Saturday, April 30, 2016

Elektra in HD

Klytämnestra, Elektra's mother: Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Elektra: Nina Stemme (soprano)
Chrysothemis, Elektra's sister: Adrianne Pieczonka (soprano)
Aegisth, Klytämnestra's new husband: Burkhard Ulrich (tenor)
Orest, Elektra's brother: Eric Owens (baritone)

Conductor:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Production:  Patrice Chéreau

Two different performances of Richard Strauss' Elektra in the same month is a bit overwhelming.  The first was at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on April 7.  The second was the live simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera.  I will not be able to help comparing them.  The libretto is by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

We were told in the interviews at the beginning that this was probably the largest orchestra ever crowded into the Met orchestra pit.  The simulcasts seem to find a way around any problems with the orchestra covering the singers.  Both Esa-Pekka Salonen and Donald Runnicles are excellent conductors, though I have heard Runnicles many more times.

There is not much to contrast about the productions.  Both were drab, gray, modernized productions designed to emphasize the grimness of the story.  Elektra, Chrysothemis and Orest are all children of Agamemnon, the chief commander on the Greek side of the Trojan war.  While he is gone for 10 years fighting the war over Helen, his wife Klytämnestra takes up with another man.  When Agamemnon returns, Klytämnestra and Aegisth kill him with an ax.  Orest is banished, and Elektra spends her years wishing for revenge.

The two productions reference the ax differently.  In Berlin Klytämnestra enters using it as a cane, and she leaves it behind when she flees from Elektra who is threatening her.  In New York Elektra brings the ax out of Agamemnon's tomb where she has been keeping it.  I think the New York production follows the libretto more closely.  It is clear there that Klytämnestra is making animal sacrifices to appease the gods.  I thought for some reason that in Berlin she carried the ax around to kill people with it and don't remember a reference to animal sacrifices.  She comes to visit Elektra to ask her what she must do to stop dreaming that Orest will come to kill her.  What sacrifice must I offer?  Who do I need to kill?  Elektra's answer:  yourself.

In Berlin Klytämnestra and Aegisth were both killed at the back of the stage by Orest.  At the Met Orest's tutor kills Aegisth downstage while Orest is offstage.  For me the Berlin staging of the killings worked better.  It's perhaps a tossup.

The Elektras from both productions are the same age, 53.  The greatest contrast in the two productions was in the singing.  At the Met the whole cast were heavier voices than the Berlin cast, with the possible exception of Waltraud Meier who sang in  sweet but terrified style.  She is a wonderful singer who brings her great presence to the role.  [Was she wearing Venetian beads?]

In Berlin Chrysothemis was sung by a lyric soprano, while Adrianne Pieczonka is a dramatic and sang much heavier.  She seemed to be auditioning for Elektra.  Perhaps.  I always love and respect Nina Stemme who was simply glorious.  The intensity and drama carried throughout both productions.  In Berlin Elektra dances and then dies.

Occasionally you hear in the orchestra tiny hints of the Strauss opera which comes next:  Der Rosenkavalier.  I feel that I have had my fill of Elektra.

PS. I don't have a vast experience of Elektra, but it seems like something I would enjoy as a comedy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

From Karen Slack

Since this sounds like things I often say, I have included this comment by Karen Slack:

Young aspiring Opera singers.... You can not say you want to be a professional singer and be completely unaware of history's great singers. If you don't know the names and voices of some of the greatest singers of the last 200 years (not present "famous" singers or "famous" in the last 75 years) than you must question if in fact this artform is one you really want to pursue. Ask your teachers the same questions and if they don't know names/voices/repertoire and why they were greats.... you are seriously getting a poor education. Singing is so so much more than perfect scales, exercises and tricks!! You MUST study the craft tirelessly, endlessly and passionately. I can't tell you how disappointing it is talking and working with singers in coachings and masterclass who are clueless about these things when you have resources like YouTube, Wikipedia and Google at your fingertips LITERALLY!! I can't imagine an athlete not knowing and studying the GREATEST in their particular sport..... we must do better!

