Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Tanglewood veteran and 2016 Koussevitsky Scholar Charles Dutoit began Friday evening’s program with the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. I’m a sucker for Figaro, though perhaps not to the extent of some writer who called it the supreme achievement of human civilization. Dutoit’s spirited reading served as a welcome corrective to a bad experience I had with a Figaro conducted by James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera House. Since that great conductor’s legacy is in no danger from the likes of me, I can use my bad experience to make a musical point I believe to be of general interest. In 1999, Levine led the Met company through the most glorious Figaro I ever heard, with Bryn Terfel, Cecilia Bartoli, Renée Fleming (aided by the brief, charming, and fully production-integrated appearance of her then young daughter), Susan Denzer, and a startling realization of the Count by Met stalwart Dwayne Croft. A few years later Levine had apparently agreed with the proposal of famous stage director Sir Richard Eyre—who had little previous experience in opera—to do Figaro as an 18th-century romantic comedy, with Mozart’s contributions tinkling away in the background. The spectacle of great singers singing in a subdued way, while also trying to ham up stage business for which they had neither natural nor developed skill was painful throughout. Figaro has not been in continuous production somewhere in the world since Mozart brought it into being because it is an 18th-century romantic comedy. Levine went badly wrong when he subordinated his great talent to Eyre’s opera-insensitive words-first initiative, however much credit is due him for an inner drive to try something new. Tonight, at least for me, Charles Dutoit set things right again. * * * In Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, keyboard icon Menahem Pressler felt underpowered relative to the orchestra most of the time despite Dutoit’s strenuous effort to achieve balance. If at times, in the quieter, slower passages, occasional tentativeness, along with apparent lack of consistent agreement between soloist and conductor about exactly where a beat should be seemed to prevail, those impressions might be traceable to my insensitivity to the subtler nuances of interplay between two great artists. Following a standing ovation that he deserved as richly as any great musician who ever received one, Pressler settled himself once again, this time able to set his own dynamic registers. The sheer magic of his virtuosity in Chopin’s C-sharp Minor Nocturne empowered us to face whatever challenges life may bring us. Was that Chopin’s ghost leaning over to me and saying Was I that good? * * * Wagner wrote a famous and highly derogatory piece about Rossini’s Stabat Mater when it was first performed in 1842. Under cover of a pseudonym, the then young German composer attacked it as a product of popular modishness due to degenerate Italianate taste, and money crassly generated both by Rossini’s spectacular commercial success (from 38 operas before he was 40) and lawsuits concerning the complicated composing history that resulted in the final Stabat Mater. For years, I bought the standard music program between-the-ads-and-appeals-for-donation opinion that Wagner was a major genius and Rossini a minor one, with the soul of a hack, because he quit composing at his peak and spent his next three decades enjoying life before bestowing his “Sins of Old Age” upon us. Now, I think the young Wagner wrote that anti-Rossini diatribe because he was just plain scared that he would never be able to realize in music the idea of suffering as expiation necessary for sublime aspiration as thoroughly as Rossini did in Stabat Mater. I’m pretty sure that such considerations never crossed Rossini’s mind. Early in life, he discovered how to use for personal advantage an inborn skill acquired as all skills are by random gene mixing due to equally random choices made by his parents, and he ran with it. His unprecedented and not yet exceeded success at doing that is just as accidental, but who cares? Charles Dutoit then led 200+ highly talented instrumentalists and singers in a dramatic re-demonstration of musical creativity so extraordinary that it will be celebrated long after our own startled exaltation has died down, and even that will take a lot of time. The choral work that opens the masterpiece (Stabat mater dolorosa) immediately established the high standard that was to prevail throughout the performance. Prepared by guest chorus director James Burton, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus once again displayed the smooth voice blending and comfortable control over a wide dynamic range that Boston