A RECENT POST BY A GOOD FRIEND, an actor whom I once directed in Angels in America and whom I remember as the best Prior Walter in my memory has recently gotten a clean bill of health after fighting cancer.

He was always a young character actor, rather than a leading man type, and I say that because looks never entered into the casting pool as I invited him back to do a number of roles with me as director, no matter how good looking he was anyway.

Don’t let me whiplash you as I now momentarily switch the subject matter from drama to opera, admittedly two distant cousins in the arts spectrum. Regardless how you look, what matters most in Opera is how you sound.

And here comes the connection, as I listen to the Chicago Lyric Opera broadcast of its recent production of Massenet’s Don Quichotte, with the 70-year old Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role that he must have sung gloriously once upon time in his vocal prime.

Sadly, that prime is long past and Furlanetto’s present voice is but a memory of what it once was.

Chaliapin premiered Massenet’s opera at age 37, and a vintage acoustic recording of his death scene floating around out there somewhere amply demonstrates what that voice must have sounded like in the role of the Errand Knight and what its vocal demands are: legato, multiple colors, a facility with the French text…

With Samuel Ramey retired and no Italo Tajo (RIP) or Nicolai Ghiaurov (RIP) around, I frankly don’t know how I would go about casting the title role in a major production.

But one thing is certain, for me at least, and that is that I would pass on Signor Furlanetto’ services and let him rest on his laurels, inviting him to write a book and give some Master Classes to young aspiring Opera hopefuls.

Same thing goes for the now beleaguered Placido Domingo, a once great artist who sadly refuses to hang his hat and now goes round demeaning his illustrious track record doing so-so conducing and so-so singing in baritone roles not suitable to his aging tenor voice.

Ego is a deadly thing.

I mentioned my mentor and friend Italo Tajo above and would like to point out that when I met him and coached with him in the 1960’s his once glorious basso cantante voice had given out, though not his great singing actor chops. James Levine spotted him teaching in Cincinnati and invited him back to the MET to do an array of buffo roles, and thus gave him a second career. So there are alternatives to be considered when the vocal chords misbehave.

And after my circuitous detour, I go back to my actor friend, whom I assume is in his late fifties or early sixties and more than ready to continue playing the great roles for which he once was much too young, since in spoken theater what matters is your acting ability and that, unlike the singing voice, ages well like good wine.

Rafael de Acha       http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com



Schubert’s opus 89 was written as the composer’s syphilis slowly brought about his death: Winterreise depicts a person’s journey from despondency and heartbreak over unrequited love through utter despair and finally to a desire for the ultimate oblivion that only death can bring about. Tall order for any singer that attempts the climb of this musical Mount Everest.

The 2019 Pentatone release of the cycle, with the remarkable English tenor Ian Bostridge accompanied by Thomas Adés is delivered in a nicely packaged CD, complete with liner notes by Bostridge and the translations of all 24 songs in the cycle. The entire project is lovingly realized, from the unfussy engineering of Philip Siney to the entire production, which save from the certifiably weird cover art is very nice.

But what about the singing..?

If truth be told I have never been a fan of the whitish vibrato-less sound of the typical English tenor voice, from the late Peter Pears on down to Philip Langridge and now Ian Bostridge, a valuable artist who has admittedly gained wide acclaim for his interpretations of Schubert Lieder, Winterreise in particular, which has become for him a kind of cottage industry, including several recordings, a book, and even a staged version on DVD.

With a long line of superb renditions of Schubert’s Winterreise available on CD, I will always gravitate to the lower voiced readings of baritones: Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Thomas Quasthoff, Olaf Bär, and Christian Gerhaher, to name but a few rather than the higher-voiced ones, Bostridge’s included.

In the original key the cycle never rises above a top A above the staff, admittedly a reach but not off-limits to the high baritones, and not a problem in the least when sung in the low voice keys. On the other hand and at the other end, repeated dips below the staff, many at key moments tend to fade into oblivion when sung by tenors, Bostridge being no exception as can be heard in the octave intervals in Wasserflut.

