New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘The Curtis Project’

prism quartet curtis project


Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: The Curtis Project (2016)

PRISM Quartet‘s April 2016 release The Curtis Project is a collection of strong, mostly recent additions to the medium’s repertoire that explore many aesthetic avenues. The album is the product of PRISM’s 2012 residency with The Curtis Institute‘s composition department. All seven compositions are from Curtis-affiliated composers: two from faculty members (and Pulitzer Prize recipient) Jennifer Higdon and David Ludwig, and five from then-student composers Kat Souponetsky, Daniel Temkin, Gabriella Smith, Thomas Oltarzewski, and Tim Woos. All works were performed during the residency, at which time all but Higdon’s were premieres. The Curtis Project is PRISM’s debut release on XAS Records, the ensemble’s new record label.

Here, PRISM Quartet’s personnel is slightly amended:
Timothy McAllister – soprano saxophone
Zachary Shemon – alto saxophone
Matthew Levy – tenor saxophone
Taimur Sullivan – soprano (track 1 only) and baritone saxophones
Robert Young – tenor saxophone; substituting for Levy on tracks 12-19 (works by Souponetsky, Temkin, Smith, Oltarzewski, Woos)

These seven pieces are stylistically distinct from one another, all of which branch in different directions. And with three of the works having multiple movements, none of the album’s nineteen tracks are overly long. (Of course, multi-movement works are larger collectively. That said, the longest individual selection or movement is just over seven minutes, and it’s an outlier.) The musical diversity and brevity is noteworthy, as it can often seem that (speaking from experience) “New Music” recordings are geared towards like practitioners — new saxophone music is largely for other composers and saxophonists, etc. The Curtis Project, however, would be equally suitable as a performance program on a university campus, a concert hall for a general audience, or as part of a community engagement or school outreach setting.

The album begins with Higdon’s Short Stories, a collections of six programmatic movements lacking a defined order, which serves as a nice microcosm of the album as a whole. From the calm “Summer’s Eve” and serene “Lullaby” to the frenetic “Chase” and Pollock-inspired “Splashing the Canvas,” the quartet shines in the movements’ more traditional writing. Also, like much of the album, all four voices are given their time to shine both individually and as part of PRISM’s organ-esque blend, such as in the haunting “Coyote Nights,” or the energetic “Stomp And Dance,” featuring key-clicks and slap-tongue.

Ludwig’s Josquin Microludes offers a clever and sonically-intriguing reworking of Josquin’s Mille Regretz, with each of the five differing, near-schizophrenic movements being based on subsequent lines of text and melody. Listening in order, one eventually goes through the (barely recognizable) original. The sixteenth-century source material is interpreted through a twenty-first-century vocabulary, and in doing so Ludwig honors the stylings of both time periods. The fourth movement “Quon Me Verra Brief Mes Jours” highlights this juxtaposition, with hard-driving rhythmic sections alternating with a dream-like processional, giving way to the calmly soaring and dissonant finale.

Although the faculty’s larger works constitute half of the album, the students are by no means also-rans here — each of the pieces have something different to say and chart territory theretofore unheard. Named for a river in the composer’s hometown of Moldova, Souponetsky’s The Dniester Flow depicts the rushing rapids through hard-driving rhythms in the piece’s first half. These give way to more lyrical fare in the second half, during which the tenor, alto, and soprano seamlessly pass the ascending melody to one another until the rapids return at the end. As a matter of programming, this gives way nicely to Temkin’s Blossoming, for which the sound really does blossom out of silence. A full minute of blowing air gradually gives way to soft saxophone tones that build to full ensemble chords and cries of both woe and hope, eventually fading back to nothingness. The use of both “dead” air and semi-tones are tasteful throughout, giving Blossoming a fluidity that’s not often highlighted in keyed instruments.

