BOOKS ABOUT CUBA (Reposted from March 23, 2016)


HAVANA – Michael Eastman –

BOOKS ABOUT CUBA (Reposted from March 23, 2016)

With the opening up of diplomatic relations and the ensuing easing up on travel restrictions, more and more of my friends have been asking about what to read about Cuba.

I have accumulated quite a few books on the subject, so here you have a quick review of several that I have read and enjoyed, all of them pictorial and most of them about the architecture and interior design of my native country

CUBA THIS MOMENT EXACTLY SO – Lorne Resnick – Insight Editions (San Rafael, CA, 2015)

250 full-color plates evidence the author’s love affair with the island Columbus called “the most beautiful land that human eyes ever beheld.”
But make no mistake, the author does not make any concessions to tourist sensibilities, showing instead the natural beauty of the land side by side with the raw reality of urban decay in a five-centuries old city – the second oldest in the hemisphere – that has not seen much TLC in the past fifty years.

Resnick’s eye manages to extract beauty with his camera lens from the most unlikely places: a young gymnast working out in a derelict patio seems to levitate right out of the print. An old lady reaches out from her balcony to loan an egg to a neighbor, so vivid is the image that one has to keep from reaching out to help her accomplish her goal. Ballerinas and boxers, bikers and cabaret dancers keep company with kids learning to box and old faces of every possible race.

This is a visual feast of a book that now sits prominently near my desk.

GREAT HOUSES OF HAVANA – Hermes Mallea – Moncelli Press (Random House), 2011
Subtitled, A Century of Cuban Style this book more than vindicates the wrong impression that many visitors to the Cuban capital often receive, when given only a partial view of the city once called, The Paris of the Caribbean.

Mallea’s 25-chapter, 272 page book is a visual repository of the finest examples of Cuban architecture, accompanied by a detailed, exhaustively-researched narrative.
The overall impression the book makes is not one of nostalgic recollection of times gone by, but rather a record of the earnest effort on the part of the historic preservation community in Cuba to preserve these homes as part of the national patrimony.

Some of the homes have been repurposed as embassies and consulates, some are now museums, and others are still occupied as residences by the same families who lived in them before 1959.

The architectural styles range from the 18th century Episcopal Palace, now the residence and offices of the Archbishop of Havana to the stunning art deco mansions in the El Vedado neighborhood.

HAVANA – Michael Eastman – Prestel Publishing (NYC), 2011

In contrast with other books about Havana’s architecture, Eastman’s concentrates on the faded glory of the city’s streetscape and interiors.
With an incisive eye, the author focuses on the beauty still to be seen in rapidly crumbling homes and buildings.

This is a sad and yet beautiful book to ponder one photograph at a time.

CUBA: 400 YEARS OF ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE – Rachel Carley (text) and Andrea Brizzi (photography) – Cartago Publishing (London), 1997

Carley and Brizzi take the reader on a journey through the island, traveling back in time to the remaining buildings from the 17th century still standing in Havana and in the interior of Cuba.

Written and published in the mid-1990’s, the book devotes its final chapter to Cuban post 1959 architecture, in an attempt to validate the efforts of Cuban architects at work during the difficult “Special Period” of Cuba’s recent history.

Overall, this is a beautifully illustrated book accompanied by a well-informed text.

HAVANA FOREVER: A Pictorial and Cultural History of an Unforgettable City – Kenneth Treister, Felipe J. Prestramo and Raul B. Garcia – University Press of Florida, 2009

Giving equal importance to text and illustrations, this is a part-scholarly, part-impassioned valentine to the city that stole the hearts of the three authors of this book, along with those of so many of us.

Not only public buildings and private residences but parks, cinemas, boulevards and monuments are visually documented and discussed in depth, with the accompaniment of memorabilia, magazine illustrations, modern and vintage photographs, in fourteen chapters that provide fascinating insights into the history of the city of Havana.

CUBAN ELEGANCE – Michael Connors – Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2004

In 185 full-color illustrations accompanied by a scholarly but eminently entertaining narrative, the author provides an exhaustive history of Cuban interior design from its Colonial beginnings to the eye-popping mid-century design successes and excesses of the Havana nouveau riche mansions.

