Thursday, June 29, 2006

Glass

I am reading the chapter on minimalist opera from The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-century Opera. I thought perhaps I should find out what they are trying to do before I began criticizing minimalist opera. Oops. Too late.

Any discussion of minimalist opera must begin with Philip Glass. My exposure to Glass opera is limited to Satyagraha, a work I considered extremely successful. It had a narrative structure, something Glass is not supposed to want, which consisted of events in the life of Ghandi during his time in South Africa. Events were staged in a traditional way, except there was a great deal of repetition. In one scene the action was repeated three times, the third time with the furniture removed. Instead of sitting on chairs, they sat on air.

The text was in Sanskrit and had nothing to do with the dramatized action. Perhaps this is what is meant by the destruction of narrative structure that Glass likes to talk about.

Glass is trying to alter your perception of time through the use of simplicity and repetition. In Satyagraha I thought it enhanced the spiritual content and induced a trance-like state. If you allowed yourself to let go and enter the trance state, it was a wonderful experience. Sometimes this worked for me, and sometimes it didn't. Sometimes I just wanted to run screaming from the room. It altered my perception of time by making everything seem to take a very long time. Sometimes it was just painfully boring.

So how can something be extremely successful and excruciatingly, painfully boring at the same time? I think I assumed that was the intention.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Miser

While in the San Francisco Bay Area I went to see a performance of Moliere's The Miser at Berkeley Rep. When I'm trying to describe something, I usually say "it's like this only this is different." It wasn't like anything. There was a stage and seats and sets and lighting and costumes. That much was the same.

The performance began with a sheet of translucent plastic covering the stage, and the acting went on behind it. I speculated what it would be like if the whole play was like that, but soon the plastic was removed. The house is collapsing, plaster is falling and the roof leaks very badly. Everyone wears rags, including strangers who arrive from elsewhere. We weren't clear about that part.

It was played with very broad, extremely physical slapstick. I was trying to imagine the auditions for this production. People would read lines and then they would do an extra audition for the slapstick.

Both the miser and his son wish to marry the same young woman. There is a marriage broker with a fondness for true love. And there is a happy ending.

Stephen Epp played the miser himself. Perhaps it is possible to be too cheap, but we may all comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we are not this cheap.

Sarah Agnew as Elise was like gossamer.

David Raimey as Master Jacques was simplly unbelievable--bizarre and mysterious.

There was an atmosphere of overwhelming madness beyond anything I have ever seen on the stage. It was fabulously creative and deeply satisfying, worthy of a Johnny Depp movie. I wasn't going to write about it, and perhaps I still haven't.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Wikipedia

Compare this entry from Wikipedia about Alfano's opera with what I said:

Sakùntala is a three act opera composed by Franco Alfano, first performed as La leggenda di Sakùntala at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna on 10 December 1921. The full score and orchestral materials were believed to have been destroyed when an allied bomb damaged the archives of Alfano's publisher Ricordi during World War II. Alfano reconstructed the opera, and it was performed at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome on 9 January 1952 as Sakùntala. During preparations for a revival in Rome in April, 2006, a copy of the original 1921 score was discovered in the Ricordi archives, and the opera was performed for the first time in its original form in modern times under its original title.

Alfano, who wrote his own libretto, based his opera on Kalidasa's 5th-century BC drama Abhignānashākuntala.

Critically regarded as Alfano's best work, though seldom staged in recent years, Sakùntala was performed seven times for Italian radio between its premiere and 1979. These broadcasts featured such sopranos as Magda Olivero, Anna de Cavalieri, and Celestina Casapietra in the title role. The opera was also revived at the Wexford Opera Festival in 1982.

Dr B: The story is quite interesting. So it's considered Alfano's best work. Hmmm. I think I liked Cyrano better.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Art Tea

It was a spare the air day and BART was free, so I rode into the city and had lunch at the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building, one of my favorite restaurants. I ordered the grapefruit salad, lemongrass pork noodles and something called art tea. Because it seemed mysterious. It came in a large wine glass and looked like a dark object about the size of a chestnut floating in very hot water. It was too hot to drink, so we watched the chestnut open like a flower until it filled the entire glass. It had red petals, green spidery leaves and a strong flowery aroma.

