Wednesday, September 28, 2005


This is the latest edition of the unwatched video series: Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea from Glyndebourne, starring Maria Ewing.

Monteverdi was an unusual composer who started out fully in the style of the Renaissance, and as each new discovery appeared, fully immersed himself in the new style and made it his own. He dropped counterpoint without a backward look and wrote recitatives and arias along with the younger men. Think how unusual this is. In his old age Verdi recast himself and wrote operas in the new style, but usually composers only go deeper and deeper into their original style. In his old age Monteverdi was still cutting edge.

This music sounds odd. The harpsichords of later recitative are there and the ornaments, but something is missing. Corelli hasn’t invented tonality yet. If you tried to imagine music like this, you probably couldn’t. It completely lacks the pull toward a single note that obsessed the later Baroque. If you don’t pick chords based on tonality, how do you pick them? Never mind. They don’t know they’re missing this. Coloratura is in full flower. Opera is well on its way.

I can’t help pointing out how much more satisfying it is to hear music where singing is everything than most modern opera where singing is nothing. That said, neither will replace Mozart.

The role of Seneca is actually a bass, sung here by Robert Lloyd, and I think Ottone (Dale Duesing), Poppea’s husband, is also intended as a baritone. Nero is sung by Dennis Bailey, a low tenor with an extremely interesting tone. It’s supposed to be a castrato, and is elsewhere usually sung by women. Nowadays I suppose it would be a falsettist. The ancients loved the sound of two sopranos singing together. There are no transgender singers here, unless you want to count the boy Amor, sung by Linda Kitchen. She hangs by a wire through most of the second half of the opera. It is Amor who prevents Ottone from killing Poppea.

I don’t think I expected anything so dignified and sedate. Maria disrobes to take a bath early in the opera—she has her own caldarium right in the middle of the house—but is hidden behind a towel and fully clothed the rest of the time. We have been led to other expectations by Maria Ewing’s other opera videos, especially her Salome. All this dignity is a disappointment.

Should I search for a more torrid Poppea?


Magdalena Kožená’s Lamento has already been reviewed in Opera News. Once thousands of years ago I sang Bach’s “Vergnuegte Ruh,” and I see that Opera News also thinks that this is all supposed to be slower. I did something approaching lento, certainly not faster than andante. Andante con moto is what I would call her tempo. “Blessed rest” indeed.

So what do I think? I like her voice and technique, but for my personal taste she is a bit cool. I think this is her true self and not evidence that she is holding back.

Janet Baker was a somewhat cool mezzo, too. I remember going to a recital of hers in the War Memorial Opera House in SF and being bored to tears. It was all of a piece. For instance, she did some Ives, but picked out the early songs that sound like Schumann more than anything else. She managed to make Ives sound the same as everyone else instead of like the monumental iconoclast he was. Janet Baker’s best work came when she engaged her intellect. The arias from Bach’s Mattaeus Passion are staggering in her interpretations.

I have to say Magdalena Kožená seems to be a bright woman, capable of thinking more deeply about her interpretations even if she never becomes exactly passionate. I apologize for giving her such a hard time. She’s very talented and needs to give me more to be excited about.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

End of brain

I have finally finished Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain and Ecstasy. It's a complex but worthwhile book. I was disappointed by the ending where he promotes the progress myth. You know the one I mean--everything is improving over time, and soon we will reach nirvana. This is bosh.

The only progress experienced by humans is the one created by the application of the scientific method. One scientific proof builds on another, one invention builds on another, creating improvements in the way we live.

All music exists in the specific context of style. He talks about the trees of anticipation and completely misses the forest of style. It is the style of music that creates the anticipation. A body of people create a style. The composer then manipulates the elements of this style to create his composition. No style, no anticipation; no anticipation, no music.

Reviewing my blog entries on this book, I think you will be glad I have reached the end. I love stuff like this, but enough is enough.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sing what you love

I am certainly not the first person to say this, nor will I be the last: sing what you love. You know without asking her that Renée Fleming loves Dvorak's "Song to the Moon." The love flows out in her voice. It can't be faked. Work harder at learning to love it. Find the secret heart of every piece. It will transform your work like nothing else.


I don’t like to write about Cecilia Bartoli—my emotions get the better of me—but Sarah has pointed out that she actually prefers the French album, and I feel compelled to respond.

