Above: Mitsuko Uchida, photographed by Marco Borggreve
~ Author: Oberon
Monday February 26th, 2018 - Mitsuko Uchida in an all-Schubert recital at Carnegie Hall. I had only heard Ms. Uchida performing live once before, on Bastille Day, 1989, at Tanglewood; that evening, she played the Ravel G-major concerto, with Seiji Ozawa conducting. In 2009, some twenty years after that Tanglewood encounter, Mitsuko Uchida was named Dame Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
This evening, Dame Mitsuko walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage to an affectionate round of applause. Clad in a black trouser outfit with a golden sash and gold shoes, she bowed formally to the crowd, put on her eyeglasses, and sat down at the Steinway. For the next two hours, the pianist filled the hall - and our hearts - with her renderings of three Schubert sonatas. Her playing was by turns dramatic and poetic, and there was a wonderful feeling that her interpretations were very much at home in the venerable space: we were literally enveloped in the music.
Mitsuko Uchida is a true artist. She isn't here to dazzle us with theatrics or with her own personality, but to bring us great music in all its clarity and richness.
The ongoing discussion in the realm of classical music as to whether Schubert's piano sonatas belong in the same echelon as Beethoven's was continued in tonight's Playbill and in remarks overheard in intermission conversations around us. My feeling, based on limited experiences to date, is that Beethoven's sonatas more often reach a spiritual depth which Schubert's - for all their beauty and fine structuring - never quite attain.
The evening opened with the C-minor sonata, D. 958. Ms. Uchida immediately commanded the hall with the sonata's crisp, dramatic start. As she moved forward, I initially felt she was giving too much pedal; but this notion was soon dispelled. Flurries of scales were exhilarating, and dancing themes ideally paced. The movement ends quietly.
The Adagio brings us the first of many melodies heard throughout the evening that remind us of Schubert's stature as a lieder composer. From its melancholy, soft start, one can imagine a voice taking up the melody; Ms. Uchida's songful playing underscored this vocal connection throughout the concert. Some unfortunate coughing infringed on the quietest moments, but the pianist held steady and the atmosphere was preserved.
Following a Menuetto - its unusually somber air perked up by the Allegro marking - the sonata's dancelike final movement feels almost like a tarantella. A marvelous lightness moves forward into alternating currents of passion and playfulness. Ms. Uchida's tossing off of several flourishing scales was particularly pleasing.
February 27, 2018 | Permalink
A gallery of images from the Cantanti Project's recent production of Giulio Caccini's EURIDICE. The photos are by Lucas Godlewski of LGod Photography. Read about the performance here, and about a rehearsal that I got to watch here.
Often referred to as "the first opera", Caccini's EURIDICE is a take on the classic story of Orfeo, the mythic singer who descends to the Underworld to rescue his beloved Euridice. Caccini gives us a happy ending: a triumph of love over death.
La Tragedia: Fiona Gillespie Jackson
Euridice as bride-to-be: Joyce Yin
Nymphs: Brittany Fowler, Sara Lin Yoder
Bachelors cavort before the story turns dark: Aumna Iqbal, Michael Celentano, Marques Hollie
Dafne (Elyse Kakacek) brings news of Euridice's death
Daniela DiPasquale and Elyse Kakacek
Lamenting the death of Euridice: Marques Hollie, Tom Corbeil, Brittany Fowler, Sara Lin Yoder
Laura Mitchell (Arcetro) with Fiona Gillespie Jackson
Urging Orfeo to seek Euridice in the Underworld: Elyse Kakacek, Aumna Iqbal, Brittany Fowler, Fiona Gillespie Jackson
Brittany Fowler as Venere
Lydia Dahling as Prosperina
Aumna Iqbal as Orfeo
Lovers reunited: Aumna Iqbal and Joyce Yin
All photos by Lucas Godlewski/LGod Photography.
February 26, 2018 | Permalink
Above: the composer Giulio Caccini
~ Author: Oberon
Friday February 23rd, 2018 - Taking us back to the very beginnings of opera - back to where it all began - the Cantanti Project bring us a rare opportunity to experience Giulio Caccini's EURIDICE. Last Autumn, when I first read of these performances, I knew I would want to be there.
In 1600, Jacopo Peri had written an opera to Ottavio Rinuccini's libretto based on the story of Orfeo and Euridice; but Peri's opera has not yet been published when Giulio Caccini took up the same libretto, and his setting of it was performed at the Pitti Palace, Florence, on December 5, 1602. Thus Caccini's EURIDICE is often referred to as 'the first opera'.
Joyce Yin, soprano and Artistic Director of the Cantanti Project, kindly arranged for me to watch a rehearsal of EURIDICE a week prior to the performances. This was a great introduction to the opera, and provided me with an opportunity to get a handle on who's who in the cast.
The performance took place in the 'white box' studio of the Alchemical Studios on West 14th Street. This long and rather narrow space was well-utilized, with seating along the walls on either side, the musicians of Dorian Baroque tucked into one corner, and the singers making the most of the central playing area.
