Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Barber of Seville at the MET

On Saturday October 1, my wife Paula and I headed off to the MET for what proves to be an excitinng season.  We were so pleased to see a sold out performance with many young people in attendence.  It was quite a diverse audience with the aged, physically challenged and occasional young children in attendence.  We had seen this production previously with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez who always charm the New York fans.  To our glorious surprise, the mezzo-soprano Isobel Leonard and the Swedish bartone, Peter Mattei stole show.  Leonard as Rosina and Mattei as Figaro brought the house down with beautiful singing, humor and assurance in this utter frace by Rossini. 

This production by Bartlette Sher is well known at the MET and features moving dooors, a cart, orange trees (a la Seville) and complete with the docile and well behaving donkey. 

The ensemble consisted of: 
Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Rosina: Isabel Leonard
Count Almaviva: Javier Camarena
Figaro: Peter Mattei
Dr. Bartolo: Maurizio Muraro
Don Basilio: Paata Burchuladze

If there was a breakout star here it was Leonard who amply filled the shoes of Diana Damrau and Elina Garanca in preceding years.  The MET has had to scramble to have the orchestra led by a cadre of conductors.  Benini did an ample job and has not had the harsh criticism launched at him similar to that of Marco Armillato, an Italian expert who led the opening night of Anna Bolena starring Anna Netrebko. 

We were pleasantly surpised to meet a young couple seated next to us in the balcony.  She a chemist at Boehringer Ingelheim and he working at Agios in Central Square in Cambridge, MA.  This was his first opera and a great choice at that.  She was from Denmark and told us of the beautiful new opera house in Copenhagen that we had seen on a tour.  She suggested that the foyer is exquisite and worth a visit. 

These two clips demonstrate the vitality and life in this production.

On the way home, we watched the DVD of the Salzburg 2005 Marriage of Figaro starring the allstar cast of Actors: Anna Netrebko, Dorothea Roschmann, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, Bo Skovhus, and Christine Schafer
The conductor was  Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the somwhat avante garde production was directted by  Claus Guth.  On the DVD are bonus segments that reveal the artistry and committment of the artists to this production.  I refer specifically to the comments made by Anna Netrebko in her efforts to get inside the character, be responsive to the conductor and inclinations of the director. 

I would highly recommend this to any fan of updated operas. 

Of course we are looking forward to Anna Bolena with Netrebko as well as her solo recital at Carnegie Hall with a series of lieder of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov , and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Norma at Tanglewood

Last Friday, July 8, 2011 we had the wonderful opportunity to witness part of "Norma" given at Tanglewood. the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, MA.  There were several heroes that night including Charles Dutoit who led the ensemble with great assurance.  For Angela Meade, a rising soprano star this was a major breakthrough in her career.  Despite having sung small roles at Caramoor and sing Ernani at the MET, she has largely been overshadowed by regning divas. 

Opening Night at Tanglewood 2011 (Excerpts) from Larry Murray on Vimeo.

The concert begins with extended excerpts from Act I of Bellini’s Norma featuring the young American soprano Angela Meade and Sicilian tenor Roberto De Biasio, both debutting with the BSO, young American mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson and internationally renowned American bass-baritone James Morris.  One could feel the palpable energy of Dutoit as he guided the singers and orchestra through the difficult bel canto phrasing.  Their were notable highlights from all of the solists, with the chorus providing a beautiful color and shading to the choruses.  Despite the dismal weather this was an evening to celebrate both opera and the performers.  Meade received her training at the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts  and was a finalist at the MET competition.  While her singing was quite elegant, it appear to change over time into a forced vibrato which bordered on pushing it too much.

We have seen Ms. Meade at Carnegie Hall as a soloist in the Rossini Stabat Mater and at last year's Richard Tucker Gala.  She definately has sufficient technical skills, but only the future will be able to judge her ability to act and convey emotion.  I was quite impressed with the mezzo and tenor and this made for a joyous evening.  The legacy of James Levine was palpable in that this was his type of concert.  Only in recent years has this venue performed operatic excerpts.  Dutoit deserves hearty accolades as a last minute replacement for the ailing Levine.  His zeal and energy were quite evident from our birds-eye view from the 1st row. 

