lucas Singer 1. Knappe: Aoife Miskelly 2. Knappe: Marta Wryk 3. Knappe: Jeongki Cho 4. Knappe: Juraj Hollý 
1. Blumenmädchen I. Gruppe: Gloria Rehm 2. Blumenmädchen I. Gruppe: Erika Simons 3. Blumenmädchen I. Gruppe: Marta Wryk 1. Blumenmädchen II. Gruppe: Claudia Rohrbach 2. Blumenmädchen II. Gruppe: Aoife Miskelly 3. Blumenmädchen II. Gruppe: Adriana Bastidas Gamboa
Stimme aus der Höhe: Adriana Bastidas Gamboa 

Chor der Oper Köln & Extra Chor  
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln 
Marco Jentzsch, Markus Stentz, Silvia Hablowetz, Matti Salminen, Samuel Youn 

Toward the end of an intermission chat with a professional acquaintance and her husband at Opera Cologne’s new production of Parsifal, I asked her to name her favorite Wagner opera.  Musing briefly, she replied, “I think.. most of all Tristan.  And Götterdämmerung too.”

Before I had a chance to challenge her choices, it was time to go our separate ways and return to our seats.

I can understand why she likes Tristan and 
Götterdämmerung more than Parsifal.  They both tell gripping existential stories, and they're loaded with sex, drugs and killer music.  Parsifal is also existential and laden with sex (or the antsy lack of it), pain killers and a god-sent score, but it is no emotional pot-boiler.  Its potency depends a lot on your innermost capacity to go with the flow, for it is a bundle of maddening contradictions, while seeming to be stringently transparent.

And there’s the rub for every contemporary producer trying his/her hand at this operatic sword-in-the-stone.

Carlus Padrissa  (Photo: Mariinsky Theater)
Carlus Padrissa,
 founder of the Catalonian theater company La Fura dels Baustakes on the challenge from the get-go in his staging for Opera Cologne.  As soon as the unisoni of the woodwinds emerge from the pit, we are slammed with the soundless sight of a grisly race-car smash-up.  Behind the scrim on which the crash and its aftermath are shown, four supine mannequins rise and fall gently through space.   It’s a sight-sound oxymoron whose contradiction presumably serves to induce compassion for the survivors of the victims. 

Ayrton Senna (1960-1994)    (Photo: Getty)
But what if you don’t know that, In fact, we are witnessing the hideous death of Ayrton Senna during the 14th Gran Premio di San Marino in 1994 at Imola, Italy?  What if you don’t know who Ayrton Senna was and maybe couldn’t care less?  What if you DO know, that malfeasance presumably played no role in Senna’s fatal collision, while the violence that Parsifal commits against a swan and a woman he has no recollection of ever meeting is redolent with aggression?  Padrissa’s conceit is clever indeed, and, as the grandmother of a childhood friend might say: very sehr

But it doesn’t work.

If, however, you can get past this miscalculated inspiration and transcend the zippered-out projections of random quotes from Wagner’s friend-foe Friedrich Nietzsche, you may find that the net-net effect of Padrissa’s multi-media Parsifal smacks pleasantly of operatic rave.

Central to keeping Padrissa's tenuous concept as cohesive as possible is designer Roland Olbeter’s massive ogive structure that dominates the stage during most of the performance.  It breaks apart into four slices and re-assembles as needed: now enclosing the pantry at Montsalvat where Gurnemanz kneads bread, later contouring the Grail Chapel, later still limning fragments of the Magic Garden.  The slices turn, protrude and recede, sometimes for no special reason, but they’re fun to watch, especially when they're accompanied by snazzy graphic animations and Andreas Grüter's monster jelly, fishnet holographic and roaring rorschach lighting effects. But the pyro-techno interpolations are a sensuous blast mainly and maybe only because... 

Matti Salminen

The singers are not to be outdone.  At the center of the estimable ensemble making its way through the lumières de folie stands that Wonder of Nature Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz.  He is showing some signs of aging -- he wears specs -- but his voice is in exemplary estate, and his powers of expression continue maturing.  Despite an occasional lapse in support in the upper register, Salminen is the North Star of eloquent basso vocalism. 
Silvia Hablowetz, Samuel Youn
Samuel Youn took on both Amfortas and Klingsor and succeeded admirably as both.  At this stage of his burgeoning career, he is better at bringing a livid Klingsor to life than parsing out the feverish agony of Amfortas.  Still, he’s proving himself a frontrunner among Wagner baritones.

Silvia Hablowetz started off shrill and shrewish in the first act but warmed up in the following act, purveying a surprising, schoolgirlish Kundry.  She is billed as mezzo-soprano but her Lolita-like sound in the Seduction Scene was persuasively lyric:  Lucia on downers.  Her portrayal, though, is not yet finished.  She needs to work on the frantic desperation that bristles throughout the measures beginning with “So war es mein Kuss!”  As delivered on 11 April, this section was bereft of the creepy sensation that Kundry is playing the only card left in her harlot’s deck of hookery.

