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The Paris Opera: Plus Ça Change

(Cinema, Paris, Opera in the City of Light, Documentary) Permanent link

It's no surprise that drama inherent in running an opera house can outpace the onstage theatrics, but rarely have audiences been given as clear a look at the pitfalls and turmoil of an intendancy as Jean-Stéphane Bron's new documentary about the Paris Opera's 2015-16 season — the first full slate offered under then-new director Stéphane Lissner. The film chronicles a rather chaotic season wherein the company endures a strike; choreographer Benjamin Millepied arrives then departs as the company's ballet director; music director Philippe Jordan stewards several challenging new productions — including Romeo Castellucci's thrillingly exegetical Schönberg’s Moses und Aron — to the stage; and the city shows a courage indéfectible in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan. At just 110 minutes, the documentary outpaces Adriana Lecouvreur by about an hour, but delivers a dose of backstage drama than would have kept Cilea inspired. Keep an eye out for cameos by Bryn Terfel, Jordan, then French President François Hollande and rising baritone Mikhail Timoshenko. Indispensable viewing for opera lovers curious how their saucisson gets made. The film's US premiere is slated for October 18 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Quad Cinema near Union Square in Manhattan. 

Grammy Nods for Best Opera Recording

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The Grammy award nominations were announced this week, and if you haven’t been paying close attention to classical recordings of the past year, you’re in luck—we have, and we have links to reviews of many of the nominated discs to help you get a sense of what’s in the running.

“Best Opera Recording” 

Ghosts of Versailles, John Corigliano, Pentatone.
“It is not satirizing, subverting, pastiche-ing or deconstructing anything; it’s just quite lovely and memorable. … There really hasn’t been anything quite like Ghosts of Versailles, before or since, imperfections and all. This CD is an essential release.” —Joshua Rosenblum, August 2016  

Giulio Cesare, Handel, Decca.
“Breathtaking music-making coupled with a production that is frivolous at best and, at worst, utterly incoherent vandalism.” —Adam Wasserman, November 2016  

Cold Mountain, Jennifer Higdon, Pentatone.
“About two-fifths of the opera … is the kind of strong, original, ear-grabbing writing one would expect from Higdon … But much of the remainder of the piece … is soft-edged, prairie-tinted prettiness. It’s superficially attractive but artistically anonymous.” —Joshua Rosenblum, June 2016  

Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart, Deutsche Grammophon.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin “never loses sight of the work’s comedy, but his effervescent reading also reveals the emotional resonance that makes it a humanistic masterpiece. … [He]  offers a reading so well gauged, and so bursting with life, that it continually provoked me to think, ‘What a wonderful opera!’” —Fred Cohn, December 2016 

Król Roger, Szymanowski, Opus Arte. 
“An insightful, artistically masterful production of a gripping, gorgeous opera.” —Joshua Rosenblum, March 2016 

A Real Piece of Gesamtkunstwerk

(Observations, Keeping it Local, Museum, Wagner, The Ring, Henry Stewart) Permanent link
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A libretto for Der Ring des Nibelungen, annotated by Wagner
Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

IN A MEDIUM-SIZED GALLERY on an upper floor, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is now exhibiting “Wagner’s Ring: Forging an Epic,” a collection of rare materials from the Morgan, Bayreuth, the Met and other archives that’s essential viewing for fans of the composer and his magnum opus. While the exhibit tells a coherent story of the work’s genesis using manuscripts and artifacts—from Wagner’s inspirations to the first performances of the Ring in the U.S.—it might be most enjoyable for the access to particular extraordinary objects, regardless of their context: the handwritten draft/outline of the score for the "Ride of the Valkyries"; Wagner’s reduction for a friend of Wotan’s Farewell; his personal revisions to the published libretto; and original tickets to the first performance of the full cycle at Bayreuth. 

