Monthly Archives: October 2022

Stunning and Grand, Opera Carolina Recreates the Original Designs of “Tosca”

Review: Opera Carolina Presents Puccini’s Tosca

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Tosca-40 

October 13, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Even in an Opera Carolina production with merely eight solo vocalists in the cast, it was easy enough to see what makes grand opera so grand. Most of the musicians on Charlotte Symphony’s payroll were in the orchestra pit when we entered Belk Theater, tuning up or rehearsing. The program booklets handed to us at the door had the size and stylishness of a glossy fashion magazine, and when the curtain rose on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, we saw the interior of a Roman cathedral, the first of Adolph Hohenstein’s three diverse set designs. By the end of the opening act, the stage was filled with clergy, a cardinal, and a throng of Opera Carolina choristers, all celebrating a mistaken report of a royalist victory over Napoleon’s invading army.

All of these blandishments – and extras – spell out expensive in big, bold capital letters. So it was particularly disappointing to see the Belk’s uppermost balcony completely empty and so many unclaimed seats below. If Hohenstein’s name rings a bell, we can multiply our disappointment, because he designed the sets, the costumes, the props, and the poster art for the original Milanese production of Tosca in January 1900. We can thank the New York City Opera for this meticulous recreation of Hohenstein’s handiwork – by heading out to the Belk Theater and seeing it.2022~Tosca-13

Opera Carolina lighting designer Michael Baumgarten certainly helps to capture the melodramatic spirit of Puccini’s deft adaptation of Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, written for Sarah Bernhardt in 1887. But perhaps disheartened by all those empty seats, the opening night performance didn’t attain its full potboiler heat until late in Act 1 when bass baritone Steven Condy entered as Baron Scarpia, the cruel, lascivious, and unscrupulous chief of Rome’s city police. Until then, soprano Alyson Cambridge as opera diva Floria Tosca and tenor John Viscardi as principled painter Mario Cavaradossi hadn’t belittled the love, intrigue, jealousy, and playfulness of their relationship. Not at all. But against the backdrop of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, tempestuously conducted by OpCar artistic director James Meena from the opening bars onwards, both sounded somewhat underpowered, though they were clearly gifted as actors.2022~Tosca-10

Chasing after former Roman Republic consul Cesare Angelotti, who has escaped from prison and has already been secreted into hiding by Cavaradossi, Condy as Scarpia quickly injected menace and urgency into the drama. Then he cunningly worked on Tosca’s unfounded jealousy to freshen the trail to her paramour’s hideout before the curtain fell. In his tense confrontation with Tosca, Condy seemed to kindle some of the spark we would see unceasingly from Cambridge in the two acts that followed.

Stage director James Marvel takes full advantage of his principals’ gifts as the intricacies of Sardou’s plot come brutally to fruition in Act 2. Tosca has led Scarpia’s spies to Cavaradossi’s hideout, and soon the painter will be in custody while Angelotti has once again escaped. Scarpia dispatches his prisoner to a torture chamber adjoining his lavish apartment, hoping to extract information about Angelotti’s whereabouts. He and his thugs cannot break Cavaradossi, but they don’t have to. Tosca is with him, ruefully aware that her jealousy was baseless, and able to hear her beloved’s outcries as Scarpia’s men inflict their torture. Where the fiend has failed with Cavaradossi, he succeeds with Tosca, breaking her twice. In exchange for stopping the torture, Tosca gives up Angelotti, and to barter for Cavaradossi’s freedom, the price will be Tosca’s virtue.

2022~Tosca-16Beyond having doubted her true love’s fidelity, there was so much more for Tosca to regret now. In singing the famous “Vissi d’arte” aria before nodding her consent to Scarpia, Cambridge drew upon all the additional anguish Puccini had written for her. All of the art she had lived for, all of her passionate love, all her charitable deeds, and all her fervent prayers have been for naught in the face of this perverted monster. God has shortchanged her. With all the grim delight that Condy took in tormenting her in their crackling duets, it certainly seemed so. But Marvel was no less cold-blooded in staging “Tosca’s kiss,” where the diva settles all her debts with the Baron and appends a chilling religious ceremony.2022~Tosca-35

