Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 11)

Highlights

It looks like live music will resume in Austria in June – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is testing out performing the same concert multiple times back-to-back (a different program each week – mostly Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year) for an audience at each of 100 people in Vienna’s Konzerthaus.  The Salzburg and Grafenegg Festivals will go ahead in modified forms later this summer.  But in the meantime, there is still online streaming (not as good, but I do get to watch a ridiculous amount of opera – this week, two by Mozart, one by Strauss, one by Wagner, two by Berlioz, one by Schreker, and two by Schostakowitsch).

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (Staatsoper)

Mozart’s Zauberflöte can take a lot of stagings, being fantasy and allegory and all.  But a staging still has to make sense.  I have no idea what I just watched from the Staatsoper.  This was not Regietheater, since it did seem to at least allude to the opera (key elements appeared at every point when they were supposed to) and it followed the plot (thank goodness).  But otherwise I could find no rhyme or reason in anything from random setting (a stripped-down disused theater backstage, maybe?), the costumes (no consistency – although there looked like there may have been a reason each character got the costume they did, the costume style did not match up among the characters), or props (actually, these were the key elements that were supposed to be there, but they seemed out of place with everything else).  I have seen minimalist productions, which work since they allow focus on the key elements (or at least on the acting) to augment comprehension – but when the framing is not minimalist but irrelevant, it detracts from the focus on and understanding of the plot. Two directors were listed as being responsible for this: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who are apparently a Paris-based couple.

The cast in this 2017 performance was mostly from the Vienna Ensemble, keeping up the baseline standards of this house and ensuring good chemistry among them.  The only big visiting name was René Pape as Sarastro, who works in this house often enough to be part of the extended family at least.  Thomas Tatzl was a playful Papageno (joined later by Ileana Tonca as Papagena), Jörg Schneider was fine but not quite dashing enough as Tamino, Olga Bezsmertna made a fine Pamina, and Hila Fahima was uneven as the Queen of the Night, but this is judging her by the high standards of this house, which she attained – generally, the Vienna Ensemble puts stars in other houses to shame, so it is important to consider the success of the cast as a whole unit.  Ádám Fischer conducted a wonderfully lilting performance, capturing all of the musical charm.

  • [Recording tips:  Otto Klemperer’s 1964 set with the Philharmonia had possibly one of the best Zauberflöte casts ever assembled top-to-bottom: Nicolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry, Lucia Popp, Gottlob Frick in the major roles, but luxuries like Franz Crass, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Marga Höfgen, Ruth-Margret Putz, Gerhard Unger, Agnes Giebel, Anna Reynalds, and Josephine Veasey in the assorted smaller roles.  The main fault of the set, however, is that it excludes the dialogue, which makes listening to it as a “complete” recording rather disconcerting.  Better to hear it as extended excerpts.  For a complete recording with dialogue from around that period, there is a wonderful recording from the 1959 Salzburg Festival, with George Szell leading the Vienna Philharmonic with Leopold Simoneau, Lisa Della Casa, Walter Berry, Erika Köth, and Kurt Böhme that may lack the brightness of some later live recordings of better technical quality, but still captures its period very well.]

Mozart: Don Giovanni (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper gave us three streaming options for a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni by director Jean-Louis Martinoty, so I picked the one that looked most promising, from 2017, mostly to see the ever-lively Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni, and with the cerebral Ádám Fischer conducting.  Neither disappointed.  As Giovanni’s sidekick Leporello, Erwin Schrott made a good tandem with Keenlyside.  Ileana Tonca (Zerlina) and Dorothea Röschmann (Elvira) both excelled, while the rest of the cast gave an appropriately strong Staatsoper baseline performance.  However, Martinoty’s staging itself was at times busy and confused, with different sets unrelated to the plot (or maybe they were, but Martinoty just put them in the wrong places) and sometimes extra people hanging around on stage, which made the production more distracting than helpful.

  • [Recording tips: Don Giovanni is perhaps another one of those operas where everyone has a favorite recording, and I simply will not weigh in to that debate.  Without declaring it the best one available, I will say that the recording I return to most often is a historic 1955 performance from the Staatsoper, right after the house reopened after it was restored from having been hit by a bomb in 1945 during the final weeks of the war.  The Staatsoper put on what amounted to a mini-festival of standard repertory with leading casts, and this all-star collection, under the baton of Karl Böhm, included George London in the title role and Erich Kunz, Sena Jurinac, Lisa Della Casa, Anton Dermota, Ludwig Weber, Irmgard Seefried, and Walter Berry.  Some people might resist this recording because they used the alternate libretto by Hermann Levy, and while it is true that Lorenzo Da Ponte’s original version is a work of art, Levy’s version, in the tradition of great 19th century literary translations, fully captures that original art but in Mozart’s German vernacular – and indeed it may why other German versions are so jarring.  The Nazis had a problem with this opera, which they otherwise liked very much, because both the Italian and the German libretti were written by Jews, and so they dropped the Levy version and either performed it in Italian with no librettist credited or commission less-good German versions, some of which have remained in circulation since that period.  The Staatsoper gets credit here for restoring the Levy script. 
  • In addition to mentioning this complete version, I would be remiss to not point out one excerpt that should be in everyone’s collection: Richard Tauber may have been the greatest lyric tenor of all time, and while he may be most remembered for operetta, of which he recorded a lot and took on tours, he was first and foremost a Mozart tenor and had sung many lyric roles in the Vienna Staatsoper Ensemble.  No one has ever matched his mezza voce.  No one has ever matched his Austrian charm either – Richard Strauss once remarked something like that if someone wanted to understand nostalgia for the way Vienna once was, they just needed to listen to Richard Tauber sing.  There are two recordings of “Dalla sua pace” that I am aware of, one in the Da Ponte version and one in the Levy version (“Nur ihrem Frieden”).  The Italian one came later with better recording sound.  If I were to spotlight a small number of Tauber recordings that best demonstrated his lyricism, this would be one.  And for real collectors, there are some excerpts available – albeit in poor sound – from Tauber’s final performance of this role.  The Austrian Tauber turned down an offer from the Nazis to be declared an “honorary Aryan” and ultimately fled to England.  In 1947, with their house bombed out, the Staatsoper went on tour and stopped in London, where their run included Don Giovanni.  They invited Tauber, by that time dying of cancer, with one lung removed and the other one barely working, to perform Don Ottavio one last time with the Vienna Ensemble.  Most of the audience was not aware that he was singing on half a lung, nor is it obvious from the recordings that survive.  He died just over three months later.]

Strauss: Salome (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper streamed Salome by Richard Strauss in a staging Boleslaw Barlog first produced in 1972.  Barlog, a German from the days when Germans knew how to stage opera by sticking to the plot, did not have much to say, but his timeless, moody setting (which indeed sticks to the plot) allowed Strauss’ music to do the work.  I saw this Klimt-inspired production in 2015 with some of the same cast, particularly Lise Lindstrom in the title role and Herwig Pecoraro as Herod.  Pecoraro was as sardonic as I remember.  Lindstrom fell a bit short in this performance, coming in off pitch more often than not, and sometimes warbling when she did find the pitch.  As John the Baptist this time around, Michael Volle did not quite completely fill the role, which could have been bigger, darker, or warmer.  For this performance from earlier this year, Michael Boder conducted but failed to add from the pit, the opera even ending on a whimper.  In all, if the Staatsoper wanted to stream Salome, one wonders why they chose this performance of all of the ones presumably in their archive.

  • [Recording tip: Perhaps the most-charged version of Salome available is a recording with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1994, reassembling most of a cast that had triumphed at the 1992 Salzburg Festival: Catherine Malfitano (Salome) and Byrn Terfel (John the Baptist).]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Staatsoper)

David McVicar’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper is a decent panacaea for the version from the Met during the lockdown that I listened to but could not watch.  It actually is not necessary to do over-the-top natural stagings – minimal works too, when the director understands the plot and tries to make it understandable for the audience.  I myself have never gotten the hullabaloo about this opera – the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that does not speak to me.  But I did give it another time through this evening, and found that McVicar captured this over-philosophical work well, and at least I could understand the opera better even if I still don’t really get it.  The cast (from a 2015 performance) sounded terrific and acted out the changing and confused emotions well.  Peter Seiffert and Iréne Theorin sang the title roles, amply supported by Tomasz Konieczny (Kurwenal), Petra Lang (Brangäne), Albert Dohmen (King Marke), and Gabriel Bermúdez (Melot).  Peter Schneider led the drama superbly from the pit.

Berlioz: Damnation of Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz is a notoriously difficult opera to stage, and it is anyway based on Goethe’s mystical play, which makes it fine to do it as fantasy.  This Metropolitan Opera production by Robert LaPage, started off with me confused as to whether the fantasy worked, but it grew on me as the opera progressed.  The stage was a set of square boxes, with characters generally inside them (today, in the age of zoom, this format does not look out of place – although in this case there were usually multiple people in each frame).  Sometimes scrims fell in front, with projections screened onto them.  This allowed multiple thoughts to occur at once, often suggesting alternative realities which in their way reinforced the main thread.  Unfortunately, Marcello Giordani was a weak-voiced Faust.  John Relyea was not dark enough as Mephistopheles.  Susan Graham was bolder as Margarethe.  James Levine conducted this 2008 performance.

  • [Recording tip: I have oddly never found a recorded version of this opera I have especially been enamored of.  Although its poor sound makes it a problematic choice, there is a fascinating live recording from the 1950 Luzern Festival conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, with Frans Vrooms as Faust, Hans Hotter as Mephistopheles, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Margarethe.  The sound quality is so poor, it is necessary to use imagination as to how it must have sounded live, but it is nevertheless distinctive.

Berlioz: The Trojans (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met also has kept Berlioz’s Trojans in its repertory.  The current version, directed by Francesca Zambello, creates a grand spectacle, with some illusions to make it seem even larger than it already was.  But at the same time it remains human and intimate.  The sets were not realistic, but more mood-setting; not quite abstract, but more representative.

Given the decision to keep all of the dancing in this version, and to do it on a big scale, realism was not the objective.  Berlioz incorporated extensive ballet into the opera not according to the silly French tradition, but more for his own purposes of interpreting Vergil with all possible tools at his disposal.  Yet the dancing, uncut, did become tedious, particularly in the fourth act, and in the end this contributed to the scenes in Carthage ultimately dragging in ways the scenes in Troy had not.