LIVING IN CUBA – Simon McBride and Alexandra Black – St. Martin’s Press, NYC. 1998.

This pictorial book is both a visual and textual salute to the resourcefulness of people who manage to refurbish their living environments and make do with the minimum of available materials and a surplus of imagination.

Mc Bride’s and Black’s work provides a fascinating tour through the dwellings of a people with an eye for color and a love of life, even when living in the poorest of circumstances.




The 18/19 brochure for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, titled Create your… just arrived. Coincidentally a post on a friend’s blog recently listed several female conductors, some well established, some up and coming.

I set out to compare my friend’s list in one hand with the CSO line up for next season on the other. I was stunned to see that the CSO had but only one female conductor, Karina Canellakis leading a pair of the 40 concerts in the upcoming season.

Check my math: I think that is 5% of the potentially available CSO gigs for gals. And I think that’s not good enough. Sorry.

The Swedish National Orchestra, similar in size and budget to our top ones (and note that I include Cincinnati’s there) has 47 concerts this season. Of those, 8 are led by female conductors. Check my math again: that is 17% of the Swedish orchestra’s concerts.

Can we not do better than that or at least as well as the Swedes?

The Gothenburg ensemble is welcoming this season Barbara Hannigan, Simone Young, Han-Na Chang, and Joanna Carneiro. There are other female conductors, some Caucasian, some of color who would do the CSO musically proud and help diversify the traditional parade of WMAM’s (white, middle-aged maestros) who stand year after year on the Queen City podium.

Here is a short list of women conductors.

Giselle Ben-Dor (Israel). Xian Zhang (PRC). Odaline de la Martinez (Cuba), Susanna Mälkki (Finland), Emmanuelle Haim (France). Sian Edwards (UK). Jane Glover (USA). JoAnn Falletta (USA). Alondra de la Parra (Mexico). Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (Lithuania), Zoe Zeniodi (Greece).

Ms. Mälkki is a superb cellist. How about programming the Haydn or the Boccherini cello concerto and have her solo and conduct one of them. Emmanuelle Haim is a Baroque specialist and a fine harpsichordist. How about programming the rarely performed (at least in these parts) Concert champêtre for harpsichord of Francis Poulenc, pairing it to selections from Les Indes Galantes by Rameau and flying Ms. Haim to Cincinnati for an appearance with our fabulous orchestra in a future season?

The possibilities are endless.

American Symphony Orchestras still remain, by and large, uniformly and conservatively white, largely male in personnel and leadership, and numbingly repetitive in repertoire. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has taken some positive strides to improve matters. Roughly one third of its orchestra personnel is made up of female musicians. With each new season one can see Louis Langrée’s impact on the choice of repertoire – this upcoming season featuring at least eight 21st century compositions, several in their world premieres.

Now all we need to do is send out to some of these female conductors’ agents and artist reps emails with dates detailing when the French maestro will not be at the helm in Cincinnati and offer a contract to any one or more of those women conductors before other orchestras snap them up.

With all of the above in place we will have finally entered the 21st century.

Rafael de Acha


malet 6How many good operas based on Shakespeare plays are there? No need to rack your brains. There are very few, perhaps as few as the hugely successful ones: Verdi’s trio of Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff.

Just look at those three and see how Verdi had to excise big chunks of Shakespearean blank verse in order to tell in music the core story of each of those plays and keep the attention of his 19th century audiences from dissipating.

Macbeth’s rise to power is clearly at the center of Verdi’s opera. The witches are there, but neither the drunken porter nor the children nor their murderers are left. In Verdi’s Otello we lose the entire Venetian act from Shakespeare’s tragedy, and in Falstaff we get some but not all of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

Necessity dictates that a composer thinking of adapting Hamlet, which uncut can clock in at close to five hours running time, be very selective about what to keep and what to lose.