This is very San Francisco, a much more bizarrely mysterious place than anywhere I have visited.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Top Ten Mezzo Operas

In general mezzo-sopranos play guys, mothers and sluts. Since she is tall, Susan Graham specializes in guys. By now I have collected quite a few of her videos, and she sets a standard in this category. The mother parts are usually minor.

There are two categories of roles where mezzo-sopranos play men: those originally intended to be sung by castrati and those intended to represent adolescent boys and originally sung by women. A countertenor may reasonably stand in for a castrato in any context without violating my sensibilities. Roles intended to be sung by women should be sung by women.

1. Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice .

Chronologically the list starts here. The title role of Orfeo is composed for a mezzo castrato and was transformed into a tenor for the French version. Only sometimes is this revived for a mezzo. In school one is taught that this is significant as the first reform opera, an opera that "reforms" the extremely formal Italian opera seria of the era. A reform opera is a serious opera without da capo arias and secco recitative, but no gaps appear in the production of opera seria because of the appearance of this opera. The true significance of Orfeo lies in the foundation of the French grand opera.

I suppose there are quite a few mezzo and contralto castrato roles in opera seria, but I haven't listed any of them in my top ten.

2. Rossini's Barber of Seville.

When it was originally presented, this opera was a scandal, because it was composed to the same libretto as the already beloved opera by Paisiello, which it eventually replaced in the repertoire. The heroine, Rosina, is a coloratura mezzo, but the role is sometimes sung by a soprano with a lot of interpolated high notes. Rosina is the ingenue and not a slut.

3. Rossini's La Cenerentola.

Angiolina, the heroine of La Cenerentola, is a coloratura contralto, and is generally revived only for mezzos or contraltos. She has no big arias until the very end of the opera. Angiolina is not a slut either. Perhaps the stereotyping of mezzos began later.

4. Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri.

Isabella is also a coloratura contralto. Isabella is in a harem, so it is difficult to decide if she is a slut. Let's just say that she is a sophisticated young woman. Rossini was fascinated by the comic possibilities of interaction between the sexual freedom of Italian women and the more confined expectations of Islam. That's as polite as I can say it. What would an Italian woman who found herself in a harem do? This opera answers that question.

4.1. Rossini's Il Turco in Italia.

This doesn't really make the top ten list, but Fiorilla is definitely a slut, perhaps the prototype for all the other great slut mezzo-sopranos. This opera answers the question what would an eastern man do when surrounded by an entire nation of Italian women. He wastes no time.

5. Donizetti's La Favorite.

Why did I put this in? Probably because I always wanted to sing it. Leonora is a coloratura mezzo with a lot of melodrama in her singing. This opera was originally in French, but is now more commonly revived in Italian. She is definitely a slut of a rather refined sort.

6. Bizet's Carmen.

We are finished with the bel canto tradition and have moved into the romantic mezzo style. These next three operas are all in the French tradition and form the meat of big roles for mezzo-soprano.

Carmen is an actress's dream, the great slut of the opera world. I now feel that Carmen is looking for a spy inside the police department to help cover her smuggling operation and deliberately sets out to seduce Don Jose as the most likely (and also attractive?) candidate.

7. Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah.

Dalila is definitely second only to Carmen in the hierarchy of great slut roles. We will give her points for being a political slut, I suppose. Where Carmen is audatious, Dalila is seductive.

8. Massenet's Werther.

Charlotte is an aberration in mezzo repertoire: she is a good girl, someone who would normally be played by a lyric soprano. How did this happen?

9. Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans.

I just heard this, but it was so spectacular that I had to add it to the list. This role is for a heavy dramatic mezzo who also gets to sing some beautiful lyric passages.

10. Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.

The title role is for a mezzo. It is the most significant of all the trouser roles and is always sung by a woman. If someone is doing it with falsettists, I don't want to hear about it. Octavian can be upstaged by the woman who plays the Marschallin, but the mezzo can dominate the opera if she wants.

