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by Jessie Tannenbaum

"A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic." —Jean Sibelius

A memorial service for Paul J. Pelkonen will be held on Sunday, June 30, at 12:00pm at the Daniel J. Schaefer Funeral Home, 4123 Fourth Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11232. All who loved Paul are welcome. Please, no flowers.

Paul loved small, local opera companies, in particular the Regina Opera Company, based in his neighborhood of Sunset Park. We encourage you to honor Paul's commitment to "critical thinking in the cheap seats" with a donation to Regina Opera Company. Please donate via Paypal (please put "In memory of Paul J. Pelkonen" in the special instructions field) or by check to Regina Opera Company, PO Box 150253, Brooklyn, NY 11215 (please put "In memory of Paul J. Pelkonen" in the memo line).
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by Jessie Tannenbaum

Paul J. Pelkonen
April 12, 1973 – June 12, 2019

It is with great sadness that we announce that Paul Pelkonen died suddenly yesterday of cardiopulmonary arrest, at his home in Brooklyn. Paul lived a life full of joy, and dedicated his life to sharing with others the joy he found in music. We hope that Superconductor brought joy to everyone who reads this.  

Paul and Emily at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, Dec. 23, 2018

A lifelong Brooklynite, Paul was a proud alumnus of Fordham University and the journalism school at Boston University. The only things he loved more than music were his partner of 14 years, Emily Ravich; their niece Lilo and nephew Bobby; his chosen family and extended family; and his beloved borough of Brooklyn and city of New York. Paul was loved by many and will be deeply missed.
Memorial information will be forthcoming.
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The Philharmonic unlocks David Lang's prisoner of the state.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The climactic confrontation of David Lang's prisoner of the state.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 The New York Philharmonic,
The New York Philharmonic ended its Lincoln Center season this week with prisoner of the state, a new opera from the pen of contemporary composer David Lang. Mr. Lang, whose unconventional list of stage works include battle hymns (set deep within the bowels of the U.S.S. Intrepid and an opera created entirely from whispers, seemed like an ideal choice for this endeavor. This new opera, co-commissioned with ensembles in five other cities, is an ambitious re-telling of Beethoven's Fidelio. However, unlike many of Mr. Lang's stage works, this production, mounted on a specially built stage in David Geffen Hall, proved itself a serious misfire.

It should have worked. prisoner (the lower case is a Lang trademark) follows the plot of Beethoven's lone opera, a work that composer revised many times until achieving its final form. The story is simple: a wife with a husband in the hoosegow shears off her hair, dresses as a man and helps rescue him from certain death. This new libretto strips out Beethoven's awkward attempts at domestic opera-comedy. It also relieves the characters of their names. Finally Mr. Lang chose a dark "twist" ending worthy of middle-season Game of Thrones. (We'll get to that in the last paragraph.)

Mr. Lang is a fearless, ground-breaking composer, but his choices here offer little relief to the listener over 70 minutes, especially if the sound of Beethoven's opera is known. The score is percussive and repetitive, with blasts of bass drum and stark minimalist harmonies. The choral writing is skilled and the male members of the Concert Chorale of New York were on point. These fellas were confined to the acoustically dodgy back line of this house crowded together on a high walkway above the stage. Even in their singing, the optimism of Beethoven has been replaced with something much more astringent.

At Saturday night's performance (the final one of this short run) he strong cast did their best with this stuff. Coloratura soprano Julie Mathevet was a feisty and welcome presence as the Assistant, this opera's light-voiced substitute for Beethoven's dramatic heroine. She sings with alacrity and energy but was not allowed in the tight time frame to develop much as an interesting character. Eric Owens was in excellent voice Saturday night, and his dark heavy portrayal of the Jailer reminded viewers that people who work in corrections are locked up along with their charges every day. He was flanked by a chorus of four menacing guards, stacking the odds.