The two acts set in Troy also benefitted from wonderful little moments, included the tragically tender scene between Coroebus (Dwayne Croft) and Cassandra (Deborah Voigt) in Troy, who sing past each other in the plot.  But Croft and especially Voigt really did provide the impulse for those acts.  In the final three acts, Susan Graham made a very personable and approachable Queen Dido.  Bryan Hymel was Aeneas, and his strong voice held.  Fabio Luisi conducted this 2013 performance.

Schreker: The Smith of Ghent (Flanders Opera-Ballet)

Looking around the online offerings, it is nice to find something different.  Having seen Franz Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang during the lockdown, I moved along to his last opera, Der Schmied von GentDer Ferne Klang apparently had entered the standard repertory in the German-speaking world, but was of course banned by the Nazis as “degenerate” music (Schreker’s father was Jewish) and has rarely been performed since.  Der Schmied von Gent had its premiere in 1932, and never had time to enter the repertory before the Nazis came to power in Germany.  The Austrian Schreker died in 1934, and his music has mostly been forgotten.  But as I thought with Der Ferne Klang, the music represents a cross between the language of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and even if he did not necessarily rise to that level, there is no reason his music should not get performed more often (plenty of far less original or far less musical stuff has entered the standard repertory – and Schreker’s work is both original and musical).

Schreker called this particular work a “grand magical opera” – it is a folly, a fantasy, even if set in a historical period (the end of the 80-years war in the 16th century) there is too much magic to make it realistic.   So I suppose it was OK that the setting made by Ersan Mondtag for the Flanders Opera-Ballet earlier this year (before the lockdown) was cartoonish.  The main problem was that while Mondtag made it more phantasmagoric, he somehow left out the actual fantasy elements that appear in the libretto.  Some remained as allusions and could be assumed listening to the words, but why not show those instead of introducing other elements?  The staging generally followed the plot, but for an opera almost no one is familiar with, Mondtag did not exactly enhance understanding of what it was about.  And that was already before his non sequitur deviation in the final act: when Smee (the smith in the opera’s title) died, Mondtag had him dress up as the genocidal Belgian King Leopold II before heading out to try to get into either Heaven or Hell (the real Leopold II would absolutely be consigned to Hell, but there is no logical reason to link Smee with Leopold).  Hell turned out to be a Congolese art gallery, where various characters stood and listened to Patrice Lumumba declare Congo’s independence (we got a far-too-long excerpt of his speech over the loudspeaker – what this had to do with the opera is a mystery).  After Smee was denied entry into Hell, he tried to get into Heaven, where he was made to watch a film that had scenes from Congo’s history, including the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match staged by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  To cut to the end, after Smee was allowed into Heaven and gave a royal wave to the assembled crowd (in his persona as Leopold II), Heaven changed suddenly into Hell (that Congolese art gallery again – now with red lighting and devils), and the main she-devil ripped Smee’s beard off and said to the audience: “really?”

To that, I have to say: “really?”  It should not surprise anyone that Mondtag is a German Regisseur.  So he’s probably trying to make a point that we should think how clever he is because he can completely miss the plot.  It is a shame, because for the first two acts, I could almost accept his cartoonish staging as consistent with Schreker’s intention to make a “grand magical opera” – if only Mondtag had kept in the actual fantasy elements.  But then he “jumped the shark” (to use the American pop expression).  Boo.

Baritone Leigh Melrose sang Smee, the title character, who pretty much stays on stage the entire opera and therefore is critical to hold it all together, which Melrose certainly did.  Alejo Pérez (whom I saw conduct Gounod’s Faust at the Salzburg Festival four years ago) again showed he could advance the music and the drama no matter what dreadful German directors put on the stage.

Schostakowitsch: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Dutch National Opera)

The Dutch National Opera provided a 2006 performance of Schostakowitsch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the pit under its then-music director Mariss Jansons.  This performance was probably not as brash as the last time I saw this opera performed (also with Jansons conducting, with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival), with an emphasis now on the dancing melodies – if disturbed ones at that.  It ended almost with restraint, representing not the harshness of Siberia but the hopelessness of it all.  Then again, some of that differentiation may have come from hearing it here recorded and not live, and some of it may have been to match the staging.

Although an Austrian, the director Martin Kušej has spent most of his career in Germany, which is immediately obvious from the terrible staging.  This is such a brutal opera that it’s actually hard even for a German director to shock – which must frustrate them.  So while this staging did not really make any sense, it did at least keep more or less to the plot.  Eva-Maria Westbroek starred as Katerina Izmailova and Christopher Ventris was Sergey, both giving as convincing a performance as might be possible in this staging.  The most convincing of the cast was actually Vladimir Vaneyev as Boris Izmailov.

Schostakowitsch: Cheryomushki (Mariinsky Theater)

At the other end of the spectrum from the brutal Lady Macbeth for Schostakowitsch’s opera works was his comic operetta Cheryomushki, here presented by the Mariinsky in a semi-staged version (without scenery and minimal costuming – main characters acting in front of a fixed chorus, with the orchestra in the sunken pit) in the Mariinsky Concert Hall.  The singers came from the Mariinsky’s in-house training academy.  Pavel Petrenko conducted this 2015 performance.

I streamed this to hear a work I have heard about but never actually heard.  It was fun to hear how someone like Schostakowitsch might write more “popular” music.  Within an identifiably-Viennese operetta style of which he was familiar and which apparently remains popular in Russia to this day as I discovered much to my surprise when I first moved to Moscow, Schostakowitch used parodies of historical Russian musical styles from the mediaeval to the great 19th century Russian composers to set an operetta mocking Soviet corruption and bureaucracy (how he got away with it I am not sure).  Unfortunately, the Mariinsky does not provide subtitles for their streamings, so this was a bit harder to follow without a full staging to provide clues about the action (I do not normally watch with subtitles, but for a non-standard work in a comic operetta style, they would have been appreciated under these circumstances).  I could find a plot summary online, but I mostly just listened and enjoyed without worrying too much.

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 8)

Highlights

The lockdown is thankfully over, at least in Austria, so I am getting out more.  But since there is still no live music out there for the foreseeable future, I continue to keep an eye out for worthwhile things to see online.

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro (Metropolitan Opera)

I have to admit: I have never quite taken to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  I’ve sat down to listen to it more than a few times, and usually give up after the first act.  I don’t turn it off, I simply leave it in the background.  While the music is beautiful, I never felt that it went anywhere, at least not to merit my further attention.  I’ve never been tempted to go see it.  I own one recording – bought early in my CD collection (a 1953 Salzburg Festival performance with a tremendous cast) since at that time I thought I still needed a recording of this opera – and then I basically never listen to that complete in a single sitting.

This remained the case, at least, until the Met streamed a 1998 performance, in a delightful staging by Jonathan Miller with an unbelievably perfect cast.  Perhaps if I had started with this production, I might have appreciated this opera more.  Miller left room for the singers to act out their roles to the fullest, which they did, creating pure comedy while still maintaining full musicality.  The cast could act.  The cast could sing.  The farce was every bit as hilarious as Rossini’s Barber of Seville (same characters set earlier, but which Rossini wrote later), just in a Mozartian style.  Renée Fleming (Countess), Cecilia Bartoli (Susanna), Susanne Mentzer (Cherubino), Dwayne Croft (Almaviva), and Bryn Terfel (Figaro) all captured such humor.  James Levine, still at the pinnacle of his career, conducted.

Strauss: Capriccio (Metropolitan Opera)

Renée Fleming has in recent years owned the role of the Countess in Capriccio by Richard Strauss (she has owned so many roles, actually).  She sang the part when I first saw this opera in Vienna in 2008, and in this 2011 performance from the Met here she was again.  The cast around her was idiomatic as well (Morten Frank Larsen as the Count, Joseph Kaiser as Flamand, Russell Braun as Olivier, Peter Rose as La Roche, and Sarah Connolly as Clairon).  The staging was not the timeless one of the Staatsoper, but updated into the twentieth century (exactly when is hard to tell – the lavish set suggested an over-the-top traditional country estate, the costumes could have been out of the 1980s – my father might have felt comfortable dressing that way in the 80s, although he would never have worn shoes inside the house, and this was certainly not our house since we neither had an inherited estate nor would we have decorated it that way if we had had).  Still, this opera does not require any particular time period, so the staging (by John Cox) worked.  What did not work in the end, or at least less well, was the music.  That’s not Strauss’ fault, so it must have been the Met orchestra under Andrew Davis, who did not capture the lush score.  The Met orchestra will never be the Vienna Philharmonic, but there had been a time when it was a top-rate opera orchestra – by the season when this was recorded, the first season when James Levine, who had done so much to build up that orchestra decades before, publicly had to admit he was no longer fit for the job as the Met’s music director, the orchestra had suffered noticeable decline.  Fabio Luisi took over many of Levine’s duties starting in 2010-11, and the orchestra began to improve again, but that season may have been its nadir.

Borodin: Prince Igor (Metropolitan Opera)

Because of the unusually-difficult provenance of Borodin’s Prince Igor, the director can basically decide how to assemble the opera – which music to use or omit, and in what order to perform it.

And because there is no fixed version of Prince Igor, I am fine giving great leeway to the construction of the opera.  Choosing which pieces to assemble and in what order to put them may indeed result in a not fully-logical result (and it would not be the first opera to have an illogical plot).  But whatever the choice, there must be some dramatic conception for how the director assembles it.  So while musically this performance from the Metropolitan Opera was objectively fine, the lack of clarity in the concept sapped its drama.  Gianandrea Noseda, conducting, did not do a bad job, but he could not overcome the direction by Dmitri Tcherniakov.  Likewise, a cast headed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Igor, supported ably by solid performances across the board (especially Oksana Dyka as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna), simply failed to inject life into this fundamentally dull production.  And that’s on Tcherniakov’s head.

It probably did not help that Tcherniakov could not figure out a timeframe for his concept (moving around in time, sometimes different characters in different centuries on stage simultaneously, and none of them in the 12th century, when the action takes place).  But that probably was not fatal.

