Mari Moriya as the Queen of the Night. Alan Alabastro photos
By Philippa Kiraly
In the operas so far this season, Seattle Opera has presented singers on stage from Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Spain, Croatia, Italy, Israel, Nicaragua, Australia, Turkey, France, Argentina, Mexico and, coming up in “The Magic Flute,” Canada, Japan, Russia and England. In addition, of course, to the American singers.
Where does general director Speight Jenkins find them?
The job of casting takes Jenkins to Europe a couple of times a year, to New York, and anywhere else he happens to be where there is opera and a singer he wants to hear.
“It isn’t ever just the voice,” says Jenkins. “The voice is just the first step. We have to assume the person has a voice and technique. Beyond that, it’s the dramatic sense, the passion. Can they pronounce the words while singing? Can they inhabit the character? Have they got heart? There’ve been times when I’ve stopped a young singer and asked: ‘What are you singing about?’ and they have only the vaguest idea.”
When he is planning his Europe trips, he begins several months ahead with his assistant, Mary Brazeau, listing all the operas being performed there between his targeted dates. He marks the ones that interest him and performing singers he wants to hear, and they try to work out a logical travel schedule which probably includes London, Munich, Berlin and somewhere in Italy among other stops. Then they alert the European agents he trusts, who send audition candidates to those cities.
It’s a heavy schedule, with operas every night in every city, and auditions every day.
New York is even heavier, with three packed days when Jenkins hears a total of 90 singers. An average audition is about twelve minutes.
“It’s very rare that you don’t know within two minutes whether you like someone or not,” he says. “If they sing a piece that doesn’t show me anything, I’ll wait longer, but seven or eight times out of ten, if a singer offers a Mozart aria, then I’ll take that aria. Mozart is the only composer who forces singers to sing with no clothes on. I don’t make heroic singers sing Mozart. I’ll take whatever they want to sing.”
There are always singers who never audition, and others who come to Seattle in hopes of being heard.
“”If someone makes the effort to fly into Seattle, I’ll make the time to listen,” says Jenkins, who first heard soprano Renee Fleming that way. “I’d heard she was good, but I didn’t know how good until I heard her.”
It used to be that an opera director could plan just a year or so ahead, but by the time Jenkins came to Seattle Opera in 1983, there was enough competition for singers that he had to plan a couple of years ahead. Now it’s more like four or five.
As the years have gone by, there are more opera companies in the U.S. with more money to hire great artists, so there is more competition.
Among those who never auditioned was tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who now wows audiences from Milan’s La Scala to the Metropolitan Opera, and was recently heard here as the Count in “The Barber of Seville,” but Brownlee really started his career here in Seattle Opera’s Young Artists program.
“I had a space, and I took him with great hesitation on someone’s recommendation,” says Jenkins. Once Brownlee was here, Jenkins was told: “You have to come hear this,” as Brownlee sang an extremely difficult Mozart aria. “I nearly fell off my chair. It was electrifying.”
The baritone who sang Figaro in “Barber,” came on Brownlee’s recommendation. Jenkins asked Brownlee to suggest the right Figaro among the many he had sung with and his answer was, ‘That’s easy, Jose Carbo.’ “That sometimes happens, Larry is a friend, he has taste and he’s a person I trust.”
Having to cast so long ahead—Jenkins has already completed casting most of the 2014-2015 season and is working on the succeeding season—means sometimes singers back out. Jenkins lost his Don Jose for next fall’s “Carmen” just seven weeks ago, and tenors are usually in tight supply.
This is where his enormous network of opera-knowledgeable friends and agents comes in. Jenkins contacted them all. “You have a whole network and tell them you’re desperate, and please to go through all the Don Joses you know. They were all busy. Then you talk to your friends and they try to come up with someone, and if they can help you they will. There’s no reason not to be calm. You know you’ll get someone, and you get the best you can.” The friends came up with three possible tenors. Jenkins heard them all and was thrilled, he says, with Luis Chapa, who will make his U.S debut in “Carmen.”
Jenkins often asks a singer performing here if there are other operas on their wish lists to sing. If it seems feasible, he promises to do his best to mount that opera for them.