Director Bea Goodwin's savvy - and often touching - stage direction told the story clearly, with elements of dance woven in and all the characters vividly drawn. Stylized gestural language was beautifully rendered, especially in the scene where Orfeo pleads with Pluto to restore Euridice to life. Alexandria Hoffman's simple and elegant Grecian-tunic costuming - all white - and the lighting design by Michael Celentano and Emma Clarkson enhanced the performance at every turn. The audience - wonderfully silent and attentive - were clearly taken with the entire presentation.
Let me first praise the excellent quartet of musicians whose contribution to the performance's success was vital. Dylan Sauerwald - conducting from the harpsichord - was joined by Paul Holmes Morton (theorbo), John Mark Rozendaal (viola da gamba), and Christa Patton (harp). Their instruments are beautiful, and beautifully played, giving a timeless feeling to the music. Caccini's EURIDICE may be four centuries old, but tonight is seemed fresh and new.
Aside from Orfeo and Euridice, the cast all do double-duty; each singer has an assigned name-role whilst doubling as nymphs and shepherds. Where to begin with the singers? At the beginning: as La Tragedia, Fiona Gillespie Jackson's sweet, clear soprano drew us in to the story and the musical style with her lovely rendering of the Prologue. Her words - and the assignment of this music to a melodious soprano rather than a darker contralto - foretell a happy ending, despite intervening trials and sorrows.
Joyce Yin's lyrical and well-projected soprano, and the youthful joy of her portrayal, were just right for Euridice. At times called upon to dance, Ms. Yin took that in stride as well. Her radiant happiness a being reunited with Orfeo was lovely to behold. As Orfeo, the tall and slender Aumna Iqbal combined authoritative acting with a distinctive voice; she was thoroughly at home in the recitativo style, shading her words and colouring the tone with impressive command. As a relaxed bridegroom-to-be, Orfeo at first carouses with friends and makes a ribald reference to his wedding night. Then, Ms. Iqbal consummately caught the character's descent from light-heartedness to despair when news of his Euridice's demise arrives.
As Dafne, the bearer of those sad tidings, soprano Elyse Kakacek excelled. Her vocalism combined clarity of tone with depth of feeling, and her facial expressions told of the grief her message cost her. An intrinsic sense of hesitancy in her presentation made clear her reluctance to tell the tale of Euridice's fate. Later, though, as his friends urged Orfeo to seek his beloved in Hades, Mr. Kakacek circled the space in authentic dance moves, exhorting everyone to optimism and the hope of a happy resolution.
As Venere, goddess of Love, Brittany Fowler's striking presence and commanding singing made her the perfect advocate for Orfeo at Pluto's court. Tall and austere, Tom Corbeil as Pluto seemed thoroughly implacable at first, his singing powerful and his stature intimidating. Lydia Dahling, as Prosperina, surprisingly takes Orfeo's side in the debate, her singing warm of tone yet urgent. Michael Celentano and Marques Hollie, with contrasting tenor voices, are Charon and Radamanto in this key scene, wherein Ms. Iqbal was superb. These are the opera's most powerful moments, with Orfeo supplicating himself before Pluto to beg for Euridice's return. The characters' varying gestures of supplication, implacability, and intercession were done with authority: engrossing staging, very well-played.
Mr. Hollie's power and wide-range were utilized when - as Amyntas - he sought to reassure his friends that Orfeo had indeed been successful in his bid to regain his beloved and that the couple would soon appear among them again. Mr. Celentano's lyrical sound was pleasing to hear in his interjections as the story moved to its resolution.
Two singers who particularly intrigued me were Laura Mitchell (Arcetro) and Sarah Lin Yoder (Nymph). Ms. Mitchell's attractive singing was made the more ingratiating thru her lovely use of piano and her nuanced delivery of the words. Ms. Yoder, a unique beauty, displayed a voice of natural power and expressiveness.
Aside from the scene in the Underworld, another vignette in the opera which made a particularly strong impression on me occurred as the assembled nymphs and shepherds knelt in a circle to mourn Euridice's death. Handsomely lit, this passage calls for finely-harmonized ensemble singing interspersed with solo lines. The blend of voices was really enchanting, both here and at the opera's happy end.
February 24, 2018 | Permalink
Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani (above, as Violetta) made her Met debut in LA TRAVIATA on November 12, 1966, she was already a well-established star in Europe. She has made her operatic debut at Bologna in 1948 and her La Scala debut (as Handel's Cleopatra) in 1956. In 1957, at La Scala, Zeani created the role of Blanche de la Force in Poulenc's DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES.
In the course of her career, the soprano moved from bel canto roles like Lucia di Lammermoor and Elvira in PURITANI to such dramatic parts as Tosca and Aida; she sang Wagner's Elsa and Senta, too. She gave her last stage performances as Mere Marie in CARMELITES at San Francisco in 1982. She settled in Palm Beach, Florida where - as of this writing - she continues working with singers.
I was of course at Zeani's Met debut. It was my first season as an 'adult' opera-goer (I was 18) and I spent endless hours on the bus from Syracuse to New York City (a 6-hour trip), coming in for long weekends during which I would see three or four performances at The Met or New York City Opera.
