Saturday, January 24, 2009

Orfeo ed Euridice: Balm for Hard Times


Despite the Jeremiahs trumpeting the world’s imminent demise, those attending the January 24, 2009 Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcast of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice could not help being uplifted by a performance that showed us all why we have reasons to feel good. This production and performance were exceptional entertainment and so, on the most basic level, provided escape from the travails of life. But beyond simple escapism, the uniform high quality of every aspect of the opera—dance, costume, music and staging—and the obvious devotion of the scores of people involved in the performance and the creation of the work, gave even greater cause for optimism: mankind has groups of people that lavish great attention and care on projects of beauty and imagination.

When the Metropolitan Opera announced its scheduled broadcasts for this season I considered Orfeo ed Euridice an outlier. The operas by Rossini, Puccini, Bellini, Berlioz, Donizetti and Strauss were all likely home runs. But Orfeo, dating to 1762, is the earliest of the scheduled operas this year. Well, no worries. It is a pre-Mozartian gem and is one of the earliest operas in the ordinary repertoire of most companies. Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote over thirty operas and lived to within four years of Mozart’s death. This opera, performed in its original Italian version, dates to 1762. Its music obviously owes much to the early musical traditions of Vienna. Some of the numbers of this through-composed opera bear strong resemblance to the music of Mozart. The famous aria “Che farò senza Euridice,” the choral and orchestral tour de force “Chi mai dell’Erebo,” and the orchestral piece “Ballo delle furie,” are among the numbers that demonstrate that the musical writing in this opera is of the very highest caliber. This is a luscious and beautiful work.

Stephanie Blythe’s performance in the lead as Orfeo was stunning. This was one of those rare occasions where early in the performance one realizes that there will be perfection throughout. The role, originally written for a castrato and hence a “pants” role, is demanding. Orfeo sings in almost every vocal number of the opera. Blythe’s bright and clear mezzo voice never erred. From her plaintive repeated cries of “Euridice” in her opening number, through her stunning “Che farò senza Euridice,” her live performance surpassed studio recordings made by some of opera’s greats. Perfection warrants little comment, so not much more can be added with respect to Blythe’s amazing performance.

Apart from Orfeo, the opera has only two other singing parts: Amor (Cupid) and Euridice. The entrance of Cupid was dramatic. Heidi Grant Murphy, a passable Amor, was lowered from the full height of the Met stage to a point a few inches off the ground, where she appeared to whisper in Orfeo’s ear. After telling Orfeo that he can gain back Euridice, Amor then sings the aria “Gli sguardi trattieni,” which Murphy sang well, but not with solidity. Murphy interjected an air of humor throughout, which was in part aided by her unusual costume: white tennis shoes, khakis, a pink golf shirt sprinkled with some sequins, and fakey little wings. Her performance was good, but was eclipsed by that of Blythe. Euridice was played by the stunning Danielle de Niese, who sang her few numbers beautifully.

Tiered staging is now de rigueur at the Met. The wonderful, gifted Met chorus appeared in a three-tiered semicircle at the back of the stage. Approximately 90 members of the chorus were included and each was dressed in an Isaac Mizrahi-designed costume of a different historical figure, including such notables as Lincoln, Moses, Maria Callas, Stalin, Jimi Hendrix, Susan Sontag, and even Gluck himself. The costumes worn by this chorus of the dead were visually interesting even from a distance.

Operas written in the 1700’s often respected the French tradition of including several dance interludes. Mark Morris’ contemporary dance sequences were pleasing and well fit the mood of the opera. There was no pretence as to any particular date or age for the costumes or the staging, so neither the contemporary nature of the dance nor the fact that the dancers were dressed in such getup as printed T-shirts detracted from the enjoyment of the performance.

That such care was lavished on the performance of an opera that is nearly 250 years old was touching. The composer, the librettist, the orchestra, the vocal soloists, the chorus, the costume designers, the set designers, the dancers—all came together in perfect harmony to hold forth for the audience’s consideration an ancient story: the story of Orpheus’ trip to the underworld to reclaim his love, only to lose her when he turns around to gaze upon her, killing her instantly. But in this version of the story Orpheus is given another chance. Even after Euridice dies, history’s dead take pity on him and revive Euridice a second time. The opera thus ends on a note of hope: "Trionfi Amore, e il mondo intero serva all’impero della beltà." (May love triumph, and let the whole world be in thrall to beauty’s empire.) The escape to the opera was not the only gift of this afternoon; more precious was the lesson that through devotion to excellence and the pursuit of the things we love we can accomplish beautiful and important works.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A List: Recommendations for Those Just Getting Interested in Classical Music

I created this list some time ago as a list of recordings that might be recommended to someone who approaches you and asks how to venture into the waters of classical music. It is intended to be a list that offers a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music, many of the recordings are budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

List-making is always a personal, subjective, and possibly silly thing to do, but I would be interested in others' lists.

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

La Rondine: Where Have You Been?

Puccini is a champion of popular opera. While meaning no disrespect to Verdi, Mozart or Rossini, Puccini holds the top of the popular opera charts. According to the Opera America ranking of the 20 most-performed operas, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La Bohème are the first and second most frequently performed operas in the United States. Tosca and Turnadot then come in at numbers eight and twelve. Together these four Puccini operas have been performed at the Met thousands of times. But where has La Rondine been? Nowhere to be found. Until this season it had not been performed at the Met since 1936. This opera, a treasure, has been hidden in plain view. Its reemergence at the Met this year and the HD Broadcast of it are wonderful gifts to Puccini fans everywhere.

