Sunday, September 17, 2017

Top Singers 2017


Anna Netrebko GHoF
Anja Harteros 
Nina Stemme
Diana Damrau


Cecilia Bartoli GHoF
Elina Garanča
Joyce DiDonato GHoF


Jonas Kaufmann
Javier Camarena
Juan Diego Florez
Vittorio Grigolo


Željko Lučić, baritone
René Pape, bass
Ildar Abdrazakov, bass
Ludovic Tézier, baritone
Stefan Kocán, bass

General Comments.

It's been a couple of years since Limelight named their top 12 singers, and I feel it's time for a new list.  There have been a few changes.  I modified the original concept to allow for a group to grow into 4 singers, but that's it.  To qualify for this list the artist must be performing now and be rated according to their current performing standard.

Some singers used to be on this list and are no longer.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky has long been a personal favorite but is ill.  Renée Fleming is moving her career away from opera.  The same thing should be said for Natalie Dessay, someone I learned to love during the life of this blog.  She is focusing on song repertoire and theater.  I love Angela Gheorghiu but seem to have lost all contact with what she is singing these days.

We can't rank Placido Domingo among the tenors any more, and he doesn't really rank that high as a baritone.  For me Bryn Terfel isn't singing up to his former standard, though I caught part of his Dutchman and found it rather good.

People who should also be considered are:
Christine Goerke
Mariusz Kwiecien
Simon Keenlyside
Michael Fabiano
Lawrence Brownlee
Quinn Kelsey
Jamie Barton
Matthew Polenzani
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo
Sondra Radvanovsky
Kristine Opolais
Bryan Hymel

I should do one for American singers.  Argue amongst yourselves.  Edited 9/18, 9/19  Apologies for continuing to change this.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Elektra Night at the Museum

Christine Goerke

Conductor:  Henrik Nánási
Production:  Keith Warner

Elektra: Christine Goerke
Klytemnestra: Michaela Martens
Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka
Orest: Alfred Walker *
Aegisth: Robert Brubaker
Tutor of Orest: Anthony Reed

Last night I attended a San Francisco Opera performance of Richard Strauss's Elektra.  I have been going here for all of my adult life and can think of only one comparable performance--Die Frau ohne Schatten, also by Strauss, in 1980 with James King as The Emperor, Leonie Rysanek as The Empress and Birgit Nilsson as Barak's wife.  My soul is larger.  Everything that needs to be said has already been said about this, but I will have a go anyway.

In the recent past was another night at the museum production, of Il Trovatore with Anna Netrebko from Salzburg, but the exhibition seemed without a theme and incoherent.  Here we have what seems to be an exhibition of artifacts from Mycenae, the Greek culture which launched the Trojan War.  The house of Atreus with Agamemnon, Klytemnestra, Iphigenia, Orestes and Elektra are the central figures from this culture and appear through history in many art forms.  It is entirely plausible that an  exhibit devoted to physical objects from this time would take place.  Many of these objects appear in this production.  So we have a far more plausible intermingling of the ancient and the modern.  When they speak of Agamemnon, a man wearing the death mask said to belong to him appears.  We believe this.

Christine's character is always clearly a modern person who is projecting her life and family onto these historical figures.  We see this most clearly when this kitchen appears:

Klytemnestra and Elektra

We exclaimed to one another, "My mother had a kitchen like that."  The time travel was handled very smoothly.  This is clearly a very successful concept regie production.  All the other characters have dual identities and appear in modern and ancient clothing.  Other productions for this opera I have seen recently have all the main action take place off stage.  Here the deaths occur before our eyes.  It is intense.

Musically I found this to be a triumph.  The three women, Christine Goerke, Michaela Martens and : Adrianne Pieczonka, were performed by three big voices in glorious fashion.  The biggest surprise was in the music.  It wasn't that long ago I was bemoaning the death of great Strauss conducting.  Henrik Nánási has shown us the way back.  It was the best Strauss I've heard in years, and it was by our San Francisco Opera orchestra.  Bravi.  We stood for them.

It was a colossal, towering performance on every level.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Patience in Sacramento

Friday night began the run of Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience from the Light Opera Theatre in Sacramento.

