Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Because I rented several operas, Netflix thought I would enjoy Fitzcarraldo, a movie by Werner Herzog.

From an opera devotee point of view the movie begins oddly. Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt, we are asked to believe, have traveled to an obscure area of Brazil in order to perform together in Ernani. Bernhardt mimes her part, extending her arms wildly and going constantly up and down stairs. Someone sitting in the pit actually sings her part. Poor Bernhardt. What a horrible way to remember her. She is portrayed as enormously tall and gaunt--it's obviously played by a man in drag. They speak of her wooden leg. It's true, she continued to perform Camille after her leg was amputated, but in a wheel chair. And it was her voice one would have traveled to hear, not this peculiar mime. If it really happened, I don't want to know.

In the context of the movie she is just a celebrity, someone people would travel to see and pay money for. That's what celebrity is good for, I guess. Our hero, Fitz (Klaus Kinski), has dragged his wife (Claudia Cardinale--her voice provided by the excellent German dubbing industry) down the Amazon to see this performance by Caruso, his idol, and they arrive just in time to see Ernani kill himself.

Fitz is then even more determined to bring opera to his remote part of the jungle. He knows that he would have to be fabulously rich to accomplish this and has already failed to build a railroad and establish a profitable ice business. Now he's ready to try rubber.

The movie is mainly an adventure in the jungle with friendly Indians and plenty of hardship, but the scenes are peppered with Caruso recordings played on the Victrola Fitz takes everywhere with him. The quartet from Rigoletto is a popular favorite. It isn't Fitz, it's Caruso who wins over the natives who then solve all Fitz's problems for him.

It's a great movie about ecstatic love of opera. It ends in triumph with a scene from I Puritani played from the deck of his boat. Fitz is indeed fabulously rich.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005


While I was in San Francisco to see Doctor Atomic, we rented a silent movie of Carmen starring Geraldine Farrar. What an idea. An opera singer stars in a movie playing a character she would also sing at the opera. Kind of reminds you of Callas' Medea movie.

The plot explained a lot about Carmen that has never made sense. In the movie Carmen is part of the smuggler group from the beginning. They need someone on the inside to get their loot past the police, so Carmen is designated to find a nice policeman to seduce. Doesn't that make it all come clear? It's all quite logical.

Geraldine Farrar is not particularly beautiful in this movie. I'm not sure if it doesn't spoil my illusions about her, but she does project enormous vitality and charisma. Her Carmen is not carelessly arrested--everything she does is completely on purpose. I think I like this Carmen more than I did.

In our trend toward journalism we want to point out that around the time of Caruso's death in 1920 Geraldine Farrar was the prima donna assoluta at the Metropolitan, the only person of either gender ever to have her own private dressing room at the Met.


Robert Oppenheimer

Was I too rough with Doctor Atomic? I don't think so.

I quoted Gertrude Stein on the atomic bomb because I agree with her perspective. Politically the bomb is a huge issue, but personally it is not interesting.

For Robert Oppenheimer to work as Faust the opera has to be about him. The Faust moment for him came when he agreed to head the Manhattan Project, an event not covered in the opera at all. Over the course of his employment on the project, did he doubt its wisdom or his own role in it? He had US security clearance and would have found himself in trouble if he expressed a lot of reservations. A librettist would need to invent this.

If Robert Oppenheimer experienced no inner conflict around the work he was doing, then he is a poor choice for an opera. A big bomb hanging in the air is not a substitute. This Faust loses his soul and is damned forever.

Monday, November 21, 2005


I ordered this video from House of Opera because it promised “lots of nude men all the time.” Well, maybe not all the time. It also promised Renée Fleming singing in Handel’s Alcina at the Paris opera, with Susan Graham as Ruggiero and Natalie Dessay as Morgana. 

After all the fuss over Pamela Rosenberg’s production of Alcina in San Francisco, I wanted to see what honest to god Eurotrash looked like, and I must say they do produce a much purer product. This is much trashier. Pamela had Alcina changing her outfit for every scene, and that was about it. The premise is that Alcina has seduced a long list of men and then enchanted each one, turning them into rocks and trees. In this production they stand, or lie or wander zombie-like around the stage in various stages of undress, from fully clothed to fully unclothed. This is a concept production. They are frozen and unselfconscious in their enchanted state. There is no magic to counter the enchangment--Ruggiero takes a dagger from Alcina and she plunges herself onto it in suicide over her failure to seduce him. When she dies, the magic is gone, so the first thing they do is put all their clothes back on. 

