NORTH AMERICA



NEW YORK CITY


Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's Sly, one of the novelties of the 1927 season at La Scala, had a distinguished premiere there, with Aureliano Pertile and Mercedes Llopart in principal roles, Arturo Toscanini conducting and Giovacchino Forzano, who wrote the libretto, in charge of the staging. The fact that Forzano was a member of La Scala's management team eased the work's acceptance by the Milanese theater. Similarly, Plácido Domingo's eminence on the Met's roster was responsible for this opportunity to bring Sly to New York (April 1), in a production that originated (with José Carreras) three years ago at Washington Opera, of which Domingo is artistic director.



Sly in 1927 was less "modern" than several of its recent predecessors on the stage of La Scala, such as Pizzetti's Dèbora et Jaéle and Puccini's Turandot. Today, it sounds akin to Menotti. In subject matter, it overlays a stock Romantic preoccupation (the plight of the alienated artist) with a sprinkle of lately discovered neuroses (Freud had become fashionable). Though Wolf-Ferrari was half German, his stylistic preference was for the vernacular of verismo, rather than the twists and turns of Expressionism, which more venturesome composers were applying to similar subjects around that time. Strauss in Die Ägyptische Helena, Schreker in Die Gezeichneten and Zemlinsky in Der Zwerg all cooked with more paprika. But the staples of the stew remain the same: reality and illusion are fatally confused, while a perverse prank propels the plot and exotic trimmings garnish its stage picture.

The spark plug of the Sly story is a cruel trick played on Christopher Sly, an alcoholic poet in the Hoffmann mold, by the sadistic Count of Westmoreland, who functions the way Hoffmann's nemeses do in the Offenbach opera. In an elaborate charade, the passed-out poet is carried off to Westmoreland's castle, where he revives in a fairytale stage setting designed to make him think he's a rich lord recovering from years of amnesia. Sly is then thrown contemptuously into the wine cellar. As a literary conceit, it's fraught with intimations of deeper meaning, but on the realistic level, Forzano and Wolf-Ferrari had difficulty making their characters believably human. The Count is just another two-dimensional villain. His mistress, Dolly, functions as little more than a projection of Sly's craving for sympathetic feminine companionship. The title role calls out for something positive to assert. Unlike, say, Canio's jealousy crisis in Pagliacci, Sly's dilemma lacks gut credibility. Beyond a knack for amusing his friends, he has shown no signs of talent, and his creative suffering seems to consist entirely of terminal self-pity.

Wolf-Ferrari's music, piquant and emotional as a film score, is put together with professional fluency and security. He gives the singers plenty of free rein, building each act around an effective focal point -- Sly's ballad about a performing bear in Act I, his duet of awakening love with Dolly in Act II, his long monologue in Act III. The Met cast the work from strength. Domingo, deeply committed to the role, gave it his full range of mature resources as a singing actor. The tenor's clearly articulated voice and stage persona caught the tone of each act -- down and out in the first, confused but hopeful in the second, suicidally depressed in the third. He had a worthy partner in Maria Guleghina, whose strong, penetrating timbre, albeit with patches of reckless vocalism, conveyed passion and conviction. Juan Pons cut a satisfyingly nasty figure as Westmoreland, sounding out the role's arrogance, condescension and hypocrisy. Equally fine were Jane Bunnell as the harried Hostess of the Falcon Tavern and John Fanning, who strutted and fretted with a touch of old-fashioned operatic fustian as a Shakespearean actor, John Plake, ringleader of the tavern's literary crowd.

Plake's Shakespearean costume was the only link to The Taming of the Shrew, the (frequently excised) prologue of which suggested the Sly story to Forzano. Otherwise, this staging places the opera in the 1920s of its composition, though the locale is still London. The use of a scrim creates an appropriate sense of unreality, furthered by the darkness of the sets. Marta Domingo, the tenor's wife, in her Met debut as stage director, has shaped Sly in groupings and gestures as conservative and traditional as the work itself. Michael Scott's designs -- atmospheric in the dingy tavern, glitzy in the movie world of Westmoreland's pleasure palace, stark and semi-abstract in its wine cellar -- offered costumes as moody as his sets. He used redemptive white to single out Dolly in Act II and the Angel of Death (danced by Christine McMillan) in Act III. Marco Armiliato coaxed a full palette of colors from the orchestra, never letting things drag, phrasing gracefully, supporting the singers as Wolf-Ferrari knew well how to do.

JOHN W. FREEMAN




This season's run of Il Barbiere di Siviglia got a boost in news value and artistic interest April 11 with the twice-delayed Met debut of the already celebrated Bulgarian mezzo, Vesselina Kasarova, as Rosina. She was to have appeared at the Met three seasons ago in the same Rossini role, but she cancelled for health reasons and bowed out again last season from her scheduled Octavians in Der Rosenkavalier. Versatility seems to be one of her bargaining chips; her next Met assignment, two years hence, is reportedly Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. That advantage aside, Kasarova proved herself a considerable Rosina, with a strong technique that handles the fioritura with security and aplomb, if not quite all the vocal (or histrionic) warmth and charm typical of the greatest Rosinas. She settles for the conventional shtick involving the laugh-getting extra "ma" in the cabaletta-half of "Una voce poco fa" and pushes her wake-up high notes a bit hard, but for all her genuine "star quality," she worked consistently like a true team-player.

And she certainly had a strong team to play with. Her Almaviva was the young Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, continuing his Met debut season with a combination of virtuosity and apparent spontaneity of singing and action. Again, he sang the often avoided "Cessa di più resistere," while Kasarova seemed to enjoy its ten-plus minutes of fireworks as much as the rest of us did. Earle Patriarco's Figaro was rather lightweight but fluent and witty; John Relyea, with make-up that made him resemble Valery Gergiev on a bad-hair day, sang a wonderfully booming Basilio; and Paul Plishka once again delivered his now classic Bartolo, full of poise, nuance, occasional fury and somehow unassailable dignity. Conductor Yves Abel, not incidentally, had restrained his first-of-the-run over-achievement in rhythmic and dynamic manipulation without obscuring his Rossinian aims.

Yet another visit to Rossini's Seville (April 23) was marked by John Osborn's first Met Almaviva, Vladimir Ognovenko's first New York Basilio, and the returns after some time of Vivica Genaux's Rosina and Leo Nucci's Figaro. Osborn, a lyric tenor whose career is still developing, was given the challenge of interrupting Flórez's sensational run in the role, and he acquitted himself honorably. His sound is rounder and slightly bigger but less graceful among Rossini's technical thickets and quicksands than that of the Peruvian star. Osborn also lacks Flórez's amazing grace of movement. But he gave an assured, pleasing performance and upset all probable bets in the audience by tackling "Cessa di più resistere," bravely and thoroughly if not with the last word (or note) of Flórezian élan. Ognovenko, even more than Relyea, commanded "La calunnia" with both finesse and basso thunder. Genaux projected Rosina's charm and wit, but she seemed to be having an off night, sounding thin-toned here, tremulous there and showing little of the brilliance and verve she's spoiled us with so often in other venues and other bel canto roles. Nucci blustered loudly but idiomatically.

A visit to Lulu on April 12 at the Met suggested that Christine Schäfer has most of the right stuff for the tremendous title role. She may lack the thrilling power needed to detonate the "Freiheit" outburst after her escape from jail in Act II, but her lyric-coloratura approach recalls the sparkle and delicacy of Anneliese Rothenberger, to name the most obvious example from the otherwise benighted years of enforced abridgment of what, in its three-act form, strikes me as the twentieth century's greatest opera. Schäfer, by the way, reaches beyond sparkle and delicacy. The petite Austrian soprano invests the role's often careening vocal line with telling touches of wiliness, nastiness, fear and longing. The perilous pitch-patterns seem not to faze her; after all, she has sung the role often and in many places by now, but there's still a freshness to her performance.

As for the others retained from last season's cast, it was a case of previous virtues sustained and previous weaknesses repaired. James Courtney has brought new focus to his characterization of Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper, and his singing of the dual roles seems tidier than last year. Hanna Schwarz has become a flawless Countess Geschwitz, handling her rich music with mastery and projecting the woman's tragedy (Geschwitz dies for love of Lulu) without becoming maudlin. Franz Mazura's Schigolch, David Kuebler's Alwa, Clifton Forbis's Painter and Stephen West's Acrobat were all familiar and vivid. Among those new to their roles, tenor Gary Rideout sang out nicely as the Prince, a royal stage-door Johnny, and he oozed malevolence as the pimp-Marquis. And mezzo Katharine Goeldner made her Met debut in three roles, including a particularly intense, moving Schoolboy and a quite jolly casino Page. As in many previous years, James Levine drew luxuriant beauty and, when needed, explosive power from his legendary orchestra; the late John Dexter's staging perfectly translated Berg's instructions, and Jocelyn Herbert's scenery was mostly and appropriately an art-nouveau jungle. The lighting-booth people, however, have made Gil Wechsler's 1979 lighting of the final scene so dark that everything up to Geschwitz's spotlit death became nonsensically invisible. Yes, the London attic is dark to the characters, but opera is still theater, which tells lies in order to express truth.

Handel's very early opera, Agrippina (1709), sparked New York City Opera's spring season in a lively but textually crippled production, imported from Glimmerglass, where it was unveiled in 2001. Of the Glimmerglass cast, only countertenor David Walker (a moving and attractive Ottone) returned for the New York performances, a fact that for once minimized the identity of the Cooperstown organization as a City Opera farm-team.

It's no secret that City Opera has long functioned under a union-contract handicap involving overtime costs. Its successes in recent years with Handel's gold-plated repertory notwithstanding, the company has had to abridge the operas to various extents, depending on the specific work. And so this spring, customers got about three-fifths of Agrippina (by a bar-count of a "standard" complete score and City Opera's abridged version). True, in the real world of opera-house economics, a Semiramide is better than no Ramide at all (apologies to Rossini), and the company did handsomely by this Semi-Agrippina. But much of a dramatically (and comedically) subtle score went down the drain. The company needs not only an acoustically adequate theater but a financial apparatus that lets it serve masterpieces by Handel in full dimension, rather than settle for Handelburgers.

At least the service was just about exemplary, as encountered on April 17, at the New York State Theater. Glover, working from a 1996 edition by Clifford Bartlett, conducted the substantially Baroqued-up orchestra and the singers with eloquently theatrical phrasing and nuances. She also, as expected, helped out at one of the harpsichords. Lillian Groag's staging was undisturbingly modern and sexy, and the cast was smart, handsome, vocally competent and, in a few cases, more than that. Caught in the circumstances of extreme abridgment, Groag sacrificed the political comedy's darker, more sinister side and directed the piece for its sneaky wit, made all the more up-to-date by John Conklin's sleek scenic panels and parodistic allusions to ancient statuary littering hotel lobbies. Jess Goldstein's costumes invited divided opinions. Nero slunk around in informal get-ups, but tuxedos abounded, as did sub-Balenciaga gowns.

Soprano Brenda Harris handled Agrippina's strategies (she wants son Nero to succeed to the Roman throne no matter what) with aplomb and sang her arias neatly and liltingly, especially that smash-hit waltz, "Ogni vento" (partly borrowed from Reinhard Keiser). Nancy Allen Lundy (Poppea) often sparkled in her music, and mezzo Kimberly Barber managed the later moments of Nero with more focus and strength than she did in Act I. As Ottone, the opera's only admirable character, Walker sang with unwrinkled lyricism and acted with many different shades of tragic sensibility. Bass Gregory Reinhart performed the Emperor Claudius with poise and bewilderment, as various scenes demanded; bass-baritone Kevin Burdettte and countertenor Ryland Angel amusingly sang two political spin-doctors on the edge of losing their licenses, and Jason Grant, as a palace staffer, lent the status of comprimario a decidedly good name.

LEIGHTON KERNER




A placard hung before the curtain in Christopher Alden's production of John Philip Sousa's operetta The Glass Blowers at New York City Opera: "In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is hit the line hard. -- Theodore Roosevelt." T.R. needn't have worried: Alden directed his cast to hit every line hard. All afternoon (April 20), the cast oversold jokes and bypassed wit. Though Alden kept things moving briskly, his stylized production (originally mounted at Glimmerglass in 2000) never achieved the light touch essential to this and every good operetta. The Glass Blowers is itself like a piece of glass, sparkling but easily broken. That the cast managed not to shatter the work is a tribute to their talents rather than the rightness of the directorial approach.

Rich with satire, character comedy and corny gags, Leonard Liebling's libretto (restored and recreated by William Martin) starts off much like that in Anna Russell's "How to Write Your Own Gilbert & Sullivan" routine: Annabelle Vandeveer (Anna Christy), a Manhattan socialite who is also a socialist, refuses to marry any man who doesn't show sufficient social awareness. Callow Jack Bartlett (Jeffrey Lentz) struggles to prove his mettle. Sundered by a misunderstanding, both wind up working at a glass factory, where Bartlett organizes the laborers; the proceedings are interrupted by the onset of the Spanish-American War. Annabelle joins the Red Cross, Jack defeats the Spanish, and everybody goes home happy, with a bonus rendition of "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

Christy looks all of sixteen, possesses a sweet, high-lying lyric instrument, and winningly portrayed her character's stubborn politics and generous heart. Nobody on earth, however, could redeem the over-earnest Red Cross anthem she was assigned in Act III. As her blonde, glamorous and quite funny rival, Jennifer Dudley glittered in the operetta's cleverest numbers: "Cleopatra's a Strawb'ry Blonde," in which she "updates" Shakespeare to the requirements of 1898 Broadway, and an Act III pageant, in which she glorifies the American girl (herself, naturally). In his City Opera debut, Richard Whitehouse was stodgy even for the English lord he played, but he sang with a true operetta baritone, lightweight and ingratiating. Lentz kept a firm grip on his character's implausible transit from playboy to union boss to war hero, and he delivered his songs with clarity and point. He was the vehicle for one of Alden's favorite visual effects -- stripping the tenor to his underwear -- but he maintained his dignity.

Jonathan Sheffer conducted with hands nearly as heavy as Alden's. Sousa's flavorful score contains ingenious waltzes, cakewalks and more (heroically restored by Jerrold Fisher), but Sheffer treated everything as marching-band material. Designer John Conklin's unit set, a shiny box trussed with iron beams and gaslights, looked best suited to the glassworks in Act II, less suited to the drawing room of Act I and unsuited to the Army camp of Act III; Mark McCullough kept it all glowing with blue, red and amber lighting. Gabriel Berry's costumes reinterpreted turn-of-the-last-century styles in a Crayola fever of bold, saturated colors. Victoria Morgan provided the choreography.

WILLIAM V. MADISON




SEATTLE


Seattle Opera's first production specifically designed for the Mercer Arts Arena -- the company's temporary home until the new house is completed, in 2003 (it is hoped) -- was Strauss's Salome. The set was semi-abstract, the costumes were semi-historical; the lighting, though occasionally related to the stage-action, seemed mainly designed to provide a series of pretty contrasts. All lacked dramatic consequence. Strong voices were needed on this set (full of dead spaces), in this arena, with a huge orchestra (the score calls for 105 musicians) playing in a large, open, out-front pit. Fauré called Salome "a symphonic poem with additional voice parts," and this production sometimes sounded that way. Though Gerard Schwarz conjured a sumptuous sound, full of spine-tingling details, from his orchestra, the singers occasionally suffered from what felt like heavy-handed underlining. Even Richard Paul Fink, a solid, vocally centered Jochanaan, disappeared once or twice in the orchestral tsunamis.

Thomas Studebaker, dressed like an errant tank-commander from Rommel's Desert Corps, sang a sweetly clear Narraboth, but his suicide was clumsily staged, the nadir of Sharon Ott's unfocused, erratic direction. Joyce Castle made a spectacular Herodias, wearing the best costume onstage and singing well, a harridan of royal lineage. Peter Kazaras (Herodes) had a much harder time competing with the orchestra. Gustav Andreassen (as the First Nazarene) and the quintet of Jews (William Saetre, Mark Tevis, Steven Goldstein, Wesley Edwin Rogers and Rob Toren) were all in fine fettle on both nights I attended the opera. I'd never realized before how obviously the quintet anticipates the musical chaos in the final act of Der Rosenkavalier.

Salome depends for its kick, its magic and its mystery on the woman who sings the Judean princess. Happily, Speight Jenkins (the general director) alternated two strong singing actors for the title role. Nina Warren has won praise for her Salome, especially in Germany. Warren (April 6) was always audible but not always appetizing: loud, sometimes undigested sound, sharp because constantly pushed. Her princess was petulant, coarse (her mother's daughter), lascivious and frankly impatient. All the notes were there; the voice was imperious but the interpretation unsubtle. Her movements looked calculated, and she sang the role without convincing one that she knew more than the director had told her about it.

What a contrast the Salome of Eilana Lappalainen (April 5)! At first young, bewildered by the Baptist's magnetism and her own sexual awakening, Lappalainen's princess was carefully colored, vocally, from scene to scene, growing stronger and more terrifying after Herod asks her to dance. Her dance of the seven veils is simply the best I've ever seen (including Welitsch, Borkh and Stratas -- on film, perhaps the greatest Salome ever). Lappalainen's extraordinary physical lightness and agility, her diverse vocal palette and her grasp of the character's complexity were deeply moving. When she sang (addressing Jochanaan's severed head) "If you had seen me, if you had looked at me, I know you would have loved me; and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death," one felt she had touched the quick of Strauss's magnificent portrait of this legendary princess. Lappalainen reprises the role for New York City Opera in the fall.

JOHN F. HULCOOP




COSTA MESA, CA


Ecstatically acclaimed -- in some quarters, at least -- at its San Francisco Opera premiere, in 2000, Dead Man Walking has already grown new legs. A wholly new production of the Jake Heggie/Terrence McNally heartstring-tugger, introduced by Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa's Orange County Performing Arts Center in April for a five-performance run, now moves on to engagements at Cincinnati Opera (July 11), New York City Opera (Sept. 13), Austin Lyric Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Pittsburgh and Baltimore Operas. (Meanwhile, designer Michael Yeargan's original San Francisco production gathers no dust, being slated for a run at Adelaide's South Australia State Opera in August 2003.)

Portability was, of course, the principal mandate of Broadway director Leonard Foglia's new staging (seen at the premiere, April 16). In place of San Francisco Opera's prison panorama, with inmate-filled cell-blocks, tricky lighting effects and a veritable Stonehenge of massive stage pieces, designer Michael McGarty offered an open-spaced, abstract look. Panels of chain-link or clear plastic move up and down, suggesting nothing so much as a chorus of unmanned guillotines; on spiraling staircases on both sides, again enclosed in chain-link, guards and prisoners in constant motion create a harrowing sense of the frame around a soulless machine. Sister Helen and Joe DeRocher enact their colloquy on small raft-like surfaces with a beam of light between them symbolizing the separation of their souls across a space that could be a narrow river or an interplanetary void.

This open space is, indeed, the principal triumph of this reborn Dead Man. Operagoers who find comfort in Heggie's listener-friendly musical gestures and McNally's simplistic wordplay -- and even the growing chorus of those who don't -- are set free to react to the humanistic concerns of Sister Helen Prejean's harrowing Death Row memoir, without confronting the informational overload of San Francisco's grandiose visuals. Opera Pacific's artistic director, John DeMain, conducted a taut, driving performance punctuated by wrenching bursts of fury from Henri Venanzi's small, expert chorus.

As Sister Helen, Kristine Jepson -- who alternated with Susan Graham in San Francisco -- gave an altogether satisfying performance, somewhat less frazzled than Graham's larger-than-life theatricality but ultimately most touching. (In the last two performances, Theodora Hanslowe assumed the role.) Repeating their San Francisco roles were John Packard as DeRocher and Frederica von Stade -- for whom Heggie is virtually house composer -- as his mother. Packard and von Stade summoned maximum sympathy, both for the characters they had been enlisted to portray and -- in the view of one listener at least -- for themselves. One wished that they had been vouchsafed stronger, more defining music.

The true-life Sister Helen attended the Opera Pacific premiere and, beaming approval, took her bow onstage at the end. Outside the hall, peaceful protesters collected signatures against capital punishment. One had to assume, therefore, that both this beautifully spirited, compassionate woman and the cause her book has evoked consider themselves well-served by having their thoughts made into operatic grist. Some, however, might disagree.

ALAN RICH




SARASOTA


As part of artistic director Victor DeRenzi's ongoing twenty-four-year traversal of Verdi's complete oeuvre, Sarasota Opera this season offered a genuine repertoire curio with Le Trouvère, the rarely performed French version of Il Trovatore. Unlike Don Carlos and Les Vêpres Siciliennes, which were originally written in French and now receive occasional mountings in their original versions, Il Trovatore seems so much a part of Italian blood-and-thunder drama that it's jarring to encounter the opera in its Gallic recasting. Trovatore was hugely successful from its premiere in 1853, yet Verdi was frustrated by artistically dubious productions of his operas in France and spent much time battling copyright cases in the Paris courts. If he reworked Trovatore himself, Verdi reasoned, he could better protect his work, as well as produce a healthy financial windfall.

In addition to the language switch, there are some less obvious changes in Le Trouvère, including minor orchestral rescoring and some extra lines for Azucena in the dungeon scene. Most jolting is the insertion into Act III of a ballet, a feature demanded by nineteenth-century Paris audiences at all opera performances. (Even Wagner was not immune, making a similar addition to Tannhäuser.) Verdi's ballet music is charming, gracefully wrought and disruptive to this violent tale. Hearing Verdi's familiar melodies performed in a different language proved disconcerting, yet one soon adapted, largely because much of the cast's French was so diffuse and impenetrable.



At a time when even the world's largest houses have trouble fielding a consistent cast for this demanding work, it would have been too much to expect Sarasota Opera to do so. Yet under the first-rate musical direction of DeRenzi, one of our finest Verdi conductors, the company turned in a respectable showing (seen March 15), with a roster of unknown but mostly gifted young singers. As Léonore, Marie-Adele McArthur was the standout. Looking like a young, less starchy Joan Sutherland, the New Zealand-born soprano displayed a lovely lyric-dramatic voice. Though the top of her range was a bit thin for this heavy role, McArthur sang with limpid tone and offered natural, understated acting.

To the Comte de Luna, William Andrew Stuckey brought a robust (if occasionally blowsy) baritone and forceful stage presence. He lightened up to sing his Act II aria with sensitive phrasing. Malin Fritz lacked the dusky contralto color and malign weirdness for Azucena, but the mezzo-soprano brought compelling vocalism to the dungeon scene. Andrew Funk was a sonorous Fernand.