“I talked to (soprano) Alexandra Kurzak when she was here for “Lucia” last fall, and she told me what she’d like to do. I know just the tenor for it, so we’ll do it,” says Jenkins, cautioning that you have to find the operas which work for you and for the company. Some operas he has never wanted to produce, among them Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s progress.”
“All my friends have tried to persuade me to do it, and I could cast it in five minutes, but I don’t like it. Passion is what opera is all about. I don’t like opera with no heart, no passion, and “Rake” has none,” he says decisively.
In “The Magic Flute” we will hear bass Ilya Bannik from Russia, as Sarastro (“I heard him in St. Petersburg in 2005 and thought he was great”), soprano Mari Moriya from Japan as the Queen of the Night (“I heard her in a small house in Leipzig, so passionate and she can hit the high Fs, and I hired her on the spot”), Canada’s tenor John Tessier as Tamino, and England’s baritone Leigh Melrose as Papageno. Of the last named, neither Jenkins nor Melrose can remember where they met.
What it all boils down to, is that it’s Jenkins job to find those singers, never mind alarms and excursions along the way, and his job to see the curtain goes up on opening night, with all the singers there and ready.
It’s a job he has never lost interest in. Jenkins cares. He may look for heart and passion in his singers, but he has both himself in spades when it comes to choosing his singers and mounting opera.
“The Magic Flute” runs for eight performances at McCaw Hall from May 7-21, with matinees May 8 and 15. Tickets at seattleopera.org or 206-389-7676
Some years ago, the Early Music Guild advertised a part time position for Marketing and Development, and ended up hiring a young woman named Kris Kwapis. Not coincidentally, she also happens to be one of the continent’s best performers on Baroque trumpet and in demand for concerts, as well as being a teacher at Indiana University and now also in the new early music program at Cornish College of the Arts. It’s our good fortune to have her here.
Saturday night, the Early Music Guild audience had a chance to hear her perform several trumpet concerti with Seattle Baroque Orchestra at Town Hall, in a program titled Sound the Trumpet.
The well-designed program included late 17th to very early 18th century works by Purcell, Biber and Torelli, plus a lesser known composer contemporary with them, Gottfried Finger: well designed, because these composers are quite different from each other, especially Biber, a composer who marched to his own drummer.
The trumpet works were carefully spaced out with other works in between, and even the concerti had sections or whole movements where the trumpet did not play. Watching Kwapis, it seemed clear that a Baroque trumpeter needs downtime to allow the lip to rest. She used two trumpets, one in C, one in D. These are long slim trumpets with no valves and one or one and a half loops of tubing, only a few holes with which Kwapis could alter tone. All the extraordinary range of notes and runs she elicited from her instruments came from how she used her lips and air flow.
The results were amazing for us, who rarely get to hear a Baroque trumpet and hardly ever as a featured instrument rather than as the obbligato accompaniment in a “Messiah” aria. Kwapis’ sound soared and sang, sometimes ringing out, sometimes gentle and always musically phrased.
She performed the Sonata for trumpet, strings and continuo by Purcell, another in C by Finger, Sonata X by Biber with a different arrangement of strings, and a Sinfonia in D by Torelli. She made them all sound technically easy from the highest to lowest notes despite a few slightly scratchy moments.
The orchestra itself was in fine shape, performing with 12 string players plus harpsichord in such diverse works as Purcell’s lively Suite from “The Fairy Queen,” and Biber’s Serenade titled “The Watchman’s Call,” where the chaconne movement is entirely played on plucked strings and a watchman, bass-baritone David Stutz, strolled across the back of the stage and around the hall calling the hour in song and “All’s safe and all’s well.” Biber had a special affinity for the middle voices. In this work, he uses four violins and four violas, which with the lower strings give weight to the lower middle range, while both Biber sonatas performed had extra violas, again changing the dynamic.
Finger’s “Divisions on a Ground” showcased concertmaster and SBO music director Ingrid Matthews playing solo in increasingly florid variations accompanied only by continuo cellist Nathan Whittaker and lutenist John Lenti.
The whole made for a varied, lively and engaging evening, with a big and enthusiastic audience. Let’s hope Kwapis makes more solo appearances here.
It’s always enlightening to go to hear Seattle Symphony musicians playing chamber music, as they now do regularly at Nordstrom Recital Hall. The chance to hear players not merged in a group, with often unusual offerings, were again what drew audience to Friday night’s concert.
