Rafael de Acha has enjoyed a distinguished career in the arts as a performer, stage director, producer, and educator. He was born and grew up in Cuba. At the age of 17 he moved to the United States to study Drama at the University of Minnesota, and later Languages at L.A. City College, Music at the Juilliard School of Music, at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, and at the New England Conservatory of Music, from which he received the Master's degree. He has taught courses on the History of Music at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and at Florida International University, and contributed writings and reviews to Seen and Heard International (www.seenandheard-international.com ) and to this blog. He co-founded the award-winning New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, where he produced and staged twenty seasons of classical and contemporary theater, including fifty world premieres of plays that went on to have international and national productions on and off Broadway, including Ana in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz (Pulitzer Prize for Drama 2002 and Tony Nomination 2003.) In 2006 he was presented with a citation from The Dade County Cultural Affairs Council for “trailblazing contributions to the arts in South Florida.”
In questa reggia is the title of a new album of warhorse arias by Puccini and Verdi featuring soprano Oksana Dyka. In the nicely packaged and cleanly engineered Delos release, Constantine Orbelian perfectly paces the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra.
Throughout 68 minutes of playing time the Ukrainian soprano fearlessly takes on the vocal minefields of Verdi’s Macbeth and Nabucco, and Puccini’s Turandot with a fair degree of success, knocking out high B flats and C’s like nobody’s business. But soon a numbing sameness sets in.
In the case of the selections from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca, and those from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and La forza del destino, in which the payoff comes not exclusively from high decibel singing but from subtler matters – phrasing and a variety of dynamics – Ms. Dyka’s acidly Slavic timbre and relentlessly full-out singing does not serve the music well.
In a perfect world, a calling card album of this nature would have included more rarities: Verdi’s Giovanna d’ Arco, Alzira, and Attila come to mind. How about one of Minnie’s ariosos from La fanciulla del West or O fior del giorno from Puccini’s Edgar?
Oksana Dyka is still, in her mid-forties, an artist of immense promise. She should be encouraged to explore the inexhaustible repertoires of the Verdi and Puccini lyric-spinto and dramatic soprano: a pursuit that will unearth for her some rewarding musical treasures.
Verdi’ Requiem, a masterpiece dedicated to the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni takes the text of the Mass for the Dead and turns it by way of its music into a journey that grapples with the mysteries of life and death, voyaging through the darkness of its Kyrie and Dies Irae, then finding temporary relief from life’s vicissitudes in the Quid sum miser trio and the Recordare duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano, then bluntly interrupted by the thundering bass aria Confutatis Maledictus, and intensely weeping for life’s misery and begging for peace in the central Lachrymosa.
The Requiem has been called a Sacred Opera because of its setting of a text that deals with matters of Faith and Life and Death – perfect for the genius of a man who grappled in one way or another with these very subjects in each and every one of his three dozen operas as well as in his personal life.
Jessye Norman, Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, and Yevgeny Nesterenko are four among the great singers of our time. The Bavarian Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra are two top-notch German ensembles. At the age of 80 Riccardo Muti remains one of the finest conductors in the world. Given these artistic elements it is not surprising that a reissued recording of the Manzoni Requiem should be cause for celebration.
With Norman and Nesterenko both gone, and with Baltsa and Carreras both now retired it is fortunate that a 1981 Munich performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem has been lovingly recorded and preserved for posterity by BR KLASSIK.
The re-mastered sound remains as fresh as it was when new almost forty years ago. The singing from all four soloists is to be treasured.
Norman’s dramatic soprano is a variable source of fiery excitement and plangent lyricism. Baltsa’s gorgeous sound – essentially that of a lyric mezzo-soprano can match her colleagues’ decibel for decibel, and Carreras, for this listener, ranks as one of the finest lyric tenors of the century. Yevgeny Nesterenko’s Slavic-accented Latin is not one’s cup of vodka, but his sound is noble and he rises to a lofty Confutatis early in the recording, with plenty of fire and brimstone reserves.
The music ultimately leads to the ecstatically quiet contemplation of Lux aeterna, but Verdi does not give his composition a placid ending, for it is the lone voice of the soprano who utters a final plea in the unaccompanied Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death.
Muti draws out fearsome fortissimi and touching pianissimi from his chorus and orchestra, and all along elicits impeccable ensemble work from his star soloists.
The Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-22 lineup of Saturday matinee broadcasts continues today, February 5, 2022 with a special program that highlights the first ten years of MET broadcasts, between 1931 and 1941 and in so doing also celebrates their 90th birthday
I hadn’t been born yet, and it wasn’t until I came to the United States and began to entertain the idea of studying music that I then began to listen to the MET’s broadcasts on Saturday afternoons, with Milton Cross providing lively commentary on that afternoon’s singers. I quickly became a fan of Opera, and have remained one to this day
Today’s program features a series of highlights from that decade, providing a walk down memory lane for some lucky listeners who might have actually listened to some of these artists in person or on the radio. I am not among them, so that by the time I started to sit down by the radio to listen to the MET broadcasts, the grand old days of Rosa Ponselle, Lawrence Tibbett, Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren, Ezio Pinza, Bidú Sayão, and Lily Pons were gone. But, like many fans of great operatic singing I heard recordings of these stars and even collected LP’s of their singing. And, to this day any of us can go to You Tube and enjoy Ponselle’s amazing singing of any Verdi at all or Pinza’s Figaro or you name it.
And that brings me around to reflect – ever the critic – on the nature of the singing of those past greats. Regularly reviewing recordings of many of today’s singers I am often baffled by the blandness and the sameness I hear. Yes, the accuracy and discipline are there, but I miss the occasionally erratic but ever exciting individuality of a Zinka Milanov, the vocal personality of an Ezio Pinza, the thrilling devil-may-care approach of a Lawrence Tibbett, the exquisite way with the sung word of a Bidú Sayão, the larger than life sound of a Kirsten Flagstad, the no-holds-barred singing of Lauritz Melchior, the mix of manliness and sweetness of the timbre of Jussi Björling, the elegance of Lily Pons, or the superb resilience of a Leonard Warren.
Nevertheless I continue to listen and to hope to hear the kind of singing that was regularly heard back in those days. I am often amazed and surprised when I do, and never hesitate to say so. A recent recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio sent shivers up my spine while listening to the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen – already at the top of her game and still in her thirties. That’s just one instance of great singing, among many others.
In Opera, hope blooms eternal: that’s why some of us keep going back for more.
Beethoven’s FIDELIO is extremely difficult to sing, especially for its two central characters: Leonore and Florestan. When it comes to Joseph Sonnleithner’s libretto of Fidelio, its inconsistencies make the staging of this opera a daunting task.
The spectacularly good ROYAL OPERA HOUSE production, available on an OPUS ARTE DVD boasts an excellent cast, led by the superb Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen and the terrific though relatively unknown English tenor David Butt Philip. The production succeeds on both the dramatic and musical levels.
American soprano Amanda Forsythe as Marzelline. German bass Georg Zeppenfeld as Rocco, British baritone Simon Neal as Don Pizarro, and English tenor Robin Tritschler as Jacquino sing so idiomatically and stylishly that they make one forget that truth to tell Ludwig van Beethoven did not write all that well for the human voice.
Rather than settling for realism in his approach to Fidelio, stage director Tobias Kratzer takes a boldly meta-theatrical approach to the opera, setting Act One in a political prison in a France still torn by internecine strife after the Revolution of 1789, and bringing Act Two up to the present day, in a setting in which – with no attempt at realism – the action takes place on a mound of dirt surrounded by a seated modern-day crowd that serves as a reflection and extension of ourselves. It is an extraordinary directorial choice that sets aside any melodramatic antics and powerfully highlights the universality of the story.
Kratzer obtains memorable performances from his cast: Lise Davidsen thinking herself alone undresses to get rid of the disguising straps that bind her breasts and is discovered by Marzelline – the vocally and dramatically superb Amanda Forsythe – who comes to discover that she is attracted to another woman. And it is Marzelline who shoots Don Pizarro as he is about to stab Leonore.
Lise Davidsen joins here a long line of great Leonores. Her Abschuelicher, Wo Eilst Du Hin? is simply beyond fault, filled with emotion yet with Davidsen completely in command of the vocal mine field Beethoven wrote for his lead soprano.
David Butt Philip, the Florestan, is as good a dramatic tenor as many others older and more seasoned than him. The young Brit is both a good actor and a good singer, and he cuts a handsome figure, even in rags and in need of a bath and shave.
