Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Breaking News!

Placido Domingo just announced that now he is going to perform Bass roles! He will make his Bass operatic debut as Mephistopheles in "Faust" and later as Wotan in Wagner's Ring Cycle!

Thank you, Gaby Leon.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Who is Lulu?

Lulu: Barbara Hannigan
Gräfin Geschwitz: Natascha Petrinsky
Dr. Schön & Jack The Ripper: Dietrich Henschel
Alwa:  Charles Workman

Two of my Lulus kind of ran the gamut:  the wildly voracious Evelyn Lear and the entirely passive Ann Panagulias.  Lulu is woman, a creature who fills man's imagination and becomes the sum of his desires.

In this version of Alban Berg's Lulu, part II of the Barbara Hannigan film festival, a specific interpretation is offered.  Before the composed prologue is a spoken English language preface that relates the myth of Lilith, the first woman created by God who refused her position of subservience to man and was replaced by Eve.

So when we reach the prologue at the beginning of Lulu, and Lulu is introduced last in the menagerie as the snake, we recognize that she has been assigned the position of temptress in the Garden of Eden, she who leads Adam and Eve out of paradise.  At this point she is still a child, easily recognized by her long red hair.  She is already in childhood a dancer and can already dance en pointe.  The transition from Lilith to Lulu is very smooth.

In Act I she is already married to a rich medical doctor.  She begins her characterization clad only in her underwear and ballet shoes, dancing en pointe. A photographer photographs her with the animals in the menagerie.  For some unknown reason there is a wheelchair and crutches.  Her husband catches them together and dies of a heart attack.  So now she is rich.

In scene 2 she is married to the photographer, and their pictures are selling well.  Lulu still wears her ballet shoes.  Every so often she pulls down his pants.  "It has been so long since I danced."  She never seems to get tired dancing and singing on her toes.  Lest we think she is miraculous in some ways, her German is mediocre. 

Dr. Schön and the photographer argue over her name.  Mignon?  Nelly?  Eva?  Lulu has taken off her ballet shoes.  Her husband slits his throat after talking to Dr. Schön who should have kept his mouth shut.

Alwa arrives, then a ballet troupe of children who stare at the dead photographer on the floor.  Lulu puts her shoes back on, for Alwa has arranged for her to fulfill her greatest dream of becoming a ballerina.  A dresser helps her into her ballet costume.  She is dancing, all are loving it, until she sees Dr. Schön and his fiance, when she faints.  There's a prince who wants to take her to Africa.  I have seen all this 3 times before but have never been so engaged in the story.

The story is, apparently, that Dr. Schön met Lulu when she was trying to pick his pocket.  He fell for her but had a more "anstaendige Frau" that he was engaged to and kept marrying Lulu off to other men.  He doesn't want his fiance to know about her.  An "anstaendige Frau" does not exactly have an English equivalent.  A woman is "anstaendig" or she isn't.  Proper.  Decent.  Honorable.  Your gentleman son could marry her.  That sort of thing.  Obviously Lulu isn't.

A dancer dressed as Lulu comes out and does a soundless dying swan ballet, removing her top, and letting down her hair before falling dead on the floor. Stunning.  Lulu watches from the wings.  This version of Lulu is very strenuous, but you could not ask this dance, too.  What an amazing thing this is.

Act II

Act II begins in the same set.  Lulu's hair is now silver, and she is seen taking off her ballet shoes.  In the menagerie cages is someone who looks like her but with auburn hair.  Countess Geschwitz is there and invites Lulu to a party.  She hopes Lulu will come dressed as a man.  Lulu is now married to Dr. Schön who complains constantly.  She looks like the child in the prelude.  He has a gun and holds it to his head.

Dr. Schön changes Lulu into a red dress with gold shoes.  There follows a confusing scene where people come and go declaring that they wish they had married Lulu.  Alwa enters and has a long conversation with Lulu--they are brother and sister, lovers, we don't quite know what.  Dr. Schön, who is Alwa's father, waves his gun around.  In the middle of this scene Lulu says to Alwa apropos of nothing, "Ich habe deine Mutter vergiftet.  I poisoned your mother."  All are obsessed with Lulu, including Lulu herself.  She makes a long Lilith-like speech and shoots him.  Then she says, "The only man I ever loved" and worries that she will be thrown out of school.  Countess Geschwitz watches all this.  Alwa comes back in time to see the murder.

The child dancer from the prelude appears, and the interlude between scene 1 and scene 2 is her plus the Lulu in the menagerie dancing.

