Yes, I know, it’s a bit early for end of year lists. But we’re not planning much concert-going this December, not with all the parties and dinners coming up!

No doubt about it, for an urban area of its size, Southern Ohio has an amazing number of musical organizations that keep us all happily attending concerts and operas all year long. Here are my most memorable musical performances from the year 2017.

 eckart Three concerts in August showed the talent and versatility of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, which, under its brilliant new conductor, Eckart Preu has never sounded more cohesive and assured.

ran dank Camille Saint-Saëns would have been delighted with Ran Dank’s bravura playing of his Second Piano Concerto for the CCO this past summer. The young pianist gave a masterful performance of this leviathan, mining every note for clarity rather than speed, and for quality rather than quantity of sound.

 kara shay In the Dayton Opera’s production of Menotti’s The Consul, conductor Patrick Reynolds helmed a cast that any company anywhere would be fortunate to assemble. With the maestro leading the Dayton Philharmonic with commanding assurance, and the hugely gifted stage director Gary Briggle obtaining naturalistic, cohesive and believable performances from his cast, and soprano, Kara Shay Thomson singing up a storm as Magda Sorel, this was world class opera, if you asked me.

th Cincinnati’s Music Hall reopened after an extensive renovation and much improved acoustics with a gala concert that featured the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led by Louis Langrée. In a heartfelt curtain speech Langrée announced the finale: Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. In the same way that Bernstein’s opus closes with a resolution to “build a house and make its garden grow,” the Maestro expressed his hope “that this newly-built home will be a similar garden, where great music will thrive and flourish.” I fully agree.

thI3GI0IAG The story of the fatally flawed love between two giants of 20th-century art was brought to life in the Cincinnati Opera production of Frida, a new work with music by Robert Xavier Rodriguez, book by Hilary Blecher, and lyrics and monologues by Migdalia Cruz. Director José María Condemi boldly fleshed out the relationship between Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, obtaining high-octane results from the excellent baritone Ricardo Herrera and soprano Catalina Cuervo, both of whom delivered memorable career-defining performances.

maxresdefault The CCM Philharmonia opened the 2017-2018 Concert Season at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music recently-renovated Patricia Corbett Theatre with Mark Gibson brilliantly conducting a tour de force program that included Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F, and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Many a professional orchestra would envy how this top-notch student ensemble sounds.

th30X32O22 Stewart Goodyear played a memorable recital as part of The Art of the Piano Festival at CCM, encompassing Bach, Gibbons, Beethoven, Ravel, and Liszt. Goodyear is awesome in technical dexterity, always unfailingly musical and stylish, balancing the impulses of a warm heart with the counsel of a cool brain. The audience would not let him leave, not even after a marathon two-hour recital.

untitled There usually are one or two CD’s in my PO Box every time I go to the post office to pick up my mail. Most recently there was a double CD album from Delos. I was thrilled to see it was Dimitri Hvorostovsky’s first recording of the title role of Rigoletto. It turned out to be his last: the Russian baritone succumbed after a long battle with brain cancer. He died last night, at age 55. Still reeling from the news, I offer Dmitri Aleksandrovich  a respectful salute: Прощай, Дмитрий Александрович, ты ушла от нас, но память о твоём искусстве будет жить вечно!

Rafael de Acha     11/22/17



Hvorostovsky’s Rigoletto
When Verdi’s Rigoletto finally premiered at Venice’s La Fenice in 1851, Verdi’s go-to baritone, Felice Varesi had to be shaken out of his stage fright by the composer himself, who literally gave him a kick in the pants and a shove onto the stage so that Varesi could make his first entrance and utter his first line: “In testa che avete, Signor di Ceprano?”

Since then, baritones have been putting stage fright aside, avoiding being shoved on stage, and actually lining up to test their mettle with Verdi’s great creation.

The first recording of this opera made and issued in the era of the long playing discs would be, to the best of my knowledge, Leonard Warren’s 1950 RCA album, which this writer sort of grew up with, listening to and showering while singing La donna e mobile along with Jan Peerce. Since then, there have been historical re-issues with Cesare Formichi, Giuseppe Danise, Riccardo Stracciari, and Lawrence Tibbett in the title role, and beyond those vintage “oldies” several mid-to-late 20th century recordings sung mostly by Italians, of which some were great Verdians, notably Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi, Ettore Bastianini, Rolando Panerai, Piero Cappuccilli, Renato Bruson, Giorgio Zancanaro, Leo Nucci, and Paolo Gavanelli.

