Thursday, March 30, 2006


Bach lies at the end of an era. His tradition is the German Baroque, uncontaminated by any interest in Italian opera. The Italians completely dominated the Baroque, to be sure, but this reached Bach through a distinctly German filter, the filter of his musical family and his own personal German idols, such as Buxtehude. These German composers always showed a much stronger tie to the ancient art of counterpoint descended from the Renaissance and earlier. His counterpoint is fully tonal. The revolution of tonality is complete by the time of Bach.

In his instrumental periods he took foreign forms, French suites e.g., and transformed them into his own German versions. He wrote arias da capo in a distinctly German style without an implied ornamentation. His ornaments were notated. Perhaps it is the German influence that has kept extemporized ornamentation to such a low level in modern performances of Baroque music prior to about 10 or 15 years ago.

Suddenly I think of a question to ask Cecilia. She would know this: in the original scores of Italian composers do they use the symbols for ornaments that are found in Bach’s cantatas? We know that the performed ornaments are supposed to be used in Italian opera, but how often does one actually see them written in?

Bach’s singers were not the opera stars of his time, as was the case with Handel, but ordinary people, perhaps members of his large family. I imagine the problem when composing for castrati was to get them to perform anything unornamented. They would have wondered what was the point?

Bach’s intentions are spiritual. He sees the tools of his era—the use of one emotion per movement, the polarized bass and treble texture, the use of continuo, the solo instruments that perform with the singers—as tools of the spirituality he wants to impart.

The use of the chorale is especially wonderful, for it is us. The chorales and passions of Bach are deeply personal experiences. Here is the drama unfolding, and here is our reaction to it. The sense I have of Harnancourt’s version of the Matthew Passion is of extreme intimacy. The last hours of our lord are unfolding in my sight.

Lately I have begun to notice that the long versions are often more interesting and involving than the abbreviated ones we are used to (Don Basilio’s aria notwithstanding). The long Giulio Cesare is somehow more interesting than the short one. And this complete St. Matthew feels more real, more specifically spiritual than the shortened version.

There is throughout a sense of truth.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Chinese Opera

When you hear the name of Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera, you immediately think of the Marx Brothers and Kitty Carlisle, the opera singer who married Moss Hart. You imagine Harpo sliding down the curtain. But no, the title is not ironic at all. She has written an opera based on a real 14th century Chinese play. She is even trying for authenticity with sung and spoken parts intermixed. It is still a true opera because the orchestra plays constantly.

The cast is made up of two sets of characters who appear together in every act: a set of three actors who appear sometimes as themselves and sometimes in the true Chinese opera--a play within a play--and the rest of the relatively modern-day players. Both stories have the same plot--a child loses his father and mother and grows up as the Orphan of Chao.

The play within a play is more fun. The evil general thinks he has killed the child when he skewers a piglet in a basket. There is a cute piece of business where the farmer mourns the death of his piglet. The orphan triumphs over the evil general and wins his revenge and great rewards. The real life orphan seems to be in communist China where he is persecuted and driven insane. It is modern opera, rather like Stravinsky. Ms Weir is especially fond of melodies with parallel seconds and does not aim for a particularly Chinese sound.

This was presented Monday evening by the students of the Royal Academy of Music which is located right next to Madame Tussaud's.

The three actors, Amanda Forbes, a soprano from Melbourne, Louise Deans and Nicholas Mulroy, were very vivid and energetic in their portrayals. All wore traditional Chinese clothing, except for the modern soldiers.

I particularly liked the mezzo Jurgita Adamonyte who had a marvelous opportunity to sing "Chin up" over and over to the baby Chao. She is from Lithuania and has a rich, interesting voice. Marco Polo, sung by Norwegian baritone Thorbjorn Gulbrandsay, sang in Italian.

There were no microphones. I was entertained.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

tube sightings

A young man sat down next to me on the tube and said to his friends, "Remember, the Circle is the oldest of all the lines." I asked him about this, was it especially important or memorable, and he told me they were attempting to stop at all 27 stops and have a drink at each one. They were already well along, and I said it was a good thing that some of the stations were closed. I suggested that he could spread this out over more than one night, that the concept still applied, but this was obviously an old person's perspective.

