“Rinaldo” with Marionettes

“Rinaldo” with Marionettes is Most Entertaining

A-OP-Rinaldo (Puppets)It takes patience in our times to sit through  Handel operas, burdened as they are with the traditions of their time. There are the absurd plots, which are merely pegs upon which to hang arias. Then each aria gives expression to a single emotion and is sung through twice (da capa aria, “from the top”) so the singer can show off the second time through. Now and then, a duet or small ensemble might break up the pattern; but the pampered singers wanted to have the stage to themselves.

When opera in Italian became the rage in the London of the early 1700s, Handel jumped in with “Rinaldo” (1711), a tale of the first crusades, which is now available on an ArtHaus Musik set of a DVD and two CDs. Happily it does not update the settings and costumes, as so many other productions do to give the work “relevance” (but, I suspect, to save on expensive costumes).


This is the only DVD of a Handel opera in which I never hit the fast forward button because I was enjoying it so much. You see, it is done with marionettes! Yes, as part of the Ludwigsburg Festival in 2014, “Rinaldo” is performed by the little people of the Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo & Figli, accompanied by the Lautten Compagney Berlin, conducted by Wolfgang Katschner.


[I found out after completing my review that a good two hours had been lopped from the full score. That helped too.]

Although a marionette cannot change its expression, these darlings have expressive faces that perfectly fit their one-dimensional characters. Now and then, the camera shows the human singers in the orchestra pit; but the wooden cast carries the day. The settings and special effects are based on drawings of productions from Handel’s day; and even the battle scene between Crusaders and Saracens is remarkably well done.

There are several artists, who are seen now and then, hidden above the stage controlling the marionettes,  and one can only wonder how the strings never get tangled when two lovers embrace. And how I love the bouncy little walk a marionette takes, especially when an army crosses the stage!

Argante plots with Armida against Rinaldo

I will not take up room with the plot, which can be googled, but I should give credit to the fine vocalists: Antonio Giovanni (Rinaldo, a fearless knight), Marie Friederike Schoeder (Almirena, his beloved), Yosemeh Adjei (Goffredo, her father, who will not give her to Rinaldo until Jerusalem is won), Owen Willetts (Eustazio, his brother), Florian Gotz (Argante, a wicked Saracen), Gesche Geier (Armida, the witch) who helps Argante capture the lovers. (Armida, by the way, shows up in other operas of that period.)

The running time is 137 minutes and the subtitles are in English and German.

Verdi at the Met


Sony Classical has gathered together in a boxed set 10 operas by Verdi that were broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera from1935 to 1967. No one is claiming that any of these are the best performances that could have been chosen, but the historical interest is great and many listeners might recall hearing these very broadcasts.

Each 2-CD opera is in its own cardboard envelope and there is a booklet giving background information and tracking numbers and timings for all of the performances. All I wish to do here is to list the operas with broadcast years and lead singers. I hope the omission of first names will cause no problems.

Lawrence Tibbett

“La Traviata” (1935)—Ponselle, Jaegel, Tibbett; “Otello” (1940)—Martinelli, Rethberg, Tibbett; “Un Ballo in Maschera” (1940)—Milanov, Bjoerling; “Rigoletto” (1945)—Warren, Sayao, Bjoerling; “Falstaff” (1949)—Warren, Resnik, Valdengo, Albanese.

“Simon Boccanegra” (1950)—Warren, Varnay, Tucker; “La Forza del Destino” (1952), Milanov, Tucker, Warren; “Macbeth” (1959)—Warren, Rysanek, Bergonzi; “Nabucco” (1960), MacNeil, Rysanek, Siepi; “Aida” (1967)—Price, Bergonzi, Bumbry, Merrill, Hines.

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Richard Tucker

I believe many of my readers would be most interested in hearing all of these, even with the audio as it was then. I do miss all the intermission features, which I wish would be released in separate CD sets.

Wagner Stars in Vintage Broadcasts from the Met

A-OP-Wagner at MetWagner Stars in Vintage Broadcasts from the Met

  I recall when those who wanted to have radio transcriptions of Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts had to be Met Guild members and well off enough to pay the price of the LP sets. That is all the more reason to welcome a box set of 25 CDs from Sony Classical, titled “Wagner at the Met.”