Courageous and bloodied in his brief appearances, Viscardi’s energy jumped nearly as much as Cambridge’s after the first intermission, but he didn’t reach his zenith until he staggered onto the rooftop battlements of the Sant’Angelo Castle in the pre-dawn light of Act 3, sentenced to face a firing squad. Maybe not quite as electrifying as Cambridge’s signature aria, Viscardi filled Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” with sweet lyrical despair that soared upwards into the dawn appointed for his death. Alone for an extended conspiratorial duet, when both lovers grew joyous at the prospect of their coming bliss, Cambridge and Viscardi poignantly lit up the stage one last time before fate cruelly closed its fist on them. Stunning – and grand.

New Charlotte Symphony Season Brings New Sounds and Welcome Echoes

Review: CSO Plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Strauss’s Aus Italien

2022~Elgar Cello-05By Perry Tannenbaum

October 7, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Charlotte Symphony’s conductor laureate, Christopher Warren-Green, had been gone nearly a full week, but the echo of his presence remained at the kickoff of the 2022-23 season at Knight Theater. Once again, the Orchestra fired off the “Star-Spangled Banner” to inaugurate the new season, and once again, the ensemble achieved lift-off with Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto – just like they did in 2012 at Belk Theater in Warren-Green’s first concert as musical director. Now Andrew Grams wielded the baton, his first guest shot with Symphony since 2016, and the soloist making her Charlotte debut was Israeli cellist Inbal Segev rather than Alisa Weilerstein.

Both artists have recorded the Elgar, Bloch’s Kol Nidre, and the complete Bach Cello Suites, so they may be described as kindred spirits. Perhaps Segev gets the nod over Weilerstein in being more simpatico with Grams, who began his program with PIVOT by British composer Anna Clyne. Not only did Segev commission a new Clyne concerto, DANCE, but she also premiered it on the same 2020 album where she plays the Elgar. Grams returned after intermission with Richard Strauss’s rarely-heard Aus Italien, arguably a more outlaw piece than the composer’s Don Juan.

Always forthcoming and charming when he addresses an audience, Grams likened the transitions of PIVOT to pressing the “previous channel” button on a TV remote control. True enough, shifts back and forth from the slow to the fast sections of the piece were often abrupt, incongruous jumps, sometimes startlingly so. But compared to the premiere performance, recorded at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2021, Grams seemed a bit heavy-handed in making his point. Instead of reveling in the contrasts, I found myself longing for the return of the calmer, quieter interludes – a sad waltz, a lazy Irish reel, and an Eastern European lament flavored with paprika – because Grams was more inclined to make the dominant loud sections raucous rather than catchy, though I was certainly delighted by the double-bass section providing whip-crack percussion, snapping their strings. I found myself rehabbing my appreciation for Clyne by listening to Segev’s recording of DANCE the following morning.2022~Elgar Cello-26

In person, Segev’s playing on the Elgar moved me far more than her excellent recording. Clearly, she was as comfortable with the orchestra as Grams and his musicians were with her. Hardly showy at all, her relaxed and dignified manner welcomed the audience and musicians to immerse themselves in the music along with her. Technical obstacles and difficulties never fazed Segev, so instead of capping strenuous journeys, we seemed to arrive more suddenly and dramatically at peak moments, where the cellist and Grams simultaneously turned up the voltage. The outer movements, the opening Adagio and an epic closing Allegro with no less than five sections, were teeming with rich contours and vivid contrasts. The more homogeneous middle movements, a Lento followed an Adagio, were object lessons in how an accomplished artist keeps our interest between musical tempests.

