Locke’s List for 2020: Major Discoveries and Pleasant Diversions in Operatic and Other Vocal Music (Plus a Ballet to a Scenario by Arthur Schnitzler)

What a strange, scary, and remarkable year 2020 has been, in all our lives! The social isolation that I have carried out pretty consistently has led me to look to music even more than usual for solace, enlightenment, and pleasant distraction. I gather that many music lovers have traveled a somewhat similar path since mid-March.

My penchant for opera, and for vocal music and for the theatre generally, has led me to get to know a number of recent CD releases, many of which I have reviewed for American Record Guide or for various online magazines.

Giulia Grisi as Norma in Bellini's Opera

Opening Night at Tanglewood, BSO, Dutoit in an Italian Opera Potpourri

The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened this year’s Tanglewood season July 8th with an Italian program planned by James Levine—now resigned from Boston—and taken over pretty much intact by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. The program book declared the evening “La Prima di Tanglewood.” I would call the concert only half a success, but the best part was the second half, and the huge audience seemed very well pleased at the end.

Rossini’s Tancredi at Opera Boston

Among the many things I admire about Opera Boston is the consistency of their priorities. A great deal of care and expense goes into casting vocally and dramatically excellent singers appropriate for their roles. Music Director Gil Rose maintains a strong orchestra, and he is an impressive musician and conductor in his own right. Budgetary restrictions are more apparent in sets and costumes—this in turn touches the stage direction as a whole. In last year’s season, for example, the first act of Der Freischütz was perfectly viable, while the Wolf’s Glen scene was pretty much a shambles, a seemingly a desperate attempt to make the most of inadequate resources with precious gimmicks. Opera Boston’s production last spring of Shostakovich’s The Nose was more successful: brilliant stage and costume design and brilliant direction were noticeably, but acceptably compromised by budget limitations. As impressive as the intelligent programming and musical results are, a hint of well-intentioned “making do” remains in the physical production, and that was painfully apparent in Opera Boston’s recent production of Rossini’s youthful opera seria, Tancredi.

Gioachino Rossini, Semiramide – Bel Canto at Caramoor – Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Will Crutchfield, conductor

Opera-lovers owe the Caramoor Festival a vast debt for their splendid revivals of bel canto masterpieces. Rossini’s massive opera seria is perhaps not as obscure as some, because Joan Sutherland adopted it as a vehicle (in a mutilated form, in which her character, Semiramide, made even more prominent by cuts in other roles, does not die in the end), and the Met staged it for Marilyn Horne in 1990, after a ninety-five year hiatus. Once we become accustomed to Rossini’s highly conventionalized musical language, in which we have to listen through charming tunes and florid ornamentation to connect with a psychological and dramatic core which is most definitely present, we can appreciate the force and grandeur of his neo-classical music drama. Rossini’s fixed musical forms, which remained the same, no matter how fully developed or elaborate they might be, give Semiramide a special monumentality all its own: the tensions of the plot, in which unknown relationships and criminal secrets emerge, become all the more powerful, as they act against this classical inertia. Semiramide is a great opera, and it was a brilliant idea to present it in concert with minimal dramatic action with Will Crutchfield, who has a unique affinity for Rossini, and The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, a small orchestra with plenty of color in its string section that sound just right for Rossini, and with a stellar cast of some of the most promising younger singers, including Vivica Genaux, Angela Meade, Lawrence Brownlee, and Daniel Mobbs. The results were quite thrilling, and it was a joy to see Rossini’s masterpiece in working order again.

Vivica Genaux and Craig Rutenberg at Tannery Pond

Outstanding vocal performances, many of them by mezzo-sopranos, have been among the defining features of this summer’s musical life. Anne Sofie von Otter finally reached her true potential as Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens. The great Anna Caterina Antonacci thrilled us as Cassandra in the same opera, and a newcomer, Kate Lindsey, excelled in the small part of Ascane, going on to greater things (with the splendid baritione, Thomas Meglioranza) in John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5 and, magnificently, in Elliott Carter’s In the Distances of Sleep. Sopranos Lucy Shelton, Iwona Hossa, and, of course, Renée Fleming were equally unforgettable. But one of the most remarkable and fascinating of these took place last Saturday evening at Tannery Pond, when Vivica Genaux, accompanied by Craig Rutenberg, performed an unusual program of works little-known in the classical mainstream.

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