Zeani already had a fan-base in New York City thanks to her pirated recordings - in the studio she recorded only Violetta and Tosca, plus an aria recital or two - and 'everyone' showed up for the Met debut, crowded together in Orchestra standing room and scattered throughout the sold-out house.
Zeani, an incredibly beautiful woman, looked absolutely gorgeous in the Cecil Beaton production which had been created for Anna Moffo. During Act I, the soprano and the evening's conductor, Georges Prêtre, sometimes parted company - I'm guessing she didn't even get an orchestral rehearsal - but the voice was wonderfully present in the big house. The faithful braced themselves expectantly for a high E-flat at the end of "Sempre libera" but surprisingly Zeani left it out. Despite this slight disappointment, the fans felt Zeani was an authentic Violetta and some of then ran across the Plaza to buy flowers for the diva.
Things improved vastly from her entry in Act II, and Zeani was really moving in the opera's final act, with an Olde School sense of passion and intensity as both singer and actress. She simply became the dying Violetta. There was an exciting ovation at the end, and Ms. Zeani was called out for three solo bows; she was clearly moved by the reception, weeping and smiling as the bravas rang out.
Despite the very warm reception accorded to Zeani at her Met debut, she only sang two more performances of Violetta at The Met, plus a concert performance of I VESPRI SICILIANI with the Company at Newport the following Summer.
But she was heard again at The Met in 1968 when the Rome Opera Company brought their production of Rossini's OTELLO to New York City; Zeani looked superb and was a vocally effective Desdemona.
Interestingly, November 12, 1966, marked the occasion of my seeing TRAVIATA twice in one day: I had been to a matinee at New York City Opera that afternoon, where the fascinating Patricia Brooks was singing Violetta.
Virginia Zeani sang Violetta nearly 650 times worldwide in the course of her career. I'll always be so glad that I caught one of them.
February 23, 2018 | Permalink
~ Author: Oberon
Tuesday February 20th, 2018 - When I was in school, The Great War was rather glossed over by my history teachers; they always seemed to focus on World War II, which had ended just two decades before I graduated from high school. But my sixth grade teacher made us study World War I, which he felt had been a "stupid war" in that it solved nothing in itself but set the stage for Adolf Hitler's rise. My teacher had served in World War II, and one day he brought in some big picture books which included horrific photos from the liberated concentration camps. This was my introduction to the Holocaust: those images have haunted me ever since as my first encounter with "man's inhumanity to man". My sixth grade teacher teacher eventually committed suicide.
This article helped me put The Great War in context by relating it to the world situation some 100 years on. For a more personal view of life during the war years, Vera Brittain's TESTAMENT OF YOUTH - and the deeply moving film based on it - brings the lives (and deaths) of men who served and the women who waited for them vividly to life.
The glory and horror of wars thru the centuries have inspired works in all forms of literature and art, from poems to operas to paintings and architectural monuments. Wartime has given rise to great music, much of it painfully beautiful. It was just such music that we heard tonight at Alice Tully Hall as Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented works by Hungarian, French, and English composers written during the time of the Great War.
Above: composer Ernő Dohnányi
The evening opened with Ernő Dohnányi's Quintet No. 2 in E-flat minor for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Op. 26 (1914). I admit to being unfamiliar with this composer's music, but after hearing this sumptuously-played quintet tonight, I agree completely with violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky's remark in his program note that Dohnányi is seriously underrated. The composer, who passed away in 1960, left a sizeable catalog of works - from operas, symphonies, and concerti to chamber and solo piano pieces. Hopefully the enthusiastic reception of the quintet tonight will prompt the Society to program more of the Hungarian composer's music in future.
Mr. Sitkovetsky was joined for this evening's performance by fellow violinist Cho-Liang Lin, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Keith Robinson, with Orion Weiss at the Steinway.
From its doleful - almost chantlike - opening, the Allegro non troppo moves on the pulsing of Mr. Lin's violin to an anticipatory piano theme, in which Mr. Weiss reveled, with the strings in rich harmonies. The piano grows rhaosodic, and Mr. Sitkovetsky takes up a wistful melody, then Mssrs Neubauer and Lin carry it forward. The music elevates to the grand scale, full of passion. Blissful piano music is heard, while the sound of Paul Neubauer's viola kept breaking my heart. Tenderness and mystery entwine towards a gentle ending.
The viola inaugurates the Intermezzo with a cordial invitation to dance, the music waltz-like with a Viennese lilt. A sprightly dance pops up, led by brilliantly decorative playing from Mr. Weiss; things turn light and witty. Over rolling waves from the piano, the violin and viola sing again. Pulsing strings lead on to a quiet finish.
The Finale opens with the lamenting song of Mr. Robinson's cello; in canon, the viola, violin-2 and -1 fall in. The mood is somber, reflective, with dense harmonies. A reverential theme from Mr. Weiss carries us to a sublime string passage. Thru modulations, we return to the opening canon-theme. A rising tempo means rising passion, which expands only to subside into a reunion with the cello's theme over misterioso piano. The atmosphere becomes achingly beautiful, with sweet sailing on high from the Sitkovetsky violin. Lush, rhapsodic music tears at the heart. Then comes a gentle, descending motif from the piano as the music evaporates into thin air. Magnificent playing from all, with the enraptured audience savoring every moment.
Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally composed for solo piano; the composer orchestrated it in 1920, and it was this version that George Balanchine used for his 1975 ballet Le Tombeau de Couperin which I have seen - and loved - countless times over the years. The music was later arranged by for wind quintet by Mason Jones, using four of the original six piano movements. It was this setting for wind instruments that we heard tonight.
With these pieces, Ravel honored the memory of six friends he'd lost to the war. But rather than convey feelings of doom or despair, the pieces are by turns charming, noble, and even witty: what wonderful people these six friends must have been to inspire such music.
Chamber Music Society put together yet another first-class ensemble for these Ravel gems: Sooyun Kim, with her flûte enchantée, Romie De Guise-Langlois (clarinet), James Austin Smith (oboe), Marc Goldberg (bassoon), and Eric Reed (horn). To say that they made beautiful music together would be an understatement.
The Prelude is wonderfully 'busy' music, with swirling motifs from the oboe and silvery piping from the flute. Ms. De Guise-Langlois, who gets such glamorous tone from her clarinet, always delights me - I was so happy to hear her again tonight - and the mellow bassoon and dulcet horn bring more colours to the mix. Birdsong hovers as the Fugue begins, again with the fluent playing of Mssrs. Goldberg and Reed varying from rich to subtle as the music flows along. James Austin Smith's oboe was gracefully prominent in the Springlike Menuet, the theme taken up by the flute. Near the end, Romie's clarinet sings as the music concludes on a rather jazzy note, with a bassoon trill. Sooyun Kim's sparkling flute opens the Rigaudon, with Eric Reed's horn clear and warm-toned. An interlude brings a sinuous oboe passage with a Mideastern feeling, the bassoon in a downward tread, before a brief resumption of the opening rigaudon tune comes to a quick, witty end.
Edward Elgar's Quintet in A minor for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Op. 84, dating from 1918-19, begins hesitantly before weeping violins set a mood, gorgeously sustained by Mr. Robinson's cello. A lovely slow dance develops a sense of irony from Mr. Lin's violin. Emerging from a big tutti comes the deep voice of the cello in a descending motif: more marvelous playing from Mr. Robinson. Mr. Weiss sets out big piano statements met by agitated strings as passions arise, subsiding for phrases from viola and violin-2 (Mr. Sitkovetsky). Close harmonies and a long, out-of-the-air cello note herald yet another cello highlight, full of longing. The initial hesitancy of the movement returns before a quiet plucking signals an end.
There's nothing quite like an Elgar Adagio, and this one finds Paul Neubauer at his most ravishing in a sustained viola theme of heartrending beauty. Continuing gorgeousness as viola, cello, and Steinway exchange phrases; Mr. Lin's violin passage is lovely hear. The glorious mix of voices becomes overwhelming: this music goes right thru me, it's so heartfelt as Mr. Weiss's intoxicating playing propels it along. Turning bittersweet, and then to a hymn of peace, the vibrant, emotional playing of the five artists made this a deeply moving experience.
In the concluding Moderato-Allegro, with the developing passion of its opening, there's a forward impetus. The ebb and flow of dynamics and harmonies is magically sustained by the players, carrying us thru a misterioso moment, a violin duet, a tremelo motif from the viola, and an animated yet poignant passage to sustain our emotional involvement. It's the piano again that urges the music forward; a great restlessness looms up, and then subsides, only to re-bound to a triumphant yet dignified finish.
A great night of music-making, in terms of both programming and playing: just what we've come to expect from Chamber Music Society.
February 22, 2018 | Permalink
Above: love triumphant as Euridice (Joyce Yin) and Orfeo (Aumna Iqbal) are reunited, to the delight of the nymphs. Photo by Travis Magee from a studio rehearsal of the Cantanti Project's production of Caccini's EURIDICE
~ Author: Oberon
Friday February 16th, 2018 - This evening, photographer Travis Magee and I stopped in at a rehearsal for the Cantanti Project's upcoming performances of Giulio Caccini's EURIDICE.
The earliest opera for which a complete score survives, this work is being presented by the singer-driven ensemble of the Cantanti Project on Februaryical Studios,104 West 14th Street, here in New York City. For tickets, click here. Once on the order page, apply this discount code when ordering: EURIDICE5OFF. This code gives the user $5 off per ticket when two or more tickets are purchased.
Giulio Caccini got the upper hand on his rival composer, Jacopo Peri - who had already written his own EURIDICE in 1600, but hadn't gotten it published - by hurriedly preparing his own setting of Ottavio Rinuccini's libretto and getting it published six weeks before Peri's version appeared. Caccini's EURIDICE was first performed at the Pitti Palace, Florence, on December 5th, 1602.
Conducted by Dylan Sauerwald, with musicians from Dorian Baroque, the production is directed by Bea (Brittány) Goodwin, with costumes by Alexandria Hoffman. The singers are Michael Celentano, Tom Corbeil, Lydia Dahling, Daniela DiPasquale, Brittany Fowler, Marques Hollie, Aumna Iqbal, Fiona Gillespie Jackson, Elyse Anne Kakacek, Laura Mitchell, Joyce Yin, and Sara Lin Yoder.
