La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Rossini's "Italian Girl in Algiers" Takes Flight in Austin, Texas

I doubt that Gioachino Rossini had airplanes and hot-air balloons in mind when he wrote his comic opera L’Italiana in Algeri in 1813 - but why not? There is so much craziness in the opera as written, that a little more just adds to the fun. And there was plenty of fun in the Austin Lyric Opera (ALO) production that took to the stage at the Long Center last week.
The Austin Lyric Opera is a regional company with a modest budget, struggling every month to keep its head above water; yet it consistently manages to mount one imaginative and entertaining production after another.
General Director Kevin Patterson sure knows how to pick them. The company, which celebrates its 25thanniversary next season, fully deserves not only the support of the local community, but in my opinion, national recognition as well.
I have been attending ALO performances for about six years now, and I have come to know that when I see Richard Buckley in the pit, the music is in good hands. That was certainly the case with this production. A few more stands of violins from the Austin Symphony might have given him a fuller sound, but throughout the evening the playing was audibly bubbly and charming. Piccolo player Beverly Frittelli deserves a purple heart for her bravery ‘under fire.’
The delightful “set” for this production of L’Italiana in Algeri, which the ALO borrowed from the Sante Fe Opera, was designed by Robert Innes Hopkins. It resembles a child’s pop-up book, which is closed as the opera opens, and opens over the course of the opera, on different scenes.
As the opera opens - or one ‘turns the page’- up pops a building, part of the palace of the Bey (Turkish for “sultan, lord or ruler”) of Algiers, a scene onto which the various characters in the opera enter the picture in 3D fashion. When the book is closed, it becomes a desert landscape with a starry sky, on which we have a wonderful 1920s biplane in which Isabella arrives from Italy (Act 1), and a hot-air balloon (Act 2) in which she takes her leave at the end of the opera.
All the sets, as well as the costumes (designed by David C. Woolard) are ‘fairy tale’ bright and colourful.
The stars in this production are undoubtedly Sandra Piques Eddy as Isabella and Paolo Pecchioli as the Bey Mustafà; both are gifted singers and accomplished comic actors, and under stage director Herbert Kellner, they rarely missed an opportunity to elicit a laugh.
Eddy delighted Austin audiences several years ago in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and she has returned in even richer voice. She is now vastly experienced – having made numerous appearances at the Met – and is very much at ease with the demands of bel canto.
Pecchioli made a dashing and appropriately foolish Mustafà in his Austin debut, and handled his difficult music with aplomb.
Tenor Javier Abreu sang with an appealing lyric voice, but lacked both ringing high notes and volume.
It goes without saying, that one shouldn’t attempt Rossini without first-rate performers but even with an excellent cast, the operas can become tiresome without a resourceful director. The action, for example, is frequently interrupted as lead singers stand and deliver ‘show-off’ arias.
Kellner is a director who not only has a seemingly endless bag of comic tricks up his sleeve, but he has a sophisticated sense of how to invent bits of business that perfectly match the character of the music. There were times when reactions from the chorus threatened to upstage singers in mid-aria but more often than not these antics added to the fun and kept things moving.
The Act I finale is a brilliant tour-de-force of ensemble noise-making and singing, and on opening night, Buckley’sprestissimo tempo had singers and players alike hanging on for dear life. It was not as tight as it probably will be in later performances but who cares - the sheer joy of the music-making made that a moot point.
For Something More…
Rossini was only 21 when he wrote L’Italiana in Algeri, and it was hugely popular. Italian audiences of the day were reportedly doubled up with laughter watching Algerians and Italians alike behaving like fools.
The content of the opera, however, was actually a satirical treatment of a very serious matter. At the time, Algeria was part of the Ottoman Empire and feared as the home base of the notorious Barbary pirates. These pirates controlled the seas and ranged widely even outside the Mediterranean. Their main business was kidnapping European Christians and selling them into slavery.
Europeans unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked on the Barbary coast of North Africa could expect the same fate, just as Lindoro, Isabella and Taddeo did in Rossini’s opera. Indeed, in this period, wealthy Muslim men kept many wives and concubines as Bey Mustafà aspired to do in the opera.
Nor was this simply an Italian problem. In the early 1800s, there were over 200,000 Americans enslaved in Algiers and the United States fought several wars to try to free them. The terrible era of the Barbary pirates only came to an end when France conquered Algiers in 1830.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

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Monday, 31 January 2011

This Week in Toronto (Jan 31 - Feb. 13)

Pinchas Zukerman (photo: Paul Labelle)