Marco Jentzsch
Marco Jentzsch in the eponymous part rendered his best portrayal I’ve heard him give thus far, though he might exploit his towering height to better effect at his first entrance. He looks like he’s offering no resistance, as the squires bring him to Amfortas after he kills the swan.  But his achievement in embodying Parsifal’s metaphorphosis from savage teen into sovereign majesty is all the more astonishing, given his hilarious LED-lighted costume in the third act, designed by Chu Oroz, which makes him look like a wireless mobile carousel.  But maybe I'm the square in this circle; is Parsifal supposed to look like a smart phone display? 

Photo: Forster

In pursuing some aggressively brisk tempi, Markus Stentz also produced stretches of glowing playing from the Gürzenich Orchester.  The brass section, though, was having noticeable lip issues at this performance. The augmented chorus under Andrew Ollivant's direction remained remarkably in synch, even though its members were scattered throughout the house in the Grail scenes.

This was, I’m pretty sure, my 48th live Parsifal.  There is only one performance left in this series.  I’d like to see this production again, despite its gaffes.

Now for a couple of short takes.  I recently attended several performances at the Metropolitan Opera:

The revelations were threefold; the conducting of Asher Fisch: lucid, superbly paced; Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal: gorgeously sung, subtly characterized;  Michaela Mertens’ Kundry: big-voiced and exciting with a magnetic stage presence.

DON CARLO 13 March
The Muses were there but with arms folded.  Solid performances from a top-drawer cast led by Lorin Maazel, drawing competence but little inspiration from Barbara Fritoli, Ramon Vargas, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip) and Eric Halverson.  Anna Smirnova’s Eboli was the dazzling exception: sadly, she appeared to be blazing in a vacuum.

Diana Damrau’s role debut as Violetta was an unqualified success but fell short of an indisputable triumph.  She sings the part as well as anybody can these days, but her first act was marred by some overly energetic gestures that contradicted Violetta’s declining state of health.  Nonetheless, her vocal acrobatics in “Sempre libra...” were as thrilling as they were effortless.  Surprisingly, though, she was at her heartbreaking finest in the last act. 

Had I never heard Placido Domingo before, I’d say he was miscast as Germont.  But having heard him countless times in his former incarnation as a tenor, I couldn’t free myself of wishing that he’d sing Giorgio’s two big arias at least an octave higher.

Albanian-born Saimir Pirgu realized Alfredo effectively as a gigolo with a hi-five high C.  I look forward to hearing more from him, providing he abjures tackling parts whose weight his voice may be unable to bear.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a conductor to be reckoned with.  He found subtleties in the score I’ve never heard before.

OTELLO  20 March 2013
If you could tune out Jose Cura and Thomas Hampson during their whickering attempts at declamation, this performance of Otello was admirable.  Krassimira Stoyanova was in superb form as Desdemona.  Alain Altinoglu’s ear for the broad sonic picture served to produce an epic reading of Verdi’s masterpiece.  Elijah Moshinsky’s production is an eye-popper.

FAUST   28 March 2013
I worry about the future of opera, when a Faust of such superior quality goes begging for an audience.  Even the scalpers were giving away tickets.  Piotr Beczala, Marina Poplavskaya, John Relyea were all in Golden Age form under Alain Altinoglu’s assured direction.  The Met Orchestra is the Maybach of orchestras.

Photos (unless otherwise noted) & Post-Production:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, February 25, 2013


ANNA BOLENA         New Production Premiere
Opera Cologne 
17 February 2013

Musikalische Leitung Alessandro De Marchi 
Inszenierung Tobias Hoheisel & Imogen Kogge 
Bühne & Kostüme Tobias Hoheisel 
Licht Andreas Grüter 
Dramaturgie Birgit Meyer 
Chorleitung Jens Olaf Buhrow 

Enrico VIII. Gidon Saks 

Anna Bolena  Olesya Golovneva 
Giovanna Seymour  Regina Richter 
Lord Rochefort  Matias Tosi 
Lord Riccardo  Percy Luciano Botelho 
Smeton  Katrin Wundsam 
Sir Hervey  Alexander Fedin 
Chor der Oper Köln 
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Holbein: Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour
Have you heard the joke about King Henry VIII that was rumored to have circulated in 16th century England?

Question: What are the two things every red-blooded nobleman wants most?
Answer: A dead ex-wife and the Tudor crown.

Henry VIII (1491-1547) married six times, killing off two of his wives. The most famous of his consorts was his second spouse Anne Boleyn, who has become the subject of countless documentations, factual, fictional and factional, since her execution on 19 May 1536 in the Tower of London. Among the musical tributes to Anne, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (1830) is probably the most famous.

