Thursday, August 31, 2006

The current state of opera

The institution of opera has changed a lot since my youth. It isn’t necessary to cast ones eyes back to former eras to understand this difference because opera the way it used to be is still seen on the stage of the Metropolitan. Opera as it used to be consisted of heavy voices in works by Verdi, Wagner and Puccini in traditional productions.

Non-traditional productions have been around for quite a while—since the post WWII Bayreuth productions of the Ring, to be precise.

My favorite will always be the production of Figaro that was done in Ulm when I was there. The performance began 45 minutes before the start of the overture, and audience members had to be told to arrive early. I went out to watch in my street clothes as the lorry arrived with its six pine caskets. The caskets were carefully unloaded by the stage crew and stood on end around the lobby. When all were in place, the tops were removed and six costumed ghosts were revealed. The rest of the 45 minutes were taken up with the ghosts proceeding slowly into the auditorium to the accompaniment of a mass by Orlando di Lasso and the audience filing in slowly behind them. Once they had all reached the stage, the overture began.

Their costumes were more Louis XIV than the living cast members and in a deteriorated condition. It seemed in retrospect a kind of Figaro plus Ghosts of Versailles production. I still write about it because it was spectacularly memorable. “Porgi amor” sung from an antique bathtub in the same production was also particularly memorable. The arias were sung in Italian, the only foreign language sung in the house that season. I haven’t been able to decide what this told me about Figaro.

The food fight in Pamela Rosenberg’s Hansel and Gretel is also a favorite. Every year people ask me what I want for my birthday, and I always say a food fight. I still haven’t gotten it.

It would have taken precise timing to see Munich’s Planet of the Apes production of Rigoletto because they pulled it after only two performances. The performers complained that they couldn’t hear the orchestra, always the hardest part of performing opera on stage. It isn’t really necessary to see the conductor as long as you are able to feel the beat, but if you can’t hear, all could be lost.

Stark stage settings are now common all over Europe, often leaving you with nothing to look at. If this stark set is filled with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, it feels full to overflowing. If it is filled with Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, as in the Met’s Tristan, ones mind is likely to wander.

I have been promoting the idea that opera is:


In that order. This hierarchy is constant even though tastes change. Perhaps before Gluck and Mozart singing was on top.

For John Adams it is:



Nixon was in the traditional theater-singing-music hierarchy, and remains his most popular opera.

Dead Man Walking is:


This still works.

I lived through an era of intense interest in bel canto (Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini), a genre with no current proponents. I experience this as a terrible loss which Handel cannot fill. The contemporary opera scene emphasizes Handel to a surprising degree. The tessitura of a Handel opera is significantly lower in the top voices than that of the bel canto repertoire, opening the door for a much wider range of voices. These operas are simply easier to cast. The castrato roles in Handel operas offer opportunities for mezzo-sopranos and countertenors often lacking in heavier repertoire.

The taste for Handel also arises from popular feeling. People’s ears are no longer tuned to the heavy technique of Verdi and Wagner as they were in the 1930’s and 40’s. It might be interesting to hear lighter Verdi, that is, Verdi sung with a somewhat lighter technique. Perhaps Anna Netrebko has provided this. Her voice is dark without being heavy and may portend the future of opera. She solves the problem of high tessitura by leaving out the high notes.

Most of my contemporaries wring their hands in despair over these trends and long for the good old days. I have been looking for the beauty in the opera of today.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

This is interesting

Or it isn't if you have no interest in Anna Netrebko.

