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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, November 2011

Los Angeles Opera in general and a creative team led by Darko Tresnjak in particular covered themselves with laurels two years ago when they produced Braunfel’s Die Vögel. Faced with a work that had fallen into neglect for reasons unrelated to its quality, they worked diligently and with imagination to realize its composer-librettist’s intentions. Throw in a great cast led by Brandon Jovanovich’s moving Hoffegut (Good Hope), and you have a late-German Romantic opera that deserves to be seen, heard, and savored.



Robert Tomas
The WholeNote, May 2011

“Trust the text!”—this much repeated, often ignored theatrical incantation proves its wisdom in the Braunfels opera The Birds. Too frequently, composers, directors and producers think that the play’s strength is not nearly enough for its success. Hence, we are frequently left scratching our heads. Just a few seasons ago, the Stratford Festival staged the almost 2,500 year old play by Aristophanes in a truly bizarre fashion that led my seat companion to call it “Sesame Street on acid.” Fortunately, Walter Braunfels was a man of tradition. While the Viennese School was transforming music of the early 20th century with their atonal experiments, Braunfels fully embraced German Romanticism. When The Birds premiered in 1920, none other than Bruno Walter conducted and lavished extreme praise on the work and its author. Alas, Walter Braunfels, as one of Germany’s assimilated Jews, stood no chance against the regime that emerged in the 1930s. His brutal dismissal and almost complete purge of his works from the public realm, was not overturned in the composer’s lifetime and the first post WWII production of The Birds took place in 1971, seventeen years after his death.

In this production for the Los Angeles Opera, both conductor James Conlon and the stage director, Darko Tresnjak, treat Braunfels’ work with the same respect he had shown for Aristophanes. By playing up to its Romantic tradition and easy charm, the best of Braunfels the composer and Braunfels the author is on display. The strong cast, especially Désirée Rancatore as Nightingale and Brandon Jovanovich as Good Hope, only emphasize the reasons why Braunfels’ return to the stage, while long overdue, is much appreciated.



Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, May 2011

When Die Vögel was premiered in Munich in 1920 under the baton of Bruno Walter, it was an overnight hit. Numerous productions followed throughout Europe, and it seemed well on its way to entering the standard repertoire. But then the Thousand Year Reich appeared, and after the war, the institutionalization of the avant-garde put paid to any return of the opera. It wasn’t mounted again until 1971, nor seen in a major opera house until 1994. It has since been revived several times, and one audio recording made (London 448 679-2). Now, we finally have an opportunity to see it, as well as hear it.

The libretto is by Braunfels. Where the play upon which it is based, Aristophanes’ The Birds, is a topical satire on ambition, war, and the pettiness of humanity, the opera is an exotic fantasy with touches of the profound. Two men, Ratefreund (Loyal Friend) and Hoffegut (Good Hope), seek and find the kingdom of the anthropomorphic birds. Ratefreund plays the demagogue card, stoking the birds’ fear and anger until under his direction they build a city that will prevent the humans’ incense—the food of the gods—from rising to reach Mt. Olympus. Never mind the gods; the birds will demand worship, instead. Meanwhile, Hoffegut finds both earthly love and transcendence in the Nightingale and her song. Prometheus, first friend of the birds, arrives in great pain to warn them of Zeus’s anger, but their preparations for war are insufficient, and the god’s windstorm blows down their city. A resigned Ratefreund shrugs away his loss and heads back to the nearest human town, but I think Hoffegut, still cherishing what he has experienced, is the gainer. Thought and will failed to storm the mansion of the gods, but feeling and intuition moved beyond human experience in a moment.

The music is a sophisticated South German mix of many influences, among which the most prominent are Wagner, Mozart, Weber, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Die Vögel proceeds in leisurely fashion, but the work’s successes both initially and in revivals show Braunfels was right to allow his musical creativity to set the pace, rather than to chain it, limping, behind a fast-moving plot. There’s humor to be had, some of it in the form of oblique near-quotations: Prometheus sounds at first more than a bit like another Wanderer, Zeus’s windstorm recalls a certain cursed mariner, and the Nightingale’s harmonies and figurations demonstrate she wintered regularly with the Queen of Shemakhan. But by and large the opera is a gloriously inspired work of fantasy in the late-German Romantic manner, with a clarity of texture and feeling for proportion more common to an earlier era. Die Vögel has deserved a far, far better fate that it has received.

