After I watched the Munich production of Leoš Janáček’s final opera, From the House of the Dead, now available on video from Bel Air, I went to my reliable guilty pleasure, You Tube to find some points of comparison between this Bayerische Staatsoper mounting and any previous staging, possibly one originating on this side of the Atlantic.

All that You Tube could come up with were a few video games bearing the same title. But since both Janacek’s take on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s original and this particular production are as far removed from the Russian original as the Siberia which provides the setting for the opera is from us, I decided instead to have a look at Dostoyevsky’s novella itself.

Written in 1861 by Dostoyevsky, a literary giant who himself spent time in a Siberian prison camp, the work is a harrowing and rambling tale about a man imprisoned in 19th century Russia for murdering his wife. Why Janacek thought that this  yarn of sadness and suffering had the makings of an opera evades me. But write it he did, after having under his composer’s belt two great lyric dramas: Jenůfa and Káťa Kabanová.

But mind you, Jenůfa with its story about love against all odds and at all costs offers, as the gloomier Káťa Kabanová does a cathartic ending that unfortunately the nearly all-male From the House of the Dead is sorely lacking. Janacek’s unrelenting tale of cruelty among caged men offers little relief of any sort throughout its nearly two-hours, intermission-less duration. After yet one more scene of physical and mental abuse I found myself tempted to turn off my computer. But I persevered.

Frank Castorf’s production is quintessential Eurotrash Regietheater incarnate. We get interminable dumb-shows, as a sort of visual-dramatic interludes out of which one cannot make heads or tails. We get snippets of German, Spanish, Russian spoken, sung, and projected both on stage screens and on the video version I watched, in that case competing with the subtitles for those of us not fluent in Czech, which provides nearly 90% of the sung text.

We get video all over the place: video cameramen walking around among the singers, video images counterpointing though never ever supporting or explicating what is happening on stage. The costuming is a hodge-podge of periods, complete with incarcerated men wearing furs, others in drag. A ballerina portrays the metaphorical wounded eagle of the original tale, reducing the proceedings to silliness.

The cast and the marvelous Simone Young in the pit leading the superb Bayerische Staatsoper orchestra must be saluted for their endurance and for maintaining their dignity in spite of all the directorial nonsense. Among the more than twenty named roles, veteran bass Peter Rose is a standout, as is the Czech dramatic tenor Aleš Briscein, who manages to make his mother tongue, beset as it is with consonant clusters sound lyrical, when not dealing with the parlando setting of much of the text.

After a brief trial and on the evidence of this mess I would condemn the production’s director to a few months in a Siberian camp for egocentric stage directors, and exonerate everyone else for merely trying.

Rafael de Acha


untitledHandel’s Partenope in Cincinnati
February 20-23, 2020 at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Caleb Glickman, conductor
Director – Greg Eldridge

Claire Lopatka – Partenope     Nicholas Kelliher – Arsace                             Grace Kiver – Armindo              Tyler Johnson- Emilio                                             Christina Hazen – Rosmira/Eurimene                                                                   Justin Burgess – Ormonte

With a comically convoluted plot chockfull of mistaken identities and romantic ambiguities, who would have thought that Handel’s Partenope would enter the repertory of the most daring of today’s operas companies! But Partenope is here to stay, and thanks to the fine production CCM has just delivered one is easily convinced that this comic opera’s staying power is well earned.

The plot is filled with confusing twists and turns that can disorient and ultimately distract the audience from Handel’s musical riches, including gems that provide satisfaction even when delivered by young singers-in-the-making.

Partenope calls for no chorus and a cast of six: two sopranos, one mezzo-soprano (since true contraltos rarely roam the earth), a tenor and a bass. In addition there’s a part originally written for Antonio Bernacchi, one of the great castrati of Handel’s time, which is usually undertaken by a countertenor in today’s opera business. The singer of the role of Arsace gets at least one of those show-stoppers that call for insanely difficult coloratura passages delivered at warp speed. The immensely promising countertenor Nicholas Kelliher delivered Furibondo spira il vento with the assurance of a much older artist. The dusky-voiced mezzo-soprano Christina Hazen stood out vocally and dramatically in the travesti part of Rosmira/Eurimene.

