Lucia Di Lammermoor: – A review of the MSO 2011/2012 Season Production

March 3rd, 2012

Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) with Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano.

This opera is based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, written in 1819, but set in the reign of “Good Queen Anne,” in the early 18th century.

The tale involves a feud between the Ashtons and Ravenswoods.  Enrico wants his daughter Lucia to Marry Arturo, for political reasons.  However Normano, Enrico’s captain of the guard, informs him that Lucia is smitten with his sworn enemy Edgardo master of Ravenswood.  Raimondo, the Chaplain, advises caution against the arranged marriage.  Enrico remains furious.

In the second scene Lucia awaits Edgardo by a stream in the woods, where a Ravenswood stabbed his beloved in a jealous rage, and legend has it she remains there, and her ghost haunts the fountain.  Alisa, Lucia’s companion, tries to dissuade her from her liaison with Edgardo.  However the assignation takes place, and Lucia and Edgardo exchange rings and pledge a secret bond of fealty.   Edgardo leaves for France for political adventures.

In Act II several months later, Lucia’s letters to Edgardo have been intercepted by Normano and his operatives.  Worse he has forged a letter from Edgado purportedly showing Edgardo to have been unfaithful.  Lucia faints.  She is then reluctantly persuaded to marry Arturo, after the chaplain insists one of his letters to Edgardo got through but he has made no reply.  Plans for the wedding ensue.

In scene II Arturo is received.  He has heard of Lucia’s affection for Elgardo.  Enrico reassures him and berates Lucia.  As soon as she reluctantly signs the wedding contract Edgardo bursts in.  Believing Lucia still loves him he is shown the marriage contract.  Angrily he gives back his ring to Lucia and snatches hers.  As he offers his own life, Enrico orders him out.

In Act III,  Edgardo is brooding back at Ravenswood, when Enrico enters taunting him the Luci’a marriage to Arturo is at this very moment being consummated.  Edgardo challenges Enrico to a dual on his father’s grave next morning.

In scene II the wedding festivities are interrupted when the chaplain Raimundo enters white as a ghost to announce that Lucia has stabbed Arturo to death in their wedding chamber.  Raimundo had heard the screams and found Lucia covered in blood still holding the dagger.  Lucia enters and then follows one of the most famous mad scenes in all opera.  She eventually falls ill and exhausted to the ground, and the general consensus is that she will not survive the night.

In scene II Edgardo awaits Enrico at the tombs of his ancestors for the early morning dual.  He learns from Enrico of the nights events and that Lucia is close to death.  Soon the castle bell tolls announcing Lucia’s death.  Heart broken by the news, Edgardo takes his own life.

This is an Italian Bel Canto opera, a term which is hard to define.  It is translated as “Beautiful Singing.”  To me it means a style of signing light of foot, with agility and easy flourishes and coloratura.  There should be dominance of the head voice, and certainly no forceful pressing with the chest voice.  That is the best I can explain it.  Certainly in this production there was no lack of beautiful singing.

At the opening there is a dark scene with a weird caricature of a rocky landscape.  Normano the captain of the guard and his henchmen in their dreary brown garb looked like wayward souls from the order of mendicants lost on a poor recreation of a lunar landscape.  John Robert Lindsey came across as a weak and sorry individual where the role demands an authoritarian figure, eager to show his master he has his ear to the ground, and full command of operatives ready to carry out and even enjoy the evil schemes.  Now I know this is a supporting role.  However the old adage that “There are no small parts, only small actors” was demonstrated here.  This was a pity, as I felt this was the only role miscast, or may be he was badly directed.

Ben Wager, as Raimondo, had a good commanding bass voice and partnered well with the baritone voice of James Westman as Enrico.  The opera chorus sang beautifully as one would expect in “heart of choral country”.  However in the first chorus they were up close to this strange overbearing rocky scenery, and I thought the scenery was muffling their voices and causing poor projection.

I’m going to deal with this set now.  This should be Grand Opera.  There was nothing Grand about this set.  This opera is cast in East Lothian.  Now these are the flat rural lands of Scotland.  This staging went very close to the nasty stereotypical portrayal of Scots as savages.

In the meeting of Enrico and Lucia and the wedding scene there was not even a hint we were in a grand castle.  In fact the whole wedding party looked like a dejected tawdry lot.

However lets get on to better things.

When Susanna Phillips made her first entry as Lucia, she captivates us.  She immediately laid down to play in the snow, immediately convincing us we were encountering a young playful and innocent woman, a very nice touch that!

Susanna Phillips has just the right vocal equipment for this role.  She posses a lovely light coloratura, which she appears to use effortlessly and with great musicality and intelligence.  She never put a foot wrong.  She was superbly partnered by Michael Spyres as Edgardo.  With his smooth and easy on the ear tenor voice brought to the role exactly what was required.  Victoria Vargas as Alisa played her role with just the right degree of anxiety for Lucia.

The opera chorus of the MSO musically is of a high order.  I just love opera choruses.  Musically I was not disappointed, however they could benefit from more coaching in the acting department.  A lot more joy needed to be shown as they gathered for the wedding.  After all, one assumes they were not party to the evil schemes.  A.J. Glueckert by the way played the role of Arturo to perfection and we were graced with another beautiful tenor voice on stage.  Another demonstration that there are no minor roles.

Now to the pivotal mad scene.  The principles did no wrong and Susann Phillips rendition of it was superb.  This is where the chorus need some theatrical coaching.  They loped about like disinterested bystanders, whereas they should have acted shocked and then questioning and trying to find understanding in this young woman’s awful act and subsequent disintegration of her persona after being driven to madness by love denied.  There is so much more they could have done to enhance Susanna Phillip’s performance.

