Category Archives: Music

The Washington Concert Opera at 30

Angela Meade, Vivica Genaux, Michele Angelini, Anthony Walker, Javier Arrey and Jonas Hacker at the Washington Concert Opera 30th Anniversary Concert. Photo by Don Lassell.

Angela Meade, Vivica Genaux, Michele Angelini, Antony Walker, Javier Arrey and Jonas Hacker at the Washington Concert Opera 30th Anniversary Concert. Photo by Don Lassell.

               The 30th anniversary concert of the Washington Concert Opera was delightful, from beginning to end. It gave substantial time in the spotlight to a vivid young bel canto tenor, Michele Angelini, and a powerful soprano with a large and enthusiastic following, Angela Meade. Also on the roster for this two-hour program of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini: mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, baritone Javier Arrey and the young tenor Jonas Hacker. The WCO’s music director, Antony Walker, now in his 15th season, conducted.

               Seasons like the current on in Washington make you appreciate the essential niche WCO fills. After a world-class Ring Cycle last year, the Washington National Opera isn’t offering much for serious opera lovers this time around. Its programming reflects the larger trend in the opera world, which increasingly throws its energies into the production of new works rather than the loving revival of rarities. New work is all to the good, but the dwindling of interesting historical repertoire is sad. The future, it seems, may consist of world premieres, plus “Carmen,” “Boheme” and “Traviata.”

               Sunday night’s selections were well chosen. The overture, from Rossini’s “La gazza ladra,” was scrappy but vigorous, and thank heavens it wasn’t the overture from “La forza del destino,” which has become seemingly obligatory at such events. Angelini’s opening aria, “Ah! Mes amis,” with its infamous high C’s was effortless, the high notes light and chirpy, but clear and on pitch and without a hint of strain. Angelini also made a strong case for hearing more of Boieldieu’s “La dame blanche.” I remember discovering it years ago on a recording with Rockwell Blake in the role of Georges, but not much liking the timbre Blake brought to the part. Angelini, however, makes Georges’ aria “Viens, gentille dame” a virtuoso showpiece of legato connections, sung with a comfortable, fluent, supported sound; and his pianissimo reprise of the melody at the end was dramatically spot on. Angelini also sang the single most impressive aria of the evening, “Intesi, ah! tutto intesi” from Rossini’s “Il turco in Italia.” He was thoroughly warmed up, entirely at ease, his coloratura fleet and flawless, and Rossini’s grand superfluity of notes were all perfectly packaged rhythmically and expressively.

               Angela Meade added vocal heft in the Act II Finale from Bellini’s “Il Pirata” and selections from Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” including the finale with Angelini as her hapless, horrified son. Meade’s bel canto is a different order of singing, weightier, vocally rounder, and more dependent on the later 19th century vocal thrills (floated top notes, sudden changes in dynamics, and the occasional display of oceanic force) than the coloratura bravura of Rossini. I found her strongest in the concluding scene from “Lucrezia Borgia,” perhaps because she created more of a sense of character, and tailored her singing, both musically and dramatically, to the presence of Angelini (and his performance in this scene was also one of his best moments of the evening, adding a greater sense of his full portfolio of stage skills).

               Vivica Genaux sang an impressive aria from Rossini’s “Maometto II” (“Non temer: d’un basso affetto”), with low tones that remind one of the particularly masculine, slightly nasal sound of Marilyn Horne in Rossini pants roles. Genaux was strongest in another duet from “Lucrezia Borgia,” again with Angelini.

                The discovery of the evening was the young tenor Jonas Hacker, currently studying in Philadelphia. Hacker sang the tenor line of the beloved male duet from Bizet’s “Les pecheurs de perles” with Arrey taking the baritone part. This is a chestnut, but was included on a bel canto program because it was sung at the first WCO performance of the Bizet opera in 1987. Hacker has an attractive voice, a steady technique and a flair for the simple elegant line. He began with an expository, narrative approach, and the duet unfolded as effective story telling rather than mere melodic indulgence. It was a short introduction to a young singer, but one that inspires hope of great things.


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Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey returns to Washington Concert Opera

               In the summer of 1965, the young Luciano Pavarotti went on tour in Australia with Joan Sutherland. He credited that time with the great soprano for some of the musical lessons essential to building his career. On Friday night, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey shared the stage with a young baritone and tenor, outclassing them both, yet also elevating their performance. Lindsey sang the title role of Donizetti’s “La Favorite” with the Washington Concert Opera, and was just as impressive and just as rapturously received as she when she appeared as Romeo in Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” in September 2014. But it was her larger impact on the whole performance that was most impressive. 