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Tickets dating from 1876, the year that the Bayreuth
Festspielhaus opened

Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

And there’s more to discover than what we’ve mentioned: costume sketches, letters, hand-signed invitations, newspaper coverage, satirical cartoons, rare manuscripts, many other orchestral sketches, and much more. Find out what appeals most to you before the exhibit closes on April 17. spacer 


More info can be found at The Morgan Library & Museum

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Grammy Rundown

(Recordings, Listening, Criticism) Permanent link

THE GRAMMY AWARD NOMINEES announced last week included many recordings reviewed by OPERA NEWS over the course of 2015 in multiple categories. The five nominees for "Best Opera Recording" were Boston Baroque’s recording of Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; a two-CD set of Mozart’s Entführung Aus Dem Serail, conducted by Yannick Nézet–Séguin; the Boston Early Music Festival’s recording of Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe; a DVD of Janáček’s Jenůfa from the Deutsche Oper Berlin; and Seji Ozawa’s Decca recording of Ravel’s Enfant et Les Sortilèges.

Recordings Ulisse in Patria Cover 1115 

Of the Monteverdi, our critic William R. Braun wrote, “There have been versions of Ulisse that seemed studies in marmoreal ritual, and versions that took delight in the syllable-by-syllable inflection of Monteverdi's setting of text. But this one … is notable for what might be termed a ‘modern’ sensibility in the dramaturgy … the production as a whole treats the work almost like a brand new opera. It renews appreciation for the way Monteverdi, presented with a not especially astute libretto, tweaked such elements as the timing of the revelation as to who Minerva really is, and the presence of Penelope at the archery trial, with a fine dramatic instinct that puts some of today's literary adaptations to shame.” Find the full review here.

The Steffani CD was featured in our upcoming January issue’s Best of 2015 list, for Philippe Jaroussky’s turn as Anfione, which Braun called, “an out-and-out star performance,” adding, “under music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Baroque practice and modern tastes are both accommodated.” You can read the full review here.

Recordings Entfuhrung Cover 1215 

For the Entführung, our critic David J. Baker notes that soprano Diana Damrau offers a fresh interpretation of Constanze, but that it doesn’t always work. “Damrau’s vocal condition on this recording undermines her attempt to soften the music’s impact,” Baker writes, and conductor Nézet–Séguin’s tempos often don’t help. But, “When Constanze is not at center stage, the conductor emphasizes spark and contrast,” Baker writes. “He maintains tension in the melodic line and … strong forward momentum. His style is informed by the historically informed school of Mozart performance; he adopts the period instrumentalists’ brio and, in the overture and march, traces of their jangly ‘Turkish’ timbres.” You can read the full review here. 

Our critic Joshua Rosenblum was skeptical of the silent, two-minute opening of the Jenůfa video, but praised much of the rest of the disc, particularly the “versatile, charismatic powerhouse” mezzo Jennifer Larmore, who plays Kostelnicka. “In a role that almost demands to be shrieked, Larmore achieves startling vocal and dramatic intensity without ever sacrificing the intrinsic beauty of her resplendent, crystal-clear mezzo,” he writes. “The result is a fully fleshed, three-dimensional Kostelnicka, who manipulates others with charm and persuasion as opposed to cold-blooded, brute force domination. Larmore’s multilayered portrayal brings out the best in everyone around her.” Read the full review here. 

(OPERA NEWS did not receive an advance copy of Enfant, so we did not review it, though a review of another new recording, from Naxos, featuring the Lyon National Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, is scheduled to appear in our April 2016 issue.)

Recordings Puccini Cover 1215 

Works nominated in other categories were also reviewed by OPERA NEWS. Jonas Kaufmann’s Puccini Album, our #1 Recital Disc of 2015, was nominated for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. So was Joyce DiDonato’s Joyce & Tony—Live from Wigmore Hall (our #3 Recital Disc); Mark Padmore’s recording of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart; Talise Trevigne’s take on Christopher Rouse; and Cecilia Bartoli’s St. Petersburg.

Of the Kaufmann recording, our critic Judith Malafronte wrote, “After a dazzling start with excerpts from Manon Lescaut, we hear something from each of Puccini’s operas, arranged in order of composition, offering a superb look at the composer’s development as well as Kaufmann’s virtuoso vocal acting … the superstar tenor’s zillions of fans … will be ecstatic.” You can read the full review here. 

Of the Padmore, Malafronte wrote, “If you make it through the opening tracks of Mark Padmore’s newest lieder-recital disc—or better yet, skip the overindulgent, mannered Haydn set altogether—you’ll be rewarded with imaginative, committed performances, especially of some out-of-the-way Beethoven songs”—the cycle “An die Ferne Geliebte.” You can read the full review here. 


