Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Triumph of Rossini

“So many things must be done right for an opera to turn out well that its amazing any of them succeed at all… Once their [composer's and librettist's] initial job is done, the creation then gets handed over to a whole other set of people who can mess it up… The list of pitfalls goes on… It’s endless, and daunting.” – Wendy Lesser (on opera in The Threepenny Review)

Wendy Lesser's observation on the "daunting" challenges of producing opera are, if I may be so bold to say, being met this month here in Roanoke. And like any overwhelming challenge, success is its own reward. That our audience turnout looks to be the highest since our production of The Pirates of Penzance two seasons ago only heightens our anticipation as we approach opening night.

Here's a preview of the program note I wrote for our production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) running this weekend.

Never before had music been known to bombard the listener with so rich, so glittering, so spontaneous, so original a succession of new and tantalizing sensations.

Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pen-name, Stendhal) wrote his monograph, The Life of Rossini, in 1823, when the composer was at the height of his considerable fame, and it is full of florid accolades like the above epigram. Indeed, the craze for Italian opera across continental Europe was so great that the generation of Bel Canto composers (Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini) entirely over-shadowed efforts by German-language contemporaries as eminent as Beethoven, Weber and Schubert. While Beethoven’s Fidelio (OR, 2008) and Weber’s Die Freischütz hold their own in the repertoire, Schubert’s aspirations were so frustrated he was forced to live vicariously through his Lieder (Art-songs). They include a famous send-up of a bel canto “rage” aria, mocking one of Rossini’s most influential impresarios, Barbaja.

Like Mozart, Rossini possessed an apparently inherent gift for felicitous melody. And like Mozart, Rossini was prodigious from an early age: he completed a dozen opera by his 21st year. (Cenerentola was the 20th of some 40). Yet the comparisons between the two geniuses were not all favorable. One of Rossini’s nicknames, Il Tedeschino (“the Little German”), was derogatively applied to his use of so-called “Germanic” harmony. To be fair, his Mediterranean contemporaries had already criticized Mozart for the same “obstruction” of melody with harmony too “rich and strange” for the stage. Audiences and academics alike have since corrected that misperception over the intervening centuries, as neither Mozart’s nor Rossini’s operas have ever fallen out of favor.

And Rossini’s fame has never been greater than it is today. While Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a perennial “Top Ten” on opera’s most-performed list, Rossini’s other masterworks have been slow to appear on certain stages. The Metropolitan Opera did not present La Cenerentola until 1997 (just two years before OR’s most recent production in 1999). The MET’s premiere production of La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) joined their repertory just last month; recent seasons have seen highly anticipated and acclaimed MET premieres of Armida and Le Comte Ory.

What accounts for Rossini’s enduring popularity? Along with an unerring sense of melody, Rossini’s gifts as a master of musical theatre include a harmonic language perfectly balanced to his characters and their dramatic situations. Like Mozart, Rossini excels at the musical ensemble – a form original to the operatic stage – and the brilliant deployment of various combinations expertly serve the theatrical pace. Rossini’s knack for form and musical architecture is especially apparent in La Cenerentola. As Stendhal puts it, in one of his colorful bon mots:
he knows how to husband his listener’s attention, shielding it lovingly against the danger of vain distractions, only to hurl it with greater impetus upon the traces of what is really essential.

Rossini’s overtures maintain a special place in the concert repertory of orchestras even outside the opera house, and La Cenerentola’s Sinfonia is an exemplary model. Adumbrating themes we will recognize within the drama, it contains the first of several notable instances of the so-called “Rossini crescendo.” Deceptively simple in appearance, both on the page and to the ear, this device involves a series of repetitions: each phrase builds momentum as it grows in dynamic range from the softest piano to a thrilling fortissimo. Like a force of nature, this irrepressible surge of energy is no less impressive for the predictability of its outcome. Examples abound in the score, with particularly effective episodes in the first act quintet and finale, and the second act sextet. While the vocal fireworks and buffo antics distinguish the individual characters’ solo arias, it is in the ensembles in which Rossini shows himself Mozart’s operatic successor. The duet between Dandini and Don Magnifico near the top of Act 2 is another unerring example of Rossini’s synthesis of musical comedy with dramatic verisimilitude.

What distinguishes Rossini’s Cinderella from the countless variations of the fairy tale is found in its subtitle: La Cenerentola ossia La bontà in trionfa. Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant. Eschewing the supernatural elements of Fairy Godmother, transforming pumpkins, and the like, Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti have given us a masterpiece of humanity, with all its warts, foibles, and enduring virtues. Cinderella does not need to be “the fairest of them all,” because she has goodness in abundance. She sings her acts of mercy, and like a benevolent diva, maintains a spirit of humility. Through Rossini’s incomparable dramma giocoso, this “once upon a time / in a land far-away” story comes to life for us like no other version of the immortal tale can: through the power of its music.

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