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Thread: Modern and Contemporary Opera on DVD, blu-ray, and CD

          
   
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  1. #121
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    The Passenger on blu-ray disc

    This is of enormous interest, given that this still relatively poorly known opera is allegedly a masterpiece and has been acclaimed everywhere, with productions in Bregenz, Austria (2010), Warsaw, Poland (2010), London, England (2011), Madrid, Spain (2012), Karlsruhe, Germany (2013), Houston, USA (2014), and it is coming to Chicago Lyric Opera in 2015, featuring Opera Lively interviewee Brandon Jovanovich in the leading male role of Walter (Feb 24-March 15 - tickets [here]) - stay tuned for Brandon's interview which has been transcribed but is pending revision/approval by the artist - he does address this piece.

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    The Passenger (in Russian: Passazhirka), contemporary opera in two acts, eight scenes, and one epilogue, originally sung in Russian (here in multilingual version)

    Music by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), composed in 1967-68
    Libretto in Russian by Alexander Medvedev, after the radio play Pasażerka z kabiny 45 (1959 - The Passenger from Cabin 45) in Polish by concentration camp survivor Zofia Posmysz, which she subsequently turned into a novel.

    The opera was scheduled to premiere in Moscow at the Bolshoi in 1968 with a reworked libretto in German, English, Polish, Yiddish, French, Russian, and Czech; this performance was cancelled and it only premiered in concert form at the Stalisnavsky Theater in Moscow on December 25, 2006.

    The fully staged world premiere was in Bregenz, Austria, at the Bregenzer Festspiele on July 21, 2010 (this is the performance on this blu-ray disc and the libretto is the multilingual version)

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    Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Teodor Currentzis
    Prague Philharmonic Choir, chorus master Lukas Vasilek

    A co-production of the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria, the Wielki Teatr Warschau in Poland, the English National Opera in England, and the Teatro Real de Madrid in Spain

    Stage director David Pountney
    Set design Johan Engels
    Costume design Marie-Jeanne Lecca
    Lighting design Fabrice Kebour
    Video director Felix Breisach

    Cast

    Lisa (mezzo) - Michelle Breedt
    Walter (tenor) - Roberto Saccà
    Marta (soprano) - Elena Kelessidi
    Tadeusz (baritone) - Artur Rucinski
    Katja (soprano) - Svetlana Doneva
    Bronka (alto) - Liuba Sokolova

    There are other 10 comprimario singing roles and 6 silent roles, which I won't list

    ---------

    This blu-ray disc is available on Amazon for $29: [clicky]

    It was released by NEOS/Unitel Classica/ORF in November 2010
    Subtitles have the Multilingual option in which anytime there is a language change in the libretto, the subtitles are rendered in that language. There are also subtitles that keep the same language for the entire opera, with the options being German, English, French, Polish, and Russian.
    Image is 1080i HD 16:9, and sound is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 for the opera, and stereo 2.0 for the bonus feature
    Region zero, worldwide
    Running time - opera 161 minutes, 29 minutes of bonus feature, a documentary spoken in German with English only subtitles, "In der Fremde"

    The packaging is beautiful with a matte-finished box that contains the DVD in a sleeve that has 4 large color production pictures, and a book with 162 pages which contains several other color production pictures, credits, synopsis, a very high quality 2-page essay by the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich himself, the full libretto, and artistic biographies of all artists, all of the above repeated in German, English, French, and Polish (including the full libretto, which is therefore printed four times). This is likely the most detailed documentation I've ever seen in an operatic DVD or blu-ray disc.

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    This opera based on the half-true, half-fictionalized story authored by a Polish woman who was a holocaust survivor, was suppressed for almost forty years, but has been rediscovered in the mid-2000's and is going strong ever since. The plot is about a German diplomat - Walter - traveling by ship to Brazil with his beloved wife Lisa to be the next ambassador representing post-World War II West Germany, when she seems to recognize another female passenger - Marta, from cabin 45 - as one of her former prisoners. Unbeknownst to her husband and to his great horror, Lisa was a warden at Auschwitz and an SS officer, which she confesses to him in great turmoil.

