Thursday, March 05, 2015

Don Carlo DVD

I saw this streamed on before going to Salzburg in the Verdi year, 2013, and now I am finally viewing the DVD.  This opera is very complex, and I think it benefits from multiple viewings.  Watching it again I feel less puzzled by events than when I previously reviewed it.  There was a period of about 50 years when no one performed Don Carlo at all, but now it is considered one of Verdi's greatest operas.  I'm going to try to explain it.

Antonio Pappano conducts.

Scene by Scene

Scene 1. The Forest of Fontainebleau, France in winter

I love this scene and cannot imagine the opera without it.  It establishes the relationship between Carlo and Elisabetta.  They think they will be married, as they have been betrothed from a distance, and fall instantly in love.  However, the scene begins with a chorus of complaining peasants.  The plot has to do with Spain and Flanders, so complaining French peasants never come up again.  Perhaps they are included to show how they love Elisabetta.  Or they just wanted an excuse for a chorus at the start.

The scene ends with the announcement that Elisabetta will marry Philip II, king of Spain, and not Carlo, as part of a peace treaty between Spain and France.  She takes it better than he does.  Anja Harteros appears in an outfit that isn't black.  A lot of fun was made of her outfit on social media, especially the hat.  This scene also includes Carlo's only real aria which Jonas Kaufmann aces, of course.

Scene 2: The monastery of Saint-Just in Spain

Sometimes the opera starts here.  Don Carlo meets with his friend Posa, sung by Thomas Hampson.  Carlo wants to talk about Elisabetta, and Posa wants to talk about conditions in Flanders where the Catholic Philip II is persecuting the Lutherans of Flanders.  They sing the gorgeous friends duet.

Scene 3: A garden near Saint-Just

Elisabetta is with her ladies in waiting.  Eboli, sung by Ekaterina Semenchuk, is introduced with a song.  Posa and Eboli help to arrange for Carlo to be alone with Elisabetta, and a rather torrid love scene ensues.  They are rolling around on the floor and Elisabetta says, "so you want to kill your father and marry your mother."  This cools him off, and he leaves.  The king enters and is furious because the queen has been left alone.  He sends one of her women back to France.

The king in this production is played by Matti Salminen who can project more nastiness on the stage than just about anyone. In real life Philip II is supposed to have been a nice guy.  Real life is only marginally relevant in an opera.

Scene 4: Evening in the Queen's garden in Madrid

I liked very much the way this was staged.  The celebration of the anniversary of the ascension of Philip II to the throne of Spain has begun.  We hear celebratory music and see costumes and decorations that resemble carnival, including masks.  The queen and Eboli appear, the queen complains that she is tired and wants to go pray, and asks Eboli to take her place at the celebration.  She removes her outer garments, including a head piece, and Eboli puts them on.  Elisabetta leaves.

Eboli writes a note for Carlo, and he enters thinking Eboli is Elisabetta.  This is much clearer if we have just seen them exchange clothing.  Carlo is passionate until he realizes it is actually Eboli.  Eboli is not happy with this, as she is in love with Carlo.  Posa enters, Eboli threatens to rat on Carlo, and Posa tries to stab her.  Carlo prevents this, but Eboli is still angry.  There is an extended trio with a lot of intensity.  The titles can only tell what one person is saying.  To know what all three are saying requires a libretto, which the DVD does not provide.

Scene 5: In front of the Cathedral of Valladolid

This is called the "Auto-da-fé" or "act of faith" scene and features the burning of heretics condemned by the Inquisition.  I have seen this scene several times and find it extremely confusing.  The events go:  heretics are dragged in; Flemish ambassadors appear and plead their case to the king with Posa and Carlo arguing on their side (shown above); the king refuses their plea and has them arrested and taken away; Carlo gets angry, pulls his sword and threatens the king; no one will confront Carlo until Posa steps forward and orders Carlo to give him his sword; Carlo obeys and the king immediately makes Posa a Duke and has Carlo arrested.  Finally the king and queen take their places and the heretics are burned.

