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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.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Parsifal

In Wagner's last stage work, "time becomes space."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Baritone Ryan McKinny as Amfortas in the new Bayreuth production of Parsifal
which opened just this week. Photo by Enrico Nawath © 2016 Bayreuther Festspiele.
Parsifal is Wagner's last opera, the sum tota of everything he tried to achieve in his tumultuous career. It chronicles the journey of its title character from innocent fool to wise ruler of the kingdom of the Holy Grail. It's also a close, and at times unsettling examination of religious belief, Christian imagery and the power of faith. Maddeningly slow at first hearing, it sonic beauties are veiled even deliberately enigmatic--but more rewarding with each listen.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Concert Review: Taming the Savage Beast


A scuffle mars Thursday's Mostly Mozart concert.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Louis Langrée led Thursday's Mostly Mozart concert at Alice Tully Hall.
Photo © 2014 Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Normally, a review of a performance like last night's concert at Alice Tully Hall featuring the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with guest pianist Leif Ove Andsnes would confine itself to the music that was played onstage. However, an incident in the house before the concert must be mentioned first. It happened during the introductory lecture by festival music director Louis Langrée. An ugly, violent moment, it may serve as a launch point to discuss the importance and necessity of the music of Mozart and Bach, civilized art that can tame the restless hearts of New Yorkers trapped in an extended wave of humidity and heat.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Obituary: Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016)

The composer of eight symphonies and fourteen concertos was 87.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Composer Einojuhani Rautavaara at his piano.
Photo by Outi Pyhäranta. 
Composer Einojuhani Rautavaara died yesterday. The grand master of Finnish music was 87. His eight symphonies and enormous output of opera, songs and orchestral works broke bold new ground in the 20th and 21st centuries, and his legacy to younger composers can be heard throughout the world's concert halls.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Concert Review: The Royal Tasting Table

Mozart opera served tapas-style in The Illuminated Heart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Burning down the house: Christine Goerke (center) sings Elettra in The Illuminated Heart
as Louis Langrée conducts. Photo © Richard Termine for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
For an arts organization trying to interest new listeners in opera, the hardest thing to do is to convert skeptics to the power and beauty of this 500-year-old art form. Presumably, that was the intent behind The Illuminated Heart, a glitzy 75-minute arrangement of Mozart arias and ensembles that kicked off the 50th anniversary celebration of Mostly Mozart at Lincoln Center. Exactly the length of an old-fashioned CD, this program reminded one of those Mozart compilations that flooded record shops in 1985 following Amadeus' eight Oscar wins.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Opera Review: Her Daddy Said: "A Whore"


Bard SummerScape plucks Mascagni's rare Iris.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pimp daddy: Kyoto (Douglas Williams) menaces Iris (Talise Trevigne) in Mascagni's opera.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2016 Bard SummerScape.
Composer Pietro Mascagni once famously said that of all his operas he regretted writing Cavalleria Rusticana first. This month, his Iris is the centerpiece of the annual Bard SummerScape festival,  held at the shiny Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center (on the verdant grounds of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson New York.) At Sunday's matinee performance, conductor, artistic director and Bard president Leon Botstein made a forceful case for Iris as a lost Mascagni masterwork.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Götterdämmerung

The Ring comes full circle.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Act II Scene II of Götterdämmerung as staged by the Mariinsky Theater.
That's Hagen standing on top of the Gibichung Hall. Photo by V. Baranovsky.

Twenty-two years after starting work on  his mammoth four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, Richard Wagner wound up right back where he started with Götterdämmerung. The last opera of the cycle tells the story he wanted to tell in the first place: the death of the hero Siegfried and the redemption of the world by the heroine Brunnhilde. Except now the ending was different.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Opera Review: Three Aces and a Pair


Apotheosis Opera takes on The Girl of the Golden West
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This Minnie ain't no mouse: Stacy Stofferahn confronts "Dick Johnson" (Nicholas Simpson)
in Act II of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West. Photo by Matthew Kipnis for Apotheosis Opera.
If the triptych of great tragic operas by Giacomo Puccini can be compared to the iconic tragedies of Shakespeare, then the later works of his catalogue are equivalent to the "problem plays," works that for whatever reason do not hold the stage with the same frequency as La Bohéme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. On Friday night, the young ad hoc company Apotheosis Opera took on one of those works: La Fanciulla del West. This is Apotheosis' second production in its young history, and Fanciulla (English title: The Girl of the Golden West) is Puccini's most difficult show to mount.