Over the course of her career Cecilia has done basically…

• Performances of complete operas/opera recordings—Mozart, Rossini, Haydn, Handel

• Other recordings of complete works—Rossini, Pergolesi, Mozart, Faure.

• Opera recitals/opera aria recordings—two of Rossini, two of Mozart, Vivaldi, Gluck, Salieri and now the Handel/Scarlatti/Caldara.

• Miscellaneous other stuff—songs on choral albums, recital with Bryn.

• Song recitals/song recital recordings—Parisotti collection "Se tu m'ami", Rossini, French "Chant d'amour", German "The impatient lover", and "Italian Songbook."

The last song recording was the Italian Songbook in 1997 with James Levine. Then in 1999 came the Vivaldi album, her biggest seller to date.

For me to judge Cecilia’s singing is easy—does my heart do its dance? It’s not an intellectual decision, but I can look back at it and try to make sense of my emotions.

People like Vivaldi for some reason. For me he’s too simple. I’m a Bach person. What can I say? That part of Cecilia’s career is at once the most successful and for me the least moving. I know most of the other fans don’t share my opinions. I like the current album very much because it is successfully engaging my emotions. It’s thrilling.

I, too, love her song recitals best. The French album, both for language and for expression, is perfect. But how miraculous is her German recording! How is a lieder recital entirely in Italian even possible? But there it is, and it’s fantastic. The Rossini recital with Giovanna D’arco is heart-stopping.

Then there came the Italian Songbook, for me her weakest recording. The whole thing is simply not sung well. Perhaps the collaboration with Levine was not successful. Or perhaps there is some unknown cause. It was for me a terrible disappointment because I heard the Bellini songs in Escondido and thought them gorgeous. Somehow the recording went terribly wrong. No artist ever corrects an unsuccessful recording, so we will never hear how well she can sing these.

Some years back she was contracted to record Spanish songs with Alicia della Rocha, an event which never occurred.

Cecilia’s present path is guided, I believe, by success. She would like to imitate the success of the Vivaldi album. In this special most recent case there is a wish to perform music associated with her city—Roma, reina del mondo. My favorite quote from Cecilia is, “The journey of the voice starts with the heart.” Our hearts engage because hers does. For whatever reason, she is now deeply involved in her archeological project and seems to have forgotten all about songs.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


There is a wonderful article in Opera News about Maria Callas this month. It is exactly what I would want to read about Callas—what other singers think of her legacy, which only grows with each passing decade. I remember buying a Callas recording recently, and the clerk said to me, “She’s bigger than ever.”

Opera is by far the most complicated of all art forms. It subsumes the entire art of theater, goes on to encompass music and tops the whole thing off with its own invented art form: operatic singing. This gives each individual performer enormous scope.

Read the article for yourself. For me Callas is leaving no stone unturned. She fully expresses at the level of theater, and at the level of music and as a singer. They say that she read and understood the words, and therefore she was great. That’s good. I certainly wouldn’t argue about it. But she also understood and fully expressed it as singing. She was able to translate her own very personal emotional understanding of a role into music, producing a level of expression never exceeded and seldom equaled. Saying that it’s words is just not enough.

Did you notice in “The Bridges of Madison County” that Merle Streep is alone in the kitchen, listening to opera on the radio, and the recording is Callas singing “Casta diva?” This is a test.

Maria Callas is opera.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Modern music

I said somewhere in this blog that music is always of a time and place. This is true also of modern music whose cultural center was Paris and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe beginning in 1909. Other people can write about the ballet--I'm interested in the music.

There was an incredible explosion of new music beginning with Stravinsky's The Firebird (1910)and Petrushka (1911). The picture of Najinsky at left is from Debussy's L'Aprés-midi d'un faune (1911).

I choose to believe this was the impetus for modernism and not Arnold Schoenberg's marital crisis. (Schoenberg’s switch to atonality precisely coincided with the affair and subsequent departure of his wife. Coincidence? I don’t think so.) Strauss’ Salome was a precursor.

This music was dominated by dance rhythms and harmonic clashes, and generally did not support the kind of lyricism found in opera. Opera and dance lived side by side in the Parisian Grand Opera tradition, but separated after this.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


This is the latest in the previously unwatched videos series. You thought I had run out by now.

