Hands-On Saints


As an up-front disclaimer I will state that Holly Iglesias is a long term friend with whom I recently reconnected on Facebook. It was only then that I learned of her writing. The Holly Iglesias I knew twenty-some years ago was an aspiring and very gifted actress whom I directed in Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit and in a play by A.R. Gurney.

Then the years rolled by and it was just today that Hands-On Saints, a collection of poems by Holly Iglesias that I ordered from Amazon.com reached my mailbox. It could be misleading to describe this book of poetry as an easy read, but the brevity of this collection and the pungent clarity of Holly’s writing made the reading of Hands-On Saints very easy and very pleasurable.

The writing evidences a formidable intellect and a wealth of historical and literary references at the author’s command. Figures from Greek mythology stumble onto the pages of this book and keep at times uneasy company with the names of Catholic saints that one would find on the flip side of one of those old wall calendars that bore one page for each day of the year. On those pages one would find the names of saints whose birth or martyrdom we mortals were to either celebrate or more likely soberly observe.

However I’m almost certain that Saint Teeter and Saint Bob of Miami are made up names, evidencing the author’s very special brand of humor.

It takes one lapsed Catholic to quickly spot another Catholic, lapsed or practicing. I will make no assumptions, though on the basis of what I read on the surface of this muscular writing and between its lines I perceive the soul of a formidable writer grappling with her faith and struggling to reconcile her inner world with the outside one.

There is in this writing again and again the pull and push of flesh versus soul, no better illustrated than in luxuriant alliterations like “Post-millennial traffic thick as flies before the plagues of pus and profit plough through.” Pitted against the bluntness of such language there are moments of ecstatic spirituality: “We tumble through space on a path of light – released – pitched like mercy into a bliss of constellation.”

This is the first of three books of poetry I sent for, all three by Holly Iglesias. Can’t wait to read the other two.

Hands on Saints is published by Quale Press (www.quale.com)

Rafael de Acha




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).

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



Cincinnati Opera 2019 Summer Festival


Cincinnati Opera Announces 2019 Summer Festival
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Sung in Italian with projected English supertitles
Soprano Susanna Phillips will have her company debut in the role of the Countess. Janai Brugger will make her company debut as Susanna. Canadian-Tunisian mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb, makes her company debut in the pants role of Cherubino.
Two CCM alumni will be featured in leading roles: Baritone Joseph Lattanzi sings the role of Count Almaviva. Bass-baritone Christian Pursell will sing the role of Figaro.

Also in the 2020 line up is the World Premiere of BLIND INJUSTICE, the first commission from Cincinnati Opera’s , CO Next: Diverse Voices. A collaboration with the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) and the Young Professionals Choral Collective (YPCC), the work is composed by Scott Davenport Richards with a libretto by David Cote. Stage direction and dramaturgy is by CCM’s Robin Guarino.

The production from Minnesota Opera, set in Shakespeare’s time, will feature Nicole Cabell as Juliet and Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun as Romeo

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS will play next
Soprano Twyla Robinson will be singing the dual role of Ariadne/Prima Donna. Kyle van Schoonhoven will make his company debut as Bacchus. Mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote will sing the role of the Composer in her company debut.

Talise Trevigne will make her company debut as Bess. Bass Morris Robinson, leads the cast as Porgy. Soprano Janai Brugger will sing the role of Clara. Crown will be portrayed by baritone Nmon Ford, and Sporting Life will be played by tenor Frederick Ballentine. Soprano Indra Thomas sings the role of Serena in her company debut.


malet 6How many operas based on Shakespeare plays are there? No need to rack your brains. There are 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 Porter nor the children and 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 set Shakespeare to music have taken in the past.

So for now I am staying with Verdi, Rossini, Gounod and Thomas until something better comes along.

Rafael de Acha

Mozartian Apotheosis


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 Classics.com) 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

Taste of Basque at Turner Farm

After my recent mini-review of BITE I got so many likes and shares, that I’ve decided to add to RafaelMusicNotes an occasional commentary on food. Our culinary highlight of this week was without question the Taste of Basque event at Turner Farm this Tuesday, presided over by Chef Stephanie Michalak, a charismatic woman with a terrific personality and the gift to cook and teach neophytes like us how to cook.

The Basque country has a very unique culture, language and cuisine, all three having around since way before the Romans first encountered some of my own ancestors two thousand years ago. With mountains in the North and the Bay of Biscay in the East, the cuisine of the Euskari (the term preferred by the Basques to call themselves) encompasses the best of land and sea.

Chef Michalak set up the mise en place for each one of us to choose one dish to prepare. The menu encompassed grilled lamb shops, roasted potatoes, piperrada (a kind of peppers and tomatoes concoction), calamari, trout fillet, Spanish omelet, Piquillo peppers stuffed with salt cod, baby squid, croquettes, spiced almonds, and a basque-style cheesecake. There was some Cidra to drink.

The cooking classes at Turner Farm are always followed by a dinner or lunch in the informal dining area next to their state of the art teaching kitchen. We loved the experience and will be back.

You can find out more by going to http://www.turnerfarm.org

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




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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 Fernando Autori – 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 (www.divine-art.com) will make a nice addition to the library of any serious collector of operatic rarities.

Rafael de Acha

A Perfectly French Carmen


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 (www.divine-art.com) 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 http://www.divine-art.com .

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