Mar 25

Der Ring des Nibelungen DVD set, composed by Richard Wagner, and performed by Bayreuther Festspiele, conducted by Pierre Boulez ★★★★★

What can I say? I love the music of Wagner. Wagner the man is despicable, but like so many people, their person and their art are not congruous. Many folk hate Wagner. Some dislike his music. It’s not strophic. They expect a Mozart performance with ensembles, duets, solos, and delightful musical interludes. Wagner has no intention of offering that. I was first encouraged to listen to Wagner by Dr. Sunderland with whom I was doing a summer research project. She was Jewish but loved Wagner, and loaned me a recording of Tristan und Isolde. I listened to about 15 minutes and found it intolerable—it is the very music that years later hear with riveting fascination and tears in my eyes, wondering how music could be so beautiful. Wagner’s music is definitely complex and thus needs to be listened to several times before true appreciation can occur. It is not easy music, but a little sweat and patience will definitely pay off. Isn’t that also true of the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, Shostakovich, and so many other truly great composers?

The other reason people hate Wagner is because of his personality. It is true that Richard was a horrible excuse for a human being, proud, atheistic, rebellious, racist, anti-semitic to the core, self-serving, and envious of all others outside of himself. The music of the Ring, when rightly understood, is highly anti-semitic (the dwarves representing the typical Jew), and it is to that which must be looked through to admire his works. Wagner is a vehement atheist and was at times an intimate friend of Neitsche. The “God is dead” theme reverberates through this opera. When examined critically, the god that Wagner portrays is the god of Arminian theology, a not-so-powerful god that is dependent on the choices and will of others, and dependent on an external standard of morality. Wagner’s god is not all powerful or transcendent, not omniscient, immoral, and needs to rely on others to know things or to accomplish things. He is subservient to the oaths carved out on his spear and lapses into terminal despair when that spear is shattered by his “grandson” Siegfried, the Übermensch, the hero that knows no fear.

I will not detail the story of the Ring. If you haven’t seen it at least once before, you will not be terribly interested in my rehashing of the storyline, and it is not a terribly gripping story, missing the music that drives it. Too many listen only to the Walkürienfluct or Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt only to miss 17 hours of steady great music. It is no wonder that many conductors today that are known for outstanding Ring performances also happen to be Jewish, like James Levine. Listen to the music, and forget the man. I try to listen to or watch a Ring performance every year. I certainly love most of the other operas of Wagner, personal favorites which include Parsifal and Tannhäuser. Wagner was first introduced to me by a childhood friend in Portland, Ron Bonneau, who would listen to the Ring in his living room off of vinyl: it took about 35 or more records and he would diligently change and flip each record from start to finish, pausing only to feed his wolf dog. I’ve seen both the Ring live (in Seattle with Dr. Cull) and Tannhäuser (in Chicago with Alan Segall). Betsy and I both marvel at how the singers can not only remember their lines, come in at the right time but also act so well. Truly it takes the best of the best opera singers to do Wagner. Give the Ring a chance or two and you also might become addicted.

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Aug 28

Gounod’s Faust, with Angela Gheorghiu (Margeurite), Roberto Alagna (Faust), Bryn Terfel (Méphistophélès), and the Royal Opera House★★★★★
Though Gounod wrote several operas and much other music, the opera Faust remains among the best and most compelling works. It is a wonderful liberal adaptation of Goethe’s Faust to the opera house. Unfortunately, it is not so commonly performed. Betsy and I saw it in Chicago at the Lyric Opera house many moons ago, with Samuel Ramey playing Méphistophélès (i.e., the devil). Yet, the music is most delightful, and the storyline modestly faithful to the Goethe story and thus far more interesting than the standard Italian tragic opera. In this production, it was staged in 1800’s Paris, which isn’t exactly where Goethe scripted his Faust story, but fitting for a French Gounod adaptation. Most the scenes were well done, though a few were a bit outlandish and distracting, such as the bleeding statue of Christ in the first act, and Méphistophélès cross-dressed as a lady in the last act. Having Alagna and Gheorghiu fulfill the Faust/Marguerite rolls was quite fitting, especially when they were singing the love scenes, since they were (at least at the time of this opera production) a married couple. Both were superb actors as well as top class singers, and Terfel was equally capable, though sometimes criticized for not acting devilish enough. I have another production of Faust which tends to put one asleep after the first act, this production doing the opposite. It is a worthy opera to watch, and would be enjoyed, even by those who dislike opera.

