Friday, March 25, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

Wunderlich Sings of Spring to the Tune of Humoresque

by Anne French

Fritz Wunderlich is without doubt one of the greatest tenors of this century, and we can only imagine what he might have achieved had his life not been cut short by a freak accident. Nevertheless, we are blessed with a multitude of recordings to remember him by, and his Eine Kleine Frühlingsweise set to the tune of Dvorák's Humoresque is a special springtime treat (the German title translates to A Little Spring-Time Song). It is delightfully playful, but still shows off the greatness of this magnificent voice. He sings with ease and charm, bringing a smile to the face and fresh spring to the heart. This video comes with the added bonus of lyrics in both English and German. Happy Weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Austria Hangs On To Hitler’s Vermeer

[Note from LA Opus Publisher: This is a second article by Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg on a painting by Jan Vermeer tainted with Nazi associations. Today's posting comments on the decision last Friday by an Austrian governmental review agency ruling against a claim by the heirs of a family pressured to sell it to Adolf Hitler during the Second World War.]

By E. Randol Schoenberg. Esq.

Last week, Austria once again refused to return the famous painting by Jan Vermeer, The Artist in His Studio, that Hitler managed to wrangle from its prior owner Jaromir Czernin-Morzin. The history of the dispute was described in the March 16, 2011 posting Will Austria Part With Hitler’s Vermeer. On March 18, 2011, a committee of political appointees issued a unanimous 33-page recommendation to the Minister of Culture and Education Claudia Schmied, asking her not to return the painting under Austria’s 1998 art restitution law. The decision, issued with a press release just minutes after the seven-member committee met in closed session to discuss the case -- supposedly for the very first time -- leaves no doubt that there is little will left in Austria for confronting its Nazi past.

Austria’s 1998 art restitution law allows the government to return artworks from federal museums that should have been returned under Austria’s prior restitution laws. But no claims can be filed, and victims or their heirs are not permitted to take part in the process or appear before the advisory committee. The entire operation is conducted behind closed doors and in secret, until a decision is announced with no opportunity for comment or recourse. Although hundreds of Nazi-looted artworks have been returned under the 1998 law, occasionally this opaque process has led to egregious errors. In the case of the famous and valuable Klimt paintings taken from the Bloch-Bauer family, a mistaken recommendation by the advisory committee was overturned only after eight years of litigation and a US Supreme Court decision that resulted in an independent arbitration award ordering Austria to return the paintings. The advisory committee seems to save its biggest blunders for the most valuable artworks.

The case of Hitler’s Vermeer, valued at over $200 million, is complex, but the errors of the advisory committee are easy to see. The decision hinges on a determination that Jaromir’s wife Alix-May was never persecuted by the Nazis. Under Austria’s restitution laws, a sale entered into by a spouse of a persecuted individual is voidable, unless the purchaser can prove that the transaction would have occurred independent of the Nazi takeover -- a tough chore in a case where Hitler himself put a hold on the painting and later purchased it at a reduced price. Despite devoting 25 pages to the history of the painting, most of the facts related to the key issue of Alix-May’s persecution were glossed over or omitted.

Alix-May was one quarter Jewish, but her grandfather Eduard Oppenheim was a famous Jewish-born banker in Cologne and his family was an early target of the Nazis. In 1933 Alix-May was married to the aristocrat Roland Faber-Castell. For this she was viciously attacked in Der Stürmer, the infamous Nazi periodical published by Germany’s number one Jew-baiter Julius Streicher. (Streicher’s incessant anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in Der Stürmer led to his conviction and execution at the Nuremberg Trials for inciting crimes against humanity.)

About Alix-May, Streicher wrote:

"The matron of the house in the town of Stein has a Jew for a mother. Jewish blood can never be concealed. It finds somewhere its expression. . . . She did not appear at the hearing. Probably her Jewish blood forbids her to appear in court before “Goyim” [Yiddish: non-Jews]. Her blood is closer to the Jews. When recently she had to stay in Switzerland with her sick child, she called for her Jewish doctor, Dr. Neuland from Nuremberg, who treats her children. . . .The fact that the matron of the house in Stein belongs to the Jewish race makes many things understandable that until now were a riddle."

Faber-Castell was subsequently removed from the board of directors of his own business because of his wife's Jewish background. The Nazis even tried to have him committed. His fortunes improved only after he divorced Alix-May in 1935. A post-war court found in 1946 that he had been politically persecuted because of his relationship to her.

Thanks to Streicher, Alix-May’s Jewish background was well-known to the entire community. At one point in the 1930s, Alix-May’s home was graffitied with the slogan “Oppenheim, the Jewish swine, must get out of Stein." The epithet was repeated, when, in 1940, after Alix-May had married Jaromir, the Gestapo [Nazi secret police] intervened in Alix-May's custody battle with Faber-Castell.

From state police principles,” the Gestapo reported to the court, “she appears to be unfit to raise children. In any case, because of her overall orientation, which may also be a result of her Jewish background and upbringing, she is on National Socialist principles politically unacceptable.”

As a result, Alix-May lost custody of her children. Finally, in September 1940, just weeks before Hitler’s emissaries came to her home to negotiate with her husband Jaromir to purchase the painting (for 65% the price that he wanted before the Nazis took over), the Gestapo and the Racial-Political Office determined that Alix-May should be treated as a “Jew and an enemy of the State” and her passport was ordered to be taken away.

The advisory committee made no mention of the article in Der Stürmer, and obliquely referred to the graffiti as “anti-Semitic words.” The problems faced by Alix-May’s prior husband Faber-Castel went unmentioned, as was the official finding that he had been “politically persecuted” as a result of his wife’s Jewish background. Her problems with the Gestapo are treated as minor incidents of no real consequence. Rather, the committee blithely concluded: “Alix Czernin was indeed subject to anti-Semitic hostilities by the Nazis, but not political persecution.”