Although the Knight wasn’t filled to overflowing, a robust crowd was wildly appreciative of Inbal’s grace and verve. Nor was her encore, the Courante from Bach’s Suite No. 3, chosen to reconcile us to her departure. The standing ovation for this sparkly gem was every bit as enthusiastic as the reception for the Elgar. Deservedly.2022~Elgar Cello-22

Somewhere in Germany or possibly Austria, Christof Perick, Charlotte Symphony’s most ardent champion of Strauss, must have been smiling when Grams deftly navigated the many delights of Aus Italien. This youthful symphonic poem, premiered in 1887 while Strauss was in his early 20s, committed the folly of stealing “Funiculì, Funiculà” for the cornerstone of his final movement when composer Luigi Denza could readily sue him for the theft. But the inventiveness of the young genius is unalloyed in the previous three movements. Opening Strauss’s travelogue, “In the Country” isn’t bucolic in the manner of Copeland or Beethoven. Its serenity, filled with gravity and sadness, builds to yearning drama and then to majestic triumph. Surprisingly, for a movement titled “Amid the Ruins of Rome,” the music becomes livelier and turbulent, more like Strauss’s later heroic tone poems – for as he wanders amid the remnants of the past, he conjures up the glories.

Most impressive and precocious for me was the penultimate “At the Shore of Sorrento” movement, written more than a quarter of a century before Claude Debussy’s La Mer and no less accurate in sketching seagulls with the woodwinds and rippling waters with a harp. Grams had the Charlotte Symphony as immersed in Aus Italien as they had been in the Elgar, and the ebullience of the Orchestra in the closing “Neopolitan Folk Life” was irresistible, no matter how cheesy you might find Strauss’s “Funiculì” thievery. Hearing this still familiar tune played on bassoon and then as a march was just plain fun.

Delayed More Than Two Years, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” Gets a Powerhouse CSO Performance

Review: Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” No. 3 with the Charlotte Symphony and Paul Jacobs

 By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Saint-Saëns-19

October 1, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When Christopher Warren-Green took over as music director of the Charlotte Symphony in September 2010, nobody could foresee that his transition to conductor laureate a dozen years later at the Orchestra would coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Charlotte chapter of the American Guild of Organists – and the 55th anniversary of the mighty M.P. Möller pipe organ at the First United Methodist Church on Tryon Street. As this confluence became manifest, so did an auspicious event to celebrate it, a partnering of the Symphony with the Church in a concert showing off the magnificence of the Möller pipes in action. These dual anniversaries provided Warren-Green with his first opportunity to return to Charlotte and perform in his new role, and the glitter of a prestigious occasion was enhanced with Grammy Award-winning organist Paul Jacobs at the console.

The choice of repertoire for this special event was especially enticing, including Camille Saëns’ thunderous “Organ Symphony” No. 3, George Frideric Handel’s most familiar Organ Concerto, and a prodigious Bach encore from Jacobs that decisively upstaged Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. With the remnants of Hurricane Ian keeping many subscribers away from the opening night performance on Friday night, the Saturday sequel filled the hall – down below and up in the stately balcony – to the bursting point.

For all of us who have felt a pang of frustration each time we gazed upon the vestigial organ pipes at Belk Theater, keenest when the Saint-Saëns Symphony was presented there with a piddling electronic substitute, this concert provided rich consolations. There were also redemptive aspects to this special program, for both Symphony subscribers and the Orchestra’s musicians, since the last time that the “Organ Symphony” was programmed at Belk Theater on March 20, 2020, it was one of the first musical cancellations of the COVID pandemic. All of those rehearsals were not in vain after all.

My own enthusiasm for organ recordings goes back to the vinyl days of Daniel Chorzempa’s performances of the complete concertos and Peter Hurford’s renowned compilation of Bach’s organ works, later reissued as a 17-CD doorstop. Recordings of the “Organ Symphony,” on the other hand, were always earmarked in audiophile reviews as demo treasures that could prove the mettle of cream-of-the-crop loudspeakers far beyond my budget. With the advent of the Charlotte Bach Festival four years ago, we’ve been able to hear live performances of the Bach solos by topnotch organists, a rare enough blessing. But I’d never hoped to hear a live rendition of a Handel Organ Concerto, even on a piddling portable at the Belk.2022~Saint-Saëns-06

If your concept of classical organ has been shaped by Bach, who inspired countless grandiose organ compositions by notables of every generation since – and the ginormous instruments around the world built to play them – then the sunny, playful sound of Handel’s concerti could take you aback. Of course, the nickname of Concerto No. 13, “The Cuckoo & the Nightingale,” would have provided a broad hint if you picked up a program entering the sanctuary. Although marked Larghetto, there was nothing solemn about the opening movement, which began with Jacobs parroting the orchestral intro. The true merriment of the piece became evident in the ensuing Allegro, where cuckoo-clock sounds proliferated. As Jacobs took greater command, he played a little duet with himself, those plodding cuckoo sounds facing off with some nightingale filigree in the treble.