    This is a very powerful work. No wonder Shostakovich had it as his favorite opera, since the musical language is very close to his own. It's a beautiful and lively score that will please all lovers of modern and contemporary music, with elements of big band and jazzy touches that include an alto saxophone, and onomatopeic music that describes the several tense moments with timpani, triangle, and abrupt flute/piccolo runs, as well - since the ship is headed to Brazil - instruments such as guitar, marimba, and tambourine. Very interesting! More contemplative moments turn melodious on the strings, and percussion is used to great effect, without ever becoming overwhelming.

    The sets for this staging are made of an upper part that is brightly lit and in white color depicting the deck of the ship, and a lower part that is dark and brown, which is Auschwitz. Video direction shows several closes of the singers/actors which is appropriate given the high drama and the quasi-declamatory moments and the good acting displayed by these artists. On occasion it does zoom out to give us a better view of the full stage, which also uses some projections. I'd have preferred to see the zooming out a bit more frequently.

    The vocal lines are very shouty and demanding, which on occasion puts some strain in the voice of tenor Roberto Saccà, but so far he is holding it fairly together. His lady, Michelle Breedt, is handling better the contemporary vocal writing. On the other hand his timbre of voice is prettier than hers. This is a role that asks for a very good dramatic mezzo and while she is doing well with the notes and the dynamics, I'd want someone with a darker and fuller timbre.

    Scene 1 ends with the ship steward (bass Richard Angas who sings and acts well) coming back from an errand Lisa demanded of him, and declaring that he found out that the passenger is British. The couple rejoices since they then believe she isn't Marta. However, an off-stage bass chorus insists that Lisa hasn't confessed everything to her husband yet. Very good first scene! We are 34 minutes into the performance. The orchestra by the way is playing beautifully, and the sound on this blu-ray disc is very good, although the image doesn't seem any better than what we see in regular DVDs.

    Scene 2, in Auschwitz, starts with three SS officers chatting, followed by a melodious chorus by the prisoners which is accompanied by ominous, solemn bass lines and bells. It's all very effective. Heide Capovilla as the Senior Overseer is a weak singer, but her role is more declamatory than singing, anyway. We get to hear Marta for the first time, scrubbing the floor. Elena Kelessidi is the singer; not very impressive so far (but then, let's allow the poor woman to warm up).

    A wagon pulls in and it has the bunk beds of the female prisoners. New arrivals come to the prison and a lot of dissonant singing ensues, in the various different languages spoken by the prisoners who are of different nationalities.

    Ivette, the French prisoner, is sung by soprano Talia Or and unfortunately her diction in French is atrocious. "Are we nearer to freedom, or are we nearer the grave?" -- sing the prisoners. Very pungent scene; the chorus reply that the prisoners are still human. "It hurts to be human" says Bronka, alto Liuba Sokolova, who does very well.

    Fast forward... I stopped posting here and kept watching. The orchestra does a couple of citations... Beethoven's 5th is very clearly recovered, and so is Parisian music of Edith Piaff - one can hear clearly "Padam! Padam! Padam!"

    The orchestration is better than the vocal writing, though. The declamatory style of modern and contemporary opera works better for shorter pieces. This one is a long opera and at one point one gets a bit tired of all the pathos and the shouting.

    The plot gets more and more pungent, as we see Lisa's really despicable side, when she tries to set-up Marta and her lover Thadeusz (also a prisoner) for their downfall. She tries to allow them to meet -- so that they get caught. Thadeusz reads her well and refuses... then she goes tell Lisa that Thadeusz is not interested in seeing her.

    I know what is supposed to happen next but I'm not there yet. Thadeusz, who is a violinist, is supposed to play for the commander his favorite -- and boring -- waltz. Instead, he plays the Chaconne by Bach, which results in his execution.

    There is some very clever play with the words in several languages... like when Ivette plays with the verb "vivre" (to live) and relates it to the word Auschwitz. There is something that resembles an aria, when Marta sings "May the golden autumn come in piece" - arguably the best moment so far. With her voice now warmed up, Elena does a beautiful job. Her Thadeusz, Artur Rucinski, is correct.

