Sunday, August 30, 2015

Castorf’s anti-romantic version of “Die Walküre” at Bayreuth set in the oil fields of the US and USSR

The decadence of the Nordic gods continued to be a major theme in Bayreuth’s “Die Walküre” as envisioned by Frank Castorf, who grew up in East Germany with the Marxist view of the world. According to the program notes, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels were well aware of Richard Wager’s Ring, and didn’t approve of the Nordic gods morals. With the incestuous relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde being a major part of “Die Walküre,” Castorf presented Wotan and his girls, the Valkyries, as sleazy types in the production given on Saturday, August 22nd. This time, however, Castorf dropped the gangster theme that he used in “Das Rheingold” and instead tried to make a connection between the Rhine gold and black gold. He vaguely set the story (with the help of set designer Aleksandar Denić) in the oil field regions of the US and Russia (USSR actually) and added some video clips of oil workers for good measure. The videos (Andreas Deinert) were not as distracting as in “Das Rheingold,” but they didn’t enhance the production, which was very anti-romantic.

The first act opened with a wooden barn that also served as a farmhouse. One end of the structure was dominated by a big wooden tower. There were hay bales, and in a large cage, two turkeys (or something like them) strutted around. The hay bales must have been very light weight and undersized, because Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) moved about a dozen of them around even though she wore a dress and short heels. (I have worked on a farm (in eastern Washington) and moved hay bales – they are usually 80 or more pounds apiece – and it’s not a lot of fun.) She made a nice wall of the bales for Siegmund (Johan Botha).

Hunding (Kwangchul Youn) arrived with a very long spear that was adorned with the freshly cut-off head of a man. (This is curious, since Hunding said that he had got to the battle too late to do anything.) Hunding was elegantly dressed with a top hat, which he placed on top of the head. He commanded Sieglinde harshly, and dispatched her with a couple of vehement kisses.

Via a large screen, the audience watched Hunding fall asleep on his bed, which was inside the barn/farmhouse. Later, the screen showed Wotan (Wolfgang Koch) making a phone call to Fricka or maybe Erda (it was difficult to know which one), interrupting her consumption of a cake, in order to send her a dress, which she went gaga over.

The stage rotated to a side of the barn that had two large doors and train tracks. Somewhere along the way an image of Lenin appeared on the screen. Siegmund and Sieglinde sang of their love for each other but they never embraced or showed all that much affection. The sword was inside the barn and Siegmund pulled it out easily – as if he were removing a knife from butter. Sieglinde hopped around joyfully with the sword.

For Act 2, Fricka (Claudia Mahnke) wore an outfit that made her look like a cross between Cleopatra and the Queen of the Night. Wotan sported a huge Old-Testament-sized beard that was obviously fake. On the screen, there were black and white videos of dynamite blasts and gushing oil wells. In the scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde (Catherine Foster), Wotan no longer had the beard.

Sigmund’s fight against Hunding took place inside the barn, and the audience could only view part of it on the big screen. But the cameraman did focus on Siegmund’s when he slowly died so that everyone could see it on the big screen.

Act 3 opened with the several heroes running up to the top of the tower and collapsing in death at various levels. The Valkyries (Allison Oakes, Dara Hobbs, Claudia Mahnke, Nadine Weissmann, Christiane Kohl, Julia Rutigliano, Simone Schröder, and Alexandra Petersamer) were dressed in various outdoor dresses, which they removed to reveal party dresses. They ogled the heroes’ dead bodies in an erotic way, but they also took time to sit down and enjoy appetizers some alcohol. After Wotan picked up a saddle and slammed it down, the Valkyries panicked and abandon their sister Brünnhilde, who had walked in earlier with Sieglinde before directing her to safety.

Because of the Russian-like letters on the side of the barn, the setting had definitely transitioned to Russia (perhaps the Baku-region of the former USSR). When Brünnhilde passionately pled her case, Wotan ignored her and began chugging down a bottle of vodka. Later, he picked up a big bear rug and threw it to the side. During this time an oil pumping rig was moved out of the barn on railroad tracks, and began its see-saw action.

After the stage turned again, the audience could barely see Brünnhilde as she fell asleep on a bunk bed (painted white). A cameraman zeros in on her face so that we can see it on a screen. Wotan then called for Loge’s help, and the scene closed with a large barrel of oil in flames.