audiences came to expect from them during the long tenure of founding director John Oliver. In the first solo section (Cujus animam), Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik quickly served notice that the standard set by the opening chorus was to be maintained. Hearing any tenor for the first time is always a little suspenseful, because quality variations in that voice range are somewhat greater than in the others, even among world-class performers. In his first few bars, Breslik’s solid tone and confident technique assured us that all was going to be well, including the exposed high note near the end, and it was. The third section (Qui est homo) introduced the female soloists, both of whom have superb voices, but also skill at using them together that is not in the technique ensemble of all singers otherwise able to perform at the highest level. Soprano Simone Saturová, also from Slovakia – which on the evidence of this program has discovered some special formula for incubating vocal talent, has a clean, clear, steady tone made to appear effortless by a level of vocal technique that surely was not acquired effortlessly. Sicilian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato’s tone was equally clear and steady, but round, full, and warm – the angelic mezzo tone rather than the smoky kind so effective in other parts of the vocal repertory. Their passages together were a pure delight. Italian bass Riccardo Zanellato nearly walked away with the evening. His deep, rich sound is inherently capable of such menace independently of word meaning that his Faust-tempting Mephistopheles and murderer-for-hire Sparafucile in Rigoletto must have frightened any children whose parents allowed them to be in the audience for works of that nature. Yet he had turned that menacing quality entirely off for this work’s Pro peccatis – one just knew it was there, available to him any time he wanted it. No other single effect in singing quite matches that of sensing massive resources still in reserve while a great vocal artist fully realizes the expressive potential of a specific passage. Jessie Norman singing gospel is one kind of example. Zanellato’s tender evocation of Mary’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross in the work Tanglewood heard tonight was a supreme one. Charles Dutiot leads 200+ (Hilary Scott photo) From there, the performance moved on at a level of excellence no longer of any concern. By the last note of the Amen, which combined shocking novelty of emphasis—Amen! AMEN (dammit!) —seamlessly with a comforting return to the traditional quiet sort of prayer ending, followed by a final Rossinian flourish, the Tanglewood audience could have been forgiven if it had leaped out of chairs with a might whoop: Composer! Composer!! He’s dead? Well then go out and find more like him! James Prichard, a Yale physician and scientist, occasionally pinch-hits as a music critic. Additional reflections: Every time I sit in the Koussevitzky Shed feels like the first time. I haven’t the slightest memory of what we heard so many years ago when I drove on a Sunday afternoon trip up from New York City with several other Bellevue Hospital interns, then back late the same night so we could all show up on the wards Monday morning, but my memory of the shed itself is unchanged, because it is so simple: Wow! Room for more than 6000 people in more or less comfortable seats under a roof secure against rain if not heat and humidity, but no walls to make reflected sound do funny things. Plus a lawn able to accommodate at least 10,000 more, seated or lying on grass in whatever ways they can manage, while hearing events from the stage over a sound system so technically refined that you don’t realize it’s there. Sic EST gloria mundi. The post Stabat Mattered at Tanglewood appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
After enduring a pitiful performance of Verdi’s Aida at one of Italy’s most beautiful opera houses—Napoli’s Teatro San Carlo—in an ugly, mindless production performed in the “any arm you can raise, I can raise higher” style of acting, I was hopeful that my next operatic engagement would offer greater rewards: Norma at the Edinburgh Festival. My first introduction to Bellini’s Norma—or selection thereof—was on a multi-LP collection of operatic scenes and arias. I can’t recall the name of the album (maybe one of Parterre’s illustrious contributors will recall) but among the selections I remember were Sherrill Milnes singing “Nulla silenzio” from Il Tabarro, the final scene of Berg’s Lulu, and Montserrat Caballe singing “Casta diva”. As a teenager in the 70’s I did not always have the funds to buy complete opera LPs, so more often than not my first experience hearing an opera was in the opera house itself. With