So what's on your list?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Divas

This performance of The Maid of Orleans is an excellent example of the diva phenomenon. Suppose I cast this opera for verisimilitude, as is often suggested by people who don't really like opera. Suppose I found me a cute young woman who might pass for a teenager and cast her as Joan instead of the mature Dolora Zajick. What would I have? The answer is nothing. Opera is about singing. Dolora Zajick carried the opera, and she carried it to magnificence.

The diva is the reason we are there. I sat with friends and watched again the incredible video from the Bel Canto Society of Semiramide with Marilyn Horne and Montserrat Caballe. The excitement of this type of singing when done with this quality cannot be equalled.

In those days composers knew their place and composed for specific singers to show off their voices. They knew that to triumph in the medium of opera the singer must also triumph. If the singing is boring, the opera is also boring. There exist exceptions, but they are very rare.

It is nice when a singer comes along who can be everything. This is why people love Anna Netrebko--she is wonderful to hear and also to see. But the essential piece of the puzzle is singing.

No one is taking up the mantle of Horne and Caballe, and it is a terrible loss to opera, for bel canto is the peak experience.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Maid of Orleans


I had the full opera experience yesterday, but I had to come home to the San Francisco Opera to find it. All over San Francisco are signs announcing the return of the divas, a trio of graduates from San Francisco's own Merola program: Ruth Ann Swenson, Patricia Racette and Dolora Zajick.

Apparently the golden age has returned. Pamela Rosenberg is out, David Gockley is in, Pamela's logo--the word "Opera" peeking out through a triangular window--that offended so many people, is gone, replaced by a tasteful asterisk. Pamela Rosenberg brought in singers from Germany, and American singers virtually disappeared from the roster. It's nice to see them back.

Gockley is a different kind of Impresario, one with very strong populist leanings. He broadcast live a performance of Madame Butterfly into the Civic Center Plaza and over 8000 people showed up to watch. In the program next to one of the subscriber lists appear the words, "The desire to be the most exciting force in the opera world...." To reach you must first aspire. Welcome, Mr. Gockley, and god bless the San Francisco Opera.

Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans, presented in Russian, was a new opera for me. Tchaikovsky was his own librettist, and the flaws in the opera lie primarily in the libretto. In the first half we see the familiar story of the woman who hears the virgin telling her to save France. She arms herself, takes up a battlefield banner and leads France to victory over the English.

In the second half our miraculous, transforming heroine is stopped dead in her tracks by love, and changes before our eyes into a guilt ridden, impotent whiner. This is hard to accept. I was taught that she was brought down by betrayal and maintained her commitment to the end. Tchaikovsky appears to have been intimidated by this female avenging angel and cripled her in his version. It's sad.

Dolora Zajick was glorious. I have followed her career since I saw her on television with Pavarotti in Il Trovatore. She is awesomely powerful in her call to arms. I was temporarily confused when she is singing her farewell to her homeland in Russian, and an aria I knew as 'Adieu Forêt' came out. Apparently I am not yet senile.

I thought I recognized the singer in the role of Agnes Sorel. The face and the voice were familiar for she is my favorite recent Merola graduate, Karen Slack. Her website is full of quotes from my review of her Schwabacher Debut recital. I really loved her. Agnes is a perfect small role for her gorgeous lyric-spinto voice, only one of a vast number of opera roles she could sing. She needs to improve her physical conditioning. I continue to predict great things for Karen.

It was the full exciting, emotional, stunning opera experience.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1870-90]

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Blogging

Of the things I have written lately, the most fun were the things about Franco Alfano.

I wandered accidentally into a rare performance of his La Leggenda di Sakùntala in Rome. I compared the opera to parts of Puccini's Turandot, specifically the section before "Nessun dorma." I am still wondering if there is anything to this. Did Alfano write this, too? How influential was his friendship with Puccini toward the end of Puccini's life? How much did he know about Puccini's plans for Turandot? It sounds like a research project.