After the usual prologue, Tcherniakov moved the first act (which in this case is essentially the first of the Polovtsian acts) into a field of flowers with characters wandering in and out speaking to or around Igor (even when they aren’t supposed to be in front of him – such as Vladimir and Konchakovna, or not supposed to be there at all, such as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna) and Igor speaking in front of them.  The result came across as a disjointed set of arias with no inherent logic (I suppose if Borodin left a jumble, Tcherniakov just kept it as a jumble, but there’s no reason to believe Borodin wanted a jumble).  When the Polovtsian chorus sings at various times (they remain offstage except at the end of the act when they dance among the flowers) a film is shown on the scrim depicting the aftermath of the battle in which their armies defeated Igor’s.

Another disconnect of putting this act immediately after the prologue: it contains the plot line that Igor’s son and the Khan’s daughter are already a couple, to the extent that Konchakovna has already raised this potential marriage with her father (and they speak of it, oddly in this production, in front of but not to Igor).  Yet much later in the opera Yaroslavna is informed for the first time that Igor was captured, which would imply that she somehow did not know this for a very long time.  While there was no internet or 24-hour news back then, this is still a bit odd.

At the end of that later act, when the Polovtsians attacked Putivl (presumably: they did not actually appear), somehow in the confusion the only one who wound up dead was Galitsky (he is supposed to die in the attack, but in this staging there was no actual attack yet he ended up dead on the floor of the stage for no clear reason).  More confusion came in the final act, here the act set in the destroyed city of Putivl, which had now turned into a late 20th-century impoverished ‘hood (think: Bronx, but with no black people).  Igor returned (as he is supposed to), but was greeted by his son Vladimir, followed by Konchakovna, who then sang music from an act (omitted in this version) in the Polovtsian camp before Igor’s escape.  Igor then sat there in the middle of the stage oblivious while the rest of the plot moved on around him.

So while there may be no correct order of the bits of this opera – assembly indeed required – there are incorrect orders.  What did Tcherniakov’s one for the Met do?  It removed the drama, and the musicians simply could not recover.  I don’t think this was quite as bad a jumble as I once saw at the Mariinsky – which felt like they threw the entire score up in the air and performed it in whatever order it fell to the ground – but actually in that Mariinsky performance each scene individually was wonderfully dramatic even while the full concept made no sense.

  • [Recording tips:  In selecting “complete” recordings, I have made my decisions based on the music rather than on the assembly of the opera itself.  On top of that I have a pretty decent amount if excerpts.  So I suppose when listening to the opera I am in general less concerned about whether it makes any sense.  But if I watch it, I want it to make sense.  My two “complete” recordings (since, after all, there is no such thing as a “complete” recording given what Borodin left behind when he died, and that much of it may actually have been composed by Aleksandr Glazunov anyway) are: one from the Bolshoi Opera in 1951 conducted by Aleksandr Melik-Pashaev, and one from the Staatsoper in 1969 conducted by Lovro von Matačić, both live performances with first class casts.]

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta (Mariinsky Theater)

I chose to stream a 2009 production of Tschaikowsky’s Iolanta from the Mariinsky Theater, with Anna Netrebko in the title role and Valery Gergiev in the pit in order to hear this seldom-performed opera done right.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think highly of it, but the music is rather gorgeous (and was appreciated by none other than Gustav Mahler, who knew a thing or two about opera and actively championed it outside Russia).  It’s basically a fairy tale, and taken as such it works.  Mariusz Treliński’s basic modern (definitely not fairy tale) staging, mixing in filmed images with real ones, was pretty silly, but did play up the psychological aspects of the main character (just as long as I did not try to think too hard about the stupidity of the mismatched costumes, sets, blocking, or pretty much anything – thankfully, this was a case of it being so silly that I indeed did not have to think much about it and did just focus on the psychological aspects).  The camera work on the filming followed the same path, often switching intentionally to soft focus to underscore the key plot element that Iolanta herself is blind.  Sergei Aleksashkin was particularly excellent as King René (I’ve seen him before at the Mariinsky as Khan Konchak in Prince Igor and Ivan Khovansky in Khovanshchina), with Sergei Skorokhodov as Count Vaudemont and Alexei Markov as Duke Robert.

Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra concluded its six weeks of curated selections by providing a great chance to hear a seldom-performed opera: Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz.  This performance was fully staged at the Tanglewood Festival in 1984, but the BSO only released the audio recording.  Still, the performance, led by Seiji Ozawa with Frederica von Stade and Jon Garrison in the title roles, was exciting, and a rare chance to have comic relief provided by Berlioz, most of whose works were rather more serious.  From the sound of it, the audience also had a good time!

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Rossini, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Beethoven

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra still has several concerts streamable from its website, and so I continue to pull out ones by the late Mariss Jansons.  I was particularly taken by this particular concert, even if the program itself was a bit of a mish-mash, as Jansons often seems to have intended to do later in his life.  But since it will never again be possible to hear Jansons conduct live, I am thankful for the recordings made available online that truly show why he was the greatest conductor of the last couple of decades, and this concert displayed some of his range.  It opened by a spirited overture to William Tell by RossiniProkofiev’s violin concerto #1 followed with soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who also played an encore by Rachmaninov.  A tense but also joyous Beethoven Symphony #3 concluded the concert – worth calling up from their website while it remains posted.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Schubert, Strauss, Dvořák, Berlioz
Philadelphia Orchestra: Mahler

Among the offerings they made available during the closure period, the Philadelphia Orchestra posted two transitional concerts from 1993 and 2011, which were quite enlightening, showing the orchestra in two different time periods under conductors who had actually not yet taken up their posts as music director yet and so were conducting an orchestra they had not yet had the chance to mold – Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1993 and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in 2011 both had the title “Music Director Designate.”

The 1993 concert itself was rather ironic given the current global crisis caused by the Chinese Communist Party penchant for trading in endangered species, operating unhygienic wet markets as breeding ground for new diseases, and orchestrated cover-ups (not to mention trying to gain propaganda value from exporting healthcare materials which turn out to be mostly defective and useless).  The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American orchestra to be invited to Communist China in 1973, and this concert was performed twenty years later as a commemoration in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People (a misnomer, as the Communist Party of China cares not a jot for its people and has been the most murderous regime in history on raw numbers, dare I also mention Tibet and East Turkestan).  Sawallisch, who would take over as Music Director of the Orchestra a few months later, conducted this one, for a quite standard program: the unfinished Eighth Symphony of Franz Schubert, Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, and the Ninth Symphony by Antonín Dvořák, with the Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz for an encore.

What made this concert interesting was actually hearing how different the orchestra sounded then than it does now.  Of course this was a recording using old technology (1993, but it was produced by Chinese television back then), in an absolutely enormous venue.  But I am getting a lot of streamed recorded music right now (plus there is my CD collection), so in the absence of live music (thanks to the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Xi) this is the new standard.

I was probably too young to appreciate the “Philadelphia Sound” when Eugene Ormandy was Music Director – but I caught him towards the end of his 44-year tenure, and what was clear even to me as a child was that things had become blurry.  No one should stay in charge of anything for 44 years.  Riccardo Muti succeeded Ormandy, which was initially a good thing as it brought back some discipline.  But my assessment of Muti remains pretty  much the same today: he is a fantastic and intelligent guest conductor whose concerts are to be anticipated, and as a music director he will certainly discipline an orchestra’s sound, but he’s not actually a very good music director because he knows only one thing for his orchestras: a Muti sound.  Now, a Muti sound is certainly a good one, but it sacrifices the identity of an orchestra.  So, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra today sounds pretty much like the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1980s.  Close my eyes listening to the Chicagoans now and I think I am in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music back then (except for maybe the poor acoustics of the old Academy of Music – of course, Philadelphia’s new venue also has poor acoustics of a different sort).  So Muti may have been exactly what this orchestra needed to clean itself up in 1980, but he sacrificed the orchestra’s character.

In this concert, Sawallisch brought a program of standard works that could as easily have been conducted by either Muti or Sawallisch.  And the orchestra was not yet Sawallisch’s as he would not take over until later that year.  So it is a good concert by what was indeed one of the top three or four orchestras in the United States, but it’s neither the orchestra of my childhood nor certainly not the orchestra of today.

Sawallisch was a terrific match for this orchestra, as he maintained its quality but gave it back its distinctive character through the 1990s.  Sawallisch arrived on the back end of his career, never intending to stay long, but stayed long enough to do this orchestra right.  Rather than lining up whatever would come next knowing Sawallisch’s tenure would be short, the Orchestra managed to completely botch appointing a successor and initially ended up with no one.  Sawallisch, by then widowed, depressed, and ill, agreed to extend his contract to give the Orchestra more time.  They ended up with the seriously uninteresting Christoph Eschenbach, who was essentially chased out of town – and still the Orchestra failed to have anyone lined up.  This forced them to go without a Music Director for several years, using Charles Dutoit as “chief conductor” – and if Eschenbach was dull, Dutoit was ten times worse (he had apparently wanted to be music director for decades and there clearly was a good reason they had never appointed him, after all).  The Orchestra literally went bankrupt in 2011.  That was its nadir (although it had so many remarkable musicians – many still there today – it sounded so mediocre in those years).

On to the concert the Orchestra posted from 2011, or at least part of one including Mahler’s First Symphony.  The conductor of that concert was the current Music Director, Nézet-Séguin, at the time when he was still the Music Director Designate.  And while his concert was an improvement, he had not yet had time to fix the Orchestra.  The team was mostly already in place, but this reading of Mahler lacked the intensity and exquisite virtuosity the Orchestra produces as its baseline today.  But fix the Orchestra he did, to get where it is today, in my humble opinion far and away the best orchestra in the United States and among the top five in the world.

I do have recordings of the Philadelphians with Muti in the 1980s and Sawallisch in the 1990s, and they are good recordings indeed, but it is still fascinating to hear the evolution of the Orchestra’s sound.  It is hard to quantify – and if there is a “Philadelphia Sound” I am actually not sure that under Nézet-Séguin he has quite brought it back to Sawallisch or to Ormandy (or Stokowski) but has probably given it a new identity.  And in a sense that’s what Muti did too, so I suppose my only objection to Muti is not the sound (Muti is a fantastic musician and exacting conductor) but that it had no identity under Muti other than Muti (as Chicago today).  So sounds do evolve (although maybe not the Vienna Philharmonic’s), but the distinctiveness is key.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus: Prokofiev
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitch

The Mariinsky streamed a good amount of not-unexpected music on Soviet Victory Day.  Sergei Eisenstein was one of the greatest film directors of all time from in terms of artistic value.  Among his product were films about Aleksandr Nyevsky and Ivan the Terrible (the first generally a Russian hero, the second a favorite of Stalin), to which Prokofiev provided the film scores.  Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony is also a traditional work performed on that day.  Valery Gergiev conducted both concerts.

