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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Opera Review: Ozawa flips Queen of Spades at the Met

It's been a little while since I've posted here. I havent been idle--have several compelling operas and concerts to write about. Let's start the backlog, shall we? After all, better late than Neva....

The Metropolitan Opera's much-anticipated revival of The Queen of Spades bowed on November 21. Elijah Moshinsky's lush, surreal production returned to the grand stage intact, complete with haunting color schemes and the thoroughly impressive entrance of Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russias.

Equally impressive was the performance of Ben Heppner in the role of Ghermann, the opera's protagonist. Heppner was in excellent voice, but lacked intensity as the hard-luck gambler. He took over the opera in its final scene, where he commits suicide at the gaming table.

Maria Guleghina gave a tremendous performance as Lisa, the opera's equally doomed female protagonist. She is a bit robust to be your classic wilting Tchaikovsky heroine but sang with beauty and pathos, both in her opening song and in her final death scene where she throws herself into the Neva, an act which mirrored the composer's own suicide attempt in 1877.

The great Felicity Palmer was a regal Countess, impressive in death and life. The supporting cast included the welcome presence of "Mr. Met", Paul Plishka, who has sang at the big house for over thirty years.

The revival was somewhat let down by the choice of Seiji Ozawa on the podium. Ozawa, who had not conducted at the Met for 15 years, gave a limpid, textured reading of the score. His performance undermined the passions at work in this opera, emphasizing Tchaikovsky's genteel, Mozartean textures over the more stormy passages. These turbulent, emotional pages were given without fire or much energy, and while beautifully played, they failed to compel as drama.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Die Hard Story: A Reflection

(It's a quiet week on the concert-going so I thought I'd share some thoughts on why we're all here--why a certain young man named Paul J. Pelkonen is nutty about classical music.)

or How I got (back) into Classical Music:

It's true that I came to opera first--my mother and father were great ones for making sure I was "cultured", taking me to Broadway shows as early as 6 or 7 years old. When I was about 8 (?) years old, Mom and Dad brought me to a performing arts series at Brooklyn College--attending a dance recital, some theater piece, and an opera. I don't really remember. But of all those shows, opera was the one that stuck.



When I was 9, (this was in 1982), Mom and Dad bought a subscription for us at the New York City Opera. My first was Turandot, followed in that strike-shortened season by La Boheme, Candide and Carmen. We went to the opera regularly after that, even continuing when my Dad passed away in 1985.

But by the time I turned 16 or so, I was into a different kind of bombast--I had gotten into progressive rock, heavy metal, and the music that is today called "classic" rock. My first rock concert was that summer of '88: Aerosmith, Deep Purple, and Guns N' Roses at Giants Stadium (a show immortalized in the G'N'R' video for the song "Paradise City." The next day, my friend Ethan and I decided to go to the movies. Our choice: Die Hard.

Now, you might recall that the first Die Hard movie has a score pervaded by the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It shows up first at the cocktail party, played in a string quartet arrangement. Later, Hans Gruber (the villain, played by Alan Rickman) hums or scat-sings it to himself in the elevator. At the end of the film's second act, when the bad guys crack open the safe, a sprightly version of the "Turkish March" comes bursting out of the orchestra, celebrating the thieves' glee at their success. And after the final, apocalyptic conclusion to the movie, the Ninth roars over the final credit scroll in all its glory--albeit in a slightly compressed, edited version.

I don't know which chorus or orchestra was used in the film--the original arrangements were by the late Michael Kamen but I don't know if he recorded another Ninth (unlikely) or simply edited down an existing recording for the movie. Either way, I stood there, in the theater, for the entire closing credits. The next day, I went to the Record Explosion on Broadway and Fulton, and for $3.99, bought a cassette of the 9th, featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. I was hooked. I still am.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Opera Review: A Hi-tech Hell

La Damnation de Faust at the Met
by Paul Pelkonen
Tenor Marcello Giordani rides the road to hell as Fausts in
La Damnation de Faust. © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera's new computer-driven mounting of The Damnation of Faust is a showcase for the staging techniques of Robert Lepage, the Quebecois director best known for his work with Peter Gabriel and Cirque de Soleil. It is the Met's first attempt to stage this Berlioz work since 1906.

The action of this légende dramatique (the composer preferred this term to opera) is played out on a four-level set. At first, this appears to be a seemingly unremarkable series of catwalks and screens,. The digital displays are the palette upon which Mr. Lepage, (using advanced technology) attempts to recreate Berlioz's sound-world through visual means.

Concert Review: Eschenbach Conducts Beethoven and Bruckner

Last Friday's matinee performance of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, featured pianist Lang Lang playing the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Ninth Symphony by Anton Bruckner.


Christoph Eschenbach does a neat baton trick.


Lang Lang is a fast-rising star of the piano and this performance shows why. His entry was a torrent of liquid notes, played with poise and seemingly very little effort. If it is accepted that best pianists make the most technical passages look effortless, and Lang Lang's traversal of this Beethoven concerto was an absolute cakewalk.

However, he was hampered by Eschenbach's conducting, which missed the pace and rhythmic snap necessary to make this Beethoven work not just listenable, but spectacularly entertaining. This performance was pretty and note-perfect. All the meters were correct and the rhythms were strict. But it was drained of blood and passion when Mr. Lang was not playing, and was ultimately let down by the conductor.

Happily, these problems did not occur during the second piece on the program Bruckner's mighty, unfinished Ninth Symphony. This work exists as a torso, and is generally performed without its unfinished last movement, which Bruckner did not live to complete. Like most of the composer's output, the score is massive, static blocks of brass and strings, powerful fanfares, thunderous crescendoes, weighty pauses and mighty chorales.

The Philharmonic is an orchestra that thrives on its brass section, and the horns were well equipped to play Bruckner. The mighty first statement shook the hall, and the orchestra was off, blasting through the score. The first movement rolled, swelled and roared. The second, built like most Bruckner scherzos, around a distinctive five-note "Bruckner rhythm" and the Landler, a traditional Austrian peasant folk dance.

Even Eschenbach's podium gyrations could not keep up with the orchestra's inspired playing in the final adagio, a powerful movement replete with quotations from Wagner (including a theme from Walküre and the bell-motif from Parsifal.. Since Bruckner sketched the finale but did not live to complete the last movement, this Adagio made a powerful close to the concert.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Top Ten Recordings!




These are ten classical and opera recordings I really like.

Schubert--String Quintet Op. in C Major Op. 956, Melos Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich, Cello

Wagner--Götterdämmerung, Vienna Philharmonic, Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, cond. Sir Georg Solit

Strauss--Der Rosenkavalier, Dresden Staatskapelle, Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Sofie von Otter, Barbara Hendricks, Kurt Rydl, cond. Bernard Haitink

Dvorak--Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World") Op. 95, Berlin Philharmonic, cond. Rafael Kubelik

Mahler--Symphony No. 1 "Titan", Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra cond. Leonard Bernstein

Beethoven--Symphony No. 9 "Choral" in D Minor cond. Wilhelm Furtwängler, recorded at Bayreuth,, 1951.