This imaginative production will certainly help. Not least among its virtues is the lighting design of David Weiner, which starts with a silhouetted, origami-like bird flitting across the stage floor, followed by another, and then a flock. The atmospheric sets, by David Gordon, make sparing but excellent use of well-placed rises, a raked stage, a few palm trees, a large, transparent solar disc, and fluffy, two-dimensional clouds, placed on the floor to simulate the heights. Linda Cho’s costumes, resplendently rethought off several models—Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian, with scarf-based wings—add great color and variety throughout, and they’re put to excellent use in extensive choreography designed by Peggy Hickey. Darko Tresnjak’s direction can’t bring action to the more static pages of the score, but he does block his actor/singer/dancers very effectively. Time and again he and the others on his production team create striking images to heighten the musical effect. Thus, for example, the warlike sounds that anticipate the gods’ attack sees bird soldiers forming a broad semicircle, bearing Myrmidon headdresses and extending lengthy spears tipped not with metallic points, but oversized imitation bird claws. It is only one moment, but there are several like this.

Three of the performances are standouts. First, Brandon Jovanovich, who made his Met debut as Don José (Carmen) in 2009, reveals a gloriously bright tenor with ringing, easily attained high notes. He uses his voice with great sensitivity, and also displays the best acting—not merely a series of reasonably chosen gestures, but an ability to modulate facial expressions and his body in a way that many professional actors don’t achieve. Désirée Rancatore’s dark-toned Nightingale seems more of a mezzo with a high extension than a soprano, but she has all the coloratura and notes that are required, although the top ones possess a beat. Brian Mulligan makes a very convincing Wagnerian baritone as Prometheus, his excellent breath support anchoring a broad spectrum of coloration in this, the most serious role in the opera. For the rest, Ratefreund calls for a high bass, so that James Johnson’s deeper one is hard-pressed in his high notes. He does have the measure of the part, however. Finally, Martin Gantner’s drier, lyrical tenor is sung a bit too softly to be heard properly, but provides a good tonal contrast with Jonvanovich. James Conlon leads with spirit and great sympathy, while the L.A. Opera Orchestra is a rich, focused instrument.

Finally, the camera direction by Kenneth Shapiro is notable in avoiding both endless close-ups and switching shots every two to three seconds, two curses that have afflicted numerous opera DVDs in recent years. It makes a great difference when someone is in charge of filming who gives home viewers the next best thing to actually being there, live.

Sound is offered in PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. The picture format is 16:9, and subtitles are provided in English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian.

All too often, seldom-seen operas end up the victims of production teams that are solely interested in distracting the unusual attention these works receive onto themselves. That’s not the case here. The people who designed this Die Vögel strove to render Braunfels his due, and succeeded in a way that covers them with laurels, too.



Rafael de Acha
ConcertoNet.com, April 2011

Among the composers whose music was branded “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) by the Third Reich, one can quickly remember Erich Korngold and Kurt Weill, at a stretch perhaps Hanns Eisler and Ernst Krenek. But Zemlinsky, Ullmann, Haas, Hartmann, Schulhoff, Schreker, and Zeisl are names now sadly largely forgotten by many, if not most. Some of these artists perished in the Holocaust, some, luckily for them and us, all made it to our shores. Their fascinating and often-tragic stories should be told again and again, their music played, their memory honored. So, hats off to James Conlon who has set out to lovingly unearth and champion the works of many of these composers and encourage enterprising producers to stage their works, among which Walter Braunfels’ Die Vögel (“The Birds”) stands out as a viable vehicle for any company interested in exploring neglected 20th century works.