Lulu is in jail.

Who is Lulu?  Does the fact that all are fascinated by her define who she is?  He wanted her to kill him, and she did. Everything in this opera is about Lulu.  Her doppelganger is seen constantly inside the menagerie mimicking her actions.  Her child self dances.  A screen appears and shows films of her, perhaps created by the photographer from act I.

Countess Geschwitz has had cholera and is a blonde now.  She sits in the wheelchair from Act I.  She has successfully executed her plan to pass herself off as Lulu and get Lulu freed from prison.  Lulu limps in on the crutches, and they plan to get her out of the country.  As soon as the athlete is gone, she throws off her crutches and her hospital gown and celebrates her freedom.

And here for its first 40 years the opera ended.  It is not an entirely unsatisfactory ending. 

My own intermission:  I am enjoying very much watching this and writing about it.  I have never been particularly attracted to Wozzeck, a story about a man forced to eat nothing but beans.  Lulu is another matter.  The music, always uniquely Berg-like, moves smoothly from speech to Sprechstimme, to recitative, to pointillist aria.  Barbara Hannigan makes it all look easy.  It is a spectacular performance from any perspective, impossibly lyrical.  Lulu is merely living her life independent of the swirl of passion around her, caring about dancing, outfits and furniture, like hundreds of women you know. 


It is Lulu's 27th birthday and we are counting the lighting of her birthday candles.  Lulu is living under an assumed name in Paris.  Countess Geschwitz is there, Alwa is there, the narrator who has been with us from the beginning is there, the athlete is there, Schigolch is there, the child Lulu is there.  They discuss a stock they are all invested in.  Lulu herself appears to be stoned and passes out.  The little girl dance troupe is in the menagerie.  Lulu is a mess.

The orchestration here is quite fascinating.  We are in the part not orchestrated by Berg.

Lulu is chopping off her hair in preparation for fleeing.  The shares have collapsed.  The candles of the birthday cake are still burning, and the children blow them all out.  Lulu and Alwa get away.

Lulu has fled to London where she has married Alwa (4th husband).  She has short blonde hair and wears her dancing shoes and a tutu.  She tries to dance but is bad at it.  Child Lulu is still with her.

I can see that one might prefer a Lulu that ends with her getting out of prison.  I am failing at wanting to narrate this part.  Everyone knows what happens to her.  The child Lulu stays with her to the end.

The repetitive visual elements--the child Lulu, the children's ballet troupe, both things that are not actually part of the story, and the scale covered narrator--overwhelm and obscure the actual characters.  We see perhaps more vividly than before the destruction Lulu.

One Lulu in 5 years is perhaps enough.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Stream Requests from Munich

Dear Bayerische Staatsoper, I would like to see:

Sergej Prokofjew Der feurige Engel, or The Fiery Angel with Evelyn Herlitzius.  The one time I saw this in San Francisco it was amazing.

Richard Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg starring Jonas Kaufmann. Need I say more?

Jaques Fromental Halévy La Juive with Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna.

Jean-Philippe Rameau Les Indes galantes with Lisette Oropesa

Giuseppe Verdi Un ballo in maschera with Piotr Beczala, Simon Keenlyside and Anja Harteros.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Interesting things lie in the future.

Cecilia Bartoli's Salzburg Norma will play in Salzburg this summer and again in Zurich next season.  She is also doing Le Comte Ory next season in Zurich.

Salzburg Festival this summer will also have CB doing Iphigenie en Tauride and Sophie Koch as the Rosenkavalier.

Anja Harteros will sing Arabella at the Munich opera festival this summer.  And Netrebko, and Damrau, and Kwiecen, and Pape, and....  So much.

Jonas Kaufmann will sing Walther in Die Meistersinger in Munich next season.  I'm hoping it will stream.  Next season Roberto Alagna will sing in La Juive in Munich, too. 

Maybe I should move to Munich.  Or please be sure to stream everything I like.

I just bought Barbara Hannigan's Lulu, and now I see that it will stream from Munich in June (Marlis Petersen) and it's HD from the Met in November (Marlis Petersen).  I should be an expert after this.  I've already seen it 3 times.  (Evelyn Lear, Ann Panagulias, Christine Schaefer.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Janis Martin Obituary

Sacramento native Janis Martin was international opera star 

By Cathy Locke
12/24/2014 6:26 PM 12/24/2014 6:26 PM

Janis Martin, a Sacramento native and El Camino High School graduate who became an international opera star, died Dec. 14 in San Antonio at age 75.

