Friday, 5 March 2010
Giuseppe Martucci's Full Orchestral Works
In 2009, the death of Giuseppe Martucci was an important centenary that received scant notice, even in Italy. The main event was a series of concerts by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma (OSR; see La Scena's blog on December 18th) in the gardens of the Caserta’s Royal Palace. Caserta is near Capua, where Martucci was born in 1856. Its Royal Palace is the Southern Italian equivalent of Versailles. Naxos and the OSR have taken a major step to preserve the memory of Martucci with the release of an elegant blue and gold box set of four CDs containing Martucci’s complete orchestral works. In Europe, it reached the record stores just in time to be a nice Christmas present for music lovers.
Who was Giuseppe Martucci? Why is his name nearly forgotten in his home country? Why do his symphonies and concertos still deserve attention today? Reportedly, Martucci was a superb conductor: Richard Strauss considered him very highly after listening to a Tristan und Isolde he conducted in Bologna. Arturo Toscanini also had great consideration for him – in 1932, Toscanini’s last two concerts in Italy (before leaving for the US) only included symphonic works by Martucci. Martucci absorbed German symphonies and tone poems and became the Italian apostle of Beethoven, Schuman, Brahms, Franck as well as, of course, Wagner and many other German, French and mittle-European composers. Musical theatre – especially various forms and types of melodrama but also operettas and comic operas – domineered the Italian musical scene in the second part of the 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th century, the period when Martucci was at work as a conductor, teacher, director of Licei Musicali and Conservatori (music schools) and private musical organizations (in Milan, Bologna and Naples) as well as a composer. Martucci was one of the few composers to give his talent and efforts entirely to pure music (without a plot, a libretto, a stage set and all the operatic paraphernalia). In addition to its intrinsic values, his music has an important historical meaning: it was a seed that a few pioneers planted in the latter part of the 19th century (e.g. Sgambati, Busoni, Bazzini, in addition to Martucci himself) to prepare the Italian symphonic development (Malipiero, Casella, Respighi, Petrassi, Pizzetti) of the 20th century. This was quite an original development; it molded German romantic and late Romantic influence with innovative elements rooted in the ancient Italian musical tradition. Are Martucci’s orchestral work still relevant today? In February 2009, the performance of some of his tone poems by the ORS (after decades of neglect) was received with standing ovations at the Berlin and Krakow Philharmonic and at the Ludwigshaven Concert Hall.
The main item on the first record is Martucci’s First Symphony, a large-scale work which displays a strong lyric impulse, experienced craftsmanship, and an exquisite sense of fancy. One can hear quotations from Schumann and Brahms. The Scherzo-Allegretto is a sly contrast to the solemn and warm Andante that precedes it. The real impressive movement is the soaring, intensely dramatic finale, a 15-minute Allegro-Resoluto that builds skillfully to a powerful, surging climax. The listener can feel Martucci’s Neapolitan soul, while there is the anticipation of Resphighi’s major works.
The record includes four short pieces, mostly orchestral transcriptions of piano works for recital tours. None quite attains the eloquence of the symphony’s best pages, but none is without its charms either. Especially enjoyable is the Andante No. 2, which turns into a fairly effective miniature cello concerto.
The Second Symphony is the centre-piece of the second record. It combines Sibelius’s majestic symphonic sweep with Italian lyricism in a wonderfully stirring first movement. Later movements sometimes sound like Elgar, with his sweetness and nobility of expression. It shows how Martucci brought these influences to Italy as early as 1904, and it is no wonder that Toscanini championed this piece. The first movement Allegro Moderatom seems to anticipate Sibelius: while the horns and strings enjoy much of that rich German Romantic texture, there are some little woodwind figures which seem to leap straight out of something altogether more Czechoslovakian. The second movement, Scherzo, deserves full special attention with its quirky running string figures and lively commentary from the winds. The Adagio, ma non troppo is a 13-minute musical landscape where Martucci walks from a low string sequence (with a similar mood to Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen) to an extended build-up and massive climax with strings and blazing brass to a soft and restrained final section and coda. The final Allegro is full of bristling mustaches and jaunty top hats.