Violinist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman and the National Arts Centre Orchestra will be at Roy Thomson Hall this coming Saturday Feb. 5 to present Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 and the Piano Concert No. 5 Op. 73, "Emperor" featuring pianist Jonathan Biss. There will also be a piece, In Memoriam Karol Szymanowski by Paul Koprowski. Concert is at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-show chat with Rick Philips in the lobby at 6:45 p.m. This is a Casual Concert, so there will be a party in the lobby afterwards with live music by Paisley Jura. Earlier in the day at 1:30 and 3:30 will be two Young People's Concert conducted by Alain Trudel, playing excerpts from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and Bizet's Carmen Suite. On Thursday Feb. 10 and Saturday Feb. 12 at 8 p, Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko makes a welcome return to the TSO. On the program are Hommage a Mozart by Ibert; Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, and Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, Op. 58. For details and ticket information, go to

The Canadian Opera Company's winter season is in full swing. It's Magic Flute opened on Saturday Jan. 29 to fine reviews. I saw opening night and found it a light-hearted production perfect for curing the winter blahs. I particularly liked the whimsical costumes and animals. The commedia dell'arte approach also managed to keep it light. Performances continue on Feb. 1, 3, 6, 8, 12, with the Feb. 10 performance sung by rising soprano Simone Osborne as Pamina and Quebec tenor Frederic Antoun as Tamino. The COC's second production, Nixon In China, opens this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Chinese baritone Chen-ye Yuan sings Chou En Lai, a role he has performed in Chicago, St. Louis, and recently Vancouver. Veteran American baritone Robert Orth is Richard Nixon; English character tenor Adrian Thompson is Mao, and soprano Maria Kanyova is Pat Nixon. Canadian soprano Tracy Dahl was scheduled to be Madame Mao, but unfortunately she was forced to withdraw due to illness. If memory serves, this would have been Dahl's return to the COC after an absence of almost 16 years. We last heard her as a scintillating Zerbinetta in Ariadne of Naxos in the 1995 season. She is replaced by soprano Marisol Montalvo. Rising Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado conducts. For details and ticket information, go to

Interestingly, at exactly the same time as the COC Nixon is the Met's. Toronto opera lovers will get a chance to hear and see it live on Met in HD on Saturday 1 p.m. on Feb. 12, in selected Cineplex cinemas. At the Met, the role of Chou En Lai is sung by Canadian baritone Russell Braun! Other singers are also familiar, include Janis Kelly (Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna) as Pat Nixon, Kathleen Kim (the fabulous Olympia at the recent Met Hoffmann) as Madame Mao, Robert Brubaker (our Peter Grimes from years back!) as Mao, and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon. The Met production has the benefit of having the composer John Adams at the podium. Opera audiences tend to be scared of contemporary operas, but John Adams' music is highly accessible. I loved his Doctor Atomic and look forward to Nixon in China. For more information, go to

Virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos is appearing at Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music on Saturday Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. in a program of Prokofiev and Beethoven Violin Sonatas, plus a work by Lera Auerbach. On Friday at 5 p.m., Kavakos is giving a free masterclass. On Sunday Feb. 6 at 2 p.m., the dynamic duo of Anagonoson & Kinton, together with TSO Principal Timpanist David Kent and Principal Percussionist John Rudolph will be giving a concert at Mazzoleni Hall. On the program is the rarely heard Bartok Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. For ticket information, go to

The Off Centre Music Salon, known for its eclectic programming, is presenting the Urgo-Finnic and Spanish Salon on Sunday Feb. 6 2 p.m. at the Glenn Gould Studio. On the program are rather novel combinations of music by Bartok, Arvo Part, Kodaly, Sibelius, Albeniz, Granados and Rodrigo! Soloists are sopranos Joni Henson and Teiya Kasahara, baritone Olivier Laquerre, accordionist Joseph Macerollo and pianist Ricker Choi. The host is Julia Zarankin. Details at

For something a little different. The Toronto Sinfonietta is presenting a program to celebrate the Chinese New Year on Feb. 12 - never mind the Chinese New Year is actually on Feb. 3, as in Chinese culture, the festivities continues a full two weeks and then some! George Gao is playing a erhu concerto by Chinese composer An-lun Huang. For those not familiar with the erhu, this two string instrument produces an incredibly tone that tucks at the heart strings. The concert takes place at the Glenn Gould Studio on Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. For details, go to

Finally, the Amici Ensemble, the recipient of a Juno nomination for their Armenian Chamber Music disc, is presenting a concert, From Vienna to Prague, on Sunday Feb. 13 3 p.m. On the program are works by Mozart, Martinu and Fibich. More information at


Margaret Price (April 13 1941 - January 28 2011)