As the Prisoner himself, baritone Jarrett Ott had to sing his first lines, Salome like from a specially built well beneath the acting surface. He did a decent job of appearing tired and emaciated but his warm tone and burly presence were at clear odds with the character's plight. As The Governor, the opera's villain, tenor Alan Oke gleefully chewed scenery and sang with piercing force into an obvious head mic. He was draped in a purple greatcoat uniform that made him look as if the Joker had gotten a job as a hotel doorman.

The show looked great (the design is by Matt Saunders)  aside from the lighting designer's (Theatermachine) occasional decision to shine high-powered theater pieces right into the eyes of the audience. The orchestra was divided in two, to make a lane for the actors. The chorus, in chrome shackles and sodium-yellow jumpsuits (they looked like the "Kiln" prison outfits in Guardians of the Galaxy) looked appropriately oppressed. Their population was swollen with black and white film of more prisoners, suggesting a vast correctional facility with a large and seething population, ready to burst into riot at any moment.

At the climax of the work, the Assistant reveals herself and draws a gun just as the Governor is going to murder her husband. The trumpets sound offstage. The inspectors have arrived. And then the bad guy calmly takes the Assistant's gun away, delicately slipping it into the pocket of his purple greatcoat. All the characters, the now-uncuffed Prisoner included, sing at the audience about how all of us in the world are in shackles, it's just that some of them are more visible than others. This ending, (or lack of one) may reflect the problems of a world that uses private incarceration, torture and hidden "black prisons" to make its population feel safe and secure. In this "Shawshank," there was no redemption for anyone.

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The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Beatrice Rana onstage at Carnegie Hall with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the background.
Photo by Paul Vincent. 
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall on Friday night for the last of their appearances this season. For this program, Mr. Nézet-Séguin chose a pair of mostly forgotten and badly neglected early works by prominent Russian composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. These Russian rarities flanked the more familiar Third Piano Concerto by Serge Prokofiev with soloist Beatrice Rana.



The concert started with the Carnegie Hall premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Funeral Song, an early (1908) work written as a memoriam to the composer's teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It lay undiscovered in the library of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 2015 and is only now getting a hearing around the world. In this slow dirge-like single movement it is possible to hear the DNA of what would eventually become The Firebird a few years later. The elements include Russian Orthodox church modes, a sense of dour ceremony and a grand sweeping sound that would overwhelm and enthuse audiences just a few short years later.

Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 was next with featured soloist Beatrice Rana. After a short, thoughtful introduction for the clarinet and winds, Ms. Rana leaped right into the fray, her fleet fingers pounding out the main subject matter as the orchestra scurried in her wake. This is fearsome stuff, exploding into a galaxy of shooting arpeggios. The piano's motion is perpetual against the quicksilver orchestration, skittering off into virtuoso flights that come briefly back to earth, only to springboard once more into that main thematic piano idea played with even greater intensity than what came before.

Ms. Rana slowed in pace but not intensity for the central movement, a set of five witty variations on a thematic idea. With Mr. Nézet-Séguin, she lead a thrilling exploration of each of these, from the slow run up the keyboard that starts the movement to the galloping second variation. The third is urgent with hints of jazz ideas and the fourth slow and weird. Ms. Rana saved her most heroic playing for the final movement, a friendly and yet intense argument between keyboard and orchestra with all the intensity of a Russian chess match. At Mr. Nézet-Séguin's good-hearted (but visible) insistence, the artist treated Carnegie Hall to an elegant Chopin encore to close the first half of the evening.

Sergei Rachmaninoff holds much in common with his countryman. Both composers made their reputations as touring virtuosos but Rachmaninoff's travels never took him back to the Soviet Union. He belongs to the generation before Prokofiev, having exited the Moscow Conservatory in 1892. His Symphony No. 1 premiered in 1897 and was by all accounts a dismal failure. The First spent fifty years in darkness before the score was reconstructed in Moscow in 1945. It is still a rarity, rolled out for Rachmaninoff festivals or for conductors making complete cycles of his three symphonies.