The singing was of the highest caliber, with every singer doing their utmost. Power combined with beautiful tone was always in the forefront. Botha’s “Wälse! Wälse!” was a wonderful highlight. Also, Koch impressively made “Das Ende” grow with very little vibrato. Mahnke threw everything but the kitchen sink into her scene with Koch, and was rewarded with thunderous applause afterwards. But the most adulation was given to Kampe – at least until conductor Kirill Petrenko appeared. He and the orchestra deservedly got the loudest ovations. Again, the music (with its hugely romantic ebb and flow) won out over the staging.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Das Rheingold” in Bayreuth survives Castorf’s gangster-low-life production

In the Frank Castorf production of “Das Rheingold” that I saw in Bayreuth on Friday (August 21), Wotan and company have their god-like powers, but they are just a bunch of gangster types in a low-life setting. On top of that, Castorf has added an up-close-and-personal element via cameramen who follow the gods around as if they were doing a self-promotion video or were part of a reality TV show. It all creates a lot of distraction, but some of is understandable, because Castorf has an extensive background in the theater world, not the opera world.

The first act opens at a rundown motel somewhere in Texas. The three Rhinemaidens (Mirella Hagen, Julia Rutigliano, and Anna Lapkovskaja) are pouty, sultry tramps who busy themselves with consuming fast food and checking their makeup instead of guarding the gold that is in the swimming pool nearby. They briefly tie up Alberich (Albert Dohmen) and slap him around a little bit, although he hardly seems to want to move from his lawn chair. Provoked by them, he tosses his rubber ducky aside and punches a couple of beach balls before wandering around, eating some sausage, and finally immersing himself in the swimming pool to grab the Rhinegold.

After realizing what they had lost, the Rhinemaidens frantically begin their search, and as the stage revolves, it reveals an old, worn-out gasoline station. In the meantime, a camera man emerges on the scene, and the audience can follow close-up action on a large screen. Wotan (Wolgang Koch), dressed like a gangster, is in bed in the motel, enjoying the affections of Fricka (Claudia Mahnke) and Freia (Allison Oakes) – both of whom wear flashy clothing. Via a phone call (landline), they learn that the giants, Fasolt (Wilhelm Schwinghammer) and Fafner (Andreas Hörl), are coming to be paid for their work on Valhalla. Freia especially plays to the camera and at one point holds up a bible to the lens – a funny incongruous gesture. Finally both women put a chair against the door in hopes that it will hold back the giants. Fasolt and Fafner arrive at the gas station, beat up the attendant, smash things, and end up in the motel room where they begin to wreak havoc.

Soon Loge (John Daszak), Froh (Lothar Odinius), and Donner (Daniel Schmutzhard) are in the room as well. Donner, who constantly threatens to shoot the giants with his pistol, looks like Sonny Bono in a western getup. Loge and Froh wear something akin to playboy-gangster garb. All – except the giants – pose at times for the cameraman. After Fasolt and Fafner haul off Freia, Wotan and Loge go to meet Albrecht.

The Nibelungheim is just an area in front of the gas station, where there’s an old airstream trailer, which Mime (Andreas Conrad) attempts to clean. Periodically a Nibelung piles some gold bars inside the trailer. Alberich steps inside the trailer and uses the Tarnhelm to change into a snake. The audience only sees the snake slithering over the gold bars on the screen. After Alberich changes into a toad (also shown only on the screen), he is caught by Wotan, and Loge scoops up the Tarnhelm.

Back at the motel/gasoline station, a Confederate flag is lowered from the flagpole and a Rainbow flag goes up. (This caused the audience to react with chuckles.) The giants return, but because they have thrown the mattresses out the window, Freia has to lie down on the bedframe (slats) while bars of gold are thrown on top of her. Fafner and Fasolt get into an argument and Fafner kills Fasolt with some combination punches. Wotan kisses Erda (Nadine Weissmann) aggressively, and Donner, on top of a part of the motel, hits something metal with his sledgehammer to signal the opening of the rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Except that there is no bridge. Instead, a group of Nibelungs do a zombie-trance-like dance in the gas station (with the camera up close on their faces), and afterwards the screen shows the Rhine maidens swimming.

Unfortunately, the constant action on the screen and the action in the foreground often distracted me from listening to the music. It seemed that the singing was very good, and that Weissmann and Dohmen made the most memorable impressions: Weissmann with Erda’s warnings, Dohman with Alberich’s curse. With Kirill Petrenko’s leadership on the podium, the orchestra sounded terrific. (He also received the loudest cheers at the curtain call.)

