Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mozart's Abduction: Program Notes

The most famous quotation attached to Mozart’s first opera for Vienna, allegedly from Emperor Joseph himself, “Far too beautiful for our ears, my dear Mozart, and far too many notes,” glosses over the fact this musical comedy was both instantly popular and remarkably inventive. Like its five great siblings, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, The Abduction from the Seraglio works within its particular genre while expanding its range and astonishing us with the variety of its forms. The two German operas Mozart wrote for Vienna, Abduction and Magic Flute, were each a Singspiel (literally “Singing play,” but better translated as “musical comedy”), intended for audiences of not just the court and aristocracy, but the military, the professional, and middles classes. Mozart’s Abduction was a hit from its opening night in the sweltering summer of 1782. By the time of the composer’s death less than a decade later, it had been performed in over 30 European cities. More than any of his previous works, it established Mozart as one of the leading composers of the era. Critics were so taken with Mozart’s musico-dramatic genius they gushed effusively, as his first biographer, Niemetschek observed:

"it was as if what had hitherto been taken for music was nothing of the kind. Everyone was enchanted, amazed at the novel harmonies, the new, unprecedented way the wind instruments were treated."

Indeed, given our über-familiarity with Mozart’s style, his seemingly effortless grace and élan, the propulsive energy and vivacity of his music, it is helpful to be reminded just how novel this music was in the last decades of the 18th century. Building on the orchestral richness of his previous opera, Idomeneo, Mozart composed an unprecedented range of instrumental color into his score. This is most obvious from the “Turkish” music introduced right from the start of the overture. “I doubt if anyone could fall asleep during it, even if he hadn’t slept a wink the night before,” Mozart wrote. The “exotic” qualities of the music, en vogue across Europe at the time, are evoked by the augmented percussion section, the bright upper register of the piccolo, and the use of the Lydian scale (which has a raised 4th step: F-sharp in C major). Mozart’s genius is to integrate these elements into the score to serve the drama. Here are the 26-year old composer’s observations on one of the arias for the oafish bass:

"Osmin’s rage is made comic, as the Turkish music is brought in…and as his rage increases, just when you think the aria is ending – comes the Allegro assai [very fast],in a completely different tempo and key…For just as a man in such a towering rage oversteps all order, moderation and restraint and completely forgets himself, so the music must forget itself."

Belmonte’s aria, “O wie Ängstlich” [O how anxious], uses the orchestra to equal, albeit distinct, dramatic effect. Here the tenor’s “beating heart, full of love, is depicted by the violins in octaves.” That Mozart would, against his Father’s wishes, marry Constanze Weber in between performances of this opera whose heroine shares the namesake of his beloved is another example of art imitating life.

We have chosen to place our production in a “timeless modern” setting, and have updated the dialogue accordingly. The central theme which courses through Mozart’s incomparable musical dramas is the range and depth of the human heart. Whether set in a Turkish harem or a nameless American mansion, Mozart’s music lives through his characters. However they compare to the “types” we expect on the operatic stage – Romantic hero (tenor), tragic heroine or soubrette (soprano) – Mozart’s creations transcend their individual roles and speak to us through the universal language of human experience. This is but one of the reasons why his operas, more than 200 years on, are as popular and enduring as ever.

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Elegance and Romance from Virginia" tour of Japan

Amy and I just returned from a fabulous week in Japan, where we performed
with our good friends and colleagues, pianist Judy Clark, and the "Clasic Strings Duo"
of brothers Kevin and Bryan Matheson (violin and viola, respectively).

Here are some pictures from our rehearsals in Yamaha Hall - an acoustically
vibrant space we all found to be one of the nicest concert halls in which
we've performed.

Before our concert at Yamaha, we performed for appreciate guests at the Hotel Chinzan-so Tokyo. Performing for three nights in "Il Teatro" gave new meaning to "singing for your supper!" Our generous sponsor and patron (not to mention translator and guide extraordinaire!), Tomoko Gillespie, is between Judy and Amy below:

We performed a varied program of favorite operatic and musical theatre arias and duets from La Bohéme, Tosca, La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and among others, Brigadoon. We didn't know how well we'd be received by an audience we'd been told might be more reserved, less demonstrative and less familiar with opera than what we've come to expect. We prepared one encore, performed two, and could have offered a third! Here we are with the emcee of our concert, a Japanese soprano who translated for the audience.