Debussy--12 Etudes for Solo Piano, Mitsuko Uchida, piano.

Verdi--Simon Boccanegra, Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Piero Cappucili, Jose Carreras, cond. Claudio Abbado

Vaughan Williams--The Lark Ascending and others, various orchestras and ensembles

Mascagni--Cavalleria Rusticana, O and C of La Scala, Carlo Bergonzi, others, cond. Herbert von Karajan

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Verdi-Otello-Crisco™ Joke

We present a classic anecdote of the opera, which I first read in The Rough Guide To Opera, an excellent referential guide to all things pertaining to the maddest of the fine arts. We are proud to give you....


(not brought to you by Crisco, a product of the J.M. Smucker Co.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Concert Review: Mr. Robertson's Neighborhood

A man and his violin: Leonidas Kavakos.
Photo © 2008 by Yannis Bournias.
Thursday night at the New York Philharmonic featured a trio of familiar orchestral works led under the able baton of David Robertson. Robertson is music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and is currently in town for a two-week residency. This program explored music from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, incorporating the sounds of Salzburg (Mozart), Budapest (Bartok) and Vienna (Brahms.)

The evening started out with an energetic performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 34 in F Major. This is an important Mozart symphony, marking the composer's transition from Salzburg to Vienna and highlighting his decision to use a slightly more expanded orchestra. It is sometimes odd to hear these smaller-scale works in the great hall built for the likes of Mahler and Bruckner, but this was a pleasing performance, with warm textures from the string section and some agility in the woodwinds.

The Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2 followed. This work is a good introduction to Bartok. It is mostly tonal, and creates a shimmering set of variations on a simple Hungarian folk melody. Leonidas Kavakos played the tricky solo part with fire and energy, navigating the difficult cadenzas with a pleasing, singing tone from his Stradivarius. Each individual movement was greeted with applause from some enthusiastic patrons in the house. When they were "shushed" by more tradition-minded concert-goers, Kavakos said, "no, it's OK. You can applaud!" before launching into the difficult final movement.

The concert concluded with a powerful, robust Brahms Third Symphony (the piece immortalized by John Cleese in Fawlty Towers as "Brahms' Third Racket!". The Racket went off beautifully, except for a small problem with one of the horns. After a bad note in the opening passages and could be seen pulling out his crooks and trying to clean out his instrument onstage. Happily, his four fellow section-members were more than able to cover for the problems, which were clearly the fault of the instrument and not of the performer. The rest of the symphony went off without a hitch, with the orchestra delving deeply into the rich textures of Brahms' score, playing this idyllic, optimistic symphony with genuine joy.





Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lecter at the Lectern: Sir Anthony Hopkins conducts in Dallas

Friday night's program at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra featured the world premiere of two works by Academy Award-winning actor Sir Anthony Hopkins. In addition to Hopkins' own Schizoid Salsa and The Masque of Time, the concert featured his dramatic music from the plays August and Slipstream.

Sir Anthony Hopkins looks over a few bars.
Photo from The Silence of the Lambs, © 1991 Orion Pictures
Sir Anthony (or "Tony", as he prefers to be called) took the podium for the encore, conducting a reprise of Schizoid Salsa. He also introduced each number on the program to the audience. His conducting was greeted with stomping approval from the orchestra members, a sign of utmost acclaim from veteran musicians. In return, each member of the orchestra, (most notably the flute section) appears to be alive and well.

In addition to Hopkins' original music, the imaginative program featured music from his great films. Excerpts from Howard Shore's score for The Silence of the Lambs and Richard Robbins' music for The Remains of the Day were featured, along with clips from these classic films. No word on whether the orchestral forces covered the Scorpions' Hit Between the Eyes from the soundtrack of the 1995 sci-fi flick Freejack..

Check out the Dallas Symphony website for more information on these concerts, and click here for a 70-second excerpt from one of Sir Anthony's compositions.


Opera Review: Short, With a Suite

La Vida Breve at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Rafael Frühbeck di Burgos examines his baton.
Photo © Columbia Artists Management, Inc.
Thursday night at the New York Philharmonic featured the orchestra's first complete performance of Manuel de Falla's two-act opera, La Vida Breve. The opera was an unqualified knockout. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the Spanish conductor with the German name (he added the de Burgos) opened the concert with a pleasurable performance of his own orchestral transcriptions of Isaac Albeniz' Suite española.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Opera Review: Tick, Tick, Boom

Doctor Atomic nukes the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

"Where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering kaboom!"
--Marvin Martian
Some of the greatest operas in history have bombed on opening night. John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which had its Met premiere on Monday night, is an exception--a very successful operatic work about the bomb itself. Penny Woolcock's new production finally gave New York audiences a chance to experience this powerful, oratorio-like work, that tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the launch of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Los Alamos, The Trinity Project, 1945.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Correspondah Gioconda

(because every now and then I need to write something other than a straight-up review.)

Corresponda Gioconda

(with apologies to Almacore Ponchielli, Arrigio Boito and Alan Sherman)

(sung to the "Dance of the Hours" from Act III of La Gioconda, by Almacore Ponchielli)



It's your opera, correspondah
writin' 'bout La Gioconda
It's this opera, by Ponchielli
He's been dead long time by now he's kinda smelly.

This here opera's, 'bout this lady
Lives in Venice, think she's crazy
There's this creep who, wants to love her
So he sicks the Inquisition on her muddah!

Lady Laura, saves Mom's bacon
She sees Enzo, says "what's shakin'?"
But she's married, bursts his bubble
and it turns out Lady Laura is in trouble

That's not all 'cos, Gioconda
Loves old Enzo, He Don Juan 'er,
Cos he's lovin', Lady Laura
So he burns his boat and goes to the C'a D'oro

Laura's hubby's, (he's gonna kill her)
Dance of Hours, (he'll poison pill her)
But then G she switched the potions
so Laura and Enzo ex-cape to the ocean

In the fourth act, Gioconda,
saves ole Enzo, and his blonde-a
Then she waits there for Barnaba
Stabs herself in the gut before he can grab-ba.

Will it end? (when they abscond-a)
Four hours long (so help me Rhonda)
I think this one's, over-rated
Cos the opera's plot's too goddamn complicated

Did we mention, the blind momma?
She's thrown into the Orfana
A canal in, dear old Venice
She dies offstage which ties up the loose endies.

Dearest readers, this here story
has more twists than Trovatore!
But it's music, for the masses
Damn it now I went and lost my opera glasses!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Concert Review: Apocalyptica--Evil Sits Down For a Moment

The lights go down. The Who's "Wont Get Fooled Again" trails into silence. And a thunderous roar comes forth: the mighty Apocalyptica--four young musicians from Finland who are putting bow and rosin into thrash metal--played on 'cellos.



On Friday night at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square, Apocalyptica put on a hell of a show. This is not your average chamber music recital. These cellists move around, whipping up the audience, playing standing up. headbanging as they play, long hair whipping around as their bows scrape back and forth. The four cellists: group founder Eicca Toppinen, goth madman Perttu Kivilaakso, gung-ho Paavo Lötjönen and a staid Antero Manninen, who is no longer an official band member (he left in 2002). He doesn't prowl the stage like the other three. They were aided by band drummer Mikko Sirén (also a full-time member). The show was packed with dazzling musicianship. Toryn Green from Fuel joined in as guest vocalist on a few songs, singing both covers and originals with his burly delivery.