The CCM singers handled with aplomb the sensible staging by Greg Eldridge, which allowed a mix of comical histrionics and recognizably human behavior. Caleb Glickman led the Baroque-sized orchestra, allowing the young singers the necessary space to do their singing.

This is an updated addenda: In my haste to get the review up on my blog in order to get the good word out in a timely manner, I neglected to mention and kudo the design team for the show, which unified the cool Goth look of  the costumes by Maddie Kevelson and Madison Weber’s wigs and make up, with the effective set by CCM faculty member Mark Halpin, well lit by student Kelly C. Howland and given  an interesting sound landscape by Haruka  Iihoshi.

Rafael de Acha


OIPJ9B8UOQS Wondrously spacious like Brazil, mystical like the utterly Brazilian mix of Catholicism and African beliefs, impishly playful at times, soberly serious at others, alluring in its ambivalent mix of melancholy saudade and sunny melody, and alternatively dramatic and lyrical, Heitor Villalobos’ music is all that and more.

It is more than long overdue to recognize Heitor Villalobos, the quintessentially South American giant as an essential 20th century musical genius.

And if there is any doubt, this splendid new release from Naxos, part of the series The Music of Brazil, is palpable proof of the reasons for my enthusiasm. The Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has created an all-encompassing initiative: Brasil em Concerto which will bring to new life the work of Brazilian composers from the 18th century through ours.

Fully on board with the project, three Brazilian orchestras: the Orchestra Filarmônica de Minas Gerais, the Orquestra Filarmônica de Goiás, and the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo will work hand in hand with the Academia Brasileira de Música, musicologists, and Brazilian chamber ensembles and vocal and instrumental soloists.

This CD features the Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra played lustrously by Manuel Barrueco with Giancarlo Guerrero leading the superb Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo in a note perfect reading of this key work of 20th century guitar music.

Sexteto Mistico is an eight-minute, three-movement tone poem, here given a lovely rendition by Maestro Guerrero and his Brazilian maestri.

Next in the CD is a fully mature work for harmonica and orchestra, given a jaw-dropping performance by the Brazilian harmonica virtuoso José Staneck, with Guerrero and his Paulistas keeping a low profile to allow the gentle harmonica to be up center throughout.

The 1957 Quinteto Instrumental is pure enchantment: a three-movement chamber work for strings, harp and woodwinds that owes its harmonic inventiveness to no one but Villalobos himself and its colors to the mix of Brazilian blood coursing through the veins of its composer and the pan-European influences he acquired while on his many journeys to the continent.

My CD collection is now augmented by one more gem from Naxos. I can hardly wait for what’s up next.

Rafael de Acha 


Ferdinando Paer’s AGNESE and Francesco Morlacchi’s TEBALDO E ISOLINA both recently released respectively by DYNAMIC and SWR by way of NAXOS are both obscure operas.

AGNESE dating back to 1809 was for several years as popular an opera as any in its time, getting first rate productions all over Europe. Morlacchi’s TEBALDO E ISOLINA first saw stage lights in 1822, and much like Paer’s opera enjoyed successes all over Europe.

And then?

Paer’s AGNESE, thanks to the enterprising Teatro Regio Torino is receiving its first performance in quite a while. And a good one this one is, recorded on video in 2019 and given a stylish, tongue-in-cheek production directed by Leo Muscato and designed by Federica Parolini, Silvia Aymonine, and Alessandro Verazzi.

The nine-strong cast features a terrific group of singing actors: Maria Rey-Joli, Markus Werba, Edgardo Rocha, Filippo Morace, Andrea Giovannini, Lucia Cirillo, Giulia Della Peruta, Federico Benetti, and a charming six-year old named Sofia La Cara.

The Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio Torino are beautifully conducted by Diego Fasolis, and the video and sound are first rate.