The middle movement was marked Organo ad libitum in our programs, in contrast with the Chorzempa version, where the “ad libs” were split into two tracks explicitly adapted from two movements of a Handel violin sonata. In the penultimate movement, another Larghetto, Jacobs finally gave us a hushed foretaste of the grander churchly sounds he would offer up in his Bach encore. Nearly as virtuosic as his crowdpleasing cuckoo-nightingale counterpoint, the closing Allegro was the most jocund and celebratory movement of this concerto – and arguably the best incentive for seeking out the other 15 on recordings. Adding to the pleasure, the silky Symphony violins were as cheery as the organ, and Jacobs crowned this confection by soloing with his feet on the Möller’s pedals.2022~Saint-Saëns-14

There’s little shame in not identifying a Bach organ work when it’s played – unless it’s the famed Toccata and Fugue in D minor with its instantly recognizable opening and Gothic drama. Not knowing the precise title, key, and BWV catalog number certainly didn’t deter the First United audience from showering worshipful admiration on Jacobs’ dazzling performance. For the record, it was Bach’s A Minor Fugue BWV 543. The roar from the crowd in their protracted standing ovation was nearly as stunning as the performance. You couldn’t question this massive communal judgment when Jacobs had given life to the idea of “pulling out all the stops,” but we could wonder whether anything afterwards would measure up.

Reduced in number for the Church’s oratory platform and hampered by an acoustic environment less friendly to visiting orchestras than to the house organ, Charlotte Symphony gave Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” the old college try for their former maestro. There was an unmistakable contrast in the opening movement between the sublimity of the Andante introduction and the turbulence that follows in the dominant Allegro con fuoco section. Mendelssohn’s middle movements retained their engaging contrast as well, though the sanctuary’s sonics stole a bit of their sparkle. It helped that the Allegro vivace presented the work’s most familiar melody and that Symphony played the penultimate Andante so tenderly. Most impactful, however, was how Warren-Green shaped the closing Chorale with its joyous sunny components, the woodland purity of the Andante con moto and the conquering march of the Allegro vivace. Brassy, stately, and triumphant, the “Reformation” ended grandly with the stamp of Rose Lipham’s timpani.2022~Saint-Saëns-07

While Symphony’s performance of the Mendelssohn did not match the éclat of Jacobs’ exploits with the Bach, the verve of their assault on the Chorale boded well for the Saint-Saëns masterwork when Warren-Green and the organist returned after intermission. A few more musicians fortified the strings onstage during the break, but the full thunder of the “Organ Symphony” isn’t unleashed until the Maestoso section midway through the second (and final) movement, a sudden onslaught that must have snapped more than a few heads back. At last, this was the prime reason why it was worth hearing this massive work live with the might of a true church organ, an unforgettable experience. But that sforzando can be simulated in your living room easily enough if you wish to startle yourself without the more unique experience of feeling a whole sanctuary, with a congregation of over a thousand, trembling to its foundations. What most loudspeakers cannot deliver at home came earlier in the piece, when the opening movement Allegro moderato gave way to an almost serene Poco adagio.

Here Jacobs and the Möller organ produced a more primal subterranean sound, eerie and uncanny in its force, an octave or more below what most loudspeakers can audibly reproduce with anything approaching this power. Sitting in the second row, I felt like a monster whale or a legendary Leviathan was about to surface from directly below me. Warren-Green and his orchestra were in top form in the first halves of Saint-Saëns’ two movements, particularly appealing in the ominous Allegro moderato that opens the second movement, surely the most familiar melody in this score. Most thrilling was when the orchestra vied in sheer volume with the pipe organ and Symphony’s new conductor laureate sleekly accelerated the tempo into the rousing Allegro finish. Coming at the end of an evening suffused with music from the “king of instruments,” these moments had all the grandeur of a coronation.