According to Rough Guide, Alcina was intended to provide competition for Farinelli who was performing for a rival company in London that season. I must say Susan Graham makes a very fetching boy toy, and manages some quite good singing as well. Renée sings well, too. She really sinks her teeth into Alcina. 

Oh well. Maybe I’m not really the Eurotrash type. The film appears to be pirated, or “non-television” as HofO describes it. P.S. When I give such a high rating to a HofO DVD, it is for the content, not the quality of the product. The singing is superb and the nude men are also nice.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


At last on the twentieth the November issue of The Gramophone reached Maryland. I am now notorious with the staff of Borders. It is full of fabulous pictures of La Bartoli, and Opera proibita is recording of the month. Of course.

DVD of the month is L'amour de loin, the opera video that I went on so long about. For me it worked a wonderful inner tension that was very beautiful. This makes me feel in tune with the universe.

Gerald Finley (Wasn't he Doctor Atomic? Yes. I sort of blew him off--unjustifiably, I would like to add. He sang well and looked good in a fedora, the hat he wore in Doctor Atomic that was popular in the forties. My father wore one.) has released an Ives album. You knew I would get back to this sentence eventually. Ives is one of my personal passions. He even does "General William Booth enters into heaven." I should track this down.

How interesting! Gerald Finley is everywhere. He was also the troubadour in L'Amour de loin. I didn't blow him off there, too, surely? He was lovely.

There is another Ives entry about something called the Universe Symphony, a colossal work that Ives worked on for many years and never completed. It has been completed posthumously and recorded. So Ives didn't actually stop composing--he just got sucked in to this insane project and couldn't get back out. I can relate.

It is simply not possible that there are this many new classical recordings in a single month. Where are they hiding?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Effects of recording

The biggest effect of technology on music, both recorded and live, is the microphone. Classical singers still perform live without them, with maybe possibly sometimes not. I thought I heard the effects of miking recently at the Washington National Opera.

But all recordings are miked. I think in spite of their low sales there must be some significant money in recording. The largest recent classical record seller has been Luciano Pavarotti, closely followed by Cecilia Bartoli. Maybe I’ll have to subscribe to Billboard to find out the true story.

In the nineteenth century orchestras and singers played off each other by continually beefing up. Orchestras got bigger and bigger and singing technique got heavier and heavier. I recall singing in the chorus of a performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, composed around 1900 and notorious for its huge orchestra. I recall looking down into the pit from the side and seeing how close the musicians were to each other. The violins had to play the same bow strokes, which they are supposed to do anyway, of course, or they would poke one another in the eye. It was very cozy. From our seats above the orchestra we could see the soloists’ mouths moving as the only evidence that anyone was singing. The recent performance of Strauss’ Daphne at Kennedy Center was not quite this bad.

There is a movement for Sprechstimme in Gurrelieder, the earliest example, I think, and it was performed to great effect by the great Wagnerian bass-baritone Hans Hotter.

I digress. The point of this story was that Gurrelieder represents the extreme of big orchestras and singers trying to sing big enough to blast over them. This resulted in a vogue for heavy singing which may today be dying out. Witness, for example, the relative weight of our two best sellers: Luciano still retains a heavy technique, but Cecilia does not.

Heavy singing is very risky. A friend sent me a dvd of Pavarotti, Marton and Milnes singing Verdi’s Il Trovatore. All three are Verdi singers. I think his superb technique and the bright color of his voice always allowed Luciano to sing heavy Verdi roles with sufficient legato to avoid any damage to himself. Eva Marton oversang almost everything she did, and completely unnecessarily. She was always the loudest voice on the stage, and still she pushed her voice louder. James Morris, who always sings everything with a superlative legato, is an example to follow.