Brett Dean has composed an operatic Hamlet now released by Opus Arte as a DVD. Dean and his librettist Matthew Jocelyn have kept about one half of the play. Dean’s opera is Hamlet’s story as seen through the Prince’s eyes. Unfortunately that does not quite solve the problem of how to set that play to music. With Fortimbras gone, the political backdrop of the story goes too and the story is left half-told.

We see from the onset the odd behavior of Hamlet, played by tenor Allan Clayton as a sloppy and overweight fellow, casually friendly one minute, somber and ill-mannered the next.

Everyone else in this Hamlet-seen-through-the-eyes-of-Hamlet is whatever Hamlet makes of them. Claudius (Rodney Gilfry) comes off as a pretentious bully, the Old King is played by the once sonorous John Tomlinson as an eccentric grandfather fond of parading around in his underwear. Tomlinson also plays both the Player King and the Gravedigger injecting histrionics when his once glorious voice no longer can do much.

Barbara Hannigan looking a bit long in the tooth to be convincing as the virginal Ophelia also plays a good portion of the opera in her underwear. Sarah Connolly is Gertrude, Kim Begley is Polonius and Jacques Imbrailo is Horatio, but it is only the latter that makes a memorable impression with his honest acting.

In Opera these days it is touch and go to find one that succeeds in delivering music that singers can sing and audiences can enjoy. After listening to this Hamlet I could not come up with one moment where Shakespeare’s words and Brett Dean’s aggressively dissonant music coalesced. The libretto sounds like a random catch-all collection of Shakespearean one-liners sorely lacking one single moment where an entire speech from the play is set to music that compels one to listen.

The visual aspects of the production are erratic. The costuming ranges mostly from tuxedos for the men and cocktail dresses for the ladies, elegant one moment, off the rack the next. The action is confined to a single set: a large dining room which partially morphs into the graveyard where Ophelia is to be buried, but the scene ends up looking as if the poor girl is being interred next to the kitchen. The lighting is uniformly gloomy, making everyone look yellow or pasty white.

So much of the text is buried by the music that I found myself straining to follow what was being sung, which made one suspect that the composer was not all that interested in giving preference to the words of the Bard over his own music. That, in turn, made one all the more appreciative of the care that composers that successfully set Shakespeare to music have taken in the past.

So for now I am staying with Verdi, Gounod’s R & J, and Thomas’ Hamlet until something better comes along.

Rafael de Acha



A CD titled Apotheosis vol. 2 has just arrived. It features the Alexander String Quartet and pianist Joyce Yang playing two of Mozart’s piano quartets: K. 478 and K. 493. Ostensibly mature works from the composer’s Vienna years both these works are considered two of Mozart’s greatest works for the string quartet and piano combination.

Prior to the K. 478in G minor and the K.493, in E flat major Mozart had written six piano quintets which he dedicated to Haydn. During that time Mozart was happily writing in a traditional style closer in spirit to that of his older friend, still authentically his but adhering to the do’s and don’ts of Classical composition.

But then times changed. The Austrians were busy building up their army and keeping an eye on the Ottomans. No longer able to make a living exclusively from concertizing, Mozart the virtuoso keyboard artist and in-demand composer became Mozart the entrepreneur. He organized concerts here and there throughout Vienna. He wrote feverishly, convinced that amateurs would snap up his compositions no sooner they were published.

Not easy, but difficult to augment one’s earnings peddling off compositions way beyond the capabilities of the average Austrian hausfrau with musical inclinations. Mozart became more defiantly sui generis than ever before. In the G minor quintet he springs one surprise after another, creating a musical landscape filled with unpredictable twists and turns, requiring professionals with a cool mind and a warm heart.  The Eb K.493 is a  dauntingly complex business that can reduce technically unfit players to tears.

The Alexander String Quartet and the superlative Joyce Yang, are five musicians who can play this music with an even mix of gravitas and flair, elegance and abandon. That occurs every minute of the total running time of roughly one hour in this CD 2018 from Foghorn Classics (Foghorn just released this year, impeccably annotated by Paul Yarborough and superbly engineered by Robert Shumaker and David Frazier.

Let us salute the four members of the Alexander String Quartet: Zakarias Grafilo, first violin; Frederik Lifsitz, second violin; Paul Yarborough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello, and hope that they and Ms. Yang will return soon with more treasures.