For a band that first became known for its Metallica covers, Apocalyptica did not disappoint. "Fight Fire With Fire"," "One", "Seek and Destroy" and "Enter Sandman" all got the 'cello treatment, often with shouted accompaniment from the audience. From the non-Metallica songbook came "Heroes" by David Bowie (sung half in German, half in English by Toryn Green) and encore-closer "The Hall of the Mountain King," played at breakneck pace and introduced as "authentic classic Norwegian black metal y Edvard Grieg." The rest of the set consisted of vocal and instrumental originals, including "Life Burns!", "Inquisition Symphony" and the heartrending "Bittersweet", which sounds like Schubert on steroids.


Apocalyptica started out in Helsinki as classically trained musicians who started playing Metallica covers on four cellos. The cello has the ideal range to cover both the deep growling tones of bass and rhythm guitars. Quick staccato bowing produces the same chunky rhythm sound as James Hetfield's guitar playing, and glissando figures and lightning-fast arpeggios replicate the wild lead guitar playing of Kirk Hammett. This is one of the most unique progressive metal band around--they play with killer technique an absolute conviction, and are a band that stands squarely at the crux of classical music and its louder cousin, speed metal.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles

Note: This post was inspired by AMG blogger Stephen Eddins. Read his excellent work here.

Tooling around on AMG today I read a post by Stephen Eddins about the Westminster Ring, a lesser recording of the famous Wagner cycle conducted by Hans Swarovsky. I've never heard this particular recording of the cycle, so I can't attest to its quality. However, the album covers, photographed by Christopher Whorf and presented below for your entertainment, are fascinating.

Enjoy, folks.
Der Ring des Nibelungen: How many Rhinemaidens do you need to screw in a lightbulb?
Das Rheingold: Uh...three, I think.
Die Walküre Now mit Fahrfegnugen!
Siegfried: Brought to you by Pearle Vision®
Götterdämmerung: That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles.


I like cookies!
Art by David Horvath © 2008 PrettyUgly LLC.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Opera Buff: The Met Revives Salome

Karita Mattila as Salome. Photo by Ken Howard © 2004 The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera opened its regular season on Tuesday night with a dazzling revival of Salome starring Karita Mattila. The Finnish soprano rose admirably to the many challenges of the title role, navigating the dizzying heights and gut-churning low notes with ease. Her star turn was ably supported by a solid supporting cast and virtuso performances from the orchestra pit.

When this opera premiered, Strauss commented that the work called for a "16-year old princess with the voice of an Isolde". Both of those qualities are present in Ms. Mattila's performance. Hers is a confused, oversexed adolescent, a fascinating mix of kittenish need, raw sexual energy and outright female domination. For 100 minutes, she was the focus of attention from her first entry, tossing off high notes to the moon, pulling the audience along on the journey from teasing temptress to depraved necrophiliac.

From the opening clarinet glissando, Strauss' opera is a mass of contradictions. It starts almost innocently, flirtatiously, with this production (by Jürgen Flimm) portraying Herod's court as a 1950's Hollywood cocktail party. The only sour note at the soiree is the presence of that pesky prophet John the Baptist (newcomer Juha Uusitalo) imprisoned by Herod (Kim Begley) in a cistern.

Salome, Herod's stepdaughter becomes sexually fascinated with Jokaanan. She descends into dangerous obsession when he rejects her advances. She agrees to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils, and demands the holy man's head as payment. Horrified, Herod orders her killed as the curtain crashes down.

In his Metropolitan opera debut, Juha Uusitalo wass a fine, resonant Jokaanan, stoic in his interactions with the princess. Character tenor Kim Begley was a twitchy, neurotic Herod, shrill and panicked in the opera's most atonal passages, singing all of the difficult nuances of Strauss' score. His counterpart, Ildiko Komlosi, was an impressive, piercing Herodias, whose approval of her daughter quickly vanished into a drunken haze of disgust at the opera's end. Joseph Kaiser was a fine resonant Narraboth, giving lie to the old saying that Strauss didn't write good parts for tenors. Patrick Summers led the enormous pit forces wilth lyricism and taste, conducting the opera (as Strauss himself directed) "like Fairy Music."

As for the famous Dance, it was staged here as a gender-bending exercise in tease and denial with multiple male victims dancing support roles to Ms. Mattila. Doug Varone's choreography combined elements of ballet, lap-dancing and sheer bump-and-grind. And yes, curious opera-goers, Ms. Mattila goes the full monty in this performance, leaving her audience stunned. What was even more amazing was that after receiving the severed head, Mattila then let the life and sexual anima drain from her performance, becoming nothing more than a depraved necrophage with a severed head of her very own.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's OPERA SEASON!!!!

(not duck season.)



The Metropolitan Opera opens its 125th season this week, and that means it's time for me to finally write something in this space for the first time in a few months! There's lots of exciting stuff in the pipe for Superconductor. Expect some scathing (and not-so-scathing) reviews, endless kvetching about the renovations to Lincoln Center, and the odd notes about the industry as we try to keep you updated on all the latest and greatest on the New York classical music scene.

Highlights this week include the re-opening of the Met, with a Monday night gala performance featuring Renee Fleming in a trilogy of great scenes: from Verdi's La Traviata, Massenet's Manon, and Strauss' Capriccio. The gala will be simulcast on giant screens in Times Square and at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus (across the street from the under-construction Lincoln Center. Tickets for limited seating are available at the Met box office Monday at 12pm.



The season proper kicks off on Tuesday with Salome, featuring the stunning and sexy Karita Mattila in the title role of the girl who has everything she ever wanted. She last sang this role at the Met in '04 and brought down the house. Expect a review in this space later this week once I get my head reattached.

Right: Renee Fleming, Photo by Andrew Eccles © Decca
Left: Karita Mattila Photo by Lauri Eriksson, © Warner Classics

Monday, June 9, 2008

Mengelberg's Old-school Beethoven

Wilhelm Mengelberg
As we continue to suffer through the heat I've been keeping cool with the help of my freshly loaded all-classical IPod. Recent listening has included Willem Mengelberg's superb recordings of the Beethoven symphonies and orchestral works.


This is a five-CD set of performances recorded live in in monaural sound, recorded live. Although this set is not currently in the Philips catalogue, it was released as an historic recording on the Philips "Original Masters" series which highlights famous performances from the Netherlands.

The conductor's brisk tempi and swooping lyric passages offer a glimpse back into an earlier tyle of conducting, Mengelberg's conducting is of another age, with a steady beat and a freewheeling style that recals Wihem Furtwängler. The Seventh and the "Eroica" are sublime, the Fifth is a worthy textbook for any young conductor.




