No, I promise I will not overwhelm you with a whole lot of musicological gobbledigook about Tristan and Isolde and The Meaning of Life. This is a consumer alert, not Introduction to Wagner 101. And there won’t be a quiz.

The Metropolitan Opera (aka The Met) opens its season in less than two weeks with a new production of Richard Wagner‘s oh-so-hard-to-pull-off Tristan und Isolde. Unless you are a tried and true Wagnerian you need to be reminded that this is not an operatic walk in the park.  Neither for the singers nor for the listeners.

And, at NEARLY FIVE HOURS RUNNING TIME of which four are just music and one hour is taken up by two thirty minute intermissions THIS OPERA IS NOT FOR THE UNIITIATED.
Which begs the question…

First things first. T & I is so very, very, very difficult to cast that for a while, back in the 80’s and for a period of fifteen or so years the MET pulled it off its schedule. There had been a long list of vocal mishaps, with wannabe Tristans and not-quite-ready-for-the-big-time Isoldes bitting the operatic dust half-way through this grueling operatic triathlon that the whole thing became a futile exercise and an embarrassment.

Well, first look at the running time: four hours (ballpark) of stentorian singing at the top and bottom of the singer’s range, competing against an augmented orchestra that can number close to one hundred players, singing in an opera house that can range on the average upwards of 3,000 seats (the MET has 3,800) in which microphones are considered a criminal offense.

Should I go on?

And then there is that thing called tradition, which in Opera can amount to a curse. Some of us have been going to the opera longer than some of our  readers have been alive. That usually means that along with wonderul memories comes heavy baggage.

I can hardly get into a conversation with opera fans that will not include someone rattling off a long list of who he or she heard back when in the 1950 opening of the Upper Slavovian Opera House. 

And in the case of Wagner and, especially, Wagnerian singers, one will inevitably hear the names of Lauritz Melchior, Set Svanholm, Jon Vickers, Siegfried Jerusalem, Jess Thomas and how they don’t make them like that anymore.

Singing Wagner, especially his killer roles, calls for a huge voice, superhuman stamina and keen intelligence. The intelligence part has to do with knowing how to pace yourself as a singer, when to pull out the stops and when to pull back. Sing at full throttle all the time and trouble looms ahead.

But, lucky us, the MET has found a robust Australian by the name of Stuart Skelton. The singing Aussie has been making a name for himself in the operatic world singing all sorts of impossible Wagnerian parts, after graduating from our very own CCM thirty years ago.

Tristan und Isolde opens the Met season in a new production by Mariusz Treliński in a matter of days and with a top-notch cast headed by Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme as the doomed lovers, surrounded by bass René Pape as King Marke, Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne and Sir Simon Rattle conducting.

The MET season opened this past Monday September 26 and soon opera fans accross the country will be able to sit in comfort, just a few feet away from a movie screen and for a mere $20 watch a show that would set one back several hundreds of dollars if one were lucky enough to find a ticket to the MET in NYC.

And that would not include air fare and hotel and meals in the Big Apple.

Here in Cincinnati you can catch the MET HD presentation of T&I on several movie screens on Saturday October 8 at noon.

Which movie screens? That’s your homework. That and listening to the You Tube links I’ve posted:
1) Stuart Skelton sings the Love Duet  from Tristan und Isolde with soprano Heidi Melton (in English!)
2) Nina Stemme sings the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

And to bone up on the plot, just google it.

See you at the Opera!

Rafael de Acha




And now, just in, from Navona Records (, comes Mi Palpita Il Cor, an elegant new release featuring music by Steffani, Sammartini, Handel, Telemann and Rameau.

This Baroque banquet features the members of the west coast group Musica Pacifica, a renowned ensemble specializing in Baroque music. The five members of the group’ play ancient or replicas of old instruments in their work, and the sound they produce is as authentic as you will ever hear.

