Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Follow-up on Alex Ross review of Met Das Rheingold

These are two messages sent out to a few associates of ours, concerning Alex Ross's New Yorker review of the Met's current Das Rheingold.


Hi people --

I'm just so totally taken aback by this development that I truly have nothing to say this time (for some, that may be a blessing...........).

Look, here are three aural "snapshots" of three different Alberichs.  I honestly feel that one of these three is simply out of his depth completely, utterly, totally.  Please, is there something seriously wrong with my hearing?  Please tell me honestly: Do you sincerely find that all three are equally valid in their way?  Thanks.

Now if you don't feel that any one of these three sticks out like a sore thumb, a very sore thumb, then fine: I'm obviously clueless here.  Let Alex Ross be the taste-setter for today.  Here's something of what he said about the Alberich in this season's Met Rheingold that opened the current season.

This is how one of New York's leading critics appraises one of the less adequate Alberichs I've ever heard.  I know that others right here with just as much experience have also found this current Alberich perfectly acceptable.  Am I living in some alternate universe?  Please let me know frankly if you find all three of the audio files equally fine.  If you do, then it may be time for me to take a vow of silence; I'm plainly delusional.  There's plainly nothing wrong with this Alberich after all.  Right?  I've always known that no two sets of ears hear the same, but I still thought there were certain basic objective standards of musical definition like pitch, steadiness, line.  Are those standards bogus, or am I simply imagining deficiencies in these areas when none exist?


Geoffrey Riggs


It's past time to let everyone in on who the three Alberichs were whom I chose in my three recorded versions of the same Alberich solo, and why I made the choices I did.  At the risk of exasperating everyone yet some more, I'm first submitting here a reminder of the gist of my own recent (and exasperated) post to get everyone oriented.  That post was triggered by Alex Ross's unexpected rave for Owens' Alberich in The New Yorker.

Some may recall that previous to that New Yorker issue, on Opening Night of the current Met season, I was distinctly underwhelmed with both Eric Owens and Bryn Terfel as Alberich and Wotan, and I blogged accordingly (   But Ross's subsequent rave for Owens' Alberich has really mystified me and was the occasion for my follow-up post which I'm referencing here.   I have to wonder just what kinds of standards could Ross possibly be applying in rating Owens so highly.   I am frankly flabbergasted by his description of Owens' Alberich as "richly layered", sporting an awareness of the "word-music quality" in Wagner's writing in an "emotionally transparent" reading.  Candidly, I found the reading distinctly one-dimensional and unmusical.  Although his voice is clearly huge, the singing itself suggests a character singer to me in its crudeness.  I freely acknowledge that I only heard it in an HD transmission, not in person in the house.  And the fact that a lurker here whose opinions I happen to respect enormously wrote me that she saw/heard Owens' Alberich in person and that it "was a strong, well-sung Alberich, with a lot of energy and excellent vocal acting" only adds to my puzzlement.  Likewise, other positive notices from others who saw it in person seem oven odder to me.

This in-person response is not unanimous, though.  I do know of at least one long-time opera-goer with very sharp ears whose experiences of various Ring cycles is considerable, and she said bluntly to my wife Liz on the way out of the auditorium, "Worst Alberich I ever heard".   She was still in an apparent minority -- of those attending -- however.  Could hearing Owens' huge voice in person somehow ameliorate some of the wobble (I've known mechanical reproduction to exaggerate a vibrato)?   Maybe. Yet how could an in-person hearing ameliorate the distinct throatiness in the tone, the very curt phrasing, the uncertain pitch and the total absence of legato (even when describing the gods in Scene III)?

This is no longer a case of subjective impressions of the same singer from various perspectives.   It goes beyond that.   It is fundamentally different yardsticks being applied to what makes a singer of Alberich's music good and/or bad.   Yardsticks that just must be very different from mine, frankly.

Now I personally recognize two plausible reasons why Owens was hired and only two, and they are related: legitimately musical Alberichs like Richard Paul Fink (excellent in the role at the Met only last year and coming back for one performance this coming Spring) and Johannes Martin Kraenzle (who impressed me enormously with his musicality in the role at La Scala this past December) were probably not available, and so Owens was probably hired as a later choice, and he was also most likely hired because he does have a big sound.   There is no gainsaying the power and amplitude of that voice.   It's what he does with that voice that I find so questionable.   Ultimately, with a character-singer style and technique rather than with the legitimate musicality of an authentic principal singer, Owens does efficiently enough just about what a crudely effective character singer is capable of doing.   So I can't fault him for that (although I can fault his teacher and his coaching).  He was probably the only one available for this opening with the requisite power, so everyone had to make the best of it, including him.

But I do fault critics like Ross whose experience should tell them which attributes a leading Alberich at the U.S.'s leading opera house should ideally have.   How can any responsible critic claim that Owens is now a leading Alberich, when we have had not one but two examples just last year of authentic principal-singer Alberichs whose musicality dominated at the Met and at La Scala and reminded us of the full requirements for this role?   We're not talking in some fuddy-duddy way here of Golden-Age Alberichs of yesteryear; we're talking of two self-evidently musical Alberichs who are active and in their prime right now.   This is why the yardstick being applied by a critic like Ross is so strange to me.