Part-Jewish and a convert to Catholicism, Braunfels was such a huge figure in German music prior to the arrival of Hitler, that he managed to miraculously stay alive in self-imposed exile inside Germany (one of the very few) until the end of the war, God knows how. He wrote much music during those years but did not hear a note of his compositions in public performance until his reinstatement as Professor Emeritus at the Cologne “Hochschule für Musik” in 1948, from which time he remained unjustly neglected in his own country until his death in 1954.

The fine libretto—by Braunfels himself—is based on Aristophanes’ bawdy comedy Ornithes.

In the opera, two discontents, Good Hope (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) and Loyal Friend (baritone James Johnson)—the middle-aged losers Pisthetaerus and Euelpides in Aristophanes’ original—travel to Birdland in search of a better life and a fast buck. There, the feathered citizens live seemingly happy lives under the rule of Hoopoe (baritone Martin Gantner), a former human now transformed into a bird. While in Birdland, Good Hope meets and falls in love with the Nightingale (soprano Désirée Rancatore.) Meanwhile, Loyal Friend insists that Good Hope be the architect for a new City-in-the-Clouds (think South Florida condominiums) for the Birds and anyone else who cares to move up there, out of the reach of both men and gods. Zeus (baritone Matthew Moore)—incensed at the men’s hubris, destroys the kingdom, and the two humans barely escape alive.

The music of this opera is full-blown post-Romanticism, reminiscent at times of Richard Strauss’s late-career operas. The writing for the stratospherically-high role of the Nightingale is reminiscent of the music for Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, complete with its perilous above high C territory and its flowing melismas, here stylishly tossed off by soprano Désirée Rancatore. The humans in the opera have their own vocal idiom—borderline Wagnerian here and there, declamatory at times, lyrical elsewhere, always consistent with and obedient to the text in good German tradition.

As Good Hope, the young American tenor Brandon Jovanovich is a vocal standout, with a rich and baritonal timbre in the middle voice and ringing above the staff notes. Along with his sidekick, the ample-voiced bass-baritone James Johnson they make a lively pair of ne’er-do-wells in search of their next big break. Baritones Martin Gartner as the Hoopoe and Brian Mulligan as an unbound and heartbreaking Prometheus are both formidable vocal presences. This beautifully-shot and engineered live video-recording of a 2009 Los Angeles Opera performance features Maestro Conlon in magisterial command of the full forces of the Los Angeles Opera Company, with orchestra, corps de ballet, and chorus providing solid support to the excellent cast.

The production team provides a visually-stunning, colorful and child-like world with a whimsical “cut-out” set by David P. Gordon, bright and cheerful avian and human costumes by Linda Cho, imaginative and (thank goodness) bright lighting by David Weiner, inventive air-born and earthly bird choreography by Peggy Hickey—all neatly gift-wrapped in a dramatically-compelling production, guided by the inspired hand of director Darko Tresnjak who infuses the proceedings with classical dignity and 21st century irony. Enterprising conservatories and regional opera companies with the initiative to pass on yet another warhorse, would do well to have a look at The Birds. Seven principal roles—none beyond the ability of a good singer, a terrific ensemble for a dozen young singers, a unit set with minimal changes and, most importantly, eminently singable music with a wonderful “parabasis” ending that essentially says: “Improve your lot right at home, get a life and don’t go building castles in Cuckooland. The skies belong to the birds.”




Robert Cummings
MusicWeb International, March 2011

BRAUNFELS, W.: Vögel (Die) (Los Angeles Opera, 2009) (NTSC) 101529
BRAUNFELS, W.: Vögel (Die) (Los Angeles Opera, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101530

There have been just two recordings of this Walter Braunfels opera to date, the 1996 Decca CD set (recorded December, 1994), led by Lothar Zagrosek, with Helen Kwon as Nightingale and Endrik Wottrich as Good Hope, and this effort, a production of the Los Angeles Opera. Because this new one is the only video release of the opera and is as good or better a performance as the Decca, it is quite an essential acquisition for those interested in the byways of early-20th century opera.

Braunfels was a talented composer, particularly of opera, one of the most prominent in Germany in the 1920s. He actually became a rival of Richard Strauss and, along with Schreker, was the most highly regarded young composer of opera at the time. The Birds (1920), based on the Aristophanes comedy of the same title, was Braunfels’ third opera and achieved wide popularity in Germany.