The ensemble is led by Judith Linsenberg, who plays the soprano, alto and tenor recorders and the rare voice flute, used nowadays as a substitute for the transverse flute. She is a master of all her instruments and an ideal equal partner in all five of the compositions featured in the album

Elizabeth Blumenstock is the group’s fine violinist, playing in this recording a 1660 Guarnieri. Josh Lee plays the viola da gamba with a fullness not usually associated with this delicate instrument. John Leonti doubles with flexibility on guitar and theorbo. Charles Sherman provides solidly continuous support on the continuo with a double manual harpsichord.

The five musicians are, in a word, superb.

Joining Musica Pacifica, the Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle ( is impressively featured in three cantatas that provide many of the album’s delights. She is first heard in Guardati, o core, a short cantata by the Italian composer, singer, priest and diplomat Agostino Steffani. Labelle sings it very beautifully, with a sure command of the Italian, paying close attention to the subtleties of the text, a bittersweet commentary on the joys and pains of love.

Like other musicians born in Italy long before the unification of that country, Giuseppe Sammartini had to journey abroad to find fame and fortune in 18th century Europe. Settling in England, Sammartini wrote extensively for his primary instrument, the oboe as well as for other woodwind instruments. In his Sonata in B Minor for two instruments, Sammartini uses a free-wheeling four-movement format replete with dance rhythms. The ensemble’s Judith Linsenberg and Elizabeth Blumenstock use their recorder and violin respectively to bring to life the charming composition.

In Handel’s early solo cantata for alto, Mi palpita il cor, Dominique Labelle dives flawlessly into the vocal hurdles of the piece, singing the pastoral text about the perils of love with a light touch that yet never skims over the surface of the composition, instead mining all along for emotional depth.

Georg Phillip Telemann’s Quartet in G Major offers the ensemble’s members countless opportunities to play to the hilt a little collection of dance pieces in the Galant style of the French High Baroque.

Rameau’s cantata Orphée features soprano Labelle in top form, singing idiomatically Rameau’s music and honoring the emotional intricacies in the French text about the legend of Orpheus.

Unlike so many baroque specialists, Labelle sings with a plumy tone, judiciously using vibrato when it best serves the music but never subjecting the listener to the disembodied tone of other early music specialists. Hers is a beautiful full lyric soprano voice and the results of her approach along with the superb accompaniment by Musica Pacifica are most satisfying.

As customary with Navona Records, the engineering is top-notch and the album’s packaging, accompanied by insightful program notes is first class.

Rafael de Acha





OUR 9-11


Our 9-11

We were about to start the final week of rehearsals of a play by Nilo Cruz at our New Theatre’s new theatre, a converted movie house with a stage no bigger than some people’s living rooms. Rehearsals had been going well, and that Tuesday was the starting point to a push full-speed ahead towards our opening night, scheduled for that Friday. We had just had a 10 ½ hours marathon technical run-through the Sunday before that had gone smoothly and were feeling happy if exhausted. The play, Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams dealt with the reconciliation of an estranged brother and sister who encounter each other in Cuba, after years of exile in the United States.

At around 8:30 that morning the phone rang. It was our Managing Director, who said in a voice that fought back tears: “Turn on the TV!”

We sat in our kitchen watching, transfixed by what was taking place in our country. After a few hours of witnessing or hearing about the horrors of that day, I got in my pickup truck and headed for the theatre, where I had the contact sheet with the names of the cast and production team, hoping to be able to reach them by phone so as to let them know that we would be suspending rehearsals until further notice.

The telephone lines were jammed and email was even worse. I drove back home, and between our managing director and us we managed to get to everyone within the next few hours. Our playwright, who was planning to fly down to Miami for the opening of his play, was the last person we could reach. He was in New York, unable to go anywhere.

I then had to make the decision to either open on Friday or postpone the play’s opening indefinitely. Somehow, in the midst of the surrounding chaos I was reminded of what the English faced during the Blitz of London in World War II and of their courage in the face of possible annihilation: they kept the theatres of London going. If an air raid siren sounded, an unscheduled interval would be taken and the audience and cast and crew would repair to the basement of the theatre or to the nearest Tube station to then resume the play or show, once the all-clear was sounded.