Opera Cologne has recently unveiled a new production of the work under the direction of Imogen Kogge and Tobias Hoheisel, who also designed the set and costumes. Visually, it is a striking but somewhat confusing affair. The stage is divided into two sections (see photo below). On one side, a stark room painted in egg-shell white adorned only by plain rectangular wall panels. Most of the action takes place within this space. On the other side of the stage, part of the entrance hall in a stately home. A dark, wide wooden staircase, sweeps up to the landing, which is dominated by what looks like a copy of Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry.
Tobias Hoheisel's set for Anna Belena, featuring a copy of Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII, whose original was completed in 1536.

The conspicuous and awkward positioning of this portrait tends to distract from whatever takes place throughout the course of the action. For starters, it was completed as part of a massive mural in 1536, shortly after Anne Boleyn’s execution.  It served as a commemoration of Henry’s marriage to her successor, Jane Seymour.  Of course, its relevance to Opera Cologne's new production may be moot in the first place because the canvas cannot be seen by audiences sitting in the first few rows at house left; a wall bisecting the stage blocks it from their view.

Let’s assume for a moment, that the anacronistic presence of the portrait is relevant. Are Hoheisel and Kogge then framing the events in the opera as a stream of flashbacks? Flashbacks to what? Felice Romani’s libretto places the action squarely in dramatic real-time; there’s no past to backflash. The appearance of tall and slim Gidon Saks as Enrico VIII, dressed in non-Tudor attire comes as a shock and confuses the time frame of the action further, because Henry, who was on his way to becoming mega-chunky in 1536, posed for the portrait around the time of his decision to have Anne executed. And Jane Seymour’s flaming Tudor-red gown evokes unintended visions of Maggie Smith's hilarious turn in Lettice and Lovage and pulls focus from everything except Henry’s portrait, even when Regina Richter, who portrays the conflicted object of Henry’s desire, is standing still in a corner. Anna’s flowing Tudor-white costume is no match against it, even if the attractive Olesya Goloneva in the title role is wearing it.
Tudorettes: Oöesya Goloneva (white), Regina Richter (red)

Which leads me to ask: Who is the central character in this production of Donizetti’s opera? Previous mountings I’ve witnessed, have convinced me that it’s Anna. But Regina Richter in her first-ever Giovanna commands every scene she’s in, simply by outsinging everybody with whom the score brings her in contact.  Her glowing mezzo goes from strength to strength in range and intensity and her coloratura flights are becoming ever more exciting . Olesya Goloneva, also making her role debut, delivers a sympathetic Anna, well-drilled and musically persuasive.  But a curious placidity in her stage presence prevents her queen from becoming compelling. The disparity in potency between Richter and Goloneva ablacates the big duet "Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio" of its heartrending poignance.
Luciano Botelho, Regina Richter, Olesya Goloneva, Alessandro di Marchi
No substantive objections can be raised against the spear side, but it grew clear as the premiere performance entered its third hour, that no one in the cast can compete vocally with Richter, save the aforementioned Saks, who sings a solid, imposing Enrico. Luciano Bothelo, as Anna’s former squeeze Percy, has good looks and a pleasing tenor going for him, but he scales the role’s upper tessitura with tenacity rather than with mastery. He is currently is having some success in the bel canto repertoire, but he might want to think about varying his vocal diet with a schmier of Mozart.  Matias Tosi (Rochefort) and Alexander Fedin (Harvey) perform good service.

Katrin Wundsam makes an all-too-brief appearance with the Page Smeton’s cavatina "Deh! non voler costringere a finta gioia il viso . . ."

Baroque specialist Alessandro de Marchi drives the performance energetically and cultivates a honeyed line from the Gürzenich Orchestra in the cantabile passages.  

Performances (mostly sold-out) continue through 10 March.

Photographs, grafix, post-production: Sam H. Shirakawa 

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Friday, February 22, 2013


RIGOLETTO                LIVE in HD
Metropolitan Opera 
16 February 2013 


Rigoletto...............Zeljko Lucic
Gilda...................Diana Damrau
Duke of Mantua..........Piotr Beczala
Maddalena...............Oksana Volkova
Sparafucile.............Stefan Kocán
Monterone...............Robert Pomakov
Borsa...................Alexander Lewis
Marullo.................Jeff Mattsey
Count Ceprano...........David Crawford
Countess Ceprano........Emalie Savoy
Giovanna................Maria Zifchak
Page....................Catherine Choi
Guard...................Earle Patriarco

Conductor...............Michele Mariotti

Production..............Michael Mayer
Set Designer............Christine Jones
Costume Designer........Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer.......Kevin Adams
Choreographer...........Steven Hoggett
TV Director.............Matthew Diamond

Rigoletto tableau (Metropolitan Opera)

Several months ago, tickets went begging for performances at the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Ballo in Maschera. But the Live HD Relay was pretty much sold-out in cinemas around the world. All the more remarkable if you factor in ticket prices for the relayup to three times more than the tab for a new feature film in 2D. The simulcast of the Met’s new Rigoletto on 16 February was pretty much a sell-out in cinemas. In the house too -- judging from the numerous panning shots of the audience just before the performance. 