Why did the opera and the composer fade? Braunfels, a practising Roman Catholic, was half-Jewish, but still had a chance to curry favor with the fledgling Nazi party in 1923 when he was asked to write an anthem for their movement. He refused, cognizant of their political extremism and evil. One reliable account, by the composer’s grandson, the architect Stephan Braunfels, has it that Braunfels threw Hitler out when he asked the composer for the anthem.

Many German citizens with partial Jewish ancestry were arrested and deported to death camps, but Braunfels survived in exile in Switzerland, having been dismissed by the Nazis from his post as director of the Cologne Academy of Music in 1933, with all performances of his works banned in Germany. He was a talented concert pianist and continued to compose throughout the 1930s and war years. He regained his post at the Cologne Academy in 1945, but in the post-war years his music was largely ignored because he was a conservative at a time when Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage and members of the Darmstadt School were coming into vogue.

The Birds was revived in Karlsruhe in 1971 and finally recorded by Decca in 1994, based on a Berlin production. But it still remains an obscure work. The story is fairly simple, if a little silly. Good Hope, a man feeling betrayed in love by women, and Loyal Friend, disappointed by declining art, abandon civilization for the place of their dreams—the domain of the birds, ruled by Hoopoe, who was once a man. The birds are initially suspicious of the men—as they are of all mankind—but are eventually convinced by the two to build a fortress around their world against the wishes of the gods. In the end, Zeus becomes displeased and summons a powerful storm that destroys the birds’ fortress. The two men return to civilization, but with the enamored Good Hope feeling transformed by a kiss he had shared with the captivating Nightingale.

What is remarkable about this production of The Birds are its visual aspects, from the resplendent costumes (including lavish headwear for the birds) and imaginative sets to the brilliant lighting effects and dancing. For once, we have a modern production not visually barren or anachronistically annoying. In the Second Act the lighting effects are spectacular: shortly after Good Hope kisses the Nightingale luminescent images of flowers appear on the stage floor, eventually covering the entire surface. The birds’ costumes are brilliantly and colorfully designed, and when the singers flap their arms a waving and fluttering of the fabric makes them seem almost airborne. Often the colors on stage from the lighting, costumes and sets combine to create delightfully colorful images and befitting atmosphere to deftly complement the highly imaginative music. Stage director Darko Tresnjak and staff have lavished the greatest care and artistic insight on this effort. Bravo to them!

But what about the singing? Désirée Rancatore is charming throughout as the Nightingale. Her Second Act number Ah! Ah! Narzissus…is really a sort of challenging vocal cadenza, wherein she delivers the twittering notes beautifully and accurately. Brandon Jovanovich soon joins in and the two offer some of the finest singing here in this production. Some of Rancatore’s high notes in the opera are a bit weak, but overall her voice, a beautiful lyric coloratura soprano, is attractive and ample in volume. Stacey Tappan, as the Wren, sings with equal charm, and Martin Gantner makes a fine Hoopoe. In the brief role of Prometheus Brian Mulligan is brilliant in his dire demeanor: he gives the character a Wagnerian depth and offers a much needed contrast to the often lighthearted atmosphere. The ballet sequence in the opera, a dance to celebrate the marriage of two doves, is brilliantly executed, and features good though not particularly imaginative choreography.

James Conlon conducts with a real sense for Braunfels’ style, a style which, while exhibiting the influence of Richard Strauss and Wagner, is less saccharine than the former’s can sometimes be and more colorful and varied than the latter’s. Conlon’s tempos are brisker than Zagrosek’s: although the opera’s overall timing is given as 138:54 (as compared with Zagrosek’s nearly identical 138:46!), Conlon’s is padded by ten minutes of curtain calls and opening and closing credits. The Los Angeles opera orchestra and chorus turn in fine work, though I must comment that the French horn is perhaps too closely miked in some softer passages. It could be, however, that Braunfels’ orchestral writing often featured slightly more prominent horn writing in quieter passages. It’s a minor matter in any event, and does not detract from the overall success of this wonderful production. Although Zagrosek’s CD set is worthwhile, this Blu-ray DVD is certainly the way to enjoy this still neglected opera. In sum, this is a superb recording that merits the highest praise!




