April 30, 2014 | Permalink
Above: detail from the tomb of Marie D'Agoult at Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
Nelida in an anagram for Daniel, and Daniel Stern was the nom de plume of Marie D'Agoult, the mistress of Franz Liszt and the mother of Cosima Wagner. Nelida is also the title of D'Agoult's 1846 novel, drawing upon her tempestuous relationship with Liszt; ironically, the composer (they were long since estranged) seems to have sent her a congratulatory letter when the novel was published.
Marie D'Agoult was the only one among Liszt's lovers to bear him children: Blandine, Cosima, and Daniel. Liszt met Marie in 1832 or 1833 and they became lovers in 1834, though d’Agoult was not divorced from her husband Comte D'Agoult until 1835. The affair between Marie and Franz was a stormy one; she deplored the composer/pianist's long absences on his performance tours. These absences - and Liszt's philandering - led to a final break in their relationship in 1844. Marie then took up the name Daniel Stern; she became a journalist. She died in 1876. Though a less prolific and skilled writer than George Sand, D'Agoult is sometimes compared with her better-known compatriot; the two women shared the distinction of being the respective lovers of a pair of musical geniuses.
Out of curiousity, I took up a copy of Nelida (in an English translation, to be sure) and enjoyed the story, and D'Agoult's romantic style. In the novel, Liszt is transformed into the painter Guermann Régnier whilst Marie appears in the guise of Nelida.
First published in 1846 (under the pen name Daniel Stern), Nelida tells the story of a beautiful young French heiress who was plucked from a convent school - where she had expressed a fervent desire to become a nun - to make a socially advantageous marriage to one Timoleon de Kervaens. Almost at once, Nelida's husband proves himself unworthy of her. And then, re-connecting with a childhood friend who is now a rising painter - Guermann Régnier - Nelida surrenders everything (her marriage, reputation, and an affluent lifestyle) to dedicate herself to Guermann.
Marie d'Agoult, in fictionalizing her ten-year affair with Liszt, may have written the novel as an act of revenge against the pianist-composer whose frequent absence while touring combined with his numerous amorous adventures slowly destroyed their love, despite the successive births of their three children. In the novel, Guermann/Liszt falls into decline and illness without Nelida/Marie; she visits him on his death-bed where he begs her forgiveness for having treated her so indifferently: "From the day I left you, I left - and never found again - my virtue, my rest, my happiness, my genius," he tells her.
The reality for D'Agoult/Liszt was very different, for after leaving Marie, Liszt went on to his greatest achievements. But the fictional resolution of the love affair must have brought needed closure for D'Agoult and she went on to a distinguised career as a woman of letters whose works included a major history of the 1848 revolution in Paris.
In Nelida, Marie D'Agoult reveals the personal story behind her public life as Liszt's lover and the mother of his children. Summoning forth the social mores and artistic and religious atmosphere of the era, the novel reveals a woman seeking to be at once faithful to her genius/beloved while at the same time vindicating herself and claiming her own destiny.
April 28, 2014 | Permalink
Thursday April 24th, 2014 - Of Richard Strauss's three well-known romantic-style masterpieces, ARABELLA is probably the most difficult to love. ROSENKAVALIER has its marvelous progession of waltzes to lilt the listener along, and CAPRICCIO boasts its gorgeous Moonlight Music and the Countess Madeleine's radiant final scene. In ARABELLA the memorable music seems to come in fits and starts, and although the final scene is really appealing, it doesn't quite match the sweep of either of the other two operas' closing passages.
In ROSENKAVALIER there's the double-feature of love (the May-September affair of Octavian and the Marschallin followed by the thrill of new, impetuous love discovered by Octavian and Sophie); in CAPRICCIO, the Countess's choice between her two lovers is symbolic of the operatic dilemma of 'which is of greater import in an opera: the words or the music?' For Arabella and Mandryka, it's love at first sight and it comes along just when the Waldner family most needs it to happen. The misunderstanding between the newly-pledged couple is quickly resolved and they can go forward without impediment. It's a neat little plot but somehow it fails to touch the heart the way ROSENKAVALIER does; and ARABELLA's musical denouement doesn't quite thrill us like CAPRICCIO's does.
Despite these thoughts about ARABELLA's appeal, I was keen to experience the opera live again and it was a good performance overall, thanks largely to Philippe Auguin's excellence on the podium. The orchestra of course played remarkably well and - unlike the three most recent conductors whose Met performances I have attended (Mssers. Armiliato, Noseda and Mariotti), Auguin knows how to scale the score's dynamics so his singers are always audible and never seem pressured to over-sing.
Though perhaps lacking the last bit of vocal glamour that makes for a truly memorable Arabella (Della Casa, Te Kanawa and Fleming each had it...and how!), Erin Wall sang the title-role quite beautifully: the voice is clear with a nice sheen to it. Her performance was slightly compromised in Act I by having to sing the opera's most beloved passage - the duet for Arabella and Zdenka - with Juliane Banse who is simply not up to the role of Zdenka/Zdenko at this point in her career. But in her narrative to end the first act, Wall was really lovely and expressive, and she was equally impressive in Act II where the passionate duet for the just-met Arabella and Mandryka was the evening's vocal high point. Later, as Arabella bids farewell to each of her suitors in turn, Wall made the most of each phrase.
Michael Volle, who I first heard on a tape from his appearance at Cardiff Singer of the World in 1993, has arrived at The Met. His voice is Met-sized and unimpeded throughout the range, and it's got a nice, rather gritty edge to it when needed. His Mandryka was impressive, and hopefully he'll be back in other repertory.