Hometown: Krasnodar, Russia
Birthday: September 18
Residence: St. Petersburg, Russia
Mother and Father: Larissa and Yuri
Father's occupation: Geologist
Early successes: Gymnastics
Early failures: Basketball and computers
First job: Washing floors at Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov Opera)
First voice teacher: Tamara Novichenko
Mentors: Renata Scotto and Valery Gergiev [I knew about Valery Gergiev, of course, but Renata Scotto is certainly interesting!! This might well explain an interest in acting that seems to be stronger than her interest in music. Hmmm.]
Debut on stage: At age 16 as a supernumerary - the back half of a Firebird in Le Coq d'or!
Major role debut: At age 22 - Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro at the Mariinsky Theatre
Recent projects: DVD with Vincent Patterson: "Anna Netrebko, the Woman - the Voice"
Philosophy: Russians always need a little 'shit' in our lives - something to be concerned or worried about. If everything is good and we seem completely happy, then we become suspicious of this!
Likes: Being with friends, shopping, seeing movies, discothèques, and eating
Dislikes: Long trips on airplanes, golf (I tried it), and talking about business!
Favorite actor/actress: Brad Pitt/Vivian Leigh [I approve.]
Favorite movie: Dracula (Bram Stoker)
Greatest recent non-professional accomplishment: I won a Can-Can competition at a night club in St. Petersburg in 2004!
Music I listen to: MTV, Justin Timberlake, Robbie Williams, Christina Aguilera [Former mouseketeers are particular favorites. At least she didn't say Britney. Christina Aguilera is actually incredibly talented.]
What would I do if I were not an opera singer: I would be a surgeon or a painter!
Favorite restaurant: I love too many of them to choose one.
Favorite food: Sushi - no everything!
Favorite drink: Red wine and champagne (Veuve Clicquot)
Favorite book: The Master and Marguerite (Bolgakov); Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)

This is fun, don't you think? These are the sorts of things one actually wants to know.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Into the Woods

While I was in London, I tried to see Sunday in the Park with George, mainly because I've never seen a Stephen Sondheim musical. Unless Sweeney Todd is Sondheim. Oh, I guess it is. That was fun. Grotesque and absurd, but fun, and available on video.

So I'm watching a DVD of Into the Woods, a musical based on the combination of a few stories from Grimm:
Little Red Riding Hood
Jack and the Beanstalk
What? A barren couple who have been cursed by a witch, and are collecting Jack's cow, Little's cape, Cinderella's slipper and Rapunsel's hair so that they can break the witch's spell and have a baby.

Sondheim is short choppy phrases of three to six syllables with tunes played on the black keys. All the tunes sound exactly the same. How does he do that? Perhaps it's a minimalist musical.

The fairy tales all reach their expected endings, the ugly old witch is turned into Bernadette Peters and a sign comes on the screen saying "Intermission." They have to make up the rest of the plot themselves. A female giant shows up to complain that Jack has killed her husband and demands justice. The second half is pretty violent and about half of the cast are killed.

There are a few good jokes and no good songs.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

G / G

Marcello Giordani

Nicola Rossi Giordano

Massimo Giordano

I wish the pictures were better. I hope this situation is sufficiently clarified.

It reminds me of when I couldn't keep straight Régine Crespin, Regina Resnik and Leoni Rysanek. I thought there were two singers that I couldn't keep straight, and it turned out they were three. I know I have seen two of this trio: Leoni Rysanek in a glorious Die Frau ohne Schatten and Régine Crespin in The Medium. I was amused to see their pictures side by side in the basement lounge of the San Francisco Opera. Perhaps I was not the only one who was confused.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

French Songs

Retirement seems to have filled me with anxiety, which I certainly hope is only temporary. In response my heart has turned toward the melodie/chanson represented by

Cecilia Bartoli Chant d’amour
Régine Crespin Legends
Véronique Gens Berlioz
Renée Fleming Night Song
Véronique Gens Nuit d'étoiles
Victoria de los Angeles The Fabulous Victoria de los Angeles

There is a lot of overlap in these recordings which in turn occasionally overlap with things I sang myself. In this category is Berlioz' "Les Nuit d'été," here performed by Régine Crespin and Véronique Gens. Crespin’s is the legendary performance, the greatest 100 recording, but it is Véronique Gens’ performance that most touches my heart. For my taste her voice is somewhat narrow, but her restrained passion cannot be faulted. Crespin makes us work to feel with her, while Gens opens her heart completely to these fabulous songs. Both these women’s French is a joy to hear.

Both de los Angeles and Crespin sing Ravel’s Shéhérazade. My heart can almost not bear Victoria. Was there ever a singer with such perfection of phrasing?

In the French there is passion without German pomposity or Italian excess. It takes only a truly great artist to bring it out. Victoria de los Angeles was such a singer—possessed of a gorgeous light soprano and a never to be exceeded musical intelligence, her heart must have been at least partly French.

For Shéhérazade I cannot choose between them. Each brings her own unique beauty—Victoria brings more sweetness, Régine more seriousness and dramatic intensity.

I have great personal affection for Poulenc’s “Hotel” which I performed once long ago. I remember especially the joy of sliding down on the words “ma cigarette,” which I performed with an almost painful slowness. I hated smoking but adored to sing about it. Perhaps one should light up at the end and inhale a few times. Crespin and Gens both sing it. Yes, Régine slides in the same place. Véronique is more a chanteuse than an opera singer here, but she slides in the same place, but not in the exaggerated way I did. Somehow I knew that was right.

I like Véronique Gens very much and hope to see her again some day.

Berlioz’ “Zaïde” for me will always belong to Cecilia, not least because she plays her own castanets.

Another song I once sang is Fauré’s “Après un Rêve,” here represented by Renée Fleming and Véronique Gens. Renée's rendition is very intense, almost operatic. Roughly it means “I dreamt I was happy. Alas, I have awakened. Return oh mysterious night,” a sentiment I very much identified with, as I recall. Véronique just sings it.

I have to say in this group Renée is the farthest from the true French.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Anna and Cecilia

Anna Netrebko is a great actress, and I like the sound of her voice which cannot get too dark for me. Her musical sophistication does not go much past the surface. I'm not sitting here thinking she's a genius like Cecilia Bartoli. I was happiest lately with Cecilia's Cleopatra and wish I could see it again. So maybe I would like Semele.

I have always known that I loved Cecilia for different reasons than her other fans. I am not particularly made glad by the achievement of great technical difficulties, although the fast numbers on Proibita do take my breath away. For me it has always been her ability to achieve the truly musical in each piece that I loved. Her musical understanding is astounding. I can't think of anyone who rivals her in this regard.

I generally judge Cecilia much more harshly than I would other performers, not necessarily because she deserves it, but because I always feel she is singing for me. In my place. That means she must sing to my standards. She prefers her own.

I have been getting a lot of flack for saying I liked Anna Netrebko, and this is intended as a response. I liked her Violetta and Willie Decker's production, and I understood immediately that they weren't going for tuberculosis. And now I will get off this subject.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


One of the good things about YouTube is that it allows you to check out singers you may be unfamiliar with.

This clip from William Tell is my first view of Marcello Giordani. Not many tenors can do this music at all and he makes a great stab at it. William Tell is a crossroad in opera, a place where opera completely changes directions. One of the main events of the era was the change in the importance of the tenor in operatic repertoire, a change from second or third man to first man (primo uomo), accompanied by a change in the way in which tenors sing. Rossini wanted to show he could do it, but doesn't quite. The part is a bit too high with too many high C's for the tenor who sings in full chest. Giordani gives it a go, doing the part entirely in a reasonably heavy technique. Clearly Rossini only makes the transition about half way, a fact that he fully realized.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Controversy is the mother’s milk of opera. The most famous controversy of the twentieth-century was the Callas vs Tebaldi rivalry. Maria Callas, probably the most exciting opera singer ever recorded, was wildly famous but extremely controversial, for her harsh upper register and occasional wobble. There were always people who preferred the beautiful voice and fabulous technique of Renata Tebaldi and said so loudly and often. But today the contest is decided: Maria’s recordings still sell very well while the far more bland Tebaldi generates much less interest.

