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Archive for the ‘Sam’s Opera Reviews’ Category

by Sam Juliano

The ABCs of opera.  Aida.  Boheme.  Carmen.  This triptych expression has come to denote not only the essentials for a newcomer to the form, but also the most pared down assessment of these three quintessential works that continue to rate among the most performed operas year after year worldwide.  The middle of the three, Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 La Boheme may well have emerged the most popular opera of all-time over the past ten or fifteen years if we further examine some telling statistics.  Certainly there can be little doubt that it is the most perfectly composed of the composer’s works, and the one that boasts the most clarity of structure.  It is also (along with Carmen) one of the two most frequently mentioned operas by musicologists to have made converts of non-believers of the form.  La Boheme is the perfect choice for one’s first introduction to opera, whether in attendance at the opera house, via HD broadcast or on an audio CD.  Charming, sublime, lyrical, sentimental and suffused with soaring emotions, this four-act work of moderate length (by opera standards) is finally unbearably poignant, but along the way it showcases some of the most beautiful music ever written.  Puccini’s incomparable melodic felicity -often attacked back in the day as shameless and ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve – by the cynics, is now regarded as old-fashioned melody-making that very few have been able successfully emulate.  Though the composer crafted several operas that border on master-class (Turandot, La Fanciula de West, Manon Lescaut, Gianni Schicchi –the latter contains the beloved suprano aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” while the first-mentioned features the electrifying tenor standard “Nessun Dorma”) La Boheme is one of the three unquestioned masterpieces (Tosca and Madama Butterfly are the others) that have beguiled and ravished opera goers for many decades, and no doubt will continue to do so well into the future. (more…)

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Philidor: Sancho Panca (CD) ~ Perry Cover Art

by Sam Juliano

The appearance of eighteenth-century opera on CD is a blessing for both fans of opera comique and those looking to broaden the horizons of  a form that takes risks far too infrequently.   The French composer Francois-Andre Danican Philador is thought to be the first to achieve real distinction in a style that eventually merged with Italian opera in the early nineteenth century, in the form of comedy buffa.  Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Don Giovanni are seminal works in the later category.  Philador’s major contribution to the emergence of the opera comique as a respectable musical genre, is the application of realistic characters and situations.  It can be concluded that he handled his limited orchestral resources cleverly, and the vocal lines are rich, melodious and descriptive.

History does relate that there were charges of plaguerism against Philador, published years after his death from the likes of Berlioz and other music critics that he had plundered the work of Gluck, Galuppi, Pergolesi and Jommelli.  The fact that Philador had actually seen Gluck’s Orfeo opened him up for accusations for music that he wrote for Ernelinde and Le Sorcier, two operas that bear more than remarkable similarities.  But both the dubious degree of intent and the non-consumation of such charges should stop the skeptics in their tracks, and allow Philador’s standing to hold sway for this style and time period.  The composer’s most famous (and best) opera is Tom Jones, composed in 1765, and presented in three acts.  Sancho Panza, which was recently recorded and released by Opera Lafayette with Ryan Brown conducting, is considered a more obscure Philador work, but it has gained in reputation over the past decades.  Antoine-Alexandre Poinsinet (1735-1769) created the libretto of Sancho Panca from a particularly mean-spirited passage in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  The knight of the mournful countenance has promised his simple-minded squire, Sancho Panza, the governership of an island for his faithful service – a dream that the duke and dutchess features in Part 2 fullfill as part of an elaborate series of tricks played on Don Quixote and Sancho.  When faced with the real demands of governing the imaginary land -the island of Barataria – Sancho quickly renounces all interest in being a governor. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Franco Zeffirelli achieved what no other had managed before or since.  He scored major successes on the opera stage, in the theatre and the cinema, and eventually brought these forms together to become the greatest director of “opera films” in a prolific run in the 1980’s.  Once a student of art and architecture, Zeffirelli reportedly turned to the theatre after watching Olivier’s visually arresting Henry V, and while working as a scenic painter in Florence was hired to work as an assistant director under renowned film director Luchino Visconti, for the film La Terra Trema, released in 1948.  Zeffirelli later worked with Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and in the 1960’s achieved moderate success directing and designing his own plays in New York and London.  His special gift was remarkable visual design and he eventually crafted extraordinary sets for the works of Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and Mozart on opera stages and directed some lush period films based on Shakespeare and religious figures.  In the latter pursuit Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, a stunningly beautiful color film that has retained it’s popularity in schools and on internet chat boards decades later,  featured attractive teens in the lead roles.  While that film remains the one the director is principally known for among film fans, he achieved no less a critical success the year before that with another Bard standard, The Taming of the Shrew, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  In 1973 he again produced visual ravishments with Brother Sun Sister Moon based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and then directed a mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth that still hold high ratings when aired today.  But Zeffirelli to the delight of the purists has always been a staunch traditionalist.  This has endeared him to the brass at the Metropolitan Opera and for those who strongly favor the period trappings and the original intentions of the works’ creators.

