Saturday, September 25, 2010

WNO - Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) - 09/19/10

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Daniele Callegari
Director: James Robinson
King Gustavus III: Salvatore Licitra
Count Anckarstrom: Lusa Salsi
Amelia: Tamara Wilson
Oscar: Micaela Oeste

There’s nothing like kicking off a new season with a meaty crowd-pleaser featuring a big name in the lead, and that is just what the Washington National Opera did on Sunday with Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera” and Salvatore Licitra. To pack an even bigger punch, over 10,000 people also showed up at the Nationals baseball park for a perfect fall afternoon of not only music and singing, but informative pre-performance games and open concession stands as well. Back in the Kennedy Center opera house, the melody lover in me was looking forward to the fabulous score and the purist in me was rejoicing at the prospect of seeing the story back in the original Sweden.
Verdi’s problem child had to go through an awfully convoluted birth before becoming one of his most enduring successes. Nothing was simple for artists in mid-19th century Naples where two groups of censors (political and catholic) were nit-picking about every little detail. So a plot involving illicit feelings, royalty, magic, dancing, conspiracy and, to top it all off, murder was really asking for trouble. After the censors demanded that more than one third of the libretto and most of the story be altered, the already popular Italian master quickly took off to nearby Rome and its own more accommodating breed of censors, who merely suggested changing the setting from Sweden to… Boston, MA! After all, anything was possible in the New World, even a... Boston governor (?!). These days both versions are presented, and the WNO wisely picked the "real thing".

Doomed love triangles are of course nothing new in opera, but this one has all the more poignancy to it as the two allegedly guilty parties manage to remain true to their principles, therefore succeeding in keeping their love truly chaste. Unfortunately, external forces will conspire in making things increasingly more difficult for them, and it will inevitably all end up in tragedy during the famed masked ball.
Having a big name in the cast is always a good move, and it is even more indispensable in these challenging economic times where audiences are growing dreadfully leaner. Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra has been establishing a solid reputation of being larger than life (and louder too) and he sure stood out on Sunday. As ill-fated King Gustavus III his voice was clear and powerful, easily rising over the orchestra with unwavering stamina, if not consistent subtleness. His spontaneously endearing demeanor was of course a big plus in the role of the good king who will be murdered for a sin he did not commit, and his discreet charisma wrapped up a genuinely engaging star turn.
Count Anckarstrom, the best friend turned murderer, was sung by another blood-and-guts Italian, baritone Luca Salsi. Soprano Tamara Wilson did not hold back either and brought the right amount innocence and strength to the woman who unwillingly spells big trouble. Her love duet with Licitra in the gallows field (could you think of a less romantic spot?) was one of the highlights of the afternoon. In the smaller but crucial role of Ulrica (I don't know of anybody who calls her Mam’zelle Arvidon), mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina was a quite arresting fortune-teller, and soprano Micaela Oeste was a lovable if jumpy Oscar.
Another telling sign of budget restrictions was the rather bare and/or recycled sets, but the minimalist approach worked out quite well. The costumes were on the understated side too, and one couldn’t help but be surprised at the guests’ drab grey outfits at the final ball. While it visually reinforced the idea of conspiracy, it was nevertheless odd to have a royal festivity look more like a monastic retreat.
But colors galore were vividly filling up the opera house thanks to Verdi's luscious melodies, and that was all that eventually mattered. Another Italian was on the podium in the person of maestro Daniele Callegari, who was making his promising debut with the WNO. He assuredly led the orchestra in a robust celebration of the beautifully lyrical score without missing a beat.

A couple of hours prior to curtain time, horrendous news made me quickly question if I should attend the performance or not. There was nothing I could do at that point and while millions of thoughts kept on viciously exploding in my head, I decided to catch my breath and soldier on in order to keep myself from insanity and because music, like life, must go on. This post is dedicated to my former, dearest opera buddy and closest friend.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

BSO - Prokofiev, Mahler, Bach, Schumann, Williams, Mozart, Barber & Shostakovich - 09/10/10