In response to my last post about younger singers not knowing enough about the history of singers I am accepting the week long challenge of my dear friend Stephanie Blythe (Eve Gigliotti we started this on my post) in posting/sharing videos on some of our favorite singers of the past. I came across this incredible soprano a few years ago while I buying historic recordings off of Opera depot. I introduce you to American born dramatic soprano Gladys Kuchta! Her Lady Macbeth and Elektra are pretty freaking exciting!! I nominate Kevin Thompson and Eve Gigliotti to join in our challenge!

Sunday, April 24, 2016


I returned from my trip to Berlin with the deep conviction that all of the great Strauss conductors are now dead.

Georg Solti.

Kurt Masur.

Bruno Walter.

George Szell.

Herbert von Karajan.

Forgive me if I have omitted your favorite.  What are we to do?  No one today goes deep enough.  I am a great believer that all the music does not lie on the page, that it lives also in the hearts and minds of those who love it.  That musicians can deepen their own understanding by listening to the interpretations of the past.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Yes, there will be a DVD of the Salzburg Giulio Cesare from 2012.  You may pre-order it from Amazon in the UK.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Roberto Devereux in HD

Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Production: David McVicar

Elisabetta: Sondra Radvanovsky (soprano)
Sara, Duchess of Nottingham: Elīna Garanča (mezzo-soprano)
Roberto Devereux: Matthew Polenzani (tenor)
Duke of Nottingham: Mariusz Kwiecien (baritone)

Roberto Devereux by Donizetti completed Sondra Radvanovsky's tour de force trilogy of Donizetti's three queens in a single season.  For my money this is the opera that most suits her gifts.  Overheard talking to myself, "But this is a wonderful opera."  Perhaps it is wonderful because a constantly enraged queen suits so perfectly the voice of Sondra Radvanovsky.  I did not see in Sondra's portrayal the nonsensical pseudo-butch portrayal of Bette Davis, but saw instead someone with difficulty walking and deteriorating health.

Each of the four stars listed above gets wonderful music, perhaps also perfectly suited to their gifts.  Benini found the drama in the singing. 

What a mess of a plot.  Perhaps Roberto once truly loved the queen as she clearly thought he did.  And then he fell in love with the decades younger and still unmarried Sara.  He goes off to war and after clearly winning it, he is accused of being a traitor.  While he was away, Sara with the queen's help married the Duke of Nottingham because her father died. Women at that time required the protection of a man, either husband or father.  The opera opens with her clear unhappiness.  It is not clear if she is unhappy because Roberto is returning, or if perhaps it is her marriage to someone she does not love and who seems also not to love her.

The queen marches down into her tomb and dies at the end.  This is a poetic rather than a historically accurate ending.  The opera plot more closely resembles the movie The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex than it does historical fact.  It's important to remember that opera is about love, and historical accuracy is irrelevant.

Debbie Voigt announced it as a play within a play, but this is only true if you count the fully costumed chorus clapping when the audience clapped.  In the bows the characters turn and bow to the chorus.  This was all discrete and not at all annoying.  It provided a context for the frequent choruses.  In the period there would have been courtiers standing around watching.

I loved it.  It was filled with both beautiful singing and overwhelming dramatic intensity. 

And yes, that was indeed "God save the Queen" in the overture.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

James Levine to Retire

It has been announced that James Levine will retire at the end of this season.  He is finally facing up to reality.  He has had a fabulous career, but it is better to leave now.  He was scheduled for at least 2 operas for next season.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Staatskapelle Berlin

On our final night in Berlin we visited Philharmonie, the concert hall for the Berlin Philharmonic. The Berlin Philharmonic was on tour, as usual, and we saw instead the Staatskapelle Berlin.  Disney  Hall in Los Angeles looks far odder on the outside, but inside this one is very confusing indeed.  In fact one of our group members got lost, and a search party had to be dispatched.  Here is the view on the inside.

It was a very wowie concert.  We started off with that rarest of pieces, the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto.  I feel fairly certain I haven't heard it before.  A piano concerto is supposed to be a  battle between equals, but in this work the piano wins hands down.  In the first movement the orchestra hardly has a chance to compete.  For the pianist it is notoriously, spectacularly difficult.  Our pianist was Daniil Trifonov, and he never stumbled once.  If you haven't heard of him, watch out.  It was marvelous.