Rafael de Acha




Interesting how artistic ideas come around every few years. Coming of age in the Havana of the mid 1950’s I became acquainted with the works of Eugene Ionesco, whose The Bald Soprano and The Lesson were given in a double-bill in Spanish in 1958 in a tiny theatre on Galiano Street. I recall that Cuban premiere took place not long after both those plays had received their world premieres in the equally tiny Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris.

The works of Samuel Beckett came into my hands sometime later, when I was already going to college in the United States. Oh how I grappled with the seeming obtuseness of Waiting for Godot and Endgame both of which I struggled to make sense of until it dawned on me that making sense was not the intention of their terminally sad Irish author.

Earlier, the mocking Rumanian expatriate Ionesco made a little more sense by making one laugh, even though I was not completely sure of why I laughed at the desperate and futile attempts of the English family in The Bald Soprano to communicate, or the implacable teacher in The Lesson to reach his recalcitrant pupil through language.

Words failed Becket’s and Ionesco’s characters. Eureka! I had finally gotten it!

Half a century later I am encountering the musical-textual labyrinth of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia and I can safely assert that, yes, I get it. The Italian avant-garde enfant terrible of mid-century serious music is deadly serious about using a mélange of words and sounds to convey the decline and fall of human communication. When neither language alone nor music written in the same manner in which it has been written for a millennia works for him, the creative musical artist must put to work anything within reach to give his creation to the world.

Berio utilizes a mix of human voices and orchestra juxtaposing extensive quotes of Mahler, Debussy, Beethoven, text from Beckett’s The Unnameable, and words from a number of languages atop each other.

As was the case with my youthful encounters with the Absurdists my recent one with Berio’s Sinfonia led me not to question its meaning, since Berio meant nothing other than to write a piece of music, take it or leave it. That openness further led me to actually enjoy the experience, so much so that I listened to the entire composition more than a couple of times.

At the risk of contradicting myself, let me say that Berio composed the first version of Sinfonia in 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That means that the composition may not be meant to signify this or that, but, it is unquestionably a cri de coeur by an Italian artist in response to a quintessentially American tragedy.

The Seattle Symphony, under the baton of Ludovic Morlot, has just released this CD containing three different compositions, recorded live on three different occasions. Berio’s Sinfonia was recorded live over two days in 2006. Pierre Boulez’ Notations I-IV for Orchestra was recorded, also over two days, in 2013. Ravel’s La Valse was recorded in 2015.

Pierre Boulez’s Notations I-IV for Orchestra has had a long shelf life, first conceived as a student work, then expanded from a piece of chamber music to a symphonic composition, then augmented by a couple of movements. It is vintage Boulez but by no means old wine in a new bottle. Intellectually rigorous, complex, impassioned, aggressively dissonant and deafeningly percussive at times, the work also contains passages laden with a profound melancholy.

Nothing much else can be written about that Maurice Ravel’s apotheosis-in-music that its composer sardonically titled La Valse than it has not already been said. Seemingly a homage to a Vienna quickly disappearing, the work is instead and past its brittle surface of tunes in ¾ time, a brutal dance on the edge of the abyss that Europe had sunk into after the Great War.

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s dedication to contemporary music is evident in the care given to the performance and recording of this CD and to the insightful liner notes that accompany it. The Seattle musicians are a force of nature, delivering virtuosic playing bar after bar, whether navigating the dense sonic minefields of Berio and Boulez, or the Gallic panache of Ravel.

Maestro Ludovic Morlot now in his eighth season in Seattle is fully in command, eliciting world class playing from his musicians. The superb Roomful of Teeth Vocal Ensemble dazzles with its off-the-wall virtuosity in the Berio.

We look forward to future releases by both the Seattle Symphony and Roomful of Teeth. This one is absolutely stunning.

Rafael de Acha


fernando autori (1884-1937)

It is not surprising that a hundred years ago Italian opera houses were exclusively producing French and German and Russian Opera in Italian with Italian singers for Italian audiences.