I decided to check out which kinds of yardsticks would be applied by others here to three different readings of the same Alberich solo.   Had I simply lost my moorings and was I in a minority in applying certain basic musical standards to Alberich that other equally knowledgeable listeners simply don't apply?   I chose the crucial solo in which Alberich describes the gods in Scene III.   Here, if anywhere, basic musical standards do get involved in addition to characterization, since Alberich is not merely expressing his own feelings here, off-putting as they are, but is actually reminding us of -- and the music here makes this very, very, very plain -- another musical world in which loftiness and beauty are being overtly invoked.   In order for that loftiness and beauty to be invoked -- even if partly ironically -- the vocal style must match what the orchestra is clearly "saying".  Is the flowing orchestral line here matched in the singing in all three of the versions that I used here --

here --

and here? --

I wanted to ascertain how many responded to one of these far less positively than the other two.   I know there is one here that, for me anyway, sticks out like a sore thumb.  Without identifying any of the three singers, I wanted to see if others too would notice something amiss in one of the three while listening "blind".  The results, both from public and private responses, are now in.   Of course, one could always argue that the majority isn't always right.   But when a whopping majority feels that one of these is distinctly worse than the others, the contrary verdict of a respected critic, a verdict actually praising as notable the same Alberich singled out by others as the poorest of three(!), has to be challenged.   What does Ross mean when he writes of the "word-music quality" in Wagner's musical writing in such a context, when it's precisely on that count that this Alberich appears to be heard by many more here than just one as distinctly wanting?

These three excerpts were presented anonymously.   No indication was given as to who was who.   And here is how the choices panned out for the three.

None singled out AlberichA as the one who jarred with the rest.  Two singled out AlberichC as the least satisfying.  And a whopping nine respondents singled out AlberichB as the "sore thumb".  Whatever the vicissitudes of recording or of mechanical reproduction or of individual tastes, can one really write off such an overwhelming response as merely subjective?  It is plain to me, candidly, that whatever the exigencies, positive or otherwise, of AlberichB's impact in person, his singing does indeed come off as extremely crude on recording.

The two negative responses to AlberichC were "I like Alberich #3 least because his pitch gets sloppy and he slithers around" and "I found the last singer to be the most irritating what with the 'Bayreuth Bark,' sandpaper quality and goat vibrato".

The nine responses to AlberichB were "AlberichB was the poorest", "the middle one is wobbly, VERY WOBBLY, has a big  WOBBLY  bobbly ------voice", "#2 sounded distinctly more unsteady to me", "does display a substantial wobble in the voice during his first few phrases", "doesn't seem much attempt at getting a character developed, the ambition seems to be just to get the notes out ... B has the greatest failings", "B sounds like a goat", "has a wobble, and blusters, he does not sound threatening in the least, just huffy puffy", "the second one I don't know, but he's terrible", and "your sample shows him to be inferior to the two others you offered".

AlberichA is Richard Paul Fink with James Levine (2009); AlberichB is Eric Owens with James Levine (2010); AlberichC is Gustav Neidlinger with Hans Knappertsbusch (1956).  Ironically, some wrote in with the point that the conductor plays a big part in all this; yet those who singled out AlberichB as the least viable sometimes singled out AlberichA as the finest -- who is with the same conductor as AlberichB!  So plainly, that does not compute here at all, since we have the most acclaimed and the most criticized -- sometimes by the same respondent yet! -- heard with the same conductor.

I know now that just hearing these three without experiencing their presence results in pretty much the same response from others that I had myself.  It persuades me that I haven't lost my moorings or my hearing at all.  In fact, one extremely eminent critic wrote in privately to say "Nothing wrong with your hearing!", which -- my only being human -- frankly made my day, I can tell you.  I wonder if he knows just how much it meant to me.  Thank you.

Nothing here resolves the question of Owens' impact in the house, of course.  It's possible that the sheer amplitude of his tone in the house simply obliterates other problems because of its overall impact.  But I am still quite skeptical, and a critic of Alex Ross's presumed stature should still be able to tell the difference between the one-dimensional delivery of a character singer, however powerfully voiced, and an authentic principal musician.  Ross does note that Owens' voice is "more basslike than baritonal", pointing -- in my view -- to the distinct possibility that Alberich's music simply lies somewhat high for Owens and he was only intent on vocal survival.  I might well find him more viable as a Hunding or a Commendatore.  I might find less pervasive tension and unsteadiness in the tone in roles like those.  I'm only guessing, of course.

Look, these are the exasperated conclusions of an exasperated listener more baffled -- discouraged, frankly -- than I've ever been by an (?implicit?) complacency over musical values in Wagner, reflected in a readiness to acclaim a crude interpretation of a crucial Wagner part that strikes my ear as almost more spoken than sung.  If an Alex Ross can acclaim a character-singer Alberich as the very acme of Wagner interpretation, then I fear for the genuine musicians of the next generation caught up in the meat-grinder of a musical world in which dubious standards like Ross's become the norm and in which aspiring artists inspired by the evocative humanity in Wagner's music must trim their musical sails to conform to the crude expectations of a new generation scarcely able to tell the difference between a Fink and an Owens, and caring even less.

