Tag Archives: Opera

[129] Benjamin Britten – Peter Grimes

25 Sep

It is not the fault of Tom Moon or Benjamin Britten than when I saw that I was to listen to an English Opera, my expectations were set way out of tune with reality.


I grew up listening to English Light Operetta courtesy of my Grandpa’s passion for all things Gilbert and Sullivan.  My first visits to the theater were for amateur dramatics, touring and D’Oyly Carte productions of The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, and eventually the entire canon.

(I always took perverse pleasure in the fact that our local AmDram troop was called the Southend Operatic and Dramatic Society – acronym, SODS . . .)

Some of the earliest songs I sang, many of the earliest lyrics I memorized were these clever and catchy period pieces – unmistakable English (even when ostensibly set in Japan!) and as entertaining as they are musically well-crafted.  So I was excited to further explore “English Opera.”

I was very quickly disappointed.

The melodies and flat and dense, likely very appropriate to the dour subject matter but far from enjoyable.  And the plummy, hammy performances which so enhance the absurdity of a G&S show is grating when the subject matter is played straight.

I tried and tried, but wanted to stop listening halfway through every single time I hit “play”.

Would this engage me in a theater?  There appears to be enough of a plot here to hold interest, and I’ve never been put off by dark stories and the absence of a happy ending.  But as a purely audial experience I was left unengaged and frustrated.

Again, the fault here is as likely mine as the composer’s, the performers’, or Tom Moon’s.  I was just expecting something else, hoping for something to build upon a genre with which I have fond and intimate familiarity.  Instead I am left longing for the oxymoron of sophisticated slapstick, for patter songs and pretty tunes.

I’m off to listen to Trial By Jury . . .

Next Week – Big Bill Broonzy – The Young Big Bill Broonzy, 1928-1935

Owned before blogging? No. (11 of 129 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No. (19 of 129 = 15%)
Recommend? No. (105 of 129 = 81%)

[98] Georges Bizet – Carmen

20 Feb

People just love Carmen – both the character and the Opera.

Conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham

Conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham

I challenge you to try to listen to this “Overture” and not hum along.

There are so many lively and familiar tunes here, so much passion, so much fun.  It’s an enormous, captivating stew of inventive melody and expressive storytelling.

And that’s just the highlights, the stuff everybody already has ingrained into their pop culture psyches.  Continuing to listen closely to the sections which aren’t as immediately recognizable, there is still the constant revelation of creativity and effervescence.

The leading melodies are crisp and punchy, and only enhanced by the wall of sound choral vocals, the orchestral flourishes that keep a listener on the edge of your seat, anticipating the next moment that will bring a smile to your face.

The one knock leveled against this particular recording chosen by Tom Moon is the narrative recitative, added in place of the original straight dialog after Bizet’s death.  But for me it just means that there is more of this rewarding masterpiece to listen to before starting over from that “Overture” yet again.

If you haven’t seen or heard Carmen beyond “Habanera” or “Toreador” in a while, do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this slice of musical bliss.

Next Week:  Bjork – Homogenic

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 98 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? Yes. (15 of 98 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (80 of 98 = 82%)

[91] Hector Berlioz – Les Troyens

2 Jan

Color me arbitrary.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the  Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique

Despite long moments of soul-searching and of intellectual reflection, I am unable to explain to myself – let alone anyone else – why one recording instantly captivates where another by the same composer provokes an instant and opposite reaction.

From the opening notes of this huge and sweeping Opera, I am caught up in the vigor and excitement of the piece which quickly coalesces into an enormous choral refrain.

I enjoy the first two minutes of this more than any moment of the Symphonie Fantastique, and it only seems to get better from there.

At once intimate and powerful, the chorus gives way to soloists who each give their all for the performance.

In a coming together of desire and instruction, Moon has selected an audio-visual rather than strictly audio version on this occasion so I do not have the feeling that I have articulated on previous Operatic selections that I am somehow missing out.

But although watching this BBC production clearly helps me to follow the plot, I feel certain that this time I would be enjoying these tunes and performances just as much without the moving pictures.

Of course, I’ll never know.

Experiencing the heightened emotion and the melodrama played perfectly straight, I am reminded how much I have loved my every moment on those few occasions when I have visited the opera.  Both the music and the spectacle are big and beautiful and impossible to tear your attention from.