Until just this minute I have thought that the burning of the heretics and the refusal of the Flemish ambassadors were somehow related.  Now I see that this is not the case.  Why include anything so completely grotesque as a human execution by burning?  Isn't the plot the same without it?  The burning is apparently part of the celebration which began in the previous scene.  We want everyone to be happy and entertained so we burn a few people.  Something like the Roman games.  It also shows the king's obedience to the Inquisition.  At least they've staged it in a subdued way with the heretics at the back of the stage.  This is sensationalist BS.

The confrontation between Carlo and Posa is also confusing.  I guess Posa thinks that Carlo is out of control and should not kill the king.  Confronting him is the only way to prevent it.  The important point is that it isn't a betrayal of Carlo by Posa.  He isn't plotting against Carlo. Posa is interested in Flanders and does not wish to harm either Carlo or the king.  Carlo is still suspicious of him.

Scene 6: Dawn in King Philip's study in Madrid 

The king is sitting along in his study lamenting that his wife does not love him.  He has been given her jewelry case with the miniature of Carlo that he gave her in the first scene.  So if there is no first scene, what the hell is this?  I am used to Ferruccio Furlanetto doing this scene. Matti is very intense.

Just to keep things confusing there is also a scene with the Grand Inquisitor who reminds the king that he has more power and must be obeyed.  He burns people at the stake so everyone is afraid of him.  He demands that Posa be killed because he wants the Lutherans in Flanders to be persecuted.  The king regards him as his friend and refuses.

Elisabetta enters and the king confronts her about the portrait.  She faints.  This is the female version of when in doubt punt.  If things aren't going well, faint.  Eboli and Posa are also in this scene.  When Elisabetta wakens, Eboli admits that it was she who gave the jewelry box to the king.  Everyone else leaves, and Eboli sings her big aria "O don fatale."  She vows to try to save Carlo.

The music of this scene is particularly beautiful.  It deals with both politics and true emotions.

Scene 7: A prison

Posa visits Carlo in jail where a shadowy figure kills him.  I don't seem to have ever known what was going on here except that Posa dies.  The question is who killed Posa?  We see two men, both in dark robes, one with a soldier's helmet and one with a hood.  The one in the helmet shoots Posa.  Did the king give into the Grand Inquisitor or did the Grand Inquisitor take care of matters on his own? 

Hampson struggles with the heavier parts of this scene but excels at the sweeter parts.  He dies in close-up, very nicely.  Carlo cries.  Philip comes in bragging that he has killed him.  Carlo curses him.  Such emotion.  Kaufmann is magnificent in his anger; his intensity is the secret of his fame.

A crowd forms wanting to overthrow the king for killing Posa, but the Grand Inquisitor intervenes.  There is no hint about how Carlo escapes in this staging.  At the end of the scene he is still in the prison.

Scene 8: The moonlit monastery of Yuste

We were here in scene 2.  There's a huge duet between Elisabetta and Carlo.  Musically this is the best part of the opera, and these two do it proud.  There is nothing in this staging that hints at Eboli having a role in rescuing Carlo.  When the queen and Carlo meet, he is leaving Spain.  He is rescued by the ghost of his grandfather and disappears, we assume for Flanders.  It is a customary operatic deus ex machina.  King Charles is made up to look like a bronze statue.

This opera is a patchwork, a many times reworked patchwork.  We put in some stuff.  We take some of it out.  We put in some more.  Etc.  We love the music, so we don't mind so much that the story is so disorganized.  In contrast La Forza del Destino is much easier to follow but is implausible.

I love this opera very much, and it is all here with this cast.  Together they are magic.  This is simply wonderful.  Have I ever seen a Verdi Don Carlo that was so wonderful as this?  Addio per sempre.