Not only was mini-Beethoven-san a hit, but the Matheson brothers were swarmed by young violinists who wanted their music autographed!

Following the Yamaha Hall Recital on November 5, we sang another program at Christ Church in Yokohama. The expat and local community was again demonstratively supportive, and we were grateful and proud to represent our community in another vibrant center of the Land of the Rising Sun. We had one day off before our return yesterday (Nov 8), and we visited the fabled city of shrines, Kyoto.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Newsflash from the Onion: MET cancels Macbeth broadcast for promoting regicide!

If you haven't heard of the Onion, it's a satirical broadside which lampoons just about everything. To my knowledge, no one has cancelled Shakespeare opera productions recently for politically correct reasons, but...

You may have heard about the latest operatic drama to occur off-stage, this time from Australia:

Musical America posted the following among its weekly headlines:

CANBERRA, Australia -- The West Australian Opera has dropped Carmen from its scheduled 2015 run because the 140-year-old French opera depicts smoking.

It was actually General Manager Carolyn Chard's idea, a courtesy to Healthway, a health promo agency and an opera company sponsor. On consulting Healthway if they liked the idea, the agency responded, "fine."

But Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Thursday condemned the deal as "political correctness gone crazy."

Opera is "an exaggeration and if we are running around looking to take offence or looking to spread some politically correct message, just about every opera would be forbidden," Abbott told Melbourne Radio 3AW.

"We don't stop the theater from running Macbeth because it promotes killing kings."

Though the MET has had its share of off-stage drama leading up to its 2014-2015 season, canceling its "Live in HD" broadcast of Verdi's Macbeth is not one of them. In fact, the new HD season kicks off tomorrow with the acclaimed production starring the MET's prima donna, Anna Netrebko (above) in her role debut as Lady Macbeth. You can watch a clip here.

Better yet, join me tomorrow at Va Western Community College 1/2 hour before the 12:55 curtain for a preview of the new production, the new season, Opera Roanoke's season and our imminent world premiere of a new children's opera, The Three Feathers, written for the Va Tech Moss Center for the Arts, by composer Lori Laitman, poet Dana Gioia. It's directed by Beth Greenberg and conducted by yours truly.

Hope to see you at the opera!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone...

[Musical theatre sing-along]: …a Comedy To-night!" OR fans may encounter Sondheim's tag from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum NOT because we are programming his first musical comedy hit, but for the other musical comedies on the horizon.

This Saturday, May 10, the MET "Live in HD" season concludes with Rossini's sparkling version of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola (click here to see more info and a preview video of superstar Kansan and mezzo extraordinaire Joyce DiDonato).

While I will not be able to attend our screening at Virginia Western Community College (tickets and info here), members of the OR team will be on hand to share info about our 2014-15 season, which - funnily enough - features "Comedy Tonight" as one of its tag lines. We'll end our 39th season next Spring with a new production of Rossini's Cenerentola, our first-ever in the Jefferson Center.

Next week, I have the pleasure of making my local professional directorial debut at W&L, May 13 & 15. I've been working with colleagues and music students on Offenbach's spoof of the famous European salons and soirees, Mr Choufleuri restera chez lui (which we're doing in English as "Mr Cauliflower Will Be at Home for Dinner"). More info is on our homepage. We are having a blast!

If opera fans only know Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, then his zanier one-acts (he wrote some 90 operettas!) may come as refreshing palette cleansers. "Mr Choufleuri" provides a glimpse into why Offenbach not only helped launch the genre known as Viennese operetta, but influenced Gilbert & Sullivan, and musical comedy in English to this day. Rossini called him "Mozart of the Champs-Elysées," and Nietzsche credited him with the "supreme form" of operatic "wit." One could do far worse...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

IN UNIS: FOR MODERNS | L2P @ TMA | 3.IV.12 | 20.30 hours

I'll decrypt the title in a sec: Listening to Paintings
at the Taubman Museum of Art, April 3, 2012, 6:30 p.m.