    One problem with the dramatic pace is that this whole long, long succession of scenes in Auschwitz are so bleak, that they risk turning off the public - who wants to see shocking pain and suffering going on and on and on? I think this opera could use some tightening and a faster pace; it would actually have more dramatic impact because the endless repetition of the suffering actually starts to anesthetize its impact.

    By the time we get to the otherwise beautiful and pungent Katja aria "You, my little valley" where she longs for the Russian motherland, we are already thinking, "please, no; no more pain!"

    Svetlana Doneva, by the way, is one of the best singers in this production, and this aria is entirely sung a capella, to harrowing effect. Again, it's not that these high moments are not good - it's just that the fillers are too long, in between them.

    Back to the ship, we learn that the passenger from Cabin 45 is Polish, after all, not British. Panic again for the couple. They try to forget it all in a ball, we get instruments on stage, swinging music plays... a bit of relief from the dramatic tension - but once more the enigmatic stranger shows up. Lisa runs to confront her but she disappears. Lisa walks down to the Auschwitz part of the stage, still wearing her white ball gown, and we get to scene 8 when the commander asks for the waltz but Thadeusz defies him and plays Bach instead. It starts with a violin solo, then the orchestra joins. Very beautiful (that's the scene in the picture above). The German soldiers break the violin and beat Thadeusz to death. The chorus starts singing: "Pitch black wall of death! The final sight you would see in this Earth!" Bells toll, in a musical image of funeral/death.

    Epilogue, Marta, now in contemporary womanly clothes and looking pretty, sings "How silent and how still. All is at peace, and all is still" accompanied by flutes. It ends with her singing: "I will never forget you."

    -----------

    Documentary "In Foreign Parts" - impressive, with scenes from Auschwitz, and the real life author of the radio-play/novel being interviewed. Goose-bumping. There also scenes with the making of this production, the composer' s biography, all very interesting: one of the best bonus features in an opera video disc.

    Time for the verdict:

    The opera itself - beautiful score, very evocative, several moments of extreme beauty, very powerful libretto, and good dramatic impact and pace in the first few and the last few scenes, but too long in the middle scenes which decreases the impact. I'm not sure if I'd call it a masterpiece, the way it is. I might, with some cuts in the middle parts. Still, a very good opera. A-

    This production:

    Sets - very clever. A+
    Blocking - with the large stage, not much difficulty there but no opportunity to shine either. A
    Lighting design - could be more imaginative; other than the ship being brightly lit and Auschwitz being dark, not much variation. B-
    Costumes - efficient. Having Marta on the ship wear a veil at all times was a good idea. A
    Stage direction - Very good. A++
    Acting - Excellent across the board with not a single performer being less than very accomplished. A++
    Singing - Extremely uneven, from truly excellent to very weak and everything in between. B+
    Chorus - very good. A+
    Orchestra - Excellent. A++
    Bonus feature - A++
    Sound - A
    Image - B+
    Video Direction - no shenannigans but too many close-ups. B
    Packaging - A+
    Insert - one of the most complete ever. A++

    Overall score, A+, very recommended. It does transcend the niche of contemporary opera and has a more universal appeal. This is a beautiful historical document with outstanding documentation and bonus feature, of a beautiful opera (although the piece itself could use some tightening) in a generally very good production in spites of some downsides such as uneven singing.

    I believe that his work if done right with a few judicious cuts and a more homogeneously good cast can reach masterpiece proportion.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); December 30th, 2014 at 05:00 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  2. #122
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    One of my favorite recent fiction favorite, Victor the Assassin, who likes the classics when not doing his thing, opined that no decent music has been written since the early 20th century. Art restorer Gabriel Allon plays (only) Puccini when restoring the great masters. While I like Mozart, my opera focus is 19th century Italy, and try as I might, I cannot connect with modern stuff. The three essentials of music that I was taught, melody, harmony and rythym are missing the first two in modern music, at least to these ears.