It was not until the world of Opera began to be populated with singers from many nationalities all of whom were expected to sing Gounod and Massenet and Bizet in French, Wagner and Strauss in German, and Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky in Russian that the tide turned.

But in 1920, the date of the Gramophone Company’s Italian branch recording of Gounod’s Faust, the status quo was to have its contracted singers sing exclusively in Italian.

None of the principals in this recording had a truly international career, I dare say not through any fault of theirs, but rather due to the unpredictability of European politics during the first half of the 20th century. That and the very fickle nature of the business precluded the formidable basso – the Mefistofele in the recording – to move out of the Italian provinces into the big houses of Europe and America.

Similarly Giuliano Romagnoli, the Faust confined his career to second-tier houses in his native Italy. Even the Valentino, baritone Adolfo Pacini sang for nearly forty years yet never rose past the comprimario repertory, notwithstanding a stalwart lyric voice.

The ladies in the recording intermittently rise to the level of the men. The Siebel is cast with Gilda Timitz, a light soprano adequate to the task, but not particularly engaging where a sound resembling that of a post-pubescent young man is preferable in this pants role.

The Margherita (sic), Gemma Bosini is an old school lyric soprano with agility and charm, an easy top, an acidy tone, and a purposeful approach to her assignment.

But it is Autori the one who seems to have a devil of a time with his music. Even though comparisons are often odious one cannot quite forget the elegance of Journet or Plançon as Méphistophélès. Autori instead trades suaveness for stentorian pronouncements – the Invocation to the Night and the Church scene two of many – but never ever at the expense of the music.

Romagnoli is courageous when reaching for the top C in his aria and comfortable elsewhere when lyricism is required. The chorus and orchestra sound sadly ragged, as if singers and players recruited for the recording and given little rehearsal were quickly put together, with Carlo Sabajno at the helm.

In spite of our caveats, this recording (ddh27810) re-mastered in 2008 for the HISTORIC SOUND series of divine art ( will make a nice addition to the library of any serious collector of operatic rarities.

Rafael de Acha




With little over 1200 seats the Opéra Comique is the perfect venue for Bizet’s Carmen which, truth be told has little comique in its tragic tale of the doomed love between a young Basque soldier and a Romani enchantress. But Bizet’s magnum opus, initially destined for a long life in its Parisian home turf, had legs, and walk it did right onto the major opera stages of the world, many much too large for it, when one considers how much more effective it is to enjoy Bizet’s masterpiece in a house where its original spoken dialogue can be heard and enjoyed.

This superb 1928 studio recording flawlessly re-mastered and digitally restored by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio and reissued by divine art ( in its HISTORIC SOUND (DDH27809) series is a sonically satisfying labor of love, especially when one considers that this Carmen dates back to the very early days of electric recordings. For practical reasons the recording deletes all spoken dialogue and the performance often cuts repeats, ostensibly to fit the musical numbers onto the side of an 78 RPM.

The singers are beyond reproach, beginning with Raymonde Visconti, a star of the Opéra Comique in the pre-war years, in the title role. The possessor of a supple, lyric mezzo-soprano voice, Madame Visconti is enticing when on the prowl, gamine when it suits her, utterly expressive 100% of the time, a true singing actress who communicates with her voice by putting words first at all times. She “nails” both the Habanera and the Seguidilla, rivets one’s attention in the Lilas Pastias scene, hypnotizes in the Card scene, and is deeply moving in the final scene.

Partnering her is the great Georges Thill, arguably the finest Don José of his generation. Thill has the ability to spin a seamless line in the Flower Song and then cap it with a stunning top B flat. A true lyric-dramatic singer Thill had the vocal reserves to match his Carmen dramatically and vocally in the confrontation in Act II, and in the final scene outside the bullring, and he could also sing like a boyish young fellow in his duet with Micaela, the enchanting Marthe Nespoulous.

The Escamillo is the excellent Louis Guénot, an elegant singer with the bravado to pull all stops in the Toreador Song. The quartet of gypsies is made up of sopranos Andrée Vavon and Andrée Bernardet, and tenors Robert Roussel and Téo Mathyl, four top- of- the-line comprimarios with beaucoup humor and impeccable diction that they show to advantage in the act II quartet. The other supporting singers are, sad to say, not credited.