The second half of the program was Manuel de Falla's Three Cornered Hat.  It was fun and very loud.  That might possibly be a problem with really good acoustics.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Der Rosenkavalier at Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Conductor: Ulf Schirmer
Production: Götz Friedrich

Die Feldmarschallin Fürstin Werdenberg: Michaela Kaune (soprano)
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau: Albert Pesendorfer (bass)
Octavian: Daniela Sindram (mezzo-soprano)
Der Herr von Faninal: Michael Kupfer-Radecky (baritone)
Sophie, his daughter: Siobhan Stagg (soprano)
Valzacchi: Patrick Vogel (tenor)
Annina: Stephanie Lauricella (contralto)
Ein Sänger: Matthew Newlin (tenor)

This performance of Der Rosenkavalier has to be ranked a success, even though the much anticipated Anja Harteros did not appear. I noticed that I was hallucinating her voice throughout the first act.  For the first time the orchestra was not too loud.

Daniela Sindram projected a very boyish Octavian in a pleasing style.  The falling in love was beautifully staged in very traditional looking costumes.  Everything else seemed contemporary with the opera (1912). The opera was not upstaged by its production as is often the case these days.  The third act was not over-staged, and so remained clear.

I love, among many things, when Ochs says after finding out that Octavian and Mariandel are the same person, "I will never stop feeling astounded.  Such finesse."  He is genuinely impressed. The trio was spectacular.  At the very end the Feldmarschallin watches from a distance.

Forgive me for not writing a long essay.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Die Liebe der Danae at Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Jupiter with his 4 exes

Conductor: Sebastian Weigle
Production: Kirsten Harms

Pollux: Andrew Dickinson (tenor)
Danae, his daughter: Manuela Uhl (soprano)
Midas: Raymond Very (tenor)
Jupiter: Mark Delavan (baritone)
Merkur: Thomas Blondelle (tenor)
Semele: Nicole Haslett (soprano)
Europa: Martina Welschenbach (soprano)
Alkmene: Rebecca Jo Loeb (mezzo-soprano)
Leda: Katharina Peetz (contralto)

I rather liked Richard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, another opera I had never seen before.  I will try to explain the plot.  King Pollux, who lives in a palace filled with classical art, has fallen on hard times.  His creditors are there to haul off all his belongings.  A piano is lifted into the air where it turns throughout the opera.  Hmmm.

According to the plot summery, Danae dreams of gold falling from the sky.  In our production it was sheets of paper.  We thought perhaps they were sheets of music but couldn't tell.

They think they can save things by marrying Danae off to Midas who has the power to turn anything into gold by touching it.  Midas shows up wearing gloves and pretending to be Chrystopher, the servant of Midas.  He and Danae fall in love.  Jupiter then shows up disguised as Midas to woo Danae.  He doesn't know he is already too late.  His four ex girlfriends also show up:  Semele, Europa, Alkmene, and Leda who all seem like four Barbie dolls.  Danae is more of a real girl.

First the real Midas turns everything into gold, including Danae when he tries to kiss her.  Then Jupiter turns her back into a human.  She chooses Midas over Jupiter even though he has lost his power to turn things into gold and she will live in poverty.  Jupiter gets angry and blows everything up.  The other gods laugh at him.

There is a lot of beautiful love music in this opera, but it isn't done often enough to result in very polished performances.  All seemed to be struggling with their roles.  The orchestra was much too loud, which contributed to the problem.  It was nice to see Mark Delavan again.

At the end of the opera Danae looks up--at last someone looks up--and notices the piano floating in the air.  I kept worrying it would fall on someone.  She knows we are in the tumbled down old palace and that this is her piano.  She finds the piano stool and sets it down in its former place.  She finds the suitcase of treasures from prosperous times.  She knows she is at home and is happy with her present life.

This one I could do again.  The role of Danae is very sweet.  Manuela Uhl also sang the sister in Elektra.