Now to orchestral matters.  As usual the musical standards of the players is very high.  We were indulged with a couple of fine solos of special mention a harp solo from Min J. Kim and flute solo from Michele Frisch.

One interesting issue, is the orchestral scoring of the mad scene.  The score includes a now rare and unusual instrument, that would not have been available to the MSO, nor for that matter a player.  The instrument is the glass harmonica or glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin.  You can hear it played here.  On the DVD I have from the Met, you can clearly hear that they have one in the third act mad scene, and it highlights the breaking up of Lucia’s mind.  This instrument developed from the glass harp, which is basically a series of wine glasses tuned with water on a sound board.  You can hear one playing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  I attended a long recital by a great exponent of this instrument many years ago.  He was able to conjure up a baroque string orchestra, complete with harpsichord from this single instrument.  He was able to give a surprisingly good rendition of the harpsichord by tapping the edge of the glasses with his finger nails.  It is really a mechanical synthesizer predating the the Moog by centuries.  In any event the Moog was not the first electronic synthesizer.  It was the Theramin right after the first world war, followed by the Ondes Martenot, in the 1920s.  You can see and play a Thermin at the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in St Louis Park.  Understandably you won’t hear a glass harmonica at the MSO, but you can on DVD.

However there are persisting problems of balance and failure to achieve the dynamic required for the big moments.  At times I felt the stage was leading the pit rather than the pit accompanying the the singers.  I don’t want to make too much of this, as for the most part the wonderful heroes of the pit supported the signers ably under the sensitive hands of Leonardo Vordoni.  I do want to address the issue of orchestral balance however.  As I have found on all but one occasion in this house, the strings are severely muted with a dominance to the wood wind group, which all to easily gives the impression of accompaniment by a wind band.

I suspect this has a lot to do with the room and in particular the pit.  The pit is deep and with some bare concrete surfaces.  Now in my many years recording for groups in ND and for public radio in that part of the world, I noted that concrete surfaces really enhance flutes in particular.  There were 30 string players in the pit, but they did not project.  They did better in the third act.  The sound really seems to have trouble getting out of that pit, with only the woodwinds projecting well.  The strings poorly and even the brass has a slightly dry quality and lacking body.  The bass barely makes egress from the pit.

I suspect the sound is very loud in the pit and everyone is concerned about covering the voices.  I can assure the musicians that with the caliber of singers engaged of late, this should not be their concern.  Projecting a well balanced sound from the pit into the auditorium needs to take priority right now.

Part of the problem is that modern woodwinds are about 10 db louder than older instruments.  To put this in lay parlance the newer instruments are twice as loud as older ones.  On the other hand strings in particular are unchanged.

I think it would be advisable to cover the concrete surface with a wood surface.  Absorptive surfaces in pits have been tried with uniformly poor results.  Another modification may well help, and that is to get the musicians higher on a platform of pine lathe construction.  This has been used in situations like this and shown to increase the 125 Hz to 500 Hz pass band by up to 10 db.  This is the warmth region and is just what this opera house needs.

I have to say I thought the balance problems were partially corrected in the third act, with the strings projecting better, but not optimally.  The violins are right up against the front of the pit.  Consideration should be given to repositioning.  Violins are monopole acoustic radiators, that is to say omnidirectional.  So the violins right up front are being turned into half space radiators and loosing a lot of their energy as a result.

The only opera I have attended where the pit balance was acceptable was Orfeo Ed Euridice.  The SPCO was in the pit conducted by Harry Bickett.  He is a veteran conductor with a huge experience.

Hopefully the new MSO artistic director, Michael Christie, can address these issues.  He should do lots of listening out in the hall and should be encouraged to pick up the phone and call Harry Bickett.  I have to believe Mr Bickett realized the problem and knew how to mitigate it.

Anyhow I digress, the performance musically was of a high order, at times I just closed my eyes to avoid the distraction of the stage.  The singing was just glorious, however they and the paying public deserve much better from the set designer and to some extent the stage director.  That set design was plain and simple a sloppy, lazy and thoughtless piece of work.  Much, much more is required from that quarter if the MSO is to prosper.

Werther: – Review of Minneosta Opera production from the 2011/2012 season.

January 27th, 2012

At the kind invitation of the Minnesota opera I attended a full dress rehearsal at the Ordway in St. Paul prior to opening night 01/28/2011.

Now this is a rehearsal, so it is understandable that singers might save their voices a little.  Also there are a lot of potentially distracting activities, people at computer screens etc, that need to be taken into consideration.  However the performance was of a standard that I was absorbed and drawn into, and these distractions quickly tuned out.  There were no interruptions for problems and the opera played right through.

This is a French romantic opera, by Jules Massenet written in the late 19th century.  Jules Massenet was influenced by Richard Wagner, especially in matters of the unbroken musical line and the orchestra playing a key role in illuminating the story line.  However the musical idiom is unabashedly French on not German. I will return to this later.

For those not familiar with the opera here is a brief synopsis courtesy of the Metropolitan News: -

ACT I. Wetzlar, near Frankfurt, 1780s. Though it is July, the widowed Bailiff teaches his younger children a Christmas carol in the garden of their house. Their progress is watched with amusement by two neighbors, Schmidt and Johann. They ask for Charlotte, the eldest daughter, who is engaged to Albert. In his absence, the Bailiff tells them, she will be escorted to the local ball that night by a young visiting poet, Werther, whom they find uncongenial. As the friends go off to supper and the Bailiff goes into the house, Werther arrives. He rhapsodizes on the beauty of the evening and watches unseen as Charlotte cuts bread and butter for the children’s supper. When the party has left for the ball and the Bailiff has gone to join his friends at the tavern, Albert returns unexpectedly. Disappointed at not finding Charlotte, he promises her sister Sophie he will return in the morning. As the moon rises, Werther and Charlotte return. He has fallen in love with her, but his declaration is cut short when the Bailiff passes by, observing that Albert has returned. Despite his despair, Werther urges Charlotte not to break her promise to marry Albert.