Morlacchi’s TEBALDO E ISOLINA was recorded in 2014 during the XXVI Rossini Festival in Wildbad. Here it receives a winning revival with a young cast, supported by the Camerata Bach Choir and the Virtuosi Brunensis, led by Antonio Fogliani.

For the inveterate collector both these offerings will make a nice addiction to an opera collection.

Rafael de Acha

A MUSICAL MINIATURIST Hanna-Elisabeth Müller songs by Robert Schumann, Francis Poulenc, and Alexander von Zemlinzky

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller is a musical miniaturist who, ever faithful to the texts of an album of songs by Robert Schumann, Francis Poulenc, and Alexander von Zemlinzky uses a full palette of vocal hues to tell stories about the human condition.

With the perfect partnership of Juliane Ruf, Müller takes the listener on a voyage of discovery throughout thirty-two songs that range from the six  Lieder in the Opus 107 of Schumann through both of Poulenc’s La courte paille and Fiancailles pour rire, and on through Zemlinky’s Six Waltz Songs.

Müller’s lyric voice is pristine, flawlessly on pitch, effortlessly produced, and never-ever pushed past its limits: those of a light lyric soprano with a bell-like upper-range and a warm, supple middle voice. In art song volume is a non-issue but I hasten to mention that at the end of Zemlinzky’s cycle Müller puts out a healthy amount of sound in the closing song.

Her German being her first language is supple and not pedantic, her French that of a native speaker. Her way with the sensuality of Poulenc’s Violon is as inviting as a real seduction, and her summoning of the ethereal in Fleurs a thing of wonder. Her depiction of the mix of emotions in Schumann’s Meine Rose is as memorable as any interpretation of this gem in memory.

The 2020 Pentatone issue of great songs by a heretofore lesser-known artist (to Americans) is perfectly engineered by Martin Sauer and exquisitely produced by Renaud Loranger, both factors that will no doubt help introduce Hanna-Elisabeth Müller to the wider public she so richly deserves.

Rafael de Acha       


MUSIC BY Carl Maria von Weber, Libretto by Helmina von Chézy                                       With Jacquelyn Wagner, Theresa Kronthaler, Eva Maria Neubauer, Norman Reinhardt, Andrew Foster-Williams, and Stefan Cerny                                                           Orff Vienna Radio Orchestra conducted by Constantin Trinks                                             Stage Director Christof Loy                                                                                                               Live recording from December of 2018 at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria

First came Der Freischuetz, then a couple of years later Euryanthe. You’d think that Carl Maria von Weber would have made some strides as an opera composer. Maybe he would, had he not been saddled with one of the silliest librettos in all of Opera, courtesy of Helmina von Chézy, a poetess who provided all of the ingredients but none of the genius that goes into forging an inspired operatic libretto.

Instead we get a pastiche made tolerable by the occasionally inspired music of Weber. The entire opera runs close to 3 hours, and it would be an easier affair to sit through if a truly spectacular cast had been assembled for this DVD.

Sad to say, the only two singers with the chops to sing von Weber’s often unreasonably difficult music are the fine Jacquelyn Wagner, whose Euryanthe is nice to watch, and even nicer to listen to. Wagner is what in Germany they label “young-dramatic soprano”, that is someone ready to sing all the Strauss and Mozart big girl parts and a bit of Wagner. She has a sizeable, luscious voice that she uses stylishly, and I would like to hear her as Eva or Elisabeth or even Weber’s Agathe.

The other singer to keep an eye open for is mezzo-soprano Theresa Kronthaler, whose Eglantine looks and sounds like an Ortrud in the making, complete with the looks, acting skills and, most important, the voice to meet the demands of this tricky role. Kronthaler delivers a fiercely memorable performance with all vocal and dramatic guns blazing.