The Prokofiev concert took place in 2016 at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, with excerpts from both films: the separate Aleksandr Nyevsky Cantata which Prokofiev himself arranged, and a arrangement of music from Ivan the Terrible (not sure if Prokofiev or Gergiev or someone else assembled it in this condition).  For both, Gergiev took a somewhat softer, smoother approach than normal – not the usual bitter Russian orchestral sound (which I happen to like).  Only Prokofiev’s dissonances created tension.  Ivan the Terrible had a narrator in this version, which turned out annoying, as he interrupted the flow.  It would have been better either go with the complete film with the music serving as backdrop, or to go with the complete cantata without narration.  Or maybe narration between sets (as opposed to talking over the music).  This did not work at all – I just wanted the narrator to shut up so I could enjoy the music.  It was not that the narrator was bad, just the concept of a narrator was.

I suppose a performance of Schostakowtisch’s Seventh Symphony has become obligatory for the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra on Soviet Victory Day (I heard them perform it live that day in 2010).  It’s actually not clear when this performance was filmed – the Mariinsky’s webpage itself said it was done on the day, but there was clearly an audience in the Mariinsky’s new second hall, which would not be possible under Russia’s covid-19 restrictions, so clearly they had filmed it beforehand.  The symphony, called the “Leningrad,” was long used as a propaganda piece, but it is still good music (and of course had a subtext that did not follow the party line, starting with the “invasion” theme of the first movement, which Schostakowitsch did not write to portray the invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 as the Communist Party announced, but rather had already written two years earlier to portray the invasion of Poland by Russia with its German allies in 1939).  For this symphony, Gergiev did let the orchestra’s more traditional Russian sound emerge.

  • [Recording tips: Gergiev has an excellent version of the Nyevsky Cantata with the same Mariinsky forces (confusingly, the CD jacket calls the Mariinsky by its Soviet-era name, the “Kirov,” despite the 2002 release date).  The 1984 version with Riccardo Chailly leading the Cleveland Orchestra was my introduction to this work and has held up well.  For Ivan the Terrible, the complete film score (without narration) appears in a 2000 version by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Radio Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, a performance that truly allows the music itself to shine.  For the Schostakowitsch Seventh, I remain partial to a 1980 release by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic.]

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 7)

Highlights

With the lockdown in Austria now having officially ended on 30 April, I may try to have other distractions in May, but I certainly digested a fair amount of opera during the last seven weeks.  Austria is not completely opening for a long time, and of course there is no live music any time soon, but we can at least get out of the house more.  Several institutions streaming performances online are now scaling back.  Others are moving ahead but beginning to repeat performances (see my reviews here, I suppose, to know what to look out for – or subscribe to the different sites).  So maybe I don’t keep updating this blog every week with online highlights.  We will see what I do.

Many thanks especially to the Vienna Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, the Vienna Volksoper, the Royal Swedish Opera, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but also to all of the opera houses and orchestras that have streamed so much wonderful music these last weeks – there were many, but even during a lockdown there remain only so many hours in a night, so I merely sampled a selection.  Hope to hear you all in person again soon!

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel (Staatsoper)

Engelbert Humperdinck, a favorite assistant of Wagner at Bayreuth (and who later wrote incidental music for Max Reinhardt productions), turned a lot of fairy tales into operas with a suitably Wagnerian coloring.  Hänsel und Gretel has hung around in the standard repertory, and although popular for children at Christmas time, it often attracts quite serious artists.  It’s fun to revisit this opera now and then.  Here the Staatsoper did a fantasy setting with Margaret Plummer and Chen Reiss in the title roles and Axel Kober conducting.

Weinberg: The Passenger (Bregenz Festival)

This was rough: over on the “Fidelio” streaming site (access courtesy of the Volksoper), I got to finally see Moishe Weinberg’s Auschwitz opera, The Passenger, in its world premiere staging at the 2010 Bregenz Festival.  Set in approximately 1960, a German diplomat and his wife are heading off to Brazil for his new posting when she spots a mysterious passenger on the ship, who reminds her of a Polish inmate at Auschwitz.  This leads her to reveal to her husband that she had been an officer in the SS and indeed an overseer in the women’s camp at Auschwitz.  The rest of the opera mixes flashbacks from the camp with scenes from the boat.

Weinberg’s music is rather grim and never tuneful (but not atonal – typical of Weinberg, the music is dense and complex and plays on multiple levels simultaneously) until close to the end, where the tunes shout defiance.  Keeping with communist propaganda, Jews were almost entirely missing from this version of Auschwitz, except for one inmate from Salonika.  Of course the Warsaw-born Weinberg knew the truth about the Holocaust, the Germans having murdered his entire family.  But even that attempt to follow the Communist Party line did not let his work through the censors.  The Soviet regime suppressed this opera, like they did to so much of Weinberg’s other music.  Although composed in 1967-68 it was not performed until a concert version in 2006, ten years after the composer’s death.  The world premiere staging had to wait until this one in 2010 in Bregenz.

Michelle Breedt sang Lisa, the SS officer and Elena Kelessidi sang Marta, the Polish inmate and the mysterious Passenger (the opera never actually reveals if these are the same person).  A very young-looking Teodor Currentzis (an excellent conductor when he sticks to music – as here – and does not attempt distracting performance art) led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the pit.  The staging by the British director David Pourtney fully captured the plot, and was effective at moving back and forth between the two periods portrayed without trying to do too much except let the opera speak for itself.

Boito: Mefistofele (Bavarian State Opera)

Opera in Germany became a bad joke several decades ago, to the point it is no longer safe to go to the opera there.  So I can promise that I did not turn to this Bavarian State Opera production of Boito’s Mefistofele because I wanted to see what yet another trashy German regisseur, in this case Roland Schwab, was up to (trashy is apparently the right word here, since the description said he opened this setting in a garbage dump).  But when searching through the collection available in the “Fidelio” streaming service, this was the only version of Boito’s Mefistofele in the catalogue and I wanted to hear who was singing.  My favorite Italian-language opera is not performed often enough (I’ve only managed to see it live once in person, in Prague exactly two years ago), so hearing it with a top-flight cast today was an objective.

As Mephistopheles René Pape himself was worth the listen, balancing a soothing bass-baritone voice – the temptation of the devil – with menace.  Joseph Calleja as Faust was suitably dramatic and had a wonderful mezza voce at times, but his voice also tended to crack.  Kristīne Opolais was a sensitive Gretchen.  Omer Meir Wellber was the conductor, and was neither here nor there – at times I do think he captured the music, but at others it wandered off, although maybe it would have to do with the staging and there’s not much a conductor can do if the director is an idiot who insists on staging something bearing no relation to the opera on the program.  It also did not help that part of the prologue (set in heaven, to what is supposed to be mystical, uplifting, open music) sounded like it was pre-recorded on a badly scratched vinyl LP (seriously – not a sound issue with the streaming as far as I could tell, so may indeed have been intentional).  Nor that the bumpkins in the audience kept interrupting the performance with gratuitous applause (although they did stop doing this midway through the opera, so someone must have given them a good thwack in the intermission – or maybe they went home and did not come back after the intermission).

  • [Recording tip: Nothing has matched the 1974 set featuring the inimitable Norman Treigle in the title role, backed by Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé, with Julius Rudel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  Seriously, nothing comes close, and probably nothing ever will.  I’ve listened to numerous versions, and extensive excerpts with top-notch performers, and this is the definitive recording in every respect.]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

I could not resist sitting once more through Beethoven’s Fidelio from the Staatsoper in the Otto Schenk staging, which I saw with a different cast last week.  I had remembered Anja Kampe’s Leonore and Valentina Naforniţă’s Marzelline fondly from when I saw this production live in 2013, so tuned in to see them again in this streamed 2016 performance.  They were every bit what I remembered, and although Camilla Nylund sang a good Leonore in last week’s streaming (from 2017), Kampe easily outdid her in the acting department, with passion and verve.  Stephen Milling, whom I admired as Gurnemanz in a Staatsoper streaming of Parsifal earlier in the lockdown (the first time I remembered hearing him) was indeed also impressive as Rocco.  Again, the acting added to his fine voice – not that Günther Groissböck (Rocco in the streaming I saw last week) cannot act (he certainly can), but there was more of the humanity in Milling’s Rocco.   Klaus Florian Vogt was also a much more believable Florestan than Peter Seiffert (whom I saw last week and who had not even merited a mention in my write-up).  And Evgeny Nikitin was that much more of a villain as Don Pizarro than Albert Dohmen’s more basic version last week (Nikitin’s unsavory past makes him personally more of a villain, but famously having had a large swastika tattoo, though making him of dubious character, does not make him a better artist – that comes from him genuinely being a better artist).  It’s not that last week’s cast was bad, but with the exception of Chen Reiss being a notch better than Naforniţă (which is not in any way meant as a knock on the younger singer), and Boaz Daniel (Don Fernando) and Jörg Schneider (Jaquino) reprising their roles, this group just made a more convincing whole portrayal.  And while Cornelius Meister led a fine performance in the version streamed last week, Peter Schneider in the pit this time just added even more warmth and spirit.  The applause from the audience was proportionately grander as well – they knew what they had seen.

Mozart: Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne Festival)

David McVicar has directed a delightful little production of Mozart’s Abduction for the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival.  Extended dialogue allowed for much fuller character development than the usual set stereotypes. McVicar could succeed here as well by keeping the singers active on the stage: they were not just singing in an opera and doing the necessary actions, but rather living their lives for us.  McVicar also recognized that this opera may be serious, but is filled with comic relief – which he magnified without turning it into a comedy.  This is actually Mozart at his best, playful and full of humor but grounded, with a lesson for us all.  The cast could act, too.