Ms. Banse, who we heard earlier this season in the Mahler 4th at Carnegie Hall, has lovely instincts but she now sounds too mature and quavery for such a youthful assignment as Zdenka. Her vibrato rather spoiled the Act I duet with Arabella tonight and overall she just seemed mis-cast. Banse made some very fine recordings earlier in her career; this belated Met debut seemed a miscalculation by both the singer and the House. When the originally-scheduled Genia Kühmeier withdrew from this revival, The Met could have seized the opportunity to give the role to one of their blooming lyric-coloraturas - maybe Lisette Oropesa, Erin Morley, or Ashley Emerson: any of them would have been more vocally apt than Ms. Banse. They didn't know the role? Callas learned Elvira in PURITANI in seven days, whilst singing Brunnhilde in WALKURE in the same time-frame. Surely any of these young Met girls - helped by The Met's musical staff - could have whipped up a delectable Zdenka in even less time. Oh well, water over the dam...or under the bridge.
The rest of the cast did well, notably Garrett Sorenson (Matteo) and Brian Jagde (Elemer); Martin Winkler was a loud Waldner. Audrey Luna successfully negotiated the high-flying roulades of the Fiakermilli, winning the audience's acclaim. I was recalling my favorite Fiakermilli, Rita Shane, who sang it at La Scala in 1970, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. I received a copy of it on reel-to-reel and incredibly, Ms. Shane had been permitted to interpolate a final high-D to end ARABELLA's second act (Fiakermilli's coloratura normally just dwindles to nought). That's the kind of thing you don't hear every day.
Although there were many empty seats this evening at The Met, ARABELLA - not usually a major box office draw - was better-attended than some recent performances. It was already 10:00 PM when the second intermission started and I had to weigh the idea of staying to the end or of getting home by midnight. Though I would like to have heard Ms. Wall in the opera's final scene, the idea of another extended and droopy intermission turned me off. As I was leaving, it seemed several other audience members had the same idea.
Metropolitan Opera House
April 24, 2014
Count Waldner...........Martin Winkler
Count Elemer............Brian Jagde
Count Dominik.......... Alexey Lavrov
Count Lamoral...........Keith Miller
Jankel..................Timothy Breese Miller
Card Player.............Scott Dispensa
Card Player.............Seth Malkin
Card Player.............Earle Patriarco
April 25, 2014 | Permalink
Above: tenor Lawrence Brownlee
Tuesday April 22nd, 2014 - This performance of Bellini's I PURITANI at The Met marked one of the few evenings this season that I have stayed til the end of the opera. It was to hear Lawrence Brownlee in the Act III love duet and Arturo's aria "Credeasi, misera" that I endured two intermissions - the first over-extended, the second reasonable - and a less-than-memorable Mad Scene from soprano Olga Peretyatko and a mixed-bag rendering of the great baritone-basso duet "Suoni la tromba". It was Mr. Brownlee - along with the basso Michele Pertusi - who made the evening worthwhile vocally.
There were the usual rather alarming number of empty seats at The Met tonight, and the audience had thinned out even further by Act III. The evening started with an announcement that Mariusz Kwiecien was ill and would be replaced as Riccardo by Maksim Aniskin. Mr. Aniskin has a pleasant enough voice but had some passing flat notes in his Act I aria and his coloratura was a bit labored. His verse of "Suoni la tromba" was on the flat side, but he rose to his best work in the duet's cabaletta. Overall he seemed out of his depth here: he should probably be singing Marcello, Sharpless, and Guglielmo. Still, I don't regret not hearing Mr. Kwiecien tonight, after experiencing his vocally drab Onegin earlier this season.
Mr. Pertusi has a real sense of bel canto and his singing all evening was beautifully molded and expressive, most especially in the gentle aria "Cinta di fiori" and later in his flowing passage "Se tra il bujo un fantasma vedrai" in the big duet. Conductor Michele Mariotti did his baritone and basso no favors, his orchestra slugging away at "Suoni la tromba" as if it was NABUCCO.
The conductor in fact did his wife, Ms. Peretyatko, no favors either, often pushing her at the climaxes where her thinned-out high notes carried no impact in the House. The soprano's voice is tremulous and despite good musical instincts the sound is simply not particularly attractive, and the voice is a size too small for this iconic role in a big space like The Met. Her coloratura was reasonable, and she did produce some striking piano singing along the way, notably the very sustained high B-flat at the end of her offstage solo with harp in Act III. But the high notes at the end of her duet with Giorgio and to climax "Son vergin vezzosa" were pretty much covered by the orchestra. Her Mad Scene was lacking in vocal colour; there's nothing really distinctive about her timbre, and her interjection of laughter was lame. The cabaletta "Vien diletto" was reasonably effective but again the conductor over-played his hand while the soprano sustained a rather wan high E-flat. A couple of guys in Family Circle shouted desperate 'bravas' after the Mad Scene, but the applause was not prolonged. The warmth of Mr. Brownlee's voice gave the soprano a nice cushion in the love duet though they really didn't need to hold the final high-C as if waiting for the cows to come home. The opera concluded with "O sento, o mio bell'angelo", the 'lost' cabaletta discovered by Richard Bonynge, and again Ms. Peretyatko's thinned out concluding note was covered by the orchestra. (The cabaletta isn't even in the score; was it ever authenticated?).
Before lavishing praise on Mr. Brownlee, I must mention Elizabeth Bishop's excellent performance in the thankless role of Enrichetta. The mezzo made the very most of her brief role, with a real sense of dramatic urgency in her vocalism. Brava!
Mr. Brownlee's opening "A te, o cara" was as finely sung as any rendering of this aria I've ever heard; it was in fact right up there with my personal favorite: Alfredo Kraus singing it in Chicago in 1969. Mr. Brownlee's singing was golden, gorgeous and ardent, with a spectacularly sustained high-C-sharp in the second verse. After the second verse, the soprano joins in and the lovers exchange tender declarations of affection. In Chicago, Mr. Kraus had the advantage of the beautifully expressive lyricism of Margherita Rinaldi to further heighten the impact of his singing. Ms. Peretyatko tonight was nowhere near as lovely, but Mr. Brownlee had triumphed anyway.