The men are reasonably well-cast, but a beefier sound than that of Andrew Foster-Williams would have been most welcome in the role of Lysiart, a bass-baritone part in which a true Wagnerian Heldenbariton could make a difference. The Adolar, tenor Norman Reinhardt sings well and acts with conviction. Stefan Cerny is acceptable as King Ludwig IV.

But the two female leads carry the day hands down.

Substituting dramatic cohesion and logic for modern-dress attitudinizing and replete with Regietheater clichés – I counted fifteen fainting spells, three love-making on the floor moments, and countless instances the German text and the stage action were not in sync. – the staging by Christoph Loy, is as confusing as the good-guys vs. bad-guys libretto. Where are we? Why are we here? What is a bed doing in the middle of the ballroom… or is it a ballroom? Why are the courtiers clumped together in a corner of the room, and so on…

The superb Orff Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir are very well conducted by Constantin Trinks in this excellently engineered DVR.

Rafael de Acha


February 8, 2020


SAINT-SAËNS: Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian
RAVEL: L’Enfant et les sortilèges

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Louis Langrée, conductor
Cincinnati Music Hall

Grégoire Pont, concept and video
James Bonas, director

Cast: Isabel Leonard – The Child
with Yewon Yoon, Raven McMillon, Anyeé Farrar, Elana Bell, Joyner Horn, Georgia Jacobson, Brenda Iglesias, Victor Cardamone, Ryan Wolfe, Antonio Cruz and the CCM Chamber Choir, Earl Rivers, director

Less than a month ago we heard Jean-Yves Thibaudet give a magnificent reading of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian in Miami’s Knight Performing Arts Center, with Juanjo Mena leading the New World Symphony. As a response to that performance I wrote “Thibaudet immersed himself in the luxurious concerto, with nonpareil Gallic elegance and dazzling virtuosity, eliciting a well-earned ovation.”

After the Cincinnati performance we just heard, I would comfortably repeat myself, adding that maestro Langrée’s affinity for the elusive style of Saint-Saëns provided the perfect element  with which to produce a riveting performance of this work.

After intermission came a performance of Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, a chamber opera that its composer preferred to call: a “Lyric Fantasy.”

The French poetess Colette provided the libretto that depicts during the course of two short acts the dream-like events that occur when a spoiled child has a destructive tantrum in his room. The objects victim of the boy’s misbehavior come to life: furniture, china, pages torn from a book… to scold the boy for his destructiveness.

In a second scene the dream turns into a nightmarish garden, in which flora and fauna that have suffered at the child’s hands now seek his comeuppance. A fight ensues and a squirrel is hurt in the process. The child’s noble impulses prevail, and he bandages the little animal’s paw.

Realizing that the child is compassionate at heart the garden creatures lead him home in a procession.

Ravel created music for this little opera that gave equal time to dance tunes, choral interludes, virtuoso arias and occasional jazzy Americanisms. In the seasoned company of the fine American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, a cast of young singers took turns displaying their vocal and acting skills with notable success

As with previous efforts to produce semi-staged operas in Music Hall, this production only partially succeeded in melding two different forms into one. It gave the audience a taste of Ravel’s inventive music, Ms. Leonard’s honeyed voice, the emerging talents of a handful of CCM hopefuls, after which many of us were still left unconvinced about the mixing of orchestral apples and operatic pears in what is essentially a concert format.

For Ravel, who wrote the opera after returning from driving an ambulance in the killing fields of Flanders, Colette’s libretto proved to be the perfect antidote to post-war existential despair. For some listeners today, consigned as they are to living in the present, the sweet sensibilities of Ravel’s opera might be less than palatable. But on the other hand, I find its sentiments about coexistence with our fellow beings and respect for life in all its forms an energizing antidote to 21st-century cynicism.

Rafael de Acha


L'ORFEOMonteverdi’s L’Orfeo
February 6, 2020
University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music    Cincinnati, Ohio.