Robert Cummings
MusicWeb International, March 2011

BRAUNFELS, W.: Vögel (Die) (Los Angeles Opera, 2009) (NTSC) 101529
BRAUNFELS, W.: Vögel (Die) (Los Angeles Opera, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101530

There have been just two recordings of this Walter Braunfels opera to date, the 1996 Decca CD set (recorded December, 1994), led by Lothar Zagrosek, with Helen Kwon as Nightingale and Endrik Wottrich as Good Hope, and this effort, a production of the Los Angeles Opera. Because this new one is the only video release of the opera and is as good or better a performance as the Decca, it is quite an essential acquisition for those interested in the byways of early-20th century opera.

Braunfels was a talented composer, particularly of opera, one of the most prominent in Germany in the 1920s. He actually became a rival of Richard Strauss and, along with Schreker, was the most highly regarded young composer of opera at the time. The Birds (1920), based on the Aristophanes comedy of the same title, was Braunfels’ third opera and achieved wide popularity in Germany.

Why did the opera and the composer fade? Braunfels, a practising Roman Catholic, was half-Jewish, but still had a chance to curry favor with the fledgling Nazi party in 1923 when he was asked to write an anthem for their movement. He refused, cognizant of their political extremism and evil. One reliable account, by the composer’s grandson, the architect Stephan Braunfels, has it that Braunfels threw Hitler out when he asked the composer for the anthem.

Many German citizens with partial Jewish ancestry were arrested and deported to death camps, but Braunfels survived in exile in Switzerland, having been dismissed by the Nazis from his post as director of the Cologne Academy of Music in 1933, with all performances of his works banned in Germany. He was a talented concert pianist and continued to compose throughout the 1930s and war years. He regained his post at the Cologne Academy in 1945, but in the post-war years his music was largely ignored because he was a conservative at a time when Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage and members of the Darmstadt School were coming into vogue.

The Birds was revived in Karlsruhe in 1971 and finally recorded by Decca in 1994, based on a Berlin production. But it still remains an obscure work. The story is fairly simple, if a little silly. Good Hope, a man feeling betrayed in love by women, and Loyal Friend, disappointed by declining art, abandon civilization for the place of their dreams—the domain of the birds, ruled by Hoopoe, who was once a man. The birds are initially suspicious of the men—as they are of all mankind—but are eventually convinced by the two to build a fortress around their world against the wishes of the gods. In the end, Zeus becomes displeased and summons a powerful storm that destroys the birds’ fortress. The two men return to civilization, but with the enamored Good Hope feeling transformed by a kiss he had shared with the captivating Nightingale.

What is remarkable about this production of The Birds are its visual aspects, from the resplendent costumes (including lavish headwear for the birds) and imaginative sets to the brilliant lighting effects and dancing. For once, we have a modern production not visually barren or anachronistically annoying. In the Second Act the lighting effects are spectacular: shortly after Good Hope kisses the Nightingale luminescent images of flowers appear on the stage floor, eventually covering the entire surface. The birds’ costumes are brilliantly and colorfully designed, and when the singers flap their arms a waving and fluttering of the fabric makes them seem almost airborne. Often the colors on stage from the lighting, costumes and sets combine to create delightfully colorful images and befitting atmosphere to deftly complement the highly imaginative music. Stage director Darko Tresnjak and staff have lavished the greatest care and artistic insight on this effort. Bravo to them!

But what about the singing? Désirée Rancatore is charming throughout as the Nightingale. Her Second Act number Ah! Ah! Narzissus…is really a sort of challenging vocal cadenza, wherein she delivers the twittering notes beautifully and accurately. Brandon Jovanovich soon joins in and the two offer some of the finest singing here in this production. Some of Rancatore’s high notes in the opera are a bit weak, but overall her voice, a beautiful lyric coloratura soprano, is attractive and ample in volume. Stacey Tappan, as the Wren, sings with equal charm, and Martin Gantner makes a fine Hoopoe. In the brief role of Prometheus Brian Mulligan is brilliant in his dire demeanor: he gives the character a Wagnerian depth and offers a much needed contrast to the often lighthearted atmosphere. The ballet sequence in the opera, a dance to celebrate the marriage of two doves, is brilliantly executed, and features good though not particularly imaginative choreography.

