Archive for October, 2009


The Norns spinning the thread of Destiny (by Arthur Rackham)

My favorite recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen, by Richard Wagner, is the one conducted by Josef Keilberth in 1953, in the Bayreuth Festival.

The main characters were interpreted by Martha Mödl (Brünnhilde), Hans Hotter (Wotan) and Wolfgang Windgassen (Siegfried).

The other roles were taken by Regina Resnik (Sieglinde/3rd Norn), Ramon Vinay (Siegmund), Ira Malaniuk (Fricka/Waltraute/2nd Norn), Josef Greindl (Fafner/Hunding/Hagen), Gustav Neidlinger (Alberich), Paul Kuen (Mime), Hermann Uhde (Gunther/Donner), Erich Witte (Loge), Maria von Ilosvay (Erda/1st Norn), Gerhard Stolze (Froh), Ludwig Weber (Fasolt), Rita Streich (Waldvogel), and others…

Martha Modl, like Astrid Varnay, never portrayed a young Brünnhilde. Both voices sound older than what Brünnhilde should sound in Die Walkure. However they were both very dramatic, feminine and human, which compensates for the lack of youth, and makes them the best choice for Götterdämmmerung. Nilsson sounded younger, but not so dramatic, and Behrens was young and dramatic, but the voice wasn’t so big and full. Compare the great Brunnhildes by listening to their battlecry.

In this recording both Hans Hotter and Wolfgang Windgassen sounded fresher and lighter than in later recordings. Regina Resnik made an incomparable Sieglinde (for me, the best on record). Resnik’s Sieglinde sounded much like Jessie Norman’s in James Levine’s Ring. Ira Malaniuk made a sharp Fricka and Waltraute, much like Christa Ludwig. The rest of the cast was made by singers highly specialized in the roles, and, therefore, they made a terrific work.

Sieglinde and Mime (by Arthur Rackham)

Sieglinde and Mime (by Arthur Rackham)

The star of this recording is definitely Josef Keilberth. He made the music sound fluid and colorful. The music created an atmosphere that never attached the story to reality, putting magic into it. When the music should sound big, Keilberth made it monumental, and when it should be soft, he inserted a dreamlike beauty into it. Keilberth managed these effects without dragging the tempi like later conductors, such as James Levine, so it never gets boring. Although Keilberth conducted the Ring in other years, I find this one his best achievement.

It is a live recording, mono sound, but the sound is very clear and there are no noises from the audience or the stage.


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somethingwickedTwo thirteen-year-old boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, are  next door neighbors. The two kids grew together and are best friends, although they are very different physically and psychologically.

On the 24th of October, a Carnival comes to town, bringing an authentic freak show. Will and Jim start relating strange events in town to the arrival of the Carnival, but the investigation leads them to a real nightmare. Their only help is Will’s father, Charles Halloway, who is the janitor/philosopher of the town’s library.

Something wicked this way comes, for its story, seems like a simple carnival horror story, but it is far more complex.

The writing is very expressive. Even the common life of Will and Jim, before the arrival of the carnival, feels a mix of awkward and creepy. The imagination in this novel is superb, even small details are very imaginative, which reminded me of a more recent novel, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by G.W. Dahlquist, where a reader, at certain points, would feel as useless to try to guess what would happen next, or how a situation would be solved.

Apart from the fantasy/horror in this novel, it has a strong philosophical component. As it is a story of good versus evil, it deals primarily with the dichotomy good/bad, and some nonsensical notions that come therein, like, for instance, how good can fight bad without being bad to bad. It also deals with the seductive power of sin and evil, and how it can treacherously lead to deeper forms of perversity and damnation.

Another subject largely discussed in this novel is the relationship between age and mental maturity, and the healthy need of assuming and living one’s age. A discrepancy between age and maturity may lead to the isolation and weakening of a person, who, ultimately, becomes an easier target for evil.

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I Capuleti e I MontecchiI Capuleti e I Montecchi tells the famous story of Romeo and Juliet as it is known in Verona. It has some minor differences from the Shakespearean version, but the main storyline is the same: boy and girl from rival families fall in love, girl pretends to be dead to escape family, boy believes she is dead and drinks venom, girl wakes up when boy is dying and stabs herself.

I Capuleti is not so well known as Norma, La Sonnambula or I Puritani, but Bellini is a composer you can rely: even his most obscure operas are masterpieces*. The music in I Capuleti is not only beautiful but also dramatic and adequate to create the atmosphere of the play. Take, for instance, Julieta’s heart-melting first aria (Act I, scene 2). The way of uniting drama and music is ravishingly well done in this opera, as can be heard in the finale of Act I, or in the death scene (Act II, scene 3).

Anna Netrebko and Elina Garaca do a very nice work portraying the lovers Juliet and Romeo, respectively. Both singer have beautiful, velvety and glamorous voices, and they sound very well together. Garanca’s cloudy voice gives an extra pathos to Romeo, without taking his “virility”. Joseph Calleja also does a nice job in the role Tebaldo. Fabio Luisi may not be the best, but gets the job (well) done.