The first movement is bursting with ideas and all the enthusiasms of a young composer looking to make his mark. And that's the problem: it's all over the place. There is a bold main theme, an answering second subject and over all, the Dies Irae, the ponderous medieval chant that fascinated the composer and is present in most of his major works. The development veers suddenly into a bizarre fugue, showing great technical deficiency but doing too little to move the work forward. Thanks to the artistry of the Philadelphia players, even this middling stuff sounded good.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin found great beauty in the second movement, a slow Scherzo with the clear influence of Tchaikovsky. The Trio of this opened the vistas of the thematic material into some interesting minor-key territories. The slow movement featured a gorgeous clarinet solo, but meandered. In the last movement, one had the sense of a novelist deep in the thickets of his own work and having trouble finding the ending. When it did come, the blasts of gong and brass proved anticlimactic despite the high level of execution. Perhaps some symphonies deserve to be forgotten.

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Bernard Labadie unveils his visionary OSL Bach Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bernard Labadie (right) leads the new Orchestra of St. Luke's Bach Festival.
Photo by Dario Acosta.
"Tonight, we are in church." These words were spoken by Orchestra of St. Luke's president James Roe as he introduced Thursday night's program, Music of the Spirit, at Zankel Hall, the subterranean mid-sized venue that is part of the Carnegie Hall building. Bach was a man of deep religious conviction but the bulk of his church music, (aside from the major choral works like the Passions and the Mass in B minor) remains unknown to the casual listener. With this concert, the first night of a new month-long Bach festival by the Orchestra, the goal is to correct that oversight.



Music director Bernard Labadie took the time to introduce some of the more unusual morsels on the evening's menu. Then the music started. The small OSL orchestra used a mixture of modern and traditional instruments. The result was a slightly dry, middle-sized sound that would prove ideal in support of the human voice. The geometric perfection of Bach's overture writing coalesced in the limited subterranean space of Zankel Hall, elevating the listener from their seats deep below the streets.

Mr. Labadie then led the first unusual dish on his Bach "tasting plate." This was two verses of the aria "Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn' ihn." The aria, written in 1713 but remaining undiscovered until 2005, is just four pages of music for soprano, continuo and strings. However, it is repeated twelve times in an apparent effort at early minimalism. Since the complete work is forty minutes of the same thematic material over and over again, Mr. Labadie and soprano Lydia Teuscher subjected the audience to just two of these verses. This excerpt allowed both singer and instrumentalists passages in which they shone brightly.

Next came a carefully chosen pairing of overture and cantata. First, the Overture from "Die Elenden sollen essen" ("The miserable shall eat") in a bright G major. Second the C major cantata itself, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" ("Exult in God in every land") resounded its bright, uplifting call, again with Ms. Teuscher firmly in the lead. This cantata gave the soprano an opportunity to display her coloratura abilities in the final movement, an "Alleluia" in which her voice dove and scampered, intertwining joyfully with an equally elaborate solo trumpet line.

The second half began with another lengthy introduction from Mr. Labadie. The work being performed was "Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden", and Mr. Labadie took the time to introduce its tormented musicological history. As he explained it, this was a setting by Bach of the Stabat Mater by Pergolesi, a work that proved ubiquitous in Catholic churches in the early 18th century. Bach re-wrote the piece to a German translation of Psalm 51, more palatable to his Lutheran congregation. In doing so, he changed the music considerably, elaborating on the original orchestration. If you know the Pergolesi it is recognizable but the final effort is uniquely Bach.

With that bit of rigamarole out of the way, this proved to be a lovely and meditative work that captures the reflective spirit of the original. The Stabat Mater is a medieval poem imagining the Passion of Christ from the point of view of the Virgin Mary, weeping at the foot of the Cross. Bach retained the emotional punch of the original but added complex vocal lines for soprano (Ms. Teuscher) and countertenor Benno Schachtner to take full possession of this musical property. The results, delivered in a hushed and meditative Zankel Hall, were much like attending a religious service. One must only express awe at the fervor of the composer's creativity, and at the zeal with which Mr. Labadie and his orchestra brought this rare music back to the population of a cold and cynical metropolis.