I have liked a lot of controversial singers. My first great love was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I saw her sing the Marschallin when I had never heard of her. I realized at once that I was seeing something extraordinary, something far beyond anything I had seen to that time. What was the controversy? She covered her tone and pinched off the sound, problems which increased as she got older. She sought and for my ears achieved a level of expression far beyond the reach of the average singer.

I didn’t follow her everywhere she led. In her film autobiography she often chose to show herself singing cute folksongs. I don’t share her taste for these. I loved her Hugo Wolf Goethe Lieder album, honored her Strauss and Mozart where this uniquely German singer completely transcended the German taste for cute. She found the essence, and emphasized a narrow repertoire of exquisite performances. If you loved Renata Tebaldi, you probably wouldn’t like her.

Beverly Sills was always the center of a raging controversy which pitted her against Roberta Peters. They faced off against each other across the patio at Lincoln Center—Beverly at City Opera and Roberta at the Met. Sills possessed a passionate soul and a light, fragile, and almost soubrette like voice, while Peters was vocal and technical perfection, unexciting, maybe even bland perfection.

I have loved Kathleen Battle, controversial for her character rather than for her singing. She seems to hate the public. I read somewhere that she had set up a contest where the prize was that the winner got to meet her. Do I care? I was in a performance with Kathleen Battle when the San Francisco Symphony presented Brahms’ German Requiem, conducted by Robert Shaw. It was beyond wonderful, not least because of Ms Battle’s divine “Wir hab’ nun traurigkeit.” I was backstage with her and never thought of trying to meet her.

It is generally music that makes a singer interesting to me. Kathleen has a rare gift for musical phrasing which she acquired in black churches, the usual source for American singers of all kinds. The film biography with Winton Marsallis shows her singing in her home church. She has the chops.

I only ever wanted to meet Cecilia Bartoli, a very controversial singer. Her voice is not very large, and her technique is odd. Her technique was entirely invented by her very brilliant and creative and completely untrained mother. Her technique has changed enormously over the years so that her tessitura is now quite high, possibly too high, and she looks gorgeous, but she still hasn’t achieved what one would call a true legato, breaking the phrase unexpectedly at times. She addresses this issue by emphasizing less legato repertoire.

Cecilia is the most musically creative singer I have ever heard. I went completely mad over her Rossini Heroines album, and like a lot of other people, wish that is the path she had followed. We respect her and admire her choices, but pine away for Semiramide. I love her, but have given up wanting to meet her.

Which brings us to the latest of my controversial singers: Anna Netrebko. For me there is no controversy, but all around me I hear people complaining that they don’t like the sound of her voice. One friend says he doesn’t like anything about her. This is a shame. I have to say I adore the sound of her voice, and realize that it comes partly from god and partly from her characteristically Russian vocal technique. She is optimized for this sound. She is not optimized for coloratura and doesn’t really have a very good trill. Do I sit there thinking, “if only she would trill right there?” Not very likely! She leaves out the trills and the really high notes, so why listen to her at all? Name a singer, any singer, who can bring so much to a theatrical performance. She has beauty, both visual and aural; she has true emotion; she brings excitement to the opera stage as frankly no one else today.

My own feeling is that when a performer is putting it out, you should make an effort to take it in. Would my life be fuller if I refused to tolerate Maria’s wobble, Leontyne’s bad acting, Elisabeth’s narrow tone, Kathleen’s bitchiness, Beverly’s fragility, Cecilia’s chirps or Anna’s growl? You keep the bland ones, and I’ll go with the excitement.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Giordano / Giordani

Solving the Giordano vs Giordani puzzle:

Nicola Rossi Giordano, tenor, replacing someone at Chicago Lyric, he is a Verdi and Puccini specialist.

Marcello Giordani, tenor, has just bowed out at the met because of severe laryngitis. This probably means vocal problems. He has been known to sing Arnold, the role with all the high C's in Rossini's William Tell.