Smith’s Spring/Neap programmatically engages the “extremities of tidal ranges”1, beginning with cacophonous runs and glissandi, likely depicting the competing gravitational forces between the sun and moon. This later gives way to deep, rich chords and blowing air, giving one the impression of calm night tides before the gravity pulls the levels higher once more. Olterzewski’s Toccata is somewhat reminiscent of its centuries-old keyboard namesake, at least in character, although the composer likens it to the twentieth century works for wind ensemble. The aggressive and accented mixed-meter “left hand” of the tenor and baritone saxophones provide a nimble motor atop which the “right hand” of the alto and soprano saxophones playfully melodize. It’s not completely segregated, however, as the tenor saxophone occasionally tags into the melodic fun. Woos’s whimsical 4 Miniatures closes the album. Though concise as the title suggests, the four brief movements are full statements in and of themselves, covering much terrain. The first movement is full of swelling phrases and restful chorales, while the second miniature features beautiful “glass-like”2 harmonies that I could put on repeat for hours. (Selfishly, I would love to hear a larger work from Woos in this style.) The aggressive bomb-like glissandi of the third movement jolt the listener out of the second movement’s placidity, giving way to the jocular closing polka of the fourth movement. Here, over the course of just a few dozen seconds, the saxophones seemingly grow annoyed with one another, stumbling along until closing in what amounts to a tantrum. Humor can be difficult to notate and execute, and both are tastefully done here.

The Curtis Project continues PRISM Quartet’s proud tradition of amassing new works for both the ensemble and the instrument’s repertoire at large. It includes a number of musically interesting and accessible works that display a range of styles and compositional approaches, offering both breadth and depth. The Curtis Project is an excellent first step for XAS Records, and I’m already looking forward to what’s next.

PRISM album link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here


1. [Smith, Gabriella. The Curtis Project. Liner notes, p. 7]
2. [Woos, Tim. The Curtis Project. Liner notes, p. 8]

(Other PRISM Quartet reviews here.)

‘Das Rheingold’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago — The ‘Ring’ Begins Anew

Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s current season opened on Saturday with a new production of Richard Wagner‘s Das Rheingold, kicking off a four-year unveiling of a new Ring cycle, which will culminate in full proper cycles in 2020. Having attended their last Ring cycle in 2005, I was glad to be a part of this double-opener.

This production of Das Rheingold, as well as the cycle overall, is noteworthy in several ways. Whereas 2005 featured James Morris as Wotan (in one of his signature roles), this production features Eric Owens in his role debut. (He sang Alberich in the Met’s 2013 production.) Adding Wagnerian heft to Das Rheingold‘s playbill, bass-baritone and Bayreuth staple Samuel Youn made his American debut as Alberich. (In later installments, Christine Goerke is to play Brünnhilde.) Visually, Das Rheingold (and presumably the rest the tetralogy) is a clean break from 2005’s minimalist aesthetic. Director David Pountney, continuing with the original designs of the late Johan Engels (1952-2014) with current designer Robert Innes Hopkins, has conjured up a playful and visually rich staging, particularly in contrast to ’05’s Ring. As someone who saw the Pountney/Engels production of Die Zauberflöte at Bregenzer Festspiele (of which Pountney was the Intendant from 2003 to 2014, and which I attended 2011-16), there are certainly shades of that in this Ring, namely the use of color and frivolity. (Their production of Die Zauberflöte was in the vein of a child’s dream or fantasy. And while that’s not the exact course here, a related whimsy is present throughout Rheingold.) Related, Engels’s use of color was also striking in Lyric’s 2013 production of Parsifal.

Notably, this production of Das Rheingold begins before the Vorspiel, with the three Norns, onstage and in silence, laying the groundwork for the Rhine — a golden satchel that gives way to the river (which in turn houses the gold) — and by extension the drama of the entire cycle. (I presume they will again play some role once the ring finds its way back to the Rhine at Götterdämmerung‘s end. We’ll see in 2019.) The river then begins to flow with the orchestra’s opening churn, with the rapids’ intensity increasing with the musical texture’s density and volume. From the opening scene until the final curtain, Pountney made use of the entire stage, manipulating the width, depth, and height for a more expansive view. The Rhinemaidens themselves were both singing and “swimming” in three dimensions (a task often left to two separate trios) via wheeled, levered platforms. Diana Newman, Annie Rosen, and Lindsay Ammann blended beautifully as Woglinde, Wllgunde, and Flosshilde, respectively. This use of height of course helped also to demonstrate both the depths of Nibelheim and the heights of Valhalla. Further, Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer, who sang Fasolt and Fafner, respectively, spent most of their time tastefully singing while stories above the stage, drawing both the eyes and the ears upward as if they actually were the giants they embodied. My only quibble with such staging is that occasionally those singing near the stage’s ceiling didn’t project as strongly as others, likely a consequence of the natural acoustics. (It was less of an issue for the same singers when placed elsewhere, particularly in the case of Flosshinde.)