The OSL Bach Festival continues over the next three weeks. Two more concerts are scheduled for the Zankel stage, each on Thursday nights. The newly-renovated auditorium at Manhattan School of Music hosts the orchestra playing with the Paul Taylor Dance Group, offering modern-balletic interpretations of the composer's instrumental works. Finally, there is a set of intimate recitals at the DiMenna Center, the excellent modern facility that became this ensemble's permanent home in 2010.

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Superconductor is free for everyone to read but it does cost money to produce. If you enjoyed this article, it's time to click over to Superconductor's Patreon page, and help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City. Our Patreon program starts at the low cost of just $5 per month, less than a fancy cup of coffee in this town.
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The Met tones down La Damnation de Faust.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Susan Graham (left) and Marcello Giordani (right) in a tender moment from
the Met's 2008 staging of La Damnation de Faust. Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera.
If you were planning  on seeing the Metropolitan Opera's unique and visually mind-blowing production of Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust next season, you are out of luck. In an e-mail sent to subscribers (and obtained by Superconductor) the Met has announced that the company's presentations of the hybrid opera-oratorio will not be seen in its staging as originally envisioned by director Robert Lepage. The remainder will be mounted as concert performances in the vast opera house. Also, there will be just four shows, as three of the performances are cancelled.

Premiering in 2008, the Lepage staging of La Damnation was the Quebec-born director's first show for the vast Metropolitan Opera stage. It starred Susan Graham, John Relyea and was a fantasia of creative digitally enhanced visuals. I vividly remember soldiers marching up the walls of the opera's set, horses hurtling through a hellish darkness and amazingly, an underwater scene that was better than the one in the same director's later staging of Das Rheingold. It was revived just once, a year later and quickly mothballed.

This is the second time in three seasons that the Met has yanked a major production for a dull concert evening. The last occasion was when the company cancelled an eagerly anticipated version of Verdi's La Forza del Destino in 2017, replacing it with the Verdi Requiem in concert and a few "family style" run throughs of The Magic Flute. Those Requiem performances, mounted with the chorus and soloists in evening wear in front of a tobacco-brown wooden wall, were nothing to write home about. (Superconductor wrote about them anyway.)

The e-mail reads:

"We’re writing to inform you, as a ticket buyer to Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, of an important change. The performances of La Damnation de Faust on January 25 and 29, and February 1 and 8, 2020, will be converted into concert presentations, similar to the Met’s Verdi Requiem performances in the 2017–18 season. Performances on February 4, 12, and 15, 2020, have been cancelled."

"The decision to present La Damnation de Faust in its more usual concert version is driven by the unanticipated technical demands of reviving the Met’s staged production, impossible to accommodate within the company’s production schedule. The cast, including mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, bass Ildar Abdrazakov, and tenors Bryan Hymel (January 25, 29) and Michael Spyres (February 1, 8) sharing the title role, remains unchanged. Edward Gardner is the conductor."

The bit about "unanticipated technical demands" is interesting especially from an opera company that just revived Mr. Lepage's even more challenging version of the Ring cycle this season, and has mounted other Lepage shows (The Tempest, L'amour de Loin) in recent years.

Berlioz broke new ground in this work, which combines the complexity of choral music with a vivid re-telling of Goethe's morality tale. However, the extravagant staging demands of the libretto mean that most performances of this piece are done in a "concert" format. While one can still experience the Met's visionary Damnation in the theater of the mind, thanks to these cancellations, New York has lost half of its opportunities to do so.

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Superconductor is free for everyone to read but it does cost money to produce. If you enjoyed this article, it's time to click over to Superconductor's Patreon page, and help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City. Our Patreon program starts at the low cost of just $5 per month, less than a fancy cup of coffee in this town.