Conductor – Brett Scott, conductor
Director – Amy Johnson
Scenic designer – Ann Nowak
Costume designer –  Henry Luna
Lighting designer – Andrew Stewart

Orpheus – Logan Wagner
Eurydice – Melodie Spencer
Music – Claudia Neff
Hope – Clara Reeves
Messenger – Storm Hargrave
Charon – Joshua Klein
Proserpine – Breanna Flores
Pluto – Sam Dhobhany
Nymph – Alea Vernon
Echo – Reed Demangone
Apollo – Matthew Goodheart
Chorus of Shepherds and Spirits – Above principals and, from the second cast: Grant Peck, Henry Lunn, Andrew Cunningham, Kate Riederer, Victoria Popritkin, Sarah Scofield

L’Orfeo is one of only three works by Claudio Monteverdi to have survived. Although not by any means the first opera, L’Orfeo is nonetheless the oldest opera still part of the repertory, and more than the stage works by Peri, Bardi, and Caccini, a chamber opera in the true sense of the term, having received its premiere in February of 1607, not in a theatre, but in an intimate setting in one of the private rooms of the Ducal Palace of Mantua.

Anchored in the Classic structure of Greek Tragedy, Monteverdi’s librettist provides a dramatic structure wherein the common man – embodied here by nymphs and shepherds in the first act and mortal spirits in the second act – interacts, questions, comments, even at times opposes the protagonist, Orpheus. Here we have for the first time in history action paired to music and a text that drives forward the story of a poet’s journey to hell and back.

That story, as portrayed in the typically classical libretto by Alessandro Striggio is that of the young lute-playing musician and poet Orpheus (Logan Wagner), who shortly after his nuptials to his beloved Eurydice (Melodie Spencer), must deal with her sudden death, victim of a snake bite. Distraught, Orpheus implores to the Fates, all to no avail, to bring back his beloved from the Underworld. When his words fall on deaf ears he then decides, guided by Hope (Clara Reeves) to go to the very gates of Hades where he encounters Charon (Joshua Klein), the boatmen who transports all dead souls across Styx, the river of Oblivion.

The hardnosed boatman refuses to give the young mortal passage, but Orpheus sings a lullaby that puts the old man to sleep. Seizing the opportunity, Orpheus commands Charon’s boat, crosses the river, and enters the deepest realm of the underworld, where he comes before Pluto (Sam Dhobhany) and Proserpine (Breanna Flores), monarchs of Hades. There Orpheus sings for them, and moved by his singing the infernal queen entreats her husband to let the young man take his bride back to the world of the living.

Pluto acquiesces with one condition: the lovers must not look at each other until they reach the world above.

As they walk out of Hades, Orpheus cannot resist and steals a glance into Euridice’s eyes, and when he does, the vow made to Pluto is broken and Euridice vanishes. Apollo descends from the heavens and invites the heartbroken Orpheus to ascend up into the higher realms, where he will be reunited with his beloved and rewarded for his suffering.

Whatever moral one may wish to draw from this tale, this story about love beyond death must be allowed to speak for itself. Many a stage director of this musical fable has not been able to resist the temptation to improve upon the basically naïve quality of the text and story, rather than trusting its pastoral simplicity.

Director Amy Johnson has opted to trust the spirit and letter of Monteverdi’s and Striggio’s original by avoiding any revisionist tricks, felicitously moving the action into the Age of Aquarius sixties and encouraging the young singing actors to behave and move naturally, greatly helped by the contemporary look of the costuming. Nor has she missed the opportunities for humor afforded by the story itself, thus avoiding any reverential attitudes.

The choice of this work is perfect for this cast of undergraduates in their late teens and very early twenties. It would be unfair to single out any one of the sixteen-plus participants, since it is as an ensemble that they made an impression on the capacity audience, doing most of the dramatic and vocal heavy lifting throughout the evening with artistic cohesiveness and a terrific sound.

Brett Scott continues to prove every time he conducts that he is as resourceful an opera conductor as the best. He led the small instrumental ensemble that comprised a good compliment of early instruments with sensitive pliancy, and stylishly accompanied the recitatives, arioso solos, and choral passages in period-perfect fashion, guiding his players in the execution of the embellishments needed to bring the four centuries old L’Orfeo to vivid life.