Verdi’s Stiffelio is about a protestant minister and his marital difficulties. At the time of its composition (1850?) it was considered shocking, and in Italy the church still had quite a lot of political authority. The opera was so heavily censored that Verdi withdrew it.

In 1992 a score for Verdi’s original version appeared and immediately the Metropolitan Opera prepared a revival starring Placido Domingo as the preacher Stiffelio and Sharon Sweet as his wife Lina. The third major role is Count Stanker, Lina’s father, sung by Vladimir Chernov. He is a baritone, of course.

Stiffelio has been away preaching in other cities and has left his wife at home to get into trouble. Do you suppose Billy Graham’s wife stays at home? Never mind.

The conflict here is an odd one. Both Stiffelio and the Count see Lina’s affair as an offense against honor. Their honor, not hers. The Count considers killing himself to restore his honor, and then settles on murdering the boy friend. This logic is a little obscure. How exactly does murder make you more honorable? It’s an opera thing.

Stiffelio feels rage but understands that his life as a minister is based deeply in concept of forgiveness. He settles on divorce as the path to honor. This logic is a little easier to follow. Lina, who is deeply ashamed, agrees and signs the divorce document.

In this opera we have three screamers, instead of just the screamer soprano. Bombastic Verdi is the order of the day. I think the most popular Verdi operas show more dimension to the characters than this. La Traviata never descends into bombast. Rigoletto also wants revenge, but in his “Cortiggiani” aria shows his softer emotions. The characters in Aida are complex and three dimensional.

But in Stiffelio we get unrelenting rage. The final scene is softer. They are in a church, and Stiffelio, speaking from the pulpit, finds that Christ has forgiven the woman taken in adultery, and forgives Lina.

I predict that Stiffelio will remain a minor opera.


Friday, September 16, 2005

Andrea Chénier

This video tape has not been sitting around my house for years, but comes instead from deep in someone’s archives.

These days operas are filmed on location as movies, such as Zeffirelli’s opera films, or from the stage of opera houses with multiple cameras during performances. In 1955 when this black and white film of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier was made, operas were filmed for television on sound stages with cameras at eye level like a TV show. They appear also to be lip-syncing, which may account for why we can’t picture where the orchestra is. Inside Daisy Clover has a marvelous scene showing the heroine lip-syncing the song to the already existing film, but opera must work the other way round, like someone on Saturday Night Live. It's not like the opera movie with Sophia Loren--they are all lip-syncing themselves.

This film is notable for the presence of Mario del Monaco in the title role. In his prime his voice had a wonderful brilliance, most similar to Corelli, I suppose, which was very intense and beautiful. He had a tendency to over sing and suffered for it later in life, but at his peak he was physically and vocally very beautiful, as he certainly is in this film. He had his fanatical followers.

Giuseppe Taddei as Gerard and Antonietta Stella as Maddalena are also outstanding. This kind of intense singing is not common today. It’s wonderful to hear it.

The production is traditional, and when combined with the filming technique produces an oddly intimate realism. It’s very moving.

The label says $5.95 from Rasputins.

Opera proibita

I went mad over Cecilia Bartoli when I first heard her because I had never heard such thrillingly emotional singing. Once again I find my heart racing.

My biggest impression during Cecilia's Vivaldi concert years ago was: who knew Vivaldi was this interesting? It was very much more than I could possibly have expected. No one can program a Baroque concert or a Baroque recording better than Cecilia Bartoli.

And opera proibita is even better. In 1700-1710 the Baroque was in full swing. What a service to Scarlatti and Caldara to hear this wonderful music, the Baroque at its dynamic peak, full to overflowing with excitement and vigor. I would not wish to slight Handel who is at his most youthful and Italian here. The performing editions for the Scarlatti and Caldara arias are by Cecilia's musicologist friend, Claudio Osele. These are first recordings.

Cecilia has used her early success to build an amazing career. She is answering my questions about the composers of Italian Baroque opera in a very personal way. She makes us feel again the brilliance of the Italians.

Since the time of the Vivaldi concert I have not been able to fully understand the path Cecilia was taking, but there is a particular passage in Scarlatti's "L'Alta Roma" (an amazingly brilliant aria) when Cecilia is singing with a trumpet where it all came clear. Her time is spent with instrumentalists who specialize in the Baroque and classical eras, and with those who conduct them, and as a result she is playing her voice like an instrument. She matches them note for note in a style and technique of great originality.