The story is simple: Magda, a young woman of Paris high society, leaves her protector for a younger man, Ruggero. Magda and Ruggero then live a carefree life but must part because they run out of money and because she never disclosed her true identity. Unlike most Puccini heroines, however, she does not die—she simply returns to her protected, less romantic world.

Angela Gheorgiu, playing Marta, and her husband, Roberto Alagna, playing Ruggero, both gave excellent performances. Things seemed in doubt for a time. At the beginning of the transmission, Met Director Peter Gelb came out with a microphone. I was thinking, “Uh, oh, substitution.” But instead, he simply explained that Gheorgiu was suffering from a bad cold. Gelb’s apology was not required because her performance was stunning. The signature piece of the opera, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” comes early in the first act and the audience was in suspense wondering if the ill Gheorgiu could pull it off; she did it without a hitch. And it is a spectacular aria:



Lately I have had the feeling that some of the Met’s tenors have not been quite up to snuff. Marcello Giordani’s recent performance in The Damnation of Faust seemed lacking, particularly at one key point of an important aria. Ramon Vargas does craftsman-like work, but does not excite. Alagna’s was to me the best tenor performance I have seen recently. He was singing a role that he knows well. The 1997 EMI recording of this opera that he made with Gheorgiu and the London Symphony Orchestra is certainly one of the best available. But whatever his familiarity with the work, he was in fine voice and demonstrated that he is one of the very best tenors around. It seems a bit odd watching a husband and wife perform together in lead roles, though it adds an interesting dimension.

Marta’s maid Lisette was, appropriately enough, sung by Lisette Oropesa, whose comic acting was superb. The poet Prunier was sung by Marius Brenciu, who, like Gheorgiu, hails from Romania. Both Oropresa and Brenciu were exceptional, as was Samuel Ramey’s Rambaldo.

The Met staging was pleasing in that it contained no gimmicks this time: the staging for each of the three acts was attractive, fitting and realistic. The first Act was set in Rambaldo’s mansion; the second at a Parisian nightspot, Bulliers; and the last at a villa on the Mediterranean.

Puccini’s operas connect with people in ways that are deep and unique. It is a shame that this opera has been kept out of the rotation.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Deborah Voigt: Long-Awaited Schubert Club Recital a Success

The road to a Deborah Voigt’s January 6, 2008 recital at St. Paul’s Schubert Club was not a smooth one. A planned recital in November 2005 failed when the Minnesota Orchestra, which had engaged Voigt for a concert performance of Tosca later that season, invoked a clause in its contract which gave it the right to refuse an artist permission to perform at other venues within 50 miles of downtown Minneapolis in the same season. This ungracious action forced Voigt to cancel her planned 2005 recital. This year the Schubert Club rebooked her, avoided contract pitfalls and brought her brilliant soprano voice to St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for a mid-winter recital.

Voigt is one of the most gifted dramatic sopranos of the decade. In a notorious 2004 episode she was fired by the Royal Covent Garden Opera House because she could not fit into a little black dress that the lead character was supposed to wear.



Later she had gastric bypass surgery, which led to a dramatic weight loss. The story of her weight struggles was the subject of a poignant 60 Minutes profile. Then last season, her appearances as Isolde in the Met’s already snake-bit production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—performers and their substitutes were dropping like flies—was interrupted by a bad cold, which forced her to cancel performances. It seems that there is often uncertainty as to whether her performance will actually occur as planned.

But the Ordway recital was a great success. In the first half of the program she sang in English, Italian, and German in songs by Beach, Verdi, and Strauss. Her beautiful voice projected well in the hall. She entered wearing a luxuriant, structured red dress and made occasional under-the-breath quips that got the audience laughing.

The second part of the program, songs by Respihgi, Ben Moore, and Bernstein was by far the more engaging half and one got the sense that the recital was building as the evening progressed. The pieces by New York composer Moore were quite remarkable. Very distinctive, interesting and stunningly performed. The regular program then concluded with Bernstein, ending with the West Side Story favorite “Somewhere.” The performance of Broadway show tunes by operatic sopranos is always an iffy thing, but Voigt did a marvelous job of retaining the song’s essence and beauty.

The encores were the most successful part of the program. The audience’s sustained enthusiasm was rewarded with three. The first in German (unknown to me, but including the refrain “aber dank”) and the last two well-known numbers in English, including Berlin’s sassy “I Love a Piano,” and Jerome Kern’s famous “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” “I Love a Piano” was humorously acted out, with Voigt stroking and caressing the piano and then at the end sitting down on the piano bench with the pianist and throwing out a pretty nasty keyboard riff. The last song, with its famous “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta love one man ‘til I die” lyric was the perfect end to a pleasing recital.

Voigt’s voice seemed in fine form the entire evening and it was easy to see why she is considered one of the best dramatic sopranos in the world.

The 60 Minutes profile on Deborah Voigt is easy to find on the internet. A humorous You Tube video referencing the “little black dress” incident is found above.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.