In Caccini's setting of the immortal myth of the singer Orfeo, the hero descends to the underworld and pleads with Pluto for the return of his beloved Euridice, who has perished after having been bitten by a snake. Pluto's wife, Prosperina, takes Orfeo's side and persuades her husband to restore Euridice to life. Unlike the Gluck opera, where Orfeo fails to obey the command not to look at Euridice until they have left the realm of the dead - with dire consequences - in the Caccini setting the lovers return safely to their friends for a happy ending.
The Muse of Tragedy (Fiona Gillespie Jackson) sings the Prologue
Euridice (Joyce Yin) receives flowers from her friends
Nymph and shepherd (above, Lydia Dahling and Marques Hollie)
Orfeo (Aumna Iqbal) on the lookout for his beloved Euridice, who has wandered off
Daphne (Elyse Kakacek) reveals the sad news of Euridice's death
The nymphs lament the fate of Euridice
Sara Lin Yoder and Tom Corbeil
Fiona Gillespie Jackson
Daniela DiPasquale and Elyse Kakacek
Arcetro (Laura Mitchell) urges Orfeo to pursue Euridice in the underworld
Elyse Kakacek and Brittany Fowler encourage Orfeo (Aumma Iqbal)
Orfeo's resolve (Aumna Iqbal)
Supplication: Orfeo (Ms. Iqbal) implores Prosperina (Lydia Dahling), Pluto (Tom Corbeil), and Charon (Michael Celentano) to return Euridice to him
Pluto (Tom Corbeil) accedes to Orfeo's pleas
Euridice (Joyce Yin) lives again
Amyntas (Marques Hollie) assures the nymphs and shepherds that Euridice will soon be back among them
Her friends await Euridice's return: Lydia Dahling, Tom Corbeil, Brittany Fowler, Sara Lin Yoder
Sisterhood: Lydia Dahling, Elyse Kakacek, Brittany Goodwin, Fiona Gillespie Jackson, Daniela DiPasquale, and Laura Mitchell
The opera's happy end: Aumna Iqbal and Joyce Yin
All photography by Travis Magee.
February 19, 2018 | Permalink
Above: the Grail revealed: Peter Mattei as Amfortas and Rene Pape as Gurnemanz in Wagner's PARSIFAL; a Ken Howard/Met Opera photo
~ Author: Oberon
Saturday February 17th, 2018 matinee - A powerful and thoroughly absorbing matinee performance of PARSIFAL, the only Wagner in the Metropolitan Opera's repertory this season. This dark, barren, and brooding production premiered in 2013, at which time the total absence of a Grail temple from the scenic narrative seemed truly off-putting. All of the action of the outer acts takes place out-of-doors, whilst the second act - as we were told by someone who worked on the production at the time it was new - is set inside Amfortas's wound.
Not everything in the production works, and the desolate landscape of the final act - with its open graves - is dreary indeed. But the devotional rites of the Grail brothers in Act I and the stylized movements of the Flowermaidens in the blood-drenched 'magic garden' of Act II are engrossing - especially today, where I found a personal link to both scenes.
Musically, it was a potent performance despite a couple of random brass blips. Since the 2013 performances, I've been going to a lot of symphonic and chamber music concerts and this has greatly enhanced my appreciation of the orchestra's work whenever I am at the opera. From our perch directly over the pit today, I greatly enjoyed watching the musicians of the Met Orchestra as they played their way thru this endlessly fascinating score.
The Met's soon-to-be music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, was on the podium this afternoon, and he seemed to inspire not only the orchestra, but also the principals, chorus, dancers, and supers all of whom worked devotedly to sustain the atmosphere of the long opera. While I did not feel the depth of mystery that I have experienced in past performances of this work conducted by James Levine or Daniele Gatti, in Maestro Nézet-Séguin's interpretation the humanity of the music seemed to be to the fore. This meshes well with the physical aspects of the production, which strongly and movingly depicts the fraternity of the Grail and the desperate suffering of Amfortas. The orchestra's poetic playing as Gurnemanz sings of the slaying of the swan was but one passage of many where I felt the music so deeply. And the transformation music of Act I was particularly thrilling to hear today.
The singing all afternoon was at a very high level, with the unfortunate exception of the Kundry of Evelyn Herlitzius. We'd previously heard her as Marie in WOZZECK, but Kundry's music - especially in Act II - needs singing that has more seductive beauty than Ms. Herlitzius delivered. The soprano's one spectacular vocal moment - "Ich sah Ihn - Ihn - und...lachte!", where she tells how she had seen Christ on the cross and laughed - was truly thrilling, but not enough to compensate for her tremulous, throaty singing elsewhere.
