Sunday, April 28, 2013

My dark history with the rollicking opening of Act II of Donizetti's "Elixir of Love"

At the Met this past October, conductor Maurizio Benini (with baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as the blustering Sgt. Belcore) seemed to think the thing to do with this wonderful little chorus that opens Act II of L'Elisir d'amore is to slam-bang your way through it. I think we've already heard a better solution.

by Ken

Partway through the spring trimester of my junior year in college I stopped going to classes. Just stopped clean. Oh, it wasn't an intentional class stoppage at the outset. It just felt better not going than going. After a while, though, it became a clean break. I knew there would be consequences, and I decided I would deal with them when the time came. (Ironically, by the time the time came, the entire fall trimester, during which I re-demonstrated my ability to discharge my academic responsibilities, had come and gone. I detected a whiff of irony in the righeous wrath that descended at this remove in time, but nobody else involved was in irony-detection mode.)

I don't want to point fingers here, but the principal activity with which I filled those now-blissfully-freed-up class hours was listening to a recording I happened just to have acquired at the college bookstore: the very recording of Donizetti's Elixir of Love to which we happen to have been listening, and in particular to the opening of Act II.


Don Pasquale (1843) is undoubtedly the more urbane and sophisticated,, but I don't know that I could rate it any deeper, more moving, or more satisfying than the country-bumpkinish L'Elisir (1832). If we start by getting that infernal idea of "better" or "worse" out of our heads, I think we can already hear the strikingly different ways in which the two pieces work just from their orchestral introductions -- a prelude in the case of L'Elisir, a fuller-fledged overture in the case of Don Pasquale.

First let's hear the Prelude and jolly opening chorus of L'Elisir d'amore.

DONIZETTI: L'Elisir d'amore: Prelude and Opening Chorus
[We're by a riverbank at the entrance to the farm of ADINA, where jolly harvesters from the village are noting that the scorch of love's flame is even harder to protect against than that of the overhead midday sun.]

Antonella Bandelli (s), Giannetta; Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Gabriele Ferro, cond. DG, recorded November 1986

Renza Jotti (s), Giannetta; Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond. Live performance, June 1967

Angela Arena (s), Giannetta; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966

Friday, April 26, 2013

Re-preview: Enter Donizetti's phony-elixir-seller, Dr. Dulcamara

Again, there's a reason why we've been listening to this particular performance of Donizetti's Elixir of Love. We'll get to that, finally, this Sunday (I hope).

by Ken

I'm afraid we got kind of hung up heading from last week's preview, "There's something about the opening of Act II of Donizetti's Elixir of Love," to a post based on Donizetti's great operatic comedy. But I don't mind further-previewing it.

In the original preview we indeed heard the opening of Act II, including the little performance-duet between the traveling quack Dr. Dulcamara and Adina.

DONIZETTI: L'Elisir d'amore: Act II opening, Chorus, "Cantiamo, cantiam" ("Let's sing, let's sing"); Duo, Dulcamara-Adina, "Io son rico, tu sei bella" ("I'm rich, you're beautiful")
[For Italian-English texts, see last week's post.]

Mario Sereni (b), Sgt. Belcore; Renato Capecchi (b), Dr. Dulcamara; Angela Arena (s), Giannetta; Mirella Freni (s), Adina; Rome Opera Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966


For now let me just say again that there's a reason why we heard this particular performance of this particular excerpt, and we'll get to that Sunday, probably. Meanwhile tonight I thought we would hear Dr. Dulcamara's entrance in Act I, which at the Met used to be accomplished in a hot-air balloon.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Preview: There's something about the opening of Act II of Donizetti's "Elixir of Love"

Leo Nucci (Sgt. Belcore), Ildebrando d'Arcangelo (Dr. Dulcamara), Inna Los (Giannetta), and Anna Netrebko (Adina) in the opening of Act II of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, conducted by Alfred Eschwé and directed by Otto Schenk, at the Vienna State Opera, April 2005 (we have Italian-English texts below)

by Ken

Donizetti's magical Elixir of Love would be amply worth our attention even if it didn't contain one of the most memorable of tenor arias. We already heard a bunch of fine performances of "Una furtiva lagrima in the December 2011 post "The old minor-to-major switcheroo as practiced by Schubert, Mahler, and Donizetti" (and the preview), but there's a reason why I'm adding this performance.

DONIZETTI: L'Elisir d'amore: Act II, Aria, Nemorino,
"Una furtiva lagrima" ("A furtive tear")

A furtive tear
welled up in her eye.
Those carefree girls
she seemed to envy.
Why should I look any further?
She loves me, yes, she loves me.
I can see it, I can see it.

To feel for just one moment
the beating of her dear heart!
To blend my sighs
for a little with hers!
Heavens, I could die;
I ask for nothing more.
I could die of love.
-- English translation by Kenneth Chalmers

Nicolai Gedda (t), Nemorino; Rome Opera Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966

L'Elisir would also be more than worth our time even if it didn't have this particular Act II opening, which we're going to hear as performed in the same recording of the opera.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

From brooding depths to sparkling heights -- Bruch's G minor Violin Concerto

Itzhak Perlman plays the opening Prelude (Allegro moderato) of the Bruch G minor Violin Concerto, with Kazuyoshi Akiyama conducting the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

by Ken

In Friday night's "Max Bruch preview" we heard the composer's Kol Nidrei, an "Adagio based on a Hebrew melody," which I described as his second-best-known work. "The best-known," I wrote, "surely is his G minor Violin Concerto," noting that we would be listening to it today.