The Orchestre Symphonique de Paris and the Chorus of the Opéra Comique are conducted by Elie Cohen, a house conductor who obviously knew his Bizet like the back of his hand, in a first class performance that lets one get a hint of how French opera ought to be sung.

Rafael de Acha





A double recording of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci made by Columbia Gramophone Co. Ltd in 1927 was re-mastered in 2005 by divine art (HISTORIC SOUND 27803) and most recently released as part of the company’s inexhaustible collection of historic recordings. The album reached my hands just recently thanks to the diligence of the good people at .

The British National Opera Company operated for nearly a decade in England during the 1920’s, being well ahead of its time as an ensemble integrated by British nationals, playing Opera in English, mostly outside of London, and operating for several months every year. The company began in 1922 after acquiring physical and artistic assets from another company founded by Sir Thomas Beecham. It ceased operations in 1929.

Amongst the artists who sang and conducted in the company’s productions several are represented in this recording, beginning with Eugene Goosens, the conductor of this Pagliacci, who among other English maestros went on to achieve international fame during a forty year career.

Among the singers, the tenor Heddle Nash towers above the rest. He is the Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana and, thank goodness, not the Tonio but the Beppe in Pagliacci. Opera buffs will remember him as the very fine Ferrando in the Fritz Busch Glyndebourne recording of Cosi fan tutte.

First and foremost, the singing is good, but by and large neither idiomatic, nor Italianate, no doubt due to the language being sung. Perhaps better translations would have helped. But both the Cavalleria and the Pagliacci translations by Frederick Weatherly make the singers work doubly hard to get past the diphthongs and mixed vowels that make sung English a challenge regardless of how good the good intentions of the librettist, the composer and the translator. In addition to that, Mascagni’s libretto for his Cavalleria Rusticana is based on Giovanni Verga’s earthy, hyper-realistic novella of the same title, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a quintessentially Italian Verismo work has for its text the words of its composer. Both have raw, earthy and gutsy libretti that here come sounding in Weatherly’s oh-so-English translation like Edwardian operettas.

Nevertheless, Heddle Nash, a leggiero tenor improbably cast in the dramatic part of Turiddu impresses as an impassionate Sicilian cad, excellent in his opening serenade, fiery in his scene with Santuzza, perfectly suited to the lightness of the drinking song, and utterly convincing in his heartfelt farewell to Mamma Lucia, here sung by the excellent Justine Griffiths, a true contralto whom I have never heard before.

The other singers are adequate to their tasks, though light voiced in the case of May Blyth’s Santuzza or simply wooden, as with Harold Williams, the Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana , who is also the Tonio in Pagliacci.

The members of the cast of Pagliacci fare better, except for the crucially central Canio, here sung in a ham-fisted manner by tenor Frank Mullings, who nearly comes to grief in the commedia scene at the end of the opera. Miriam Licette is a soulful Nedda, Dennis Noble a lyrical and manly Silvio. Harold Williams is the Tonio, sporting a darker tone than most baritones, but lacking the top A flat we have all come to expect as the climax at the end of the Prologue. Heddle Nash is a perfect Beppe.

Eugene Goosens conducts Pagliacci elegantly and is there for his singers 100% of the time. In the Cavalleria Rusticana, Aylmer Buesst takes oddly fast tempi when expansiveness is needed, in fairness perhaps to help his lighter-voiced cast and chorus.

The release of this invaluable historic recording, impeccably remastered by Pristine Audio‘s Andrew Rose should be good news for all opera buffs interested in collecting historical performances.

Rafael de Acha



I just attended a performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, an early work that predates most of the rest of his output, except for Das Liebesverbot (a travesty of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure), the very good Rienzi, and the early youthful effort Die Feen, and I gave the Cincinnati Opera’s first replay of this Wagnerian opera in nearly two decades a polite review.