Ms. Martin grew up in a musical family. Her father, Emil Martin, a longtime program director for McClatchy Broadcasting, got his start before World War II with KFBK radio as a studio organist and musical director in the days of studio orchestras, said her brother Richard Martin. Her mother, Helen Martin, was a singer.

Ms. Martin studied at California State University, Sacramento, and UC Berkeley, but she was more interested in singing than academics, her brother said. When she was 18, she entered the Merola Training Program at the San Francisco Opera. Two years later, she won the Metropolitan Opera auditions in New York, placing first among 1,500 singers. The first prize consisted of $2,000 and a three-year contract at the Met. At the end of those three years, she went to Germany, which became her home base for most of the next 40 years.

She began her career as a mezzo soprano, but transitioned to a soprano.

“Soprano roles tend to be the more dramatic and starlike roles,” said Richard Martin. “Her forte was (operas by) Wagner and Strauss.”

She devoted much of her career to performing in Richard Wagner operas, in roles that included Senta, Sieglinde, Kundry, Isolde and Brünnhilde.

Ms. Martin performed at all the major opera houses. She enjoyed long associations with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Bayreuth Festival, and also performed at La Scala, Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Paris Opera and Staatsoper Hannover.

Ms. Martin was twice married and divorced. He second husband, Gerhard Hellwig, was the artistic director to Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth, and the director of a boys choir. Their son Robert Martin recalls singing in his father’s choir and performing with his mother on stage as a child. His mother often appeared in “Hansel and Gretel” sometimes in the role of the mother, and other times as the witch.

The world of opera was somewhat puzzling to him as a child, her son said, recalling that he once commented to his mother, “You always die at the end of the opera, but the people still applaud.”

In a June 2000 interview with Opernwelt Magazine, Ms. Martin said, “I always separated my stage life and my private life, and that was not easy. I sang in all the big houses, but I was never No. 1, because I did not want that. I wanted to have my private life. If you are right on top, you are a public figure.”

She retired later that year and spent the last seven years of her life in San Antonio, where her son lives, enjoying the role of “Omi,” or grandmother, to her two grandchildren, ages 5 and 8.

“She had a full life and a massively successful career,” said her son, adding that she seemed content in retirement.

Her cousin Chris David of Fair Oaks recalled that Ms. Martin last visited Sacramento in September. She spent time with relatives, including her 97-year-old aunt, David’s mother, Phyllis Boyles.

David said she was playing a CD of her favorite band, Tom Rigney and Flambeau, in the car and Ms. Martin asked the name of the group. “She said she really liked them and she encouraged me to tell them she did,” David said.

David also recalled when she, Ms. Martin and their sons attended a wrestling match several years ago at Arco Arena. Getting into the spirit of the event, Ms. Martin began booing, and with her operatic voice, recalled her cousin, “she projected so beautifully.”

David described Ms. Martin as “just a regular person. She wasn’t a diva.”

Richard Martin said he will remember his sister as an ebullient woman with a wonderful sense of humor.

Robert Martin said his mother died of natural causes, but her death was unexpected. She was in reasonably good health and leading an active life.

When she retired at age 60, he said, she was still singing the biggest roles of her career. “She never wanted to sing the ‘old lady’ roles,” he said. “She never in life played the old lady role, so I guess there’s some parallel one can draw.”

Ms. Martin is survived by her son, brother and two grandchildren. At her request, her son said, no formal services are planned.

Call The Bee’s Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.

Read more here:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Written on Skin

 angels, humans

Agnès:                  soprano, Barbara Hannigan
Protector:             bass-baritone, Christopher Purves
First Angel/Boy:        countertenor, Bejun Mehta
Second Angel/Marie:  mezzo-soprano, Victoria Simmonds
Third Angel/John:       tenor, Allan Clayton

Conductor:   George Benjamin.

Part I of the Barbara Hannigan film festival is Written on Skin, an opera by George Benjamin based on a tale from the Decameron by Boccaccio.  It was recorded at the Royal Opera Covent Garden March, 2013.  A constant presence in the story are angels from the 21st century.

I'm sorry.  This can't be Boccaccio.   It isn't about tattoos either.  It is instead the flaw in theology.  God writes a story on our bodies and we are forced to live it.  I am sitting here by the screen shouting "Kill him."  That certainly never happened before.  She doesn't.  She never does, it seems.  We are what he has written us to be.