Director:  Debbie Baad
Conductor:  Anne-Marie Endres


Reginald Bunthorne (A Fleshly Poet) — Charlie Baad 
Archibald Grosvenor (An Idyllic Poet) — Timothy Power

Rapturous Maidens 

The Lady Angela — Paige Kelly
The Lady Saphir — Rhonda Thomas
The Lady Saphir — Jadi Galloway
The Lady Ella — Franchesca Sonoyama
The Lady Jane — Tiffany Patterson
Patience (A Dairy Maid) — Kate Murphy

Officers of Dragoon Guards 

Colonel Calverley — Michael Baad
Major Murgatroyd — Kevin Branson
Major Murgatroyd — Roy Domoe Lieut.
The Duke of Dunstable — Anthony Tavianini

This show is all about outfits.  Dress like people from ancient England, and you will be perceived as a poet and adored.  Dress like a modern person, and you will disappear into the crowd.  Suitable young women pay no attention to the suitable young men in the Dragoon Guards and instead go off pining after silly poets in old fashioned outfits.  The young women wear old fashioned outfits too and sigh and moan.  There are patter songs.  Irrelevant names are tossed about.  Francesca da Rimini.

Before this appeared in my inbox, I had no idea it existed.  It is fun.  Try to see it.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

European Summer of 2017

I have not traveled this summer for reasons relating to health and money.  I don't count driving to San Francisco as traveling.  In spite of this my opera cup runneth over.  There has been some pretty spectacular stuff here.  New for me this summer are The Chastity Tree, Artaserse, Oberon, and Theodora.  It is important to notice that all four of these are older operas.  In fact Wozzeck is as close to a modern opera I have gotten this summer.

I have decided to limit this essay to performances originating this summer in Europe.  That eliminates live performances seen in the Bay Area:
It also eliminates reruns from the Metropolitan Opera in HD: 
All the rest are from Europe. There were some older performances I watched on film to broaden my education and catch a glimpse of some favorite singers:
  • Artaserse by Vinci on a libretto by Metastasio from Nancy, France, in 2012.  I have learned in the last few years that there exists in France a school for countertenors.  I don't know if all the five countertenors in this production were from this school, including the star Philippe Jeroussky, but all were extraordinarily powerful for singers in this Fach.  This film is an historical recreation of a true Roman Baroque opera with all the characters played by men.  I watched it for its historical significance and recommend that you do, too.  It's much better than I thought.
  • Theodora by Handel from Glyndebourne in 1996 in a production by Peter Sellars, our own American contribution to Regie Theater.  This is a true example of what is by now the almost standard European production style.  In spite of that it was very beautiful.  Theodora began its life as an oratorio in English.  This viewing was to broaden my experience of Peter Sellars' work to include things I might actually like.  It is also a major film of Lorraine Hunt.
I generally watch European opera to see what is happening now, but these historical performances were worth the time.