This production was the opposite of some of those terrible German Regietheater stagings, where I want to hear them but cannot watch.  In those cases, I do listen, but can do other things at the same time.  But in this case I wanted to watch, yet had to suffer through listening to the performance.  It made me realize that I do not know much about Glyndebourne, other than that it has a certain reputation from a cult following, set on some English country estate.  I assumed it was a bit like other music festivals, attracting top performers.  Maybe it is, but this production had more than a whiff of amateur night to it, which was a shame, though, with McVicar’s truly intelligent and completely thought-through concept.

The Glyndebourne Festival’s orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati, sounded thin and not quite able to stay in tune, which was painful.  Of the singers, Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) was perhaps the only one with a solid voice.  Brendan Gunnell (Pedrillo) and Mari Eriksmoen (Blonde) were equipped with adequate vocal instruments.  Sally Matthews (Konstanze) could sing sometimes but her voice cracked too often to get comfortable with.  Edgardas Montvidas (Belmonte) was the most problematic, with a consistently weak and strained tone that often became downright cringeworthy.  Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) thankfully did not have a singing role, just spoken dialogue, which he generally could do although he had a tendency to overact.  I’d love to see the McVicar staging live with a proper cast and orchestra, though (I’d stream the film another time through to catch more of the nuances, except I don’t think I could take listening to this version again).

  • [Recording tip: My favorite recording of this opera, combining musicality and Austrian charm, is the 1966 one made by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Nicolai Gedda as Belmonte, Anneliese Rothenberger as Konstanze, Gerhard Unger as Pedrillo, Lucia Popp as Blonde, and Gottlob Frick as Osmin.]

Berlioz: The Trojans (Staatsoper)

Berlioz’s opera based on Vergil’s Aeneid rarely gets performed.  The French, of course, never understood it, so Berlioz only managed to get a truncated version produced during his own lifetime, that he was not remotely satisfied with.  It finally got a full performance in Germany and entered the repertory long after the composer’s death.  The Staatsoper’s current staging is by David McVicar – and since he is generally pretty good, I figured this would be a nice version to see.

I’m not sure of the logic, but McVicar set the Trojan War in (perhaps) the 19th century.  For the acts set in Troy, McVicar has the Trojan warriors dressed up in ceremonial naval uniforms.  The sets were not realistic of anything – they looked a bit like deconstructed naval vessels.  The horse itself consisted of lashed-together detritus from old warships (cannons, ship’s wheels) lit up to look like a circuit board.  (The jumble reappeared at the end of the opera, reconfigured into a human form as the Carthiginians curse Rome.)  The acts in Carthage at least tried to look North African, even if likely not from 3,000 years ago.  But it worked, sort of, until the Trojans arrived from the 19th century.  Maybe I just write this off as not one of McVicar’s better efforts.

From the musical perspective, this 2018 performance featured strong characterizations by Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas, Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Szilvia Vörös as Anna, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra.  Alain Altinoglu conducted.

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera streamed a 1985 performance of Verdi’s Aida, featuring Leontyne Price in the title role (her final on-stage opera performance – she only did concerts after that point in her career), Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris, James McCracken as Radamès, and Simon Estes as Amonasro.  James Levine conducted.  It was great to hear, but strange to watch, with a minimalist set, stylized mock-Egyptian costumes (a bit over the top, actually), and very static blocking with singers walking slowly and intentionally to specific spots where they just stood.

New York Philharmonic: Mahler

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum posted on their Facebook page a video of a television broadcast by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from 1963, performing Mahler’s Second Symphony in memory of President Kennedy, who had been assassinated two days before the broadcast.  This piece is always evocative, and here the orchestra produced a solemn performance, with Bernstein providing the strong punctuation.  Tempi were noticeably quite a bit faster than usual, particularly in the first movement, but while rather odd at times this did not undermine the tension.  The sound on the recording was oddly crackly (and even warped in places) – other live performances from that period were of far better quality, so one wonders whether CBS (the network responsible for the broadcast) was particularly incompetent – but the tone of the orchestra shines through.  Indeed, it is pleasant to remember that the New York Philharmonic once counted among the best in the world.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 6)

Highlights

Although Austria is coming back to life, the return to live music looks to remain months away.  Even then, it is not clear what musical events may look like.  Will we be able to cram into our seats in the audience, or will only a small number of seats go on sale?  Given scarcity, will they be affordable (and if not, is this sustainable?)?  Will the musicians themselves be able to survive this period?  Will the venues?  Even a committed concert-goer like me has not renewed any of my subscriptions for 2020-21.  Even if I were sure the shows will go on, I don’t know my schedule, which has been heavily disrupted, so do not know if I can plan around the subscription dates.  I also have taken a cut in income giving me even less disposable income to spend on concerts (I was using most of my disposable income on live music since I moved to Salzburg), so I may start to be more selective – subscriptions give me more music for the price, but if I won’t make certain concerts then it becomes less cost-effective.  I don’t really know, so I wait.  But I also recognize that people like me (I am sure I am not the only one waiting) makes it harder for the music to return.

So I am thankful for the online offerings people are making available.  It does not replace the live music, but it keeps me current.  Once again, I will stick to the format of operas first and concerts second in these highlight summaries.  I do not repeat recording tips if I have made them in connection with the same opera in a previous weekly blog during this lockdown.

Strauss: Capriccio (Staatsoper)

This week included three operas by Richard Strauss, opening with a simple and elegant staging at the Staatsoper by Marco Arturo Marelli, which I saw live in 2008.  The streamed version had a similar cast as the performance I saw back then (Michael Schade as Flamand, Adrian Eröd as Olivier, Wolfgang Bankl as La Roche, and Angelika Kirchschlager as Clairon) with only the Countess and Count different (here Camilla Nylund and Markus Eiche, instead of Renée Fleming and Bo Skovhus), and Michael Boder conducting (instead of Philippe Jordan in 2008).  This is a peculiar opera – wonderful in so many ways, but does not get performed often for reasons of its length and eccentricity.  When I saw this production at the Staatsoper in 2008, which may also have been the first time I ever heard it, it impressed me – a combination of Strauss’ lush score and undivided attention on the words (I would say “action” but there is no action, only words), and I rated it the best opera performance I had attended that year (in which I had spent quite a lot of time in Vienna).  On the small screen it did not enrapture me as much.  Was this Nyland and Eiche and Boder not having the same twinkle as Fleming and Skovhus and Jordan?  Hard to say, since it has been so long.

  • [Recording tip: After seeing this opera for the first time in 2008, I went out and got a recording (Karl Böhm’s 1972 recording with the Bavarian Radio and a stellar cast).  I am not going to claim it is the definitive one, since I have not made comparisons.  I have other excerpts, too.  But I will say that I return over and over again to Renée Fleming’s luscious final scene with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christoph Eschenbach released on a CD with other “Strauss heroines” in 1999).]

Strauss, Rosenkavalier (Metropolitan Opera)

I did not understand the interpretation from the Metropolitan Opera by Canadian director Robert Carsen.  I tried to understand.  I think he tried to think this one through.  But it’s not just that I was not convinced, rather more that I didn’t see any logic at all.  The concept (costumes, décor, and mood) was more 1920s Berlin than 1740s Vienna (even the fictionalized and romanticized 1740s Vienna created by Strauss and Hofmannsthal).

The first act, set in the Marschallin’s bedroom, looked more like a state room in the Hofburg.  For an opera set in Maria Theresia’s Vienna, somehow there were numerous portraits of Franz Joseph prominently displayed on the wall, as well as of other descendants of the Empress (at least in the Hofburg Maria Theresia is on the wall in what is now the President’s formal reception room).  As a nice touch, Carsen had Octavian return with (actual) roses for the Marschallin in the later part of the act, after he his snuck off and changed back into himself.  Act two had neo-Greek décor, armaments, and oddly waltzing servants (what?  Yes, the music is full of waltzes, but the servants don’t just start spontaneously waltzing with each other).  In the plot, Faninal was ennobled for supplying Austria’s armies in the Netherlands, but that would not mean he keeps the guns and cannons in his home – or maybe this was simply an attempt by Carsen at comedy.  Act three took place a brothel, but I suppose if it is being updated to the 1920s, then why not.  The “Innkeeper” was a transvestite madame, and the musicians also looked like transvestites.  Yes, the opera features a female lead playing a male role in which the character dresses as a woman, so it is part of the farce, but I am not sure what having actual transvestites in a brothel added.  Octavian as Mariandl dressed like one of the whores (skimpy lingerie is not necessarily a good way to hide certain body parts, though!).  It also meant she was not playing the simple country girl.

There are different ways to place the stress in this plot.  In Carsen’s interpretation, Octavian (an exciting and excited Elīna Garanča) became the driving force.  Günther Groissböck, a despicable Ochs, intended to be a bit of a dashing playboy in his military uniform.  This made him more physically active than the usual portrayal – not bad, just different, since he cannot be a complete bumpkin in the plot, but must demonstrate he is presentable in polite aristocratic society even if he is at heart an oaf.  The opera ended with Octavian and Sophie (Erin Morley) in the brothel bed together, and during the final measures (when the Marschallin’s young blackmoor Mohammed is supposed to be fetching her handkerchief), I have no explanation for what happened: the servant Mohammed (not a blackmoor here) showed up drunk, an army appeared in the background (presumably led by the Feldmarschall), the servant shook his bottle of alcohol, and the army collapsed dead – or something like that.  But we did get Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.  Sebastian Weigle led a perfectly fine performance from the pit.

Strauss: Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

As I noted earlier during this lockdown, Strauss’ Elektra is an opera I have never really paid much attention to, for reasons I cannot explain.  The Staatsoper’s woeful staging by a Prussian nincompoop in its recent streaming did not help me to understand it, so I just listened then.  I was pleased to have another chance this week from the Met.  But it turns out the director of the Met’s version is Patrice Chéreau, who made a lasting traumatic impression on my childhood with a miserable production of Wagner’s Ring he did at Bayreuth along with his airheaded countryman Pierre Boulez conducting, that seemed designed to take the most deconstructionist French approach possible to the Ring (as a child I certainly did not know about French deconstructionism – and as an adult I am sorry I do).  That Chéreau-Boulez Ring from Bayreuth was televised, a big deal for back then, and my father and I sat down to watch with great anticipation, only to be terribly let down.  So I just listened again this time to Elektra.  (Is that entirely fair?  Should I have given Chéreau another chance, especially considering the number of lousy opera stagings I have seen over the years since then?  Probably, but his collaboration on that Bayreuth Ring really left my younger self disgusted and disgruntled.)  Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the moody music.  Nina Stemme was a wonderful Elektra, with Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis and Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra.  It really is luxurious.  One of these days I will get to see a production of this opera by a competent director.