The weak link in the cast was Dallas Bono. The tenor lacked the heroic demeanor and vocal command for the role of Manrique. Bono's weak voice, tremulous pitch and threadbare top were below this company's usual standard; the singer took a pass on several high notes, which, considering his frightful attempt at a high C in "Supplice infâme" (aka "Di quella pira"), seemed wise. John Farrell's sets and Renaud Doucet's direction served the company's brand of space-saving traditionalism well. DeRenzi led the superb orchestra with idiomatic pacing, uncommon vitality and taut dramatic tension.

One undeniably loses the full force of chorus numbers and the spectacle of works such as Trouvère on Sarasota Opera's small stage. However, the excellent acoustic and setting are wonderfully apt for more intimately scaled operas, as was shown with Mozart's Così Fan Tutte (heard March 16). In addition to offering some of Mozart's most glorious music, this comedy remains as fresh and insightful as the day it was written.

Things got off to an unpromising start with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin's hard-driven account of the overture, with violently clipped accents and breakneck speeds that battered Mozart's buoyant music. The versatile, twenty-seven-year-old French-Canadian conductor contributed busy harpsichord continuos for the recitatives, in addition to his furiously impassioned conducting. He settled down a bit after the overture, but his excessive haste nearly made a hash of ensembles and both act finales. The young maestro needs seasoning, elegance and charm to balance out the vivacity of his Mozart conducting.

In the opening scenes, the two pairs of lovers seemed such a dull, uncharismatic quartet, it was a wonder any of them was attracted to any other. Things picked up considerably with the entrance of Alicia Berneche as Despina. The soprano's delightful stage presence and agile vocalism made for a deliciously feisty performance. She seemed to spark her colleagues, whose performances gained in vocal distinction and momentum thereafter.

Both tall, angular-featured brunettes, Jennifer Ayres as Fiordiligi and Rosa Maria Pascarella as Dorabella made plausible sisters. Though Pascarella's Dorabella seemed tentative and oddly expressionless at times, Ayres improved with each scene, delivering a commanding "Come scoglio" and a sensitive "Per pietà, ben mio," one jarring register break notwithstanding. Galen Scott Bower's Guglielmo seemed an unfortunately appropriate mate for Dorabella, blank dramatically and indifferently sung. Jonathan Boyd's Ferrando, however, was the standout of the quartet. Possessed of a plangent, refined yet muscular voice, the tenor floated a beautiful "Un aura amorosa," with some ravishing mezza voce singing. Stephen Eisenhard's Don Alfonso was a bit precious and mincing for this cynical old reprobate, yet he offered serviceable singing.

LAWRENCE A. JOHNSON




BALTIMORE


Baltimore Opera's new production of Verdi's Otello turned out to be a mixed bag, vocally and theatrically. On March 16 at the Lyric Opera House, Jon Fredric West did valiant work in the title role. He delivered "Esultate!" in firm, ringing tones and made some subtle expressive points during the love duet. His low register disappeared early on, however, and much of his singing seemed more about getting the notes out (not always squarely on pitch) than about interpreting them. West's acting also could have used greater finesse. There were a few hand-on-head gestures too many, and his death scene suggested a man carefully getting into a comfortable position to take a nap.

As Desdemona, Aprile Millo had to contend with an abundant blond wig that made her look like Bette Midler impersonating Mae West. But the soprano gave the character a telling combination of innocence and strength, and she filled the theater with her ample, warm voice, paying keen attention to the shape of Verdi's melodic lines. For all the lovely sounds, though, there was a rather monochromatic quality to the singing; dynamics tended to remain constant all night. This limited the willow song and "Ave Maria" in poignancy and tonal shading.

Alexandru Agache brought a large, dry voice and generally stiff movements to the role of Iago. He put across the Credo with sufficient force but did much more effective singing as he subtly related Cassio's dream. Taylor Hargrave, a member of the company's Opera Studio, revealed considerable vocal promise and smooth acting skills as Cassio. Ryu-Kyung Kim was the sympathetic, if strident, Emilia. A few coordination slips aside, the chorus sang in sturdy, stirring fashion.

Christian Badea's conducting had plenty of fire and lyricism; his sure hand gave the performance a solid anchor. Other than an unreliable cello section, the orchestra acquitted itself ably.

Allen Charles Klein created a huge, clunky-looking set with stark, unchanging walls looming in the background. It was all terribly imposing, without being terribly impressive, and the design forced most of the action into a narrow space downstage. The choral scenes looked stiff, with bodies squeezed into tight spaces. And whenever the choristers were repositioned, it meant lots of steps gingerly navigated. The costumes were certainly stylish, though one detected a strong Spanish accent, as if they were really meant for Don Carlos.

Director Beppe de Tomasi directed traffic with efficiency, if not great imagination. The mock sword-fighting in Act III between Iago and Cassio, for example, each parry timed to a recurring phrase in the orchestra, wore very thin. But the staging of the last scene delivered a strong visual and theatrical statement (Donald Edmund Thomas's lighting was at its most atmospheric here), driving home the plight of a man whose enormous physical strength is no match for the "snaky coils" of that "hydra" called jealousy.

TIM SMITH




 

WASHINGTON, D.C.


Strong casting, mostly effective conducting and a strikingly handsome set served Verdi and Un Ballo in Maschera well in the Washington Opera's performance March 30 at the Kennedy Center. In this production, set in Boston, there were lots of tricorn hats, and Riccardo bade farewell to America just before dying (though not in the projected titles), but otherwise, there really was nothing too overtly American in the staging, originally from La Scala. The characters and their problems were presented in such a way that their nationality became irrelevant. This left the drama and the music front and center.

Marcello Giordani, as Riccardo, sounded a little under the weather. His lower register turned gravelly, but the rest of the tenor's voice was in terrific shape. Gleaming top notes poured out in rich virility; phrases were invariably shaped with remarkable sensitivity. Persuasive acting completed the handsome package. Ines Salazar made a fascinating Amelia. The soprano did not demonstrate an entirely smooth technique (gears shifted awkwardly at times), but her tone often had a wonderfully burnished quality. The upper register, whether at full-throttle or pianissimo, hit home most expressively. She was also an involving actress, summoning considerable pathos in the Act III confrontation with her husband.

Stephan Pyatnychko's Renato was sometimes short on vocal wattage, but he was unfailingly communicative and capable of eloquent legato. After a slightly effortful start, Youngok Shin, as Oscar, produced lots of secure, charming vocalism to complement a vibrant personality. Mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba offered lush low notes and a flair for the grand phrase as Ulrica. Supporting roles were effectively handled, and the chorus produced a solid, vibrant sound.

Conductor Eugene Kohn threw himself into the performance, arms whirling like a windmill in a gale. He didn't avoid coordination slips between pit and stage, but, for the most part, he did succeed in generating potent amounts of tension and lyricism. Except for an uncooperative oboe, the orchestra held firm.

Director Marina Bianchi moved the action along seamlessly. The assassination scene, with the onstage musicians slowly realizing what was happening, had particular theatrical power. Dante Ferretti's scenic design of classic Georgian lines provided strong visual appeal, from the opening image of a bustling legislative session to a stark, chic, contemporary interior for Renato's house. Gianni Mantovanni's lighting enhanced the sets, most memorably in the gallows scene, with faces half in the dark, just like the characters themselves.

TIM SMITH




 


INTERNATIONAL

MUNICH


The house lights continued to dim moments before the orchestral prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold (Feb. 24, the first night of a new production), until both auditorium and orchestra pit were plunged into total darkness for much of the prelude, almost as if one were in the Bayreuth Festival Theater. When the curtain opened, it revealed director/designer Herbert Wernicke's set, most of which was occupied by a detailed replica of the interior of Wagner's Festspielhaus: the decor, color scheme and thirteen rows of notoriously uncomfortable seats. Adding to the image, Wernicke filled the seats with people in evening clothes, still the preferred dress for a Wagner Festival performance. From the front, the Munich audience watched the performance, which played out on a small, serviceable apron that stretched across the proscenium, while the Bayreuth "audience" watched the same performance from the rear. [Wernicke died in Basel on April 16; see his obituary in this issue.]

This Rheingold was decidedly not action-filled. The atmosphere was dictated by the set, and the set had nothing to do with the story being told. Still, with nearly everything sung and acted on the front lip of the stage, vocal projection was optimized. Voices did not need to be forced, and I'm not sure I have ever heard the text so clearly enunciated. A great deal of credit for this achievement must go to Zubin Mehta's chamber-music reading, full of nuance and detail. He kept the score moving without rushing, and he lent shape and contour to each scene.

The onstage auditorium was used at times for entrances. The Rhine was represented by a medium-sized aquarium, in which swam three large, live goldfish. From the onstage audience came the three Rhinemaidens (Margarita De Arellano, Ann-Katrin Naidu, Hana Minutillo, singing splendidly), dressed in green, form-fitting evening gowns. Franz-Joseph Kapellmann sang Alberich, with more emphasis on characterization and diction than on fullness of tone. Not quite a down-and-outer, he was costumed in casual clothes. Alberich not only tried to get the gold out of the fish tank, he stole jewelry from the "audience." Dressed as businessmen and carrying contracts in an attaché case, the human-size giants were seated next to Valhalla, a miniature Greek temple, couched in the last rows of the onstage auditorium.

As is the current trend, Wotan (in black tie and tails) was portrayed as whining, unsure and immature. John Tomlinson was more than up to his somewhat unenviable task. The voice thinned out as the vocal line rose, but his burnished, smoky timbre and his enormous stage presence made him a god of distinction. Each giant had his own personality and incorporated individual character traits into his singing. A gentle, lovable Fasolt, albeit one with raging hormones (he could not keep his hands off Freia), Jan-Hendrik Rootering was in splendid, towering voice, mastering long phrases with ease and imbuing his part with melancholy. The much smaller Kurt Rydl was an unpleasant Fafner, seeming only too eager to rid himself of his sentimental brother. His darker, threatening tone made a fine contrast to the more tender Rootering.

Though suave and eel-like, Philip Langridge tended to overplay Loge. Marjana Lipovsek was her usual solid self as Fricka; Anja Harteros, in her Bavarian State Opera debut, sang with crystal-clear tone and made a splendid impression as Freia. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen was a more lyric than forceful Donner; Jon Ketilsson made little impact as Froh. An elegantly dressed woman could be observed in the onstage parterre, following the opera with a score. She turned out, to no one's surprise, to be Erda (or Erda's double), played by Anna Larsson, in her Bavarian State Opera debut, a luxurious addition to the cast.

JEFFREY A. LEIPSIC




PARIS


The revival of Phyllida Lloyd's 1999 production of Verdi's Macbeth, with its baton-wielding, voodoo-like witches, brought one of the best evenings of Italian singing the Opéra National has heard this season. Leading the cast at the Bastille was Deborah Voigt's Lady Macbeth, a quite extraordinary performance, launching into the first aria with a prodigious flood of sound and glistening high notes. "La luce langue" stills needs a greater sense of seamless legato line, and on opening night (March 7) the final D-flat of her intensely acted sleepwalking scene was hardly the eerie effect Verdi had in mind, but this was nonetheless a great performance. Dramatically, she even managed to suggest a powerful sexual control over her husband, the Macbeth of Leo Nucci, who reminded the public that for big-scale Verdi baritone singing, he still has few serious rivals. Lloyd explores the relationship of the upwardly mobile couple with great skill, as their spiraling perfidy finds them literally trapped within a gilded cage, one of many fine creations in Anthony Ward's sets.

Almost stealing the show was the Macduff of Marco Berti, who on this evidence is destined for a great career. The voice is large and unfettered, and his aria was performed with a vocal generosity that recalled great tenors of the past. Dramatically he is unprepossessing. Eldar Aliev was a typically Eastern European-style Banco, who had the required weight of voice but tightened slightly at the climax of his aria. James Conlon conducted with Shakespearean grandeur and breadth, producing rich, smooth orchestral playing and a forceful choral contribution, even if the abrasive rough edges of Verdi's work were smoothed over a little too assiduously.

STEPHEN MUDGE




LONDON


Revivals of early-nineteenth-century works preoccupied both London houses recently. Bellini's touching pastoral La Sonnambula came to Covent Garden (March 16) in a co-production with Vienna by Marco Arturo Marelli that replaced a traditional staging created for Joan Sutherland back in 1960. Before it was retired some twenty years later, its subsequent sleepwalkers had featured the likes of Renata Scotto, Ileana Cotrubas and Luciana Serra.

A new look at Bellini and Romani's dramatically innocent, musically exquisite tale was clearly overdue, but director/ designer Marelli's portentous program note made one fear the worst with its facile observation that "Amina," the name of librettist Felice Romani's heroine, only required the transposition of two letters to become "anima" -- thus opening the door to all kinds of irrelevant sub-Jungian possibilities. But while transpositions were indeed involved -- the setting was moved to the chic dining-room of an expensive-looking hotel or sanatorium (Marelli's own dual description) in 1920s Switzerland, a country whose population, for the purposes of this production, had to be imagined as ignorant of the phenomenon of somnambulism -- the match between libretto and visuals was on the whole deftly managed.

Fashionable period costumes for the well-heeled clientele were provided by the director's wife, Dagmar Niefind-Marelli, and the stage picture, which included a scenic view over the mountains, was sumptuously realized. By the time the curtain rose on Act II, the storm that had started to blow in through an open window in the last measures of Act I had lifted the dining room's grand piano onto a substantial snowdrift, while moonrise over the Alps allowed lunar imagery to enrich our perceptions of the nature of Amina's nocturnal amblings.

In its delicate manner, the opera touches suggestively on matters more scientifically explored by twentieth-century psychology, and just as immaculate as Marelli's stylish sets was the sensitivity with which he handled the interactions between the emotionally disturbed characters. The jealous Lisa -- here working the bar of the establishment, and painfully aware of the forthcoming marriage of a colleague (Amina) to a guest or patient (Elvino) -- offered plenty of meaningful motivation for her outrageous flirting with the visiting aristocrat, Count Rodolfo.

Inger Dam-Jensen had confident fun with the difficulties of Lisa's music, contrasting in its flamboyance with the more tender and spacious melodies of Amina, which require heartfelt expression in addition to the greatest coloratura skills. Elena Kelessidi rarely sounded as if she was enjoying the battle with so many scales and roulades, and there were some distinctly sketchy moments. The director's most serious error -- bringing the protagonist before the curtain to sing a final, would-be triumphant "Ah! non giunge" -- only served to point up the fact that Kelessidi is not a diva. Anne Mason sang Teresa with an appropriate air of maternal concern, while as a slightly raffish Rodolfo, Alastair Miles delivered shapely phrase after shapely phrase in "Vi ravviso."

But the evening belonged to the Elvino of Juan Diego Flórez, who was cheered to the echo for his graceful way with Bellini's deceptively simple-sounding melodies, and for his easy reaching up into the tenor stratosphere. Add to this a stage persona of great charm and a characterization that took in Elvino's petulance, insecurity, unreasonable jealousy and eventual remorse, and one has as complete a traversal of the role as one is likely to encounter. Exceptional conducting came from Maurizio Benini, whose sense of the music's natural rhythms was infallible, and who drew classy playing from the orchestra and strong singing from the chorus.

Spontini's La Vestale (1807), for decades a mainstay of the repertory of the Paris Opéra and a work hugely admired by both Berlioz and Wagner, never really caught on in Britain. The last full-scale London staging was in 1842, though the twentieth century saw important revivals at the Met for Rosa Ponselle in the mid-1920s and at La Scala for Maria Callas in 1954. English National Opera recently took it off the shelf for a new production by Francesca Zambello (April 3), focusing on Jane Eaglen as Giulia, the love-struck Vestal.

For admirers of the British soprano, this was a discomforting experience. The voice sounded stressed and out of tune for the first half of the evening, though it later settled down into a firmer, fleshier line. Just as crucially, Eaglen lacked the dramatic range to make Giulia's plight involving: a passionate attack is needed for its post-Gluckian nobility to move an audience.

John Hudson partnered her as Licinius, her former betrothed who returns to tempt her away from her duties, with dire consequences. As they discuss the claims of love and duty, Vesta's flame flickers and dies. Giulia is condemned to death for neglecting her sacred office -- though divine intervention brings about a happy ending. Hudson's clarion tenor rang out impressively, but he too failed to seize the dramatic initiative. Gerard O'Connor was a rough-toned High Priest, Anne-Marie Owens a suitably grand Grand Vestal.

Zambello's production was designed by Alison Chitty on a plain circular base with a plain background. The final act looked like a down-market Stonehenge. The costumes, a mixture of military, civilian and hieratic, had a 1940s air. It all proved unconvincing. Who were these latter-day vestals, and why should their cult matter in the twentieth century? Some eccentric group hand-movements timed to the music looked particularly silly.

This was a pity, because much of the appeal of the piece lies in its imposing choral tableaux, which were ruthlessly cut. (The opera's overture also vanished, giving it a lame start.) Conductor David Parry secured an efficient but distanced performance of the remainder, as if the opera's imperial grandeur, so admired by its contemporaries, meant little to him. It's likely to be quite some time before Spontini's hour chimes again for London audiences.

GEORGE HALL




RIO DE JANEIRO


Rio's Theatro Municipal opened its opera season in April 2002 with a high-spirited, entertaining production of Puccini's Turandot that, although clumsy at times, still offered moments of rare charm. But the production also suffered from excess -- between the flying acrobats, belly dancers and Star Trek-influenced swordsmen, the opera almost felt as if one of Rio's Carnaval parades had been transported to an Arctic version of Peking.

The set, adapted by Alfredo Troisi from Hugo de Ana's 1978 production for this theater, created a magical atmosphere: a winter kingdom of smoke and ice, with shards of silver lining the sky. Stairs, bridges and towers curved to form the glistening body of a giant, sinuous dragon; ill-fated princes entered its gleaming jaws to meet their doom. Especially witty use was made of the dragon's head, when its long, raspy tongue was unfurled as a sharpener for the executioners' blades. The production was most captivating when the set, lit by the soft glow of Chinese lanterns, functioned as the serene backdrop for the theater's chorus and excellently prepared orchestra, under the direction of Silvio Barbato.

The proceedings took on an edge with the entrance of Daniel Muñoz as Calàf -- the tenor appeared strained and uncomfortable from the start, and inattentive to his superior colleagues, Cláudia Riccitelli as Liù and Luiz-Otávio Faria as Timur. Turandot was played by the glacially commanding Giovanna Casolla, a veteran of the super-production of Turandot in Beijing in 1999. Before Act III, an announcement was made that Muñoz was having voice problems but would continue. However, the showstopper "Nessun Dorma" was blighted by the singer's cautious approach; his voice completely gave out by the end. Minutes later, Muñoz was smuggled offstage to be replaced by Pedro Gattuso, whose vigor brought the remainder of the opera to life.

Muñoz's exit wasn't the only quick-change business going on -- the roles of the ministers Ping, Pang and Pong (played by Inácio de Nonno, Weber Duarte and Ricardo Tuttmann) were well sung, but the ministers' entrances and exits took on an antic quality, since they were performed by back-flipping and trapeze-descending acrobats in costumes identical to those of the ministers. Periodically, the acrobats would wander offstage to be replaced by the somewhat less slender singers. Many of the acrobatic flights seemed like a winking reference to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while the ice-covered pedestals used for the riddle sequences between Turandot and Calàf made them look like an expectant host and contestant on a television game show. These pedestals played an even more unfortunate role when Liù broke off an icy pinnacle during her gorgeous final aria, leading to the first death-by-icicle scene I have ever witnessed. Did the director, Pier Francesco Maestrini, see no option but to turn this fairy-tale opera into a camp spectacle? Even so, the adventurousness made for an opera that was constantly fun to watch and, well, Puccini-esque in scale.

Rio de Janeiro was the fourth city ever to see Turandot, in 1926. This year's audience maintained the city's original enthusiasm, although this time it wasn't necessary for police to break up the crowds storming the Theatro Municipal.

AMY RADIL

 



NORTH AMERICA: Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field bows at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater; Tosca in San Diego; Die Zauberflöte in Los Angeles. Morris is Boris in Miami; Tannhäuser is heard in West Palm Beach; Ariadne auf Naxos and Lucia di Lammermoor in Sarasota. Chicago Opera Theater stages The Rape of Lucretia. Washington Opera season continues, with Salome. In New York, Lukács, Guelfi in Met Tosca; OperaWorks performs Bibalo's Glass Menagerie. Capalbo in Toledo's Turn of the Screw; Evitts, Turner Wilson in Kansas City's Don Pasquale; Genaux, Kelly in Opera Carolina's Barbiere; Candide at Dayton Opera; Gershwin's Lady Be Good at Milwaukee's Skylight Opera. Student performances: Manhattan School of Music hears Lortzing's Der Wildschütz; in Bloomington, Capobianco revisits Lucia di Lammermoor.


INTERNATIONAL: Parsifal is Abbado's farewell as music director of Salzburg's Easter Festival. Opera Australia unveils a new Cav/Pag in Melbourne. In Paris, Gardiner conducts Oberon, Christie conducts Il Ritorno d'Ulisse. In Venice, Viotti conducts Galouzine's Otello; Anderson stars in Naples Capriccio; Margison in Brussels Pagliacci. In Innsbruck, Tiroler Landestheater presents Salieri's Falstaff and the world premiere of Demetz's Der Häftling von Mab. Manon Lescaut in Copenhagen; La Traviata in Valletta, Malta. In Germany: Wagner's Liebesverbot in Munich; a "spellbinding" Peter Grimes in Oldenburg; Handel's Alcina and Janácek's Káta Kabanová in Hamburg; Aho's Before We All Have Drowned in Lübeck; Weill's Die Bürgschaft in Dessau. Hong Kong hears Lam's new opera, Wenji, plus staged cantatas by Bach, Monteverdi.


CONCERTS AND RECITALS: Springtime is sing-time in New York: Gheorghiu and Alagna concertize at the Met; Lincoln Center's Handel tribute continues, with Jacobs leading an Easter Jephtha; New York Festival of Song souvenirs; Flanigan joins Collegiate Chorale for Weber's Oberon; Muti leads N.Y. Philharmonic; Jansons leads Pittsburgh Symphony; Levine paces MET Chamber Ensemble, MET Orchestra in concerts; songsters Quasthoff, Bostridge, Goerne, Fouchécourt, Kirkby, Schäfer, Gauvin. In Philadelphia, Wagner from Watson, A. Davis. Boston Baroque rarities.



