Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Madama Butterfly

Tamaki Miura

Tamaki Miura as Butterfly: statue Glover Gardens Nagasaki

At one time I disliked Madam Butterfly which I saw as a travesty of Japanese life. However, it as mistaken to approach the opera in this way as it is to think of Puccini’s other exotic locations as part of the real world. There is nothing wrong with fantasy Japan. It’s popular even in Japan, as I saw in April where the Glover Garden in Nagasaki has statues and exhibits devoted to Madam Butterfly and Puccini. In one house a TV screened endless loops of a local concert performance; and hearing Pinkerton sing Addio, fiorito asil in a house overlooking Nagasaki harbour was a moving end to any last remnants of dislike.

The Met has brought back the production which opened last year’s season. I was lucky to see it then and to walk down to Times Square on opening night to watch the innovation of opera on the big screen.

Madama Butterfly at Times Square

Last year’s Butterfly was Christina Gallarda-Domas. I remembered more her vulnerable appearance in the role than her singing until I played the CD of Sour Angelica, in which she sings the title role. On hearing it the unique quality of her voice came back from memory. She is ideally suited to both roles.


This year’s Butterfly is Patricia Racette who is a fine soprano and a good partner for Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton. The New York Times thought that “Mr. Alagna is free (to put it kindly) in matters of rhythm and note values.” I am not qualified to judge this, but if so, who cares. The Times gets to hear more real tenors that I do and I am satisfied with a bit of volume, clarity and emotional response. Addio, fiorito asil was marvelous.

Suzuki was sung, as last year, by Maria Zifchak, who brought great intensity of feeling to her key moments.

Sharpless was sung by Luca Salsi who was making his Met debut. He has a strong hard edged baritone voice, but I thought something was missing in his portrayal of the American consul. Sharpless is a kind of mediator of the audience’s response: at the beginning, worried at the potential outcome and later horrified when it arrives to a blast of Puccini emotion in the form of Butterfly’s child. Mr. Salsi didn’t seem to respond much at any time. A strong voice is no substitute for some acting. John Pringle might have overdone it a fraction, but I can still see the expression of horror on his face when I hear the ironic fanfare and the child appears.

The production is abstract but realistic as it uses various moving Japanese screens to build and dissolve various rooms in the house. At the beginning of Act II, Butterfly is seen serving tea to Pinkerton who is seated in a Western style chair. A screen gliding across the stage obscures him from view and as it moves the space is visible again but Pinkerton and the chair have vanished.

An unusual feature of this production is the representation of Butterfly’s child by a puppet manipulated by three members of the Blind Summit Theatre dressed all in black. A couple of non singing servants in Act I are also puppets. This arrangement works quite well and allows more acting by the child than would normally be the case, though a few fewer significant glances would probably be welcome on repeated viewings.

I have been reading Puccini without Excuses by William Berger who takes an uncompromising view of Pinkerton’s character. He sees him as motivated by lust alone and says the music of the love duet supports this view. This is wrong. Pinkerton is living in a fantasy world, and while sex might be part of it, the music speaks of the romantic fantasy in which he is enveloped. I’m glad the producer agrees with this and surrounds the love duet with swirling lanterns on an otherwise black stage.

The conductor was Mark Elder. I hope I am not reading too much into his interpretation of the score by saying the opening of Act I was more gritty than usual and conveyed a real sense of foreboding.


Madama Butterfly

Metropolitan Opera New York

27 October 2007 (Matinee)

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Lucia di Lammermoor


The Met has a new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor . It opened the season and Lucia is on all the posters. The Lucia depicted is Natalie Dessay who sang the early performances. I saw Annick Massis , another French soprano who’s first performance at the Met was in 2002 as Lucia. The night promised some excitement as Edgardo was sung by Stephen Costello a young (26) American tenor who graduated only this year from the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. He had made his Met debut as Arturo in this production a few weeks ago. No Young Artists program for him.
Mariusz Kwiecien, an excellent Polish baritone was Lord Enrico Ashton. James Levine conducted.