There are nine operas included and I had best list them with broadcast dates and the leading singers. “Der fliegende Hollander” (12-30-50) has Hans Hotter (Dutchman), Astrid Varnay (Senta) and Set Svanholm (Erik). Fritz Reiner conducts. “Tannhauser” (1-9-54) stars Ramon Vinay (Tannhauser), Margaret Sarshaw (Elisabeth), George London (Wolfram), and Jerome Hines (Landgrave). Heard in the tiny role of Shepherd is Roberta Peters. George Szell conducts.

Lauritz Melchior

“Lohengrin” (1-2-43) gives us Lauritz Melchior (Lohengrin) and Astrid Varnay as Elsa. The conductor is Erich Leinsdorf. The lovers in “Tristan und Isolde” (4-16-38) are Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad—an unbeatable team—with Karin Branzell as Brangane. Arthur Bodanzky conducts. The more human “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” (1-10-53) has Hans Hopf (Walther), Paul Schoffler (Hans Sachs) and Victoria de los Angeles (Eva). Fritz Reiner wields the baton.

I pause here to point out that opera lovers who originally heard some or all of these broadcasts must have recognized  many of the artists I have listed up to now. So beyond any historical value of these discs is a nostalgic value that is a strong one. Now back to the set.

Kirsten Flagstad

This wouldn’t be much of a salute to Wagner at the Met without the entire Ring Cycle. “Das Rheingold” (1-27-51) features Lawrence Davidson (Alberich), Margaret Harshaw (Fricka), Hans Hotter (Wotan), and Set Svenholm (Loge). Fritz Stiedry conducts. “Die Walkure” (2-17-40) pairs Melchior (Siegmund) with Flagstad (Brunnhilde) and Marjorie Lawrence (Sieglinde). Julius Huehn (Wotan), Karin Branzell (Fricka) and Emanuel List (Hunding) share the spotlight, while Leinsdorf conducts.

“Siegfried” (1-30-37) is like the scherzo movement to this Ring-symphony, and Melchior (Siegfried) and Brunnhilde (Flagstad) finally get to meet. The Wanderer, Wotan in disguise, is sung by Friedrich Schorr, the evil Mime by Karl Laufkotter, and the equally nasty Alberich by Eduard Habich.

Marjorie Lawrence

The titanic “Gotterdammerung” (1-11-36) has Marjorie Lawrence as Brunnhilde, now wedded to her Siegfried (Melchior) and thwarted by the machinations of Gunther (Friedrich Schorr), Hagen (Ludwig Hofmann) and to a lesser degree by Gutrune (Dorothea Manski).

I apologize for the long listings, but I feel my readers might be encouraged to hear these discs by knowing some of the casts. Yes, the sound is not studio-perfect; but many low-fi radios sounded like these transcriptions back then.  Now and then, as at the actual opera house, the orchestra drowns out the singers, an example being Hagen’s call to the Vassals, the only traditional chorus in the Ring cycle. But it is the best that 1936 technology had to offer.

Each opera is in a cardboard folder with the cast and track listings. Unhappily, the CDs are in sleeves and so tightly in those sleeves that one fears harming the discs when removing them. Is that the best that 2013 technology can offer? Just be careful handling them.

A 128-page booklet repeats the cast and track listings (the latter with timings), synopses and notes about each work.

“Magic Flute” Sequel is Given a Lively Production


IMG_20150616_0001“Magic Flute” Sequel is Given a Lively Production

  Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto to “The Magic Flute” in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, decided later on to cash in on the first success with a sequel? He called it “The Labyrinth,” and a composer named Peter von Winter composed the score. It opened in 1798.

Happily, the results can be seen on a set of two ArtHaus Musik DVDs. Here a “shortened version” (running 158 minutes) is taken from a 2012 performance in the courtyard of the Residenzhof, Salzburg Festival, conducted by Ivor Bolton.