ACT II. Three months later, Charlotte and Albert, now married, walk contentedly across the town square on their way to church, followed by Werther. Albert tries to comfort the youth, and Sophie also attempts to cheer him up, but when Charlotte comes out of the church, he speaks of their first meeting; disturbed, she tells him he must leave Wetzlar until Christmas. Werther contemplates suicide, and when Sophie interrupts him, he rushes away. As Charlotte consoles the tearful girl, Albert realizes that Werther must be in love with his wife.

ACT III. Alone at home on Christmas Eve, Charlotte rereads the dejected letters written to her by Werther. While she prays for strength, he suddenly appears. Charlotte tries to remain calm and asks him to read to her from his translation of Ossian. Werther chooses a passage where the poet foresees his own death, and when Charlotte begs him to stop, he realizes she returns his love. But she runs from his embrace with a final farewell, and Werther leaves, resolved to die. Albert enters, surprised to find Charlotte distraught, and when a message arrives from Werther asking to borrow Albert’s pistols, her reaction convinces him of her love for Werther. He makes her give the pistols to the servant herself, but when Albert has gone she hurries off, praying she may reach Werther in time.

ACT IV. Charlotte arrives at Werther’s quarters to find him mortally wounded. She declares her love, and he begs forgiveness. As he dies, the voices of the children outside are heard singing their Christmas carol.
– courtesy of Opera News

In essence this a classic opera of conflicted love and duty.

Werther the philosopher, writer,  translator and also with brooding depressive tendencies, combined with obsessional character traits.

The hinge is Charlotte, the eldest daughter of the Le Bailli, who has had to substitute for her dead mother to a large family of younger children, her brothers and sisters.  She has promised her mother she will marry Albert, possibly an industrialist, but I doubt there is evidence for this .  So in essence it is an arranged marriage.

Now before the wedding she is pursued by the obsessive love of Werther.  In her youth she is flattered but also conflicted.  Duty wins, she marries Albert, but Werther is still in the picture.  Albert is understanding but Charlotte banishes him for six odd months.  Again there is unresolved conflict of which Albert is at first sympathetic.

Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie, a very presentable catch herself,  and clearly has feelings for Werther.  However in his obsession for Charlotte, he is blind to them.

So Christmas comes, and Charlotte, though conflicted, duty to her husband wins, and Werther sees suicide as the only way to release the two of them.

Werther requests to borrow Albert’s pistols for a “long journey.”  Albert loosing his sympathies, enhances Charlotte’s conflict by making her hand over the pistols to Werther’s messenger.

Wracked with guilt, she runs to Werther to prevent the tragedy she foresees.  Too late, Werther has fired the gun and is dying.  In a prolonged death scene ridden with guilt, Charlotte blames herself.  Werther absolves her and they declare their love as he dies.  It is left to the viewer to imagine  whether Charlotte’s grief and guilt are assuaged and she lives in a happy marriage with Albert, or the whole thing dissolves on the rocks of guilt and missed opportunities.

In this production we are treated to some gorgeous and fabulous singing.  James Valenti, tenor in the leading role as Werther has, a gorgeous smooth mid and high register.  He can become covered in the lower register, but that is a lot due to Massenet’s scoring.  Interestingly Massenet later rewrote the part of Werther for the baritone voice.  James Valenti’s first entry was a little tentative with some pitch problems.  However he soon pulled it together and did not put a foot wrong after that.  Hopefully his problem at entry will be overcome by opening night.

There was real chemistry between James Valenti and the leading Mezzo soprano, in the role of Charlotte, Roxana Constantinescu.  She has a gorgeous “Straussian” Mezzo voice and delighted us with her agility and power.  In addition to fine signing from these principals, their acting and stage craft were of a very high order.

Special mention must be made of Angela Mortellaro, who sang Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister.  She is artist in residence at MSO.  Apart from a wonderful stage presence, she was an entirely believable older teen,  she has a powerful clear toned soprano voice that is a smooth as silk.  Watch her star rise!

Also I must give high praise to the children’s chorus.  In act one they sung in that dreadful shouting lusty fashion, that I so frequently have chastised American music teachers for.  This was a perfect parody.  After correction from their father, they sang in with a clear voiced sound, with a perfect blend of head and chest voice.  Well done!  I have to say the entire cast gave a very good account of themselves.

The opera was conducted by Christoph Campestrini.  The orchestra played without a sour note.  This opera is heavily scored for lower brass and woodwinds.  They all rose to the challenge.

So how was the total production?  Let me say right away that everyone was on the same page with this production.  I would encourage all lovers of opera, and those wanting to get acquainted, to go to this production.  I would bet you will be adsorbed and entertained by the production and have a good evening out.  However, it is legitimate to have questions about the page.

The director Kevin Newbury, has chosen to use this conflict of love, duty, brooding and depression as a metaphor for the conflict of the rise of the industrial age.  If you don’t believe me watch this video.