She shouts that the taste will never leave her and a glass harmonica plays.  Even Lucia's glass harmonica is not so frightening and strange.

It doesn't seem suitable to criticize this.  It is abstract, profound, much more than I imagined it could be.  See it for yourself.  I recommend the DVD so you can follow along with the text.

Give me my robe

Before I leave Barber's Antony and Cleopatra forever, here is a recording of Leontyne Price with visuals singing the final Death of Cleopatra.  I am very glad I turned my attention to this.  You can see and hear how much she loved it.

See also here and here.

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Anna Netrebko is being picketed in Zurich where she is singing Anna Bolena.

Playing her husband is Luca Pisaroni who is looking very gangster.  The reviews are good.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Antony and Cleopatra live audio

When I wrote about this opera in 2013, this audio was not in YouTube. This is the live broadcast of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra in its only original cast performance with Leontyne Price, Jess Thomas and Justino Diaz. I am putting it here so I will remember to play it.

My attention was drawn to this by an article in the January copy of Gramophone.  The cover article was everyone talking about Schubert's Winterreise, but once inside I found an icons article about Leontyne Price.  The recommended recording of her is Solti's Aida. The article closes like this:

"Price's greatest failure may eventually be remembered as her finest hour:  Antony and Cleopatra.  Before the opera's high-profile, 1966 flop, composer Barber thought it his greatest work -- and wasn't wrong.  The often-named culprit was Franco Zeffirelli, whose extravagant production put Price in costumes that made her resemble a walking sarcofagus.  But how often has the radio relay of the premiere been duly re-examined?  [I complained that it was unavailable in my piece.]  Easily found on YouTube, Antony and Cleopatra is a tough work, with Price playing her character not as a variant on Elizabeth Taylor (whose film version came out the previous year), but as a cool, political strategist.  The lack of a love duet in this first version of the opera (which was later revised) was no oversight.  Barber was creating people, not ornate historical objects.  And if his original version is ever rehabilitated, the intelligence of Leontyne Price's recorded characterisation will likely lead the way."

P.S.  I am listening to the film and have a few observations.  Cast list from Wikipedia:

Cleopatra soprano Leontyne Price
Mark Antony baritone Justino Diaz
Octavius Caesar tenor Jess Thomas
Enobarbus bass Ezio Flagello
Charmian, servant to Cleopatra mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias

This is a spectacular cast, but Barber has violated one of the basic rules of operatic casting by making Mark Antony a baritone.  The male love interest is always a tenor.  This throws the vocal balance off.

Most of what is wrong with this opera can be laid at the feet of Zeffirelli:  It was he who selected text by Shakespeare, making the opera very talky.  Price is the only one in the cast who has performed enough Barber to feel free in her interpretation.  When she isn't singing, we get a lot of growly talking.

I get warm enthusiasm from the audience.

This is the era before surtitles at the opera.  We would be on our own trying to understand the text.  And on top of that it is Shakespeare, a writer of great beauty and poetry, but difficult for modern people to understand.  Perhaps if you had the text in front of you.

I am very sorry to say that I am only enjoying Ms Price. She is such a wonderful singer.  The last act seems to work better than the other parts.  More Leontyne, more action, more tenor.  She loved it.  She has said so.  Her performance is full of love.  Artists with the gift of Ms Price come to us once in an eternity.  This opera, this performance deserved more respect.

We have reached "Give me my robe."  The ending is spectacular.  The audience is very enthusiastic.  Sigh.  Barber gets a lot more applause than Zeffirelli.

Stay for the interview at the end.  She calls it "the event of the century."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Conversation on Facebook

We were discussing:

Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs, who did the best recording? I would say Gundula Janowitz.

I responded with Jessye Norman.

Mark S. I find Janowitz hard to beat, but much of that is due to Karajan's nuanced handling of the orchestra. Della Casa sings it as well as anyone. Jessye Norman is fine if you enjoy under-pitch singing.

[You can imagine my reaction to this.]

Barbara B. Singers are not generally trying to achieve orchestral intonation. Pitch nuances are part of the phrasing. Orchestral objective is to keep you from sticking out from the other players. Solo singer objective is to make yourself stick out. Choral singers need to sing in very precise tuning but not soloists, particularly not opera singers.

Mark C. Great observation, Barbara. As a conductor, I know that many of those moments which produce 'chills' are, in fact, caused by singers vocalizing a few cents below pitch. This has also been proven experimentally. It tends to work on flat sevenths.

This kind of arguing is fun, but pointless.