Hannigan Takes Risks with “The Rake’s Progress”

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STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress / William Morgan, ten (Tom Rakewell); Aphrodite Patoulidou, sop (Anne Trulove); John Taylor Ward, bar (Nick Shadow); Kate Howden, mezzo (Baba the Turk); Erik Rosenius, bs-bar (Mr. Trulove/Mother Goose); Ziad Nehme, ten (Sellem); Gothenberg Symphony Orch.; Barbara Hannigan, cond / Bonus disc: “Taking Risks,” documentary on auditions, casting & rehearsals / Accentus DVD ACC20420

The multi-talented and eccentric soprano Barbara Hannigan, who has already succeeded in conducting orchestras in instrumental music, here conducts her first complete opera performance. Although the “production” was staged by Linus Fellbom, it is technically not a full staging but a sort of mini-production. The singers act and cavort, kind of in costume, in a relatively circumspect space in front of the orchestra and conductor, both of which are onstage and visible throughout the performance behind them. I’m not sure if this was because Gothenburg doesn’t have a sunken orchestra pit like most opera houses do or if this was to give Hannigan and her conducting more public visibility, but from my perspective as a viewer the combination was a bit odd. Either you do a concert performance in which none of the singers act or wear costumes or you put it on a regular opera stage with the orchestra in the pit.

So, after sampling the performance DVD to make sure that all the singers could really sing (they can), I watched the bonus DVD, “Taking Risks,” first. This disc runs even longer than the performance, 58:13 compared to 49:50. Surprisingly, it begins not with anything from The Rake’s Progress but with a film clip of Hannigan singing and conducting a performance of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, one of her specialties. In this clip she is not dressed like a slutty schoolgirl, as she was in her performance with Sir Simon Rattle, but sort of like a Goth girl, wearing a dark black wig cut in a bobbed style and a black leather full-length coat, but when she takes the coat off she is wearing a short, revealing leather outfit that just barely covers her from bustline to her, well, her naughty bits as John Cleese is wont to say. In a voice-over, Hannigan says that she probably has “ten good years left as a singer,” and so she is doing more and more as a singer-conductor, after which she will just be a conductor. We then see and hear her warming up her voice, which she does with her mouth closed, humming the notes. (Interestingly, she pronounces the title of this opera as “The rake’s proh-gress” rather than “progress.”) She then explains that only one of the singers she chose for this production had sung their role before and that she didn’t know any of them beforehand. Risk No. 1.

The first singer we see auditioning for Hannigan is a tenor, who auditions with a modern piece that takes his voice very high up in falsetto. He is obviously a first-rate musician and a good singer, but I found his voice, shall we say, a bit thin, one of those tenor voices that has no “bottom” to it. He is also one of those singers—unfortunately, all too prevalent today—who love to wave their arms in the air as they sing. Aside: if there is a singer reading this review, whatever your voice range, and you are an arm-waver, could you PUH-LEEZE explain to me how waving your arms like an overwrought conductor while singing helps either your voice or your expression? I’m asking because I saw a good dozen or so of the greatest singers who ever lived, among them Dick Tucker, Placido Domingo, Magda Olivero, Licia Albanese, Jon Vickers, Gabriel Bacquier, Birgit Nilsson, Jan de Gaetani, Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jessye Norman, and not one of them waved their hands or arms in the air as they sang. Not one. Yes, a few of them had their own idiosyncracies—Albanese wrung her hands in front of her to show emotion, both Vickers and Fischer-Dieskau did a slow strut as they sang, and Domingo had the habit, when holding a high note, of turning his head slowly from side to side to that every corner of the opera house could get a few seconds of hearing it up close because his voice was very “directional,” meaning that it came out of his mouth in a straight line and did not reverberate in the hall as Tucker’s and Vickers’ did—but not one of them waved their hands or arms in the air as they sang. So yeah, I really do want to know.

Hannigan explains that the reason she auditioned a ton of young, unknown singers for the opera was that all of her favorite colleagues weren’t free. But Gothenburg was open to the idea of her hiring unknown names, so she auditioned 125 singers and “held a kind of mini-mentoring session” with each of them  so that they had “something to take away.” Interestingly, we see and hear several of the sopranos who auditioned for the role of Anne Trulove, and all of them had good voices—in fact, some had prettier timbres and/or clearer diction than Aphrodite Patoulidou, the singer she chose, although Patoulidou also has a fine voice. (Footnote: almost none of the sopranos waved their hands/arms in the air.)

The “equilibrium workshops” are evidently important to Hannigan, and the young singers also seemed to benefit from them, but to me it seemed like Group Coddling. They blow up balloons and then have to share their feelings about doing so: were they jealous that others blew their balloons up bigger or had an easier time tying knots in them? Spare me. The tenor Hannigan finally chose for Tom, William Morgan, also has a somewhat thin, high voice with no richness in it, but she felt that he somehow personified the character better than the others.

In rehearsal, Hannigan told the orchestra that this was her first opera. She felt it was important to “share” her vulnerability with them. The singers also have to “process” information and “care.” Jeezis Christmas, lady, you’re doing a JOB. If you know the score, and you should, inside and out, you go out front and assert your authority as conductor of the whole shebang. You don’t need to share or process anything except Stravinsky’s music. Do you think that when 19-year-old Arturo Toscanini was pulled out of his dressing room to take over the orchestra at a second’s notice and conduct a full performance of Aida that he had time to “share” or “process” anything? And yes, of course he was frightened. He had never even conducted a rehearsal, let alone a performance, in public before. It took him two whole scenes for his heart to stop beating like a jackhammer and, in his own words, “really conduct,” but he did it. And he didn’t cry or share his vulnerability with the orchestra or the audience.

Interestingly, there is no mention in the “Taking Risks” DVD about director Linus Fellborn’s “feelings,” even though he, too, was taking risks because this was the first time he had directed a performance of an opera, let alone The Rake’s Progress, of which he knew only a couple of arias. In the booklet, however, he is interviewed at some length. He is correct when he says it is “an ingenious mirroring of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.” He is also correct in that the location and sets can be updated; I have a marvelous DVD in which the whole production is set in Las Vegas of the 1950s. His “staging” is minimalist (no real sets to speak of, just some backdrops and lighting) and don’t do the opera much harm, but to me it didn’t make it attractive, either.

From a strictly aural perspective, Hannigan’s performance is excellent: crisp and clean, yet with a human touch that I liked very much. It reminded me of Stravinsky’s own early (1953) recording with Hilde Güden and Eugene Conley, except that for me John Taylor Ward was a much more interesting Nick Shadow than Mack Harrell (although William Shimell, the Nick of my Las Vegas Rake’s Progress, is the best I’ve ever seen or heard). Hannigan waves both arms together, in rhythm with the music, though she also has a baton in her right hand which is apparently only for show—but then, you must remember that she’s used to conducting with her back to the orchestra while singing the music she’s conducting, so she has adopted this unorthodox technique. She also smiles a lot and frequently bends over the score and makes faces. But heck, most of the orchestra is also probably caring and sharing their feelings, too, so it all comes together.