As grounds for this improbable conclusion, the committee relied on the fact that ordinarily, people with only one Jewish grandparent were not persecuted by the Nazis. Alix-May was permitted to marry Jaromir in 1938, which would not have been possible if she had really been treated as a Jew. When she briefly was divorced from Jaromir in 1943, her Jewish background was not an issue and she was allowed to keep custody of their child. She was permitted to remarry Jaromir in 1944. Because she managed to avoid persecution in these proceedings, the committee declared that Alix-May was not a member of the class of systematic or individually persecuted persons.

The author Hilde Spiel used to say that Austrians live in a world “between dream and reality.” When it comes to Austria’s Nazi past, many still have a blind spot. Underlying the committee’s verdict is the continuing Nazi practice of euphemistic public lies covering up private truths. For example, in Nazi parlance Jews were not deported and murdered; they were “resettled” for “special treatment.” Similarly, Alix-May was not persecuted when she was attacked in Der Stürmer, the Gestapo interfered in her custody hearing or declared her an enemy of the State; she merely suffered the indignity of some “hostilities” – as if all she endured were some rude remarks at a dinner party. The reality of her situation, the actual torment and persecution she suffered over a course of years, the completely natural fear she testified to when in 1940 the Nazis arrived at her home to make a deal with her husband to purchase his painting for Hitler, all those facts were not recognized by the advisory board seeking to justify its decision to hold on to the Vermeer painting.

The restitution laws that Austria enacted under pressure from the Allies are quite clear. Property taken from persecuted individuals or their spouses must be returned. Once it was established that a person was a member of a persecuted class, or had been persecuted, all transactions were considered void. As one restitution tribunal explained shortly after the war:

It must suffice that proof of political persecution is set forth, for in the uncertain legal conditions that prevailed under the German regime, a onetime subject of political persecution ran the danger that the persecution would start up again without any special reason. Whoever once was politically persecuted, lived always under pressure in the Third Reich; he could also not operate so freely in economic matters, as those persons who were never persecuted.

The advisory committee could only justify holding on to Hitler’s Vermeer by finding that Jaromir’s wife was never politically persecuted. But the truth has a way of seeping out, and public lies work only for so long. At some point, reality must prevail over fantasy.

E. Randol Schoenberg is an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He represents Helga Conrad, the step-daughter of Jaromir Czernin-Morzin. During the past decade, he has litigated several prominent Nazi-looted art cases, including Republic of Austria v. Altmann, which resulted in the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt valued at over $300 million.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Happy Birthday J.S. Bach!

Paying Tribute to the Master

Anne French

What can one say about J.S. Bach that has not already been said? He is the Master of the Masters of Western Music, the composer idolized by Albert Schweitzer, Glenn Gould, too many to even consider listing. And how can one choose a single piece? A choral work? Instrumental solo? Sacred music? Invention? Prelude and Fugue? A glorious work for Organ? I settled on Andreas Scholl singing the Agnus Dei from the B-minor Mass because I like it so much, but I could have easily chosen from hundreds of others. Let this be my small tribute to the birthday of a true musical giant.

Turn of the Screw Gets a Stunning New Turn at LA Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

In an age of shock-value opera stagings, it has become common to stuff the veiled implications of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw into one-dimensional little-shop-of-horrors productions. Both the Los Angeles and Santa Fe Operas followed that course in years past. While conceiving this work so narrowly may be titillating, it forecloses alternative perceptions and downplays thought -- fatal mistakes with Britten, that most mental of operatic composers.

The work's current LA Opera production, borrowed from Glyndebourne and premiered at the Chandler Pavilion on March 12, is a game-changer. It works exceedingly well at revealing latent complexities of character motivation while leaving the ultimate responsibility for their evaluation to the viewer. Its musical realization is also first rate, allowing the work to shine as a towering masterpiece.

Henry James’ 1898 novella, on which the opera is based, concerns an overwrought governess who protects her young charges from the carnal influence of two malingering ghosts. It was a well-made story with a puzzle of red herrings in the manner of Arthur Conon Doyle, but also a thriller with the subliminal sexuality of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which had been published just the year before. Britten’s version, the last of his three great chamber operas, and composed a half century later, maintains the original novella’s ironically detached style and unsettling tone.

The Turn of the Screw’s central theme is the loss of innocence. Productions of it must come to grips with two dynamics. The first is how to treat the passage of time and experience in the opera’s narrative. The second is how to incorporate the changing mores from a prim Victorian England to an empire amid decline and reappraisal after the Second World War and beyond.

A full appreciation of the work’s insight into alternate aspects of human nature also depends on one’s willingness to change viewpoints during the course of the opera. (One precedent can be cited as a clue: the shifting allegiances in Magic Flute after Tamino is sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the “evil” clutches of Sarastro.)

In the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Glyndebourne production director Jonathan Kent and LA Opera stage director Francesca Gilpin set the initial action in the bland daily routine of an English country estate. The effect of the false normalcy is to twist the building tensions of subsequent abnormalities all the more tautly.

Paul Brown’s costumes place the action at mid-twentieth century, about the time of the opera’s premiere in 1954. His clean and crisp scenery is gestural, anchored with a central pane of a dozen glass windows mounted on a large pivot that migrates from drawing room windows (above) to the surface of the nearby lake (below), and eventually to a kind of two way mirror that both separates and reflects alternate realities (second from bottom). A massive dead tree branch hung horizontally above it is a key visual leitmotif for sinister forces outside.

Two circular turntables on the stage floor allow for rapid scene changes (sixteen in all) moving the action in and out of doors. Household scenes -- a child’s train set, a brother and sister horseback riding, or piano practice -- vie in split-second timing with the appearance of uninvited guests, or a nearby lake with a floating body. Mark Henderson’s lighting captures the changing moods, from bright innocence to inky terror.

Britten’s musical structure is as immaculately outfitted and precisely lethal as the collection of blades in a Swiss Army knife. A labyrinth-like principal theme incorporates all twelve tones of the scale, a nod to the composer Arnold Schoenberg’s angst-ridden atonality. This theme will be varied and applied to each character’s actions through the 16 scenes. Intervals of the fourth note on the scale rise while intervals of the fifth fall, as fragments of a melismatic figuration sinew throughout. After an introduction for tenor and piano, the measured pacing of each of the first act’s eight scenes notch up in key signature like twists in a corkscrew. The second act’s eight scenes mirror the first in character interactions, and take the same spider walk down the keys that they had earlier climbed up.