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Guest Conductor: Ilyich Rivas
Prokofiev: "Allegro con brio" from Classical Symphony
Bach: "Air" from Suite No 3 (Arr. Mahler)
Mahler: "Blumine" from Symphony No 1 in D Major - Ilyich Rivas
Schumann: "Allegro molto vivace" from Symphony No 2 in C Major, Op. 61
Williams: "Main Title" from Star Wars
Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620
Barber: Essay No 2, Op. 17
Prokofiev: "Quarrel" and "Amoroso" from Cinderella
Shostakovich: "Allegro non troppo" from Symphony No 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

Now that summer is officially over, it does not get much better than taking the Red Line train again all the way up to Strathmore, which I did last night for the much-awaited Season Preview concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The music center was bustling on such a beautiful fall evening and once the concert got underway, it really felt like I had never left because - guess what - they were all there: the snifflers, the coughers, the talkers, the fidgeters, the program droppers, the loud candy sucker to my left (just once, but unfortunately during The Magic Flute’s overture. Damn it, and her) and the sporadic bangle shaker to my right (at will. Hers, not mine, obviously). It may be a brand new season, but some things will never change, will they?
In the middle of it all, maestra Alsop brought her trademark hot red cuffs, deadpan sense of humor and unwavering commitment to sharing the wonders of classical music. Having the musicians and herself mingle with the audience during intermission was yet another one of her non-stop initiatives to make us all one big happy music-loving family, and the schmoozing feast was such a big success that it apparently may even become a regular thing. In the meantime, the program was predictably a smorgasbord of excerpts from the upcoming season, loosely alternating movements from large pieces with stand-alone works. So on with the music.

Sergei Prokofiev was only 26 years old when he wrote his Haydn-inspired Classical Symphony (never mind that it actually is one of the first neo-classical works ever since even then he couldn’t help but toy with new compositional practices). Not quite yet Russia’s enfant terrible, he made sure to include everything that makes us love classical music: the pretty melodies, the vibrant harmonies and the inventive rhythms, all conspiring to attract, enchant and convert. Its “Allegro con brio” was therefore a playful, infectious way to kick off this new journey with the BSO, and they threw themselves whole-heartedly into it.
From 20th century Russia we went right back to 18th century German with Bach and his lovely “Air” (on the G String. The violin one, that is) from Suite No 3, arranged by no less than Gustav Mahler. One of the most popular hits of the Baroque era, it gracefully rose and ethereally soared. It is one of those soothing pieces that make you feel a better person by just listening to it.
Next, we stuck to Mahler with “Blumine”, the rejected second movement of his first symphony. For the occasion, the baton was passed on to Ilyich Rivas, a promising 17-year-old conductor in the making from Venezuela, who brought steady soulfulness to the short but so pleasant intermezzo. The orchestra seemed to take well to their temporary leader and let the work’s delicate lyricism open and bloom.
After all those lofty sounds, it was time for some happy tunes, which we ironically got from one of the most ill-fated composers ever. The “Allegro molto vivace” closes Schumann’s second symphony with unabated zest and sunniness, and Marin Alsop, back on the podium, led her musicians in a merrily alive rendition of it.
Our uplifted spirits got another boost with John Williams’ main title from Star Wars, his world-famous heroic theme unabashedly filling up the Strathmore concert hall loud and clear. Unsurprisingly, it got the biggest ovation of the evening, a feat probably due, at least partly, to all the young (and a bit less young) people in the audience.
The second half of the evening started with Mozart’s irresistible overture to The Magic Flute. One of the best cross-over achievements in the opera répertoire, this truly magical score quickly grabs the undivided attention of young and old right from its first, strongly assertive notes to the fast-paced, buoyant passages that follow. And best of all, no knowledge of freemasonry is needed (Watch for Number 3 if you're interested) to appreciate all the perky intricacies of this mood-enhancing frolic. In the hands of the BSO, it brightly shone as the all-around crowd-pleaser that it is.
I have not been a big fan of Barber so far and his Essay No 2 won’t change my mind, but it nevertheless went down nicely.
Then it was back to Prokofiev with two short excerpts from his Cinderella score, “Quarrel”, whose vivaciousness did conjure up some heated arguments and “Amoroso”, whose charming melodies could only have been inspired by blissful love.
Maestra Alsop had obviously decided to wrap things up with a resounding bang, and we sure felt its power courtesy of Shostakovich and the “Allegro non troppo” from his fifth symphony. The forceful, no holds barred movement (out of triumph or despair, you decide) concluded our evening with an intense punch. Let the season begin!