Saturday, February 26, 2011

Toeing the (Verdi) Line

Sam Shirakawa is back in Cologne:

Verdi: Il Trovatore (Concert)
21 February 2010

Oper Cologne is currently treating the city’s opera fans to an ultra-minimalist production of Il Trovatore. You can‘t get much more minimalist than an opera in concert form.

The first of only three performances at the Philharmonie, the city’s concert venue of choice, was a revelation for me in several ways. It reminded me, above all, of how comforting the music is. The concatenation of irresistible arias, ensembles and choral passages constitutes manna for the soul. The principals, most of whom I've never heard before, were excellent.

Anya Herteros

The only star quantity present was German-Greek soprano Anja Harteros, who is also a Cologne-area native. Now in her late 30s, she is coming into her vocal prime. She has been a hit at Bayreuth and has racked up about 30 performances at the Met so far. Even though she dropped most of the optional high notes, her Leonora was assured and finely spun with her warm, luminous voice and commendable technique. But she is no Verdi soprano. Nerve-diddling, pre-menstrual morbidezza, which sets the Verdi singer apart from the rest of the songbirds, can‘t be taught or bought. Which is not to say, Harteros doesn‘t have it. After all, she’s half-Greek. If she does have it, though, she needs to find it and soon. Listen to Milanov, Spani, Price (Leontyne), Stückgold, Gencer, Tebaldi, Scotto, Cigna or Callas, and you'll know what I mean. Radvanovsky is getting there. Voigt at her Met debut in 1993 sounded like the Great Verdi Hope, but she's moved north, where she should stay.

Giuseppe Gipali as Manrico produced a smallish but evenly distributed voice. He sounded oddly freer and bigger in the dungeon scene, where he was placed on a terrace near the organ loft. If he can get himself to sing with more such abandon, he might go far on the A-line circuit.

Andrea Edina Ulbrich deservedly won the biggest applause at the calls. She is a ballsy Azucena. Recent antecedents in her gear-stripping way with the Gypsy yenta include Cossotto, Verrett and Zajick.

Kiril Manadov's Luna took a few pages to find the center of his voice, but ultimately produced a glowing “Il balen.” He shone best in his upper register.

Mirco Palazzi as Ferrando is in command of a superb basso cantante. He skated through the figurations in the introductory narrative without a trace of aspiration. Andrea Bastidas Gamboa as Inez offered a glint of the expectations she could soon bring to fruition.

Markus Stenz tightly paced the orchestra and chorus, both of which were in excellent shape. He is steering his course to earning his stripes as a versatile, seasoned conductor, but his reading of this particular Verdi score at the premiere remained little more than a reading. Whether Stenz ultimately becomes a Verdi visionary remains to be heard. But maybe that‘s not a priority.

Seeing the orchestra on the same level as the singers was also a revelation. You can view as well as hear the musicians actualizing Verdi’s shrewd instrumentation as it complements the vocal line and colors the drama.

All in all, a correct, well-behaved performance. Interpolated high notes these days seem, alas, to be disappearing, unless you're Juan Diego. Holding any note longer than the next beat is frowned upon, even if you're Juan Diego. Trovatore in particular used to offer singers a field day for elbowing each other out of the way to get a better view of what was behind the conductor. Today, they tend to be collegial and deferential. And drawing out the vocal line -- especially in Verdi -- has evolved into toeing the line. Purists find this admirable But having been weaned on opera in an era when singers commonly showed off, sometimes outrageously, I long for a shamelessly vulgar Trovatore. Call me meatball, but I freely admit, that I'll return to Cologne‘s Philharmonie for another bowl of Verdi Bolognese, even if it’s missing that hefty dollop of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which once made live Verdi-munching soooo umami.