Arturo vanishes and is not seen or heard from in Act II; he reappears, having saved Enrichetta from execution, to find himself declared a traitor and his girl-friend transformed into a mad woman. After jolting Elvira back to the reality of their love with his honeyed "Vieni fra queste braccia" and a vibrant, prolonged foray to a top-D, Mr. Brownlee launced the arduous "Credeasi misera" in which he successfully negotiated the treacherous, written high-F: of course this note sounds very un-natural and I generally feel it's just as well not to include it, but I admired Mr. Brownlee all the more for taking the risk. In the end, it was his vocalism that lifted this PURITANI out of the ordinary and made staying til the end worthwhile.
Listening to Ms. Peretyatko in Act I, I was reminded of an evening in 1991 when Marina Bolgan was singing a dutiful, rather pallid Elvira. Then suddenly before Act II there was an announcement: the soprano had withdrawn and Martile Rowland would make her Met debut in Act II. The audience was so thrilled by Ms. Rowland's large-scale singing and her zany assault on the climactic E-flat of "Vien, diletto" that a huge ovation erupted the moment she let go of the note. I was kind of hoping something like that would happen tonight.
Metropolitan Opera House April 22, 2014
April 23, 2014 | Permalink
As the 150th anniversary of the birth (on June 11th, 1864) of Richard Strauss draws near, I was recalling the first time I heard what was to become my favorite opera - the composer's ARIADNE AUF NAXOS. This opera had come rather late to The Met: some fifty years after its world premiere, The Met presented ARIANDE with the following cast:
Metropolitan Opera House
December 29, 1962
Metropolitan Opera Premiere
ARIADNE AUF NAXOS
Music Master............Walter Cassel
Dancing Master..........Paul Franke
The opera, with it's almost chamber-music orchestration (only about 35 players are called for) was thought by some people to be too intimate for such a large house as The Met. But the production, revived several times over the ensuing years, continued to win new devotees to the incredible Strauss score. On March 12th, 1988 the Met production was telecast live to Europe; I was there - with Kenny and Jan - enjoying a superb cast led by Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Tatiana Troyanos, and James King, with James Levine on the podium. In 1993 The Met unveiled a new and delightful production by Elijah Moshinsky with its 'realistic' prologue and fantasy-setting for the opera.
But, back to 1962: The Met's house photographer at the time, Louis Melançon, routinely photographed each Met production as well as taking 'portraits' of the principal artists in costume. His photos graced Opera News for years, and I have several that were sent to me - autographed - by individual singers. Here are some of Mr. Melançon's pictures from the Met's premiere of ARIADNE AUF NAXOS:
On February 2nd, 1963, Wagner's FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER was scheduled for a Texaco/Metropolitan Opera matinee radio broadcast. Of course I was tuned in: this was my second season of Met radio broadcasts and I was thoroughly primed for my first experience of hearing HOLLANDER, with Opera News opened to the cast page and the household warned against any intrusions on my listening. Thus I was shocked when the friendly voice of Milton Cross delivered the alarming news: the opera was being changed!
It seemed that tenor Sandor Konya, scheduled to sing Erik in HOLLANDER, was ill and so were his cover and other tenors who were in town who knew the role. It was decided to put on ARIANDE instead, since Leonie Rysanek - scheduled for Senta in the Wagner - was ready and raring to go. (ARIADNE had been scheduled for broadcast later in the season, with Lisa Della Casa the announced Ariadne; the change of opera on February 2nd thus deprived Della Casa of her chance to broadcast the role). The cast for the 'substitution' broadcast was the same as for the Met premiere, with the exception of Roberta Peters, replacing Gianna D'Angelo as Zerbinetta.
Without any preparation for this 'new' opera, I listened and - to an extent - enjoyed ARIADNE though to be honest I was not a huge Strauss fan at that point in my operatic career. It wasn't until 1970 that I actually saw the Met's ARIADNE: from a front-row orchestra seat directly behind Karl Bohm's left shoulder, I was transported by a splendid cast led by Leonie Rysanek, Reri Grist, Evelyn Lear, and James King. My love affair with ARIADNE became even more earnest a few seasons later with the New York City Opera's beloved English/German production starring Carol Neblett/Johanna Meier, Patricia Wise, Maralin Niska, and John Alexander. But that's a whole other story.
April 22, 2014 | Permalink
Above: Karina Lesko and Christopher Rudd of Morales Dance; photo by Rachel Neville
Friday April 18th, 2014 - In one of those perfect-timing happenstances, photographer Rachel Neville sent me her photos from Morales Dance' production entitled FOR YOU just as I was sitting down to write about the performance. Rachel's beautiful images so perfectly captured many of the individual moments which lingered in the mind and are now made tangible thru her artistry. The only problem was in deciding which of the pictures to post since they are all so fine.
Tonight at Ailey Citigroup Theater, Tony Morales put together a programme of new and older works which he's choreographed, as well as bringing forth a Leni Wylliams ballet QUIET CITY (re-staged by Tony) to open the evening.
Above: the ensemble in QUIET CITY, photo by Rachel Neville
Aaron Copland composed QUIET CITY from 1939 to 1941 as incidental music for a play by Irwin Shaw. Shaw's play of the same name was a flop, never making it out of previews, and Copland's original score went unpublished for years until it was restored to currency by sax player Christopher Brellochs. And thank goodness, because it's really evocative music.
In the Wylliams/Morales setting, the ballet opens with a stylized triple pas de deux; the three women and then the three men dance separate trios and then there are three brief, intermingling pas de deux. It's a piece that makes big use of the space and it was very well-danced, and especially well-lit (as was the entire production) by Mike Riggs.
