Category Archives: Music

10 RUSSIAN OPERAS BEING STAGED AROUND THE WORLD IN THE NEW 2021–22 SEASON ·

Damir Yusupov/The Bolshoi Theater

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the headlines, 10/21/2021.)

Russia gave the world not only ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘War and Peace’, but also some larger-than-life operas, as well. Don’t miss a chance to see them in the new season!

1. ‘Boris Godunov’ at the Metropolitan Opera (New York City, United States)

In terms of the depth and subtlety of psychological analysis, Modest Mussorgsky could definitely rival Fyodor Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy.

In ‘Boris Godunov’, he proved himself not only as a great composer and librettist, but also as a visionary far ahead of his time. Mussorgsky broke new ground in that he actually chose to highlight the dramatic conflict between the tsar and the people in this historical operatic blockbuster. The Russian composer went as far as to actually give the people the lead role in ‘Boris Godunov’. 

The Metropolitan Opera aptly describes Mussorgsky’s masterpiece as “a pillar of the Russian repertoire”, noting that the performance has been staged in its original 1869 version. Stephen Wadsworth’s production, with German bass René Pape as the title character in Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’, depicts the “hope and suffering of the Russian people as well as the tsar himself”.

2. ‘The Queen of Spades’ at La Scala (Milan, Italy)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s grim tale of passion and greed is widely considered the pinnacle of his artistic achievement. With the libretto composed by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, the masterwork is based on Alexander Pushkin’s mystical short story, ‘The Queen of Spades’.

It has it all: passion, obsession, fear and fire. 

The opera is set in 18th century St. Petersburg and revolves around an unfortunate young man named Herman, who is obsessed with gambling. Herman also seems to be in love with the charming Lisa, whose grandmother, an old Countess, knows the secret of the “three winning cards”. Herman takes his obsession with gambling too far and things quickly go off the rails. 

Staged by Matthias Hartmann, ‘The Queen of Spades’ stars mesmerizing Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as the Countess and Russian tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov as Herman.

Russian tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov

In the new season, Tchaikovsky’s grandest opera will be conducted by Maestro Valery Gergiev.

3. ‘Sadko’ at the Bolshoi Theater (Moscow, Russia)

‘Sadko’ is, by far and large, Russia’s musical answer to Homer’s ‘Odysseus’. All modesty aside, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov gave his work quite an unusual genre definition – an epic opera.

'Sadko' at the Bolshoi Theater

Indeed, the prolific composer created a musical score of epic proportions, which requires an exceptional cast of performers and a nontrivial solution to setting the blockbuster opera. In ‘Sadko’, dramatic mass scenes alternate with heartfelt lyrical episodes, characterized by the exquisite beauty of the melodies. The opera focuses on Sadko, a young musician who dreams about incredible adventures and overseas travel. Sadko decries wealthy merchants for boasting and bluster, but the wandering artist will have to put his words into action after the fateful with the Tsar of the Sea. Charismatic tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov, who has performed at the Royal Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, nails it as Sadko in the trailblazing production staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov.

4. ‘Eugene Onegin’ at the Vienna State Opera (Vienna, Austria)

Tchaikovsky was a true original, who never followed the crowd. So, instead of a story boasting “tsars, tsarinas, uprisings, battles and marches”. Tchaikovsky said he needed an intimate human drama with universal appeal. With the inner world of the characters in mind, Tchaikovsky created his signature “lyrical scenes in three acts”, featuring an ideal combination of pathos, drama and dignity.

‘Eugene Onegin’, based on Pushkin’s famous novel in verse, focuses on a young and sentimental woman, Tatiana Larina, who naively declares her love to a self-centered man. Eugene Onegin, who is cold as a fish, rejects Tatiana’s love and continues to live his life to the full. When he realizes that he might have missed the love of his life, it’s already too late. 

Andre Schuen as Onegin and Nicole Car as Tatyana.

Cutting-edge director and set designer Dmitri Tcherniakov creates an atmosphere of dramatic movement at the Vienna State Opera, with baritone Andre Schuen’s Onegin and Nicole Car’s Tatyana sharing charisma on stage.

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OPERA: THE SUBLIME TERROR OF KAIJA SAARIAHO’S “INNOCENCE” ·

(Alex Ross’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 7/19; illustration: The opera’s atmosphere is at once sensual and unsettled—dread in vivid colors. Illustration by Jun Cen.)

The new opera, which anchored the Aix-en-Provence Festival, is a monumental cry against gun violence.

Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Innocence,” which had its première at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on July 3rd, contains one of the most unnerving scenes I’ve witnessed at a theatre. About forty minutes into the piece, in a scene marked “IT,” the chorus chants the phrase “When it happened” in staggered rhythm, with low piano and double-basses punching up each syllable. A frame drum raps out sixteenth notes in rapid-fire bursts, and two trumpets let loose a series of “rips”—quick, shrieking upward glissandos. Then the orchestral mayhem cuts off abruptly; sopranos oscillate queasily between the notes A-flat and G; and the brutal rhythm resumes in the percussion. The terror is made explicit onstage, as a high-school student stumbles through a door, his arms covered in blood. A shooter, a fellow-student, is laying siege to a Finnish international school. Opera, which has been making art from death for more than four centuries, is recording a new kind of horror.

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CROWD ME WITH LOVE! OUR ULTIMATE TOP 20 “BEING ALIVE” COUNTDOWN FROM STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S COMPANY ·

 BroadwayBoxCom BroadwayBox

Crowd Me With Love! Our Ultimate Top 20 "Being Alive" Count…

Photo by Emilio Madrid, Martha Swope/NYPL for Performing Arts

At the Alvin Theatre on April 26, 1970, the name Bobby became not only a powerhouse role in musical theatre history but also a lush orchestral “overture” and exclamation by Manhattan couples in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company.

Broadway audiences met vibrantly, unique couples, each character hilarious, charismatic, and at times zany in their own way – not to mention the three singles Bobby is pursuing that confess he could drive a person crazy. At the end of the musical comedy comes a Sondheim anthem that has been covered by Broadway’s absolute finest, “Being Alive.” After considering marriage or staying single on the eve of his 35th birthday, Bobby expresses himself through this sensational song.

On the anniversary of the musical’s opening night, it seems like no better time than the present to run our all time ultimate YouTube countdown of our favorite performances of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from Company

20. John BarrowmanCarol BurnettGeorge HearnRuthie Henshall and Bronson Pinchot

We have to shout out this gorgeous Jonathan Tunick arranged performance of the song from Broadway’s Putting It Together in 1999. Ruthie’s entire vocal line but especially at 0:49 – 1:00 is ::chef’s kiss:: This number is so lovely.

19. Julian Ovenden

What a voice! Julian puts this stunning old school crooner quality to the Sondheim tune. He really takes off with that clap at 3:09. That magnificent orchestra too is beautiful.

18. Telly Leung

Telly’s voice does. not. quit! So, so great. We love the quiet moments at 1:05. This is such a fantastic interpretation and we absolutely love 1:48 – 2:00.

17. Adam Driver

Remember when we all dropped everything when we heard Adam Driver was singing Sondheim in his Netflix film Marriage Story? Here’s why. Adam not only so authentically performs the number (and the rest of COMPANY’s characters’ lines) in the film that it still is wowing us. Act.Ing.

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JAMES LEVINE, MET OPERA CONDUCTOR FOR FOUR DECADES, DIES AT 77 ·

(Laurence Arnold’s article appeared on Bloomberg, 3/17; Photo:  James Levine leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2010. Photographer: Hiroyuki Ito/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)

Elevated opera company into the ranks of the world’s elite

He was fired in 2018 for sex harassment, abusive conduct

James Levine, who polished New York’s Metropolitan Opera into a world-renowned institution during four decades as conductor and director until he was fired for sexual harassment, has died. He was 77.

He died on March 9 in Palm Springs, California, according to the New York Times, citing Dr. Len Horovitz, his physician, who confirmed the news Wednesday morning. No cause was given. Levine’s health problems had included Parkinson’s disease.

A child prodigy on the piano, Levine became an ambassador for opera in the U.S. and was often compared to another American-born world-class conductor, Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990.

His marathon tenure at the Met elevated the opera company into the ranks of the world’s elite. He made his debut in 1971 conducting “Tosca” and became principal conductor in 1973, music director in 1976 and the company’s first-ever artistic director in 1986. He led more than 2,500 performances of 85 different operas.

The Met had “blundered through seasons of painful disarray” before Levine became chief conductor in 1973, and he “moved decisively to remold the orchestra and chorus into proudly energized ensembles,” Joseph Horowitz wrote in his 2005 book, “Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.”

Levine inaugurated the “Metropolitan Opera Presents” television show for the Public Broadcasting System, founded the Met’s Young Artist Development Program and, in 1991, began leading the Met’s orchestra on world tours.

His reputation plummeted in late 2017 when the Metropolitan Opera suspended Levine amid accusations of sexual abuse. An outside law firm investigated the allegations, which Levine called “unfounded.” He was fired in March 2018 for “sexually abusive and harassing conduct,” according to a statement from the opera company.

He conducted his final performance in the orchestra pit as the Met’s music director in May 2016. Because of his reliance on a motorized wheelchair, he couldn’t make it from the pit to the stage for the audience’s prolonged ovation, the New York Times reported.

His health issues over the years included chronic back pain from spinal stenosis, which compresses the spinal cord. In September 2011, the Met said Levine had suffered damage to one of his vertebrae in a fall and withdrew from performances.