NORTH AMERICA


SAN FRANCISCO


American Conservatory Theater made its first foray into opera with The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, a new work by composer David Lang and playwright Mac Wellman, based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914). The plot is simple -- an antebellum plantation-owner named Williamson walks into a field and disappears -- and Bierce tells it with utmost concision. Wellman's job, then, was to expand two pages of no-nonsense prose into a seventy-five-minute drama. In doing so, he looked to the secondary characters, creating important roles for Williamson's wife, daughter, brother and the plantation's slaves, all of whom Bierce mentions only in passing. Certainly what is interesting about the story, from a dramaturgical point of view, is not so much what happens to Williamson, as how his disappearance affects those around him. Yet the librettist's penchant for poetic wordplay and philosophical deliberation does little to make any of the characters particularly compelling or even sympathetic.

Lang's minimalist score does not help. His vocal writing sounds neither grateful to sing nor sufficiently expressive. Heard March 22, the drama only took shape in the scenes where the lines were spoken. Part of the blame for this may lie with the singing, which in this production veered closer to Broadway than to opera. Julia Migenes (Mrs. Williamson) crooned most of her lines à la Streisand, while Lianne Marie Dobbs (the Williamson Girl) belted hers with relentless perkiness. The vocal standout was Michelle E. Jordan (Old Woman), whose bluesy song, "Creation," in Scene 4, was richly intoned. Another liability was amplification -- necessary, perhaps, given the size and shape of the Theater Artaud -- which put an unpleasant edge on voices that were already pushing too hard.

By far the most successful musical element of the production was the refined and incisive playing of the Kronos Quartet. Lang writes effectively for instruments, and quite often, the quartet's conversation seemed more involving than what was being sung. Kronos was appropriately accorded a good third of the stage space, playing on a raised wooden platform that fit naturally with Kate Edmunds's spare scenic design. Director Carey Perloff also aimed for simplicity, although the slaves' comings and goings were unduly exposed by the stark setting.

For all the big ideas Wellman introduces here about racism, morality and the elusive nature of reality, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is an intimate tale -- or at least, it was the way Bierce wrote it. That impression is underscored by Lang's decision to write for string quartet rather than orchestra. Set on a smaller scale and performed in a more musically conducive venue, this opera might be more persuasive -- though on first hearing, Lang's score simply does not seem strong enough to carry the weight of the dramatic material -- if, indeed, the material is even worth carrying.

ANDREW FARACH-COLTON




SAN DIEGO


It's difficult to imagine, but so shielded was the West Coast from the more radical manifestations of "director's opera" that when Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Tosca first appeared at San Francisco Opera, in 1978, it was considered avant-garde. At the time, the famous director-designer was apparently exposing the artifice of opera staging by experimenting with a behind-the-scenes approach to various works, including Pagliacci.

Act I of Ponnelle's Tosca adopted a perspective from behind the altar in the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle. One could see the Sacristan's props, dry-land flotsam and jetsam, and wooden support beams that let one know the lovely marble altar was really fake. Similarly, Act III showed the great winged statue atop the Castel Sant'Angelo as a shallow papier-mâché figure propped up by wooden braces.

When these sets first appeared in San Diego Opera's Tosca, in 1996, many of the oddities had already been toned down, to the extent that they were hardly noticeable. Reappearing this season in a conservative, determinedly non-radical "director's cut" of Tosca, they served superbly. Running the show was company general director Ian Campbell, and he gave his audience a Tosca just the way they like it -- straight, without gimmicks and faithful to the composer's intentions. Campbell endured some mild artillery shelling from hostile operagoers after Bruce Beresford's "Rodeo Drive Rigoletto," which opened the season, but those criticisms had less effect on Campbell's Tosca concept than did his own inner convictions.

Campbell had an excellent cast to work with. Both Richard Leech (Cavaradossi) and Galina Gorchakova (Tosca) are accomplished in their roles and were in excellent form for the opening. Gorchakova displayed more evenness throughout her registers than do many other Toscas, and she was gave the drama everything she had. Leech maintained a high level of intensity, but without much dynamic variation -- his "Recondita armonia" and "E lucevan le stelle" failed to stand out.

Baritone Kimm Julian proved a Scarpia to be reckoned with, physically and vocally. He appeared to tower over everyone else. His portrayal of villainy was also seductive, his vocalism impressive, except for a slight tendency to scoop for dramatic emphasis. Conductor Edoardo Müller demonstrated an affinity for Puccini, putting the lushness and theatricality in all the proper places. The brass playing was some of the best to be heard at San Diego Opera in some time.

Jamie Offenbach (Angelotti), the venerable François Loup (Sacristan) and Joseph Hu (Spoletta) offered fine work. The costumes by Suzanne Mess and Ray Diffen were excellent, and chorus master Timothy Todd Simmons's forces worked to good effect.

DAVID GREGSON




LOS ANGELES


In Los Angeles Opera's recent Die Zauberflöte, conductor Lawrence Foster made the most of Mozart's uplifting music, while never failing to find the true spirit of the lighter parts of the score. Through polished playing, the orchestra became an imposing, moving presence. Foster truly located the work's center of gravity, which must be the sun of Sarastro and his followers, and not the moon of the Queen of the Night and her retinue.

Some people do go to see this opera just to hear the Queen's two big arias, or perhaps Papageno's folksy hit tunes. Those people got what they paid for. As the Queen, soprano Sumi Jo provided the requisite vocal pyrotechnics, despite a perilous Act I descent from the heavens marred by conspicuous mechanical difficulties on opening night (March 24); but once firmly on the ground, she was spectacular, her steel-razor fingernails flashing and her diaphanous midnight-black frock swirling dramatically.

Eschewing the excessive cuteness that often mars the role of Papageno, baritone Rodney Gilfry managed to convey the right mix of charm and lowlife lust, while his singing seemed especially refined, his German fluent and assured. This must be counted among his best efforts with this company.

As Pamina, soprano Andrea Rost sounded shrill at times, but the size of her voice and the beauty of her legato phrasing offset any faults. She was matched with a superlative, princely suitor, tenor Michael Schade, one of the best and most confident Taminos heard in many a year. Bass Reinhard Hagen sang Sarastro's godlike music with all the seriousness it deserves.

As the Three Ladies, Robin Follman, Cynthia Jansen and Suzanna Guzmán were a marvel of coordination, while giving each role a touch of individuality. Tenor Greg Fedderly had great fun with the role of Monostatos, a bulbous grotesque with a protruding belly; he was green, instead of the non-P.C. "blackamoor" prescribed by Mozart. Bass James Creswell did superb work as the Speaker.

Deftly "redirected" by Stanley M. Garner from Peter Hall's original concept, this production accentuated the work's seriousness without skimping on the fantasy. In their second LAO appearance, Gerald Scarfe's cartoonish sets and exotic, colorful costumes, not to forget that menagerie of charming animals, would give the Harry Potter/J. R. R. Tolkien crowd plenty to talk about, if they would just give Mozart a whirl.

DAVID GREGSON




SARASOTA


Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos made a neatly complementary bit of programming, with its Mozart-inspired composer in the prologue and the witty combination of Classical elegance, modern lyricism and self-mocking commedia dell'arte elements in the opera proper. Despite its long gestation period and offbeat structure, Ariadne remains one of the composer's most lighthearted inspirations. Sarasota's production (seen at the matinée, March 17) had much going for it, including breakout performances by two young artists. Mary Phillips delivered an outstanding turn as the Composer. Appealing and energized, the mezzo-soprano was alive to every turn of the hectic comedy, as well as singing Strauss's soaring closing lines with a lovely, refined timbre. Jami Rogers scored a knockout company debut as Zerbinetta. As light-footed as a dancer, the petite soprano inhabited her role completely. Rogers's high voice handled "Grossmächtige Prinzessin" with fine style and agility, even though her top register was not entirely seamless. She brought an irresistible joie-de-vivre to her performance.

The opera-within-an-opera was less successful than the prologue. Stephanie Sundine directed Ariadne and Bacchus to stand like Doric columns for most of their eighty-minute scene, a deadly bit of staging, not helped by the stiff acting of soprano Lisa Willson as Ariadne (though she sang reliably). Wearing a preposterous high-school-pageant getup, Daniel Cafiero provided strong, if not very refined, singing as Bacchus. Richard Cordova was an aptly pompous Major-Domo, Russell Cusick an inspired Music Master and Mark Walters a lively Harlekin, among the rest of a worthy ensemble. DeRenzi conducted the Sarasota Opera Orchestra with a strong feeling for Strauss's extended vocal lines, providing the right touch of rococo elegance as well.

The company's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (March 17) was less successful, sparked by an unintended bit of extra drama. As Lucia, Christine Bouras displayed an attractive stage presence, but the young soprano was clearly overparted for this demanding role. Her voice sounded light initially, grew weaker as the performance progressed and by Act II was virtually inaudible, at which point DeRenzi announced that Bouras was suffering from a cold and would be unable to continue. For the remainder of Act II, her understudy, Melanie Vaccari, sang from the pit while Bouras mimed onstage. Vaccari then took the stage for Act III, coming on cold to sing Lucia's mad scene, one of the most demanding showpieces in the repertory. Given the circumstances, Vaccari did an admirable job, even though some of Donizetti's high-flying coloratura was negotiated with more precision than virtuoso flair.

As Edgardo, Benjamin Warschawski, while not the last word in elegance, proved a dramatically strong figure, sturdy and big of voice. The tenor's lyrical rendering of his Act III scena, beginning with "Fra poco a me ricovero," was a big hit with the Sarasota audience. Todd Thomas was a brawny-voiced Enrico, Lawrence Long a sonorous Raimondo. Young conductor John Di Costanzo led the orchestra with a skillful sense of dramatic pacing and bel canto refinement, though occasionally he swamped his singers in climaxes.

LAWRENCE A. JOHNSON




MIAMI


Despite brief flashes of inspiration, Florida Grand Opera's production of Boris Godunov (seen March 13) at Miami-Dade County Auditorium was a dismal, provincial show. Dramatically inert, with tacky sets, the staging only fitfully captured Boris's dark Slavic atmosphere and brooding drama. Alternating spectacle with scenes of private conflict, Mussorgsky's deep-textured work dispassionately plumbs the Russian soul, finding casual cruelty, political intrigue and religious hypocrisy among the country's leaders. The Russian people, represented by the large chorus, are really the opera's protagonist, forever abused, betrayed and manipulated by those in control. The story has rung true for centuries, whether the leaders have been tsars, Soviet commissars or today's post-capitalist oligarchs.

Stewart Robertson opted for the performing edition by Rimsky-Korsakov, which smooths and refines Mussorgsky's original, rough-edged orchestration. Robertson dispensed with the Polish scenes, which Mussorgsky added in his 1874 revision.

As the tortured Boris, James Morris provided most of the evening's fleeting highlights. The American bass-baritone, who first sang this role in Miami (in English) twenty-five years ago, has lost some of the dark luster of his voice, but he brought compelling dramatic presence and intelligence in a well-rounded portrayal of the tortured tsar. Boris's coronation scene monologue was fittingly quiet and internalized, yet Morris showed fierce conviction when lashing out at the duplicitous Prince Shuisky. The clock scene and (especially) Boris's death were most affecting; Morris sang the tsar's farewell to his young son with uncommon tenderness and sympathy.

As Pimen, Kevin Langan brought a rich bass and expressive point to the monk's long monologue. Tenor Jeffrey Springer was a vital Grigori, his energy and solid acting compensating for a rather dry sound. As the wastrel monk Varlaam, Mikhail Svetlov's huge Slavic instrument proved more imposing than steady; however, he easily overshadowed Douglas Perry's Missail.

The ever-reliable tenor Allan Glassman was an excellent Shuisky, insinuating and devious. Adults Sarah Miller (Xenia) and Audrey Babcock (Fyodor) were nearly believable as Boris's children. Pierre Lefebvre, an affecting Simpleton, achieved the properly elegiac mood, as he cried for his lost kopek and equally lost Russia. Though Bernard McDonald clearly has made strides in his attempts to upgrade the company's chorus, the group is not yet up to this daunting assignment. While the chorus (enlarged for this production) effectively registered the people's vehemence in the Kromy Forest scene, the coronation scene and Boyars' meeting lacked sonority, strength and clarity; enunciation of the Russian text was poor.

One would have expected more professional blocking from Lotfi Mansouri, who just left San Francisco Opera after an acclaimed twelve-year stewardship. Apart from the Kromy Forest scene, Mansouri's flat, lethargic direction repeatedly sacrificed dramatic tension, and the listless crowd scenes had all the riveting intensity of tired travelers waiting for a bus transfer. Apart from a striking, icon-laden backdrop, Robert Dahlstrom's cheesy-looking sets (originally designed for Seattle Opera) added to the dramatic flatness; even Malabar's costumes looked resplendent by comparison.

Robertson conducted the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra with more efficiency than inspiration, eliciting light, sometimes pedestrian playing, which was swamped by a souped-up recording of tolling bells in the coronation scene. The opening-night performance contained more than the usual share of problems, including loud stage noises, repeated glitches in the projected titles and appalling audience rudeness, including a duet of competing cell-phones during Boris's death scene.

LAWRENCE A JOHNSON




WEST PALM BEACH, FL


It's a curious phenomenon that when South Florida opera companies dare to stretch their repertoires, the results are usually more successful than when they play it safe. Palm Beach Opera's season-closing production of Tannhäuser (in the Dresden version, seen April 12) did not offer a Wagnerian experience on a Bayreuth level. Yet with a mostly strong cast, inspired stage direction and richly layered musical support by company artistic director Anton Guadagno, Wagner's opera proved an outstanding achievement in what was billed as the work's belated Florida premiere.

Tenor Gary Bachlund looked the part of Tannhäuser and provided a sturdy tenor and solid dramatic instincts. He doesn't quite possess the vocal heft for this demanding role, but he sang with passion, intelligence and a youthfully clarion timbre. Bachlund made the knight's tortured state palpable during the Act II festivities, bursting in with his licentious ode to Venus with an almost crazed ardor. Though he betrayed some vocal wear by the time he arrived at the climactic Rome narrative, Bachlund characterized the music with compelling intensity, spitting out the word "verdammt" (damned); Tannhäuser's redemption was deeply affecting.

Cast as both Venus and Elisabeth, soprano Susan Owen, like Bachlund, doesn't have the sustaining power for this opera. The double casting sacrificed essential vocal contrast, and the soprano offered a generalized Venus, limited to vaguely enticing or threatening gestures. As Elisabeth, Owen turned in a more creditable performance; despite a lack of refulgence in her tone in "Dich, teure Halle," Owen made up the balance with her intimate singing in Act III, including a radiant prayer.

As Wolfram, Daniel Washington presented a noble yet unfocused portrayal. Though his song to the evening star was ardently rendered, the baritone's dry, husky timbre did not fall easily on the ears. Reda El Wakil was superb as Hermann the Landgrave, skillfully wielding his resonant bass and cutting a tall, dignified figure. Dennis Petersen, Bruce Reed, Harold Wilson and, especially, Michael Mayes (as the hot-tempered Biterolf) made a vocally firm, vividly characterized band of knights. Marie Ashley was a fine Shepherd, delivering her song in a pure, boyish tone.

Hugh Lester's well-traveled New Orleans Opera sets offered an attractive, split-level Wartburg Hall. Less successful was the design for the Venusberg; with its red drapes and overstuffed pillows, it looked less like the goddess of love's abode than a four-hour-nap hotel in Hallandale Beach. Kathy Waszkelewicz's wigs and Malabar's costumes made the knights a resplendent group, though the white-on-white robes for the guests lent visual monotony to the extended entrances of Act II.

Michael Leinert elicited natural movement and acting from his principals. The German director utilized a lean, traditional staging that worked well, deploying scrims, fog and lighting deftly to evoke a mystical atmosphere. The opera's climax sacrificed some dramatic focus, but otherwise Leinert's direction was consistently well-conceived. The dramatic ensemble that closes Act II was thrilling in its immediacy.

The large chorus (expanded for the occasion), led by Seymour Schonberg, sang with robust tone and refined expression, save for repeated lack of coordination in the Great Hall choruses. Guadagno proved every bit as inspired by this difficult score as he is by his usual verismo repertory. Ideally, this music should receive more muscular brass and symphonic weight, but Guadagno drew playing of great eloquence, fervor and commitment from his players, making the big choral climaxes and set pieces register with exciting impact.

LAWRENCE A. JOHNSON




CHICAGO


For the second production of its season, Chicago Opera Theater presented Benjamin Britten's chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, at the Athenaeum Theater in mid-March. Written in the shadow of World War II and first performed when Glyndebourne re-opened in 1946, Britten's Lucretia registers some familiar Brittenian themes (e.g., the imbrication of violence, tragedy, guilt and loss) in unusual ways. Scored for thirteen instrumentalists and a modest cast of eight, Lucretia juxtaposes some of the familiar and lurid elements of nineteenth-century operatic melodrama (the rape alluded to in the title) with a recurring appeal to Christian morality (as embodied by a Male and Female Chorus who comment on the actions onstage). The Choruses are actually hefty solo roles, performed here by Michael Colvin and Kara Shay Thomson (seen March 13), dressed in eveningwear of the mid-1940s. Beyond mediating between "us" (in the audience today) and "them" (the world of Ancient Rome, onstage), the choral soloists register the anxieties produced by onstage events and their (our?) implication in them. They give voice to their own desires, and these desires start to bleed over into and even meld with those being expressed by the "proper" characters of the opera. Thus, some of the most vexing questions raised by The Rape of Lucretia involve culpability: who rapes whom, and according to whose desire? Just who are these Romans and Etruscans? Who is this terrifying usurper, Tarquinius, this warmonger who "treats the proud city as if it were his whore"?

This production had little time or energy for these questions. Geoffrey Curley's set was conceptually apt -- a Roman temple within the outlines of a Gothic church -- but evacuated of any political reference. There was no hint here that Tarquinius and his new bride "rule Rome by force and govern by sheer terror." The juxtaposition of ancient and gothic looked flimsy rather than eerie or sinister. The same held true for Curley's costumes: the soldiers sported breastplates and swords straight from an elementary-school playground. It seemed unlikely that Curley and director Michael Halberstam were seeking to associate the military camp with, well, camp. Nonetheless, throughout this production, the soldiers came off as the stuff of parody: rote, earnest and grandiloquent. Not so Lucretia (Julia Bentley) or her attendants, Bianca, the old nurse (mezzo Kathleen Flynn), and Lucia, the maid (soprano Thea Tullman). The ladies were no more carefully inflected in their dramatic reference, but at least they were less mannered.

The production's dramatic oversights were all the more unfortunate as some of the musical performances were remarkable. Colvin's tenor and Thomson's soprano were light and agile enough to convey the moral subtleties and ambiguities of the Male and Female Chorus intelligently, though both could turn on the power for occasional moments of outrage and anguish. Julia Bentley's Lucretia was excellent: the final aria ("Give him this orchid"), which pushes the extremes of contralto register, was a model of control. David Giuliano as Tarquinius came off as sensitive and lyrical rather than as a testosterone-fueled rapist, though this musical suggestion went unnoticed on the level of drama or costuming.

Alexander Platt, resident conductor of the COT, conducted with energy and precision. Lucretia is almost a concert piece: much revolves around the transformation and recontextualization of musical motifs through subtle shifts of pacing and texture. Unfortunately, Platt's thoughtful efforts were at times undone by the erratic acoustics of the Athenaeum Theater. Voices diminished in power as they stepped back from the front of the stage, leaving the soldiers in the opening drinking sequence, for example, muffled and remote rather than stentorian. This did not affect the ensemble onstage, but it did produce some obvious problems of balance in the auditorium.

MARTIN STOKES& DAVID J. LEVIN




WASHINGTON, DC


Nearly a century after its premiere, Richard Strauss's Salome hasn't lost its ability to stun and inflame the senses. Washington Opera's hot production confirmed that on April 9. It put an unabashed emphasis on the raw sexual current that relentlessly propels the work to its gruesome conclusion, and it boasted a physically ideal soprano who truly inhabited the title role.

Sylvie Valayre's voice could not always slice through Strauss's beefy orchestration, and it didn't reveal a particularly distinctive or tingly timbre. But the singer's exceptional combination of talents still fit the role snugly. Except for a few signs of wear near the end of the performance, she sounded fresh and firm. More impressive still, she didn't let a single note pass without conveying its message. When she came on to Jochanaan, Valayre caressed the lyrical lines with great suggestiveness and spat out the venomous ones to electric effect. When she tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention, it was the natural instinct of a spoiled-rotten teenager used to being the center of attention. Then, as Jochanaan fell to his knees and stretched out his arms in prayer, urging her to seek forgiveness from the man in a boat on the sea of Galilee, she imitated his movements, more in awe than mockery. A subsequent epileptic-like fit turned her, for an instant, into a strangely sympathetic figure.

The dance of the seven veils was somewhat tepid but had its allure. And when this Salome sat on the floor, legs spread around the silver tray holding the prophet's head, her feet keeping time to the music, there was something at once grotesque and (forgive me) endearing about the image. Less convincing were Salome's sudden straddling of Jochanaan on the floor at one point during their confrontation; and her demise, which looked more like an awkward, stylized bit of ballet with the soldiers.

Jan-Hendrik Rootering could not quite match the descriptions in Salome's poetic panting over Jochanaan's physical features, but, in a way, the disparity underlined the bizarre nature of her lust and the prophet's inability to comprehend it. The bass sang with warmth and conviction, if not always with all the desired power. The role of Herodes suited veteran Wagnerian tenor René Kollo. A wobble or occasional glitch in the upper register never detracted from the colorful inflections in his phrasing. Catherine Keen was a dynamic Herodias in voice and action. Corey Evan Rotz sang Narraboth's lines in sweet, well-focused tones. The rest of the cast proved basically sturdy. Heinz Fricke conducted with authority and sensitivity; the orchestra turned in lush, disciplined playing.

Peter Hall's original concept for Los Angeles Opera was taken over by director David Kneuss, who let the action unfold effectively within John Bury's unfussy scenic design. Elizabeth Bury's costumes and, especially, Joan Sullivan-Genthe's moody lighting completed the elegant stage pictures.