For once I have no complaints about this original instruments orchestra. The entire album is marvellous. Marc Minkowski, who also conducted the Giulio Cesare in Zurich, is wonderful in this style. Cecilia has worked with a lot of conductors, but this collaboration seems to be raising the level of her performances to a new high. Minkowski inspires her.

The thing that separates a Cecilia Bartoli recording from all others is the emotion, and this one is as intense as anything she's ever done. No one can get so much passion into coloratura. The more I listen the more I love it.

Grazie mille. Viva Cecilia.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A break

Let's give them a break. I suppose the most exposed context for modern composers is movie sound tracks. If that's where the money is, then it stands to reason the music would all sound like that. Opera is not a movie. The music is only partially there to provide a background for the action. In opera the music is the action, in particular the singing is the action.

Singing hasn't changed since the early days of opera. Except maybe tenors have pushed up their chests. Make what they're singing sound interesting. This is the last thing a modern composer thinks about, and sometimes it's the next thing after the last thing.

Francesca da Rimini

Once you truly begin to love the opera, you want it like food, but unlike food, there can never be too much opera.

The women’s chorus in the opening of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini , filmed in 1984, see the supposed bridegroom walking by and sing, “He is the fairest Knight in all the world.” And of course he is.

If I had done my sexiest opera singers twenty years ago, it might have had only one name: Placido Domingo. Was there ever a man more gorgeous than he? No man ever did more to make the plots of operas believable than Placido. When Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West sees him walk into her bar, she just naturally goes mad for him, and we completely believe it. And he sings. Placido sings wonderfully, to be sure, but it is almost superfluous.

The story derives from an anecdote in Dante. The Malatesta family has three sons: Gianciotto (Cornell Macneil), known as the lame, Malatestino (William Lewis), the blind, and Paolo (Placido Domingo), the beautiful. Francesca is chosen as a bride for Gianciotto, and her father knows she would never marry such an ugly, crippled man, so he arranges for her to marry him while Paolo stands in for him. Both of them think at the time of the marriage that they are marrying each other.

This film is a lot of fun. I never found my copy and bought a new one. When the battle comes, Francesca stays and pushes herself to the battlements to stand by Paolo whom she blames for the deception of her marriage. It is to be a trial by arrow. He kills the enemy leader and is saved. At the same time he falls madly in love with Francisca and is lost.

Smaragdi (Isola Jones) is an exotic black woman who appears beautifully posed around the set among Francesca’s women. Finally she sings, and out comes an amazing low voice.

What a perfect part for Renata Scotto! She is everything that Renata Tebaldi was not. This does not mean that she is everything that Tebaldi was, but Francesca is a soul in torment, and we need to see it. With Scotto we see everything. This may be the most real acting I have ever seen in an opera. Her voice still sounds good.

I wrote on my paper, “Holy shit!” This is not proper literary writing. Who can get that soulful look in his eyes half so well as Placido? This is very, very, ... very sexy. I wish I was there to shout with the audience. During the bows after act III Renata hugs Placido and looks up into his eyes with an expression that says, “yes.” It is a perfect moment.

This is not earth shaking music, but it is fun and expressive. I have to admit that I really love this. The production and performances are absolutely first rate.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A love letter to Renée Fleming

I can tell this is going to be one of those recordings I can't listen to while working. Renée Fleming "Strauss Heroines". So why don't you sing the Marschallin more often? No one asks you? How is that possible? My dear, this is just simply gorgeous. It helps that I love it so. And it is exactly this part that I love. The language, the phrasing, the tone, the sense that above all you love it, too, all go together to make something truly wonderful. Thank you.


Jourdain argues so well in his brain book that we each have our own unique perspective on the music we hear that it causes me to doubt any one person's ability to describe and evaluate music for other listeners. Maybe it is all just a matter of taste. Which is in turn a matter of ones own early life experience.

But when faced with ugly melodies in a featureless musical landscape, a description which for my ears applies equally to Streetcar and Liaisons, what is one to think? In both cases the subject matter is ugly. Does an ugly plot justify ugly music?

I don't want the music to just be there creating an atmosphere, like so much elevator music. I want characteristics to emerge. I want something going on in the music that engages my attention. I want opera to be about music, not the other way round.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Why Wagner is a better composer than you are

The music of Richard Wagner is not really that tough. This is one of the main reasons for his enormous continuing popularity.