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Nov 30

HuntersBrideThe Hunter’s Bride (Der Freischütz) by Carl Maria von Weber ★★★★★
The Hunter’s Bride (Jägersbraut) was the original title to the opera Der Freischütz, changed to it’s current name by a producer in Berlin to assist in marketing. This film is an example film opera, where the film in performed in realistic settings like the outdoors and in various mansions, but the sound is recorded in the studio to assist in the highest quality. The producer Neubert took many liberties in interpretation. While the traditional seeting of the Freischütz is in medieval Germany, Jens Neubert chose to make the setting of this opera contemporary to von Weber in the early 1800’s in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. This modification from traditional settings actually works quite well.
Von Weber lived in the early 1800’s and followed Beethoven in the musical timeline. He was highly innovative, and served as the transition into Romantic opera, of which Verdi, and even more so, Wagner, owe their original ideas. This is a very German opera and distinctly NOT Italian or French. There is little schmaltz. The story is a battle between good and evil, God and the devil, and the struggle of the characters for moral purity and virtue, of fall and redemption. This opera fits all of the above. It’s a wonderful, though somewhat hokey story. Max needs to perform well in a shooting contest on the day of his wedding to Agathe in order to win Agathe’s hand in marriage. His recent bad luck in shooting contests causes Max to become quite desperate, seeking enchanted bullets to succeed in the shooting contest (Freischütz). The outcome remains for you to watch and see.
This production is quite delightful. The music is superb, and soloists are superb, both in their voice and in their acting. There were only two areas that I would change. The first is a very brief episode of nudity with Agathe, something that did not complement the opera. The second was the bizarre design of Semiel (the devil) in the Wolfschlauch scene. All in all, this was a 5 star production, and well worth watching.

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Jul 27

VerdiCompleteWorksVerdi The Complete Works – Various Performers ★★★★
Verdi was a most prolific Italian opera composer, writing 30 operas, of which this set has their performances. He also wrote minor works, including a string quartet, some ballet material, and some songs, which are also included in this set. The performances and recordings are superb. Verdi is a somewhat monolithic composer. While his compositions show some advancement over the years, it is far less than one sees in a Mozart, Beethoven or a Wagner. While he is a master of melody, much of his technique repeats from opera to opera. Thus, when listening straight through, unless one is intimate with all of his operas, it will sound like one very long opera. Fortunately, his last few operas show some stylistic and creative variations to make them interesting. I’m not saying that Verdi is a bad composer, and it is difficult to not enjoy all of his operas. Yet, my desire to fill in my collection with the operas of Verdi that were yet missing had too high of expectations as I wasn’t missing much. This is a marvelous set for the music collector. For the slightly interested opera listener, select among his 5 or so most popular operas and you’ll hear enough Verdi to know what he’s all about.