The most substantial of the three pieces on the rest of the record is the 14.5-minute Theme and Variations. Besides his two concertos, this is Martucci’s only work for piano and orchestra. It was originally written for solo piano in 1882. The Gavotta No. 2 is brighter, the strutting outer parts framing a pastoral scene. The concluding Tarantella No. 6 is a noisy, colorful, hedonistic dance. The other two records have as the key compositions two piano concertos. Particularly impressive is the First Piano Concerto. A horn call sets the first movement in motion, with the initial orchestral theme building to a climax which is followed by more reflective music then a poetic theme on strings. The mood again darkens, then after a brief passage for strings the soloist enters with a stormy rendering of the opening theme. Piano and orchestra expand on this, before the former takes up the strings’ theme and develops its expressive qualities accordingly. This grows in ardor, leading to a lengthy transition to the intensified return of the opening. The central section commences with some impetuous piano writing, though woodwind allusions bring back to the initial theme a brief climax that is cut short. Anticipatory gestures on woodwind and strings build to a crescendo to the finale, where the main theme provokes alternately stormy and poetic exchanges.
The Second Piano Concerto is embodied in pyrotechnic virtuosi from the very first movement: a long (21 minutes) Allegro Giusto where, after a terse orchestral gesture, the soloist takes up virtuosic passages. The central section is a Larghetto that revolves around a sustained theme for lower strings which builds in intensity to a confrontation between the pianist and the orchestra and ends with the initial melody on woodwind decorated by a piano arabesque. The final movement, a compact (9 minutes) Allegro con Spirito, ends with scintillating piano which leads into a breathless close.
The third record offers the song cycle La canzone dei ricordi (The Song of Remembrance). Setting poems by Rocco Emanuele Pagliara, the piece is significant in that orchestral song cycles were then all but unknown in Italy, although Martucci probably knew Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. The first song sets the tone of the overall work with its recollection of a past happiness such as can never be recaptured. The second song then intensifies this in its evocation of spring as a time for hope and anticipation, with the shimmering accompaniment evoking ‘forest murmurs’ of a decidedly Italianate sensuousness. The third song alternates deftly between past and present as the words of an old serenade are recalled with a wistful regret, intensifying markedly towards the close. The fourth song is the shortest and the simplest, its description of a boat at sea conjuring forth images of joy and freedom that are both mirrored in the liveliness of the orchestration. The fifth song is the most intense: the revisiting of a place where love once blossomed has become a source of lament now that it can offer no comfort. The sixth song is the climax of the cycle and also unusual in that its opening section is merely an introduction to the fonder recollections of time and place that follow, with the initial music returning in an orchestral postlude. The seventh song functions as an epilogue to the cycle as a whole: extracts from the first song return in a setting where the voice is made secondary to the orchestra’s allusions to earlier themes, as the work draws slowly to its close in a mood of rapt serenity.
Of the three composition which follow the Second Piano Concerto on the fourth record, especially interesting is Colore Orientale, a pièce d’ambiance to create an atmosphere.
About the artists
Under the baton of Maestro Francesco La Vecchia, the OSR, although comparatively young, has reached full maturity and compares well with the major European symphony orchestras. The OSR policy is to encourage and promote young artists. Gesualdo Coggi interacts with the OSR in a fascinating dialogue in the two piano concertos and Lya De Barberis confronts the OSR in Theme and Variations. Silvia Pasini is a skilled mezzo in La canzone dei ricordi. Andrea Nocerini is the skillful cellist in Andante No 2. They all deserve full marks.
Thursday, 4 March 2010
Donizetti's Don Pasquale Delicious in Dallas' New Winspear Opera House
The Dallas Opera has a long and illustrious history. It was founded in 1957 and its first presentations featured the legendary Maria Callas in a Zeffirelli production of La Traviata, as well as in Medea, and Lucia di Lammermoor. Other big stars followed, including Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo, Joan Sutherland and Jon Vickers.
Those were Dallas Opera’s Golden Years; unfortunately, the money just wasn’t there to sustain the company at this level, especially when performances had to be given in the enormous and inhospitable Music Hall at Fair Park.
Today, over 50 years after its inception, with the opening of the Margo and Bill Winspear Opera House, a new day may be dawning for the Dallas Opera. I made my first visit to its new home this past weekend for a production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.