There is a synopsis of Lucia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucia_di_Lammermoor

The singers in Lucia are in the shadows of the greats of the past including Sutherland and Pavarotti. So if you are familiar with the recordings by these great artists, it’s as well not to expect their performances to be repeated every time. Annick Massis was a fine Lucia, beginning quietly but giving an indication of what was to come in the mad scene in the second act.

Unlike some of the great singers of the past, she actually looked like a young bride and her performance of the mad scene was dramatic.

A fascinating addition to the mad scene was the eerie sound of the Armonica. I am pretty certain that this instrument has not been used in any of the Opera Australia performances which I have seen. From my seat in the Grand Tier I could see down in to the orchestra pit where the spindle on the Armonica was whirring away. The instrument, which is a version of the glass harmonica, was invented by Benjamin Franklin, so it was nice to hear it in the USA. I found the Armonica player, Cecilia Brauer has an interesting web site - http://www.gigmasters.com/armonica/index.asp with pictures of the instrument.

Mr. Costello has a beautiful voice but he is not a light tenor and so sounds very masculine as well. He sang with an Italianate diction which was a little overdone. He was at his best when alone on stage in the tomb scene; and if, as I suspect Maestro Levine muted the orchestra a little for him, that’s one reason to have a great conductor in charge.

The production has the feeling of winter, with muted colours used to good effect in the sets and costumes. The main curtain is replaced by a screen with images of leafless trees.

At the beginning of Act 2, Ravenswood Castle looks really impoverished with drapes covering the furniture and chandeliers. Arturo must have brought his money with him as in Scene 2 all the drapes are removed and a large domestic staff appears to arrange things for the signing of the marriage contract. This scene is spoiled by the arrival of that popular piece of post modern kitsch, the photographer with compulsory magnesium flash. I will be armed in future and shoot down any supernumerary carrying photographic equipment. This photographer is kept busy during the sextet arranging a group wedding photograph. A serious distraction. Please just put the singers in a line and let them sing.

More was to come, in the person of a medical man with black bag, who attended Lucia during the mad scene. He administered some pacifying drug with a syringe. This was silly, but not such a serious distraction.

The walls Ravenswood Hall fell away for the mad scene to reveal a full moon, several times the size of the planet, Jupiter looming over everything. This may have been symbolism, or it may have been a special for the night, as a full moon was indeed rising in the east.

Distractions aside, this was a fine production beautifully sung.


Lucia di Lammermoor

Metropolitan Opera New York

25 October 2007

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Von Dohnanyi and Znaider

Avery Fisher Hall

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra holds open rehearsals, generally on the morning of the first concert of a series. I have been able to see this week’s concert twice in the one day. (The rehearsal tickets are only $ 15).
This week the orchestra is conducted by Christoph Von Dohnanyi and Nikolaj Znaider plays the Sibelius Violin Concerto.

I had the idea, maybe a false memory, that Mr. Von Dohnanyi would look emaciated but he does not. He is solidly built and has white hair. He beats the time very clearly with large movements using a long baton. New York Philharmonic rehearsals which I attended last year under Lorin Maazel and David Robertson proceeded pretty much as run throughs of the whole concert. Mr. Von Dohnanyi seems a more demanding taskmaster and called for many repeats some of which involved stopping the orchestra before the end of a movement.