That leaves ten performances from Europe that took place this summer, including two traditional productions viewed for the singers rather than the productions:
  • Otello by Verdi from the ROH in London.  This was Jonas Kaufmann's debut in the role of Otello, and was a traditional production for this special occasion.  My feeling was the intimacy of a movie theater presentation enhanced the beauty of the performances.  Jonas dealt with this role by playing to his dramatic side and avoiding over-singing.  His Iago, Marco Vratogna, and his Desdemona, Maria Agresta, supported Jonas's interpretation.  I'd like the opportunity to see this again.
  • Rigoletto by Verdi from Orange, France.  Performances in Orange take place in an ancient Roman theater.  The star of this show was our Nadine Sierra in a perfect role for her.  There was nothing unusual here, though they all appeared in modern clothing.  Leo Nucci arranged for a very nice bis with her.  Leo is a startling contrast to Quinn Kelsey, the Rigoletto in our San Francisco production.
In a wide range of shocking to ordinary the following list of the eight remaining operas includes some very famous directors.
  • Wozzeck by Berg from Salzburg was staged by William Kentridge who staged The Nose and Lulu for the Metropolitan Opera.  All three of these works are considered modern so a modern production is only appropriate.  I don't really like Wozzeck but thought his vision of it was excellent, the best of the trio.  His art is so active on the surface that it tends to overwhelm the characters on stage.  Is its purpose to distract from the opera?  Matthias Goerne sang Wozzeck, an excellent role for him.
  • Tannhäuser by Wagner from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was staged by Romeo Castellucci.  He is a radical Italian director in both opera and theater.  My reactions were primarily visceral.  When I was presented with half-naked women shooting bows and arrows, I enjoyed it.  When Venus was a giant mound of hideous flesh with three or four men lost in the flab, it didn't really remind me of ecstatic love making.  And don't forget the feet.  This is representative of the extreme ends of theater in Germany today.
  • Don Giovanni by Mozart Aix-en-Provence, France, was directed by Jean-François Sivadier.  This is a French director most famous for a film of him directing Natalie Dessay in her first La Traviata called Becoming Traviata.  His production for Don Giovanni is first in period costumes, then at intermission switches suddenly to modern ones.  It is quite merry and needs Philippe Sly to do all that jumping about.
  • Aida by Verdi from Salzburg was directed by a newcomer to theatrical productions, Shirin Neshat.  I read in Wikipedia, "Her artwork centers on the contrasts between Islam and the West, femininity and masculinity, public life and private life, antiquity and modernity, and bridging the spaces between these subjects."  The production reflected this.  People were sharply divided into specific groups and dressed like others in their group.  It was rather static in its impression but clear in identifying the forces at work in the downfall of Radames and his Aida.  The audience was there primarily for Anna Netrebko in her first outing as Aida.
One pair of productions identified for us a new cultural villain:  the clinical psychiatrist.  I rather agree with this.  In modern democratic societies there remains only one absolute monarch:  the psychiatrist.  His power is greater than anyone else's.  He can have you put away or imprisoned on his word alone.  People go along with what they say primarily because they have no idea what they're talking about.  So two different directors have taken two different operas, removed the original spoken dialog they came with, invented new dialog and created entirely new stories.
  • Carmen by Bizet from Aix-en-Provence, France, was staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov, a Russian.  Tcherniakov is a Russian born in Lithuania.  His early career was in the major Russian theaters the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi and quickly spread to major opera centers around Europe: Berlin, Munich, Zurich and Milan.  So far he hasn't made it across the pond, I don't think.  Instead of a story about a boy from the country who falls for a gypsy who is probably just having him on, we have excitement for bored married couples.  So your life is boring.  We will arrange for a charming young woman to pretend to be attracted to you.  Contracts are signed and progress reviewed.  I'm not sure what is supposed to happen, but it probably isn't that the patient will fall for the therapist and then try to kill her.  He may have to go into hospital.  The therapy of another patient plays in the background to show us how it is supposed to go.  It does clarify something that the usual staging does not:  Escamillo is Carmen's true love while Don Jose is a patsy.
  • Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath by Carl Maria von Weber from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was directed by Nikolaus Habjan, who works primarily as a puppeteer.  This is another opera that originally came with spoken dialog.  Though it first appeared in English, it is now generally thought of as a German opera.  Some of the characters are from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The opera has a convoluted and confusing plot about romance with the fairy king acting as a kind of deus ex machina who rescues people at exactly the right moment.  The production changes all that.  Again psychiatrists are at work.  Perhaps psychiatry is seen as the last vestige of absolute power.  Ordinary mortals such as kings and emperors no longer hold this kind of power.  The psychiatrists are quarreling and resolve their argument using their patients.  The whole thing is profoundly unethical and is probably intended to be.  The actual opera is changed beyond recognition.  The dialog reflects the psychiatrists giving orders and expressing opinions, primarily about one another. 
These two changes are shockingly similar, even though they come from different countries and different directors.  I think this is the kind of modernization people object to most.  Can Oberon be saved?  Perhaps not.  But if this is the only chance you get to see it, maybe sticking closer to the plot would be better.