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Dido and Aeneas are laid in earth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The nocturnal court of Carthage: Dido (Danela Mack) flanked by her handmaidens.
Photo by Kevin Condon for The Death of Classical.
When it comes to performing operas in innovative locations, it is hard to beat the catacombs deep within Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. Last night, before a packed house, The Angels' Share offered the premiere of its season-opening staging of Dido and Aeneas. Written by Henry Purcell in 1688, this is the oldest English-language opera to have a place in the repertory.



A performance at The Angel's Share is a theatrical event even before one gets to the venue. The catacombs are set deep within the vastness of Greenwood, and the road to them is steep, winding up the bony glacial ridge at this end of Brooklyn that once was a Revolutionary War battlefield. Now it's the resting place of the famous, the elite and New York's middle class, a deep and silent preserve of the unliving. There's also a whiskey tasting beforehand, giving strength for the journey and adding to the sense of occasion.

The small five-piece baroque ensemble was located all the way at the back of the long, arched tunnel. A simple platform stage stood at about the middle of the catacomb, and the actors made their entrances and exits from the low doorways where the crypts are stored. House lights were a string of big incandescent bulbs suspended along the ceiling, and stage lighting (by Tláloc López-Watermann) was done mostly using small, versatile LED units. LED strips on the floor added to the available visual effect.

We sat, two by two with lower seats in the front and higher stools in the back. Sometimes it was possible to have line-of-sight to the stage but in this opera, with its slow pace, sense of ceremony and largely static action, it was the sound that was important. And what a sound it was, immersing, engulfing, sometimes completely overwhelming as it resonated, cleanly and clearly against the curved earthen vault above our heads.

On the small stage, the drama unfurled. Dido (Danela Mack) sang with a dark, powerful voice, conveying the Carthaginian queen's arc from royal monarch in full pomp and circumstance flanked by her handmaidens Belinda (Molly Quinn) and Anna (Brooke Larimer) She spent the first part of the opera fighting off the unwelcome attentions of King Iarbas (Paul Greene-Dennis) and fending off Aeneas too. Simple, magnificent costumes by Fay Eva added to the splendor of the limited visuals, possibly the richest finery ever worn here in the city of the dead.

Aeneas is the lesser role here but baritone Paul La Rosa gave the intrepid Trojan prince plenty of presence and vocal weight. His performance was only hampered by the fact that he is, throughout this work a secondary figure to Dido. It was only after a great and complex courtship that Ms. Mack made the transition to a woman in love, only to have her heart broken when Aeneas follows his destiny. In her final lament "When I am laid in earth," Ms. Mack sang with careful, rich deliberation, putting weight in each syllable of the text and providing power and presence as the Queen slowly expired.

The star-crossed pair were surrounded by a good supporting cast. Mr. Greene is a find, a powerful bass with presence and a resonant voice. Soprano Vanessa Cariddi made the Sorceress a terrifying figure, flanked by demonic handmaidens of her own and capering in the hellish electronic light. Conducting from the keyboard, Eliott Figg led a taut and supple account of the score, flanked by a quintet of period strings. This smart and stylish performance was a good start to The Angel's Share's second season, and one left looking forward to the next opportunity to delve deep into music beneath the earth.

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Superconductor is free for everyone to read but it does cost money to produce. If you enjoyed this article, it's time to click over to Superconductor's Patreon page, and help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City. Our Patreon program starts at the low cost of just $5 per month, less than a fancy cup of coffee in this town.
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Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

There comes a time in the career of an opera singer where, through either good fortune or exceptional skill, they rise from the ranks of the roster and ignite as a genuine operatic star. For the  Isabel Leonard, 2018-19 at the Metropolitan Opera was that year, where the mezzo-soprano rose to the occasion in three major roles: Marnie, Melisande and Sister Blanche in Dialogues des Carmelites. On Monday night, Ms. Leonard capped a season which featured performances as Marnie, Melisande and Sister Blanche with a performance at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by the MET Orchestra under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.



