Saturday, April 28, 2007

Il Trittico in HD

Conductor...............Joseph Colaneri
Production..............Jack O'Brien

For me Il Trittico is virtually a new opera. If my memory serves, I have seen only Gianni Schicchi in the opera house, though I have videos of Il Tabarro with Domingo and Gianni Schicchi with Florez. (I've written about this before here.) This is my first time for Suor Angelica.


Obviously, I have been today to see the simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Puccini's Il Trittico, this time in Dayton Ohio, my fourth city. We were told in the intermission that this is the Met's most complicated production. The second most complicated is the current Turandot. There was a lot of hammering in the intermissions. The opera gets gigantic sets in the naturalistic style. We are at the Met, you know.

This opera is also known as the Stephanie Blythe show. In Il Tabarro she was Frugola who brings Giorgetta small items to please her. In Suor Angelica she played La Principessa, magnificently. My feeling was that whether or not Suor Angelica is a functioning, moving, tragic opera depends completely on how this character is played. She had a fabulous aura of the dominating, unforgiving aunt, the person who never forgives. Suor Angelica sends her to hell without an apparent afterthought. She tells Angelica that her son died two years ago, the only news she cares to hear. La Principessa is utterly pitiless. Stephanie Blythe's third part is Zita, Ranuccio's mother in Gianni Schicchi.

There is great wisdom in the current Peter Gelb administration. Making opera work dramatically is the best thing that can possibly happen to it. Second is transmitting it to movie theaters so we can spare the overwhelming expense of attending opera. Now that I have become a person on a fixed income, I appreciate these things a lot more.

Il Tabarro
Giorgetta...............Maria Guleghina
Luigi...................Salvatore Licitra
Michele.................Juan Pons
Frugola.................Stephanie Blythe
Talpa...................Paul Plishka

I liked very much the casting of Il Tabarro. Maria Guleghina as Giorgetta, the straying wife, Juan Pons as Michele, her husband, and Salvatore Licitra as Luigi, her boyfriend, felt like a cast that very much blended with one another. Licitra sang well and did a great dead guy, holding his eyes open for a really long time. I worry about him. I feel he doesn't support well enough and often oversings. Yes, I know that's the same thing. Juan Pons is always marvelous.

Suor Angelica 
Angelica................Barbara Frittoli
Princess................Stephanie Blythe
Genovieffa..............Heidi Grant Murphy
Osmina..................Sara Wiedt
Dolcina.................Jennifer Check
Monitor.................Wendy White
Abbess..................Patricia Risley
Head Mistress...........Barbara Dever
Nurse...................Maria Zifchak
Lay Sister..............Lisette Oropesa

James Levine was interviewed in the intermission and commented on the popularity here of Suor Angelica, an opera with a terrible reputation. I would guess that it would work or it wouldn't. Here it worked. The music is beautiful, and Barbara Frittoli as Angelica was intense and believable. There was a very pretty deus ex machina at the end where a small boy, her son we will suppose, appears to her representing forgiveness by the Virgin. She realizes too late that by killing herself she has committed a mortal sin and will not get to see her son in heaven.

Gianni Schicchi 
Gianni Schicchi.........Alessandro Corbelli
Lauretta................Olga Mykytenko
Rinuccio................Massimo Giordano
Nella...................Jennifer Check
Ciesca..................Patricia Risley
Zita....................Stephanie Blythe

The three operas are easily called Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Alessandro Corbelli played Schicchi very athletically for a dying man. It was terse and amusing. At the end the two lovers appeared in a garden overlooking Florence, and we were treated to the view from Piazzale Michaelangelo. Wonderful.

 [See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Harpsichord

I went to Crocker Art Gallery on O Street today to see the Ansel Adams exhibit, and wandered into a harpsichord recital. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a harpsichord recital before. The harpsichordist was Lorna Peters, a faculty member at CSUS, the state university here in Sacramento. The program was entirely made up of French Baroque and Rococo harpsichord pieces. And there was not one thing by François Couperin the Great, the only French harpsichordist to still be in my memory. From my perspective it would hardly be possible to imagine anything so esoteric.