I am, though, grateful to Alex Ross for one thing: You see, the index of the English translation of the Cosima Wagner diaries is perfectly appalling, and thanks to it, I had given up any hope of ever being able to read again a remark that Wagner makes about Alberich during a train ride through sooty Victorian England.  I read it once when I read through both volumes many years ago.  But the index fails to mentions it, so I had shied away in later years from citing it due to my wanting to be sure as to Wagner's general gist at the time and my inability to find the remarks.  Ross, though, reaffirms what I had recalled by quoting from Wagner's remark on that occasion: Ross refers to Wagner himself having remarked that he could still feel a sneaking sympathy for Alberich in Alberich's yearning for beauty.  Now that is the remark of a master dramatist faced with the depiction, in Alberich, of a clearly warped soul.  However warped, the yearning that is still presented there must ring true -- and does -- if we are to be engaged in Alberich's story, his villainy and all, the same way we must be -- and are -- by yet another great tragic villain who also compels by the vividness of his humanity, Shakspeare's Macbeth.

Wagner's own sneaking sympathy for Alberich's warped yearnings vindicates my own feeling that there are indeed yearning aspects to Alberich's music (as in his Scene III evocation of the lofty beauteous gods) that must contrast with the hideousness of his ultimate choices, and if there are some here who feel that no understanding or stature at the Macbeth level must ever be allowed for the dwarf Alberich, then their quarrel is not with me but with the creator of this work.  Can Richard Wagner be wrong about his own Ring cycle?

Geoffrey Riggs

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Live Offerings - Saturday, October 23, 2010

We are off to see Boris Godunov in HD from the Met this afternoon, so this will be a quick and dirty version of what's playing this afternoon:

BBC Radio 3 - Steffani's Niobe, from the Royal Opera House in London, with Jacek Laszczkowski, Veronique Gens, Delphine Galou, Tim Mead, Lothar Odinius, Amanda Forsythe, Bruno Taddia, Alastair Miles and Iestyn Davies, conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock.
BR Klassik & Latvia Radio Klasika - From Bavarian State Opera, Dvorak's Rusalka, with Klaus Florian Vogt, Nadia Krasteva, Kristine Opolais, Günther Groissböck, Janina Baechle, Ulrich Reß, Tara Erraught, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Angela Brower, Okka von der Damerau and John Chest, conducted by Tomás Hanus.
CBC Two - From the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Schumann's Genoveva, with Anne Schwanewilms, Morten Frank Larsen, Shawn Mathey, Birgit Remmert, Markus Marquardt, Markus Marquardt, Jae-Hyong Kim, Gun-Wook Lee, conducted by Jun Märkl.
Deutschlandaradio Kultur - From the Vienna State Opera, Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, with Edita Gruberova, Michele Pertusi, José Bros and Laura Polverelli, conducted by Friedrich Haider.
DR P2 - From Teatro Real in Madrid, Weill's Mahagonny, with Jane Henschel, Willard White, Donald Kaasch, Christopher Ventris and Elzbieta Szmytka, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado.
Espace Musique - From the 2010 Bayreuth Festival, Wagner's Lohengrin, with Jonas Kaufmann, Georg Zeppenfeld, Annette Dasch, Lucio Gallo, Hans-Joachim Ketelson, Evelyn Herlitzius, Samuel Youn, Stefan Heibach, Willem Van der Heyden, Rainer Zaun and Christian Tschelebiew, conducted by Andris Nelsons.
France Musique - From Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, an October 11, performance of Cherubini's Lodoïska, with Nathalie Manfrino, Hjördis Thébault, Sébastien Guèze, Philippe Do, Armando Noguera, Pierre-Yves Pruvot, Alain Buet, conducted by Jérémie Rhorer.
KBIA2, KOHM, WABE Classical, WDAV, WHQR, WPLN, WUGA - NPR World of Opera: From Washington National Opera, Strauss's Elektra, with Susan Bullock, Christine Goerke, Irina Mishura, Daniel Sumegi and Alan Woodrow, conducted by Heinz Fricke.
KUSF - From San Francisco Opera, Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, with Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, Bruno Praticò and Meredith Arwady, conducted by Andriy Yurkevych.
Radio Clasica de Espana - From the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the March 30, 1963 broadcast of Bellini's La Sonnambula, with Joan Sutherland, Nicolai Gedda, Ezio Flagello, Janette Scovotti, Lili Chookasian, John Macurdy and Andrea Velis, conducted by Silvio Varviso.
RTP Antena 2 - From the 2010 Bayreuth Festival, Wagner's Götterdämmerung, with Lance Ryan, Ralf Lukas, Eric Halfvarson, Andrew Shore, Linda Watson, Edith Haller, Christa Mayer, Simone Schröder, Martina Dike, Edith Haller, Christiane Kohl, Ulrike Helzel and Floßhilde Simone Schröder, conducted by Christian Thielemann.
Radio 4 Netherlands & Sveriges Radio P2 - From Bavarian State Opera, Dvorak's Rusalka, with Nina Stemme, Klaus Florian Vogt, Günther Groissböck, Kristine Jepson and Janina Baechleconducted by Tomás Hanus.
WFMT Opera Series (on numerous stations) - From San Francisco Opera, Puccini's La Rondine, with Angela Gheorghiu, Misha Didyk, Anna Christy, Gerard Powers, Rhoslyn Jones, Melody Moore, Katharine Tier, Philip Skinner, Ji Young Yang, Phillip Pickens, David Kekuewa, Jere Torkelsen and Butler, conducted by Ion Marin.
WRTI - From San Francisco Opera, Strauss's Salome, with Nadja Michael, Kim Begley, Greer Grimsley, Irina Mishura and Garrett Sorenson, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.
Dwojka Radio Polskie, Radio Oesterreich International (OE1), & Radio Tre (RAI) - Hindemith's Cardillac.
Bartok Radio - Gluck's Armida.
NRK Klassisk & NRK P2 - Tchaikovsky's Iolanta.
Klara - d'Indy's L'étranger.