The final operas to consider are two magnificent productions of Mozart's great opera seria La Clemenza di Tito
  • La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart from Glyndebourne was directed by Claus Guth, the king of Regie.  I was annoyed by the stalks of grass everywhere, but actually thrilled by the acting and singing of Alice Coote and Anna Stéphany as Vitelia and Sesto.  This laid out the plot in a way that was always true to Mozart's opera, including the opera seria required happy ending, all things that I did not expect from Claus Guth.  
  • La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart from Salzburg was directed by Peter Sellars.  Music was added to this opera from Mozart's C-Minor Mass.  Riccardo Muti was in town to conduct Aida and was heard objecting to this alteration in the score.  Many don't understand the always happy endings style of opera seria and want to change it to something else.  This is not authentic.  My complaining is now out of the way. The emotional effect of the production overall was profound.  It feels to me that this opera is moving into a position of greatness that it very much deserves.  Interesting productions will help this.
It was an amazing summer.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Singers for next season in San Francisco

Here are some samples of the singers for the coming season at the San Francisco Opera.

First is Martina Serafin as Turandot.

Or your performance might have Nina Stemme.

Toni Marie Palmertree is one of our Lius.  If you have never heard her, here is a sample of her voice.

And here is our Elektra.  Christine Goerke is the woman in the foreground.

Aurelia Florian * will be our Violetta.

And here is her Alfredo, Atalla Ayan *

Manon will be sung by Ellie Dehn. Here she is on Prairie Home Companion.

Chevalier des Grieux will be sung by Michael Fabiano, here in a recent performance of Carmen.

Dame Shirley in Girls of the Golden West is Julia Bullock * I couldn't find any standard repertoire for her.

Josefa Segovia in Girls of the Golden West is sung by J'Nai Bridges.

Joe Cannon in Girls of the Golden West is Paul Appleby.

This is enough for now.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

La Traviata on PBS

Conductor.............Nicola Luisotti
Production............Willy Decker
Violetta.................Sonya Yoncheva
Alfredo..................Michael Fabiano
Germont................Thomas Hampson
Flora.......................Rebecca Jo Loeb
Gastone..................Scott Scully
Baron Douphol.......Dwayne Croft
Dr. Grenvil.............James Courtney
Annina....................Jane Bunnell

Verdi's La Traviata in the Willy Decker production from the Metropolitan Opera appeared on my television. This is undoubtedly the greatest of all the operas.  I think it is the most passionate about the two great themes of love and death.  It falls at the end of bel canto and includes one of the greatest of all bel canto arias, "Sempre libera."

This is the final appearance at the Met of this production originally from the Salzburg Festival. I begin to think I will miss it.  There were a few cuts.  This time around it bothered me that Flora was a man.  Why would all those men go to parties where there was only one woman?   But rooms full of Victorian dresses hold little charm for me.

This is a perfect role for Michael Fabiano.  I like Sonya Yoncheva but do not love her as overwhelmingly as I did Netrebko.  The sound of her voice is less to my taste.  She carried the final scene to its heart-wrenching conclusion.

I reviewed this same production here with Dessay, here, and here for Netrebko.

Wozzeck from Salzburg

Vladimir Jurowski | Conductor 
William Kentridge | Stage director

Matthias Goerne | Wozzeck
John Daszak | Drum Major
Mauro Peter | Andres
Gerhard Siegel | Captain
Jens Larsen | Doctor
Tobias Schabel | First Apprentice
Huw Montague Rendall | Second Apprentice
Heinz Göhrig | Madman
Asmik Grigorian | Marie
Frances Pappas | Margret

This is the live stream of Berg's Wozzeck from the Salzburg Festival.  There are puppets. There is Matthias Goerne.  This is a great role for him.  Dark and weird is probably just the right production for this opera.  I still don't like Wozzeck.  The production overwhelms the action.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Theodora from Glyndebourne

Conductor:  William Christie
Director:  Peter Sellars

Theodora, a Christian of noble birth, soprano: Dawn Upshaw
Didymus, a Roman Officer, converted by and in love with Theodora, originally alto castrato, here countertenor:  David Daniels
Septimius, Roman soldier and friend to Didymus, tenor:  Richard Croft
Valens, President of Antioch, bass:  Frode Olsen
Irene, a Christian and friend of Theodora, mezzo-soprano:  Lorraine Hunt
Messenger, tenor:  Michael Hart-Davis

Someone said that Peter Sellars' production of Handel's Theodora was even better than his La Clemenza di Tito, so I thought I would give it a try.  He seems best in things that have religious themes.  This is one of Handel's oratorios and is in English.  This film is from 1996.

