Tuesday, 13 November 2007



I was disappointed with Vanessa by Samuel Barber, which began its season at the New York City Opera on November 5. The production and singing were fine; but I don’t think Vanessa really works as an opera. My immediate thoughts about why this is so relate to the story of the work which is simple enough to tell.

It is set in “a northern country”.
Vanessa has waited 20 years in her house for the return of her lover Anatol.
It is a grand house with many servants.
She lives with her mother, the Baroness, (who refuses to speak to her) and a younger woman, Erika, described as her niece.
Anatol does not return, but his son, also named Anatol, arrives and advises his father is dead.
Anatol seduces Erika who refuses his offer of marriage twice. Erika is pregnant.
Vanessa falls in love with Anatol.
Vanessa and Anatol’s engagement is announced at a party: Erika first faints then runs out towards the lake.
Erika is brought back alive but loses her child.
Vanessa and Anatol depart for Paris; leaving Erika at home with the Baroness who now refuses to speak to her. “It is now her turn to wait”.

Many of the events are mediated by The Doctor, and amiable but self confessedly inept medical man, who may have wandered in from Chekhov.

I think that the problem with the opera is that the story does not make sense as a realistic one. And it doesn’t seem to be an allegory or the retelling of a myth. People, outside of psychiatrists’ case books just don’t behave like this. So there is no believable emotional structure to which the music can attach.

Some accounts of the opera mention without elaboration that there are hints of incest in the story. Thanks to a gentleman in sitting behind me in the theatre who told the world at large about this secretive sub plot I can reveal it here.

Before the arrival of Anatol II Erika asks if she should read to Vanessa. Guess what she reads:

Oedipus: Woe, woe is me,
Sorrowful that I am!
Where am I, where am I going?
Where am I cast away?

Vanessa is dissatisfied with Erika’s reading of this and has her own turn. It is so apposite to Vanessa’s own unfortunate condition. As for Oedipus: did Anatol II kill Anatol I so as to marry his mother?? And while we are at it, is Erika really Vanessa’s niece, or maybe……

All of this may be significant for Freudians; and it could be that the members of the audience at the Met who greeted the first performance in 1958 with a standing ovation were all in analysis themselves.

To me, it just adds to the confusion. When Erika goes missing and is found, Vanessa seems to have a maternal concern for her; but if that’s what it is, it is completely gone by the end. A hard but pleasure seeking Vanessa shows no concern at all for Erika’s plight.

Apparently, Barber was inspired Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, and suggested his librettist Gian Carlo Menotti make use of them. The libretto does not adopt any of the stories but draws on The Gothic for inspiration.

Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Danish author Karen Blixen.

A website devoted to her and her work

“Karen Blixen was escorted to the opera on January 7, 1959, by the composer himself and Menotti. However, part way through the performance she pleaded illness and left the theater. Her secretary says, in Notater om Karen Blixen, that Barber was "upset" by her premature departure from the opera. Karen Blixen made no public comment.”

The music which is tuneful but not particularly engaging has many and varied references to other composers and other operas. There are two duets for Vanessa and Anatol II which give plenty of scope to the singers, and which were well sung in this production, but there is a lack of connection. I was not made to care what these cardboard cutouts thought or felt. An essential element of opera went missing.

As I mentioned, the realistic set, the singing and the orchestral playing were good. Richard Stilwell as The Doctor almost stole the show. It was remarkable that The Baroness was sung by Rosalind Elias, who created the role of Erika almost 50 years ago. She had noticeably smaller voice than the others, but was otherwise fine in a role which would have been more taxing had the Baroness been more talkative.

And now for something completely different. Writing in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini said:

At City Opera, thanks to a simple but effective production by the director Michael Kahn; an excellent cast headed by the soprano Lauren Flanigan, who gives a smoldering portrayal of the title role; and crucially, the urgent and sensitive conducting of Anne Manson, in her company debut, “Vanessa” emerges as an authentic American masterpiece.

