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Jessye Norman’s lost Isolde – and so much else

The burden of being Jessye Norman (1945-2019) – and it had to have been considerable, with that much vocal talent and so much intellectual awareness of its value – was perhaps most clearly manifested in her attitude towards recordings. The process and the permanence of recording never seemed to entirely sit well with her. At the peak of her career in the 1990s, her recording of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle was held up for three years. When I ran into her at the theater one night and said, “You sure know how to keep a guy waiting,” she … [Read more...]

Did New York Festival of Song make it ‘back to the U.S.S.R.?’

Though the New York Festival of Song has been in existence for three decades, its concerts are a continuous stream of musical wild cards — wide in scope, full of discoveries you probably couldn't hear elsewhere, and performed by singers with fine voices and open minds.   Audience and singers applaud Steven Blier (at left) at the piano. Co-founder/pianist Steven Blier is the catalog-like mind behind it. His particularly adventurous annual August visits to Orient Village, Long Island — a sweet little North Fork whaling town with a cultural … [Read more...]

Can Korngold’s monster opera be saved? Even by Bard?

Getting to know opera via recording, as has often been said, is like on-line dating. No reason why it shouldn't work. And it often does. Then you walk into something like Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane with well-founded hopes, and you leave trying to reconcile what you thought it was on recording with what you've just experienced. And if Leon Botstein and Bard SummerScape can't rehabilitate the piece — as they have so many works — who can? Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane at Bard, with German Expressionist sets.Photo by Stephanie Berger. … [Read more...]

Rossini goes commando in Teatro Nuovo’s ‘La Gazza Ladra’

How often does opera — that medium in which so many elements can cause major derailment — defy so many odds? I had to see La Gazza Ladra (July 18 at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater in a one-night-only semi-staged performance), if only because Teatro Nuovo offered the opera a long-shot hope for redemption. Few people have explored the forgotten works of the 19th century as continually as Teatro Nuovo artistic director Will Crutchfield. But as quixotic as this annual summer workshop can sometimes seem — with repertoire where scores … [Read more...]

Nixon in China comes to Princeton, literally smarter than ever

Nixon in China chorus(Jessi Franko Designs LLC) Though John Adams' first opera, Nixon in China, never felt particularly foreign, everybody from singers to directors to conductors to critics needed a few decades to determine what's there and how to draw the most out of it. The new Princeton Festival production played only two performances, June 23 and 30 at the McCarter Theatre Center, but did so with a welcome sense of artistic arrival. Sometimes dubbed "a CNN opera," Nixon in China is indeed based on Nixon's historic 1972 journey to … [Read more...]

“Don’t make me go out there alone!” — Leonard Bernstein’s last tango with ‘Candide’

By the time he made his way to the podium, Leonard Bernstein was clearly in trouble.  Well after the entrance applause died down, he needed to compose himself, and he aggressively massaged his forehead just for a minute. But in stage-time, it seemed more like ten. He was about  to begin a concert performance of Candide with the London Symphony Orchestra and an all-star cast. Would he make it through the next three hours? Given the uncertain delivery of his spoken introduction, would he make it through the next sentence? This … [Read more...]

David Lang holds no prisoners in his new, gloves-off opera

David Lang's music is too pleasurable to be called experimental. Though his language takes the minimalist aesthetic to a very personal place — the little match girl passion being a prime example — it's the message, not the music, that may make some listeners uncomfortable. As much as his new opera prisoner of the state feels like a major stylistic move toward mainstream tonality, it's a continuation of his fusing of the message with music that best conveys it. Premiered June 6-8 in a more-than-semi-staged version by the New York … [Read more...]

Goodbye to the commercial music industry, hello to the rock stars next door

The New York City subway is not, on any given day, the place to hear the music you need. It’s public in the extreme — in one of the world’s most public cities. And yet that’s where music ambushed me, a few months ago, in the form of a singer-guitarist whose high, sweet voice seemed to address my psyche with disarming directness. He was hoping for $1. I gave him $5. He gave me a CD, maybe so that I wouldn't forget him. And I won’t — in contrast to so much other commercial music that doesn't even go in one ear and out the other. Those … [Read more...]

The opera that dares you to like it – and so you do. Defiantly.

Never has an opera dared me to like it as much as Chunky in Heat.  The title sounds almost like a riff on “Chucky gets lucky,” the ad slogan for the comedy/horror film The Bride of Chucky. But no, it’s Chunky — about a supposedly overweight teen-age girl who is figuring out modern life from the vantage point of her backyard swimming pool. Seen May 31-June 2 at the Flea Theater in a production by Experiments in Opera, the score had no fewer than six composers — Jason Cady, Paula Matthusen, Erin Rogers, Aaron Siegel, … [Read more...]

Puritans on the verge of a nervous breakdown (and what they have to tell us): Axis Theatre Co. and Romeo Castellucci

The early New England settlers are looking more complicated these days, existing in a state of checkmate that defies their strongest faith. As kids, we’re taught how courageous the "pilgrims" of these religious sects were, with their willingness to brave the unsettled New World (not to mention the Boston climate) for the sake of freedom of worship. And even today there's some prestige in being able to say that your family "dates back to the Mayflower." Two recent theater pieces deliver a horrific portrait of the Puritans' lives, depicting … [Read more...]

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