Cher Public

Shirt tale

Among symbolic classical tropes, one of my favorites (perhaps because only another classicist will understand it) is Nessus’ Shirt, an emblem of glory (a promotion, say, or an expensive luxury) that destroys you.

Nessus was a horny centaur who ferried humans across a river. Hercules crossed on his own with the luggage, but his wife, Dejanira, was entrusted to Nessus – who, after the manner of centaurs, attempted to run off with her. Hearing her cries for help, Hercules whipped out his famous bow and mortally wounded the centaur – his arrows, you may recall, had been dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernean Hydra way back in Labor Number Two.

Dying, Nessus told Dejanira that his blood would be a charm to revive dying love. She believed him, which shows that she was already an insecure woman, and kept a vial of the stuff. When Hercules conquered Oechalia  taking its lovely princess, Iole, as a prize of war, Dejanira sent him an ornamental robe anointed with Nessus’ blood. The hydra venom burned the hero alive.

Hence: Nessus’ Shirt. Sophocles made this story into a tragedy, The Women of Trachis, and Handel turned the play into one of his secular oratorios – which is to say, an opera in English, with a chorus but no scenery. The idea of staging Handel’s version is comparatively recent but has proved irresistible.

Peter Sellars’ staging of Hercules for Lyric Opera of Chicago, as he made clear in a pre-performance lecture, was based on contemporary events, on the experiences of veterans coming home from foreign wars to the confusions and misadjustments of civilian family life. On George Tsypin’s unit set of broken columns and scattered boulders, against an ingenious backdrop of subtly flickering starry skies that turn red as the story turns lurid (the lighting is by James F. Ingalls), the tale plays out in modern dress (by Dunya Ramicova) with accents pointed at the wars of the twenty-first century: The captive princess is brought in hooded, handcuffed, in an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit; the neighbors who rejoice at the conqueror’s return reappear to mourn his loss with the women in headscarves.

The stars twist and the boulders glow like coals for Dejanira’s mad scene, but in the end – in a major miscalculation – Sellars has the soldiers and the neighbors embrace her, accepting her whimsically murderous ways. There, there – she’s sorry – it was a mistake that might happen to anyone. No one’s even angry at her. (In Sophocles, her son, Hyllus, wants to kill her and is only forestalled by her suicide.)

Sellars is so enamored of his take on the tale, of the resonance of stories of mental disorder among veterans, that he ignores Hercules’s willfullness in making the war in question: He was no draftee but a contract killer, never happy without a war to fight or a labor to perform. Too, though he is the title character, he is far from its most important figure. This is the homefront tale of Dejanira, who well knows her husband’s wandering eye. Aside from Dejanira’s jealousy, Handel’s drama never confronts the changes war might have wrought in its participants. Sellars’ vision has led him to make substantial cuts in the score, of a chorus or two (a pity – Handel choruses are always sublime, and at LOC are gorgeously sung) , and of half the music of the herald, Lichas, a frequent commentator on the action.

David Daniels has undertaken this part, and though he sings the climactic “Ye sons of Trachin, mourn your valiant chief” with fervor enough to justify his casting, still, one misses the range he has brought to other roles or to this one in concert performances. Too, the cuts leave him with no character to play other than, evidently, Dejanira’s sassy gay friend.

Dejanira is sung by Alice Coote, whose dramatic range and vocal ability fully justify the choice. Dejanira must turn from grief to joy to nervous jealousy to bitter reproach to conniving to maddened remorse in quick succession, and Coote’s ardor, controlled passion and self-questioning horror were all on display. She colors words deftly and ornaments with discretion and point with an instrument of striking beauty.

Handel bestowed five arias and two duets on Iole, the more or less innocent cause of the disaster, a silent role in Sophocles. Sellars retained all of her role but one duet, both to highlight the plight of prisoners of war and, I suspect, to display Lucy Crowe’s gleaming soprano. She may be the only singer who gets all her da capos, and if this shifts the weight of the drama a bit, it is difficult not to delight in so cool, bright, animated a sound, ringing but intimate, in the vast spaces of Chicago’s enormous, gaudy opera house.

Richard Croft, a tenor with much excellent work in the Handelian field under his belt, sings Hyllus, the adolescent son of Hercules and Dejanira, a near-Orestes in Sophocles, a bit of a stick in Handel. Croft’s voice seems to be deepening in the lower registers (could this be due to his Loge at the Met?), and there were notes that verged on the baritonal in color. Too, once or twice, he either got lost following the conductor, or the conductor lost him – which I set down to opening night confusion.

Eric Owens made an impressive stage figure as a fatigue-clad Hercules and his agonies  during his death scene were heroic, but his voice lacked the brilliance of a Handelian bass of the first water and he mangled the necessary passagework. Alone of the cast, he is not a baroque specialist and, alas, he sounded very much out of his fach.

A reduced opera orchestra played in sprightly fashion, but Harry Bicket seemed to need more rehearsal time – Croft was not the only singer who occasionally sang a phrase to the wrong accompaniment. The chorus of friends and neighbors performed the sort of hand jive Sellars devised for his Glyndebourne Theodora (which included Daniels and Croft among its singers). The gestures seemed more of a piece with that work’s devotional intent; here, reduced to odd moments of the score when nothing else was being mimed, they seemed like intrusive filler, a failure of the Sellars imagination.