Generally speaking, the production was excellent: the cast was first-rate; the sets and costumes by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle were just right; the stage direction by Candace Evans was full of fun; and conductor Stefano Ranzani did his work with efficiency and charm.
Constant Stream of Funny Business Keeps Audience in Stitches!
I assume that the inspired, very effective mime episodes played in front of the curtain during the scene changes were the inspiration of director Candace Evans. These and the accompanying wry, humorous supertitles added significantly to the overall comedic effect.
Unfortunately, I can’t say as much for the upstaging that went on during some of the arias, nor could I make much of the silly painting Ernesto worked away on at various points in the opera. It was in a colorful style quite at odds with Ponnelle’s subdued grays and browns. Why was it there? What did it represent? I didn’t get the point, if there was one.
Overall, Evans showed a remarkable talent for inventing genuinely funny bits of business. Some of the bits misfired, but the only real test is audience reaction, and there was plenty of laughter at the performance I attended.
Don Pasquale is currently running in rep with Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Dallas Opera. These are both intimate, small-scale operas, productions of which, in my estimation, would have been ludicrous at the old Fair Park facility. Dallas Opera archives show they were done there anyway!
But all that is past history! In the Margo and Bill Winspear Opera House opera house, the dozens of intimate small-scale operas in the repertoire can be seen and heard as they were intended to be seen and heard. Even operas such as Verdi’s Falstaff or Britten’s Death in Venice, neither of which the Dallas Opera has ever done, will benefit enormously from being presented in the Winspear Opera House.
Although the orchestra required for Don Pasquale is small, the pit in the new house is large enough to accommodate the sizeable orchestras required for operas by Wagner and Strauss.
Yet to come this season are Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Jake Heggie’s new opera Moby Dick starring Ben Heppner. I can’t wait.
First Impressions of Dallas Opera’s New Home
The Margo and Bill Winspear Opera House is the latest addition to the rapidly evolving Dallas Arts District. When finished, this area will undoubtedly be a source of tremendous civic pride for generations to come. Already, within walking distance of each other, are the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Garden, and the Trammel Crowe Asian Art Museum. From these one can stroll to the Myerson Symphony Center, home of the Dallas Symphony, and the new opera house, right next door.
In discussions about arts facilities, the argument is usually made that the most important thing is the performing space, and indeed it is; however, at a time when the audience for classical music is declining, it may be extremely shortsighted to make the public spaces any less than comfortable and welcoming.
I must confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by the exterior of the Winspear Opera House. At night it glows red and magical, but in the light of a gray winter’s day, it projects no particular aura at all. The entrance is functional rather than imaginative, and the lobby area is gray and unappealing. I had the impression I was walking into a government cafeteria.
The Myerson Symphony Center next door greets the patrons with far more flair and style. I would guess that the architect probably had interesting ideas for the entrance and public areas of the Winspear Opera House, which the budget-cutters ultimately whittled away.
It may well have been the same story for three other recently opened arts facilities. Both the Long Center in Austin (Texas) and the Four Seasons Opera House in Toronto (Ontario, Canada) were forced to cut their lobby areas down to almost nothing. The Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles also has bare bones, depressing public spaces.
Once inside the house, I began to feel a whole lot better about the place. Most importantly, it is the right size for its primary purpose. Seating 2,200, it is about the same size as the best European opera houses and a far cry from the old Music Hall (3,400) at Fair Park and the gigantic Metropolitan Opera House (3,800). Sitting almost anywhere in the Met in New York for a live performance, one gets little or no idea what the performers even look like (Thank goodness for ‘Live at the Met in HD!')
Inside the hall, the Winspear Opera House actually ‘feels’ intimate and this perception was later reinforced by the performance itself. The seats are comfortable – not always the case in new halls – and there is wood everywhere, on the floors, walls and behind the whitish gold face pieces on each of the balconies.
And the sound? Well, it is rash to generalize after hearing only a single performance, but I would make a number of preliminary observations. I was sitting in what must surely be one of the best seats in the house, in Orchestra Center in row M. From that vantage point most of the singers seemed to project just fine and the orchestra – albeit a medium-sized one of about 55 players for Don Pasquale - seemed to have lots of bass and lots of presence.