  3. #123
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JohnGerald View Post
    One of my favorite recent fiction favorite, Victor the Assassin, who likes the classics when not doing his thing, opined that no decent music has been written since the early 20th century.
    Well, that's just not true, in my opinion. If you listen to Peter Grimes, Dialogue des Carmélites, L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, War and Peace, St. François d'Assise, Porgy and Bess, Satyagraha, Doctor Atomic, L'Amour de Loin, and Written on Skin to name just a few, you'll see that great opera continued to be composed after Puccini.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  4. #124
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné, opera in two acts and an intermezzo, 2009, music by David Alagna, libretto by David Alagna, Roberto Alagna (the famous tenor) and Fédérico Alagna, based on the homonymous short novel by Victor Hugo, sung in French

    I'm not reviewing this after the existing CD or the existing DVD, but rather from this YouTube clip where it is complete, but with another tenor in the title role (the role was written for and created by Roberto Alagna).



    I don't have the time for a complete review (Super Bowl is about to start, hehe, and I'm busy with other things while I watch this). You guys can see the credits right at the beginning of the video clip. If you search Amazon you will find the CD.

    I'm just interested in saying a few words about this opera.

    It is rather good. It starts with long, declamatory lamentations by two death roll inmates, one on the left of the stage,a male, in the 19th century, who will be put to death by guillotine, and one, a female, who will die of a lethal injection in contemporary times. The left side of the stage is dark and derelict; the right side is lit with bright white lights, and is aseptic like a hospital room.

    This first scene is over-long and gets boring with the endless repetition of the two condemned characters lamenting their sort. It's the only thing I didn't like about this opera. It should have lasted one third of its duration.

    Otherwise, when this ends, everything picks up pace and theatricality, and the piece becomes quite compelling.

    The music is entirely tonal, something rare in contemporary opera. The orchestration is very dense and rich (also rare). The piece has significant emotional impact and is cleverly staged.

    In this clip, the artists are good in voice and acting, especially the male, and comprimarios are pretty good.

    Overall I give to this opera a grade of A, recommended. It's solidly good. Not an astounding masterpiece like A++ Written on Skin, and not A+ because of the lack of pace in the over-long first scene, but otherwise a solid A.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  5. #125
    Senior Member Top Contributor Member Clayton's Avatar
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    Saariaho: L'Amour de loin
    Directed by Peter Sellars
    Dawn Upshaw, Monica Groop & Gerald Finley
    Finnish National Opera, Esa-Pekka Salonen

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    This is a very good opera and a very good DVD. It is hovering between this thread and the desert island DVDs thread.

    I'm going to stop saying "a must for all Gerald Finley fans" until he sends me a free ticket to his next London gig but his performance and Dawn Upshaw and Monica Groop are all brilliant here.

    The opera is a good old fashioned love story, in fact it's so old it is based on a tale from the twelfth century. It has the does he/she love me, what did he/she say, shall I call him/her first (oh okay, I made that last bit up) of all young love stories set to some fantastic music with a very organic feel. It is quite intense, almost relentless with the attention is draws, all the way through changing from quite dramatic emotions to soft romances with a range of colours in between.

    The stage is quite brilliant here too (everything about this is brilliant), complimenting the music and story very well and is visually very exciting (and if I had a Chelsea footballer's mansion I would want that boat in my living room).

    Oh so thrilling.

  6. #126
    Member Recent member Albert7's Avatar
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    Anyone here have a recommendation for Berg's Lulu available on CD? I have the Boulez version on DG on vinyl and really love it. Any newer recordings are good?

  7. #127
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Albert7 View Post
    Anyone here have a recommendation for Berg's Lulu available on CD? I have the Boulez version on DG on vinyl and really love it. Any newer recordings are good?
    I'm not a CD kind of guy. I really love Barbara Hannigan's performance in the Brussels production that has just been released on DVD:

    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  8. #128
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    Thanks for this thread! I'm rather limited in that I don't own a TV, so I have to settle for CDs. Anyway, Tippett's Midsummer Marriage sounds wonderful. The tenor vocalist is terrific!

    The Saariaho opera contains some very enchanting and beautiful music. It doesn't even need the vocals.


    I keep reading great things about the Messiaen, but it hasn't clicked yet. I'll try it again sometime.

    I bought the Hartmann opera, and two Schreker operas, so I'm looking forward to those.