My principal complaint, from a visual perspective, was with tenor Morgan whose propensity for moving too much, bending forward most of the time and waving his arms as he sings really got on my nerves, early and often. You’re not an acrobat, Bill. It’s really OK if you stand still when you sing. No one is going to punish you or not hire you because of your inability to move around like a puppet on a string. They want to hear you SING, not bug your eyes and wave your arms. (Public Service Announcement to male opera singers: I’ve had it up to my hairline with this “scruffy-half-shaven” look. It doesn’t make you look cute. It makes you look like a slob. Either grow your beard & moustache out or shave. Thank you.)

But the most disturbing aspect of the production was Hannigan’s choice to use the baritone singing Mr. Trulove, to dress in a corset and sing the role of Mother Goose in a ghastly falsetto. WHY?? Youth Wants to Know! Stravinsky very clearly designated this as a mezzo role. Having a guy with a moustache singing it in drag is ridiculous. She’s the madam of a brothel, not a drag queen, and the scene where Mother Goose forcibly kisses Tom became a farce in this new conception of the role. As casting director, this was clearly Hannigan’s idea and not that of Fellbom. She could easily have had Kate Howden, who sings Baba the Turk, perform this role as well since those two characters never appear together in the opera. Mind you, I don’t object to homosexuality in an opera if it fits; if I did, I’d never think Britten’s Death in Venice a great opera, but Mother Goose is simply not a gay character, thus this part of the production is nonsensical, akin to casting a eunuch as Kundry when she seduces Parsifal. As a matter of fact, it is Baba the Turk who is an androgynous and subtly homoerotic figure, a woman with a beard and moustache.

What I particularly liked about the performance, as I did in the Las Vegas Rake, was the performance of the Anne Trulove. Patoulidou’s voice is not quite as honeyed in tone as that of Laura Claycomb, but both conveyed utter sincerity and concern for Tom in their portrayals of the role, and for a Greek soprano who speaks the language with an accent, Patoulidou’s English diction is really quite good. I’ve heard many an American and British soprano who could take lessons from her in this respect. Also, Hannigan’s conducting of this aria was absolutely superb, with Stravinsky’s crisp rhythms practically bouncing off the ceiling. In his Act II aria, Morgan’s voice became very tight and was painful to hear. And again, lots of arm-waving and face-making.

When we first see Baba, her face is completely covered by a long veil, which she only removes during the ensuing choral scene. She has a beard but no moustache. Kate Howden, who sings the part, has a fine mezzo voice but, although she goes to great pains to over-enunciate the final syllables of her words, I couldn’t understand a single one of them except for her final line in Act III, “The next time you see Baba / You shall pay!.” Was she perhaps singing in Turkish? Unfortunately, at this point in Act II my review copy of the DVD started to stick, meaning that both audio and video stopped and started at whim. I got to hear a bit of the ensuing Baba-Tom scene, but nothing more would play beyond that point in Act II. I had to re-insert the DVD once more and start at the beginning of Act II, which played fine. Our Sellem, Ziad Nehme, is quite good vocally although he, too, moves around too much. I guess St. Vitus’ Dance is going around the tenor community.

To recap: a very well-conducted performance with, in my view, four emerging stars in the making, those being Patoulidou, Ward, Rosenius and even Howden if she learns to sing clearer English. You may like Morgan’s tight, dry tenor voice more than I did, but to my ears he’s nothing more than a decent comprimario who moves around and makes too many faces.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Meister Records Henze’s “Der Prinz von Homburg”

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HENZE: Der Prinz von Homburg / Štefan Margita, ten (Elector Friedrich Wilhelm); Helene Schneiderman, mezzo (The Electress); Vera-Lotta Böcker, sop (Princess Natalie); Robin Adams, bar (Field Marshall Dörfling); Michael Ebbecke, bar (Prince Friedrich of Homburg); Friedemann Röhlig, bs (Col. Obrist Kottwitz); Moritz Kallenberg, ten (Count Hohenzollen); Staatsorchester Stuttgart; Cornelius Meister, cond / Capriccio C5405

cover Classical MomentsComparison: Eberhard Büchner, ten (Friedrich Wilhelm); Susan Bickley, mezzo (The Electress); Mariannne Haggänder, sop (Princess Natalie of Orange); Robert Bork, bar (Field Marshall Dörfling); François Le Roux, bar (Prince Friedrich of Homburg); Alexander Malta, bass (Col. Obrist Kottwitz); Martin Zysset, ten (Count Hohenzollen); Royal Flemish Opera Chorus & Orch.; Bernhard Kontarsky, cond / Classical Moments  (live: Antwerp, March 18, 1995, available as downloadable MP3 files on Amazon or for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE or on Spotify).

Here’s a real rarity: a studio CD recording of Hans Werner Henze’s 1958 opera Der Prinz von Homburg, set to a libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann which was based on an 1811 play by Heinrich von Kleist. Essentially, the play and the opera are anti-German militarism, which is one reason why Kleist faced major problems of his own in 1811 just as Henze and Bachmann did in 1958. The opera was not premiered until two years later, and has never become a repertoire staple.

One thing I found interesting is that Karl Büchner’s play Woyzeck, on which Alban Berg’s famous opera was based, was also written, or at least started (Büchner left the play incomplete at the time of his death in 1837), is also anti-military. Apparently there was a trend among German playwrights of the early 19th century against their country’s militarism. Unlike Wozzeck, Der Prinz von Homburg has very seldom been recorded. The first issue was actually on a DVD by Arthaus Musik, a 1994 performance conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch featuring François de la Roux as Prince Friedrich, Mari Anne Häggander as Natalie, and William Cochran and Helga Dernesch as the Elector and Electress. The second was the “pirate” CD release by Classical Moments in 2013 of the 1995 Belgian performance listed above. Thus, this is the opera’s first official commercial release on CD.

As Karen R. Achberger wrote in an academic article on the opera,[1]

Although Bachmann declared that it was her intention to leave the original “so unbeschädigt wie möglich [as undamaged as possible],” she has, by reducing Kleist’s work by two-thirds, produced an opera libretto which is far from being a mere miniature of the original drama. Bachmann insisted, naively or cunningly, that in reducing the text she had not altered its meaning by stressing any particular interpretation or by eliminating the ambiguities of the original. She believed it was the function of the music, not of the libretto, to clarify the spirit of the play.

Those, then, who have read my recent article on The Problem With the Met—And All Opera Companies will understand in part what Bachmann was referring to, yet in a sense Bachmann was wrong. As I see it, the function of music in an opera is not necessarily to clarify the drama but rather to support the emotions and conflicts of the principal characters through sound in a way that mirrors the emotion without clarifying the text. For instance, Beethoven’s dramatic arias Ah, perfido! and Abscheulischer do not necessarily clarify the drama so much as they mirror the character’s emotions at the time. That is all music can do. As many famous conductors have said, the notes themselves mean nothing more than the notes as you hear them. If one were to hear Beethoven’s Ah, perfido without knowing the words, for instance, he or she wouldn’t have a clue what the dramatic situation described by the aria was about. The same is as true of Iago’s “Credo un in Dio crudel,” the only part of Verdi’s Otello that has no counterpart in Shakespeare’s play, or in fact any portion of this Henze opera.

