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December 20, 2009

Last-minute holiday gift ideas for the classical music lover (Part One)

Of course, this wouldn't be a last-minute guide if I hadn't put off writing it for so long, but, hey, you gotta cut me some slack. I've had my own last-minute shopping to do, without worrying about your needs. But now that I'm finally caught up (I spent part of Saturday's blizzard going Web-shopping), I'm ready with some recommendations that I should have offered way back when.

If you've got a classical music lover on your gift list, there's still a chance to grab these items for Christmas. Alternatively, if you end up with gift cards, these suggestions may help you spend them.

I decided on only three basic categories (opera, orchestral, piano), since I ended up with more than enough good stuff to mention -- and because I was running out of time. Here, then, to start things off, my operatic picks: 


For the operatically inclined, my first choice would be the Decca DVD of Puccini's "La Rondine" in a visually luscious, musically vibrant Washington National Opera production, filmed live in 1998.

It doesn't come without its touch of controversy. Director Marta Domingo has decided that

the original bittersweet ending of this so-called "lyrical comedy," which contains no fatalities, is not really true to what Puccini felt in his heart. So, in keeping with nearly every other Puccini opera, the heroine here, a beguiling demi-mondaine named Magda, is allowed to die.

You can argue against that directorial decision, but Domingo does have a point when (as she writes in the accompanying booklet) you consider the final, somber orchestral music of the score, with the tolling of a bell. But even if you just refuse to buy the argument, you've got to admit that Magda gets a fabulous death scene (with shades of Joan Crawford in "Humoresque").

Anyway, this and other ideas from Domingo are very easy to take in light of so many positive things about the performance, starting with Ainhoa Arteta's exquisite portrayal of Magda. She's got the shimmering high notes to make the most of the music, the elegance and nuance to make the most of the multi-layered role. The supporting cast is quite respectable. Emmanuel Villaume conducts masterfully. And Michael Scott's sets and costumes are most attractive.


For the musically adventurous, a great choice would be the Opus Arte DVD of Messiaen's stunning masterpiece "Saint Francois d'Assise." The Netherlands Opera production deals quite well with the theatrical difficulties of this very long (275 minutes), sometimes very cerebral, but truly spiritual and transfixing work. The cast is headed by Rod Gilfry in the title role. Ingo Metzmacher conducts.

For the traditionalist, you can't go wrong with the 1978 performance of Verdi's "Otello" featuring Jon Vickers and Renata Scotto, now available for the first time on DVD on the Metropolitan Opera's label. A towering achievement by all involved.

And for choices in CD format, two colorful, involving contemporary operas stand out. 

John Musto's amusing, cleverly crafted "Volpone," "unfaithfully based on Ben Johnson's comedy," is one of the most instantly engaging pieces to come around in years, a ringing affirmation of tonality and the values of classic Italian comic opera. It was commissioned and premiered in 2004 by Wolf Trap Opera, which has now released a recording on its own label of the excellent 2007 revival, with a lively cast conducted by Sara Jobin. The recording, Wolf Trap's first, has been nominated for a 2010 Grammy.

And John Adams' brilliant "Nixon in China" has been given a fresh recording on the Naxos label, this one made live during an Opera Colorado production in 2008. Marin Alsop is the rock-steady, expressive conductor in this performance, which boasts a sturdy cast and the fine Colorado Symphony Orchestra.  

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:26 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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