The director’s celebrated run of four opera films (two by the master Giuseppe Verdi) was accomplished during a period where he was directing stage productions at the Metropolitan Opera.  One of the films, La Traviata, based on one of Verdi’s five irrefutable masterpieces is considered by many if not most as the greatest opera film of all-time, and the one that above all others stands as the model.  Featuring the then matinee idol singer Placido Domingo, and a model of operatic intensity, the soprano Teresa Stratas in the leads, the resulting film is a benchmark of sumptuous imagery in the service of what many see today as the most all-encompassing art form. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The writer Gustave Flaubert opined that “the three finest things in creation are the sea, Hamlet and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The philosopher Kierkegaard wrote that Don Giovanni is a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection. Virgil Thomson was no less flattering: “Don Giovanni is one of the funniest shows in the world and one of the most terrifying. It is all about love, and it kids love to a fare-ye-well. It is the world’s greatest opera and the world’s greatest parody of opera. It is a moral entertainment so movingly human that morality gets lost before the play is scarcely started.” Beyond that Shaw, Goethe and Wagner considered it the greatest opera ever written. Today this 1787 canonical work of Western culture continues to hold the stage as one of the most-performed operas worldwide, and the one above all others that is seen as the purist expression of the intellectual and dramatic possibilities of the operatic form. At New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, Don Giovanni has been performed over 500 times in about sixty seasons between 1883 and the present. Surely no other opera has been as debated and analyzed, and no other, with the possible exception of Bizet’s Carmen has been held up as the model, the one work that in a number of ways can serve as a definition of the form. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

One of Western culture’s most famous contradictions is an oddity that broaches but never solves one of life’s greatest mysteries.  Richard Wagner, celebrated creator of a brace of philosophically complex “music dramas,” and most influential composer who ever lived, was also a well-known anti-Semite, and a mean-spirited and abusive family man.  That such a person could write what is quite possibly the most ravishingly beautiful and spiritually infused music of all-time is a testament to to the concept that beauty can emanate from the most unlikely sources, where the most soulful kind of artistic expression takes no sides in choosing its creator.

But the composer’s final work, Parsifal, which premiered at Bayreuth in 1878, yields further incongruities connected to its reception and political standing, both of which seem to suggest that Wagner purged himself of his demons and embraced ideals that were in diametric opposition to his inner self.  Adolf Hitler, whose adoration for Wagner’s previous work -especially his monumental Die Ring der Niebelungen and Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg- was infamous, banned any performances of the opera in 1939, presumably because the work’s message of pacifism and its seeming promotion of the Christian ideal of suffering ran counter to the ideologies of the Third Reich.  Hence, Parsifal has never been a work to attract tame response, and the opera has been variously described as sublime, heinous or decadent, which specifically some critics have simultaneously embraced its epic wonderment while still judging it as  “a profoundly inhuman spectacle, that glorifies a barren masculine world whose ideals are a combination of militarism and monasticism.” (Peter Wapnewski)  Considering the suggestive allegory Wagner designed for what he called his ‘last card’ and ‘farewell to the world’ the controversy is hardly surprising.  However, whether Parsifal is a sinister militant fantasy about the redemption of an Aryan Jesus from Judaism or just a feeble Armeggedon cocktail with a strong twist of Shopenhauer, critics of its supposed humanity will never be able to solve the magisterial beauty of its score nor account for the fact that aggression is completely contrary to the opera’s central idea.  Indeed, the opera’s first act overture is among the most sublime passages in all of music with it’s slow tempo mid-way coda, one of the most ravishing themes ever heard by the human ear.  The theme is encored generously through the work, and basically serves as it’s musical identification, with it’s majestic sweep and melodious flow evincing an unusual but indellible blend of bliss and melencholy. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Ingmar Bergman was laid to rest on a misty morning in early August, 2007 on the island of Faro, where he spent the last years of his life.  At the cinema master’s request the ceremony was short and attended by only 70, including celebrated Bergman stock company thespians, Liv Ullman, Max Von Sydow and Erland Josephson.  Eulogies were noted for their brevity and the musical itinerery was a sparing employment of J.S. Bach by way of organ and cello.  This modest presentation may be been selected for it’s simple purity, but it underscored a deep passion for classical music that manifested itself from the very earliest films.  Music in Darkness (1948) tells the story of a young pianist left blind by a shooting accident; To Joy (1950) narrates the misfortunes of an ambitious violinist, and Summer Interlude (1951) recounts the life of a ballerina at the Stockholm Opera.  Generous excerpts from Beethoven, Mozart or Mendelssohn are found in these films.  In the opening feature of the celebrated “Faith Trilogy”, Through A Glass Darkly, the extensive use of classic compositions completely supplanted the original film music that was more common during the late 50’s period when Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries appeared.  In Darkly the ‘Sarabande’ from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 2 appears four times.  It’s usage here signaled a marked upsurge in classical accompaniment all the way up to his final film Sarabande in 2003.  While it’s clear that a number of the pieces were vital structural and metaphorical components in his deep philosophical inquiries, there was a clear enough passion for the intrinsic beauty of the music that was deftly used as a mood device.  Robert Schumann’s ravishingly beautiful and gloriously romantic Piano Quintet in E-flat major set the tone for Fanny and Alexander under the film’s lengthy credit sequence, and underlined the film’s brighter contexts.  Conversely, there is telling use of Bach’s Partita in Shame, The Passion of Anna and Hour of the Wolf that connotes despair in its rawest constriction, and the Bach passages in Cries and Whispers are used to piercing effect.  Bergman connects characters to music a number of times, including the sequence in Autumn Sonata when Charlotte sketches the figure of Chopin, before beginning to play the Prelude, and the one where Johan listens at full blast to the scherzo of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in Sarabande.  Lastly, Bergman experiments his sense of musical analysis during an entire film with In the Presence of a Clown, which recounts Schubert’s last days, in both a free and erudite manner. (more…)