John Oliver, the longstanding leader of the Tanglewood Musical Festival Chorus was stunning in his ability to direct the chorus to support to the singers.  You owe it to yourself to enjoy the beauty and serenity of Tanglewood.  It has the ability to drwan you in for a joyous ride into sheer blis.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Agrippina - a Tale of Sexual Power, Corruption and Deceit

As a means of introduction, we have seen Agrippina once before at the Santa Fe Opera and were most pleased by the current Boston Lyric Opera production held at the Schubert Theater.  Aside from the updated, comedic presentatiion of the opera there was stellar singing and playing by the orchestra.  There were 2 real stars, Caroline Worra who portrayed Agrippina and Kathleen Kim as Poppea.  There were overtones of excessive alcoholism, cocaine use and sexual rivalry that made this for an enjoyable evening. 

     Caroline Worra                                  Kathleen Kim
Caroline was a strong singer who sang with strong passion  Kathleen Kim, a petite Korean soprano was most definately the star of the performance.  She sang with purity, coloratura, humor and dazzle.  Ms. Kim had previously sung at the Metropolitan Opera in the Tales of Hoffmam with Joseph Calleja and Anna Netrebko, where she played Olympia, the wind-up doll.

The story per se is a convoluted story of greed, deception and motives to place people in power of the Roman Empire.  This production was marvelous at portraying the twists and turns of misguided lovers.  The support of the various male roles as countertenors was unusual in their stylistic humor.  Some of this including hiding under Poppea's bed to elude competing suitors was simply hysterical in its comedic overlay. 

Agrippina's Family: Julia Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, making her a sister of Emperor Caligula. In A.D. 28, Agrippina married Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus who died in A.D. 40. During this marriage, she produced a son who would become the Emperor Nero.

Agrippina's Later Marriages: Agrippina married her second husband, Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus, in 41. She married the Emperor Claudius in A.D. 49 and persuaded Claudius to adopt her son Nero as his heir in the following year.

Agrippina' Other Great Claim to Fame: Early historians accused Agrippina of murdering Claudius. Following Claudius' murder, the 17-year-old Nero came to power, with Julia Agrippina the Younger as regent and Augusta.
Agrippina's power waned. Nero sent her into exile. Then, after a botched attempt to kill her, Nero had his mother murdered.

In the end though, everyone dies by suicide in this portayal as indicated in the Epiologue to thunderous applaus by the audience.  Much credit should go to the orchestra and the Harpsichord player who supported the entire opera.  Even though it appeared to be amplified, it provided an underpinning to the production.  Hanel's opera is quite different from Verdi, Donezetti, Bellini, Bizet or Massenet in that there are long stretches of dialogue or recititative rather than lyrical arias that last long after the performance.  Handel compensates for this by intriguing drama and counterpoint among the protagonists.  It is wonderful opera and should be enjoyed by all.  The use of supertitles portrayed on two large LCD screens help draw the listener into the complexities of the dialogue.  There were occasional examples of overacting which only served to heighten the humor.  The countertenor voice, previously sung by castrati added much value to their roles as buffons in this everlasting farce.  Occasional lapses in the falsetto range were largely of no consequence to the overall singing as all the performers easily masterred projecting over the orchestra.  The costumes were updated and elegant, especially those worn by Kathleen Kim as Poppea.  She notably wore very high stiletto heels as she is quite petite.  A take-home message to all singers is never underestimate the power of projecting your voice.  Ms Kim was a great example that "Great Things Come in Small Packages"

This is a performance to be enjoyed by all.  I hope that future performances will fill the house as Opera appears to be alive and well in Boston.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Roberto and Peter Serkin at the BSO

On Friday March 11th,  the BSO had to scramble to replace ailing James Levine and pianist Maurizio Pollini.  As we had known about this in advance, we were not surprised by the change in programming.  Roberto Abbado chose a Haydn Symphony No. 93 in D to open the program.  From the opening moment,  you knew that this was none other than Haydn.  Conducting without a score, Abbado conducted with great sweeping jestures and drew musicality out of the ensemble.  Although somewhat unremarkable, the piece was both satisfying and welcome. 