Unfortunately for his conducting career, Mengelberg made these recordings during the Nazi occupation of Holland. After the war, the conductor was accused of collaborating with the Germans, and left Holland for Swiss exile where he died in 1951. He made no more recordings after 1945, but the ones he left behind, particularly the Beethoven cycle, are most illuminating to listen to.

Other current favorites include Maria Joao Pires' Mozart cycle on DGG, some nice Montreal Debussy under CHarles Dutoit, the famous La Scala Simon Boccanegra woith Claudio Abbado on the m podium, and the mono Beethoven cycle with Wilhelm Kempff at the piano. Like the aforementioned Mengelberg set, these Kempff CDs are out of print, but worth owning if you can find or download a copy.

In other news, the Mackerras Danae is now loaded, even though I had to type in all the trck titles myself. Seems CDDB doesn't know everthing...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Back from the dead...

As the classical music season winds up here in New York, things have been a little slow around the Superconductor editorial offices. CDs have stood in their cases unwrapped, DVDs unwatched, and concerts--well health issues suffered in April have made your favorite critic take a few weeks off from the concert hall. The combination of a sinus infection and breathing issues in April caused me to miss a couple of operas, but after some R and R and expert medical care, I'm on the mend.

Because the blog demands it, a lithograph of Giacomo Meyerbeer.
So. As New York swelters through its first and worst heat wave of 2008 (so far) I escaped to the air-conditioned basement of Barnes and Noble Lincoln Center, and emerged with three interesting opera recordings. They will be put into my ITunes and written about in due time, all things permitting.

Today I picked up:
Les Huguenots cond. Richard Bonynge. This magnum opus by Giacomo Meyerbeer is one of the longest non-Wagner operas ever written, a near-complete recording featuring the twin talents of Joan Sutherland and Martina Arroyo. La Stupenda takes on the role of Queen Margot, and her hubby conducts the nearly four hours of music.

Die Liebe der Danae cond. Sir Charles Mackerras. Those wacky bargain-basement elves at Gala Records (my second favorite El Cheapo music label along with Brilliant Classics) have released what is (I think) the third or fourth recording of this least-performed Richard Strauss opera. Features English basso Norman Bailey in the key role of Jupiter. This opera was the only one of Strauss' 15 to remain unstaged (except for a dress rehearsal) during the composer's lifetime. Maybe 1944 Austria wasn't the best place to stage a "cheerful mythology in three acts."

Le Roi Arthus Yes, it's King Arthur: the French Romantic Opera from the pen of Ernest Chausson. Telarc has released this Leon Botstein recording (OK, it's three years old but this is the first I've heard of it) with the professor/conductor on the podium exploring another underperformed opera that deserves a place in the repertory.



Monday, April 28, 2008

Dry Land: The Met's Boccanegra on DVD

This Deutsche Grammophon DVD of Boccanegra has been available for a while now. Recently, I decided to add it to the collection, replacing my old worn out tape of the same performance from Channel 13. This is a video of the Met's current production, designed with some success by Giancarlo del Monaco, son of the great tenor Mario. Although it presents a lovely Mediterranean setting, and a truly whopping Council Chamber--damn that's a big set--it lacks one important element crucial to this opera. At no point can you see the ocean. This is a problem for an opera that is a) about a corsair, a kind of pirate b) features "sea pictures" throughout its score and c) is set in the very aquatic city of Genoa, Italy



That quibble aside, this is for the most part, a superior Boccanegra. It's shame that budget cuts prevented Levine and orchestra from making a full studio recording as part of their (terminated) Verdi series for Sony. From the night-time opening to the opera's moody conclusion, the Met orchestra plays with razor-sharp precision, especially in the woodwind textures that give this most beautiful of Verdi scores its unique nautical feel. The house chorus is also heard at their best in this performance. In an opera that is about political power as well as private struggles, they provide a noble vox populi throughout the actin,

This performance features three very strong baritone/bass roles. First off, Vladimir Chernov's dynamic turn in the title role. This is the singer at his brief height in the 1990s. He cuts an imposing onstage figure, and rises admirably to the considerable vocal challenges presented by this opera. Even better is Robert Lloyd in the role of Fiesco, the proud nobleman who swears vengeance upon Boccanegra (for seducing and impregnating his daughter--then losing the baby. Long story.) Lloyd, always an underrated bass, positively nails "Il lacerato spirito", making this impressive aria drip with heartbreak. The third baritone is Bruno Pola, who thrives like a Genoese Danny DeVito in the villainous role of Paolo, the power broker who gets Boccanegra on the Genoese throne and then plots his death. Pola is at his best in the hushed opening scene, singing his ballade with flair.

While the three deep-voiced gentlemen rock the house in this performance, less can be said for the all-star pair of lovers who make up the opera's secondary plot. Placido Domingo is in excellent voice here as Gabriele Adorno, singing with sweetness and a faint metallic ring that characterizes many of his Verdi recordings. Opposite him is Kiri te Kanawa, the New Zealand songbird. She is generally excellent in the lighter Verdi roles, and this is her second recording as Amelia (following a recently reissued 1989 Decca set with Georg Solti). Unfortunately, the camera shows these young lovers to be miscast physically--Domingo and te Kanawa are just too old for a pair of characters that are all about ardent youth. Happily though, te Kanawa has good chemistry with Vladimir Chernov--the father-daughter duet is sung here as a work of heart-melting sentiment under James Levine's expert baton.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Rant: Bayreuth on the Hudson?

New York opera lovers, and particularly that strange, obsessed, (occasionally helmeted) subset who love the works of Richard Wagner, are a spoiled bunch. We have been ever since the arrival of the production team of Otto Schenk and Gunther Scheider-Siemssen, whose productions of the major Wagner operas have provided the Met with a complete Wagner renaissance and a steady flow of box office, thanks to periodic revivals of the duo's spectacular 1989 production of the Ring Cycle.



Starting with their 1978 production of Tannhauser, the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen team went on to stage Lohengrin, The Ring, Parsifal and Meistersinger. Each production was designed and staged in a thoroughly traditional style that would have made Cosima Wagner proud. Their underground caverns looked like caverns. Dwarves skulked, Grail knights marched and Nuremberg burghers paraded in proud order. These productions (with the exception of the Lohengrin have been popular and long-running, filling the theater on a regular basis. The Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen Ring was filmed with great success, exposing a whole new generation of listeners to Wagner, including this writer.

Yet twilight is setting on this world of realistic Wagner productions. Robert Wilson's stark Lohengrin restaged the legend of the swan knight with minimal sets and light-boxes. Next year's run of the Ring will be the last for this venerable production. In 2010, the Met will explore a brave new Ring, designed by French-Canadian iconoclast Robert LePage, whose past credits include the Lorin Maazel opera 1984 at Covent Garden, numerous stagings of Cirque du Soleil and stage design and direction for Peter Gabriel's last three tours. I am sure that there will be controversy, there will be name-calling, and there will be rounds of booing from the ultraconservatives at the opening night of the new Rheingold.

