Sunday, August 31, 2014

Christine Goerke's Elektra from London: The "WOW!" Factor



I just finished listening to the live broadcast from London's Royal Albert Hall of Strauss' Elektra (my second favorite opera . . . ever) and certainly hope others got to experience this performance. It may be the single most amazing Elektra I've experienced outside of the concert hall or opera house. I didn't think she could have been better in the role than her Chicago opening night last season or her Covent Garden performances, but with more experience in the role, La Goerke really, truly sank her teeth into the meat - and the heart of Elektra.

The audience went (pardon the term) Bat-Shit-Crazy right after the final note and when the soprano came out things got even crazier. A similar roar went up for Dame Felicity Palmer. Then, when Goerke came back out the electricity went up even a notch or two higher . . . one might call it frenzied or fevered.

It's rare when your Elektra has better, lighter, yet solid high notes than her baby sister, and, as good as Gun-Brit Barkmin was as Chrysothemis, when the gals were doing their sister act, it was difficult not to notice who was more secure up there.

Johan Reuter was mighty good as Orest, and the interaction between he and Ms. Goerke led up to a Recognition Scene that was as sumptuous and gorgeous as one is likely to hear.

Maestro Bychkov shaped the score in perhaps one of the most exciting readings I've ever heard of it. The quieter moments have never sounded as intimate as he made them here. He mentioned in an earlier interview that Royal Albert Hall's acoustics - for as vast a space as it is - allows one to do things with a score one might not chance in other houses, something like "everything is possible here." He was right.

Additionally the way he handled the music following the murders was nothing short of breathtaking, the waltz beginning slow and deliberate, not the hurried madness we usually get (and love), then building and building to a positively dizzying effect that threw one (or at least me) completely off balance. It was tremendous and as overwhelming a performance overall that I have experienced of this my second favorite opera.

I think the announcer just said the broadcast will be available for 23 more days. This is happy news, indeed and one would be mad not to seize the opportunity to take advantage of this most generous gift.

Elektrifying!

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Goerke Park

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Licia Albanese: A Small Tribute to a Legend



Licia Albanese has died. It was inevitable, yet still somehow unexpected, as though she would live forever. I had always been a moderate fan of this lady's, but some years ago I heard a performance I'd previously only heard about, the 1956 Manon Lescaut broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera featuring Albanese & Bjoerling in the leading roles, with Dimitri Mitropolous at the helm. I'm here putting down the notes I made from that experience.

* * * * *
My jaw still hasn’t recovered from hitting the floor. How crazy was this performance??!! It was completely insane.

Albanese sounded a thousand years old - yet really, really hot . . . juicy, even. And her high notes? They blasted out like velvet bullets. Whenever someone speaks about how to "act with the voice" - Albanese is PRECISELY what they're talking about. The emotive skills of both of these singers, is mind boggling . . . huge. Of course I knew this already from their studio recording, and though I’d always heard of this '56 performance, and white hot” it was, I had no idea . . . no idea.

Both Jussi and Licia give such over the top performances that if they were singing these roles today, some would (sadly) laugh at the hysterical, over-emotive “in your face” performances. Then again, maybe not, when the actual singing is of this high quality. Bjoerling’s performance here tops his studio effort for the fact you get the sense he really is living the role. And his top notes (low notes . . . and all notes in between) are spun out with such vocal glory that not only are his excesses forgivable, they’re necessary . . . welcome and thrilling.

Sadly the orchestra (under my man Mitropolous) often sounds bad, undernourished and under rehearsed, and I have to put it on the conductor as I’ve heard the orchestra from that season sound quite fine. (Nobody shoot me please, I can't believe I'm saying that about a man I consider a god). But D.M. pays wonderful attention to his singers and that pay off was worth its weight in gold.

Albanese’s Sola perduta, abbandonata was one of the wildest versions of any aria I’ve ever heard – certainly of this aria, and I mean by about 1000 percent. Shrieking and sobbing and shouting and sobbing and gasping (and sobbing some more) sometimes, remarkably, in the middle of the notes of a phrase. Who else could do this like her? Sometimes she seems even to do this in the middle of a note – it’s madness . . . pure FILTH! Delicious filth. And the notes . . . Oh. My. God. Simply unbelievable. She hurls them out with such force I believe they were very likely heard on Mars. I had to both laugh and cry as she finished the aria punctuated with sobs as continued repeating the aria’s final lines, sobbing and choking out "non voglio morir . . . no voglio morir" over and over, before more sobs, shrieks as a hysterical Jussi returns, joining in the madness.