It is too bad that Castorf chose to go with this vision of crass and decadent gods. Their smallness and wanton appetites didn’t reflect in any way the grandeur of the music. If they could have started out grand and then diminished over time, then they would have had a direction that would have been interesting to the audience. Well, at least the music was marvelous.

Willam Byrd Festival concludes with masterful "sacred concert"

Conductor Mark Williams
Guest review by Phillip Ayers

One of the "Rites of Summer" in Portland is the annual William Byrd Festival, held every August. This is the eighteenth year of the festival that was founded by Dean Applegate, a Portland choral musician and conductor-emeritus of Cantores in Ecclesia, and Richard Marlow, of Trinity College, Cambridge, England. Sadly, Marlow died a few years ago, but Applegate, succeeded by his son Blake, is still very much in evidence at the festival, happily taking tickets and presenting flowers to the conductor of this always-glorious final concert. Also integral to the festival in past years was the late David Trendell, who died suddenly last autumn. The whole festival was dedicated to him, and he can be remembered for his many lectures as well as his participation in the chorus at the final concert last year.

As in recent years, this final "Sacred Concert" of the seventeen-day festival, was conducted by Mark Williams, of Jesus College, Cambridge, who also regaled the audience with organ compositions by William Byrd, performed on a portativ organ. Williams is phenomenal: at 36, he has worked and studied at Truro Cathedral, Trinity College Cambridge (under Marlow), St. Paul's Cathedral in London and St. Paul's Cathedral School. His experiences and lengthy list of accolades and discography include being music consultant for the BBC series, "Endeavour."

The theme of this year's festival was William Byrd and his predecessors. As in former years Professor William Mahrt presented a short lecture beforehand which this reviewer caught only a part of; and due to a not-very-sophisticated sound system, found difficult to hear well. Mahrt emphasized some salient points in the evening's music, and brought out the uniqueness of the final part of the program, a 20-minute-long motet by William Mundy, "the longest pre-Reformation motet

As expected, much of the music was by master-hero William Byrd (c. 1540-1623): Lady Mass for the Christmas Season, Tribulationes civitatum ("We have heard the tribulations which the cities have suffered"), Christus resurgens ("Christ, rising from the dead, no longer dies," for Easter), and organ compositions "Pavan & Galliard Jig" and "All in a Garden Green". Added to these were pieces by John Taverner (c. 1490-1545)Dum transisset sabbatum ("When the Sabbath was past"), Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) Candidi facti sunt ("His Nazarites were made radiant") and the William Mundy (c. 1529-1591) monumental and lengthy Vox Patris caelestis ("The voice of the heavenly Father"), that climaxed the evening's music.

This is rich fare on the musical gourmet dinner table. For some, this mostly polyphonic a cappella choral music is an acquired taste; for others it comes quite naturally, especially if one attends the weekly Latin masses at St. Stephen's and other ecclesiastical venues, at which this music is nearly always performed by Cantores in Ecclesia. But for the one-time attendee at this final concert (this reviewer regrettably missed other concerts and liturgies this year), this music is naturally and organically real, not just a period-piece for those who enjoy this sort of thing. It is a singularly excellent contribution to the wider cultural and musical scene in Portland and in Oregon, and we have the Applegate family and all the others who contribute to the festival's planning, financial support, and sustenance to thank for providing this banquet for us.

By and large, this music sings and plays itself. But Mark Williams has a way of "sculpting" the sound from the choir, making certain that phrases are accurately sung and that the various interweaving parts "fit" well. The way in which Williams uses his hands and arms to conduct is well worth watching closely. Rehearsal times no doubt are relatively brief in the festival and much of the preparation of the choir are in the expert hands of Blake Applegate and the regular singers. The chorus is augmented by other professional singers, but it can well be imagined that when Williams arrives each year he finds a well-prepared ensemble at his disposal. Then he can concentrate on nuances and the kind of polishing that makes this 15th and 16th century choral music so pleasurable.