Then I found that Berio had recomposed the end of Turandot, undoing Alfano's work, and wrote a defense of Alfano.

In that piece I compared Alfano's vocal writing in Sakùntala with Wagner. It turns out that Alfano studied in Germany. In the first decades after the turn of the century the musical world was in a turmoil much like the turmoil that followed the death of Beethoven. What is one to do with the symphony after Beethoven? What is one to do with the opera after Wagner?

Far from being the art work of the future, post-Wagnerian opera did not follow in Wagner's footsteps. No one could do the same thing. Perhaps no one wanted to do what Wagner was doing. Hansel and Gretel is generally agreed to be the closest thing to a Wagnerian opera, and it can hardly be considered Wagnerian, can it? The only thing everyone agreed on was the death of any kind of recitative. And maybe subdivisions into arias. I maintain the opinion that they were generally faking this. Even Wagner knew that what he was writing was an aria even though the music didn't clearly cadence. Perhaps all agreed to eschew cadences except at the act ends.

It is interesting to me that Alfano felt obligated to study composition in Germany. Perhaps this more than any other factor marks the reason for the end of Italian opera. For end it did. Did you know Berio writes operas? No really. Did you? That Italians would feel a need to imitate Germans is disturbing. Alfano returned from Germany with a post-romantic, sentimental marching band sort of technique, the sort of thing that histories of music like to pretend never happened.

Then I reviewed Cyrano de Bergerac at the Royal Opera. Surprisingly, it's in French. It is much more a real opera than Sakùntala but still cannot escape the Humperdinckization of opera.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Three hundred years of St. Petersburg

I bought this, Gala Concert 300 Years of St. Petersburg with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, because it had Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky together on the same program. The singing is gorgeous, but the film also makes me sad. Dmitri receives armloads of flowers, more than he can carry, and Anna gets none. I can hardly watch this. She gets more response from the musicians, who can be seen tapping their bows on the music stands. That will have to be enough.

She is wearing a rather conservative looking black dress that is open down to her navel and Japanese sticks in her long black hair. Her “Regnava nel silenzio” from Lucia di Lammermoor is ravishing, and her wonderful Musetta’s Waltz is also available on her video album. I saw her do Musetta in San Francisco and simply cannot get enough of that dark voice.

Dmitri performed this same aria, Death of Rodrigo from Don Carlo, at the Volpe Gala. It shows off the beauty of his voice very well, and his is the most beautiful baritone voice singing today. His Jeletsky’s aria from Pique Dame is very intense.

The best thing is the duet from Pagliacci. This is filmed with the camera on Anna’s face, challenging her to deliver the goods, to give us a love duet to remember. When she turns to him and sings “t’amo,” we may well feel that it is meant for ourselves.

This film is good for observing the Russian technique of both these singers. The tone of the voice comes in large part from the resonating chambers, the same resonating chambers possessed by all of us, which consist of a tube extending from the vocal folds to the lips, divided in the center by the constricting tongue. This tube can be lengthened at the bottom by lowering the larynx and at the top by extending and rounding the lips. !!! Perhaps this is the bit others are missing. Both Dmitri and Anna never forget to round their lips.

Anna Netrebko's technique includes a firmly held lowered larynx. A trill requires a somewhat higher and certainly more loosely held larynx. Please don't misunderstand. I am explaining why she does not have a trill. I am not suggesting she should change anything. How badly do we need trilling anyway?

The rest of the music is also quite nice, including the stylish performance of the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin . Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, played by Elisso Virsaladze, is noteworthy.

Monday, June 12, 2006

While we are on the subject of Galas...

I don't know why I have this, but here is a program for the Centennial Gala of the Metropolitan Opera, October 22, 1983. I got tired just typing it in.