There the plot alternates between Papageno (Thomas Tatzl) and Pagagena (Regula Muhlemann) and her Tamino (Michael Schade) and his Pamina (Malin Hartelius). There is Luna, the Queen of the Night (Julia Novikova), trying to get back at Sarastro (Christof Fischesser); and  the evil Tipheus (Clemens Unterreiner) and the Moor Monostros (Klaus Kuttler) both trying to get Pamina into their clutches.

There are Papageno’s many children and even his parents. It all seems very repetitious, but the music keeps things bouncing alone, despite some pauses between dialogue and the next musical passage.

Von Winter tries so hard to copy the Mozart style without sounding too much like Mozart. In Luna’s Act I aria, I kept expecting the magic of her “Magic Flute” coloratura to break out; but of course von Winter could not let that happen. Indeed, the entire score is filled with Mozartian potential without quite getting there.

The staging is thoroughly within the style of the late 1700s, as are the costumes. However, the black masks worn by the Moors are totally unacceptable today. These latex masks that resemble the white blackface performers in the old minstrel shows; and many viewers, especially over here, will be offended. The large chorus is simply dressed in modern black suits.d gowns.

The picture is in widescreen and the subtitles are in six languages. This is a surprise treat to all opera lovers.

American Opera Tells the Tale of Lizzie Borden


A-OP-Lizzie BordenAmerican Opera Tells the Tale of Lizzie Borden

Jack Beeson’s “Lizzie Borden” must be appreciated as a through-sung drama with music and not a source of great melodies, which one expects in an “opera.” Call it a “drama with music,” and take it on those terms. It was first performed in 1965 and telecast in 1967. This telecast, in black and white, is now on a VAI DVD and very much worth the viewing.

My son, the author of a book of short stories titled “Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective,” watched with me and pointed out that many of the known elements of the notorious axe murders had been changed for dramatic reasons. (The disc does include a printed synopsis of the actual details as a bonus.)

Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie

The first act concentrates on the tyranny of Andrew Borden (Herbert Beattie) towards his older daughter Elizabeth (Brenda Lewis) and younger daughter Margret (Anne Elgar). Making Margret a younger sister to Lizzie, rather than the actual older sister, allows for a love interest between her and Captain Jason MacFarlane (Richard Fredricks). Add to this the loathsome stepmother Abigail Borden (Ellen Faull) and there is motivation enough for Lizzie’s later actions.

Lizzie herself in 1860

Act II shows Lizzie’s mental breakdown as she tries futilely to fight back against father and stepmother. And when the actual (off-stage) killings take place, one feels like rooting for the killer, just as one might root for Elektra as Orestes is killing their oppressors.

Much of the score makes one ask, “Why don’t they just speak the words instead of shouting at each other?” But there are moments, especially during the hastening of Lizzie’s madness, when voice and orchestra are in accord. Another memorable sequence is the small talk in the parlor with several overlapping conversations. The best comes at the very end when the voices of the boys’ church choir, seen at the start of the work singing religious songs, are heard at the end of the work taunting Lizzie from off-stage with that now famous jingle, “Lizzie Borden took an axe…”

Brenda Lewis is marvelous in the title role. Works like this demand great acting as well as singing. Her Act II demands of “What am I forbidden now?” are heartbreaking. Faull’s Abigail is beautifully sung, while her acting and very appearance just avoid being over the top in villainy. The others too are well into their characters.

The running time is 112 minutes; but the telecast had to omit two musical passages for the sake of timing. The subtitles are absolutely necessary.

51FxgUk7AeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_(More about this book at a later date when the sequel is due.)

Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe” Poses Some Questions


IMG_20150601_0001_NEWSullivan’s “Ivanhoe” Poses Some Questions

  Being a Gilbert and Sullivan addict, I am equally interested in Sullivan without Gilbert—and especially in Sullivan’s only completed grand opera, “Ivanhoe.” At last, an acceptable complete recording is available on three Chandos CDs with David Lloyd-Jones conducting soloists and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Richard D’Oyly Carte, who took a chance on Sullivan without Gilbert

Opinion on this opera is varied. There is Sullivan’s own diary entry that “a cobbler should stick to his last” as a starting point. He dreamed all his life of creating an English school of opera, but he was too successful in light opera to take the chance. As the legend goes, Queen Victoria herself suggested upon knighting Sullivan that he turn to more serious endeavors. Sullivan and Gilbert’s producer Richard D’Oyly Carte offered to erect a lavish opera house for whatever work Sullivan chose. Gilbert was given first refusal as librettist, and Sullivan settled for a not very good libretto by one Julian Sturgis.

Many characters in the novel are missing; but the libretto pretty much follows the original in a highly abridged but adequate form.

The booklet accompanying the CDs gives an excellent account of the rest of the background and a good analysis of the positive aspects of the score. It does not dwell upon the negative comments of the critics in 1891, many of which can be found on the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive website.

I found much of the chorus work exciting if not quite original, one or two sequences straight out of “Lohengrin” and “Tannhauser” both dramatically and musically, and most of the arias for the female leads quite beautiful but not quite memorable. Perhaps Sullivan lacked the inspiration Gilbert’s lyrics might have given him. Who can guess?

Toby Spence

The cast is a strong one, most singing with good enunciation (final consonants hit squarely); but the enclosed libretto is still needed. Among the vocalists are Toby Spence (Ivanhoe), James Rutherford (Brian), Janice Watson (Rowena), and Geraldine McGreevy (Rebecca).

The running time is 165 minutes, and each CD side holds a complete act.

Note: One of Richard D’Oyly Carte’s rare miscalculations was to build an opera house for “Ivanhoe” and then find its run far too short to balance the books. The results can be found in any biography of Sullivan.

A Controversial “Carmen” is Reissued on CD

A Controversial “Carmen” is Reissued on CDA-OP-Carmen (Horne)

Not only are there many audio recordings of Bizet’s “Carmen” to choose from, but the opera itself exists in different versions. I grew up with the “grand opera” version in which the original spoken dialogue had been turned to sung recitative  by Bizet’s pupil Guiraud. In 1972, at the Metropolitan Opera, Leonard Bernstein put together a production based on the 1875 Opera Comique original (with spoken dialogue) but with his own variations here and there. The critics were divided over the results.

Well, the audio half of those results was preserved on a three-LP set with the same cast. And what is I think the second CD transfer of this recording has been released in a Pentatone set with two discs and a complete libretto (unusual for a reissue of an opera). It is certainly worth the hearing, although it might not be the first choice for those wishing to own just one “Carmen.”

Bernstein’s very slow tempos, especially for Carmen’s arias, might be a put-off for many listeners (as it is for me). His using an alternative setting for the counterpoint of the bullfight offstage and the death of Carmen onstage is quite different from the one heard in every other production—but not necessarily not as good.  Also the spoken dialogue reveals a lack of coaching in French pronunciation in most of the cast.

However, the big plus is that the recording was made after this cast had the experience of performing on stage; and the dramatic urgency shows through in a way seldom heard in a recording rehearsed and made in a studio.

Horne-MarilynThe Big Star here is Marilyn Horne, who has her Carmen down pat. James McCracken has that Wagnerian tenor voice that works for the passionate Don Jose, while Tom Krause is a formidable Escamillo—although he lacks that sexiness that might attract the ladies. Adriana Maliponte as the innocent Micaela is a good foil for the gypsy temptress. The secondary parts of Carmen’s gypsy friends gain much by the spoken dialogue.

Pentatone has packaged this set as a small book with the discs in sleeves behind the front and back cover and some introductory notes, followed by the libretto.

download (9)A good modern recording is the one with Placido Domingo and Tatiana Troyanos, conducted by Georg Solti. And although I grew up with the RCA Victor set with Rise Stevens and Jan Peerce (1951), I still prefer the 1950 set with Raoul Jobin and Solange Michel, with members of the Opera Comique. The pacing is quick, the humor is intact, and the French is perfect in both enunciation and spirit.

Note: The first nominally complete recording of “Carmen” was made in 1908–in German!