Beyond that, the chameleonic ability of a good Lieder singer to change vocal coloring at will is all but absent here. Take Der Lindenbaum, a semi-strophic song that begs for subtle variations with each repeat. Bostridge instead settles for a mannered straight tone delivery that comes off as foreign to the big, muscular Romanticism of Schubert, never mind that true legato singing needs no such vocal gimmicks as replacement.

And then the big climactic moments evade Bostridge’s vocal resources when he tackles the repeated cries of mein Herz with wide-open top notes, when a nice “cover” would better serve the music. By the time Bostridge, aged 54 gets to the final Der Leirmann, the tenor’s over-enunciated German betrays both vocal fatigue and the sense of stasis that this wondrous song should convey.

Thomas Adés accompanies Bostridge well but never for a moment erasing memories of recordings of Winterreise with the likes of Gerald Moore or Daniel Barenboim at the keyboard.

Familiar as many of us are with Ian Bostridge’s forays into Baroque music, we continue to look forward to this fine tenor’s recordings of Handel and Bach. For now I am going back to my Fischer Dieskau 1992 recording for Sony Classical with Murray Perahia, an exemplary partner in art.

Rafael de Acha    http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com



Julian Bliss just played here in concert with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra on Saturday August 24. Normally I review perusal copies that are sent to me by recording companies, but I was so taken with the young clarinetists’ playing that after his Cincinnati engagement I purchased an autographed copy of his CD.

The CD is issued by the British label signum classics and excellently produced and engineered by the Signum team of Nicholas Parker and Mike Hatch.

The Carducci String Quartet is integrated by Mathew Denton and Michelle Fleming, violins, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, viola, and Emma Denton, cello. The four young players have made quite a place for themselves as one of the best string quartets in Britain, with a career that has taken them all over Europe and the United States. Listening to their exquisite playing on this CD is proof palpable of their excellence.

Together with Julian Bliss as a like-minded artist they make lovely music both in the Carl Maria von Weber Clarinet Quintet in B flat Major and in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.

The Weber work is a mature work by the author of the more familiar to some Der Freischütz, a quintessentially Romantic work in which the German composer gave free rein to his exuberant temperament. He does so here too, creating in his Clarinet Quintet in B flat Major a superb tour de force for the solo clarinet filled with music that in a different context could have been assigned to and sung by one of the virtuoso prima donnas of the time.

With clarinet virtuoso Heinrich Baermann, a personal friend of Weber, the composer had all the inspiration he needed to finally premiere the composition in 1815. With Julian Bliss on the musical driver’s seat in this technically challenging work and the collaborative work of the Carducci Quartet, Herr von Weber would have been over the moon with delight and equally inspired.

Seamlessly traveling a couple of decades back in time, the five Brits play with sublime cohesiveness and profoundly felt sensitivity in one of Mozart’s most inspired creations. The opening Allegro is vibrantly and elegantly rendered. In the serene second movement, labeled larghetto Bliss’ clarinet and first violin Matthew Denton engage in a profoundly moving arioso-like musical dialogue. They move from that to an elegant Menuetto, and ultimately to a virtuosic Rondo like Allegro chockfull of filigree variations.

The Signum CD will remain in my CD library as a treasured collector’s item. It is available from Signum at http://www.signumrecords.com

Rafael de Acha     http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com


The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra successfully brought its 2019 Summermusik to a close with an all 18th century program highlighted by clarinetist Julian Bliss playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major.

Conductor Eckart Preu, celebrated both his birthday and his third Summermusik at the helm of the increasingly better-sounding Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, extracting every moment of melodic invention, every sforzando entrance from the strings, every hint of syncopation and harmonic daring contained in the 39th, one of Mozart’s great trio of symphonies.

The program also featured British clarinetist Julian Bliss in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, displaying seamless legato, virtuosic agility, and evenness of tone in one of Mozart’s most beautiful compositions. Preu brought back Bliss to have the final musical say in an arrangement for clarinet and orchestra of George Gershwin’s Summertime, a suitably summery closing to a superb summer of Summermusik.