Now he has this large projection of an early 20th century industrial scene projected throughout.  I found this a most dominating and distracting element.  I suppose it is valid to look at the opera this way.  However Goethe wrote the story in 1774, when only Albion was becoming precociously industrialized.  Admittedly by the premier of this opera in 1892, the USA and Germany were well on the road to industrialization with increasing industrial output.  That said I doubt thoughts of the problems of the industrial age were in Massenet’s head when he composed this score.

This is a French romantic opera, with long lines and lush scoring.  What we got was a very angular musical production, that sounded Nordic with hints of the New Viennese School which had not yet ushered in the “Age of Ugliness” to music.

Part of this effect musically is due to the conditions at the Ordway.  The orchestra pit is far too small.  Now you have to have the necessary woodwinds brass and percussion as they are vital to the score.  So the strings get short changed, which seriously changes the balance of the sound the composer intended.  I understand the Ordway Center is due for a makeover, but I don’t believe changes to the theater and in particular the orchestra pit are part of it.  I hope I’m wrong about this.  If not, it is something that needs serious attention.

Even so, I think Massenet’s lovely long lines were made angular to fit the image conjured by the industrial projection.  I played a performance under Michel Plasson on DVD again this morning before writing this review.  In France Michel Plasson is considered the doyen of French Romantic opera.  Plasson’s lines are much more beguiling, long and languid.  The sound lush with the glow of romanticism.  For me Plasson’s way with the score is to be much preferred.  I won’t go so far as to say that the MSO interpretation is invalid, but different from the approach I prefer.

I make an issue of this because I love Opera and have a nice collection of Opera on Blue Ray disc and growing.  However many are ruined by the egos and hubris of the current crop of opera stage directors.

We need another generation of conductors with bigger egos, to make the stage directors conform to the aesthetic and musical idiom of the composition, and not the other way round.

Review of the opera Wuthering Heights by Bernard Herrmann.

April 16th, 2011

The Minnesota Opera hosted an enterprising evening Thursday, April 14.  The evening was an invitation extended to local bloggers to attend a dress rehearsal of Bernard Herrmann’s  Opera Wuthering Heights.  Bernard Herrmann  is primarily remembered for his film scores, including this for Alfred Hitchcock and Citizen Kane.

We convened at the Sakora restaurant for substantial hors d’oeuvres.  We had an opportunity to mingle with some of the MSO staff and the guest conductor of the Opera, Michael Christie.  He certainly is an advocate for Bernard Herrmann’s music, but in answer to one of my questions, it seems he would not die on sword for him.

Following these pleasantries we headed to the Ordway, for a full dress rehearsal.

Now let me say at the outset that there were a lot of distractions, especially an armada of computer screens in front of us.  However I do believe I was able to tune out these distractions.  Nothing went badly wrong and the performance was presented with no forced breaks in the action or music.

And let me state that previously I had not been at all familiar with the music of Bernard Herrmann.  MPR classical have done an excellent job of introducing his music over the past week.  I have attended operas and have quite a large collection on LP, tape, CD, DVD and now especially Blue Ray disc.

Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights certainly has a lot of the required attributes for an opera libretto.  This is a very short version.

Catherine Earnshaw lives with her irascible alcoholic brother Hindley at Wuthering Heights.  Also in the household is Heathcliff, a Gypsy boy who their late father adopted into the household when they were children.

Catherine and Heathcliff are in love.  This does not sit well with Hindley who comes down hard on Heatcliff and has the farm manager Joseph put him to work doing hard labor on the estate.

On a Christmas Eve their neighbors, brother and sister, Edgar and Isabella Linton come over from the Thorncross estate.

Heathcliff is disheveled and refuses to be smartened up by the housekeeper Nellie.  Heathcliff is in a sulky mood and sizes up Edgar as a rival for Catherine’s affections.

Over time Heathciff’s jealousy increases.  After a heart to heart with the housekeeper Nellie, Catherine decides to wed Edgar.  Nelly is full of foreboding for the whole affair.

Heathcliff makes good and becomes flush with cash.  At a visit to Thorncross by Heathcliff, Catherine’s passions are again aroused for Heathcliff.  This is not unnoticed by Edgar who becomes jealous of Heathcliff.  Isabella becomes attracted to Heathcliff and becomes entrapped in a loveless marriage to him.  Heathcliff becomes master of Wuthering Heights and buys it from Hindley who is mired in debt from alcohol and gambling.

In the last of the four acts, Isabella is jealous of Catherine whom she believes to be having an affair with Heathcliff, which she isn’t.  Hindley tries to kill Heathcliff in the presence of his son, Hareton.  Isabella intervenes and saves Heathcliff’s life.  However Heatcliff strorms out after wresting the gun from Hindley, as he scorns his unloved wife.

In the final scene Catherine enters ill and  Heathcliff  asks her why she betrayed her by marrying Edgar.  They forgive each other.  Catherine sees the after life and dies.

Now all this plays out in the bleak winter of the Yorkshire moors, apart from one relatively brief spring scene.  The opera plays this story out over three and half hours.

There are deep emotional waters here and obviously ripe for an opera libretto and deserving of great musical inspiration.  The libretto is by Herrmann’s first wife Lucille Fletcher.

The orchestra contained as many musicians as you could get in the Ordway pit, under the excellent direction of Michael Christie.  They were splendid advocates for this musical score and did not put a foot wrong.

The expert direction and staging were supplemented by effective and tasteful cinematic techniques.

All of the singers in addition to excellent vocal technique used with musicality were also excellent stage actors.

So now lets cut to the chase.  This Opera fails and the fault is entirely Bernard Herrmann’s, who lacks the musical skills and dramatic instincts to produce a compelling musical drama.

