Sunday, September 27, 2009

Early Romanticism

For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to three discs of music featuring two seminal 19th-Century stage works, both noted exemplars of Early Romanticism: Gioacchino Rossini’s 1813 opera seria, “Tancredi”; and Adolphe Adam’s 1841 ballet, “Giselle”.

We selected the discs for a very specific reason: we shall attend performances of both works in coming weeks.

“Tancredi” and “Giselle” have much in common: both works instantly created a vogue for similar works in the same genre, a vogue that was to last for years; both works made their respective composers’ names known throughout Europe and North America; both works were associated with (and, in the case of “Giselle”, specifically created for) legendary performing artists of the era; both works were created in great haste; and both works contain reams and reams of formulaic writing amid much that is noble.

We shall keep these discs in our player until Thursday, on which day the discs shall be retired. My middle brother will arrive in Boston next weekend for a visit, and we cannot subject him to “Tancredi” and “Giselle”, neither of which he would enjoy.


In late October, Opera Boston will present “Tancredi”. Josh and I plan to attend one of the performances.

We attended a performance by Opera Boston last season—a frighteningly awful “Der Freischutz” that sent us packing after Act II—and we swore that we would never return to another Opera Boston presentation.

However, the best intentions sometimes go awry, and we intend to give Opera Boston another try.

The lure is “Tancredi”, not often staged.

I have never attended a performance of “Tancredi”. I doubt another opportunity shall arise anytime soon, so I plan not to miss the Boston presentation.

“Tancredi” is the Rossini work that sent Stendhal into raptures. There is a unity—a purity and concentration—in the score lacking in Rossini’s many opera seria that were to follow. It is a unique and beautiful gem, rediscovered and newly admired in the late 20th Century after more than a century of neglect.

We have been listening to the Naxos recording of “Tancredi”. The recording’s Tancredi is Ewa Podles, who is scheduled to sing the role in Boston.

The Naxos “Tancredi” is the only Tancredi recording I own. The Sony recording under Ralf Weikert (with Marilyn Horne as Tancredi) is unknown to me, as is the RCA recording under Roberto Abbado (with Vesselina Kasarova as Tancredi). I plan to pick up the latter one day, as I admire Kasarova immensely.

The Naxos recording is acceptable, but it is far from perfect.

The conductor, Alberto Zedda, offers an academic reading of the score, without much fire, without much plasticity of tempo, without much rhythmic flexibility, without much specificity of emotion, and without much orchestral color. Zedda sets the tempo for each number, at which point he tends to become unyielding (as well as literal to an annoying degree). Zedda’s rigid approach does not allow the drama to develop.

Zedda does not do much with Rossini’s imaginative orchestral writing, either. Rossini’s mastery of the orchestra in “Tancredi” is uniformly acknowledged, even by German scholars. Rossini’s orchestra in Zedda’s hands, however, is gray and monotonous. The brilliance of the writing does not register.

The orchestra on the recording is Collegium Instrumentale Brugense. Collegium Instrumentale Brugense is NOT a period-instrument ensemble, a point that needs to be emphasized, since countless commentators have described the orchestra on this recording as a period-instrument ensemble. It most assuredly is not. Collegium Instrumentale Brugense is a chamber orchestra using modern instruments, which is readily apparent to anyone with ears from the very first bar of the overture.

Capella Brugensis serves as the chorus for the recording.

Both orchestra and chorus are tidy but unremarkable. The forces, while capable, are colorless and bland.

Sumi Jo offers a cleanly-sung Amenaide. I have never found Jo to be a particularly interesting singer, and she does little more than sing the notes of Amenaide. A more expressive and deeply musical singer might have done more with the role, I believe. Jo’s singing, professional to a fault, is more than a little generic.

Stanford Olsen, Pietro Spagnoli, Anna Maria De Micco and Lucretia Lendi complete the cast.