Afternoon from 2:00

Smetana Overture to The Bartered Bride
Puccini “In questa reggia” from Turandot. Eva Marton
Wagner Duet, Act I Die Walkure. Jessye Norman, Jess Thomas
Mozart “Dove sono” Le Nozze di Figaro. Kiri Te Kanawa
Bizet Quintet from Act II of Carmen. Isola Jones, Shirley Love, etc.
Verdi “Dio! Me potevi" from Otello. James McCracken
Gershwin “Bess, you is my woman now” from Porgy and Bess. Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart
Offenbach “J’aime les militaires” from La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein. Regine Crespin
Bellini “Suoni la tromba” from I Puritani. Sherrill Milnes, Ruggero Raimondi
Donizetti Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor. Roberta Peters, Loretta di Franco, etc.
Leigh Medley from Man of La Mancha. James Morris
Rossini “Bel raggio lusinghier" from Semiramide. Joan Sutherland

Intermission

Mascagni Prelude and Hymn of the Sun from Iris.
R. Strauss Presentation of the Rose from Der Rosenkavalier. Judith Blegen, Frederica von Stade
Weill Aria from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Richard Cassilly
Mozart Duet, Papagena and Papageno from Die Zauberflote. Betsy Norden, Christian Boesch
Gounod Duet from Romeo et Juliette. Catherine Malfitano, Alfredo Kraus
Donizetti “Una furtive lagrima” from L’Elisir d’Amore. Nicolai Gedda
Verdi Act II duet from Falstaff. Bianca Berini, Louis Quilico
Verdi “Ernani, involami” from Ernani. Anna Tomowa-Sintow
R. Strauss Final trio from Der Rosenkavalier. Kathleen Battle, Elisabeth Soderstrom, Tatiana Troyanos
Verdi “Gia nella notte densa” from Otello. Mirella Freni, Placido Domingo

Evening 8:00

Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3.
Giordano Final duet from Andrea Chenier. Montserrat Caballe, Jose Carreras
Tchaikovsky Prince Gremin’s Aria from Eugene Onegin. Paul Plishka
Puccini “Ch’ella mi creda” from La Fanciulla del West. Giuseppe Giacomini
Mozart “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni. Myra Merritt, John Cheek
Puccini Duet from Act IV of La Boheme. Gosta Winbergh, Brent Ellis
Debussy Lia’s aria from L’Enfant Prodigue. Ileana Cortubas
Delibes Duet from Act I of Lakme. Mariella Devia, Jean Kraft
Donizetti Duet Act III from Don Pasquale. Barbara Daniels, Italo Tajo

Intermission

Wagner Duet from Act II of Der Fliegende Hollander. Carol Neblett, Simon Estes
Giordano L’Incredibile’s Aria from Andrea Chenier. Andrea Velis
Giordano “Nemico della patria” from Andrea Chenier. Cornell MacNeil
Verdi Duet from Aida Act II. Martina Arroyo, Mignon Dunn
Saint-Saens Baccanale from Samson et Dalila
Verdi Duet from Act I of Don Carlo. Ermanno Mauro, Pablo Elvira
Romberg “Sweethearts” from Maytime. Anna Moffo, Robert Merrill
Barber Quintet from Vanessa. Bunch of people
Puccini “Vecchia zimarra" from La Boheme. Jerome Hines
Ponchielli Duet Act II of La Gioconda. Lucine Amara, Fiorenza Cossotto
Verdi Duet Act III of Nabucco. Grace Bumbry, Renato Bruson

Intermission

Gounod Final Trio from Faust. Katia Ricciarelli, William Lewis, Nicolai Ghiaurov
Puccini Duet from Act I of Madama Butterfly. Leona Mitchell, Giuliano Ciannella
Wagner Prayer Act V from Rienzi. Timothy Jenkins
Rossini Finali to Act I from L’Italiana in Algeri. Lots of people.
Offenbach Aria, Prologue to Les Contes d’Hoffman. Neil Shicoff
Saint-Saens “Mon Coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” from Samson et Dalila. Marilyn Horne
Wagner Isolde’s Narrative and Curse from Act I of Tristan und Isolde. Who else? Birgit Nilsson
Verdi Duet, Act II from Un Ballo in Maschera. Leontyne Price and Luciano Pavarotti

End

People in both this gala and the one for Volpe are: Kiri Te Kanawa, James Morris, Placido Domingo, Frederica von Stade and Mirella Freni. Pride of place went to Leontyne and Luciano.