This was a satisfying performance of a worthy work by worthy musicians, and my reservations were not serious enough to keep me from contemplating going again and hoping for equal performances from most, a better one from Mr. Owens. If you go to a Sellars staging, there will always be some perversity or distraction, but the musical values may be enough to allow you to overlook them. I felt frustrated that (whose idea was this?) the singers were not permitted solo bows at the end of the evening, but only received plaudits in sync with the rest. The two ladies, in particular, deserved solo appreciation.

(Photo: Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago)

  • Jack Jikes

    Great review -- a sensitive, informative and clear presentation.

    • pasavant

      Nessus’s shirt! and please eschew trope from now on.

    • Jack Jikes

      I do find Sellars to be extremely responsive to characters in their musical moment
      and he has alerted me to wonders I had neglected. I do think he is a great man.

  • Avantialouie

    I did not need Peter Sellars to remind me that this story, like most mythology, symbolizes truths so universal that, lo and behold, they have equivalents and examples in the modern era. Nor do I need either Sellars or Bickart to “choose” what selections to include in performance: Handel really DID know better, and he’s already made the selection for them. Sellars and Bicart and take Handel as he is, or leave him alone and perform somthing else. But what they’ve created here is an abortion.
    One would have thought that Lyric Opera of Chicago by now would be done with Peter Sellars. Chicago opera lovers are still tittering behind LOC’s management’s back about his silly televangelist “Tannhauser” of many seasons ago, and are still bearing secret shame that “their” opera company chose to put on such drivel.
    Sellars’ name on this production has ENSURED I won’t go. One regrets missing Coote in this, but one happily doesn’t have to LOOK at this misbegotten idea while listening to the radio. Unfortunately, one DOES still have to miss the brutal cuts in this on the radio, but one happily has the privilige of turning a radio off.

    • Will

      Just a note that the Conductor’s name is Bicket.

    • m. croche

      Handel really DID know better, and he’s already made the selection for them.

      Handel (alas!) is dead. He is not paying for it, directing it, or buying a ticket to see it. He can neither approve or disapprove of this production.

      Avantialouie, having declared he WILL NOT attend the performance (and if it comes on the radio he will SWITCH IT OFF), is in no better position to judge the production than Mr. Handel.

      • ianw2

        Everything I would’ve said has more or less been said by yourself or ON.

        I suppose I can only point out that Handel was equally a man of commerce, so if he had to face modern opera overtime rates, he probably would have yielded the red pen with ruthlessness himself.

      • La marquise de Merteuil

        Handel, like composers up until today, often rethink their creations for revivals. Just think of the optional music which remains for an already great masterpiece like the 1st draft of Don Carlo!

        However, Avantialouie is also right re cuts. They often damage the harmonic rhythm and flow of an 18th century opera -- particularly if you do not have a sensible approach to these works. (Yes, keys and harmonic progression actually did matter -- particularly for Handel! Often the most stunning harmonic sequences can be found in the recit but I’m sure no one here is interested.)

        This being one of Handel’s mature works. He seldom wrote “too many notes” alla “Die Entfuerung”. For me, if people can sit through Tristan then they can sit through an 18th century masterpiece too. But like you point out, Handel is dead and he is not paying for it or judging it.

      • The WARE

        I love this response.

        My partner was okay with going to see this until I told him we were seeing a work by Handel. He will be happy with any and all edits.

        And I am not aware of any “tittering” at the opera house, but am intrigued about what it may be.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      One wonders why you would go to a staged opera at all if you already know everything you need to know about all of the source material, or is it only classical mythology where you have learned all there is to learn. Its one thing to suggest that Sellars’ interest in the emotional trials and tribulations of returning veterans vis a vis classical mythology isn’t a new idea (and I’m sure the encyclopedicc hive mind of the cher public can think of a number of productions which dealt with just those themes) but to suggest that *any* linkage of classical mythology to present day issues is too obvious to even be mounted is closed minded at best, asinine at worst.

      Perhaps only concert opera in your future?

      • DonCarloFanatic

        Considering I had to explain the scarlet heels of the aristos of 18th century France to someone yesterday (re the scarlet soles of Louboutin shoes), I’d say that expecting people to know all the classical myths/stories from circa two millennia ago is being extremely optimistic about the sort of education people receive these days.

        • grimoaldo

          Hmmm…..I know quite a bit about classical mythology but I would have to have the scarlet heels of the aristos explained to me too. And I never heard of Louboutin shoes before, I just googled it so thank you for that, always glad to learn something new. (those shoes look jolly uncomfortable, glad I shall never have to wear them).

    • Jack Jikes

      Most people I know who saw the Sellars Tannhauser thought it was a great work of art, but as GBS said, ‘Great art is for the few’.

    • phoenix

      Avantialouie, what can I say to console you?

      • Jack Jikes

        Phoenix -why play fast and loose with consolation?