Boston Symphony

Starting in 2004, while still leading the Met, Levine took on the added responsibilities of music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He resigned that post in 2011 as his health problems worsened.

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ATTEND THE TALE OF ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE,’ THEN AND NOW ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/19; via Pam Green; Photo:  From left, Maria Friedman, John Owen Edwards, John Yap and Stephen Sondheim working on the recording of “Anyone Can Whistle” at Abbey Road Studios in 2013.Credit…Doug Craib, via JAY Records.)

A sparkling new recording of the 1964 musical makes half the case for Stephen Sondheim’s endlessly inventive score.

A new recording of “Anyone Can Whistle,” the 1964 musical by Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, has for decades been on the wish lists of Broadway cultists and completists. Now that their wish has been granted — a complete studio version from the English label Jay Records was released in December — I think they’ll find that new isn’t always enough.

Which is not to say it isn’t vastly welcome. The original cast album from Columbia Records, though better than you might expect from a one-week flop, is less than ideal. Sondheim’s endlessly inventive score was heavily truncated, and the singers, who recorded it on the Sunday morning after the closing on a Saturday night, sound exhausted. Bungles abound. Despite lovely moments, that disc (now available on Masterworks Broadway) comes off less as a living record of the show than as a hasty, sketchy post-mortem.

Maybe that was apt. The disaster that opened at the Majestic Theater on April 4, 1964, had already been in florid trouble out of town. One actor had a heart attack during a Philadelphia performance; a dancer caused a heart attack when she flew off the stage, into the pit and onto a saxophone player. Everyone else was left to squabble and panic. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when “Whistle” eventually got to Broadway, in a season otherwise notable for “Hello, Dolly!” and “Funny Girl,” it struck many theatergoers as chaotic and alienating.

Chaotic it still is. Laurents’s satirical book, though clever and novel, works too hard at too many things, aiming darts at every -ism in its path: conformism, evangelism and cronyism among them. The gangly plot, involving a venal mayoress faking a miracle (Angela Lansbury in the original production), a repressed nurse with a French alter ego (Lee Remick) and a psychiatrist who’s actually a psychiatric patient (Harry Guardino), seems to be held together by spit and sarcasm.

But it wasn’t just the complicated book; audiences weren’t yet ready for the complications of Sondheim. Despite his score for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — a hit that was still running after two years on Broadway — he was mostly pegged as a lyricist, and his music for “Whistle” did not go over well. In The Times, Howard Taubman allowed that some songs were pleasing, “but not enough of them.” Another critic called the music, inaccurately, atonal.

Despite such judgments, several songs from “Whistle” — including “A Parade in Town,” “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “With So Little to Be Sure Of” and the title song — are now widely performed. Smallish revivals over the years, and a starry Encores! presentation in 2010, demonstrated that much of the show could be redeemed by its score.

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FACED WITH THE COLD, SMU MUSIC PROFESSOR SLEPT WITH HIS 330-YEAR-OLD VIOLIN TO PROTECT IT ·

(Tim Diovanni’s article appeared in the Dallas Morning News, 2/19; SMU professor Aaron Boyd poses with his violin on Thursday.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer; via the Drudge Report.)

With his Plano thermostat in the 40s, the owner of a precious instrument was forced to get creative in caring for it.

As temperatures plummeted across Texas this week, a local violinist began sleeping with his instrument. Aaron Boyd, director of chamber music at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, spent a few nights snuggling up with his 5-year-old son, Yuki, and his violin, which was nestled in its case, under many blankets.

It was made in Venice in 1690. “I treat this violin as if it were a living creature,” says Boyd, who didn’t have power for most of Monday and Tuesday. Though he doesn’t think his “old Italian masterpiece” would have cracked when the temperature at his home in Plano dropped into the 40s, he “would never want to test it,” he says. “Because once it’s cracked, you have to have it fixed. And it’s never quite the same afterward.”

A salesperson pulled the instrument out of a safe at a New York City violin shop about 10 years ago after Boyd had asked to see something Venetian. Its creator, Matteo Goffriller, was the father of the “Venetian School” of luthiers. (From the French word for lute, “luthier” means an artisan who builds and repairs string instruments.) Goffriller is believed to have taught several prominent luthiers, and the deep red varnish he used was one of his trademarks.

“It was love at first sight,” Boyd remembers. Though he declined to say what it cost, it was more than he could afford, so he started saving up. “I spent the next six months waking up and going to sleep with a calculator in my hand, trying to see how I could make it happen,” Boyd says. “It’s a love affair I have with a particular instrument which expresses the sound I’m looking for.”

Aaron Boyd’s violin sits in its case on Thursday. The instrument was made in Venice in 1690 by Matteo Goffriller, a renowned craftsman of string instruments.