  9. #129
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by StarThrower View Post
    I'm rather limited in that I don't own a TV
    Why not buy one just for this purpose? Best Buy has 19" TVs for less than $80. Walmart has DVD players for $25.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  10. #130
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    Quote Originally Posted by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) View Post
    Why not buy one just for this purpose? Best Buy has 19" TVs for less than $80. Walmart has DVD players for $25.
    A flat screen HD TV is inexpensive at any of our MI Best Buy or ABCs. That investment allows you to play Blu ray discs and have amazing opera right in your home!

  11. #131
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    Quote Originally Posted by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) View Post
    Why not buy one just for this purpose? Best Buy has 19" TVs for less than $80. Walmart has DVD players for $25.
    It's not really a matter of finances. But I've really enjoyed not having a TV in the house since I tossed my old analog model. This way I read more instead of sitting in front of the tube. Maybe when I retire and have more time, I'll put together an entertainment system.

  12. #132
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    I Shardana on DVD - Italian Regie from Cagliari!



    I Shardana, gli uomini dei Nuraghi
    - dramma musicale in three acts, sung in Italian
    Music by Ennio Porrino (1910-1959)
    Libretto by the composer

    Premiered on March 21, 1959, at Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Italy

    Orchestra and Chorus of the Fondazione Teatro Lirico di Cagliari
    Conducted by Anthony Bramall
    Chorus Master Marco Faelli

    Stage Director Davide Livermore
    Lighting Designer Loïc François Hamelin
    Costume Designer Marco Nateri
    Sets Giò Forma Production Design
    Video Design D-Wok
    Video Director Davide Mancini

    Recorded live at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Italy, on September 24 and 27, 2013

    DVD by Dynamic, 2015 (also available on blu-ray disc) - NTSC 16:9, sound PCM 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1, 114 minutes, no extras. Region zero (worldwide), subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese, and Korean. Insert with a 2 and a 1/2 page essay in Italian with rather good musical commentary, and a 1-page synopsis, repeated in Italian and English, 5 production pictures in color, list of musical numbers with titles and characters, but no duration. Technically speaking, sound and image are good, and video direction is adequate.

    Cast

    Gonnario - Manrico Signorini
    Torbeno - Angelo Villari
    Orzocco - Ginapiero Ruggeri
    Norace - Domenico Balzani
    Bèrbera Jonia - Paoletta Marrocu
    Nibatta - Allessandra Palomba
    Perdu - Gabriele Mangione
    Plus, seven other very small roles
    Special Guest - Elena Ledda

    ------------

    From the capital of Sardinia we get this DVD/Blu-ray of the obscure opera by one of the island's sons, modernist composer Ennio Porrino.

    Mixed feelings about this one, given that it has some extraordinary assets, but also some striking shortcomings.

    Porrino's claim to fame is his symphonic poem Sardegna, which is very beautiful. He was one of Resphighi's disciples, and finished Resphighi's opera Lucrezia after the master's death. While Porrino's orchestration is extremely compelling, one wonders how well he grasped the operatic medium, because his vocal writing is way more tentative than his instrumental parts. This is made painfully evident in I Shardana (his last work, 6 months before his death), which contains some sublime instrumental and choral music (really - some of the chorus scenes are goosebumps-grade in their extreme beauty), but also some loud, strident vocal lines that seem at odds with the underlying orchestration. The moments when the score allows the singers to go piano are the best bits, but the predominantly loud, sustained vocal lines hurt one's ears.

    This is not helped in this production by some rather mediocre singers, especially Paoletta Marrocu who has an unpleasant, shrill voice, can't act, and shows no chemistry with Angelo Villari, in spite of the fact that the libretto indicates some rather explicitly sensual dialogue between the two of them. By the way, Mr. Villari is not a good singer either. Actually the secondary roles fare a lot better - and the chorus does extremely well, saving the day. The orchestra is good.

    While mentioning the libretto, it reminds me of another problem with this work - do you know the feeling when you watch a B or C movie with rather bad writing? Libretto writing by this composer is definitely not his forte. Some of the lines are tacky and devoid of literary quality. The characters are poorly developed and uninteresting (we never get to care that much about what happens to these people). Pace is not that good - there are some unnecessarily long scenes and some rushed ones. There are too many characters for a short run time. This is not a theatrically-sound work.