Puccini: Tosca (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met gave us a nice staging of Puccini’s Tosca (this was apparently the premiere performance of this staging from 2018) by David McVicar, where he provided a stage on which the singers could act.  Great little touches included Cavaradossi washing his face with holy water before Tosca comes in, and the mannerisms of Scarpia’s henchmen towards Cavaradossi (and knowing winks and nods to Scarpia).  Željko Lučić was a forceful Scarpia and dominated his scenes.  Sonya Yoncheva was a tad too melodramatic as Tosca (ever the diva, I suppose).  Vittorio Grigòlo may not have been the strongest Cavaradossi in voice or pitch (indeed, his voice was easily the poorest aspect of this entire performance), but could act the role.  Emmanuel Villaume conducted.

Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann (Metropolitan Opera)

There is no definitive performing version of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (not worth explaining here why not).  So this is an opera which enables the director to decide how to assemble it.  All I ask is that the version makes sense.  A 2009 production at the Met by Bartlett Sher was set as a series of fantasies, which does make sense, but the settings themselves did not.  Not that they were crazy, just that they seemed to add nothing to understanding the work.  An excellent Niklaus (Kate Linsley) was equal parts dashing and mysterious, often as much co-conspirator against Hoffmann as muse to Hoffmann, so in this concept it made sense to insert the pre-prologue scene (with muse and the devil) and the post-epilogue scene (with the characters from the entire opera returning to the stage for a grand final morality chorus), both usually omitted.  Sher flipped the acts with Giulietta (here coming third) and Antonia (here coming second), putting them into the order that Offenbach himself wanted and which does make the most sense, although not the order they usually appear in.  The rest of the cast was fine, although the entire evening seemed uninspired other than Linsley (Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann, Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Anna Netrebko as Stella and Antonia, Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta, Alan Held as all of the villains).  James Levine conducted.

  • [Recording tips: …or lack thereof.  I like this opera and have seen it many times since my childhood, but maybe because there is no definitive version, I have never come across a recording I would especially recommend although I own two complete ones, depending on how one defines “complete.”]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s Otto Schenk-directed production of Beethoven’s Fidelio resolved for me the problem of having watched the Theater an der Wien’s production earlier in the lockdown.  First of all, they used the third version, which works dramatically much better than the two earlier versions (the Theater an der Wien did the second).  Second, Schenk’s intelligent staging augmented the drama even in the first act, which still in Beethoven’s third try was never quite up to the level.  I had a choice of recent casts, and picked one from 2017 (the cast available next week from a 2016 performance included the same Leonore – Anja Kampe – and Marzelline – Valentina Naforniƫă – that I saw in this production in 2013; they were excellent, but I opted for something else this time, although maybe I am tempted to listen back in next week).  Camilla Nylund as Leonore and Günther Groissböck as Rocco led the cast.  Chen Reiss fully developed the character of Marzelline, both in acting and in singing, and was a delight in her brief scenes.  The orchestra was warm and full, and carried the Vienna tradition started by Mahler of performing the Leonore Overture #3 in the scene change of the second act.  Drama indeed.  Cornelius Meister led a spirited performance.

Benatzky: Axel an der Himmelstür (Volksoper)

The Volksoper (of which I am a fan – and where I indeed attended my first live opera when I was five) kindly offered a trial of the “Fidelio” streaming service.  It does not offer a huge selection (or maybe it just does not have a very good search function), but I think I will be finding some things to recommend on there.  I thought I might start the trial with something from the Volksoper itself, and went back to the 2016 new production of Ralph Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür, a parody of 1930s Hollywood done up as a Viennese operetta.  This production was one of my musical highlights in 2016.  And on this streaming, it was a great show once again, with a partly different cast than the one I saw in 2016 – I assume they filmed their “A” cast and I saw some “B” cast, but that itself may not mean anything in particular.  I am not sure that the two female leads here (Bettina Mönch as Gloria Mills and Johanna Arrouas as Jessie) convinced me as much as the ones I saw (Julia Koci and Juliette Khalil, respectively), although hard to make a direct comparison over the years.  But Andreas Bieber repeated as Axel and Kurt Schreibmayer as Cecil McScott, and Boris Eder replaced Peter Lesiak as Theodore, and they were all in fine form.  Lorenz Aichner conducted this clever staging by Peter Lund (my original review is on this blog for 14 October 2016).  I must say, however, that I was still bothered by the microphones.  There is no need to ever mike an opera opera performed indoors – although possibly if the staging requires the singers to move around a lot and not always face front, but here it was clear from the film that they still faced front, so I cannot excuse this decision.  It makes an even bigger difference in the theater for a live performance: what is the point of hearing music “live” if it comes over a speaker and sounds the same as on a recording?

  • [Recording tip: the 2016 Volksoper production inspired me to go out and get a recording.  There are not too many choices.  I now have a 1958 Vienna Radio recording with Heinz Sandauer conducting.  Zarah Leander, who created the roll of Gloria Mills, reprises it on this recording.  The CD set includes some original tracks from the 1936 team that created the opera.]

Vienna Philharmonic: Schumann, Berlioz

The trial with “Fidelio” allowed me to find Mariss Jansons’ last concert in the Musikverein leading the Vienna Philharmonic last June, broadcast on Austrian television after Jansons passed away late last year.  Jansons looked exhausted and frail, yet the sound he coaxed was revelatory despite the works being standard and theoretically with nothing new (for lesser conductors) to say: the “Spring” Symphony by Schumann and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz.  Indeed, this was perhaps the most powerful and expansive performance I have ever heard of Schumann’s first symphony.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Berlioz, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns

Jansons was of course the greatest conductor of his generation, and will be sorely missed.  He was the sort of conductor I would see was conducting, and not even look to see what he was performing: I was guaranteed to hear something good.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he remained Music Director at the time of his death, has posted several concerts for streaming on their website.  I zeroed in on one all-French concert.  The French, as I often remark, seem not to understand music (Berlioz excepted, and the French never understood him).  Some French composers had talent, but did not do much with it beyond some works that deserve to remain in the repertory but make me scratch my head as to why they couldn’t produce more like that.  But with Jansons and the Bavarians, suddenly real drama appears.  This was not French drama, but the way it could sound.  Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna joined forces here – I’ve heard her perform in the Mozarteum, but this she took to the next level.  The concert opened with Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival.  Then came Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto G minor (this is the work I heard Apkalna perform before – this time it convinced me, since last time she had a real disconnect with the orchestra, which I blamed back then squarely on an inadequate conductor).  Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 C minor (with the organ) completed the concert, its own first movement setting an amazingly delicate mood.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Bruckner

Jansons drew more lush sounds from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a January 2019 performance of Bruckner’s Mass #3.  Bruckner wrote this mass right before he moved to Vienna and so it marks the transition point in his life.  This performance itself was other-worldly.  At “et resurexit,” they could have raised the dead.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

For Prokofiev’s birthday on 23 April, the Mariinsky streamed a concert the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra performed on his birthday in 2016 in Moscow’s Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall (I hated that hall, but it has extra prestige in Russia because Stalin had it built).  Maestro Valery Gergiev was joined by Denis Kozhukhin for the piano concerto #1 to lead off the concert, and by Leonidas Kavakos for the violin concerto #1 to end it.  In between came Prokofiev’s first and second symphonies.  Gergiev kept the first symphony, called “classical” because of its size and style, within those classical bounds, but added a spirited and even exciting approach.  The violin concerto marked another highlight, with an interpretation highlighting the work’s great contrasts (and making it look easy).  For those subscribing to the Mariinsky’s streaming who can get them, go look for those two works in particular.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven

I opened the music this week with a compilation posted on the Philadephia Orchestra’s website: three Beethoven concerti from three different concerts combined into one program.  The Beethoven 250 celebration having been interrupted by the lockdown, they’ve moved it online.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the two piano concerti, with Yefim Bronfman (concerto #4) and Daniil Trifonov (concerto #5) on the keyboard, and their performances were suitably pensive for a Sunday afternoon, the orchestra in full sound enveloping but never overwhelming the ears.  The violin concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Susanna Mälkki, should have been the same, but was less so – I find Mälkki far too blockish a conductor, putting everything in place and leaving no room for expression.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Weber, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Berlioz

I just spent a surprisingly unfulfilling evening with the Mozarteum Orchestra under music director Riccardo Minasi.  The orchestra actually sounded great… so I suppose I’ll need to blame the uninspiring mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich.

Aldrich appeared for two sets, closing both halves of the concert.  In the first part, she sang the Wesendonck Lieder of Richard Wagner.  Initially, her voice came out coarse, marking a contrast from the wonderful warmth of the orchestra.  She gradually settled into it, but never quite captured much of the emotion.  She closed the concert’s second half with the Death of Cleopatra by Hector Berlioz.  Now her voice was fully ready, but the songs dragged.  Part of this may be the songs themselves: Berlioz wrote them to conform to the expectations of a French jury in order to win a five-year stipend in Rome.  Since the French generally don’t seem to understand music (and had repeatedly rejected Berlioz before – he was probably far too creative and consistently talented a composer to be understood by his countrymen), I might mark this down to Berlioz intentionally writing dull music.  Might a better vocalist have done more with it?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.

The orchestral selections came out better.  The concert opened with two pieces by Carl Maria von Weber: the overture to his opera Euryanthe and the funeral march and overture he wrote for Schiller’s play Turandot.  I do not believe I had heard the second one before, but it was instantly recognizable since Hindemith wrote his famous variations on it.  The concert’s second half opened with The Hebrides by Felix Mendelssohn – if not quite as evocative as the performance I heard of this concert overture (more like a tone poem) by the Philadelphia Orchestra in October, the orchestra still gave us a treat with gorgeous solo lines rising from a full-bodied ensemble.  More of that and less of her next time, please.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Haus für Mozart

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky

The music of Berlioz is worth getting up early for on a Sunday.  That said, I nearly did not – a cough lingering from a cold earlier this month made me anxious about attending a concert, and has been interrupting my sleep, so I thought I’d make the call this morning.  Then I overslept and did not think: only had time to race into town (and I managed to stifle my cough, at least during the parts when the orchestra was playing). 