                    Lindsey’s voice isn’t huge, and there are moments during ensembles when you wish it was just a smidge larger. But it is distinctive, warm and burnished, and effortlessly deployed, with a tone so lovely that the ear searches it out, even when the orchestra (conducted by Antony Walker) threatened to overwhelm her. Lindsey legato and pianissimo are magnificent, and she shapes lines almost but never quite to the point of fussiness. This was a concert performance, so she wasn’t called on to act physically, yet she acts through the voice with absolute clarity and devastating effect. She was the focus of the evening, but when singing together with the tenor Randall Bills (as Fernand) or baritone Javier Arrey (as King Alphonse), she was also a spur to her partners, drawing out more confidence, more detail and more attention to nuance from both singers. This isn’t to sleight either of the men, who are promising artists; but rather like the young Pavarotti, they were both susceptible to the improving inspiration of singing with a more fully-fledged companion.

               After the performance, I spent a little time with a few of the recordings of “La Favorita” in my collection, including the 1974 Pavarotti-Cossotto and a live 1949 performance with Simionato and Di Stefano from Mexico City. Both are the Italian version, and the latter is Italian through and through, in style and spirit, with Simionato and Di Stefano snatching at the notes with a blood-curdling ferocity that wasn’t on display in the French version heard on Friday. I spent a lot of time with the Pavarotti-Cossotto discs a year ago while researching a story on the young Pavarotti for Gramophone, and I love them. But on return, and after hearing the WCO’s exciting performance, I found their studio efforts a little too clean, contained and packaged. There were plenty of small flaws in Friday’s live performance, but the effect was fully theatrical and entirely engaging.

               The French “Favorite”is the original opera Donizetti cobbled together for the Paris Opera in 1840. It is generally considered superior to its Italian cousin (“the version in the composer’s native tongue is corrupt, with many of the very particular stylistic choices and refinements of the French original coarsened in a variety of ways…” writes one critic), but it’s still a rarity compared to “La Favorita.” The Washington Concert Opera performance did indeed suggest a more refined and subtle work than the one Simionato and Di Stefano devoured in Mexico City, with Walker’s conducting and Lindsey’s singing significant contributing factors. The chorus was in fine form, as was bass John Relyea as Balthazar and soprano Joelle Harvey as Ines.

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Bellini at the Washington Concert Opera

WCO_DonLassell-4718               Tonight was the first time I’ve heard the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, and it was thrilling. Lindsey sang Romeo in the Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” at Lisner Auditorium. The entire cast was strong, with soprano Nicole Cabell as Giulietta and tenor David Portillo as Tebaldo. But Lindsey was the stand out, thoroughly satisfying, both musically and dramatically, and in the deeper, integrated, holistic way which suggests the presence of a really great artist. Her range of vocal expression, her control of dynamics, her effortless, smooth line, her breathing, and her freakishly cool, commanding stage presence made it impossible not to pay complete and absolute attention every moment she was onstage. I can’t wait to hear her again, and again and again.

               Bellini’s Romeo isn’t quite Shakespeare’s. Felice Romano’s libretto was ultimately derived from the same Italian sources that had inspired Shakespeare, but isn’t a direct adaptation of the English play. Still, many of the characters are the same, though they relate very differently to each other. Tebaldo, a tenor, isn’t quite the impetuous brute he is in Shakespeare, but rather a more conflicted, decent character who aims at our sympathy in the classic manner of an Italian tenor. Some of Tybalt’s more thuggish qualities have devolved onto Romeo in Romano’s libretto, though Bellini’s music softens them. Still, anyone expecting a dreamy, romantic Romeo may find the operatic version a little unnerving.        

               Lindsey made no effort to temper his dark side, though by the end, he was an entirely endearing figure, desperate and tragic, especially at the moment when he realizes that Giulietta is alive, and his suicide was unnecessary (another disconcerting difference from the Shakespeare). This last scene of the opera, and Lindsey’s musical depiction of his death, were stunningly good.

               Although her expressive style is more overtly emotional, Cabell was ultimately a colder presence, a musically polished Giulietta, and an often passionately sung one, but not quite a full character. Still, her voice blended nicely with Lindsey’s, and even though Cabell was filling in for Olga Peretyatko (who was indisposed), she and Lindsey seemed perfectly rehearsed and alert to each other’s nuance and intentions. Portillo was a happy surprise too, a bright tenor with a charismatic sense of line. As Capellio—much more of a dark-hatted villain than the Shakespearean Capulet—bass Jeffrey Beruan displayed a fine instrument, robust, dark and well suited to the role.