I am not persuaded. I wonder if, because of Barber's pivotal role in the development of American music, critics like Mr. Tommasini, want to believe he was a better composer than he actually was. In his recent book The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross says:

Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio for Strings plays on the radio.

I shouldn’t be messing with the American Dream.

Vanessa – New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center – Sunday 5 November 2007

La Traviata


On Saturday afternoon, 3 November, I saw this seasons opening performance of La Traviata at the Met.

The production, which is now almost ten years old, was created and designed by Franco Zeffirelli. It is, of course, very elaborate. All the scenes but one are performed in sets which are very detailed architectural reproductions. The country house in Act 2 is straight out of Vogue Living. This and Violetta’s house in Acts 1 and 3 are built in rectangular boxes which occupy only half of the height of the stage; hence a wide aspect ratio. In Act 3, Violetta is first found in her bedroom, which during the course of the act is raised (out of sight) on a lift to reveal the rooms seen in act 1. As is usual the furniture is draped and the gaiety of the first act long gone. Violetta comes downstairs in the course of this change and the final part of the opera is seen in these living rooms.

The exception is Act 2, scene2 which is performed in a set which uses the whole height of the stage, beginning with light drapes which lift to reveal the room in which the party takes place. I suspect that the whole stage was needed at this point to accommodate the dancers who appear in this scene, but the change does create a discontinuity in the way the production runs.

The elaborate staging worked well; but I wonder if all of it was necessary. The movement between rooms in the last act was achieved smoothly and was not a real distraction. La Traviata does require realistic staging but in the end result the success of a production will depend far more on the quality of the singing and orchestral playing than very elaborate staging.

Renee Fleming, one of the great sopranos of today was Violetta and her performance was excellent. I was reminded of her wide ranging skills as an artist by her singing of Blanche in the San Francisco recording of Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Earlier this year we saw Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata with the Russian soprano Elvira Fatykhova as Violetta. Renee Fleming’s portrayal was more evenly sung: Ms. Fatykhova adopted a new and weaker voice when singing the dying Violetta of Act 3; others have done the same, but this performance showed that singing this part of the opera in a fuller more natural voice was just as effective.

Alfredo was sung by Mathew Polenzani was also excellent. While we may wait for a really thrilling tenor, I have not heard a bad or irritating one at the Met so far.

I have never given much thought to Germont senior and tended to dismiss him as the most boring character in the whole of opera. However,I have been listening to some podcasts from the Lyric Opera of Chicago in which Mark Delavan who sang Germont senior there October 2007 discusses the dialog between Violetta and Germont senior in Act 2. In the first discussion he spoke as if the Germont was not only shocked by the character and integrity of Violetta as it emerges during their conversation but also developed his argument to her by stages, discarding ideas which did not seem to work as he went along. In the second podcast he identified changes in the character first, from the point where he called Violetta by her first name and seconldly from “ Piangi piangi ….”

In this production, Germont was Dwayne Croft. He was stern and unrelenting at his entrance, and his manner did soften as the Act progressed but I wonder if a great deal subtlety is really available in the portrayal of this unsympathetic man. One thing I picked up from the Chicago discussion was the similarity in character between father and son. They both wallow in self indulgent remorse and I think the music reflects this. Certainly the portrayal of father and son here gave full effect to this common trait.

Saturday, 10 November 2007


David Walker as Ottone with automatic weapon and reflections.

I had almost given up on New York City Opera. The performances I had seen there were interesting but I always found something to complain to myself about, rightly or wrongly.

On 2 November, I saw Handel’s Agrippina which is a co production with Glimmerglass Opera. As well as my City Opera phobia I had concerns that Agrippina was an early Handel opera, first performed in Venice in about 1710. Early Handel is fine by me: I should look into it further, but it seems that at that point in his career Handel was less bound by the traditions of opera seria or maybe those traditions hadn’t fully developed. The music is fresh and lively and although Handel later recycled some of it, nothing was familiar to me. The orchestra included recorders, lute and baroque guitar and theorbos but was otherwise made up of modern instruments. There must have been some amplification of these instruments; and I understand that amplification is common in the State Theatre in any event to combat the bad acoustics, but I didn’t notice it. Last year I heard Semele in the State theatre and from where I was then seated in the back of the main auditorium I heard some peculiar effects which made the sound jumbled at times.