The success of the recording is due to Podles, who offers an extraordinary account of the title role. Gifted with a contralto voice of unmatched richness and flexibility, Podles knows how to hold the listener spellbound, whether in recitative, cantabile, declamation, coloratura—or ensemble, which she most assuredly dominates (and not in a bad sense). This is grand singing by any standard.

Podles possessed an innate understanding of Rossini style by the time she made this recording (the discs were recorded in France in 1994). I have no idea how and when she acquired her mastery of Rossini, but Podles can sing Rossini at least as well as any active singer.

Josh and I have heard Podles sing Rossini. In 2006, we attended a Minnesota Opera presentation of Rossini’s “La Donna Del Lago” in a production mounted especially for Podles. She was undeniably imposing that day—and the only pleasure to be had from that particular Minnesota Opera presentation, which otherwise was a trial to endure.

The Naxos recording uses Rossini’s original “Tancredi” ending, a so-called “happy” ending in which Tancredi survives at the opera’s close.

Opera Boston will use Rossini’s second “Tancredi” ending, an alternate ending in which Tancredi dies before the opera’s conclusion.

Marilyn Horne always preferred the so-called “tragic” ending whenever she sang “Tancredi”, and I believe that all major U.S. stagings of the opera—Houston in 1977, San Francisco in 1979, Chicago in 1989—have used the alternate ending. Boston will continue that tradition.

Opera Boston’s production of “Tancredi” will be set in 1930’s Spain.

Resetting operas to Civil War Spain has become a cliché over the last twenty years, but Opera Boston’s upcoming “Tancredi” cannot possibly be worse than the company’s “Der Freischutz” from last October. The company’s ruination of “Freischutz” may have been the single worst opera performance I have ever attended.

If next month’s “Tancredi” is equally frightful, Josh and I plan to burn down the Boston Opera House as a gesture of good will toward the citizens of the city.


Two weekends from now, Josh and I will attend a performance of “Giselle”, presented by Boston Ballet. The production, by Maina Gielgud, is supposed to be very fine.

My parents will be in town that weekend, visiting us over Columbus Day Weekend, and Josh and I will take them to one of the “Giselle” performances.

My parents—especially my mother—like to attend ballet performances. Since Minneapolis is not home to a major dance troupe, the visit to Boston will give my parents an opportunity to see some high-quality ballet.

One year ago, when my parents visited us for a weekend, we took them to a Boston Ballet performance of Prokofiev’s “Cinderella”. My parents enjoyed that performance very much—and so did Josh and I—and we hope to strike pay dirt a second time.

All four of us most recently attended a performance of “Giselle” in March 2008, when The State Ballet Of Georgia (Tbilisi) offered “Giselle” in Minneapolis as part of its lengthy 2008 U.S. tour. Even though the title role in Minneapolis had been portrayed by Nina Ananiashvili, perhaps the most celebrated Giselle of the day, that production had been uninspiring, even wan. It became lost in the vast spaces of Northrop Auditorium. That canned music was used during the performance did not help matters.

Boston Ballet’s “Giselle” will utilize a full orchestra. As the company’s “Giselle” is one of its most acclaimed full-length productions, and as it will be presented in an appropriate performing space, we are looking forward to seeing “Giselle” again.

The recording of “Giselle” Josh and I brought with us to Boston is the single-disc version of the ballet score recorded by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra for Sony.

Recorded in 1986 (but not issued until 1990), this particular recording of “Giselle” purports to represent the “complete” version of the score used by American Ballet Theatre in its then-current production of the ballet (a Baryshnikov-supervised production that was retired some years ago).

If the recording’s claim about “completeness” is correct, Adam’s complete score was obviously not in use by American Ballet Theatre during the 1980’s. This is so because the disc contains fewer than 80 minutes of music.

Obviously the corrupt interpolations of music by Minkus, Pugni and Drigo have been omitted from the disc, and that is all to the good. However, additions by Burgmuller ARE included, as ABT has always used the corrupt interpolations by Burgmuller.