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Oct 06

Magic Moments of Opera ★★★★★
This is a set of ten operas, each of which is reviewed separately below. This set seemed to be a good buy at $11/opera, which I purchased hoping that at least a few would be reasonable performances.
Now that I’ve seen the entirety of these operas, I offer my comments on each individual opera. Regarding the entire set, my only advice is to not hesitate and purchase the set. It is a super bargain, without a single “bad” opera.
People ask me why I like opera. These performances are prototypical. A movie star needs to act well, but is rarely required to sing. When they do sing, nobody expects them to sing well. Think of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, or Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon—nice acting, but rather mediocre singing. Then you have the opera. The singing is extraordinarily complex and challenging. Yet, the acting is not mediocre, but quite well done. The demands on the opera singer far exceed that of the typical actor/actress.
I am not a professional musician rating these operas, and I’m sure the professional would provide a different commentary on each opera than I offer. As a musician, I am so bad I can barely sing on tune. I can make it through Für Elise and Mozart’s Andante Cantable on the piano, played the sousaphone in grade school band, I’ve listened to everything Robert Greenberg ever recorded for the Teaching Company, I’ve always loved music theory and music history, drool and get weepy over anything ever written by Bach, but never mastered anything musical. Yet, that doesn’t distract me from considering opera to be one of the highest art forms available. I also cannot paint worth beans, but still have strong feelings when stepping into an art gallery. Opera gives me that same sense. I review these as opera for the discriminating but otherwise common man.
★★★★ Georges Bizet – Carmen, live from the Wiener Staatsoper 1978, with Elena Obraztsova, Placido Domingo, Yuri Mazurok, Isobel Buchanan, Dirigent Carlos Kleiber
I’m not a Carmen fan, as the music is rather glitzy, reminding me of the soap music of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Yet, this performance is superlative, with excellent singing and staging. It’s one of the better Carmen’s that I’ve seen.
★★★★★  Johann Strauss – Die Fledermaus, live from the Wiener Staatsoper 1980, with Bernd Weikl, Lucia Popp, Erich Kunz, Brigitte Fassbaender, Dirigent Guschlbauer
This production of the opera has been around awhile, but is worth watching, as it is performed in a light gala style. Besides the incomparable singing of Popp and Gruberova, the entire opera was well staged and acted, making it an enjoyable three hours of the best of Johann Strauss.
★★★★★ WA Mozart – Die Zauberflöte , live from the Opera National de Paris, 2001, with Piotr Beczala, Dorothea Röschmann, Detlef Roth, Matti Salminen, Dirigent Ivan Fischer
The opera is sung in German, but the presentation is in French. Staging, singing, acting, and filming are all superb. This is not my favorite Zauberflöte, but then, there are so many well done Magic Flutes, that how can one pick a favorite? I was amazed that they had the Queen of the Night performing rather complex acting, while singing an impossible aria. The three children also were totally superlative.
★★★★ Ludwig van Beethoven – Fidelio, live from the Opernhaus Zürich, 2004, with Günther Groissböck, Alfred Muff, Jonas Kaufmann, Camilla Nylund, Dirigent Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Well-performed opera, with superb singing, and enthusiastic directing from Hanoncourt. My only complaint is the near minimalistic sets. To me, it is an injustice to the performers to have them spend countless hours learning their parts, only to give them a set that took 10 minutes to construct and assemble. It is not right. True, Fidelio always has been a nightmare to stage, but surely the Swiss could do better than what they did. The camerawork, by the way, was superb, with views at a live opera that generally are only seen with non-live performances.
★★★★★ Guiseppe Verdi – Aida, live from the Teatro Alla Scala 1985, with Maria Chiara, Luciano Pavarotti, Ghena Dimitrova, Juan Pons, Dirigent Lorin Maazel
This is an opera I’ve had on VHS tape, and so is nice to see in DVD format. The recording is clear, with superb sound. Pavarotti singing Celese Aida is almost as natural as the Beatles singing Strawberry Fields. The staging and props are quite lavish, Chiara is at her best, and the opera flows superbly. This is the best Aida production that I’ve seen so far, and defines what is the standard for this opera.
★★★★ Jules Massenet – Werther, live from the Wiener Staatsoper 2005, with Marcelo Alvarez, Adrian Eröd, Alfred Sramek, Peter Jelosits, Dirigent Philippe Jordan
Massenet’s music reminds me much of Puccini, and even the storyline of Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers is more fitting Italian opera than German or French. Yet, this is very well done. The staging is modern. I typically don’t like revisionist staging or minimalistic staging, but the staging in this performance fits quite well. The singing is superb, and acting exceptional.  The storyline of Werther is somewhat hokey. The last act has Werther singing for about 10 minutes after he shot himself, and lying on his deathbed. Nobody asks the opera to have a perfect storyline.
★★★★★  Richard Wagner – Tannhäuser, live from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (2008) – 2 discs, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Philharmonia Chor Wein, Robert Gambill, Camilly Nylund, Roman Trekel, Waltraud Meier, Dirigent Philippe Jordan
This is a superbly performed Tannhäuser, with most remarkable performances for Elizabeth and Heinrich. Wagner’s themselves are challenges, but to act and sing supremely is most notable here. I have only one complaint with the performance. The costumes were great but the prop  for all three acts was horrid and irresponsible. As I complained before, considering the work that the singers and orchestra had to go through to make this opera a success, surely the stage designer could have been a bit more creative than a single spiral staircase for all the acts and scenes of the opera?
★★★★★ Gioachino Rossini – The Barber of Seville, live from the Opera National de Paris (date?), with Joyce Didonato, Roberto Sacca, Dalibor Jenis, Carlos Chausson, Dirigent Bruno Campanella
I loved this production. The singing was superb, the sets were quite elaborate, acting was superb, and it flowed with a wonderful cohesion. I am generally not a Rossini fan, but would not hesitate to claim this to be one of the better Barbers ever recorded. Didonato had a most remarkable voice, but so di Sacca, Jenis and the other singers. If one had to have just one Barber of Seville, this is the one to have.
★★★★ Giacomo Puccini – Tosca, live from the Arena di Verona 2006, with Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcelo Alvarez, Ruggero Raimondi, Marco Spotti, Dirigent Daniel Oren
This was an outdoor opera, which appeared to be filmed in the Coleseum in Rome, rather than the Arean di Verona. In any event, my experience with outdoor performances has usually been dismal, with poor sound and visual elements. This recording had neither, and the sound was superb as well as having meager, though superb sets. The singing and acting were both superlative, and the opera should have gotten 5 stars except for one thing. I am not crazy about the composition of the Tosca opera, and fault Puccini for coming up with an opera story and structure that really doesn’t work well. The Verismo style of this opera leaves a emptiness to the final ending of the opera. This is a personal sentiment, and if one has no problem with the opera Tosca, then this is a very worthy opera to have in ones collection.
★★★★  Richard Strauß – Elektra, live from the Wiener Staatsoper 1989, with Eva Marton, Brigitte Fassbaender, Cheryl Studer, Franz Grundheber, Dirigent Claudio Abbado
This is a dark, forbodding opera, an opera oriented entirely around one person (Elektra), vowing revenge for the murder of her father by her mother. I will not recount the plot as it can be found elsewhere. The opera was produced here as darkly as Strauß wrote it. It is not exactly a “fun” opera to watch; you know you are not at a Mozart opera. The talent and vocal perseverence to produce this challenging and difficult opera are quite remarkable and would buy the opera a 5-star rating. My given rating relates to the fact that this type of opera is really not my cup of tea. Life may be depressing enough, and I don’t need the opera to remind me of that.