Me, I can't wait. A little controversy in the opera house, a little booing, some loud opinions are all better than the audience being asleep at the switch.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Opera Review: That Wacky Bandit

Tenor Marcello Giordani in Ernani.
Ernani at the Met.
On Monday, March 18, the Metropolitan Opera opened its first performance of Verdi’s Ernani in a quarter of a century with powerhouse tenor Marcello Giordani giving a stirring performance of the title role.

Written in the incubating fires of the Italian Risorgimento, Ernani is a setting of a fiery Victor Hugo play about a love-struck bandit whose code of honor is so strict that it eventually causes him to commit suicide on his wedding day.

Yeah. I know.

But the silliness of the plot didn’t stop Mr. Giordani from tearing up the stage. This tenor has been singing lead roles at the big house for the last decade (I first saw him as a memorable des Grieux opposite Renée Fleming in Massenet's Manon) and his instrument has evolved. He has a ringing top register, a smooth middle, and, when necessary, a serviceable low end. He looks the part of a dashing Italianate opera hero and is a believable actor, even in the silliest parts.

Ferrucio Furlanetto, a 20-year veteran of the Met stage, dominated his scenes in the key role of Silva. Honorable to a fault, Silva gets the better of the bandit in the final act. Mr. Furlanetto, who came up through the Salzburg Festival under the wing of conductor Herbert von Karajan, has had a long, varied international career. His fine basso cantante voice remains a pleasure to hear. A compelling presence, physically and vocally, his performance was the bedrock upon which this Ernani rested.

American super-baritone Thomas Hampson also gave a typically intelligent performance as Don Carlo, the King of Spain who becomes Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in the third act. Although he seemed outclassed by the other two male leads, Mr.  Hampson managed to seize to spotlight in the climactic third act, when Charles seizes power.

Caught in the middle: Elvira, one of the great Verdi heroines. She was sung by soprano Sondra Radnavovsky,  who coped admirably with the role's difficult tessitura despite being hobbled by a cold. It's not easy being caught in the middle of this opera, forced to struggle with Verdi's acrobatic vocal writing that almost stems from another era, and she more than met to this role's difficult requirements. Roberto Abbado's conducting didn't quite have the same fire as his singers, but kept the composer's rhythms moving nicely along.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

DVD Review: Night Of the Comet

The post-apocalyptic Baden-Baden Parsifal.
by Paul Pelkonen
Gurnemanz (Matti Salminen) presides over the devastation in Act I of Parsifal.Image © 2006 OpusArte/Baden-Baden Festival
The composer Richard Wagner once said, "Children, go do something new!" This new 3-DVD set, which captures Nikolaus Lehnhoff's remarkable production of Parsifal, filmed here on a good night in Baden-Baden takes the composer at his word. Lehnhoff is not the first director to stage a post-apocalyptic version of the Grail legend, but this desolate production (also seen at Covent Garden and the San Francisco Opera) is chillingly effective.


In this version, the Grail brotherhood is struggling for survival in a barren landscape, after some disastrous event (possibly a nuclear explosion, possibly a Tunguska-like comet impact) has destroyed their natural environment. Amfortas (Thomas Hampson) is their tortured, bandaged leader, suffering from wounds that will never heal. The real power of this order is Gurnemanz, (the great Matti Salminen) who is desperate to cure Amfortas before it is too late. Enter Parsifal (Christopher Ventris) who blunders onto the path of self-discovery.

Everything is "wrong" with this universe. The walls curve at odd angles. The Flower Maidens are strange botanical (mutants out of H.P. Lovecraft?) but eerily similar to what Wagner originally planned. Kundry's Act II entrance is from within a gigantic seed pod. At the climax of the opera, Klingsor and Parsifal grapple for the spear. In the finale knights appear as mindless zombies, and then as mummies stuffed into craters. Finally, it is Kundry who leads the knights out of this hell-world, down a railroad track leading into infinty.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Question: Did Richard Wagner really invent his own tuba?

Yes. When working on the Ring cycle, the composer felt that he needed to design an instrument hat combined the function of the French horn and the tuba. He went to various instrument makers (including the famous Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone) and Swiss artisan C.W. Moritz. Finally, it was Munich craftsman George Ottensteiner, working with a generous stipend from King Ludwig II, who built the first Wagner tubas. They were first used at a performance of Die Walküre in 1875.


Originally, there were two types of Wagner tubas, (tenor and bass) though most modern players prefer a "double tuba" that can play in either range with the flick of a valve. Either way, the the Wagner tuba looks like a small oval tuba, or a slightly elongated French horn. It is played in the lap with the bell facing up. The instrument was designed to have a narrow pipe bore (like the horn) so it can be played with a conical horn mouthpiece. Also, like the horn, the Wagner tuba has a rotary valve system, and it is notoriously difficult to keep in tune.

During performances of the Ring, four members of the eight-man horn section are required to put down their horns and pick up the Wagner tubas (usually two tenors, two basses.) This has the advantage of adding a darker quality to the orchestra, and a clear, stentorian sound in the more noble passages. A good place to hear the Wagner tubas do their stuff is in the opening of Act I of Die Walküre, where they represent the storm scene and the German thunder god, Donner.

Although Wagner only used these tubas in the Ring, they also appear in symphonies by Anton Bruckner (most notaly the Seventh, which was dedicated to Wagner) and Schoenberg's mighty Gurrelieder. Stravinsky required them for the Rite of Spring. Finally, Richard Strauss, who never met an orchestral texture he didn't like, used them in a number of his works.

In Germany, the Wagner tuba is also known as the "Ring-Tuben", the "Bayreuth-Tuben" and the "Rheingold-Tuben."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

DVD Review: The Golden Ring

It's Vagner Veek again at Superconductor, where the focus is almost exclusively on the music of the Meister of Bayreuth. No, there won't be a review of the Met's Tristan revival. (Illness made it impossible for us to attend the opening last night) but there will be articles, comments and other stuff that's more exciting than an ordinary opera review. Here goes....



The Golden Ring is a 90 minute black-and-white BBC documentary chronicling the recording of the first-ever studio Götterdämmerung in Vienna in 1964. Directed by Humphrey Burton, the movie captures the pressure and stress of opera in the studio, broken down into ten-minute segments and recorded ata breakneck pace. The sessions caught here were part of an eight-year project, during which the Decca engineers (led by John Culshaw) and the Vienna Philharmonic (led by a young Georg Solti) recorded the entirety of Wagner's Ring cycle for release in stereo. (Rheingold was recorded in '58, Siegfried in '60. A 1966 Walküre completed the cycle.)

The Solti Ring, as it is known to collectors, is considered to be one of the finest Wagner recordings--and one of the finest opera recordings--ever made. Working with the early stereo format, the engineers hung microphones over the recording space and moved the singers around on the stage, panning their voices to the left and to the right. Vocal effects and audio effects allowed the engineers, using analog equipment, to create a "theater of the mind" that would give the listener the illusion of experiencing the events of the opera in a different way than one would in the opera house. In addition to transforming voices through the use of distant microphones and isolation booths, Culshaw and company stuck closely to the letter of Wagner's work, using 18 tuned anvils, alphorn, lead blocks, and in Götterdämmerung, steer-horns to complete the aural illusion.