TIM SMITH




NEW YORK CITY


Georgina Lukács and Carlo Guelfi made their Met debuts as Tosca and Scarpia (Feb. 27). The kindest thing one can say about the evening was that luster was lacking, at least onstage. The pit had plenty of it, because Julius Rudel was leading the orchestra. But the Hungarian soprano sang a rather routine Puccini heroine, going through most of the proper motions and missing most of the excitement that even many less vocally equipped divas manage to offer. "Quanto?" More than this, baby. As for Baron Scarpia, Guelfi sang with a pleasant lyricism that would have done Bohème's Marcello proud, but his efforts would have met with contempt from a real Scarpia, scornful as he is toward lovesick serenaders. The work of Richard Leech as Cavaradossi and the rest of the cast smacked, understandably perhaps, of contagious but at least more competent routine. The debutants had sung their roles in Met concerts in the parks, but indoors it seemed to be raining on their parade.

LEIGHTON KERNER




The best plays of Tennessee Williams are set to music already, spoken operas of rhythmic poetry, dense atmosphere, heightened characterizations and Wagnerian leitmotifs of speech or sound. (Sometimes, as in the "Varsouviana" of A Streetcar Named Desire, the leitmotifs are musical.) The composer who dares to set Williams's work must be a kind of stage director, respecting the original "score" and assigning tempo, dynamic and intensity to the text. Any miscalculation or disrespect for Williams's work will undermine the composer's, yet too close an affinity will render his or her work redundant.

After an already wobbly opening to his opera The Glass Menagerie, Italian-Norwegian composer Antonio Bibalo signals his failure to strike any kind of balance or meeting of artistic minds with Williams and his autobiographical "memory-play." In the second scene, Amanda Wingfield, the monster-mother of the piece, is carrying on at the dinner table, upbraiding her son for his table manners and trumpeting the values of good digestion. She is babbling. (She is also betraying the emptiness of her pretensions to Southern-gentry status, since no proper Southern lady would discuss gastric juices at the table.) Amanda babbles because she loves the sound of her voice, because such airy conversation reminds her of more elegant dinners past, because no one else can speak of less pleasant subjects so long as she dominates. The music of Williams's speech demands a quick, lively tempo. Because Bibalo stretches out the lines, Amanda is transformed from chattering parrot to lugubrious hippo. The score never recovers.

The result is frankly offensive, a cynical association of an insipid exercise with a beloved masterpiece: surely no one would ever perform Bibalo's work if it weren't for Williams's reputation. Time and again, Bibalo makes the wrong choices. Tom's narrations -- which contain the play's most poetic language -- are mostly spoken, though here they demand to be sung. (Every word of Williams's text is used in Bibalo's libretto.) Arias and scenes requiring heat are rendered coolly; indeed, almost everything in the score is reduced to soupy arioso vocal lines and orchestral noodling that sounds the same from page to page. Bibalo demonstrates no understanding of Williams's play.

Patrick Casey (stage director) and David Leighton (conductor), who produced The Glass Menagerie for New York's tiny OperaWorks company, do understand the play, but their conscientious production (seen March 29) only served to point up the play's strengths and the opera's weaknesses. With set and costumes (uncredited) that would serve any small production of the play, OperaWorks's dedicated cast of four struggled bravely with Bibalo's score. Only mezzo Nina Fine, as Laura, seemed comfortable with the vocal writing and stayed reliably on pitch, but she fell victim to Casey's biggest goof. Laura is supposed to be an invalid who limps. This Laura was hale, utterly normal, far from the cripplingly shy character whose social malaise is a manifestation of the mental illness suffered by the real woman who inspired her, Williams's sister, Rose.

As her "suitor," tenor Robert J. Havens was too vulgar, tenor Christopher Pfund, as Tom, too earthbound. (Why was he allowed to wear a Marilyn Monroe necktie?) Though she commanded the stage, as Amanda must, mezzo Robin Williams had most difficulty with pitch and played too broadly. But these are minor quibbles: the play seemed to speak to every member of the cast. Leighton conducted, using pre-recorded instruments (unspecified and uncredited), heavily reliant on synthesizer. He often achieved a nicely glass-like tinkling from his instrumental forces, but nobody on hand could make this score seem substantial or worthwhile.

WILLIAM V. MADISON




TOLEDO


Refusing to bow to the overwhelming trend of regional companies to serve up one Carmen or Butterfly after another, Toledo Opera's general director Renay Conlin bravely schedules a twentieth-century work in each year's season of three operas. (Granted, next year's twentieth-century "opera" is Sweeney Todd -- but in Toledo, that's a riskier choice than you may realize.) Despite a bit of grumbling from some subscribers and a small loss in individual sales linked to the name-recognition of the repertory, this policy ultimately may help to expand the audience. Certainly The Turn of the Screw, in the historic Valentine Theatre (April 14), would have done credit to the reputation of many far more prominent (and resource-rich) companies.

David Gano's set was mainly interlocking platforms and a few furniture pieces and props carried on and off by the cast. Sometimes, as in the schoolroom scene when the Governess's being alone in the house is a key plot point, this proved distracting; but Gano's lighting well evoked the shifting delights and dreads of Bly and its residents. Francis Cullinan's intelligent direction stressed visual flow, occasionally at the expense of the multiplicity of meaning Myfanwy Piper's text invites. He managed Quint's initial appearances on the tower and at the window as well as I have seen them done. The projected titles seemed superfluous, as the uniformly fine cast achieved the verbal clarity the piece demands.

Rising Canadian soprano Michele Capalbo brought not unwelcome spinto weight and scale to the Governess's part, always retaining enough lyric grace for some lovely halftones and skillfully applied high pianissimos. An attractive and affecting stage figure (less bossy or bonkers than some contemporary Governesses), Capalbo gave a nuanced, compelling reading of this challenging but wonderful role.

Thomas Trotter doubled as a bookish Prologue (not quite phrasing the words to maximum ambiguous effect) and a confident, convincingly rough-spirited Quint, with a notably chilling gait. His pleasant lyric tone and musical phrasing enabled him to do full justice to Britten's writing, and he commanded the haunting melismas on the name "Miles," which can linger on for hours in the listener's mind. Vanessa Conlin brought an incisive, personal timbre and real dramatic presence to Miss Jessel (surely one of modern opera's great "Best Supporting Actress" roles). Even more than does Britten, Cullinan deployed the ghosts a bit too often for maximum creepiness.

Jennifer Roderer, looking a little young for Mrs. Grose, sang her in a well-produced and characterful mezzo. Karla Hughes, directed to be hyperactive and almost bratty at times, was exceedingly convincing as Flora and sang very well in a bright, girlish soprano. Seventh-grade treble Ryan Gerhard looked ideal as little Miles and sang quite well, though not always dead on pitch, with a small but aptly uncanny tone that the theater's 901-seat size accommodated well. Perhaps some of the piece's disturbing ambiguity was lost in having the children so clearly seeing the ghosts and in conspiracy with them and one another.

Underlying all of this was Thomas Conlin's sensitive command of Britten's magical score and the delicacies of pit/stage balance. (The conductor is husband of Renay and father of Vanessa Conlin.) The fourteen musicians from the Toledo Symphony, comfortable for a change in the theater's rather too-snug pit, furnished playing on the highest level. Kimberly Bryden (English horn/oboe), Kevin Bylsma (celeste/piano) and Amy Heritage (flute/piccolo) deserve special commendation.

DAVID SHENGOLD




KANSAS CITY


When it was new, back in 1843, Don Pasquale was considered revolutionary for portraying not figures from history or mythology but people in the present, in contemporary dress. To be true to Donizetti's conception, in a sense, a modern staging ought to have modern settings and clothes. The engaging Lyric Opera of Kansas City production that opened March 16 at the Lyric Theatre split the difference, setting the opera in Brooklyn, circa 1919. (New York City in those days probably had the world's second-largest concentration of Italians.) Don Pasquale was turned into a robber baron, Norina into a prototypical liberated woman.

John Pascoe's unit set, created for Virginia Opera, was a clever affair, the effect compromised only by long scene-changes. We saw first a grand baronial interior, with great arches and panels. With sheets hanging around, it became a garret, when a down-on-her-luck Norina was reduced to taking in laundry. (Scorch-marks on the sheets told us that housework was a new career development.) For outdoor scenes, with the paneling removed, the arches suggested Brooklyn Bridge steelwork, with the lighted Manhattan skyline in the background. The marvelous lighting was by Rick Goetz.

The title role was a natural for David Evitts, one of the best opera comedians around. Mugging, lurching, prancing and pouting, he poured out a rich porridge of a baritone, and you couldn't take your eyes off him. Evitts met his match, though, in Angela Turner Wilson, a glamorous Norina but one who didn't miss a trick. Pasquale may have been surprised when she took over his household, but we certainly saw it coming. Turner Wilson's coloratura isn't the crispest around, but she was undaunted by the stratospheric tessitura -- and it was good to hear a liquescent soprano in the role, rather than a perky canary.

If any stage director can coax a living, breathing, credible character out of a singer, it's Linda Ade Brand, who also whipped up just enough activity (notably in Norina's introduction) without overdoing it. But even she couldn't quite quicken two characters in this production. Robert McPherson was facile in Ernesto's upper ranges, with a lovely legato. But he was merely serviceable as an actor, and he tended to press too much of a nasal edge on his voice; he needn't have forced in the 1,600-seat theater. Maksim Ivanov's brightish baritone was an effective contrast to Evitts's creamier tone, but he hardly suggested Dr. Malatesta's sneakiness. (He could have passed for a stolid Sharpless.)

The chorus, prepared by Mark Ferrell, sang well and scurried around like the hurriedly assembled household staff it portrayed. Apart from a fuzzy onstage trumpet solo, the orchestra, from the Kansas City Symphony, played commendably, the horns strikingly so. Alas, conductor Valery Ryvkin went for lyricism at the expense of rhythmic vitality. At least in the opening performance, the overture plodded, and thereafter he tended to set tempos just a hair's-breadth too slow to let the music -- and drama -- sparkle.

SCOTT CANTRELL




CHARLOTTE, NC


Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia should sparkle, and Opera Carolina's production did just that. The opening night performance (April 4) displayed uniformly excellent singing, judicious staging and enough dash and élan to satisfy any discriminating bel canto enthusiast. Even the shorter roles (such as Jennifer Lee's perky Berta, Timothy Riggs's befuddled double duty as Fiorello and the Sergeant, and especially Kevin Bell's sonorous Don Basilio) were in expert hands, while each of the principals more than rose to the occasion. Dale Travis was equal to the challenge of Dr. Bartolo, both vocally and dramatically, handling the patter of his difficult aria adroitly, as well as being genuinely funny. Oziel Garza-Ornelas was a forceful, if somewhat thick-toned Figaro who brought considerable panache to the role.

But the stars of the evening were the two young lovers. Paul Austin Kelly was a dashing Almaviva, played the comedy well and used his supple, if slender, tone to meet the demands of the flexible vocal line. Mezzo Vivica Genaux actually lived up to her advance billing. The voice is not large, but the tone is rich and sure, and coloratura pyrotechnics are simply no problem at all. Add a winning stage presence, and you have an artist worthy of inclusion in the front ranks of the present generation of coloratura mezzos.

It was refreshing to see the work staged by a director who respected the integrity of Rossini's opera rather than imposing some outlandish "concept." Bernard Uzan's staging was funny without descending to obvious slapstick, and it provided a comfortable framework for his experienced cast.

James Meena, the company's principal conductor, kept things moving at a jaunty pace, and the Charlotte Symphony played well for him. But most of the credit for the success of the evening goes to James Meena, Opera Carolina's general director, for assembling the team responsible for a most enjoyable evening at the opera.

In an unprecedented move, this production was presented again a week later in Winston-Salem, under the auspices of Piedmont Opera. This represents a new phase in the relationship of the two North Carolina companies.

LUTHER WADE




DAYTON, OH


Dayton Opera, in cooperation with the Victoria Theatre Association, produced Leonard Bernstein's Candide, in the "Chelsea version" devised by Hugh Wheeler and Hal Prince for Broadway (1973). Without intermission, the evening clocked in at just under two hours. Seen at the Victoria Theatre on April 19, the energy level was still high at this, the nineteenth of twenty performances.

Set and costume designer Fay Conway tossed onstage a colorful, all-purpose set, "the attic of Voltaire's mind," stuffed with exotic props and set pieces, plus a family of mannequins. The clutter was an integral part of Michael McConnell's wild, fast-paced staging. The work's black humor met with audience laughter, though references to the sexual peccadillos of religious leaders struck many as too timely and prompted audible reactions of displeasure from the house.

The Victoria is a small theater (seating about 900); the decision to amplify the performance was questionable. The resultant overall brightness and rawness of sound was less detrimental to the singers than to the orchestra. Although conductor Joseph Bates kept the show alert and lively, speeding it along, inadequacies and flaws in the pit were over-emphasized by the amplification. Scrappy playing (thirteen players, including one on an ugly-sounding synthesizer) and out-of-proportion balance were a real trial to the ear.

The cast was very fine, with Lee Merrill's smart, flashy Cunegonde earning special praise. Candide (Colm Fitzmaurice) was elegantly sung and portrayed with an air of solid virtue and virility. Jamie Cordes belted out Maximilian's music, but his personality was too pallid. Marya Spring lent her capable, sprightly voice to Paquette.

Gary Briggle's gnome-like Dr. Pangloss was an endearing old soul; Briggle was a bit tired and hoarse at the beginning, but as he metamorphosed into Voltaire, the Governor and other characters, he was soon turning in a brilliantly sung performance, with dazzling, solid high notes. With her ample voice and personality, Susan Nicely almost walked off with the show as the Old Lady. Her spirited acting and comic precision enlivened all her scenes; her exotic "Rovno-Gubernya" accent was mostly intelligible.

The sixteen-member singing ensemble, including the four members of Dayton Opera's artist-in-residence program, performed the multitude of minor roles with exuberance and fine, close-knit singing.

CHARLES H. PARSONS




MILWAUKEE


Lady, Be Good, like all the musicals of its time (1924), was but an assortment of entertaining songs and musical numbers, strung together by a superficial plot. Nothing made the show special -- aside from being the first Broadway pairing of George and Ira Gershwin; the vehicle that confirmed the stardom of the dancing Astaires; and the great, all-time hit songs written for it: "Fascinatin' Rhythm," "Lady, Be Good" and "The Man I Love" (ultimately withdrawn!). Indeed, in the easy manner of the times, the Gershwins wrote some twenty-two songs for the show, most of which were not used.

Reprising that spirit of abundance, Jack Forbes Wilson, musical director for Skylight Opera Theatre's production, fashioned a highly entertaining version of the show for current consumption. He replaced a ukulele number and a yodeling song with less dated Gershwin songs, and inserted the athletic "I'd Rather Charleston"( written for this show's London run) for good measure. Inexplicably, "The Man I Love" was not reinstated, though the pungent strains of Rhapsody in Blue -- which Gershwin composed almost simultaneously with this musical --were often echoed. The whole was arranged for two pianos (the original production had featured duo pianists) and percussion, and it was taken up with enormous gusto (April 6) by a large, talented ensemble of singing dancers.

Tammy Bednash and Benjamin Howes tapped their way through the Astaire roles, Dick and Susie, a brother-and-sister vaudeville team (like Fred and Adele Astaire themselves) down on their luck. Norman Moses played the central role of Watty, a fast-talking lawyer who, chasing a juicy fee, gets Susie to pass herself off as a Mexican heiress. Ray Jivoff played Bertie Bassett, a quirky, ubiquitous character who just happens to speak fluent Spanish -- and so may endanger Susie's impersonation. Stage director and choreographer Pam Kriger kept the frothy story whipped to a peak and the dancing absolutely delightful. Tap solos and duets, dance ensembles and two impressive full-company finales (tap and Charleston) were varied, highly entertaining and polished to perfection. Scenic designer Rick Rasmussen supplied a gorgeous white Ziegfield Follies art-deco set so stylish one expected Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire to appear at any moment and come dancing down the elegant stairway. Melanie Schuessler's classy period costumes (along with a cascade of bubbles, showered on the grand finale) completed the effect.

JOHN KOOPMAN




 

STUDENT PERFORMANCES


NEW YORK CITY


Those who claim -- and wonder why -- comic operas aren't funny might have found a few answers in Manhattan School of Music's production of Albert Lortzing's delectable Der Wildschütz (The Poacher, seen April 24). Unfunnily is how American singers are taught to perform comic opera.

Lortzing's Ur-Romantic score is the airiest of soufflés, with music that lies somewhere between Mozart and Sullivan. On this occasion, the student cast and orchestra, under conductor Steven Osgood, managed the seemingly impossible feat of approximating the correct style of a musical tradition that isn't -- and almost never has been -- practiced in this country. (Songs were in German, dialogue in English.) Osgood kept the whole production aloft, while director Chuck Hudson insisted on underlining every moment in broadly presentational style and allowed one performer to indulge every worst instinct. Hudson created prettily symmetrical stage pictures but missed the fundamental rule of comedy: the plot is always funnier when the characters take it seriously. Lortzing, who was his own librettist, tells a silly story, full of disguises, base impulses and embarrassing revelations, but his satire is still relevant, his characters lovable. Hudson treated the work more as a burlesque.

As Baculus, the henpecked schoolmaster whose poaching sets the plot in motion, Michael Rice offered a nicely poised characterization and a beautifully placed baritone in a role that is traditionally played by ausgesungen veterans. In his big aria, "Fünftausend Thaler," he registered equal measures of horror and delight as Baculus marvels at the ease with which he has traded his fiancée for gold. Mezzo Monica Barnes (the bluestocking Countess von Eberbach) is a less skillful actor, but her fresh, rich voice, with easy carrying power, is ready for prime time. Only slightly less impressive than these colleagues, Jennifer O'Loughlin played Baroness Freimann, a girl playing a boy playing a girl, with a radiant smile and a blooming soprano; she delivered a zesty celebration of early widowhood in "Auf des Lebens raschen Wogen."

The other members of the cast need to ripen a bit. James Schaffner rightly played Baron Kronthal as a Tyrolean Hugh Grant, with easy stage presence, a somewhat edgy tenor and great hair. Museop Kim played his brother-in-law, Count von Eberbach; Kim's often muddy diction prevented him from keeping up with faster tempos, but in his solo, "Heiterkeit und Fröhlichkeit," his mellow tone carried the day. As Baculus's fiancée, Jung-A Lee looked lovely, but her small-scale soprano was lost in ensembles and couldn't carry reliably even in the confines of the school's Borden Auditorium. Benjamin de la Fuente (the mostly non-singing servant Pancratius) swamped his role in tics and grimaces; his catch-phrase, "I'll be hanged," was delivered unintelligibly each of twenty times. His friends in the balcony ate up this hammy performance, but no one else laughed at all, and no responsible director in a professional school should permit such nonsense.

Beowulf Boritt's simple, functional set design was dominated by a painted backdrop of a craggy mountain, beautifully lit by Rick Martin. Daniel James Cole designed the colorful costumes.

It's probably futile to hope that Lortzing's work will ever catch on in this country: if you have to ask what gemütlich means, you'll never know. But this listener has been under Der Wildschütz's spell for years; interested readers are encouraged to locate a copy of the old EMI recording (CMS 7 63205 2, with Anneliese Rothenberger, Gisela Litz, Fritz Wunderlich and Hermann Prey, impeccably conducted by Robert Heger).

WILLIAM V. MADISON




BLOOMINGTON, IN


A massive new production of Lucia di Lammermoor brought the Indiana University School of Music's opera season to a triumphant conclusion (April 13). C. David Higgins designed one of the most elaborate settings ever presented at the Musical Arts Center. Faux-Gothic follies, decaying bridges and steps marked a fog-shrouded landscape, romantically lit by a full moon in Michael Schwandt's atmospheric lighting designs. The great hall of Lammermoor Castle, with an extensive balcony and grand staircase, first appeared far upstage, then slowly glided forward to the front of the stage, bearing the choral denizens, while huge chandeliers and giant windows descended into position and the audience cheered.

The performances, sung in Italian with projected titles in English, honored the standard musical cuts (no "Wolf's Crag" scene, for example) but reinstated the Lucia-Raimondo duet and the vocal ensemble that bisects the mad scene.

Guest stage director Tito Capobianco's experience with this opera dates back at least to New York City Opera's 1970 production, starring Beverly Sills. Here, Capobianco opted for a basically static production, with people grouped scenically rather than for dramatic impact. But, ever the master of the "upstage the principals" school, he insisted on frequent, unnecessary appearances by four somberly clad women, like witches left over from an old production of Macbeth. They slowly, silently moved about, while Lucia and Edgardo, with whom the real interest lies, remained generally motionless.

Evelyn Pollack's Lucia was a stunningly beautiful, delicate creature, compellingly acted and strongly sung; she is more a warm lyric soprano than an icy coloratura. Pollack's rudimentary trill was the only shortcoming of her easy negotiation of the elaborate passagework. Scott Six's Edgardo was an operatic oxymoron, with the voice of a fine leggiero tenor housed in the body of a heldentenor. However, he soon engaged the ear with his fresh, boyish sweetness of tone, full of poignancy, and his delicious delivery of musical nuance. Weston Hurt's Enrico was physically imposing, vocally a bit nasal, incisive, but careful and constrained. Due to the illness of his alternate, Brandon Mayberry sang the role of Raimondo at all four performances; though his sandy-textured voice is a bit lightweight, he does possess some impressive low notes.

Jeremy Truhel bravely attempted Arturo's awkward vocal lines; Elizabeth Johnson's small-scale Alisa lent Lucia sympathetic support. Emilio Jimenez Pons's Normanno was bright and ringing, holding his own against the choral competition. The men's chorus was hale and hearty but much beset by ragged entrances and dominated by individual, unblended voices. The women's chorus sounded more perfunctory but more solid. Conductor Imre Pallo, another City Opera veteran, was generally supportive of the singers' needs, sometimes pushing ahead of them but generally turning in a relaxed, romantic performance.

CHARLES H. PARSONS




 

INTERNATIONAL


 

SALZBURG


Claudio Abbado's farewell as music director of Salzburg's Easter Festival emerged as a luminous, understated and immensely moving performance of Parsifal that combined the Berlin Philharmonic, at the top of its form, with a strong cast headed by Thomas Moser (Parsifal), Violeta Urmana (Kundry), Albert Dohmen (Amfortas) and Hans Tschammer (Gurnemanz). For Abbado, Wagner has never been a top priority. It is not surprising that, with these two Salzburg performances looming and limited rehearsal time, he presented a concert version of the opera in Berlin last November, so that the Philharmonic (which had last played Parsifal with Herbert von Karajan in 1980) could feel comfortable with Wagner's mammoth score. And comfortable they were. The orchestra, about 60 percent of which was engaged post-Karajan, remains a marvel of collective harmony and technical brilliance. Solos were breathtaking, and the dynamics of the score, though somewhat understated, were carefully observed. Abbado chose to emphasize long, fluid lines, combined with an intimate, almost chamber-music approach in scenes involving small groups of people.

