Gyndebourne’s “Turn of the Screw”

Turn of the Screw - Glyndbourne CD

Over the last couple of years the Glyndebourne Festival in England has been producing a series of CD recordings of outstanding past opera performances from the festival, made from live performances. The latest of these recordings is from a very fine production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in 2007, with soprano Camilla Tilling as The Governess and tenor William Burden in the dual role of The Prologue and the ghost Peter Quint. Edward Gardner conducts members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Henry James’s ghost story, in which nothing is certain and everything might be imagined, is turned by Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper in 1954 into a creepy opera in which Britten portrays the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as very real and on the make for the two children, Miles and Flora, left in the Governess’s charge by an uncle who is too busy to care for them himself.

The performance is excellent. Camilla Tilling’s portrayal become increasingly unhinged as the story progresses. William Burden’s bright, light tenor is a worthy successor to that of Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner and the originator of the role. The two children are played by Joanna Songi (Flora) and Christopher Sladdin (Miles). Since this recording is taken from a live performance, there is a considerable amount of stage noise, especially during the scenes when the children are playing together. The elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, whose belief that the Governess has seen the ghost of Peter Quint, the former valet, sets the story in motion, is by mezzo Anne-Marie Owens. Soprano Emma Bell plays the small but essential role of the former (and now dead) Governess Miss Jessel, who was forced to leave the house because of an unnamed scandal with Peter Quint. Conductor Edward Gardner leads a taut performance. A few of the vocal/orchestral balances are not quite right, but this is undoubtedly because of the conditions of live performances. The orchestral playing is precise and virtuosic. The opera is a set of variations on a theme that appears at the beginning of the first scene. Each variation sets the tone of the next scene; thus, the orchestra is a prime character in the drama.

Glyndebourne’s CD production is lavish. The two CD set is bound into a 60 page book featuring color photos of the production, synopsis and complete libretto, and an essay about the opera by Britten scholar Michael Kennedy. The CDs are already available in the U.K., and will be released in the U.S. later in June 2011.

I highly recommend this new recording. It stacks up well with the composer’s own recording (in mono) with the original cast, as well as such later recordings as that by Britten expert Steuart Bedford with the excellent Felicity Lott as the Governess.

The International Music Score Library Project

An article in today’s New York time by music critic Daniel J. Wakin about the International Music Score Project library (also known as the Petrucci Library), draws attention to this vast digital library of music scores and parts that are in the public domain. That is, these editions of published music are no longer protected by copyright and can be freely downloaded, reproduced and used for whatever purpose.

I have used the IMSLP quite often in the past year, especially after the Euclid Avenue Congregational Church fire, when much of my personal organ music was destroyed. There were many things that I had originally purchased that in subsequent decades have now become public domain, including works by Bach, Franck, Reger, Guilmant, and many others. Among other things that church choirs use all the time are the G. Schirmer scores of standard choral works: Messiah, Elijah, Brahms’ Requiem, etc. Debussy’s works are now all in public domain (in the same Durand editions that you can pay through the nose for), as are many of the works of Sibelius and Mahler. Most of the operas by Puccini are there, as are the operas of Verdi and Wagner, often in multiple editions.

The NYTimes article points out that the public domain scores are old and don’t have the benefit of modern scholarship that might be available in new editions. But often new editions don’t provide great value (or at least not as great a value as their editors might have us believe.). While the music of Johann Sebastian Bach has had much valuable scholarship since the Bach Gesellschaft Edition was published in the 1800s, there is not a lot of recent work on Guilmant or Reger. Sometimes I just want to look at a score and then later decide to purchase it. There is value added by having a professionally printed and bound score. Some of the scores in the IMSLP are available commercially through such publishers as Dover and Kalmus.

Whether you’re a poor student, interested amateur or professional musician needing a quick look at at a standard repertoire work, the IMSLP is an invaluable resource.