There was far more humor in this production than I had anticipated, most of which worked quite well. Sonically, this was achieved via more vocal utterances from the characters — laughing, coughing, yelling — than I had expected. Some of the visual elements, I believe, are a consequence of having come fresh off the heels of the Pountney/Engels Die Zauberflöte. (The original announcement of this cycle’s production team was in 2014, and Zauberflöte premiered July 2013.) For Alberich’s transformations while wearing his magical helmet Tarnhelm, he became a dragon and then frog via instantly inflatable backpacks. (I immediately thought of Zauberflöte‘s inflatable grass.) There were the Norns who suddenly appeared with a mop to clean up after Alberich’s severed arm, and Loge’s near-caricatured portrayal as a carefree dandy. (As an example, while the gods initially made their entrances on carts symbolizing their powers, Loge casually rode in on a passenger bicycle.) The gods themselves — including the demigod Loge — were portrayed less as powerful entities and more as hapless patricians. Upon reading the Director’s Note afterwards, it made sense to learn that Pountney likened Valhalla’s inhabitants to the likes of the Habsburgs. Also, Pountney’s describing Rheingold as a “political cartoon” adds to the comedic and structural elements. Many non-singing cast members were mimes who performed a lot of the “behind the scenes” work — operating the Rhinemaidens’ levers and Fasolt and Fafner’s giant limbs — while onstage and visible. In total, it could be seen more as a fantastical reading of Das Rheingold than a cerebral re-telling.

Musically, the cast gave strong performances across the board. While Owens has received top billing as Wotan, he was joined by an excellent cast and by no means the show’s only star. Owens sang and emoted well throughout, though I would’ve preferred more volume. For me, Štefan Margita nearly stole the show as Loge, a role that’s become a regular for him as of late. His fanciful yet emotional tenor soared above the orchestra. And I wouldn’t have guessed that it was Youn’s role debut as Alberich, as he sounded natural throughout. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner‘s Fricka and Laura Wilde‘s Freia commanded attention as Wotan’s wise, seasoned wife and her youthful sister, respectively. Each sang with both power and nuance that really broke through to another level beyond an already strong production and performance. Rounding out the cast were Okka Von Der Damerau as Erda (whom I saw excel as Mary in Der fliegende Holländer in Munich this past July), Rodell Rosel as Mime, Jesse Donner as Froh, and Zachary Nelson as Donner. Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric orchestra in an exciting rendition of the score, with the brass particularly shining in the later scenes.

Performances continue through October 22, with the new Die Walküre debuting in the 2017-18 season and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung following in kind. Whereas Lyric’s previous Ring featured more marquee names (e.g., Morris, Placido Domingo) and a rather traditional (though minimalist) staging, this new production seems to be going in a new direction in both regards, and I’m excited to see it unfold over these next several years.

Tool’s ‘Ænima’ at 20

Tool‘s Ænima is turning 20. It was released on vinyl on September 17, 1996 and on CD on October 1, 1996.

tool aenima

Ænima completes my personal holy trinity of top albums that were released in ~1996. It wasn’t the first hard rock/metal album I owned, but it was the one that struck deepest. With it, vocalist Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey, and then-new bassist Justin Chancellor cemented Tool as one of the most formidable bands in rock.  Like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Crash, Ænima is a twofold touchstone for me:
1. The album itself is great, and one that I’m just as excited to listen to twenty years later.
2. It served as my entryway into a new musical world.