Verdi’s Last Opera Fares Well as a Film


IMG_20150531_0002_NEWVerdi’s Last Opera Fares Well as a Film

Although the text to Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is something of a mess and although the character of Falstaff is quite a letdown from that character in the “Henry IV” plays, the comedy has certainly inspired at least three major operas—four if you count one by Antonio Salieri. There is “Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor” by Otto Nicolai, the very English “Sir John in Love” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the greatest of them all, “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. There are so many recordings of the Verdi work, both on CDs and DVDs, that picking out one as the “best” is a highly subjective practice.

However, I have just watched the 1979 film version “Falstaff” on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD, and I would dare to offer this as the one to own. Directed by Goetz Friedrich, it stars French singer Gabriel Bacquier in the title role, with Richard Stillwell (Ford), Max-Rene Cosotti (Fenton), Karan Armstrong (Alice), Jutta-Renate Ihloff (Nannetta), Martz Szirmay (Quickly), and Sylvia Lindenstrand (Meg). The Wiener Philharmoniker is conducted by Georg Solti.

To succeed in the title role, the actor must create a likeable Falstaff. Although what he tries to do is reprehensible, the audience must be on his side just a little. Bacquier is indeed likable, as is Donald Gramm in a Glyndebourne Opera production and as is Paul Plishka in a Metropolitan Opera production from 1993, and as Bryn Terfel is NOT in a cartoonish production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

As a film, this video offers a very fluid production. Indeed, during the German-language synopses that precede each scene, we get to see a lot of the action only implied by the libretto of Arrigo Boito: Falstaff pulling himself out of the river, the townsfolk preparing for the woodland haunting, and so on. Since the cast is lip-synching to a prerecorded soundtrack, some of the vocalizing seems too tame for what we see in their body movements; but this seems to be a problem built into doing an opera film in this manner.

The running time is 125 minutes and the subtitles are in six languages, including the original Italian. The only bonus features are promotional ones.

Rossini’s “Otello” is a Powerful Surprise

A-OP-Otello (Rossini)Rossini’s “Otello” is a Powerful Surprise 

In all the years I have been giving my “Shakespeare in Opera” talks, I have lamented the absence of video versions of Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Rossini’s “Otello.” At last half of that lack has been satisfied by the appearance of the latter on a Decca DVD.

It was filmed at the Zurich Opera House in 2012 with Muchai Tang conducting the Orchestra Scintilla and a very strong cast. Alas, the program notes claim that it is set in modern times to show that racial bigotry still exists—as if the play were about that! The only one who hates Othello (or Otello in this case) is Desdemona’s father (here named Elmiro). But in this production, a silent bit is added in which a white man treats a black servant with disdain. Frankly, I think the setting is simply to save the cost of Renaissance costuming.

This is the very first time I have seen this work performed. I knew that the first two acts were a pale modification of the original: no Cassio, no handkerchief but a letter falling into the wrong hands, no slow poisoning of Otello’s mind by Iago, and certainly no great depth of characterization. The third act, however, follows Shakespeare’s fifth act faithfully. (Of course, it all suffers when compared to Verdi’s masterpiece; but that is not fair in judging Rossini’s work.)

Desdemona and Emilia in the last act

This opera calls for three lead tenors (!) and here all three acquit themselves nicely: John Osborn (Otello), Javier Camarena (Rodrigo), and Edgardo Rocha (Jago). The Jago-Rodrigo duet (No, non temer) in Act I is powerful and the ensemble that follows is quite impressive. Since Emilia (Liliana Nikiteanu) has no handkerchief to give her husband, she is merely there to give Desdemona someone to sing to. Peter Kalman’s Elmiro is strongly sung and well acted.

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Bartoli, when not being strangled

The Big Draw here, however, is Cecelia Bartoli, whose unique manner of singing seems in the style of the early 1800s (“Otello” premiered in 1816). Her acting is intense and her lower notes are a marvel. It is not her fault that her Willow Song in Act III is staged with her standing still and facing the audience rather than Emilia.