The next sitting starts in an hour, so I gotta get going.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Live Offerings - Saturday, February 26, 2011 - Part I

Live offerings on the air this afternoon:

  • Deutschlandradio Kultur - From Deutsche Oper Berlin, a January 23rd performance of Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, with Mark Delavan, Thomas Blondelle, Burkhard Ulrich, Manuela Uhl, Hulkar Sabirova, Matthias Klink, Paul Kaufmann, Clemens Bieber, Nathan de'Shon Myers, Hyung-Wook Lee, Hila Fahima, Martina Welschenbach, Julia Benzinger and Katarina Bradic, conducted by Andrew Litton.
  • Metropolitan Opera  (on numerous stations) - Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride, with Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Paul Groves and Gordon Hawkins, conducted by Patrick Summers.
  • Radio 4 Netherlands - From Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Galuppi's L'inimico delle donne, with Anna Maria Panzarella, Liesbeth Devos, Priscille Laplace, Federica Carnevale, Filippo Adami, Alberto Rinaldi, Juri Gorodezki and Daniele Zanfardino, conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini.
  • Radio Clasica de Espana - From Volksoper in Vienna, Nicolai's Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, with J. O’Loughin, A. Kloose, L. Woldt, D. Behle, M. Frank Larsen, A. Bogner, M. Winkler, K. M. Ebner and F. Spiess, conducted by S. Goetzel.
  • Radio Oesterreich International (OE1) - From the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, an October 7, 2010 performance of Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles, with Gerald Finley, John Osborn, Nicole Cabell and Raymond Aceto, conducted by Antonio Pappano.
  • KBIA2, WABE Classical, WDAV, WHQR & WUGA - NPR World of Opera: From Gewandhaus, Leipzig, a May 30, 2010 performance of Schumann's Genoveve, with Anne Schwanewilms, Morten Frank Larsen, Shawn Mathey, Birgit Remmert, Markus Marquardt, Jae-Hyong Kim and Gun-Wook Lee, conducted by Jun Märkl.
  • Klara - From Orange, a summer 2010 performance of Puccini's Tosca, with Catherine Naglestad, Roberto Alagna, Falk Struckmann, Wojtek Smilek, Michel Trempont, Jean-Marie Delpas, Christophe Mortagne and Jean-Marie Frémeau, conducted by Mikko Franck.
  • Latvia Radio Klasika - From Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, a May 8, 2010 performance of Massenet's Don Quichotte, with Silvia Tro Santafe, Jose Van Dam and Werner Van Mechelen, conducted by Marc Minkowski.
  • Radio Slovenia Tretji - Another chance to hear the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, with Rachelle Durkin, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecien and John Del Carlo, conducted by Joseph Colaneri.
  • YLE Klassinen - Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, with Nancy Armstrong, Mary Westbrook-Geha, Sharon Baker, Frank Kelley, and James Maddalena, conducted by Martin Pearlman.
  • Concert FM (New Zealand) & ABC Classic FM (Australia) - Another chance to hear the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Adams' Nixon in China, with James Maddalena, Janis Kelly, Russell Braun, Robert Brubaker, Richard Paul Fink and Kathleen Kim, conducted by John Adams.

Happy listening . . . .

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Loony Lucie, Grave Grimes

Sam Shirakawa was in Duisburg last week to see perofrmances of DOnizetti's Lucia and Britten's Peter Grimes:

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Theater Duisburg
16 February 2011

Britten: Peter Grimes
Theater Duisburg
17 February 2011

How many desperate housewives since the beginning of the species have wanted to kill their spouses? Or at least castrate them? The thought must surely have occurred to Sir Walter Scott as he penned The Bride of Lammermoor (1819): The loopy heroine, madly in love with her family‘s arch-enemy but forced into a marriage of convenience, goes nuts on her wedding night, by relieving her husband of his.

Scott’s now-unreadable best-seller inspired a number of spinoffs, including Donizetti‘s operatic adaptation, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). Indeed, it is the composer’s most popular work, its impact inspiring such literary giants as Flaubert, Tolstoy and E.M. Forster.