Rafael de Acha     http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com



The ancients doubted the existence of black swans. The Roman poet Juvenal actually wrote “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan” to express that something was as rare and as real as the swan whose feathers are black. Most recently the Lebanese scientist Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed a Black Swan Theory that explained in no simple terms that some events come as a surprise and create rippling effects though most are often justified in one manner or another.

All of which brings me, if you forgive my detour, to express like our Roman predecessor that the black swans appearing in the superb and appositely titled BLACK SWANS CD released by the PARNASSUS label (PACD 96067) are the real deal, and that, echoing Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the neglect they endured at the hands of the music world of their time is not surprising yet simply unjustifiable.

The grouping of musical Rara Avis featured in this surprising collection of performances by black singers and instrumentalists are not jazz or blues artists. Here they are clearly defined by what they play and sing and how they play and sing it: compositions by Delibes, Dell’Acqua, Arditi, Leoncavallo, Donizetti, Gounod, Haydn, Fauré, and Verdi idiomatically played and sung side by side with Spirituals and instrumental pieces by black composers.

Some of us have long been familiar with the great Roland Hayes (1887-1976). Arguably the first black singer to achieve a modicum of the fame and fortune he so richly deserved, the late American lyric tenor is heard here in a poignantly sung brace of spirituals in which his honeyed lyric voice and impeccable musicality achieve complete perfection. He then switches musical hats to great effect in well-sung renditions of Vesti la giubba and Una furtiva lagrima, the latter ended with a ringing top B-flat.

On the other hand, Florence Cole Talbert (1890-1961), totally unknown to me, only partially fulfilled her dreams of a career in opera, even after three years in the Europe of the time of her youth. Long before Marian Anderson, Grace Bumbry, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Reri Grist, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, and other great black singers of later generations succeeded in breaking down the color-barrier, the America of her time kept soprano Florence Cole Talbert from achieving what her sensitive singing and supple lyric voice could have brought her nowadays.

In the BLACK SWANS CD Ms. Cole proves her mettle in an elegantly sung group of salon pieces that includes The Last Rose of Summer, Eva Dell’Acqua’s Vilanelle, Arditi’s coloratura warhorse Il Baccio, and the spiritual Nobody knows the Trouble I’ve seen.
Some of the other vocalists in the BLACK SWANS collection include baritones Harry Burleigh and Edward H.S. Boatner, contralto Hattie King Reavis, and the silvery-voiced coloratura soprano Antoinette Smythe Garnes singing Caro nome and an abbreviated Ah fors’é lui… Sempre libera, both sung with stylish panache, and a lovely rendition of Haydn’s My mother binds me bind my hair.

The pre-electric vagaries of early recordings (most of these come from around 1917-1922) are less kind to instruments like the violin or the piano, which tend to come off sounding brittle, or off pitch, or metallic, even after the fastidiously re-mastered tracks, hence my bypassing commentary on the compositions of R. Nathaniel Dett’s and Clarence Cameron White represented in BLACK SWANS.

The engineering and re-mastering, along with the exquisitely researched and annotated accompanying booklet are the joint labor of love of the Parnassus triumvirate team of Leslie Gerber, Tim Brooks, and Steve Smolian, making BLACK SWANS in my list, at least one of the top albums of the year.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com



The late Dimitri Hvorostovsky was right when he said: “What a gorgeous voice – like a Rolls Royce, she must sing in the best theaters in the world!” I agree. She has been making the rounds of the big houses in Russia, the mid-sized opera houses elsewhere in Europe and is now – her website informs us – about to make some important debuts.

What will she be singing? Donna Elvira. No problem. Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera? Maybe… Aida? Well, that’s a stretch, but it depends on the size of the house. Turandot? Oh no, not yet!

She has been moving quickly up the ranks, and now in RITORNA VINCITOR, Veronika Dzhioeva’s CD for DELOS she sings Verdi, Puccini, Cilea and Giordano in the kind of calling-card sampler recital that has become part of the rite of passage of many an opera singer.