Sherrill Milnes had already lost it by the time this performance was recorded. You can hear that he cannot control the color on his high notes. For a better example of his Verdi singing see the dvd for Ernani. Shortly after Il Trovatore his voice became raspy and ugly whenever he tried for a heavy tone.

Heavy singing is the hardest kind, the hardest to do, the hardest to find, the hardest to sustain over a long career. Lately we begin to hear lighter and lighter voices taking on these works. We also hear a growing taste for Baroque and modern opera which simply don’t have these heavy vocal requirements. The great stars are recording with a lighter tone—the record producers encourage this—and it inevitably holds over into live performances. The kind of singing we all grew up with may soon be gone forever.

Another blogging on the effects of recording is here.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Tosca's Kiss

"Il bacio di Tosca" is a film about people who have retired from the opera. The building of the building was supervised by Verdi and survived from his royalties for years. Now his works are no longer in copywrite and there are no more royalties to support the inhabitants of Casa Verdi in Milan.

Sara Scuderi is the star of this movie. She sang at La Scala for six years and once did Tosca with Gigli who autographed a photo for her.

There is a scene showing a turntable beginning to play "Vissi d'arte" and it says "Sara Scuderi, soprano." She walks into the room while the record is playing, wearing a black coat with a gray fur collar and jewelry, and holding her cane. She smiles beautifully, looking up and humming along with the music. "Che bella!" she says at the end, and then tells us she feels almost like crying. She has great presence on the screen.

They all sing. Their voices are old and their support muscles are gone, but all the love is still there in their hearts. At the end they sing "O sole mio." I sing too, but I can't remember the words.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hoffmann in love

And the opera most about love of all is The Tales of Hoffmann where the subject is love itself, its absurd base in illusion and fantasy, its excess and inevitability, its humiliations and exaltations. Love.

If I could pick any singer to be like, to have her voice and theatrical personality, I think it would be Agnes Baltsa. It would be wonderful to project this much animal magnetism. In this Hoffmann she sings the Venetian courtesan Giuletta who steals Hoffmann's reflection.

Musically it's Antonia's aria, sung by Iliana Cotrubas, I fall for. Hoffmann is the perfect opera and this production from Covent Garden perfectly expresses the feeling of each scene: the devotion to science, the brother, the humble house, the bar. It's only just a bit drab. The brothel scene includes a very nice orgy.

Placido Domingo's Hoffmann is perfectly clueless. To see someone love so foolishly and with such incautious abandon is very comforting.

Monday, November 14, 2005


I enjoy enormously this recording of the violin music of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. It sounds like a whole ensemble, doesn’t it? The group is called Romanesca.

Biber is middle Baroque, when they were still having fun with their style. Most fun is a piece called Sonata Representativa where he tries to imitate sounds, somewhat reminiscent of Messiaen. Wait, that can’t be right. It must be the other way around. He’s doing a nightingale, a cuckoo and a quail, for instance. The nightingale somewhat resembles a cadenza that starts slowly. With the cuckoo he puts the call on an inner voice that you have to listen for, like a cantus firmus. The croak of a frog is done with sliding minor seconds. As is the crowing of the cock. Cats slide discordantly and musketeer’s march to bagpipes, of course. Lots of fun.

There is an extended piece for solo violin that builds on a four note minor repeating bass, one of the major building blocks of the middle Baroque, called a Passacaglia. They are edging toward tonality, Biber is much more tonal than Monteverdi, but the quicksand has not yet quite caught them, and they can experiment. Once tonality completely takes hold, you are tonal whether you want to be or not. Schoenberg invented a whole system to avoid the sense of the tonal magnet, and still it sounds tonal a lot of the time.

Middle Baroque is where it’s at.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


I decided years ago that the book I wrote about singing would never see the light of day, but here and there are small things I would like to remember, like this paragraph:

Singing is a wonderful thing. There is nothing at all between you and the music. You can get as close to the music and as passionate about it as you want. You can feel it flowing inside you and caressing your heart as it goes by. You can feel music pulsing through your whole body. You can shape the music and make it fit perfectly into your soul. You can make music a part of yourself.

And this:

To singing, the voice of God.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Mathilde Wesendonck

In the NY Times last Sunday was the headline "Why Shouldn't Men Sing Romantic Drivel, Too?"