If you are a fan of Netrebko and Garanca, don’t hesitate in getting this recording. If you are a opera/bel canto/Bellini fan and have plenty of recordings, you can add this to your collection. If you are searching for a good version to listen for the first time, there are other options. I Capuleti is not performed very often, however there a few nice recordings on the market that are worth mentioning:

The one conducted by Riccado Muti, with Edita Gruberova and Agnes Baltsa, is definitely the best accomplished musically. Both Gruberova and Baltsa are terrific. However, and as always, Muti is stubborn about playing “come scritto”, so there are no bel canto improvisations, or extra high notes.

The one conducted by Giuseppe Patanè, with Beverly Sills and Dame Janet Baker (and Nicolai Gedda as Tebaldo). Patanè gave the dignity of a Grand Opera to this recording, and the vast added to it. Sills and Gedda were not young and fresh but that doesn’t spoil it. Janet Baker, with all her experience in male roles, makes a very special Romeo. Improvisation and high notes can be found in this recording, but very well integrated in the music.

* Not to miss, by Bellini: Il Pirata, La Straniera, Zaira and Beatrice di Tenda.

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Long, long ago, before humankind’s birth, the World was dominated by three races: the Nibelungs, in the Earth’s depths; the Giants, on the Earth’s surface; and the Gods, in the heights. The Nibelungs and the Giants lived happily in their domains, satisfied with what they had. The Gods wanted more…


The Rhinemaidens and Alberich (by Arthur Rackham)

One day, on the depths of the river Rhine, the three Rhinemaidens were joined in their play by the Nibelung Alberich. As he tried to persuade one of them to be his wife, they played a cruel game with him, mocking him for his ugliness. By then the sunlight reached the depths of the Rhine, and one of the rocks started shining brightly. The Rhinemaidens told the Nibelung that it is the Rhinegold, which they had the mission of protecting. They were overconfident of the clumsy dwarf, and so they told him a secret: the gold could be turned into a ring of measureless power, but the price for the curse to do it was the renounce of love. Alberich, distraught by the girls’ mockery, was suddenly seized by the lust of power. While the Rhinemaidens were laughing, he forswore love and stole the Rhinegold.

Far away, the Gods, leaded by Wotan, were admiring the fortress the giants built for them, Walhall. Fafner and Fasolt, leaders of the Giants, demanded the price for the fortress: Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. But the Gods could not part with Freia, it was her who gave them eternal youth. While they were discussing, Loge, the tricky God of Fire, showed up and told them about the stolen gold and how Alberich, with the power of the Ring, enslaved the merry race of the Nibelungs, forcing them to work in the mines digging for gold. The Giants agreed then only to exchange Freia for the Ring.

Wotan went to the underworld, tricked Alberich and forced him to give Ring. Alberich, having no other choice, cursed the Ring:

Whoever wears It is condemned to die for It. The holder of the Ring is condemned to be consumed with care and take no pleasure or profit from It till he meets his executioner. The Lord of the Ring will be the Ring’s Slave till It be returned to its creator.

Wotan did not want to part with the Ring, but Erda, the primeval Goddess of the Earth, threatened him with the doom that was written in the fate of the Ring. Wotan gave the Ring to the Giant Fasolt in exchange for Freia. Immediately the curse took effect and Fasolt was killed by his brother Fafner, who transformed himself into a Dragon and went to seek a cave to hide and protect the Ring.

As time passed…

Humankind was born and grew on the surface of the Earth, under the influence of the Gods and undermining the dominance of the Giants.

The Giants, without their leaders, got weakened and departed the affairs of the World.

The Nibelungs remained in the depths of the Earth until their existence was forgotten.

But the Ring was still out there with It’s curse.

A prophecy was written in the thread of destiny: the Ring’s curse can only be broken by the “free hero”.

And then the story starts…

Der Ring des Nibelungen was written, as well as composed, by Richard Wagner. It is an epic fantasy story/opera, but, more than that, it is an allegory.

In the Ring, Wagner presented the rise of a society, it’s peak and it’s fall. It’s a Cycle. The Ring is rich in characters and events that can be associated with stereotypes that are present in any society. It presents Wagner´s philosophy in its moments of critic, satyr and its praise for higher moral and intellectual values. The concept of “free hero” is exceptional, and it surprises me how it didn’t shock more people in Wagner’s time. Maybe people weren’t expecting to see it on an opera stage and didn’t reach its full meaning.

Apart from the deep meaning of the text, the music works as a narrator. The music confirms or deepens the text, but sometimes it gives second meanings or contradicts the characters’ speech.

Der Ring des Nibelungen can be viewed, at first, as a fantasy story. But its deep meaning transforms it in a highly addicting experience. New details can be noticed in every listening. As it is said “It took a lifetime to be made, and it takes a lifetime to be listened”.