Happy listening . . . .

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Twisted Sister

Sam Shirakawa attended the premiere of a new production of Elektra in Cologne:

ELEKTRA [New Production]
Premiere: 17 October 2010

© Klaus Lefebvre
Should a woman’s staging of Richard Strauss’ unhappy family drama Elektra be somehow different from a male director’s point of view? Maybe, maybe not. But Gabriele Rech’s new production for Oper Köln is certainly remarkable for the visual violence she interpolates. Aegisthus is dispatched in full view of the audience, Klytemnestra’s ladies-in-waiting are doomed to have their throats slashed. Sundry other servants are cut down in similar fashion. Hamlet dumps far fewer corpses on the stage at the final curtain.

The arguably gratuitous violence Frau Rech brings to Hugo von Hoffmannstahl’s drama, is also noteworthy for its selectivity. Klytemnästra’s murder, for example, is kept off-stage in accordance with the stage instructions. Only at the curtain calls, do we see bloodstains on her slip. And Elektra, of all death-wishers, manages to survive the bloodbath, although she takes a token bath in blood on the final C-Major chord. Girls Rule?

While all this mayhem is taking place, everybody except Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra appears somewhat impassive. Elektra neither dances herself into a frenzy nor collapses at the finale; Orest maunders from one side of the stage to the other like a bewildered tourist, before executing his duty with robotic mien.

Strange. In all the productions of Elektra I’ve witnessed to date, anger pustulates remorselessly in every vocal line. In Rech’s view, though, lancing the pustules only deepens the well of unremitting psychic pain into which the gods have plunged Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s House of Atreus.

British soprano Catherine Foster, fresh from her success as Brünnhilde with Oper Köln’s performances of The Ring at the Shanghai Expo, shows no signs of wear, as she presents what is the most lyrical portrayal of the Twisted Sister I have heard to date. I’m not used to such lachrymose delivery from the opera’s eponym, but it’s fascinating to hear how Foster makes it work.

Dalia Schaechter as Klytämnestra strove effectively to gain her estranged daughter's confidence under the wit-scrambling burdens of bad conscience and bum medicine. Samuel Youn appears to be going places in the opera world, even though the blocking in this production left him with few places to go. Orest may not be best suited to the brass-plated timbre of his sonorous voice, but he is a thrill to hear no matter what he’s singing.

The major thrill of the assembled cast, though, is Edith Haller as Chrysothemis. Between scurrying on and off stage as though she keeps forgetting to get something at the supermarket, she stops long enough to reveal a glorious upper and middle register gratifyingly reminiscent of pre-wobble Gwyneth Jones. In fact, the physical resemblence between Haller and the hochdramatische diva of yesteryear is uncanny.

Catherine Foster (Elektra), Edith Haller (Chrysothemis)  © Klaus Lefebvre

Thrilling may not be the best way to describe any portrayal of Aegisth, but it was satisfying to have veteran Rene Kollo do a turn. Age may have widened his vibrato, but it has not withered his volume.

Markus Stenz inspired the Gürzenich Orchestra to some breathtaking heights. If I get a chance, I’ll return just to hear this marvelous ensemble again, polishing off Strauss’ miraculous score in a manner characteristic of great German orchestras.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Matters of Passion

Sam Shirakawa weighs in on a new Meistersinger in Leipzig, the Passion Play in Omerammergau and the passing of Joan Sutherland, among other things:

Wagner: Die Meistersinger (New Production)
Leipzig 9 October 2010

This is a special year and a special time of year in Leipzig. October 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of Germany’s reunification, in which many of the city’s inhabitants played a key and perilous role, as well as the 50th birthday of Leipzig’s reconstructed opera house. On October 9th, the two milestones converged at the same time on Augustusplatz, the city’s enormous central square, situated between the Opera House and the main concert hall, which is named after its principal tenant the Gewandhaus Orchestra. At least 10 thousand people filled the square for a pop concert hosted by Leipzig’s mayor, while Oper Leipzig unfurled a new production of its most famous native composer’s festive opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg -- the work that inaugurated the building a half-century ago. The glittering audience included many present and former dignitaries and two members of Germany’s unofficial royal family: Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier. While an Oper Leipzig official's objections to the outdoor celebration led to her resignation, an accord between the Opera House and concert promoters resulted in an hour-long second intermission, which allowed the glitterati and others attending the performance to watch a chunk of the festivities in all their finery from the portico and upper terrace of the Opera House.

For such a joyous event, Jochen Biganzoli’s production was something of a downer. Which is not to say his view of Meistersinger is a letdown -- far from it. It is filled with fascinating interpolated incidents, such as Eva appearing to Beckmesser in a quasi-daydream in the third act and leading him to the poem on which the climax of the opera turns. No -- it’s Biganzoli’s view of Hans Sachs as a less-than tragic drunk that I found both unsettling and singularly depressing. Biganzoli’s Sachs starts bottoms-upping at breakfast, as is clearly demonstrated in the first half of the last act. What is not so clear, is whether the culminating Song Contest actually happens or takes place in Sachs' head as an episode of delirium tremens. In the midst of the choral finale, the elder statesman of song collapses and emergency medics rush in hastily to remove him on a stretcher.