It was not a pan and it was not a rave. I saluted the orchestra, conductor, chorus and cast, and I politely ignored what I thought was a sorely misconceived production, yet another example of Regietheater in which the hopefully well-intentioned director attempts to “improve ” on Wagner at the risk of making a mess of things.

During the overture – one of the finest in the Wagnerian canon – there was an unrelenting projection that, I suspect, wanted to remind us that this was an opera about the ocean and its fury, among other things. But what I could not avoid watching was a series of scratches and lines and water drops, mostly in black and grey and red, on and on for the entire length of the overture.

Then the curtain rose to reveal a unit set that was meant to morph as needed by the director and designer into Daland’s ship, the Dutchman’s ship, and Senta’s workplace, to name but three of the locations specified by Wagner. Then there was the relocating of the story into what presumably was a mid- 20th century setting. And that’s where the troubles really began to pile up.

Wagner specifies in his very detailed, very specific markings: “… a seashore encircled by cliffs…the sea occupying most of the stage area…bad weather…an impending hurricane…Daland’s ship lowers the anchor near the shore…the sailors are busy trying to trim the sails… using the ropes to secure the vessel… Daland goes ashore…ascends a promontory…surveys the landscape and recognizes it as a familiar one…”

That is what Wagner envisioned and consistently achieved with 19th century theater technology. That is not what we saw on stage in the Cincinnati production, notwithstanding the hard-working chorus and principals.

After intermission we now were in what looked like Daland’s Dry Cleaning Services, where a couple of sewing machines were placed on stage to give us fair warning that there would be no Spinning Chorus. Instead we had the Sheet Chorus, in which the ladies of the chorus dutifully followed the director’s instructions to just fool around with the sheets with no apparent purpose. There was no folding, no repair work, nothing, just a number of identically-dressed sopranos and altos playing with the sheets up and down, up and down… Endlessly…

Unit sets can work wonders when put to use with skill and imagination. The Greeks were using unit sets in their tragedies two millennia ago, and they could still pull off deus ex machina feats. Lope and Cervantes worked with unit sets, Moliere did as well. And in recent times some highly skilled directors and designers have proven that imagination can fill in a great deal of detail within the limitations of a unit set, proving that often in theatre, less is more

But the set in last night’s Dutchman did nothing to propel the story forward or clarify it. A smart friend who goes to the theater all the time asked me at intermission a couple of questions that clearly evidenced that she was loving the music, but had no clue as to the what or where or when or why of what was happening on stage. And that confusion is the result of wrongheaded staging.

Fortunately the principals were savvy pros who knew their way around any stage. The Dutchman, who deserves the bone-chilling entrance he could have had down a staircase prominently situated upstage center, instead made his first appearance through a stage-right door part of the lip of the proscenium, usually used for musicians to enter the stage in a concert. It robbed that moment of badly-needed dramatic punch. The red raincoat that the singer sported was at the nadir of the production’s costume design.

In the final moments of the opera, the excellent soprano performing Senta was instructed to climb a long, two-story-high metal ladder, wearing medium heel shoes and a crinoline skirt, to then perch herself on a window sill, sing her final note, and promptly fall backwards onto a pile of mattresses meant to be out of sight, thus giving the impression that she had fallen from a height to certain death.

But, sad to tell, our last glimpse of her was one of her right foot sticking out in plain sight. What followed then was the return on stage of a mannequin dressed in identical clothing to Senta’s that was strategically surrounded by the chorus. Up above the stage, in silhouette, the ghosts of the Dutchman and Senta approached each other and struck a “The End” pose as the curtain came down, while many in the audience made a bee line for the parking lot.

Among American audiences, some do not welcome modern-dress productions of operas with which they are familiar. I am among those recalcitrant folks.  The multimillion Ring at the MET has been widely loathed by both singers who have had to deal with its now-on, now-off hydraulics and the Wagnerites who would happily see a return of the wonderful Otto Schenk production. A recent Tosca at the MET, courtesy of director Luc Bondy was universally booed by audience and critics alike and replaced by a better one, in which the Santa Maria della Valle church in Act I looks like the one Puccini specified, and the very one that many of us have wanted to see again on stage since the days of Franco Zeffirelli.