On the debit side, I detected an unpleasant muddiness in the lower depths of the orchestra - a persistent lack of clarity and definition. In addition, coordination between singers and orchestra was often ‘hit and miss’ in the quick ensembles.
These may be problems that can be overcome with minor adjustments – moving the instruments to different positions in the pit, asking the timpanist to use harder sticks, etc. As the performers become more familiar with the characteristics of the house, these initial difficulties may well be resolved.
For Those Wanting More…
The Dallas Opera has one of the most useful and exciting websites in the business. It has all the usual information about the current season and how to order tickets, as well as a fantastic education section. There is basic information relating to the history of opera, vocal styles and technical terms, as well as interactive material and toolkits for teachers. For anyone interested in learning more about opera, this is a rewarding website to visit.
One of best items on the website is the blog produced by PR director Suzanne Calvin. It includes video clips from current productions and lectures, news and gossip from the international world of opera, and a dizzying array of local events for opera lovers. Suzanne seems to be everywhere at once leading gallery walks, arranging film nights and wine tastings, and presenting lectures (Barnes & Noble) on lively subjects, such as “Literary Cafes of Paris”. It all makes me wish I lived in Dallas.
The Dallas Opera recently announced its 2010-2011 season, which will open with Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in October, then continue with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Lipsynch in Montreal - the revival of theatrical magic
Lipsynch is to theatre what Avatar is to cinema. It's a shocking parallel, but here's the reason: Avatar has reinvigorated the magic of the epic movie event; this is what viewers felt like when Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz were first released, the critics keep saying. Lipsynch is an 8 1/2 hour play filled with magic: it innovates within the theatrical medium like those films did within the blockbuster movie genre.
This is the power of theatre people felt watching the first Hamlet, I thought: to sit still in one's seat and learn, overhear, and travel, all the while dazzled by an artistry of sight, sound and spectacle you had never experienced before. Watching Lipsynch felt like a new theatrical experience offstage, too; it was a theatre event. With four 20-minute intermissions and one 45-minute meal break (there is also an option of watching the play in three hour blocks over three evenings), there were avid discussions on the staging and the production.
Lipsynch spans three continents and seven decades. It features four languages (with French subtitles when necessary), exploring the theme of the human voice through nine main characters whose lives connect like a game of dominoes. These include an opera singer, prostitute-turned-housecleaner, filmmaker, neurosurgeon, and Scotland Yard detective. Nine actors put on a bravado performance as the nine characters as well as a host of others that appear in the other's worlds. Although some characters' 'chapters' are more tangentially connected to the central story, the nine hours do not lag often (I've watched films that seemed longer) as they have been nicely rearranged since the show's 2008 premiere in London, when such problems were noted. A central mystery also keeps the momentum going. In true Lepage style it involves a case of unknown parenthood - the play begins with an unknown teenager who dies with her baby in her arms on a transcontinental flight. The baby is adopted by another central character and the parentage and background of the child is slowly revealed throughout the production. Humour also keeps the play from dragging; humour is even built into the constant but fairly fluid costume and scene changes. There is even bawdy humour, something unexpected from such a production; then there is humour such as the Hamlet soliloquy presented with a bagel instead of a skull.
Lepage's forays into cinema and opera have clearly affected the text, which was co-written by Lepage and all the actors. The mise-en-scène is very cinematic, constantly framed through boxes and screens and mediated through sound and video recordings. One such use of a camera onstage even makes something otherwise impossible in theatre possible: the 'shot - counter shot' in cinema which enables two characters to face each other completely while the audience can still see the face of each straight on. Opera has influenced both the music and construction of the play, which works on a leitmotif-laden, mythic structure akin to a Wagner opera.
While exploring voice through singing, accents and languages, psychological disorders, sound recording, film dubbing, and much more, Lepage and Ex Machina has stayed true to the metaphorical voice which one character in the play, a documentary filmmaker, espouses: "the job of the artist," she says, "is to give a voice to others." Lipsynch gives voices to a host of characters and conditions, crossing classes and countries with ease.
To read La SCENA's September 2009 interview with Robert Lepage and short review of Lipsynch's Toronto production, visit www.scena.org/pdf-files/sm15-1.pdf
Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Catch PSY before it's sold out!
By Crystal Chan
Watch this clip for exclusive interviews with the artists: