Friday, November 27, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Opera and other music

Janet Cardiff, The Forty-Part Motet, SFMOMA at Fort Mason Center (Photo: SFMOMA)
It's time once again for my post-Thanksgiving roundup of favorite music, books, movies and television shows first encountered (although not necessarily first released) over the past year.

Live performances

The Forty-Part Motet, a sound installation by Janet Cardiff of Thomas Tallis's "Spem in alium," performed by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, SFMOMA at Fort Mason Center; seen November 12.

It's a bit of a stretch to call this a live performance, but I think it belongs in this category because it's experienced in public in the presence of others. Cardiff's installation involves 40 speakers placed in a circular array in a large, nearly empty room. The speakers play, on a continuous loop, a recorded performance of Tallis's motet, with one vocal part per speaker. The distribution of the speakers in eight groups of five highlights the work's contrapuntal and antiphonal qualities.

When I first heard about it, I thought Cardiff's idea wasn't particularly transformative; in 1999, for example, we saw the SF Bach Choir under the direction of David P. Babbitt perform Tallis's motet with the choir surrounding the audience, precisely to enhance the spatial aspects of the music. The chief difference from a live performance is that at Cardiff's installation you can walk around the speakers to hear different groupings of vocalists at different times, stand by one speaker to hear one part emphasized, or sit in the center and let the massive sound wash over you. So while Cardiff's conception is not especially original, the actual experience of the piece is both meditative and exhilarating. "The Forty Part Motet" can be visited for free at Fort Mason's Gallery 308 in Building A until January 18, 2016; if you will be in the Bay Area between now and then, I strongly recommend that you not miss it.

Even in mere stereo, "Spem in alium" is overwhelming. This is my favorite recording, by the Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel, director, from the album Utopia Triumphans:

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens (The Trojans, 1858), SF Opera, seen June 7.

Susan Graham (Didon) and Bryan Hymel (Enée) in Les Troyens (Photo: Weaver/SF Opera)
In my post on Les Troyens I wrote that the production, the first at SF Opera in nearly half a century, was "superbly sung" by Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre, Bryan Hymel as Enée, and Susan Graham as Didon. "Highlights included every moment the fierce Antonacci was onstage, Enée's anguished realization that he must betray Didon, 'Intuile regrets' (Futile regrets), and Didon's final lament, 'Je vais mourir' (I am going to die). The exquisite love duet between Enée and Didon, 'Nuit d'ivresse,' simply stopped time." The previous post includes performances of "Nuit d'vresse" and "Je vais mourir."

The Monteverdi Trilogy, Boston Early Music Festival, seen June 12-14.

David Hansen (Nerone) and Amanda Forsythe (Poppea) in L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Photo: BEMF)
At the Boston Early Music Festival we saw the staging of all of Monteverdi's extant operas: L'Orfeo, (Orpheus, 1607), Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland, 1640), and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea, 1642). The musical and vocal performances were exceptional, and the stagings ranged from good (Orfeo, Ulisse) to excellent (Poppea); for details, including the names of the wonderful BEMF singers and music from each opera, please see my original posts. It was a privilege to be able to see these three masterpieces performed on successive days.

W. A. Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), SF Opera, seen July 5.

Nadine Sierra (the Countess) in Le nozze di Figaro (Photo: SF Opera)
In the original post on this production I wrote that "despite the miscommunication between pit and stage and the directorial and design misjudgments, this Figaro was rescued by its brilliant young cast," which included rising baritone Philippe Sly as the wily Figaro, Lisette Oropesa as his spirited fiancée Susanna, Luca Pisaroni as the lustful Count, Nadine Sierra as his long-suffering Countess, and Angela Brower as the love-struck page Cherubino. "Ultimately this production mirrored Figaro's schemes to thwart the Count: constantly threatening to slip into disaster, but in the end, a triumph." For a video of the great Lucia Popp singing Susanna's lovely aria "Deh vieni," please see my guide to Le Nozze di Figaro.

Marin Marais, Sémélé (1709), American Bach Soloists and Academy, seen August 14.

Rebecca Myers Hoke (Sémélé) and Sara LeMesh (Junon) in Sémélé (Photo: Gas Lamp Productions)
This "splendid performance" of Marais' long-neglected opera was especially notable for its rich score (which contains a vivid earthquake scene); in my original post on Sémélé I wrote that "the 30-strong American Bach Choir and the 50-odd members of the ABS Academy Orchestra created a huge and beautifully intricate sound in the relatively intimate confines of the San Francisco Conservatory's Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. The vocal soloists, all drawn from Academy participants, were uniformly excellent; special mention should be made of Rebecca Myers Hoke as Sémélé, Sara LeMesh as Junon, and Christopher Besch as Jupiter, who handled their virtuosic roles beautifully."


Agostino Steffani: Niobe, Regina di Tebe. Karina Gauvin, Philippe Jaroussky, and other vocal soloists. Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Erato.

The spectacular operatic centerpiece of the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival has been issued in a beautifully produced CD box. While I had my reservations about the dramatic and theatrical dimensions of Steffani's opera, the music—especially for Jaroussky's Anfione—is frequently gorgeous. Gauvin and Jaroussky are international stars, but there isn't a weak link in the cast. Secondary roles are taken by singers who frequently perform leading roles in other BEMF productions: Amanda Forsythe (2015's Poppea), Aaron Sheehan (2015's Orfeo), and Colin Balzer (2015's Ulisse). Niobe richly deserves the accolades it has already received, including the Diapason d'Or, the ECHO Klassik World Premiere Recording of the Year, and a Gramophone magazine Recording of the Month and nomination for a Baroque Vocal Award. Here is a sample of the music for Anfione taken from the 2011 staging:

Steffani, a composer from the generation before Handel, is unjustly overlooked, and with luck projects like this and like Cecilia Bartoli's Mission (one of my Favorites of 2012) will remedy this neglect.

Franco Fagioli: Porpora Il Maestro. Academia Montis Regalis, Alessandro de Marchi, conductor; Naïve.

This is the second recital disc by Fagioli to make my annual list; in my Favorites of 2013 it was his Arias for Caffarelli. In the earlier post I compared his voice to "an Islay single malt scotch for its smoky, dusky quality in the lower range," a comparison that still holds. And like Islay scotch, Fagioli's voice won't be to everyone's taste. Here is a sample: "Alto Giove," from the opera Polifemo:

For us, Fagioli's recordings are compelling because of his remarkable voice, his unusual selection of repertory, and his astute choice of collaborators.

Nathalie Stutzmann: Handel: Heroes from the Shadows. Philippe Jaroussky, guest artist. Orfeo 55, Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor; Erato.

On Heroes from the Shadows Stutzmann offers a range of Handel's arias for alto and mezzo-soprano, many of which are for male characters. Handel frequently cast women in male roles—"inventing the so-called 'trouser role,'" as I wrote in my guide to his great opera Alcina, "a convention that went on to be used by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Offenbach, and both Johann and Richard Strauss." This album is included not for the uptempo arias of rage or vengeance, which do not always display Stutzmann's voice to best advantage, but for the arias of longing, sorrow, and loss, which are powerful and deeply moving. Here is part of "Son nata a lagrimar" (I was born to weep), a duet  between the just-widowed Cornelia (Stutzmann) and her bereaved son Sesto (Jaroussky), from Giulio Cesare:

Interestingly, while in most of the arias on this recording Stutzmann is singing male roles written for women, in this aria it is the male countertenor Jaroussky who is doing so: Sesto was originally written for soprano Margherita Durastanti. Heroes from the Shadows is not only full of wonderful music, it raises questions about our gendered expectations about vocal types and leading roles—questions also explored this year by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in her thoughtful article "My Life As A Man" (The Guardian, 13 May 2015). 

Dagmar Krause: Supply and Demand: Songs by Brecht/Weill & Eisler; Hannibal.

This album was initially issued in the mid-1980s and contained English-language versions of songs composed in the 1920s and 30s by Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. I bought this on vinyl when it came out, and thought it was great. What I didn't realize at the time was that there was an even better German-language version. Not that I speak German very fluently, but in her native consonant-rich language Krause can give these songs even more bite.

A dear friend sent me a copy of the CD re-release of Supply and Demand, which combines tracks from the two versions of the album, and I must confess that it's the German-language songs that I return to again and again. Here is the title song, "Song Von Der Ware (Angebot & Nachfrage) [Song of the Commodities: Supply and Demand]":

Supply and Demand's dark, bitter cabaret and theater music seems as fitting for our tumultuous times as for those in which it was written.

Other Favorites of 2015:
Classic and contemporary Bollywood
Hollywood and other movies

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