Before and after Warren, other Americans: Lawrence Tibbett, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes and Cornell McNeill attempted the climb up this Mount Everest of Baritone Roles with various degrees of success. Singers of other nationalities stepped up to the plate, ranging from the Italianate sounding Rumanian baritone Nicolae Herlea, who sang it very well, to the light-voiced German Lieder specialist Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who had a go at it and should not have.

What’s all the fuss with all the nationalities, anyway? Well, from my POV, the title role of Rigoletto, perhaps more than any other Verdi baritone part we can think of, presents to its singer a set of demands that seem to be more easily met by native speakers of the Italian language, comfortable with that elusive term of Verdi’s: la parola scenica – the sung word or better, the scenic word.

A great deal of the role of Rigoletto is written in parlando utterances – half-spoken, half sung phrases that lie smack in that middle-range of C to B of the bass clef often neglected by baritones who just want to focus on the E-F-F#-G “money notes” that earn bravos from the clique in the upper reaches of the theatre. If you are a baritone and you want to sing Rigoletto, start by studying the second scene of the first act, when the jester meets Sparafucile and never goes above an Eb, and assimilate what Verdi is up to.

Verdi further raises the bar by giving the singer of this role long stretches of cantilena in the golden area of the baritone voice, for which the requirements are a good pair of lungs, clarity of vocal emission on any of the seven Italian vowels: A, E (open and closed), I, O (open and closed) and U, and seamless legato. Simple, isn’t it?

Ah, but there’s more. The part is not all that high, as Verdi baritone parts go. There’s a written F# or Gb here and there, an optional G and Ab (neither written by Verdi), but the tessitura ranges from medium high in the duets with Gilda to mostly middle-of-the-range writing elsewhere.

However, the baritone who signs on for this role better have a full palette of vocal colors and a a talent for inflecting into his sound a full gamut of emotions: biting sarcasm in the opening scene, heart-rending tenderness in the duets with Gilda, thundering anger in the Cortigiani aria in Act II. Oh, and by the way, some good acting would be greatly appreciated, which brings us round to Dimitri Hvorostovsky’s recording of Rigoletto.

Strategically issued ten days ago (November 10, 2017) by Delos, the handsomely packaged, beautifully annotated double CD shows the Siberian baritone in remarkably fine form. This is his first recording of Rigoletto, having earned his stripes with Renato (Ballo in Maschera), with Simon Boccanegra, and with Di Luna (Il Trovatore).

Hvorostovsky uses his trademark Verdi baritone “snarl” to great effect in his brief confrontation with Monterone, sung trills and all, as specified by Verdi. He then puts the cupo lid on to tamper down his trademark brilliant resonance in the encounter with Sparafucile, where at times he sounds as much like a bass as the impressive basso profundo Andrea Mastroni.

Pari siamo is delivered in a chilling, no-holds barred way, with the final high G on Ah no e follia as rock-solid as any we’ve heard. The two big duets with Gilda have Hvorostovsky sounding as fresh-voiced as if this recording had been made twenty years ago. It wasn’t. The dates of the recording sessions of this album are July 1-9, 2016. So, for those wondering about the state of the vocal health of this singer after a career-stopping bout with a brain tumor, here’s the news: he sounds as good as ever. No, better. The gravitas, the style, the masterful way with iconic phrases like “culto, famiglia, la patria…” or “Veglia, o donna, questo fiore…” are unimpeachable.

The Lithuanian team of engineers, led by producers Vilius Keras and Vytautas Kederys renders a top notch recording: the sound immediate, clear, unencumbered. The City of Kaunas Orchestra and the men of the Kaunas State Choir, under the unflaggingly energetic baton of Constantine Orbelian bring out all the Italian flair and all the subtleness of Verdi in an arresting recording.

In the principal roles, Nadine Sierra is a bright-voiced, stylish Gilda, neither in the big-girl mold of Sutherland and company nor in the songbird tradition of so many a Susanna who would be a Gilda. She sings a lovely Caro nome and holds her own in the duets with both Hvorostovsky and tenor Francesco Demuro, who sounds a bit light for the role, especially when heft and drama are called for, as in the second act’s Parmi veder le lagrime.

The supporting roles are well cast: Andrea Mastroni sounds marvelous and is both insinuating and enticing as Sparafucile. Oksana Volkova is a fine Maddalena, Kostas Smoriginas an impressive Monterone.

But this is, let’ be honest, the baritone’s show and Hvorostovsky walks away with it.