Georg Zeppenfeld’s lovely lyric bass is perfect for the part of Rocco. Simon Neal’s Don Pizarro is evil incarnate without resorting to histrionics, and his Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick! makes a chilling impression. Robin Tritschler’s Jacquino is very good vocally and comically convincing. Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins delivers a well sung Don Fernando
The chorus is deeply moving in their Act One scene, and the Royal Opera Orchestra, always a thing of wonder, is here especially fine, exquisitely paced by Sir Antonio Pappano, a maestro who injects every bar of Beethoven’s score with impassioned intensity.
MONTERONE’S CURSE DAMNS ITALIAN PRODUCTION OF RIGOLETTO.
Not even the presence of Mexican tenor Javier Camarena and the promising Albanian soprano Enkelida Kamani can save from a disastrous outcome the DYNAMIC DVD of a recent Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production of Verdi’s Rigoletto.
The stage misdirection of one Davide Livermore, the tacky scenic design of Gio Forma and the equally tasteless costumes of Gianluca Falaschi, the erratic casting of almost all of the supporting roles – except for the sonorous Monterone of Roman Lyulkin – and, sadly, the vocally taxed and dramatically clueless Luca Salsi in the title role all add up to a dispiriting operatic enterprise.
The blunders and missteps abound, creating utter confusion: Rigoletto’s job as a court jester obviously provides him with little income, so he runs on the side a dry cleaning service and a laundromat. The abduction of Gilda is carried out right under her father’s nose, and her offstage rape by the Duke is made clear by the blood stains down her leg and on her slip. Monterone is shot in Act One, only to reappear unscathed in Act Two. The final scene takes place in Sparafucile’s well-appointed casino and bar, and not in the desolate shack of Verdi’s original. And so on.
Riccardo Frizza ably leads the Covid-masked orchestra and chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, making sure that the standard cuts to the Gilda-Duke and the Rigoletto-Gilda duets get opened and that none of the climactic G’s and A flats are sung by Salsi, who consistently disappoints with his sloppy phrasing.
The embarrassing posturing by all the members of the cast continues though the final curtain call, by which point all hopes of surviving Monterone’s curse appear to have vanished even from the obviously mortified Luca Salsi.
When Modest Mussorgsky’s friend, Victor Hartman died in 1873 his drawings and pastels were posthumously exhibited in a St. Petersburg gallery. Mussorgsky payed his friend a musical tribute by writing a suite for piano titled Pictures at an Exhibition. It was later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, an idea suggested to him by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky.
There are ten musical episodes in Pictures at an Exhibition, separated by “promenades,” with a recurring theme. The various sections range from the playful Gnomes to the noble The Old Castle to the delicate Jardin des Tuileries to the grotesquerie of Bydlo and Baba-Yaga to the folkloric Samuil Goldenberg and Limoges, to the grandly solemn Roman Catacombs.
Mussorgsky’s second opera, Khovanshchina, depicts the time when the powerful Streltzy, came into conflict with the future Peter the Great.
Mussorgsky died in 1881 at the age of forty-two, leaving the score of Khovanshchina unfinished. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov took on the challenge of completing and orchestrating it. The introduction to the opera is a symphonic poem in miniature, vividly depicting the dawn on the river Moskva.
A recording of Mussorgsky music with the late Sir Charles Mackerras leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra is again available through VANGUARD CLASSICS. The performance, the insightful liner notes by Nicholas Slominsky, and the engineering make this CD release most desirable.
Yoel Levi and Martino Tirimo excel in two Rachmaninov works.
The critically-skewered premiere of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony drove the 24-year old composer to despair. The critic and second-tier composer Cesar Cui led the charge. It was not until 1900 that Sergei Rachmaninov again ventured into composing after a three-year silence during which he had made a modest living as a conductor. That year the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto brought the young composer the success that had evaded him three years before.
Seventeen years later the 1917 Bolshevik revolution caused Rachmaninov to leave for ever his beloved Russia. He first settled in Switzerland, and eventually moved to the United States, where the demands of a new career as concert pianist precluded him from doing much composing, even though his Third and Fourth Piano Concertos provided him with lucrative opportunities to solo as virtuoso pianist.