only Caballe’s “Casta Diva” as a reference I eagerly awaited my first “complete” Norma. That opportunity arrived at the Met on March 28, 1979 with a cast headed by Shirley Verrett, Elena Obratsova and Carlo Cossutta. Or so I thought. Alas, my Mother (who held the car keys) and my brother were not taken with Bellini’s opera and we left at the first intermission. I on the other hand was smitten and could not wait to encounter Norma again. Since that first thwarted attempt I have heard Adelaide Negri (the Scotto cancellation), Olivia Stapp, Jane Eaglen, Marina Mescheriakova (a Papian cancellation), Angela Meade (Caramoor, Washington National Opera and the Met) and Sondra Radvanovsky perform the title role live. To that list I can now add Cecilia Bartoli. Through the kindness of a friend I was given an advance copy of Bartoli’s 2013 recording and found it revelatory. So when the opportunity presented itself to see and hear Bartoli & company in Edinburgh I jumped at the chance. Performing a note-complete version of the critical edition by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi -and using the Salzburg Festival production directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier– Bartoli gave one of the most fully-realized and compelling performances I have ever encountered in my 40 years of opera-going. Her performance was of a single piece. Impossible to separate from the staging, every element of her portrayal came from some musical and emotional truth and perfectly calibrated to her current vocal state. I had seen and enjoyed Bartoli’s three role assumptions at the Met –all comedic– but I was unprepared for the dramatic intensity she brought to Bellini’s priestess. Her “Tremi tu?…e perchi” and “Oh non tremare”, were frightening in its intensity. This was my first encounter with a Norma who seemed actually capable of killing her children. But if I were to single out one moment in Bartoli’s performance that will remain with me it would be her “Son io.” Most sopranos treat it as a moment of immense nobility, the three-note phrase sung in a haunting pianissimo. Here instead Bartoli—infuriated that Pollione would not capitulate to her wishes—pounded her chest and hurled the two word phrase at him. But as soon as the words left her mouth, the horror of what she had done and the repercussions her impulsiveness would have on her children were achingly realized. With her truth exposed, “Qual cor tradisti” was staged and sung so intimately I felt like a voyeur. “Deh! Non volerli vittime” (my favorite moment in the opera) heartbreaking in its earnestness. Vocally Bartoli detractors would find much to carp about. The mannerisms that have been part and parcel of her singing throughout her career were fully in evidence, and it was quite clear that she was willing to sacrifice beauty of tone on both extremes of her voice for dramatic effect. But I was spellbound, flaws and all. Perhaps it was opening night nerves or simply pacing but it took some time for the voice to settle in. The recitative to “Casta diva” was clipped and somewhat blunt and she sounded all of her 50 years. But the aria found her on firmer footing and by the cabaletta “Ah! bello a me ritorna” she seemed in complete control. Hers was a performance that grew more vocally secure as the evening progressed. The role of Pollione held no terrors for John Osborn. His opening “Meco all’altar di Venere” and subsequent cabaletta were dispatched with cocky ease –his effortless high notes thrillingly filling the intimate Festival Theater. The melting, hushed seduction he brought to “Vieni in Roma” made Adalgisa’s acquiescence an inevitability. And as staged and performed, his recognition of Norma’s sacrifice and reconciliation in the closing pages of the opera were convincingly and movingly portrayed. As the third person in the complicated threesome, Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera offered a sensitive and youthful (at times almost child-like) sounding Adalgisa. Olvera does not possess a particularly distinct or luxurious voice, and at first I was unimpressed with her singing, but she ultimately won me over with her honest, deeply felt portrayal. Her duet work with Bartoli and Osborn was particularly effective, and their three voices joined forces for a musically and dramatically electrifying conclusion to the first act. Special mention must be made to the conductor Gianluca Capuano (the chorus master of the Swiss Radio and Television chorus) who stepped in at the last moment to replace the indisposed conductor Diego Fasolis. Considering the blistering tempi and relatively new edition of the opera it was a testament to the orchestra, chorus and soloists that the performance went off without any discernable issues. The staging itself updates the