Peter Stein, the celebrated Berlin stage director, provided a literal, occasionally affecting series of animated pictures. Act I began with a bare stage and shifted (with the curtain down and no lighting or visual effects) to a semicircular Grail Hall, a curved, three-level structure with a vertical door in the center and niches to hold the standing knights. The Grail table was a long, black altarpiece, and the knights, in white capes, entered rather confusingly in single file from each side, then crossed back to take their places, two to a niche; the boys choir from the Prague Philharmonic Chorus occupied the top row. When Amfortas was carried in, wearing a white tunic and a silver crown, the dark-blue background lighting brightened. As the scene ended, the Grail glowed red amid clouds of incense.

Klingsor's castle, shrouded in black, with a stairway running down one side, provided an appropriate setting for the wily sorcerer (Eike Wilm Schulte), who wore an oriental robe. The castle courtyard, a low, green hedge in geometrical patterns, set the stage for sinuous, seductive Flowermaidens wearing long, brilliantly-colored gowns that could have been bought from Saks Fifth Avenue. Reclining in an opulent, quasi-oriental robe in the middle of this convoluted hedge, Urmana's Kundry must have found it difficult to seduce Parsifal, but she delivered her revelations about her past in a luxuriant, impassioned soprano. As the scene ended, an enormous plastic cross, presumably containing the spear, descended at the front of the stage. The shift from lakeside to Grail Hall in Act III was again accomplished with the curtain down and with enormous Tibetan gongs ringing out from the left side of the auditorium. The Grail glowed red again as Parsifal assumed leadership of the holy order.

Stein has a reputation as a shocking and innovative director, making one wonder why this production took nearly all of Wagner's stage directions so seriously. Contemporary German opera production is noted for twisting familiar works to fit an anti-religious, anti-authoritarian strain that has circulated among intellectuals since Hitler. I would suspect that, for their Salzburg finale, Stein, his designer Gianni Dessi and perhaps even Abbado decided to play it safe. It will be interesting to see if there are any changes when the production is presented, sans Berlin Philharmonic, at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.

JANE BOUTWELL




MELBOURNE


For the first time, Opera Australia managed to assemble for a new production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci a full cast of singers, every one of whom had the ability to sing verismo music with the appropriate "can belto" technique. Indeed, in the first work (seen March 16), a little less "belto" would not have come amiss. Mascagni manages more light and shade than does Leoncavallo, and nothing under mezzo forte emerged from the orchestra to dampen the full-blooded enthusiasm of singers (who, in fairness, were never drowned out).

The production by Andrew Sinclair, with sets by Shaun Gurton and costumes by Victoria Rowell, strove to respect the spirit of both works, though setting them in post-World War II Sicily darkened already dark subjects even further. Moreover, the music hardly suggests a gritty townscape without even a tree or a church in sight where even the youngest women onstage are (war) widows, dressed in black. To make matters worse, there was no moment in either opera in which some carefully rehearsed piece of casual business did not distract attention from more important things. Both intermezzos told lengthy visual stories: Santuzza considered the use of a knife (whether for murder or suicide), and Nedda packed her bags to leave. In the Cavalleria overture, numerous women wandered around the square, in pre-dawn darkness, to listen to Turiddu's loud serenade.

Young American conductor Karen Kamensek has yet to learn to add feeling to her carefully controlled orchestra, and these works rely as much on mood as on drama. The big voices on the stage largely made up for what she lacked. Armenian Arax Mansourian is a natural Santuzza with real power in her somewhat steely projection; as Turiddu, Australian Gregory Tomlinson has grown immensely in vocal stature. Their duet was a fine example of "can belto." Michael Lewis sang a strong Alfio -- and was even better as Tonio -- but the musical references to Alfio's job (the whip-cracks and such in "Il cavallo scalpita") were hidden; this teamster could have been the local butcher. Roxane Hislop's ample voice made her Lola seem arrogant rather than flirty. The unfortunate chorus was burdened with thousands of individual movements and undermined by a total eclipse during the Easter hymn, when the only remaining light, a solo spot, turned all attention to Santuzza.

Pagliacci fared better. The opera was set in a wire enclosure, presumably elsewhere in the same town, with the same men, women and children as the audience. The pen was hardly beautiful, though certainly adequate for Canio's primitive traveling troupe, with next to no props. The director invented some reasonably funny new business for the play-within-the-play, but the staging also turned in unexpected directions. Canio killed himself after the death of Nedda and Silvio, leaving Tonio a proud victor alone onstage.

The singing was good, strong and more varied in texture in this second work. Paul Lyon (Canio) has enjoyed a respectable career in the U.S., but his voice is tight and metallic, and he found the going tough near the crucial end. Experienced Jennifer McGregor's Nedda offered well-balanced singing and a great asset in acting and looks. Best of all was New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Silvio), the only singer to achieve a true piano all night, in his lengthy, pleading "E allor perché."

JOHN CARGHER




PARIS


Weber's final opera, Oberon, one of the great postwar successes at the Paris Opéra, arrived at the Châtelet this spring in a semi-staged version, conducted and directed by John Eliot Gardiner (seen March 10). Following performances of Der Freischütz (in Berlioz's edition) earlier this season, Weber is enjoying something of a revival in the French capital. Oberon is a delightful work of flowering Romanticism in the singspiel tradition of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail; its magical, fairytale music frequently evokes Sullivan's Iolanthe or the orchestral music of Mendelssohn. Gardiner chose to present the work in its original English version, from 1826; he used a narrator to bypass some of the spoken dialogue and to provide a slightly tongue-in-cheek commentary on the action, a role in which the very actorish Roger Allam excelled, with almost taciturn delivery. The orchestra was onstage, and an apron thrust the singers forward into the theater, wreaking havoc with the fragile Châtelet acoustics but bringing the action vividly to life. Gardiner did as well as many a professional stage director might have done; his dry sense of humor was much in evidence, helped by simple, elegant costumes designed by Colin Window, Gardiner's stage assistant. Gardiner's pacing of the orchestra was ideal, but the string section of the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique sounded rather undernourished for the climactic passages; some of the intimate moments were simply too featureless and internalized for their own good.

Hillevi Martinpelto's Reiza led the cast with plush soprano tones, striding magnificently through the famous aria, "Ocean! thou mighty monster," with effortless ease, although she lacked an edge of excitement. Her sorely tested beloved, the noble Sir Huon de Bordeaux, was a mysterious piece of casting. Surely the role was written for a heroic tenor, with trumpeting tones that are completely alien to the vocal makeup of poor Charles Workman. He was consistently musical, but where there should have been thrills there were timid, ill-tuned vapor trails of sound. Greater pleasure was to be had from another tenor, Steve Davislim (the fairy king Oberon), singing with graceful, unforced tone. The secondary couple, Sherasmin and Fatima, were performed with great comic conviction by the polished William Dazeley and the charming Marina Comparato, whose willfully obscure English diction was presumably one of Gardiner's little jokes.

Jérôme Savary's season at the Opéra Comique has been limited by a scandalous lack of funding, and he has been forced for the most part into long runs of his own popularized versions of Offenbach, rather than building on the challengingly diverse repertoire he championed last year. An exception was Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, in a production from last year's Aix-en-Provence festival. The first night (March 12) played inexplicably to a less than capacity audience: obviously the notoriously snobbish Parisian public had written off the season without studying the program. William Christie's realization of the score is as discreet as his conducting (from the harpsichord), concentrating the listeners' ears on the composer's masterfully vivid setting of the Italian language. The chamber orchestra worked as an organic part of the performance, listening and responding to the singers rather than being shoehorned into a traditional "conducted" performance. Onstage, the same team spirit was present among the young singers, who studied this work together at the Académie de Musique in Aix-en-Provence. Anthony Ward's set, with its omnipresent urns and simple stage effects, was economical in every sense of the word; Adrian Noble's direction of the singers was outstanding. Relationships and physicality were minutely explored and expressed, bringing a universal humanity to the work.

Vocally there were a few technically challenged performances among the smaller roles, but Marijana Mijanovic as Penelope and Kresimir Spicer as Ulisse were outstanding. Mijanovic's contralto voice is of an ink-black color with a straight, androgynous tone, lending her an unusually strong dramatic impact, seconded by her tall, elegant stage presence. Spicer has a tenor voice of complex colors, with a power and projection that suggest that many other roles and repertoires will be coming his way. Good support came from Olga Pitarch as an accurate, sprightly Minerva and countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam, who began the show with a dulcet-voiced interpretation of Human Frailty, also proving that nudity can still raise a gasp of disbelief from a twenty-first-century audience.

STEPHEN MUDGE




VENICE


On March 26, Swiss-born Italian conductor Marcello Viotti made his debut as music director of the Teatro La Fenice, conducting Otello at the Palafenice (the temporary home of the opera company whose rebuilding seems finally to have gotten under way). Despite the indifferent acoustics, Viotti immediately won over the Venetian audience. His conducting combined close attention to detail, flexibility in accompaniment, spontaneity in transition and, above all, strong emotional participation from the first note to the last. And the orchestra, which has improved considerably of late, responded wholeheartedly to his leadership.

The production was a good one, too. Mauro Carosi's sets, borrowed from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, stressed the rough-and-ready atmosphere of the fifteenth-century garrison: a man's world, in which Desdemona would inevitably feel ill-at-ease. The richly colored period costumes by Odette Nicoletti were brilliantly set off by the gray stone walls, and although director Alberto Fassini's handling of the chorus in the opening scene proved ineffective, the interaction among the principal characters was consistently well thought-out, although it was sometimes undermined by Vladimir Galouzine's overacting in the title role.

The Russian tenor, who already has sung Otello in Paris, Vienna and Milan (and is scheduled to perform the role at the Met in 2003), made the common mistake of altering his vocal production to achieve the dark colors he obviously feels are necessary for the role. As a result, the voice seemed throaty, insecure and much less brilliant than usual (except on the highest notes, where he was compelled to resort to a more orthodox emission), and his diction -- although more or less comprehensible -- sounded quite artificial and therefore unaffecting.

His Otello was overshadowed throughout by Renato Bruson's compelling Iago -- such an upright, manly, naturally charismatic figure that one could entirely understand his resentment at having to serve under such a feeble commander. Bruson's voice has aged, of course, but the tessitura of this role is still comfortable for him, and his superb legato and ability to extract the maximum import from every phrase lent his performance a quite revelatory impact.

By contrast, Dimitra Theodossiou's Desdemona seemed at times underprojected, both vocally and dramatically. The Greek soprano, who in other roles thrives on bold contrasts, seemed to be trying to demonstrate that she could sustain the part on pure singing alone. She did in fact phrase most musically throughout, and in Act IV her acting was never less than convincing. But she presented Desdemona entirely as a victim: she never suggested that the character could represent a positive force counterbalancing Iago's evil and Otello's degradation.

In the secondary roles, Rogelio Marin and Francesco Palmieri stood out as Cassio and Lodovico, and the singing of the chorus was consistently accurate and persuasive.

STEPHEN HASTINGS




NAPLES


On April 9 Strauss's Capriccio was given its first performance at the Teatro San Carlo. In spite of the delayed debut, this opera house has quite a strong Straussian tradition by Italian standards (early performances of Salome and Der Rosenkavalier were conducted by the composer himself), and Gustav Kuhn upheld this tradition by leading a superbly idiomatic performance with a fine cast. This is one of Kuhn's favorite operas, and right from the opening string sextet the orchestral playing combined intensity of feeling and a breathing naturalness of phrasing, and the technical difficulties of the score were overcome with surprising ease.

Onstage there was a largely German-speaking cast. Roland Bracht offered a particularly vivid portrayal of the theater director LaRoche, and Jörg Schneider and Timothy Sharp were nicely contrasted (in voice and physique) as the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier. Paola Antonucci performed impressively as the female Italian singer, and while Ivan Ludlow as the Count revealed more charisma as an actor than as a singer, June Anderson's Countess proved telling in many ways. It was her San Carlo debut, and her voice sounded compact and limpid throughout the range, although her high notes didn't quite float with the ease of classic Straussian sopranos. Anderson dominated the final scene impressively, however, and her naturally aristocratic bearing and ability to convey emotion mingled with questioning thoughtfulness (her diction was generally excellent) created a truly moving effect. She also stood out because her flamboyant costumes, created by the famous Italian couturier Renato Capucci, contrasted with the standard eighteenth-century costumes of the other characters (designed by Giusi Giustino). That contrast appropriately underlined the timeless wisdom and sensibility of the Countess.

Another contrast was created by the Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, whose set -- with its largely abstract backdrop and sculptures -- intelligently bridged the time gap between the period setting and Strauss's music and provided an apt context for the sophisticated wordplay of the libretto. Ivo Guerra's direction was generally logical and convincing (although it is hard to avoid an impression of stiltedness in certain dialogues), and Anna Razzi's choreography proved pleasing.

STEPHEN HASTINGS




BRUSSELS


Nowadays, the popular combination of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci is performed less frequently in Europe. Directors seem unhappy with the two tragedies set in late-nineteenth-century Italian villages. Some companies have tried pairing these works with other short operas and even with ballets. It was refreshing to have the old Cav/Pag double bill back once again, performed by the Belgian National Opera. Apparently the company anticipated great interest from the audience; this production was mounted not at the dignified Théâtre de la Monnaie but at the Cirque Royal (Royal Circus). Designer Benoît Dugardyn used the circular stage to create a setting without any indication of time and place, allowing director Stein Winge to concentrate on the drama. Some design elements shared by both works suggested that the two stories were taking place on one day in the same community, but this suggestion was denied by Jorge Jara's modern costumes, which made the chorus two completely different groups: peasants on a day off in Cavalleria and small-townsfolk in their Sunday best in Pagliacci. In Pagliacci, the director further filled the stage with a colorful variety of clowns, acrobats and midgets, stiff visual competition to Canio's troupe. One wondered what the traveling artists could offer to a village already crowded by so many excellent entertainers, especially as the "locals" completely outclassed Canio, Nedda and Tonio in physical virtuosity.

The singing, however, was very fine (heard April 20), especially the contributions of Richard Margison as a lyrical Canio with subtle phrasing, and of Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli, who presented a full-voiced Tonio of Iago-esque stature. Angela Maria Blasi was a Nedda with solid, round tones but flat characterization, and Anders Larsson failed to make the most of Silvio's part in their love duet, one of the most beautiful moments ever written for a lyric baritone.

In the prelude to Cavalleria, with its offstage siciliana, Puerto Rican tenor César Hernández seemed overtaxed already, but eventually he established himself as an excellent Turiddu, whose lyrical approach matched the girlish but vocally glorious Santuzza of Paoletta Maroccu. Their duet was one highlight of the performance, followed by another when Lado Ataneli (Alfio) entered for a dramatic scene with Santuzza. Less satisfying was the contribution of the orchestra, placed to the left of the stage. Conductor Manfred Honecke had some trouble in keeping soloists, chorus and orchestra together, but conditions in the Royal Circus may be blamed. However, his reading of the score featured brutal effects, such as the over-accentuated timpani during the final pages of both operas.

PAUL KORENHOF




INNSBRUCK


If you couldn't keep up with the world premiere of Der Häftling von Mab (Mab's Prisoner, March 16), the new chamber opera by Austrian composer Eduard Demetz, it was because you weren't supposed to. Novelist Händl Klaus's libretto evokes a mysterious dreamworld, in which a central character, Richard (Dale Albright), apparently has murdered his family and remedies this self-inflicted loss by escape into a world of illusion. He is part-haunted, part-reassured by a sequence of vividly recalled events from his real (or imagined) past, ushered in by the ghostly, beguiling Queen Mab. Sidling, leering, coaxing and nursing him from vision to vision, almost as gossamer as "the fairies' midwife" described by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (at one key point, her arms elongate like a spider's web), Mab is the hapless Richard's bewitching warder-cum-guardian (his Wärterin), and he her entrapped and entranced prisoner (Häftling).

Norbert Mladek's staging had the right ingredients for this mélange of strange happenings. Der Häftling von Mab hovers somewhere between the worlds of truth and reality, with debts to Surrealism (Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Paul Delvaux) and glimpses of Expressionism (Georg Kaiser, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Döblin). In particular, this production called to mind the tautly gestural Expressionist operas of Viktor Ullmann and the recent, surrealist work of director-librettist David Pountney (Martinu's Julietta, Maxwell Davies's Mr. Emmet and The Doctor of Myddfai).

Occasionally, the part-overt, part-subliminal imagery of Mladek's direction felt too knotty and addled, even by Freudian-Jungian standards; but a surprising amount of it lingers, abetted by a host of mocking props and curious, shifting costume detail from designers Bettina Munzer and Julia Libiseller, which underlined Richard's colorful, childlike recollections. Significantly, a skull forms part of the entourage, alongside a plethora of toy ducks, teddy bears, swimsuits, see-saws and watering cans. Even the sequence of toys arrayed upstage (and effectively dismissed, one by one, by a ghoulishly swung wellington boot) seemed garnered from a curious netherworld.

Susanne Winter seemed an apt choice for the part-malicious, part-benign, elusive (and irritating) Mab, with clear enunciation and some amazingly good, reliable singing in the role's high tessitura. An attractive-sounding tenor, Christoph Kayser (as Richard's forever-rocking fellow-prisoner, Andreas, plus his son, doppelgänger and namesake, Richard), provided the best of the passing vignettes, together with the disturbing reappearances of Marion Hauser (the Wife/Mother) and Marcel Hauser (her eerie small Child), who would be perfect in the lead of The Tin Drum.

Demetz's instrumental scoring was dark, dense, occasionally muddy, and tantalizingly elusive, studded with eerie whistles, murmuring drums, ostinatos and rich brass playing: a parodic musical membrane that aptly merges sequence into sequence, although without sufficient salient instrumental detail. A passage for bowed marimba, one striking interlude for violins with pointillistic bass clarinet, a contrabassoon underlay to Mab, and some spectacular onstage tuned percussion bravura stood out. Mladek delivered a precisely rehearsed staging: complex in intent but admirably clear, sharp-lined and smoothly honed.

Brigitte Fassbaender is the Tiroler Landestheater's Intendant; next season she will revive her recent staging of Tristan und Isolde and direct new productions of Carmen and A Midsummer Night's Dream herself, while supervising stagings of Benda's Romeo and Juliet and Aribert Reimann's Gespenstersonata (Ghost Sonata, after Strindberg), following Innsbruck's successful recent production of his Lear.

Fassbaender produced a delightful and witty (if cruelly cut) main-house semi-staging of Salieri's Falstaff (1799, seen March 17), a work whose ensembles stand up well beside the versions by both Verdi and Nicolai. Fassbaender clearly esteems young tenor Marwan Shamiyeh (Ford), and with good reason: he proved for me one of the tenor finds of the year -- well into the Juan Diego Flórez league and, to my ears, blessed with much more subtle variety.

The moment when Birgitte Christensen's coloratura Mistress Ford and her friend Mistress Slender (mezzo Marie-Claude Chappuis) discover Falstaff's double-dealing is as gleeful in Salieri as in Verdi. The choruses were vibrant, and the bassoon continuo for the confidential aria of Slender (the capable Joachim Seipp), was pure delight. Salieri's many ensembles were vital and diverse, while Mrs. Ford's Franco-German parody (her masquerade parallels her husband's disguise as "Broch") was hilarious.

Hartmann's fat knight, cooing at his "turturella," was constantly entertaining. True, there's no "Quand'ero paggio," but Salieri's "Nell' impero di Cupido" is almost as striking, and Falstaff's trilling signature (with the letter artfully enlarged on the cyclorama) verged on comic genius. Even the much pared-down Mistress Quickly role (Betty-Anja Scholz) was ably played. Shamiyeh's lovely final aria (Ford's appeal for forgiveness) has more than a hint of Mozart's Figaro, suggesting that the oft-maligned Salieri was by no means averse to absorbing from his young colleague so as to expand and humanize his own art.

RODERIC DUNNETT




COPENHAGEN


In hindsight, it seems funny that the audience should have been taken aback by the conservative look of the new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, in the plush rococo splendor of the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen. More often than not, Italian opera in these parts is "helped along" with unavoidable Fascist iconography and other memorabilia from totalitarian régimes. Directors often seem to say, "If an opera is only about love and death, it can't possibly be Real Art, can it?" Manon Lescaut is quite daring programming in this part of the world, where it's rare to see an opera by Puccini that isn't Bohème, Tosca or Butterfly. Not until 1995 did Royal Opera present the first Danish staging of Turandot !

Kasper Holten, artistic director of Royal Opera for the past two years and not yet thirty years old, already has pointed the company in new and valuable directions. As an opera director, he is the wittiest, most volatile, least orthodox and most unabashedly postmodernist man working in Denmark, and as an administrator, he has tried to maintain one rule for the repertoire at his theater: it should be entertaining. This is not a standard demand in European opera houses. His production last fall of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre was hugely entertaining, although it was set in what looked conspicuously like Manhattan post-9/11. Mikael Melbye's production of Strauss's Salome was nothing if not lush, and David Radok's brilliant, insightful staging of Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims was little short of hilarious, the extent to which it embraced the visual aesthetics of the nineteenth century of Rossini balanced by its wacky, very contemporary perspective.

This new Manon Lescaut was the opera debut of Jan Maagaard, renowned and by no accounts timid director of classical, non-musical tragedy. Maagaard did a production of August Bournonville's ballet The Guards on Amager a few seasons back, in which the director seemed reluctant to call attention to himself, but with Manon Lescaut one could safely say that Maagaard completely denied his own artistic expression in favor of the composer's. For long stretches of Act I, one felt gratified that here at last a director was complying with what is actually written in the libretto; Johannes Leiacker's pleasantly naturalistic set designs did nothing to either enhance or detract from the atmosphere of the piece. One could very well have done without the female choristers' cheap moustaches and allegedly masculine swaggering, but no matter how odd-looking the people who were enacting it, the text was faithfully represented. The justly famous embarkation scene of Act III was particularly well managed. However, in Act IV, set in the Louisiana desert, Leiacker suspended the columns from Acts I and II in mid-air over the singers, for no discernible reason, and he even kept on view the seascape from the preceding Le Havre act. When I returned on April 3, the machinery of the Royal Opera malfunctioned, so now the Louisiana act was performed with the columns firmly planted in "desert" soil. It wasn't pretty.