Sachs’ alcoholic bent is no concept ornamentation. It is rooted, according to Biganzoli, in his ambiguous relationship with Eva, to whom he is seriously attracted, even as he addresses her as “my child.” His reference to the legend of Tristan and Isolde is more an admission of besotted resignation than of stoic abnegation.

But Sachs is not the only Nuremberger who imbibes. The apprentice David carries a flask from which he draws inspiration. Eva’s father Pogner is also strong on sauce.

In the hands of a less competent cast, such an edgy view of Wagner’s only comedy might falter. Fortunately, Leipzig is graced in having none less than Wolfgang Brendel portraying Hans Sachs. His is a masterful achievement -- retaining consummate dignity while endowing the text with layers of wondrous ambiguity through his peerless musicality. Of the 20 or so baritones I have heard in the role live, Brendel is the greatest by far. His voice has gained depth and an even broader spectrum of color since I first heard him at the Munich Festival in 1977 as a towering Onegin.

The young American soprano Meagen Miller triumphs over Heike Neugebauer’s ill-suited costumes to render a graceful and radiant Eva. Her compatriot James Moellenhoff portrays Pogner as a man as much concerned with the welfare of German culture as with the happiness of his daughter.

Dan Karlström’s David is a discovery. He is agile in both voice and movement -- his brief dance turn in the final act shows him to be an accomplished hoofer. This kind of versatility endows him with huge cross-over potential. Tuomas Pursio as Kothner is new to me and also a welcome surprise. I wouldn’t be surprised to find him somewhere as a first-rate Escamillo.

Some thoughts about Stefan Vinke (pronounced Fink-uh) as Walther. So far, I’ve heard him as Lohengrin, Rienzi, Siegmund and most recently as both Siegfrieds, and I’ve found him largely rave-worthy, especially as Siegfried. At the premiere of this Meistersinger, though, he seemed, out of sorts, even out of his depth. Walther is arguably the most demanding of Wagner’s tenor roles because its range of vocal color calls on everything a tenor has to offer. Admittedly, it’s Vinke's first crack at the role, and he has what it takes. But he is still grappling with integrating these demands into a cohesive portrayal.

Axel Kober's briskly paced reading never skims over lyrical moments, particularly in the second act, and he keeps the orchestral volume from competing with the vocalists. The Gewandhaus Orchestra consistently produces the kind of frisson-inducing sound more commonly heard at muse-inspired concerts.

Now a brief word about other matters:

What would have become of Richard Wagner without his foremost fan and patron King Ludwig of Bavaria? The question is academic, if not foolish, but the thought occurred to me several times during a couple of side trips I took a few weeks ago, while I was in Oberammergau, the village where The Passion Plays Festival has been performed roughly once every decade since 1634. Ludwig’s opulent main residence -- Linderhof -- is about a 25 minute drive away. Two of his fairy tale palaces -- Hohenschwanngau and Neuschwannstein can be reached in less than an hour from Oberammergau. Ludwig was so crazy about Wagner’s music (not to mention just crazy), that he even had a cave built at Linderhof with a grotto representing Venus’ grotto in Tannhäuser. Here, he produced private performances of Wagner’s works, complete with orchestra and chorus.

It’s not until you come to this grotto, that you gain some sense of the depths to which the obsession produced by Wagner’s music drove Ludwig. Few would dispute that Wagner’s works opened up a glimpse -- for better or worse -- into a new world, but the will to make that glimpse reality... does that not take the kind of conviction akin to religious fervor?
Back in Oberammergau, I experienced fervor of a kind I’ve never before undergone. I had sort of expected the Passion Plays to be a hokey affair -- a few grades above a parochial school production. I was hardly thunderstruck with Revelation, but I admit to being drawn almost unwillingly into the utter conviction with which the actors -- all amateurs and residents of the village -- played out this most-told-story. An acting teacher once told me, “You have to believe, regardless of whether you’re presenting or representing." And the essence of that believing was purveyed over nearly six hours (excluding a dinner break), enhanced with musical interludes by Rochus Dedler (1778-1882 !!). At least 40 percent of the sold-out audience was obviously non-German, and there was no simultaneous translation. But only a handful of the 4,700 people departed during either half of the performance.

The production was realistic, the sets and costumes were Renaissance-Biblical, and Christian Stückl of Munich's Volkstheater directed the cast of literally thousands with striking simplicity, letting the tragic proceedings unfold with ever mounting tension. I found it simply astonishing that a stage full of non-professionals could sustain the dramatic line over such a long period. Not even the incomparable Peter Brook could keep kindling the mimetic flame in his cast at the all-night performance of Mahabharata that I attended some years ago in Brooklyn.

During the break, I learned a bit about the live orchestra that plays below the auditorium. (Actually, I had mistakenly assumed that the music was canned.) I happened to stop by a souvenir shop to buy a few postcards, when a man in his early 40s came rushing into the shop. He came over to me and asked if he could help me with a purchase. I asked him why he was out of breath, and he replied that he had just come from the theater where he was a member of the orchestra. One of the shop clerks was off for the day, so he had to do double duty. With a little encouragement, he went on to say, he played the timpani in the 80-member orchestra. All the players, chorus and vocal soloists (with two exceptions) were non-professional and bona-fide residents of Oberammergau. It was clear from his lively cadences that he adored what he was doing, but he was glad too that the festival would soon be over. He also confirmed that over half of Oberammergau’s 5-thousand residents played a direct part in the production, onstage, behind the scenes, or in preparing costumes and sets. Men and children selected to appear in the plays are not allowed to have their hair shortened, starting three months before the first performance.