Bachmann and Henze, 1965

Bachmann and Henze, 1965

Bachmann was a bit of an oddball in addition to being a brilliant writer. She was addicted to barbiturates, a habit which directly led to her death. Having failed to extinguish her cigarette, it set fire to her bedroom while she was sleeping. When she was rushed to the hospital, the doctors who treated here were unaware of her habit and gave her medications that interacted with the barbiturates, directly leading to her death. According to Wikipedia,

Bachmann’s literary work focuses on themes like personal boundaries, establishment of the truth, and philosophy of language, the latter in the tradition of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Many of her prose works represent the struggles of women to survive and to find a voice in post-war society. She also addresses the histories of imperialism and fascism, in particular, the persistence of imperialist ideas in the present. Fascism was a recurring theme in her writings.

The plot of the opera is as follows:

Act I
The opera takes place in 1675 at Fehrbellin and Berlin. The Prince of Homburg is in a dream-like state on the eve of the Battle of Fehrbellin in the castle park. He winds a laurel wreath and thinks he’s already the winner. The Elector watches him first, then takes the wreath from his hand, wraps his necklace around it and hands it to his niece Natalie. She backs away when the prince steps up to her and says: “Natalie, my girl, my bride”. He reaches for her, but can only hold her glove. The prince is confused and tells Hohenzollern what he saw in his dream just before. Field Marshal Dörfling issues the orders for the upcoming battle against the Swedes. So the prince should only intervene in the battle when the elector gives the order for this through an officer. The prince is inattentive, thinking all the time about Natalie and the upcoming aftermath.

The prince watches the battle from a hill. When the victory was already looming, he gave the signal to attack, although no directive from the elector had arrived. The scene darkens; an orchestra interlude interprets the further course of the battle. After it has grown light again, Natalie and the Elector appear. They are informed about the victory won, but also about the death of the elector. Homburg assures the women of his support, whereupon Natalie clings to him with confidence. Suddenly they learn that the elector is still alive. He had just swapped his horse with that of a subordinate. He pronounces the death penalty on anyone who intervened in the fight. To their general dismay, the prince is taken away.

Act II
Hohenzollern visits Homburg in prison and informs him that the court martial has given him the death sentence. The prince does not want to resign and trusts in the elector’s grace. Hohenzollern points out that Natalie should be married to the King of Sweden as a pledge of peace. Homburg suddenly realizes the seriousness of his situation. On Hohenzollern’s advice, Homburg is given to the Elector. On the way he passes a freshly dug grave, which he thinks is meant for him. He assures the Elector that he is only asking for his life and is even willing to give up Natalie.

For her part, Natalie goes to the Elector and asks for mercy for her beloved. If Homburg makes a statement that he considers the judgment to be unjustified, the prince will pardon him. The prince does not want to know anything about it. Natalie has ordered the Orange Regiment, which she heads, to Berlin. The officer corps comes to the elector and asks for mercy for the prince, but Homburg declares that he is ready to stand up for his failures.

Act III
After Homburg was taken away, the elector asked the officers if they could trust the prince again. They reply this in the affirmative, whereupon the elector tears up the death sentence. After a lengthy interlude with the orchestra, you see the prince awaiting death in the same place in the garden where he was in the first act. The elector and his entourage approaches him. Natalie presses the laurel wreath on his head. The promises of the dream face have become reality.

In general, I found this to be the most interesting of Henze’s opera scores. Taking the orchestral music by itself, it flows and develops exceedingly well. The problem that many traditional opera lovers will face in listening to it is the strophic quality of the vocal lines, which only occasionally tend towards lyricism, with the tenors getting the best music among the male participants. Count Hohenzollern gets an arietta in the first act (“Ein schöner Tag, so wahr ich leben”) that combines lyricism with serrated lines a la Stravinsky. Although I was able to procure a synopsis, however, a complete libretto remained elusive for me, so unfortunately I can’t tell how well Henze matched his music to Bachmann’s text except in terms of the rhythm of the words themselves.

I also liked the orchestral interlude in the first act depicting the battle scene; it has a stark, militaristic sound while juxtaposing two to three different lines of music in differing rhythms against one another. Of course, I realize that most opera listeners are not musicians or musical in any real sense and thus have little or no appreciation for such intricacies, and without overtly melodic lines, arias or high notes, they are apt to dismiss this opera as noisy rubbish. That is their problem, not mine and, hopefully, not yours. There is also a surprisingly lyrical duet for Natalie and Hohenzollern in the first act that I found very attractive.

Listening to this recording and comparing it to the 1995 performance available for free streaming online, one notes both similarities and differences. The primary differences are in the pacing and shaping of the music. Kontarsky conducts it in a very linear, sharply defined reading that allows no luftpausen or “breathing room” in the music. It is also a much faster performance, the first act clocking in around 39 minutes compared to Meister’s 43 and the second and third acts totaling 57 minutes compared to Meister’s 64. From a recording perspective, the Kontarsky performance has quite a bit of natural hall reverb around the voices whereas the singers and orchestra in the Meister recording are recorded a bit more clearly and professionally. Although I liked both, I found myself preferring Meister’s shaping of the score, which in addition to being a bit slower, allowing for an easier absorption of Henze’s spiky, atonal music, is also more flowing and lyrical. On the other hand—and this is important as well—some of the singers in the Meister performance have infirm voices while those in the Kontarsky performance do not. In the opening scene, for instance, where you hear the female voices singing together in the background, the assortment of wobbles they have mitigates against a good vocal blend whereas the singers in the Kontarsky performance are as solid as a rock. Thus I find myself torn between the two performances, and to be honest Der Prinz von Homburg is the kind of music where having firm voices is important, therefore I must come down in favor of the Kontarsky recording over this one, as much as I like Meister’s pacing and shaping of the score.

So that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 12, Nos. 3/4, 1979

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Osmo Vänskä’s Fine Mahler Seventh

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 / Minnesota Orch., Osmo Vänskä, cond / Bis SACD-2386

Osmo Vänskä is a good, solid conductor whose performances follow the score and nothing but. By and large, they have no details of interpretation that really stand out to the listener; generally speaking, one cannot compared his Mahler to that of Klaus Tennstedt, Jascha Horenstein or Rafael Kubelik, thus I was curious to hear how he handled Mahler’s quirkiest score, one which many critics believe needs a spitfire interpretation in order to make its mark.

Surprisingly, he does very well indeed—in fact, better, in my view, than Simon Rattle or Claudio Abbado, whose Mahler Sevenths have drawn raves from the critics.

Perhaps this is because, although Vänskä gives you no more than what is in the score, he gives you no less either; and, unlike Rattle or Abbado, who had their own idea of how the music should go (ditto Leonard Bernstein), he doesn’t take it upon himself to distort certain phrases in a symphony that already leans towards the grotesque.

Take, for instance, the first movement, possibly the most grotesque in the entire symphony. Without over-italicizing phrases, Vänskä leaves nothing to chance. Whenever the music takes a strange turn, he is there to support that bizarre phrase and make it fit into the whole. Also, unlike some other conductors, he does not flatten out the sometimes “punchy” dramatic gestures, but allows them to make their point and then move on to the next phrase or phrases. In a sense, this reading of the Seventh Symphony is not unlike Otto Klemperer’s excellent recording of the Second, which also leaves no stone unturned yet does not exaggerate anything. The difference is that there are numerous outstanding performances of the Second which supersede Klemperer’s reading, most notably those of Zubin Mehta with the New York Philharmonic (my favorite stereo or digital recording) and Bruno Walter’s stupendous live performance of the late 1940s with Maria Cebotari and Rosette Anday as soloists.