This refers to the fact that Matthias Goerne has chosen to perform the "Wesendonck Lieder." How is one to explain this? I always used to say these were the best Wagner, concise pieces that get to the point quickly, and then move on. They also have the advantage of not having words by Wagner. One is inclined to see what isn't there more vividly than what is. There isn't the endless modulation, and most of all, there isn't any Stabreim.

It's difficult to hear ones own language. We don't hear it as sounds; we hear it as meaning. But a foreign language, that's another thing. In German Goethe is awesomely beautiful. If you immerse yourself in his poetry you realize that you didn't know German could possibly sound this beautiful. Wagner's poetry is hideous. Such ugly noises! For the lover of Goethe it is an offense. So Mathilde may be drivel, but she is very much less than hideous drivel, is in fact quite singable.

Matthias Goerne is worth noting. I saw one of his recitals in San Francisco, and he's quite authentic. It is admirable that someone would make a career of Lieder singing. It's admirable that one could.

The article says that he's at least thinking about performing "Frauenliebe." [Schumann's cycle "Frauenliebe und Leben"] Now if you want to call that drivel, I would not have a problem. These are very nice songs, I'm sure. I used to sing the ring song at weddings, but the overall perspective is quite masculine. It's what men think of women. Ick! Schumann's own wife certainly had a life nothing like this. So why not a man singing it?

Wagner seems to be a favorite target, as in this where I rag on Parsifal. I got quite nasty in this one, but took it all back here. I even praised his compositional methods here. I don't know what got into me. For me Wagner is someone who either works or he doesn't. When it doesn't work, nothing could be more boring, but when it does, it's the most moving experience possible.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


You younger ones are going to have to forgive us older people, because, you see, we were alive when gods still walked the earth.

Filmed in 1980 in Aix en Provence this film of Rossini’s Semiramide from the Bel Canto Society is blurry. The film is in color, but the production is in black and white. The costumes are ridiculous, with absurd white fright wigs on everyone. The sound has been recorded by one of those automatic gain devices that tries to keep the volume at a constant level, so when the sound gets soft there is a loud hum.

So why would you want this? The annoying gimmicks of Rossini’s operae buffae are not here. There is nothing but glorious bel canto music. The operas of Bellini descend from opera seria, and Semiramide is one of its finest examples. It is a typical opera plot with love, power, revenge, and death all mixed in.

But that’s still not why you would want it. Marilyn, wherever you are, I simply forgot. It is a privilege to hear this.

Semiramide is Montserrat Caballe.
Arsace is Marilyn Horne.
Assur is Samuel Ramey.
Idreno is Francisco Araiza.

Is it necessary to say more? Marilyn Horne is at her peak, and what an astounding peak it is. She is vigorous and self-confident. Montserrat is marvelously intense here, with everything gorgeously sung. Their duets are heavenly.

And the men are up to them. This is some of the best Samuel Ramey you will ever hear. Araiza's part is less significant, but he is also fabulous. A more balanced cast is simply not possible.

It's nice to see such a great audience, who can hardly be made to stop cheering and stomping. And why not? Cheer and stomp in your living room.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1803-1830]


I am still pondering Alex Ross' article on the effects of recordings on classical music. The main effect seems to have been a fanatical desire to "improve" performance standards. I have been known to complain about this, too. The whole assumption that more accurate equals better is to think about.

I had the privilege at various times to work under Robert Shaw, the great choral conductor. Shaw always spent quite a lot of time in rehearsal working on the intonation of the chorus, trying to get everyone to sing precisely accurate pitches. For instance, certain intervals if sung precisely in tune will generate a sympathetic tone, and Shaw would try to get the chorus to hear this note. It didn't seem to matter how big the chorus was, since we were doing Beethoven and Brahms at the time, and the chorus could get quite large.

The sound of a well-tuned chorus is quite different, and some of the most wonderful choral music I've ever heard was with Shaw. But compare his Rachmaninov "Vespers" with this one called "Evening Star" with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir on Philips. Do we really love the tuned version more than the rawer Russian one?