The unusual was the string quartet, his only one, composed by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1945. This is a remarkable work, some 30 minutes long, of considerable complexity: a piece that would take multiple hearings to take in its full measure, its layers, its intricate justapositions of rhythm and melody, its combination of European style and Brazilian musical heritage. It would be hard to hum any part of it, though often one instrument would have a long melodic line with the other two playing unexpected decorative accompaniments around it. It was given a masterly performance by violinist Mariel Bailey, cellist Bruce Bailey and guest cellist Laura Renz, a well balanced trio.
The ensuing Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-Flat major could however have been titled in this performance as Piano Sonata with violin accompaniment. Balance was extremely lopsided with the extensive piano part in an over-enthusiastic performance all too often rolling over the violin.
Emma McGrath, associate concertmaster of the Symphony, is a very fine player with beautiful, honeyed depth to her tone, but only in patches could one hear this. The sound of her violin was rarely completely drowned but often it could only be heard as a thin line.
The pianist was Ben Hausmann, the orchestra’s excellent and sensitive principal oboe, wearing another hat. From the start his approach to the Strauss was startling, cutting where it should have been just crisp, over loud where it needed just to be loud, often with entrances out of sync with the flow of the music. The piano part is huge.
Strauss, probably also in an excess of enthusiasm (he was only 23 when he composed it) wrote a very heavy part with a plethora of notes, seemingly almost as many as a Brahms piano concerto. Hausmann played with a great deal of pedal and unfortunately quite a few missed or incorrect notes and what felt like disregard for the violin.
Where he did play more quietly, his touch and innate sensitivity came back to the fore, and the duet between the two instruments were something to be savored, but these moments were too few.
Finally, concertmaster Maria Larionoff with guest pianist Robin McCabe played another violin sonata, this time No. 2 in D Major by Prokofiev.
It felt like coming home to hear this familiar work, after the demanding, fascinating Villa-Lobos, and the assault of the Strauss. These two played as a violin sonata should be played, as a matched pair, with the melodies and harmonies of each instrument interweaving to create a nuanced whole. The result was sheer pleasure.
Since his arrival in Seattle two years ago, Kent Devereaux’s impact on Cornish’s music department has been tangible and welcome. The credit doesn’t go to Devereaux entirely of course. Cornish is lucky to have faculty who appreciate the new and aren’t afraid of exploring the unknown. Equally as important in my mind, Cornish isn’t afraid to share their Capitol Hill stage with other talented musicians in the community. The Seattle Modern Orchestra has taken up a residency of sorts at Cornish presenting a full season of modern orchestral music.
In the same spirit, the Odeonquartet presents an entire program of Osvaldo Golijov’s music. Golijov’s polyglot musical style — which mixes Jewish, Western classical music, South American, and folk influences — is understandable given Golijov’s own upbringing. Golijov was born in Argentina; his parents were Russian Jews via Romania; he studied music in the United States with George Crumb and before this studied in Israel.
Tonight’s performance includes Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind with Laurie DeLuca on clarinet. Below is a but a taste of this magically somber piece. If you want to hear it live, the Odeon Quartet plays tonight Poncho Recital Hall starting at 8 pm. Do catch this show if you can.
Also in the news, Julia Tai, founder of the Seattle Modern Orchestra, has been named the new director of Philharmonia Northwest. Philharmonia Northwest will no doubt challenge and complement this young but talented conductor. She now heads two local orchestras: the Modern Orchestra which surveys the outer limits of contemporary orchestral music and now the Philharmonia with a repertory that tends to stick closer to Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and the rest of the Austro-Germans.
By R.M. Campbell
If ever there were a symphony program designed to please, it was Thursday night at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra playing Gershwin and Tchaikovsky. Predictably audiences will love it.
A third work was performed, in its Seattle premiere — Cindy McTee’s “Double Play.” Born in Tacoma and educated at Pacific Lutheran University as well as Yale University and University of Iowa, McTee will not be upsetting any apple carts with this piece, composed in two sections but played as one Thursday. It was premiered last year by the Detroit Symphony of which Leonard Slatkin, SSO guest conductor for the night, is the music director. The work is tonally appealing, well-crafted and oiled, making no attempt to be in fashion musically but also making no attempt to go backward in time and spirit. She has plenty of ideas which she has assembled into a coherent whole.
Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” needs no introduction, at least in the United States. Even with that, it doesn’t get a lot of respect in high music circles. But what a lot of tunes Gershwin invented, one after the other. It seems to me the principal problem with performances is that they don’t swing, They don’t take advantage of all the material in front of them, no matter how well executed. That was the case with Slatkin, although he observed all the notes with scrupulous attention to details. Jean-Ives Thibaudt was the soloist. He, too, played everything correctly, but where were the hints of wildness and freedom that Gershwin could not help infuse into his music?
David Gordon, principal trumpet, played with ease and let the music breathe. He was a pleasure to hear. Gordon will solo with the orchestra in concerts May 5-8.
The last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky are always welcome, even the Second. The fifth is very familiar even to the most casual of concert-goers. The work is sumptuous and rich in melodic fervor. Slatkin, conducting without a score, gave the piece his total attention, drawing out all that he could, which is considerable. There was thunder and lightning, but melancholy and longing as well. The symphony succeeds even in the most pedestrian of performances. That was not the case with Slatkin. Although one could cavil about balance issues between the woodwinds and the strings in the final, movement, for instance, there was much to admire.
Solos abound in the Fifth, most notably the one for the French horn in the Andante. John Cerminaro, principal French horn, takes to this celebrated music with grace and beauty. His tone is really an extraordinary coupling of the heroic and mellow. His phrasing is a wonder of soft attacks and a magnificent legato. But he was not alone. The woodwinds shined in every phrase. Ben Hausmann, principal oboe, has never been better and that is to say a lot. Seth Krimsky, principal bassoon, had major assignments all night, including the Tchaikovsky, where he was in particularly good form. Also to be noted is Christopher Sereque, principal clarinet, and Scott Goff, principal flute. The woodwinds now play with exceptional skill on a routine basis. Thursday was one of the best.
The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday nights.
Yevgeny Sudin made his Seattle debut at Meany Hall two years ago. I wasn’t there but by all accounts the concert was a huge success. The Russian pianist returned Wednesday night, offering Haydn, Shostakovich, Chopin, Liszt and Ravel. It was a glorious way to end the 2010-2011 President’s Piano Series.
Although he was born in Russia — St. Petersburg — in 1980 and received his early training there, he has not been a resident since he was 10. At first, he lived in Berlin, then London since 1997, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music. His teachers include all sorts of exalted names like Murray Perahia, Claude Frank, Leon Fleisher and Stephen Hough. Traces of their influence can be heard in his playing today.
Sudbin enjoys a formidable technique. That is an understatement. He can seemingly do anything he chooses with confidence and panache. One connoisseur Wednesday made the astute observation that he has control over everything. He considers the score, working on the details then the whole — seamless and coherent. He knows what he wants. The result is astonishing, amazing really. Unlike many of his Russian colleagues, Sudbin is not flamboyant. He is a virtuoso of the first order, but that said his bravura never seems to say, “Look at me.” Rather, it demonstrates ownership. He possesses a big tone which he can modulate at will and knows how to play softly when the need arises. His double fortes never seem forced. Sudbin likes fast tempos, and undoubtedly there were those who would object. I didn’t. They could be thrilling.
One of the most interesting things about Sudbin is that his playing is majestic, aristocratic, authoritative, not only in the way he shapes individual phrases but paragraphs of music. He makes little attempt to be seductive. He is serious, he is intelligent, he has taste, he is clear-headed. No cheating or fudging when the going gets tough. There is steel in his playing, but also silk and poetry. To some he might seem a little remote, but that remoteness acts as a guardian of his musicianship.
How often does Haydn begin a program? How little do we hear Haydn? Not often enough, and then it doesn’t seem quite right: too modern and harsh or too 18th century and a little precious. With Sudbin, there was clarity above all. I could have used a little lyricism, a little less muscle, but Sudbin wanted to ensure there was no misunderstanding: Haydn is serious business, not merely a warm-up for more important things to come. The beauty of tone to be heard in the Chopin and Ravel was not so present. I don’t think Sudbin hears Haydn that way. It seems, perhaps to him, that the tenderness found in the next century would appear sentimental in Haydn. But how beautifully he laid everything out.
