Hans Knappertsbusch was one of the most renowned Wagner conductors who ever lived. His recordings of Parsifal, especially, are near-legendary among confirmed Wagnerians. It was thus with some excitement that I opened a new 3-CD set from Orfeo, consisting of the first release ever of any performance of Lohengrin conducted by the conductor sometimes known among musicians and opera-goers as “Kna.”
There have been dozens of capable, and more than capable, recordings of Lohengrin. Among the most-often praised are the Sawallisch/Bayreuth (1962), Kempe (1963), Solti (1985), and Abbado (1991). Recording a major Wagner opera involves heavy costs that a record company may be unable to recoup. Hence the appeal of recording a concert performance. This CD set was edited from two such performances in Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw (literally: “concert building”) on December 18 and 20, 2015. The performance was semi-staged, i.e., done without costumes and sets. Some evocative lighting was employed. Characters made entrances and exits through various doors, and characters and (I gather) brass players appeared on balconies.
The late Donizetti masterpiece, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) is a rarity indeed, even in Europe. Four years after the first performance, l’assedio was not performed again until 1990. One hundred and eighty-one years after its premiere in 1836, this Glimmerglass production marked the American premiere. During its composition, Donizetti had struggled with it and bent operatic conventions to seek performances in Paris. Ultimately, the opera was a tactical failure and Donizetti wound up with two versions, with an unequal number of acts. In preparation for this production, Francesca Zambello and Joseph Colaneri worked on a new performing edition that tightened loose ends and yielded a satisfactory, if not compelling, conclusion. Some ballet music was lost in the cuts, but dance (to curry favor with French opera goers) would be an awkward addition to the nobility and gravity of the plot. In the Zambello/Colaneri conclusion, the final exculpation of six sacrificial hostages was emotionally and musically heartrending.
After only one season, its inaugural, The Berkshire Opera Festival has found a place in my affections no less than Bel Canto at Caramoor, where, since 1997, Will Crutchfield has presented an outstanding series of Bel Canto operas, thoroughly researched and correctly sung, and the annual opera at Bard Summerscape, where Leon Botstein continues to offer fully-staged performances of forgotten operas, which are sometimes more and sometimes less closely related to the composer on whom the Bard Music Festival focusses in a given year. Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, co-founders and directors of The Berkshire Opera Festival, have chosen as their mission to present meticulously staged, impeccably sung performances of opera which are familiar to opera-lovers, but not among the overplayed warhorses of the repertoire. This made for a striking combination of Bellini’s Il Pirata, which premiered at the Met in the autumn of 2002, its only run there; Antonin Dvořák’s Romantic grand opera, Dimitrij, which was a great success in Prague during its first few years, but faded as the composer revised the life out of it, and has been very rarely performed in America; and Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which premiered at the Met in 1962 and was last performed in 2011 – strange bedfellows indeed.
The Berkshire Opera Festival carries on this year with their second production, a radically different work written only a few years later by Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos. Brian and Jonathon very kindly agreed to chat about this year’s offering with me, and I think you will learn a lot about Ariadne and how it looks to the people who put it on the stage for your enjoyment. Opera is in one way entertainment and in another a great deal more, and no other opera brings this home to us more amusingly, delectably, and movingly than Ariadne.
Bard Summerscape visitors have much to look forward to in this year’s fully-staged production of Dvořák’s rarely performed grand opera, Dimitrij. For this ambitious work Dvořák set a Russian subject, the unhappy fate of the false pretender, Dimitrij, who appeared after the death of Boris Godunov, presenting himself as the son of Ivan the Terrible. The libretto was by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, one of the preeminent Czech librettists of the time, the deeply educated daughter of leading Czech politician František Ladislav Rieger, and a granddaughter of the famous historian František Palacký. In her libretto, which advisedly took liberties with historical accuracy, Dimitrij was a young Russian serf who was taken up by Poles and brought up to believe that he was in fact the son of Ivan. Hence in this opera, he is the innocent victim of ruthless Poles, eager to destabilize Russia. He is unhappily married the the Polish Princess Marina, who is merely interested in using him for her own national and personal ends.
If advance gossip is any indicator, this year’s Bard Festival, devoted to Giacomo Puccini and his World, was one of the most controversial. “Puccini! Controversial!” You say, “There’s not really enough in him to have a controversy about, is there? Those sappy tear-jerkers speak for themselves.” In fact there was a lot of grumbling. Some festival regulars stayed away, or dragged themselves to only one concert, the one that included pieces by Dallapiccola, Pizzetti, and Petrassi. Even with these absentees the Festival sold out, or came close to selling out. Most of the concerts and the panel discussions were packed.
One hoped and expected there would be performances of Pierre Boulez pieces in Boston this season to honor this great musician who died last winter. The Berlin Philharmonic, hardly a local group, will play one piece on its visit here in November. I don’t see anything else on the horizon. So, many thanks to Boston Musica Viva, our fine contemporary music ensemble now in its 48th year, for opening its season with Boulez’s perhaps most significant work, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1954-57).