        • phoenix

          You’re right Jack. I should have stayed out of it.
          — I can understand & appreciate his explanations of his negative feelings about Sellars, but I can’t really say figure out why because he doesn’t go into any detail about which Sellars’ productions he has personally seen. He says something about what Chicago opera goers are purportedly supposed to dislike about a Tannhauser they did awhile back, but he doesn’t specifically state whether himself attended it or not, or whether he garnered his dislike of Sellars through attendance or videos or just reviews & still fotos… like I don’t know the background of why he feels the way he does.
          — And I just don’t understand how you can give up on any set designer, director or artist… it isn’t like they lose their voice as singers do… but then again I am out of my element here because I’ve never had the experience of disliking EVERYTHING a particular designer/director does.
          —> So I should have stayed out of this because I have never booed a set designer, director or any support staff at the opera. I just never disliked any of them enough to do so, and I don’t understand why people do get upset about the scenery, costumes, stage direction, whatever. It’s not my bag & I come to these things pretty much with a blank mind with no expectations, only memory of what I’ve seen before, so I feel sorry for someone who gets upset about it.

          • phoenix

            But I have booed singers. They bear the major burden of the performance and even though a cancellation can be a major disappointment, I would rather deal with that than get get a dreadfully bad performance from any of them.

          • Jack Jikes

            Phoenix -- stay out of NOTHING! I meant that he (Avantialouie) was not worthy of your consolation! I admit to being a Sellars acolyte.
            Phoenix -- I’m on your side.

  • (OT) Domingo fans should head to opera depot. They have a free 2 CD set for download celebrating his 70th birthday (and yes, according to some this is 3-5 years late, but what can we do?)

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    When you say Lucy Crowe may be the only singer to get all her da capos, do you mean all her da capo arias, or litterally that some of the other characters have to sing A section, B section and then just stop? I know this happened from time to time in the 1950s and 1960s but it strikes me as really strange now. I agree, Handel was a commercial man of theatre and probably wouldn’t have objected to thoughtfully organised cuts, but cutting a da capo would result in some really unbalanced forms and often arias that have progressive tonality -- I think arias should either be cut completely, or not at all.

    • grimoaldo

      My guess is that what happens, as often in modern performances of Handel opera and oratorio, is that the a section only is done for some of the arias.
      Of course it would be best if no cuts were made but most of Handel’s operas and oratorios are very long to modern audiences and not everyone would appreciate being in the theatre for four or four and a half hours. Some cuts are almost always made in Handel opera these days.
      Hercules is a very great work anyone who can see this should make the effort to do so, cuts or irritating production or not!

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Yes, well thank you for your guess. I was asking specifically about this production. Again, I have no problem with the concept of cuts, although Wagner operas are long too and I very much doubt that the LOC would go in for a lot of cutting there -- I’d prefer them to be motivated by dramaturgy concerns rather than pure length of the piece. In Handel, if cuts are going to be employed, I repeat that IMO they should apply to entire arias and not sections of them. Otherwise you’d have the bizarre situation of an aria beginning in say c minor and ending in E-flat major, which might have worked for Mahler but which doesn’t strike me as very Handelian.

  • OpinionatedNeophyte

    Excellent review and you raise an important issue vis a vis regie theater (saying “vis a vis” is apparently my new favorite thing btw) around the relationship between regie direction and cuts in the music. Normally (and I’m specifically thinking of our doyenne here but I don’t think she’s alone in this) some of the strongest defenders of regie productions are also critical of the once popular-trend to cut into the score. Recently, I was listening to an old “Unnatural Act” (and I’m a little bitter I found this site after the heyday of the podcast but that’s neither here nor there) of Scotto and Bergonzi in Elisir. I was shocked and horrified not to hear the big group number in Act II where Nemorino and the girls all flirt and Adina’s all “I’ve got news for you” and Belcore sings his little counterpoint. Instead the production jumped right from Nemorino thinking the potion is working “ah capisco(if that’s correct) and jumped unceremoniously into the recit before the Quanto Amore duet between Adiina and Belcore. Sure I had heard about operas being cut back in the day (and had even noticed small differences between for example my copy of the Sutherland-Pav and Battle-Pav Elisir CDs and the Battle-Pav Elisir DVD) but I wasn’t prepared for so drastic a cut. It upset me not only because I love the music in that scene, but because it helps to lay the groundwork for Adina’s change of heart via Nemorino. In fact, it makes Adina’s character infinitely more intriguiing because I always wonder whether or not she’s got a little bit of the gold digger in her and she’s interested in Nemorino’s wallet.

    Yet here we have a regie-Hercules with some pretty serious cuts. Is there an argument for cuts in the score that serve the intentions of a regie production that doesn’t apply to the hatchet jobs that used to occur regularly at the opera house. Is it simply a matter of saying that back then the motivation for cutting was more populist than it is now. By which I mean, I imagine that cuts were made to parts that people decided were too “boring,” the goal being to keep the audience alert and awake through a long evening. But back then the cuts were rarely made as part of a grander vision about the meaning of the work (or maybe they were, again those with greater experience school me here). But is it fair to say that those less than lofty motivations renders old school cuts “filth” whereas the kinds of cuts Sellars has made above would be more acceptable?

    This is actually an important point of comparison because it helps to illuminate whats underneath a lot of the tensions that exist both within the regie wars in opera (or any theaterical medium) but also in terms of the widening gulf between “the arts” and the general public or the “ivory tower of the academy” and the general public. Has there been a shift from an era when the arts were meant to serve the demands of “the public” and those demands range from “I just want to hear a night of beautiful singing regardless of verissimitude” to “I’m tired and want this evening to last only a short time” to a moment where the arts serve the interests of the stage directors to “make a point.” Perhaps if we frame the debate in those terms rather than “x or y person is taking a dumb on Handel’s not-yet reanimated zombie corpse” we can have less reactionary commentary, less moralism and more dialogue around what’s actually effective in the theater and what isn’t.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      Edit: That last sentence should read “Perhaps if we frame the debate in those terms rather than ‘x or y person is taking a dump on Handel’s not-yet reanimated zombie corpse…”

  • Hippolyte

    There’s been a lot of rending of garments (perhaps that shirt of Nessus) on this thread about the cuts based simply on Mr. Yohalem’s claim that they were “substantial.” Well, I listened to the broadcast of part one only (being in a different time zone, the broadcast would have lasted well past midnight) and the cuts didn’t strike me as “substantial” at all--perhaps they were in the second part, but I tend to doubt it. If someone who attended a performance could be more specific about the cuts, I’d be more willing to join in the general hand-wringing here. ON, for example, you say some pretty indicting things but did you actually see or hear the edition you so roundly condemn?

    True, Daniels in an interview played during the broadcast whined about his music being cut, but I agree completely with Winton Dean who says (in his seminal book on Handel’s oratorios--Hercules in an oratorio, by the way, not an opera) that Lichas was “a part expanded beyond the needs of the drama as a vehicle for a popular singer. Of its six airs, all but two are not only superfluous but musically negligible.” Other than his music, the only cut I noticed was one of Dejanira’s arias being reduced to only the A section. And one can also see the dramatic reasons for cutting Iole and Hyllas’ happy duet (or was it the duet for Iole and Dejanira? I’m presuming the former)near the end given the drama of deaths of Hercules and Dejanira which immediately preceed it and it delays the denouement for no good reason. And, unless the chorus improved greatly in the second half, I found them the worst blot on the performance, completely at sea stylistically. But I’m really curious as to which choruses were omitted?

    Yes, of course, ideally one wants a complete performance but the realities of performing Handel today suggest that it’s the exception rather than the rule. The MET’s Rodelinda is done uncut, as was the recent Alcina in Vienna; the Orlando that I saw at Covent Garden a while back was also uncut amd the Madrid Tamerlano which has shown up on DVD is as well. But the recent Paris Giulio Cesare lost several important arias. The edition of Cesare done at the MET is a mess, and the long series of Handel operas done at New York City Opera was one badly cut horror after another--the worst being Ariodante and Orlando.

    Given my familiarity with Sellars’ productions, my guess is that the cuts were at the request of Lyric, not his own idea. His production of “Giulio Cesare” was completely uncut and ran nearly 5 hours. His “Don Giovanni” includes the shaving duet for Zerlina and Leporello; his “Nozze” both Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias; his “Cosi” the short duettino in act 1 for Ferrando and Guglielmo and all three of Ferrando’s arias. His track record is NOT in favor of cutting music from the operas he produces.

    • grimoaldo

      (“Hercules in an oratorio, by the way, not an opera)”

      Actually this work is designated, uniquely in Handel’s output, as a “musical drama” but presented in concert form orginally, not staged. It is a sort of companion piece to another Handel masterpiece Semele, also based on classical mythology and originally presented “after the manner of an oratorio” but without being designated as an oratorio.
      Handel was trying something new and different with these dramatic works in English based on pagan myth but unfortunately neither of them were very successful in his lifetime and they are the only two pieces of their kind.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte

      ON, for example, you say some pretty indicting things but did you actually see or hear the edition you so roundly condemn?

      I really must work on modulating my tone here (I hope it doesn’t creep into my other writings). Indictment and condemnation of this production were nowhere near my mind when I wrote my post. I relied upon the reviewer’s presentation of the cuts as a launching pad for two questions:
      1. How do those who favor regie(and by that I mean, are interested in seeing non-traditional stage production) feel about cutting the music to serve the director’s vision versus cuts that were made in earlier eras.

      2. How does thinking through that question encourage us to un-release the hounds in the tone of the debates on regie productions.

      I did report having a negative reaction to the cuts made in a 1960s broadcast of Elisir, which I have actually listened to, and explained why they bugged me. Your point, of whether the cuts were significant at all, actually seems related to the questions I raised. Why? Because saying a cut is “insignificant” is little different from saying “the cut served the director’s vision and therefore was justified.” But are such allowances made for cuts that were made in earlier eras?

      • ianw2

        I am all for cuts. Starting with the ridiculous ballets written for the Paris market. When was the last time you heard Marcellina’s and Bartolo’s arias in Figaro?

        As Croche said, the composer is dead. And whilst I would be strongly against cuts without the composer’s involvement if he were still alive, for something like Handel- where there are already scholars debating over what is technically in the urtext anyway- I don’t think there’s any great harm in making a work more amenable to a 21st century audience (I am going to get slammed for this comment)- I’d rather have a dramatically tight 2.5 hour evening with a few arias cut than have to endure a 4+ hour evening laden with every note Handel may or may not have written in a form which is highly unconventional to a modern opera audience.

        Also, there is the precedent for making cuts (and substitutions, which is considerably rarer nowadays) in every opera pretty much up until middle Verdi, when the score was tinkered with depending who was singing that night. Because of this precedent, I’m less enthusiastic about cuts to, say, Wagner (though let’s talk about them) than I am to, say, Rameau.

        • Jack Jikes

          I tend to agree with you but so much of the ballet music is so-o-o- good
          that I can’t take a stand against it. Ironically, at Pepsico Sellars included the Marcellina and Bartolo arias.

      • ducadiposa

        I think ON is trying to make a very insightful distinction here between “old time” cuts (like the one he cites in L’Elisir) which were standard at the time and made it seems, with little respect for the work’s overall structure. He’s contrasting/comparing this with cuts made today (such as those in Hercules) which *seem* to be done for the sake of the production, perhaps so that the take which the director has on the piece are not contradicted by any stray “happy” music for example. On one hand we now disparage the chunks that were removed from bel canto pieces during the 1950s, but seem to sanction them today with an air of superiority as if we know better. I think that’s the point ON would like us to think about.

        • m. croche

          “In dem Wie, da liegt der ganze Unterschied.”

          Some cuts represent prudent trimming, some vandalizing excissions, some represent compromises with reality that we may regret perhaps just a little or with gnashing of teeth. All these possible outcomes (and more!) can only be judged on a case-by-case basis -- not at the level of generalities.

  • Why cut when you can bring in your ballet company and also compel your leading soprano to dance?

    (The Royal Ballet SAVED this production!)

  • classicalclarinet

    For those of you who wanted a report of the cuts made, this is what I remember from the premiere:

    Act I, Scene 3
    Aria (Lichas), Chorus

    Act II, Scene 4
    Aria (Iole)

    Scene 7
    Aria (Lichas)

    Scene 8
    Duet (Dejanira, Iole). Chorus

    Act III, Scene 5
    Aria (Lichas)

    I have to say, 4 arias and 2 choruses out of three hours isn’t quite so much--at the performance I didn’t even realize most of the cuts were made. It is a shame that a lot of Daniels’ arias were cut, but if he weren’t singing the part, would one really miss those (out of so much good music left)?

    To be fair, a lot of recit was cut as well, and especially near the end, but the cuts served a coherent dramatic purpose, so no complaints from here.

  • oh rest

    way off topic: Anja Harteros has cancelled her Marchallin at San Diego Opera for April. yet another no show performance for this one. Always cancels.

    • peter

      Wow! I’m glad I held off on buying tickets.

    • Feldmarschallin

      She doesn’t cancel more than most singers and certainly a lot less than many singers. I flew out twice to San Diego and she sang for all three performances I had tickets for. She has come to the Met 4 different times and sang every single performance in all 4 runs. Since I first heard her in 2004 I have heard her in many venues and she has only cancelled once and that was an Arabella in Muenchen. I know friends who have gone to La Scala, Hamburg, Berlin and Muenchen to hear her and she never cancelled on them either. Singers do get sick or have to have things taken care of as well. I know for a fact that she feels very comfortable in San Diego and has mentioned this several times how the management and audience makes her feel very comfortable and that she enjoys singing there and that she also enjoys the mild weather that San Diego has. But it is not exactly around the corner from her home and doctors so that does come into consideration. She has always liked singing new roles in San Diego and indeed Violetta and Amelia Grimaldi were both debuted there and the Marschallin would also have been a new role which I am sure she would have prefered to sing there before performances in Muenchen and Wien later this season. She just debuted the Trovatore Leonora in Koeln before singing the role in Muenchen and at the Met. So ‘always cancels’ does not at all apply to her. If you are talking about those Micaelas in 2005 the Bayerische Staatsoper asked if she could be released from those performances since their Alcina had to cancel a few months before the performances and they were left without an Alcina. Management got her released so she could prepare the role since it was a new production and Festspielpremiere and recording involved. It is also a lot easier to find a last minute replacement for Micaela than finding an Alcina. Just a few years ago the Met did the same thing with Damrau when they were left without a Lucia.

      • I WISH Harteros were singing the Marschallin in Wien later this season. But she’s not. Maybe next season?

        • Feldmarschallin

          Maybe it was next season. I heard an interview during the Alcina where they asked her about future plans there and the next thing she said she was doing there was Marschallin. She mentioned it in conjunction with singing the role in Muenchen as well so I assummed it was all later this year since the performances at BSO are late June and then Festspiele. No rush for Marschallin I guess since that is a role that most singers keep until the end of their career. Certainly the two most famous ones ended their career singing that role.

          • DurfortDM

            I’m not sure they keep it to the end. Certainly it is a role many keep in their repertoires to the end but most seem to debut it in their late 30s or 40s so this would seem a good time for Harteros. You would certainly want them singing that music in their prime. I really hope Harteros stick with it going forward.

          • Buster

            Wonder who holds the record? Kiri te Kanawa sang it last year, age 66. Lehman retired the part when she was 58. Elisabeth Grümmer when she was 61. Edda Moser in 2005 (66 or 67), but only the trio.

  • oh rest
    • She will be replaced by soprano Twyla Robinson.

      Twyla should be just fine as the Marschallin. She went from understudying to covering Fleming’s Marschallin in SFO while she was in their fellow program.

      Twyla also took over HKH’s Eva in Cincinnati last Summer and got very good reviews.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Well three of the most famous Marschallins (Lehmann, Reining and Schwarzkopf), all sang it until the end. Jones sang it for quite some time and I don’t know how long della Casa sang it but I would bet also for a long time. Janowitz also sang it still in Wien in the early 80’s. Jurinac as well. Now as we see everyone from an earlier Zerbinetta to a Bruennhilde has sung Marschallin. Vocally Harteros probably comes closest to Maria Reining in size of voice and roles. Both sang or sing Mozart but also Verdi. Of course no two singers are alike but they do have many roles in common like Elisabetta, Desdemona, Leonora, the three E’s, Arabella, and the Mozart roles, Schwarzkopf has more in common with someone like Lucia Popp who had a very good and easy top in the early years but were never truly coloraturas like a Gruberova or Damrau. Both were very happy I think when they could give those high flying roles up and settle into more comfortable territory.

      • DurfortDM

        I think I misunderstood you to mean that “they do not start to sing it” until the end. Yes, of course this is a role that can be retained very late into a career. Thanks much for the additional great info.

        “Elisabetta, Desdemona, Leonora, the three E’s, Arabella, and the Mozart roles” have always stuck me as the precise voice type for the Marschallin -- probably because so many Marschallins had sung them (Janowits and Della Casa and Jurinac certainly sang most of the. Harteros would seem to fall squarely in this tradition and the luxury of the instrument speaks for itself.

        Jones doesn’t quite match this profile and I think she’s less than ideal vocally -- although she manages well enough -- and is vocally and visually quite striking. Her Marschallin is almost as great and asset of the Munich set as Kleiber’s conducting (and maybe even Fassbander’s Octavian). This was the first complete Rosenkavalier I saw (on VHS) and can’t think of a superior commercial video version.

  • MontyNostry

    Twyla was tipped for stardom six or seven years ago, wasn’t she?

    • Hippolyte

      The last time I heard Robinson--in November (as a replacement) in the NY Philharmonic’s Elijah (next to Alice Coote and Gerald Finley, among others), she was shockingly bad, the voice thin and wirey--quite dreadful.

      • Feldmarschallin

        that Rosenkavlier seems to be hexed. Years ago I remember seeing the names Domanschenko and Furlanetto in the cast. First Domanschenko was replaced without much to do with Anke Vondung then more recently Furlanetto decided against singing Ochs. Now the 3rd main role is being changed. Still Robinson seems an add choice. Has she ever sung the role before? Perhaps Schwanewilms, Pieczonka, Isokoski and Denoke are all engaged elsewhere. Serafin is very pregant and has cancelled things at the Garden and La Scala so she is another one who couldn’t sing the role. Roeschmann has sung the role a few times but I don’t know if she perhaps didn’t find it to her liking she has cancelled several other Marschallins after those few initial ones she sung. I always thought she would make an excellent Oktavian but she lacks the elegance in appearance and float to the voice for the Marschallin. She has not been as successful in her recent Figaro’s and insisted on singing the Graefin where she was untouchable as Susanna. But never in voice or appearance is she suited to mistress.

        • DurfortDM

          SO right about Roschmann.

  • Totally off-topic, but it seemed appropriate for the Parterre crowd to abuse…

    • Buster

      Excellent, although I would not trade these four for this one:

    • WindyCityOperaman

      Appropos, Happy 56th Birthday, Nina Hagen!

      • La marquise de Merteuil

        Still classic

        • WindyCityOperaman

          Nina’s career could have taken a completely different path . . . she could have taken on Lulu, Erwartung, Jenny in Mahagonny.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      It is only because disco died a well-deserved death that I can view this with amusement.

      • OpinionatedNeophyte

        Oh I’m not so sure it was well deserved, this season of Rupaul’s drag race featured a sublime lipsynch for your life featuring Macarthur Park by the Divine Ms. Summers. I hadn’t heard the song in a long time, but as performed by those queens I was totally caught up in the moment and have been singing it to myself ever since.

        • Buster

          You could write a dissrtation on those lyrics.

        • No Expert

          The Macarthur Park Suite is truly a disco cantata

        • armerjacquino

          No spoilers! It takes about a year for RDR to make it over here.

          (PS Pandora Boxx was ROBBED)

        • oh rest

          Jesus Christ, it’s Summer not Summers, DONNA SUMMER, the queen of disco, long may she reign.

    • Camille

      For days now, my poor spouse has been going outta his mind with a paper he must present on Kierkegaard’s Eiher/Or and Cherubino’s aria “Non so piu, cosa son”.

      As this presentation is NEITHER/NOR, and as one commenter said — thank god Mozart is already dead, well, and as this viceo will make a sensation of a presentation of this boring assed paper he’s got to present, all I can say is


  • m. croche

    off topic, but today is the birthday of Astor Piazzolla, who would have been 90. His single opera (obrita, he called it) is Maria de Buenos Aires. Piazzolla’s musical style is now well-known: the syncopated rhythms of the tango nuevo, attractive but occasionally loquacious melodies, astringent harmonies, and a keen sense for building up dynamic forms out of 4- and 8- bar dance phrases. The work was originally written for small ensemble (though different recordings I’ve heard -- the original LP, an Italian version with I Solisti Aquilani, and the Kremerata Baltica with arrangements by Leonid Desyatnikov) all make somewhat different choices in orchestration. (Piazzolla’s published score is mostly a piano-vocal reduction).

    What may make the work a challenge for some listeners is the surrealistic poetry of Horacio Ferrer. Ferrer seems to be well-respected in his country -- volumes of collected essays and poetry are easy to get hold of -- but I’m not sure that he has much of a following outside of it. I’m poorly-versed in Spanish poetry, so there’s probably a lot I miss, but reading him off the page has never been a great pleasure for me. The occasionally recondite lyrics are eminently suitable material for a libretto to Piazzolla’s work, though. The surrealist orientation helps infuses the mythological subject with vibrant imagery and an atmosphere of mystery:

    Ladrón Antiguo Mayor:
    Hoy, que a los poetas y a los pungas y a las locas
    les saldrá, otra vez, un cuervo blanco por la boca;
    hoy, que por el dos profundo y fijo de los dados
    miran, de otro mundo, dos ojitos alunados….

    Hoy, que irá a buscar su par por bares espantosos,
    la cansada pierna de neón de un luminoso;
    Hoy, que en la aburrida tangazón de algún
    un arlequín -- que vió la punta del piolín --
    ! se hundió abrazado de un terrón…!

    Do not expect conventional (melo)drama from Maria de Buenos Aires -- the “plot” involves a tango singer who enters a brothel at the turn of the 20th century and dies young. Her ghost continues to haunt the city ever after. Many characters serve a symbolic function and aren’t particularly illuminated psychologically. There are very few points of dramatic conflict, classically defined. But if you’re receptive to this succession of images, music and poetry, you too may find yourself haunted by this both fiery and winsome woman.

    As a pendant, I’ll include a hit-song by Piazzolla-Ferrer which mines some of the same themes as Maria de Buenos Aries: Balada para un loco (sung by my adored Amelita Baltar)

    • Batty Masetto

      Also, this, just because they’re cute (and talented):

      • m. croche

        Wow -- not so crazy about the final bars -- but that’s about the sexiest tango performance I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t know anything about Elizabeth Joy Roe, but if you’re interested in Greg Anderson, check out Dan Johnson’s blog -- he usually keeps his readers up to date on Anderson’s goings-on. (Anderson made some 5-piano arrangements for that Utah family, so he’s got some experience with this sort of thing.)

  • classicalclarinet

    The premiere of Handel’s Hercules yesterday night [March 5] at the Lyric Opera of Chicago was prefaced with the perhaps the most electrifying pre-performance lecture I’ve heard in my experience. No surprise, since the lecturer was none other than Peter Sellars, the director of this new production, back in Chicago after surviving the New York Nixonmania. Anyone who has heard Sellars speak can testify to the singular mixture of eccentric observation and deep insight in his talks—in the course of 30 minutes he weaved his concept of the production through the themes of Greek tragedy, Enlightenment philosophy, and Baroque opera, not to mention what lies at the heart of this new production: the contemporary tragedy of veterans returning traumatized from war. At first this Regiekonzept may seem facile, but all such doubts were belied by the multifaceted, intriguing, and profoundly well-crafted performance that followed.

    Despite Sellar’s contemporary recasting of this old tale (Handel’s librettist, Thomas Broughton, adapted the libretto from Sophocles and Ovid), what is most striking about this production is Sellars’ astute grasp of what it means to stage baroque opera. This is first evidenced through a small, but clever touch--the orchestra (sounding lean and elegant under Harry Bicket, the director of the English Concert) strikes its first chord while the lights are still up, gradually hushing the audience, just as Handel intended to do with his French overture. The stage (curtain already up, again following Baroque practice) is lined by ruined Greek columns surrounding a pool filled with rocky debris—invoking both an ancient temple and an LA swimming pool after a wildfire, a unit set that will remain throughout. Every action and response by the cast is worked out with great attention and detail, from the ambivalent relationship between Dejanira, Hercules’ suffering wife, and Lichas, Hercule’s herald (here, an omnipresent hanger-on), to the psychological disturbance that accompanies Hercules, the hero fresh from war. The adventurously wandering and unsettled harmonic language that crops up in Handel’s score is insightfully reflected by every gesture of the characters—indeed, the realism is not by accident; the production process was grounded by numerous interviews with veterans and their families, and the care with which Sellars and his team approached the work shows through clearly.

    One of the paradoxes that Hercules poses is that the work, despite its title, features the eponymous hero so little; compared to more than a dozen arias given to Dejanira, Hercules has only three. One of the most brilliant aspects of Sellars’ conception is that it resolves this paradox in such a moving way: in a way, the opera does revolve around Hercules, but that center is hollowed out by the terrors and stresses of war; the returning veteran Hercules is relegated to the margins by all that he encounters, and withdraws into himself, only to strike out in tragedy.