This post may be hopelessly boring.  I can't tell.  It's definitely too long.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Aida in Rome

After the complete opera recording of Aida with Pappano, Kaufmann and Harteros which took place last week (studio recordings are not dead after all), there was a concert performance at the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  The recording is due in October.  If I read correctly, Cecilia attended.

You may listen on Parterre, but you cannot jump ahead, so be ready to sit for a while.

I commented on Facebook: 

  • Barbara Baker I have so far made it through the Celeste Aida and find it the first time it has actually sounded like a love song and not like some loud tenor showing off. Celeste legato.
People have pointed out they don't like the fact that Jonas ends the aria softly instead of the usual bellowing.  Another points out:

  • Claire Panke Come scritto: "morendo".  [which means dying out.  So there.]

St Matthew Passion by ABS

The original instruments movement seems to be everywhere.  One of the fun things is to see such a wide variety of musical instruments.  In Monday night's performance in Davis by the American Bach Soloists of the Bach St. Matthew Passion, performed in German, there was a viola da gamba and wooden flutes.  Perhaps I should keep a list. 

This was also the first time I have seen them use a female mezzo soprano, Agnes Vojtko.  She was good but in the modern style which lacks legato.

I love this work, but it's very long.  The tempos were brisk, in part to make it all not last too long into the night.  This would not bother some people.

I particularly enjoyed the evangelist, Derek Chester, and Christus, William Sharp.  They carry the main burden in a passion. 

The choral work was also outstanding.  In the opening chorus, an extended chorale, they easily carried the idea of a double chorus with about 14 singers.  The chorale melody was sung by a boys' choir that appeared only for a few of the choruses.  They were also excellent.  They are small groups that produce a large sound.

I am happy with the modern brisk leggiero performance style, but not all the time on every number.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Antony and Cleopatra live audio

When I wrote about this opera in 2013, this audio was not in YouTube. This is the live broadcast of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra in its only original cast performance with Leontyne Price, Jess Thomas and Justino Diaz. I am putting it here so I will remember to play it.

My attention was drawn to this by an article in the January copy of Gramophone.  The cover article was everyone talking about Schubert's Winterreise, but once inside I found an icons article about Leontyne Price.  The recommended recording of her is Solti's Aida. The article closes like this:

"Price's greatest failure may eventually be remembered as her finest hour:  Antony and Cleopatra.  Before the opera's high-profile, 1966 flop, composer Barber thought it his greatest work -- and wasn't wrong.  The often-named culprit was Franco Zeffirelli, whose extravagant production put Price in costumes that made her resemble a walking sarcofagus.  But how often has the radio relay of the premiere been duly re-examined?  [I complained that it was unavailable in my piece.]  Easily found on YouTube, Antony and Cleopatra is a tough work, with Price playing her character not as a variant on Elizabeth Taylor (whose film version came out the previous year), but as a cool, political strategist.  The lack of a love duet in this first version of the opera (which was later revised) was no oversight.  Barber was creating people, not ornate historical objects.  And if his original version is ever rehabilitated, the intelligence of Leontyne Price's recorded characterisation will likely lead the way."

Monday, February 23, 2015

Dead Man Walking

From left, composer Jake Heggie, company artistic director Nicole Paiement, Sister Helen Prejean and company production director Brian Staufenbiel. 

Conductor: the fabulous Nicole Paiement

Sister Helen: Jennifer Rivera
Sister Rose: Talise Trevigne
Father Grenville: John Duykers
George Benton: Philip Skinner
Joseph De Rocher: Michael Mayes
Older Brother: Jonathan Smucker
Younger Brother: Baxter Spark
Mrs. De Rocher: Catherine Cook
Owen Hart: Robert Orth
Kitty Hart: Kristin Clayton
Howard Boucher: Joseph Meyers
Jade Boucher: Michelle Rice
Actor girl child: Amitis Rossoukh
Actor boy child: Brandon Blum

Opera Parallèle has produced Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking.  The cast for this opera is huge, especially for a chamber opera company such as this one.  I have tried to reduce the list to the essentials.