Above: In Klingsor's Magic Garden, tenor Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal; a Met Opera photo
In 2006, Klaus Florian Vogt made an unforgettable Met debut as Lohengrin, and this afternoon as Parsifal the tenor again sang lyrically in a role that is normally sung by tenors of the more helden- type. The almost juvenile sound Vogt's voice underscored Parsifal's innocence; this worked especially well in Act I, and also brought us some beautiful vocalism in Act II. As Kundry's efforts to seduce become more urgent, Vogt's singing took on a more passionate colour. In his struggle between steadfastness and capitulation, the tenor's cry of "Erlöse, rette mich, aus schuldbefleckten Händen!" ('Redeem me, rescue me from hands defiled by sin!') pierced the heart with his dynamic mastery.
Kundry's wiles fail her, and with an upraised hand, Parsifal fends off Klingsor's spear-wielding assault. Seizing the weapon that wounded Amfortas, the young man cries out "Mit diesem Zeichen bann' ich deinen Zauber!" ('With this Sign I banish your magic!'); the bloody back-lighting dissolves to white and Klingsor is cast down. Turning to Kundry, Mr. Vogt's Parsifal has the act's final line of premonition: "Du weisst, wo du mich wiederfinden kannst!" ('You know where you can find me again') and he strides out into the world to commence his long, labored journey back to the realm of the Grail. In the final act, Mr. Vogt's expressive singing was a balm to the ear, lovingly supported by the conductor and orchestra.
Above: Rene Pape as Gurnemanz, in a Ken Howard/Met Opera photo
Repeating the roles they created when this production premiered in 2013, Rene Pape (Gurnemanz) and Peter Mattei (Amfortas) were again superb. Mr. Pape now measures out his singing of this very long part more judiciously than he has in the past, at times allowing the orchestra to cover him rather than attempting to power thru. But in the long Act I monolog, "Titurel, der fromme Held...", the basso's tone flowed like honey; and later, at "Vor dem verwaisten Heiligtum, in brünst'gem Beten lag Amfortas..." ('Before the looted sanctuary, Amfortas lay in fervent prayer') Mr. Pape's emotion-filled delivery struck at the heart of the matter. Throughout Act III, leading to the consecrational baptism of Parsifal, Mr. Pape was at his finest.
Peter Mattei's Amfortas (in a Ken Howard/Met Opera photo above) is truly one of the great operatic interpretations I have ever experienced, for it is not only magnificently sung but acted with matchless physicality and commitment. The guilt and suffering Mr. Mattei conveys both with his voice and his body is almost unbearable to experience in its intensity and sense of reality.
After a desperate show of resistance to calls for the Grail to be revealed in Act I, Amfortas - in abject anguish - performs the rite; his strength spent, he staggers offstage and as he does so, he locks eyes with Parsifal, the man who will succeed him as keeper of the Grail: one of the production's most telling moments. And in the final act, Mr. Mattei throws himself into the open grave of his father, Titurel, as he begs for death to release him from his eternal suffering; this horrifies the assembled Grail knights. Such moments make for an unforgettable interpretation, yet in the end it's the Mattei voice that sets his Amfortas in such a high echelon.
Evgeny Nikitin's Klingsor (above), creepy and thrilling in 2013, incredibly was even better in this revival. The voice was flung into the House with chilling command, and the bass-baritone's physical domination of his bloody realm and his hapless female slaves was conveyed with grim authority. His demise was epic.
Alfred Walker sang splendidly as the unseen Titurel, and I was very glad that he appeared onstage for the bows so I could bravo him for his wonderful outpourings of tone. Another offstage Voice, that of Karolina Pilou - who repeats the prophetic line "Durch Mitleid wissend...der reine Tor!" ('Enlightened through compassion, the innocent fool...') to end Act I - had beauty of tone, though the amplification was less successful here.
The Squires ( Katherine Whyte, Sarah Larsen, Scott Scully, and Ian Koziara) were excellent, especially as they harmonized on the emblematic "Durch Mitleid wissend..." theme, and the Flowermaidens sounded lovely, led with ethereal vocal grace by Haeran Hong. Mark Schowalter and Richard Bernstein were capital Knights, and I must again mention Mr. Bernstein's terrific voice and physical presence as a singer underutilized by the Met these days. His lines ths afternoon were few, yet always on the mark; and in Act III, helping to bear the shrouded body of his late lord Titurel to its grave, Mr. Bernstein seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulder.
What gave the performance a deep personal dimension for me today was finding two dancers I have known for some time - David Gonsier and Nicole Corea - onstage in Acts I and II respectively. By focusing on them - Mr. Gonsier as a young Grail knight and Ms. Corea as a delicious Blumenmädchen - the 'choreography' given to these two groups became wonderfully clear and meaningful.
I first spotted Mr. Gonsier seated in the circle of knights; my imagination was immediately seized by the rapture evident in his eyes. For long, long stretches of the first act, I could not tear my gaze away from him as his mastery of the reverential gestural language and the deep radiance of his facial expressions spoke truly of what it means to be a knight of the Holy Grail. Amazingly, out of all the men I might have zeroed in on among the brotherhood, Mr. Gonsier was the last of the knights to leave the stage as Act I drew to an end: he received a personal blessing from Gurnemanz and their eyes met ever-so-briefly. So deeply moving.