To amuse myself I tried to hear stylistic differences in the different generations from Louis Couperin, Henry Purcell and Jean-Henri d’Anglebert in the middle Baroque (Purcell is an English French harpsichordist, if you know what I mean) and Claude-Bénigne Balbastre in the Rococo to classical. This last piece showed the classical obsession with tonality.

Harpsichord music is about ornamentation in every period, apparently. They probably all composed French suites, but in the Rococo other types of descriptive pieces arose, called Pieces de Clavecin. The characteristic rhythm of the sarabande is the same as the opening measure of “Bist du bei mir.”

It was something to do to keep my brain active in these rather monotonous pieces in the monotonous tone quality of the harpsichord. There’s only so much you can do with a harpsichord. She played well.

Before the recital she tuned the harpsichord for over half an hour and complained about people talking. One would have to be able to tune the harpsichord.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Memorization

This is interesting. It is a pianist's perspective. I think someone should just march out with the score, sit down, put it on the stand and start playing. I wrote about this once, less interestingly.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Current pickings

I am living a kind of austere life and have only the following CD’s to listen to:

Alison Krauss A Hundred Miles or More
Anna Netrebko Russian Album
Anne Sophie von Otter Speak Low
Beatles Love
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Neruda Songs
Norah Jones Not Too Late
Rolando Villazon Combattimento
Rolando Villazon Gitano
Susan Graham Ives
Vivica Genaux Arias for Farinelli

I will annotate and rank this pathetic list. No wonder my brain is melting down. Rankings are on two levels: greatness and whether or not I actually listen to it.

For greatness Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Neruda Songs has to be number one. For depth, for beauty, for emotion, for tone, and I’m sure a lot more things.

For whether or not I listen, I confess Anne Sophie von Otter Speak Low really grabs me. For one thing there is this great photo on the cover with all that eye shadow and cynicism. It lacks a cigarette and drink, though. See Greta Garbo in Anna Christie to get the right way to play this. In fact Anne Sophie could take on Greta as a role model. She could use a little more mystery. Our Swedish mezzo gets completely into songs that are not in her native language. Are you listening, Americans?

The latest thing on Weill is that Lotte Lenya says there is no German Weill and American Weill. There is just Weill. How can I argue? Why would I argue? Of all the Weill I have heard since I started blogging, Bebe probably got it best. Only her voice failed her.

Both Alison Krauss and Norah Jones have done better. I very much prefer the Live album for Alison Krauss. Too many dead people on this one for me.

Rolando Villazon Combattimento may just be a great recording. It’s hard to imagine improving on this performance of Monteverdi.

I do indeed listen to Anna Netrebko Russian Album regularly, much more than anything else on this list. It wears well. The Rachmaninov is all completely exquisite. I continue to wish she would do a Rachmaninov songs album for us, but this is probably not the direction she wants to take. Rimsky and Tchaikovsky are also lovely. I am beginning to feel a longing for things Russian.

Beatles Love feels stale and overworked.

There’s nothing wrong with Rolando Villazon Gitano, but I doubt I’ll ever get really into zarzuela.

Why isn’t Vivica Genaux rich and famous? She does not rise to the level of frighteningly awesome that La Bartoli manages, but she’s pretty damn good. Vivica Genaux Arias for Farinelli is highly recommended. She could loosen up a little, look longer and deeper for the feeling of each piece. Everyone could, for that matter.

I like Ives. I have no other excuse.

Maybe I should get a job in a music store like Sarah. Or is there such a thing in America?

The Pianist

I usually don’t watch movies about the holocaust—it’s just too grim and depressing—and I almost didn’t watch all of The Pianist. I became more involved as the story went along. The music he plays is, of course, Chopin. What else could it possibly be?

At all the crucial points of despair someone comes to save him. When his family is being loaded onto the trains for Treblinka, someone pulls him out of the line and tells him to escape. His actress/cellist friend finds him a hiding place. A German officer helps him hide and brings him food. He actually stays in Warsaw throughout the war.

Each time he is saved for music. He is someone others wish to save. For the quality of love in the midst of chaos and cruelty it is a beautiful film.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Blogging


O frabgious day, Summer's Lease is available on DVD. Naturally John Gielgud has top billing, and he deserves it. He is hilarious and not to be missed in this, one of his greatest performances. This is one of my favorite things in the whole world, something that I long for every decade or so. I have had to resort to eBay for my copy. It's a mystery by John Mortimer and is set in Italy. For the mystery lover, art lover, Italy lover it has everything. There is an excellent film of the Palio in Siena, for instance. I admit that it has taken me many years to completely understand the plot. I especially love the part where the heroine follows the Piero della Francesca trail, ending with the flagellation in Urbino, something I have since done myself.

On my way to Kinkos where I am blogging for the time being they were discussing Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the radio. How is that possible? There is a court case in Germany about royalties for the text when an opera is performed. I didn't hear the whole broadcast since I came in in the middle, but Strauss wrote an opera on this subject--Capriccio--text not by Hofmannsthal. Which is more important, text or music? The opera seems to conclude, as we have seen from recent Met broadcasts, that it is the prompter who is most essential to the success of the opera.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Speak Low

Why this fascination with Kurt Weill? Here Lies Jenny, Mahagonny, Street Scene, and this CD from 1994. Weill lies on the border between classical and pop, opera and musical, European and American, serious and trivial. Understanding Weill means understanding the role of style in interpreting any work.

Curious things to notice include the fact that he collaborated with Bertolt Brecht for only about three years. It seems like a vast expanse, but includes only Dreigroschenoper, Mahagonny and something called “Die Sieben Todsuenden” or Seven Deadly Sins, recorded here by Anne Sofie von Otter. If there are 100 more things Weill and Brecht did together, look them up in Wikipedia.

I must say I like von Otter here as I have not before. Both her German and her English are excellent. Remember she’s Swedish. Coolness in the face of decadence may be just what we were looking for. She has style to burn.

Brecht turned on Weill, thought him guilty of seeking mere capitalistic success. Weill wanted to get ahead. Imagine that.

What was Brecht’s problem? In the "Seven Deadly Sins" two sisters named Anna I who sings and Anna II who dances leave their home in Louisiana and travel to Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco seeking success. Brecht seems to have been fascinated by places in America—remember Mahagonny was in Alabama. We are synonymous with capitalism for him.

The moral is disturbing: “Eat not and drink not and don’t be lazy, think of the punishment which is the cost of love! Don’t waste youth, for it passes quickly.” Could Brecht be your ordinary moralist? Fundamentalism without God? He loves to push your nose into the trashy and immoral to show you how bad you’ve got it.

The problem is we adore this low life “Speak Low” trash in the voice of Kurt Weill. I think the moral isn’t working.

This is really sweet!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Street Scene


Street Scene, an American opera on a play by Elmer Rice, music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes, produced by the Houston Grand Opera and theaters in Berlin and Ludwigshafen, 1995.

Mrs. Maurrant, Ashley Putnam
Frank Maurrant, Marc Embree
Rose Maurrant, Teri Hansen
Sam Kaplan, Kip Wilborn
And a large supporting cast.

Mahagonny is about capitalism, how it starts, how it grows, how it corrupts, how it ossifies into exploitation, how it dies. Street Scene is about love. Is it any wonder it is considered Weill’s masterpiece?

I suppose the street that makes up the set might look different ways, but the one on this DVD from Netflix looks exactly like a tenement in New York City in the 1930’s, exactly the way it should look. The entire story takes place during a heat wave.