This performance, held in the richly painted Teatro del Museo del Barrio at the upper end of Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile, was a huge challenge for any opera company, let alone one made of young singers and musicians committing themselves on their nights off. On Friday night, artists displayed pluck and commitment in the face of adversary, showing not only commitment and enthusiasm but the understanding of this work that comes from hard work and long rehearsal. Much of that credit goes to conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz, who decided to follow last year's ambitious Tannhäuser with this even more difficult show.

Set in a California mining town at the height of the gold rush, The Girl presents formidable issues in terms of libretto and staging, not to mention the steep requirements Puccini asked from his leading lady. As Minnie, Stacy Stofferahn commanded the stage from the moment she strode into the Polka Saloon to restore order armed with a shotgun and a Bible. But her best weapons were a Nordic charm and a potent soprano voice. Over three grueling acts, she showed that she had enough aces hidden in her boots to win each of the opera's three acts.

Minnie must ride smoothly through the narrow canyons of the passagio, turning on a dime from a sweet, innocent Sunday school to a mountain lioness determined to defend her lover in the second act. Ms. Stofferahn managed these conflicts adroitly, letting out a great cry of "He is mine!" over the bellowing roar of the huge orchestra at the act's climax. She was even better in the third act, as she faced down a lynch mob of miners determined to string her lover up for his past crimes, and got them all to reflect on the futility of violence and the value of forgiveness.

When this opera premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, the tenor was Enrico Caruso.  Nicholas Simpson (last year's Tannhäuser) is no Caruso, but he sang with fervor and a Siegfried-like sangfroid. Tall, imposing and as bald as his animated television counterpart, Mr. Simpson drew a laugh with his entry line "So who wants to curl my hair back?" He packed a bright, clarion tenor and carried off his role with enthusiasm, despite pitch problems that appeared when he leapt up the scale into the uppermost range of his instrument. A flawed but enjoyable performance.

Jack Rance is the town sheriff whose blind love for Minnie recalls the Baron Scarpia's cruel streak. John Dominick III sang this difficult role with power and presence, with a plummy, bass-baritone that was occasionally drowned by the waves of sound billowing from the pit.. The other miners in the town (there is no chorus, Puccini instead created fifteen highly indivudual parts) came across as a real community, bonding over crooked card games and reluctantly dancing with each other in Minnie's absence. In the third act, when searching for Johnson, the miners invaded the house, creating spatial effects that were much more effective than singing offstage.

In this witty, spare production by Lucca Damilano, the complex social interactions of the first act were more than just a time-killer. Played against a simple set with a Star Trek-like suggestion of doors and windows, the onstage action was a fascinating look into the miners' lonely little world. Indeed, this production's greatest service may be that it presented Fanciulla in a fresh light. With a smart, accurate English translation (by Kelley Rourke, solving many of the libretto's awkward American-isms, Apotheosis showed that you don't have to visit the Met to see Puccini's West.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Siegfried


A boy's own adventure tale...interrupted.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stefan Vinke as Siegfried in Act II of the opera that bears his name.
Photo by Elise Bakketun © 2015 Seattle Opera 
Like its title character, the opera Siegfried is quite literally the problem child of the Ring. The story of the early adventures of Wagner's mythic Nietszchean superhero was meant to be a light work, an optimistic opera that would help draw listeners to the Ring as a whole. And yet, it remains the least heard and least popular chapter of the enormous operatic cycle.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Opera Review: Figaro's Bigger Brother

Caramoor exhumes Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Will Crutchfield (left) conducting the chorus at Caramoor.
The maestro led the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira on Saturday.
Photo by Gabe Palacios © 2016 Caramoor Festival for the Performing Arts.
Giachino Rossini was one of the most prolific and pragmatic opera composers of the nineteenth century. A master of melodious arias and rousing choral crescendoes, he composed opera naturally and easily, tossing off a string of thirty-eight operas before retiring from the stage at that same age. Aureliano in Palmira was written for La Scala, and was an ambitious work in the opera seria mode. However, it tanked on opening night and sunk into the mists of opera history.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner's longest opera happens to be one of the great comedies.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A medieval woodcut depicting the city of Nuremberg.
In 1848, Wagner had two ideas for operas. One, the saga of the swan knight, became Lohengrin, the other was Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg ("The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." Meistersinger (as it is usually called) was sketched as a rustic comedy, kind of like Tannhäuser with less sex and a happy ending. 19 years later, when Die Meistersinger finally appeared, it became Wagner's longest opera, a profound reflection on the composer's own career and the search for the meaning of German art. It remains one of his most popular operas. And yes, it's a comedy.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Concert Review: Hey Now, They Wear All-Stars