I’m glad I did.  I did not renew my Mozarteum Orchestra subscriptions this year (neither Sunday nor Thursday series) because there were concerts in both that really did not interest me, so instead I decided it was better to get two mix-and-match subscriptions with the Mozarteum Foundation, throwing in those orchestra concerts that most appealed.  This was one.  Berlioz does not get performed frequently enough (beyond the Symphonie Fantastique) – he was quite innovative for his day, and indeed his consistently good output puts every other French composer to shame.  He brings a sense of drama and passion to music, sounding perhaps a tad warped.  Today’s selections included Harold in Italy (with solo viola – originally written on commission for Paganini, who wanted to try out a new viola; Paganini rejected the score, but upon hearing it performed several years later broke down in tears, dragged Berlioz back on stage, and wrote Berlioz a large check) and the overture to Le Cousaire, although it was never quite clear what it was an overture to (usually assumed to be a play by Byron, but it was actual the overture’s third title added after several performances, none connected with Byron’s play).   Actually,  despite its title suggesting Byron, Harold in Italy is not a setting of Byron, but a setting of Berlioz’ own travels in Italy reading Byron.  In other words, a lot of Berlioz’ drama does not actually dramatize anything – it’s drama for drama’s sake without a plot.  This fact contributes to what makes Berlioz so bizzarre.

Guest conductor Antony Walker (an Australian who leads the Pittsburgh Opera) clearly understood and channeled this composer – Berlioz was very touchy about letting others conduct his music, but I think he would have been most satisfied this morning – with the orchestra showing great comfort and enthusiasm.  For Harold in Italy, local star violist Veronika Hagen joined in idiomatically and warmly.

The concert ended with Tschaikowsky, but not a standard one of his works – rather his Francesca da Rimini tone poem (written after returning from Bayreuth, influenced by Wagner’s operas and Liszt’s tone poems).  There is a plot here, but Walker and the Mozarteum Orchestra captured the Berlioz-like drama, making it feel like a natural progression.

The Great Festival House is undergoing renovations this winter, so concerts have found other venues.  Today’s concert with the Mozarteum Orchestra moved next door to the stupidly-named House for Mozart (although more than Mozart gets performed there, and it has no connection to Mozart other than the name – one wonders why this venue in the Salzburg Festival complex could not have just been named the “Mozart Hall” if they really wanted to name yet another thing in Salzburg after the composer).  The hall also does not have great acoustics – I have sat in different seats before, and then today got to hear from two different vantage points (running late, I stood in the standing room in the back before the intermission as there was no way to get to my seat when I arrived; and then my seat was the very first one over the stage on the first balcony, with the poorly-designed layout of the hall meaning I essentially had to be the first person to take my seat or else have to climb over everyone else).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Schoenberg

The Mozarteum Orchestra‘s concert tonight in the Mozarteum featured a little night music, but none of it by Mozart – rather a much more interesting program of Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Schoenberg under the baton of Leopold Hager (a native Salzburger, who had served as chief conductor of this orchestra from 1969-1981).

The Overture and some excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummernight’s Dream made for a welcome opening.  In reality, this is not really night music, but Shakespearean comedy, for which Mendelssohn captured the charm in notes, and the orchestra tonight brought out the full color.  It might have been nice to have the complete set of incidental music.

Real night music came next, with Summer Nights, a song cycle by Berlioz (with soprano Juliane Banse joining Hager and the Mozarteum Orchestra).  These songs individually were pensive laments, but collectively the cycle did not work so well – the mood was too similar and did not vary (as, say, Schubert or Mahler song cycles might, even when they are also pensively lamenting), and this gave more drag than drive.  Banse’s voice was pleasant when contained, and large enough to project clearly and express emotion, but when projecting it sometimes turned a tad sour, more sour than the lamenting might justify.

The real treat of the evening came after the intermission, with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night in the version the composer himself made for string orchestra.  This version, in my opinion, works better than the original sextet, allowing thicker sonorities and far more emotion.  Although a more than half-hour instrumental setting of a single poem, Schoenberg takes the listener through an emotional ride, into the deepest thoughts and souls of the two protagonists.  The Mozarteum Orchestra strings truly demonstrated their worth this evening, with Hager’s shaping, to draw out the little ravishing details for a heartfelt interpretation – not only telling the story but conveying its deep sympathetic meaning without uttering a word.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Strauss

Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss all traveled to Italy as young men (the first two at the same time, although not together), which inspired them to write italianate works, which the Mozarteum Orchestra and Riccardo Minasi presented at a Sunday matinee this morning.

Minasi animates the orchestra, particularly during the faster parts (when he takes particularly frenetic tempi).  The slower movements dance, where there is lilt.  Where there is meant to be broader color – painted landscapes, for example – he does not always complete the picture, although this orchestra has the talent to produce the full palette.

The former (frenetic style) was on display in the Overture to Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini, which came across a bit crazy, a warm-up for Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony (“Italian”), whose outer movements had a definite forward drive, and whose interior movements had a certain spring in the step but not necessarily the fullness of tone.

Richard Strauss’ under-performed youthful work Aus Italien, is a four-movement tone poem, and perhaps here in the first three movements may have been too north-of-the-Alps in structure (if not in inspiration) for Minasi.  The first movement especially foreshadows the tonal lushness Strauss would later develop.  The final movement, though closer to Minasi’s rambunctious style, is actually the weakest link: Strauss mistook Funiculì Funiculà as a Neapolitan folk song and used it as the basis for his final movement – its (then very much alive) composer, Luigi Denza, sued Strauss for plagiarism and apparently recovered quite a bit in royalties.  Strauss should have quietly cut the final movement, which does not go with the first three anyway, but at least Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had fun with it this morning.

 

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Beethoven, Berlioz

Beethoven‘s violin concerto has now featured on three concert programs I have attended in Salzburg during 2017.  All three soloists have done it justice, but tonight’s was the best of the three: Emmanuel Tjeknavorian, the 22-year-old Austrian son of the Armenian composer/conductor Loris Tjeknavorian.  The young Tjeknavorian had a gorgeous tone – sweet, but not sweetened, like a fresh organic vegetable relying on natural sugars to melt naturally in the mouth.  He backed this up with full-bodiedness, but still kept nuance.  A truly remarkable performance.

Less should be said about guest conductor Marko Letonja, who gave Tjeknavorian an uninspired backdrop.  The Beethoven concerto excels because of the series of dialogues it sets out between the solo violin and various instruments in the orchestra.  Letonja featured none of these instruments, instead blurring all of them together into a homogenized blob.  The orchestra supported the soloist – indeed the way most concertos call for an orchestra to do – but this is not what Beethoven had constructed.

Letonja applied the same approach for the second half of the concert, Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique.  He did try to emphasize the odd syncopation, which left the work off-kilter as Berlioz intended: this is essentially Berlioz on a drug trip.  Unfortunately, with Letonja conducting, the drug of choice appears to have been qualudes.  The whole work dragged – especially an interminable third movement.  The Mozarteum Orchestra sounded great – although periodically unable to follow Letonja, not coming in together nor always on beat – but generally uninspired.  At least they too visibly enjoyed Tjeknavorian’s performance – they knew he was tonight’s winner.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Berlioz, Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch

The first Sunday matinee of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s new season filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House with music, if with many empty seats as well.  This was a shame, as the orchestra shone under guest conductor Markus Stenz.

The concert overture Roman Festival by Berlioz led kicked off the program full of color.  Derived from music adapted from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, this reworking allowed the individual musicians in the orchestra to showcase themselves while blending to a thrilling whole.  This was moreso apparent in the second work, Prokofiev‘s first violin concerto, where soloist Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra.  Her tone was warm and sweet – but never too much so, allowing just enough edge to reflect that Prokofiev, when he wrote this in 1916, remained in the vanguard of new music.  So we got intricate combinations of musicians – introduced by the viole, Steinbacher played a dialogue with the flutes, and then moved on to continue the discussion through the orchestra.  And quite a fun discussion, moving back and forth and around and around, providing stimulation for the mind throughout the masterfull (and underperformed) work, here captured well be these artists assembled on stage.

Steinbacher treated us to an encore – a movement of a sonata by Prokofiev – which allowed her to showcase her talents further.  This time, she carried out the fanciful dialogue not with an orchestra, but rather by herself.  Her tone was just big enough to fill the large hall without strain, and allow us to enjoy her versatility working through Prokofiev’s clever thoughts.

The program closed with more color, except this time more somber: Schostakowitsch‘s fifth symphony.  Stenz translated the sense of foreboding in the symphony by controlling the dynamics, the big moments bringing in a shock component.  Stenz made Schostakowitch almost snarky: did the first movement describe clowns rounded up and marched to Siberia for cheering up the miserable victims of Soviet oppression?  Who was trying to dance in the second movement?  There was the color – so obvious in the Berlioz and Prokofiev works – showing through, in an controlled reading.  While in my own head I’ve heard this work as increasingly black over the last few years (and heard that interpretation to the extreme with the Petersburgers and Yuri Temirkanov visiting the Musikverein a year and a half ago), I still understood the convincing spin Stenz and the orchestra gave the symphony.  It certainly helps that this orchestra is in good form.

Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Walton, Dvořák, Berlioz, Verdi, Tschaikowsky, Prokofiev

The Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra came to town today with a program of music inspired by Shakespeare in love.  The renowned Austrian actress Senta Berger introduced each selection with a mix of biographical information of Shakespeare (and his loves and loves lost), period history, readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (mostly in German translation), literary commentary on Shakespearean double-entendre in English, and some stories of later generations inspired by Shakespeare.

This program concept was good, but they could have thought it through more fully.  There was nothing wrong with Berger’s reading, but the mish-mash of texts came across as disjointed.  She also made no effort to connect the readings to the music in the program.  For example, she could have dramatized the scenes set by the composers, or explained the music in the context of the selections – if these composers were inspired by Shakespeare, the link should be obvious.  Or multiple actors could have acted out the scenes.  And while she alluded to the big delay between Shakespeare’s death and when people started setting his work to music, she could have explained more (as it was, she just said that opera, a natural medium for Shakespearean drama, did not exist yet in his lifetime and so it would take some time – problem was that all but one of the musical selections had no connection to opera, so that could not explain the delay).