The process of finding true expression is a great challenge.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Question from reader

One hears from time to time that the tritone used to be called "The Devil's Interval" and that "the Church banned it." Can you tell me, which church, when, and in what sense? Kind of hard to think of V-I progressions without the minor 7th in there, and the dissonance between the 3d and the 7th in that chord.

Dr. B: Corelli invented tonality, which means until some time around 1680 there was no such thing as a chord progression. A chord progression means you're progressing toward something. When you listen to Monteverdi c. 1640, he isn't progressing anywhere, but is doing modal based harmony. Tonality caught on very fast, and by Bach music is fully tonal.

This is the third time I have written that Corelli invented tonality, so perhaps I should explain this. It was accomplished through the use of chain suspensions. In Cecilia's concert La Scintilla played a Corelli piece, and it was full of these chain suspensions or suspensions in a series. A suspension requires a particular sequence of chords and creates a strong sense of resolution. With the use of chain suspensions the sense of resolution and movement toward the tonic becomes very powerful, even irresistable, and is present throughout the phrase.

Subsequent composers noticed that the drive toward the tonic was accomplished more through the selection of chords than the use of suspensions: thus the chord progression. Already by Bach each chord has another chord that it expects to resolve to.

It's modal harmony that forbid the tritone, and modal harmony is more characteristic of the Renaissance and earlier eras. In modal harmony there is a cadence formula to identify the mode and a certain amount of gravity around one other note, but that's all you get for harmonic organization. Movement follows the rules of counterpoint which doesn't really concern itself with what order the chords go in. The composer would stick in a Bb to fix the forbidden interval. By Monteverdi the number of modes in use corresponded roughly to the major and minor scales.

It was a silly rule, like the world is flat, intelligent design, that kind of thing.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Sarah and I were getting competitive about our idols, and I claimed to have everything on cd or video of Cecilia Bartoli. Well, I lied again. There are a number of early things I don't have, like this lovely Idomeneo from 1996 with Placido Domingo that came in the mail yesterday. I think it's Deutsche Grammophon, and that's why I didn't know about it. Or maybe I'm not as competitive as I thought.

There are a number of fine things about this opera recording. You get to hear Placido Domingo do a bit of coloratura Mozart, in case you have never heard this before. I certainly had not.

There is some Carol Vaness at her very best. She has a beautiful voice and technique. We were once in a concert together in Grace Cathedral. I sang an obscure Bach aria, and she sang Mozart's Exultate Jubilate. It wasn't a fair comparison. (canned laughter) So you may assume I'm prejudiced when I say that she fails only in the heart area. We don't warm up to her because she basically has a cold center. This is her core repertoire and is quite fine.

Cecilia is still in her low period. It's gorgeous but for the microphone only.

There is some of the best of Thomas Hampson here as well. Everyone rises to meet Mozart.

This is the sacrifice your son to the gods plot. Everything turns out right in the end. Idomeneo is Mozart's finest example of Neapolitan opera seria which always has a happy ending.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Career moves

In the October issue of Opera News is an article on Christine Brewer, a dramatic soprano who was featured in the recent revival of Britten’s Gloriana. I was interested in the part of the article where she discusses being in a master class with Birgit Nilsson when she was young.

The issue is whether it is wise to contract with one of the German houses when one is young. In my list of how to become a great singer, I put that in. I know that Marilyn Horne did her time in Klagenfurt in Austria where she was contracted as a soprano. I also know that Montserrat Caballe worked as a contract singer in Germany for a while. In this kind of job you get to/have to sing a lot. A contracted soprano is assigned a role in virtually every opera but is also often double cast with other members of the company. My friend Ursula, who was around 30 at the time, sang the lead in every operetta, a significant part of German opera repertoire, as well as Martha, Hansel, etc. But then she was a coloratura soprano with a very secure technique. She was spared performing in La Forza and Salome because her voice was not suitable for heavy soprano parts. Giancarlo Del Monaco who was the intendant, didn’t care to hear her in Italian repertoire which may have been lucky for her. She was assigned Lisa’s maid in Pique Dame.