The documentary captures much of this frenzied activity. You sit in on orchestral rehearsals, watch the singers make "test" recordings, and then see the final, recorded performances. Birgit Nilsson (Brunnhilde) falls victim to a memorable practical joke. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau discusses the problems with Wagner the person versus Wagner the composer. We visit a cocktail party in the producers' apartment, built right above the studio.Solti (nicknamed the "Screaming Skull" during hiis Covent Garden tenure) yells at the Vienna Philharmonic. All that is very interesting, but the real glory here is the performance, with Gottlob Frick's black-voiced Hagen, Wolfgang Windgassen's experienced Siegfried, and Nilsson's indomitable Brunnhilde.

This is an important document, but the DVD release has two drawbacks. One is the poor source quality, a worn-out, damaged video tape that shows white lines and silver squiggles on the image. Worse yet is the sketchy mono sound which becomes scratchy when the orchestra kicks into full Wagnerian gear. If you want to hear these performances for real, get the recordings on LP or CD. But then, see this film--it is an interesting inside look at an era of opera recording long since passed.

Click here HERE to watch a clip from The Golden Ring--the scene where Birgit Nilsson gets pranked. Then watch her sing magnificently in the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung.

Friday, March 7, 2008

DVD Review: Two Meistersingers from Bayreuth

Pensive: Bernd Weikl as Sachs. © 1982 Bayreuth Festival
Wolfgang Wagner, grandson of Richard Wagner, has run the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (the opera theater in Germany designed and built by his grandfather exclusively for staging Wagner operas) for 57 years. In that time, he has had his greatest successes with stagings of Die Meistersinger, Wagner's six hour comic opera that is also a meditation on life, music, and the role of the artist. Two of these productions have been recently released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon.

The first of these was filmed at Bayreuth in 1984, and features an eager young cast (including the future Siegfried tandem of Siegfried Jerusalem and Graham Clark) under the capable baton of Bayreuth veteran Horst Stein. Wolfgang Wagner takes the spare, traditional approach--a stone Lutheran church, a quiet Nuremberg street which bursts into activity at the end of Act II--the whole cast is onstage brawling in their nightshirts! Instead of a "festival meadow," Wagner erects a gigantic "festival tree", a life-affirming design in keeping with the spirit of this production.

Hermann Prey's Beckmesser steals the show, leaving aside 100 years of ugly Wagnerian baggage and playing the town clerk as dignified and competent, if somewhat fussy. Prey's Beckmesser is a man of tremendous dignity who repeatedly slips on Wagner's musical banana peels, with predictable results. Bernd Weikl is a youngish, but warm and heroic Sachs. Soprano Mari-Anne Haggander makes an adorable Eva, but looks better than she sings. Finally look for bass Matthias Hölle making his first Bayreuth appearance as the Night Watchman.

Note: In the final scene, look for the white-haired gentleman who gets Sachs and Beckmesser to shake hands. That's Wolfgang Wagner himself!
Peter Seiffert as Hans Sachs in the 1999 Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger.

The 1999 Meistersinger also has a good cast. Tenor Peter Seiffert is a fine Walther, with ringing, noble top notes, a sweet voice, and good acting ability--he makes comic bemusement into an art form in the first act. Overall, his young Franconian knight is more restrained than some von Stolzings who start yelling when they should be hiding in the bushes. Andreas Schmidt, another singer with extensive lieder experience is a Beckmesser in the Prey mode, extremely dignified and then extremely funny. Bayreuth veteran Matthias Hölle has graduated to Pogner, and gives a stately performance. The Bayreuth orchestra is first-rate, led in a robust performance by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the chorus is top-flight.

Which brings us to the one hitch: the Sachs of baritone Robert Holl. His approach to the role is low-key and bland--curiously uninvolved in the early acts of the opera. Then, in the "Wahn! Wahn!" scene at the start of Act III, he fails to take over the action as the opera's protagonist. His voice is a light-weight baritone, lacking the resonance and the authority of a true Sachs. The situation is compounded in the final scene, when he simply runs out of notes. The final monologue is undermined by an unpleasant vibrato.

This time, in his third Bayreuth staging of the opera, Wolfgang has set the action against a cyclorama criss-crossed with back lines. This becomes a giant back-projection screen, suggesting church windows, the rooftops of Nuremberg, and the green festival meadow. All the action takes place on spare sets--some seating surfaces and small chairs for the church, the suggestion of a city street with two houses in Act II. Sachs' house is bare--almost a monk's cell. This production is a kindred spirit to the famous "Meistersinger Without Nuremberg" staged by Wolfgang's brother, Wieland in 1956.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Question: Is There Really a "Curse of Beethoven?"

When Ludwig van Beethoven completed his famous Ninth Symphony and premiered it in 1824, he did start working on an all-instrumental Tenth. However, the composer dedicated his last few years to chamber music, and his final symphonic attempt has survived only as a few phrases in one of his sketchbooks.

Franz Schubert died one year after Beethoven. He wrote nine symphonies, but the Eighth (the "Unfinished") is only two movements long. It is not known whether Schubert intended to complete it. The Ninth (which was rehearsed but never performed while Schubert was alive) was eventually brought forward by Robert Schumann, and Mendelssohn conducted the premiere. In any case, the Schubert Ninth was originally published as his Seventh. He also started working on a Tenth, but it is no more than a few piano sketches.

Bruckner completed eight symphonies and three movements of his Ninth. He came close to breaking the "curse" but died before he could finish the finale of his last symphony. The fact that he spent much of his time revising and editing his earlier symphonies might have had something to do with his inabiltiy to finish the Ninth. However, it should be noted that Bruckner's second completed symphony, which was later shelved by the notoriously insecure composer, has survived as the Symphony No. 0 or "Die Nullte."

Gustav Mahler was a superstitious man, and he was determined to beat the "curse." After finishing his Eighth Symphony (the choral "Symphony of a Thousand"), Mahler started working on a new five-movement symphonic song cycle. However, instead of numbering it, he published this "ninth" symphony as The Song of the Earth. He then completed his Ninth Symphony (really his Tenth) and started working on the Tenth. He sketched out most of the melodies, defined the structure, orchestrated the first movement of the five-movement work, and then died of heart failure in 1911 at age 50. Most conductors play only the finished first movements. Some, like Sir Simon Rattle, elect to play the completed orchestration by noted musicologist Deryck Cooke.

By the way, Dmitri Shostakovich "officially" broke the curse in the 1950s with his Tenth Symphony. The Russian composer went on to write fifteen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Opera Review: Fish Story

The Met's new Peter Grimes.
Ellen Orford (Patricia Racette) and Peter Grimes (Anthony Dean Griffey)
Photos © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
In the new Metropolitan Opera production of Peter Grimes, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey has made the towering title role his very own. As the outcast fisherman with a terrible temper (and even worse luck), you're never really sure when Griffey's Grimes goes 'round the bend--and that's what makes his performance so powerful.

A remarkable singing actor, Griffey brings pathos to the soft, lyric moments of the score, yet packs plenty of power in his voice for the mad scenes and sudden rages that are Grimes' dark side. The entire performance is harrowing in its intensity, and stands proudly next to other great Grimeses of the past: Peter Pears, John Vickers and Philip Langridge.