There is a delightful flute solo in the second act, and when I looked down, there was the conductor, Ransom Wilson, on his podium playing it. This was a first for me. Afterwards, I thought that I had been suffering from some kind of delusion but search on the net showed that Mr. Wilson is a well established flutist as well as a conductor.

The production was lively, funny, and well sung. The opera itself takes an ironic view of the historical events it portrays and this view is developed by the production. The sets are mobile structures which are moved to form the various rooms and spaces where the action takes place. They are decorated with bits and pieces of Ancient Rome to give the correct sense of place. There are also some simple abstract shapes in strong colours which are used from time to time to provide visual contrasts.

The singers are in modern dress, and there are firearms. Both were keys to the way the production worked and were not intrusive. The dress and firearms in the Met’s production of Macbeth seemed unnecessary, as I have said. I wonder if there is a rule about this. There is always the risk that impressions like this depend more on how you are feeling at the time than any real fault in a production.

As an example, at the time of the events portrayed, Nero, Agrippina’s son is an adolescent. He is sung by mezzo soprano Jennifa Rivera who manages to include aspects of normal adolescent behaviour with strong hints of the pathological character which the historical Nero became. She is helped by the modern wardrobe which establishes that Nero has a narcissistic interest in fashionable dress, and by the firearms. Early in the first Act after doting on his mother Agrippina, he is left alone with a revolver, and plays a game of Russian roulette which ends with a maniacal laugh when he survives.

Arrippina , whose machinations would put any modern politician to shame, was given a delightfully ironic and wonderfully sung portrayal by Nelly Miricioiu. Ottone, the only character innocent of guile, was countertenor David Walker, to be heard again soon as Holofernes in Juditha Triumphans Pinchgut Opera's 2007 production.

The minor character Narciso was David Korn, described as a male soprano. I find that this description is used for a counter tenor who sings in the female soprano range; the more common range for counter tenors being equivalent to mezzo soprano or contralto.
There is an article about the male soprano or sopranist here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Male_soprano
Knowing nothing of the technicalities of the subject I can’t comment on its accuracy.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

French and Russian


On Friday 2 November, I returned to Avery Fisher Hall and the New York Philharmonic.
The conductor was Semyon Bychokov and the soloists in the Martinu concerto for two pianos and orchestra were Katia and Marielle Labeque last heard in Sydney long ago. ( Marielle is married to Mr. Bychkov. )

The first work was Metaboles by the French composer Henri Dutilleux (born 1916). I hadn’t heard of M. Dutilleux and this work was new to me. It is only about 17 minutes long and has five movements played without pause. It was pleasant enough if not particularly memorable. It’s origins may be more complex than I realized as the composer explains in a note:
“In ancient Greek music (Metaboles) was given to a passage connecting the conjunct system to the disjunct system (or vice-versa).”
Sadly insufficient time remains to me; I will never know what this means.

The work has a long history of performance here. It was composed for the 40th. anniversary of The Cleveland Orchestra in 1965 and dedicated to George Szell. Charles Dutoit conducted the premiere at the Philharmonic in 1988 and it was heard most recently here in 2001.

(Trivia note: while looking at the photos of artists at Carnegie Hall on Sunday I noticed that George Szell signed his picture in 1970 only shortly before his death.)

(Second Trivia note: I know the year of George Szell’s death as it occurred shortly before the 1970 Edinburgh Festival (which I attended) where he was due to appear.)

The program notes: “The work’s first four movements successively spotlight the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion, with the full orchestra operating with greater equality in the fifth movement”. In the first movement the woodwinds returned to the aviary heard the week before in Night’s Blackbird.