Herrmann takes a leaf out of Richard Wagner’s book, and uses the technique of a musical phrase known as Leitmotif to identify principle characters.  However none in my view were memorable and I can  not remember one two days later.  I could not identify a Leitmotif associated with states of mind, such as Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s love.  May be I’m wrong about this, but I could not identify one.  So this did not make this reviewer at least identify with the character’s state of mind, like you do in Wagner’s music dramas.

Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes about a sadistic pedophile Fisherman, set in the town of Aldeburgh Suffolk, on the North Sea coast was given its first performance at Sadlers Wells in 1945.

Bernard Herrmann started to compose Wurthering Heights in 1947.

This I believe is an important observation.  Britten conceived the idea of the orchestra being a protagonist and taking the part of the North Sea in the drama.  Also Britten  used a declamatory style of singing in the opera as does Herrmann.

There the similarities end.  Britten’s work is a masterpiece, Herrmanns’s offering is far from it.

For instance I can’t think of any music from Wurthering Heights being worthy of entering the orchestral repertoire.  Britten’s opera garners world wide staging performances annually in the greatest opera houses of the world.  The Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes are a staple of the Orchestral repertoire.

Now Hermann’s score depicts cold bleak weather pretty much monotonously throughout the opera.  In periods of tense drama we hear trumpets and tympani, but curiously they convey little drama, the way Verdi does in similar circumstances.

But there are deeper problems which cause this work’s failure to move and convince.  First on foremost this is a tale of of love and passion, and above all conflicted loyalty and emotion.  Herrmann’s score conveys little to none of this.

For instance lets take the love of Catherine and Heathcliff.  First of all the amount of music devoted to this is minimal.  Now these two grew up as children in the same household.  At least on a psychological level there has to be an element of incest here.  There is none of the genius of the incestuous love scene between Sigmund and Sieglinde from Die Walkure, or any passionate music for that matter.

There is just no raw passion expressed in the music.  I personally longed for a duet, but Herrmann did not seem to posses the musical skills to write for more than one voice at a time.  The essence of this scene is missed because it is short and perfunctory.   The balance of the scene is filled out with largely dross, that should have been cut.

His music in my view fails to provide that vital short circuit to the listeners deep emotional centers so necessary when probing such deep emotional waters.

The only writing that comes in any way close to supporting the drama, is the scene when Catherine is weighing her love for Heathcliff over Edgar with Nellie, and is overheard by Heathcliff.

The end of the opera has overtures of Isolde’s death and transfiguration from Tristan and Isolde and Senta’s death at the end of  The Flying Dutchman.  However Herrmann’s music unlike Wagner’s does not come close to rising to the occasion.  The music at this point  totally fails to convey the emotions surrounding, and significance of Catherine’s death.

So throughout one longs for the passion of a Verdi or Puccini and the probing psychological insights of Wagner.  Bernard Herrmann sadly delivers neither.

The Minnesota Opera deserve out thanks and admiration for staging this work in such a fine production to asses its merits or lack thereof.

Under a grant from the Knight foundation, this opera will be recorded in HD.  Hopefully it will see the light of day as a Blue Ray in DTS master HD or Dolby True HD.  It might be I will have a different view of this work after a few showings in my beloved studio theater on Benedict Lake, that provides a truly wonderful experience for enjoying opera.  If a BD disc appears I will certainly buy a copy and revise and extend this review.

Could my Car Friend me on Facebook?

December 9th, 2010

I finally weakened and let Detroit have some of my hard earned cash.  Six days ago I collected my first new vehicle since 1981.

A very nice Chevy equinox LTZ. I picked it up with 11 miles on it. The nice young lady at OnStar even gave the vehicle a telephone number. When I got back to Benedict I found my trusty 1994 Chrysler LHS had already sold in the space of a couple of hours. We had already said our goodbyes after nearly 100,000 miles and nearly eight years faithful service.

On checking my Email, I found my car had already Emailed me as soon as I had taken delivery.   The Email informed me that health status was good with all engine, transmission, stability codes and tire pressures listed.

I got up Tuesday and it was cold day at the lake, now covered in ice and a blanket of snow.   I had to make my way to Eagan for an AES meeting at MPR studios yesterday.  The electric heat was rippled out, so I went down to the fire which was still in, and built up a roaring fire.  I then went over to my laptop to check the mornings offerings.  Right there another Email from the Chevy.  It informed me the tire pressures were low.  It happens in cold weather.

It took me aback though. You can’t be Emailed from a inanimate chunk of metal.  Can you?  I thought not.  The old Sage of Donnebrog Nebraska, Roger Welsch must have been right all along.  Machines do have souls after all!

So she must have a name.  Whenever my father got a call from the office, the secretary was always Flossie.   So these messages had to be from Flossie.  So Flossie she is!

So after packing up I went to the shop and switched on the air compressor.  Since Flossie had sent me such a nice message, and was so concerned for my safety, I could not possibly disobey.  So all tires where set at just a hare over 35 lb/Sq.in. in case it got colder.  Flossie told me via her message center she was relieved and satisfied.

As I moved off, Flossie flashed a message to be careful of ice.  We had a good journey down, and I held her below 68 mph, with no harsh acceleration or braking.   I frequently let the power off to make sure Flossie’s rings seal well, all part of the bonding process.

Coming in on I94 about six miles from the Lowry tunnel, Flossie suddenly turns down the radio and gently says, “slow moving traffic six miles ahead 6/10 of a mile long.”  As I turn onto Crosstown MN 62 Flossie says “stop and go traffic 7/10 of a mile long.”  In both instances Flossie was right and knew before I did.