About John Adams’s “Nixon in China”

The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross pointed out this blog post by Daniel Stephen Johnson about the recent Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams’s Nixon in China. There has been a lot written in the last few weeks about the 1987 opera, but this one is the best I’ve read. I recommend it without reservation:

P.S. Check out the advertisement for the T-shirt in the upper right corner of the page. It’s how I feel sometimes.

Music for a break-up: Poulenc’s “La voix humaine”

Have you ever been dumped by a boyfriend (or girlfriend) and feel that you just can’t go on? That you would do anything to talk to your beloved again and that you can talk him or her into getting back together again. Francis Poulenc’s one person opera La voix humaine (The Human Voice) is based on that premise. In 1930s Paris an unnamed woman waits in her bedroom for the man who has broken up with her to call her. The libretto is by Jean Cocteau, and we hear only the woman’s side of the conversation with her former lover. She flatters, cajoles, cries, begs him not to leave. She even describes her poor dog, who doesn’t understand why the man isn’t there. He may or may not be calling from a restaurant where he is with a new girlfriend.

This 1990 film (released on DVD in 2009) of the 50-minute opera stars the American soprano Julia Migenes. It is hard to imagine a better performance. The realistic set representing the woman’s apartment is lavish. The camera work focuses on the woman’s increasingly unhinged emotions. At the end, it is revealed that the lover is leaving the next day for Marseilles, and the woman will be alone. She clutches a handful of sleeping pills as the scene fades.

Unless you are fluent in French, be sure to use the English subtitles. Unlike a lot of operas, the words in La voix humaine are almost more important than the music.

“Nixon In China”—finally at the Met after all these years

Last night, February 2, 2011, John Adams’s iconic 1987 American opera Nixon in China finally had its Metropolitan Opera premiere, with the composer conducting his own work and with James Maddalena, the baritone who created the role of Richard Nixon at the opera’s first performance, making his Met debut as the U.S. president who visited the People’s Republic of China in 1972 and set in motion a chain of events that only now do we see fully expressed.

I listened to the performance via SiriusXM’s very steady, high quality stream. The Met also streamed the performance from its own web site. The opera will be performed on the Met HD video series on Saturday, February 12, at 1:00 PM.

The opera was given in a production modeled after the first production at the Houston Grand Opera. Peter Sellers made his Met debut as director. The widely published image of the production is that of the Air Force One 747 nose “landing” on the stage, with Dick and Pat Nixon (Scottish soprano Janis Kelly, in her Met debut) and Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) then descending the stairs to greet the Chinese delegation, including Chou En-lai (in the Met performance played by the elegant German baritone Russell Braun).

Nixon in China was John Adams’s first opera, and the music he composed—for both singers and orchestra—is fiendishly difficult. The orchestral parts are fraught with rhythmic difficulties; and the vocal lines have many repetitions, often at a very high range. There are several set-piece “arias,” including Nixon’s antic “News, news, news” at the beginning; Pat Nixon’s “This is prophetic” during the second act, and, most astonishing, Madame Mao’s coloratura triumph, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung.” The characters of Mao and Kissinger are treated more as caricatures, without being fleshed out as much as some of the other roles. (In the third act, Henry Kissinger has what must be the most humiliating exit in all of opera, when he asks Cho En-lai where the toilet is and exits for the rest of the opera.)

The performance itself was for the most part spectacular. James Maddalena’s Nixon must be considered definitive. However, the singer seemed to be struggling with a bad cold. His voice sounded very husky, he had trouble maintaining the lines, and his voice cracked several times during the impossible music that Adams composed for Nixon in the first act. It is a marathon for a singer at the peak of form; it must have been torture to feel not up to par. Janis Kelly played a very sympathetic Pat Nixon, who tolerates the slights she receives from her husband, but who displays spunk during the Chinese opera performance of the second act, when she steps into the action to “protect” a Chinese peasant being beaten by a sadistic man not yet “converted” to communism. Kathleen Kim (who also performs coloratura biggies as Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Strauss’s Zerbinetta) tossed off her big showpiece aria at the end of Act 2 as if it was a little ditty.