Because of this album and the near fanatical devotion it inspired in me, Tool was my favorite band throughout high school and much of college. (Tool is still in my Top 5, of course, but at that time the band was without peer.) It spoke to me in various ways. I read an interview with saxophonist Jeff Coffin once in which he said that the most moving music affects you in multiple ways simultaneously: your head, heart, and body. In this respect, Ænima was one of the first album to move me on all three levels. It’s musically interesting on a technical level; the music and message are equal parts profound and humorous; and everything comes together to simply rock and groove hard.

Ænima is multi-faceted, to say the least. The lyrics are wide-ranging — alternately existential, darkly comical, angst-ridden, and mystical. Such a description of the lyrical content could also be applied to the ouvre of comedian Bill Hicks, to whom the album is dedicated. Hicks, a friend of Keenan’s and one of the more biting and cynical satirists of the last few decades, died in 1994, and is described as “another dead hero” in the liner notes. To drive the point home further, beyond Hicksian attitude, the album’s crown jewel and final track “Third Eye” opens with several Hicks clips above a growing psychedelic maelstrom of sound before giving way to the song proper. (Live renditions, though rare, substitute Hicks for a recording of Dr. Timothy Leary.) Also, the album’s title track is a take on a regular Hicks trope: an earthquake causing LA (and the countless superfluous cultural ills it houses) to plunge into the ocean, leaving only “Arizona Bay.” Hence the refrain, “Learn to swim.”

The album’s humor extends beyond Hicks. This is particularly evident in “Message to Harry Manback” (a recording of a violent, expletive-laden voicemail atop soft piano), “Intermission” (a kitschy jazz organ arrangement of “Jimmy”), and “Die Eier von Satan” (aka “The Eggs (Balls) of Satan,” a recipe for hash sugar cookies aggressively recited in German over a screaming, responsorial crowd, reminiscent of Nazi rallies).

The music is heavy overall with sparse, nuanced moments throughout. Keenan’s intense vocal stylings convey urgency at all times, be it a whisper, more brassy full-throated fare, or all-out screaming. It’s a nice sonic counterpoint to the dark, relentless rhythm section. Aside from the occasional guitar solo, the drums, bass, and guitar blend seamlessly into one rhythmelodic juggernaut. And even though “rhythmelodic” is arguably a silly term I’m making up as I write this, the melodies and rhythms are so symbiotically linked that it’s hard to consider one without the other. Structurally, the music is intricately rhythmic — mixed- and odd-meters and hemiolas abound. (Carey’s percussion abilities and training have included tabla study with Aloke Dutta.) Not many rock songs maintain a deep groove when alternating between 6/8 and 5/4 and 16/8 (3+3+3+3+2+2), as in “Third Eye,” but Tool succeeds where others fail. To many, Ænima is Tool’s best album, as it’s a step further in the progressive and psychedelic rock direction from 1993’s Undertow (and 1992’s EP Opiate), but it was more radio-friendly overall than 2001’s Lateralus (the title track of which features a melody built upon the Fibonacci sequence and a chorus in revolving cycles of 9/8, 8/8, and 7/8) and 2006’s 10,000 Days. (Lateralus is this blogger’s favorite of the discography.)

For being such an iconic nineties rock album to many, Ænima has a surprising number of throwaway or secondary tracks. “Useful Idiot,” “Message to Harry Manback,” “Intermission,” “Die Eier von Satan,” “Cesaro Summability,” and “(-) Ions” are all either transitional sound pieces, jokes, or both. (And they work within the context of the album as a whole — one of the reasons it’s best listened to in its entirety.) The remaining nine songs more than make up for any lost ground. They range from four-and-a-half to nearly fourteen minutes in length, with the average being around six to eight minutes. Consequently it’s that much more impressive that the album included four radio singles: “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2,” “Ænema,” and “H.”

The songs are pretty well balanced between straight-ahead rockers and more exploratory pieces. It’s no mistake that “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2,” and “Ænema” were hit singles – they’re radio-ready stunners. “Hooker With A Penis” — a comment upon claims that the band had become too popular and sold out — is arguably the heaviest straight-ahead number on the album. Stylistically that’s no accident. How better to comment upon commercial success than pairing the caustic lyrics with a catchy hook? And when “Eulogy” — supposedly an “ode” to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — kicks in after its two-minute percussive introduction, it’s not hard to picture thousands of fans dancing and moshing to those anthemic choruses.