Licette Oropesa (Lucia),  Juditha Nagyrová (Alisa) | ©Hans Jörg Michel

Many dismiss Lucia as just a lot of tooney-tunes, signifying nothing. But for others, myself among them, Lucia’s infectious melodies and contagious set pieces serve to disguise the dark world of two siblings in a family on the skids -- both are out to get what they want, even by sacrificing each other, even as the music goes relentlessly oom pah pah pah. But Lucy’s relatively simple desire to love and be loved is no match for the pragmatic forces going against her, embodied by her brother Enrico. And so, she goes oom pah gah gah...

Christof Loy’s production from 1999 for Deutsche Oper am Rhein appears to support this view. Right from the start, American Lisette Oropesa’s Lucia seems a nickel short of a shilling: the currency of her wants cannot buy her the fulfillment she craves. It is a masterful performance -- always teetering deliriously at the edge of the abyss. Vocally, her top tended to wax wirey at first, but it blossomed out by the time she reached the Mad Scene.

Sergej Khomov was an aurally pleasing Edgardo, but he seemed content to stand and deliver, rather than give his part a convincing measure of dramatic punch. Boris Statsenko took a while to warm up as Lucia’s brother, but proved compellingly nasty in Enrico’s showdown with Lucy.

Others in the testosterone-heavy cast included Manfred Fink as a suitably blustery Arturo, Florian Simpson as a sonorous Normanno, Adrian Sampetrian as an effectively fidgety Raimondo and Juditha Nagyrová as a butch-looking Alisa.

Rainer Mühlbach kept an occasionally inattentive Duisberg Philharmonic from disintegrating.


The following evening, I returned to Duisburg to hear Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes for the first time in many years. Why so long? A comment made by an elderly woman to her companion as they fled during intermission may explain: “This is stressful, too stressful.” Unless you really adore Benjamin Britten, Pete the Angler can drive you straight to Xanax. His story is a downer -- much too sad to be told: A loner fisherman in a seaside village cannot shake off suspicions of foul-play, following the death of his apprentice. Rather than leave town, he remains to endure rumors and innuendos. Is some sort of salutory solution in the cards? Fuggedaboutit. (Peter Pears, who created the role, alluded to the plot as a veiled commentary on England‘s anti-homosexual morays in the 1940s.)

Robert0 Saccà (Grimes, Ensemble and Chorus of
Deutschen Oper am Rhein | ©Hans Jörg Michel

Britten puts the onus for getting a kick out of the old ennui primarily on the conductor. Axel Kober did his part by holding a tight rein on the complex rhythms articulated by the orchestra.

The crux of the dramatic tension, though, lies in portraying Peter Grimes’ seemingly unending capacity for bearing torment with sustained conviction. Physically, Roberto Saccà in the eponymous role was the very picture of a tortured soul. Now in his vocal prime, he articulated Grimes’ inner agony wrenchingly. Christina Dietzsch as Ellen Orford, was equally tightly focussed, slimming down her light soprano to reveal the character’s inner strength.

Others in the exceptional cast included Renée Morloc (Auntie), Susannah Haberfeld (Mrs. Sedley), Thomas Konieczny (Captain Balstrode), and James Bobby (Ned Keene). The unnamed diction coach, by the way, deserved a hand.

The chorus and orchestra were also in outstanding form, although the band had a couple of ragged entrances.

Immo Karaman's quasi-expressionist production from 2009 evokes the narrow-minded provinciality of an English seaside hamlet in virtually every move the townspeople surrounding Grimes make. Volker Weinhart's creepy lighting, Kaspar Zwimpfer's weather-worn sets and Nicola Reichert's dour costumes etch out a remorseless universe.

Footnote: In late 1989, I paid a visit to Sir Reginald Goodall, who conducted the premiere of Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in 1945. As in our previous conversations, the topic centered mostly on Wagner. I was about to ask him about Grimes, when a nurse at his assisted living residence in Canterbury interrupted us to whisk him off for his afternoon nap. We exchanged promises to meet again on my next trip to England.

He died several months later.