The National Youth Orchestra of the U.S.A. plays Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The young artists of the National Youth Orchestra, rehearsing at SUNY Purchase.
Phoo by Chris Lee © 2016 Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall is usually quiet in the summer months, its hallowed stage bereft of the pianists, orchestras and conductors that parade across its boards in the other three seasons of the year. And yet on July 14, that venue was abuzz with the activity normally associated with a big symphonic concert. The risers were installed. The instruments were arranged. The piano was brought in. The reason: the second annual appearance of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Tristan und Isolde

Love, death and infidelity, both on stage and in real life.
Promotional image for the 2015 production of Tristan und Isolde at
The Bayreuth Festapielhaus. Direction and concept by Katherina Wagner
Copyright 2015 Bayreuther Festapiele.
There is nothing in the opera repertory quite like Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s meditation on love, death and longing baffled performers and audiences, taking almost a decade to finally reach the stage. When it was finally premiered in 1865 the tenor sang just four performances before dying. Since that inauspiciously start, Tristan has claimed the lives of two conductors since: both Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilberth died after conducting its second act.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Concert Review: Connecting the Dots

Jonathan Biss and the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Caramoor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Joshua Weilerstein (standing) conducts Jonathan Biss (seated, center)
and the Orchestra of St. Luke's on Sunday afternoon at Caramoor.
Photo by Gabe Palacios © 2016 Caramoor Festival of the Arts.
This year, the Caramoor Festival awarded the prized post of Artist-in-Residence to Jonathan Biss, the New York-based pianist whose exhaustive approach to Beethoven and Schumann and commitment to modern music has made him a favorite son among New York-based pianists. Sunday's concert saw the first fruits of this collaboration with the Westchester-based arts venue, located on the sprawling faux-Italian Renaissance Rosen Estate, somewhere in the woods outside Katonah, NY.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Die Walküre

The second chapter of the Ring remains its most familiar.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Morris (standing) as Wotan in the final scene from Die Walküre. 
Jane Eaglen (lying prone) is Brunnhilde.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2004 The Metropolitan Opera.
This is the opera people think of when they think of Wagner. The Ride of the Valkyries. The Magic Fire scene. Thick orchestrations. Pulse-pounding passions. And some of the composer's best and most enduring music. There's nothing quite like Die Walküre. On a good night (or in a good recording) this is a four hour story that unfolds with the pace of a breakneck car chase--one involving flying horses.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Das Rheingold

Wagner's first Ring opera has no pauses...and no humans!
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Underwater love: Alberich (Gunther von Kannen, center) pursues the three Rhinemaidens
in the opening scene of Das Rheingold.,
Image from the Bayreuth Festival, © 1991 Teldec/WBC/Unitel
Believe it or not, Wagner's enormous 15-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen (hereafter referred to as "the Ring Cycle) was originally supposed to be just one opera. In 1848, Richard Wagner sketched an opera called Siegfrieds Tod, which would retell the most famous incident from German myth and epic: the death of the hero Siegfried and the later fate of his beloved, the valkyrie (warrior maiden) Brunnhilde. And then, much like the ambitious god Wotan he realized that one opera wouldn't be enough.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Lohengrin

Wagner's medieval legend redefines the words "dream boat."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
He who must not be named: Ben Heppner (center) as the swan knight Lohengrin
(oops) in the Metropolitan Opera's 1998 production by Robert Wilson.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 1998 The Metropolitan Opera.
Would you marry a man who saved your life even if you did not know his name and were forbidden to ask? Richard Wagner's sixth opera Lohengrin is a test of faith for its heroine Elsa von Brabant and for the listener, who  is confronted by the composer's distinct style in the grandest manner possible.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Tannhäuser

Caught between two worlds, two women and two versions of the same opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The medieval knight Heinrich von Ofterdingen, known to all as "Tannhäuser."
Photo re-coloring by the author.
Wagner planned Tannhäuser to be a grand opera, not a grand, sweeping statement on the nature of duality and the divided self. But it is. On one level, this is the story of a medieval minstrel knight (the title character, pronounced "TAHN-hoy-zer") who tries to win a song contest. However, the hero is doomed from the start, trapped between his lust for the goddess Venus and his chaste love for the pure, saintly Elisabeth. This opera is an examination of the artist in a divided state of ones self, destroyed by the effort to meet all of one's needs at once.

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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.