Mozart and Haydn

There were a number of churches around London offering concerts last night, but this one titled "Couple or Clash? St John's Smith Square" is the one that attracted my attention because the "Smith Square" part meant I could figure out where it was and the "Couple or Clash?" part meant that they were performing choral pieces by Mozart and Haydn. The advertised truism is that Mozart would upstage Haydn. This did not happen. Haydn's Teresienmesse was the hit of the evening.

If you could call it that. It was an odd experience that could lead one to caution about concert attendance. The London Orpheus Choir did a decent job with the Haydn mass and with the Vesperae Solennes de Confescore of Mozart which opened the program. This includes the Mozart hit tune "Laudate Dominum" sung capably by Jacqueline Pischorn, soprano. This number was the only thing on the program that could be called a vocal solo--everything else was in the symphonic style where the soloists appear as a quartet. They deserve having their names mentioned: Margaret Rapacioli, alto, Austin Prunell-Friend, tenor and Leslie MacLeod-Miller, bass. The conducting by James Gaddarn was also quite respectable. I would like to hear the mezzo again in another context--let us say opera.

So what is the controversy? The entire evening was accompanied by the London Orpheus Orchestra, and more out of tune violins I can only recall from my days as a substitute teacher. The Haydn mass was the most effective because the chorus and soloists more effectively distracted the attention from the violins. It was tooth grindingly horrible.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Blue Men

For some reason the Blue Man Group reminded me of Cirque de Soleil. It's a circus with only the clown acts. Perhaps it was the hidden musicians who appear and disappear that made me think of Cirque. I kept waiting for the man on fire to appear--my favorite Cirque de Soleil act. A man comes out and after a while all of his clothes are on fire, which he pretends not to notice. I thought this would go well with men in blue makeup and constantly deadpan expressions.

The whole show is very messy, with messy eating, messy drumming, and food flowing all over the place. Someone from the audience was brought up and asked to eat some of these odd, not particularly edible looking things. It is very popular with teens who must be wishing their mom wasn’t there asking them to clean up after themselves.

The two things are eating and drumming. Very attractive. I was especially attracted to the home-made marimba constructed out of plastic tubing. One could wish for interesting things to bang on.

Is this starting to sound too much like a travelogue?

New Career

Last night I was given a seat at the bar for dinner, and in an idle moment I asked the bartender if he knew how to make a martini, since he was obviously mixing away at a lot of other drinks. It turns out he didn't. No one here seems to know how to make this, the most basic of mixed drinks. I make an excellent martini and offered to teach him.

First you must have Martini and Rossi dry vermouth. He had this. Only dry vermouth is used in martinis. Then gin, mixing them at about 3 or 4 parts gin to one of vermouth. Shake over ice.  According to Nick Charles in The Thin Man, a martini should be shaken in waltz time.

He asked me if I wanted a job.

Monday, March 20, 2006


The sudden appearance of a dvd review should signal that I am back at home. I bought this at my neighborhood Borders which has a surprisingly good selection of opera videos, far better than anything at the London Virgin Megastore in Picadilly Circus. I'm going back today.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

T & I -- the real thing

Well, obviously my problem with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (see this entry and this one) has been that I have never seen it with Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers in the starring roles with Karl Böhm conducting. This film from 1973 is remastered, but the result is only marginally better than something from House of Opera. But when you're watching it you know that this is it. They are both so much the ideal of voice and artistry, of all that is needed for these roles that the performance is completely transcendent. I confess I am actually thrilled. I can see why one would search the opera world for a repeat of this experience. I see also why one would fail to find it.

They are performing in the Theatre Antique d'Orange, an ancient amphitheater in Orange, France, with a huge surrounding audience. The sets are meager--white staircases in a tiny circle that fits into the small orchestra area of the amphitheater along with the orchestra. The chorus is always off stage. It doesn't matter at all. This isn't real love; it is the abstract idea of love.

Karl Böhm seems to control the slitheryness of the orchestral accompaniment much better than either Jimmy or Zubin. He provides the perfect context for these great singers, the grounding soup that makes it all work, with everyone completely under control at all times. Perhaps other conductors don't understand their subordinate role in this opera. Or perhaps they become interested in the orchestral writing and want the audience to pay attention to it, a fatal mistake.

Wagner directed during the building of Bayreuth that the orchestra would be under the stage, almost completely covered, in order to dampen the sound coming out to the audience. This same arrangement would bring the singers further forward, nearer to the audience and more easily heard. This means he understood his own intentions to be that the large, thick orchestra would be an underlying groan for the more prominent voices, an effect that is difficult to achieve in an ordinary theater where the conductor's control is crucial. Böhm understands this.

Isolde needs to come out as a complete all-consuming bitch in act I only to turn into a kitten in act II and then into a noble giant in act III. Even my beloved Kirsten Flagstad could not manage the intense fury that Nilsson achieves. Flagstad is still best for flow of the phrase, but she didn't have the edge to her tone or her personality that Nilsson had.

One is supposed to adore Nilsson, the incomparable Wagnerian soprano, the incomparable Isolde, and she is all that, but it is Jan Vickers that most impresses here. This is a Tristan to die for. He has the knife edge of the Heldentenor to its Nth degree, but he also has soul, a tragic beauty of phrasing that is simply not to be missed.

Both Nilsson and Vickers are the giants of voice and personality required to achieve the desired effect of love beyond a merely human scale. If you can even tolerate Wagner, you should hear this.

This is what all the fuss is about.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006


News from the Met:

'The Met has commissioned Golijov to compose his first full-length opera for the 2010-11 season. Gelb commented, “Osvaldo Golijov is a true and original voice who composes with great emotion and range. I’m very proud that his first major opera will be written for The Met.” Golijov said, “It’s time to grab the bull by its horns, and Peter Gelb is doing it by setting up a beehive of activity with wildly different creators that have something to tell, and a burning desire to tell it. I believe that this is the best chance for something wonderful to happen that will reverberate beyond the walls of The Met. For my part, I hope to compose a work that will not only be deserving of this house but, more importantly, of the power of opera as a vital means of expression in our world.”'

The man is everywhere. Forgive me for obsessing over him, but this guy is not doing classical music as we know it. Is he the wave of the future?

Monday, March 13, 2006


I never quite got the concept of original instruments. After all, the main thing that changed about modern instruments is they play better in tune. A modern flute plays much better in tune than old ones did. Brasses with valves play in much better tune than old ones without them. So why am I supposed to like people playing out of tune?

There is actually a bit more to it than that. They play with a gentler, more intimate sound. Violins had shorter bridges which created a less penetrating tone. Flutes were wooden and mellower. The players had to work harder to keep the intonation working, and this was easier to do without the blasting sound of a modern orchestra. If it's easier to keep in tune, it's easier to amass larger and larger orchestras, as happened throughout the nineteenth century. Wagner is not possible without modern orchestral instruments.

Orchestras with original instruments are smaller.

The original instrument movement is creating a different approach to performance of music from the Baroque. I grew up on Handel by the Huddersfield Choral Society which was scaled about the same as the Morman Tabernacle Choir. Big choruses, big orchestras, loud, unornamented singing was what we heard then.

Thinking about Harnancourt's Matthew Passion and Cecilia's Proibita album tells me things are changing. The lighter weight opens the door for lighter, more authentic, more florid singing. The modern vogue for the Baroque is in many ways a journey into the past, an attempt to find out what all the excitement was about. There is wonderful passion in the music of the Baroque that we are blessed to begin to hear anew.

Harnancourt and Bartoli are leaders in this movement, but they are certainly not alone. Marc Minkowski is another name that comes to mind. It's a way of hearing music that in my youth we didn't know.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


There is an art exhibit at the Tate Britain now called "Gothic Nightmares". The main painters are Henry Fuseli and William Blake, and the theme painting is Fuseli's "The Nightmare" picturing a beautiful blond woman dressed in a white nightgown and lying in the dead Desdemona pose with her head and arm dangling off the side of the bed. When she wakes up, she will have a terrible kink in her neck. It is definitely not Desdemona because she has a large gargoyle sitting on her chest.

This school combines Romantic beauty with the grotesque, and according to the exhibit was by far the most popular style of art of its period, from c. 1770 - c. 1820. Satan is a prominent figure, shown always as extremely beautiful, often nude.