This morning in addition to ice, Flossie flashed a weather update to warn of snow.

Flossie guides me with a moving map. If I should get lost, all I have to do is tell Flossie my destination and she will guide me to it.  What a friend in need.

When I back up Flossie shows me a good rear view on her sat nav. screen and car length grid.  As I was backing out of a parking space at Trader Joe’s this morning I had a clear view to rear on screen and visually.  As I looked to my front so as not to scrape the vehicle behind me, Flossie sounds a mighty alarm.  I look to the screen and a pedestrian is right behind Flossie seemingly having appeared from nowhere.   Lucky for me and especially the pedestrian Flossie is ever vigilant!

This has all got me thinking about the bonding of men and machine.  I think women also bond, but perhaps not in the way men do but I could be wrong about that, may be they don’t own up to it as often.  Then there is Thomas and Friends with very human faces on the engines, that in the stories have a will of their own.   Herbie the Lovebug very much comes to mind.

In my career I have certainly had farmer patients who have had strong emotional bonds to their machinery, especially old tractors.  Sailors have long been known to develop very strong emotional bonds with their vessels, especially after difficult passages. I certainly don’t mind admitting I bond with my machinery.  Not a bad thing really, it all helps needed maintenance become a pleasure rather than a chore.  Dues are then being freely granted to an old friend.

So now the machinery can talk to you and send you messages through the Ether, how will this affect the depth and incidence of bonding?  My guess is that human machine bonding will occur quicker and deeper than before.  I can tell you in less than a week Flossie and I are fast friends. I’m just waiting for a Facebook request from my new friend.

Fargo diversion and downstream river levels

August 20th, 2010

A controversy has developed over whether the proposed Red river diversion at Fargo Moorhead will increase red river levels downstream in flood.  The corps state it could add 16 inches to the river level at the Thompson Bridge.

If the diversion is properly designed my view is that this is highly unlikely.

A letter from myself to the editor of the Grand Forks Herald was published  08/19/2010: -

LAPORTE, Minn. — I served on the mayor’s task force for flood protection for Grand Forks/East Grand Forks after the Flood of 1997. As part of our research, we studied the Winnipeg flood diversion project extensively. We also were advised by the engineers for the original Winnipeg diversion channel, Acres International. And, we had advice and counsel from the developer of the project, Ed Kuiper of Winnipeg.

Kuiper explained to me at length that a properly designed diversion channel does not raise river levels downstream. What it should do is channel the water that is out of the riverbank doing damage, to a safe channel where it does not do damage. The flow through the city in flood or the contained water in the channel should be the same.

The only river levels that change and are elevated are the levels upstream as the diversion channel is brought into operation. This is because as the gate is raised in the riverbed, the river level will rise to force the river over the lip of the diversion channel.

Richard Nelson, the late mayor of Warren, Minn., had a diversion for the Snake River designed not by the Corps of Engineers but by Acres International of Winnipeg. I discussed this project often with Nelson before his untimely death.

Warren had multiple floods every year. It has not flooded since completion of the diversion channel on the Snake River. I cannot find any data that suggests river levels increased on the Snake River downstream.

Having seen the workings of the Corps up close, I’m highly suspicious that they are touting these absurd rises in river levels to kill the Fargo-Moorhead diversion project. They killed the excellent Grand Forks diversion project by grossly inflating its cost.

Kuiper and others have pointed out that flood protection needs to protect against a 500-year event. Building to a 210-year event is totally inadequate. Remember, if you build for a 210-year event, you have a 1-in-210 chance of a flood each and every year. The figure does not mean you will get a flood every 210 years.

So, if you build to a 500-year event you have a 1-in-500 chance of a flood every year, which is much better odds.

It is no secret that I was opposed to the Grand Forks flood-protection project and regarded it as inadequate. Today, I’m of the view that because of the topography and hydrology in the Fargo-Moorhead area, a diversion project is the only way of providing flood protection to those cities.

If the Corps really believes its project will raise river levels 16 inches at the Thompson Bridge, then it also should build the diversion project to the west of Grand Forks — which it should have done and still needs to do anyway.

Mark Carter

Obama Administration incompetent over handling of spill

June 10th, 2010

The Obama administration has showed total incompetence over this oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

That have ratcheted up rhetoric and getting knee deep in lawyers, before attending to the job at hand.

From the beginning BP should have been allowed to focus all their energy on the leak.  The administration seem to have no clue what 450 atmospheres at the end of a 26 inch pipe means.  Admittedly the pressure of the ocean is 150 atmospheres, but that still leaves 300 atmospheres at the end of the pipe.

They have no clue as to the cooling effect of rapidly expanding methane and the vital need to exclude water from the collection process.

If they had done their home work, they would have known that no deep water well leak has been shut down without a relief well.

Instead of using the formidable organizational resources  of the American military to carry out clean up at sea and on shore, they have allowed federal agencies and departments to run amok.  Just look at the red tape that has got in the way of building the berms to keep the oil out of the marshes.

Instead of continually grandstanding and bashing BP, President Obama should have been bulldozing the Federal bureaucrats out of the way, and streamlining the federal response.

He is now risking US British relations with his rhetoric.  The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has been highly critical of the presidents response.

The Administration’s hysterical rhetoric is likely to drive BP to bankruptcy, which will leave affected business owners and employees in the gulf region sucking air.  If that happens it will largely be President Obama’s fault.

BP and its survival is very important to the UK economy.  For one reason one in seven BP retirement pounds is invested in BP.  An awful lot of US funds are also invested in BP.

Here is a another article encouraging BP leaving its American corporation behind.