It is known that Rossini composed an alternate happy ending at the request of the head of the Naples Opera, and those who wish to hear it may do so on the Opera Rara CD set of this work. (My favorite line in both versions is Desdemona’s exclamation, “What a day!” Surely the understatement of all time.)

It is also noteworthy that the orchestra plays on “authentic” instruments, giving perhaps the sound that Rossini wanted. The score is complete except for a chorus at the start of the Act I finale—a minor point for those not familiar with this work. But the “modern” setting and costuming, to me, are a strong minus for a video.

The running time is 156 minutes and there are subtitles in seven languages.

“The Merchant of Venice” Loses to Modern Treatment

IMG_20150529_0001_NEW“The Merchant of Venice”  Loses to Modern Musical Treatment

There seems to be an agreement among current composers of what they insist on calling “operas” to avoid anything that sounds like a melody. So I had little hope that Andre Tchaikowsky’s “The Merchant of Venice” would be an exception. It is not, I concluded, after watching a 2013 performance at the Bregenz Festival on a EuroArts DVD.

By abridging Shakespeare’s text and adding many new lines, Librettist John O’Brien supplies the composer with all sorts of opportunities for memorable musical moments in this tale of high fantasy and ugly social commentary. But that is not Tchaikowsky’s purpose. Even the one song, “Tell me where is fancy bred,” sounds no more melodic than any of the other passages.

Okay, I am sure that some musicologists find wonderful things in this score. It is interesting to read in the program notes that the Polish-born Tchaikowsky “is no ordinary career pianist” and has a reputation for being “difficult.” It also says that he finds the piano concertos of Grieg, Tchaikovksy and Rachmaninoff “corny.” Well, in an age of ugliness when jeans are purchased already in shreds, beautiful music would be anathema to some! (Yet he professes to like Mozart.)

The composer’s technique seems to be a series of seemingly arbitrary vocal pitches, with certain syllables given three notes, such as “be-cau-au-ause,” for no apparent reason. And when in two cases, the singer suddenly speaks a line, I wonder why they all don’t simply speak all the lines and be done with it. Yes, I am perhaps not privy to the secret code that is understood by the conductor and singers.

In a 50-minute “making of” film, the singers state that the vocal lines looked too difficult at first but proved “singable.” Well, the vocal lines of Bizet, Verdi, and dozens of other “corny” composers are certainly singable without looking difficult. Does a difficult score make it a good score by definition?

In a like manner, Director Keith Warner has chosen to set the play around the start of the last century (dull costumes) with a series of walls for the street scenes (dull scenery) and a maze for Portia’s palace at Belmont (dull symbolism). The Prince of Aragon is a comic mime while the Prince of Morocco is a gymnastic dancer.

Shylock’s trial is powerful, not because of the music, but because of the situation. Adrian Erod plays the moneylender sympathetically (as is done in all recent productions of Shakespeare’s play), while Magdalena Anna Hofmann’s Portia turns from the fairy princess of the earlier scenes to a woman as bigoted and revengeful as the others.

The role of Antonio is given to a countertenor, Christopher Ainslie, who is directed to give his buddy Bassanio (Charles Workman) a big kiss on the mouth, thereby taking away all the subtlety of their relationship as it is in the original play.

All in all, I can find little fault in the singers’ ability to cope with this music—I find Erod’s voice especially appealing—but I just have trouble listening to this score. I read that the English National Opera turned down this work in 1984, so this 2013 production was its premiere. The notes go on to say that another of Tchaikowsky’s operas was not well received by “some rather unimaginative critics.” Poor benighted souls!

Well, I can only give my reaction to this work. Others might vehemently disagree.

The disc holding the performances runs 160 minutes. The work is in English and the subtitles are a real help. An extra disc holds only the 50-minute set of interviews.

download (3)Note: Several other operas based on Shakespeare’s works suffer from the composers’ trying to set the original script to music. A good example is Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” commissioned for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center and flopped. In my mind, the best English language opera in this field is Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love,” in which he cut the original text to a minimum and inserted the loveliest of English folk songs. But of course Vaughan Williams lived at time when melody was expected and composers knew how to create it.