Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cosi fan tutte in Geneva, NY

A good friend is presenting a summer young artist production of Cosi fan tutte in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region:

American Landmark Festivals is pleased to collaborate with the Smith Center for the Arts in Geneva, New York, to present Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte---a giddy satire by Vienna’s Imperial court poet Lorenzo Da Ponte also titled “A School for Lovers.” This comic opera--one of the gems of all opera buffa--is a satire of the highly acclaimed fidelity of the female sex, and was finished by Mozart in 1790--the year before his untimely death--his third and last collaboration with Da Ponte, who also provided the texts for Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni--two of Mozart’s best known works and two of the greatest operas in the repertoire.

From the stage of the landmark Smith Opera House some of the greatest actors and singers of all time have been heard--including Frieda Hempel and Gustav Mahler’s wife Alma Gluck.--and the exceptional acoustics that have been its hallmark since it opened in 1894 have remained through its restoration the perfect venue for live and lively arts, dramatic and musical.

Performances of Cosi fan tutte take place on Friday and Saturday July 30th and 31st, 2010 at 8 PM at the Smith Opera House, 82 Seneca St., Geneva, NY and will feature outstanding operatic baritone Jimi James, tenor John Bernard, baritone Charles King, sopranos Michelle Seipel, Sara Thomas and mezzo soprano Laurel Cameron and will be staged and directed by Albert Bergeret--founding director of The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players--with conductor/pianist Pablo Zinger at the keyboard.

It is with special pleasure that we present on the historic Smith stage this July America’s leading champion of the comic opera of England teamed up with an outstanding champion of the light opera of Spain. Mr. Bergeret’s hilarious staging of Die Fledermaus, Impresario and Trial by Jury delighted Smith audiences in previous summers. His collaboration this summer with conductor Pablo Zinger, who is known world-wide as a conductor of zarzuela, should prove ground-breaking.

These performances and English translation of Cosi are being prepared and presented by American Landmark Festivals in memory of its founding director conductor/pianist Francis Heilbut, whose knowledge of and enthusiasm for opera, Mozart and The Smith Opera House remain an inspiration.

Tickets are available at the Smith Opera House box office or web site: $20 general admission, $16 college students/seniors $16, Free children K-12.

For further information contact:
Kelly Bradley, The Smith Opera House
82 Seneca St., Geneva, NY 14456

Gena Rangel,
American Landmark Festivals
26 Wall St., NY, NY 10005

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Friday, July 09, 2010


I Vespri Siciliani
Die Meistersinger

Hungarian State Opera
Budapest 25-27 June, 2010

The Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. But it’s always timely to visit Budapest, as I recently discovered on my first-ever stay there.

Two others things I also discovered: there really are two cities here: Buda and Pest. They originally were two towns separated by the Danube. In 1873, they combined with Alt-Buda to form what today is known as Budapest. Along with virtually every place that fell under Soviet domination following World War II, Budapest lapsed into decay. It’s been making its way into modernity, but it’s also showing signs of the recent economic downturn that’s afflicting all big cities in Europe -- “for rent” and “super sale” signs everywhere.

Nonetheless, trains and buses are running, the streets are relatively clean and the drinking water, I found, is salubrious.

Possibly because Hungary lies far into eastern Europe, it appears to be a step behind its more affluent neighbors to its west and north in emerging from the grip of its cultural past. While the nation and its capital strive to move forward, the gravity of the nation’s tumultuous heritage -- especially its aggregate of splendors -- continues to present a restraining counter-balance.

The Hungarian State Opera today reflects this psychological dichotomy. The ornate exterior of Budapest’s principal theater, built in the neo-Renaissance style by Miklós Ybl, dominates the mid- and late 19th century buildings that line the elegant tree-lined Andrassy Boulevard. Inside, broad marble staircases lead everywhere. Columns ascend into deeply vaulted tiled ceilings. Dimly lit alcoves with walls of dark damask silks offer tacit invitations for trysts and intrigue.

The gold and crystal auditorium seats about 1,200 and remains physically pretty much unchanged since it was completed in 1885, despite a major facelift in the 1970s. Gustav Mahler (1888-1891) and, more recently, Otto Klemperer (1947-1950) were active here. If they were to appear there today, they would likely recognize the brass chandelier and shepherd’s crook sconces that illuminate the building. Acoustically, the house is a marvel: the balance between singers and orchestra is remarkably even and supported by a pleasing reverb that quickens in bass-heavy passages. This kind of aural constellation can still be heard in Europe’s older opera houses, but rarely in the United States: only Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (dating from 1857) comes to mind.