David Cameron the new PM of the UK, seems on track to be as daft as President Obama.

What is required now is a supreme concentration on curtailing and mitigating this disaster, inquiries, hearings and lawyers can wait.

The trans Atlantic spat seems to be hotting up and Obama is getting a bad press in the UK.  This daily Telegraph editorial is on target.  However the reader comments from both sides of the Atlantic give the best insights into this developing rift.

Obama needs to be called out on his personal agenda.

Gulf of Mexico oil spill tragedy.

June 5th, 2010

Judging by numerous Net blogs you would be entitled to believe we have a nation whose collective IQ is equivalent to pig dribble.

It seems science has not be taught in our schools for generations.

The fact is that this environment on the ocean floor is more hostile and difficult to work in than outer space.

All humans tend to underestimate risk prior to unforeseen events.

It seems an operator made a mistake back in early March and drilled out a vital seal. A very human error. The rig operators fought against tragedy and lost. You can’t just pull the pipes, the gush would be catastrophic. The weight of a mile of rock above the well makes the pressure enormous. It is apparently 10,000 PSI. That is twice the pressure in a diesel injector that atomizes fuel. However this is not a pin sized hole, but a 26″ pipe with three pipes down the middle.

When the well blew the BOP actually worked and closed all pipes but the drill pipe, was only partially closed. This is probably why BP thought that this would not be a major event at first. What they did not know until after top kill was that the oil was coming up around the pipes, posing a severe risk of total well blow out.

The top kill almost certainly did a lot more damage and opened up passages in the BOP and increased oil spill.

Worry over the fact the well might blow totally, with unimaginable consequences, has prompted the riser cut. This to lower resistance and make total well blow out less likely.

Unfortunately as can be seen from the videos, oil flow has dramatically increased since the riser was cut; a lot more than 20%, that’s for certain.

Unfortunately the riser cut could not be one cleanly, and the riser is slightly bent, stopping the collection device from seating against the BOP. At the moment it looks as if the cap has come off the BOP.

A tight seal is important as leaks will make the jet of water entrain cold water. This will defeat attempts to warm the water up. As the methane gas is released it will cool quickly, just like in a heat exchanger in an air conditioner. This will cause hydrates of methane and ice to form and prevent flow up to the ship. I personally doubt anything further can be done to control this leak on the sea floor, and think far more likely than not the present scheme will fail.

So most likely this horrendous gush of oil will continue until a relief well is placed in the correct spot and bottom kill accomplished. As far as I can find out, no relief well has got to the correct spot until at least the fourth attempt. I think we will be very lucky if bottom kill is accomplished before the memorial weekend. I further believe that no matter how many resources a thrown at this clean up efforts will be largely window dressing until bottom kill is accomplished.

For the record, you can not place silk curtains to do the job. You can not drop heavy objects on it, because in water they are not heavy, because of the Archimedes principle. You can not drop explosives or nuclear devices down a pipe flowing under 10,000 psi. Because of damage done to the BOP during top kill and above all from information learned during the top kill event, placing another BOP on top of the one above the well is no longer an option.

Conspiracy theories are really dumb. Of course BP would like to get this stopped more than anyone.

Three way speaker using Peerless SLS 830668 Woofer, Audax HM130C0 mid and Vifa 27TG-35-06 Tweeter

April 11th, 2010

Here is a cost effective three way speaker.  It uses the paper coned Peerless SLS 830668 woofer, the Audax carbon fiber HM130C0 as the mid range and the soft dome Vifa 27TG-35-06 Tweeter.

This makes a very decent three way speaker with an F3 of 26 Hz.

Here is the optimal box for that woofer.

Note that driver and vents will displace about .2 cu. ft.

Here is the sealed mid range cavity.

The driver displaces about 0.01 cu. ft.

Here is the crossover.

These second order APC (Linkwitz Riley) slopes, which produce composite slopes that are pretty much third order.  The cross over points are 350 Hz and 3 kHz.  This allows for the band pass to be 3 octaves, encompassing most of the speech discrimination band.  Minimum impedance is five ohms.  There is optimal diffraction compensation.  There is a slight peak centered at 650 Hz from the mid range driver of 3 db which has not been notched.

I would feel inclined to build the speaker with a narrow top and broad base.  It will not matter if the band pass enclosure is over sized.  I would put the tweeter at the top, with the band pass driver below, and the a board below that to make the top of the speaker enclosure the tweeter/band pass enclosure, and have the bass enclosure below that.  Quarter round should be placed as trim all round the edge of the front panel.  It should be an attractive good performing speaker.

Review of Audyssey system within the Marantz AV8003

March 27th, 2010

Now it is well known I have been highly skeptical of automated room correction and Eq systems.  I did have a demonstration of Audyssey from Kris Kyriakakis of USC.  He was using  SVS MTS-01 speakers to demonstrate Audyssey at SOTU.  In all honesty I was underwhelmed by the demonstration.  I thought the bass was improved, but that overall the sound was worse.  Kris canceled all except low frequency correction and then things were improved.

So after doing a careful manual set up and calibration of my updated rig, and living with it for a few days, I unleashed Audyssey on my very unusual system not expecting it would make any sense of this highly unconventional system.

The most unconventional are the front three, especially the main front left and right speakers.  So it is necessary to give a description of operation.

As many know I’m a full ranger at heart, and regard all crossovers as a necessary evil.  So the concept is to keep the system as close to a full range driver as possible.  In fact there is only one complete electronic crossover in each three fronts.   These are between bass/mids and tweeters. The mains contain independent aperiodic transmission lines.  The center is a single line.