                  There were fine solo passages from the orchestra as well, especially the French horn, clarinet and cello. Antony Walker, artistic director, conducted a seamless and sensible reading, alive to the drama and sensitive to the soloists.

Photo Credit: Don Lassell, courtesy Washington Concert Opera


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Florencia en el Amazonas at the WNO

???????????????????????I’m afraid I don’t believe anything about Daniel Catán’s opera Florencia en el Amazonas. It’s been floating around for almost 20 years now, since a 1996 premiere in Houston, and a successful afterlife at other opera companies around the around the world, though mainly in the United States, where it serves a very particular function: It looks and sounds a bit like an opera, checking off all the boxes of what opera is supposed to be and do, without presenting any real theatrical, musical or emotional challenges. Catán’s rather meager drama opened The Washington National Opera’s 2014-15 season on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

It is inspired by the writings the Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though even the program booklet doesn’t tell us exactly what he contributed. In a “Letter from the Artistic Director,” Francesca Zambello writes: “He helped our team to plan and create the tale of the libretto which was executed by his student Marcela and captured by the sound world of Daniel’s music.” Later in the booklet, the biography for librettist Marcella Fuentes-Berain puts it slightly differently: “In 1995 her mentor, teacher, and friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez asked her to write an opera, Florencia in the Amazon, composed by Daniel Catán.”

Perhaps no contradiction there, but a good deal of vagueness about what “inspired by the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez” actually means. I don’t detect much of Marquez’s voice, narrative adventure or grandeur of spirit in the story or the libretto. To my ear, there is about as much genuine Marquez in this opera as there is Giorgio Vasari in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The closest narrative comparison is the old Saturday-night television pairing of The Love Boat with Fantasy Island. The basic structure is identical: The “El Dorado,” a paddle steamboat plying the waters of the Amazon, is boarding passengers for a run to the town of Manaus, and some mysterious power inherent in both the boat and the river promise life changes for all involved. The guests—two frustrated young people seeking love; an older married couple who have soured on their marriage; a mysterious woman of a certain age hoping to recapture the flame of an old romance—arrive, and we are introduced to them in a succession of short scenes. These vignettes are dutifully and predictably developed, one by one, before the characters are intertwined in ensembles; then the river grows angry and the act ends with the boat adrift and no one certain of the morrow.

It was also so dreadfully stale, so second-rate TV, that I thought for a moment that the second act would deconstruct the drivel, propel the opera into the world of critical parody or ironic fantasy. Perhaps it would do to the conventions of television what Anne Sexton did to the conventions of fairy tale. But there were no transformations. The opera continues just as it began, borrowing shamelessly but with no vitality, with plot twists that strain the credulity of even the most ardent fan of Magic Realism.

There are a few decent ensembles near the end of the first act, and a credible attempt at a kind of Straussian big soprano number at the end of the second. But Catán’s music is otherwise a stew of post-romantic clichés, a lot of fussy orchestral exoticism, and text setting that is mostly embedded within the orchestral fabric. Nobody sounds out of place, or at odds with the musical consensus, but there’s no particular distinction to anything they’re singing. A handful of motifs give consistency to the otherwise moment-by-moment twists and turns of the score; characters, especially Florencia (sung by soprano Christine Goerke), sometimes echo these motifs, brief, urgent little cells of melodic material reminiscent of 1970s pop tunes, that are scattered throughout but never developed into anything satisfying. Genuine characters never emerge because their vocal lines never really break free of the orchestral palette.

The directing, by Zambello—whose work is often trenchantly insightful—is a surprising disappointment. Five dancers, dressed in loin clothes and with feather headdresses, portray mischievous but ultimately benign spirits of the river. They are also astonishingly outdated avatars of the colonialist fantasy, erotic and ideological projections of danger, innocence and sexual allure onto the Native other. Pity poor Dan Snyder who can’t get anyone to believe that the “Redskins” is an honorific celebration of Native Americans; he would certainly love the carte blanche that opera audiences will give to these offensive caricatures (because no one holds opera to a higher standard). When cholera is discovered in the town of Manaus—from afar and through some kind of epidemiological supersensory powers of vision—the river spirits start carrying coffins through the river. It wasn’t easy to stifle laughter. A final scene in which Florencia may mutate into a giant butterfly, perhaps a nod to Strauss’s Daphne though not in any substantial musical way, is also a bit of a howler.