The concert started with Mr. Nézet-Séguin leading the orchestra in Debussy's La Mer, a concert staple but not the usual repertory for the Metropolitan Opera's players. However, steeped (as they have been this year) in the French operas of the twentieth century, this three-movement set of sea pictures held no nauticual terrors. Mr. Nezet-Seguin obtained exceptional clarity from the strings, and brought the big horns in with subtlety and grace. The swelling first-movement climax came to its impressive peak, but the conductor and players seemed more interested in the delcate, diminishing notes that end the movement.

Debussy's achievement in this work was to establish his own orchestral voice, a concordance between the use of modes, the orchestral light and shade of Wagner, and the five-note scale that dominates Asian music. The freshness and originality of his approach never ceases to astonish. In the two following movements, Mr. Nézet-Séguin and his players navigated through the dance and play of dappled sunlight on the water, and the thunderous third movement, where the thematic climax of the opening movement comes back in a totally transformed way.

Ms. Leonard joined the orchestra next, for the Carnegie Hall premiere of  Henri Dutilleux's Le temps l'horloge. This is a short set of five pieces, the composer's final work before his death in 2014. Dutilleux had a short catalogue of works but his influence is long, and these quirky, fiercely inventive songs proved an ideal challenge for the singer. She was accompanied by inventive percussion, occasional bursts of harpsichord and shifts between developed themes and angular tone-rows in the titular "The Hours and the Clock", whose quirky orchestration reminded one of the first opera by Ravel. 

The ensemble shifted into a dazzling set of complicated rhythms for "Le masque." Somber tones for the central "Le dernier poème". After a brief instrumental passage, the final song  “Le futur antérieur" ended on an upward flight of fancy, as Ms. Leonard and Mr. Nézet-Séguin leapt together up the scale. In their capable hands, it was as if Mr. Dutilleux' last musical gesture before his death was a swift ascent into the celestial firmament.

The mezzo returned for the second half of the program which was entirely works by Ravel. Shéhérazade is a setting the heady milieu of the Arabian Nights as filtered through the French poetry of (here comes a marvelous pseudonym) Tristan Klingsor. The set opened with the orchestral fantasy "Asie," rich in detail and ornamental orchestral "Orientalism" filtered through the composer's magnificent eye for the smallest detail. Ms. Leonard rode the waves of orchestral sound as the listener's guide on the great Silk Road. The gentle, teasing "La flûte enchantée" was ideal for Ms. Leonard as was the closing, ambiguous "L'indifferent," a work that teases at the ideas of gender ambiguity with its taut rhythms and ambivalent, wandering themes.

The concert ended with more Ravel, the epic sweep of the Second Suite from his ballet Daphnis et Chlöe. This consists of three sections of the ballet, which in its entirety is Ravel's longest and most massive work. The slow, shimmering "Daybreak" rose up out of the orchestra to magnificent effect, rising to a gigantic climax in the brass that echoed the earlier magnificence of the Debussy piece. The central "Pantomime" offered opportunity for elaborate rhythms and colorful playing from the woodwinds. The surging "Danse generale" brought the concert to a swirling, stirring final climax.

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Superconductor is free for everyone to read but it does cost money to produce. If you enjoyed this article, it's time to click over to Superconductor's Patreon page, and help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City. Our Patreon program starts at the low cost of just $5 per month, less than a fancy cup of coffee in this town.
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Amore Opera throws Verdi's Masked Ball,
by Paul J. Pelkonen

A throne of games: Tenor José Heredia (center, prone) dies at the end of Un ballo in Maschera/
hoto by Ashley Becker © 2019 Amore Opera.
The Amore Opera ended its tenth season on Sunday afternoon with a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera. Of Verdi's mature operas, Ballo is unique. It is closer to French comic opera in style than anything else the composer wrote, even if it follows the musical conventions of Italian opera with only a sprinkling of French flavor in its score. The text is in Italian, and the musical style is late Verdi, with an almost-Wagnerian use of repeated themes attached to its characters. Although it has a tragic ending, there is am airy lightness to the music and the stage action, which frames a simple love triangle against a wrenching political assassination.