In the "Lady Mass," one of many composed for underground masses by Catholics in England in the tumultuous 16th century, Byrd's writing, especially word-plays (e.g., on et exultatione or "exultation") in the introit and Lingua mea calamus scribae velociter scribentis ("My tongue is the pen of a scribe writing swiftly," from Psalm 44) were well executed. The triumphant Beata viscera Mariae Virginis ("Blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary") was a highlight, as the Communio at the Mass's end, with a 13th century poem of anonymous origin added to it, Gaude Maria Virgo: cunctas baereses sola intermisti ("Rejoice, Virgin Mary: you alone put an end to all heresies"). Now if some reformer surreptitiously got hold of this text, there would be hell to pay!

This reviewer particularly enjoyed hearing both male and female cantors at various times and in various pieces throughout the concert. The women's voices were especially tender in the Tallis piece. Here and there, some parts protruded overly much, especially in the tenor section and seemed to temporarily leave the ensemble, but they quickly returned.

The organ pieces were excellently played by Williams and, sitting forward as this reviewer was, his facial expressions were evidence that he is very much "with" the music. In more than one instance, demisemiquavers (32nd notes) were expertly wrought by nimble fingers! [This reviewer hopes this is correct; he didn't have a score to consult!]

Of course, the climax to the evening, after a nice break in the cool, but smoky air outside (from the raging forest fires in Washington and Oregon blowing into our fair city), was the William Mundy motet. It is 20 minutes in length, and falls into nine distinct parts, mostly sung without breaks. Composed when in his 20s, Mundy set a paraphrase of Song of Songs, notably the most sensuous portion of Scripture that made it into the Canon. Rather than extolling sexual love between a man and a woman, William Forrest (c. 1515-1580), a poet and musician in Tudor London, attempts to correlate the sensuous original text with exaltations of Our Lady. Thus, in the English translation, one of the results of Forrest's work emerges: "You are all beautiful, my love, daughter of Anne most beloved to me [God], most holy Virgin Mary, and there is, from the moment of your conception or ever, no flaw in you." The eighth section is called "eccentric" by the scholar Kerry McCarthy, for its "lineup of four treble parts and two low bass parts." The effect was stunning, eccentric or not! Unlike John Baldwin, a somewhat jaded professional scribe who copied out Vox Patris, this reviewer would not utter "laus Deo" ("Praise be to God!") in the sense that this long work was over and done, but in the sense that this music, heard by him for the first time, will stick in his memory for a long, long time.

And Laus Deo to Cantores in Ecclesia, Mark Williams, and many others, for their sterling contribution via this concert and the whole festival. Williams remarked at the end of the evening that, with the performance of two works by Byrd (understood to be Tribulationes and Christus resurgens), the entire corpus of Byrd's choral music has now been performed in the festival's 17-year history, a landmark to be duly noted and savored! An apt encore, emotionally introduced by Williams as another memento of David Trendell's influence, was offered, Byrd's Justorum Animae (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-3), an antiphon for All Saints' Day. [Thanks to Paul Klemme, bass singer in the choir, for sharing the title with me].

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Brilliant performances dominate "Lohengrin" in Bayreuth despite director’s negative interpretation


With 130-plus chorus members scurrying about in rat costumes, the production of “Lohengrin” in Bayreuth that I saw on August 20th was a strange sight to behold. There were black rats (men), white rats (women), and eight pink rats for the women who sing right after the famous big wedding number. Sometimes they removed part of their rat costumes and became more like human beings. In any case, this production of Wagner’s tragic opera, as envisioned by Hans Neuenfels, will always be known as the “Lohengrin” with rats, even though it could also be known as the “Lohengrin” with Klaus Florian Vogt whose beautiful voice is perfectly matched for the title role.

I became confused by this production when I saw it three years ago – in part because of the rats, but also by the disturbing ending. This time, I attended a lecture by Dr. Sven Friedrich at the Bayreuth Festival’s opera house, and that helped to improve my understanding of Neuenfels's interpretation. Basically, the German folk were rats in a laboratory operated by King Heinrich who was very weak (represented by his black-crown made of paper). The rats were also an expression of the animal-like nature of the people who were under the sway of pagan gods and the leadership of Ortrud and her husband Friedrich von Telramund. The chorus removed part of their rat outfits only when they were influenced by Lohengrin’s Christ-like nature.