Next came the Martinu concerto for two pianos which is a lively and enjoyable piece. The first movement had jazz elements and also reminded me of Poulenc. The second movement opened with the pianos alone playing music which had echoes of the beginning of Saint-Saens Second concerto . The last may have been inspired by something by Ibert . So the whole thing was like a pleasant tour of 20th century French music to me. The reviews say that the piano parts are fiendishly difficult, one suggests too difficult, but the Labeque sisters played them with great skill and vigour. I would like to hear this work again, it may be a bit derivative but it’s a happy piece. It has been neglected, or perhaps lost in Martinu’s prolific output, and I can only find one CD in print.

The second half of the concert was Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony played without cuts (which the program note says are common). I went to the open rehearsal of this concert and was prepared to write that this performance was far too loud. But at the concert in a seat much closer to the orchestra it did not sound that way at all. Instead I could hear all the string parts, even the violas, distinctly and enjoyed the symphony more than ever before. I am sure the acoustics in Avery Fisher Hall are variable and the closer to the front the better.
As and example of poor listening in the past, I had not previously noticed the clarinet solo at the start of the third movement: so I timed it this time. It runs for two minutes and a quarter. Clarinetists please note.

Blogs about music should contain personal anecdotes and gossip. I am therefore happy to report that at the open rehearsal of this concert I ran into (or found myself sitting near)
Pascal Roget and Ami Hakuno. I accosted them and mentioned I had enjoyed their performances at AFCM at Townsville. Ms. Hakuno seemed astonished that audience members wandered from place to place and at the coincidence. They live in New York and had come to the rehearsal as they are friends of the Labeques.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007



The Met has a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth this season.
Macbeth follows the Shakespeare play with a few variations:

The cast was uniformly strong: Macbeth was Zeljko Lucic from Serbia and Montenegro and new to the Met. His strong baritone had a lyrical expressive quality which contrasted with the darker bass of John Relyea as Banquo. Lady Macbeth was Maria Guleghina, born in the Ukraine. Two young American tenors completed the cast with Dimiri Pittas, who has major aria in an otherwise short appearance as Macduff; and Russell Thomas as Malcolm.

James Levine had a large orchestra assembled and the music was very powerful. As an opera Macbeth tends to wander from episode to episode, but in this case it was given great cohesion and momentum by the conductor, orchestra and strong singing. The score contains some eerie music at points where the story touches the supernatural. According the program note the music for Macbeth’s vision of Banquo’s descendants is scored for six clarinets and other winds all intended to be under the stage. As best I could tell they were under the stage, and it’s quite likely there were six clarinets although I wasn’t able to count them.

The production by English director Adrian Noble used one large semi abstract set with lots of trees in the back and moving pillars and screens which framed the scenes inside castle walls. This allowed the scenes to flow freely from one to the next with good effect. I wonder if there will ever be calls for authentic performances with long breaks between scenes with the sound of hammering from behind the curtain.

The movements of the flexible set were effective as was the arrangement and movement
of cast and soloists on the stage. However, the costumes were modern dress. This was not particularly intrusive, but I wonder why it was done. Do we need instruction that civil war and political ambition are still with us? It’s hardly a new idea. I’m not suggesting that kilts and tartans would have helped, but less specific dress would have worked well here.

One of the changes Verdi made to Macbeth was to substitute a chorus for the three witches. Here the chorus is made up of ladies in overcoats with handbags. When in working order the handbags opened to light the owners face from below giving spooky effect. The New York Times called them bag ladies, which might have been a good idea, but these ladies didn’t have the right kind of bag, and looked reasonably well dressed.

There was also a lot of weaponry – mainly rifles and automatic pistols; though a white SUV appeared in the last act to allow boxes of guns to be unloaded. Directors seem to love unloading boxes of guns. However they must all have been toy guns. All the murders were in the traditional manner by stabbing and in the final battle the rifles were not fired but used as sticks in kendo fashion.