The first night saw Gitta-Maria Sjöberg acting against type as Manon but in admirable vocal control, but the production found its core at the April 3 performance, with soprano Anne Margrethe Dahl, who was in limpidly luxuriant voice as the heroine. Dahl's reviews these days tend to read like love-letters. Temperamentally, she is ideally suited to the role, but there were doubts her voice could expand accordingly. Immediately, she banished those doubts. This type of soprano is always a treat, creamy and well-focused and tinted with colors you never even knew existed, and dramatically she has come triumphantly into her own. (She was seen most recently at Royal Opera as the Countess de Folleville in Viaggio.) Dahl succeeded in transcending the silly costume with which Manon was equipped in Act I; her performance was filled to the brim with exquisite details. The role of des Grieux was not double-cast. Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman obviously thought he was singing Don Carlo or some such Verdian fare, but at the second performance, when it was announced that he was indisposed but singing anyway, he sounded distinctly more idiomatic.

Conductor Giordano Bellincampi led the Royal Danish Orchestra in a well-paced performance with plenty of delicate coloring. Not the most passionate conductor, Bellincampi nevertheless brought Puccini's vision to throbbing, exuberant life.

MICHAEL BO




VALLETTA, MALTA


Odd though it may seem that something as secular -- if not frivolous -- as a theater could have been founded by the Grand Master of an order of Christian knights, such are the origins of the Teatru Manoel in Malta's capital, Valletta. Named after its builder -- Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (who held Malta from 1530 until 1798, when Napoleon threw them out) -- it was built to provide a place of entertainment "for the honest recreation of the people" and inaugurated in 1732.

Over its 270 years of existence, it has known periods of neglect as well as glamour. Its heyday was the Victorian era, when impresarios regularly staged seasons of a dozen works from September to May, but it was eventually deemed inadequate to the needs of local audiences, so a larger Royal Opera House was opened in 1866. Thereafter, the Manoel was used for lowlier purposes until World War II, when its grander rival was destroyed in an air raid. Over recent decades, it has been restored and returned to use, and it now offers a varied program as Malta's national theater. Though there may be far less opera than there was in the Victorian era, artistic director Tony Cassar Darien is keen to include as much as possible, and a short annual festival has become a fixture. This year it opened with two performances of La Traviata.

The staging, old-fashioned to a degree, was the work of director Jacobo Kaufmann, who was also responsible for the set designs: visions of Second Empire Paris in all its lavish heaviness. There's no denying their appeal to a traditionally minded public, and indeed they were genuinely handsome in their cumbersome way, but they took a long time to set up on this technically limited stage.

Violetta was sung by Polish lyric soprano Iwona Hossa, whose vocal nerves steadied once Act I was over -- like many other exponents of the role, she had a few dubious moments in "Sempre libera." Much of the confrontational duet with her lover's father went well, and in the final scene, "Addio del passato" was appealingly shaped. What Hossa lacked, crucially, was a memorable vocal personality and a more than rudimentary command of stage technique. Her right arm sometimes seemed to take on a life of its own.

As Germont, Italian baritone Piero Guarnera offered the most consistent dramatic figure, though musically he demonstrated more voice than artistic imagination. (He was also dressed in an unfortunate coat, which he never seemed to want to take off.) His was a stentorian account of "Di Provenza," and the decision to allow him to go on to deliver the regularly-cut cabaletta that follows was scarcely vindicated by his performance of it.

Far more successful was the Alfredo of young Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. Winner of the 1999 Operalia Competition, he displays a fluently produced, sweet-toned lyric voice nearly ideal for this role. Admittedly, he needs more heft and security in the top register, and it's cheating to leave out phrases in order to gather the strength to go for a top C that Verdi didn't write. His acting skills, too, need some honing. But at best, his sense of style was remarkable, and he offered some distinctively graceful phrasing. (His tone shows some similarities with Gigli's.) On the basis of this showing, Calleja still may have some way to go, but he is surely destined for the top rank.

The opera came over with great immediacy in this small theater, the acoustic of which is exceptional. Musical standards were good, with the National Orchestra of Malta playing neatly and the chorus singing accurately. Conductor Michael Laus gave impetus to the score, though he had a tendency to hold too tight a rein on Verdi's rhythms.

GEORGE HALL




MUNICH


Heinrich Hoffmann's cautionary children's book Der Struwwelpeter (Unkempt Peter, 1846) and Wagner's opera Das Liebesverbot (The Prohibition of Love, 1836) have little in common, but both reflect the mindset of a generation for whom repression, whether personal or public, was the norm. The Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz, in a co-production with the August Everding Theater Academy, produced Liebesverbot, which Wagner dismissed as "a sin of my youth," in Munich's Prinzregententheater (seen March 23). Director Claus Guth, well aware that Wagner's lugubrious libretto (loosely based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure) would not sell in a realistic production, simply imported the characters and costumes of Hoffmann's book into Wagner's opera.

Christian Schmidt provided the marvelous set and costume designs. The stage consists of a series of wood blocks, some of which are stacked high against the rounded back wall. A commedia dall'arte feeling pervades, and Guth has his tongue decidedly in his cheek as he lightens up the presentation. The work's central character, Friedrich, the German governor of sixteenth-century Palermo, forbids the traditional carnival along with alcohol and any non-marital sexual activity. The punishment is death. Friedrich is, however, only trying to keep his own anguished desires under control. He is the forerunner of the Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Amfortas, though he meets with a happy ending. Costumed effectively to look like Franz Liszt, he is the only flesh-and-blood character in the piece, and his long aria of despair in Act II is the work's musical highlight. Baritone Thomas Gazheli is blessed with an enormous voice and significant dramatic persuasion. His portrayal of Friedrich was a tour de force.

Claudio, the heldentenor condemned to death for impregnating his bride to be, is costumed as Wagner, in an appropriate though historically inaccurate reference. The range and weight of Wolfgang Millgramm's tenor are more than sufficient for the role, though his vocal production proved somewhat cumbersome. As Isabella, the novice whose cunning saves her brother Claudio from the gallows, Janice Dixon showed a clear soprano voice with a stentorian top, combined with a captivating stage presence. Tenor Scott MacAllister offered a well-sung, funny Luzio. Soprano Nathalie Boissy, as the novice Mariana, abandoned by Friedrich, sang wonderfully, but her finest moment was the transformation of her costume from nun's habit to evening gown by the removal of its sleeves. Bass Peter Loehle, in the comic role of Brighella, sang humorlessly.

The score was performed with intelligent cuts, mostly in the overblown finales. Conductor Ekkehard Klemm was not always at one with his cast in the ensembles, but his was a spirited interpretation, more than seconded by the underrated Gärtnerplatz Chorus and Orchestra. The performance was an artistic as well a public success.

JEFFREY A. LEIPSIC




HONG KONG


In its premiere at New York's Asia Society last February, Bun-Ching Lam's opera Wenji: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute looked like a bird in a cage two sizes too small. When Wenji was featured in the final three nights of this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival (March 15-17), that bird finally was able to spread its wings.

The contrast between the opera's co-commissioners was both physical -- a trade-up from the Asia Society's 250 seats to the 450-seat Hong Kong City Hall Theatre -- and contextual. Any festival that can find stylistic harmony in presenting the Bolshoi Opera and the National Beijing-Opera Theatre of China (as the Hong Kong Arts Festival did this season) already embodies a compatible cross-cultural spirit.

Lam's ninety-minute Wenji recounts the true story of Cai Wenji, a Han Dynasty scholar-statesman's daughter abducted by nomadic Mongols. After twelve years, she faces the choice of remaining with the "barbarians," where she now has a family, or returning alone to her native land. The story, a frequent scenario in Chinese opera, is rife with dramatic possibilities -- and, depending on the era, cultural and political significance as well.

For Lam, a Macau-born composer now living in the U.S., the central character of a Chinese woman living in "the West" (as Mongolia was considered by the Chinese) carries a strongly personal undertone. Her like-minded librettist, Xu Ying (the Hunan-born, Beijing-based playwright and librettist for Tan Dun's Tea), alternates freely between English and Mandarin, while stage director Rinde Eckert wields a black-box minimalism that embraces both Chinese and Western stage traditions.

The cast, too, embodied a strong cultural triangle, with American-based Chinese soprano Li Xiuying (Wenji), American bass Ethan Herschenfeld (her imposing Mongol husband) and Beijing opera performer Zhou Long (playing essentially the entire Han nation as narrator, ambassador, general and Wenji's father). While Li sang both languages gracefully in a traditional Western operatic style, Herschenfeld and Zhou's clumsy steps outside their respective styles were played effectively for laughs.

With only three performers and a nine-piece pit band of Western and Chinese instruments, Lam's music manages to spin from that cultural clash a delicate, personal musical idiom. Elements combine not in a forced fusion but in a genuine synthesis of musical and theatrical esthetics, in which conflicts between art forms mirror dramatic tensions in the characters. The zhonghu and dizi, far from being mere exotic ornaments, mingle with their Western counterparts (the cello and oboe) to similar effect, while Wenji's own instrument, the guqin (a Chinese zither), becomes a textless extension of her inner spirit.

An opera so well-crafted and eminently portable deserves a long life. The Hong Kong Arts Festival has done a great service in commissioning a small repertoire of chamber operas by Chinese-born composers (including Guo Wenjing's Night Banquet, scheduled to appear at this summer's Lincoln Center Festival), but a lamentable job at getting the word out. Though Wenji was an artistic high point of the season, the house on March 16 was less than half full.

Even before Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, the Hong Kong Arts Festival had begun adding more Asian productions to its traditionally Western menu. With the opening of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in the late '80s, the local talent level had risen to such a level that festival organizers could start at home, showcasing Hong Kong productions alongside international events with little hesitation.

Kaffee Baroque, a pair of staged cantatas brewed for this year's Arts Festival by a handful of HKAPA students and graduates, revealed both the rich potential and the shortcomings of that approach. Much raw talent and moments of true inspiration were undercut by musical and stylistic issues needing closer attention.

One could piece together the genesis of director David Quay's program at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre (March 1 and 2) without too much effort. After starting with dessert, Bach's lighthearted Kaffee Cantata (BWV 211), Quay found a suitably heavy main course in Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the most overt of the composer's rather operatic eighth book of madrigals. The rest of the musical meal was filled out, appropriately enough, with two concertos from Telemann's Tafelmusik.

Had Quay just stuck with dessert, the evening would have been a success. Clarence Lo's visual concept captured just the right amount of whimsy for the music, with the prosaic setting of a made-over Starbucks providing a properly ironic touch for the soprano's extended rhapsody that one critic has called "the original coffee commercial."

Then there were the singers themselves. The scenario, in which a curmudgeonly father insists that his daughter give up coffee if she wants his permission to be married, came alive as Edmund Kwan's lumbering baritone seemed to comment on his character and Yuki Ip's rich, youthful soprano practically percolated with freshness. Tenor Alex Tam's smooth, well-modulated narration set the tone for the two dramatic players to delve fully into the spirit of the music.

That was not the case in the Monteverdi, where both the singers and the staging were hampered dramatically by texts that merely describe actions in the third person. Lacking the immediacy of the Bach, the performance quickly revealed the singers' limitations in period ornamentation, which were only intensified by an instrumental ensemble, conducted by Michael Ryan, that showed little if any experience playing Baroque music. Telemann's Concerto for Flute and Violin in A Major and his Concerto for Strings in F Major, which opened the first and second halves, respectively, were truly a trial to endure.

The superb HKAPA production of The Bartered Bride last March proves that the territory has the talent and vision to generate truly representative local productions. There was even something fitting in the fact that, in the capital of commercialism and forged designer logos, a production would drape the stage in a giant curtain labeled "Starducks" [sic]. However, as one audience member pointed out, they probably blew their chance of attracting the perfect corporate sponsor.

KEN SMITH




OLDENBURG


Sometimes, most often unexpectedly, smaller-scale opera houses come up with stagings of a spellbinding intensity of which big companies can only dream. The new Peter Grimes at Oldenburg State Theater, given its premiere on February 22, is one of these. Director Uwe Eric Laufenberg -- who won praise for Der Rosenkavalier in Dresden and for Ariadne auf Naxos and Boris Godunov in Berlin -- set the prologue of Britten's masterpiece among the audience. The narrow-minded, hostile townsfolk, seated and standing throughout the four brightly-lit levels of Oldenburg's nineteenth-century auditorium, seemed a frighteningly whispering, aggressive mob, ready to break loose at any moment. By refusing to allow the audience to withdraw anonymously into sheltering darkness but instead forcing it to be part of the interrogation, Laufenberg showed the mechanisms of an intolerant society: the "Grimes Case" could take place anywhere, at any time.

As Act I began, the house lights dimmed, and the fire curtain rose to reveal an enormous factory that was apparently built right next to the waterfront: a crane heaved fish-filled nets, dripping with sea water, from the ships among the workers. Seen through a large window, Auntie's inn was part of this factory: townspeople could be seen drinking and dancing. For Act II, designer Kaspar Glarner showed the inside of this gloomy, narrow space, with light-blue tiles on the walls; Grimes burst into this packed, innermost cell of the community like a bombshell. This striking image was topped by Glarner's design for Grimes's hut: a cube formed out of gauze scrims, upon which were projected movies of fish rushing through the sea, a magical visualization of Grimes's dream of the ultimate catch.

Laufenberg's direction, full of individual details, was thrilling. Frank van Aken depicted Grimes as a shatteringly human figure who suffered deeply from his incapacity to communicate his feelings -- and who inspired true compassion. The soft, vulnerable quality of his big, full-bodied tenor added even more depth to this torn outcast; an occasional harsh, strained top note did not lessen the impact but seemed almost a deliberate reflection of the character's despair.

American soprano Marcia Parks played Ellen Orford insightfully and movingly as a woman who comes to the painful conclusion that her ideals of love and humanity have no chance in this community. Telling gestures (such as an arm comfortingly reached out for Grimes and stopping in midair), the lyrically spun lines of her embroidery scene and the silent resignation with which she filled every moment of her music made Parks's Ellen an outstanding achievement.

Bernard Lyon (the sympathetic Balstrode), Ariane Arcoja (Mrs. Sedley) and Gudrun Pelker (Auntie) developed complex, realistic portrayals, as did the performers in the many supporting roles and the electrifying chorus. Conductor Alexander Rumpf drew intense yet refined playing from the orchestra, particularly in the wonderfully transparent interludes.

JOCHEN BREIHOLZ




HAMBURG


Hamburg is closely associated with the life of George Frederic Handel: in 1703, he joined the local opera company's orchestra as a violinist, later as a harpsichordist, and four of his operas were given world premieres here. However, the State Opera seldom really exploits this heritage: Handel is a rarity in Hamburg. The last new production of any of his works (Belshazzar, an oratorio rather than an opera) took place in 1985. Thus it was all the more surprising that the Philharmonic State Orchestra, unused to playing "authentic" Baroque style, delivered a multi-faceted Alcina of crystal-clear, wonderfully transparent yet dramatically poignant musicality (heard opening night, Feb. 24). Conductor Ivor Bolton apparently worked hard with the musicians, and the effort paid off. The Hamburg orchestra, not known for subtlety and more at home with Wagner, Janácek, Berg and our own contemporaries, gave one of its best performances in a long time.

The singers met this challenge from the pit impressively: French soprano Véronique Gens rendered Alcina's arias with sublime colors, overflowing with love (or, later, hatred), using coloratura embellishments not to show off her artistry but to provide deeper insight into the sorceress's emotions and motivations. "Ah! mio cor" (the aria in which Alcina realizes that she has lost her power and suffers, like any other mortal, from unrequited love) was packed with deeply felt pain -- and sung so beautifully that it was almost hard to bear. As Ruggiero, mezzo Maite Beaumont showed flexibility and lushness reminiscent in her best moments (such as the Act III showstopper "Stà nell'Ircana") of the young Teresa Berganza. Gabriele Rossmanith limned Morgana with exceptional lightness and freshness, Antigone Papoulkas offered a velvet-toned Bradamante, while Christoph Genz (Oronte) displayed a fine tenor but lacked security in the upper register.

Director Christof Loy told the tale of Alcina as a journey through history: Bradamante and Melisso entered Alcina's realm in today's army gear -- a harsh contrast with the rococo costumes of the sorceress and the inhabitants of her "magic island." For Alcina and Ruggiero, Herbert Murauer designed a spacious white residence, with a more intimate retiring room, the gauze walls of which were painted like some fantastic, idyllic garden. But with the growing emotional confusion among the characters, the set gradually became a museum of the past. Alcina and the other characters adjusted to the invading strangers, Bradamante and Melisso, by putting on costumes of the nineteenth century, then present-day fashions. Loy's concept, showing the change of attitude towards love -- towards emotions in general -- throughout the centuries, might have been even more effective if the director had reflected the changes more thoroughly with changes of manners, gestures and body language. Still, this Alcina, almost uncut and lasting more than four hours, was a riveting experience.

Before the first word was sung, director Willy Decker set the tone for the new Káta Kabanová at Hamburg State Opera (April 7) with a poetic image that later developed into a scenic leitmotif. During the opening bars, Káta, dressed in a thin white slip, stood alone in an empty, hostile room built of gray, wooden boards: a fragile silhouette against the bright sunlight shining in. Slowly, as if in a dream, she stretched her body like a bird about to take flight; moving her arms like wings, she ran toward the light -- and collapsed when the Kabanicha suddenly entered.

The image of Káta as a bird (in Act I, she actually tells Varvara she often wonders why people can't fly, and relates a dream about flying) was reflected in Wolfgang Gussmann's set. In Act II, the walls of the gray room were covered with dozens of pictures of a flying bird's silhouette -- metaphors for the despairing heroine's longing to break free of the bonds of marriage and society. In Act III, countless sheets of paper with the same bird's silhouette were scattered about the floor. That scene inadvertently showed the shortcomings of Regietheater when it ignores details of the libretto: during the thunderstorm, the villagers (among them Káta) seek shelter in a ruined building, where mysterious paintings on the wall depict scenes from Hell (obviously a reference to Káta's adultery). Of course, Decker and Gussmann's interpretation included neither a ruined building nor paintings on the wall, so characters looked at the bird silhouettes while describing the scenes from Hell. Aside from the fact that the characters had to describe things they did not see, the bird obviously symbolized something beautiful, while the scenes from Hell represent quite the opposite. One would have expected a more intelligent solution from a director of Decker's caliber. However, except for this scene (and the overdone invasion of birds in Act II), this Káta was sensitively directed from beginning to end, without a step, a gesture, a glance too many. Decker concentrated completely on the characters and didn't fuss with "concepts." Everything seemed perfectly thought out, very simple, very clear and natural.

The production benefited from Adrienne Pieczonka's outstanding, flawlessly sung portrait of Káta as an introverted, vulnerable, repressed woman who is driven by desire as much as by fear and guilt. Julia Juon, in the role of the ice-cold Kabanicha, reduced her body language and facial expressions to an absolute minimum, to great effect. She would say the cruelest things to Káta without stirring a muscle. Chris Merritt (as her son, Káta's husband, Tichon) proved once again an exceptional, refined actor and reliable singer. Albert Bonnema offered a complex rendering of Káta's lover, Boris; veteran Hermann Becht (who played Alberich in Patrice Chéreau's centennial Ring in Bayreuth) turned the small character of Dikoj into a comic masterpiece; Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade lavished her lush mezzo-soprano on the role of Varvara.

The evening's only shortcoming came from the pit, where general music director Ingo Metzmacher's conducting was uninvolved and lifeless -- most of the time, he ignored the score's many subtle shades.

JOCHEN BREIHOLZ




LÜBECK


During Finnish summers, the sun hardly sets; during the winters, it barely rises. The truncated days nourish depressions that often can't be washed down with vodka or sweated out in the sauna. Consequently, Finland has the highest suicide rate of any European country. It was a matter of time until a Finnish composer took up the issue in an opera. Kalevi Aho's gloomy Before We All Have Drowned, given its world premiere last year in Helsinki, tackles the subject head-on; Lübeck Opera presented the work for the first time in Germany (seen April 21).

Aho's work opens with a nurse, Maija Salminen, throwing herself off a bridge into a raging river. While the police investigate her death and search for the body (the only clues are her bike and her purse, both of which she left behind on the bridge), Maija drifts in the water -- and recalls the moment when she leaped off, when she saw her life passing. In flashbacks, we learn what led to Maija's suicide. The unfulfilled longing for love (her boyfriend, the surgeon Göran, drops her; a brief sexual encounter with a patient at the hospital where she works makes her only more depressed), the lack of humanity among those around her, the fear of life itself cause her to long for death. (She actually comes up with 106 reasons to die.) In the end, she turns to a boy who has been helping the police to research the case (he dreams of developing a radar to rescue people underwater) and asks him to save the world "before we all have drowned."

The libretto, in sixteen scenes, written by the composer himself and based on a radio-play by Finnish author Juha Mannerkorpi, skillfully blends realism with symbolism and surrealism. As the dead Maija reflects on her life, Before We All Have Drowned is basically a monologue: she is constantly onstage and sings about seventy minutes of the opera's two hours. The music foreshadows, underlines or intensifies the characters' words or actions -- and sometimes seems to lead a life of its own, without running too deep. Occasionally, Aho throws in a waltz (as a musical symbol for a harmonious world), only to contrast it with a screamingly shrill cluster in the next moment. More than once, this deliberate play on styles, this sudden change of moods, seems to run on automatic pilot, like a recurring pattern for which the relation to the dramatic situation onstage is no longer considered. However, Aho's score is utterly effective.

Visually dominated by the bridge (designed by Barbara Rückert), the production was directed straightforwardly by Johannes Koegel-Dorfs. As Maija, mezzo Angela Nick met the challenges of this demanding, difficult part admirably; the supporting roles, headed by Gerard Quinn as Göran, left little to be desired, and conductor Roman Brogli-Sacher led his orchestra safely around the many vicious traps Aho set.

JOCHEN BREIHOLZ




DESSAU


For the past ten years, the small eastern German town of Dessau, where traces of the socialist German Democratic Republic system still can be found at every corner, has been hosting a Kurt Weill Festival in honor of the composer, who was born here in 1900. The program explores the unknown or lesser-known Weill -- which regrettably refers to most of his works. Though Weill's legacy includes numerous operas, musicals and operettas, only Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) are frequently staged in Europe; his strikingly theatrical, musically rich Street Scene is only rarely performed here.