Despite this ridiculous material, the performers deserve recognition. Goerke was a dignified presence, and sang with steadiness and emotional commitment. Particularly impressive was the young soprano Andrea Carroll, who sang Rosalba. The voice is bright, clear and beautifully produced, and though she didn’t have much to work with, she made her character relatively convincing. As Paula, the embittered married woman floundering in a tempestuous marriage, the Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera was also a powerful presence. Baritone Norman Garrett sang the role of Riolobo with a rich, full, sonorous voice and plenty of athleticism. Riolobo is another river spirit, who also does double duty as a kind of ship’s purser and Greek chorus. But the role feels perilously close to the clichés of musical theater and racial stereotype (the supposedly mystical connections between race, the natural landscape and animist forces).

Keeping it all together, deftly and with a sure hand, was conductor Carolyn Kuan. It was Kuan’s debut at the WNO and her skill negotiating this thankless task makes one hope she will be invited back to conduct actual music at some point.

Throughout the evening, I kept thinking of Alban Berg. Not every evening at the opera has to be Lulu or Wozzeck, and thank God for that. But the only way I can describe my disappointment is to consider the opera as part of a tradition that includes Lulu and Wozzeck, and other 20th-century operas of serious ambition and artistic stature. And Florencia doesn’t belong to that lineage. There is no authenticity here, no honest emotion, no credible drama, no reason for the audience to care or engage. This is a fabrication meant to serve as a placeholder for a real opera. That’s why one can’t just give it a pass, or construct half-hearted apologias for its mediocrity. Producing Florencia meant not producing something else. And that is a waste of resources.

Photograph by Scott Suchman, courtesy the Washington National Opera


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Benjamin Britten

The New Republic has posted an article I wrote about Benjamin Britten, based on last year’s 10oth annviersary celebrations of his birth. I’ve always been ambivalent about his music, loving some of it, indifferent to much of it. But I ended the year loving more of it, especially after making peace with what I call his fundamental tendency to smallness.

Every article about Britten has to deal with his erotic fixation on boys. Here’s how I grappled with that:

That particular psychosexual key may seem to unlock many Britten mysteries. In his biography, Powell devotes a few obligatory pages to unraveling the darker side of the composer’s years as a schoolboy, including the possibility that he was the victim of rape. These questions are not particularly relevant to Britten’s music, though they do explain many of the uses to which he put music, and some of the subjects that he felt needed elaboration through music. Decrying cruelty to innocent young men or boys was a prism through which Britten transcended his own inclinations to smallness. But that same smallness—the middle-class propriety that suffuses everything he wrote with occasional cathartic exceptions—was also a compensation mechanism for the frightening sexual allure of sadism and pederasty. The trope of sadism and innocence was both a form of protest and a heavily cathected nexus of desire that could not be contained within his immensely proper lifestyle. Spiritually and intellectually, the way out of his limitations was too terrifying a road to travel. Auden, a friend from early years and a collaborator on projects such as the operetta Paul Bunyan, seems to have noticed this, and said so, and the 
friendship was sundered.

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Joshua Bell and Hindemith at the NSO

                This weekend, the National Symphony Orchestra presents one of its more exciting programs of the season: A star soloist, Joshua Bell, in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, and Hindemith’s choral masterpiece, “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d.” I went primarily to hear the latter, a 1946 work written to mark the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and based on a poem by Walt Whitman that honored the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is subtitled “A Requiem ‘For those we love,’” and much of its power comes from the conflation of personal and epic loss, both in Whitman’s poem, and in Hindemith’s somber yet grand score, which must certainly have been a response to the devastation of World War II as well as Roosevelt’s demise.

          Given the honors heaped on it when it was new, and its lingering reputation as one of the great, neglected works of 20th-century choral music, it is remarkable that these are its first performances by the NSO.  I got to know the score a few years when researching an article on Hindemith’s unjustly neglected operas (seek out a fine DVD of Cardillac and a very good recording of his Harmony of the World, based on the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler). Digging into Hindemith at first felt like work, such is his reputation for diligence, craftsmanship and lack of imagination. But he is in fact an immensely rewarding and charismatic composer, and his imagination shouldn’t be slighted.