To close the first part of this festive year, the Opera’s management scheduled three of its current blockbusters on consecutive evenings: I Vespri Siciliani, Carmen and Die Meistersinger -- something of an undertaking for any European opera house. What surprised me most about all three performances is how retro everything seemed. Naturalistic sets, singers belting out their big numbers from down-stage center, the prompter audibly cuing musical entrances. I had entered a time-warp. What a refreshing change from the dreadful concept productions, the cookie-cutter vocal techniques and awkward stage deportment that characterizes so many opera productions today!

What also surprised me in this age of jet-setting singers was how “native” the casts were.

Every cast member in I Vespri Siciliani was either Hungarian or Eastern Bloc, and they were all terrific. Janos Bándi (Arrigo), Zsuzsanna Baszinka (Elena), Viktor Massányi (Monforte) and Istvan Racz (Procida) probably could all hold their own at larger houses, but they need to feel their roles rather than simply articulating them. Baszinka, for example, hit all the high notes bang-on and animated the coloratura passages flawlessly, but she has yet to adumbrate the clash between love and duty from which Elena finds no escape.

Gergely Kesselyák led a briskly paced, disciplined performance, flexibly navigating the vagaries of rhythm that used to enliven “traditional” Verdi performance practices, as long as everybody kept in sync.

The State Opera has enough home-grown singers to mount a respectable Carmen, and that they did on the following night. The first of several vocal discoveries during my visit was Zoltan Nyári, who transformed Don José from an easily manipulated recruit, who chucks everything for deceptive love, into a walking deadly weapon, once he realizes that he’s been used. Nyári has matinee idol looks and a tall, tightly built frame, that fronts a large, attractively lean tenor sound. Whether he can break out of the operatic Orpheum Circuit remains to be heard.

Gabriella Fodor was a darker-voiced Micaela than I’m used to hearing, but her way around “Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante” sounded like she may be going places. Before she can take flight internationally, though, she must weld the middle and upper ranges of her voice into a more felicitous entity.

Eva Panczel plays Carmen as a boob-bouncing bitch, but the warmth in her bass line elicits uneasy sympathy. In its present state, her Carmen takes a back bench in the well-documented gallery of great cigarette factory trouble-makers. But the ear savored such utterances as “la carte impitoyable répétera: la mort!” long after the final curtain descended. Net-net: Mester is an aurally exciting Carmen by any measure.

To be savored less was András Kaldi’s Escamillio, demonstrating that handsome is doesn’t necessarily mean handsome sings. The voice is, to be fair, B-line clinquant, but his toreador went wanting for a modicum of pizzazz. Maybe it was just a bad evening.

The cast was well rounded out by a cadre of house comprimari, but the lady who sang Frasquita tended to come in way behind the beat. Catch up, Luisze! You’re behind, honey!

On my final visit to the State Opera during my first stay in Budapest, I was treated to a wonderful Meistersinger. It was the last opera event of the season, and many in the cast were alternates for those who appeared in the first performances earlier in the season.

This was an “ensemble performance” that may well have been unique. Nearly everybody in the cast was a company member. Some may have been active at the house, even before the Soviet regime collapsed. With the exception of Andras Molnar, who sang Walther, only a few are known outside Hungary: Bela Perencz as Sachs, Peter Kálmán as Beckmesser, Monika Gonzalez as Eva, László Kiss Beöthy as David, Erika Gal as Magdalena, István Berczelly as Pogner, and so on. The stand-out in this superior group was Kálmán’s unusual Beckmesser. The menacing edge to his dark baritone transformed the grumpy notary into a predecessor of Alberich and Klingsor -- a credible line of succession that never before has occurred to me.

In all, it was a breathtaking assemblage, not least because the “style” unfolded on this occasion harkened back to an age when each European country had its own approach to operatic singing and performance. I could could try characterizing the “Hungarian approach” but it would be as futile as trying to describe a primary color. If you’re curious to get some idea of the vocal if not necessarily the interpretational approach to Wagner that prevailed before the jet blurred national boundaries, listen to a fascinating recording of Meistersinger from 1949, sung in Hungarian, led by no less than Otto Klemperer.