About St. Petersburg, Malafronte wrote, “The relentlessly curious Cecilia Bartoli investigates the birth of opera in Russia with world-premiere recordings of arias by Italian and German composers based at the eighteenth-century court of St. Petersburg. Bartoli turns her keen musical personality to the lyrical shapes and gestures of this style, and her clean, instrumental approach is highly satisfying.” Read the full review here. 

Of the DiDonato, Henson Keys wrote, “The ebullient personalities, instinctive musicianship and rock-solid technique of mezzo Joyce DiDonato and pianist Antonio Pappano are amply displayed on this two-CD set.” Find the full review here. 

OPERA NEWS did not review the Talise Trevigne disc. It did however review several more nominees, including two nominees for Best Classical Compendium—Handel’s Allegro, Il Penseroso Ed Il Moderato, conducted by Paul McCreesh; and Laura Karpman’s setting of Langston Hughes, Ask Your Mama—as well as Gerald Barry’s Importance of Being Earnest, nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Of the Handel, Malafronte writes, “Most Handel-lovers admit a special affection for” this work, adding, “It’s a pleasure to hear conductor Paul McCreesh return to Handel, and his thoughtful approach is matched by passionate, deeply felt performances, especially from the chorus and orchestra (the Gabrieli Consort and Players).” You can read the full review here. 

Recordings Ask Your Mama Cover 1115 

Of Ask Your Mama, critic Sam Perwin wrote,The Carnegie Hall performance of the piece was well received by critics and audiences alike, prompting an ongoing tour of Ask Your Mama at concert halls around the country. Unfortunately, despite its best efforts, the urgency of the live experience is lost on the recording. Many moments that I assume would take flight given a staging, multimedia accompaniment, and live singing instead fall flat in a studio. This is not to diminish the magnitude and impact of the work. Karpman’s score, in adhering to the sprawling nature of Hughes’s poem and musical instructions, explores genres ranging from Afro-Carribean drum beats and R&B ballads to German lieder and jazz-club swing.” Read the full review here. 

Lastly, of the Barry, critic Joanne Sydney Lessner was harsh. Barry is a deconstructionist, dismantling the elements of Oscar Wilde’s perfect comedy of manners and reassembling them on his own terms,” she writes. “The result is engineered cacophony, topped by impossibly angular vocal lines—all necessarily doubled in the orchestra—that are virtually unsingable and almost entirely incomprehensible. Even if the listener can parse specific words, any meaning, let alone subtext, is completely lost in Barry’s purposeful disregard of the natural rhythm of the text. Worse, there is no delight in the language. Barry’s approach would find a better match in the work of Ionesco, whose dialogue is largely absurdist. But Wilde is about wit; it’s not about nonsense, and it’s not about nothing.” Read the full review here. spacer 

The Tucker Tradition

(Brian Kellow, Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala, Michael Fabiano) Permanent link

The 2014 Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala began with a jubilant, Yankees-game style greeting from its president, Barry Tucker, who welcomed the audience to what he called “the number-one opera concert in America.” After the cheering subsided, Tucker made a less happy announcement: four of the gala’s scheduled singers — Stephen Costello, Marcello Giordani, Isabel Leonard and Anna Netrebko — had cancelled. Some were out because of illness, but Netrebko’s withdrawal was brought on by her grueling schedule of Lady Macbeths at the Met; her participation in the gala must have been questionable from the beginning, since her name was not printed in the program. Emmanuel Villaume was on hand to lead the Richard Tucker Gala Orchestra, a strong and cohesive pickup group, and the New York Choral Society performed under the direction of David Hayes. 

Each year, the centerpiece of the gala is the winner of the $50,000 Richard Tucker Award — an American artist who shows every sign of being on the threshold of a big international career. The 2014 winner of the Richard Tucker Award, the gifted tenor Michael Fabiano, led off the program with “Si! De’ Corsari il fulmine” from Il Corsaro; he was in superb voice, and his final “Alarmi!” packed a visceral wallop that got the program off to a thrilling start. 

After that, there was a slow stretch: soprano Pretty Yende has an attractive voice, but her interpretation of “Qui la voce” was dull; she seemed unable to shape the aria or move it toward any kind of climax. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s “Infelice! ... e tuo Credevi” from Ernani suffered from a similar lack of engagement, and by the end, he was nearly inaudible. Tenor Joseph Calleja’s “E lucevan le stelle” was not in the thrilling Richard Tucker tradition, but he did display a fine messa di voce, and generally opted for sweet over stentorian. 