Ballo had a tortured history. It originated as a Eugene Scribe libretto, set as the 1833 grand  opera Gustave III by the composer Daniel Auber. With the help of Alessandro Somma, Verdi recycled Scribe's libretto. Gustavo III (as it was first called) retells the story of an historical Swedish king who was assassinated by a courtier at a glittering masked ball in Stockholm. However, trouble with the censors in Naples forced Verdi and Somma to change the name of the opera (twice!) move the action, first to Pomerania and then to "glamorous" colonial Boston, and finally withdraw the work altogether. For the opera's Rome premiere, poor old King Gustavo was demoted to "Count Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick." This assuages censorious objections to a royal assassination onstage  All this left directors with a problematic opera that has two sets of character names and two very different location options.
King Gustav III of Sweden (left) and his two brothers. As far as we know they didn't try to kill him.
Painting by Alexander Roslin for Wikimedia Commons.

Director Nathan Hull opted for the Swedish setting for the opera, indicating this in the first act with  a throne emblazoned with that country's "three crowns" crest and blue-and-yellow Swedish flags prominently displayed. However, the characters had their "Boston" names: Riccardo, Renato, Ulrica and the conspirators and would-be assassins "Samuel" and "Tom." (Maybe they're easier to pronounce?) The staging was absolutely traditional, white wigs for the fellas, gowns for the ladies and a small chorus and orchestra that was the right size for the small Riverside Church Theater that has become this company's home base. Under the baton of Douglas Martin, the reduced orchestral forces actually clarified Verdi's themes for the listener, with the woodwinds balancing well with the strings.

Sunday's performance had a good cast, led by the round and forceful voice of tenor Jose Heredia. He may not have brought too much depth to Riccardo (the character isn't that complicated) but he sang with power when needed and a genial tone. He made the final turn, where a dying Riccardo forgives his assassin with great skill, drawing sympathy and pathos in those too-brief passages thar (somewhat abruptly) end the opera. As Amelia, object of the King's affections, Ashley Becker gave a performance that walked the line between bel canto tone and spinto power, singing her great scene in the second act with real human emotions and even managing Verdi's few, but challenging low notes.

No character has a longer or more tortured emotional journey in this opera than Renato. He is the King's secretary, bestie and Amelia's husband. Eventually it is jealousy over the perceived (but unconsummated) relationship between his wife and the King that causes him to join the conspiracy and lead the assassination. In some ways, this character is a sketch for Otello. Written for the baritone voice (and sung here by Jonathan R. Green, this character veered from nobility to jealousy to regicidal rage. However, unlike Shakespeare, Renato's wrath falls not on his wife  but on his perceived rival.

Things reach a boiling point when Renato, who has agreed to escort the King's trysting partner home, sees this woman unmask herself in front of a group of courtiers who have hurried there to assassinate the King. His humiliation leads to one of the most delicately written passages in Verdi, the "laughing chorus" as the would-be killers exit guffawing over Renato's sudden humiliation. This was led by basses Jay Gould and Charles Gray as Samuel and Tom and sounds almost like a passage from an operetta. Far heavier is the great baritone aria "Eri tu" with Mr. Green chewing the budget scenery and giving full vent to Renato's fury with his boss and his wife.

Key supporting players started and finished strong. Notable among these were Christa Dalmazio in the trouser role of the page Oscar, who seemed to have stepped out of a Mozart drawing-room comedy and into an exercise in deadly irony. Also, Galina Ivannikova brought the full power of her mezzo to Ulrica, the witch whose prophecies turn out to always be right. It is to the Amore Opera stage crew's credit that the scene in her demesne was among the most effective in the opera. There was a boiling cauldron, lots of dry ice and an eerie atmosphere. Maybe they should recycle all these elements plus Mr. Green's baritone and consider doing Verdi's Macbeth.