This program also includes a list of the operas, conductors and cast that opened each season. A time machine and a few inflated dollars would really come in handy here.

Lily Pons in Lakme. Bjoerling and de los Angeles in Faust. Yum

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Blogging

I received the following testimonial in my email from one of my colleagues in London:

"This country desperately needs true eccentrics of your undisputable caliber. Be aware that Tony Blair's job will shortly be available--- Barbara for
Prime Minister!!"

The exclamation marks are in the original. The British (notice I don't say English because the man who wrote this is a Scot) cannot resist the true eccentric, which I must confess I am.

Symphony of a Thousand

Alles Vergängliche
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Das Unzulängliche,
Hier wird's Ereignis;
Das Unbeschreibliche,
Hier ist's getan;
Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

Everything transient
Is but a parable;
What lay beyond us,
Here is made visible;
The indescribable
Here becomes actual;
The eternally feminine
Draws us on high.

"Here" represents paradise.

Goethe is one of my personal idols. The title of my dissertation is "A comparison of various settings of poems from Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjarhe". A poster of the famous painting "Goethe in Italien" hangs on the wall in my bedroom. I've owned it since I traveled to Germany to audition, many houses and years ago, and it's starting to get a little ragged.

It's the way the words feel when you speak them. German is suddenly beautiful. Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis. One feels inclined to worship someone who could perform this magical transformation. There is an almost erotic beauty to his poetry that is simply missing in the language generally.

I searched on the internet for a better translation than the one in the program last night at the Kennedy Center performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand by the National Symphony Orchestra and show the result above. The words are from Faust, Part II, not Act II as stated in the program. Part I (1808) is damnation; part II, published many years later in 1832, is salvation. Faust and Gretchen are reunited in paradise where she is his guide.

I went for rather more mundane reasons: Christine Brewer and Jane Eaglen appeared together on the same program. Who could resist this? The soloists stood in the back of the orchestra surrounded by chorus, which was a bit of a disappointment. One would wish to see the dueling sopranos up closer. In this context Christine Brewer must be declared the winner, since her Gretchen part is far more interesting than Jane's part as the woman who washed Jesus' feet.

The mezzo Stacey Rishoi as the Samaritan woman and tenor Donald Litaker as Doctor Marianus also impressed. Those in charge of casting went in the direction of heavy voices, a wise decision.

This is perhaps the greatest of the giant symphonies, a list that includes some pieces by Berlioz and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. The performance, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, was very satisfying.



If you don't know this piece, here is the best part. Ignore the guy singing along.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Volpe's Gala

An excellent write up of this event appears here. Apparently a lot of people appeared on the 5 hour plus program who were not included in the television broadcast. These included:

Roberto Alagna, Stephanie Blythe, Dwayne Croft, Denyce Graves, Salvatore Licitra, Samuel Ramey, Ruth Ann Swenson and Dolora Zajick.

Sieglinde offers this list of people not on the program at all: June Anderson, Cecilia Bartoli, Hildegard Behrens, Barbara Bonney, Jane Eaglen, Angela Gheorghiu, Hei-Kyung Hong, Jennifer Larmore, Catherine Malfitano, Susanne Mentzer, Aprile Millo, Heidi Grant Murphy, Jessye Norman, Sondra Radvanovsky, Diana Soviero, Cheryl Studer, Sharon Sweet, Dawn Upshaw, Carol Vaness, Veronica Villarroel, Anne Sophie Von Otter.

I would add to that list Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. Deborah Voigt only appeared in her comic persona and not in what we all wanted to hear, how is her voice doing now that she's lost all that weight? In the live program she sang Sieglinde's aria. I would have preferred that they skip Ramon Vargas. I wonder who made the cuts?

I liked very much Juan Diego Florez' selection from Semiramide, the touchstone opera for his Fach, which he takes very seriously. He is aiming for the stars.

René Pape's aria from Don Carlo was the highlight of the evening for me. I don't think I have heard him in Verdi before, and he was excellent both vocally and emotionally.