Mr. Griffey is perfectly matched with soprano Patricia Racette, who sets aside the kimonos of Butterfly and the glitter of Violetta to play Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress in Grimes' village (the Borough) and his only friend in the world. Her compassion for Peter never falters, even when he descends into madness and violence.

Mrs. Sedley, the town gossip who riles the Borough up against Grimes, receives a sharp-edged portrayal from Felicity Palmer. John Del Carlo makes Swallow a sonorous comic character with his fine bass. Anthony Michaels-Moore was an able, sympathetic Captain Balstrode.

The Met chorus and orchestra were at their finest last night. The chorus was a model of tight, precise singing, handling Britten's complicated vocal lines with ease. The orchestra played superbly under the baton of Sir Donald Runnicles, providing accent and subtlety in their vocal accompaniment. The famous Sea Interludes were another highlight, with the smell of salt and the kiss of spray rising from the orchestra put under Runnicles' superb direction.

Curiously, John Doyle's spare production featured little in the way of oceanic or naval trappings. Most of the action took place before a giant wooden curtain with rustic doors all over it, representing walls and buildings within the Borough. The doors worked well for quick entrances and exits, suggesting streets, the tavern, or Grimes' pathetic little oceanside hut. Sliding walls made the acting space more and more claustrophobic, until the walls literally closed in on the doomed Grimes. It was an effective staging--dark and dour as Britten's protagonist.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Giuseppe di Stefano, 1921-2008

Italian tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, one of the great voices in Italian opera in the 20th century, has passed away. He was 86.

Giuseppe di Stefano was born in Catania, Sicily, in 1921. His international career began in 1946 with the role of Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon. He possessed a distinctive, glorious instrument, combining rich vocal production and gorgeous, sweet tone: immediately recognizable by opera lovers. This unique bel canto style served as a model for many young tenors. The great Luciano Pavarotti modeled his singing style on di Stefano's, and sang similar repertory throughout his own career.



In addition to his many stage appearances. Giuseppe di Stefano was a post-war tenor who helped bring opera into the home of the contemporary listener with help from the newly invented long-playing record. Along with Carlo Bergonzi, Mario del Monaco and Jussi Bjöerling, these singers expanded the role of opera in popular culture, setting the stage for the giant successes of Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Pavarotti.

Most notably, di Stefano recorded ten classic operas opposite the great Maria Callas. Their remarkable run includes some of the most important Callas recordings, and is highlighted by the benchmark 1953 reading of Tosca with Victor de Sabata conducting. Featuring the snarling Scarpia of Tito Gobbi, this Tosca is one of the greatest Puccini recordings--one of the greatest opera recordings ever made.

Although di Stefano had a successful international career, his voice suffered from over-work in the 60s and early '70s. On a final recital tour with Callas, he was a shadow of his former self. . Ultimately, his command of gorgeous tenor line and supple tone vanished to a shadow its former self. The great tenor's last onstage role was in a 1992 production of Turandot in the role of the wispy-voiced Emperor Altoum. It was a sad footnote ending to what had been a glorious career.

In 2004, di Stefano and his wife were ambushed in their car in Kenya. The tenor was brutally beaten by unknown assailants, suffering injuries from which he never fully recovered. Despite several operations, the singer finally died in the San Raffaele Clinic in Milan, Italy.

Thanks to The Rest Is Noise for the news of the tenor's death, Wikipedia for the biographical background, and Opera Chic for the image used above.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Unfinished Business: Five Operas Left Incomplete

Modest Mussorgsky, painted by Vadim Repin in his last years.
Just what it sounds like. All five of these operas were left unfinished due to the untimely deaths of their composers. Happily for us musicological types, they were later completed and premiered in full versions, providing endless grist for lengthy caffeine-and-alcohol fueled arguments in the cafés and pubs around Lincoln Center--if we could afford to go to them.

Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanschina
completed by: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky (orchestration)

Mussorgsky's grand drama of Russian politics (the title translates as "The Khovansky Affair") deals with the rise of Peter the Great and the destruction of all those opposed to the new Tsar. Working from historical documents, he wrote the five-act libretto but had only begun the orchestration when he died (from complications due to alcoholism) at the age of 42.

His friend and fellow composer Rimsky-Korsakov finished the first version of the opera, although his version somehow manages an upbeat ending. Igor Stravinsky also took a crack at the score, but from his version, only Act V has survived. (It can be heard on the Abbado recording of the score, pictured at right.) Most opera houses (including the Met and the Kirov) use the Shostakovich orchestration, which is fairly close to Mussorgsky' gloomy conception.

Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffman
completed by: Ernest Giraud, Fritz Oeser, Michael Kaye, Jean-Christophe Keck, and others.

This is the one "serious" opera from France's leading composer of operetta and light comedies. Hoffman is a cyclical story dealing with the titular poet being thwarted repeatedly by four "evil geniuses" as he pursues his ideal woman. Francois Giraud completed the opera following Offenbach's death, but shortened the "Giulietta" act--which happens to be the opera's climax.

Through the years, sopranos have pushed for the order of acts to be altered, so they can sing the "Antonia" act (with its spectacular death scene) last. This makes nonsense of the plot. Most recordings of this opera feature different performing versions, bastardizations, and alternate endings. In the 20th century, a number of musicologists, including Michael Kaye and Fritz Oeser published different complete versions of the score.

Feruccio Busoni: Doktor Faust
completed by: Philipp Jarnach, later by Anthony Beaumont

This version of Faust by the most Faustian of composers was Busoni's magnum opus. This Italian-born German composer skipped Goethe's version of the story and went directly to the source of the Faust legend, medieval German puppet plays that told the story of a man selling his soul to the devil. Unusually, this version of the story casts a baritone as Faust and a tenor as Mephistopheles.

Busoni worked frantically to finish the opera, but died (from a kidney disease) before he could complete the final act, when Faust's soul is redeemed. Composer Philipp Jarnach's completed version is the repertory standard, although a new completion by Anthony Beaumont is based on Busoni's own sketches for the finale. The Kent Nagano recording of the opera (on Erato) includes both endings.

Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
completed by: Franco Alfano, later by Luciano Berio

Probably the most famous "incomplete" opera on this list. Puccini died in 1924, following complications from surgery to remove his throat cancer before he could complete the last act of Turandot. His final opera is a tale of mythic China in which a mysterious Unknown Prince seeks to melt the heart of the titular Princess before she has his head cut off.

Unfortunately, the composer died before he could write the music in which Turandot's heart melts. In 1926, Puccini's publishers hired composer Franco Alfano to finish the job. At the opera's premiere, Toscanini stopped conducting at the moment where Puccini stopped working and explained "Here, the maestro laid down his pen." The following night, Alfano's completion was performed. Today, most opera houses cut the Alfano music as short as possible. As a result, this grand, complex mythic tale has one of the most abrupt "quick endings" of any opera.