And from the looks of Michael Mayer’s zazzy production on the silver screen, it's an eye-popper. Forget the original setting in 16th century Mantua.  We're in 1960s Las Vegas, abetted by Christine Jones’ super-gaudy sets, Susan Hilferty’s retro-trash costumes and Kevin Adams’ nervy neon lighting. For a near-sighted spectator watching from the Met’s upper regions, the stage pictures may seem like a LeRoy Neiman chroma blur. But out in HD Land, this production has been tailor-made for high-def viewing.

There are enough distractions in this strategy to keep you from asking tough questions about the logic of placing Rigoletto in a Rat Pack mileu, some of which have been posed by the New York Times. What, for instance, is Rigoletto’s job? And how many people know what the Rat Pack was? The latter question was answered to some extent in a string of live intermission features hosted by the redoubtable Renee Fleming. Mayer said he found parallels between the original characters and the clique of entertainers that headlined in Vegas during the 1960s (and sealed their notoriety in the 1960 film Ocean's Eleven). But if indeed the Duke is Frank Sinatra and one of the supporting characters is supposed to be Dean Martin, then who is Gilda?  Judy Garland?  No.  Shirley MacClaine?  I don't think so. Lauren Bacall?  Huh?  Mayer’s concept is so fleetingly thought out, that it may not bear thinking about. At least it’s not offensive, except maybe to those who take umbrage at Sammy Davis, Jr. being portrayed as a white guy.

Compare, then, this production with Jonathan Miller’s memorable staging for the English National Opera back in the 1980s, which was set in New York’s Little Italy. (It played at the Met for several performances and featured a thrilling cameo by Norman Bailey as Monterone.) You didn’t need liner notes to “get” the looming reference to Edward Hopper in order to absorb the chill that permeated Rigoletto’s cheerless Mafia-driven world. Miller's sotto-seething sous-monde concept illuminated Verdi by enlivening the subversive motives behind Hugo's Le roi s'amuse, the source on which the composer's librettist Francsco Maria Piave based his text.  But you didn't need to know any of this to be utterly taken by this gem of a production.

Thanks to HDTV, I have some idea of what this Rigoletto looks like in the house, but I have little idea how it sounded to the audience at the Met. All the voices during transmission seemed to be about the same size, thanks to toney audio engineering; everything sonic was endowed with a pleasant aural “bloom” that made the singing and orchestral playing especially appealing. The singers in particular sounded flawlessly on pitch and blended nicely in the famous ensembles. But there’s not much you can say about them with certainty, because you’re entirely dependent upon the audio producer's team and how they ply the vast array of level controls at their disposal.

Zeljko Lucic sans hunchback lump delivered an effectively morose Rigoletto, but he might have made more of the character’s transition from stooge to avenger. Diana Damrau is a comely Gilda, although she is clearly in slim-down mode following the recent birth of her second child. Piotr Beczala (Beh-CHA-weh) was in superb form as the Duke. Oksana Volkova (Maddalena), Stefan Kocán (Sparafucile) and Robert Pomakov (Monterone) rounded out the principals satisfactorily.

Michele Mariotti acquitted himself promisingly at the podium, following his successful Met debut leading Carmen this past autumn. At age 32, he follows in the deep footsteps left by the likes of Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti, who both were already on the threshold of maturity at the starts of thier careers. 

After talking with some grunts at the Met in recent seasons, I’ve been left with the distinct impression that the world’s leading opera house is currently not a happy place to be employed. But when was it Paradise? Some of the complaints center on the trend toward making new productions TV-friendly. “The Met’s becoming a television studio,” is one of the more frequently stated grumblings. Meanwhile, hostess Renee again encouraged the transmission audience to experience a Met performance in the house, stopping just short of giving directions to the box-office. Poor attendance at the Met but sell-outs at live transmissions may portend a sea change for how audiences want to experience opera.  After all, you can munch and sip deadly beverages while watching a relay at a cinema near you. Given the louder-than-life ambience of HD relays, though, those who decide to attend a Met performance for the first time ever, may, as I’ve said before, be in for a letdown.

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Monday, February 11, 2013


DER CARNEVAL IN ROM      Concert Form 
Dresden State Operetta 
Cologne Philharmonie 
6 February 2013 


Jana Büchner Sopran (Marie, ein Mädchen vom Lande) 
Michael Heim Tenor (Arthur Bryk, Kunstmaler) 
Manfred Equiluz Tenor (Graf Falconi) 
Jessica Glatte Sopran (Gräfin Falconi) 
Marcus Günzel Bariton (Hesse, Kunstmaler, Arthurs Freund) 
Bernd Könnes Tenor (Rafaeli, Kunstmaler, Arthurs Freund) 
Jeannette Oswald Sopran (Therese, Braut) 
Jens-Uwe Mürner Tenor (Toni) 
Chor der Staatsoperette Dresden 
Thomas Runge Einstudierung 
Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden 
Ernst Theis Dirigent 
Désirée Nick Präsentation 
From the  Dresden State Operetta production of Der Carneval in Rom

In case you don’t know it, Der Carneval in Rom (1873-1874) is the second operetta that Johann Strauss completed. It is noteworthy primarily for being the unnoteworthy forerunner to the Waltz King’s best-known stage work Die Fledermaus (1875). The Dresden State Operetta mounted a new production of Carneval nearly a decade ago and recorded it live for CPO. This past week, the company brought a concert version of its production to Cologne, just in time for the city’s annual celebration of Karneval or Mardi Gras, a week of motley merry-making, parades and inebriation prior to Ash Wednesday. With hardly any exceptions the cast and conductor were identical with the recording. 

What was unusual about the performance was the presence of Desirée Nick, who presented the narrative continuity, which freed the singers of having to act out the dialogue without the benefit of scenery and props. With wit and charm, she told the story of Marie (Jana Büchner), a naive Alpine country girl, who follows her errant beloved painter Arthur Bryk (Michael Heim) all the way to Rome at Carneval time where she is determined to snatch him from the snares of temptation, including the wiles of the seductive Countess Falconi (Jessica Glatte). 

As entertaining as Nick’s interpolations were, though, the performance still ran close to three hours. Duration in presenting seldom-performed operettas like Carneval becomes significant, because most such works deserve their obscurity. You smile at premonitions of A Night in Venice and nod at a hint of The Gypsy Baron, but you also grow a bit impatient with the cadences that don’t modulate into the magic of Fledermaus. Strauss was a master of melody, but the inspirations in Carneval fall far short of the heights he scaled in that masterpiece. 

The performance was also prevented from bubbling up to full sparkle by Jana Büchner as Marie, who was having difficulties with notes above the staff -- hopefully evidence of a misfortunate evening rather than a sign of vocal decline. Jessica Glatte was a bright sounding and attractive looking Countess, although her resinous voice is an acquired taste. 

Michael Heim elevated the standard of the evening in stalwart fashion, delivering Arthur with elegant phrasing and stylish musicality. His voice has maintained its strength and clarity over the past decade and he’s kept himself in shape. The testosterone-heavy support cast was ably rounded out by Manfred Equiluz (Count Falconi), Marcus Günzel and Bernd Könnes as two friends of the hero, Jeannette Oswald (Therese) and Jens-Uwe Mürner

Ernst Theis kept the Dresden State Operetta Orchestra and the chrous under the direction of Thomas Runge in a Carneval mood. 

Scenes from Karneval in Cologne 2013 
Brünnhilde (Above) meets Almaviva (below)

Le Postillon
Nabucco double-cast
The Nose @ Ebertplatz
Opening Night: Barely Audible

Karneval Photos and Post-Production:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, February 08, 2013


Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie / Marco Comin 
Cologne Philharmonie 
4 February 2013 
Klaus Florian Vogt
In bygone days, opera singers giving recitals usually were heard speaking only when announcing their encores or a change in program. Now, they’re given to introducing every piece they’re about to sing, comment on the work they just finished, and recite what they had for lunch and where. Some are really good at getting up close to their audiences. As I've already reported, Vittorio Grigolo works the crowd like a veteran saloon singer. 

Klaus Florian Vogt tried his voice at public speaking during his concert this week in Cologne, backed up by the North-West German Philharmonic under the able direction of Marco Comin. With a wireless microphone in hand and a glass of water ever at the ready, Vogt offered patter about his program and even spoke endearingly of his family at one point. While he appeared ill at ease in stepping out of his comfort zone, it was clear -- to me at least -- that he has raconteur potential. Given his ultra-reserved north German upbringing (he’s from Schleswig-Holstein), though, it may take a few more auditions before a producer dares to propose him for guest-hosting a pie-in-the-sky project like "Singing with the Stars."

What strikes me about his introductions, though, is not the message but the medium.  To hear his speaking voice, you’d never think he’s an opera singer, not to mention one of the finest tenors before the public today.  His soft inflections have a distinctly baritonal resonance; he doesn’t speak “above the voice.”   Consequently, that signature sapidity in his singing sounded almost as though his Doppelgänger were doing the vocals. 

Vogt’s program consisted of eight arias and scenes from operas, most of which he has sung in staged productions. The first half opened up a confect of German and Italian favorites: Max’s aria from Der Freischütz, “Dies Bildnes ist bezaubern schön” from Zauberflöte, “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller and “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. In the second half, Vogt got down to business: Bleeding chunks of Wagner -- The Trial Song from Meistersinger, Siegmund’s two set pieces from Act One of Die Walküre and the Grail Narrative from Lohengrin
Marco Comin
These selections were separated by overtures from Freischütz, Luisa Miller and Lohengrin, led by Comin, who displayed his versatility in two essential areas of the basic operatic repertory.  The 37 year-old Venetian native is having plenty of opportunities to develop his interpretive capabilities beginning this season in Munich, where he's taken charge as Chief Conductor at the Gärtnerplatz State Theater.

Comin's assurance on the podium enabled Vogt to lighten up a bit with two encores: a heartfelt “Ach, so fromm” from Martha and the hum-along “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from The Land of Smiles

If you were hoping for something really novel from Vogt, as much as I was, you might have been disappointed.  In opting for “E lucevan le stelle” in lieu of the programmed Flower Song from Carmen, Vogt even denyed the largely geriatric crowd at the Philharmonie the chance to hear him sing in French.  (Which may or may not have been a good thing.)  But what is remarkable about Vogt at this stage of his career, when most of his contemporaries are undergoing some kind of vocal menopause, is that his voice remains much the same in timbre and range as it did a decade ago, when I first heard him as Lohengrin in Bremen.  His lower register has gained some depth and his top seems to be acquiring amplitude. But that youthful demi-seraphic peel that so mesmerized back then is still distinctly palpable, despite occasional edginess around G-A.   His singing diction remains as effortlessly clear as his spoken enunciation. 

By the same token, the evening as a whole was typical of the sameness characterizing the deciduous parade of programs that file into and out of concert halls around the world every season. There was little sense of occasion, save the tacit awareness that a star was in town, which, in the timing of Vogt’s appearance, amounted to a missed opportunity:  Sony has just released Vogt’s new recording of Wagner excerpts, but this was known almost exclusively to those who bought a program booklet.  Only those who read the fine print on the advert for the new recording were aware that he would be signing purchased copies after the concert in the foyer. I didn’t stick around to see how many people queued up for his autograph. But one thing is clear: Vogt made no shameless attempts at flogging his foyer appearance from the stage. That may have been classy restraint, and, as the grandmother of a childhood friend used to say, “very sehr.”  But such North German reserve must have irritated the bejeesus out of Sony executives in attendance. 

If Vogt is to become a popular concert attraction, and he could, he needs a pint of Barnum in his blood and a magnum of Kölsch by his water glass. Neither soft-shoe routines nor sideshows are called for, but neither is same-old same-old.  The muses have been generous in endowing Klaus Florian Vogt with the wherewithal for prompting his audiences to wonder.  That may not be enough anymore.  Say, Can That Boy Foxtrot

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013


HERCULES           Revival
Aalto Theater Oper
27 January 2013 

Musikalische Leitung / Alexander Eberle
Inszenierung / Dietrich W. Hilsdorf
Bühne / Dieter Richter
Kostüme / Renate Schmitzer
Dramaturgie / Norbert Abels
Choreinstudierung / Alexander Eberle  

Hercules / Almas Svilpa
Dejanira, seine Frau / Michaela Selinger
Hyllus, ihr Sohn / Andreas Hermann
Iole, Prinzessin von Oechalia / Christina Clark
Lichas, ein Herold / Marie-Helen Joël 

Chöre des Aalto-Theaters
Essener Philharmoniker
Almas Svilpa as Hercules

If Aida should really be entitled Amneris, because she does most of the heavy lifting in Verdi’s opera, Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) might well have renamed Hercules (1744) after its central character Dejanira. It is she, after all, who does all the odious doing. 

The premiere of Hercules on 5 January 1745 at the King''s Theater in London fell prey to a number of misfortunes, which necessitated last-minute musical revisions as well as forcing the opera to be presented as an oratorio. Which is why some call it an "operatorio."  The fiasco led it into obscurity, and it remains infrequently revived to this day. 

Two seasons ago, the Aalto Theater Opera in Essen mounted Hercules as an opera in an acclaimed new production by Dietrich Hilsdorf, and it’s currently back in repertory with many members of the same cast. While the plot takes place in Attic mythology, Hilsdorf frames the story, based on Sophocles’ Women of Trachis and the Ninth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, within an imposing but somewhat frayed 18th century palace, deftly designed by Dieter Richter with churrigueresque costumes by Renate Schmitzer. 

The story as adapted by librettist Thomas Broughthon has Dejanira turning madly jealous when she learns that her demi-god husband Hercules has brought home a beautiful trophy from his victories in battle: the princess Iole. Determined to make sure that Hercules is never unfaithful to her again, Dejanira presents him with a cloak suffused with a potion supposedly meant make him abjure his dalliant ways.   But the cloak turns out to be toxic, and Hercules, for all his physical might, is rendered helpless against its hideous ravages. 
Michaela Selinger

This merry mise en scène is furthered, illuminated, and sometimes interrupted by a cornucopia of arias, ensembles and choruses which show Handel at his most inspired in writing for the human voice. For both Handel fans and lovers of 18th century music, Hercules is a feast for the ears. 

Michaela Selinger comes off larger than life as the scorned Dejanira -- both physically and vocally. She is at her best in “Cease, Ruler of the day...” in which Dejanira laments her suspicions of Hercules’ involvement with Iole and resolves to regain him.  American Christina Clark’s silvery Iole spins a delightful contrast to Selinger’s darker declamations. Her agility and subtle phrasing spurs an appetite for hearing more of her. 
Christina Clark as Iole

Almas Svilpa may be vocally a tad beefy for the title role, but he casually upsets expectations of what a Handel bass should sound like, juggling his voice with mesmerizing accuracy and dazzling aplomb. Despite its weight, Svilpa’s voice never worries the ear. His affable stage presence projects Hercules’ randy propsensities with an how-can-I-help-it? insoucience that somehow turns the super-hero’s horrendous comeuppance into what once was and still might be called black comedy. 

Andreas Hermann is a sympatheic Hyllus and Marie Helen Joël rounds out the cast as a comely herald, Lichas. 

Alexander Eberle leads the augmented Chorus of the Aalto Theater and the versatile Essen Philharmonic with energy and cool clarity. 

Hercules started life as a flop, but Handel never forgot his hero.  In 1750, he composed his oratorio The Choice of Hercules, in which two women representing Pleasure and Virtue offer the youthful half-god the choice between two irreconcilable paths. It was first presented at Covent Garden on 1 March 1751. Handel's reappraisal of Hercules, whose personality in this later work inclines toward virtue, may have reflected the composer's own life choices. Handel was firmly as astute in practical matters as he was brilliant at plying his trade; he took pleasure in virtue, because it usually paid off. Throughout a long career that had many heights and a number of valleys, including several serious health issues, he never baroque the bank. 

Photos: Aalto Theater 
Graphics, Post-production: Sam H. Shirakawa 

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Thursday, January 31, 2013


PARSIFAL (Concert with Historical Instruments) 
Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble and Choirs
26 January 2013 
Simon O’Neill, Parsifal 
Kwangchul Youn, Gurnemanz 
Angela Denoke, Kundry 
Matthias Goerne, Amfortas 
Johannes Martin Kränzle, Klingsor 
Victor von Halem, Titurel 
Hermann Oswald Marek Rzepka, Gralsritter 
Virgil Hartinger Manuel Warwitz, Knappen 
Katja Stuber Gunta Davidcuka Antonia Bourvé Tanya Aspelmeier Heike Heilmann, Klingsors Zaubermädchen 
Marion Eckstein, Klingsors Zaubermädchen, Stimme aus der Höhe 
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund am Konzerthaus Dortmund 
Thomas Hengelbrock, Dirigent 
Parsfal Bells 1882 (Archive)
In case you haven’t heard yet, devotees will be celebrating Richard Wagner's 200th birthday on 22 May. The festivities have already begun. Ring Cycles, new productions, revivals everywhere. 

Among the novel events of the bi-centennial is a concert performance of Parsifal featuring an array of instruments that were used around the time of the opera’s 1882 premiere at Bayreuth. Wagner grew keen on selecting instruments that would produce the sonic qualities he heard in his mind’s ear. So whenever existing instruments failed to come up to snuff, he had them custom-made.  Ergo the Wagner-Tuba,  Wagner oboe, Beckmesser harp, thunder machines, temple bells, etc.

The Wagner period instrument project is the brainchild of Thomas Hengelbrock, who is taking the opera-cum-historical instruments on a tour to Dortmund, Essen and Madrid with the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, Choir and Boy’s Chorus of the Dortmund Choral Academy.    
In addition to performing with instruments, most of which were being used at the time of the premiere, though not necessarily at the event on 26 July 1882 in Bayreuth, Hengelbrock is conjuring an aural impression, insofar as possible, of the musical  conditions of the period, including the use of gut strings and lowering the general pitch to A=438 from today’s A=443.  Conspicuously missing from the instrument list, though, was the “gong piano” that Wagner had built to represent the sound of temple bells. Instead, Hengelbrock used a combination of Thai and Java gongs played in unison with plate bells and tam-tams. 
French Erards; Left 1880. Right 1907
Also, only a precursor of the larger of two harps used by the Balthasar-Naumann Ensemble  might have been played at the premiere.  It is a French Erard “Gothic” model that dates from about 1907. The smaller harp (an Erard “Grecian” model) was built around 1880, but its like was probably too small for Wagner's demands. Still, the Meister had no aversion to doubling instruments when he found it necessary, and he may even have ordered tripling the harps at the premiere performances: on top of having the entire orchestra of the Munich Court Opera put at his disposal by his patron King Ludwig II, at least three harpists (Lockwood and Zwerger A. Wiedemann and H. Vitztum) were also engaged by the Festival in 1882, 1883 and 1884, when only Parsifal was presented. Hengelbrock sticks to using just two harps called for in the score.

You might think such details are precious at best and would make little difference to the total sound picture. But the effect Hengelbrock and the Balthasar Ensemble managed to produce, albeit approximate, was quite remarkable, though it took some getting used-to. The brass section in the Prelude, for example, seemed too aggressive, and the winds sounded at first excessively reedy -- the sort of mash you might expect from a high school band rehearsal. But once the ear settled into the sonic pool that gathered warmth and flow with each succeeding measure, the edginess of the winds and brass took on a mellow glow of their own. 