Composers who were savvy men of the theatre were always very clear as to how they wanted their operas staged. Verdi fought long and hard to have his Traviata set in the mid-century Paris of Dumas, and when he finally was able to control everything from casting to set design to stage direction he stood firm. Puccini was unbending about staging details. Wagner, likewise, became his own regisseur and producer.

It would be unthinkable to modify the orchestration that a composer specifies for his score or to tweak the melody or harmony of the composition. So why then take liberties with something as intrinsic to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk or Verdi’s or Puccini’s works as the settings of their operas?

When an intelligent director comes along and injects new life into tired old warhorses, it is a cause for celebration, if and when he or she respects the intention of the composer and resists superimposing his or her ego on masterworks that have been alive and well for many years.

Here’s hoping.



With the 1843 premiere of The Flying Dutchman Wagner vowed to take a new path. Just the same as with the errant mariner who must navigate the seas for all eternity until he finds the true love of a woman, Wagner was embarking on a voyage from which he could never return.

Wagner and Cossima were flat broke and on their way to possible greener pastures in London and Paris, but in neither city were the members of the musical establishment willing to embrace the short and sullen German who, with his Frau in tow, was there to shop his somber metaphysical tale of woe and redemption in one long act.

So, it was back to the drawing board: turn the opera into a three-act one, throw in a couple of rousing choral numbers, add a jolly sailor’s hornpipe, and plug in a little levity to alleviate the pitch-dark plot and then see what happens. What happened, of course, is the stuff of musical history: The Dutchman established Wagner as someone to take notice of and listen to, Tanhäusser and Lohengrin then followed in succession, Wagner and King Ludwig of Bavaria found each other, the mad sovereign built him the Bayreuth theatre, and the Wagner’s were finally financially set for life.

Wagner vowed to take a new path. Just like the errant mariner who must navigate the seas for all eternity until he finds the true love of a woman, Wagner was embarking on a voyage from which he could never return.

At the ship’s wheel in Cincinnati welcome Christof Perick who elicits a fantastic performance from the Cincinnati Opera orchestra, chorus and cast.

In the central title role, Canadian bass-baritone Nathan Berg is a menacing, towering, haunted presence, undertaking a role that has been inhabited by a long list of greats, a list to which his name must now be added. With an inky voice that comfortably surmounts the role’s unreasonable vocal demands, Berg spins out a seamless line in the duet with Senta not long after raising the rafters in his opening Die Frist ist um.

Marcy Stonikas is a statuesque Senta, whom she portrays as a lonely, slightly neurotic girl in her early twenties who has never known anything other than life at home in a village by the sea. Her voice has equal parts of silk and steel, and she holds her own through the three-hour long performance

The other principals are flawlessly cast and deliver deeply committed performances in their various roles. Jay Hunter Morris is an earnest Erik, compelling in his jealous scene with Senta. Basso Arthur Woodley is a lyrical, fatherly and charming Daland, wonderful in his aria Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann wilkommen heissen. The fast-rising young tenor Frederick Ballentine is a sonorous Steersman. Veteran mezzo Elizabeth Bishop is a fine Mary.

Purists and traditionalists will no doubt find much to complain about in this updated take on Wagner’s 19th century Gothic tale. I, for one, found the physical production more of an obstruction, including the overuse of abstract projected imagery. On the other hand, neophytes brought to sit through their first Wagner ever will be thrilled by the show, which comes with all manner of theatrical bells and whistles, state-of-the-art projections by S. Katy Tucker and moody lighting by Thomas C. Hase.

The Flying Dutchman has sailed into Cincinnati for the first time in nearly twenty years in Tomer Zvulun’s modern dress co-production with The Atlanta Opera and Houston Grand Opera. The not so good news is that the phantom vessel was  docked at Music Hall for only a couple of performances. Anyone who loves world-class opera should at all costs catch the next operatic vessel at anchor here before that next ship sets sail from Cincinnati again. That would be Another Brick on the Wall, which opens July 20th.

Rafael de Acha