I’m glad he played some Shostakovich — the four preludes from the Opus. 34. They are part of a much larger work, a set of 24 preludes. One often assumes that Russians will play Shostakovich better than non-Russians. I won’t argue the point, but Sudbin captured the aggressiveness of the composer, hints of the bittersweet and all sorts of undercurrents.
Sudbin’s reading of two Chopin ballades — Nos. 3 and 4, in A-flat and F Minor — were a revelation of sophistication and expressive breadth. They had amplitude, punch, pockets of serenity and dramatic force. They were a kind of a grand voyage, at once powerful and full of anticipation, with weight and power in all the right places. Every pianist plays Chopin but not as persuasively as Sudbin. The Transcendental Etude, “Harmonies du soir,” of Liszt was another demonstration of Sudbin’s range and technical resources.
Ravel ended the evening with a work of mystery and brilliance — “Gaspard de la nuit.” Steven Lowe, in his customary illuminating program notes, calls the work “fiendishly difficult.” And it is not only because of extraordinary displays of passagework at high speed, but also issues of tonal balance, accurate rhythmic patterns and delicacy. Sudbin swept though these with command and fierce intensity.
The house rewarded him with loud applause.
A page from the choreographic notation of the ballet Giselle in the Stepanov notation system. Courtesy Harvard Theatre Collection.
For the past year, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s artistic director, Peter Boal, dance historian Marian Smith, and Boal’s assistant and choreographic decipherer Doug Fullington, have been working on a restaging of the romantic ballet “Giselle” which goes back to the original score of composer Adolph Adam, original and extensive 1842 rehearsal notes, a detailed choreographic notation from 1860 and the Stepanov choreographic notation of 1899-1903.
“It’s a bit like cleaning the Sistine Chapel ceiling,” says Fullington, commenting that the ceiling was beautiful as was, but cleaning brought into the light bright colors and many areas not particularly noticeable before. “The ballet is more dense, secondary characters are fleshed out. Some of the work that has been simplified over time, we find is more complex.”
“Giselle,” a famous story ballet which has remained in the repertoire and performed all over the ballet world since its premiere in Paris in 1841, took a long time to establish itself in the U.S.
“It didn’t really fit into the neoclassical style of companies like New York City Ballet,” explains Fullington, because its dramatic story with mime was as important as the dance, where Balanchine was working on more abstract ideas. Until now “Giselle” has never been performed by PNB.
This restaging, however, is garnering interest around the ballet world. Dance magazines from Italy and England are writing articles, the New York papers are sending critics, the Dance Critics Association is holding its annual conference in connection with the production, and there are sure to be more.
The story has love, betrayal, death, the supernatural and vengeance, but with an echo of love as the final conqueror. What more could we want?
Giselle is a peasant girl who loves to dance but dies of a broken heart after her fiance Albrecht is revealed (by a jealous suitor) to be a nobleman in disguise. In death, she joins the Wilis, supernatural maidens who died before the wedding day and are doomed to take revenge on men for eternity. Any hapless men who come near them at night are compelled to dance to exhaustion and death, but Giselle manages to save Albrecht despite the machinations of the Wili Queen.
This is merely the bare bones of the story, which has much more detail. The libretto, written by Theophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges was the start. Adolph Adam wrote the music in the theater as the ballet was being choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, and the whole was put together in just a couple of months in 1841 to take advantage of the great popularity of ballerina Carlotta Grisi. It premiered at the Ballet du Theatre de l’Academie Royale de Musique in Paris. Grisi’s Albrecht was Lucien Petipa, whose brother Marius was one of those instrumental in keeping this ballet alive for the next sixty-plus years and whose restagings for the St. Petersburg Ballet are part and parcel of the restaging we will see here in June.
It’s our good fortune that St. Petersburg, which wanted this ballet immediately, sent a ballet master to Paris in 1842 to annotate the score making extensive notes on the production, and it is these directions and Adam’s score which have been the starting point for this restaging.
“We are using the score as our script,” says Fullington. “Most 19th century ballet scores were not published, maybe a piano reduction was made and sent with the ballet, for instance to St. Petersburg, and then someone there would orchestrate it. It’s so nice to have the original score from the Biblioteque Nationale de France. It’s so light and flavorful, where Russian orchestrations are much heavier.” It was another stroke of luck that a British cellist, Lars Payne, had been editing the Paris score, and completed it in time for PNB to use it.