After Ortrud succeeded in planting doubt in Elsa’s mind about Lohengrin and his background, Elsa took on certain aspects of the swan that brought Lohengrin into the situation. In particular, Elsa’s wedding dress resembled the puffed-up feathers of the swan, and the bird itself briefly dropped from the ceiling all plucked. In the final, scene, Else appeared in black, the chorus in new black uniforms, and Ortrud in a knock-off wedding dress and a white paper crown. All of them collapse in death, as Lohengrin, in black, slowly walked toward the audience. Behind him, in an egg-shell stood the embryo-child, Gottfried, all bloody, and he tossed sausage-sized portions of his umbilical cord at the chorus. The ugly embryo-child came about because Lohengrin didn’t spend enough time on earth for Gottfried to become a fully-grown child.

In addition, the production of “Lohengrin” featured computer-generated video animations by Björn Verloh. Shown during the three preludes, Verloh’s videos reinforced the idea of the brutality of rats: 1) chasing a dog and eating it, 2) one rat fighting another to become the top rat, and 3) a pack of rats running and running until they all die (sort of like the Nazi army fighting to the bitter end).

One problem with the Neuenfels production happened during the first Act, when Lohengrin stated his conditions to Else (she must not ask his name or know anything about his background). Instead of freezing the chorus in the background and putting the spotlight on Else and Lohengrin, the chorus exited the stage. Then after the exchange between Else and Lohengrin, the chorus had to rush back in all of a sudden and sing.

Speaking of singing – the principals and the chorus were astounding. Vogt’s clarion voice gave Lohengrin an ethereal presence yet very passionate whenever needed. Annette Dasch’s Elsa was superbly brilliant and powerful. In the role of Ortrud, Petra Lang, was a force of nature. Jukka Rasilainen as Friedrich von Telramund was strikingly clear and dominating. Wilhelm Schwinghammer marvelously portrayed King Heinrich, and Samuel Youn was totally convincing as the King’s Herald.

The scenes between Ortrud and Telramund, Ortrud and Elsa, and Elsa and Lohengrin were superbly done with lots of tension. Also one of the dramatic high points came during Telramund’s accusations against Lohengrin. The singers completely swept the audience into the moment.

The chorus, prepared expertly by Eberhard Friedrich, sang wonderfully, maintaining power and intensity without sacrificing balance from top to bottom. And they did it despite having to project through masks most of the time (kudos to Reinhard von der Thannen for the stage and costume design).

Alain Altigoglu conducted the orchestra with great sensitivity. He took time to stretch out notes a little bit longer for the singers whenever they needed it. The last prelude was joltingly tremendous, bubbling with excitement and anticipation.

I understand Neuenfel’s negative take on “Lohengrin,” but the negativity often seemed incongruous with the glorious music. This production is now in its fifth and final year at Bayreuth, and anyone who would like to view it will have to purchase the DVD. In a couple of years, we will find out if the next production of “Lohengrin” will take a different tact.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bayreuth’s Katherina Wagner uncorks superb new production of "Tristan und Isolde"

A lot of people attend “Tristan und Isolde” for the glory of its music, because it is often presented in a visually static and very boring way. Most of the time, the title characters go on and on about an ideal conception of love, and nothing else happens. So, it was wonderful surprise when, on August 18th, I heard the new production that Katherina Wagner created for the Bayreuth Festival. That “Tristan und Isolde” had a wonderful mix of visual elements that enhanced story and made it more engaging than ever.

The curtain rose to reveal a labyrinth of stairs and gangways that evoked passageways on a ship and also a prison. For a while, the lovers were separated by a gangway that could rise or fall and by shorter sections that could be disabled.

In Act II, Isolde and her servant Brangäne were locked in a prison with high walls. From above prowled King Mark, his right-hand-man Melot, and four retainers who used spotlights to watch the women. Later, Tristan and Kurwenal were also thrown in. Tristan and Isolde found a heavy cloth and hung it on a line to shield themselves from the spotlights. As their love intensified, the spotlights became weaker and the lovers stepped into the open where their silhouettes were cast onto the prison walls and gradually transformed into something like embryos of themselves. Later a section of metal ribbing became a special place where the two almost reached fulfillment as a couple. That was when King Marke, Melot, and the retainers broke onto the scene, and Tristan is mortally wounded.

The final act began with a very thick blanket of fog (but no fog machine with dry ice was used). Using a special lighting technique (kudos to Richard Traub), Isolde (actually eight different body-doubles) would appear – standing inside triangular frames – at various parts of the stage floor or seemingly suspended in the air. Each time, Tristan came near or touched one of these apparitions, Isolde would fall apart. Then, at the very end, after the real Isolde came onstage to sing her final words of everlasting love to the body of Tristan, King Marke hauled her off. With Tristan dead, she was finally his to claim.