Moreover, Vänskä brings one feature to this performance of the Seventh that not everyone does, and that is a certain “weight” of orchestral sound. Of course, some of this is clearly the work of Bis’ engineers and the marvelous SACD sonics, although I unfortunately had to review this disc via downloads which do not really have all of the SACD coding that is put into the physical CD, but to hear what Vänskä does with the Minnesota Orchestra is mind-boggling. This orchestra plays as well as any big-name orchestra anywhere on earth today; every section is well-balanced, the orchestra is equally balanced as a whole, and there is plenty of “bite” in the strings, brass and winds to offset the heaviness of the basses and celli.

As an admirer of the great live performance of this symphony that Rafael Kubelik left us with the New York Philharmonic, I have to say that the first Nachtmusik struck me as a less detailed and energetic, but as compensation Vänskä gives us far greater unity of structure. To some extent, this is similar to the way Arturo Toscanini always conducted the last movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, always with energy but refusing to “whip up” certain passages (particularly the finale) in order to concentrate on bringing out the structure. He also does not lack for atmosphere (again, thanks to the sonics) in the passage with the solo French horn and the cowbells in the background.

Vänskä misses nothing in the long and often weird-sounding “Scherzo,” but here I missed some of the maniacal approach that Kubelik and even Rattle brought to it. Not a dull performance by any means, and the conductor brings out certain details in the orchestration that other miss, just not quite as exciting as I would have liked. Yet he makes up for this by conducting what is the most seductive performance I’ve ever heard of the second Nachtmusik, catching the jaunty rhythms perfectly, and the “Rondo – Finale” has all the energy you could want.

In short, a valuable addition to the Mahler catalog because it gives shape and form to a work highly admired by Schoenberg. In several respects, the way Vänskä conducts this almost makes it sound like a lyrical work sandwiched between the highly dramatic Sixth and the almost super-ecstatic Eighth which, despite its grotesque elements, is probably just what Mahler intended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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A Tribute to Gabriel Bacquier

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GABRIEL BACQUIER IN MEMORIAM / MOZART: Don Giovanni: Finch’han dal vino; Deh, vieni alla finestra / Aix-en-Provence Orchestra; Alberto Erede, cond (live: 1960) / MOZART: Le nozze de Figaro: Hai già vinta la causa! / Paris Opéra Orch; Sir Georg Solti, cond (live: 1973) / MOZART: Così fan Tutte: Tutti accusan le donne / Francisco Araiza, ten (Ferrando); Knut Skram, bar (Guglielmo); Aix-en-Provence Orch; Sir Charles Mackerras, cond (live: 1977) / GLUCK: Orphée et Eurydice: J’ai perdu mon Eurydice / Teatro Colon Buenos Aires Orch.; Jean Fournet, cond (live: 1966) / OFFENBACH: Les Contes d’Hoffmann: Voyons, pour Hoffmann…Dans le roles; Allez! Pour te livrer…Scintille, diamante / Teatro Colon Orch.; Peter Maag, cond (live: 1970) / BIZET: Les pêcheurs des perles: Au fond du temple saint; L’orage se calmé…O Nadir, tender ami / Alain Vanzo, ten (Nadir); Orchestre Radio-Lyrique; Manuel Rosenthal, cond (1959) / POULENC: Dialogue des Carmélites: Le carrosse…la foule…pardonnez-moi / Teatro Colon Orch.; Jean Fournet, cond (live: 1965) / ROSSINI: Guglielmo Tell: Resta immobile / Teatro Colon Orch.; Fernando Previtali, cond (live: 1966) / VERDI: La Traviata: Di provenza / Teatro Colon Orch.; Juan Emilio Martini, cond (live: 1965) / VERDI: Otello: Vanne…Credo un in Dio crudel / Paris Opéra Orch.; Sir Georg Solti, cond (live: 1976) / PUCCINI: Tosca: Tosca, divina, la mano mia…Tre sbirri, una carrozza / Gwyneth Jones, sop (Tosca); Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orch.; Sir Georg Solti, cond (live: 1974) / Opera Depot OD 11924-1, available HERE

Gabriel Bacquier, who died on May 13 of this year, four days short of his 94th birthday, was not just a French baritone or even just the greatest French baritone of his time. He was one of the real giants of 20th-century art, a man as important to the evolution of opera as we know it today as were Feodor Chaliapin, Maria Callas and Jon Vickers.

I heard Bacquier several times on Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts but only saw him in person twice, as Scarpia in Tosca (opposite Teresa Zylis-Gara) and as Fra Melitone in La Forza del Destino—the same production of Forza, in fact, that featured Vickers as Don Alvaro. Unfortunately, they don’t appear on stage at the same time. That would have been something to see. Because what you got with Bacquier was, as is so often said of him, “the total package,” a rich, fine-sounding voice, good technique, but most important of all, interpretation that often bordered on the psychic. Those who saw his performances as the four villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann have never forgotten them to this day. As with Callas and Vickers, both of whom I saw in person, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. No matter what the role, he commanded the stage as if he owned it.

Yet although Bacquier kept his plangent, rich-sounding voice, which had a touch of the bass in it, into his fifties, it was not always under perfect control, either in person or on records. When you were watching him, you’d swear that it was the greatest baritone voice on earth, but then when you listened to an audio-only tape of the performance (and I’m talking now of the 1970s, which is when I saw and heard him most often) you noticed an uneven flutter at times and high notes that he just got to by the grace of God.

But not on this well-chosen CD of excerpts from some of Bacquier’s greatest, and some of his rarest, live performances recorded between 1959 and 1976. He is at his best in each of these, not just interpretively (we’ll get to that in a moment) but also technically. His voice is in great shape almost consistently throughout this entire live recital.

From a vocal standpoint, I was startled to hear what great vocal control he had in that 1959 Don Giovanni, but also how well he sang in the 1976 Otello and several other stops along the way. In addition, the sheer diversity of roles and music will surprise you; he sang everything from the Classical era of Mozart and Gluck to the Verismo era of Puccini, with several stops in between. Just about the only composer whose music he never touched, but should have, was Wagner.

As you go through this listening experience, you will hear things you’ve never heard before in arias and scenes you thought you knew well. Chief among these is Orfeo’s “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice”; never in my life have I heard a more heartfelt performance of this aria, and Bacquier does not overdo anything. He just gives you Orfeo’s grief, plain and simple, in the music. Equally impressive to me was his surprisingly touching “Di provenza” from La Traviata, his warm and friendly-sounding Zurga in Les Pêcheurs des Perles, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, his moving and dramatic reading of the Marquis’ monologue from Dialogues des Carmélites, an opera I heartily dislike. Bacquier’s performance had me riveted. It almost goes without saying that he gives you a superb “Credo” from Otello; oh, how I wish that he had sung this role at the Met opposite Vickers, but it always seemed as though Vickers was paired with Louis Quilico’s Iago at the New York house.

The sound quality of these excerpts, of course, is radio-quality mono but nearly all of them are quite clear and decently-recorded. In addition to the above delights, you also get a chance to hear young Alain Vanzo as Nadir and Gwyneth Jones at her peak as Tosca. The conductors, not identified on the album notes (but they are in my header), are nearly all among the finest of their time.