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When Troy was invaded by the Greeks (by the famous horse trick), some Trojans escaped and were led to exile by Aeneas, King Priam’s nephew. According to a prophecy Aeneas should lead them to Italy. When they were crossing the Mediterranean, a storm led them to Carthage instead. Aeneas and Dido, Queen of Carthage, fell in love with each other, but the Trojans’ fate was not to stay in Carthage. Aeneas departed with the Trojans and Dido killed herself.

Lavinia, according to The Aeneid, was the Italian princess to whom Aeneas married when the exiled Trojans settled in Italy.

In Lavinia, the story is told by the Italian princess, who is just briefly referred in Vergil’s Aeneid. Lavinia grew up as her father’s, King Latinus, closest companion. Lavinia’s mother mental sanity deteriorated as she kept blaming Lavinia for being the only child who survived the deadly disease that killed her two (male) brothers.

King Latinus, as all men in his family, had the ability of meeting with his ancestors in sacred places. Lavinia shared this gift, but instead of meeting her ancestors, she used to seek advise from a Poet from the future, the one who was writing the story of Aeneas and her people, Vergil.

Lavinia is a easy-reading book with a deep story, covering many subjects like heroism, the higher values and virtues (of antiquity and modern(?)), the stupidity and waste of war and the role of women in society.

As it comes from the point of view of a woman, it is highly feminist. Lavinia reminded me a lot of The Firebrand, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which was centered in Kassandra, daughter of Priam and cousin of Aeneas. The similarity is not only chronological, but also by both novels being centered in the whole life of one female character (through war, peace, political exile, and so on), who had the gift of prophecy but a small voice in a world of men.

Apart from the similarities with The Firebrand, the style of Le Guin’s writing is completely different from Zimmer Bradley’s, and Lavinia is definitely not so aggressive towards men as The Firebrand, where all male characters are plain and stupid.*

Even someone not well acquainted with The Aeneid can notice that Le Guin took great care in relating characters, events and places to what is referred in Virgil’s Epic Poem, and even took the adventure of playing with it. I believe that someone well acquainted with The Aeneid might take a special pleasure in reading Lavinia.

*One might think that I have something against M Zimmer Bradley or The Firebrand, but let me assure otherwise. In fact, for several reasons, some of M Zimmer Bradley’s books marked me deeply, and that includes The Firebrand.

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lud in the mistLud-in-the-Mist, capital of the small free state of Dorimare, is situated in the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The city lives of the commercial port in the Dawl, and turns its back to the Dapple. The Dapple comes from the neighboring country, Fairyland. Dorimare and Fairyland maintain no relations for generations. The Dorimarites fear Fairyland and its inhabitants, and go as far as publicly refuse to acknowledge Fairyland’s existence. However, one day a “fairy fruit” epidemia threatens the peace in Lud-in-the-Mist. When his family is influenced by this problem, Nathaniel Chanticleer, the Mayor of Lud-in-the Mist, decides to intervene and to go deep in such a “dirty” subject.

Lud-in-the-Mist has good story, written in a delicious style. The prose is colorful and in a late 19th century British style. Far more than a fairy tale, it is a strongly built allegory about society’s prejudice and attachment to old unreasonable values.

What surprised me the most was that the author was not faking an old style of writing. Hope Mirrlees was born in England, in 1887, and Lud-in-the-Mist dates from 1926. Hope Mirrlees was contemporary and associate of many famous early 20th century British authors, including Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. However, the creative imagination in this story rivals any contaporary fantasy author.

[Hope Mirrlees is] A very self conscious, willful, prickly and perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well dressed and pretty, with a view of her own about books and style, an aristocratic and conservative tendency in opinion and a corresponding taste for the beautiful and elaborate in literature

Virginia Woolf

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The recently released Cecilia Bartoli Album, Sacrificium, is dedicated to castrati singers and the arias they inspired. The album was named after the sacrifice thousands of boys went through in the name of music. This is discussible: at the time, when a economically unfavoured boy showed a pleasant voice the family would consider castration for him to become an opera star. I would consider it an ancient way of taking the kids to a TV show in the hope of them to become pop stars.


As usual in Bartoli’s Albums, Sacrificium contains 11 world premiere recordings by composers who were famous during the Baroque, but whose work was largely forgotten through time (Porpora, Leo, Araia, Vinci, Graun and Caldara). The album contains a bonus CD with 3 legendary arias, “Son qual nave”, which was written by Riccardo Broschi to his brother Farinelli, “Ombra mai fu”, one of the most famous arias by Händel, and “Sposa, non mi conosci”, which I’ve heard before (don’t remember where) by Giacomelli.

No one has a voice better suited to this repertoire than Cecilia Bartoli. Her voice sparkles with incredible vocal fireworks and high-speed coloraturas, filling the music with vitality, life, energy. The orchestra, Il Giardino Armonico, makes a perfect team with Bartoli. This album reminds me a lot of Bartoli’s Vivaldi Album (with the same orchestra), both filled with energy and joy of singing.

Visit the website and listen to some excerpts.

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