I may default to Musical Theater, but I am regularly reminded – every time I attend anything else, in fact – that the Theater is my love,  not just one facet of her, be it straight plays, opera or even good improv.

But back to Troy.

The music throughout is clear and crisp and gorgeous, easily accessible, effortlessly enjoyable.  There is always a flourish from the orchestra, lightening the dense intensity of the vocals, particularly heavy through the first two acts.  These embellishments buoy the whole, highlight and magnify the massive emotions being displayed.

No theme outstays its welcome, yet each is carefully established, introducing itself into the listener’s awareness until it becomes a certainty that a phrase or beat must return at some point over the following hours.

And again, I am at an utter loss as to why Les Troyens effortlessly appeals whereas Symphonie Fantastique was incapable of doing so.

Despite my High School French and helpful subtitles, it is not the plot which holds my attention – indeed I find myself allowing the somewhat familiar Greek myths pass me by without fully engaging.  The spectacle and grandeur are breathtaking, but it could as easily be a story-free Classical piece and I would enjoy it as much.

Perhaps this is the result of the extra step of remove, the bedroom setting in which I am watching my TV rather than the majesty of the Metropolitan Opera House.  Or perhaps I tune out plot in person, too.

I do not recall, and in all honesty do not care . . .

Next Week:  Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim – West Side Story

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 91 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 91 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (73 of 91 = 80%)

[87] Alban Berg – Wozzeck

5 Dec

Spiky, angry, atonal and loud.  But, oh my is this fun.

Hamburg State Philharmonic conducted by Ingo Metzmacher

Hamburg State Philharmonic conducted by Ingo Metzmacher

I just can’t take my focus away from these performances while they play.  I understand that there is a plot here, that the eponymous soldier is not so slowly, not so subtly going mad, but it doesn’t matter.  I am listening to this for the pure physical sound alone.

There is not a single note, not a moment’s interval that is expected, and the vocalists deliver this unbelievably difficult score with passion and precision and power.

And did I mention volume?

The voices are rich and nuanced and beautiful – this is hugely important since the melodies (for want of a better word) are complex beyond the point of comprehension, harsh and intentionally hard to penetrate.  The enjoyment comes here from the performers rather than, as is perhaps more traditional, from the music.

The constantly surprising next note is what engages.

Here is another recording (like Spiritual Unity in the Jazz world) where I can understand someone not enjoying the experience, but where everyone should absolutely give it a chance, if only to see where the outer limit of their tolerance for discord might lie.

There is something refreshingly arbitrary about when I feel the need to recommend a recording, when I do not.

While there have been many, many albums on the list that are simply wonderful and should be a part of any musical vocabulary as well as a handful that I would not wish on anyone ever, there have also been an unexpected number that live in a fascinating grey zone.

This is not my favorite sound.  I am not humming the tunes as I go about my day, not desperate to get home and share it with my girls.  But there is something exhilarating about discovering this something new, something other, an excitement that has not always been present when Tom Moon has eased me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown.

Why here and not elsewhere?  I am honestly not sure I can articulate it.  But I promise to keep trying . . .

Next Week:  Alban Berg – Violin Concerto

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 87 = 10%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 87 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (70 of 87 = 80%)

[82] Vincenzo Bellini – Norma

31 Oct

It’s official.  I’m going to have a really hard time with the Operas in this list.

Tullio Serafin conducting the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra

Tullio Serafin conducting the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra

Whenever I have taken the opportunity to attend an opera in person, it has been an amazing experience – the spectacle, the performances, the story telling.

I am not feeling any of this listening to Maria Callas and friends on this 1954 recording.  In fact, I’m not feeling much of anything.

Opera is about telling a story, moving an audience, hitting the heights.  Listening to these old fashioned sounds without context leaves me cold.  Even Callas’ clean and impressive range can’t keep me interested, since it is forever before her first appearance, and even once she is included there are far more tracks without her than with . . .

I listen to Broadway and West End cast albums all the time – they are some of my favorite albums – but in almost every case I have bought the album after seeing and loving the show.

So perhaps a recording of The Magic Flute or A View From The Bridge might move me in a way that this (and The Death of Klinghoffer before it) does not.

Or perhaps I’d just be better off going to see a modern production of the Operatic recordings Moon highlights . . .

Next Week:  Bembeya Jazz National – The Syliphone Years

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 82 = 11%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 82 = 15%)
Recommend? No. (66 of 82 = 80%)

[54] Cecilia Bartoli – The Vivaldi Album

18 Apr

The album opens with the clean high tones and crisp instrumentation of one of the most familiar tunes in Classical Music – the beautiful celebration of Spring from The Four Seasons – paving the way for me to enjoy the rest of these far more obscure pieces of Vivaldi’s Opera.

Cecilia Bartoli

Cecilia Bartoli











I grew up listening to and attending performances of light opera – from sublime professional productions, to amateur ridiculous ones (and sometimes vice versa) – so I am well versed in the trilling of a soprano, the overblown emotion so often on display.

Bartoli’s vocal acrobatics on the other hand are controlled, precise and immensely enjoyable, but her instrument is only the most obvious highlight of this impressive blending of composition and technique.

It is the compelling melodies that shine out, brightening up my day whether at my desk at work, or having dinner with my girls. 

After the unresolving chords of Bartok, each nugget of melody is all the more welcome, painting a pleasing picture and leaving me wanting more, even after multiple plays.

The cliché, “a breath of fresh air” is startlingly appropriate at this time.

Bartoli, aided beautifully by Il Giardino Armonico, colors each song with passion and purpose, achieving the impressive trick of making something insanely complex and challenging appear simple and effortless.

Next Week: Count Basie and his Orchestra – The Complete Decca Recordings

Owned before blogging? No. (2 of 54. 4%)
Heard before blogging? No. (4 of 54. 7%)
Recommend? Yes. (42 of 54. 78%)

[7] John Adams – The Death of Klinghoffer

24 May

I think Moon cheated here.

This appears to be (on a quick scanning of the 1,000) the only “recording” that is a video rather than just audio.  And much as I love to listen to Operas and Musicals, Original Soundtracks and Cast Recordings, I prefer to see the work first.  The visuals are often required to understand the story, the nuance, the drama.

I fear this may cause me some problems later on with those Operas and Musicals I have never seen.

Watching theater is not what I’m doing here – that would be a very different blog.  My intent is to give the recordings genuine attention by setting aside time for listening to the them at my desk, on my commute, over the dinner table, lying in bed once the lights (and TV) are off for the night.

I don’t have time in my busy life for watching, only listening.

And Moon acknowledges up front that the audio recordings of this, John Adam’s second “Docu-Opera”, all lack something, that it was the combination of audio with visual that elevated the recording he chooses here to the rare air of his list.

I try to give a 1992 performance by the Orchestra of the Opera de Lyon a fair shot anyway.

Death of Klinghoffer

Death of Klinghoffer










From the first note  it is far prettier than Harmonium.  I experience a sensation almost of relief in the earliest moments, glad that this is less experimental, more melodic, despite the controversial and difficult subject matter.

I was a pre-teen when the Achille Lauro was highjacked.  I remember the name, in the same way I remember the periodic IRA bombings, the airline highjackings, the hostage crises of the day.  It’s just a part of my childhood.  It seems as good a subject as any for an Opera.

And I enjoy the choruses that break up the (for want of a better word) action.  The mostly paired pieces – Night and Day, Ocean and Desert – are big, yet somehow delicate interludes from the bombast of the soloists who boom and wail.  Despite the performers singing in English, the only way to follow the plot is to read along in the liner notes – although this will be true in the non-English Operas to come, I find it vaguely annoyoing to need “subtitles” in my native language . . .

And at the end of the day, neither the story nor the music truly captures my attention, despite spending twice as much time trying to appreciate this one as any recording to date.  A couple of weeks in, I feel I have given it a real opportunity to change my mind (as Shakin’ the Rafters almost managed), but instead it becomes at first background music, later an irritation.  Perhaps it is not minimalist enough for the minimalist fan in me?

I’d rather just listen to Shaker Loops again . . .

Owned before blogging?    No.  (1 of 7.  14%)
Heard before blogging?     No.  (2 of 7.  29%)
Recommend?  Not as an audio recording.  (4 of 7.  57%)

Next Week:  Johnny Adams – The Real Me


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