The concert began with a relatively new work by Harrison Birtwistle called Night’s Black Bird, first performed in August 2004. It lasts only about 12 minutes. It follows upon a longer work called The Shadow of Night. Both are inspired by works of John Dowland; the title of Night’s Black Bird comes from the text of Dowland’s song “Flow my Tears”. The piece opens with dying chords which resemble the beginning of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream but in the bass rather than treble.
Bird calls are heard against the orchestral background; the program note says the Black Bird of the title is “only one in a whole aviary, with the high woodwinds (most prominently the piccolo, flute, and E flat clarinet,) adding their calls.” At the concert itself when I was closer to the orchestra I heard more of the layered texture of the orchestral back ground and liked it better. There is a real difference in what is heard in different places in Avery Fisher Hall. There is a large percussion section with all kinds of gongs and cymbals, but they are not over used, and the work ends with the unusual scraping sound of two guiros. The guiro is a South American instrument.

On the Philharmonic’s podcast Mr. Birtwistle spoke about the Dowland songs which inspired his piece. He admires the lyrical quality of Dowland: a quality which he said had been lost in nineteenth century music. Dowland’s In Darkeness let me Dwell was playing in the background and illustrated his point well. However, I didn’t find Night’s Black Bird a lyrical work. The orchestral sound rises to crescendos twice and the bird calls are often staccato.

Nikolaj Znaider is a marvelous violinist and his performance of the Sibelius concerto was thrilling. He plays the Guarnerius “del Gesu” 1741 violin which he explains on the podcast was used by Fritz Kreisler for 15 years. He likes to think that the wood of the instrument contains a memory of Kreisler’s playing. Whatever the likelihood of this, the combination of the instrument and the player’s skill and musicality produced a beautiful sound.

The concert ended with Bethhoven’s fifth symphony. The program quotes a Wittgensteinian remark of Schumann: “Let us be silent about this work!” So apart from the comment that the playing was excellent and from my seat I heard all sections of the orchestra distinctly and enjoyed the precision of the playing, I will.

Friday, 12 October 2007

A Bedtime Story

Perhaps there has been a more unusual concert but it would be hard to find.
The work was Enoch Arden, Op 38 by Richard Strauss (1896).
The program note said:
Strauss himself called it a “worthless piece”.

The location was the aquarium – Reef HQ complex Flinders Street Townsville.

Guide: “Have you been to a night viewing in the aquarium before.”
“It’s really interesting all the fish hide behind rocks and in the coral; some even make themselves nests from mucous.”

The piano and some loudspeakers were set up in front of one of the one of the windows of the large tank. Unaware of the strength of the amplification I sat near the front. Piers Lane was the pianist and Damien Beaumont the reader.

Long lines of the cliff breaking have left a chasm;
And in the chasm are foam and yellow sands.

We are underway. It is a long poem. 20 pages long. From time to time there are short interludes of music. It sounds something like Strauss, no misdescription here.

The fish were in hiding as promised; the water in the largely vacant aquarium changed colour in a light display.

After 30 minutes or so Enoch is stranded on a deserted but verdant island:

The mountain wooded to the peak, the lawns
And winding glades high up like ways to heaven,
The lightening flash of insect and of bird,
The lustre of the long convolvuluses
That coil’d around the stately stems, and ran
Even to the limit of the land…………

A turtle swam up and down in the aquarium.

As well as being long the poem is somewhat morose, so I will not attempt to tell the story here. It does end however, and abruptly:

So past the strong heroic soul away.
And when they buried him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.

And seldom has there been such an unusual hour or so. At least I have heard one of Tennyson’s narrative poems read aloud and have become acquainted with it. Life seems to have been an awful burden for the Victorians. Thomas Hardy has seemed to me to have beeen suffering from a unique sense of depression; but hearing this poem is a reminder that this kind of thing was very prevalent.
Why did Strauss compose it; or more accurately the short passages of music that go with it? It was written for performance by an actor Ernst Von Possart who was also the head of the Munich opera at the time. Strauss wished to ingratiate himself. Strauss played and Von Possart proclaimed all over Germany and even on one occasion in London.
Some of Strauss’s songs were described by Ernest Newman as “not music but merchandise” and Matthew Boyden in his biography of Strauss puts Enoch in the same class.