Britten’s orchestrations conjure a mesmerizing psychology in sound, with a large toolbox of instrumental combinations performed by just thirteen virtuoso musicians. Spine-tingling effects pour out of the orchestra pit: steamy strings, creepy celesta, slippery harp, fluttery piccolo, tender soprano and alto flutes, seductive bass and treble clarinets, and a battery of heart-palpitating percussion instruments. (For a single snapshot of these black magic orchestrations, listen to the opening measures of Act II.)

Conductor James Conlon and his thirteen charges brought off the opening night performance in stunning form, all the more impressive as each musician soloed on his or her respective instrument or family of instruments in various registers. Britten would have been as proud of this band as of the virtuosos he had hand picked for the opera’s premiere. It was apparent that Conlon understands this score from broad architecture to intimate detail.

Vocal contributions and dramatic action on stage were no less impressive. Soprano Patricia Racette, taking on this role for the first time, was the emphatically sung Governess who morphs from tentative new member of the household to anxiety driven maternal proxy. Her uneasy embodiment of traditional family values mixes with a psychological insecurity that could undermine the Governess’s fitness for duty.

Tenor William Burden’s restrained and mellifluous performance as a very life-like Peter Quint (also as narrator in the Prologue) was, if not quite sympathetic, then not entirely sinister as the “older man” who entices the boy Miles, in a manner not dissimilar to Schubert’s initially seductive but later insistent Erlkönig. Burden’s final gasps at his denunciation were haunting and pathetic. Tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s lifetime partner and the original Quint, would seem to be Burden’s vocal role-model but this spectral burden proved no barrier to his smooth-voiced successor.

The role of Miles, performed by boy treble Michael Kepler Meo (left), is key to the opera, and the young singer was very much up to its demands. The inner life of Miles is a focus from the beginning when we learn he has been expelled from school. Meo’s handling of Miles’ later maturation and increasing self-assertion was stylish and well modulated. His lament of “Malo” was affecting and his final shout of “Peter Quint, you devil!” arresting as tortured outcry.

Irish Mezzo Ann Murray conveyed the loyal but timid Mrs. Grose with warmth and grace and the idiomatic authority of this beloved veteran of the British stage. Murray has us wondering why Mrs. Grose is so timid, and if she knows more than she's telling. Soprano Ashley Emerson’s Flora, short of stature and in bouncing naughty pigtails, convinced all she was a girl and not a young adult singer of experienced accomplishment. Rich-voiced soprano Tamara Wilson induced sympathy and revulsion as the deathly, anguished ghost of Miss Jessel. The problematic Flora-Jessel relationship is resolved by Flora’s prompt departure with Mrs. Grose as the tensions mount.

As a defender of conventional mores, the Governess resists what she sees as inappropriate human desires, even in her own repressed feelings for the guardian. It is not clear who, if any, have seen the ghosts other than the Governess, and doubts arise as to her mental composure. In the ensuing struggle with Quint, we also wonder whether the Governess is protecting Miles’ innocence or preventing his natural development, even if proves to be out of the norm.

Has her job of protection migrated into a clinging possessiveness? Britten telegraphs some dramatic hints when in the last scene he has her sing the same unsettling melismatic line that Quint has used all along, and after the boy’s death intoning his “Malo” lament.

The tragic operatic journey ends with further speculation. The simultaneous disappearance of Quint and the collapse of Miles when the boy “outs” his pursuer by naming him suggests the Quint character was as much the doppelganger of Miles’ personality (below) as he was the ghost of the Governess (right). Quint may all along have been the latent adult that Miles is anticipating within himself. (“I am all things strange and bold.”)

Had the confrontation with his Governess come a few years later, one wonders if Miles might have defied her and embraced his inner Quint.


Additional Considerations

Speculation focuses on the sensitive subject of how much autobiography was in Benjamin Britten’s depiction of Miles and Quint. The composer was molested as a youth, and like Miles was a child prodigy on the piano. He was also reportedly obsessed with David Hemmings, the boy who premiered the role of Miles.

How one perceives The Turn of the Screw as social commentary depends on one's point of view and tolerance for deviation from social norms. Pedophilia is universally scorned. However, perspectives on adult same sex relationships have changed over time and locale. The novella’s first readers inhabited a pre-Freudian England. Britten’s opera premiered a half-century later in a post-Freudian one. Today we take in both works with sensibilities shaped not only by Freud, but also by gay liberation, the repeal of DADT, and in some states, the emergence of equal marriage rights for same sex couples.

As civilizations advance, people of intelligence and empathy accommodate to changes in social mores. In Bram Stoker’s London of 1897, a vampire would have been treated with a stake through his heart and a cross on yours. In the Los Angeles of the not too distant future, perhaps even vampires may be accepted as True Blood lovers. Or are they already?


Remaining performances March 25 (7:30 pm), March 27 (2 pm), March 30 (7:30 pm). See LA Opera.
All photos courtesy of LA Opera, and, except as indicated, by Robert Millard. From top: 1) Michael Kepler Meo as Miles, William Burden (at back) as Peter Quint, 2) Ashley Emerson as Flora, Ann Murray as Mrs. Grose, Meo, 3) Emerson, Patricia Racette as the Governess, photo by Mike Hoban, 4) Meo, Racette, 5) Burden, Racette, 6) Burden, Meo, Racette.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

Music to Sustain Us When Words Can Say No More

by Anne French

Unspeakable horror from multiple disasters suffered in Japan have dominated our thoughts and lives for the past six days. Today marks the first-week anniversary of a tragedy inexpressible by either words or images, and we feel powerless, frustrated and fearful. Thus I have chosen Morten Lauridsen's transcendent Lux Aeterna, sung by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the direction of Paul Salamunovich, to bring some comfort to those whose hearts are aching now. May light perpetual, lux aeterna, illumine our world in the days to come.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Will Austria Part With Hitler's Vermeer?