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Ildar Abdrazakov playing lead in Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Attila’

 by Sam Juliano

     Verdi’s Attila was written in 1846, but this ninth opera from one of opera’s greatest geniuses has, until this year escaped the attention of planning executives at the Metropolitan Opera, who have shunned the work, largely due to uneasiness with the demand on the singers.  But as part of the company’s commitment to bold resurrections of harmonic works with strong prospective appeal to the core traditionalists, Attila received some impassioned contributions from the director, set designer, singers, and especially veteran conductor extraordinaire Ricardo Muti, who proved to the world that this opera is a rhythmically charged work, with an abandance of solos, and rich musical lines.  With full choruses at the disposal of a polished orchestra who faithfully transcribed Verdi’s lyricism in supple chords and rifts, Muti demonstrated that as a stand alone, Atilla’s music is far from the lowest bracket of the composer’s work.  And when the singing is considered, it’s nearly a towering achievement.  I’d go as far as to contend that it belongs in a short group after La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Aida and Otello, with the likes of Nabucco, La Frorza Del Destino, Un Ballo in Maschera, Simon Bocanegra, and Falstaff.  On the best of days it may possibly lead that group, and such was certainly the case on the Monday night I was in attendance.  This was a visionary performance in stark, imaginary staging, forceful singing and rich orchestration, which compellingly blends the youthful, patriotic vigor of its then young composer with the nuance and human insight that would become the hallmark of his long  career that included 28 operas.  (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     Georges Bizet’s Carmen is arguably the most popular opera in history, and it’s almost never off the yearly schedules of the largest and smallest companies.  Only Puccini’s La Boheme is in its stratosphere of adoration,  and it stands alone as the indoctrinating vehicle for neophytes to the form.  The opera’s central role is perhaps the defining one for a soprano, and over decades it provided some of the greatest singers with their most electrifing moments onstage.  For the second time this season, the Metropolitan Opera has replaced a long-running Franco Zeffirelli staging, (and a shorter one after it)  but unlike the first instance, where the desision drew ire from traditionalists, (Tosca), this new incarnation by Richard Eyre stands among the season’s most distinguished stagings, with an outstanding Carmen and Don Jose and some virtuoso conducting by a gifted newcomer.  The new Carmen, wields the raw power of the 1875 work, but the underpinnings are more contemporary than the Zeffirelli production, which typically was traditional.