After arranging the stage for the piano, Peter Serkin, a lanky master came out in tails and played the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3.  Although not familiar to most, Serkin played with strenth dynamics and stellar technique.  He is rather tall and exuberant and one could occasionally hear his feet stamping on the stage as he masterfully used the pedals for enhancement.  Again Abbado did not conduct with a score and it was eminently clear that Serkin had a keen eye on Abbado for tempi, entrances, etc.  It was wonderful to watch such superb technique by Serkin who literally pounced on the keys for short notes with great fervor.  At times, this effect was mirrored with the xylophone.  Abbado let Serkin take ample solo curtain calls to a rousing and united standing ovation from the audience. 

Contrary to other blog posts and recent review of this concert, I found the Beethoven Symphony 5 in C minor, Opus 67, a warhorse of the repetoire to be unusually refreshing.  I almost left before the end of the intermission and was quite surprised to listen to a breakneck tempo reminiscent of Sir Roger Norrington on period instruments. It was certainly unusual, very much unlike that of performed with Levine as conductor in recent years.  The 2nd movement was particularly wonderful with  restrained elegance as Abbado held the orchestra to pianissimo to great success.  One has to keep an open mind, for this was certainly "different" and seemed appreciated by the audience.  My only hesitation was the occassional blaring of the trumpets and horns in the finale.  Abbado graciously acknowledged the playing by the oboe, flute, horns, etc.  One only has to listen to Norrington, Bernstein, Levine, Karajan et al., to realize that music is all about interpretation.  I once heard Norrington state that we have no idea how music was really played when it was composed despite temi markings and different orchestrations.  I actually prefer period instruments as they allow the music to be played as it was perhaps intended.  The BSO performance was quite brisk, perhaps to a fault, but it left you with a sense of brilliance that can only achieved with a great orchestra.  I am glad that I did not leave since it was indeed awakening and special.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Announces 2011 National Council Auditions Winners

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Opera held its finals for the National Council Audition.  The events were hosted by the wonderful "American Diva", Joyce DiDonato who indicated that she had not come through the ranks through this competition, but inducated how thrilled these young performers were to be on this stage.  Ms DiDonato, is full of class, humor, spontaneity and most of all charm.  Her career path has been challenging, but she has endured and is at the top of her game.  She will be singing a lead in Le Comte Ory with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez.  The orchestra was ably led by Patrick Summers who used appropriate restraint to allo wthe singers to project and shine in their moment of glory. 

The roster of finalists was unusual in not having any tenors in the ranks.  The lone soprano, who had won the competition had a wonderful stage presence and color to her voice.  The rest of the winners were bass-baritones or baritones. 

The winners were: Joseph Barron, bass-baritone from Pittsburgh, PA; Ryan Speedo Green, bass-baritone from Suffolk, VA; Michelle Johnson, soprano from Pearland, TX; Joseph Lim, baritone from Seoul, South Korea; and Philippe Sly, bass-baritone from Ottawa, Canada. The winners were selected from eight finalists who performed arias with the Met Orchestra, conducted by Patrick Summers. Each winner receives a cash prize of $15,000 and even more importantly, the opportunity to launch a major operatic career.  One only had to be there to witness the joy of Joseph Lim, hugging his colleagues with exuberance and a sense of profound fulfillment. 

For the audience it was a chance to see firsthand the next generation of stars.  Just before the results were announced Joyce introduced Lawrence Brownlee, an American born tenor who has just finsished a 2nd run of Armida.  He wowed the audience to thunderous applause with: “Je crois entendre encore” from Les Pêcheurs de Perles and “Ah! mes amis” from La Fille du Régiment.  It is notable that he and Joyce have both worked with Anthony Pappano and Anna Netrebko in the recent highly acclaimed recording of Rossini's Stabat Mater.

What a thrill to be part of the audience for this event.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The baton has been passed from one generation to the next

Sean Newhouse, the newly appointed assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra had his debut last night due to the ongoing health issues of Maestro James Levine its orchestral director.  Newhouse certainly had a monumental and very challenging task - conducting Gustav Mahler's 9th Symphony.  The hall was nearly filled to capacity as I joined my colleagues and friends from Astrazeneca.  The large orchestral piece from the 20th century was filled with vivid imagery of Eastern European dances ultimately leading to a serene resolution in death in the final movement. 