Ms. Corea is beloved in the Gotham danceworld for her work with Lar Lubovitch; I ran into her on the Plaza before the performance today and she assured me I'd be seeing her this Spring at The Joyce as Mr. Lubovitch celebrates his 50th anniversary of making dances. Incredibly, within two seconds of the Act II curtain's rise on the identically clad and be-wigged Flowermaidens standing in a pool of blood, I found Nicole right in my line of vision. Both in her compelling movement and her captivating face, Nicole became the icon of this band of bewitching beauties.
Whilst hailing some of the unsung cast members of the afternoon, mention must be made of the two heroic supers who literally keep Amfortas alive and mobile, frequently taking the full weight of the ailing man as he struggles to fulfill his dreaded duties as Lord of the Grail. Great work, gentlemen!
Much of the libretto of PARSIFAL's outer acts today seems like religious mumbo-jumbo. It's the music - especially the ending of Act I - that most clearly speaks to us (and even to an old atheist like me) of the possibility of God's existence. Perhaps He has simply given up on mankind, as His name - and his word - have been sullied in recent years by those very people who claim to revere him. Wagner may have foreseen all this, as he once wrote: "Where religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion."
At the end of Act I of today's PARSIFAL, I momentarily questioned my disbelief. But then the applause - which I've always hated to hear after such a spiritual scene - pulled me back to reality. I'd much rather have stayed there, in Montsalvat.
Metropolitan Opera House
Saturday February 17th, 2018 matinee
Parsifal................Klaus Florian Vogt
First Esquire...........Katherine Whyte
Second Esquire..........Sarah Larsen
Third Esquire...........Scott Scully
Fourth Esquire..........Ian Koziara
First Knight............Mark Schowalter
Second Knight...........Richard Bernstein
Flower Maidens: Haeran Hong, Deanna Breiwick, Renée Tatum, Disella Lårusdóttir, Katherine Whyte, Augusta Caso
February 18, 2018 | Permalink
Above: tenor Simon O'Neill
~ Author: Oberon
Thursday February 15th, 2018 - We've been starved for Wagner of late, but now - in the course of a single week - we've had Dorothea Röschmann singing the Wesendonck Lieder, The New York Philharmonic offering Act I of DIE WALKURE (tonight), and, coming up: a matinee of PARSIFAL at The Met.
This evening's Philharmonic program opened with Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams’s Dark Waves, music which readily brings to mind the opening of Wagner's DAS RHEINGOLD. Long, deep notes are the sustaining quality throughout the piece's twelve-minute span. Beyond that, horn calls on fifths and the brief tweeting of the piccolo emerge thru the murky, at times almost mechanical, layers of sound. The volume ebbs and flows, at times becoming massive. This is music that surely casts a spell, though one patron was apparently not pleased and expressed himself with high, hooting boos that became comical after a bit.
The Philharmonic's new music director, Jaap van Zweden, yet again proved himself a Wagnerian of great skill and commitment. His presentation of the WALKURE Act I tonight was so alive - right from the rather fast tempo he chose for the score's opening pages depicting Siegmund being tracked by his enemies - and the orchestra played superbly.
Six harps are onstage, and, as the Act progressed, we had marvelous solo moments from Carter Brey (cello), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Amy Zoloto (bass clarinet), and Liang Wang (oboe) as well as some noble calls from the horns.
As Hunding, John Relyea's dark, menacing tone poured forth, full of irony and vitriol: this courteous host will likely stick a knife in your ribs given the opportunity. As with his magnificent Bartok Bluebeard at Carnegie Hall a year ago, Mr. Relyea proved himself yet again to be a singer of great vocal and physical command. One moment summarized the brilliance of Mr. Relyea's portrayal: after Siegmund has told his history to Sieglinde, ending tenderly with "Nun weißt du, fragende Frau,warum ich Friedmund nicht heiße!" ('Now you know, gentle wife, why I can never be called Peaceful.'), Hunding/Relyea interrupts the twins' mutual attraction, singing venomously: "Ich weiß ein wildes Geschlecht!" ('I know of your riotous race!'). Hunding's denunciation of his guest, and his promise to slay him at dawn, drew black-toned vocalism from the basso.
Ten years have passed since I first heard Simon O'Neill's Siegmund at a matinee performance at The Met. Both in voice and interpretation, Simon has kept things fresh in this arduous role: his singing - by turns helden or lyrical - is wonderfully present, and his diction and colourings are impressively utilized in the long narrative passages. For Siegmund's story is a sad tale indeed, and although on this night - when he's stumbled into Hunding's hut as a hunted man - he will experience happiness ever so briefly, within hours he will be betrayed to his death by his own father.
Mr. O'Neill makes these stories of loneliness and woe truly poignant; both here and in those passages when heroic tones are called for, he shows himself the equal of any Siegmund of my experience. His cries of "Wälse! Wälse!" in the Sword monolog were excitingly sustained. The cresting, poetic beauty of Simon's "Winterstürme" and his powerful summoning of Nothung from the tree were highlights of the evening. And then, with van Zweden's orchestra pulsing away with relentless vitality towards the finish line, Simon latched onto a clarion, hall-filling top-A at "Wälsungen blut!..." to cap the evening.