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ON CHRISTMAS NIGHT WITH THE BBC SINGERS AND BBC CONCERT ORCHESTRA ·

Two contrasting pieces of narration set to music. The BBC Singers and conductor Nicolas Chalmers present Hymn – Alan Bennett’s early musical recollections, originally set to music written for string quartet by George Fenton. Hymn has been arranged for the BBC Singers by Clare Wheeler, with additional material by Jonathan Manners and Paul Spicer. The BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor David Hill then perform Richard Allain’s musical setting of A Christmas Carol with narration by Stephen Fry. Alan Bennett/George Fenton: Hymn (arr. Clare Wheeler) BBC Singers Alan Bennett – narrator Nicholas Chalmers – conductor Richard Allain: A Christmas Carol BBC Concert Orchestra Stephen Fry – narrator David Hill – conductor

Listen

THIS BRAZILIAN PIANIST USES ‘BIONIC GLOVES’ TO PLAY ·

(from Reuters, 11/6. Photo: Brazilian conductor and pianist Joao Carlos Martins, 80, who after many years lost the ability to play due to health complications from focal dystonia, smiles as he plays piano with bionic gloves at his house in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Oct. 28, 2020.Amanda Perobelli / Reuters; via the Drudge Report.)

“To be able to use all ten fingers again more than 20 years later is a miracle for me at the age of 80,” pianist João Carlos Martins said.

SAO PAULO – Acclaimed Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins had not played with 10 fingers since he lost the use of his right hand in a 1995 mugging in Bulgaria.

But today he has returned to play his favorite Bach sonatas thanks to “bionic gloves” invented by industrial designer Ubiratan Bizarro.

“When he showed me the gloves, I joked that they were for boxing, not to play the piano,” Martins, 80, said of the black neoprene gloves made by 3D printer.

The gloves have rods that make the fingers spring back up after they depress the keys and allow the pianist to continue playing.

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10 FACTS ABOUT THE COMPOSER IGOR STRAVINSKY YOU NEED TO KNOW ·

(Anna Galayda’s  article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 9/4; Photo: classicstogo.nl)

The legendary musician lived for 88 years (1882-1971). He witnessed some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century, which found a vivid expression in his works.

One of the most radical composers of the 20th century was the son of an opera singer, who in many ways embodied the musical tradition of the 19th century. Bass Fyodor Ignatievich Stravinsky was awarded the rare title of an Honored Artist of the Imperial Theaters, in which he had served for a quarter of a century. He had 59 operas in his repertoire. Some of his signature roles included Varlaam in Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, Farlaf in Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka, Miller in Rusalka by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Orlik in Mazepa by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Stravinsky Sr. was a prominent figure on the St. Petersburg cultural scene. Ilya Repin used him as a model for one of the Cossacks in his famous painting Zaporozhian Cossacks Write a Letter to the Turkish Sultan; and Fyodor Dostoevsky was a guest in the singer’s house.

2. He became a composer thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov

The composer often described Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as his second father. Having entered – at the insistence of his family – the law faculty of St. Petersburg University, Stravinsky never had any formal music education. Rimsky-Korsakov discerned his original gift, dissuaded him from entering the Conservatory, and for two years gave him private lessons himself, thus playing a decisive role in Stravinsky’s professional development.

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HAMILTON REVIEW – BROADWAY HIT IS NOW A BREATHTAKING SCREEN SENSATION ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/30; photo: The Guardian.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is smart, witty, funky and leaves us reflecting on America’s past and future

Hamilton was hailed as revolutionary theatre in 2015, with its rapping 18th-century statesmen, its funky, feelgood hip-hop and a cast predominantly comprising actors of colour. It went on to conquer Broadway and West End audiences. How does that original Broadway staging fare on the flat screen, streamed by Disney+ in the midst of lockdown?

It spoke to the moment then, and it speaks to us now, say director Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star, in their short, socially distanced preamble to this highly anticipated film of the show. “We are all thinking about what it means to be American,” they add. Even if these words are not in direct reference to the America of the past few weeks, with its upsurge of anti-racist protest, their story of the Caribbean-born immigrant hero and founding father of the US, Alexander Hamilton, speaks to us obliquely of all that remains neglected in America’s history while shifting the parameters at the same time.

Its rousing opening scenes remind us of that great American ideal of equality and speaks of slavery and civil rights in the 18th century. “I never thought I’d live past 20. Where I come from, some get half as many,” sings Hamilton at the start, and his words echo the dangerous fate that awaits so many of America’s black or immigrant underclass now, as debate around Black Lives Matter protests has highlighted.

Even more remarkably, it keeps all the power of a live performance while simultaneously adding a filmic pizzazz including some breathtaking aerial shots. There is extraordinary direction – again under Kail – so that the cameras capture the mise en scène of theatre without losing any of the closeup intimacy of film.

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