Since its world premiere, in Berlin in 1932, Weill's Die Bürgschaft (The Pledge) had been given only a handful of productions internationally before Dessau's Weill Festival tackled it. Seen March 9, this staging suggested possible reasons for the work's lack of popularity. The librettist, Caspar Neher (best known as a scenic designer), adopted Brecht's concept of "epic theater," aiming to teach the audience. As if in a Greek tragedy, the ever-present chorus comments on the parable-like plot of two businessmen, Mattes and Orth, friends who start out as nice guys but become greedy, making a fortune at the expense of the suffering public in wartime, under an inhumane regime. Orth eventually murders Mattes, justifying his crime by invoking "the law of power and wealth." The message seems to be: "Poor people are good, rich people are evil; money brings not happiness but corruption."

Die Bürgschaft flirts with socialist or even communist ideals -- which might have been daring, exciting, even provocative on the eve of the Third Reich. (The libretto is filled with references to and criticisms of fascism.) But when one takes the historical and political developments of the past seventy years into account, the work's philosophy appears outdated and even laughable. Neher's libretto focuses on ideological phrases and slogans, rather than on characters. Everything in this story is simplified, black-and-white; it's populated by stereotypes instead of real people. The music is far from Weill at his very best; a mere shadow of his musically more profound works, it's filled with catchy tunes, ranging from ballads to dance rhythms, that seem strangely detached from any emotional impact. The melodies pass by without ever lingering, at times momentarily effective, but hardly ever substantial.

To make Die Bürgschaft work in the early-twenty-first century, a director would have to take a critical approach and show that times have changed. However, Jonathan Eaton plainly and naïvely told the story as if it were still 1932 -- with the exception of one scene, in which prisoners died in a gas chamber. This was an inappropriate, tasteless idea, used simply for shock value. Danila Korogodsky's steel-and-cardboard set, in red, yellow and black, resembled a construction site. The singers were adequately cast, particularly Philip Lima (Mattes) and Ulf Paulsen (Orth); the orchestra under Golo Berg gave a crisp performance.

Yet Die Bürgschaft registered as interesting basically under a historic and biographical point of view. In the GDR, it might have been a smash hit.

JOCHEN BREIHOLZ




TEL AVIV


Andrea Chénier at New Israeli Opera (seen March 16) was a successful production with a strong, well-coordinated international cast. In their production, originally created for l'Opéra de Nice, director Giancarlo del Monaco and designer Michael Scott wisely chose to maintain verismo values, with realistic acting and stage design, based on traditional stage perspective. Starting with a glamorous banquet hall, with enormous chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling, the sets easily transformed into a Parisian street and later into a courtroom, with the mob ranged along two tiers. The result was a very convincing, fast-moving performance, with compelling elements of grand opera.

Gaby Sadeh was a magnificent Chénier, his resonating bel canto tenor endowed with a silvery high register. Elena Zelenskaya was a perfect match, with her rich dramatic soprano and engaging stage presence. Antonio Salvadori depicted Gérard with a warm, powerful baritone and excellent acting. The large supporting cast was very strong, especially Vladimir Braun as Mathieu. Mezzo-soprano Svetlana Sandler excelled in her brief albeit extremely moving role as old Madelon, who sacrifices her only grandchild to the revolution.

NIO's fine professional chorus, prepared by Yishai Steckler, was excellent. Alberto Veronesi conducted with precision, inspiring the orchestra to an exciting, committed performance. The orchestra occasionally overpowered the fine singers, but this was more the fault of the notoriously difficult acoustics in the NIO auditorium than of the well-meaning conductor.

JEHOASH HIRSHBERG




 

CONCERTS AND RECITALS


 

NEW YORK CITY


Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, who have had their ups and downs in dealing with the Met, returned to the fold on Palm Sunday afternoon, March 24, donating their services as stars of a Pension Fund Gala, with a mixed program of opera excerpts in concert form.

Their first selection, "Parigi, o cara" from the last act of La Traviata, was performed quite complete, with its fast concluding section. In the tenor's tomb scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, however, then in the soprano's arias from La Sonnambula and Norma, the cabalettas were omitted, despite the presence onstage of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, which could have filled out the scenes involved. For the last scheduled duet on the program, from Act I of Madama Butterfly, it was the opening section that was omitted. These scenes in complete form would have given the soloists a fuller opportunity to unfold their interpretive talents.

But programs of this type are designed as showcases, not as musico-dramatic entities, and the audience responded with delight to what it did hear, capping the event with a standing ovation. The Alagnas, separately or together, present themselves attractively, and both have continued to develop as artists. Gheor-ghiu's strong lower register qualifies her for spinto roles, with effective dramatic undertones, yet without harm to her smooth, expressive lyric singing. There were moments of questionable artistic judgment, such as the tendency to sing louder as the tessitura of Norma's "Casta diva" rose higher, breaking the prayer's fragility of mood. But in Amina's "Ah! non credea mirarti" and the Pêcheurs de Perles duet, delicacy of sentiment was matched with sensitivity of shaping and shading, while in the Traviata duet she evoked a vivid Violetta.

Alagna's voice has an interesting texture, with a grainy burr whose only drawback is a tendency to blur the focus on precise intonation. The first top B-flat of the improvviso from Andrea Chénier, for instance, landed sharp of the mark. In general, though, both singers have made strides toward steadying their accuracy of pitch. Equally fluent in French and Italian, they also observe niceties of stylistic distinction between musical phrasing in these languages. Alagna did justice to the poetic, linear quality of "Quando le sere al placido" from Luisa Miller. Earlier, he showed similar qualities in the French version of Edgardo's aria from Lucia -- the program's only mild curiosity besides a Romanian song (Brechiu's "Muzica") that Gheorghiu offered as an encore. He followed the latter with a Neapolitan song (Di Capua's "Maria Marì"), and the couple's parting encore was "O soave fanciulla," which ends Act I of La Bohème.

Conducting the Met Orchestra, Bertrand de Billy was graceful and idiomatic in snatches of Faust ballet music, followed by a lively kermis chorus from the same opera. The "Patria oppressa!" chorus from Verdi's Macbeth, on the other hand, plodded with funereal heaviness, and the last-act prelude of La Traviata, which opened the program, sported an extravagant variety of tempos for so simple and brief a piece. The overtures to Norma and Luisa Miller were lively and businesslike.

JOHN W. FREEMAN




The Middle East crisis in Handel's Jephtha is resolved by the arrival of an angel of the Lord, who stops a killing because "no vow can disannul the law of God." That message, heard during a violent Passover-Easter week, lent poignance to René Jacobs's reading of Handel's last biblical oratorio (1752), performed on Easter Sunday (March 31) at Alice Tully Hall, as part of Lincoln Center's "George Frideric Handel: Beyond the Messiah" series.

Thomas Morell's libretto elaborates on a tale from the Book of Judges: in return for victory against his enemies, Jephtha, an Israelite, vows to offer to the Lord the first thing he sees when he comes home. His only child, a daughter, greets him upon his triumphant arrival; she submits to his will. In Handel's day, deists interpreted the scripture to mean that Jephtha has his daughter killed as a sacrifice, citing the passage as proof of the corruption at the heart of Judaism (and therefore Christianity), contrary to their notion of God as a "benevolent clockmaker." Morell believed the phrasing of the scripture allowed for a loophole: Jephtha did not kill his daughter but dedicated her to God's service. The resulting Idomeneo-style libretto permitted Handel to write powerful music of foreboding and sorrow -- with a happy ending.

Handel's score calls for abundant strings and two harpsichords, with occasional contributions from winds, brass, organ and lute. Jacobs and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (on period instruments, as always) remained sensitive to the singers' needs, adapting dynamic levels to suit the mood and maintaining rhythms that permitted successful negotiation of ornamentation. There's plenty of drama in this oratorio, and Handel wrote with keen feeling: according to the composer's own notation, his sight failed him as he wrote the chorus, "How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees!" Jacobs conducted with a bracing theatricality; his performing edition, despite substantial cuts, respected the human story at the heart of this work. Jacobs likes these characters: one could hear it in the warmth and grace of the orchestra's playing.

His cast was eminently stageworthy. As Jephtha, tenor Richard Croft exulted heroically in righteous triumph, then plumbed the depths of Jephtha's scena of resolution and remorse ("It must be so"), his voice dropping to piano and then a whisper as he insisted on his daughter's death. The lone American onstage, Croft stayed in character even when he wasn't singing, brooding over his fateful decision while the chorus sang "How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees!"

English soprano Rosemary Joshua, as the daughter, Iphis, gave a thrilling performance, her clear, bright soprano easily scaling the heights and skillfully managing the swiftest coloratura. One number, with the diction-daunting lyric "Tune the soft melodious lute," was so ornate that it was hard to remember what she was singing about. Though English countertenor Michael Chance, as her suitor, Hamor, kept up with her in their love duet, his technical proficiency was not matched by beauty of tone. In solos, it was impossible to ignore the thinness of his voice, and he tripped over some ornamentation.

As Jephtha's wife, Storgè, Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon provided a voice of exceptional amplitude and dark beauty, with scorching high notes. Her nightmare aria, in which she describes her fears for her daughter, brought her close to the character of Clytemnestra in Aulis. English bass D'Arcy Bleiker, as Jephtha's adjutant, Zebul, didn't seem fully warmed up as he began the oratorio; he had few opportunities to shine thereafter. Arrayed behind the orchestra were the young members of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (Timothy Brown, director of music), singing with a marvelous transparency that compensated for whatever they lacked in oomph. From their midst stepped an uncredited soloist, Louise Kateck, who lent her sweet, simple soprano to the Angel. Her aria, "Happy, Iphis, shalt thou live," is more playful than awe-inspiring, its mincing strings and lilting vocal line according well with eighteenth-century notions of divine benevolence.




In another contribution to Lincoln Center's "Handel: Beyond the Messiah" series, the early-music ensemble London Baroque made its New York debut, in concert with English soprano Emma Kirkby (April 7). The program covered a number of vocal works on religious themes, in Latin and German, as well as two purely instrumental pieces. The Latin works, "O qualis de coelo sonus" (What is this sound from heaven?, from 1707), a Salve Regina (also from 1707), and "Laudate pueri Dominum" (Praise Ye the Lord, date uncertain) are all fairly early, reflecting Handel's sojourn in Italy (1706-10). Operagoers, no longer strangers to Handel's work, may yet be startled to hear works by him that aren't in Italian or English. However, some pieces heard this afternoon, notably two arias from the Neun Deutschen Arien, settings of poems by Johannes Brockes, recall Handel's stage works in their emotional directness and shapely melodies. This afternoon's concert provided a gentle introduction to a rather obscure chunk of the master's oeuvre, precisely as the program of such a series should strive to do. Though the performance struck no sparks, it was consistently ingratiating and interesting.

The members of London Baroque perform on period instruments: Ingrid Seiffert's violin dates from 1661, Richard Gwilt's violin from 1660 and Charles Medlam's cello from 1806; the age of Terence Charlston's harpsichord was not specified in the program. Thirty years after launching her career, Kirkby's voice is by no means a period instrument itself: she sounds (and looks) the dewy debutant. Everything about Kirkby's presentation -- the way she sings, dresses, holds her printed scores -- bespeaks the self-effacing yet enthusiastic persona of the adept amateur, the sort of person who might sing solos with the Handel society of a small university town. But with more than recordings and innumerable performances worldwide to her credit, Kirkby is no amateur. By now she has been outclassed by Baroque specialists (and visitors crossing over from opera and lieder repertory) with more powerful voices and personalities, and greater technical prowess. However, the gifts she brings to this music are ultimately persuasive.

Her voice is extremely small and white, with an upper register of exceptional clarity, lending a character of purity to whatever she sings. She is -- or can be -- wonderfully accurate in her passagework, though in "O qualis de coelo sonus" she dropped several notes in one fast passage, and in the extravagantly ornamented "Laudate pueri Dominum," she briefly took on an ugly, hooting tone. She performed with a seeming ease that conformed nicely to the informality of London Baroque's performance. (They were dressed in vests and trousers that, according to one listener, made them look like bartenders at T. G. I. Friday's.) During the instrumental portions of the program, Kirkby didn't leave the stage but took a seat and listened, with evident pleasure.




"Luxe, calme et volupté" were the order of the day at New York's Florence Gould Hall, when French tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt made his U.S. recital debut (April 1), on a night off from the Metropolitan, where he had been singing Bardolfo (Falstaff) and Arithmetic (L'Enfant et les Sortilèges), and just prior to his knockout appearances as Arnalta (L'Incoronazione di Poppea) at Brooklyn Academy of Music. For the occasion, Fouchécourt chose an all-French program, and his venue, affiliated with the French Institute-Alliance Française, guaranteed a public with an affinity for his material. It's possible that, if New York audiences heard this repertoire more often, Fouchécourt's liabilities, particularly the insecurity of his pitch on high notes at forte, might count for more. (It should be noted that the tenor had no such problems when heard at the Met in Falstaff (March 26) and L'Enfant (March 28), or at BAM in Poppea (April 21).) However, his projection of text and his interpretations would assure his success in any circumstances, and he enjoyed a resounding triumph here.

Fouchécourt's voice has mellowed somewhat from the haut-contre with which he launched his career as a Baroque specialist a few years ago; though he still ascends the heights reliably, he depends more often on a comfortable middle register. Few of the mélodies he chose require a big sound, and for most of the evening, he maintained an easy, conversational tone that permitted him impeccable, unforced diction and a variety of nuance and colors. The program divided more or less into the exquisite (the first half, consisting of works by Gounod, Fauré and Duparc) and the comic (the second, consisting of works by Maxime Jacob, Satie, Poulenc and Manuel Rosenthal). In such works as Fauré's "Dans les ruines d'une abbaye" and Duparc's "Soupir," Fouchécourt created a mood of introspection, even melancholy, with considerable skill; he applied a delicate touch even when, as in "Dans les ruines," he was deeply moved.

However, his merry eyes are always dancing. There's an impishness to his presentation, perhaps even for those who haven't seen his Bardolfo or Arnalta, that lent itself to the lighter works in the second half of the program, and the audience responded with delighted laughter when he impersonated a gape-mouthed frog in Satie's "La statue de bronze" and a languid smoker in Poulenc's "Hôtel." The set of songs by Rosenthal, all comic and all dealing with animals of one sort or another (most famous of these is "La souris d'Angleterre," formerly a specialty of Régine Crespin), provided him with one opportunity after another for clowning. (Other singers would do well to seek out some of these numbers for encores.)

These songs require as much versatility from the piano accompanist as from the singer, and Dalton Baldwin was fully prepared, from his broad palette of colors to his perfect deadpan as, during Fouchécourt's second encore, the tenor took a seat on the piano bench. "Poisson d'avril!" (April fool), said Fouchécourt, who then closed the evening with a quietly intense reading of Fauré's "Après un rêve."




Often, producing entities commission new works and give premieres -- then turn their backs on the music, never playing them again, in favor of the next, newer thing. The New York Festival of Song, directed by Michael Barrett and Steven Blier (a contributor to OPERA NEWS), broke the pattern on April 4 by returning to compositions that were given their premieres at previous NYFOS performances, in the course of the group's fourteen-year history. In Carnegie Hall's intimate Weill Hall, Barrett and Blier accompanied, at the piano, an attractive ensemble of young singers in a collection of songs that shared freshness and a direct approach, handily making the case for their repeat performances, here and elsewhere; several works seemed candidates for inclusion in the standard repertory.

It's NYFOS tradition, upheld on this occasion, to credit the singers as an ensemble, without specifying who is to sing what, since those assignments often aren't decided until after the programs have gone to the printer. By the end of the evening, however, even the uninitiated listener probably will have figured out everybody's identities. For the record, the marvelous singers heard this evening were Cynthia Watters and Cyndia Sieden (sopranos), Rinat Shaham (mezzo), Steven Tharp (tenor) and Philip Cutlip and Kurt Ollmann (baritones), some familiar, others less so, but accomplished musicians all, a tight-knit team free of prima-donna grandstanding. They shared a poise too seldom seen on concert stages, one that permits the singer to approach any kind of material with grace and confidence. Though they must have prepared rigorously and may have received their assignments only recently, they performed with an easy, unstudied naturalness that made the evening purely pleasurable.

Sieden garnered admiring attention last season, when she stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Christine Schäfer in Lulu at the Met; here, she made only one contribution, bringing her crystalline soprano to John Musto's Dove Sta Amore?, a cycle of songs to poetry by Carl Sandburg, James Agee and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Her coloratura in the title song, her final offering, evoked Lakmé's bell song, as she asked, then answered, the question, "Where lies love?"

Two other sizable song cycles were represented on the program: Lowell Liebermann's Appalachian Liebeslieder and Part III of Ned Rorem's Evidence of Things Unseen. Liebermann's work is a riotously funny take on a German tourist (Watters) who falls for a West Virginia garage mechanic (Cutlip). Both singers offered strong character work, Cutlip's laconic, uncommunicative hick playing nicely off Watters's quasi-Wagnerian singing and fractured German-English. Accustomed to his own way, Cutlip's mechanic maintained a slow, steady rhythm no matter what Watters or the piano accompaniment proclaimed. Watters's excitable Hausfrau eventually underwent a quietly rapturous transfiguration through love ("Little Heaven"), set to some of Liebermann's loveliest music.

The Rorem songs closed the evening and (since much of the program had been devoted to light, comic works) ushered in a contemplative mood. The cycle as a whole traces the moods of life, and in this sequence, the singers confront mortality, then accept and even welcome death. Shaham, most of whose work this evening was limited to participation in ensembles, shone in the solo "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water," to a poem by Yeats; her voice was as clear, deep and still as the water in question, with a nice gleam on the surface. In "Faith," Mark Doty's verses tell of a man whose lover has a terminal illness, probably AIDS; Ollmann's baritone easily dominated the pounding piano accompaniment, for a gut-wrenching solo turn. Tharp followed with "Even now...," a text by Paul Monette, with a much lighter piano part, reflecting the gradual acceptance of death. In the final song, a quartet intones the eloquent words of William Penn (from which the title of the cycle is drawn), with the concluding lines, "We cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die." The NYFOS team is especially proud of this work; their recording of it was nominated for a Grammy in 2001.

Other works on the program were by Jeffrey Stock, William Bolcom, Leonard Bernstein, James Sellars, Amy Denio, Peter Lieberson and John Corigliano; only the Denio selection ("Brother Fox") lacked interest. Several of the composers (Stock, Liebermann, Musto, Rorem) were present, warmly applauded by the appreciative audience.




Giuseppe Verdi, an agnostic, didn't believe in salvation, the supposed subject of his Requiem, but based on the musical evidence, he certainly believed in Hell. Once he'd written the furious Dies Irae that's introduced in the first half-hour of the nearly two-hour work, he had to scramble to maintain interest (his and ours) in divine redemption: as in so many other great works of art, the devils outmatch the angels. But Verdi, ever the cagey craftsman, built in plenty of tricks and surprises -- seething undercurrents, building rhythms, the jack-in-the-box recurrences of the Dies Irae theme, springing out, like the shark in Jaws, when least expected -- to maintain dramatic momentum and suspense even in the most tranquil passages.

Riccardo Muti managed to miss most of these when he led the New York Philharmonic and the Westminster Symphonic Choir in the Requiem, "Verdi's greatest opera" (heard April 17). Although the angry, fast and booming bits were played with abundant passion, Muti allowed the slower, consoling movements to droop; his soloists, well-respected for Verdi stage roles, lacked the big, enveloping sound that might have lent compensatory energy to the playing. The audience leapt to its feet at the end of the evening but throughout the performance itself maintained a restless coughing and shuffling that bespoke Muti's inability to capture their full attention. That said, the performance never fell to the level that would justify the behavior of some of the people seated near this listener: the couple who slouched in their seats and napped during the Offertorio, or the fellow behind me who kept whining, "This is boring!"

Samuel Ramey took the bass part, and after several hearings this season, it's clear that he doesn't warm up enough before performing: his entrances in any work are marred by woolly tone, insufficient breath and choppy phrasing. This made his reading of "Mors stupebit" disappointing (especially because his last statement of those words was beautifully delivered, in a sepulchral whisper). But, true to form, having sung his first aria roughly, he sounded more even and eloquent in his subsequent appearances. Barbara Frittoli, the soprano soloist, offered a pure, limpid upper register and a gorgeous physical presence, but the lightness of her instrument made her readings seem callow, and she lacked the necessary muscle to rise over the ensemble. Giuseppe Sabbatini sang with a tightly controlled, somewhat nasal tenor, much in the Richard Tucker or Jan Peerce vein. He provided sweetly floated high notes and sensitive dynamic variety, but he never achieved the ringing heroism this music demands.

Only Lithuanian mezzo Violeta Urmana seemed to understand the words -- at several points, she seemed to be engaging in a private conversation with God. She never quite banished the specter of Dolora Zajick or Olga Borodina, but she delivered the most satisfying solo performance. Her voice possesses a beautiful sheen on high notes and a nicely plummy middle and lower register, with big, open vowels and a Slavic delivery that's well-suited to this music. A memorable Kundry at the Met last season, Urmana profited from associations with that character's spiritual quest.

Muti cheated a bit by stationing horn players throughout the auditorium for the "Tuba mirum," but the effect was undeniably thrilling; he also coaxed especially sweet playing from the strings in the Offertorio and thunderous percussion throughout the evening. Ranged behind the orchestra were the 175 members of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, their performance as incisive and characterful as Urmana's.




The stage demeanor of German baritone Matthias Goerne can be eccentric, there's no denying it. With his alternately glowering and rolling eyes, his hunched shoulders, his lurching and swaying to the music, and his boxy, ill-fitting suit (he's gained a few pounds since he bought it), he sometimes resembles a lieder-singing Richard Nixon. On intake of breath, his chest swells, his weight rises up on his toes, and his neck, never swanlike, disappears altogether. Some listeners find this distracting. But Goerne is a prodigious young artist, capable of truly beautiful music-making, and he proved it again in a recital of Mahler and Schubert lieder at Carnegie Hall (April 19). His accompanist, Eric Schneider, was so good that it's a temptation to dedicate this review entirely to his performance. At times, he seemed to be creating characters, full, dramatic partners in the musical dialogues, as when he dropped his left hand, seemingly exhausted, at the end of Brahms's "Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen." His touch could hardly have been more delicate or expressive, and in Brahms's "Mondenschein," his fingers really seemed no weightier than moonlight rippling across the keys.