It’s a shame that Bacquier never seemed to be a “regular” Met artist, however. He seemed to just show up now and then to sing in a couple of operas for their run and then disappear for a couple of years or more, but when he was there, people flocked to see him. Not all of his studio recordings are as good as these live performances, particularly the studio Don Giovannni with Joan Sutherland or the studio Guillaume Tell with Caballé and Gedda (nor was Gedda very good on that Tell), but in this live recital you really do get nearly “the full package” of Bacquier’s art.

And here is the best part: for one week only, it’s available as a FREE DOWNLOAD at Opera Depot! Just click on the link in the header and it will take you to the home page where you can download it for free if you just sign up to get email notifications. It’s a small price to pay for this kind of artistry. Believe me!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Fernández Plays Zimmermann

cover - BIS-2495

ZIMMERMANN: 3 Early Piano Pieces. Extemporale. Capriccio. Enchiridon I. Enchiridon Anhang. Enchiridon II. Konfiguration (Stücke für clavier) / Eduardo Fernández, pno / Bis SACD-2495

Bit by little bit, the music of Bernd Alois Zimmermann is getting recorded. Some of the recordings, alas, are limited-edition issues that are difficult to find, but here we have his complete output for piano on a Bis disc. And happily, the pianist is Eduardo Fernández, whose recording of Albéniz’ Ibéria I consider the best ever made and whose Scriabin Preludes I have also praised on this blog.

Interestingly, Zimmermann’s piano pieces begin very far back in his composing history, the first set of three small pieces dating from 1939 (when he was only 21 years old) and 1946. They are surprisingly late-romantic works with modernist overtones, much like some of the early-to-mid-period piano pieces of Scriabin (but not in a Chopinesque style). The composer used some modal harmony here and an occasional whole-tone series in short passages, but the music could pass for any number of 1920s German composers, although Fernández plays them with spirit. My cat Fluffy liked them! The third piece is the liveliest as well as the most adventurous, using a quirky minor scale.

The five pieces that make up Extemporale, the notes tell us, were also student pieces; Zimmermann’s studied were interrupted twice by his being forced to fight in the Nazi German Army during the war, which he detested. These, too, are essentially tonal, and in fact the opening Praeludium is a slow-moving piece somewhat related to some of Satie’s music. It is in the short (1:16) Invention (Allegro) that we first encounter the odd juxtaposition of clashing harmonies that was to characterize some of Zimmermann’s later music; it almost sounds like Alkan on acid. The Siciliano, though also slow, has a more interesting harmonic underpinning and is less predictable than the Praeludium. The chromatic movement in this piece seems to be continually falling. The Bolero is also a bit quirky, but not too much, but the Finale is the most interesting piece since it rises upwards in an unusual manner before coming to a brilliant finish.

The 1946 Capriccio is the first extended piece Zimmermann wrote for piano, running almost 11 ½ minutes, and although it is also quite tonal it is also more interesting rhythmically as he throws contrasting rhythms between the two hands. It is also more interesting harmonically as it continually shifts between tonality, bitonality and modal chords. This, for me, makes it more original than most of the preceding works. At the 5:06 mark, he indulges in some very strange harmonic movement indeed, and this continues for some time. A bit later, he as the right hand play very high bitonal chime chords over almost a lullaby melody played by the left. But then, the piece becomes much more episodic. and not in a good way.

The Enchiridon pieces of 1949-1952 are, at long last, more mature and interesting works. Here Zimmermann was exploring very close chords, what I refer to as “crushed” chords, using parallel harmonies that never quite mesh or resolve, while still maintaining a lyric line in the right hand. And yet some of these pieces, such as the Larghetto in the first set, essentially no nowhere.

With the Konfigurationen of 1956 we finally reach music of Zimmermann’s maturity, although ironically he had worked on this little collection for 17 years. This was clearly where he was headed, but apparently in 1939, when he started it, he wasn’t sure if this was a direction he wanted to go in.

As much as I like Zimmermann’s later music, I found most of the works in this set tedious to listen to. They are valuable only to researchers as early examples of where the young composer was headed, but he clearly couldn’t set a style for himself until he discovered the “musical pluralism” of the mid-to-late 1950s. He was a late bloomer as a composer, and these early growths are not even flowers; they’re just underdeveloped, partially open buds. The performances and the recorded sound are very good, but too much of this music sounds static. I compared Fernández’ versions of these works to the recordings by Andreas Skouras on the Neos label, and although Skouras is a bit livelier in tempo and phrasing, the music really doesn’t sound that much more interesting.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Problem with the Met—and All Opera Companies

Pears Death in Venice

Peter Pears standing in front of the Metropolitan Opera in October 1974. Photo by Victor Parker

Even before the Coronavirus caused the Metropolitan Opera to shut down early, they were hemorrhaging money. Of course, the appearance of the virus from hell didn’t help matters much, at witness this article from Bloomberg published on March 26, 2020:

The Metropolitan Opera, one of New York City’s cultural icons, had its credit rating cut to junk after canceling its season because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Moody’s Investors Service downgraded $89 million of the opera’s taxable municipal debt two levels to Ba1 and revises its outlook to negative, indicating it could be dropped again. The opera, one of the largest cultural institutions in the U.S., has launched a campaign to raise $60 million to offset box office losses.

But it’s been bad for years, as witness this December 14, 2012 article from the same news source:

New York City’s Metropolitan Opera Association, which faces growing operating losses, sold $100 million worth of debt this week in its first such offer since it was founded more than a century ago.

But what exactly led the Met to such perilous times? Anyone who has been following the foolish and oftimes idiotic leadership of its General Director, Peter Gelb, already knows the answer, but for the benefit of those who haven’t I will recap it for you.

When Gelb first took the reins of the Metropolitan in 2006, many in the New York area were worried because he had run Sony Classical into a mountain of debt prior to his arrival, but one of his first moves was actually a very smart one. He began showing live telecasts of Met performances on a large screen in Times Square, where passersby could stop and watch a few scenes, one whole act or an entire performance of Madama Butterfly or whatever was the fare of the day. This was pure genius, as it brought opera to the masses in a way that hadn’t been attempted since the first nationwide radio broadcasts of the early 1930s.

Gelb then followed this up with another inspired act, leasing high-definition live telecasts of Saturday afternoon Met performances to selected movie theaters around the tri-state area at ticket prices considerably lower than those operagoers in the front rows paid. This, too, drummed up interest and some business.

But then Gelb went overboard, as he had at Sony, and killed the goose that laid the golden egg. He began overspending lavishly on productions, throwing money around as if it grew on trees. One small but telling example was in the Met’s production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, where he insisted on pure silk poppies to be made and set up in a field scene. Unfortunately, the sycophantic music critics agreed with his unwarranted wasting of money. Anthony Tommasini, writing in the New York Times, basically said, Why not? After all, this is the Met, and patrons have come to expect only the best.

Unfortunately, his period of wasteful spending coincided with the massive recession of post-2008, when millions of Americans lost their homes, their investment portfolios and even their measly 401Ks that they looked forward to sustaining them in their golden years. Gelb’s reaction to this was not to cut back, but to raise ticket prices exorbitantly. Even long-time subscribers balked and refused to buy as many tickets as they had in the past. Some stopped subscribing altogether.