He takes the elements of obsession with tonality used by all his contemporaries and does something very different with it. He abandons cadences, for one thing, and puts them only at the end of scenes. He makes everything a secondary dominant which in turn makes everything constantly modulating from one place to another. When you're listening to it, this is not hard to figure out.

Then he carefully invents memorable themes, which he ostentatiously calls Leitmotivs, and peppers them throughout his huge movements. When listening to him, you are constantly hearing music that sounds familiar. Some people think they have to study these so they will clearly remember the assigned associations for each Leitmotiv. This idea was not invented by Wagner. He wanted you to recognize the melodies because he designed them to be easy to remember.

At every step of the way he is giving you something to anticipate and hold on to. Admittedly Philip Glass is making the whole thing a lot simpler by just repeating exactly the same music over and over. I don't think you have to go quite that far. It isn't a sin against proper modern composition to give me something to hold on to. Make this easier to get. Give me a hint every now and then, because if I don't get it, most of the other people won't either.


It says here in the brain book that we form our tastes by 12 or 13 years of age and ever after love only the same kinds of music. Wow! As a young person I loved Judy Garland, so I suppose ever after I have been looking for someone who could sell a song like Judy. Liking Cecilia Bartoli, the modern singer most able to sell a song, only seems logical. 

But virtually all I know of classical music came later, some of it much later. I loved the "Erbarme dich" from Bach's Saint Matthew Passion from the time that I sang it in college. Janet Baker's recording is definitely the one to hear. When I bought a synthesizer, I created a setting for it using muted strings that was powerful and heart rending, my best achievement in that medium.  

There is a very deep place in my heart for Brahms' Requiem. I can sing along through the entire piece. Robert Shaw's recordings of this are fine but do not approach his live performance with the San Francisco Symphony in the early 80's, a performance that featured Kathleen Battle singing "Wir hab' nun Trauerigkeit." Awesome. I used to have a tape of it, but it was stolen from my car. 

And how does this explain my taste for the organ music of Olivier Messiaen? Or Glenn Gould's Bach? Or Gorecky's Third Symphony? I would never have listened to bluegrass as a young person, so why am I listening to it now? I admit Kelly Clarkson is definitely a throwback to early soft rock. That fits. And a passionate love for Die Fledermaus and Der Rosenkavalier fits a childhood that included J. Strauss' "Tales from the Vienna Woods." 

But the recording I love best of Cecilia's is the Rossini "Heroines" album. What from my early teens would have prepared me to appreciate this stunning work? Perhaps it does all make sense. Does a deep love of Janet Baker's performance of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" fit this picture?" Does she sell Mahler like Judy? Perhaps. The musical tastes of my youth were sketchy at best. Music has been a gift of my adult life. I continue to discover new things to love, like Rolando Villazon's French album. He has recently signed a long term contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Dangerous Liaisons



The latest entry in the unwatched video list is Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons (1994). I didn’t see this opera when it played at the San Francisco Opera, and I don’t recall how it was reviewed.

The music has been described as post romantic. I would call it spooky movie music, such as might accompany "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." It would be spooky Strauss if Strauss couldn’t write a decent melody. The best part is the spooky movie orchestration which I happen to know was done by my son’s friend Manly Romero. Good work, Manly. I wonder, though, if spooky is exactly the right feeling here--perhaps decadent would be more appropriate.

The singers never sing anything even marginally pleasant. Melodic patterns never show up again, that is assuming there were any in the first place. Every now and then when things get tense, someone will break out into coloratura. It creates an unpleasant atmosphere, which may be exactly what was intended.

The story is an excellent example of the love as perversion plot type common in the twentieth century. Everyone is up to no good.

The Marquise de Merteuil (Frederica von Stade) is angry because her current lover is getting married, to Cecile as it turns out. He isn’t in the opera, but she takes it out on everyone who is. She has hooks into the Vicomte de Valmont (Thomas Hampson) and seems to be able to order him around. He is quite smitten with Madame de Tourvel (Renée Fleming) who appears to be religious and honorable, though married, and to have wandered into this opera from somewhere else.

There is also a young couple, Chevalier de Danceny (David Hobson) and Cecile de Volanges (Mary Mills), who are flirting heavily with one another, though Cecile is engaged. The cast also includes various mothers, aunts, servants, business acquaintances, etc.