The potential problem here is symptomatic of many a career of big-voiced, temperamental sopranos. The beautiful, big voiced, intensely dramatic Georgian soprano Veronika Dzhioeva is spectacularly gifted: vocally impressive, the possessor of a creamy soprano that comfortably ascends to the treacherous high C of O patria mia, landing it with a lyrical approach. She pulls off the same feat on invan la pace at the end of Leonora’s aria from La forza del destino.

She is intensely musical, insightful with the lyrics. When she comfortably pours the voice out and marries sound to text and then injects emotion into the task at hand she is spectacular. Cases in point: an achingly beautiful Senza mamma from Suor Angelica, a very lovely Un bel di, an A+ Io sono l’umile ancella… Her Vissi d’arte, gets a perfect diminishing messa di voce at the end.

But then there are rough patches. When she opens up to full throttle above the staff, as in Vieni t’affrettaPace, paceMa dall’arido stelo divulsa… her top range takes on a metallic quality foreign to what most of us have come to expect from a true Italianate Spinto soprano, and occasionally her fast vibrato can get out of control on forte climactic moments at the top of her range. The size of her voice is not an issue, but when it comes to soaring over the orchestra in a Verdian climax, more squillo and not just sheer power would come in handy.

I am concerned for this lovely singer, who would do so well at an international level staying away from the Lady Macbeths and the Aidas and the Forza Leonora and the heavier Verismo ladies. Why not focus instead on the big Mozartian roles and the Puccini canon. Oh, and then there’s that vast Russian repertory to which she could rightfully lay claims.

Constantine Orbelian leads the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra with idiomatic flair and ever sensitive to the task of accompanying the singer. Nicely produced, engineered and mastered, the album is a nice addition to the must-have lists of Opera devotees.

Rafael de Acha       http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com



Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra / Eckart Preu (conductor). MayersonTheatre (SCPA) Cincinnati, OH 17.8.2019 (RDA)

During the dog days of August, the fully blossomed Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra brings to Cincinnati’s music lovers in Summermusik a plentiful supply of world class soloists, up and coming young artists, and the playing of a cohesive, disciplined, and fluent ensemble made up of some of the best musicians in the area.

Led by the never predictable, yet ever reliable Eckart Preu the CCO has carved a unique place in the Queen City’s musical landscape with off-the-beaten path programs that surprise and stimulate both brain and heart.

On Saturday, Pepe Romero won the hearts of the capacity audience with his patrician musicianship, at first tossing off, then intensely digging into, and finally bringing the house down with a composition of Celedonio Romero, patriarch of the famous family of guitarists, to which Pepe belongs. Arranged and orchestrated by Celedonio Romero, Federico Moreno Torroba’s Concierto de Málaga received a memorable reading by Pepe Romero, who would not be allowed to leave the stage until he exquisitely played two encores: a lovely Malagueña written by the elder Romero for Pepe’s mother, and Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

The Summermusik August 17th Viva España also featured selections from Ritmo Jondo, a 1953 ballet by the late Catalan-American composer Carlos Surinach, from which sections were magically played by members of the orchestra with the untranslatable Spanish noun-adjective duende.

Featured throughout the first half of the concert the brilliant flamenco dancer Arleen Hurtado seized the day, elegant in her supple upper torso moves, poetic in the use of her hands, a mantilla, a fan, virtuosic in her use of toe, heel, and ball footwork, and all the while adopting the complexly syncopated rhythmic patterns of the music. She all but set the theatre on fire, reminding us that this is music for dancing. And dance she did, embodying with her sinuous movement everything from the lustily comic, flirtatious but ultimately faithful wife in Falla’s The Three-cornered Hat, to the darker hues of much of the music in the program.

The percussion section of the CCO played up a storm, augmented by the compelling vocalist Gabriel Osuna, and also including Mike Culligan, Matt Hawkins, and timpanist Scott Lang, all four leading a musical onslaught of gypsy-inflected rhythms.