The closing few minutes were intense beyond the point of ordinary belief – and why should anything about this performance be ordinary?

* * * * *

Licia, of course sang many more roles, logging in over 400 performances with the Metropolitan Opera over a long, distinguished singing career. Singing, however, wasn't her only career, as she went on - up until her passing, encouraging, coaching and aiding new, young singers to get established in this most difficult and rewarding art form. Madame Albanese truly was one of a kind, and though she has passed on, her work and legacy will live on. How lucky we were to have her! Rest in peace, dear lady.

Licia through the years.




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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Schubert's Fierrabras. Another Unjustly Neglected Singspiel



There is so much wonderful music in Fierrabras, listening to it one can only wonder why it is seldom, if ever heard.
Sadly, this may be one of the classic cases of a libretto doing in a musical composition of exquisite beauty. I myself have not a single problem with the libretto being a little far-reaching. It is often dismissed as being melodramatic, but personally I’ve never had a problem with operas being melodramatic for that is exactly what they’re supposed to be.

Having said that, let me try to relay Fierrabras’s plot, which exposes a veritable hotbed of ideas covering just about everything: religion, war, strife, freedom, imprisonment, enemy battles, betrayal, loyalty and love all taking place in the time and court of King Charlemagne. Florinda, daughter of the Moor Prince Boland is in love with Roland. Boland’s son, Fierrabras is in love with Charlemagne’s daughter, Emma. Emma, in turn, has the hots for the tenor, er, I mean Eginhard (well, he IS a tenor!).

There is war between the Franks and the Moors, the Franks win and Roland takes Fierrabras as his prisoner. Meanwhile, the Moors successfully capture Eginhad and Roland, who are then condemned to death. Florinda plots to free the Frankish prisoners, but only Eginhard (whom Emma is in love with) makes it out. Fierrabras returns with reinforcements and they free their comrades. Charlemagne and Boland declare peace and everyone pairs off, save Fierrabras, who, having lost Emma, remains alone.

There are two recordings I know of, both taken from live performances. The first, available on Myoto is a concert performance with the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich in the role Eginhard, and exquisitely conducted by Hans Müller-Kray. I know little about the rest of the cast, but it is, for the most part, expertly sung and, considering it’s being live and recorded in the 50’s, has mostly excellent sound.

The other is taken from a glorious live performance (an actual staging) with Abbado conducting the Schoenberg Choir and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. With the exception of Wunderlich, the cast, in my opinion, could not be improved upon: Josef Protschka, Karita Mattila, Cheryl Studer, Thomas Hampson, Robert Gambill, Robert Holl with some outstanding lesser known singers in smaller roles. Like Müller-Kray, Abbado wants for nothing in expressivity, nuance and paying attention to details. Neither recording includes the dialogue.

Fierrabras’s score posseses some thrilling, over-the-top arias such as “Die Brust, Gebeugt Von Sorgen.” In the Abbado recording this is sung by Cheryl Studer with such rapt, breathlessness that its urgency jumps out of the speakers, taking one by surprise. As remarkable as the melodic line is, Schubert’s orchestrations here and everywhere throughout the opera could serve as a textbook of operatic orchestral writing with spectacular integrations of vocal underscoring/voice doubling as well as independent movement and almost visual imagery created through his instrumentation. It’s quite amazing stuff.

For my money, even more wonderful than the arias are the numerous ensembles and choruses, such as the duet “O Mog' Auf Froher Hoffnung Schwingen” or the ensemble and chorus “Der Landestochter Fromme Pflichten” each breathtaking in its beauty. In the latter Schubert takes a melody, almost folk like in its simplicity, then weaves it into an orchestral tapestry of almost bucolic bliss, strongly recalling Beethoven. Indeed, I believe much of the music of Fierrabras shows Beethoven’s influence on Schubert – not a bad thing, in my opinion. (My opinion also is that Schubert and Beethoven should have given us a lot more opera than they did.)

Another gorgeous duet, “Selbst An Des Grabes Rande” has an infectious waltz quality which Studer and Hampson perfectly capture with an almost Viennese lilt – then the men’s chorus enters and the whole affair will almost make
you forget The Merry Widow!

While some may say Fierrabras isn’t inspired I’ll disagree strongly. It is a nearly perfect example of Singspiel which I wish would have more of a presence in today’s world of opera.

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