During the opera a baby is born, people are hot and sing about ice cream, they fall in love, they have affairs, they get drunk, they fight and they die, just like people everywhere.

The singing is big voiced and operatic, but the show is easier to make work than Mahagonny where the philosophy overwhelms the characters. In Street Scene there are no hit tunes, but there is love.

I believed it. I'm not sure I have seen the perfect Weill yet.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen

My two years in Germany did not teach me to like the Germans—they are always so certain about things—but it did teach me to love them. They are always trying so hard to hide their true selves, to hide the self knowledge that they had done terrible things they could never explain and would never try to explain, to hide anything less than perfection. Perhaps I felt too close to them. Perhaps I could not hide my own uncertainty.

I visited the DDR once and was probably lucky to get out. I had dinner in one of East Berlin’s biggest restaurants and was seated with two diplomats from Guyana. I told them how to ask for the Credit Rechnung and made jokes about the much higher prestige of working in China. I was my usual outrageous self, something I seem never to be able to avoid.

The Lives of Others is about suicide, especially the suicide of artists working under totalitarianism. Art is about feeling and not about politics. If your art is angular and ugly, it is because your emotions are ugly. I’ve always thought it was important that Schoenberg became atonal at exactly the same time his wife left him in a very messy breakup. You can argue as much as you want that it was intellectual, but you’ll never convince me.

The artist is under constant surveillance because a party bigwig wants to screw his girlfriend. When his friend who has been blackballed commits suicide, he smuggles an essay about suicide in the DDR out to Der Spiegel.

The movie is about the man who is watching, Wiesler, played by Ulrich Mühe. He is a professional voyeur, someone watching for the political error, the mistake. He has already changed sides from the State to the artist when he finds out how he will be punished, that this artist who is afraid to be alone will be put in complete isolation, and that those who are punished in this way never go back to their art. The watchman sacrifices himself for the sake of art and for the sake of the artist. Mühe plays this character to perfection with just the right softness/hardness.

The Germans have always the big subjects to write about. As should be expected in a film about suicide, one happens right on the screen. I was spellbound and deeply moved.

Combattimento

Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda by Monteverdi is something you hear about more than you hear. It's from Book VIII of Monteverdi's Madrigali, but it is hardly what you would call a madrigal. It is a small play set in the stile rappresentativo of the camarata's invention. Tancredi dressed in armor meets his beloved Clorinda, dressed in Saracen armor, and proceeds to kill her. The words are from Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, the great epic poem from Monteverdi's youth.

Is there anything to this new Baroque style? Can a singer really be expected to bring the same emotion into a narrative that would be achieved by a great actor?

If that singer is Rolando Villazon, the answer is yes. If we are searching for a role model for expression, we need look no further than Rolando. His performance of this piece verges on the miraculous.

I admit, I have often been puzzled by the attraction of Monteverdi. No more. The wonderful ornaments need an enthusiastic interpreter to come alive. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Measha Brueggergosman


Measha Brueggergosman is a fascinating young woman with a publicist and a biographical film produced by the CBC in her native Canada. She appeared on Sunday afternoon at Hertz Hall on the Cal Berkeley Campus in a Cal Performances concert in a huge 'fro and a long red dress that puddled on the floor around her feet. Her bare feet. She says her shoes pinch, so she doesn't wear them. I was going to suggest that there are probably Converse All Stars in her size.

However, we were interested in the singing, and were drawn to the fact that she had programmed Ravel's Schéhérazade in a piano reduction. This is a huge piece to bite off. Could she do it?

And the answer is yes. The piece makes a much better impression in its orchestrated form--after all, Ravel is a master of orchestration as well as beautiful writing for the voice. But in Measha's voice it is perfection. She is a lyric soprano with a gorgeous tone and an exquisite legato. Kiri's legato was not better than this.

The entire program was designed to show off this carefully crafted legato: Hahn, Ravel, Wolf, Montsalvatge and Bolcom, all from about 1890-1945. I cannot think that I have heard a more beautiful legato.