The evening then moved into high gear: Angela Meade, the 2011 winner of the Tucker Award, electrified the audience with “Esprits de l’air” from Massenet’s Esclarmonde, backed up by mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano. Meade sang with tonal beauty, splendid rhythmic elasticity and fearlessly made the spectacular jumps to a high D. She expertly captured the aria’s magical lunacy and wit; it was also a brilliant programming choice, since the repertory at the Tucker Gala tends to be unvaryingly meat and potatoes. Meade returned for an unannounced “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from La Forza del Destino, in which she floated certain phrases magnificently and landed on her climactic B-flat, held past the double-bar line.

The rest of the program was a mixed bag, with baritone Željko Lučić offering a rather dry-toned, juiceless “Nemico della patria” from Andrea Chénier, and tenor Paul Appleby and Broadway soprano Alexandra Silber (a last-minute addition to the program) making absolute hash out of the Balcony Scene from West Side Story. Michael Fabiano figured in all of the remaining high points, including a “N’est-ce plus ma main” from Manon (in which he was superbly partnered by the fine soprano Joyce El-Khoury) and the finale of Act II from Lucia di Lammermoor, in which Fabiano’s Edgardo was the real dramatic centerpiece, particularly when he emitted an achingly pain-wracked “Rispondi!” to Meade’s Lucia — eschewing the usual triple-forte rage that tenors go for at that moment. spacer 


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(News, Brian Kellow, Criticism) Permanent link


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Soprano Tamar Iveri

It was discovered last spring that Georgian soprano TAMAR IVERI's Facebook page included hostile comments about a 2013 gay-rights protest in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Among other things, the page stated, "Georgian man has always been the symbol of bravery....  Should we, in the future, hand Tbilisi over to the guys with Louis Vuitton bags?"  (There appears to be a large faction in Georgia — including many in the ruling party, the Georgian Dream Coalition — that feels public squares should not be given over to gay demonstrations.) It was subsequently announced that both Brussels's Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie and Opera Australia had been moved to cancel upcoming contracts they had with the singer. On June 23, Opera Australia denounced Iveri's comments as "unconscionable" and stated that she would not be singing Desdemona, as planned, in OA's production of Otello. It appears, however, that there was more to the story — on both sides.

According to Justin Koonin, the convener (or chair) of the New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, the initial response from Opera Australia was silence. "After forty-eight hours," says Koonin, "the company issued a statement on its Facebook page saying that they had made Tamar Iveri aware of the situation, and she had issued an apology, and rehearsals were going ahead with her." Iveri did issue a statement, placing the blame for the posting on her "very religious" husband and his "tough attitude towards gay people." This appears disingenuous, as it seems that the anti-gay comments first appeared on Iveri's Facebook page in mid-2013, nearly a year before the scandal became international news. The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, having discovered a July 2013 interview with Iveri that seemed to support her husband's position, turned up the heat under Opera Australia. Only then did the company post a statement finding Iveri's remarks "unconscionable." (Opera Australia's chief executive CRAIG HASSALL and artistic director LYNDON TERRACINI declined to discuss the matter with OPERA NEWS, and the company has since removed any comment on the matter from its Facebook page.)

When OPERA NEWS requested a comment from Iveri, the soprano claimed that she withdrew from performances herself, because she did "not want such an important artistic event to be marred by any problem which, however unintentionally, has developed because of my presence in the cast. This is the sole reason why I have left the production. I want to add that I am immensely saddened and hurt by the campaign which is now being mounted against me.

"I have never been prejudiced against anyone, whether for religious or racial reasons, or for any other kind of prejudice, including those regarding sexual preference. I abhor prejudice in any form altogether. I have been performing in an art form that includes thousands of gay people on both sides of the stage, and there is no one who can come forward and claim that I have ever exhibited any such prejudice against them, as indeed I do not. I have said before and say here again that the words attributed to me were not my own, and that I therefore cannot take personal responsibility for them. I can only repeat again and again that this is my position.   

