Dip Your Ears... ( 12 ) 

R. Wagner, Die Meistersinger, Wolfgang Sawallisch

There is no perfect recording of Die Meistersinger–and there probably never will be, either–too taxing is this cheery 4½ hour Singspiel that Wagner thought to be his light and undemanding Opera. This and the supressed Kubelik recording (worth a story in its own right) come as close to it as possible. Conceived while taking a break from the Ring, it’s the only mature Wagner-work that doesn’t end with a heap of dead bodies. Its emotional range is none the smaller for it and while its length might be prohibitive to newcomers, its some of the most delightful Wagner on record. Sawallisch is one of the most astute and no-nonsense Wagnerians and he reigns over a superlative cast. Weikl, Heppner, Studer and Moll can’t be topped in these days–and a young René Pape as the Nachtwächter is pure luxury. The sound is superb, the presentation without fault. The price is steep – but the only rivals (Kubelik, Jochum, Solti-2) are too. Listen ten times and it costs 2 cents per minute.


Dip Your Ears... ( 11 ) 

J. HaydnString Quartets op. 76, Quatour Mosaiques
J. HaydnString Quartets op. 64, 1, 3, 6, Quatour Mosaiques
J. HaydnString Quartets op. 20, Quatour Mosaiques
J. HaydnString Quartets op. 33, Quatour Mosaiques

Haydn is the father of the string quartet and his output in that field is impressive equally for its quantity and quality. Spirited playing of those masterpieces can be found with the Kodaly Quartet (on Naxos) and the Lindseys (on ASV)–to mention only two recent groups that excelled in capturing Haydn’s quartets on record. If you like performances on period instruments – or simply Haydn, you must listen to the Quatour Mosaïques’ take on the op. 77 works (or any of their other Haydn recordings, for that matter). Easily as spirited as the Lindseys and technically more accurate, they create a joy that is palpable recorded as well as live. Not seemingly held back by their old instruments or historically informed performance practice, they are to Haydn right now what the Takacs Quartet is to Beethoven. Gramophone recommends for a reason. Smile!


Dip Your Ears... ( 10 ) 

Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos, J-P. Collard / A. Previn

Saint-Saëns was embarrassed to see the Carnival of the Animals published. He shouldn’t have been... he should have burned the score, though, if it can be blamed for the serious composer Saint-Saëns still being given short shrift apart from his “Organ Symphony”. His piano concertos – all five of them – are among the most eminently enjoyable works in that genre and no child’s play at all. They are unabashedly romantic but freer, less gloomy and less backwards-looking than the works of his eastern European contemporaries who also dabbled in the realm of the piano concerto. J-P. Collard and André Previn do an amiable and admirable job and challenge the splendid Rogé/Dutoit ‘double-Decca’. Neither can match the Hough recording on Hyperion (which, however, isn't perfectly engineered), but the price on this double forte release is good and the music is well done and deserves your ears, no matter in which version.


Andreasz Chéniertzky 

For the season's opening under its newly amended name, the Washington National Opera presents Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier. Based on the life of the French poet of the same name, the opera was written in 1895 and is the reason why we still remember Giordano—and not a bad reason—though his other works, like the opera Siberia, aren't half-bad either.

With Eugene Kohn conducting, the opera opened to an unusually beautiful set accompanied by fine music. During the overture, the stage lay quietly in dark colors with several semitransparent white pointy mosquito-net-like covers looking like suspended, upside-down orchid blossoms or KKK hoods, only cute. A stilted, Nightmare before Christmas-like figure stilts about like a Rod Puppet. This gorgeous, impressive set, once lit, was host to dancing that bordered buffoonery, but silly music deserves silly dancing.

The most important character in the opera, the baritone role of Carlo Gérard, a servant at Château Coigny, sets up the story (about the French Revolution), lamenting the state of the servant's life. Chénier shows compassion for the cause of the revolution, but not revolutionary zeal either. Gérard, however, does and is dismissed. The first act is visually dominated by butterflies, dragonflies, moths, and other flying insects (the backdrop alone would be every lepidopterist's delight). During the festivities at the Château, little ballerina-moths carried firefly-shaped lamps. Other than that, the setting was sparse and pretty. Michael Chioldi as the extraordinarily flamboyant Pietro Fléville was a delightful addition, even if he hadn't sung well. Delicious decadence dripped from the setting, giving a perfectly apt description of the scene.