James Conlon conducts with a real sense for Braunfels’ style, a style which, while exhibiting the influence of Richard Strauss and Wagner, is less saccharine than the former’s can sometimes be and more colorful and varied than the latter’s. Conlon’s tempos are brisker than Zagrosek’s: although the opera’s overall timing is given as 138:54 (as compared with Zagrosek’s nearly identical 138:46!), Conlon’s is padded by ten minutes of curtain calls and opening and closing credits. The Los Angeles opera orchestra and chorus turn in fine work, though I must comment that the French horn is perhaps too closely miked in some softer passages. It could be, however, that Braunfels’ orchestral writing often featured slightly more prominent horn writing in quieter passages. It’s a minor matter in any event, and does not detract from the overall success of this wonderful production. Although Zagrosek’s CD set is worthwhile, this Blu-ray DVD is certainly the way to enjoy this still neglected opera. In sum, this is a superb recording that merits the highest praise!



Anne Shelley
Music Media Monthly, February 2011

BRAUNFELS, W.: Vogel (Die) (Los Angeles Opera, 2009) (NTSC) 101529
BRAUNFELS, W.: Vogel (Die) (Los Angeles Opera, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101530

Here is another DVD world-premiere from James Conlon and the LA Opera’s “Recovered Voices” project. Braunfels’s libretto for Die Vögel—his second staged opera and probably his best-known—is based on the ancient Greek comedic play of the same name. After Bruno Walter premiered and put in a good word for the work in the early 1920s, it was quickly adopted in post-World War I Germany and rivaled any Strauss opera in popularity. Polyphonic, tonal, and lyrical, it reflects Braunfels’s conservative style and his adherence to German Romanticism.

It seems like one would have to try to make a satire filled with colorful beasts visually unappealing. The staging is barren to the point of appearing cheap, and the poor lighting fails to highlight much of the Chor der Vögel. And any singing character called Nightingale probably deserves more than what Désirée Rancatore offers here. The Italian coloratura makes her LA Opera debut in this role, and while her top is clear and flexible, her tone is dull and her overall presence seems disengaged. Matthew Moore as Zeus, too, sings with vigor but looks like a terrified fifth grader at a spelling bee.

Gripes aside, Brandon Jovanovich and James Johnson both produce rich, spinning waves of sound, and whether they’re traversing the cardboard heavens or fending off flapping fuchsia mezzos, they’re just a delight to watch. I’m tempted to say “wait for the DVD,” but you already did.



Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, February 2011

Then comes Walter Braunfels’ The Birds aka Die Vogel from the LA Opera conducted by James Conlon, which I liked more than the last release, but still was not totally happy with. In this case, two young men named Ratefreund and Hoffegut leave Athens, Greece to reconnect with nature among the birds far away from other people, but wherever they go, there they are. They are both differently affected by the results in what is a character study. For me, there are mixed results and some predictability, but I wonder how this would compare to a differently staged take. Extras include the informative booklet on the work and trailers.



John Terauds
Toronto Star, January 2011

This two-act 1920 opera based on Aristophanes’ 2,400-year-old comedy has a lot to recommend it. The fantastical plot centres around two disenchanted humans who hook up with a flock of birds. Together, they successfully plot to take down the Greek gods. The music comes from nearly forgotten German composer, pianist and teacher Walter Braunfels (1882–1954), who had the makings of a major career before being sidelined by the Nazis, who didn’t like that he was half-Jewish. Braunfels’ music is lush and tonal, which meant it was out of fashion by the time the ink was dry on each score. But it makes for great listening, especially when sung as nicely as in this 2009 Los Angeles Opera production conducted by James Conlon. The play looks fabulous, thanks to director Darko Tresnjak, and the whimsical sets and costumes of David P. Gordon and Linda Cho. This is a fine feathered treat.






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