An obvious point of reference for what used to be known as "the Bruch Violin Concerto" but now has to be called "the Bruch First Violin Concerto" because there are two more (both craftsmanlike works but neither with anything like the irresistible appeal of the first), is the Sibelius D minor Violin Concerto, which is also through much of its way darkly brooding, then bursts out into a more animated finale. The Sibelius Concerto, though (which we heard in the November 2009 post "An intrepid voice from the rugged North -- Jan Sibelius"), was written 35-plus years later.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Preview: A haunting little piece that tells us less than we would think about its composer's roots

Max Bruch (1838-1920)

by Ken

You might think that the haunting brief Adagio (8:53 in the Piatigorsky-Ormandy recording, 9:56 in the Starker-Dorati) we're hearing tonight, based on one of the most solemn of Hebrew chants, is a product of its composer's deeply felt heritage. as Paul Affelder explained in his note for the Starker-Dorati-Mercury recording, this is far from the case.
It is a sort of musical compliment to Max Bruch's long devotion to folk music that what is considered one of his most representative works should have sprung from an alien tradition. Along with his First Violin Concerto, Kol Nidrei, an "Adagio for violoncello based on a Hebrew melody," is today the most frequently heard composition by a composer who was a contemporary of Brahms, but who survived him by almost a quarter of a century. The traditional Hebrew chant has been treated with such conviction, however, by this Lutheran grandson of an eminent German clergyman, that it is more familiar to concertgoers than his earlier Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (Op. 37).

Bruch had a lifelong devotion to folk music and became somewhat of an authority on Geman, Russian, and Swedish music, some of which he drew upon in his Songs and Dances (Op. 63 and Op. 79). His Adagio on Celtic Melodies and better-known Scottish Fantasy (Op. 46) explore yet other sources, and his deep interest in folk art might well have influenced Vaughan Williams when that celebrated folklorist stuied with him.

International in his travels as in his musical interests, Bruch was serving as conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society at the time he composed Kol Nidrei. It received its first performance, however, at a concert of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on October 20, 1881.

For the basis of his composition, Bruch quite literally drew upon what is regarded as one of the most sacred of Hebrew melodies, customarily chanted on the even of the Day of Atonement. This prayer, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia explains, serves to annul "all vows made in any form whatsoever during the course of the year, insofar as they concern one's own person."

The personalized solemnity of the original melody is most appropriately paralleled by the timbre of the solo cello, which intones it first, unadorned. Variations expand on the original theme and lead to a secondary subject, pronounced by the orchestra first, this time, and then assigned to the solo instrument. The original theme is recalled as the work concludes in a somber mood.

BRUCH: Kol Nidrei (Adagio on a Hebrew melody), Op. 47

János Starker, cello; London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati, cond. Mercury, recorded July 1962

Gregor Piatigorsky, cello; Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Dec. 28, 1947


If Kol Nidrei is Bruch's second-best-known work, the best-known surely is his G minor Violin Concerto. We'll be listening to it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

From Risë Stevens in "The King and I" to Patricia Neway in "The Consul"

In 1960, the year after she created the role of the Mother Abbess in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, soprano Patricia Neway re-created the role of Magda Sorel in The Consul, Gian Carlo Menotti's first full-length opera, which she had created in 1950, including a 289-performance Broadway run.

by Ken

As I mentioned in remembering mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, after her retirement from the Met, she was tapped by Richard Rodgers for the production of The King and I he oversaw at the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in 1964. We heard a couple of excerpts from RCA's cast recording of the production in Friday night's preview. Today I thought we'd hear the musical numbers of our heroine, the widowed Anna Leonowens, who arrives in Siam with her son Louis to take up the post of governess to the King's chorus of children by his roster of wives.

Naturally, following normal Sunday Classics practice, we start with the Overture.


"I whistle a happy tune": Risë Stevens as Anna Leonowens and James Harvey as her son Louis from the 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center production of The King and I


Friday, April 5, 2013

Preview: "Small House of Uncle Thomas"

King Simon of Legree, in "Small House of Uncle Thomas"

by Ken

Late in Act I of Rodgers and Hammesterin's The King and I, the King of Siam informs the new governess for his many children, Anna, that a British diplomatic delegation is coming to Bangkok, and he wishes her to help prepare a reception.

For the gala event, which takes place early in Act II, Tuptim (the young Burmese girl who has been given by her king as a present to the King of Siam) prepares a version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a stylized ballet called Small House of Uncle Thomas -- a fairly audacious choice to present to an autocratic king. The ballet had never been included in a King and I recording until the 1964 album based on the Music Theater of Lincoln Center production, which was of course overseen by the company's president and producing director, Richard Rodgers.


Act I, "March of the Siamese Children"

Act II, Ballet, "Small House of Uncle Thomas"

Lee Venora (s), Tuptim; cast of the 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center production, Franz Allers, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July 12, 1964


In case you haven't guessed, more of The King and I, focusing on the Anna of the 1964 Lincoln Center production.