action of the opera to occupied France during WWII. We first meet Norma in a pantomime before the music starts. The curtain opens to reveal a schoolroom in France. Norma is seated at a table with her back to the audience working in a ledger book. Schoolchildren play in a courtyard outside the room. Clothilde calls the school-children in from their playtime and lines them up in formation. They enter their classroom as the orchestra begins the Sinfonia. The curtain closes. As the prelude progresses the curtain again opens. Norma is still seated at her table. The door to the schoolroom opens and Italian/”Roman” officers enter. They head into the classroom and extract Clothilde who is pressed to present her papers. Nervously looking at Norma, who has risen from her seat, they allow her to return to the classroom once her papers appear to be in order. Pollione, who has remained in the doorway during this scene walks toward Norma and kisses her hand. She visibly shudders and loses her balance as he walks out. The curtain closes. When the curtain opens again the classroom has been co-opted as a refuge for French resistance fighters. The opera proper begins. I found the updating quite persuasive in spotlighting the brutal and dangerous situation into which Norma has placed herself more compellingly than any production I have seen. The one major drawback was its inability to fully reconcile the religious aspects so specific to Norma’s character. For traditionalists, the stage direction never veered too far from those one would find in a more conventional production, but the personal exchanges were incredibly well thought out and detailed. These characters were fully formed three-dimensional individuals whose interactions never felt forced or false. Looking back over nearly 800 opera performances I tried to recall other performances that so perfectly combined the vocal and dramatic realization of a role. I was able to summon memories of Teresa Stratas as Jenny and Mimi, Maria Ewing’s Blanche de la Force, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Dido, Karita Mattila’s first Salome and Peter Mattei’s recent Amfortas. Cecilia Bartoli now joins that company. As I enter my fifth decade of opera-going I find that I prefer to be challenged rather than comforted by friendly and familiar productions. We crazy opera fans put up with many average, mediocre and sometimes dreadful performances with the hope that maybe, just maybe the next one will offer something transcendent. So thank you to Bartoli and company for providing me with such an evening.
Thanks to the generosity of a parterre reader, “Trove Thursday” presents a rare recording from the famed Carnegie Hall series curated by Matthew Epstein to commemorate Handel’s tercentenary: Tatiana Troyanos and June Anderson in Ariodante conducted by Raymond Leppard. For more than 60 years, New York City has been fortunate to host organizations dedicated to showcasing prominent singers performing less-often heard operas in concert. From 1950 to 1970, there was the American Opera Society, and right after its demise Eve Queler founded Opera Orchestra of New York. Each season both groups would feature two or three operas, most often chosen according to the availability (and whim) of its featured stars. However, in the mid-1980s Epstein and Carnegie, partnering with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, attempted something different—an annual series of operas-in-concert focused on a single singer or composer—or both. The first season featured Marilyn Horne in three serious Rossini operas: a “pirate” recording of the 1982 opening night La Donna del Lago is still available from its posting here last fall. French operas by Offenbach, Thomas and Massenet starring Frederica von Stade followed, while the fourth and final season spotlighted rarely mounted operas by Richard Strauss. Handel’s 300th birthday fell during 1984-1985, and its three programmed masterpieces (with a bonus of Alessandro imported from Stephen Simon’s Handel Festival in Washington, DC) became among the most eagerly awaited events of the season. Horne’s first-ever Orlando opened the series and a recording of it can be found in a “Trove Thursday” posting from February. The legendary Semele with Kathleen Battle, Horne, Rockwell Blake and Samuel Ramey, presented on February 23rd, the actual birthday, was broadcast live on NPR, so recordings of it have always been easy to find. But this stirring Ariodante seemed to disappear, and until I listened to today’s superb-sounding recording I hadn’t heard it since the concert I attended over 31 years ago. Troyanos first sang the demanding title role written for the great castrato Carestini in 1971, replacing Shirley Verrett during the opening weeks of the Kennedy Center. Her