Photo: Margaret Price

Welsh soprano Margaret Price passed away unexpectedly from heart failure in Moylegrove, Wales on Friday. A singer known for her opulent voice well suited to the music of Mozart and Strauss, she had a major international career that spanned three decades, from the early 60's to the 1990's. In addition to Mozart and Strauss, she also sang operas of Verdi (Desdemona, Aida, Elisabetta, even Nanetta in her earliest days) and Cilea (Adriana Lecouvreur), although she was best remembered as a Mozart singer. She made her operatic debut in Wales as Cherubino in her mezzo days. Later, her Fiordiligi, Pamina, Constanze and Contessa were considered among her best roles. She was also a luminous Straussian, particularly in Four Last Songs. Here is the second song, "September" from 1981 with Andre Previn on the podium.

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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Festival of Renaissance Music – Conspirare’s Contemporary Twist

Craig Hella Johnson never ceases to amaze us. Just when you think his exceptional musical imagination has surely outdone itself, he comes up with something even more remarkable. His latest achievement was a festival given at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin and called Renaissance & Response: Polyphony Then and Now. Sound like an article in an academic journal? Perhaps, but that didn’t stop his many followers from selling out four concerts in one weekend and to judge by the concert I attended, enjoying every moment of it.
The basic concept of the festival was to combine music by several of the great Renaissance polyphonic composers – Josquin des Prez, Orlandus Lassus and Tomás Luis de Victoria – with contemporary pieces or responses composed by Robert Kyr. In spite of the umbrella title for the festival, the series went well beyond the Renaissance in its final concert devoted to the music of Bach, but again with a response by Kyr.
I attended only the Orlandus Lassus concert but there is no doubt that both the concept and the execution were exceptionally powerful. This concert had the added attraction of a pre-concert talk by Kyr.
Robert Kyr is a Professor of Music at the University of Oregon. He has composed a huge amount of music in many different genres – twelve symphonies and dozens of choral works, for example – and he has also studied and made performing editions of a great number of Renaissance pieces; in short, he was just the man for the commission Craig Hella Johnson had in mind for this series - someone with an in depth knowledge and love of Renaissance polyphony, who could compose new works, somehow inspired by this music written more than 400 years ago.
I have no doubt that Craig Hella Johnson was thrilled with what Robert Kyr gave him: music of our time of the highest quality, enriched by the polyphonic models, mysteriously bringing to life virtually the entire history of music. No mean feat.
What makes Conspirare’s concerts so impressive is that Johnson, the singular visionary, is also Johnson the gifted master of choral conducting. Conspirare’s nineteen-member Company of Voices is a hand-picked group of professional soloists melded into a vocal ensemble second to none. Craig Hella Johnson is the leader who makes it all work.
I must confess that I attend concerts of early music with a skeptical ‘chip’ on my shoulder. I am all too aware that the further back we go in the history of music, the fewer the facts at our disposal. When it comes to the performance of Renaissance music, in particular, what we know doesn’t take us very far.
In the cases of Josquin des Prez (1450-1521) and Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594), performers are often floundering on basic matters such as pitch, tempo, note values, dynamics and accidentals. We are still arguing about such things in Mozart and Haydn. Going back 500 years or so the questions are far greater in number.
Rather than emphasize what they don’t know, the best interpreters of early music concentrate on the challenges and the joy of opening up the door to the distant past even a crack. They are the archeologists of the music profession. They spend years immersing themselves in accumulated knowledge, then load up and head out into the field, full of excitement about the tiny glimpses into the human experience they might discover.
Orlandus Lassus (or Orlando di Lasso) is usually identified as a Franco-Flemish composer, although he spent most of his early life in Italy and his last 40 years in Munich. For his time, he was extraordinarily well-travelled and prolific. He composed over 2,000 works and set texts in Latin, French, Italian, Dutch and German. He wrote both sacred and secular music; only the former were represented in the Conspirare program.
For modern listeners who are apt to find Renaissance choral music somewhat austere and monotonous, we should keep in mind that behind that conservative persona endlessly praising God, there often lurked an earthier character fascinated by sex and drinking - in other words, an “all too human” composer. Orlandus Lassus was such a composer. In his secular works, he often dealt with both subjects.
In spite of Robert Kyr’s comment in the programme, that the evening’s concert exemplified “the scope and stylistic diversity of Orlandus Lassus’ output,” we were given a very limited exposure to the composer’s range. Instead, all we got we got were motets, a lament and two Mass movements.
Kyr’s “response” first took the form of a lament based on Lassus’ Third Lamentation. which we had just heard. Kyr began where Lassus left off, with free-flowing, harmonically limited polyphony, then gradually went further afield using texts from Psalm 69 and the Book of Jonah.
The concert concluded with a more ambitious work by Kyr inspired, not by Lassus, but by a somewhat later composer, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1641). The piece, called Sante Fe Vespers 2010, was inspired by Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.
This is where Kyr showed himself to be in total command of his art and his material. While quoting from Monteverdi, he went far beyond the early Seventeenth Century master to create intricate polyphony and sonorous climaxes only a modern composer could conceive.
Renaissance & Response: Polyphony Then and Now was a brilliant concert that gave the audience a way in to Renaissance music, and at the same time a way to relate its techniques and its contents to the music of our time.
Perhaps next time around, Craig Hella Johnson might enrich the experience even further by also showing us the secular side of the great Renaissance composers.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