As pleasing as it all sounded in Essen's Philharmonie, it was both tantalizing and frustrating to imagine how the orchestra might sound emerging from the covered pit of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, whose acoustical properties are inimitable and little changed over the past century. 

But taking pleasure in the sound of these instruments was fleeting.  

At the performance I attended on 26 January in Essen, Hengelbrock conducted the performance so fast -- the first act in less than one hour, 30 minutes -- that the special sonorities afforded by these historic instruments became overwhelmed by the sheer velocity of his tempi. Wagner often railed against dragging the music, yes. But even allowing some wiggle room for the meaning of “the right tempi,” Hengelbrock’s pacing was arguably hyperactive compared to the well-known duration of Act One at the World Premiere in Bayreuth under Hermann Levi: one hour, 47 minutes. 

Coincidentally, throughout several conversations I had with the now legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall (1901-1990), he stressed his need to resist “rushing” tempi in late Wagner, so that the inner voices of the harmonic construct could be given what he believed to be their proper due. Recordings of his live performances support his view: new details egress with every hearing. I should add, that Goodall’s comments were no exclusive disclosure to me. He expressed them whenever the subject of tempo came up in interviews. 

Nonetheless, Hengelbrock’s lapidary treatment utimately proved exciting last Saturday, especially in the latter part of the second act, in which Kundry tests Parsifal’s resolve to fulfill his destiny. For the first time in the 40-odd performances of Parsifal I have attended, these moments broke free from the dream-world warp that usually imbues this scene and pulsated with real-time drama. 

Could Hengelbrock have achieved the same urgency simply using contemporary instruments? Hmnn... 
Hermann Winkelmann, Amalie Materna (Archive)
Which brings me to the cast. Hengelbrock has assembled about as fine a vocal ensemble for his grand experiment as can be found these days. But did the vocal qualities of the singers remotely match those of the original cast?   A number of recordings in circulation today purport to purvey the voice of Amalie Materna (1844-1918), the original Kundry.   But the only bona-fide vestiges of the first Bayreuth cast have been left by tenor Hermann Winkelmann (1849-1912), who recorded several tracks commercially around 1905. While his voice is in evident decline at this point in his career, the characteristics Wagner often stated he wanted from his singers are still clearly audible: power, expressive cantilena and italianate warmth. Some critics carp at the plaintive timbre that marks Winkelmann’s voice, but the authority of his articulation nonetheless piques the listener’s imagination.
Left-Right: Thomas Hengelbrock, Angela Denoke, Simon O'Neill
Given how Wagner singing has evolved throughout the past century, there is no reason to expect any tenor to sound like Winkelmann, even in a performance where other aural conditions of the premiere are being approximated. New Zealander Simon O’Neill mercifully makes no attempt at Sutherland-esque exercises in reviving performance practices at Bayreuth circa 1882. His is a big, bright and forward-pitched Heldentenor that projects Parsifal’s visceral energy from start to finish. Its tonal breadth may strike some as monocromatic, but his capacity for subtle shading within a modest compass commands the listener’s interest. The role is far from the longest in the Wagner canon, but its technical pitfalls have made kiwis of many tenors.  O’Neill is not among them. 

Angela Denoke has continued to maintain freshness in her characterful soprano over the past decade since I first heard her as Sieglinde in the so-called Stuttgart Ring. Her voice has darkened somewhat, though, which may explain why she ran afoul of some notes above the staff, throughout the treacherous passages following Kundry’s monologue “Ich sah das Kind...” That said, Denoke is indisputably a major Wagner singer, and she hopefully will be in better form by the time the series of performances wraps up in Madrid this coming weekend.

If the glue that binds Parsifal is Gurnemanz, Kwangchul Youn brought soulful cohesion to the role in the heartfelt manner that also distinguishes the portrayals of Matti Salminen and Rene Pape. Youn sounds like he is evolving into seasoned maturity every time I hear him, and it is gratifying to listen to him now at the peak of his form. Matthias Goerne rendered a tortured Amfortas, whose remorse over the weakness that caused his wound makes his physical agony all the more unbearable. He was particularly moving in the passage following his desperate outcry, “Nein! Nicht mehr! ha!...” Despite being in possession of a voice that is too attractive for the part, Johannes Martin Kränzle offered a deeply embittered Klingsor, whose every phrase betrayed a Lucifer in living Hell. An undervalued singer. 

The chorus was in fine form and lost none of its sheen in the upper register despite the sharply lowered pitch. 

The last performance of the series takes place in Madrid on 2 February. 

By the way, one of the leading Wagner tenors of our time (whose controversial voice bears absolutely no resemblance to Hermann Winkelmann’s) will be presenting what’s being billed as an “Exclusively in Germany" Concert on 4 February at Cologne’s Philharmonie.  Klaus Florian Vogt will be appearing with the North-West German Philhamonic under the direction of Marco Comin in a program of Verdi, Mozart, Bizet and, of course, Wagner.

 Photos (unless otherwise noted), graphics and post-production:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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