Everyone is constantly writing letters to everyone else and then using these letters to control and blackmail the sender.

The Marquise takes the young man to bed while Valmont does the same with Cecile. Meanwhile, he continues to make love to Madame de Tourvel. At the end of act I he is seen to succeed with her.

The bitch Merteuil is bored and orders Valmont to dump Tourvel. He does. Tourvel goes back to her old convent and goes mad. Everything goes from bad to worse. What a sorry business. If I actually liked the music, I might think it would work as an opera. Singable melodies would have helped a lot.

The high-priced talent were excellent in their roles. Thomas Hampson is completely incapable of projecting the kind of sliminess managed by John Malkovich in the movie and seems more victim than victimizer. Frederica is admirably disgusting and loathsome. Renée is her divine self.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


In my pile of unwatched videos is a film about the painter Cezanne. Watching it reminded me of a story.

My youth was not spent in the midst of art and music. I remember always the same old master painting of a windmill on the wall in the living room. I remember "Tales from the Vienna Woods" but no opera.

When I was in junior high school, we lived in Joliet, Illinois, and I had to walk quite a way to school every day, even in the cold, windy Chicago winters. I remember walking home one day bent at an angle against the wind. It was possible to let go and lie down on the wind.

One day my mother loaned me a silk scarf to wear to school. Where did she get it? I don't know. On the way to school that morning I took off the scarf and held it up to look at. Around the side it said, "Still life with a basket of apples," and the name of the painter, Cezanne. I looked at it for a long time, awed by the way the apples were painted. It is one of my most vivid memories of that period. What the school or the students looked like I remember not at all.

I looked in books for years for exactly that picture but didn't find it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The brain and singing

This book, Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, has a gaping omission: there is nothing at all on singing. He goes on and on about hands in performance, but what about singing? How does that work?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Renata Tebaldi

When I bought all those DVD’s from House of Opera, one of them was a Berlin Opera production of Verdi’s Otello with Renata Tebaldi as Desdemona.

She was an Italian lyric soprano who could bring steel into her voice when the occasion required. Her legato was exquisite, and she understood the music she was singing completely. She just was not the scenery chewing type. As a person she was clearly very inward. Renata Tebaldi’s was an inward passion. There is dignity in her body, in her voice, in the profundity of her phrasing, in her very soul. She will not come out and smack you with her emotions, but if you open yourself to her singing and listen for the musical depth that is in her, there is no one greater.

Francesca da Rimini

This is from Wikipedia on Francesca da Rimini:

• 1308-1321 Divine Comedy. (Inferno, Canto V), Dante
• 1819 Paolo and Francesca. Oil on canvas, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Musée Turpin de Crissé, Angers, France
• 1870 The Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. Oil on canvas, Alexandre Cabanel, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
• 1876 Francesca de Rimini. Symphonic Poem, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
• 1888 The Kiss. marble sculpture, Auguste Rodin, Musée Rodin, Paris.
• 1901 Francesca da Rimini, Gabriele D'Annunzio (tragedy, written for Eleonora Duse)
• 1906 Francesca da Rimini. Opera, Sergei Rachmaninoff

This is from a description of the opera video from the Met:

Legendary tenor Placido Domingo delivers an exceptional performance in this video, which records a 1984 performance by New York's Metropolitan Opera of Riccardo Zandonai's lush romantic story. Renata Scotto also stars in this production, which was praised for its elaborate sets and costumes, as well as the superb performances (and vocals) of Domingo and Scotto and James Levine's outstanding musical direction. ~ Mark Deming, All Movie Guide

So which is it? Rough guide says Rachmaninoff. House of Opera and the Met say Zandonai. How am I supposed to know? Are they two different operas?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Interview with Cecilia

This is a fragment of an interview with Cecilia Bartoli, the part I was interested in. [In brackets are my translations, such as they are.]

Early on she says "Ich liebe das Essen." [I love food.] This refers to the fact that she has lost weight.

I:Sie haben vor zwanzig Jahren Ihre Karriere begonnen. Hat sich der Starkult seither verschärft? [You began your career 20 years ago. Has the star cult intensified since that time?]