    So, musically speaking, it's really a hit-and-miss affair: the orchestra and the chorus do well with Porrino's rather beautiful music (and like I said some choral parts are mind-bogglingly beautiful especially in the third act), but the singers sink the ship while dealing with some very iffy lines and questionable vocal writing. Maybe Mr. Porrino should have stuck with oratorios and instrumental pieces. It seems like he tried to emulate Wagner with some of the shouty lines. Mr. Porrino: you are no Wagner.

    Now, the production is very curious and while not without some downsides, it is actually an asset in terms of this DVD being a recommended purchase.

    First of all, those like me who enjoy some cough cough assets cough cough are in for a treat. This is arguably the most female nudity I've ever seen in an operatic work. Very shapely nude dancers are everywhere, all the time, throughout the entire opera. Frankly it's a bit overwhelming and distracting.

    Second, the projections are very successful, and convey effectively the menacing waters surrounding the island. Some moments are not only original, but also strikingly beautiful. Props (with some Bronze Age artwork), costumes, make-up, and masks are very nice.

    Still, they tend to overstay their welcome. At one point, it is just too much visual stimulation (and there is a rather violent touch). The rocky platform on the center of the stage could use some less spinning. It gets dizzying, and one is about to shout "enough is enough."

    The production is definitely on the Regie side, something that is very rare in Italian shows. Some of the tropes of the genre say present - this is supposed to be in pre-historical Sardinia (this production has Bronze Age props), but of course the anachronistic contemporary clothes make an appearance, while all the dancers do look pre-historical with muddy body paint. By the way, when a director goes for a Regie concept, it's good to get some cast members who can act. These can't. The acting in this show is extremely cheesy, like a bad soap opera. And what in the hell did they mean by the three silent nuns gesticulating as in sign language (sort of), on the left side of the stage? Go figure.

    Anyway, I hesitate in recommending this DVD. It's really a 50% thing. Again, Mr. Porrino is a good composer but not a good opera composer/librettist. The ups are some beautiful instrumental and choral music, interesting visuals to a certain degree before they get tiresome, and hugely attractive and pervasive naked female dancers. The downs are the bad vocal writing, the awful singing, the cheesy acting, and the weak libretto that is not theatrically sound. Overall, B-.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); January 21st, 2016 at 04:19 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  13. #133
    Senior Member Top Contributor Member Clayton's Avatar
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    I hope the music is a whooooooooole lot better than that cover picture.

    sorry

    I'm shallow

  14. #134
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Clayton View Post
    I hope the music is a whooooooooole lot better than that cover picture.

    sorry

    I'm shallow
    Actually the cover picture contains a scene from the projections. It works better on stage (it's darker, larger, and moving). The music like I said is a mixed bag.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  15. #135
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    New opera by Mark Abel, contemporary California composer



    This Delos release is scheduled for a few days from now, on 3/16/16. We got an early copy for review. It is the world premiere recording of a contemporary opera by Californian composer Mark Abel. The CD also contains the excellent song cycle The Palm Trees Are Restless, reviewed separately [here].

    Home is a Harbor, opera in three acts, sung in English
    Music by Mark Abel
    Libretto by Mark Abel

    Studio recording
    La Brea Sinfonietta conducted by Benjamin Makino

    Cast

    Jamie Chamberlin, soprano - Lisa
    Ariel Pisturino, soprano - Laurie
    Babatunde Akinboboye, baritone - Lance
    E. Scott Levin, baritone - Leo, Liam
    Janelle DeStefano, mezzo - Linda, Lenore
    Jon Lee Keenan, tenor - Larry
    Carver Cossey, bass - Lou

    Mark Abel has a number of interesting pieces to his name. He has released previous CDs: "The Dream Gallery," and "Terrain of the Heart." The song cycle included in the current CD is his fourth. Home is a Harbor is his first opera.

    He was a rock musician and lyricist as a young man, and later explored modern jazz. However he had always appreciated classical music since his childhood, and after turning to a journalistic career, he decided to become a composer of "serious music."