     Carmen, which contains some of the greatest passages in all of music (“The Toreador Song”,” “The Flower Song” and the “Habanera” are musical masterpieces) is a work of superbly balanced construction and extraordinary precision, on in which Bizet is able to express in 16 bars what almost any other composer would need 160 for and might still not succeed.  The opera with it signature sexuality, smoldering passions and violent denouement, has often been understood as a story of ill-fated love between two equal parties whose destinies happen to clash.  But to read the opera in this fashion is really to ignore the faultlines of social power that organize it, for while the story’s subject matter may appear idiosyncratic to us, Carmen is actually only one of a large number of fantasies involving race, class and gender that are known to have circulated in nineteenth-century French culture.   Most interpretations of the opera either assume Carmen’s treachery or else try to eradicate the differences in class, race and gender between Carmen and Don Jose.  To be sure, the illicit sexuality of the opera continues to be acknowledged; but as it took it place within the canon many decade ago, Carmen became a locus for socially-sanctioned titillation rather than a cause for moral indignation.  A self-congratulatory smugness seems to characterize much of what was written about Carmen after it became a staple of the repetory, as subsequent critics gloat when recounting the prudery of Bizet’s initial audiences, along these lines: “The libretto is effective, but far from shocking a generation that now considers Strauss’s Salome tame.  The tragic ending is so seasoned a convention that we accept it without thought.”  In any case the popular literature on Carmen tends to highlight the elements of femme fatale and male victim, often rendering the plot in a gleefully naughty, insinuating style. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

For nearly 25 years traditionalist opera patrons of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan have repeatedly immersed themselves in Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent production of Puccini’s Tosca, which combined a faithful reading of the composer’s score with the compositional beauty of Renaissance art.  The centerpiece set, replicating the inside of the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle in the first act is so meticulously detailed, that you feel you’ve been transported to Rome.  Puccini’s soaring and lyrical score was perfect attuned to such a ravishing set design, and opera goers were treated to a sensuous harmony of music and eye candy.  Singers however were always uncomfortable in such a setting, as they often felt engulfed by the intimidating sets, which in essence diverted attention from the main issue at hand:  the singing.  But opera is not for the singers, the musicians or the set designers, it’s for the devoted fans who these days are paying high prices for the right to witness live performances.  Many of these fans were dismayed, some downright hostile at the recent premiere of the first new production of the beloved opera in a quarter-century, mainly aimed their venom at the relatively minimalist sets by Swiss director Luc Bondy.  Publically castigated by none other than Zeffirelli himself, who dismissed Bondy as “third-rate,” the 86 year-old Italian icon warned against those messing with traditionist purity, and applauded the reaction of the Met faithful.

Bondy’s staging includes pared-down sets with odd color coordination, with Scarpia’s office in Act II an admitted eye-sore.  Only the simplest set of all in the final act, of the brick tower, at the stroke of dawn overlooking the tranquil water is effective from a visual standpoint.  One of the most beautiful moments in the Zeffirelli production was the scene where Cavaradossi paints Mary Magdalene, before the onset of one of the opera’s three great arias, “Recondita Armonia” a short and uninhibited flood of raw melody, typical of the verismo tradition which Puccini’s music is a prime example of.  Bondy’s long-haired portrait, where a breast is showing deliberately amplifies the more abstract approach, much as later in the fateful scene with Scarpia, the sadist is being serviced by a courtesan. (more…)

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traviata 1

by Sam Juliano

     The ‘opera film’ as it is referred to in its simplest incarnation is a hybrid of two disparate art forms, that merge to create a vehicle of artistic expression that is like no other.   The incomparable experience of visiting an opera house yields an intimacy that can’t be replicated with simulcasts shown in movie theatres, nor with the in-home viewing of taped performances.  Yet, for all it’s fidelity to what is often regarded as the ‘world’s greatest art form’ live opera can be an excruciating grind for some because of excessive length, overhead or back of seat subtitles, and minimalist sets that often don’t physically replicate the setting envisioned by the composer.  In the early 60’s film directors began to explore new avenues to present opera in sensory terms, showcasing lush settings, ravishing costumes and expressionist filmmaking that allowed the opera basics to shine forth in a completely new light.  The best singers of their times were featured in stunning close-up, and medieval tapestries were often re-created to make the stories more alluring and contextually persuasive.  The projected permanency of the opera film insured that casting directors painstakingly examine all options before settling on final choices, and orchestras at the peak of their powers were chosen to give the most compelling and faithful readings of the respective works.  The result was a new form that allowed opera to be showcased in purely cinematic terms, while simultaneously enriching and accentuating the elements that had the most appeal in the first place.  By providing a lustrous and atmospheric canvas, opera was given a new life and an opportunity to appeal to the masses.  Three opera film directors, all of whom are still alive and working: Franco Zeffirelli, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Peter Weigl, created the most exquisite entries in the field, and all three were prolific and had a talent for composition and framing, and uncanny knack for getting the proper readings for their musicians and extraordinary vocal performances from their stars.  Hence, on record, with all the indelible embellishments in place, the work of these remarkably gifted artists has resulted in large measure the finest operatic works available today in any presentation.  of course, there other world-class directors who contributed a single great work: Joseph Losey (Don Giovanni), Hans-Jurgen Syberberg (Parsifal), (more…)

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