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May 30

Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen, by Richard Wagner, performed by the Deutsche Oper Berlin ??
Wagner wrote three early operas that are relatively unknown since they are rarely performed, including die Feen, das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. They are operas that are not typical of  Wagner’s mature style, but do show development toward the final Wagnerian style. Rienzi is the opera that launched Wagner’s career as a musician, and several of the pieces including the overture are still occasionally performed. There were no available movie versions of this opera until this performance came out, so I decided to buy it, especially with the reasonable reviews given to it by reviewers. This performance has its merit. The singers were faultless, acting and singing well. The recording was high quality, though there were often problems with mixing of the sound of the singers and the orchestra, in that the orchestra tended to drown out the voices on stage.
My problem with this performance is the staging. I don’t object to modern versions of operas, so long as they don’t distract from the story and theme of the original opera. If the staging is such that it creates another theme or story than the original opera, or if it restricts itself to being solely a commentary on either the opera or the composer, then it should not be considered as a legitimate version of the opera. I recall the Peter Sellars versions of various operas that attempted contemporary contextualization of 18th and 19th century operas, yet they were never sold as straight opera renditions. Creative license with modern European staging tends to destroy the composers intent, and this should be overtly stated. It would be like re-writing a Beethoven symphony for a Jazz band but calling it the original symphony. Liszt did not have the audacity to do that, but was willing to call his transcriptions something else, and bizarre creative staging should be called something other than the original opera.
The staging used in this performance is indeed bizarre. The citizens of Rome come out masked at first, eventually removing their masks and donning suits that looked more like Soviet peasant outfits. Rienzi and his daughter appeared more like Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun than a noble Roman tribune. The themes of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini prevailed, forcing the entire opera into an entirely other interpretation. Adriano, the traitor, is made into the hero, and Rienzi is reduced to totalitarian scum. The final scene, with Rienzi in Hitler’s bunker and Speer’s model of the new Berlin before him was exceptionally distractive to the aria “Allmächtiger Gott…” and completely out of place. The videos of Rienzi as a totalitarian propagandist before microphones appearing on television were seriously distracting. Wagner’s character development in the opera was completely re-written. The behind the scenes slaughter of the assassins at the end of act 1 altered the story of the opera. This is not the way Wagner intended the opera to be, and the staging was too divergent from the actual opera story to be legitimate. I’d rather just listen to a recording than to watch what Stölzl has given us.
Whatever one may think of Wagner, I suggest that performances should leave Wagner alone. It is true that Wagner was a truly despicable  egotistical, racist person, yet his composing is sublime. It is quite easy to see his anti-Jewish sentiments throughout his operas, which must be overlooked. Thankfully, many Jewish Wagner conductors and performers have been able to do that, producing some of the best performances of Wagner in existence (eg., James Levine’s Ring, Leonard Bernstein’s Tristan und Isolde). To be obsessed with mid-twentieth century totalitarianism when performing a Wagner opera deprives the opera of its legitimate interpretation and reduces the performance to just another case of Euro Trash.