See: Mathew Boyden: Richard Strauss, 1999. Reviewed (unfavourably) by Michael Tanner TLS 13 August 1999.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music; A Bedtime Story 12 July 2007.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Il trittico



My life in the opera audience began in about 1952 with Puccini’s Tosca.
Il trittico was the only one of his major works that I had not seen: why this should be so is a mystery since the production revived this year by Opera Australia is the oldest in the company’s repertoire. It was first seen in 1973. Last year I saw one of the three – Gianni Schicci at the Washington National Opera.

Il Trittico (The triptych) as its name suggests three short operas performed together. They are Il Tabarro (The Cloak) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Il_tabarro , Sour Angelica http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suor_Angelica and Gianni Schicchi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gianni_Schicchi .

The operas were first performed at the Met in New York in 1918. Since then they seem to have suffered a mixed fate and have been performed in various combinations, sometimes with operas by other composers. When I saw Gianni Schicchi in Washington it followed Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Suor Angelica has been least popular. In my edition of Kobbe’s Opera Book, Lord Harwood dismisses it in three short paragraphs which is less that a quarter of the space allocated the other two. He says it has never been popular.

I think that Il Trittico is best thought of as whole, a work in three movements with a dramatic opening. a contemplative middle section and a lively finale. If Suor Angelica were omitted this structure would be lost. But I also disagree with the writer of OA’s program note when she says that Gianni Schicci has been performed with some “frankly strange” partners, such as Bluebeard’s Castle. When I saw Gianni Schicchi in Washington it followed Bluebeard’s Castle and the combination worked very well. The comedy was a release from the tension of Bartok’s dark and tense opera, an effect which was enhanced by the witty use of production elements from Bluebeard in the Puccini.

Puccini’s music is very distinctive but within the orchestral sound he creates each of the three pieces is quite different. The music of Il Tabarro has been described as like an impressionist painting in sound and this is a good description particularly of the passages which set the scene at the outset. There is some evidence that Puccini saw the creation of the atmosphere of Paris and the Seine as more important than the melodrama which develops within it. As originally written Michele’s aria sung after his exchange with Giorgetta began:

Rush on, never ending river,
How deep is your mystery!

The aria was replaced in 1923 with one that begins –

Nulla! Silenzio. (Nothing! Silence.)
There she is!
She isn’t undressing or sleeping…….

In both Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi Puccini gives his characters very specific ages, in Gianni Schicchi these seem appropriate enough but the love triangle in Il Tabarro is unusual. Michele, the husband is 45 and Giorgetta his wife 25; but Luigi, Giorgetta’s lover is 20. If Giorgetta seduced a boy working for her husband it would make Michele’s denunciation of her “Sgualdrina”, expressed with wonderful intensity by Jonathan Summers, very accurate. The difficulty is that Denis O’Neill could never look like a young man of 20 and neither could any other tenor who could take the part; even Carlo Barricelli who replaced Denis O’Neill in later performances. And the words given to him do not sound like those of a youth either.

The exchange between Michele and Giorgetta in which Michele reminisces about their past love includes references to their dead baby with which he continues despite Giorgetta’s pleas. Is this intended to expose a cruelty in him which might explain his murder of Luigi?

The answer to this kind of question is probably not to look past the first impressions made by the characters and to rely on the music.

The popularity of Puccini operas may work against them as it can be said they often wallow in sentimentality. This is true in a way, but it is not everything. Even the well known climatic moments are rarely overdone. Some of the most popular arias are actually very short. There are moments like the duet of the two lovers before Michele’s final aria in Il Tabarro, just 45 seconds to make the contrast with the difficult relationship of Giorgetta and Michele. There are instrumental solos too, often very short but often of great beauty, which add to the richness and depth of the score.