[Note from LA Opus Publisher: We are pleased to share the following chronicle by prominent Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, concerning perhaps the most important work of art still under ownership contention in the aftermath of the Second World War.]

By E. Randol Schoenberg. Esq.

If only Adolf Hitler had been accepted to art school, the old joke goes, he never would have felt the need to conquer the world. Unable to fulfill his dream of becoming an artist, Hitler rampaged through Europe looting and pillaging its great treasures. One of his trophies, Jan Vermeer’s “Artist in his Studio”, is again at the center of controversy, as Austria’s art restitution advisory board considers on March 18 whether it should be returned to the heirs of its prior owner.

Austria came into possession of the Vermeer by nationalizing the painting at the end of World War II. It currently hangs in Vienna’s famed Kunsthistorisches Museum. Hitler had obtained it in 1940 and planned to have it as the centerpiece of his museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. The museum was never built.

Prior to World War II, the Vermeer was owned for many years by the aristocratic Czernin family. Count Jaromir Czernin-Morzin inherited the painting. He considered selling it. The American industrialist Andrew Mellon offered to pay $1 million, which would have made it the most expensive painting in the world. But the Austrian authorities wouldn’t allow the painting to leave the country, and so Czernin held onto it.

When Hitler marched into Austria in March 1938, Czernin was put in a difficult position. His new wife, Alix-May, was the granddaughter of a famous Jewish banker named Oppenheim. As a result, she and her former husband, Roland Faber-Castell, had been subjected to vicious anti-Semitic attacks in the popular Nazi tabloid, Der Stürmer. Czernin’s sister was also married to Hitler’s chief opponent in Austria, former chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who was kept imprisoned from 1938-1945. Czernin had to be careful not to run afoul of the new Nazi bosses.

In 1939, a cigarette manufacturer from Hamburg, Philipp Reemtsma, who was also a close friend of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, offered to purchase the Vermeer for RM 1.8 million (about $720,000). Although Göring gave his support to the deal, Austrian officials managed to block it by begging Hitler to intervene. Hitler’s secretary sent a telegram declaring that the painting could not be moved without Hitler’s approval.

Jaromir’s wife was still suffering anti-Semitic attacks. In February 1940, the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) intervened in her child custody dispute with her former husband, stating that she was unfit to be a mother. Later that year, she was officially declared “Jewish and an enemy of the State” and her passport was ordered to be taken away.

Hitler had his heart set on obtaining the Vermeer. In September, he set his henchmen in motion. Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, asked around if any outstanding taxes could be used to take the painting away. Hans Posse, Hitler’s special envoy in charge of obtaining artworks for the planned museum in Linz, was dispatched to Czernin’s home to negotiate the purchase of the painting at Hitler’s price. Posse told Czernin he might as well sell, because Hitler would get the painting “one way or another.” Hitler set the price at RM 1.65 million, or about $660,000 and Czernin had no choice but to agree.

Even after selling the painting to Hitler, Czernin and his wife did not escape persecution. Alix-May was driven from their home in Bohemia in 1942 and Czernin was forced out a year later. In 1944, Czernin was arrested by the Gestapo. He was held in prison and forced to do manual labor, but was never charged with any crime.

After the war, Czernin sought to recover his painting. But the Austrians, having nationalized the painting, balked at returning it. They claimed that Czernin and his wife could not have been persecuted because Alix-May had only been one quarter Jewish. The restitution tribunal determined that Czernin had “freely chosen” to sell to Hitler. Czernin’s appeals fell on deaf ears, and, betrayed by his own country, he died a broken man.

This Friday, the case of Hitler’s Vermeer will once again be reviewed by an advisory committee appointed by the Austrian government. Over the past 12 years, this committee has returned hundreds of works from Austrian museums to persecuted families, but not without controversy. The committee famously refused to return the Klimt paintings taken from the Bloch-Bauer family, valued at over $300 million, and those were recovered only after eight years of litigation ended with an arbitration ruling overturning the committee’s decision. Will the committee once again struggle to hold on to a valuable painting, notwithstanding its Nazi taint? Or will Austria finally come to terms with its Nazi past and clear its museums of their ill-gotten treasures?

E. Randol Schoenberg is an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He represents Helga Conrad, the step-daughter of Jaromir Czernin-Morzin. During the past decade, he has litigated several prominent Nazi-looted art cases, including Republic of Austria v. Altmann, which resulted in the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt valued at over $300 million.

Pictured above: Jan Vermeer's 'Artist in his Studio' -- Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Monday, March 14, 2011

Jonas Kaufmann Triumphs in Lieder Recital for LA Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

Sometimes you get the impression that Jonas Kaufmann is a tenor working his way into a Heldenbaritone. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but the singer’s dusky voice plays tricks on you before you realize his brighter tenorial overtones barely trump their subterranean brethren for ultimate categorization. Duff Murphy, KUSC-FM’s effervescent opera buff, labels him a “lyric” tenor, but “spinto” is probably closer to the mark.

Though Kaufmann has sung Mozart, and more recently lyric French roles, his larger voice hasn’t the effortless flexibility of a lyric tenor, and an emerging proto-dramatic direction has been his wont this season, as Florestan in Fidelio and Don José at La Scala’s Carmen (under LAPO Music Director Gustavo Dudamel). Next month he undertakes the role of Siegmund (a baritonal tenor role sung here last year by Plácido Domingo) in Robert Lepage’s new Metropolitan Opera production of Die Walkűre.

Tall and handsome with curly locks and sparkling eyes, he has the kind of movie star glamour that could corrupt a lesser performer into self-indulgence, but Kaufmann is too serious and ambitious an artist to let that happen -- at least not yet.

Last Friday at the Chandler Pavilion, the German tenor took a break from his dramatic roles on stage for his United States debut as a lieder recitalist. Under the auspices of LA Opera, Kaufmann's program featured songs of Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss. Opening with four selections from Schumann’s Aus den Kerner-Liedern (songs of Kerner), Kaufmann initially took a few songs to refocus his voice to that of a recitalist in this more delicate material; with minor control issues and a crack or two, the downsizing adjustment soon settled him into a groove.

Poet Justinus Kerner's themes are often associated with melancholic mankind in an uneasy relationship with enchanting Nature, a pervading subject in nineteenth century German poetry, but the four poems here were tilted to the happier prospects of “going out into the world” on a journey of discovery. As such, and with the exception of the next work, they set the evening’s tone of love’s raptures over its ruptures.

More serious matters were explored in Schumann’s Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), to poems of Heinrich Heine. In subtle allusion and metaphor -- invoking the natural world’s usual flowers, birds, and rivers (the Rhine), but mixed here with specific locations and artifacts like the Cologne Cathedral, the bridge at Mainz, and even a huge wine cask in Heidelberg -- Heine tells of a poet’s love of a woman who initially reciprocates, but, deciding to marry another, induces the rejected poet to find a way to bury his sorrows. Schumann’s finely etched musical miniatures infuse the equally fragile poetic images with acute emotion.

Kaufmann’s voice was at both its most limber and controlled here, his delivery achieving subtle colorations in the work’s atmospheric hothouses, as with his nearly vibrato-less “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” (I wept in my dream), his plangent “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” (From old fairy tales beckons…), and the oaken darkness of his “Die alten, bösen Lieder” (the old, angry songs), summing up the poet’s journey.

His achievement in Dichterliebe notwithstanding, Kaufmann came even more alive in two sets of Strauss songs that followed the interval: Schlichte Weisen: Fünf Gedichte von Felix Dahn (Simple Melodies: with five of the poems by Felix Dahn) Opus 21, and Vier Lieder, Opus 27, numbering 13 songs in all. Both are early works of this most optimistic and extrovert of composers. Strauss’s poets in this instance anticipate love’s bliss more than regret its loss. At the pinnacle of this singer's early maturity (Kaufmann is a very young-looking forty one years of age) the sentiments seemed natural to his public persona.

Something of the rhapsodic style of the first set of these Strauss songs, not to mention their symphonic piano accompaniments, released a superabundance of energy within Kaufmann, and we discovered new dimensions in his artistry: a long-winded breath control, his openhearted romantic fervor, a darkish head tone, and a kind of pure ecstasy in his delivery.

Piano collaborator Helmut Deutsch followed Kaufmann every step of the way, from melancholy to bliss in sympathetic partnership, fully earning his pay in the florid accompaniments of the Strauss songs, his well-articulated arpeggios flying up and down the span of the keyboard like so many effortless birds in flight.

A now energized audience swelled the large hall into a frenzy of enthusiasm in the final set, which included two of Strauss's greatest songs, "Morgen" (Tomorrow) and "Cäcilie" (Cecilia), with the latter's high B firm, but constituting most likely the tenor's upper range limit.

(Apropos, had Strauss never composed a tone poem or an opera, he would still be remembered as the last great proponent of the German Lied, with its origins in Mozart and Haydn, its extension in Beethoven, its high point in Schubert, and its noble continuity in Schumann, Brahms and Wolf, among others, right up to Strauss's last work in the genre, the Vier letzte Lieder of 1948, a tradition of almost two centuries.)

The energy field that enveloped both singer and his audience did not abate, even after five encores, three of them by Strauss ("Breit über mein Haupt", "Nichts", and "Zueignung"), the Franz Lehár evergreen, "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz", and finally Schumann’s seraphic "Mondnacht" (Moonlit Night), announcing by gentle implication that it was finally time to go home.

But there was no going home for vast hoards of Kaufmann’s admirers, the majority female, who waited in line over half an hour for his appearance in the Chandler’s lobby to sign CDs. After this debut in the now somewhat esoteric genre of lieder, you could call Jonas Kaufmann the thinking woman’s tenor. Also the unthinking woman’s tenor. Or, to paraphrase Ira Gershwin, the tenor’s magnetic appeal might apply to all the sexes from Maine to Texas.


More on Jonas Kaufmann

Kaufmann’s amber tenor is not as large as another dark-hued one we are well acquainted with in Los Angeles who has sung many of the roles Kaufmann now essays. Nor does Kaufmann have Plácido Domingo’s metallic ring, but he uses his voice intelligently and his focused projection makes his respectably-sized voice seem huge in powerful moments. As heard in the more subtle repertoire featured this evening, he can also give colors to the chameleon.

According to those in the know, Kaufman took a long time to discover and use his true voice. It is interesting that the teacher who ultimately enabled his successful voyage of vocal discovery was American baritone Michael Rhodes. It was also his triumph at the Metropolitan Opera, another American association, that after years of yeoman’s work in provincial German opera houses earned Kaufmann new respect at home and enhanced star status around the world.

With this triumph in his U.S. debut in song literature in Los Angeles, Jonas Kaufmann now adds to his string of successes on the operatic stage a considerably enhanced reputation in the art of song.

All photos courtesy of LA Opera. Top photo of Kaufmann by Uli Weber; middle photo of Kaufmann and Deutsch by Robert Millard; bottom photo by Robert Millard, from left: soprano Nino Machaidze (star of LA Opera's Turk in Italy), LA Opera's Richard Seaver Music Director James Conlon, mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne, Kaufmann and Deutsch.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Color and coloratura made "Il Turco in Italia"
a watershed moment for LA Opera--and maybe LA too

More like the way we like it. / Photo: ROBERT MILLARD for LA OPERA

Joseph Mailander

One reason to see an opera when you're young is that you may see it transform into something entirely different when you are not so young. Beverly Sills was here in Rossini's Il Turco in Italia at the Dorothy Chandler in 1978. Back then, LA's opera experience was not much more than autumn stagings of chestnuts--often in English--when New York City Opera came to town.

Last Thursday night, hurling dramatically across the years, we went to the same opera, LA Opera's 2011 production of Il Turco, which ends Sunday. Dynamite seats for a great, engagingly louche production of Rossini's that is in his top-tier but not performed nearly often enough.