In much of the brooding, Moorish-inflected music the woodwinds shone with the soulful playing of Rebecca Tryon Andres on flute, John Kurokawa’s on clarinet, Christopher Philpotts on oboe, Mark Ostoich on English horn, and Hugh Michie on bassoon, all five virtuosi reminding us that, as the Spanish say, Africa begins in the Pyrenees.

Italian-born, Spanish resident for a good portion of his life as a court composer, Luigi Boccherini authored La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid, an homage to the nocturnal street sounds of his adopted hometown. In seven brief movements, Boccherini’s tone painting is assigned to the strings, which are called to depict church bells, marching soldiers, the singing of beggars, prayers, raucously singing drunks stumbling home, and the quiet that comes with the midnight curfew. String players Celeste Golden Boyer, Manami White, Heidi L. Yenney, Tom Guth, Nat Chaitkin, and Debbie Taylor brilliantly took over the piece, with Binford and Chaitkin gamely obeying Boccherini’s instructions to strum their instruments on their knees, as if they were guitars.

The Rumanian composer Ioan Dobrinescu arranged Isaac Albéniz’s piano masterpiece Leyenda de Asturias (Legend of Asturias) for orchestra, which the CCO played with mucho  gusto in the first half of the program, and then followed with selections from Manuel de Falla’s ballet El Sombrero de Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat.) The rank and file of the orchestra shone both as members of an ensemble and as soloists, with the string and brass sections pulling off quantities of red hot playing in Falla’s 1919 masterpiece.

Later the orchestra took on Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance from his other well-known ballet Love, the Sorcerer. Here again Eckart Preu squeezed out every drop of Romani juice out of his ensemble, proving once more that he is a past master of just about all styles one can think of, Spanish music being but one.

Following Saturday night’s concert at the SCPA’s Mayerson Theatre, Maestro Romero will appear again on Sunday afternoon in the auditorium of the Cincinnati Art Museum for Spanish Dances, a recital of short pieces of music ranging from the Renaissance through the 20th century by Sanz, Arriaga, Tarrega, Granados, Albeniz and Boccherini, with Romero as its heart and soul, and the additional participation of Arleen Hurtado and percussionist Gabriel Osuna.

Can’t wait.

Rafael de Acha       http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com




It is a good thing that the Opéra Comique can still summon, as in its glory days, the forces required to take on some of the big operas of Charles Gounod. La Nonne Sanglante now released in an attractive Naxos DVD of a Fra/Opéra Comique co-production is a case in point.

Gounod did not have much of a success with this gothic yarn with a jerry rigged Scribe libretto when it premiered in 1854 Paris in the midst of backstage intrigues at the Opéra’s Salle Pelletier, from which it vanished after a handful of performances. The Opéra Comique brought it back a couple of years ago, when it had the good fortune to snag Michael Spyres for the tenor role of Rodolphe.

The role of the young scion of the Ludorf’s, one of the two warring families that drive with their antagonisms the convoluted plot of The Bleeding Nun calls for the quintessentially French hybrid dramatic-lyric-heroic tenor, a rare breed at the top of which American tenor Michael Spyres reigns.

And by top I also mean high-lying top. The part was conceived by Gounod for the French star tenor Louis Guéymard who built a career singing the unreasonably difficult roles of Arnold in William Tell, Jean de Leyde in Le prophète, and the title role in Robert le diable.

The other singers in this cast are good too, with standouts soprano Vannina Santoni pretty of voice and looks in the role of Agnés, soprano Jodie Devos a vocal and comic charmer in the pants role of Arthur, lyric bass Jean Teitgen eerily recalling in elegance and timbre the great Pol Plançon as the Hermit, and mezzo-soprano Marion Lebègue sonorous as the ghostly nun of the title.

The staging by David Bobée is mercifully unmannered, generally sticking to the point of the gothic ghostly tale with any unnecessary conceptual superimposing, save for a squirm-inducing group-grope in the third act.

The visual aspects of the production are uniformly somber and monochromatic with the men dressed in vaguely 20th century military fatigues and the women clad in neutral garb that places their outfits in a no-man’s/no woman’s land and time.