Cassandra Lewis and Antonio Fini in QUIET CITY, photo by Rachel Neville
Jessica Black and Christopher Rudd in QUIET CITY, photo by Rachel Neville
Three familiar works from Tony Morales' repertory followed:
PLEASED 2 MEET U is a duet, sometimes danced by two men and sometimes by two women, set to a folkish score by Bohuslav Martinů. Tonight this sporting, light-hearted piece was performed by Jessica Black and Karina Lesko, as seen in Rachel Neville's photo above.
Above: Jerome Stigler in ABLUTION, photo by Rachel Neville
ABLUTION, which for me is Tony Morales' most potent work, is a solo danced to music of Bach; it was chroeographed in 1992 and retains its full power to this day. Danced tonight by Jerome Stigler, the solo is ritualistic and athletic by turns with the dancer covering the space in agile leaps or bowed down in supplication on the floor. Jerome's performance was intense and moving.
Above: Jerome Stigler in ABLUTION, photo by Rachel Neville
By the way, I love the symbol of the three religions which is projected during this solo: Islam, Judaism and Christianity are united in this image - and how lovely the world would be if that image became reality.
Above: Christopher Rudd and Karina Lesko in TRANSITIONS, photo by Rachel Neville
Lyricism, passion and tenderness were drawn forth in TRANSITIONS, a 1998 duet to music of Maurice Ravel. Here the Costa Rican beauty Karina Lesko was at her most ravishing, dancing with Christopher Rudd. In the second part of this sensuous - but also sometimes wary duet - each dancer moves in an individual pool of light.
Above: Rachel Neville's photo of Karina Lesko and Christopher Rudd in TRANSITIONS
Above: Karina Lesko in TRANSITIONS, photo by Rachel Neville
After a pause, Tony Morales' domestic dance drama AMOR BRUTAL was performed to a mix of songs by Manuel de Falla and the title song, performed by Tony's father Isaac 'Casito' Morales on an old recording.
Above: Karina lesko and Antonio Fini in AMOR BRUTAL, photo by Rachel Neville
In AMOR BRUTAL, a long-married couple - a devoted but controlling wife and a care-free husband - find themselves in a love-hate tangle as each seek to align their three teen-aged daughters' affections and loyalty. Although she looks far too young to be the mother of grown children, Ms. Lesko did a fine job expressing the emotional turmoil of the anxious woman while the handsome Mr. Fini danced with free-spirited energy as the errant but likeable husband. Jessica Black, Elaine Gutierrez and Cassandra Lewis were the lovely daughters.
Above: Karina Lesko and Antonio Fini in AMOR BRUTAL, photo by Rachel Neville
Above: mother and daughters...Karina Lesko with Mlles. Lewis, Black and Gutierrez in AMOR BRUTAL, photo by Rachel Neville
Antonio Douthit-Boyd of the Alvin Ailey Company (above) made a guest appearance dancing a new solo by Tony Morales, FOR YOU, set to the Elton John pop classic. In this tailor-made dancework, Mr. Douthit-Boyd was able to show off his astonishing technique and his emotional generosity, to the audience's delight. Antonio dances with his whole body and soul; what a pleasure it must be to create something on such a dancer.
Above: a great leap by Antonio Douthit-Boyd, photo by Rachel Neville
Above: the majestic extension of Ailey's Antonio Douthit-Boyd, dancing Tony Morales' FOR YOU in a Rachel Neville photo
Six young women from Ballet Forte (above) put me in mind of Isadora Duncan in the opening phrases from SCENES, a 2012 Tony Morales work dedicated to the memory of Ruth Currier. Dancing at first in silence, the sextet of nymphs begin exploring the space to music of Benedetto Marcello. Their dance has a celebratory innocence about it.
In the ballet's second part, six dancers from Morales Dance (above) dance in varying combinations, both in silence and to music by Chopin.
At the end, the twelve dancers unite in a communal circle: a grace-filled final image from this evening of dance.
All photography by Rachel Neville; my gratitude to her for her timely delivery of these inspiring images.
April 19, 2014 | Permalink
Above: composer Joan Tower
Thursday April 17th, 2014 - "Bach is everything that I am not," said Joan Tower modestly in a mid-concert interview at The Miller Theatre tonight where her works were interspersed with movements from JS Bach's fifth Brandenburg concerto, all played live - and superbly. The programme indeed was something of a study in contrasts though also there's also a commonality since Ms. Tower is a comtemporary composer with a heart and soul, as evinced in her music.
April 18, 2014 | Permalink
Note: this article has been written over the course of several months
Four recordings of live performances of Wagner's LOHENGRIN have come my way, courtesy of my friend Dmitry. Despite being rather busier during this Summer of 2013 than I'd anticipated, I found time on these hot afternoons to start listening to these performances, an act at a time. Invariably I'll listen to the same act two or three times, so as not to miss anything.
LOHENGRIN might be considered Wagner's most beautiful opera; from the ethereal opening bars of the prelude, it weaves a spell of mystery, romance, and deceit all under-scored by the Dark Arts. Marvelous stretches of melodic splendor - Elsa's Song to the Breezes ("Euch luften"), the bridal procession to the cathedral, Lohengrin's tragically tender "In fernam land" - mix with 'greatest hits' like the über-familiar Wedding March and the thrilling Act III prelude. Three prolonged duets are the setting for major dramatic developments in the narrative: Ortrud and the banished Telramund outside the city walls; Elsa meeting with and being beguiled by Ortrud; and Elsa and Lohengrin on their bridal night where the hapless girl asks the fatal question. King Henry has his orotund prayer "Mein Herr und Gott!" whilst Ortrud calls upon the forsaken pagan gods in her great invocation "Entweihte Götter!" The conflict between darkness and light is manifested in the great confrontation between Ortrud and Elsa on the cathedral steps, the violins churning away feverishly as the two voices vie for the upper hand; Ortrud has the last word.