Speaking of conductors: if there was a star at this performance it was Janos Kovás, whose silvery mane and a certain way with his baton betrayed decades of experience with Wagner at the podium. I had been resigned to believing that the so-called “Wagner sound” which came so naturally to Klemperer, Stokowski and Goodall, not to mention Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch (neither of whom I heard live), was long extinct, but there it was in all its recondite wonder. Taking a quick glance into the pit during an interval, I noticed that most of the orchestra members are too young to have worked with any of these titans. So Kovács worked miracles, bringing the splendor of this bygone sound briefly back to life.

I am determined to visit Budapest again and maybe often. My gut tells me, that wherever Europe is going culturally, Budapest may get there first.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

[Ed. Note: This post has been revised to reflect that Eva Panczel was the Carmen, and not Viktória Mester, as the review originally stated. 8/16/10]

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Live Offerings - Saturday, July 3 2010 - Part II

More live offerings:

  • KFUO - From Lyric Opera of Chicago, Verdi's Ernani, with Salvatore Licitra, Sondra Radvanovsky, Boaz Daniel, Giacomo Prestia, conducted by Renato Palumbo.
  • Radio Oesterreich International (OE1) - From the Venna State Opera, a June 30 Gala concert honoring Intendant Ioan Holender, with Plácido Domingo, Siegfried Jerusalem, Thomas Quasthoff, Soile Isokoski, Thomas Hampson, Fabio Luisi, Diana Damrau, Thomas Moser, Leo Nucci, Angelika Kirchschlager, Franz Welser-Möst, Michael Schade, Zubin Mehta, Angela Denoke, José Cura, Violeta Urmana, Antonio Pappano, Waltraud Meier, Johan Botha, Simone Young, Anna Netrebko, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Krassimira Stoyanova.
  • WABE Classical, WDAV, WHQR & WUGA - NPR World of Opera: From Paris National Opera, Bellini's La Sonnambula, with Natalie Dessay, Javier Camarena, Marie-Adeline Henry, Cornelia Oncioiu, Nahuel di Pierro, Michele Pertusi and Jian-Hong Zha, conducted by Evelino Pido.
  • BR Klassik - From the Aldeburgh Music Festival, a June 14 Liederabend with tenor Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake, Klavier.
  • Cesky Rozhlas 3-Vltava - Fibich's Sarka, with Václav Bednár, Lubomír Havlák, Jaroslav Veverka, Marie Podvalová, Marta Krásová, Milada Šubrtová, Miloslava Fidlerová, Jaroslava Vymazalová, Ludmila Hanzalíková, Marie Zalabáková and Jaroslava Dobrá, conducted by Zdenek Chalabala.
  • HR2 Kultur - From the Vienna State Opera, a June 16 performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser, with Johan Botha, Christian Gerhaher, Anja Kampe, Michaela Schuster, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.
  • Radio Tre (RAI) - From Teatro Dell'Opera in Rome, Boito's Mefistofele, with Orlin Anastassov, Stuart Neill,, Amarilli Nizza, Chiara Chialli, Amedeo Moretti, Amarilli Nizza, Chiara Chialli and Maurizio Rossi, conducted by Renato Palumbo.
  • KBIA2 - NPR World of Opera: From Prague, Smetana's The Bartered Bride, with Pavla Vykopalová, Ales Vorácek, Pavel Cernoch, Ludek Vele, Ivan Kusnjer, Yvona Skvárová, Ales Hendrych and Lenka Smidová, conducted by Ondrej Lenárd.
  • France Vivace - From Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, a December 19, 2009 performance of Wagner's Der Fliegende Höllander, with Albert Dohmen, Elizabeth Whitehouse, Birgitta Svendén, Robert Wörle, Hans Sotin and Christian Elsner, conducted by Woldemar Nelsson.

Happy listening . . . .

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Live Offerings - Saturday, July 3 2010 - Part I

Lots to listen to this afternoon - here's the live lineup:

  • Bartok Radio - From Paris Opera, a September 26, 2009 performance of Gounod's Mireille, with Inva Mula, Charles Castronovo, Franck Ferrari, Alain Vernhes, Sylvie Brunet, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Sébastien Droy, Nicolas Cavallier and Amel Brahim-Djelloul, Ugo Rabec, Conducted by Marc Minkowski.
  • BBC Radio 3 - From the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Handel's Tamerlano, with Christianne Stotijn, Kurt Streit, Sara Mingardo, Christine Schaefer, Renata Pokupic and Vito Priante. conducted by Ivor Bolton.
  • Espace 2 - From Grand Théâtre in Geneva, a December 12, 2009 performance of Chabrier's L'Etoile, with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, René Schirrer, Jean Doyen, Fabrice Farina, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Sophie Graf, Blandine Staskiewicz and Jérome Savary, conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce.
  • Radio 4 Netherlands - From Basilique Notre-Dame in Beaune, Monteverdi's Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, with Furio Zanasi, Sara Mingardo, Luca Dordolo, Monica Piccinini, Sergio Foresti, Anna Simboli, Vincenzo De Donato,Andrea Arrivabene, Jeremy Palumbo, Raffaele Giordani, Gianluca Ferrarini and Gabriela Martellacci, conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini.
  • Radio Clasica de Espana - From Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in París, a May 22 performance of Cavalli's Calisto, with S. Karthäuser, M. C. Chappuis, L. Zazzo, V. Gens, C. Auvity, G. Battista Parodi, M. Storti, M. Cassi, S. Puértolas and G. Broadbent, conducted by C. Rousset; and from Palacio de Carlos V in Granada, a concert performance of Roig's Cecilia Valdés, with M. Bayo, J. M. Zapata, E. Sánchez, C. Bergasa, M. Rodríguez Cusí and Giminez's La tempranica , with M. Bayo, J. M. Zapata , E. Sánchez , C. Bergasa and M. Rodríguez Cusí. conducted by V. P. Pérez.
  • RTP Antena 2 - From the Vienna State Opera, an October 3, 2009 performance of Gounod's Faust, with Soile Isokoski, Zoryana Kushpler, Roxana Constantinescu, Piotr Beczala, Kwangchul Youn, Boaz Daniel and Hans Peter Kammerer, conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
  • WETA - From La Scala in Milan, Bizet's Carmen, with Anita Rachvelishvili, Jonas Kaufmann, Erwin Schrott, Adriana Damato, Gabor Bretz, Michele Losier, Mathias Hausmann and Adriana Kucerova, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
  • WFMT Opera Series (on numerous stations) - From Lyric opera of Chicago, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, with Mariusz Kwiecien, Nicole Cabell, Joyce DiDonato, Anne Schwanewilms, Kyle Ketelsen, Keith Jameson, Philip Kraus, Andrea Silvestrelli and Lauren Curnow, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
  • KUSF & WRTI - From Chicago Lyric Opera, Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, with Paul Groves, John Relyea, Christian Van Horn and Susan Graham, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

More to come . . . .

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Friday, July 02, 2010

Resounding Ring

Der Ring des Nibelungen - Second Cycle

8-13 June 2010

Of the four Ring operas, Siegfried is my least favorite. In fact, I dread it, because it’s a five-hour torture test for the tenor taking on the title role. If the tenor sounds tortured, as some recent performances in New York have shown, woe to those who must hear his pain!

Once in many blue moons, though, a miracle happens. Such was the case at the Cologne Opera several weeks ago (11 June), when Stefan Vinke steam-rolled his way through the part, never misplacing a note, and more significantly, never tiring throughout the rigors of the final scene. Vinke’s characterization of Siegfried leans toward neo-Neanderthal rather than neo-lyric, but the voice is interesting enough to sustain his beefy approach. In its upper register, it is simply thrilling. Only twice before have I heard a Wagner tenor live, whose top is so loud and freely produced.

Vinke trumped his triumph two days later, when, at the start of the third act in Götterdämmerung, he batted out a high C forte that diminished into pianissimo, only to boomerang back into forte before hang-gliding down to a solid F#. So literally stunning was the sound, that it was impossible to tell whether its source was the head or chest. You may think this is showing off, but I say: gimme sum more!

And more he gave. While punctuating accents appropriately, Vinke resolutely eschewed barking, keeping the vocal line bouncing on a resonant air bed. This was masterful singing that was, above all, musical. Best of all, Vinke’s voice sounds like it’s still "in the works." He must take care to nurture a God-given instrument that nature has so richly endowed.

To top it off retroactively, Vinke also took on Siegmund in Walküre as a warm up. Here, Vinke needs to work on dramatic puissance, especially in the second act, where Siegmund shows he has as much persuasive power as brute strength. At this point in his development, Vinke is still addressing Brünnhilde rather than moving her.