Though memories of anything outside of the classic coloratura of Ms. Sills (right, in Turco) are dim--I even had to consult another source to confirm the language it was sung in--one thing I do remember from 1978 is wondering if big opera stars in general had to act at all, or if they simply always stood on their blocks smiling vividly as might Limoges figurines (left), perpetually acknowledging our admiration. I ultimately accepted the fact Beverly Sills would ever stand like a glamorous caged cockatoo, facing the audience and singing magnificently, the curtain rising and lowering with every scene, handily enveloping most of her movements on and off stage, and admired along with the rest. That kind of opera has mercifully evolved...and so has my own understanding of what opera singers do.

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Along the way, there has been much else. Staging Il Turco in English, which Long Beach did in 1995, is hopefully unthinkable today. Art direction is not only more important than it was then, the arguments that unfold about it may make or break a run. The setting of these things can be anytime at all. And productions in general between then and now have been more sexualized--and about time, as especially the buffa librettos have been sexualized and oversexualized since the moments they were conceived.

Early on, LA Opera showed it was up to speed with all happy trends. Its early, gloriously grotesque production of Wozzeck, in which Elise Ross found room under her skirt for her Vietnam Vet captain's obliging head and tongue, was an international-level staging; a decade later, the late Hildegard Behrens, at 61, shoehorned into a nude body-stocking to do the dance of the seven veils in Salome; and throughout various Wagner productions have been various titillations, some even larger than our dragon in Siegfried.

And along the way, keeping the people in the seats informed, also have come dozens of eloquent commentaries about what these fusses might really be all about, including perhaps most notably Wayne Kostembaum's audacious late-nineties classic The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and Mystery of Desire, which laid bare as can be laid the certain feeling certain men get for the voices of certain women, and why they might get such feelings.

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At intermission, March 2011, Lynn dashed off to the ladies room while I went to sit under the enormous mounted Chinese screen in the bar. At the bar I spotted what I was certain were not one but two sets of young lesbian couples, not together, both dressed so responsively to the opera's art direction that I made some BlackBerry notes: pinches of gypsy, berber earrings, a tiny splash of this spring's trending coral, specks of tangerine and mint, large swaths of knitted elegance. The girls were obviously responding to the art direction in this production with its own toucan-via-Hamburg trending colors in it: the frieze of Neapolitan bathers and cross-dressers in key scenes that have been described as straight outta La Dolce Vita by some and tropical fruit stands by others. It was just a night of dress-up for the girls, but it was dead-on dress-up, to complement the opera and the chorus's colors schemes and even its zeitgeist.

[And beyond costume, even beyond art direction, dress itself plays a big part of the staging of this Turco. Racks of clothing and costumes drop from the rafters, and the chorus rifles through them while the buffa absurdites unfold. Fiorella flings shoes from her closet when despondent. The sustained masquerade referencing Cosi Fan Tutte is distilled into an energetic and ridiculous scene in which the cuckolded Italian dresses like the cocksure Turk. Tone-perfect boxing trunks echoing a long lost Ali prizefight are bared as the two antagonists square off.]

From there, I have to take Lynn's word for it, but what happened was, as soon as the first couple were inside the ladies room, they started photographing each other in the restroom's lounge, and then again in the mirrors. The second couple joined them, and they all ended up art directing their own intermission, maybe for Facebook uploads, maybe to send virtual postcards, or maybe as a prelude to their own Second Act elsewhere.

Lynn was a little amused, also initially a little annoyed because she wanted to wash up but has to elbow her way into the mise-en-scène to do so. But after working her way to a sink, she ended up in a few shots herself, and obligingly smiled. All in good fun, right?

Then we got back to our seats and noticed the program cover: Fiorella preening in a pocket mirror. Another fine fit for the goings-on we had observed.

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I mention all this because it is precisely the kind of scene that interests me in the way opera lives today when it fetches a promising young audience, as this Turco has. Maestro Conlon, this inordinately gifted soprano Nino Machaidze &c. are certainly thrilling to see work their magic, but they don't nearly interest me so much these days as young people responding to something new at the opera. At the opera, you often have a chance to see the way the opera public themselves are, but magnified; opera is larger than life, and it always calls out its public to be. And the people who come for the love of coming are, when they are deeply involved, for me the very best part of the show--and this is a show in which every performance is outstanding, even memorable. Venerable Thomas Allen as the accident-prone poet Prodoscimo, locates both the hidden agility of a circus clown and the suave machinations of an ever-hopeful lyricist. Kate Lindsey as the wispy, forlorn Zaida, Paolo Gavanelli as Don Geronio, the beleaguered cuckold--and Matthew O'Neill, Simone Alberghini, and Maxim Mironov, all spot on, all eager and willing to make this production not merely special but stupendous.

My mind went racing in many literary directions, wanting to get this Proustian moment down and wanting to get it right. So--say you're a performative-gender buying, culturally transgressive social mediatrix interested in looking at the world and interested in making your own life as vivid as a toucan's beak. This can be one of your games, then: dress-up at the opera, where art direction now, formerly stilted and historic, can be as rich as a grand finale. The subtle and not-so-subtle art directions we routinely see (and routinely argue over, as though they are make-or-break decisions) in LA Opera productions, like productions in many other opera-enlightened cities, often pushes its appreciative public towards such variously fashion-forward, sexuality-forward, alternately Vogue spread or la cage aux folles moments, even capable of transforming urban chic itself.

For most of the brittle ones in Founders Circle, for whom opera attire is evening attire, suits and modest gowns, this dress-up subculture, this time inspired by the art direction and the costuming of Herbert Murauer (left), is often simply indulged as goofiness; but for a spirited, younger few, dress-up is a large part of it. It's not precisely the same as dressing up for Rocky Horror midnight screenings but it's a snooty cousin of it.

And this kind of vivid art direction, which for so many now is opera's top story, often falls very flat in sanctimoniously Nestorian corners of the city these days, where such phenomena, when they are noted at all, are noted as something gone wrong. But when I am out in this city, or even in one like San Francisco or New York, it is reflective of and a stimulant to the kind of life that I see everywhere.