Then as well as now, I tended to spend most of my time with the more exploratory numbers. These four songs — “H.,” “Jimmy,” “Pushit,” and “Third Eye” — take up most of the album’s real estate given their lengths. “H.” is technically straightforward, but this contemplative medium-tempo dirge is cut from a different cloth than the other singles. In this respect, you could easily pair it with “Jimmy.” “Pushit” and “Third Eye,” however, go farther and deeper both sonically and rhetorically, and they’re the two songs with the most extreme dynamic juxtapositions. At over thirteen-and-a-half minutes, “Third Eye” was unlike anything I’d ever heard the first time I listened to it. Aside from its length, its various peaks and valleys feature noise, instrumental soloing, moving melodies, intricate rhythms, a meaningful message, and more.

(For the record and what it’s worth, though it’s hard to pick, “Pushit,” “Third Eye,” and “H.” are probably my favorites on the album.)

Unlike with MCIS and Crash, I saw the band live around the time they were supporting this album. Even though Tool’s set lists are rather static within each tour, there’s no denying that they’re a great live band, particularly in the sense of flawlessly executing their material. (Though, to be fair, Maynard phoned in his performance at the last show I attended — Toledo, OH in 2012 — but I bet the brief tour was a cash grab for him to support his myriad other endeavors. Adam, Danny, and Justin gave it their all, however.) I first saw Tool on July 26, 1997 as part of Lollapalooza 1997 at Val-du Lakes in West Michigan. It was the first of fourteen shows for me, and I still think of it every July 26 (as well as throughout the year). It was the first real heavy mosh pit (of many) I’d been a part of, and staying near the stage was nothing short of an adventure, even when I moved away from the core melee.

In addition to seeing the band live at the time, I also became a member of the online community. That’s a ubiquitous element to most things now because of social media, but in the mid-to-late nineties it was relegated to message boards on the recently-retired I must take a moment to state for the record just how much I’ve enjoyed toolshed over the years. Director and editor Kabir Akhtar began the site as a labor or love over two decades ago, and it was long the go-to source for band news, discussion of the lyrics’ meanings, fan reviews of shows (a few of which were written by a much younger me), and much more. Tool’s own website now includes actual news when appropriate, something it never did way back when. Though it did feature endlessly engaging tomes on all sorts of goodies… Even though I haven’t posted on toolshed in years, I’ve continued to regularly visit. It’s both a great repository of Tool info and a fascinating pre-Social Media time capsule. I may have mixed feelings about another fan site (to put it mildly) but I have nothing but fondness for toolshed. Thank you, Kabir.

Ænima‘s release and aftermath was game-changing for the band, and likewise for me as a fan of Tool and music — and a participant in fandom — generally. It’s wild to think it’s been twenty years. Hopefully it won’t be that long until the band’s next album

Change of Scenery, Me Time

A job and family needs have taken my family and I to Buffalo, NY. The moving process is far from done. Our house in East Lansing has yet to sell and we don’t yet have a permanent place in the Buffalo area. Things are in flux. Looking back, June through August are little more than a blur, between packing, moving, and teaching in Austria. Given that we’re still partially living out of boxes and suitcases under a roof that isn’t our own, the new routine has yet to really sink in. That said, it’s been nice to cut a lot of commitments and noise from our individual and collective schedules.

I’m certainly mourning the loss of our East Lansing house, home, and community, and I miss being in the same state as many of my friends, though this site isn’t the place to dwell on such things. At the same time, though, I definitely got in a bit of a rut the last 12-18 months. As someone who only recently (in the last year) learned to regularly say “no,” I had built up a cornucopia of commitments that left me almost no time for myself, my own pursuits, or to spend meaningfully with my family. Several of these commitments saw only lateral moves ahead which begged the question: how long can or should I keep _____ up? In several instances I found myself just going through the motions. Doing it just to do it, and often at the sacrifice of much-needed time. Now, in a sense, for many things I’ve just taken myself out of the equation. (I’m sure that in several situations I’m now just a memory, which is fine. Onto the next. Such is the cold crossfire, even with moving.) And though the dust has yet to really settle here in WNY, I’m enjoying the — at the moment — simpler routine. This was my first easy weekend in months, and on two occasions I laid on a couch and read a book. It was neat.