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COC Magic Flute A Real Charmer

Top: Tamino and Animals
Left: Aline Kutan (Queen) and Michael Schade (Tamino)
below left: Rodion Pogossov (Papageno)
Bottom: Isabel Bayrakdarian (Pamina) and Michael Schade (Tamino) All photos by Michael Cooper

The COC winter season opened on Saturday with a new production of The Magic Flute. After a controversial Aida and a thematically depressing Death In Venice, it was good to have something like The Magic Flute to lift the spirits of winter-weary Torontonians. For once, it's good to have a Flute that doesn't take itself too seriously. I've seen more than my share of this opera, and sometimes the designers and stage directors take it so seriously that all the fun is sucked out of the show. This production is full of charm - sitting in front of me on opening night was a little girl, who sat silently during the whole opera, totally transfixed on the proceedings on stage. Turning the opera seria into commedia dell'arte, director Diana Paulus and set/costume designer Myung Hee Cho use the old trick of a play within a play to keep it light. The Masonic symbolism all but disappeared in the production, instead we have whimsical and evocative touches and brilliant colours. Unlike the truly magical - and rather literal - August Everding Munich production I had the pleasure of seeing 25 years ago, the COC show doesn't have real fire and real water - just dancers in fiery reds or icy silvers symbolizing trial by fire and water. Also, unlike Munich, the Genies don't come down from a hot air balloon. The black and white animals are fabulous. The COC production may not be high tech like the Met's or magical like Munich, it proved to be equally entertaining. This is the kind of updating that may seem very tame for European tastes, but for North America it's ideal. Because of the already established commedia dell'arte approach, bringing the Queen back for the finale was perfectly appropriate. Unlike the COC, the one I saw in Santa Fe last summer, bringing back the Queen for the festivities of the victory of good over evil was simply weird.

The musical side of things was in good hands. Being German, COC Music Director Johannes Debus was certainly in his element in this work, leading the COC Orchestra with a sure hand. He made a bigger contrast in tempi than usual - the slow was really slow in the beginning of the overture, then it sped up! Elsewhere he gave a well considered reading of the score. Since there are twelve performances, Tamino and Pamina are double cast. (I will be returning to a later performance to hear Simone Osborne and Frederic Antoun) On opening night, soprano Aline Kutan was a sensational Queen of the Night, nailing the coloratura with precision, and all the high F's were spot on. With only 10 minutes of music, she made every second count. Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov was an energetic and ultra-playful Papageno, acting up a storm and singing with gusto and beauty of tone. He was of course our Figaro four years ago, and at the time I singled him out for praise in my review in Opera (UK). He has since made his Met debut and is engaged there annually for the next several years. Canadian tenor Michael Schade has sung a staggering 250 performances as Tamino and it showed. He brought to this role knowledge, experience and musicality, even if his tone has hardened over the years. Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian has only sung Pamina very few times - I recall at the Academy of the West early in her career. An engaging and sympathetic Pamina, Bayrakdarian sang with a large, rich tone particularly in the middle voice but had difficulty with mezza voce and the high lying phrases in "Ach! ich fuhl's." The Three Ladies (Betty Allison, Wallis Giunta and Lauren Segal) with their leather outfits and glasses wouldn't look out of place in a dominatrix convention. They sang well and were really quite funny. It's nice that contemporary staging have stopped putting Monostatos (nicely sung and acted by John Easterlin) in black-face. Young Russian bass cantante Mikhail Petrenko was a fine Sarastro, although he didn't really have the booming bass of a Matti Salminen, and they didn't give him any "old makeup." The Three Genies were taken by three young women - how Ann Cooper Gay managed to get them to sing like young boys with no vibrato I'll never know! All in all, a Flute to lift your spirits and leave the theatre smiling.

Performances at the Four Seasons Centre continue on Feb. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 18, 20, 23, 25, with a special Ensemble Studio show on Feb. 17.

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