Alban Berg: Lulu
completed by: Friedrich Cerha

Berg died before he could finish the last act of Lulu his opera that explores the power of destruction through seduction. In his original conception, Lulu would sink into prostitution, and would be finally slaughtered by Jack the Ripper. When Berg died, his widow Helene approached Arnold Schoenberg to finish the opera. When he declined, she would not allow anyone else to work on Berg's sketches. As a result, Lulu was premiered in 1937 as a two-act torso. Helene Berg died in 1976. In 1979, Friedrich Cerha completed the opera. The full three-act Lulu was premiered by conductor Pierre Boulez, and proved to be a huge critical success . And yes, these performances are available on CD.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Twelve Is the Magic Number

Self-portrait in blue by Arnold Schoenberg
© The Arnold Schoenberg Foundation
Arnold Schoenberg and the Birth of Serialism.
by Paul Pelkonen.
One hundred years ago, Arnold Schoenberg took the "rule book" of music, and blew it to smithereens. Schoenberg started out as a late example of the post-Romantic sound, writing gorgeous tone poems (among them, Verklaerte Nacht) for huge orchestral forces. His biggest work, the choral cycle Gurrelieder requires a small army of musicians. But, faced with a musical dead end, Schoenberg struck a different path and changed music forever.


With the premiere of the song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg created a new system that inspired composers in the 20th century to push the envelope and change the way music sounded. He fused the chromaticism of Richard Wagner with the post-classical complexities of Johannes Brahms, Schoenberg wrote music that was atonal (without tonality or a fixed key). Eventually, Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone system.Schoenberg, and his two famous students (Anton Webern and Alban Berg) are referred to as the Second Viennese School.

Here's how it works. Take a 12-note scale starting with C:



C-C#-D-E♭-E-F-F#-G-A♭-A-B♭-B

Now, instead of that "normal" order, the composer takes the twelve tones and rearranges them to create a note row in any order he wishes. Sometimes, the note rows are based on strict mathematics. Sometimes, they are just the composer's own arrangement. Here's an example.



F-C-B♭-D-A-E♭-B-G-F#-A♭-E-C#

(This is not an actual note-row, just a hypothetical) This new tone row can then be played retrograde (backward), inverted) upside-down or in other permutations. The composer can also organize or "serialize" the rests between the notes, the intervals, or any other aspect of the composition that can be thought of. All these techniques together are known as serialism.

The idea of "atonal" or "serial" music can intimidate the first-time listener. Once the ears adjust to the fact that this music is not following the "traditional" mold, new sonic possibilities open up. Schoenberg, and his two famous students Alban Berg and Anton Webern are among the most important composers in the repertory.

To start exploring, check out these recordings:

Schoenberg: Piano Works, Maurizio Pollini, Piano
Verklaerte Nacht, Pelleas et Melisande, Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon)

The Pollini disc is an essential one-disc survey of Schoenberg's complex, spidery piano works. It was recently reissued as part of DG's Maurizio Pollini Edition. Top-notch playing, and crystalline sound. Next, check out Schoenberg's early, post-romantic period, try the excellent Philharmonia Orchestra recordings of the composer's two major tone poems. The late Giuseppe Sinopoli conducts.

Berg: Violin Concerto, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Violin, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. James Levine (Deutsche Grammophon)
Berg's concerto, written in 1935 and dedicated "To the Memory of an Angel" is one of the composer's most emotional, yet accessible works. Of the many fine recordings in the catalogue, this one leads the pack. The disc also includes Time Chant by contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm. The Mutter recording of the Concerto is also available on the 8-disc "Alban Berg Collection" box set, which includes most of the composer's major compositions, including the operas Lulu and Wozzeck.

Boulez Conducts Webern, Vols. 1-3 Various singers and ensembles, cond. Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon)
One of the most important composers of the 20th century in his own right, Pierre Boulez recorded the complete works of Webern twice, once for Sony and later for Deutsche Grammophon. The DG recordings are preferable. Instead of getting the three individual Volumes, you can pick up the six-disc Complete Webern box set which gives you the Emerson String Quartet's recordings of Webern's chamber music.


Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Opera On Disc: Carmen vs. Carmen

Frame-grab of Teresa Berganza as Carmen.
George Bizet's Carmen is evergreen on the stage, an opera packed from end to end with memorable melodies and unforgettable dramatic moments. The electricity of a performance is difficult to replicate in the studio. Also, the use of spoken dialogue instead of recitative tends to confuse first-time listeners who may surprised to hear spoken French coming out of their living room stereo. That said, these are the two best Carmens in the catalogue.

Carmen
London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Claudio Abbado, (Deutsche Grammophon/DG Original 1978)


An Italian conductor, Spanish singers in the lead parts, an English orchestra and an American Escamillo add up to a cosmopolitan Carmen. Claudio Abbado's 1978 recording has plenty of red-blooded energy, which makes up for its lack of authentic French tone. From the first cymbal clashes to the tragic final scene, Abbado's conducting reeks of attitude and robustness, good qualities in a performance of this passionate opera. Teresa Berganza sings a lush, sensual performance, achieving genuine heat in her Act I solos and a full, rich characterization in the later acts. Her Don José is Placido Domingo, in his vocal prime. His tense, barely-in-control "Flower Song" is one of the tenor's best recorded moments, tender yet anguished.

Berganza and Domingo have terrific chemistry on this recording. The only thing that's better is the Act I scene between Domingo and Ileana Cotrubas as Micaëla--a heart-rending reminder of that failed relationship. Sherrill Milnes is a strutting Escamillo, singing the "Toreador" song with feline grace. The London Symphony Orchestra is in excellent form. This recording uses the authentic spoken French dialogue, as the composer intended. The only minus--some of the sound effects are overplayed and overwhelming.
(Note: In March of 2005, after a long absence from the label's US catalogue (I had to buy an import!), the Abbado/Bergana >Carmen was reissued as a 2-disc, mid-price DG Original.)

Carmen
Choeur et Ochestra National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise, cond. Sir Thomas Beecham, (EMI Classics, 1960)

Sir Thomas Beecham's recording has been the benchmark Carmen since it apeared in 1960. Its chief glory is the voluptuous singing of Victora de los Angeles. At this point in her career, de los Angeles had already recorded the definitive Bohème with Beecham at the controls. She undertook the role of the Spanish gypsy at the conductor's request, having never sung Carmen onstage. Her Carmen is a complex creature, playful and teasing in the Habañera, bewitching in the Séguedille. She is well matched with the great Nicolai Gedda, whose excellent command of French and cerebral approach to the character make him a fairly down-to-earth Don José. Of course, this makes the moment when he snaps and turns into a homicidal maniac all the more effective.

These two excellent leads are supplanted by a fine French cast, most notably Ernest Blanc (Escamillo) and Janine Micheau (Micaëla). Beecham leads his French forces in a performance that features the old-fashioned Giraud recitatives. This gives the performance an organic ebb and flow, highlighting the superb work of this quintessential British conductor . This Carmen never loses its momentum, or its sense of inexorable progress toward the final denouement.
(Note: This set is currently available, as a mid-price 3-disc box in EMI's Great Recordings of the 20th Century series.)

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.