Maybe one of them should change his name.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (9 December 1915 – 3 August 2006)

I hardly know what to say now that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has died. She was for me simply the personification of opera, the person who brought me to it and taught me that in art the deepest emotions come from opera.

Two of her recordings made the Gramophone 100 all time greatest recordings list: Strauss "Four Last Songs" and Der Rosenkavalier. I have written about her often, but this is probably the best.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


[DrB] So did you see it? Did you like it?

[DE, known to be a rabid Netrebko fan] Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Actually-I couldn't find it at Barnes & Noble--and had no time to hunt elsewhere--but met friends at the Shakespeare show a week ago--and they practically mugged me --insisting I come see their new video -- so I grabbed [D] and we went up to their house on Sunday (55 inch projection TV!!)--sat down--turned on the video-and didn;t move for 2 1/2 hours. I thought I would die at the end of the first act. Migawd. I have now gone to Borders and bought the one copy they have--ordered another three as gifts for people. Words cannot convey how exciting that show is--how utterly gorgeous Anna is--how well the set and staging support the story.

[DrB] It was far beyond my wildest imaginings. I don't even like La Traviata. It should come with a medical warning. "If you are in any danger of heart failure, check with your doctor before viewing." Can I use your mini review?

[DE] Sure--use whatever you want. Just get me a date with her!
Medical warning--that's GOOD!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


I have checked out a DVD from Glyndebourne of Leoš Janáček's Jenufa. This is a restoration to the original score of 1904, very much the preferred version now. It is an opera with two great roles for soprano, one Jenufa, a spinto soprano and the other her step mother, called the Kostelnicka , a true Wagnerian. The men are relatively unimportant.

The story is everywoman's story. Jenůfa has had a baby and been abandoned by her lover who wishes to marry the mayor's daughter. Mother sees her daughter's future and her own as one of shame and isolation, and kills the baby.

We are used to modern and don't hear Wagner, Puccini or Debussy in this original music. It is post-romantic and fresh all at once. The melodies and rhythms are quaint and attractive while still operatic.

This video is very beautiful. Video is more intimate than anything experienced in the opera house.

Tip number 43 on how to write a hit opera: be sure someone has a mad scene. This works for Jenůfa quite as well as it does for Lucia or La Sonnambula. I am thinking "One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" would make a fine opera--instead of a mad scene, we would have an entirely mad opera.

I digress. The mother holds a religious office and performs christenings [female sacristan, so called because she tended the village church--thank you internet]. The minister in the wedding scene is also a woman. Just as Laca and Jenůfa are married the dead baby is found.

Roberta Alexander is Jenůfa. Anja Silja is mother. The singing is wonderful. Anja Silja has here a harsh edge to her tone, but she is so wonderfully intense that the entire performance is fabulous, majestic and deeply emotional. Roberta Alexander rises to meet her. Philip Langridge is a beautiful Laca.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Top 10 roles for bass and bass-baritone

Boris Godunov (bass) from Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov. This goes at the top of the list. #58

Figaro (bass) from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. This is listed second for its importance in the repertoire. #5

Dutchman (bass-baritone) from Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer. These three roles go at the top because they are some of the very few lead roles for bass/bass-baritone.  #25

Sarastro (bass) from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. He is a benign presence who rules over the mythical kingdom of the magic flute.  #1

Baron Ochs von Lerchenau (bass) from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. If you can handle the German dialect, this is a fabulous part. He is buffo.  #37

Don Magnifico (bass) from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. He is buffo. If you count arias of significance, he is the lead character in this opera.  #29

Méphistophélès (bass-baritone) from Gounod’s Faust. He is the villain.  #35

Hans Sachs (bass-baritone) from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Wagner.  This role can be magnificent if the singer makes it so.. #77

Méphistophélès (bass) from Boito’s Mefistofele. Of course, he is also the villain.  #67

Counting as a single role are Doctor Miracle, Coppélius and Lindorf (all bass-baritones) from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann. These are all villains and are often played by the same person.  #30