I never got to ask him, among many other things, if he had any inkling at the time of the premiere, that this bleak work would become such a huge international success. But I suspect he knew it would.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Live Offerings - Saturday, February 12, 2011

A lot of European stations have decided to pick up the Met's broadcast of Nixon in China this afternoon, so other choioces are sparser than usual. But that doesn't mean that there are no other interesting live choices to listen to today:

  • Sveriges Radio P2 - From Malmö Opera, Forssell's Hemligheter, with Bengt Krantz, Kari Postma, Naja Monrad Hansen, Karolina Blixt, Miriam Treichl, Monica Einarson, Emma Lyrén, Lena Fredlund, conducted by Staffan Larsson.
  • Metropolitan Opera (on numerous stations) - Adams' Nixon in China, with James Maddalena, Janis Kelly, Russell Braun, Robert Brubaker, Richard Paul Fink, Kathleen Kim, Ginger Costa-Jackson, Teresa S. Herold and Tamara Mumford, conducted by John Adams.
  • Radio 4 Netherlands - From Netherlands Opera, Wagemans' Legende, with Marieke Steenhoek, Caroline Cartens, Corinne Romijn, Helena Rasker, Yves Saelens, Thomas Oliemans, Elzbieta Szmytka, André Morsch, Martijn Cornet, Huub Claessens, Marcel Beekman and Dennis Wilgenhof, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.
  • Radio Clasica de Espana - From the Vienna State opera, a Gala in honor of Ion Hollender, with A. Netrebko, A. Pieczonka, D. Polaski, B. Frittoli, S. Isokoski, D. Damrau, A. Denoke, K. Stoyanova, G. Kühmaier, N. Dessay, V. Urmana (sop.), W. Meier, A. Kirchschlager (mez.), P. Domingo, R. Vargas, M. Schade, S. Pirgu, J. Botha, P. Seiffert, P. Beczala (ten.), T. Quasthoff, L. Nucci, T. Hampson, F. Struckmann, S. Keenlyside (bar.), F. Furlanetto (baj.), and conductors Z. Mehta, P. Domingo, A. Pappano, F. Welser-Möst, B. de Billy, F. Luisi, P. Schneider, M. Armiliato, S. Young and G. García-Calvo.
  • KBIA2, WABE, WDAV, WHQR & WUGA, - NPR World of Opera: From Maggio Musicale in Florence, Verdi's La Forza del Destino, with Violeta Urmana, Salvatore Licitra, Enrico Lori, Roberto Frontali and Antonella Trevisan, conducted by Zubin Mehta.
  • Espace 2 & Klara - Handel's Alcina, with Anja Harteros, Veronica Cangemi, Vesselina Kasarova, Kristina Hammarströom, Benjamin Bruns and Adam Plachetka, conducted by Marc Minkowski.
  • ABC Classic FM (Australia) & Concert FM (New Zealand) - an opportunity to rehear the Met's broadcast of Puccini's Tosca, with Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Alvarez, Falk Struckmann, Peter Volpe, Paul Plishka, Dennis Petersen, James Courtney and Harold Wilson, conducted by Marco Armiliato.

Happy listening.... and this Valentine's Day, treat someone you love to something operatic.....

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Live Offerings - Saturday, February 5, 2011

An unusually active day on the Web today, what with very few European stations carrying the Met today (odd!) and instead going off on their own. Listeners are strongly encouraged to browse our Saturday page themselves and see which of the many operas on offer appeal to them. With such a varied selection, there are sure to be offerings that will please every taste! A remarkably and unexpectedly varied day!

Four items stand out for this listener during this afternoon, but again, that shouldn't discourage you from also poring over the entire Saturday page yourselves just as soon as you can.

  • Deutschlandradio Kultur - Bizet's Pecheurs de Perles, with Cabell, Osborn and Finley.
  • Metropolitan Opera (on numerous stations) - Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, with Hvorostovsky, Frittoli, Vargas and Furlanetto.
  • NKR Klassik - Yet another Simon Boccanegra(!) with Domingo (in the title role), Poplavskaya, Calleja and, again, Furlanetto.
  • Klara - Beethoven's Fidelio, with Kampe and Kaufmann.