The 7″ drivers in the mid line are allowed to roll off in the bass acoustically.  F3 is 42 Hz, 44Hz for the center.  The bass line has an F3 in the room of 23 Hz.

An active crossover sends the bass and step response correction to the upper of the two 10″ drivers.

The LFE signal is low pass 60 Hz and fourth order roll off.  This signal is sent to the amps powering the lower of the 10″ drivers.  The LFE signal is also sent to mono sum buffer amp and then sent to the amps powering the upper 10″ drivers along with the diffraction compensation signal.  This is to keep the diffraction compensation stereo.  Diffraction compensation is performed by the 10″ driver and not through the 7″ drivers, to off load them and prevent large cone excursions.

There is a low pass crossover that provides diffraction compensation to an amp supplying the upper of the two drivers in the center speaker.  One of the biggest reasons for an active crossover is to have precise control of diffraction compensation which varies greatly with speaker boundaries and room placement.  This is in no way possible with passive crossovers and is a big advance in accurate reproduction.  The design concept minimizes phase shifts and time aberrations due to crossover artifact.

The surrounds are sealed  speakers with Dynaudio drivers with a Fs of around 50 Hz second order roll off.

The rear surrounds are biamped dual transmission lines.

The system is optimally configured with all speakers set to large, and the speaker bass management set to both with the LFE crossover at 60 Hz.

A careful level calibration was done prior to utilizing Audyssey.

So I set up the rather cheap feeling calibration mic in the first position on a tripod.  I plugged the miserable small gauge mic cable into the jack on the front of the AV 8003.  With not much optimism I started the calibration, of the staccato tones played via each speaker in turn and at the end all three fronts.  There were two false attempts from problems such as a noisy fly that got in the room.  However third time lucky.  I measured in six positions.

So then I checked results expecting to see nonsense.  Well I was dumbfounded that it had done the speaker set up as designed.  It did not change any speaker levels from my calibration, and imagine my surprise when I saw it had figured out all speakers should be set to large and the LFE crossover at 60 Hz!  All just as intended.

The only confusion concerned the woofer distance.  It placed the woofer 5 ft behind the mains, and yet they are the same driver.  I thought about this and realized the program has averaged the driver and port arrival times.  This I had to reverse and manually put woofer and main speakers in the same place as there would have been phasing trouble with the upper diver as it is receiving a mix of signals.  It also altered the distances of the other speakers from measured.  However I think this has had a highly beneficial effect on getting a more even result though out the room.

Here are the results of the Audyssey frequency response correction.   In the main except for the surrounds between 1 and 2 kHz the mid band correction was insignificant.

However for all speakers except the rear surrounds there was a first order lift put in place above 8 kHz.  I think this was because in three of the testing positions the microphone was close to the rear surrounds.  There is a fall off of HF with distance and this in my view should not be corrected.  Listening test confirmed this.

The system sounded better with the frequency response correction canceled.

However I was intrigued by this, so I did and experiment purposely introducing a frequency response error.  I boosted the level of the bass amps to the rear backs below 150 Hz by 7db.  I did a run of Audysey and it caught the problem and corrected it.

So in summary I think this program is useful and may well take the edge off loudspeaker errors.  I suspect this is much more a loudspeaker correction program than room correction in a lot of cases.  For instance I know my surrounds have a slight null between 1 and 2 kHz that was identified by Audyssey.

I feel the most useful aspect in my studio was the re timing of the speakers.  I think this made a difference in two areas.  The sound is more uniform over the seating area.

However I think the greatest benefit was the improved sense of space achieved in 7.1 reproduction, especially.  I was definitely hearing different spaces captured.  In essence the reproduction was to a very large extent freed from the boundaries and constraints of the room.

I will make more comments about this when I report on some of the discrete multichannel discs I have listened to.

My biggest issue with the system is what I feel to be inappropriate last top octave equalization.  I would encourage adopters to be alert to this.

My preference would be for Audyssey to only make cuts in the top octave and leave alone any high frequency loss above a first order roll off.

I have to say I was fascinated evaluating this system and regard it as a work in progress.  I think we are early in total system/room Eq and suspect there is still a lot to learn.

Review of the Oppo BD-83 Universal disc player

March 26th, 2010

Now there are increasing numbers of operas on Blue Ray.  It was time to upgrade the studio to take advantage of the audio and video improvements possible with Blue Ray.

Since the Oppo BD-83 seems to be good enough for Lexicon, I thought it should be good enough for me.

I was not disappointed.  The unit arrived superbly packed and presented.  The unit was in it own carrying case.  Cables were is a nice cardboard box.  A very high quality HDMI cable was included.

The instruction book is published on high grade paper.  English is excellent and idiomatic.  The instructions clear and informative.  In the play list, the illustration is a compilation of Bach preludes, which I thought added a touch of class.

Since I was not planning to use the analog circuits, I selected the standard version, not the SE.

I mounted the unit in my rack

Connections  were straight forward.  One two pin power plug, one Ethernet cable, and one HDMI cable.

Audio and video set up using their wizard could not have been simpler or more straight forward.

No problem was encountered watching high def audio and video program right away.  DVD performance was good also.  I have a had a couple of CDs the unit does not like and the other players will.  I don’t know what it is about CDs, but they seem more fussy than other digital disc mediums.  I know if you have a large collection you need more than one player and probably three!  I have a choice of four drives in the system!

The unit seems to make no appreciable heat.  There is a fan on the back, but I don’t think it has started.

This unit is phenomenal value for money and highly recommended.

The unit was purchased from the Audioholics store. The staff was professional and courteous throughout the transaction.