About ten years ago, Fullington met Marian Smith, a dance historian who has made comprehensive studies of 19th century ballet opera and pantomime in France and how they were intertwined, using “Giselle” as a major example.
She has been on board with PNB to work on this restaging since last fall. During that early period in France, there were many mime moves which meant very specific things, so a ballet using those mimed movements could tell a story quite completely. We are familiar with some of them, for instance the pointing to a ring finger as a sign for marrying. The fount of gestures used in “Giselle” have been drawn by former PNB dancer Uko Gorter and will be in the program guide, though the meanings of many will be clear from the attitude or stance of the performer.
Smith has been helped by the recent resurfacing of another comprehensive notation of “Giselle,” made in Paris by ballet master Henri Justament in 1860, and published in 2008.
Lastly, there is the full choreographic notation of the ballet which was made in St. Petersburg between 1899 and 1903, devised by a Russian called Vladimir Ivanovitch Stepanov. It was only used for a couple of decades, but, again by serendipitous chance, Fullington got interested in this in college, and gradually taught himself how to read it. “It was just lucky that UW had a ttranslated copy of “Two Essays on Stepanov Dance Notation,” by Alexander Gorsky, from 1899, because I didn’t have a dance background,” he says.
When Boal decided to schedule “Giselle” for this season, it would have been easier to go with some other company’s production. Fullington had been hoping to collaborate with Smith for some time, and suggested this exacting restaging as an alternative. “Generously, Peter agreed to go this route,” he says. “This garners much more attention, but it’s also more risky. We feel accountable to do a good job and to explain what we’ve done, and we will be giving talks on that.”
Over the past eight month, in bursts of condensed work, Boal, Smith and Fullington have together with a few dancers in the studio been gradually building the restaging of the ballet. “Marian starts with a road map, I mark a score along with her. Pantomime is either prepared by her or Peter, plus checks on historical sources.”
One question is how to merge the changes in ballet over the past 170 years while still remaining true to the original. Dancers today are more flexible, even bodies are different. Full leg extension was considered in poor taste by Victorian sensibilities, turn out was far less. It’s not PNB’s design to present what would seem quaint, even tame dancing to our eyes, but to bring us the original with the upgraded technique of today. “We want our dancers to look natural to our audience,” says Fullington, “ “Giselle” has a continuous performance tradition with lots of documentation. In 19th century ballet, you’ll include some original choreography and some changes. Some companies do almost everything new. There are some traditional bits that are always unchanged. Anything ‘new’ that we are adding is actually old, parts that have been lost but we think are worth putting back.”
Rehearsals are now coming into full swing for the whole company.
There is much information on the PNB website about this production (pnb.org). The eight performances themselves run from June 3 until June 12.
When Early Music Guild, Seattle Theatre Group, and Spectrum Dance Theater collaborate on a production, you know it’s going to bring in a lot of expertise in various fields and strong characters who will need to work together. When you add in Stephen Stubbs of Pacific Musicworks, Arne Zaslove, doyen of Commedia del’Arte teaching in Seattle, and Theodore Deacon, whose hallmark is enlightening, inventive theater, you get a fascinating mix. What did they come up with in their production of two early Baroque masterpieces, Orazio Vecchi’s “L’Amfiparnaso,” from 1594, and Monteverdi’s “Il Ballo delle Ingrate” from 1607?
These two works can’t really be described as opera, but in the words of the program notes, as “curious and entertaining side trips…on the way to opera.”
It’s the former which works best in this production, perhaps because it’s the age-old comedy of the grasping/climbing dad and/or ancient suitor getting their comeuppance at the hands of the clever servant, and young love finally conquering all (think Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”).
“Il Ballo delle Ingrate” is harder to put across successfully as theater rather than a sung piece, never mind that the music is sublime. It’s a situation rather than a story, with Venus and her son Amor lamenting to the king of the underworld, Pluto, that ladies who put their suitors through hoops to gain their love then don’t play fair but let the suitors pine away. Pluto brings out some of these souls, destined at death to the lower levels of Hell, who dance miserably and yearningly for their lost lives as an example to those who might want to follow their heartless path. Despite fine singing and nice touches (including Pluto’s dog, though Cerberus here only has one head and it takes a while for a watcher to realize that this man in a black suit prancing around with his tongue lolling is a canine), this is pretty static to watch.