                “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d” isn’t a perfect piece, but its fundamental flaw is inextricable from its essential power. Hindemith’s choice of poem, a long, inexhaustible, meandering paean to life, death, nature and love, was both inspired and ridiculous. The sheer quantity of text, its volubility, its torrential repetitions and divagations, created enormous compositional challenges, and Hindemith responded with a fluid, almost incantatory line that expands and contracts as necessary, with hypnotic effect. The fitting of text within a free but regular metrical musical line is a wonder. But it also has the effect of distracting our attention from Whitman’s words, which just seem to keep coming. And that’s where the choice of the poem seems perhaps a bit willful, and wrongheaded.

                And yet the hour-long oratorio is filled with powerful episodes (the choral rendition of the seventh movement was a particular thrill) and it leaves one with a strongly visual sense of the poem: The darkened fields, the passage of the coffin through the landscape, the swamps and cityscapes, and finally “the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.” Worlds collide—Hindemith’s musical language steeped in the eclectic vocabularies of early 20th century European style, with a substantial concession to American popular taste, and Whitman’s 19th-century transcendental ecstasies, which reach mystical heights—and somehow, by the end, they cohere. A flawed, but thrilling piece.

                The soloists were mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and baritone Matthias Goerne,  the same team that sang the solo roles in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with the NSO two years ago. They are both powerful singers and both gave exceptional accounts of the musical line. But Goerne’s diction was almost indecipherable throughout. Hindemith doesn’t make it easy for the soloist, but Goerne didn’t rise to the occasion either. It was mush. And when the chorus, the Choral Arts Society which was in excellent form, is more easily understood than the lead soloist—well, that’s a problem.

                But one left grateful for the effort from all involved: NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach, who championed the piece, the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists. The piece deserves more hearings, and one hopes it won’t be another 70 years before the NSO programs it again.

                The concerto performance was more enthusiastically received by the audience. Bell plays with great rhythmic clarity and force, every note cleanly placed with a pulse that is relentlessly forward moving. The virtuosity is dazzling, the phrasing impeccable,  but sometimes it feels too well-suited to the current taste, the reigning cultural obsession with speed and breathlessness. I would have preferred a bit more air and reflection in the second movement, a bit more unhurried sweetness. But Bell has mastered the audience-friendly oratorical style that never allows the attention to wander, and it works for him. It clearly works for his fans, too. I’ll recuperate with Menuhin’s 1960 recording.

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Matthias Goerne sings Schubert

                One assumes that the poet in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin is a stripling, young, callow and given to dreamy reveries on the banks of his beloved brook. From Wilhelm Müller’s poems, set by Schubert in 1823, he seems to be an apprentice, and not a very stalwart one, lamenting his weak arms, and passive nature. His strength is all in the imagination, where almost the entirety of his unrequited love for the beautiful miller’s daughter is played out in a solipsistic, perfervid drama of emotional projection, jealousy and despair.

                Baritone Matthias Goerne sang the twenty-song cycle last night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, with National Symphony Orchestra conductor Christoph Eschenbach at the piano. Goerne’s emotional wanderer is not the delicate poet suggested by the poems, or the usual understanding of Schubert’s music. Instead, he conjured a more robust, even violent figure, given to mercurial rages and operatically scaled declamation. This poet is definitely living in his head, too, but he is battling demons more than he is indulging in dreams; his wounds drive him to fury, not retreat or resignation.

                I found the performance mesmerizing, especially after the first few songs which depict the idyll before the clouds gather. Goerne has a big voice, and so the entire dynamic range was scaled up. But it was still a wide range, and when he needed to convince you that something was small and delicate, he did so—just in a bigger way than other singers. He had a peculiar but endearing tendency to use his hands when suggesting intimate ideas, as if physically drawing forth the delicacy, sculpting it in the air in front of him.

                He used his power well. It was hard to tell in “Mein!,” an exuberant love song in which the poet boisterously asserts the power of his love, commanding nature itself to yield to its force, if Goerne was feeling joy, or some kind of violent ecstasy. The mania of Wagner’s Siegfried seemed to creep into the oversized reading of this besotted song. But a long, ominous crescendo at the end of “Trock’ne Blumen” gave this song, and the cycle itself, an almost symphonic scale. The stock romantic figures who play on the stage of Schubert’s song cycles cast very big shadows behind them; Goerne’s reading constantly referred to that shadow play, in which bigger things are intimated than the sometimes flimsy poetry can bear. The last two songs were wrenching.

                Only two quibbles: The piano made unfortunate buzzing sounds throughout the evening, perhaps a sign of dry air in the hall. Eschenbach didn’t seem able to work around the problem, and his playing was scattershot and often clumsy. He is attentive, and the two artists were never at cross purposes. But a better pianist, or a better rehearsed pianist, would have made this very fine performance all the better.

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