All aspects of the singing were off the charts. The stamina, power, and beautiful tone of Stephen Gould’s Tristan was something to behold. But the same high qualities also applied to Evelyn Herlitzius’s Isolde. Both singers created a lasting impression of unquenchable passion.

Compelling also was the anguish in voices of Christa Mayer’s Brangäne as she tried everything to prevent Isolde from pursuing Tristan. Equally convincing was Iain Paterson as Tristan’s Kurwenal who struggled in vain to keep Tristan away from Isolde.

The anger and frustration of King Marke was clearly conveyed by George Zeppenfeld. In the role of Melot, Raimund Nolte’s voice had a mellowness that was unique but did not get in the way of his character’s tough and rash actions. Tansel Akzeybek’s plaintive voice as the young sailor and the shepherd was also outstanding. The chorus sang with intensity from offstage.

Under the baton of Bayreuth’s Music Director, Christian Thielemann, the ebb and flow of Wagner’s music sounded completely organic. The loudest passages swelled with enthusiasm yet never overwhelmed the voices. The softest passages created a sense of intimacy and tenderness. The hunting horns at the beginning of Act II sounded wonderfully far away in the hills.

Finally, it should be noted that this “Tristan und Isolde” was Katherina Wagner’s debut production at the Bayreuth Festival. She has been sharing the leadership of the festival for several years, and some critics have been openly fearful of what she would do with this opera. But it is an exceptional production, and it will be presented six times during the 2016 season.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Seattle Symphony clarinetist moves over to Cleveland Orchestra

Musical America reported today that Benjamin Lulich will be leaving the principal clarinet position at the Seattle Symphony to take over the same post at the Cleveland Orchestra. Apparently, Franklin Cohen has resigned from the position at the CO because of differences with the orchestra's MD Franz Welser-Möst. Interestingly, Cohen was one of Lulich's teachers at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Oregon Symphony explores American sonic-scape in latest CD release

Months have passed since the Oregon Symphony released its most recent recording, "Spirit of the American Range," which features music by Walter Piston, George Antheil, and Aaron Copland. The album, released under the Pentatone label, has received praise from numerous reviewers, including Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times. So it may sound like boosterism when I add my opinion to the pile of accolades that the orchestra and it Music Director Carlos Kalmar have already earned, but dang it, "Spirit of the American Range" is an outstanding recording. Starting off with Piston's Suite from "The Incredible Flutist," you will immediately grasp the intensity of the performances, all of which were recorded live in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in April of 2013 and January of 2014. The musicians evoke the slowly emerging village scene (introduced by Martin Hébert’s languid oboe), the hodgepodge of busy vendors, the joyous outbreak when the circus arrives (with the musicians yelling and cheering), and the beguiling solo of flutist Jessica Sindell, which puts the townspeople in a dance-like trance that culminates in a furious finale.

The Piston is followed by Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony,” which is a short and urgent that blasts a scattershot of jazz and ragtimey riffs across the landscape. It begins with a nod south of the border before it steams into wilder spaces. Loud and brassy sections feature the snarly trumpet of Jeffrey Work, and the energetic, beep-beepy horns, trombones and what have you that go lickety split in a chase scene. The music transitions through a ragtime piano passage before breaking into a frenetic mayhem and then somehow reforming itself into a grand, romantic, sweeping melody that could have graced the silver screen.

The grandest piece on the album is Copland’s Symphony No. 3. The orchestra doesn’t just play this monumental piece, it sings it with conviction. There are bombastic statements, serene passages, searching sections, lovely melodic phrases, and the “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which kind of sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Overall, the orchestra create a feeling of triumph and glow and the final explosive note is a ka-pow that slams it all together.