"I also want to make clear once more that my concerns last year about the Parade in Tbilisi for Gay Rights were not based on any opposition to the rights of gay people everywhere. Rather they were founded on my fears that the parade would arouse a violent reaction from parts of the arch-conservative Georgian religious community. Unfortunately, this is exactly what did happen, as those participating in the parade were criminally attacked by such elements." 

At the moment, Iveri is scheduled to make her role debut as Tosca in Melbourne in November 2014, under the auspices of Opera Australia. Given her sluggish performance of "Vissi d'arte" in concert on YouTube, this casting seems questionable on artistic grounds; it remains to be seen whether the engagement is in jeopardy for other reasons. spacer 


The Puccini Prize

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For four decades, the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation has been awarding money to deserving young singers via its annual voice competition; past top prizewinners include many artists who have gone on to considerable renown in the opera world. On October 26 at the Rose Theater, the Foundation will hold its Fortieth Anniversary Gala concert, presenting its top winners for 2014. 

On April 28, I attended the competition finals. "You had to kiss a lot of frogs to get a few princes," murmured one of the judges to the Foundation's administrative/artistic director, Stephen DeMaio, on the way out. It was true: the competition began shakily, with several singers turning up whom I felt should have been granted no money at all. But as the day wore on, things picked up considerably, and there were some dazzling talents on display.

The top prize of $12,500 was justly awarded to tenor Benjamin Bliss, twenty-eight, who sang "Una furtive lagrima" in a lovely, caressing tone. It was a magical performance that was absorbing without becoming lachrymose. The two first prize winners were also completely deserving of the $10,000 award granted to each of them: Rebecca Pedersen, only twenty-two, and a winner in the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, sang Le Cid's "Pleurez mes yeux" with a big, beautiful sound — she needs only to dig in a bit more emotionally, because she has everything else — and Ryan Speedo Green, twenty-eight, offered a completely satisfying, magnificently finished performance of "Solche hergelaufne Laffen" from Die Entfuhrüng aus dem Serail. He seems ready to perform this role on any stage, anywhere. 

Baritone Alexey Lavrov, twenty-eight, took second prize ($7,000) with Edgar's "Questop amor vergogna mia." His voice has a solid core and he's a highly expressive artist. This was one of the most complete performances of the entire day, and I wouldn't have complained even slightly had he won the top prize. 

The third prize winners ($5,000 each) also showed up strongly: mezzo Virginie Verrez, twenty-five, with "Deh, per questo," performed with both elegant Mozartean style and dramatic bite; twenty-eight-year-old tenor Mario Chang, another ready-to-go artist, sang "Che gelida manina" with a warm, glowing sound and exciting dramatic involvement; and twenty-three-year-old soprano Courtney Johnson offered La Wally's "Ebben? ne andrò lontana" in the best performance I've yet heard from her. I did not think, however, that Johnson should have placed above the stunning mezzo Shirin Eskandani, thirty, whose "Non più mesta" was extraordinary; her singing is joyous and she seems incapable of making an unmusical phrase. Eskandani took the $3,000 fourth prize, but again, I would have had no quibbles if she had earned the top award. Twenty-seven-year-old tenor Paul Han took fifth prize ($2,500) with an exquisitely phrased and impassioned "Fantaisie aux divins mensonges" from Lakmé that was full of dramatic surprises along the way.

There were ten additional $1,000 grants and nine $500 Encouragement Awards handed out as well. Among these, baritone Norman Garrett, singing "Vision fugitive," was having an off day and didn't show nearly as well as he usually does; soprano Courtney Mills, thirty-two, sang "Pace, pace," once again demonstrating that she has one of the best instruments of any young singer today, though she often seems to falter a bit in competition, as she did here; and mezzo Ewa Plonka, thirty-one, with a highly musical, dramatically pointed rendition of Konchakovna's Aria from Prince Igor. I would like to hear more of soprano Shelley Jackson, whose "Tu, che di gel" showed off a good grasp of Puccini style and a vocal with a distinctive profile. Soprano Jennifer Cherest, twenty-nine, seriously overcalculated her charm with a too-cute-for-words performance of Norina's aria, "Quel guardo il cavaliere," from Don Pasquale. And twenty-six-year-old baritone Jarrett Ott, who offered Die Tote Stadt's Tanzlied, is very talented, but he tends to stand outside the things he sings; he needs to engage emotionally to a greater degree. (In fairness, he was handicapped by being interrupted by one of the judges.) spacer 


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