And when the loyal but working class opera patrons who depended on inexpensive seats in the Family Circle and the nosebleed seats saw their ticket prices double or triple, they stopped going, too. Gelb’s reaction was to say that if you couldn’t afford a ticket for the Met, he didn’t want you as a patron. That, too, was a really brilliant strategy.

In addition to all this, Gelb caved in to the pressure of Regietheater and started mounting expensive but bizarre productions that turned off the older crowd, and once again he dug his heels in and refused to retract his decision. On top of that, he booked lavish productions for new operas that were essentially awful music, such as The First Emperor, The Tempest and Kaja Saariaho’s much-ado-about-nothing opera, L’Amour de Loin. Ticket sales dropped even more.

Yet when one compares Gelb’s antics to that of major opera houses worldwide, he is not out of step with the crowd. Great Britain’s Covent Garden, the Paris Opéra and Opéra-Comique, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Vienna State Opera, Salzburg, Berlin Opera etc. etc. etc. all do the same things. The difference is that, because the U.S.A. pays for most of these countries’ militaries, they can afford to have their opera houses state-subsidized…yet even they are being run into the ground.

I’ve carped so much about Regietheater productions on this blog, first in my May 2016 article Regietheater: The Ruination of Opera and then in my more academic and perhaps better-reasoned version from February 2019, Eurotrash Revisited: The Academic Version, that I simply won’t go into that topic again. You can read my views there. What both articles go over is a point I have brought out over and over and over again in my reviews of contemporary and somewhat older 20th-century operas that are great, and that is this: Most opera directors aren’t musicians and couldn’t tell a good modern opera from a piece of trash if you hit them over the head with the score, and worse yet, opera audiences are still so tied up in the Cult of the Singer that they only want to hear their Golden Circle of 80 or so operas by dead composers who wrote in a tonal style with melodies they can hum and lots of high notes.

To a certain extent, I place a bit of the blame on Arturo Toscanini. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Italy as well as other countries were all still interested in NEW operas, but in 1902 Toscanini revived Verdi’s Il Trovatore at La Scala. The audience was incensed, not just because Trovatore was an older opera from a half-century earlier but also because it, and its tunes, had become hackneyed popular culture symbols for opera at its corniest and least dramatic. The fact that Toscanini conducted it in a taut, exciting fashion and presented a cast of good singing actors who brought the drama to life re-established this work. But Toscanini lived to see this gesture of his backfire; when he presented the world premiere of his friend Arrigo Boito’s opera Nerone at La Scala in 1924, there was some ceremonial hoopla because Boito’s Mefistofeles was an established classic and the man himself considered to be a leading figure in Italian arts and letters, but after a few performances it petered out and audiences stopped coming. Yet Nerone is still a fine opera, both musically and dramatically, and one of those that deserves to be revived.

But of course I can’t and won’t place all of the blame on Toscanini. When he came to the Met he insisted on reviving the operas of Gluck, one of his (and my) favorite composers, but only got as far as Orfeo ed Euridice and Armide. The Orfeo production proved to be a semi-hit, but Armide died at the box office despite the big-name casting of soprano Olive Fremstad and tenor Enrico Caruso in leading roles.

We can also look to Germany and the fate that Richard Strauss’ Elektra suffered in its early years. At its premiere at the Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden on January 25, 1909, the audience was so stunned, baffled and frightened by the opera that they didn’t even applaud when it was over. Although Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the British premiere as early as 1910, it didn’t click with the public for several years. The American premiere didn’t take place until October 1931 when Fritz Reiner led a cast including Anna Roselle, Margarete Matzenauer and Nelson Eddy, and the Met premiere didn’t take place until more than a year later, in December 1932. Despite what you may hear about New York being a hotbed of musical and theatrical innovation, it just ain’t so. I lived in northern New Jersey for the first 26 years of my life, went to the Met fairly often in those years, and saw Met audiences applaud tepidly for such genuine masterpieces as Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice (which, after that 1974 production, didn’t return to the Met for 20 years). I even know some still-living opera lovers who won’t even go to see a performance of the same composer’s Peter Grimes, another genuine masterpiece.

Strauss had to atone for Elektra by writing Der Rosenkavalier, an opera of such rubbishy music that I can’t even stomach to listen to it without getting nauseous, in 1912, and the wild enthusiasm of this opera led him to write similarly rubbishy operas in the years that followed. His only late opera that I consider to be a true masterpiece was Daphne, which premiered in 1938—but the first American performance didn’t take place until 22 years later, a concert performances given not at the Met but at Town Hall in New York in October 1960 with Gloria Davy as Daphne, Florence Kopleff as Gaia and Jon Crain as Apollo—none of them really star names—under the direction of Thomas Scherman. To this date, it has never been performed at the Met.

Nor have any number of great operatic masterpieces from the past. Go to the Metropolitan Opera’ online Archives and look them up. You will search in vain for such operas as Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Cherubini’s Medée, Spontini’s Fernand Cortez, and any number of great 20th-century operas such as Die Soldaten. The last time Spontini’s La Vestale was performed was in 1927 with Rosa Ponselle, and Gluck’s Armide has received only two performances since Toscanini last conducted it in 1912, and that was not at the Met but at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater of the Juilliard School in 2012. Indeed, the Met is so reactionary that they won’t even perform Luciano Berio’s finale to Puccini’s Turandot, which is infinitely better both musically and dramatically than the ending that Franco Alfano wrote in 1926.

Compare this to the Italy of the period 1950-1960. During that decade, for whatever reason, opera houses around the country presented an incredible mixture of outstanding older operas with the tried-and-true favorites. Go through the archives of various opera houses around Italy during those years, and you’ll find a surprising amount of neglected gems having been mounted, including Spontini’s Fernand Cortez and La Vestale, Cherubini’s Medea (in Italian) and Gli Abencerrogi, Mussorgsky’s Khovantshchina (another opera still never performed at the Met), Prokofiev’s War and Peace, even Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and The Rake’s Progress. Nor were these “throwaway” productions with no-name casts; on the contrary, they included some of the biggest names in Italian opera at the time: Renata Tebaldi in Cortez, Maria Callas in Vestale and Medea, Anita Cerquetti in Gli Abencerrogi, Mario Petri, Mirto Picchi and Irene Companéez in Khovantshschina and Picchi again in Stravinsky. Unfortunately, this period ended not with a bang but a whimper, and before long Il Trovatore and Tosca were back to rule the roost.