wonderfully fresh and eager portrayal opposite a high-flying Beverly Sills was captured by a “pirate” and has long been easily available. Unfortunately, its much-cut and transposed musical edition makes the entire performance an unsatisfactory representation of this great opera. I recall two jarring aspects of that evening at Carnegie in January 1985, both attributable to Troyanos. Ordinarily when a female singer performs a male role in concert, she appears in a chic pants-suit, but Troyanos grandly entered instead in an elaborate concert gown. And while the rest of the cast sang from memory, she often had her head stuck in the score placed on the music stand in front of her. Even with this aid, she still got lost during one of her duets with Anderson madly flipping through the music to find her place! Ariodante remained in her repertoire for several more years; she sang it in Geneva and then at Santa Fe in 1987. Beginning in the early 1980s Troyanos also took on the title role of Handel’s Giulio Cesare (she had already recorded Cleopatra in that immensely lugubrious Karl Richter set years earlier). She performed Cesare in San Francisco, Geneva and in an ill-starred run at the Met opposite Battle. The last time I heard Troyanos in person was in another trouser role: a concert of Mozart’s Mitridate, Re di Ponto at Alice Tully Hall in the summer of 1992, about a year before her tragically premature death. That sadly off-form Farnace is not how I want to remember her. However, this absolutely note-complete Ariodante is a particularly gratifying souvenir of a fascinating artist. This opera’s rewarding title role, recorded by Janet Baker (also with Leppard), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Anne-Sofie von Otter, retains its allure for star mezzos. Alice Coote sings it this fall in Toronto in Richard Jones’s Aix production, while Joyce DiDonato who recorded the work in 2010 with the late Alan Curtis returns to it next year for an extended world tour with The English Concert which visits Carnegie Hall in April. And Cecilia Bartoli who has never before sung a Handel hero appears as Ariodante at next June’s Salzburg Pfingsten Festival in a new staging by Christoph Loy. Handel: Ariodante Carnegie Hall 27 January 1985 In-house recording Ginevra: June Anderson Dalinda: Erie Mills Ariodante: Tatiana Troyanos Polinesso: James Bowman Lurcanio: Neil Rosenshein King of Scotland: Dmitri Kavrakos Odoardo: Frank Lopardo Orpheon Chorale Orchestra of St. Luke’s Conductor: Raymond Leppard “Trove Thursday” offerings can be downloaded via the audio-player above. Just click on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory. In addition, this Ariodante, last week’s Leonora and all previous fare remain available from iTunes or via any RSS reader.
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1836) Norma, Tragic Operas in Two Acts (1831) Cecilia Bartoli, Su Mi Jo, John Osborn, Michele Pertusi, Liliana Nikiteanu, Reinaldo Macias Giovanni Antonini, Orchestra la Scintilla (Period Instruments) Decca 478 3517 (2013) Two disc set [Flac & Scans, PDF Booklet]
Born on this day in 1920 mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQV_mJe1mq4 Our dear friends at OperaDepot are offering a free download of Signora Barbieri’s greatest hits. Born on this day in 1903 bass-baritone Joel Berglund. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdJ7sTUlQLo Born on this day in 1910 tenor Anton Dermota. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh23kopPvXw Born on this day in 1917 baritone Robert Merrill. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lbePPPLGlI Born on this day in 1919 bass Manfred Jungwirth. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_hMa07Q6p4 Born on this day in 1926 tenor Ivo Zídek. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyFWdkAdU_E Happy 50th birthday mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WvYa1rH2ns
The three Mozart operas on this DVD are my great favorites. This recording also serves as a way to remember the conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who died a few months ago. The title of this DVD is: Harnoncourt: The Mozart Da Ponte Operas Mozart: Cosi fan tutte, K588 Don Giovanni, K527 Le nozze di Figaro, K492 Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a legend who brought music to life and made it speak. This edition is in memoriam of one of the greatest musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries. These three Da Ponte operas by Mozart were staged at the Zurich Opera House by Jürgen Flimm. The wonderful casts include Cecilia Bartoli, Rodney Gilfry, Agnes Baltsa, Eva Mei, Roberto Saccà, Isabel Rey and Oliver Widmer. Here, for your enjoyment, is Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte:
Great opera singers