In 2012, Heidi Melton's singing of the 3rd Norn in GOTTERDAMMERUNG at The Met gave me reason to believe she could be the next great Wagnerian soprano. But since then, in subsequent encounters, I have found her disappointing. This evening, her physical presence and the voice's limitations in the upper range drew a blank with me.
So tonight, it was the excellence of the male singers, the thrilling playing of the orchestra, and Maestro van Zweden's feel for this music that gave Wagner his due.
February 16, 2018 | Permalink
Thursday February 8th, 2018 – The New York Philharmonic seemed in good form at David Geffen Hall. They were led by the wonderful Antonio Pappano, who I had never had the opportunity to hear before. I also hadn’t heard any of the works on the program live, though I have heard them all via recording. Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and resident NY Philharmonic organist Kent Tritle rounded out the program. It is interesting to have heard the Philharmonic after a long break, as both this time and last time I heard the playing seemed higher quality than I recalled. It will be interesting to see how the sound changes again next year when Jaap Van Zweden assumes his full music directorship.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis opened the program. I was surprised to learn in the program notes that the last time this famous piece was performed was 20 years before – it seems unusual for a piece that is perhaps Vaughan Williams’s most well-known. The all string orchestra is divided into three distinct groups during this work, the normal string orchestra, a separate orchestra that acts as the melody center, and a string quartet consisting of the principal players. Here, Mr. Pappano put the melodic orchestra in a row behind the strings that played the background counterpoint.
I’ve never been particularly fond of this work, while stunningly beautiful I don’t feel the music goes anywhere. Mr. Pappano convinced me of its beauty though – the slow moving textures almost sounded like a minimalist organ work. The basses and cellos truly sounded like the pedals of an organ while the other strings managed to capture the full nuances of the Phrygian scale that the Tallis themed is based on. All the strings sounded quite clean. Perhaps the most convincing moment was when Cynthia Phelps entered with her melancholic viola melody (6:05 in the video above) – she managed to make the entire room sing. The other quartet members did a good job blending with her, but that lonely call after the richness of what precedes it will remain with me for a long time.
The second work on the program was the Britten Piano Concerto, Op. 13. It is a bit of an odd piece, structured in four movements and lasting about thirty-five minutes. While interesting to hear, it didn’t sound to me nearly as original as other Britten works. Sort of like a medley of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev with some of Britten’s classic colorful instrumentation. Nonetheless, it is a fun virtuosic piece of music that really shows off an orchestra – even if not the most worthwhile music.
Above: Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes; Photo credit: Gregor Hohenberg
Mr. Andsnes milked the virtuosic first movement for all that it had, ripping through opening lines and making it sound gritty. Mr. Pappano’s accompaniment was spot on with the percussion cued perfectly for the piano’s percussive chords. Nonetheless, the movement is almost clown-esque and this interpretation seemed a little subdued for the material. Mr. Andsnes did seem to revel in the Rite of Spring-like chords (or perhaps I am thinking that because I’ve been listening to his new recording with Marc-André Hamelin).
The second movement is a little less chaotic than the first, the first few lines make it sound like one is in a jazz bar with people who are smoking. The bass is plucking away, while someone is lightly tapping on tambourine. The viola and clarinet exchange jazzy sounding lines. Ms. Phelps again did a fabulous job, here embracing that smoky texture as did Mr. Andsnes when the piano finally comes in to some music that sounds straight out of Prokofiev.
Eventually this setting yields to another virtuosic theme that recapitulates parts of the first movement. The third movement is a theme and variations that grows progressively denser – while interesting, it doesn’t quite feel like it belongs. Britten wrote many years later to replace a different version and it is easy to tell. The finale is exciting and showy, both Mr. Pappano and Andsnes making the most of it.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 with Kent Tritle performing the organ. While a popular piece, it hasn’t been done at the NY Phil in 8 years and so I haven’t gotten the chance to hear it live before. In some ways though, I feel like I still haven’t heard the piece properly. Because Mr. Tritle was playing an electronic organ, some of the grandness of the work didn’t seem to be present – indeed my friend and I chuckled a bit when the electronic organ entered as it just didn’t sound right for such a delicately composed piece. That is no fault of the organist, however, it would be lovely if Lincoln Center built an organ in David Geffen Hall.
Mr. Pappano programmed the Vaughan Williams well, it mirrors both the sound of the organ and structure of the Saint-Saëns making for a satisfying second half. Mr. Pappano brought an incisive and almost frenzied energy to the Allegro moderato in the first movement. The famous theme sounded buzzing with energy. Most impressive though were the clear textures in the massive fugue in the second movement, not a note was out of place, being both transparent and energetic. One effect that I had never noticed was Saint-Saëns dazzling use of pianos in the second movement’s presto. They are light and just a tinkle above the orchestra, but give it this glistening sonority that sounded to me like stained glass in sunlight. It was delightful to hear and I look forward to hearing Mr. Pappano again. He manages to choral the orchestra into action and get the best of its players.
February 15, 2018 | Permalink