Macbeth - Metropolitan Opera New York 31 October 2007

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

On October 28, the Orchestra of St. Lukes gave a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The foyers are decorated with signed photographs of the great performers who have appeared there in the past. I was delighted to see that the arrangement of these is permanent and Joan Sutherland is still next to Frank Sinatra. Eugene Ormandy makes up the triptych.

The conductor on this occasion was Roberto Abbado (a nephew of Claudio).

The first piece on the program was an orchestral version of In Memory by the contemporary American composer Joan Tower. I first learned of Joan Tower at the AFCM Townsville where her Wild Purple for solo viola was played by Paul Neubauer, who plays it on the Naxos CD Joan Tower: Chamber and Solo Music, which also includes the original In Memory for string quartet played by the Tokyo String Quartet who gave its first performance in New York in 2002.

The program note explains that Joan Tower was in the course of writing this piece as a memorial to a friend when the attack of 11 September took place. She describes the music as expressing rage and anger at senseless loss and it has a much more agitated sound to it that would be expected from a memorial of the usual kind. On hearing of a 12 minute work with a very distant memory of the string quartet on CD is not enough make any comparison between the versions.

Joan Tower was there to acknowledge the audience.

Next was Samuel Barber’s Violin concerto played by Joshua Bell. This concerto opens with the memorable theme which I hope other people can get out of their head on being reminded of it. It then moves into wilder but less memorable territory. Joshua Bell is a fine player might be expected and produced a wonderful full tone at times. I hadn’t seen a performance of the Barber concerto before and saw (not heard ) for the first time that it had a piano part. At least where I was in the hall despite vigorous playing it was not audible.

After intermission Joshua Bell returned to play the world premiere of the violin concerto of Jay Greenberg, a prodigy who was born in December 1991. Not long ago. When we hear the work of prodigies of the past Mozart in particular but Mendelssohn as well we do so with knowledge of what came later. And the word “youthful” sounds right when used to describe their early works.

Greenberg’s concerto was enjoyable to hear but did not sound youthful in any similar sense. It was written in one movement but followed traditional structure as it had a slow middle section. The opening music sounded something like Copland to me. If I am wrong about this influence my description at least conveys the idea that the music opened tunefully. The texture of the orchestral music was varied with a number of conspicuous woodwind solos. And there was a piano part, which this time was given openings in the overall fabric and could be heard.
There were some more agitated sections and after the slow part the music became so again. The finale was similar in a way to the Barber concerto and like the Barber concerto gave many
opportunities to the violin.

The concert ended with Haydn’s Symphony 93, not the drum roll though it opens with one. I have enjoyed recent performances of earlier Haydn symphonies by the SSO and this one equally so. I may start a movement to smash all recordings of Haydn symphonies as they never seem to bring out the excitement and variation which can be heard in a performance. I have nothing against H.C. Robbins Landon or his work but the constant repetition of his overlong name and incantation of his remarks on this or that Haydn symphony leaves the impression that Haydn is deadly serious about some inscrutable 18th century questions. I think he just wanted to amuse people.
The second movement begins with a string quartet, which linked this last workin the concert with the first in a way.

I mentioned that Jay Greenberg is a prodigy. A CD of his Fifth Symphony (recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra) was available and he and Joshua Bell came to sign records. They sold a lot. I am almost ashamed to say I joined the hundreds waiting in line to get a signature. I’m not sure who is exploiting whom. Maybe Sony BMG is exploiting both artists and public. Joshua Bell, a more experienced celebrity, was the more popular signer. He smiled and shook hands with each of his admirers but his signature which he applied to CDs and, disobediently, to programs as well was reduced to two strokes of a red felt pen. Jay Greenberg did not smile or speak. About 17 years old, fifth symphony recorded by the LSO, a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall and then CDs to sign for Joshua Bell’s crowd. I hope he makes it.