Hmmm.  There are soldiers and they wear American flags on their sleeves.  It's politics and religion rolled into one.  Christians are ordered to bow to idols to show loyalty to Caesar.  This is a  joy.  And then there is Lorraine Hunt.  It would be hard to ask for more.  He stages the first Christian scene like a prayer meeting, except women speak.  Lorraine sings of prosperity and people put money on the floor.  Many are in white and kneel on the floor to pray.  The chorus always present in any Handel oratorio represents the congregation.

Soldiers enter and warn the Christians that they are tempting fate.  "Dread the fruits of Christian folly."  This is not the usual oratorio libretto.   I understand it was not popular at its premier.  Oratorios usually draw their plots from either scripture or mythology.  Theodora is an historical Christian martyr.

I begin to grasp Peter Sellars' world view.  He sometimes strays too far from it.  He is THE outstanding American leader in the world of Regietheater, and this is one of his greatest works.  Among his productions, this one makes no alterations to the original text.

Apparently, honoring the Emperor consists of getting falling down drunk. So far I don't find this staging to be at all a distortion of the original.  People just look like people today instead of ancient Romans.  If this bothers you, you should get over it.

Christians are serious people while pagans are drunks seems to be the general idea.  One remembers this primarily for the work of Lorraine Hunt, but I am enjoying also Dawn Upshaw and David Daniels.  Theodora is in prison and Didymus visits her.  She asks him to kill her, but instead they exchange clothing and she escapes.

This is an extraordinary piece, deeply emotional.  One needs exposure to a wider range of Handel's works.  Here we still hear the Italian coloratura along side the more English lyricism and Handel's great choral music.

The picture above depicts the application of the death penalty.  The ending is sad and strange.  Christians wave their arms rather more than is strictly tolerable.   My experience of the Baroque does not include anything like this.  I came for Peter Sellars and Lorraine Hunt but ended with the joy of some of the most beautiful music of Handel I have ever heard. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Why were singers better in my youth?

Modern singers treat their careers as though they were a recreational activity.  They think to themselves that in the brief time they have in the spotlight they must work their way through the entire repertoire for their Fach.

In the old days a singer searched for those few roles where their gifts shone brightest and repeated them in opera houses around the world.  They seemed greater than modern singers because in their selected repertoire they were.  Think about it. 

Of modern day singers the one who follows closest the old path is Renée Fleming.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Bechdel test

I am going to attempt to apply The Bechdel test to opera.  The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

  • Carmen and her named girlfriends try to predict their futures in a card game.  Men are discussed in the abstract, but the conversation inadvertently turns to death when Carmen draws the death card.
  • In La Boheme Mimi tells Musetta that her hands are cold so Musetta goes out and buys a muff.
  • In Marriage of Figaro the countess and Susanna plot their revenge on the count.  This probably doesn't count.  However, Marcellina and Susanna have an extended exchange of insults that definitely qualifies.
  • Despina in Cosi fan tutte advises the sisters to take new lovers while their current boy friends are away.  Generic advice so it should count.
  • In Die Fledermaus Adele pretends to her boss Rosalinde that her aunt is sick so she can accept an invitation to a party.
  • In Fidelio Leonore, a woman  pretending to be a man, successfully becomes engaged to a young woman, Marzelline.  I'm not sure if this counts or not.  For me it has layers of hidden meaning.
  • In La Traviata Violetta and Flora are friends and invite each other to parties, but we see them only briefly talking. 
  • In Magic Flute Queen and Pamina plot to kill Saroastro.  This probably doesn't count.
  • The witch in Hansel and Gretel orders Gretel around while Hansel is frozen.
  • In Elektra Elektra and Chrysothemis plot to murder Klytämnestra.
  • In the opera Jenůfa Kostelnička tells her step-daughter Jenůfa that her baby has died, when in reality Kostelnička has killed him.
  • In Otello Desdemona asks Emilia to put out her bridal gown and then asks to be buried in it.  They discuss the Willow Song.
  • In La Cenerentola the step-sisters get into some competitive bragging while constantly putting down Angiolina.
  • Most of Dialogues of the Carmelites.
  • In The Medium Madame Flora and her daughter Monica arrange seances.  They talk mostly about the business.

This seems an entertaining game for opera plots.I will continue to add new items.