Why such an epic community effort that takes up over seven years of preparation each decade? Historians confirm that in 1633, the residents of the village were in the throes of pestillence, poverty and the 30 Years’ War. The villagers pledged to perform once every decade a play depicting the last days of Christ as a supplication to be delivered from their misery. The pestilence ceased the following year.

Absent one year -- 1940 -- the beginning of perhaps the worst pestilence in Germany’s history, the descendants of Oberammergau have kept their promise. You cannot begin to imagine what it’s like to come here and undergo such an experience. It won’t necessarily prove a Pauline epiphany -- it’s not meant to be -- but I’ll wager just Being There will not leave you unmoved. You have only a decade left to plan your trip, so get started.

Finally, the recent death of Joan Sutherland. When I first heard her in 1960 at a concert performance of La Sonnambula in Philadelphia, I was awed by the size of her voice, not to mention its agility. She sounded so indestructible! This was a different kind of passion being displayed, more akin to to the rush during big game sports. In all, I heard her about 25 times, and she always sounded the same: loud, limpid and in her way, lovely. For a singer specializing in vocal stunts, Joan seemed deliriously disaster-proof. Surely, I assumed, she would keep going forever. Maybe that’s why her death on 10 October at age 83 took me by surprise. But, to rephrase the tag-line from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, she’ll go on.

©Sam H. Shirakawa 

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Live Offerings - Saturday, October 16, 2010 - Part II

More live offerings for this afternoon:

  • Klara - From the Holland Festival, Conti's Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena, with Stéphane Degout, Inga Kalna, Gillian Keit, Chistophe Dumaux, Bejun Mehta, Mark Tucker, Johanette Zomer, Marcos Fink, Judith van Wanroij, Dominique Visse, Geoffrey Dolton, conducted by René Jacobs.
  • Latvia Radio Klasika - From Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, a February 27 performance of Catalani's Villija, with Eva Maria Westbroek, Kristof Klorek, Mats Carlsson and Piero Terranova, conducted by Giuliano Carella.
  • Lyric FM, Radio Clasica de Espana & Radio Tre (RAI) - From the Wexford Opera Festival, Mercadante's Virginia, with Angela Meade, Hugh Russell, Ivan Magri, Bruno Ribeiro and Gianluca Buratto, conducted by Carlos Izcaray.
  • ABC Classic FM - From Krakow, Handel's Rinaldo, with Sonia Prina, Maria Grazia Schiavo, Roberta Invernizzi, Christophe Dumaux and Alain Buet, conducted by Ottavio Dantone.

Happy listening . . . .

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Live Offerings - Saturday, October 16, 2010 - Part I

In memory of Dame Joan Sutherland, who died earlier this week, many stations have been running tributes of one sort or another. Some are adding a tribute to their regularly scheduled Saturday broadcasts, and Sveriges Radio P2 is airing the Metropolitan Opera's March 3, 1963 broadcast of Bellini's La Sonnambula, with Sutherland, Gedda and Flagello. VPR Classical and CBC Two will be adding Sutherland tributes after their regular opera broadcasts. The WFMT Opera Series is running Salome from San Francisco this afternoon. Since it is a short opera, I wouldn't be surprised to see more than one of those stations adding some Sutherland material after Salome is over.

Now for the live offerings this afternoon:

  • Dwojka Polskie Radio - From Copenhagen, a March 27 performance of Handel's Jephtha, with Ulla Christensen, Eir Inderhaug, Hanne Fischer, Andrew Radley, Paul Agnew and Ludvig Lindström, conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen.
  • BBC Radio 3 - From the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Strauss's Salome, with Andrew Staples, Sarah Castle, Nicolas Courjal, Alan Ewing, Johan Reuter,John Cunningham, Angela Denoke,Gerhard Siegel, Irina Mishura, Adrian Thompson, Robert Anthony Gardiner, Hubert Francis, Steven Ebel, Jeremy White,Vuyani Mlinde and Dawid Kimberg, conducted by Harmut Haenchen.
  • CBC Two - Scarlatti's Carlo, Re d'Alemagna, with Roberta Invernizzi and Romina Basso, conducted by Fabio Biondi.
  • Deutschlandradio Kultur - From Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, a 1992 performance of Busoni's Die Brautwahl, with Siegfried Vogel, Dalia Schaechter, Peter Kazaras, Robert Swensen, Peter Menzel, Roman Trekel and Oscar Hillebrandt, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
  • DR P2 - From Los Angeles, a December 2009 performand of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with Nathan Gunn, Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce Di Donato, Bruno Praticò, Andrea Silfestrelli, Keri Marcinko, José Adán Pérez and Craig Colclough, conducted by Michele Mariotti.
  • Espace Musique - From the Canadian Opera Company, Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, with Serena Farnocchia, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Eric Cutler, Patrick Carfizzi and Weston Hurt, conducted by Ileana Montalbetti.
  • KBYU - From Utah Opera, a March performance of Donizetti's The Italian Girl in Algiers, with Leah Wool, Rod Nelman, Brian Stucki, Daniel Belcher, Anna Vikre, Brent Reilly Turner and Stina Eberhardt, conducted by Christopher Larkin.
  • KBIA2, KOHM, WABE Classical, WDAV, WHQR, WPLN & WUGA - NPR World of Opera: From Itria Valley Festival in Martina Franca, Italy, Handel's Rodelinda, with Sonia Ganassi, Franco Fagioli, Paolo Fanale, Gezim Myshketa, Marina de Liso and Antonio Giovannini, conducted by Diego Fasolis.
  • KUSF - From San Francisco Opera, a 2008 performance of Handel's Ariodante, with Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, Veronica Cangemi, Sonia Prina, Richard Croft and Eric Owens, conducted by Patrick Summers.
  • Radio 4 Netherlands - Wagner's Die Walküre, with Michael Weinius, Gregory Frank, Harry Peeters, Kelly God and Judith Nemeth, conducted by Ed Spanjaard.
  • RTP Antena 2 - From the Bayreuth Festival, a 2010 performance of Wagner's Siegfried, with Lance Ryan, Wolfgang Schmidt, Albert Dohmen, Andrew Shore, Diógenes Randes, Christa Mayer, Linda Watson and Christiane Kohl, conducted by Christian Thielemann.
  • WETA - From Washington Concert Opera, a May 2010 performance of Rossini's La Cenerentola, with Daniele Lorio, Magdalena Wór, Vivica Genaux, Eugene Galvin, Eduardo, Kenneth Tarver and Daniel Mobbs, conducted by Anthony Walker.
  • WFMT Opera Series (on numerous stations) - From San Francisco Opera, Strauss's Salome, with Nadja Michael, Irina Mishura, Kim Begley, Greer Grimsley, Garrett Sorenson, Elizabeth DeShong, Beau Gibson, Robert MacNeil, Matthew O’Neill, Corey Bix, Jeremy Milner, Andrew Funk, Bojan Knezevic, Julien Robbins, Austin Kness, Kenneth Kellogg and Renee Tatum, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.
  • WRTI - From San Francisco Opera, Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, with Deborah Voigt, Salvatore Licitra, Roberto Frontali, Steven Cole, Timothy Mix, Kevin Langan, Brian Jagde, David Lomeli, Matthew O'Neill, Austin Kness, Kenneth Overton, Trevor Scheunemann, Igor Vieira, Brian Leerhuber, Maya Lahyani, Jeremy Milner and Christopher Jackson, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.
  • Bartok Radio - A December 7, 2009 performance of Verdi's Macbeth, with Simon Keenlyside, Stefan Kocán, Erika Sunnegardh, Dimitri Pittas, Németi Gergely, Donna Ellen and Alfred Sramek.
  • France Musique - From Opéra Bastille, Puccini's Il Trittico, with Juan Pons,
  • Marco Berti, Eric Huchet, Mario Luperi, Sylvie Valayre, Marta Moretto, Tamar Iveri, Luciana D'Intino, Barbara Morihien, Marie-Noëlle Vidal, Marie-Thérèse Keller, Amel Brahim-Djelloul, Claudia Galli, Cornelia Oncioiu, Ekaterina Syurina, Marta Moretto, Juan Francisco Gatell, Eric Huchet, Barbara Morihien, Alain Vernhes, Mario Luperi, Roberto Accurso, Marie-Thérèse Keller, Yuri Kissin, Maestro Spinelloccio, Christian Helmer, Ugo Rabec, Alexandre Duhamel.
  • NRK Klassisk & NRK P2 - From the Vienna State Opera, an October 10 performance of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, with Michele Pertusi, Edita Gruberova, Laura Polverelli and José Bros, conducted by Friedrich Haider.
  • Radio Oesterreich International (OE1) - From Theater an der Wien, an October 9 performance of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, with Anne Schwanewilms, Mari Eriksmoen, Heidi Brunner, Johan Botha and Jochen Schmeckenbecher, conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
  • Sveriges P2 - From the Metropolitan Opera, a March 3, 1963 broadcast of Bellini's La Sonnambula, with Joan Sutherland, Nicolai Gedda and Ezio Flagello, conducted by Silvio Varviso.

More to come. Stay tuned for Part II....

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Saturday, October 02, 2010

Live Offerings - Saturday, October 2, 2010 - Part II

More live offerings for this afternoon and evening:

  • Espace 2 - From the Metropolitan Opera, the November 16, 1963 broadcast performance of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer, with George London, Leonie Rysanek, Giorgio Tozzi, Sandor Konya, Lili Chookasian and George Shirley, conducted by Karl Böhm.
  • HR2 Kultur, Latvia Radio Klasika, Radio Oesterreich International (OE1), Radio Tre (RAI) & Sveriges Radio P2 - From Vienna State Opera (starting later in the afternoon), Donizett's Lucrezia Borgia.
  • Klara - From de Munt in Belgium, the Belgian premier of Boesmans' Yvonne princesse de Bourgogne, with Dörte Lyssewski, Paul Gay, Mireille Delunsch, Marcel Reijans, LWerner Van Mechelen, Hannah Esther Minutillo, Jason Bridges, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Guillaume Antoine, Simon Korn, Marc Coulon and Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx, conducted by Patrick Davin.
  • Lyric FM - From the 2009 Wexford Festival, Donizetti's Maria Padilla, with Barbara Quintiliani and Marco Caria.
  • Indiana University - a Live videocast from Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with Nick Fitzer, Sean McCarther, Scott Hogsed, Thomas Florio, Angela Kloc, Don Basilio, Cody Medina, Charis Peden, Andrew Morstein, Nathanael Brown and Steven Linville, conducted by Arthur Fagen.
  • Concert FM (New Zealand) - From the Vienna State Opera, the World Premier production of Reimann's Medea, with Marlis Petersen, Michaela Selinger, Elisabeth Kulman, Michael Roider, Adrian Eröd and Max Emanuel Cencic, conducted by Michael Boder.
  • King - A rebroadcast of the San Francisco Opera Il Trovatore.