The music of third act has a sense of greater repose than most of the rest of the opera. The principal characters, the Nixons, the Maos, Kissinger and Chou En-lai play the act on six single beds spread across the stage. It is at the end of the Nixon visit; all are exhausted. The act is one long intertwined ensemble in which each of the characters express regrets of the past and comment on what might be in the future. Chou En-lai has the last words, in which he ruminates on the coming of the new day. The opera’s libretto by Alice Goodman is highly poetic. The singers did an excellent job with their diction; the words were understandable, but much of the context is lost without benefit of the printed libretto. (Poet Alice Goodman is an interesting character. She is a friend of director Sellers and had never before written an opera libretto. After Nixon in China, she went on to collaborate on the libretto for Adams’s second, highly controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer. In more recent years, she converted from Judaism to the Anglican branch of Christianity and now serves as a chaplain at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.)

Pride of place must go to the incomparable Metropolitan Opera orchestra for their precision and beauty of sound. John Adams has long been a convincing conductor of his own works. He is clearly a skilled conductor, and this was not just a vanity engagement.

I’m looking forward to the HD video broadcast. That will be the fourth performance of the run. We can hope that the cast will be restored to full health. Nixon in China is an important musical work of the twentieth century. We can celebrate its appearance at the Met.

My vacation playlist, August 2010

Here’s what I’m taking on the plane to Iowa (among many other things—on my iPod)

Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, conducted by Claudio Cavina. One of the great early operas, in a new re-imagining.

Schubert’s great song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, highly anticipated and brand new today (in the U.S.) on Harmonia Mundi, performed by the brainy tenor Mark Padmore, and the equally brainy pianist Paul Lewis.

Isabelle Faust’s acclaimed new recording of some of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.

An old favorite, the original Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” partially set off by reviews of the current New York revival with Elaine Strich and Bernadette Peters.

Gotta have a little Anglican church music in the mix.

The Essential Etta James. What more can I say?

Scissor Sisters’ “Night work.” I have eclectic tastes.

Kylie’s new album.

Happy listening.

Financial Woes for Opera Cleveland

A tale being re-told around the United States is now having a hearing in Cleveland: a notable arts organization with severe financial problems. It is featured in today’s Plain Dealer. In this case it is Opera Cleveland, which has had an ongoing stream of leadership departures over the past few years, ever since David Bamberger stepped down as director in 2004 and Cleveland Opera merged with Lyric Opera Cleveland. ;It always appeared to be a shotgun marriage, and it’s been downhill since. (In fact, Lyric Opera Cleveland has been on the way down ever since it broke its association with the Cleveland Institute of Music a decade ago.)

The article details some of the reasons why Opera Cleveland is struggling, but leaves out what might be the basic reason: ;people don’t want to see their productions. How many performances of Madama Butterfly or Lucia di Lammermoor do we need, especially when we can see top flight singers in the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts?  Where’s the adventure?  Where is the least bit of interesting repertoire?  (The next production of The Pearl Fishers is the most avant-garde thing we’ll see this season.)  Lyric Opera Cleveland used to do inventive productions of more unusual works, in English.  Where’s the Britten, Argento, Susa, or any number of other worthy composers?  It is definitely time for Opera Cleveland to re-invent itself.

Sunday Morning Surprise

I subscribe to the Internet feed of Sirius/XM satellite radio. I also have an Internet radio alarm clock by my bed. On Sunday mornings I have the alarm set to listen to the Sirius/Xm Metropolitan Opera channel. They play archive Met opera broadcasts from years past. When my alarm goes off at 7:00 AM I’m never sure what I’m going to hear. Today it was Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (Zerbinetta’s spectacular aria, specifically). That got me off to a rousing start to the day. Last week, conversely, what blazed to my still partially asleep ears was Alban Berg’s shocker Wozzeck. Nothing like a little dose of atonality to get your Sunday morning rolling. Made the Guilmant and Vierne I was playing in church seem pretty tame.