Rafael de Acha



Jointly created, revised, changed, and tortured into various versions by a handful of collaborators, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is a show that can’t make up its mind as to what it wants to be. Neither an opera nor a musical, nor a true operetta, Bernstein’s fourth Broadway show died several slow deaths in various productions after a slew of mostly bad reviews and sparsely sold performances. Yet, Candide remains to this day the object of a cult following that has either worshipped or scorned several mountings by various opera companies in the United States and England, but has always loved Bernstein’s inventive score.

Candide is as much a vehicle for good singers as any good old Gilbert and Sullivan, Johann Strauss, Offenbach or Lehár opus can be. Also needed: a top-notch pit orchestra that can take on the famous overture and several of the work’s ensembles and aria-like tunes, and a stylish staging that allows the show’s fast-paced, chaotic plot (don’t ask) to make some sort of sense, or at least entertain.

Conductor, Mark Gibson, is at the helm of the CCM production, and, as can be expected from anything he touches, delivers a quicksilver reading of Bernstein’s score, The vocal casting requirements for Candide are well within the reach of CCM’s students, including the demanding roles of Candide and Cunegonde, and in the production now on stage at the Patricia Corbett Theatre until the end of the week, the talented student cast will make your visit worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the CCM production does not rise to the level of the music making. Ranging from the grey unisex uniforms that take the place of costumes, and do no favors to the singers, to a drab unit set that asks us to suspend disbelief (the changing action travels far and wide in time and space), we are asked to fill in the blanks left vacant by director Emma Griffin and her design team. The setting for the action looks vguely like an industrial space with high clerestory windows and a couple of entrances, and its post-modern look has little to do with Voltaire’s spirit, and with Bernstein’s classically-inflected travelogue music, replete as the score is with tangos, minuets, gavottes, operatic bravura turns, and patter songs.

Key moments such as the one in Act II, when the action travels to South America’s fictional El Dorado, fall flat, instead of stunning the spectator. The few moments of true emotion, such as the final reunion of Candide and Cunegonde, just prior to the Make Your Garden Grow finale, fail to elicit an emotional response from an audience grown tired of the jokey, bluntly sarcastic tone of the production.

If only Maestro Lenny had had one single creative talent at his side, creating the perfect libretto, instead of a cadre of contributors with conflicting opinions, there would be no telling what the fate of his Candide could have been. But Harold Prince, Lillian Hellman, John La Touche, Hugh Wheeler, Tyrone Guthrie, John Mauceri, Dorothy Parker, John Wells, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Wilbur, all stuck their oars in at different times, causing the vessel to go off course. Some say that a dromedary is a horse designed by committee, and every time we revisit Candide, we come away feeling just that.

The merry music making at CCM though is more than worth the price of admission. Go listen while you still can through the end of this week.

Rafael de Acha




thgtcgx3ldIn a BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE 2018 cover: “The 20 Greatest Operas” (fanfare). Immediately I had to look. To my surprise, the list included rarities like Janáček’s Jenůfa and less rare works like Wozzeck, but no French opera, few Puccini’s, a couple of Verdi’s, hardly any Bel Canto warhorses and amazingly (this being a British publication) no Britten!

Singers put together this list and, meaning no disrespect, singers know what they like – greatest or not – because they like to sing it. But nonetheless I was glad the list was not assembled by (horror!) critics.

Then I thought, why not ask the Facebook readers of Music for All Seasons, our followers on and any Opera fans out there to put together their individual lists of not twenty but ten operas without which they could not live – a sort of desert island opera bucket list.

So here’s my list. No comments needed. This is MY list. Let’s see yours. Post your comments on Facebook and/or email me at I will select one list I like the best and offer a pair of complimentary tickets to our next concert at Peterloon to the “winner”.

Rafael’s List (in random order):
La traviata – Verdi
La boheme – Puccini
Fidelio – Beethoven
La cenerentola – Rossini
The Flying Dutchman – Wagner
Peter Grimes – Britten
The Consul – Menotti
Manon – Massenet
Don Giovanni – Mozart
Eugene Onegin – Tchaikovsky

Rafael de Acha            All about the Arts



TONAR MUSIC (for those who still don’t recognize the name) is THE source for recordings of music for the guitar by both recognized masters, like its founder, Manuel Barrueco, and early career, up and coming young artists like Meng Su, whose name gives this TONAR CD, her first solo one its title.