This is all incautious ground but I find many elements of American urban life extremely interesting as people strive to find ways to distinguish themselves from the overriding relentless homogenization of their political and economic lives. I also lived through NYC in the mid-1970s and I have to say that as Fear City was spectacularly falling apart--the way LA is presently--people simply threw themselves into cultural craziness with abandon--which is also happening in LA presently. Back then it produced a kind of cultural renaissance (from Pavarotti to Richard Serra and of course the more-than-banal but true-to-the-times Brat Pack) because the day-to-day lives of the young frothy things were too miserable to endure without these then-new phenomena cheeking them up a bit.

LA is having this kind of a renaissance too, but news of it doesn't break out much in mainstream media. MSM so often doesn't want to document so much as to confirm suspicions about what the young frothy things are doing--they want it it to be outrageous and silly rather than performative and sublime. The media types typically whiff on the youth reality most of the time. The street artist JR got two covers in town these past two weeks--and Nino Malchaieze none. Cartoon-artist Banksy's half-baked scams on LA have generally been the artistry-of-record for March; the 3,000 or so people turning out for dress-up buffa at the Dorothy Chandler these past three weeks have largely been ignored.

What the deplorable politics and equally deplorable media of urbi-et-orbi have brought us in the mainstream is largely a social network of hectoring sanctimoniousness. We can and should and do let this go at the opera--which is not mainstream despite video's attempt to make it so--and more should notice that we do, and more of the brittle octogens should not sneer but should watch it happen and even whip up some enthusiasm for it. Also, many in media who are chasing the latest bas-culture trends are missing this kind of refreshingly apolitical American watershed moment, in which things of interest, artistic, cultural, sexual, are sure enough happening all around us, even in high culture--if only we're willing to bear witness to them. This production--in which an airstream trailer, Neapolitan bathers and a magnificent actress-vamp-soprano--so far removed from a caged cockatoo in a period gown--gave me as many goosebumps as Bubbles ever did.

The Diabelli is in the Details: Variations on Beethoven

(Watch for an upcoming feature, to be posted here, on a recent performance of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in Santa Barbara at the same time a play, Thirty Three Variations, based on the work, was having a run at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

Alexis Weissenberg Plays a Personal Scarlatti Favorite

by Anne French

I fell in love with this Scarlatti Sonata (K 87) many, many years ago when it appeared on a vinyl LP recording of the wonderful guitar duo, Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya. I played that recording every night as I rocked my infant son to sleep, and of course the baby slept very peacefully as a result. Since then I have listened to several other interpretations of K 87, but I never heard pianist Alexis Weissenberg's performance before today. (Actually I haven't heard Alexis Weissenberg at all in quite a long time.) So for me this Friday's Phonograph choice is a double delight... my favorite Scarlatti exquisitely played by yet another great artist. Here's wishing you a lovely beginning to great weekend.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Baroque suites, Mozart's Zaide, and Poulenc's Carmélites

Reviews by Rodney Punt

Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour Leads LACO Baroque Ensemble

There are conductors who flail their hands, scowl or swell at every musical phrase. Then there is Jory Vinikour, who cues musicians and telegraphs rhythms with the slightest of gestures while busy at the harpsichord. Let’s call it leading by example.

A Baroque specialist to the manner born, Vinikour’s confident bonhomie and effortless virtuosity were on fine display February 17 at the downtown Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, latest in a series from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Equally at ease facing an audience as his musicians or harpsichord, Vinikour’s introductory remarks and closing Q & A were also engaging and informative.

Works included Georg Muffat’s Propitia Sydera (Lucky Stars) concerto grosso, Handel’s Chaconne from Terpsichore, a W.F. Bach harpsichord concerto, Rameau’s suite of dances from Hippolyte et Aricie, and a solo harpsichord suite by Pancrace Royer. If all Baroque music stems from dances, these extravagantly propulsive works confirm the assertion and suggest the era’s contemporaneous discovery of electricity was no fluke.


Mozart’s Zaide Exhumed by Musica Angelica at The Broad Stage

Before Magic Flute there was Abduction from the Seraglio, and before that an incomplete torso now known as Zaide. Mozart was drawn to the singspiel format as prototype for a German national opera, but put aside this first effort when commissioned for Idomeneo. Eventually the later, greater Abduction’s similar plot of rescue from a Turkish harem co-opted it. Recent champions have “completed” the charming chunk with additional text, the earlier Symphony in G major, KV 318, as overture, and the somewhat Italianate quartet, KV 479, as finale.

Zaide was performed at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage on February 20 under the stylistically informed direction of Musica Angelica’s Martin Haselböck with period orchestra and four singers: up-and-coming quicksilver soprano Valerie Vinzant, promising lyric tenor Andrew Bidlack, tenor Christoph Genz, and baritone Christian Hilz. Brian Michaels translated the stilted period dialogue and directed a sketchy staging with gratuitous puppetry too archly cute for its own good. In this case, better to have let the music speak for Mozart.


Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at UCLA

Francis Poulenc’s haunting opera, Dialogue des Carmélites, has the French Revolution’s progressive social program going badly astray against religious orthodoxy when a Carmelite nunnery refuses to vacate, setting up a fatal test of wills amongst varied personalities. Its drama wears the habit of monastic fealty in emphatically tonal music of astringent solemnity, minor third motifs, and no showy pyrotechnics but plenty of vocal challenges. Requiring audience concentration, Carmélites’ performance history remains spotty but it retains passionate adherents amongst opera cognoscenti in major music capitols.

In Opera UCLA’s production at Schoenberg Hall, seen February 24, designer Cameron Mock’s stark scenes and lighting had three oversized abstract crosses leaning on their sides, suggesting the martyrdom to come. Peter Kazaras’s austere staging, Neal Stulberg’s well-coached orchestra, and Caitlin Talmage’s mixed-periods costumes inspired solid performances from the student cast. Most affecting scene: the guillotining, one by one, of the martyred nuns, each falling into the shadows with the swishing sound of the blade.