What is the path forward for such a gifted young woman? She complains that in opera there are too many variables. I suppose it's possible to have a concert only career, but even Cecilia Bartoli occasionally appears in opera.

This style of legato, what I have elsewhere called a Strauss legato, is most prominently found in the operas of Richard Strauss. Why so carefully create a Strauss technique when you have no intention of ever appearing in his operas? (I do recall a bare-footed Elektra.) She has already done Schéhérazade and The Four Last Songs--this I would like to hear--so what is left?

I find her work, this sample of it at least, inadequate in another way. Her languages are also carefully crafted (she did French, German, Spanish and English) and well produced, but yet again I see another native English speaker who only comes to life in English. Hahn, Ravel and Wolf have souls as well. Her phrasing is excellent and very beautiful, but where is her heart? When Regine Crespin sings Schéhérazade, it is overflowing with her very French emotions. Measha, where is your heart? I want passion and not merely beauty. Create the music in your heart, too.

The last group was a set of cabaret songs by William Bolcom. I overheard someone comparing her to Audra McDonald. They were OK, I guess. I especially liked the line "tears fell into the cognac."

She and her accompanist, J.J. Penna, were well coordinated. He was with her all the way.

Flavio at Pocket Opera


I went Saturday afternoon to see Flavio at Pocket Opera in the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I have been going to see Pocket Opera for 30 years and both Donald Pippin and myself are looking a little long in the tooth.

Pocket Opera does two types of performances: Handel operas in Italian and all other operas in Donald's unique style of English translation. Flavio is in the first category. Both types of opera performances include Donald's droll commentary between the numbers. In the Handel operas this entirely replaces the recitative and includes a complete description of the action.

Wikipedia contains this interesting Factoid: "The opera was first given at the King's Theatre in London on 14 May 1723 and revived on 18 April 1732. There were no further revivals until it was rediscovered and performed in Göttingen on 2 July 1969."

This hasn't been anyone's favorite Handel opera and isn't likely to become mine either. The cast consists of:

Roles Premiere 1723  Our Cast at Pocket Opera
Flavio: Gaetano Berenstadt, alto castrato  Geeta Novotny, mezzo 
Guido: Senesino, alto castrato Elspeth Franks, mezzo 
Emilia: Francesca Cuzzoni, soprano Erina Newkirk, soprano
Vitige (Victor): Margherita Durastanti, soprano Eileen Morris, soprano
Teodata(Thea): Anastasia Robinson, mezzo soprano Kindra Sharich, contralto
Lotario: Giuseppe Maria Boschi, bass Boyd Jarrell, bass
Ugone (Hugo): Alexander Gordon, tenor  Brian Thorsett, tenor

Aha! There is a lot of useful information in this list. The male alto roles transferred to women were originally sung by alto castrati, Guido by no less a figure than Senesino. The male soprano role of Victor was however originally sung by a female soprano. Very interesting. This verifies Rene Jacobs contention that castrati didn't normally rise to the soprano Fach.

Elspeth Franks, who appeared fully in drag, wasn't up to the demands of a role created for Senesino. She seemed to understand the music she was singing better than the other performers, but was simply not vocally strong enough for the part.

The most interesting voices were:

Geeta Novotny, a gorgeous woman with a beautiful, warm tone and only occasional glancing blows at good phrasing. Perhaps she would be more interesting as Carmen.

Erina Newkirk, a soprano with her own personal style, gave the strongest overall performance. Personal style is always good, though it occasionally resulted in some intonation problems.

Kindra Sharich was entertaining and lyrical in the role of Thea, a flirtatious air head if I ever saw one.

Brian Thorsett, tenor, was wasted in the Hugo role. Maybe he will get something bigger to sing next time.

Donald is not progressing with modern tastes in ornamentation of Handel. I hear upward extensions in the da capo sections but no sudden irrelevant outbursts of fioratura, as is increasingly the case around the world.