The Nuremberg Symphony, though perfectly competent, did not make up for this disjointedness.  The playing was workmanlike.  They hit most of the notes.  They concentrated so hard to do so, that the music came out with little emotion, which essentially defeated the purpose of this concert.  Young English conductor Alexander Shelley kept these forces together with a smile.

The concert opened with an arrangement of music by William Walton for the 1936 film of As You Like It starring Laurence Olivier and continued with Dvořák’s Concert Overture to Othello.  Both compositions, seldom heard, displayed drama (not always communicated by the orchestra).  A selection of music from Berlioz’s “Dramatic Symphony” Romeo and Julietwas not dramatic – at least not this selection and not with this orchestra.  The ballet music from the third act of Verdi‘s MacBeth (the one nod to opera) jumped out a little better, possibly because Berger had been rather raunchy in her introduction.  Tschaikowsky’Romeo and Juliet Fantasy could have fantasized more.  The encore, the fight scene (not a love scene) from Prokofiev’Romeo and Juliet ballet, actually allowed them to let it all loose.

Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra, Tirana Palace of Culture

Lalo, Berlioz

I finally decided to venture into the Tirana Palace of Culture for a concert this evening.  I think the last time I attended a concert in the Balkans, it was the Kosovo Philharmonic in Pristina’s dismal Red Hall, of which about all I could say was they knew how to hold their instruments.  Today with the Albanian Radio-Television Orchestra was certainly better.  The Palace of Culture, a depressing building, was also better.  But I was starved for live music, so I will go back.

The Palace of Culture was originally designed by Russian Communists, which is about all you need to know to understand the design concept.  However, after construction began, nasty Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha decided that the Russians were no longer nasty enough, so he broke relations and the Palace of Culture was never finished, and even today looks like it did in the 1950s but even more run down.  They’ve painted the inside red and black, so if they dimmed the lights I might have thought it was a large concrete brothel.  Fortunately they kept the house lights up.

The orchestra was actually better than I expected.  They do have proper music education in Albania, unlike in Kosovo, so people can be trained.  But since they do not really pay, anyone good goes abroad.  That said, the first chair woodwinds were OK.  The rest sounded like a warped 45 lp vinyl record.  Conductor Jetmir Babullushi was an animated sort.

The program was short, at a little over an hour without an intermission.  The first work was the world premiere of Albanian composer Aleksandër Lalo’s “Jealosy” – a poem for guitar, cello, and orchestra.  This was a tonal work of no particular interest and no discernible structure.  The soloists, Admir Doçi (guitar) and Aristidh Prosi (cello) played into microphones, which threw the whole balance off.  The piece was soon over.

For the main work, they chose the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz.  The orchestra performed with more drama than talent, particularly when the hero got guillotined in the fourth movement.  At least everyone was smiling in the end, which meant that the atmosphere on leaving the concert was more pleasant than leaving a concert in Moscow, even if the music did not meet the standard.

Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna & Vienna Academic Wind Philharmonic, Musikverein

Brahms, Berlioz

Another amateur night in the Musikverein.

The Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna, the Musikverein’s house amateur orchestra with the excessively-long name, performed Brahms’ Symphony #4 under Robert Zelzer for the first half of the program.  The playing was somewhat ragged, but they made it through reasonably well, considering they are not professional musicians.  As usual, Brahms wrote pleasant-sounding music but had nothing to say.  Occasionally an orchestra partly makes up for this by itself having something to say when playing Brahms, but not this orchestra and not tonight.

After the intermission, the Academic Wind Instrument Philharmonic – a student orchestra which grew out of the Vienna Technical University – got to do the original version of the rarely-heard Grand Funereal and Triumphal Symphony of Berlioz under the Danish conductor David Hojer.  The first movement – funeral music – emerged quite strikingly.  Perhaps I have spent too much time in Russia recently, but I almost heard antecedents of Schostakowitsch in some of Berlioz’ harmonies and rhythms.  A Russian orchestra, with its glaring winds, might take to this work.  The second and third movements settled in less convincingly as the orchestra tired and began to drag.  Berlioz himself later re-scored this piece to strengthen those two movements with a chorus, and perhaps this performance of the original version provided some indication of why he believed he needed to do that.  Indeed, when it looked like the orchestra was preparing to perform an encore, Hojer consulted with several of the musicians and then announced from the stage that they were too tired to play an encore.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

Now that it is safe to go hear the Russian State Symphony Orchestra again, after it has deposed Gorenstein, I have now heard it perform twice in six days.  Tonight it played in the Tschaikowsky Hall, with a program that included very different works by Berlioz, Tschaikowsky, and Schostakowitsch.  The orchestra handled all three idiomatically, switching styles with ease from one to the next.  That it did not shine as much as it did last Thursday I can attribute to the different acoustics of the hall – the Tschaikowsky Hall is simply not in the same league as the Conservatory.  However, this orchestra clearly enjoys life much more than it used to until recently, a joy that comes across in its playing.

The Romanian conductor Ion Marin took the podium with equal excitement.  The concert opened with a cheerful rendition of the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz.  The mood switched from upbeat to pensive for Tschaikowsky’s Variations on a Rococo theme, with Ivan Karizna as the cello soloist.  Karizna is a 19-year-old Byelorussian, student at the Moscow Conservatory.  Oddly, from my vantage point, he looked a bit like Marin, and could have passed as the conductor’s illegitimate son.

Karizna produced a pleasant sound, and his agile fingers handled all the variations well from a technical perspective.  But he missed something, as his playing lacked depth.  At 19, he has plenty of time to mature.  He returned to the stage for an encore – a solo cello piece I did not recognize, that required additional showmanship.  Again, he could perform it technically very well, but still lacked something.  I also think his cello caught a cold between the Tschaikowsky and the encore, as it rasped a bit too much during the encore, a tone that was only rarely present during the Tschaikowsky and which was not required to interpret the encore.

After the intermission came Schostakowitsch’s 6th Symphony.  This is a strange work, which Schostakowitsch described as showing “spring, joy, and youth,” but which instead has Schostakowitsch’s typically bitter and foreboding tones.  Employing another musical language from Berlioz and Tschaikowsky, the orchestra spoke Schostakowitsch fluently as well.

Highlights from 2008

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Less travel and more time in Vienna meant I enjoyed even more live music than usual this year.

Best performance: Schostakowitsch, Symphony Nr. 8, Wiener Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev (November). Not among the more-often performed of Schostakowitsch’s symphonies, the anguished Eighth captures Schostakowitsch’s personality and mindset well. Written to commemorate the Red Army driving the Germans out of Russia, the undertone is that the Soviet regime was also ghastly, so the work was banned in Russia for many years. A moving performance, quite devastating in segments.

Runner up: Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts, RSO Wien, Bertrand de Billy (November). I had forgotten just how immense this work was. Not sure the chorus even had room to inhale, they were so packed onto the Musikverein stage. The orchestra did not fit on the stage, so extended over the first few rows as well as into the first parterre loges on each side. The four brass choirs (in addition to the regular oversized brass section in the orchestra itself) were placed around the hall. Berlioz intended the piece, although bombastic, to be performed as church music and not as a concert requiem. De Billy clearly understood this and kept the lid on. The singing soared from the combined chorus of both the Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Singakademie.

Best concert venue: Occupation Museum, Tallinn (May). Visiting the Estonian Occupation Museum, I was invited to stay on after closing time for a concert with a rather odd quartet (soprano, flute, cello, and a glockenspiel-like instrument) performing modern, mostly Estonian, music. Between each piece the quartet moved around the museum and the audience had to carry our folding chairs from place to place, surrounded by Soviet-era memorabilia.

Most disappointing performance: Beethoven, Symphony Nr. 2 / Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Göteborgs Symfoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna (October). If it had been a student orchestra, I would have been impressed. The much-hyped Dudamel (whom I watched from a balcony seat over the stage, where I could observe his peculiar technique) had clear passion and sense for palette, but the performance was far too sloppy for such an orchestra. Dudamel is the music director in Gothenborg, and thus can and should be held personally responsible. I cannot tell if Dudamel will gain more control as he gets older or will turn into Zubin Mehta (charismatic and capable of getting occasional exciting performances, but otherwise dreadfully boring and absolutely disastrous for orchestral discipline).

Worst performances: Nielsen, Violin Concerto / Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 6, Tonkünstler Orchester, Kristjan Järvi, Vienna (November). Nielsen is neither original nor interesting. Järvi demonstrated absolutely no feel for Bruckner. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Daniel Müller-Schott, Wiener Symphoniker, Yakov Kreizberg (April). Müller-Schott’s uninspired solo work put me to sleep. Woke up after the intermission for a spirited Dvořák Sixth Symphony.

Best opera and most fun at the opera (winning both categories this year): R. Strauss, Capriccio, Staatsoper, Vienna (October). A rarely-performed esoteric work, the entire plot (in one act lasting nearly three hours) concerns whether music or text is more important to opera. No kidding. The opera’s seemingly unpromising plot was supported by witty text set to glorious music. The simple staging was well-considered and with good direction. Renee Fleming headed a superb cast, conducted by Philippe Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Runner-up for best opera: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Staatsoper, Vienna (September). A moody piece, not performed often enough. Not tuneful by Verdi standards, but with a plot resembling Gilbert and Sullivan. Thankfully, Verdi let Arrigo Boito fix up the libretto and made Boccanegra version #2 into good drama, if properly performed (as here).

Runner-up for most fun at the opera: Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl, Kammerspiele, Vienna (May). The classic 1920s Austrian comedy, here performed cabaret-style on a small stage with a three-person orchestra.

Worst opera production: Wagner, Lohengrin, Staatsoper, Vienna (May). The performance, conducted by Peter Schneider, would have been great if I had kept my eyes closed. They should have saved the expense of a staged production and just done a concert performance, since the cast generally wore formal concert attire anyway. Of all the bizarre things on stage, the director left out the one thing which must be there: the swan (explaining in the program notes that this central figure was actually unnecessary). The imbecilic director was not German, but – to no surprise – trained in Berlin. I think I have to stop going to operas directed by people who have even visited Germany.