In 1934, Rachmaninov penned the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43, a set of variations on a theme from Paganini’s Caprice for violin in A minor, a melody already pilfered by Johannes Brahms, in addition to a bit of the medieval chant Dies Irae.
In this Alto re-mastered release of a 1982 recording, Cyprus-born pianist Martino Tirimo excels in an impassionedly muscular and immaculately precise performance of both works, perfectly supported by the idiomatically elegant conducting of Yoel Levi at the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar was first performed in 1869, conducted by Mili Balakirev. Rimsky-Korsakov then made changes to his work before conducting it in 1876. When published, in 1880, it was titled ‘Second Symphony’, but then when a new edition was published in 1903, its title had been changed to ‘Symphonic Suite’, even though Rimsky-Korsakov was not able to make all the musical changes he still wanted. After the composer’s death in 1913, Antar was described by its publisher as a symphonic suite, in concordance with the composer’s wishes.
Maurice Abravanel leads the Utah Symphony Orchestra in this nicely engineered ALTO/MUSICAL CONCEPTS recording (ALC1450) about the adventures of Antarah ibn Shaddad al-Absi, a knight whose life and adventures inspired much poetry in the Arab world, bringing out all of the melodic and harmonic exoticism and oriental color of a story that depicts through music fantasy, adventure and love.
Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, who spent seven years in Georgia, experiencing the beauty of the region and incorporating into his music the chiming of bell, the sounds of the Zurna, the Tar, the Duduk, and the call to prayer of the Muezzin. These exotic sounds are vividly present in Ippolitov-Ivanov’s four-sections Caucasian Sketches, yet another neglected piece from the vast Russian orchestral repertoire, given a bravura reading by Maestro Abravanel and the Utah musicians.
The album also includes Reinhold Glière’s The Red Poppy (1927) and Aram KhachaturianGayeneh (1942), both ballets from the Soviet era, both nicely played, the first by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah musicians, the other by Vladimir Golschmann and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.
Mozart’s five violin concertos were all five written in his late teens. Endlessly melodic, inventive, each typically structured in three movements: fast/slow/fast, with the final movement often in Rondo form, they are among the most perfect works from the Mozart catalogue.
Nicholas McGegan beautifully leads the SWR Baden-Baden Freiburg Symphony Orchestra in this double CD recording on the orchestra’s own SWR label. The American violinist Gil Shaham is the peerlessly elegant soloist, masterfully handling the quick paced movements in all five works with playfulness and grace, and elsewhere spinning out long-lined cantabile adagios in the K. 207 and K. 216.
In addition to the five concertos, the Rondo in C Major, K. 373 is included in this offering from the SWR label.
JimmyLópez Bellido’s mysteriously evocative composition Aurora, herein its world premiere, is a bold three-movement symphonic poem inspired by the Peruvian composer’s experience of seeing Finland’s northern lights during his students days in that country.
The richly-orchestrated score givesthe superlative violinist Leticia Moreno a virtuosic turn in a composition created for her and for the ever-enterprising Houston Symphony and its peerless music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, in a CD now issued by Pentatone.
Ad Astra (Latin for To the Stars), is a five-part composition dedicated to the accomplishments of the people of NASA. The work has evocative titles for each of its movements: Voyager, Apollo, Hubble, Challenger, and Revelation, and in each the composer does not stint on melody and novel harmonies.
Above all, López Bellido has an impressively varied command of orchestration, which he summons in Ad Astra to create effects that often sound as if they came from electronic sources, rather than from the acoustic instruments of the musicians of theHouston Symphony.
Never ever imitative in his work, López Bellido creates a stunning sonic landscape that alternates tutti outbursts from the percussion and brass with delicate filigree work from the strings and surprising twists and turns from the woodwinds, beyond the never exhaustive use of orchestration.
López Bellido’s music is imbued with deep emotional intensity and keen narrative through-line that uses a purely musical language to brilliantly convey the valiant investigations of the universe by humankind, ranging from the pioneering journey into deep space ofVoyager through the success of Apollo, to the inquisitive explorations of the Hubble telescope, to Challenger’ tragic explosion, and on to the unknown in Revelation.
In sum, this is music that in an extraordinary performance by the Houston Symphony led by music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, achieves greatness by dealing with greatness.