The main characters are Sister Helen and Joseph De Rocher.  Such a rough looking man with tattoos in the title role creates an atmosphere of terror that I don't remember in the original production.  This casting is inspired.

The second tier of characters, determined by the importance of their music, are Sister Rose and Mrs. De Rocher, both cast by wonderful singers.  You will look in vain for the evil in Joe's mother that could have created this monster.  Even when he confesses at the end, he blames everything on booze and drugs, but retains the fiction with his mother that he did nothing.

The production first shows us the two teenagers first undressing and going into the water, followed by Joe killing the boy, raping the girl and killing her because she was screaming.  Then we are constantly reminded throughout the opera of why we are here by the presence of these two young people in virtually every scene.  They are present in Sister Helen's dreams, in court, in jail and finally in the execution chamber.

The sister is thinking of his soul.  The thought for us the audience is that God loves him, too.  If he admits he did it, perhaps God will save him, too. The constant reminder of the murdered teenagers blunts the anti-capital punishment message, to the point where you are not at all sure what the lesson is that one is to take away from this.

The opera is very successful both musically and theatrically, especially in this production.  It moves us to reconsider everything.

I shook hands with Jake Heggie in the intermission.  I have witnesses.  I sat in the second row and had really only one complaint--sitting so close to the orchestra resulted in ear pain, something that at my age I try very hard to avoid.  In the future we will phone in our ticket requests.

There was actual smoking on the stage which sent the woman sitting next to me into a coughing fit.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Brian Jagde at Mondavi

Brian Jagde claimed that last night at Mondavi Center was his first full recital as a tenor.  I have to say he started at the top.  What exactly does that mean?  Did he used to be a baritone?

It was announced that he was somewhat under the weather, something that seemed only a small problem in the slower, softer selections.  He wanted to sing anyway.  He called the selections "deep."  I thought that perhaps he had chosen repertoire that he truly loved.  I always advise this.  Love the music you are singing and sing it with all the love you have.

The first group was a set of German Lieder, one each by Schubert (the famous serenade), Schumann (Stille Traenen), Brahms (Mainacht), Wolf and Mahler (Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen).  I love all these songs, and he was not afraid to allow his voice to soar to almost operatic proportions.  Perhaps he's been listening to a certain German who does not hesitate to do this.

Next he performed the Holy Sonnets of John Donne by Benjamin Britten.  These are true sonnets on deeply religious subjects, rare in the world of great poetry and even rarer in the world of classical recitals.  Brian brought the required serious intensity to these wonderful songs which were completely unfamiliar to me.

Next he did 5 songs of Rachmaninov and ended with 4 songs by Richard Strauss, Traum durch die Daemmerung, Breit Ueber mein Haupt, Allerseelen (a personal favorite) and Zueignung (another favorite).  He sang big and was most successful when he did so.

His accompanist Craig Terry laid his music down on the piano instead of using the stand, creating the impression that he wasn't using music.  He seemed to be having a lot of fun and enjoying how much the audience was loving it.

The first encore was dedicated to Barbara Jackson who sat up high near the stage.  The hall is named after her.  He sang for her "Recondit armonia" from Tosca, and it was glorious.  This is what he really sings, of course.

The second encore was "Be my love."  Let's just say I think you need actually to be Mario Lanza.  It was a bit anticlimactic.

This was the most fun I've had at a recital in a long time.  Bravo.  Sing what you love.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pereira Renewed at La Scala

According to this, Alexander Pereira's contract has been renewed until 2020 at La Scala Milan.  Now we will stop worrying about him.

More news:  after a disastrous Rigoletto in Vienna in December, Simon Keenleyside is taking 3 months off.

Lent and the Met announcement came together this year.  It is remarkably similar to the Met-wiki announcement.  Maybe I'll post something later.  I put the HD stuff into the performance calendar.

Monday, February 16, 2015