Speaking of Brünnhilde, Vinke was well-nigh perfectly partnered by Evelyn Herlitzius. Note for note, scene after scene, Herlitzius showed that she continues to grow as a Wagner artist. While her voice occasionally spreads under extreme pressure, she articulates the vast palette of Brünnhilde’s emotions with seeming ease. She reportedly trained as a dancer in her youth and carries herself with a dancer’s bearing. While Vinke dominated this Ring vocally, Herlitzius commanded the stage visually whenever she appeared.

Towering above both Vinke and Herlitzius, at least physically, the super-tall American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was in every respect a lordly Wotan. Apart from purveying a steel-girded voice that turns warm and cool by turns, he has Uhde’s poise, the stamina of early Morris and McIntyre, and Hotter’s riveting stage presence. His rage-to-regret exchange with Herlitzius’ Brünnhilde was heart-breaking. Now at the zenith of his career, however, Grimsley has yet to become a regular at the world’s major opera houses. This, despite a reportedly sizable cult following and a fan page on Facebook: “He keeps getting cast in roles where he makes out with Jane Eaglen. So that's fun.” Jane Eaglen? Golly, get me tickets!

Astrid Weber did double-duty as Sieglinde and Gutrune. It’s always a pleasure to hear a real soprano (instead of a front-loaded mezzo) taking on these roles. She was barely formative when I first heard her in Chemnitz several years ago, and she sounds like she’s fulfilling the promise she showed back then. But she would serve her career interests better by having an ear kept on her sustained outbursts: an incipient beat is beginning to show. This was also evident in her appearances in Cologne some months ago as Eva. Weber has a worthy vocal instrument that could hold its own at the so-called big houses. Don’t let it go to waste, Trudy!

Dalia Schechter one-upped Weber by doing triple-duty as Fricka, the Third Norn and Waltraute. Looking frumpy-glam and sounding delectably bitchy, she was at her best as Fricka. Her Norn sounded preoccupied with matters more urgent than the End of the World, namely: how am I going to get through Waltraute’s Narrative an hour from now? But when the hour was at hand, she delivered her implicit messages from Daddy W to her errant sister with tearful urgency.

The Cologne Opera’s cash-poor management managed to muster a grade-A line-up to fill out the supporting roles. At the apex of this tier was the miraculous Matti Salminen as Hagen. I found it astonishing to hear him acquitting himself with every bit as much fire and passion as in his youth.

For the first time since I’ve heard him more than ten years ago, Kurt Rydl as Fasolt eschewed barking. When he actually sings the notes, he is really quite good.

Oliver Zwarg was a delightfully mean-spirited Alberich. Gerhard Siegel proved himself an admirably wretched Mime. Ante Jerkunica was effectively world-weary as Fafner.

The yeomen of this Ring when all was sung and done was the Gürzenich Orchestra in the pit under the baton of its Music Director Markus Stentz. I’ve said often that there’s little to compare with hearing a classy German orchestra playing Wagner with a German conductor. While quibbles over flexibility could be raised, Stentz elicited a lean stream of sound from his colleagues that was as consistently exciting as it was, at times, deeply moving.

The staging by Robert Carsen and Patrick Kinmonth who also did the serviceable costumes, was non-conceptual, although they appear to have set it in some kind of military state. There’s real-looking fire, and the military costumes pay tribute to Hugo Boss (the Elder). That said, the singers were left free to do their jobs.

Which brings me to a point about all the hoo-ha that’s surrounded the recent presentation of Los Angeles’ first-ever Ring Cycle (which, by the way, I did not hear). The management of the L.A. Opera made a shrewd artistic decision by producing a Ring that was sure to elicit headlines. Hiring a director (Achim Freyer) with no visible connections in Hollywood was a plus. The Opera’s press office also bagged a big publicity bonus from two sources: Jewish groups protesting all the attention being paid to an anti-semitic composer, and two of the lead singers publicly lambasting the production, costumes and sets. But were these outbursts from the star singers really spontaneous? Why didn’t they just quit? Or cop an I-got-da-vapors plea?

Anyway, all that noise failed to jazz the box office. Spreading out a cycle over more than seven days proved too expensive for this Ring’s biggest audience: out-of-towners and foreign Wagner nuts, who were looking at four- and five-figure hotel tabs on top of up-ticked ticket prices.

Is Los Angeles really ready for an epic about what Los Angeles is all about -- greed, incest and unhappy endings?

Which brings me back to a happy start next season for the Cologne Opera. The company has been invited to mount its Ring at the Shanghai Expo. That’s something to write home about.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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