Mariusz Trelinski

It was by that point already that the imported production by Mariusz Trelinski (generously called a "co-production" with the Teatr Wielki in Poznań) had to be judged a success. Daring it already was. The second act shows why Chénier is not escaping to safety (the reason is a secret, letter-writing woman—Maddalena, the Countess Coigny's daughter), why Gérard, now an important figure in the revolutionary movement, does not denounce Chénier (Maddalena), and why the opera will end tragically (Maddalena). The central guillotine with light-chains stretched from it, beautiful blue, dark purple hues, the dark stage, live dogs, and later an imposing, very, very red background all made for a visually arresting set on which the action played out. The Soviet-flavored depiction of the fervor of the revolutionaries was chilling in its portrayal of good intentions turning into bloody zealotry (how timely) and the orchestra supported it by being best when it underscored

The third act finally is nothing short of inspired. Mariusz Trelinski, film-maker-cum-opera-director, outdid himself, and the Washington National Opera is to be congratulated for bringing the most inspiring, pertinent, and beautiful direction of an opera to D.C. that I have seen this company do so far. How easily could they have opted for a pseudo-realistic set from, say, the 1950s Teatro alla Scala. The Tribunal showed the Hitlerite Mathieu (John Marcus Bindel) almost 10 feet above the stage, framed by the speaker's podium's glowing red borders—as though he were only a torso and extended hands, summoning and bewitching the crowd that hung over its gloomily red lit balconies, only to rise at his turning to them. The story has Gérard arrest Chénier to get to Maddalena, accuse him wrongly, but be softened by Maddalena's love for Chénier, whom he promises to help if...

In the almost equally well-crafted fourth act, Gérard retracts his accusation, but in revolutionary-style logic Chénier is condemned to death all the same. Maddalena gets to switch places with a condemned female prisoner and dies together with Chénier in a scene that may just have tickled opera season ticket-holder Herr Wolfowitz the wrong way. The unsubtle though hardly primitively obvious allusion to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal did not elude the Washington audience.

With a staging, costumes, and direction that cannot garner anything but praise, it was either to follow necessarily or coincidence that the acting was first rate. John Marcus Bindel and especially Jorge Lagunes, who both offered distinguished singing gave us even better acting, making the story thus far more compelling than the text alone would merit. Salvatore Licitra, the star of the performance and the reason many, if not most, people will attend, too did a good job, though his singing was more impressive. He, the alleged successor of Luciano Pavarotti (a reputation gotten not the least due to a last-minute replacement at the Met for the latter), had visible and audible fun singing the role and did not, or hardly, mark down. In fact, the only singer to mark down was Keri Alkema, the mezzo (La Contessa), from whom one would have least expected it. Paoletta Marrocu, the Maddalena of the night had a non-distinct but gorgeous, very clean voice that sounded unforced and bright all through the night. Licitra, at any rate, won't be the pull in subsequent performances as he is indisposed - and while his substitute Carlo Ventre can't hold a candle to Licitra, it's not the tenor you will want to see this magnificent production for.

Eugene Kohn, who had to interrupt the performance for a third-act adjustment, did all he needed to do in order to supply direction and story with sufficient music... but then this night was not about the music, it was about opera as a whole, a visual feast that merged with the music as only the most absorbing directions can. Andrea Chénier will never become my favorite opera, but in such cloth I shall want to see it as many times as possible.


Dip Your Ears ( 9 ) 

Richard Wagner, Tristan & Isolde, Barenboim, Meier, Jerusalem, Lipovšek, Salminen et al.
The greatest recording of the greatest opera? Hyperbole, perhaps. But Tristan & Isolde is the finest Opera this side of Don Giovanni and Barenboim’s superbly cast and engagingly played account is the best modern recording of the work by all means. His control, attention to detail and development is ever-impressive. More-so, this 1995 studio recording boasts Waltraud Meier, without peer as Kundry (Parsifal), who also excels in Isolde’s role like few others. Jerusalem’s Tristan is no Windgassen, but he sounds beautiful and holds more than his own against Meier. Mariana Lipovšek is a very distinctive, mature Brangäne while Matti Salminen rivals Kurt Moll’s King Marke. Meier’s thrilling Liebestod is as good as I’ve heard any–and her diction is superior to the note-swallowing, if electric Nilsson. Among the many Tristans I have and love, this is my favorite.

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