I will be sharing my seasonal presentation, L2P, blending the visual arts with music and poetry Thursday night at the Taubman, and its FREE, as part of their hip "Thursday Night Live" Series. When asked to describe "what is it?" I usually reply with a boring-sounding description like: "multi-disciplinary, lecture-recital, poetry reading, &/or gallery tour…" Does that help?

But we always have fun, and stimulating questions or comments are always part of the relaxed but seriously artful hour.

(Below, "Mask," by Martin Johnson)

I'll be focusing on a mere two of the 1/2 dozen cool galleries recently (re-) opened: Martin Johnson's mesmerizing show of genre-bending work (curated by our friend, Ray Kass), and the stunning show of from the VA Museum of Fine Arts, European Masters. The latter exhibit starts with Ingres & Delacroix, then proceeds like a "who's-who" of twentieth-century art, an art-history crash-course in one room.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review of Giulio Cesare by Timothy Gaylard (RSO critic for the RT)

For those of you don't know, Tim and I are old friends - I taught with him at W & L when I first came to the region in 1996 - and since he has also been employed by OR (Steven asked Tim, Amy & I to do a Shakespeare recital for an awesome all-Shakespeare season in 2008-2009, I believe) - Tim is not allowed to review the opera for the Roanoke Times. This should explain the irony of the one character for whom he reserves criticism. Hint: this character was not onstage until the opera was over… I love it!

Let's hope they'll at least print it as a letter to the editor…

(Wes Mason, as Achilla with Teresa Buchholz, in the title role)

Julius Caesar at Opera Roanoke by Timothy Gaylard

The many moods of Handel’s Julius Caesar by Opera Roanoke were on display Friday night because of a talented singing cast and a responsive orchestra. This Baroque opera seria is a challenge because of its length, its difficult vocal writing, its convoluted plot and its requirement of elaborate visual effects. On all these counts, the company delivered a winning rendition, sparking an appreciative standing ovation at the end of the evening.

Of the many standout vocal performances, the title role of Caesar, played by mezzo soprano Teresa Buchholz, was particularly impressive because of a warm tone, a flexible technique and a charismatic stage presence. She was partnered well by Amy Cofield Williamson as Cleopatra, who played the famous Queen as a playful and seductive creature with changeable and complex feelings. Cofield Williamson dispatched all her arias with finesse, displaying an incredible vocal range and control, from the sustained beauty of “Piangero” to the fast coloratura of “Da tempeste.”

Carla Dirlikov played the crucial role of Cornelia with great expression and dramatic conviction. When she was joined by Toby Newman as Sesto in the moving duet “Son nato,” the effect was magical. Newman succeeded well in presenting her character as an impetuous and tortured young man. The male singers were equally as impressive. Eric Brenner sang the difficult part of Tolemeo with a colorful counter-tenor voice and he was both amusing and menacing in his characterization. Wes Mason revealed the many shades of his finely-wrought baritone, while the imposing Andrew Potter sang with a firm, but flexible bass.

Of the smaller roles, Angela Theis was especially memorable as Nireno, providing a clear, well-produced sound. Various members of the chorus and cast doubled effectively as soldiers, servants, and supporters. The ensemble for the final chorus was nicely balanced and projected. Scenes of Ancient Egypt, whether in a garden, a throne-room, a bedroom, or a battlefield, were aptly suggested by various re-arrangements of elements within a versatile main set. The steep staircases posed some physical challenges for the cast. Costumes and makeup, especially for Cleopatra, were visually stunning.

In the pit, Scott Williamson got the best out of his orchestral players, from the delicate strings to the seamless winds. The noble sound of Wally Easter’s horn in Caesar’s “Va tacito” was almost perfectly played. Only occasionally did Williamson push the tempi beyond what was comfortable for the singers. Overall, the production made a strong case for the opera’s greatness and the community around Roanoke should feel proud to have such a fine company in its midst.

Timothy Gaylard is Professor of Music at Washington and Lee University

Amy Cofield Williamson (Cleopatra), Teresa Buchholz (Giulio Cesare) and the cast of Opera Roanoke's Julius Caesar

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rome and Egypt collide in Roanoke: Handel's Julius Caesar in Egypt, Mar 21 & 23

48 B.C.E. Julius Caesar, bold statesman, brilliant general, political genius, dictator - one of the most remarkable men in history - arrives in Egypt, victorious after Civil War in Italy. He meets Cleopatra, legendary Egyptian Queen, symbol of unsurpassed beauty who, as one of the most famous women ever to have lived, has lodged herself into the collective imagination of the world. Egypt itself is embroiled in Civil War. Intrigue. Manipulations. Liaisons. Handel's operatic masterpiece, Giulio Cesare in Egitto.
- Rod Gomez, director.