Jess Thomas (above) is the Lohengrin on two of these recordings, the first from Munich 1964 and the second from Vienna 1965. I listened to the Munich first, conducted by Joseph Keilberth, and found it a strong, extroverted performance. None of the principal singers go in for much subtlety, instead flexing their Wagnerian vocal muscles in generous style.
Keilberth's conducting has sweep and intensity, though perhaps lacking a bit of the dreamlike quality that can illuminate the more spiritual passages of the opera. This accords well with the singing, since neither Jess Thomas nor his Elsa, Ingrid Bjoner, use much dynamic contrast (though when they do it works wonders). Both have big, generous voices and they are on fine form for this performance.
Jess Thomas was my first Calaf (at the Old Met), Siegfried, Tristan and Parsifal. He was a mainstay at The Met in the helden roles from 1962 to 1982, returning in 1983 to sing part of Act I of WALKURE with Jessye Norman for the Met's 100th birthday gala. His is not the most gorgeous sound imaginable but his power and security are amply in evidence in this Munich performance.
Above photo: Ingrid Bjoner in GOTTERDAMMERUNG, with tenor Jean Cox
I've always liked Ingrid Bjoner; her rather metallic sound and steely top served her well in a long Wagnerian career. I only saw her onstage once - as Turandot, a memorable performance both from a vocal and dramatic standpoint. In this Munich LOHENGRIN, Bjoner sails thru the music with exciting vocal security. If only rarely does she engage in the floating piani that many sopranos like to display in this music (the end of Bjoner's 'Euch luften' is ravishing!), hers is an impressive reading of the music.
In a thrilling performance, Hans Günther Nöcker turns the sometimes-overshadowed role of Telramund into a star part. His narration of the shame and degradation he feels at having been bested in the duel and then exiled is a powerful opening for the opera's second act.
Ludmila Dvorakova's large, somewhat unwieldy voice has ample thrusting power for Ortrud's great invocation in Act II, though she tends to leave off clear enunciation of the text in favor of simply pouring out the sound. Dvorakova (above) - who sang Isolde, Leonore and Ortrud at the Met in the 1960s - was known for her magnetic stage presence.
Gottlob Frick is a powerful Henry, but there's a question as to whether it's Josef Metternich or Gerd Neinstedt as the Herald in this performance - whoever it is, he is not having his happiest night vocally.
When in 1966 tenor Nicolai Gedda was announced for performances of Lohengrin in Stockholm, there was some hand-wringing among the fans. Gedda was known for his stylish lyricism and easy top in the bel canto and French repertoire; he had tackled such high-flying roles as Arturo in PURITANI and Raoul in HUGUENOTS with striking command. By venturing into Wagner, Gedda was thought to be putting his instrument at risk. But he sang Lohengrin on his own terms, with true-tenor (rather than baritonal) timbre, producing one beautiful phrase after another. The recording, which I owned on reel-to-reel at the time it was first available, is a valuable document since Gedda never again sang the role, nor any other Wagnerian role, onstage.
Gedda in fact is one of the most pleasing Lohengrins to hear; as in another mythic/heroic role he tackled only once - Aeneas in TROYENS - the tenor's clarity of both tone and diction - and his complete ease when the vocal line goes upward - mark his performances in these operas as ideal, even though they both quickly fell out of his active repertory.
Gedda was my first Nemorino (at the Old Met) and I saw him many times over the ensuing years (as Don Jose, Don Ottavio, Elvino, Edgardo, Faust and Lensky), always impressive in his artistry and vocal security. Far from ruining his voice, the Lohengrin simply served as a vocal adventure for the tenor; he went on singing for another 20 years after portraying the mysterious knight. His Met career spanned 25 years and nearly 375 performances, including singing the final trio from FAUST at the very last performance at the Old Met.
Aside from Gedda, this Stockholm LOHENGRIN is very enjoyable in many ways though not quite reaching the mystical heights that some performances of this opera have attained. Conductor Silvio Varviso has a fine sense of pacing and if the orchestral playing is not world-class, a lyrical atmosphere develops nicely right from the start.
I'm particularly taken with the performances by the two female leads: the Norwegian soprano Aase Nordmo Løvberg (above) makes a distinctive impression as Elsa; her voice, rather Mozartean in heft and feeling, has clear lyrical power and expresses the character's vulnerability well. The soprano appeared at The Met 1959-60 as Elsa, Eva, Sieglinde and Leonore; she passed away earlier this year, one of those 'forgotten' voices still held dear by a diminishing group of aficianados who listen to older recordings.
As Ortrud, Barbro Ericson (above) gives a blazing performance. Like Nordmo Løvberg, Ericson did sing at The Met (1967-68): she was Siegrune in the 'Karajan' WALKURE performances, and stepped in once as Fricka; she returned a decade later to sing Herodias in SALOME with Grace Bumbry as her daughter. Ericson was a fearless singer with a rich chest voice and some stunningly easy top notes.
As King Henry, Aage Haugland's sturdy and humane bass sound is a big asset in the Stockholm LOHENGRIN; Rolf Jupither is a solid Telramund and Ingvar Wixell - who went on to be a major Verdi baritone (he was a wonderful Boccanegra at the Met in 1973-74) - already shows vocal distinction as the Herald.
in the third act, this performance is particularly gratifying, for Ms. Nordmo Løvberg and Mr. Gedda sing one of the most lyrical and polished versions of the Bridal Chamber duet that I've ever heard. And the tenor is absolutely splendid in the long narrative "In fernem land" and his tender farewell address to his wife; with poetic expression tinged in sadness, he presents Elsa with the horn, sword and ring that are meant for her lost brother, Gottfried. Gedda's anguished "Leb wohl!" to his distraught bride is like an arrow to the heart. This document of Gedda's performance, capped by his magnificent vocalism in the opera's final twenty minutes, can be considered a treasured rarity in the annals of great Wagner singing.