Ben Heppner does a first-rate prize song. One begins to love this aria, Wagner's own personal trial song, written with loving care in the AAB form of the true Meistersingerlied.

The orchestra played the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, something I have recently purchased on a dvd for 300 years of St. Petersberg (Anna and Dmitri are both on it.) All I can say is that they do it better in Russia.

Noteworthy is what is currently going on with the repertoire of Renée Fleming. In a recent broadcast she sang "Visi d'arte" from Tosca, and here she does an aria from Il Trovatore. Previously her Verdi was limited to Otello. Renée is finally taking the plunge into the heavier Romantic mainstream.

We have proof of an American with no French language difficulties: Frederica von Stade. I adored her "Je cherche un millionaire."

Volpe is very stodgy, very much the devotee of heavy voices, all amply represented here. I will be interested to see what happens to the Met now.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Blue


I grew up on the blue album, listened to it probably more than anything else. The name comes from the cover--a medium blue with an abstract outline of the artist's face. The blue album is a collection of Verdi and Puccini arias which in its incarnation as a record had Verdi on one side and Puccini on the other.

To begin here tends to set ones standards absurdly, artificially high. Forever after I thought anyone should be able to do that gorgeous open, almost raw sound, that unbelievably fat middle tone, those awesome high notes. Anyone should be able to hit a high C and spin it back to a pianissimo. Right? How hard can it be?

And that perfect, fluid phrasing, that perfection of ornamentation, that flawless instinct for scooping and sliding in Verdi, that must be a dime a dozen. Must be.

And that reckless intensity, that daring passion, there must be hundreds of those.

But no one who could approach this ever came again. For Bellini it's Callas, but for Verdi there is no one who ever could touch the one and only, never to be seen again Leontyne Price. Herbert von Karajan said that her singing gave him goose bumps. Yes.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Josephine Baker centenary

While we are celebrating, yesterday, June 3, was the centenary of the birth of Josephine Baker, my erstwhile namesake.

Happy Birthday


On the occasion of Cecilia Bartoli's 40th birthday I want to wish her all the best. Bring us something exciting in 2007.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Der Freischütz



For my retirement I was given a $100 gift certificate at Borders. A drop in the bucket, but a welcome one.

I have purchased a DVD of Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber from the Zurich Opera. I have only seen this opera once before, in the 1970’s at the Wienerstaatsoper. The two productions could not be more different.

In Vienna the orchestra pit was overflowing with extra horns who made a fine blast of sound. The sets were in a romanticized naturalistic style. This Zurich production with Nickolas Harnoncourt shows a bare stage and black costumes, and in the pit are only four natural horns, which produce a relatively delicate sound. These are the same natural horns that blooped their way through Giulio Cesare, and now they are blooping their way through Freischütz. Pardon me if I don't acquire a taste for this.

Freischütz is still in the Singspiel tradition with spoken dialog. The opera has a Faust plot. Max is a candidate for the post of forester, but doubts his ability to win the shooting contest and the hand of his beloved Agathe on his own, and sells his soul to the devil in exchange for bullets that never miss.

It is one of the underperformed gems of opera with great arias and an exciting plot. They seem to be working very hard here to make it boring. I suppose this approach is cheaper, but it’s not much fun.

Every now and then people lie down on the floor for no reason, usually in groups, all pointing in the same direction. Does it beat boredom to have something to puzzle over?

The plot of Freischütz is difficult to make clear, especially the ending. We're dealing with bullets which cannot be seen. Max aims at the white dove and hits Agathe who seems to fall dead. When she does not die, it is never clear exactly why. It is also not clear why Kaspar dies instead. It is an unsatisfying deus ex machina.

Everything from Zurich seems to include the Hungarian bass László Polgár, a tall man with a somber expression and a beautifully lyrical bass voice. He's quite gloomily attractive. His name does not appear on the notes anywhere, but I remember him from other opera dvds from Zurich, most notably as Leporello in Don Giovanni. Matti Salminen as Kaspar is wonderful, the scariest man on the opera stage.