Rod's note above and my program notes below are included in our playbill. I hope they whet your appetite for Handel.

George Frideric Handel was as cosmopolitan as he was prodigious. A German composer who cut his teeth in Italy before settling in England to become the greatest opera composer of his time, his name has since been synonymous with the sacred Oratorio, of which Messiah is the most famous. The “Hallelujah Chorus,” however, may not have been written, had Italian opera not had its Handelian heyday in 1720’s London. As director of the Royal Academy, a project initiated by his aristocratic patrons, Handel not only initiated one of the richest periods of musical drama; he also helped birth the concept of the season subscription. As one of his founding patrons put it, “The intention of this musical Society, was to secure themselves a constant supply of Operas to be composed by HANDEL, and performed under his direction.” With “his Majesty pleased to let his name appear at the head of it,” the Society had its “Royal” designation and significant political, if not always financial, capital. Handel invested enough talent and energy “in the enterprise over the next eight years, the Academy, though financially disastrous, was an artistic triumph.” Indeed, as many an Impresario has found in the subsequent three centuries, artistic genius alone does not insure sustainability. (But that is another essay…)

(A 1720 portrait of Senesino)

As we have attempted in our production of Cesare, Handel set about hiring the best talent available for his cast and his orchestra. Among those were the famed castrato, known as Senesino, and the celebrated sopranos Cuzzoni and Faustina. “Opera fever gripped the town,” Handel scholar and conductor Christopher Hogwood writes. Quoting a letter from John Gay to Jonathan Swift, “Senesino is daily voted to be the greatest man who ever lived.” Fitting, then, he should create the role of Handel’s greatest hero, Julius Ceasar, for the 1724 season of the Royal Academy. What makes Giulio Cesare a cut above even the best of Handel’s operas is the quality of the score. Not until Mozart would an opera have such depth of character in its vocal writing, nor magnificent color and variety in its orchestration. For Cleopatra’s great “seduction scene” of Caesar [at the top of Act II in the original; in our abridged production, near the end of Act I], Handel calls for a double orchestra and writes a nine-voice accompaniment, one instrument each representing the nine Muses. Critics ascribe an “exotic magnificence” and “spacious sensuality” to this scene in particular, and the entire opera.

If this were an opera with a compelling central couple and mere two-dimensional supporting roles, it might fare no better than a Hollywood flop. While I count myself among the fans of Joseph Mankiewicz’s spectacular 1962 film, Cleopatra, Achillas is a cipher in that 4-hour epic. One would be hard-pressed to leave this live drama without an opinion about that complex general whose character evolves as much as any in the opera. His cunning boss, Cleopatra’s younger brother, Ptolemy (Tolomeo) is anything but a whining teenager in Handel’s vision. After Caesar and Cleopatra, the grieving widow, Cornelia and her vengeance-hungry son, Sesto command our attention and enlist our support. Their duet of lament is one of the most heart-rending, pathos-filled strains in Western music, more remarkable for its formal simplicity and restraint.

At a recent reading, a renowned poet was asked the familiar question, “why doesn’t modern poetry rhyme?” Are you deaf? There’s music everywhere, you just have to listen, was his frank reply. The same applies to the notion that 18th century opera lacks the passion of its 19th century successors. The pathos, passion and humanity are everywhere in Handel’s penetrating musical drama on the nature of relationships - political, familial, and romantic. And it features one of history’s most glamorous couples, singing like their lives depend on it.

In his elegy for Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Whitman writes of the "solitary" thrush, "warbling a song."

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death's outlet song of life (for well dear brother I know)
If thou was not gifted to sing, thou woulds't surely die.

We have a stunning cast of artists who embody this metaphor of the life-and-death relationship the artist commits to with her art. See the drama and hear the music come to life Mar 21 & 23 at the Jefferson Center.