There are times when the music seems to run against the text. I noticed two examples in Il Trittico because the music is very familiar but I had never really noticed the words. In Il Tabarro there is an intense duet between Luigi and Giorgetta which I had always heard as an expression of the intensity of their love: but the text concerns their common delight in the Parisian suburb of Bellevue. The subtlety is that music is saying something altogether more personal. Wagner is famous for this kind of thing but Puccini does not seem to be given credit for it.

The limits of the opera theatre pit are very evident at this point as the crescendo in the brass which is so prominent in recordings is muted; but we are left with a beautifully executed velvety passage which builds up to it. The loss of one aspect of the music enhances another.

The same point can be made about the most famous aria in the piece “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. I have always heard this as an expression of love and affection from an admiring daughter to her father; and I have no doubt the music says this. The text is a plea to Gianni Schicchi to help the aristocrats he despises overturn a will which fails to benefit them, and, in turn create a situation in which Lauretta can marry. the music of “O mio babbino caro” appears as a motif a couple of times before the aria, first in Rinuccio’s aria in praise of the city of Florence and its maturity in accepting other cultures. There may be something going on here which I have missed: or maybe the motif appears just so it is associated with both the lovers.

I have never heard Jonathan Summers better than as Michele in Il Tabarro; a fine performance. His Gianni Schicchi was also good but Michele was outstanding. Samuel Ramey as Gianni Schicchi in Washington left a more powerful impression.

Denis O’Neill is a singer who seems always so much in control of himself and his voice and unwilling to take risks that his excellent and reliable performances lack the emotion and feeling of a tenor who takes risks. In Il Tabarro, perhaps because it is a short work, he gave a little more than usual perhaps.
Carlo Barricelli’s Luigi sang with Italianate flair, but from where I was sitting sounded a little weak in his duet with Nicole Youl’s Giorgetta which lacked balance.
Cheryl Barker gave a fine performance of the three soprano roles. Due to illness, she was replaced by Nicole Youl in the radio broadcast of the first two operas and in Il Tabarro in the final performance I saw. There was little to choose between them.

I have discovered a CD of the opera’s in which Chilean soprano Christina Gallardo Domas (seen as Madame Butterfly at the Met) sings Sister Angelica. The unusual timbre of her voice brings a real sense of vulnerability to her characterisation of Angelica.

Il trittico

Seen 31 August, 12 and 26 September 2007.

Radio broadcast 22 September 2007.


Monday, 1 October 2007

St. James Church, Sydney Symphony Fellowship

Wednesday 26 September 2007.

After a sushi lunch at sushi train Sosumi, we walked up to St. James for the fellowship concert.
The Sydney Symphony Fellowship is a training group for young artists who often play with the orchestra as well as work on projects of their own including chamber music concerts such as this one.

The first piece was Brahms’ String Quintet in G. Op. 111. The String players were joined by Roger Benedict, the artistic director of the program, as second viola. I was taken by surprise by the quintet, which had been there waiting all this time for me to find it. It was written in 1890, and my book says it was intended as a final work, a kind of musical farewell, though Brahms was drawn out of retirement to write further chamber works all including the clarinet. It is a marvellous piece with many very characteristic features, an echo of the double concerto and yet another gypsy inspired final movement. I thought I heard some Elgar like sounds and was pleased to see my book suggests Elgar was influence by this work.

The second piece was described as a Clarinet Quintet by Penicka. Martin Penicka is the fellowship cellist and I assumed he was a composer as well. Not so, as he pointed out in his introduction. The clarinet quintet was written by his father, Miroslav Penicka , who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1935 , studied music there and migrated to Australia in 1964. It was an attractive and tuneful work; I thought the clarinet was more part of the ensemble than the solo instrument it can be in the more familiar clarinet quintets.

It was an hour of unexpected delights and there was time to buy the Naxos CD of the Brahms string quintets before catching the bus home.

My book: Brahms by Malcolm Macdonald ( Master Musicians Series).

Miroslav Penicka http://www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=488

Brahms, String Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 Ludwig Quartet and Bruno Pasquier. NAXOS