Meng opens the CD with John Willians’ Avner’s Theme from the film, Munich. It is a laid back, autumnally melancholy start to a varied program that traverses several countries and eras.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco penned his Sonata Omaggio a Boccherini as a loving homage to a fellow Italian like him who, over two centuries ago had a larger success abroad than in his native Italy. Boccherini’s life-long sojourn in Spain turned into a voluntary one, while Tedesco’s choice to abandon his native Italy just as Mussolini’s racial laws were becoming insufferable was a matter of survival.

The formidable maestro went on to write extensively (film scores) for Hollywood and large compositions (concerti for Heifetz and Piatigorsky), but music for the guitar remained closest to his heart, and that heart along with imagination and elegance are present in this four-movement, sixteen minute sonata in which the 20th century Italian melodist meets the 18th century Baroque craftsman in an exquisitely played reading by the young Chinese guitarist.

Meng follows with two miniatures by the ever popular Spanish master, Francisco Tarrega: Grand Vals and Rosita, which she plays with a stylistic assurance well beyond her years.

J.S. Bach wrote his Lute Suite No. 4 in E Major. Bach’s editor calls it BWV 1006a and groups it with other suites for the (we assume) viola da braccio, an instrument which is to the guitar like one of those cousins we have never met is to some of us. The par dessus violas of the 1600’s and 1700’s or their lighter da braccio cousins were primarily bowing instruments. A guitar you strum or you pluck and or whatever else you do with it, but one does not bow it. Meng plays Bach’s technical obstacle course with complete technical command and utter musicality, as if the Leipzig master had conceived it just for her.

Sir William Walton was as English a composer as ever came walking down the country lane, so it was at first a surprise and then a source of delight to hear the Five Bagatelles that the august Brit wrote for the guitar. In this set of five playful ditties in the salon vein Meng infuses her playing with flair great fun. The album (TONAR 60701) closes with another charming composition by John Williams: Rounds.

As usual the engineering and the packaging are vintage TONAR. More about the album and its artist at

Rafael de Acha                    November 1, 2017



After I opened Facebook’s memories  for today I came across a review of the MET’s HD Carmen I had written three years ago for It reminded me that what plagued opera three years ago has now taken the dimensions of a crisis.

The traditional audience for opera continues to grey down. That ever shrinking audience finds most of the jerry-rigged updates of contemporary productions utterly annoying, while all the while they long for the good old days when during any New York week one could catch – here I’m just thinking of Carmen – a Shirley Verrett or a Grace Bumbry or a Marilyn Horne in the title role of Bizet’s opera, in a straightforward staging by a competent director, and led by the likes of a James Levine or a Leonard Bernstein in the pit.

As for the young audience the MET claims it’s trying to reach, it does not look like Peter Gelb is any closer to the goals he set for himself when he took over the MET over a decade ago. Taking an opera written in mid-19th century Italy and set by its librettist, even after several wrangles with the censors, in a Mantua ruled by a Duke, and transposing it into the seedy 1950’s Rat Pack Las Vegas is a silly exercise in directorial hubris: it insults the intelligence of the savvy operagoer and it fails by a long shot to appeal to the uninitiated who can make no sense of most of the directorial idiocies that pass for “conceptual” in Michael Mayer’s MET production

This year we have been subjected to a transposition of Tchaikvosky’s Yolanta from its original once-upon-a-time setting to a grim and dim mental asylum. An Aida we caught at Glimmerglass a couple of years ago had Radames waterboarded at the end of the opera. A few years ago, an Abduction from the Seraglio set on the Orient Express became a train wreck with few survivors on stage and even fewer in the ranks of the Florida Grand Opera audience that dwindled down to half after intermission.

But there are glimmers of hope. Gary Briggle’s honest, lovingly curated, flawlessly cast production of Menotti’s THE CONSUL for the estimable Dayton Opera, done tastefully on a budget but never scrimping, and set in a time and place consonant with Menotti’s original libretto, brought in a vast audience of regulars augmented by freshmen from the University of Dayton to the second of its two performances. I asked the Dayton Opera General Director, Thomas Bankston whether the students had received complimentary tickets. The answer was that the University had purchased a block of tickets to the Sunday matinee performance.

At intermission, I looked for deserters. Most of the young audience members were in the lobby of the Schuster Center. They stood around texting into their cell phones. I casually asked a few what they thought and if they were enjoying the opera. There were no snarky comments but candid responses – all positive.

As I saw the young people go back inside for the second act, I felt that there is hope for the future of Opera in our country, especially opera done with respect to the composer’s and the librettist’s original intentions. That kind of opera will reach the generation for whom opera now is as remote as the Planet Mars.