In addition to the musicians and Kalmar, kudos are in order for recording engineers John Newton and Blanton Alspaugh their work on this superb album. Maybe there will be more recordings by the Oregon Symphony of American free-range music in the near future. Let’s hope so.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

New staging, powerful singing highlight Seattle Opera’s “Nabucco” but projected scenery goes wide of the mark

Gordon Hawkins (Nabucco) and Mary Elizabeth Williams (Abigaille) | Photo Credit: Philip Newton
Some stage directors probably would say that it’s insane to take a full-sized orchestra out of the pit and put it on stage during an opera performance, but that didn’t stop director François Racine from doing it for Seattle Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Nabucco.” Racine also had the company cover the orchestra pit with a stage so that the singers could come closer to the audience. Overall, for the opening night performance that I heard on Saturday (August 8), it worked pretty smoothly. The principals, led by Gordon Hawkins in the title role, were just a few feet from the front row and occasionally were a bit too focused on the monitors mounted on the stage floor. The chorus, which has a big role in this opera, sang mostly from the rear where they got the benefit of looking directly at conductor Carlo Montanaro. But because most of the real estate was taken up by the performers, the production had to rely more on projected imagery, and that part of the equation was very uneven because the some of the projections, created by Robert Bonniol and Robert Schaub, were confusing.

This was the first time that Seattle Opera has presented “Nabucco,” which received its premiere in 1842 and became Verdi's first big hit. The libretto by Solera plays light and loose with the Biblical account, adding a love triangle that propels the storyline. After conquering numerous peoples, including the Hebrews, the King of the Babylonian armies, Nebucco (Nebuchadnezzar), declares himself to be God. That immediately causes a thunderbolt to strike him and render him insane. In the meantime, Nebucco’s daughter Fenena has fallen in love with a Jewish man Ismaele and spares the Hebrews from the wrath of Nebucco. However, Fenena’s half-sister Abigaille is also in love with Ismaele, but he rejects her. Taking advantage of her father’s condition and backed the Babylonian High Priest, Abigaille seizes Nebucco’s crown and declares herself the ruler. She then decides that the Hebrews and Fenena should be put to death, and for extra insurance, tricks her father into signing the decree. Things unravel for her when Nabucco prays to the God of the Hebrews and regains his sanity.

Hawkins gave a marvelous performance as Nabucco, a boisterous man initially all puffed up with his victories until he addled by a force beyond his comprehension. To heighten the sense of someone brought to his knees, Hawkins lowered his voice to a shudder and convincingly found the emotion of a man who was on the brink of destruction.

With her powerful voice, Mary Elizabeth Williams plumbed the depths of anger and jealousy in character of Abigaille. Williams started out a little rough as if she were pressing for too much volume and that caused a couple of exposed, under-pitch tones. But she wonderfully switched to a lovely, tender tone when Abigaille sang of her love for Ismaele, and from that point onward, she conquered numerous stentorian passages with a golden soprano tone.

Russell Thomas’s virile tenor gave Ismaele a strong and ardent presence. Contrasting well with him was the soothing voice of Jamie Barton in the role of Fenena. Christian Van Horn turned in a tremendous performance as Hebrew’s High Priest, Zaccaria. Van Horn’s resilient bass-baritone had extra vim and vigor, and he sang Zaccaria’s zealous declarations with stunning conviction. The High Priest of Baal was sung by Jonathan Silvia with distinction.

The Seattle Opera Chorus, prepared by John Keene, sang its many numbers outstandingly. The singers came out front for the famous “Va pensiero” chorus, and their rendition elicited the most sustained, enthusiastic applause that I’ve ever heard for this chorus. I thought that they would respond with a bis, but alas, that didn’t happen.

Conductor Carlo Montanaro paced the orchestra expertly and brought out textures that worked well with the singers. Superb playing by principal cellist Eric Han and principal flutist Alexander Lipay added marvelously to the production, and the offstage banda (chamber ensemble) also contributed splendidly.

Bonniol and Schaub’s projections sometimes went wide of the mark in that some didn’t seem to relate to the story. And when they missed the mark, they became a distraction rather than an enhancement. At one point there was a massive detached horse’s head shown but it seemed totally out of context. (It brought up thoughts of “The Godfather” movie in my mind.) Another image suggested a ring of sea creatures or something entirely unidentifiable until it sort of morphed into chains. More understandable images included the opening one that suggested a huge cavern and impending doom, the magical spheres of the gardens of Babylon, and the image of Baal, which disintegrated when the Hebrew’s God triumped. It also seemed that when Nabucco’s mind became clearer, the projections would have become lighter and uplifting, but they didn’t.

Still, this Nabucco has plenty of verve and nerve, making it a real winner for opera lovers. There are several performances left: August 12, 14, 15, 19, and 22. Some of the performances have a slightly different cast; so keep that in mind if you decide to go.
Christian Van Horn (Zaccaria) with The Seattle Opera Chorus | Photo credit: Philip Newton