And where, oh were are Carl Orff’s great Gisei – Das Opfer or Antigone, Montemezzi’s L’Amor dei Tre Re, Othmar Schoenck’s Penthiselea, Szymanowski’s Krol Roger, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé, Martinů’s Ariane or The Voice in the Forest, Hermann Reutter’s Die Brücke von San Luis Rey, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten and so many more? Collecting dust somewhere. But you have to remember, as far as the Met is concerned, that we are dealing with an institution designed not as a promoter of great musical art but, from its very conception, as a showcase for Da World’s Greatest Singers. Aside from the fact that the Met was one of the first opera houses in the world to perform Wagner’s Parsifal once the initial copyright expired (although Cosima Wagner, the old witch, tried to stop it), most of the new operas performed at the Met in the decades since have not been great masterpieces or even the most interesting of the new and experimental operas. One such exception, for which we must again thank Arturo Toscanini, was Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, which he premiered at the New York house on March 29, 1911 with an all-star cast including Geraldine Farrar, Leon Rothier and, in the 1912 cast, Margarete Matzenauer as the Nurse. It ran a total of seven performances in 1911-12 and has not been heard there since. Yet the garbage that was brought to the Met in the period included an enormous amount of ephemeral nonsense, such as Frederick Converse’s The Pipe of Desire, Victor Herbert’s Natoma, an absolutely dreadful Respighi opera called La campana sommersa (in which baritone Giuseppe de Luca played a water goblin, dressed up something like the Creature from the Black Lagoon), Gruenberg’s trashy The Emperor Jones (interesting plot, terrible music), Reginald de Koven’s Robin Hood (a tremendous hit because it included the jaunty but forgettable ditty, “Brown October ale,” once sung by schoolchildren from coast to coast), Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount and two operas by Deems Taylor, The King’s Henchman and Peter Ibbetson, which combined had more Met performances than that of any other American composer. If it hadn’t been for James Levine, I’m sure that the Met would never have had any productions of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini or Les Troyens, let alone Berg’s Lulu or Schoenberg’s Erwärtung, all operas that he pushed for during his decades-long stint as music director.

You have to understand that opera is drama in music. It is not drama set to hummable, bouncy tunes as a rule. It got its start in the Italian court system of the early 17th century with works by Jacopo Peri (Dafne, now considered to have been the very first opera ever written), Claudio Monteverdi and, late in the century, Henry Purcell. But there was already a decline in attitude between the period of Monteverdi and that of Purcell: except for his Dido and Aeneas, which has some very dramatic music in it, most of his operas consisted of pretty tunes warbled by pretty voices, some with plenty of Baroque folderol in them. It was the death knell of drama in opera for the most part. Even in Handel’s few really dramatic works, such as Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda and Samson, the sublime rubbed shoulder with more Baroque folderol. People started coming to see and hear the singers go through their vocal acrobatics, not to see and hear drama in music. Then came Gluck with his reforms, and Gluck influenced Salieri, Le Sueur, Cherubini, Méhul, Spontini and eventually Berlioz, but Berlioz was the end of this particular dramatic school of opera. The Bel Canto movement, which returned to dazzling runs and trills in music that wasn’t even as well written as the music of Handel, had taken over.

Giuditta Pasta, now considered to have been the first soprano to reinstill drama in operatic singing, was by no means a Maria Callas. Although she sang with great intensity, she had a terrible ear for pitch and was almost consistently flat, and in every opera she ever sang—even Norma, which Bellini wrote for her—she always threw in Rossini’s aria “Di tanti palpiti” because it was her calling-card and people wanted to hear her go through the coloratura runs and trills. Nor was the case of drama in opera much improved even in Wagner’s early years of success. The great German composer wrote thus, typically over-ornate in his language but right on the mark nonetheless:

(Those who) endeavor to force her narrow forms upon the Drama as of sole validity, this Opera-music has exposed their wretched stiffness and unyieldingness, till they have grown past any bearing with. In her mania for seeming rich and many-sided, she has sunk, as a musical art, to the utmost spiritual penury, been driven to borrowing from the most material Mechanism. In her egoistic feint of affording an exhaustive dramatic Characteristique by sheerly musical means, she has ended by losing all power of natural Expression, and won instead the doubtful honours of a contortionist and mountebank.

As I said at the beginning, that the error in the Operatic art-genre consisted in “that a Means of expression (Music) had been made the end, while the End of expression (the Drama) had been made a means,”—so the heart of the illusion, and finally of that madness which has exposed the Operatic art-genre in its rankest un-naturalness to the ridicule of all, we must then denote:

that this means of Expression wanted of itself to prescribe the aim of Drama.

In several cases, however, Wagner was not damning the composers themselves but the presentation of their work. He happened to be a big fan of Vincenzo Bellini because of his uncanny ability to write long scenes with almost inexhaustible melodic lines, several of which were quite dramatic. In fact, he admired Norma so much that he even wrote an alternate aria for Oroveso which he presented to the role’s creator, Luigi Lablache, who admired it but saw no way he could insert it into the score without disturbing the musical structure of the act. Nonetheless, one understands his point.

One may find it hard to believe that Giuseppe Verdi, author of so many popular operas, held similar views despite the greater tunefulness of many of his operas, but he did. By his own admission, his “galley years” were spent trying to please the public, so much so that he found it difficult, when writing an opera which he felt put the drama first, to avoid the bouncy tunefulness which had become his trademark, but except for some lapses in judgment most of his scores for Macbeth, Nabucco and Attila tighten and focus on the dramatic kernel of the libretto. Yet even in Il Trovatore, often considered to be the last bel canto opera ever written, he was trying to convey a dramatic arc in the music despite the conventions of aria, ensemble, cabaletta, chorus etc. An online friend of mine who is a monstrous collector of opera recordings argues with me that Verdi, being a “man of the theater,” probably didn’t care how his operas were performed as long as they were performed, but if so then why did he ask his publisher, Ricordi, to sue performers who “distorted” his music with unwritten high notes, trills and other flotsam and jetsam? Ricordi refused because they wanted the royalties, but Verdi never condoned many of the high notes that we now consider part and parcel of some of his arias and duets, particularly “Di quella pira” from Il Trovatore which, if you check the score, has not one high C in it (not to mention “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, which does not go up to a high B at the end.) Eventually, Verdi got around this by writing music that was so through-composed that inserted high notes disrupted the musical flow, such as in Aida, Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra, the Requiem, Otello and Falstaff, but that still hasn’t stopped scurrilous performers from adding them. When tenor Placido Domingo, a good musician who clearly knew better, sang the title role of Otello in Vienna in 1976 under Carlos Kleiber, he added a high note at the end of the duet “Si, pel ciel.”

And let’s not even start with the late Joseph Kerman’s groundbreaking (many would say highly controversial) 1956 book, Opera as Drama, in which he riled thousands of opera lovers by referring to Puccini’s Tosca as a “shabby little shocker.”

Now, of course I enjoy a certain amount of the older operas and like hearing them now and again, but they certainly don’t make up my daily operatic diet. I would much rather listen to most of Gluck’s operas than most of Strauss’, and the partial list of modern works I gave earlier in this article indicate that I am always on the lookout for dramatically interesting works. And yes, this includes great earlier operas that fulfill my definition of good music that carries the drama, such as Charles-Simon Catel’s Les Bayadères and Sémiramis (a far greater work than Rossini’s nonsensical Semiramide) and Chabrier’s superb comic opera L’Etoile, which even Stravinsky called “a little gem.”

But just look at what the great singers of today are forced to perform over and over and over: the same old pap of the past. Even as great an artist as tenor Jonas Kaufmann is now locked into singing La Bohème and Les Contes d’Hoffmann—good operas in and of themselves, but clearly not works I want to hear every single year. And how are new singers judged by the public? Why, by how well they can sing the old stuff. Where are the Mirto Picchis of today? Hard to find. Only a few mavericks like sopranos Barbara Hannigan or Anu Komsi try to sing as much if not more contemporary music as the old stuff.