Rafael de Acha





Joseph Papp (Jun 22, 1921 – Oct 31, 1991) would have been 96 today had he lived to that ripe old age. The anniversary of his death was yesterday, and were it not for a review of a play about him authored by playwright, Richard Nelson that fact would have gone unnoticed by me. But I happened on a review of Nelson’s play by the NY Times’ Ben Brantley, and that brought back a flood of memories.

Joe gave me one of many breaks that good fortune brought my way back in the 1970’s, when my wife, Kimberly and I were doing the starving, struggling young artists thing back in those days – she as a fledgling soprano and I as an aspiring stage director.

Pickings were few and slim in those days. I had done two seasons as a member of the staging staff at the NY City Opera and had decided to go out into the world as a free-lance director. Gigs were coming our way but the pay was terrible and working conditions were appalling.

We survived by taking any job that came in our directions as long as it was honest work. We sang the High Holidays at Union Temple in Brooklyn, and Kimberly became the go to soprano when it came to operatic rarities. I did translations from and into several Romance languages, while Kimberly put together a little traveling troupe: Storybook Opera that took her and several other young singers at their start of their careers to schools in all five boroughs.

One day, I decided to go to the Public Theatre – Joe Papp’s artistic home – and introduce myself to The Man himself. I was ushered into Papp’s office. He was seated behind a huge desk with posters of many of his theatrical triumphs behind him. This being early 1974 some of the big successes were still to come, but Shakespeare in the Park already was an institution, and the Public’s several spaces were busy at all times.

Joe was not fond of amenities or small talk, and I being Hispanic and prone to circumlocution feared that we would not hit it off. But we did. Joe was fond of Cuba and Cuban cigars, so we talked about Cuba. Joe finally asked what he could do for me. I replied (the audacity!) that I wanted to work for him, whether it was going out for coffee or sweeping the stage or whatever. He laughed and got up and asked me to follow him into the office of Gail Merrifield, his second wife.

That afternoon I walked out of the Public carrying a Shakespeare in the Park canvas bag full of play scripts. My assignment was to read each one, from start to finish, write a one page report and return them in person to Gail’s office, to then pick up a new pile for the following week. At $10 a script, I could bring home a nice check week after week during those lean times when I was not involved in directing a production.

As the months passed I was promoted: my next job was to attend performances of plays that interested Joe as possible vehicles for his theatre. Over a space of two years I must have seen dozens of plays. Some were stage disasters, some, like Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways got good reports from me, which in turn motivated Gail to see the play I had recommended and that, in turn, led to a production.

I worked for the Papp’s on and off for a couple of years until in 1979 Kimberly and I embarked on a new chapter of our lives. Many years living out of suitcases had elapsed during which we did not live year round in NYC. We finally gave up our apartment in Brooklyn and moved to Miami, FL. There we eventually co-founded a theatre which I helmed as its artistic director for the next two decades.

During those first months after our arrival I worked as assistant director of the Education and Outreach Department of the now-defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse. One day a call came into the Playhouse. There was no telephone operator then but a loudspeaker system where your name and that of your caller would be announced within earshot of everyone who worked there. A voice on the intercom announced: “RAFAEL PICK UP CALL FROM JOE PAPP.” I thought it was a prank, but no, it was Joe at the other end of the line, who began the conversation not as if ten years had elapsed since we had spoken to each other but as if we had just been talking earlier that morning.

He was very disappointed over the outcome of negotiations about a projected festival of Hispanic theatre which he wanted to bring to Miami after a successful New York run the year before. He asked me what I thought of Miami as a possible venue for that project. I was candid in my response – Joe would detect double talk quickly anyway. In the course of our conversation – peppered with expletives from Joe’s sailor mouth – he asked why the f— did I not come back to NYC and work for him and get out of “Death Valley South” (his nickname for Miami.) I must have paused for quite a while before I replied.

Kimberly and I had been saving for nearly nine years to see our dream of running our own theatre become reality. My story must have resounded with Joe. He too had started his own theatre with little more than a hope and a prayer, and he saw in me a young reflection of his own youthful self from many years earlier.

We said goodbye and never spoke again. The years rolled by and one day in 1991 I read Joe’s obituary in the New York Times. Soon it will be half a century since that day in 1974, when I went into Joe Papp’s office and asked to work for him. I don’t know if Joe ever realized what a profound impact he and his theatrical vision made on me. But I cherish to this day my experiences working for Joe during two marvelous years back in the 1970’s.

Rafael de Acha