We reconvened the cast and production team that Thursday and had a run-through of the play on the night that would have been our invitational preview just before opening. And open we did, on Friday, with a capacity audience that wanted  to forget for a couple of hours the tragedy that continued to develop outside our theatre’s four walls..

The play’s two central characters had a final scene in which brother and sister again reunited sit in an open field somewhere outside Havana looking at the night sky. The final line of the play was chilling in its unplanned relevance to the week’s events: “When I was a little girl, Mother always told me to beware of planes up in the sky.”

After the line was spoken, the sound of an overflying plane was heard, part of the production’s sound design mapped out weeks before. The stage lights then dimmed slowly. The audience sat in silence for what may have been more than a moment before it broke into applause.

That day I learned something about the healing power of theatre.




September 1, 2015 Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. Eckart Preu, conductor. Joshua Roman, cello.

Tonight’s Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra concert brought its 2016 season to an ending that felt more like a rebirth.

Miguel del Águila’s Conga-Line in Hell is described by its composer as “…the visual image of an endless line of dead people dancing through the fires of hell…humorous, sarcastic, grotesque and terrifying…” Del Águila’s Conga morphs into a handful of driving Latin rhythms only to return to the carnival street dance that gives the composition its title. But ultimately his Conga overstays its welcome and ends up sounding like so much movie music.

In Daníel Bjarnason’s Bow to String a chaotic beginning makes melody struggle to be heard while the upper strings play with no vibrato on their highest registers or else impatiently tap on their instruments with their bows, and all the while the solo cello waits to play a melody as if assuring us that all will be well again. Bow to String is a brief piece that runs approximately five minutes. It was five minutes that felt like all eternity, even in spite of the gorgeous playing of Joshua Roman.

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite in its chamber orchestra version for thirteen instruments brought to the evening a welcome mood of bucolic serenity and American charm. Even the lively movements of the suite, playfully whimsical in their rhythms were mined for their intrinsic lyricism in what may just be the finest performance of Copland’s composition this reviewer has ever heard. Here Eckart Preu drew sounds from the CCO musicians that have not always been there this season: utterly clear, perfectly pitched, flawlessly articulated – proof that a strong leadership will draw the very best from a very fine group of musicians.

Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 is widely regarded as one of the great concerti for this noblest of instruments: a three-movement composition played without pause, as if in a single-movement. Conceived as a calling card piece for none but the finest of cellists, it opens boldly with the soloist asserting himself on the very first measure and meeting the orchestra head on in an intensely orchestrated Allegro. The music quiets down for a Minuet in which the cello sings a melody redolent of the Classical era. The third and final movement introduces an additional melody that evidences Saint-Saëns inexhaustible inventiveness.

Joshua Roman played the concerto elegantly, boldly and flawlessly, conquering all its technical hurdles without any difficulty. The young cellist is a major artist well on his way to a great career.

To close, the orchestra played Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 in D Major, a work first performed during a visit by the young composer to the French capital. Orchestrated more fully than his other symphonies, this Paris symphony showcased the musicianship and musicality of the CSO musicians.

Eckart Preu is an immensely talented conductor, one capable of moving with ease from the cutting edge sounds of del Águila and Bjarnason to the Americana of Aaron Copland and then on to the Gallic Romanticism of Saint-Saëns and, finally, impress with an exquisite Mozart performance.

This concert concludes the 2016 season by reminding us of how fortunate it is for us to have not one but two great orchestras in our town. But, beyond that, of the two, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra has been reborn into a very fine ensemble, and that is more than cause for celebration.

What lies ahead now is the choice of Music Director for this worthy member organization of the music scene in Cincinnati, one who will lead it into the next chapter of its musical life.

After hearing tonight’s performance I know who my choice would be.

Rafael de Acha