What’s especially nice is enjoyably listening to music again, also something I haven’t done with any regularity in months. I bought quite a haul of albums in Europe in July (thank you Ludwig Beck, once again) and since, most of which I haven’t listened to until this month. This led me to finally listening to the material Matt and I recorded in April for our next album. Until I listened back, I had little specific musical recollection of that date. What a nice and reassuring surprise it’s been to hear those recordings.

The mania of these last few months has kept things quiet on the blog front, though I did manage to provide my $0.02 on Franco Faccio’s Amleto at Bregenzer Festspiele. However, I have some new posts and other items already in the works, and I’m looking forward to getting those out in due time. Of course, the best part is that I should now have more time to actually put them together.

Last weekend I picked up Bob Berg‘s debut album New Birth at Record Theatre, my favorite Buffalo music haunt for years now. I listened to it right away, since I’m now in the mood for new music again. But it didn’t strike me until after I purchased it just how apt the title was.

Franco Faccio’s ‘Amleto’ at Bregenzer Festspiele

Last night’s premiere of Amleto at the Bregenzer Festspiele was a shot of adrenaline to the arm of the indoor opera house, which often lives in the shadow of its sibling on the lake, the festival’s crown jewel. It was my fifth indoors premiere, and, by a long shot, it was the most well-received performance there I’ve witnessed.

bregenz amleto(photo courtesy of Bregenzer Festspiele)

With the festival’s new artistic director Elisabeth Sobotka moving away from her predecessor David Pountney’s habit of commissions and world premieres for the indoor theater with last year’s The Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach, it seems that now a fig leaf has been offered to recent tradition: the European “re-premiere” of a little-known work not performed on the continent since 1871 (or anywhere until the 2014 reconstruction by Anthony Barrese and staging by Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest), Franco Faccio’s Amleto. (Also, interestingly, Sobotka herself is a Faccio specialist.)

While I admit that I wasn’t here for the 2010 premiere of the much-lauded The Passenger (by Weinberg), I’ve otherwise seen the premieres run much of the gamut. In talking to folks both behind the scenes and in the audience over the years, it seems that each year from 2011 to 2014 improved (both the piece and its reception by audience and performers alike), and I’d have to say I largely agree. In order, those were Judith Weir’s Achterbahn (2011), Detlev Glanert’s Solaris (2012), André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice (1982, premiered 2013), and H.K. Gruber’s Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (2014). I’ll avoid giving tangential reviews of each here, but suffice it to say I genuinely enjoyed much of the latter three (and some music of the first, from what I remember). (Despite the questionable handling of race, that is. An unfortunate occurrence in most of them but particularly in Solaris, and – sigh – a modern hallmark of opera anyway…)

With Amleto, Sobotka is bringing 19th-century Italian opera – of the progressive, proto-verismo sort – to a stage once dominated by modern instrumental and vocal techniques and mores. That’s not to say that, as a whole, older works are “less than” (not at all…hello, Wagner). But, despite the inconsistency, I did greatly appreciate and respect the festival’s (Pountney’s?) preference for and willingness to take risks and commission and feature new works each year. In a canon-saturated economy, it seems that new productions of old works are far more important than new works. Knowing that I’d be seeing something genuinely new each year (along with the traditional fare and spectacle on the lake stage) was exciting. (Though, the realities of life do sink in, and the festival was tired of losing money on the premieres.)

All that, however, is not meant to hang a cloud over Faccio and librettist Boito, Barrese, and Sobotka, but rather to simply say that things are different now — not better or worse, just different. Considering last night’s performance in a vacuum, it was definitely a success, and I quite enjoyed it.