C:Nein, den Schönheitskult gab es in den Sechzigerjahren schon, bei Anna Moffo. Ich habe den Hype mit 23 erlebt, als ich auf dem Cover von «Vanity Fair» war und in der Letterman-Show auftrat. Das war sehr aufregend, auch nützlich, aber es hat mich auf Dauer nicht befriedigt. Publicity laugt aus. [No, in the seventies there was already a beauty cult, with Anna Moffo. I experienced the hype at 23, when I was on the cover of Vanity Fair and appeared on the Letterman Show. That was very exciting, also useful, but it was not satisfying in the long run. Publicity leaches out.]

I:Das hat auch Anna Netrebko erfahren die Sie übrigens sehr verehrt. [That happened to Anna Netrebko, too, who, by the way, very much admires you.]

C:Danke, wir haben uns gerade in London kennen gelernt. Ich sah sie in «Rigoletto», sie mich in «Il Turco in Italia». Was für eine herrliche Stimme! Sie hat Ihre ganz grosse Karriere noch vor sich. [Thanks, we just got to know each other in London. I saw her in Rigoletto and she saw me in Il Turco in Italia. What a wonderful voice. She has a very great career ahead of her.]

I:Fürchten Sie die Konkurrenz? [Are you afraid of the competition?]

C:Nein, es ist Platz für uns alle da. Für Angela Gheorghiu, für Magdalena Kozena und für Renée Fleming. Haben Sie Renée mal gehört, wenn sie ein «messa di voce» vom pianissimo ins forte hebt und wieder im pianissimo landet? Unglaublich. Trotzdem, solange ich fünf Millionen CDs verkaufe, mache ich mir keine Sorgen. [No, there is room for everyone. For Angela Gheorghiu, for Magdalena Kozena and for Renée Fleming. Have you heard Renée when she does a "messa di voce" from pianissimo to forte and then back to pianissimo? Unbelievable. When I sell 5 million cd's this does not concern me.]

DrB: Pardon my translation. Maybe I got it, maybe I didn't. I like knowing who she likes. I don't know Magdalena Kožená, but will look into it. We certainly concur on the subject of Anna Netrebko. This part answers questions from friends:

I:Haben Sie Ihre Flugangst überwunden? [Have you gotten over your fear of flying?]

C:Es wird besser. Man kann von oben auf die Welt herabsehen, fast wie im Theater. Aber die langen Flüge machen mich immer noch fertig. Ich werde per Schiff in die USA reisen, dann mit dem Flugzeug nach Asien. Von dort kehre ich hoffentlich mit dem Zug zurück. [It's better. One can look down on the world from above, almost like in a theater. But the longer flights still make me finished. I will travel by ship to the US, then take a plane to Asia. From there I will hopefully go back on the train.]

In the New York Times

The big opera item in the New York Times this week is that the Los Angeles Opera is doing Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein with Garry Marshall directing. Marshall is known to all as the inventor of Laverne and Shirley. What this means is opera as slapstick comedy. I must admit this has aroused my curiosity. Should we be shocked and appalled? Offenbach is only operetta, so I guess it's ok.

And still no one is interested in my Austin Powers Don Giovanni.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Love in the Twentieth century

This is the latest in the love series.

These operas from the twentieth century are about love, too, but it is love seen in a rather warped, Freudian way. Love is often a perversion, a mental disturbance that is seldom put right.

Richard Strauss started it all with his opera Salome. Salome falls in love with the prophet Johanahan, otherwise known as John the Baptist. Nothing is so white as his body. Nothing is so black as his hair. Nothing is so red as his lips. Salome’s mother wants him dead because he is spreading scandal about her. Her motives are purely political and would fit into the romantic political context of Verdi. Salome is caught up in a purely sexual obsession—she simply wants to kiss his lips. (Apparently she wants nothing else from him, since cutting off his head would obviously render that impossible.) When she has achieved this goal upon the decapitated head of her beloved, she complains that his lips have a bitter taste.

The contrast to Massenet’s Herodiade (1881) could not be more complete. In that opera John and Salome enjoy a traditional romantic love and die together. There is no dance, and of course, there is no perverse obsession. Strauss has brought us into the twentieth century where love is more likely to be a perversion than a romantic ideal.

There are two popular twentieth-century operas with similar thematic material: Káťa Kabanová (1921) by Janáček and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932) by Shostakovich. Both involve unhappily married women who have affairs, both are driven to their unhappy state by interfering in-laws, and both leap into a river to escape their misery. Káťa commits suicide because her lover leaves for Siberia. Katarina kills herself immediately after murdering her rival. The similarity of the plots is striking. They also share the problem of staging a suicide that involves leaping into a river. It isn’t easy to make this look realistic.