“L’Amfiparnaso” (the word with two ‘s’s means outer regions of Parnassus, with only one ‘s’ it means a very rude gesture) is brilliantly staged by Zaslove, who has the five singers in costume and certainly in part of the action as they move around the stage and lend a hand here and there, and the seven mimes in stock Commedia dell’Arte roles sometimes butting in vocally. Paul Del Bene has worked as a clown and in Commedia for 30 years, much of that time in Europe, and Arlecchino is one of his major roles. He is ably abetted here by Joe McCarthy as the doddering Pantalone, Chad Kelderman as both Dottore and the arrogant Capitano, and Angela Bolton as the harlot Hortensia, whose exquisite and expressive use of her hands was a highlight for this watcher. Lucio and Isabella, being young, naïve lovers, are never the most interesting characters so always the hardest roles, but were well acted by Dmitri Carter and Alexandra Blouin.
Lively action abounded, often ribald and on several levels, with excellent stage direction from Zaslove and accompaniment played by Stephen Stubbs, harpsichord, Maxine Eilander, harp and Elizabeth Brown, bass lute. Supertitles replete with dialect and awful jokes, some from the original libretto but others no longer relevant changed to current ones, came from Deacon’s pen. He also prepared new musical editions, first in Italian, and also in English for both works performed, a job that took him a couple of years.
“Ingrate” used more musicians, with five string players, and organ as well as the aforementioned. The production seemed to take place in a modern nightclub with Venus, sung by Debi Wong, slinky in pink charmeuse, Amor (Catherine Webster), in a brown suit and tie, and Pluto (Doug Williams) in a tux, with hangers on, waiter and dog as retinue. One big pleasure here was Williams’ rich bass baritone, whose voice took him almost to the lowest levels of the human range and possibly of the underworld also, as well as surprisingly high and always with a warm rounded tone. The other was Ingrate soprano Linda Tsatsanis, whose well sung dramatic pleas made for the liveliest moments in the whole piece. Donald Byrd’s choreography for the doomed ladies in their beautiful shimmering silver dresses expressed their yearning but, intended to be slow and sad, could not add a lot of vitality to the work.
Program notes were surprisingly inadequate, with no performer biographies, and no mention of what exactly were the roles of all the directors and producers.
The excellent singing from the five madrigalists: Webster, Matthew White, Ross Hauck, James Brown and David Stutz, as well as Willaims and Wong; the professional acting; the equally excellent playing from the instrumentalists; the work done by Deacon, Zaslove and Byrd, should have added up to a highly successful evening.
Yet, at the end, it felt that a great deal of effort, a great deal of good will, and professional expertise on all sides didn’t add up to that.
Trying to understand why, it seemed to come down partly to the difficulty of presenting these early hybrid works (whose composers and authors were feeling their way into the future), partly to not enough money. The “L’Amfiparnaso” set looked like one for a rural high school musical, though costumes and masks (Carl Bronsdon) were imaginative, and there was virtually no set for “Ingrate.”
Had they put all the money into performing the first, and then sung the second with its gorgeous music as a concert piece, could it have worked better?
Is this kind of production financially too ambitious for this aggregate of performing organizations? Yet Early Music Guild, with Stubbs and Deacon put on a superbly successful production of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” some years ago.
It may be that what they are all doing, pushing the envelope of experimental productions of works long relegated to the recesses of the artistic world, is really important, and if they can go on doing it, somehow, eventually, they may draw in the money and the recognition to make this a sought-after success.
Meanwhile one can only send them all the best wishes in the world. It’s rare to have such a marvelous conglomeration of talent in one place and even rarer that they will all work together.
The concert title sounded beguiling, and the performance lived up to it. The third concert in Mostly Nordic’s annual series at the Nordic Heritage Museum featured an Icelandic flutist with music by a half dozen Icelandic composers (plus some Prokofiev, the “Mostly” part of the series name), but it also included some of that country’s history and arts development.
I hadn’t known that Western instruments found their way to Iceland only in the 19th century, with the first brass band formed as late as 1876 and a symphony orchestra in 1925, while indigenous composing only got going in the 20th century. The arts now flourish there.