Although a less histrionic singer than some of his contemporaries, Goerne creates characters, too. In martial numbers from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Goerne embodied the spirit of Wozzeck (a role he has sung to some acclaim) -- less gloomy than Berg's antihero but similarly alienated, confused by military realities, searching for a little love and hope. The majority of the program, which included Brahms's Vier Ernste Gesänge, was earnest indeed, but the baritone seized on opportunities for a more ironic or playful tone, as in Mahler's "Ablösung im Sommer," "Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen" and "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt," which he concluded with a naughty grin.

Husky, with a burnished vibrato, Goerne's voice is dark ale in a world of lite-beer baritones. He possesses and sometimes exploits reserves of rafter-shaking power, but his specialty, as noted in his previous New York appearance (see OPERA NEWS online, July 2001), is an almost whispered crooning that achieves a eerily seductive intimacy, as if he were standing behind you and murmuring in your ear. He applied this talent to his third encore, the last and finest offering of the evening, Mahler's Rückert-lied, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," spinning out long phrases, floating pianissimos, daring his accompanist to stretch out phrases even further, perfectly capturing Mahler's perfumed sensuality. This was exquisite singing, and it inspired rapt silence from the notably croupy audience -- followed quickly by a thunderous standing ovation.

The next night, English tenor Ian Bostridge performed an all-Schubert recital at Alice Tully Hall, with his frequent collaborator, Julius Drake, on piano. After the first couple of numbers, in which Bostridge pressed too hard on high notes, his singing was consistently mellifluous and expressive, well-suited to this repertoire. Lean, lanky and still emphatically boyish-seeming as he approaches forty, he commands a supple, sunny-toned instrument of consistently ingratiating appeal. He can take German vowels and create great columns of beautiful sound, riding them, shaping them like clay on a potter's wheel, an ability that's almost uncanny since he's not a native German-speaker. His sweet, summery sound made especially poignant his delivery of such melancholy songs as "Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren," "Abendstern" and "Die Götter Griechenlands." He colors every word of text, even in the rapid-fire, sky-high "Die Rastlose Liebe" and the fifteen-minute "Viola," a ballad that in Bostridge's hands seemed a mini-opera.

The trouble was that, having colored the text vocally, he also colored it physically, restlessly underlining points with his body and face. The results could be impressive, but they were more often precious. Every few notes he struck some new attitude: jauntily resting an elbow or draping his whole torso over the lid of the piano, pacing the stage, turning to Drake to listen to the opening of "Nachtstück," pushing back into the curve of the piano or leaning forward to propel his message into the house. As the performance went along, one wanted to grab him and make him stand still -- several of these songs really depend on stillness. Between numbers ("Gondel-fahrer" and "Auflösung," for example), Bostridge spent much of the evening glowering at the audience, but it was unclear whether he was in character for a song or just mad at us. The performance had gotten off to a rocky start, when the pages of Drake's sheet music stuck to one another and the page-turner couldn't separate them, but (apart from the coughing that marred every performance in New York that week) no other setback could be discerned that might have accounted for his snit. Only in the encores did he settle down, and in introducing "Die Forelle," he even allowed a flashing smile. His mannerisms made an interesting contrast with those of Goerne: Bostridge's seem entirely studied, while Goerne's seem an uncontrollable response to the music.

Drake's performance was not only deferential but self-effacing, particularly for those who had heard Eric Schneider's shapely interpretations the night before. Drake's playing was sensitive, but mostly in his determination to stay out of the singer's way. The Tully stage was kept dark, with a large spotlight on the musicians.




Lauren Flanigan is America's reigning prima donna assolutamente audace, a Fach she pretty much invented. On April 23, she made a daring appearance, even by her standards, in Weber's Oberon, performed in concert at Carnegie Hall by the Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by Robert Bass. Stepping in for an indisposed Deborah Voigt, Flanigan had about a day to learn the leading role of Rezia, a challenging assignment that includes the work's best-known number, "Ocean! thou mighty monster," and several other, often florid contributions. Beyond any doubt, she pulled off the seemingly impossible stunt. This is a singer who could bring hair-raising excitement to a rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," but she didn't need to milk the drama of her predicament (or Rezia's) in order to deliver an often thrilling account of a difficult role. It seemed as if she'd known her part for years instead of mere hours.

That said, this admirer isn't looking for Rezia to enter Flanigan's standard repertory. Rosa Ponselle was the Met's first Rezia (in 1918), and ideally the role should be sung by a soprano of comparable agility and lush, voluminous sound. Voigt is such a singer; Flanigan is not. She skillfully negotiated the intricate passagework in such numbers as "O, my wild exulting soul," but her soprano became strident in its upper reaches, and she didn't deliver the meaty, rounded tone (or some of the low notes) required for "Ocean! thou mighty monster." That aria should be like a tsunami, one big wave that crashes over the listener; Flanigan provided gale-force winds and plenty of smaller waves that didn't quite add up to the same effect.

The role of Rezia's beloved, Huon, requires a similar combination of vocal heft and delicacy -- "the voice of a Wagnerian tenor and the technique of a coloratura soprano," according to the Earl of Harewood. Stuart Neill met those requirements, planting his feet squarely and singing his heart out, with a huge, ringing sound, secure in every register, but he was almost defiantly untheatrical. (He and Flanigan would make an epic mismatch in any staging.) Somewhat less demanding is the title role, also for tenor, here performed by Anthony Dean Griffey and somewhat upstaged by the narrator, English actor Roger Rees, who pretended to be Oberon while recounting the work's appallingly convoluted plot. With elegant legato, keen diction and honeyed tone, Griffey's contributions gained in strength and poise as the evening drew on.

As Rezia's confidante, Jane Bunnell gave glowing accounts of two "Araby" numbers, in a warm, flexible mezzo. Baritone Earle Patriarco was underutilized as Huon's squire, Sherasmin, but he sang his few lines with virile charm; Marietta Simpson's generous, flavorful mezzo was heard to better advantage as Puck, particularly in an exciting "Spirits of air." Light soprano Anita Johnson limned the Mermaid's aria, "O, 'tis pleasant," with grace.

Written in English for Covent Garden in 1826, Oberon is a fairy tale that zips from France to Persia (not Arabia, as Rees insisted in his narration) to Tunis and back. The globetrotting plot owes little to Shakespeare but provided its original audience abundant scene changes and exotic references. Modern, more sophisticated audiences likely would find it maddening: at least all the pell-mell rushing about in Candide (for example) amounts to something eventually. In Oberon, the score is the thing. Weber's musical invention never slacks, but it is better suited to forces somewhat smaller than those assembled by Bass. The opening chorus, "Light as fairy foot can fall," didn't sound light when sung by 150 choristers; the orchestra similarly failed to achieve the lightness and transparency the score really needs. Only in the rousing finale, "Hail to the knights," did the music justify the size of the ensemble on hand.




Thomas Quasthoff joined conductor Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for a concert at Carnegie Hall, the last of several appearances together in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities this spring. The two vocal works on the program, Bach's cantatas "Ich habe genug" (BWV 82) and "Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen" (BWV 56), insist that solace is found in death; for his encore, Quasthoff followed up with an all-American song, "Ol' Man River," that addresses the same theme. Throughout the evening, the German bass-baritone performed flawlessly, and this listener was transfixed, but for whatever reason, Quasthoff did not fully connect with many in his audience until that encore. This was a mostly unsentimental account (though he raged appropriately over the line, "Body all achin' and wracked with pain," but he milked the phrase "Get a little drunk an' you land in jail," holding the last word much too long) of a song about which many New Yorkers are quite sentimental: it's familiar, it's in English, it brings associations with Paul Robeson and other revered singers. Quasthoff, whose English is excellent, delivered the text with idiomatic flavor, cavernous low notes and long, long musical lines.

"Ich habe genug" is an emotionally devastating piece of music, and Quasthoff sang its central lullaby, "Schlummert ein," as if wading ever deeper into a dark, unknown stream, until he was submerged. The cantata's final aria, "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod," conveyed the desperation that so often accompanies Bach's expressions of rejoicing -- as if some force, like hounds nipping at the heels of joy, compelled the celebration. The final aria of "Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen" (a less psychologically complex work) is a folk-like melody that stops almost before it's begun: Quasthoff's interpretation contained the suggestion that the singer's call for death has been answered.

An extremely intelligent artist, Quasthoff gives the impression of knowing the music so thoroughly that he no longer has to think about it, often closing his eyes and swaying gently to the rhythm. He sings with an apparently endless supply of breath and never forces a note. In the Bach cantatas especially, he seemed to be caressing the music, gently launching it into the auditorium. He found an ideal partner in Kahane, who conducted the ensemble with the utmost delicate sensitivity, as if the instruments (especially that of principal oboist Allan Vogel, spotlit in both cantatas) were extensions of the singer's consciousness. New Yorkers don't often hear ensembles capable of the kind of finesse the Californians brought to town this evening. The instrumental portions of the program, Haydn's Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major and Ginastera's Variaciones Concertantes, were boon companions, both giving individual musicians gratifying opportunities to shine and often touching on similarly good-humored emotions.




Four rising young singers joined James Levine and the MET Chamber Ensemble for Renard, the final offering of an all-Stravinsky program, at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall on April 28. The rest of the program was devoted to instrumental pieces, and for this listener, whose musical diet has been Stravinsky-deprived of late, the evening was a welcome reunion with this superbly witty, inventive composer. Though lively and fun, Renard was the least compelling of the works on the bill, all of which were written between 1915-23.

Ricardo Morales got things underway with Three Pieces for Clarinet (1918), short solos performed with rich tone and rhythmic assurance, switching to a soprano instrument for the final piece. The irresistible Ragtime (also 1918) looks forward to Kurt Weill's works from the '20s and '30s, and the score drew on Levine's affectionate interest in jazz, without making too many demands on his limited ability to swing (which has hampered his performances of Weill and Gershwin in the past). The ensemble gave full measure to the dramatic elements of the Suite from The Soldier's Tale (1920). In the complete Tale, the hero subdues the Devil with his fiddle-playing, and true to form, violinist Nick Eanet played with such a fury that his glasses flew off in the middle of the performance. Following the intermission, Levine led a bracing account of the Octet for Wind Instruments (1923).

The evening's final work, Renard (1915-16), called on the largest ensemble, sixteen instrumentalists, as well as the four singers: tenors Eric Cutler and Garrett Sorenson, baritone Rodion Pogossov and bass Morris Robinson. While Cutler exulted in the high-flying role of the Rooster, Sorenson contributed a zesty character study of the villainous Fox; both displayed whistling high notes and razor-sharp diction in Stravinsky's English translation of his own text. Pogossov's Russian accent and the ponderous vocal line assigned to Robinson made them both slightly difficult to understand, but they performed bravely as the Cat and the Goat. (In ensembles, all four singers also portrayed other characters, much like a Greek chorus.) Robinson sounded like an Old Testament lawgiver, and Pogossov nimbly alternated between falsetto and his natural sound to impersonate different characters. Such concerts sometimes feel like try-outs: one could easily imagine all four men auditioning for leading roles at the Met. Each showed merit and promise. It was particularly heartening to see good use made of Pogossov's talents; he sang an impressive Fiorello in last season's Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Met.

The next evening, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin made her New York recital debut at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. The young singer, the standout in Haydn's "Nelson" Mass with Les Violons du Roy at Alice Tully Hall last fall (see OPERA NEWS online, Dec. 2001), again made a strong showing. A lirico-spinto with a full-throated, velvety sound and excellent diction in German, French and English, she presented a varied program carefully tailored to her talents. Calm, personable and assured, she lacked only a smidge of authority (or star power, if you prefer), seeming a bit inexperienced despite her impressive resumé.

In the first half of her program, she caressed three songs by Schubert, darkening her tone appropriately to linger over four by Mahler. These selections served as an ingenious warm-up, each a little more challenging than the one before: only "Ablösung im Sommer" and "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?," the last of her Mahler songs, exploited her exceptional agility. Great interest attended the final selections of the first half -- seldom-heard, relatively early songs by Massenet, which proved as gratifying to the soprano voice as are many of his opera arias. Indeed, though Gauvin is a trifle more enveloppée than the average Manon, one could easily picture her taking that role onstage. The first number, "Madrigal," was another caressing lyric, the second, "Élégie," a mini-melodrama; the third song, "Les femmes de Magdala," offered opportunity to color the text most appealingly (never more so than on the word "délicieuse"), and the final number, "L'Improvisateur," was a jaunty carol with plenty of ornate embellishments.

Following a break, Gauvin returned, with Poulenc's Fiançailles Pour Rire, at last disrupting the earnestness that had attached itself to every previous number (and most of those that followed). She clearly enjoyed the speedy, ironic "Il vole" and "Violon," with its mocking sensuality. Three songs by Britten included a touching "Ash Grove" and a very fast, very fun "Oliver Cromwell." As encores, she sang Weill's "Buddy on the Night Shift," demonstrating that she's paid attention to her Canadian predecessor, Teresa Stratas (though Gauvin didn't invest the phrase "push those planes along" with the full sexual import conveyed by Stratas), and a supple, beautiful Scottish folk song, the title of which contained the rare word this listener couldn't understand in Gauvin's performance: something about a kiss. In a spring crowded with recitalists, the song made a ravishing benediction.




Mariss Jansons brought the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to Carnegie on April 30 for an evening of splendid playing, featuring two New York City premieres and a performance of Mozart's Requiem, with Pittsburgh's Mendelssohn Choir and an all-star cast of soloists. The premieres, both instrumental works commissioned by the orchestra, were quirky and up-to-date, without making too many demands on the listener; both composers attended the performance. Christopher Rouse's Rapture (completed in 2000) is an atmospheric, eleven-minute "progression to an ever more blinding ecstasy," as noted by the composer, who also describes the work as "the most unabashedly tonal music I have ever composed." Beginning softly and quietly, Rapture builds to a sustained (and very loud) climax, exploring different tonal relationships and accelerating tempo along the way.

Michael Hersch (on this evening, just shy of his thirty-first birthday) completed his Symphony No. 2 in 2001; structurally, the piece follows the outlines of a horror movie, in which an ax-murderer emerges from the basement, terrorizes the heroes, is subdued, springs back to life, and is subdued again. A brief pianissimo from the lower strings concludes the work, right about where the credits would roll. It's easy to succumb to the temptation to compare the young composer to a film-school student making a slasher epic for Roger Corman, but despite the symphony's structural banality, the composition shows imagination and skill.

Perhaps the greatest piece of music ever written by committee, Mozart's Requiem (Süssmayr's completion, in the Peters edition), took up the second half of the program. The soloists don't have much to do in this work, but Jansons enlisted four top-notch singers. Dressed in a gown that made her look like the heroine of a Henry James novel and holding the score at arm's length, as if to give it away, soprano Hei-Kyung Hong took the Requiem's most demanding solo part. Mozart brings out the best in this fine singer, and she delivered refulgent tone that easily rode over the orchestra and other voices. A tall, heavyset man, German tenor Christian Elsner seemed to get winded just crossing the stage, but he had plenty of breath in reserve when he sang, shaping long phrases. John Relyea's bass sounds utterly bottomless, but he handles it with finesse; here, the part seemed almost too easy for him. Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose, fresh from her acclaimed Romeo in Opera Company of Philadelphia's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, is an attractive presence, but she didn't have the projection necessary to be heard clearly on this occasion.

Despite the vastness of Jansons's orchestral forces, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh tilted the sonic balance in its own favor; at points where one really wanted to hear instrumental texture and detail (the incisive strings in the Confutatis, for example), the choral sound took precedence. Under the direction of Robert Page, the choir displayed a fresh, youthful tone and excellent diction; the singers really seemed to understand the Requiem's Latin text. Jansons led a reading that looked forward to Romanticism but didn't quite cross over that border: emotional but not impassioned. He was impressive in forte passages -- and just when you thought the choir and orchestra couldn't get any louder, they did -- but piano sections were marvelously graceful and poignant.

WILLIAM V. MADISON




In mid-April, Riccardo Muti, one of the many glamorous names bandied about early in the sprawling search for Kurt Masur's post as music director of the New York Philharmonic, led his might-have-been orchestra in a four-performance coupling of Schubert's Symphony No. 6 in C Major with Scriabin's Symphony No. 1 in E major (seen April 13). Muti's classy command of the Philharmonic forces was especially keen in the Schubert, its bubbling, Rossini-inspired rhythms and buoyant instrumental solos paced with bracing crispness. The Scriabin, a classically contoured yet visionary powerhouse, featured tenor Sergej Larin and mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova as the soloists in its final oratorio-like movement. Both artists offered potent (if relatively brief) contributions in their declamation of the text, written by Scriabin himself: the mezzo rich and true in tone yet exalted in expression, the tenor bold and cutting.




The May 1 recital by soprano Christine Schäfer and pianist Ted Taylor was an intriguing mix of old and not-so-new: four Schubert songs and Schumann's Dichterliebe were programmed with George Crumb's 1979 Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises for Soprano and Amplified Piano. Schäfer scored neatly with the opening Schubert set, hitting full marks for an intelligent, well-managed "Ellens Gesang I," and a meltingly pretty "Ellens Gesang III" ("Ave Maria") and was surprisingly effective in the Schumann cycle, her smallish but fierce soprano firing up a stark "Ich grolle nicht" and a dry-eyed, ironic "Die alten, bösen Lieder." The Crumb cycle, a setting of six sections of Walt Whitman's elegy to President Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," in which piano strings are plucked, strummed and manipulated (as well as struck in conventional fashion from the keyboard), was created for the magisterial American soprano Jan DeGaetani, whose crystal-clear English diction made the verse bloom, and whose serene self-possession gave an air of unarguable artistic logic to the enterprise. Though game for the vocal stuntwork aspect of the piece and accompanied with poker-faced zest by Taylor, Schäfer had neither the authority or the English diction to make Apparitions work.




James Levine and The MET Orchestra offered a transcendent Die Schöpfung at Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of May 5. Levine and his band created music of extraordinary emotional breadth and crystalline delicacy; in the opening prelude, the ascending winds emerged from the supporting orchestral texture with the delicacy of sunbeams, yet the piece held its massive, majestic shape. The chorus was superb throughout, nowhere more exalted (appropriately enough) than in the closing section of Part II, beginning with the first statement of "Vollendt is das grosse Werk." They sang like angels (Which is, after all, the idea.) Soloists were René Pape, who doubled as the Archangel Raphael and Adam; Hei-Kyung Hong, who performed similar duties as Gabriel and Eva; and, making his company debut as Uriel, Ian Bostridge. Pape glowered darkly as Raphael, with the narrative urgency of "Und Gott machte das Firmament" cut especially fine, and flirted elegantly as Adam. Hong's Eva was a mite kittenish but deliciously sung, and her Gabriel radiant as a cloudless sky, with a bewitching reading of the oratorio's big hit tune, "Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün" (familiar in English as "With verdure clad.") Bostridge left an equivocal impression. The voice is light and pleasant, appropriate enough for the spirit world, his German was deftly handled and his modest platform manner undeniably charismatic. But the slim tone had little or no steel, turning soggy and tired under pressure, and the voice lost its profile in selections with chorus. In polish and address Bostridge was clearly not the equal of his fellow soloists.

F. PAUL DRISCOLL




PHILADELPHIA


Like many symphonic organizations, the Philadelphia Orchestra now markets its subscription concerts under easily recalled (and sometimes reductive) catch phrases. Thus a four-evening sequence termed "Wagner's Ring" (Kimmel Center, April) did not betoken a complete cycle, though the orchestral playing was grand and eloquent enough to make one wish for concert traversals of complete Wagner operas in future. Rather, James Conlon had programmed three excerpts from Götterdämmerung to follow that least Wagnerian (and most Haydnesque) of Beethoven symphonies, the First. Rising American Heldensopran Linda Watson was engaged to make her first important American appearances, singing the immolation scene.

Earlier this year, Conlon cancelled, and Andrew Davis agreed to take on the program as planned. On the heels of Der Fliegende Holländer and Parsifal in Chicago, his very solid showing here (April 16) augured well for the Lohengrin he is slated to conduct this summer in Bayreuth (with Watson as Ortrud). The cellos sounded the opening of "Dawn and the Rhine Journey" wonderfully, and even if Siegfried's offstage horn was not precisely in tune, the energy and flow carried over into the death and funeral music, in which Verizon Hall's precise acoustic caught the drumbeats, triangles and cymbals with haunting clarity.

Like many Wagnerian contenders, from Olive Fremstad through Janis Martin, Watson started as a mezzo. She has impressive credits (including Venus and Isolde) in major European theaters and joins the Met next April as Kundry. Despite her rapid career climb, she has approached Brünnhilde the old-fashioned way: after Sieglinde, and in stages. Her assault on the role started with Siegfried in Bonn in 1999, with Walküre added on earlier this season in Tokyo. Her first Götterdämmerung awaits in Düsseldorf in 2003, but participation in a full cycle is already slated for Vienna. Stage experience may bring a greater sense of commitment and specificity to the words than was evident here. She limited her expressive potential by use of idiomatic but rather generalized declamation and (in the fourth of four traversals) what seemed undue reliance on the score, though dignity and imposing presence registered. Occasional lurches at high notes suggested her vocal origins, but unlike some other pushed-up mezzos, she retains a pleasing solidity in bottom phrases such as "Ruhe, o Gott." Though her instrument leaves no immediate "aural thumbprint," it offers some middle-register shine and the amplitude to cope with a great orchestra in full cry (and onstage).

DAVID SHENGOLD

 




PHOTO CREDITS: © Beatriz Schiller 2002 (both Sly) © Carol Rosegg 2002 (Walker, Lundy); © Carol Rosegg 2002 (Dudley); © Gary Smith 2002 (Kazaras, Castle); © Debra Hesser 2002 (Fritz); © Carol Pratt 2002 (Giordani); © Wilfried Hösl (Rhinegold), © Eric Mahoudeau 2002 (Macbeth)


OPERA NEWS, July 2002 Copyright © 2002 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.


IN REVIEW
July 2002

From around the world


A sleeper awakened: Wolf-Ferrari's Sly

arrived at the Met, courtesy

of Plácido and Marta Domingo.

Life is a dream in the castle of Westmoreland (with Pons, Guleghina, Domingo, opposite page)

Domingo as sly: a talent to amuse

Handelians Walker, Lundy at NYCO

Dudley, Sousa's American girl

Kazaras, Castle:Seattle's Parents Terribles

Azucena (Fritz) Aux Genoux in Sarasota's Le Trouvère

Giordani, a capital Riccardo

Kapellmann in Wernicke's Rhine

Nucci, Parisian Scotsman