Above: tenor René Maison
As Summer 2013 ended and the performance season started up, I had less time to devote to listening at home; and so it wasn't until the dark, chilled days of February 2014 that I took up a rarity: 1936 LOHENGRIN from Buenos Aires which features René Maison, Germaine Hoerner, Marjorie Lawrence, Fred Destal, Alexander Kipnis, and Fritz Krenn, with Fritz Busch on the podium. Of the singers, Hoerner, Destal, and Krenn were names I'd never even heard of prior to settling down with this recording.
Germaine Hoerner was born in Strasbourg in 1905, made her debut at L'Opera de Paris in 1929 and sang such roles as Elsa, Gutrune, Senta (photo above), Aida, Desdemona, the Marschallin, and Beethoven's Leonore during her career which lasted thirty years. How strange that I'd never encountered her voice before.
Fred Destal began his career as a choirboy in Liegnitz and sang professionally at the Deutsches Theater in Brünn, before joining the Deutsches Opernhaus (later the Städtisches Oper) in Berlin. In 1933 he left Germany for the Zurich Opera. He sang at the Vienna State Opera from 1936–1938, and emigrated to the United States in 1938. He made many guest appearances in Europe and frequently performed at the Colón in Buenos Aires where he essayed several Wagnerian roles as well as singing in operas by Mozart and Strauss, and in operetta.
Fritz Krenn debuted in 1917, singing with the Vienna State Opera from 1920-1925 and the State Opera, Berlin, from 1927 til 1943. He became celebrated for his Baron Ochs, singing the role over 400 times including seven performances at The Met in 1950. He died in 1963.
The three other leading artists in this 1936 Buenos Aires LOHENGRIN all had major careers - Marjorie Lawrence's unfortunately much altered by the onset of polio in 1941. Though her legs were paralyzed, she returned to the stage in 1943, singing performances of Venus and Isolde at The Met from a seated position; but the wife of a Metropolitan Opera board member was put off by the sight of the disabled soprano onstage and her Met career ended. Lawrence's life was the subject of a 1955 film, Interrupted Melody.
The sound quality on this 1936 performance - needless to say - is very uneven; yet not enough so to deter the adventuruous listener. Passages where the volume fades come and go, and these sometimes occur at exactly the "wrong" moment. But there's enough acceptable sonic accessability to have a pretty good idea of what the performance was like.
Fritz Busch conducts and, though the orchestra playing (and the recording of it) leave something to be desired, the conductor establishes the dramatic atmosphere right from the start of the celestial prelude - a prelude which draws unexpected and sustained applause from the audience.
Alexander Kipnis sounds somewhat unsettled in this performance as King Henry: his career had already lasted 20 years and The Met was still in his future. He may have suffered from the recording techniques employed or simply have been having an off-night. Here are no serious flaws in his singing, but surely he's not as his best. Germaine Hoerner has a brightish voice with a slight flutter that gives her singing an almost girlish attractiveness and a vulnerable appeal - quite nice for this role. There are some vague pitch issues but she does make an impression right from her opening line. René Maison sings expressively as Lohengrin, with a good feel for the other-worldly yet heroic quality the music calls for; he shows impressive dynamic control from the start. Fritz Krenn begins rather anonymously as the Herald but gains ground as Act I progresses. Fred Destal's Telramund is dramatically vivid in the opening act - his greatest moments lie ahead - and Ms. Lawrence makes only the briefest vocal appearance in Act I.
Despite the lack of immediacy in the sound quality, Busch opens Act II with a good sense of impending doom; in the duet for Ortrud and Telramund, Lawrence and Destal are appropriately gloomy. Later Ms. Lawrence is ever-so-slighly taxed by some of Ortrud's highest notes but she's very exciting at "Zurück, Elsa!" and the whole of their confrontation is well done. Destal's attempt to incite the knights is another good passage, and Fritz Krenn's singing as the Herald is more vivid than in Act I. Busch takes the wedding procession music rather faster than we often hear it, and the chorus sound a bit daunted at this point. What sets this second act on a higher plane is the singing of Hoerner and Maison: the soprano's voice, now at full sail, is full of lyrical grace; her pitch is now steady and the voice takes on a silvery gleam in the upper range. Maison's tenderness towards Elsa is lovingly expressed, and Ms. Hoerner responds to his reassurance with a finely-turned rendering of the marvelous passage "Mein Retter, der mir Heil gebracht! Mein Held, in dem ich muss vergehn, hoch über alles Zweifels Macht soll meine Liebe stehn." ("My deliverer, who brought me salvation! My knight, in whom I must melt away! High above the force of all doubt shall my love stand.")
After a brisk prelude, Act III begins with the chorus of the bridal party approaching; the antique sound quality gives the voices a ghostly air, and as they recede I was struck by the fact that it's unlikely anyone who was at this performance is still alive today, and struck yet again that it has come to us from across a three-quarter-century span of time.
Ms. Hoerner and Mr. Maison achieve poetic vocal distinction in the Bridal Chamber duet; the tenor's gentle ardor is movingly expressed with some lovely soft nuances and the soprano sounds girlishly enraptured; of course, their joy is short-lived as Elsa's gnawing curiosity overwhelms her. As the opera moves to its inexorable end, Mr. Maison sings 'In fernem land' so movingly. Ms. Hoerner reacts to the imminent departure of her knight with frantic despair; but Ms. Lawrence is not comfortable in Ortrud's final vengeful utterances: she sounds taxed and rather desperate. Mr. Maison then delivers the most extraordinary singing of the entire performance: at 'Mein lieber schwan' he pares down the voice to a mystic thread of tone, coloured with an amazing sense of weeping. I've never heard anything like it; it literally gave me the chills.
Then back to Jess Thomas for the Vienna 1965 performance. The tenor is perhaps a shade less commanding vocally than in the Munich/Keilberth performance, but impressive nevertheless.
For the Vienna '65, Karl Bohm is on the podium, giving a refined delicacy to the prelude and showing a near-ideal sense of pacing and of the architecture of the work. Bohm underscores a sense of impending doom when - initially - no champion answers the calls to defend Elsa's honor.