Sadly, I feel that it may be time for Maestro Levine to retire as an active conductor, not only for his personal health, but also for his adoring fans that he has disappointed on numerous occasions.  He has recently also withdrawn from last Saturday's Don Pasquale at the Metropolitan Opera (coincidently the same performance that was passed by Anna Netrebko, the adoring Russian Superstar diva for alleged health reasons, but ws noted to be with her partner Erwin Schrott at the Vienna State Opera in his debut in Mozart's Le Nozze Di Figaro).  Personally I think Levine is a genius conducting the Metropolitan Opera along with amny of his symphonic cycles, but I do not enjoy his recent conducting from a stool or rotating chair.  Levine is known as a minimalist conductor and the antithesis of Leonard Bernstein in his dramatic style.  Nevertheless, part of one's appreciation of a live performace is to witness how the conductor influences and brings together tempi and dynamics to derive fullest meaning out of piece of music.  We saw many elements of this last night as Newhouse became engrossed by the music. 

Leonard Bernstein stated in both his Norton Lectures of 1973 at Harvard University as well as in a video devoted to the Mahler Ninth Symphony; “Four Ways to Say Farewell,” his opinion that: “the opening
bars of [Mahler’s Ninth Symphony] are an imitation of the arrhythmia of his failing heartbeat.”  While not widely accepted, it is conceivable that Mahler was envisioning his own demise and impending death.    Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) never lived to hear his ninth symphony.  Mahler grew up in Bohemia under very humbling circumstances.  He served as a bridge from 19th Austrian-German classicism to the modern avant garde style of Shoenberg and Alban Berg.  As as composer of Jewish ancestry his work was largely ignored during the realm of the Nazi regime and the third Reich.  Mahler converted to Catholocism to land a position in Vienna. 

It is said that Mahler harboring the suspicion that there was a curse on composers who wrote a ninth symphony (Beethoven and Schubert were two that had died before their tenths were completed), Mahler attempted to sidestep the threat by not calling his ninth symphonic work a symphony at all. (This was his orchestral song cycle The Song of the Earth.) Only then did he feel safe to compose a ninth symphony, because it was “really” his tenth. Nonetheless, the curse struck again: Mahler died before he could finish No. 10.    In the essay by noted physician Lewis Thomas that I had the pleasure of meeting entitled "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony", he is quoted as saying, "There was a time, not long ago, when what I heard, especially in the final movement, was an open acknowledgement of death and at the same time a quiet celebration of the tranquility connected to the process. I took this music as a metaphor for reassurance, confirming my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience. I rely on nature. The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music can come to expressing silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler's idea of leave-taking at its best. But always, I have heard this music as a solitary, private listener, thinking about death.

Now I hear it differently. I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity. The easy sadness expressed with such gentleness and delicacy by that repeated phrase on faded strings, over and over again, no longer comes to me as old, familiar news of the cycle of living and dying.

The seating of the orchestra was somewhat unusual, perhaps influenced by Wagner in that the cellos and double bases were on Stage left.  This monumental piece of music was played with brilliance with many fine soloists including the flautist, horns, bassoon, muted trumpets, 2 harps and an outstanding percussion section.  The final bars of the symphony illustrated well the extreme pianisimo possible by a great violin section. 

Overall the piece was well played and exemplified both the acoustics of Symphony Hall and these great musicians.  Aside from the 1st movement which seemed disjointed with no clear theme or unifying development, the piece was astonishing in its massive evolution and progression.  At times when you felt you were nearing a conclusion, Mahler took you on his journey for further exploration. 

Newhouse deserves much praise and accolades and was clearly very relieved and plaesed with the results of his debut.  Every once in a while this is how stars are born.  He was wonderful, expressive and fun to watch as he nuanced the orchestra to great drama.  His final bars were filled with solemnity and peace.  This work has been conducted by many notable conducters including Bernstein, Ozawa and Dudamel to name a few. 