I couldn't help thinking this is obviously the artistic context for Goethe's Faust (1808). The grotesquely beautiful Satan, the violated innocence of Gretchen, the witches sabbath, all of it is there. Why have I never seen a production of Faust as William Blake?

Thursday, March 09, 2006


In a contest between Angela Gheorghiu and Anna Netrebko who wins? So much goes into making a great singer, but the fact is that I adore the sound of Anna's voice and love Angela only for her art, which is considerable. I love Anna also for the sincerity of her emotion which puts her head and shoulders over Angela in my book. If Anna continues to grow, she may hope to surpass Angela in art, too.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Petite Messe Solennelle

Since my friend D. is visiting from California my luck with food seems to have changed. The restaurant at the National Gallery has an excellent selection of English cheeses served with wonderful bread. Then we had great luck at the Cafe Fish near Picadilly Circus. Mushy peas were available here as a side dish.

Last night we picked just any bar in the Temple area--this one advertising tapas--and struck gold. All the dishes were quite nice.

We were on our way to the Temple Church to hear the London Lawyer's Chorus present Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle . The price was attractive: 8 pounds (including program.) We were attracted by the idea that lawyers spent their free time singing, and by the presentation of this late (1864), rarely performed work by Rossini.

We wandered through the familiar looking Inner Temple in the dark and the rain, looking into the lawyer's offices which look like the sets from Rumpole of the Bailey. We like to think that Rumpole could have had a drink at the pub we chose. The only change was the large computers on practically every desk.

Rossini stays with the antique forms with separate movements for choruses and arias, and with the antique style which does not know Berlioz and Chopin. It's an odd little piece with inexplicable twinkling on the piano. Rossini cannot surpress the tendency to write buffo.

The work is composed for piano and harmonium, chorus and a quartet of soloists, and it was a problem that the harmonium and piano players could not see one another.

The solo singing was at least as good as the ENO. The contralto solo in the last movement, sung by Charlotte Collier, made an effective dramatic climax. It won't do to overly criticize a group of lawyers getting together for fun, so I will only say that they could raise their aspirations.

We got there early enough to wander around the historic church, consecrated in 1185, with its tombs of Knights Templar. This is one of the locales for The Da Vinci Code.

All around it was a fine evening.

Monday, March 06, 2006


I read in the schedule for the Royal Opera that Angela Gheorghiu will sing Tosca here in June. I begin to think of myself as a Londoner even as I begin to prepare to return home. It would be wonderful to see this. I have bought her album "Live from Covent Garden" and am enchanted.

Angela has a unique, recognizable voice and an extremely emotional personal style. Her "Casta diva" is especially beautiful.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Sir John in Love

One cannot help speculating. Is it the existence of an opera by Verdi on the same subject that prevents the performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love, first performed in 1929, last professionally mounted in 1958, and now at the English National Opera? Or is it due to the antique post romantic idiom? Is it because the composer is English? Or is it the sometimes overwhelming sweetness of the music that is for my ears the sweetest music for an opera I've ever heard? For a sample listen to Serenade to music by this composer, a man of great skill whose music is often like a warm bath.

Sir John in Love is the same plot as Shakespeare's and Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as Verdi's Falstaff. Sir John (sung by Andrew Shore) decides that two respectable married women of his acquaintance have been admiring his robust figure. If one of them gazes down at his feet, it's to lust after the beauty of his calf. He sends Mistress Ford (Jean Rigby) and Mistress Page (Marie McLaughlin) the identical love letter.

The subplot about Miss Anne Page (sung by Sarah Fox) and her three suitors is very strong in this version. Hers is the best music for solo voice, and hers is also the best voice by an embarassing margin. The opera is famous for incorporating the melody and text of "Greensleeves," and giving it to Mistress Ford to sing.

The English go with their strengths which are acting and ensemble. In this opera are a good number of minor roles and chorus, all very well acted.