Claire Watson, the American soprano who never sang at The Met but was a beloved star at Munich for several years, sings Elsa with a nice aristocratic feel. The voice is clear and steady, with just a slight touch of remoteness that suits the character.
Walter Berry (Telramund) and Eberhard Waechter (the Herald), two of Vienna's most beloved baritones at this point in time, are very fine in Act I; Martti Talvela's sing as King Henry is at once powerful and humane. Talvela's voice has a trace of a sob, and there are passing moments of off-pitch singing here and there but overall he is impressive.
And then we come to Act II...
Above: Christa Ludwig
From the moment of curtain-rise, the second act of this LOHENGRIN is simply thrilling. Not only is the singing of the principals at a very high level throughout, but the dramatic atmosphere that is generated raises the temperature to the boiling point very early on in the act and sustains it til the final omnious re-sounding of the Ortrud motif as Elsa and Lohengrin enter the cathedral.
It's the divine Christa Ludwig and her then-husband Walter Berry who set this act on its magnificent trajectory. Outside the city walls, Mr. Berry, as Telramund, having been defeated in single combat by Elsa's mysterious knight in shining armor, prepares to face his fate in exile: "Arise, companion of my shame!" he tells his wife. But Ortrud, as if in a trance, cannot comprehend their banishment. In his monolog of defeat, Telramund blames his wife for his predicament, ending his tirade with "Mein Ehr hab ich verloren!" ("I have lost my honor!") Having sung this whole passage thrillingly, Mr. Berry dissolves in anguished sobbing. I've never heard this passage so powerfully delivered.
In the ensuing dialogue, as Ortrud tells Telramund how his fate can be reversed, both singers are incredibly alive to ever nuance of the music and text. In a searing moment, Telramund/Berry states that his defeat was an act of God; to this, Ortrud/Ludwig replies with a blistering, sustained "Gott????!!!!!" and then emits a ghastly laugh. Mr. Berry's rejoinder marks another high point for the baritone; indeed both he and Ms. Ludwig continue throughout this scene to match one another in intensity and vocal splendour. Singing in doom-ladened unison, they conjure up a vision of revenge in "Der Rache Werk..."
Then Elsa appears on the high castle balcony: Miss Watson in fine lyric form for the Song to the Breezes. But Ortrud calls to her from out of the darkness and after a bit of servile groveling on Ortrud's part, Elsa agrees to come down and speak with her wounded nemesis. Ms. Ludwig then lauches her hair-raising invocation of the ancient gods:
"Ye gods profaned! Help me now in my endeavor!
Punish the ignominy that you have suffered here!
Strengthen me in the service of your holy cause!
Destroy the vile delusions of those who deny you!
Wotan! I call on you, O god of strength!
Freia! Hear me, O exalted one!
Bless my deceit and hypocrisy,
that I may be successful in my revenge!"
This brilliant passage, delivered with stunning amplitude and soaring top notes by the inimitable Christa Ludwig, literally stops the show. The audience bursts into frantic appplause, a mid-act rarity in Wagner performances, and Maestro Bohm must wait several seconds to continue.
In their ensuing duet, Christa Ludwig uses the subtle finesse of a great lieder singer to worm her way into Elsa's trust. Both Ludwig and Ms. Watson sing superbly here, with a perfect blend as their voices entwine. Elsa's overwhelming goodness seems to have converted Ortrud: the orchestral melody of forgiveness and sisterhood - my favorite moment in the opera - signals false hope. In a devastating passage as Elsa draws Ortrud into the castle, Telramund emerges from the shadows and again Mr. Berry is pure magnificence in his closing statement:
"Thus misfortune enters that house!
Fulfil, O wife, what your cunning mind has devised;
I feel powerless to stop your work!
The misfortune began with my defeat,
now shall she fall who brought me to it!
Only one thing do I see before me, urging me on:
that he who robbed me of my honour shall die!"
As the scene ended I was literally stunned. It took me a couple of days before I could go on with the recording; I just wanted to savour what I'd heard. It's such a great feeling to experience the pure exaltation of a genuinely exciting operatic performance - a feeling that is quite rare in this day and age - and know that the emotions are still there, waiting to rise to the surface.
But when I did take up the recording again, there were still more thrills in the second act: for one thing, Mr. Wachter as the Herald is on top form, and Mr. Berry continues his exciting performance as he tries to shore up support from some disgruntled comrades. The bridal procession commences, and Dr. Bohm begins the steady build-up to the fiery confrontation beween Elsa and Ortrud. As their vocal duel is engaged, the steadfast and true Ms. Watson sails confidently thru her phrases, bolstered by the populace. Cresting to a splendidly sustained top note, Elsa seems to be the victor but it's Ortrud who has the final word: Christa Ludwig delivering a vocal knockout punch with dazzling self-assurance.
So: what a lot I have written about this second act! It's truly one of the most fascinating listening experiences in my long operatic career. The opera goes on, of course, and the final act is perfectly pleasing in every regard. Claire Watson and Jess Thomas manifest their lyrical selves in the Bridal Chamber duet while the slow rise of panic is well under-lined by Dr. Bohm. Martti Talvela sings superbly in the opera's final scene by the river bank, and Mr. Thomas has plenty in reserve for 'In fernem land', showing expert vocal control. Christa Ludwig is at her full and imperious best in Ortrud's final vocal victory lap...but then she's undone when Lohengrin magically produces Gottfried: Ms. Ludwig emits a devastating moan.
So, nearly nine months after I started writing this article, I've run out of LOHENGRINs to write about...at least for the moment.