You can read all about the history of Amleto and Faccio here. Briefly, Faccio, a leading conductor in Italy (particularly at Milan’s La Scala) was an important figure in the scapigliatura movement. Known mostly as a conductor, he also composed some, including the little-known Amleto, which premiered in Genoa in 1865 and then was quickly shelved and forgotten after a disastrous 1871 La Scala debut. Reconstructing the score from piano reductions over several years, Anthony Barrese then resurrected the work in a 2014 debut by Opera Southwest. (Audio and video recordings featuring strong performances and a moderately traditional production by Opera Southwest are now available.)

Faccio’s score, though nonetheless in the Italian tradition, is forward-thinking and engaging, tending to opt for the dramatic than a melodious hit parade. Boito’s libretto greatly streamlines Shakespeare’s Hamlet for time, and the four acts run shy of 150 minutes (without intermission).

The Bregenz production was led by director Olivier Tambosi and set designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Tambosi is a fixture in Europe and the US, and Schlössmann’s work is seemingly everywhere Deutsche Grammophon has advertising lately, as his work for Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from 2015’s Bayreuth festival can be seen wherever DVDs are sold. The performers and production each stood on their own, but their sum was much greater than their considerable parts. The stark sets and striking use (or absence of) color throughout — with possibly a hint of Tim Burton — helped to propel the narrative. The production team also placed action where there otherwise may not have been any (e.g., overtures and other instrumental passages, underneath an aria, etc.). Two examples stand out. For the opening overture, the orchestra begins after the curtains have already open to display (an unconscious?) Amleto laying on the ground under a lowered light rig. (Is he dreaming? Is he already feeling the psychological pressure of all the lights (eyes?) being on him?) Later, in the overture to Act III, instead of beginning with King Claudius at prayer, we see him awake in his chambers and slowly walk to the chapel, adding weight where the previously was little. Also, much is done with Laertes when he’s not singing. He’s occasionally lurking in the background when Amleto and Ofelia are near one another.

To continue begging the question as to whether we’re watching Amleto in or out of his mind, a seemingly outward-facing curtain is at the back of the stage through Act I. And during Amleto’s first duets with both Ofelia and The Ghost (of his father), he curiously lies down. Is he dreaming or hallucinating?

And nearly everyone who’s not Amleto sports an Illuminati-esque eye on their clothes. Is this to represent their looking at (and putting psychological pressure on) Amleto, or representing to the audience how Amleto sees them? In his incomplete attempt to don a mime’s makeup in Act II, is he looking to become anonymous and erase his identity, becoming just another faceless clown in the court? As he descends further into madness, the makeup then starts to gradually fade in the second half.

One curious musical device that I don’t believe was used — at least so extensively — by Opera Southwest is that of offstage orchestral forces. There seemed to be a separate and permanent offstage brass (and more? hard to tell at times) section that remained throughout the whole of the work. I thought it had to do with the court in the first act, but then it remained. Perhaps this musical schizophrenia is to be reminiscent of Amleto’s gradual dissolution, though I could be reading too far into the lines. (I know it wasn’t a matter of real estate — Gruber’s orchestra for Wiener Wald dwarfed Faccio’s.)

The cast was quite strong overall, with standout performances by Pavel Černoch (Amleto), Iulia Maria Dan (Ofelia), Dshamilja Kaiser (Gertrude), and Claudio Sgura (Claudio). The two truly excellent moments of the evening belonged to the trio of Černoch, Kaiser, and Gianluca Buratto (The Ghost), and Dan’s final aria, both in Act III. That one-two punch set an impossibly high bar for the fourth act. And both in and out of the pit, Paolo Carignani led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra through a dynamic and moving run of the score.

Regardless of how one feels about old works and new, last night’s production and performance was an all-around success. I’ve not seen an audience applaud for a work in the indoor theater here as I did last night (along with one heckle from the balcony for the director…can’t win them all). I’ll be curious to see where not only this production but the work as a whole heads after this. As for the festival, Bregenz is getting its indoor stride, as next year will feature the certainly-not-new Moses in Ägypten by Rossini (alongside Bizet’s Carmen on the lake).

(And as for Pountney, he’s busy getting his Ring cycle off the ground in Chicago, for which Das Rheingold premieres in October. See you there.)