Melkorka Olafsdottir, the young principal flute of the Icelandic Opera, was a persuasive exponent of her country’s music, performing a variety of quite short works for solo flute and a couple accompanied by Mostly Nordic’s artistic director, Lisa Bergman.
The evocative, unaccompanied “Solitude” by Magnus Blondal Johannsson left one thinking of wide open, empty spaces, with its unhurried tempo and breadth and depth of range, ironically written years after the composer had moved to New York.
Four brief and contemporary settings of Icelandic folk songs by Arni Bjornsson for flute with piano from lullaby to lively were succeeded by Atli Heimir Sveinsson’s “Sounding Minutes.”
Olafsdottir explained the composer wrote 21 one-minute vignettes, each ended by a helper sounding a tiny gong at exactly one minute when the performer was to move on instantly to the next. With an audience helper, armed with gong and timer, she played five: Sounds of Women, Sounds of Rain, then Flowers, Fish and Sounds. Sveinsson used flute techniques we rarely get a chance to hear, except in a recital like this: fluttering sounds, double tones, overblowing like wind in trees, used to great effect, so that he really did achieve the sound of rain, and brought the idea of fish vividly to mind, all within an elegant modern harmonic frame.
A mischievous Oslo Reel by Porkell Sigurbjornsson, an interlude from music for a children’s play by Sveinsson and a lament by Askell Masson followed, and then “Lux” a work for flute and electronics written for Olafsdottir by Hugi Guomundsson. Originally, Olafsdottir explained, it was for solo flute backed up by 12 more flutes, and since that was impossible to travel with, the composer revised the work for an electronic accompaniment, in which she played all the flutes.
It’s hard to imagine how it could sound in the original version, as the flute group sounded quite otherworldly or echoing at times, like an organ at others, the whole with solo creating a fascinating ambiance.
Seveal works besides the “Sounds” and “Lux” required great technical ability which Olafsdottir encompassed as though the easiest thing in the world. Her fast light runs, her staccato or lighter spiccato, even once what sounded like a siren rising and falling under the note she was playing above, left the listener amazed at what this unassuming young player could do, while at the time she was always an expressive proponent of the music.
She and Bergman ended the concert with the big Sonata in D major, Op.94, by Prokofiev, sheer pleasure to hear. Despite very little rehearsal, the two performers seemed very much on the same page, in what Bergman described as a work that is “meat and pototoes” for the flute and piano literature.
The last two concerts in this series are Finland, May 22, and Sweden, June 5. As with all Mostly Nordic concerts, they end with a smorgasbord. Tickets at 206-789-5707, ex 10
Orchestra Seattle will mount one of the classical music highlights of the spring – Bach’s epic St. Matthew Passion – this Sunday at First Free Methodist Church. As has been the case all season, a guest conductor will helm the orchestra. This week it is noted Bach specialist Hans-Jurgen Schnoor. Earlier in the week, I asked Schnoor about the piece and his approach to a large scale work like the Matthew Passion.
Zach Carstensen: Bach’s Matthew Passion is one of many masterpieces Bach wrote. What makes this particular piece so good?
Hans-Jurgen Schnoor: St. Matthew Passion has the widest range both emotionally and dramatically of all the pieces Bach ever wrote.
ZC: What constitutes an authentic Bach performance depends on many factors, some of which like the size of the orchestra and chorus, always seem to be in debate. Is it ever possible for a performance to be truly authentic?
HJS: A performance can be truly authentic only for yourself – you never can repeat a special situation in 1729 or so. But you have to ask the music for its special language – and hopefully you will get an answer.
ZC: Orchestra Seattle has a long Bach performance tradition that began under its previous director. Has this experience helped as you have been preparing the piece for performance this coming Sunday?
HJS: Yes, of course: nearly all of the members of Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers know the whole piece very well. It’s impossible to learn these thousands of details in three weeks.
ZC: For me the Matthew Passion has so many elements that a conductor and orchestra could treat as everything from church music to sacred opera. For you, does this make conducting the piece liberating or nerve
HJS: St. Matthew Passion is a narration of the human condition – conducting this great piece is as liberating as listening to it.
ZC: People often point to the length of the piece as the reason it isn’t performed more often. Is length the only reason or are conductors daunted by the scope of Bach’s music?
HJS: Daunted by the length or by the scope? Never – if I were, I’d say I had the wrong job
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