Shorn of all but the Burgmuller interpolations, Adam’s complete score nonetheless requires more than 77 minutes to perform, and this is so even if all repeats are omitted. Consequently, I believe that this disc’s claim to “completeness” may be specious.

Either ABT used a much-trimmed score of “Giselle” while Baryshnikov was in charge of the company or Sony was not being forthcoming in its claim that the Tilson Thomas disc represented a “complete” version of the “Giselle” score.

Myself, I am indifferent to such matters. Seventy-seven minutes of “Giselle” is more than enough for me. I cannot imagine buying a two-disc version of “Giselle” in order to hear every last note. All of the ballet’s principal numbers are represented on the Sony disc, and this surely is enough for most listeners.

Adam’s score is effective to the extent it is well-constructed and well-orchestrated, but “Giselle” is not a masterpiece of stage music that rewards repeated stand-alone listening. Adam has a couple of feeble tunes he works to death; other than those faded tunes, the score is lackluster and not-at-all inspired. “Giselle” is the most insipid of all the “great” ballet scores.

The performance on the Sony disc sounds precisely like the quick run-through that it was.

The disc remains in print (at budget price), probably because dance students buy it in some quantity.

I have no idea how the Tilson Thomas recording compares to either of the Bonynge recordings of the score . . .or the Fistoulari . . .or the Karajan . . .or the Mogrelia . . .or any of the many others.

I hope never to find out.


  1. Is this opera worth seeking out? If it's been done here, we sure missed it. Only the Rossini comedies get much play here, and we tend to avoid Rossini.

    ENO performs Italian operas in English, which always kills them. I am having difficulty trying to imagine Rossini in English. Even if not a comedy, it would turn into one.

  2. To my surprise, I find that Tancredi has been making the rounds of the European houses: Venice, Aix-En-Provence, La Scala, Berlin, Madrid, Salzburg Festival and smaller houses.

    And yet no performances in London that I could find. I find that very strange.

  3. Great write up! Totally agree with pretty much all you wrote. We're so very lucky to have Ewa Podles and Vesselina Kasarova captured on CD as Tancredi. I only wish for a good DVD of this show... don't like any of the ones that are available now. :o(

    You will really like the RCA cd set of the opera, I think. Kasarova is spectacular and her voice matches so well with Eva Mei's during those jaw dropping duets between Tancredi and Amenaide. And THE Ramon Vargas!!! It's an expensive set, but totally worth the price. :o)

  4. Calvin, if you have only a casual like for Rossini, I would not seek out one of the "Tancredi" sets.

    You may dislike it, and I would hate for you to spend money on my recommendation.

    The opera is not to all tastes. Josh, for instance, hates the thing.

    In addition to Opera Boston, Theater An Der Wien is mounting a new production of "Tancredi" next month, too. The Tancredi is scheduled to be Vivica Genaux.

  5. Smorg, I adore Kasarova. I think she is one of a handful of the greatest singers of the day. Every time I have heard her, I have been bowled over.

    I regret that Kasarova does not have an American career. Americans do not know what they are missing.

  6. Hiya Drew,
    Alas indeed that her style is usually scoffed at by the pretty-singing-uber-alle opera folks on this side of the pond. :o( I'm way over on the westcoast and practically have no hope of her ever coming back here to sing (I think the last time was back in 2001 up at SFO).

    It's a good thing that RCA thinks enough of her to make a lot of recordings, I think. :o) And if you can catch that Tancredi at Theater an der Wien, I bet Vivica Genaux will make a splendid Syracusian knight, too! :o)


  7. Smorg, I've never heard Kasarova in the U.S. I have only heard her sing in European houses. I have been told that she very much dislikes the Met, and is not particularly interested in spending much time in the U.S.

    I've heard Genaux sing Rossini--she sang a captivating "L'Italiana In Algeri" with Minnesota Opera in 2007--and I have heard her in recital, and I was very impressed both times. Genaux, too, seems to work more in Europe than in the U.S.

    Again, it's our loss.