Happy listening . . . .

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


For the last week in January, Sam Shirakawa was back in his European base, Cologne:

VERDI : AIDA (New Production) Cologne
28-29 January 2008

©Monika & Earl Foster

This past weekend, I attended a new production of Aida on two consecutive nights in Cologne with separate sets of principals. (Has that ever been done elsewhere?) Despite Oper Cologne’s financial problems, the orchestra and chorus was augmented, and the crowd scenes in Johannes Erath‘s staging were filled with enough extras to mount a rally against Mubarak's government. In fact, Erath sagely integrated the sell-out audiences by having parts of the crowd in the Triumphal Scene milling around the aisles at the sides of the house, before they rushed onto the stage. Despite some bewildering interpolations, such as framing the action in a Roman Catholic setting, Erath achieved spumante spectacle on a Birra Beba budget.

©Monika & Earl Foster

Of course, huge crowd scenes cannot obscure Aida's need for principal singers who can pour their part of the bubbly. Cologne lucked out in engaging two classy sopranos of vastly differing temperaments in the title role. Hui He has sung Santuzza, Maddalena and Odabella throughout the world. She made her debut as Aida last year at the Met. Adina Aaron has portrayed the Countess, Rosalinda and Susannah in Europe and recently was Bess at the New York City Opera. Both brought the requiste dynamic range to their performances. Both triumphed in “Ritornor Vincitor” and soared over the orchestra and chorus in the big production numbers. But both had problems getting past the treacherous high C that caps “O patria mia.” Aaron hit the note but it was squally. Hui He went slightly flat.

Hui He had better luck in partners than Aaron in being paired with Scott McAlister as Rhadames. Some members of the audience told me at intermission, that they didn’t cotton to his voice. I like the bright, brassy sound, but find it better suited for Wagner, Strauss and Orff. Nonetheless, he was in command right from the start and never tired. He hit the final B flat in “Celeste Aida” softly, (though not quite piano) and swelled into thrilling forte. Vsevolod Grivnov, seemed to be husbanding his resources during the first half of his performance, before relaxing into some rhapsodic vocalism in the second half. His Rhadames, though, is given to declamation, when simple declaration is called for.

House favorite Daliah Schaechter and Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Jovita Vaskeviciute also presented a stark contrast in styles. Schaechter‘s Amneris was cunning and neurotic. Vaskeviciute‘s was icy and shrewish. She has the larger voice but tripped on a line or two in the Judgment Scene.

Samuel Youn and Jorge Lagunes were both rhythmically as exact as they were exciting in portraying Amonasro. But Erath, for some reason, had them both tear off their shirts as they menaced the King (Wilfried Staber at both performances) in the Triumphal Scene. Keep your shirts on, boys! And take a tip or two from former Cologne resident Arnold Schwarzenegger on how to get rid of those pesky spare tires.

Mikhail Kazakov and Roman Polisadov shared Ramfis. They are among a formidable group of basses from the former Eastern Bloc, who are enabling opera houses west of the Oder to mount vocally creditable performances of bass-heavy Russian opera. They offered a lot to choose between them: Polisadov is a tall Godunov type -- resonant at the top, bold at the bottom. Kazakov sounds Gremin-directed -- large, lyric and irresistably sympathetic.

Will Humburg‘s flexible tempi kept both performances going at an agreeable pace. But his major achievement was in keeping the off-stage chorus and bands in sync with everybody else. The unseen musical assistants who helped him prevent chaos deserved a curtain call.

©Monika & Earl Foster

You might think that seeing any opera on consecutive nights would be tiring for the spectator, but the energy coursing through these occasions was galvanizing. All the more noteworthy because these were the ninth and tenth of an 11-performance run over merely two weeks.

Sam H. Shirakawa

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