    His style naturally blends influences from all three genres - rock, jazz, and classical. For example, in this opera, he quotes Shostakovich's 15th Symphony, and a phrase from Charlie Haden's bass solo on Denny Zeitlin's jazz trio "Mirage."

    The themes covered by the libretto are set to the years between 2005 and 2011. Twin sisters born in a coastal California community, Morro Bay, are the leading characters for this piece that shows their coming-of-age stories, in a slice-of-life pattern. One, Lisa, goes to NYU to become a visual artist, drops out of school, enjoys some success in the Soho and Brooklyn art scenes selling her paintings, but becomes disillusioned with the frivolity of the milieu (and with her superficial boyfriend Larry) and returns to Morro Bay. The other one, Laurie, goes to a local community college then transfers to Cal Poly, and subsequently works in real state for a shady businessman, Liam. She becomes equally turned off by her boss' unethical practices and also returns to Morro Bay. Her boyfriend Lance enlists in the Army and comes back from Afghanistan maimed and disfigured, becoming a pain-killer addict, and a homeless Vet. The sisters, shocked with these developments, decide to form an organization to aid homeless Vets. Other comprimario characters include Lou, an elderly black poet; the twins' parents Leo and Linda; Lenore, an art dealer, The Yowler, an untalented ukulele player and singer; a nurse at the VA hospital; and a bum.

    The runtime is approximately 100 minutes. The package comes with an insert that contains several color pictures of California landscapes and the cast members/conductor/composer, with their brief artistic biographies. The full libretto is provided, as well as the text for the five poems set to music in the accompanying song cycle. There is a two-page introductory text, and a two-page composer's note, as well as a synopsis. The opera was recorded in July 2015. To date, I'm not aware of a staging or a concert performance.

    The opera is scored for a chamber orchestra - flute, alto flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, flugelhorn, piano, sampled celesta, cimbalom, cello, bass, vibraphone, percussion, and... an organ, which provides the big sounds for the more dramatic scenes, and it sometimes plays with the double bass. Synthetic sounds also appear, including iPhone ringing tones.

    Spoken dialogues happen from time to time but mostly the vocal writing is in parlando / arioso structure. There are numerous jazzy and "rocky" moments.

    First operas are never an easy task. This one does have merits. It is lively and varied. It is utterly modern in sounds and themes. It is sufficiently compact, with no longueurs. The piece also suffers from some shortcomings. Vocal writing is not as inspired as the composer is surely capable of doing, which is well proven by his much more compelling song cycle that follows the opera. The first act appears a bit musically directionless (granted, the characters' lives are depicted as such in the first act so the music does match the idea). Second act picks up a bit, with an interesting act 2 scene 3 in a night club, and especially act 2 scene 4 in the VA hospital, which contains the best musical ideas. Act 3 has a somewhat over-busy simultaneous/alternating scene with the two sisters in different locations and interacting with different characters, but it does have some clever overlaps. Act 3 scene 2, while being the longest (and final) scene, paradoxically seems rushed with a character arc that is a bit under-developed.

    The singers do well across the board in terms of beautiful voice timbre, good technique with nice pitch control, and range. I particularly liked Ms. Jamie Chamberlain. They do suffer when compared with the spectacular job done by the excellent Hila Plitmann in the song cycle. What the latter has more than the singers for the opera, is musicality and passion in the phrasing of the lines. Conceivably, if two singers of her stature had performed the two leading roles in the opera, the impact would have been bigger.

    In summary, this is a valid effort that should encourage the composer to keep writing operas, but it could use some enhancements. I'll give it 3 stars out of 5. I'd imagine that with subsequent workshops, rehearsals, and adaptations for a staging, this opera could get to a 4-star rating. Often a first opera when released is still a work-in-progress and can be improved.

    While the opera has ups and downs, the purchase of this CD is recommended anyway, especially due to the sublime song cycle that in itself justifies the buy.

    Besides, we've just learned that the composer will donate part of the sales revenue to organizations that help Veterans, and this is highly commendable, and greatly endears the composer to me.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); March 7th, 2016 at 12:26 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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