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Dec 27

Walter Felsenstein Edition ????
This set consists of  Beethoven: Fidelio ????, Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen ???, Mozart: Don Giovanni ????, Verdi: Othello ?????, Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffman ?????, Offenbach: Barbe-Bleu ??, Mozart: Le Nozze de Figaro ????.
Felsenstein was the manager of the Comic Opera in east Berlin, and also the producer of these operas. There distinction with this set, is that the operas were all performed in German, though only Fidelio was actually written in German. They are also produced as movies for film. Oftentimes, the opera script was heavily edited, such as Fidelio, with a number of inessential sections removed. In the Tales of Hoffman, additional spoken material is added and acts 2 and 3 are reversed. The operas work unbelievably well in German, and the modifications mostly improve rather than diminish the operas. These recordings have as much a historical value as well as entertainment value. The first three operas above were in black and white and thus somewhat lacking in the best of quality. The latter operas were very impressive, and the Tales of Hoffman and Othello were competitive with the best productions of those operas. The singing and acting were superlative in all the operas. The only opera that I didn’t like so much was Offenbachs’ Barbe-Bleu, but that had nothing to do with Felsenstein or the production, as it was not an appealing opera compositionally.

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Oct 19

La Fille du Regiment, by Donizetti, starring Natalie Dessay ???
Donizetti was an extremely productive early 19th century Italian opera composer, though most of his works go unperformed at this time. His greatest works include this opera, as well as Lucia de Lammermoor, L’elixir d’Amore, Anna Bolena, and a few others. This is probably the poorest conceived of his better known operas, and best known with Joan Sutherland as the star daughter of the regiment. In this opera, Natalie Dessay is the star. Her vocal qualities do not compete with the excellence of Dame Joan, though her acting and overall operatic skills make her one of the better daughters to ever have filled this role. Thus, it was a delight and joy to watch. The staging was a cross between traditional and minimalist, and served as much as a distraction as a help to the overall flow of the opera. This is not one of my favorite operas. The music is not memorable, and the plot contrived. A baby girl (Marie) is picked up and raised by a French army regiment, but recovered by a rich Tyrolean couple who think that she is their long-lost daughter, and arrange a marriage for her though she is love with a Tyrolean Toni who she met in the regiment and who joined the French regiment in order to marry her. Eventually Tonio and Marie resolve the issues that hold them apart. Yawn! Ho-hum.

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Oct 01

Les Contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman), by Jacques Offenbach, performed by Covent Garden, starring Placido Domingo ?????
Les Contes d’Hoffman is opera at its best, and this is a superlative performance of that opera. Domingo makes a perfect Hoffman. This performance utilized different opera stars for each of the women in Hoffman’s life, as well as a different “evil man” for each act. The story starts and ends in a tavern adjacent to an opera house, and Hoffman is led to tell the story of the lost loves in his life, all of which are based on short stories by ETA Hoffman. The first is Olympia, a young girl that Hoffman falls deeply in love with, only to discover that she is a mechanical doll. The next act, Hoffman falls in love with a courtesan in a harem, only to end up losing his shadow. The third is a young musician, told not to sing by her father, but encouraged to her death by Dr. Miracle. The music in each act of this opera, as well as the prologue and epilogue are unforgettable and often copied by later composers. This is one of the desert island operas that one would wish to watch many times over, and this is a wonderful performance of that wonderful opera.

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Sep 12

Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten, starring Peter Pears, conducted by Britten, made for t.v. ?
This is an opera that has been recorded for DVD at least 5-6 times, and usually gets a 5-star rating. This performance by the composer himself has the highest reviews of all. Yet, both Betsy and I sat entirely bewildered for at least 2 hrs. and 15 minutes. This piece did not appear to have any remarkable creativity at all. It is exactly the sing-songy type speech one would make if one chose to satirize an opera. The story line also was entirely incoherent. It was quite obvious that Britten wished to make strong anti-Christian statements, but did so quite poorly, the story line showing hypocritical Christian leaders condemning Peter Grimes, and not showing sympathy for him. Yet, it was Peter Grimes that was money-grubbing, resulting in driving a child to death at the beginning of the opera and then the end of the opera again. No wonder the “Christian” folk were upset! Britten was a flagrant homosexual, and his lover was Peter Pears, thus, he wrote many pieces supposedly for Peter Pears. Perhaps his utilization of a boy-servant for Peter Grimes was not quite appropriate in such a setting. All in all, this work had no consistency for music, there were no musical episodes that one could call great composed music, the plot was horrible, and if a statement was attempted to be made, it was made quite poorly. This is an opera that I would never waste my time watching again. Don’t waste your time.

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