Birgit Nilsson advised Christine Brewer to avoid this like the plague. Perhaps it would be best to tell what she actually said, according to Brewer. “You’re a big girl, and you have a sound that sounds like it’s going to be a dramatic voice. People are going to start offering you big roles right away. Don’t take them.” Brewer goes on to say she was offered a house contract in Hamburg and Nilsson said, “Absolutely do not take that offer. Your voice will be ruined in a couple of years, because they’ll have you singing everything under the sun.” I know that too much too soon is very bad for a big voice. It’s best to grow into a big voice. It’s also best not to sing Wagner until you’re 40ish. I don’t know if Nilsson would agree, but I suspect she would.

Some people thrive in that environment, and others drop like stones. You are singing constantly and your voice teacher isn’t there to help. My tenor friend Jay went home to Texas every summer to brush up with his teacher, but I don’t think many do this.

Some of the assigned parts will be wrong for you, so what should you do? How you answer this question is key. If you should try to force you voice into heavy singing, try to cope by faking what you can’t actually do, you are doomed. If you’re 25 and could sing the lead in La Forza, perhaps it would be better to wait.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Il Viaggio a Reims

This production of Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims is the appropriate pairing for L'amour de loin. In one the whole stage is covered with a 6 inch layer of water. In the other the water forms into a swimming lane at the back of the stage and a heated pool downstage. On the right of the stage is a massage table. There is also a portable bath tub that plays a crucial part. I don't know what Rossini thought was going on here, but in this production we are at a spa. At the beginning the conductor enters in a bathrobe which he takes off to step down into the imaginary swimming pool that is the orchestra pit.

This production is from Barcelona in 2003, with Mariola Cantarero, Elena de la Merced, María Bayo, Paula Rasmussen, Josef Bros, Kenneth Tarver, et al. Typical Rossini buffa music is the excuse for all this silliness. There is coloratura singing for every type of voice, some of it quite good.

When the opera begins, everyone has already arrived at the spa and made themselves at home. We don't see that they have all come as established pairs, but we do see a lot of flirting going on. These people are all away from home and very horny. There is quarrelling and making up. They're supposed to be on the way to a coronation but get stuck here instead. That's all we have for a plot. A lot of people seem to be striving to prove that plot is just not necessary.

One character thinks she has lost her hat and sings a glorious celebratory aria when it is found. There is a party. There are Victorian swimming suits. "God Save the Queen" is sung. The whole thing descends into a discussion of irrelevant modern politics. How did this happen?

It's true, I used to listen to Chailly's La Cenerentola for hours on end, to the point where I could sing along, but that doesn't seem to spread out onto all possible Rossini buffa music. I am constantly learning new things in this immersion into opera. I am learning about the difference between Rossini buffa and Rossini seria, for instance. I think my next opera film should be Semiramide.

Historical Footnote

Information I came on by accident says that Il Viaggio a Reims was written in 1825 and is also called L'albergo del giglio d'oro, since the whole thing takes place in a hotel.

According to Wikipedia "[Charles X] was crowned King of France in 1824 in the cathedral at Reims and reigned until the French Revolution of 1830 when he abdicated rather than become a constitutional monarch." This is important because he is the one they are all traveling to see crowned, and the opera ends in a long aria praising him. Maybe that's why the opera was lost. He was a notorious reprobate.

Here's another quote from the internet: "The story of Rossini's last Italian opera was well known for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: written for the coronation of Charles X and performed at the Parisian Théâtre royal italien on 19 June 1825, half of Rossini's pièce de circonstance was almost immediately cannibalized as Le Comte Ory, premiered at the Académie royale de musique (the Paris Opéra) three years later. But after 1825, as anything more than a point of historical reference, Il viaggio a Reims disappeared almost completely."

It was reconstructed by Janet Johnson and "formed the basis of a performance at the Pesaro Festival in 1984..."

Very interesting stuff, don't you think? The French had trouble deciding what kind of government they wanted in those days. I don't normally research anything I write about, but I was browsing through some old papers.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

New Operas

Friends have sent me an article about new operas from sfgate.

It makes me realize that I have been blogging about that subject quite a lot.

I started off with Streetcar which I don't seem to have liked. If anyone thinks I should give it another chance, let me know.

Then I bought the video of a European revival of Vanessa, a popular American opera. It is a prominent example of the obsessive love plot.