Laurence Equilbey conducts the Insula Orchestra and the choral ensemble accentus with panache, squeezing every musical ounce of fire and brimstone drama out of some of Gounod’s finest though neglected music.

Rafael de Acha                http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com




Even before the old Dulcian, aka as fagotto in Italy and as curtail to the Brits, became the now know to us as a bassoon, composers had begun to write for it.

Vivaldi wrote a couple of concerti for it. Mozart put it to work a few times. Later Grovlez, Hummel, Smalys, Jolivet, and Elgar composed sonatas and divertimenti for the bassoon. Hindemith wrote a showpiece sonata for it in 1938.

Shostakovich gave it a haunting passage in his ninth symphony, Ravel assigned a dreamy passage to it in the midst of his Alborada del Gracioso, and Stravinsky gave it a famously exposed solo in the opening of The Rite of Spring.

With its huge range and flexibility and its mellow bass-baritone timbre the bassoon anchors the woodwind family, and it often gets its up-close and personal moments in music for woodwind quintet. But here’s a CD of music for not one but two bassoons.

The music in the Bright Shiny Things (BSTC-0129) CD Tuple Darker Things comes from sources far and wide: with two Americans each represented by compositions that reflect a post-Adams/Glass/Reich aesthetic that has variously been labeled post-minimalism or totalism: Marc Mellits’ Black, a consonant duo for two bassoons, and Michael Daugherty’s Bounce, a playfully canon-like duet using echoing statements and answers.

Dutch composer Chiel Meijering’s Nocturnal Residents is a nervously humorous study in diverse parallel tempi and rhythms. Sofia Gubaidulina’s 1977 Duo Sonata is substantial in scope and duration, and infused with the Russian gravitas we have come to expect from this composer. Dutch composer Louis Andriessen wrote the award-winning Lacrimosa in 1991, depicting in its music a desolate landscape that calls for the two bassoons to seek each other’s tonality often using quarter-tone tuning.

Tuple is the name for the bassoonist duo of Lynn Hilman and Rachael Elliott: two accomplished and enterprising musicians who make their mark with this intriguing album, their first CD, excellently engineered by David Schall and produced by the artists and Louis Levitt.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com



It would usually be very hard to sit through a recital of twenty five songs by any one composer in a foreign language with almost all of the twenty five sung by one singer.

But in the case of the SOMM (somm cd O600) 2017 release of La vie d’une rose featuring songs by Jules Masenet, we deal with a varied selection of lyric gems superbly sung by the late lyric soprano Sally Silver, an exceptionally accomplished English artist who was accompanied in this recording by Richard Bonynge, and joined in several instances by mezzo-soprano Christine Tucci in duets.

Familiar as we all are with the operatic Massenet – Manon, Werther, Hérodiade, Thaïs, Cendrillon, Le Cid, Don Quichotte, we are surprised by the richness of the creations of the other Massenet: a composer of delightfully delicate songs, many for two voices, some belonging to groups and mini-cycles: Expressions lyriques, Poème d’amour, Poème d’avril

In one instance, the dramatic, partially-declaimed La dernière lettre de Werther à Charlotte utilizes some of the melodic and harmonic traits of Charlotte’s Air des Lettres from Massenet’s opera Werther. For the most part though the poetry belongs to the Romantic period of French literature spearheaded by Victor Hugo, whose Etre aimée and Le coffret d’ébène are compellingly adapted by Massenet.

Not all of the songs are lyrical in nature: there are dramatically stunners like Le petit Jésus and lively ditties like the Spanish inflected Nuit d’Espagne and Chanson pour Elle.

Ideally suited to supple voiced sopranos with a good command of French diction, these songs are well worth exploring by enterprising singers and deserving of listening by lovers of French music. The much missed Sally Silver and her vocal collaborator Christine Tocci are impeccably accompanied here by the masterful Richard Bonynge, elegantly wearing the mantle of collaborative pianist with the same stylishness with which he is known as a master conductor.

Producer Jeremy Silver and recording engineer Anthony Philpott deliver a CD the French would label haut de gamme.

Rafael de Acha       http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com