    Following an old adage of opera production, Sellars’ references touch three time periods—of the setting of the libretto, of the composer’s own time, and of the audience’s time. Characters appear in timeless robes, US Army uniforms, middle-eastern scarves, and American shirts-and-pants. The first coup de theatre of the production comes at the end of Dejanira’s joyful aria that welcomes the news of Hercules’ return; the stage is abruptly silenced by the entrance of the vanquished princess Iole, dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit and a black hood, straight out of the ruins of Iraq; her first aria, “Daughter of Gods, bright Liberty!” gains poignant power. The reunion of Hercules and Dejanira is perhaps the most wrenching scene in the production; Hercules, singing of the end of war and the beginning of love, stares blankly, unable to embrace his wife, ever drawn in by Iole the captive of war. The scene ends with another Sellarian coup--a beer-and-brats party (complete with a wheeled-in grill), perfectly accompanied by Handel’s folksy dance rhythms. Here, the libretto specifies the end of the act, but Sellars interrupts the party with Iole’s aria that usually opens the next act, “How blest the main ordained to dwell”, which she sings huddled in a corner of the party. This pastoral aria, which usually veers dangerously on the verge of twee, is here imbued with psychological brittleness. Sellars’ inveterate understanding of Baroque opera is further seen later in the act, when Hercules and Dejanira exchange accusatory arias (“Alcides’ name in latest story” and “Resign thy club and lion’s spoils”), laying open the wounds of their relationship. In what could be a long-winded scene (the music is frankly not top-drawer Handel), Sellars’ direction transforms each aria into an ever-shifting mix of malaise, rapprochement, and violence, reflected through every melisma and repetition in the music. The period conventions of baroque opera, rather than seeming strange or distracting, are imbued with meaning and dramatic necessity, something that only few directors seem to achieve in this repertoire.

    The end of the opera broadens the focus from the Greek/American domestic drama of the second act to a more universal focus. Sellars cuts the part of the Priest of Jupiter, who in Handel’s libretto announces the apotheosis of Hercules; in this production, this divine intervention is transformed into an entirely human ending—a military funeral and a wedding. The final chorus, “To them your grateful notes of praise belong” is a paean to the sacrifices of all veterans. The wedding of Iole and Hyllus, Hercules’ son, writes Sellars in the program notes, “suggests a birth of a new America and a new Middle East.” Those who have read more Chomsky than I have might grimace at this interpretation, but all the same the optimism of the ending reflects perfectly the Enlightenment sprit that Handel gave this work.

    The singing is of generally very high caliber (though not being expert in voices, I can’t offer a detailed assessment). Eric Owens, in the title role, embodied well the psychological vagaries of the character—his low register was very impressive, but technical accuracy was sometimes sacrificed in favor of characterization. Alice Coote, as Dejanira, offered an impressive chest voice, and sensitive singing (“Cease ruler of the day to rise” was a highlight). My only quibble with her singing is her somewhat introspective reading of “Where shall I fly”, perhaps the greatest scene Handel wrote in his career; hampered by the Sellerian gestures, there was too little of the mad, guilty, abandon that the scene calls for (Joyce DiDonato’s interpretation is perfect in this sense). Lucy Crowe, in the role of Iole, was the standout--her singing was virtually flawless, and the technical control of the coloratura (always in the service of the character) was quite breathtaking. Richard Croft (Hyllus) was also wonderful, with great technical command, but the voice seemed a bit more worn compared to his performance of the same role in the earlier Minkowski recording. David Daniels, in the somewhat thankless role of Lichas, wasn’t called upon to sing quite such demanding music as the others, but was as usual nothing short of lovely.

    The chorus was also impressive (especially considering that they were also singing Lohengrin earlier in the week!). The trademark-Sellars gesticulations they were asked to do (even if not always perfectly coordinated) worked to good effect here, especially in the fugal sections.

    If any serious criticisms could be raised against the production, it would be in the lighting and set design; although some effects worked beautifully (light shining through rips in the black drop during night scenes, suggesting stars or shrapnel), others (such as the garish projections during Dejanira’s mad scene) did not. The sets, though mostly well designed, did look somewhat cheap (the greek columns sometimes uncharacteristically shook when a character passed nearby). But at the end of the night, I left the theater having experienced a performance of the first rank.

    • grimoaldo

      “Hercules and Dejanira exchange accusatory arias (“Alcides’ name in latest story” and “Resign thy club and lion’s spoils”), laying open the wounds of their relationship. In what could be a long-winded scene (the music is frankly not top-drawer Handel)”

      Thank you for your very interesting review but I do not agree with your opinion that the music is not top-drawer Handel.
      Here (I hope) is William Shimell and Joyce Didonato in the scene you refer to:

      I love the sprightly bouncy oboes in Hercules’ aria of bluster and pride and as for Dejinara’s “Resign thy club”, this has long been one of my favourite Handel arias -- in fact one of my favourite of all arias in any opera.
      Dejinara is taunting her husband about a rather surprising episode in the life of the world’s most famous he-man. Having incurred the wrath of the god Hermes, Hercules was bought as a slave by the barbarian queen Omphale. She made Hercules give her his club and wore his lion-skin and went out hunting while she made him wear her women’s clothes and sit at home with the women and spin.
      I hope I have uploaded one of the innumerable Old Master paintings on this theme, Hercules and Omphale by Spranger. You can see Hercules in drag as holds the spindle and the distaff while the voluptuous Omphale drapes herself in his lion-skin and carries his club. They had a very torrid sex life with these role reversals and had a son together.
      Handel sets Dejinira’s taunting words wonderfully with the vocal line and the strings imitating the sound of spinning and I love the way the music slows down in the middle section to imitate the “whining” of Venus’ boy (Cupid).
      To me this aria is a masterly setting of English words by the great German ( but natuarlized British) composer.