Our Sir John is a comb-over in spats with a waist that is two yards around. The final scene in the forest is lovely, with a large ensemble to frighten the would be lover in antlers. It is simply the sweetest opera I have ever seen.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Now I get it

Ok, now I get it. Rolando Villazon actually sounds like Placido Domingo sometimes. In certain heavy Italian repertoire their voices sound very similar. This is a trap he must not fall into.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Guys and Dolls

I went to Guys and Dolls yesterday. For some reason I seem to know all the songs and can sing along with "I'll know," "Guys and Dolls," "Luck be a Lady," "More I cannot wish you," "Sue me" and all the other songs, though I was never in it and have not owned a recording. It must have something do with the fact that I was young the first time I saw it.

The plot of G&D has to do with compulsive gamblers and people trying to save their souls. Nathan Detroit provides the crap game: the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.

How can you resist a musical with an honest to god fugue? It completely works. There are wonderful songs you can never forget. There is romance--two of them, in fact. There is a woman with a permanent head cold who must sing through her nose. There is dancing and wonderful masculine energy everywhere you look. And at the end there is redemption.

We will ignore that maybe Nathan Detroit, played by Nigel Lindsay who looks great in a fedora, and Sky Masterson are a bit whipped at the end. As a woman am I supposed to not notice these things? Sky will have to break out from drum beating, but Nathan might be happy as a steel worker.

Of the musicals I have seen in London, I enjoyed this best. The pace from number to number works brilliantly, and the amplification was at least under control. I'm more comfortable with the idea of miking performers who are required to both sing and dance. In this production everyone dances. They dance in Havana, they dance in the sewer, and best of all, they dance while Nicely Nicely is advising us to sit down and stop rocking the boat. The production was conservative with nothing to distinguish it from a revival (in opera parlance that means remounting an old production--in musical parlance you would have wondered what I could be talking about.)

This production was originally mounted to showcase the talents of Ewan McGregor who has now passed on to other things. I guess Nigel Harman as Sky Masterson was a bit edgier. Jenna Russell as Sarah Brown was marvellous. She danced, she sang, she acted her Major Barbara-like character to perfection.


I have bought the latest recording by the blessed twins, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, or at least the highlights part of the live performance of La Traviata from the Wienerstaatsoper.

Rolando is all over the magazines, including the cover stories of Opera Now and Gramophone, where he is constantly being compared to Domingo. Anna is compared to Maria. Can't we just love them for themselves? Anna does not have Maria's edge to her tone, but can this be considered a drawback? She has a very elegant style that is completely suitable to her voice. And Rolando is a lyric tenor. I said this before. Maybe in his forties he can take on heavier repertoire.

This Traviata is very nice, a pleasure to hear. I wish it was a film. In a live performance both of them bring excitement to a role through their acting and star quality. The photos of Anna in the party scene are amazing.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


I was sucked in to reading an article in the Daily Telegraph this morning by this headline: "Karaoke crooners hijack classical music." I was fooled into thinking it was a complaint about the recent phenomenon of Boccelli, Groban and an unknown number of other singers who croon opera arias. This is brought on by the overwhelming success of Pavarotti's rendition of "Nessun dorma" in the Three Tenors concerts. Now everyone wants to sing it, imagining themselves capable of achieving Luciano's heights of expression. 

But no. It turns out to be a diatribe against crossover in general. Soon the distinction between classical and pop will be so blurry we won't be able to tell the difference at all. Hand wringing! Viewing with alarm! So guess what it turns out he is actually writing on and on for paragraph after paragraph about? . . . . . 


Osvaldo Golijov. If you guessed this, you get three points. Some of the singers, though certainly not all, in the passion concert could be mistaken for karaoke singers. Only the coloratura soprano had a classical technique. 

I will give one of my lectures here. The fundamental difference between classical and pop music is that classical arose in a hierarchical society where one preferred sharp distinctions between the upper and lower classes, while pop is a democratic art form. Read how hard Mozart worked to make sure that his wardrobe reflected the class of people he wanted to associate with. He wasn't poor, he was just not as rich as the members of the upper class who paid his bills. With the passage of time the desire to form into rigid social classes is fading.

Golijov is classical only in the complexity of his music. The Buena Vista Social Club is not this dissonant. If classical means difficult while pop means easy, he's classical. In his list of influences, a long list including virtually all of world music, he doesn't include Mozart or Beethoven.