Happy listening . . . .

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Live Offerings - Saturday, October 2, 2010 - Part I

Part I of our list of live offerings for this afternoon:

  • BBC Radio 3 - From Welsh National Opera, a late July performance of Verdi's Rigoletto, with Simon Keenlyside, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Sarah Coburn, Michael Druiett, David Soar and Leah-Marian Jones, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado.
  • CBC Two - From Lyric Opera of Chicago, Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova, with Karita Mattila, Judith Forst, Brandon Jovanovich, Liora Grodnikaite, Garrett Sorenson, Andrew Shore, Jason Collins, Kathryn Leemhuis, Paul La Rosa and Amber Wagner, conducted by Markus Stenz.
  • Cesky Rozhlas 3-Vltava - From Opera Bastille in Paris, a June 26 performance of Wagner's Die Walküre, with Robert Dean Smith, Günter Grossböck, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Ricarda Merbeth, Katarina Dalayman, Yvonne Naef, Marjorie Owens, Silvia Hablowitz, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Barbara Morihien, Helena Ranada, Nicole Piccolomini, Atala Schoeck and Gertrud Wittinger, conducted by Philippe Jordan.
  • Deutschlandradio Kultur - From Berlin, von Weber's Die drei Pintos, with Friedrich Mohlsberger, Scott Weir, Michaela Kaune, Gabriele Sima, Gunnar Gudbjörnsson, Thomas Mohr, Andreas Kohn, Sören Jäckel and Janet Williams, conducted by Marek Janowski.
  • DR P2 - Verdi's Nabucco, with Boris Statsenko, Matilda Paulsson, Mlada Khudoley, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Niels Jørgen Riis, Stephanie Lippert, Bengt-Ola Mordgny an Jens Bruno Hansen, conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi.
  • Espace Musique - From Pacific Opera Victoria, Strauss's Capriccio, with Erin Wall, James Westman, Joshua Hopkins, Kurt Lehman, Norine Burgess, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, J. Patrick Raftery, Virginia Hatfield, Michael Colvin and Doug MacNaughton, conducted by Timothy Vernon.
  • KBIA2, KOHM, WABE Classical, WDAV, WHQR, WPLN & WUGA - NPR World of Opera: From the Vienna State Opera, Puccini's La Boheme, with Stephen Costello, Krassimira Stoyanova, Boaz Daniel and Alexandra Reinprecht, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.
  • KUSF - From San Francisco Opera, Puccini's Il Trittico, with Patricia Racette, Ewa Podles, Catherine Cook, Brandon Jovanovich, Paolo Gavanelli and Andrea Silvestrelli, conducted by Patrick Summers.
  • NRK Klassisk & NRK P2 - From the Vienna State opera, a May 15th performance of Bizet's Carmen, with Nadia Krasteva, Massimo Giordano, Anna Netrebko, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, Alexandru Moisiuc, Tae Joong yang, Herwig Pecoraro, Anita Hartig and Zoryana Kushpler, conducted by Andris Nelsons.
  • Radio 4 Netherlands & Radio Clasica de Espana - From the Vienna State Opera, Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, with Michele Petrusi, Edita Gruberova, Laura Polverelli and José Bros, conducted by Friedrich Haider.
  • RTP Antena 2 - From Bayreuth, the July 27th performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold, with Albert Dohmen, Ralf Lukas, Clemens Bieber, Arnold Bezuyen, Kwangchul Youn, Diógenes Randes, Andrew Shore, Wolfgang Schmidt, Mihoko Fujimura, Edith Haller, Christa Mayer, Christiane Kohl, Ulrike Helzel and Simone Schröder, conducted by Christian Thielemann.
  • WCLV, WRTI - From San Francisco Opera, Handel's Ariodante, with Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, Sonia Prina, Veronica Cangemi, Richard Croft and Eric Owens, conducted by Patrick Summers.
  • WETA - From the Vienna State Opera, Bellini's I Puritani, with Désirée Rancatore, José Bros, Alexandru Moisiuc, Christof Fischesser, Mariusz Kwiecien, Benedikt Kobel and Roxana Constantinescu, conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig.
  • WFMT Opera Series (on numerous stations) - From San Francisco Opera, Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, with Dianna Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, Bruno Pratico, Meredith Arwady, Sheila Nadler, Jake Gardner, Kenneth Kellogg, Chester Pidduck, Keith Perry, conducted by Andriy Yurkevych.
  • France Musique - From Opera Bastille in Paris, a September 17th performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugen Onegin, with Nadine Denize, Olga Guryakova, Alisa Kolosova, Nona Javakhidze, Ludovic Tézier, Joseph Kaiser, Gleb Nikolski, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Ugo Rabec Zaretski, conducted by Vasily Petrenko.
More to come . . . .

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