La Scena Musicale

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 6 (Górecki, Harnoncourt)

1933 - Henryk Górecki, Tschirne, Germany (now Czernica, Poland); composer


Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") - Lento e Largo (Isabel Bayrakdaraian with the Sinfonietta Cracovia, conducted by John Axelrod; taken from "Holocaust - A Musical Memorial Film from Auschwitz")

Górecki Piano Sonata, 1st mvt. (Roger McVey, piano; Mercer University, Georgia)

1929 - Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Berlin, Germany; conductor, cellist, violist

Biography and Pictures
Interview (November 2000)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt leads the Concentus Musicus Vienna and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir in J.S. Bach's Cantata BWV 147 "Heart and mouth and deed and life" (Advent Concert, Benedictine Monastery of Melk)

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Nutcracker & Adventures of Pinnocchio from Royal Opera at the Movies

The Royal Opera House’s OPUS ARTE HD SERIES

(IMMEDIATE RELEASE – Dec. 3, 2008) This December, The Royal Opera House’s Opus Arte HD series distributed by DigiScreen Corporation will screen Opera North’s acclaimed “Opera for the Whole Family” THE ADVENTURES OF PINNOCCHIO, followed by San Francisco Ballet’ seasonal treasure, the magical NUTCRACKER.

THE ADVENTURES OF PINNOCCHIO appears onscreen Saturday, December 6 & 7th at 1pm in cinemas throughout Central and Western Canada. The performance was recorded live on March 28, 2008 in front of a full house at London’s historic Sadler’s Wells Theatre in cinema grade High Definition and full Surround Sound.

Opera North, England’s National Opera in the North, has scored a triumph with its award-winning production of The Adventures of Pinocchio - an opera for the whole family that the Times calls a “miracle in Leeds”. The Adventures of Pinocchio is brought bursting to life by award-winning composer Jonathan Dove and playwright Alasdair Middleton (The Young Vic’s The Enchanted Pig). David Parry conducts and Martin Duncan directs the irresistible story of the wooden boy who longs to be real. Combining magical sets and costumes with a superb score, Opera North’s adaptation of this classic tale is a truly lavish production which opened in Leeds and London to rave reviews this year.

Richard Morrison of The Times referred to the production as: “Tidings of great joy: a Christmas miracle in Leeds! A modern composer has produced a new opera that is funny, poignant, tuneful, spectacular – and, best of all, stunningly conceived for all the family. Beg, borrow, steal or preferably buy a ticket!”

The Stage Magazine echoed these sentiments with its own lavish praise: "Delight follows delight... youngsters were transfixed from start to finish. It really is that good!"

Lynne Walker of The Independent stated: “It cannot fail to beguile young theatre-goers. At Opera North's world premiere, the older audience was equally enthralled!” –

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker appears onscreen Saturday, December 13th at 1pm in cinemas across Canada. The performance was recorded live on December 19, 2007 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House in cinema grade High Definition and full Surround Sound.

Magic is real and dreams come alive! San Francisco Ballet’s magnificent production of Nutcracker is one the world’s finest productions of the classic ballet, playing to unanimous critical acclaim and sold-out audiences each December. Set in early 20th century San Francisco, one of the city’s grandest eras, this production features a cast of 200 dancers, stunning images, and magical surprises that mesmerize and delight adults and children alike. Nutcracker remains the essential family-friendly ballet. Children are as crucial to the plot as they are to the ballet's atmosphere - taking over the stage as party guests, toy soldiers, baby mice and assorted extras. Visually a template for traditional Christmas fantasy, it builds steadily in pace and grandeur through its superbly pitched choreography, from the battle scenes to the climactic pas de deux for the transformed Clara and her Prince. San Francisco Ballet is America’s most venerable Ballet company and their home, the War Memorial Opera House, is a theatre of magnificent grandeur. Damian Smith and Elizabeth Powell star in Helgi Tomasson’s magical production.

Twenty-five Canadian theatres join some sixty cinemas in the United Kingdom presenting San Francisco’s Nutcracker, this December.

“This is a Nutcracker on a grand scale--striking, elegant, and beautiful.” – The New York Times

“The opulent new version of the seasonal classic, launched spectacularly by the San Francisco Ballet, is every parent’s dream of a holiday treat. It looks scrumptious, tastes delicious, offers substantial nourishment and won’t cause cavities.” - Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Examiner

In the Toronto Area, THE ADVENTURES OF PINNOCCHIO and NUTCRACKER will be shown at the Empire Empress Walk 10 Cinemas in North York and Empire Studio 10 at Square One in Mississauga. The productions will be also be shown in Empire and independent theatres in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg in Western Canada and in Ottawa, Kingston, Richmond Hill, Bolton, London, St. Catharines, Waterloo, Kitchener and Montreal in Ontario and Quebec.

Empire Theatres in Halifax, Sydney, Fredericton, Moncton, St. John, Charlottetown and St. John’s in Eastern Canada will screen NUTCRACKER.

Tickets will be available at $19.95 + tax per adult, $16.95 + tax per senior and $9.95 + tax per child. For cinema locations and to purchase advance tickets throughout Canada visit For independent theatres in Vancouver, Waterloo and Montreal please visit, and For more information on DigiScreen, please visit

For follow up information, please contact:
Blair Haynes, Director of Canadian Network Tel: (416) 560-7644

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 5 (Carreras, Zimerman)

1946 - José Carreras, Barcelona, Spain; opera and concert tenor

Official website

José Carreras sings Larà's "Granada" (Three Tenors concert, Rome, July 1990)

1956 - Krystian Zimerman, Zabrze, Poland; pianist


Krystian Zimerman plays "Valses nobles et sentimentales" Nos. 1-4 by Ravel

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 4 (Harty, Minton)

1879 - Hamilton Harty, Hillsborough, Ireland; composer and conductor


Scherzo from An Irish Symphony.  The composer conducts the Hallé Orchestra (1929 recording)

1938 - Yvonne Minton, Sydney, Australia; opera and concert mezzo-soprano

Biography and pictures

Yvonne Minton performs "Der Abschied", the final movement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti conducting)

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Royal Opera Covent Garden Don Carlos

With all the hoopla surrounding the Metropolitan Opera in HD, it is easy to overlook that there are other games in town. Since last season, DigiScreen has been presenting operas and ballets from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in selected Canadian theatres. I have seen Luisa Fernanda with Placido Domingo, and a stunning Carmen starring Ana Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann. To be sure, these shows are not "live" like the Met - they were taped for DVD release, so it doesn't have quite the sense of occasion. There are no intermission features or interviews, for example. Still, there is something to be said about seeing it in a large screen with state-of-the-art equipment. The products from Opus Arte - a company owned by Royal Opera - are always of a very high level. Presumably, these operas will be commercially available on DVD sometime in the future.

This past weekend, I attended a screening of Verdi's Don Carlo, taped at Covent Garden last June. The main interest for me was the return of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, who withdrew from the stage for the latter part of 2007, for reasons not entirely made clear. He came back in January-February 2008 for a few performances of Werther at the Vienna State Opera, to mixed reviews. This June Don Carlo represented his first large-scale production. At the time, critical opinion was mixed - some felt he had return to form, while others felt his performance left something to be desired.

It is impossible to tell at what point during the run this performance came from. Indeed it is likely that it's a composite from two or more performances. Judging from what I saw and heard, Signor Villazon is back and in great form. Granted a filmed performance isn't quite the same as experiencing it live in the opera house. For one thing, it is difficult to judge the size of the voice. Having heard him live on several occasions, I have noticed that his instrument isn't all that large, and sometimes, in big houses like the Met, it sounds like he is pushing. For what it's worth, based on this taped performance, one can't ask for a more passionate and involved Don Carlo, and vocally he was completely secure, with none of the little cracks and glitches that plagued his performances throughout most of 2006-7. His Don Carlo for Amsterdam - available on DVD - is a little neurotic, quirky, and vulnerable, in keeping with the directorial concept. His characterization here is more straight-forward and less idiosyncratic, but equally touching. He has excellent chemistry with other cast members, especially Rodrigo and Elisabetta. There is less interaction with Eboli in this production. His duets with Rodrigo and Elisabetta were real highlights of the evening.

This is a new production by Nicholas Hytner which replaced the ancient Visconti production dating back to around 1958! It is darkly handsome, with an understated grandeur that is entirely appropriate in this grand piece. The direction is more mainstream and less eccentric than the Nederland Opera production. Past productions of this opera favoured an ending where Carlo is dragged into the cloister by Charles V. But this rather problematic ending has become less and less popular - most modern productions have Carlo stabbed or shot to death, like the Vienna and Barcelona productions. In the COC production, Carlo is blinded and tortured before dying, a real gruesome end. This ROH production, despite being the 5 Act version, is really the Italian Don Carlo with the Fontainbleau Scene tagged on in the beginning. It has none of the music that is found in the true French version, and there is thankfully no ballet. Still, the opera was almost four and a half hours long. With the wonderful music and superlative singing, the time went by in a flash. One unusual feature of this production is spoken dialogue between the priest and the heretics during the Auto d'afe Scene, something I had not seen previously.

The ROH cast was uniformly strong. Other than Villazon, top vocal honours went to Ferruccio Furlanetto as a most impressive Philip. Simon Keenlyside was wonderful too as Rodrigo, while not erasing memories of the great Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this role. Sonia Ganassi (Eboli) took some time to warm up, and her Veil Song did not show her to advantage. But her O don fatale brought the house down as expected. American basss Eric Halfvarson made the most of his brief appearance as the Grand Inquisitor. Robert Lloyd is equally excellent as the Friar/Charles V, although the voice is starting to show its age. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya is a fine Elisabetta vocally, but I have to say she does not move me. There was a coolness about her, and her face remained immobile in the dramatic moments. Antonio Pappano brought out the full lyricism of the score, eliciting wonderful sounds from the Covent Garden orchestra.

The success of Villazon here really makes me curious about this recent Hoffmann at Covent Garden. I spoke to a friend who attended it in November, and the report was extremely positive. Noted critic Rupert Christiansen also gave it 5 star in his review. Let's hope ROH will preserve it for posterity on DVD.

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Does Ma'am love Brahms?

Checking out the Condoleeza Rice Brahms recital clip at Buckingham Palace, one had to cast the mind back an awful long time to fathom when a serving officer of the US government last performed a piece of music before a reigning British monarch.

I guess President Truman, a decent piano player, might have done had he ever been given the royal command, but other than Harry - and his daughter, Margaret, who played professionally (but not very capably) before taking to writing crime fiction - I can't think of any Washington insider who could have given as good account of themselves in music as Condi did this week.

So let's hear it one last time for Ms Rice, and let's remember that whatever her successor achieves at the State Department, there is no way Hillary is going to beat this feat.

What did Her Maj make of it? Impossible to tell. But the little bit of the Brahms quintet that has been released for public viewing is stiff and over-cautious, perhaps because Condi is glued to the page and making no eye contact with the string quartet, comprising London Symphony Orchestra members, led by Luise Shackleton, who is married to the British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband.

As a diplomatic event, it was in a class of its own. As a musical experience, a little more rehearsal might have helped. With time on her hands after January 09, Condi would certainly be welcome on the chamber circuit. Next stop, Wigmore Hall?

Today's Birthday in Music: December 3 (Webern)

1883 - Anton Webern, Vienna, Austria; composer and conductor


Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 10 (Südwestfunk Baden-Baden, conducted by Jascha Horenstein; 1964 recording)

Piano Variations Op. 27 (Brenno Ambrosini, piano; 1908)

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 2 (Callas, Barbirolli)

1923 - Maria Callas, New York, U.S.A.; opera soprano


Maria Callas sings "Suicidio" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda

1899 - John Barbirolli, London, England; conductor and cellist

Biography and pictures

John Barbirolli conducts the Hallé Orchestra in Berlioz's Le Corsaire Overture

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Met in HD: Berlioz' Damnation of Faust Lepage-d!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson


I learned about opera watching Herman Geiger-Torel build the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, first in the Royal Alexandra Theatre and later in the dreaded O’Keefe Centre, and annual visits to Maple Leaf Gardens by the Metropolitan Opera. As a young man, I welcomed the opportunity to see real, live opera. Mostly, what I learned and loved was the music; only later did it start to dawn on me that sets, costumes and direction could be interesting too - that is where my commitment to opera started to wane. What was presented on stage in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s was often amateurish and traditional, in the worst sense. Frequent visits to New York convinced me that the Met was not much further ahead. This distinguished company seemed content to hire the best singers money could buy and let the rest of it take care of itself.

Again, speaking personally, the future of opera began to look a whole lot brighter when I saw the productions Herbert von Karajan was presenting in Salzburg in collaboration with Gunther Schneider-Siemssen in the late 1960s and early 70s. Here was a fresh approach to a decaying art form, making use of the latest technology. Futuristic and abstract sets, complex lighting schemes and elaborate projections brought a new dimension to Wagner’s Ring cycle.

The Karajan-Schneider-Siemssen Ring was eventually brought to the Met and it was my good fortune to get to know Erwin Feher, the technical genius who adapted this production to the Met’s quite different stage and equipment.

This long introduction is my way of introducing a review of the Met’s current production of BerliozLa Damnation de Faust in its Met HD Live incarnation last week. I am all in favour of applying the latest in stage and film technology to operatic production; however, I reserve the right to object when a director turns a masterpiece into a farce. I am afraid Robert Lepage managed to do just that with Berlioz’ légende dramatique. Perhaps it was the parade of soldiers walking backwards during the “Hungarian March,” or the lines of naked men inhabiting the bowels of hell – who knew that hell was a gay bathhouse? – that did it for me. But let me start with the overall concept. More details later.

La Damnation de Faust is not an opera at all. It works perfectly well as Berlioz intended, as a concert piece. Had he wanted to turn it into an opera, he would have done so himself and most certainly would have made lots of changes in the process.

I find the whole concept offensive. To convince me otherwise will require a production far more persuasive than the incoherent mess Le Page perpetrated on the stage of the Met. Lepage has talked a great deal about how he has brought “state of the art video techniques” to this work. Mention was made of “interactive video” in which the singers can change the images simply by moving their bodies. I noticed that Lepage talked much less about any connection between the images and movements he used, and the music. My impression is that the music was simply one of many components used to heighten the theatrical experience. Think Cirque du Soleil. By the way, Lepage created a show called KA for Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2005.

For La Damnation de Faust, Lepage created a huge four-story scaffolding and virtually all the action in the production takes place in some part of this structure. As set design, think the TV quiz show Hollywood Squares with each of the celebrity panelists occupying a different cell in the scaffolding matrix. At times, Lepage did indeed have characters occupying these cells, and at other times either cellular projections or integrated projections. One could understand the fun Lepage had in organizing these cells and projections, but clearly he ran out of both money and ideas. While Cirque du Soleil can easily find $32 million for a Las Vegas show, the Met would have trouble raising one-tenth of that for a single production. Nor could they find the time required for weeks of technical rehearsals.

It appears that Lepage is a director who proceeds by free association, rather than by studying the work he is engaged to produce. I am still trying to figure out why Faust was unceremoniously dumped out of a boat – why was he in the boat in the first place? – then seen to be swimming or tumbling under water along with some unidentified other folks. Later, during the scene in which spirits are apparently bewitching the sleeping Marguerite we see eight ballet dancers in separate cells in the scaffolding doing nothing more interesting than what appear to be basic warm-up exercises at the barre. The ‘climax’ of this engrossing tableau comes when a group of half-naked men attached to cables begin climbing up and down the various levels of the scaffolding. This development combined elements of Cirque du Soleil, Chippendales and Monty Python.

The “Ride to the Abyss” was one of Lepage’s great set pieces. He put together images of galloping horses and menacing birds with riders in silhouette. Unfortunately, none of the riders were either Faust or Méphistophélès, who were content to stand nearby and deliver Berlioz’ music as best they could. Then came another Faust-dump, this time into the bowels of hell and the eager arms of the Chippendales lads looking surprisingly buff and content in their new digs. The coup de théâtre was to have Marguerite ascend into heaven by way of an enormous ladder in the middle of the stage. It was all very silly and ultimately ridiculous.

And the music? Susan Graham as Marguerite and John Relyea as Méphistophélès were excellent in spite of the appalling production thrust upon them. Marcello Giordani is turning into the ‘go-to’ guy among tenors at the Met. He seems to be involved in nearly every production. In fact, on the day of this Damnation de Faust he also replaced an indisposed colleague for the evening performance of Madama Butterfly. I would like to be able to say that he sang beautifully as Faust, but alas, he didn’t. He sang sharp from almost beginning to end. I think the poor man deserves a rest. James Levine was in the pit. I have to wonder about his judgement as music director in allowing such a travesty to go forward, let alone having to look at it every time he conducted it. Perhaps that explains why he took the “Hungarian March” at such an absurdly fast tempo. No doubt he had a car waiting.

There is, of course, another way of looking at this farrago. Lepage himself has suggested that La Damnation de Faust was merely a dry run for some of the technology he is planning to use for the new Ring cycle at the Met in the fall of 2010. If so, there is still time for General Manager Peter Gelb to retract his conviction that “Lepage represents everything I believe in regarding storytelling and visual presentation.”

Lepage may be a creative genius with his own multidisciplinary production company Ex Machina or in Las Vegas, but he is out of his comfort zone in an opera house. And to hand him carte blanche with the greatest work in operatic literature is foolish and irresponsible.

For the record, at the theater I attended in Cedar Park, Texas there were only twenty people in the audience. As Yogi Berra used to say: “If they don’t want to come, you can’t stop them.” But perhaps they knew something we didn’t. Again, for the record we had the same problems with projectionists failing to turn up the volume to an acceptable level and failing to turn off the house lights after intermission. The sound quality was once again appalling, with the magnificent Met Orchestra reduced to sounding like an acoustical recording from 1920.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

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Today's Birthdays in Music: December 1 (Grøndahl, Buchbinder)

1847 - Agathe Grøndahl, Holmestrand, Norway; pianist and composer

1946 - Rudolf Buchbinder, Leitmeritz, Czechoslovakia; pianist

Official website
Biography and pictures

Rudolf Buchbinder at the 12th Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival (Warsaw, 2008)

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: November 30 (Lupu)

1945 - Radu Lupu, Galaţi, Romania; pianist


Radu Lupu plays Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19, K. 459, 3rd mvt. (Deutsch Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by David Zinman)

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