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The New York Philharmonic revives John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Composer John Cortigiano: his Symphony No. 1 was played at the New York Philharmonic
for the first time in 27 years. Photo © Sony Classical.
The New York Philharmonic is in the middle round of “Music of Conscience,” a season-ending three-week festival celebrating works written with the purpose of correcting great social injustices. This week featured the very necessary return of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, subtitled Of Rage and Remembrance. Commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and last heard at the Philharmonic in 1992, this is a a powerful three-movement cenotaph in sound, dedicated to the memory of the thousands of Americans cut down by the AIDS crisis and the government’s cruel indifference.

Pride Month started in New York Saturday night, and the Philharmonic responded accordingly. Staff members handed out pins with the orchestra’s spidery logo emblazoned against the rainbow Pride flag in black. On the concourse of David Geffen Hall stood  huge  displays: sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was first shown on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in 1987. Inside, the Corigliano work was prefaced with a pair of pensive classics by Brahms and Mozart. The musicians, including Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden, sported the Pride pins.

The Brahms Tragic Overture was an appropriate start to the concert, with the orchestra playing under an enormous, looming concert lighting rig that was there for rehearsals of next week’s David Lang opera. Mr. van Zweden is good at drawing out the peculiar way that Brahms writes orchestral voicings. Grouped woodwinds, noble horns and strings create a mellifluous, full-throated song eerily like a massed choir of human voices. The Overture spun forward in its perfectly balanced construction, a symphonic movement that only lacks three brothers to make it complete.

Next, a Steinway and (unusually) a straight-backed chair were placed for soloist David Fray in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. Of this composers two concertos written in a minor key, this is the more tragic and internal, a series of sad threnodies for the keyboard answered by the tutti players, Mr. Fray is an artist unknown to this writer, but he played with an appropriate lightness and delicacy of touch that suited the late-rococo figuration of the final movement.

At the start of the second half, Mr. Corigliano came onstage to introduce his work to new listeners. He  painted a bleak road map, explaining how certain key themes were references to souls he had known, reaped too early by the plague. A tinkling offstage piano was for a teacher of his who loved Albeniz, a central dance movmement reflected the terror of AIDS-induced dementia and a cello melody for his friend Giulio opened the finale.

This stark and uncompromising piece started with a crie de couer, a monstrous A chord in brass, percussion and strings. It's sound wave was by the addition of a metal plate struck hard with a hammer. This terrifying sound returns again and again, the raising of an alarm as the crisis mounted. The pulse emerged, the human heartbeat at first steady and then barrelling like a freight train down upon the listener in a frantic orchestral roar. Slow strings announced the arrival of the Albeniz piano theme, tinkling from offstage and then played by the same soloist from among the orchestra.The movement ended in powerful, apocalyptic fashion carefully controlled, bottled and stoppered by Mr. van Zweden.

That movement was barely preparation for what followed,a terrifying Tarantella. Mr. Corigliano, recycling a theme from his 1970s work Gazebo Dances, subverts that traditional Italian dance. Strummed mandolins trill, answered and amplified by plucked and strummed violins. Suddenly the  music careens into a fortissimo passage as if the listener is suddenly dropped through a trapdoor onto a backwards roller coaster. This movement had great emotional intensity, reflecting the idioms of both Mahler and Shostakovich but in a way that was lyric, Italianate and uniquely the voice if Mr. Corigliano.

The final movement offered some serenity in Giulio’s Song, a passage for solo cello played by Carter Brey) and eventually supported by his desk ate, this sad theme acted like the trigger of a massive final Rondo, eventually giving way to a rising passage that climbed toward a major key. The A note returned again and again, more uplifting each time it was heard. Hope is a beautiful thing. It was also the last thing that Mr, Corigliano pulled out of his Pandora’s box of orchestral tricks. As presented here by Mr. Van Zweden and this orchestra, hope was a very fine thing indeed.

Become a Patron!

Superconductor is free for everyone to read but it does cost money to produce. If you enjoyed this article, it's time to click over to Superconductor's Patreon page, and help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City. Our Patreon program starts at the low cost of just $5 per month, less than a fancy cup of coffee in this town.



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