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Donald Feldman
American Record Guide, July 2011

The singing actor who carries the opera is the Nightingale, Desiree Rancatore. She has a wonderfully pure soprano and a range that encompasses a middle mezzo to coloratura soprano with no hint of strain. Good Hope’s tenor is an equal match to her vocal quality and he finds love and an hour’s transcendence…

The orchestra comments on it all. The aural image extends beyond the physical location of the front speakers, besides carrying the tonal threads of the different instruments and the transients that contribute so much. When properly recorded, Blu-Ray comfortably exceeds our hearing capability.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

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.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, January 2011

the second release from the L.A. Opera’s valuable series “Recovering Voices” which returns to audiences many neglected composers who were silenced by the Nazis, brings Walter Braunfels’ delightful comic tale based on Aristophanes’ classic play to the stage. An always-tireless advocate for this music is James Conlon, who conducts the superb L.A. Opera Orchestra and Chorus with a sure and steady hand, while his large cast gives Braunfels’ wonderfully Strauss-like score a real workout. The luscious visuals of Darko Tresnjak’s production that give this flavorful comedy its uniquely colorful look are reproduced faithfully on Blu-ray, and the surround-sound audio is excellent. Once again, the lone flaw with this release is that such a superb operatic find is not given more context by the endlessly talkative Conlon in an accompanying interview piece; at least an essay that he’s written about Der Vogel is included in the booklet.

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