Then I start my unwatched videos with The Ghosts of Versailles. I definitely loved this.

I went on to Susa's The Dangerous Liaisons. I seem to have been pretty annoyed with it. For once I liked the theater but not the music.

Then I was bored by Doctor Atomic. I have always loved Nixon in China because of its very theatrical content and have wished Adams would produce something equally theatrical. If you wanted a meditation on annihilation, I guess it's fine.

Then I went mad for L'amour de Loin by a composer from Finland. I watched this because friends had seen it in Santa Fe and loved it.

I pointed out in a couple of places (here and here) that Sophie's Choice by a composer working at Peabody is being produced in Berlin and Vienna this year.

I've seen Adamo's Little Women in a workshop production which I reviewed for SFCV. It's easy enough for a workshop. And I saw Dead Man Walking at its premier in San Francisco. This is one of the most dramatically powerful operas I've ever seen and is being revived in Dresden, of all places.

Recently I wrote about modern operas crossing the Atlantic.

Opera is a long way from dead on this side of the Atlantic. Everyone wants to write operas, everyone wants to sing operas. Over here we have nothing but opera everywhere you look. Opera in America is thriving like perhaps no other artistic medium. There are always the financial problems--professional opera is very expensive--but the medium is alive and well, led by the regional operas, including NYC, Houston, Santa Fe, Boston, St. Louis, and of course San Francisco.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Twentieth century opera

We think of opera as stopping with Puccini and Strauss, and the rest of the twentieth century is just a vast wasteland. The September issue of Opera News had a complete list of operas that will be produced around the world this season, and twentieth century revivals are well represented.

Wozzeck and Lulu by Berg are still holding the stage, especially in Germany and Austria, but the numbers are low. One surprise is how much Benjamin Britten is being done all around the globe. I think it is time to say that he has crossed over to standard repertoire status. I have previously declared the arrival of Leos Janáček, but now Britten also rates. And he’s no one hit wonder: Billy Budd, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Turn of the Screw, Albert Herring, Death in Venice, The Rape of Lucretia--he’s everywhere. His plots are powerful and moving, and the music is worth hearing again.

I was interested in seeing of the rest of the revivals, how many have crossed the Atlantic in either direction. Kurt Weill lived and worked on both sides of the Atlantic and can’t really be said to cross over. He shows up in Lyon, Berlin and Dresden as well as St. Louis and Arizona.

Dead Man Walking is being produced in Dresden. Sophie’s Choice by a guy named Nicholas Maw is on for Berlin and Vienna. He is a teacher at Peabody in Baltimore. The English also like him, but I’ve never heard of him. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the subject matter is particularly European.

Surprisingly, musicals are the most common American theater to make the crossing. This year they are doing The Sound of Music in Vienna. What, not in Salzburg?

Crossing the Atlantic in the other direction is Englishman Thomas Ades’ The Tempest which is being produced in Santa Fe and Denmark. This opera is unusual because it is a relatively successful setting of Shakespeare in English. I guess this work is new and doesn’t really count. The Mines of Sulphur by Richard Rodney Bennett has been in existence for 40 years, but is just now making the crossing to the New York City opera.

Firmly in the standard repertoire on this side of the Atlantic are The dialogues of the Carmelites and La Voix Humane, both by Francis Poulenc. These operas can be seen in Texas, Vancouver and Melbourne.

The flow of material is much stronger from east to west than the other way around.

Crooning Puccini

I was in my friendly neighborhood Borders looking for items to order on Netflix ("Il bacio di Tosca"), and suddenly someone was crooning "Recondit armonia" from Tosca. I gave an involuntary shudder, and wondered who it might be. I thought, after reading Alex Ross, what if we had no idea how Caruso sang this, or Pavarotti, or even Salvatore Licitra? Would we be ok with the idea that someone sang "Tosca, sei tu" as though he were Dean Martin? Or someone from your high school?

In the past styles of singing changed, and since no one knew what they had been before, they thought nothing of it. There is even a theory that Rossini gave up composing because he simply couldn't stand that pushed up tenor sound that suddenly became popular. He liked a lighter sound.

What about a Tosca production with Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman, with mikes and the whole nine yards? Would we old timers give up opera forever?