I remember as a child listening to my granmother's recording of Mahler's 1st symphony conducted by Bruno Walter a truly spectacular recording.  It was a wonderful evening filled by camaraderie with my friends as well as an education into unfamiliar music to me.  I own Bernstein's version of Mahler's symphonies and now is a time to reflect and learn more.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Anna Netrebko & Erwin Schrott in Las Palmas

The concert by Anna Netrebko and Erwin Schrott was a huge sucess and enthusiastically received by all attendees.  Anne's pictures are indeed fabulous and there is little to add other than the few that I have attached.  Herbert's commentary was excellent and reflects the general nature of the evening in Las Palmas.  The programme was identical to the one played in Tenerife.  The Alfredo Kraus Auditorium is a beautiful venue overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  The orchestra led by Vladamir Spivakov was simply outstanding.  They played with assurance and clarity.  The tempos were brisk and exciting.  Spivakov was expressive, graceful and lovely to watch.

Anna appeared first in ther stunning form fitting royal blue gown and was simply ravishing.  You immediately noticed the incredible size of her voice.  The first piece by Glinka was new to us, but showcased her talent and comfort on the stage.  She sang with such great confidence, poise and panache, and knew well how to connect with the audience.  She had no need to sing at the foot of the stage since her voice carried well with much ease.  Many of the other pieces were very familiar.  The highlights of the evening were Erwin greeting the audience in Spanish and sing a tango, accomapanied by an accordian.  During his duet with Anna as Adina in L'eIlisir D'amore, Schrott as Dr. Dulcamara, sold a bottle of magic elixir (wine) to a gentlemen in the first row of the audience who gave Erwin some Euros.  This bottle of wine was delivered on stage by Schrott's adolescent daughter.  Thankfully, a second bottle was on stage to continue the aria.  It was just a very funny moment.  Their duets were passionate, frequently ending with warm embraces and tender kissing as only lovers can portray.

Erwin's portayal of Leporello in Don Giovanni is simply one of his signature roles.  He sang it with a book depicting his amorous conquests all throughout Europe, with special emphasis on Espania. 
Anna's rendition of Gounod's Jewel Song from Faust was memorable.   It was particularly exciting when Erwin completed this selection with his vivid interpretation of Mephistopheles.

In the second portion of the program Anna wore a magnificent pink chiffon gown while Erwin sported a black, sequined velvet blazer. What a stunning couple! Their Gershiwn "Porgy and Bess" duet was full of passion and I was particulary impressed that the National Russian Orchestra was able to accompany the singers with such ease.  It is amazing that the orchestra performed Russian, German, French, Czech, Spanish and Italian music so superbly...a truly well deserved compliment to Maestro Spivakov.

Erwin sang the tango with a microphone to great success.  The highlight of the evening was a local folk song from Gran Canaria that was full of passion, syncopation and featured the brass and percussion (castanets) sections.  It was introduced to audience by Spivakov.  This brought the audience to its feet in a rousing standing ovation.  It was simply amazing to see Russian trained musicians play such a Latin based melody with ease and a high level of technicality. 

We reflected on the difference between recital and fully staged opera, and concluded that Anna's true ability is only reflected in her uncanny acting. While this concert was a success by any standard, it left us wanting to see more.  Having recently seen her in Don Pasquale at the MET as well as many other operas with her, we feel that Anna's true calling is opera.  From Traviata, I Puritani, Romeo & Juliet, Tales of Hoffmann, Lucia, La Boheme and others we have been fortunate to watch the maturation and development of this wonderful singer.  It is eminenly clear that not only does she enjoy what she is trying to communicate, but her unusual dark Slavic voice has set her apart from others. 

The highlight for Paula and myself was to meet Anne Fischer-Boertzler, her husband Ludi, and her parents.  Indeed we shared many stories about our love for good music and opera.  Anne is poised, classy and certainly enhanced our visit.  We spoke briefly before the concert and then more extensively afterwards trying to get an aiutograph from Anna.  Anne translated for her parents who quickly understood our mutual love for opera.  Anne, to you we owe a debt of gratitude (for guiding me on how to secure tckets via Gran Canaria's ATM) and more importantly for establishing a warm new found friendship via Facebook.  As many of you know, Facebook started at Harvard, and is a tremdendous sucess in allowing people to connect to share common interests.  To all of my music friends and especially Carlos, we are very thankful. Anna and Erwin departed quickly with his daughter, but I was able to get 2 photos.  I told Anna that we will see her next month in Beaver Creek and she exclaimed "That's Great."   Spivakov waved to the small gathering before departing.