Photos: top, Jory Vinikour and harpsichord at Zipper Hall, photo by Rodney Punt; middle, Musica Angelica in Zaide at Broad Stage, photo by Laura Spino; bottom, UCLA student cast of
Dialogue des Carmélites, photo by Henry Lim
Rodney Punt may be contacted at [email protected]

Monday, March 7, 2011

Winter Valentines - Chamber Music Palisades Warms Frosty Hearts

Review by Rodney Punt

Los Angeles is just emerging from the coldest, wettest, and, improbably, the snowiest winter in living memory. Chock it up to that mysterious periodic cooling of the Pacific Ocean known enigmatically as "La Niña."

This February, Angelinos could peer out their windows and see the low-lying Verdugo Hills above Burbank and Glendale dusted with white powder. Switzerland seemed magically at our doorstep.

We may not have thrown frisbees at the beach, but what a great month it was to enjoy indoor music making.

The belated West Coast Premiere of Czech film composer Jan Novak’s Sonata Tribus by Chamber Music Palisades, now in its fourteenth season, was occasion on the first of February for another uncovering of a flute rarity at St. Matthew’s Parish in Pacific Palisades.

Written in 1982 and left in manuscript at the composer’s death in 1984, Novak’s flutist daughter premiered it and made it available to series co-director and flutist Susan Greenberg. She was joined in its performance by co-director and pianist Delores Stevens and violinist Sarah Thornblade. The work’s accessible blend of Impressionism and jazz is shaped into a Baroque trio sonata form. The initial Allegro movement has the piano establishing jagged propulsion over which the flute’s commentary is prominent in the two A and violin in the B sections. The Lento movement’s piano chorale is infused with intense nostalgia from the high voiced and long-phrased lines of the violin and flute. An energetic Allegro vivo movement rounds it out. It’s a skillful and attractive work from a composer who possessed both solid craftsmanship and a tender sensibility.

The program had three other works, including the youthful Mozart’s lively Quartet in D Major, K. 285, for Flute and Strings (Thornblade, violin; Rob Brophy, viola; and Arman Ksajikian, cello). Like flowers lining a pathway, pizzicato strings accented a lovely, lingering piano as it day-dreamed in the prominent Adagio middle movement. Two carefree outer movements surrounding that Adagio added further garnishment.

Schubert’s equally youthful Adagio & Rondo Concertante for Piano Quartet, in F Major, D. 487, had the strings engaged by Stevens’ melodic piano motifs and arpeggios floating above them, in presciently lyrical fashion to the later Trout Quintet.

César Franck’s Sonata in A Major, a standard for violin and piano, but originally composed for cello and piano, received a performance of equal solo opportunity for flute in the first movement, violin in the second, cello in the third, with all joining in the finale. Each of the featured sonorities worked in their own way; Greenberg’s flute solo in the first tilted the movement toward a Gallic sensibility, Thornblade’s violin in the second set off sparks, and Ksajikian’s cello solo in the third movement Recitativo-Fantasia was particularly warm and embracing in the hall’s acoustics. Everyone’s participation in the last movement felt a little crowded, but fun anyway.

The hall of Pacific Palisades’ St. Matthew’s Parish -- as impressive in its windows-to-nature way as the similar but more famous Wayfarer’s Chapel is in Palos Verdes Estates -- produced a tubby acoustic that emphasized the percussive middle tones of the piano, and sometimes threw it off balance with the more delicate sonorities of the flute and strings. It was, however, a relatively small price to pay for gratifying performances and insightful programming, enhanced by the usual high standards of Alan Chapman's commentary.

Four winter valentines had warmed the hearts of unaccustomedly frigid concertgoers on a frosty first of February. No one tarried, however, as they made their way through the cold of night to their chilly cars.

Photo above courtesy of Chamber Music Palisades. From left, Susan Greenberg and Delores Stevens
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

It's "Play the Recorder Month" (No Kidding!)

by Anne French

To my great surprise, I have discovered that recorder players across North America are celebrating this month as "Play-the-Recorder" month. March 19th has even been designated "Recorder Day!" Well, it's only fair that I give the instrument its due on today's Phonograph, but my knowledge of recorder music is scant and I could only think of Franz Brüggen and Michala Petri to search. After listening extensively to these fine players, as well as many others I found on YouTube, I could not resist playing today's selection: Michala Petri and Victor Borge playing Czardas by Monty at Borge's 80th birthday party in Tivoli. Although the performance is Borge's typical side-splitting humor, it still showcases the awesome talents of Ms. Petri and the recorder. Happy weekend to you all!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Blended Pleasures

Today and tomorrow, go out and you can't go wrong.

At the Disney Hall, Dudamel conducts Bruckner and a modern work, the haunting Takemitsu Requiem, tonight at 8 p.m.

On the westside tonight, Berlin's Scharoun Ensemble is at Royce Hall for a concert featuring a Mozart quintet and the Schubert Octet.

And tomorrow, Maestro Conlon again cranks up LA Opera's marvelous Hamburg production of Il Turco in Italia--the zaniest of the zany Rossini buffa canon, last seen in Los Angeles in 1978--at 7:30 p.m. at the venerable Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Another forty-eight hours, another embarrassment of classical riches here in the City of Angels.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Birthday to Frédéric Chopin!

A Celebration of Genius Ushers in Month of March

by Anne French

Frédéric (or Fryderyk) Chopin was born March 1, 1810 in Warsaw, Poland, settled in Paris following suppression of the 1830 Polish Uprising, and died in 1849 in Paris at the age of 39. In that short span he became a composer of such renown that it would be impossible to summarize his contribution to western music in this brief description. We can note that all his works involve the piano, and he invented the instrumental form known as the instrumental ballade. From his myriad sonatas, preludes, mazurkas, nocturnes, études and more, I have chosen his Nocturne op. 9, no. 1, performed by Maurizio Pollini. It was not an easy task to highlight just one short piece, and this selection was almost arbitrary... though a favorite of mine. Happy Birthday to this giant of the music world.