For me, a great opera house must find a balance between great works that are seldom if ever performed and the popular stuff that draws in the crowds, but in my entire life the Met has never been one of those opera houses. They pretty much stick to the tried and true, and when they do present a new opera, as I said earlier, it is generally something quite inferior. I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel to see a performance of Adès’ The Tempest, but I would surely tune in to hear one of the most underrated of all American operas, Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land—and that is a tonal work, albeit one without snappy tunes or high notes. This is the 21st century. It’s about time opera lovers grew up and realized that there’s a whole world of great works out there that they’ve never seen onstage, but should.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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A Visit With Urs Blöchinger Revisited

Urs Blochinger Revisited

HARRY DOESN’T MIND / BLÖCHINGER: Harry Doesn’t Mind. Adrenallini. Rudy the Pimp. I Love You – But Later. Kungusisches Arbeiterlied (Keiner Weiss Hinte, Wie er Vorne Dran Ist). Bhagwan Business. King Arthur Meets Hanns Eisler in Hollywood / Silvan Schmid, tpt; Lino Blöchinger, sxs; Sebastian Strinning, sxs/bs-cl; Beat Unternährer, tb; Christopher Baumann, pno; Neal Davis, bs; Dieter Ulrich, dm / Leo Records LR 885

Urs Blöchinger was a German free-jazz saxist who lived hard, burned the candles at both ends and took a blowtorch to the middle, dying in 1995 at the age of 41. This makeshift band, put together for this recording date, features Blöchinger’s son Lino on saxes along with a group of talented musicians playing tunes that he wrote.

The opening is truly bizarre, with whistle sounds and blurts and splats emanating from the instruments. The string bass plays a few notes, but the cacophony continues (even when piano and drums enter) for some time. Ever so slowly, the music coalesces until, at 2:04, we hear a slow, heavy repeated lick played over a tempo that slightly drags back on each beat, the band sounding like a drunken group of musicians playing at 3 in the morning.  There is an even briefer intermittent theme that serves as the B portion of the tune, then Lino Blöchinger begins his squealing and squawking on the tenor sax as the rhythm section goes berserk behind him. Little of it is sensible, but it is exciting as certainly pushes the envelope. At 5:01, a variation on the opening theme is heard, leading to a piano interlude by Christopher Baumann, then more of the ensemble as the theme is somewhat developed. A similarly splattered solo is then played by Beat Unternähnrer on trombone, in the second chorus of which pianist Baumann goes crazy behind him. Eventually, a series of double-time licks played by the trumpet and saxes come and go, slowing down once again as the theme is further developed. Most of the latter part of this track is played by the group as an ensemble. At 11:46 a regular beat, somewhat related to Latin music, establishes itself as an alto sax plays an excellent solo; I’m not sure if this is Blöchinger or Sebastian Strinning. We end with the same slow opening theme played as a coda.

Adrenallini is a fast-paced piece that also opens with some cacophony from the sax and bass clarinet. This becomes increasingly wilder until at 1:29, the strange, serrated theme appears, dying out on sustained notes, over which trumpeter Silvan Schmid plays a few licks, followed by the rhythm section. Schmid returns after a few bars to continue, now a bit more controlled, over it. The liner notes state that this piece was a tribute to Adrian Rollini, the great early-jazz bass sax, goofus, hot fountain pen and vibes player of the 1920s through the mid-‘40s, but it also states, erroneously, that Rollini “died after falling down a staircase – in delirium tremens!” This is simply not so. Rollini died in a hospital following an auto-related accident in the parking lot of the Green Turtle Inn at the Islamadora Key in Florida. According to Wikipedia,

He died after an 18-day stay in the hospital. According to the book, Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (2002), the author, M.D. Frederick J. Spencer (also a coroner) went back and analyzed Rollini’s death along with many other jazz greats, and discovered Rollini truly died of mercury poisoning. While in his 18-day stay, he had developed a resistance to feeding and so a glass tube had been inserted into his stomach. The tube was weighted with mercury and somehow the tube broke, exposing Rollini to mercury poisoning.

As I’ve said many times: Don’t trust doctors, particularly those in hospitals.

By track 3, it has become apparent that every piece on this album is to begin with cacophony. This time, in Rudy the Pimp, it doesn’t quiet down until well after the opening theme is heard around 1:21.At 1:50 we finally hear the real downbeat and we’re off to the races in a fast-paced, somewhat boogie-woogie sort of piece with a truly interesting melodic line and strange underlying harmony. I really liked this one; it has a great beat, an interesting line, and Schmid’s trumpet solo is truly outstanding. At 4:55 there’s also an interesting interlude played by the two reeds, with the trumpet joining them for the development. Baumann also contributes a somewhat hectic but interesting solo. This is a great piece.

I love You – But Later is, unusually for this sort of music, a ballad, but a very sophisticated one. The bitonal melodic line rises and falls stepwise, with brief, excited interludes played by the trumpet. Dieter Ulrich’s notes tell us that it “continually celebrates moments of inner collapse, working like self-interrogation or self-sabotage.” The music becomes much more frenetic when Lino Blöchinger enters on the tenor sax for a frantic solo, calming down when Strinning enters to duet with him on alto. Baumann also has an excellent solo on this one. There’s sort of a Mingus feel to this piece in its variegated sections that are pulled together by the musicians.

Kungusisches Arbeiterlied was one of Urs Blöchinger’s experiments in creating his own folklore inspired by Rumanian and Bulgarian folk music but informed with the sophistication of his own culture. This one does not start out too frenetic, but rather moves into an extended bass solo by Neal Davis before moving into a catchy but somewhat elusive melody in an irregular meter. Then we get the cacophony as the band explodes and goes berserk, with the two reeds in particular fighting it out between them as a duo. Then, at 4:05, the strange-but-catchy melody returns as the band plays as an ensemble for some time. This is a quintessentially German jazz piece, leaning on a quasi-mechanical beat, almost as if an automaton were playing it…sort of a jazz version of Kraftwerk. The subtitle, Keiner Weiss Hinte, Wie er Vorne Dran Ist, translates into English as Nobody knows backwards how he is in front.

Bhagwan Business opens with a drum solo, evolving into slowly-moving downward chromatics before simulating Indian music. This piece, the notes tell us, was Blöchinger’s reaction to the multimillion-dollar cult of Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh during the 1980s. Eventually the band really screams in protest to the Bhagwan’s religious scams, particularly trumpeter Schmid but also the others. Then, at 2:45, the music suddenly slows down and picks up a more recognizable beat. (Historical footnote: hounded out of America and sued on two continents, Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh later changed his name to Osho and began issuing books on enlightenment with totally different photos of himself on the covers. I know. I owned one though I was never a member of his cult.)

King Arthur Meets Hanns Eisler in Hollywood moves forward in a confused muddle of tempi and themes. This composition continues to change and morph as it goes along, using different themes as well as variants on previous themes, although there is an excellent alto sax solo that acts as an interlude, played over an unchanging C minor chord. Following this, there is an ensemble break, then a pretty wild bass clarinet solo, sounding a bit like Eric Dolphy on acid. The piano and bass clarinet then play a repeating motif in unison as the trombone goes wild in his solo and the rhythm section implodes beneath him. This is another excellent piece, in fact better than anything Hanns Eisler ever wrote.

Some of this music may baffle the listener; in places, it did me; but it will also challenge you and, in the end, I think you will gain respect for these musicians and what they have accomplished here. The music is clearly good enough overall to warrant your owning this disc and listening to it a few times to absorb all of what is going on here.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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