Kenneth Shaw’s brainchild Opera D’Arte, now in its sixth year continues its journey through the operatic repertory of several centuries. This foray into the 17th century is yet one more step in the right direction: selecting works suitable to young voices and presenting them in professional level productions such as this gem of a show.

Rafael de Acha


Roger Lent In The Sublime Gershwin the immensely gifted pianist Roger Lent salutes the all-American musical icon by playing to perfection seven of Gershwin’s Preludes, his Four Pieces, including Promenade in C major, Impromptu in Two Keys, Three Quarter Blues, and Two Waltzes in C Major, all written between 1923 and 1937.

The Preludes would have added up to twenty-four had Gershwin lived to complete The Melting Pot, a collection of two dozen short pieces with which he aimed to if not establish at least reinforce his credentials as a “serious” composer.

It took for Nadia Boulanger to tell someone to tell Gershwin not to bother with the rigors of classical composition lest he should lose his jazzy identity. Ravel bluntly said to him that given the American’s handsome annual income, it should be Gershwin the one to teach Ravel and not the other way around. But Gershwin persisted, teaching himself while writing if not for Carnegie Hall, then for Broadway and Hollywood

Listening to the straightforward honesty of these gems, one is 100% convinced that the two French giants were right. But do not for moment think that there is nothing but well-structured, daringly harmonized, contrapuntally complex, quintessentially American, blessedly inspired music in each and every one of the eleven tracks in this CD. Nor let anyone suspect that I am giving short shrift to the ubiquitous Rhapsody in Blue with which Roger Lent felicitously brings the album to a memorable close.

Throughout Lent’s playing is deliberate, elegant, relaxed, clearly articulated, and attentive to details that faster tempi often tend to muddle. This invaluable artist, first an esteemed jazz musician and trumpet player, now an accomplished keyboard artist has in this, his first solo album as a pianist, a hands-down winner.

Classily produced by Lent’s mentor William Daghlian, perfectly engineered by Jonathan Schultz, and accompanied by insightful liner notes by Lent himself, the Espressivo label CD The Sublime Gershwin is available through

Listen here:

Rafael de Acha 

ONCE UPON A TIME – Skylark Vocal Ensemble sings music by Matthew Guard


In a matter of minutes Skylark Vocal Ensemble‘s Matthew Guard’s ONCE UPON A TIME riveted my attention. The concept is new to me, as are the names of many of the composers of the various choral compositions in this album: thirty in total.

Here Francis Poulenc, Leonard Bernstein and Ralph Vaughn Williams keep company with several Finnish, Latvian and Estonian composers, while anchoring the entire affair there is the compelling music of Benedict Sheehan, now meditative, now jittery, and unfailingly interesting throughout the sixty-seven minutes of the album. Maintaining the interest, there is the gorgeously spoken narrative by Sarah Walker wrapped in a youthfully gentle voice that evokes the sound of a young mother telling tales at bedtime.

But these tales are terrifying, not bowdlerized and sweetened for popular consumption on a Broadway stage or an animated film for children. There is primal terror and cruelty in much of the grim writing of the Grimm Brothers, and a Northern European sensibility about matters of the heart in Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, and the supple English translations spoken here by Sarah Walker in friendly middle-American work to perfection.

The album, created from a-to-z by Skylark and available directly from them ( is a fascinating concept, taking two familiar fairytales and interspersing them with music apposite to the changing moments in the story (

Taking the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Skylark’s artistic director Matthew Guard leads his chameleonic twenty-strong vocal ensemble, drawing from them sounds that range from the ethereal through the earthbound. The group’s sopranos inhabit the above-the-staff region with complete ease, with the altos and tenors providing silky sounds in the middle range, and the basses smoothly underpinning the music.

Having previously listened to and reviewed Skylarks’ work I continue to be surprised by the inventive explorations of this indispensable enterprise.

Rafael de Acha