April 17, 2014 | Permalink
Above: from Ballet Hispanico's production of UMBRAL, photo by Paula Lobo
Tuesday April 15th, 2014 - Opening night of Ballet Hispanico's two-week season at The Joyce. This fantastic Company have quickly made their way to my top echelon of Gotham dance-world favorites: the dancers are sexy and spectacular, the choreography is invariably exciting, the musical range is broad and seductive...what more could one ask?
Tonight's program opened with UMBRAL, choreographed by Edgar Zendajes to an original score by Owen Belton. This ballet honors the traditional Mexican celebration of the Dia de los Muertos ('Day of the Dead'). Dark and evocative, UMBRAL benefits greatly from Joshua Preston's lighting and the sleek costuming by Diana Ruettiger which displays the dancers' lithe figures to maximum effect.
Light smoke drifts across the landscape as Mario Ismael Espinoza (above, in a Paula Lobo photo) appears in a sleek blood-red leotard, with his face painted deathly white, lips sewn shut: a living corpse. Mario, one of New York's most alluring dance personalities, moves thru the community - an unseen spectre. His dancing has a remote beauty and mystique so perfectly suited to this role.
There is a pas de trois for Mario, Vanessa Valecillos, and Jamal Rashann Callender and then a solo for Mario danced in silence. This is interrupted by the ringing of a telephone - a message from the other side? - which the boys attempt to shush. In a passionate duet, Min-Tzu Li and Christopher Bloom display lyrical physicality. Then the six women appear, topless but discreet, as Mario moves subtly among them. The ballet ends with a stylied ensemble for the entire Company; as the dancers withdraw, Mario stands in a pool of shining light as if ascending to heaven. A brilliant piece, and a real tour de force for Mr. Espinoza.
Above, from SOMBRERISIMO, photo by Paula Lobo
Last season's hit, SOMBRERISIMO, returned in triumph to The Joyce stage. Choreographer Anabelle Lopez Ochoa, using a collage of music that veers from propulsive to sensuous, evokes Magritte's bowler-hatted men in this vastly pleasing ballet; and again the costumes (Ms. Ruettiger) and lighting (Mr. Preston) show off both the dancers and the dance to perfection.
Six men - Christopher Bloom, Jamal Rashann Callender, Alexander Duval, Mario Ismael Espinoza, Johan Rivera Mendez, and Marcos Rodriguez - move with vibrant authority thru the sexy, witty ensembles which include some sleight-of-hand passing of the hat and a bit of bowler-Frisbee. The men are jaunty, playful and ironic. Last year Christopher Bloom looked like a rising star, and now he's shining brightly in the Big Apple's firmament of dance: a man who moves with a particular energy that keeps our eye on him whenever he's onstage. Both here and in EL BESO which followed, Chris served notice that he has arrived.
Ballet Hispanico in fact have a particularly strong contingent of male dancers and in SOMBRERISIMO each man has a chance to shine; the ballet drew a whooping ovation from the packed house as the boys stepped foward for several bows. And now someone needs to make a new and special piece for Hispanico's gorgeous women!
Above: Ballet Hispanico's Kimberly Van Woesik in EL BESO, photo by Paula Lobo
After watching a studio rehearsal of Gustavo Ramiriez Sansano's new ballet EL BESO ('The Kiss') I was very curious to see how it would look onstage. In contrast to the dazzling colours and stately rhythms of the music (drawn from the enchanting scores of the zarzuela), the setting was much darker than I expected. I had imagined costumes of scarlet and canary yellow, with black lace and golden filagree, but instead designer Angel Sanchez has put the dancers in rather utilitarian outfits of black and dark blue. The stage lighting could be just a notch brighter so that the subtle interplay of the dancers and their many kisses becomes clearer. Some of the intimacy of the work has been lost in the move from studio to stage.
Once I adjusted to the unexpected black-and-blue setting, there was much to enjoy in this piece, for the choreography has wit and sparkle. EL BESO opens with Johan Rivera Mendez alone onstage, looking a bit shy. He is soon the object of Kimberly Van Woesik's flirtatious affection. The ballet goes on to explore many variations of relationships and many varieties of kissing, including a passionate smooch for two men (Mssers. Bloom and Callender). A big unison ensemble heralds the finale, but at the last moment everyone rushes away leaving Mr. Mendez alone onstage as at the start.
April 16, 2014 | Permalink
Above: Justin Dominic and Ekaterina Chernikhova of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company
Monday April 14th, 2014 - In preparation for her Company's upcoming performances at Peridance, Nai-Ni Chen invited me to watch a rehearsal today at Jacques D'Amboise's National Dance Institute on West 147th Street. I'd never been to this venue before, and it's really nice; Nai-Ni had a big, spacious studio to work in and her dancers - some of them new to me - look super.
Nai-Ni Chen Dance are celebrating their 25th anniversary with these Peridance performances on April 26th and 27th, 2014: tickets and more information here.
The Prism Saxophone Quartet will be performing a score by Chen Yi, a contemporary composer from Guangzhou, China, for Na-Ni's newest work Not Alone, inspired by a poem by Li Bai entitled Drinking Under the Moon.
Joan La Barbara will appear for Incense, a quartet in which her voice is heard over a tape, commissioned by the Company in 2011. Incense has been performed on Company tours since then across the U.S. and to Asia and Europe.
The lovely young ladies of the Ahn Trio will perform original music by Kenji Bunch for Grooveboxes, an excerpt from the trio's full-evening collaboration with Nai-Ni called Temptation of the Muses. And Glen Velez, a four-time Grammy Award winner and one of the world's leading drum masters and an expert in Central Asian music, composed the score for Nai-Ni Chen's Whirlwind. Mr. Velez will appear in an excerpt from this work with the Company.
Nai-Ni Chen is a detail-oriented choreographer and today's rehearsal was largely spent in refining works the dancers already know quite well. Here are a few photos I took today: most of the time the dancers were moving too fast for me to capture.
Kristen Lau, Daniel Johnson
Yoosik Kim, Greta Campo
April 15, 2014 | Permalink