A lot of people like Káťa Kabanová, but the first time I saw it, prior to surtitles, I found it quite boring in spite of the presence of Evelyn Lear in the mother part. However, I must say that productions of these kinds of sordid operas make an enormous difference in the impression on the viewer. The first production of Lady Macbeth that I saw was intensely sexual, emphasizing with visual elements all the powerful sexiness of the score. The second time in Pamela Rosenberg’s version they seemed to be trying to hide it. To what end? Káťa is more like Madame Bovary, unhappy and confused, while Katarina is a wild and wicked woman whose wickedness should properly be flaunted.

I’ve already commented on the love element in Barber’s Vanessa. This type of martyrdom for love I can’t find in other operas. La gioconda sacrifices herself for her lover’s happiness, but I can think of no one who just sits there waiting. Ariadne whines a lot at least--she can’t figure out how to get off the island—but Vanessa has no such excuse.

Britten makes frequent and varied use of the love theme in his operas which may go a long way toward explaining his continuing popularity. Death in Venice (1973) is based on the story by Thomas Mann which is in turn based on an anecdote told to Mann by Gustav Mahler. It was Mahler who fell in love with a boy on the Lido beach, lending the aura of celebrity to the story.

An older man, Aschenbach, notices a teen-age boy on the beach and falls wildly in love with him. The boy is a mime part, a danced part. It isn’t necessary for him to speak, but it is necessary for him to be very beautiful. The boy is always discretely accompanied by his mother. Plague comes to Venice, and Aschenbach stays and dies.

We can’t find our way to sensible loving, at least not as entertainment. The theme of cultural conflict between lovers is common in musicals. The plot of Madame Butterfly was successfully recast into Miss Saigon. West Side Story juxtaposes Puerto Rican immigrants against white Americans. South Pacific is about racial prejudice as a barrier to love. Then there's Phantom of the Opera which I suppose is about prejudice against the handicapped. I suppose. These things don't seem to inspire operas.

However perverse the love theme may become in these modern operas, they are still superior to most of their contemporaries and continue to increase in popularity. A perverse love plot is far better than no love plot at all.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Tosca movie

Jean and I were watching the Tosca movie with Placido Domingo and Catherine Malfitano, and Jean said "Dump that woman!" This was a terrible shock. "But Jean, Mario is the one who drags them down by getting involved in politics. If he dumps Tosca, he's still dead."

I love Catherine Malfitano's Tosca. She is so wonderfully out there. Tosca is supposed to be an opera singer. She is maddeningly jealous and passionate. And she leaps to her death in style.

This movie is famous for the wonderful cinematography used to film the locations in Rome. But it isn't just for pictures--the singing and acting are also very fine.


Friday, September 02, 2005

Meter war

Robert Jourdain in his book Music, the Brain and Ecstasy at the end of the chapter on rhythm proposes a meter war. He sees ranks forming on each side with one group favoring regular meters with interest focused on harmony, while the other group leaves the harmony simple and emphasizes the meter.

The first group is represented by classical music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The obsession with tonality and its developmental implications made meter a not particularly significant feature.

The second group is represented by American pop of various genres. They bring along a lot of heavy equipment to help them emphasize the meter. Rhythmic elements predominate, especially in rock and roll and disco where an emphasized meter is virtually everything.

In the sixties were a group called the Swingle Singers who did Bach with a jazz style drum track. This was very workable and fun, and I recall buying their records. I also recall doing it myself on my synthesizer, producing a rather silly version of Bach’s “Sehet Jesu” from the St. Matthew Passion. The idea was to marry both worlds.

I guess I see these things as elements of style. One style—or more appropriately, sequence of styles—arose in civilized Europe where music served primarily to support authoritarian political regimes, while the other—also forming itself into a series—arose in America and emphasized informality and egalitarianism.

I guess I see a culture war. One is formal and intellectual, treasured and tax supported. The other is informal and left entirely to the forces of capitalism. It’s even railed against and blamed for all manner of moral degradation. One is seeping away into the past along with the culture it reflected, more valued with each successive loss of viability. The other thrives while hardly valued.

Theory explains the how of music, but does not explain the why.