Friday, June 29, 2007

Rosenkavalier fuer Kinder

Der Rosenkavalier is for love. It is amazing to me to think that there are people who don’t love it. I have seen it many times and have my favorites. My favorite Marschallin, of course, is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in all three media: live, on recording, and on video. Other favorites are Renée Fleming believe it or not, and Kiri Te Kanawa. My unfavorite Marschallin: Felicity Lott. She did not happen for me.

My favorite Octavian remains Tatiana Troyanos. She is too mature by far, but I adore her anyway. Second is Susan Graham, especially with Renée Fleming. They were fabulous together. My unfavorite Octavian was Brigitte Fassbaender. I hated it. My friend D shares my opinion on this point, even if we disagree about the favorite. He likes Sena Jurinac. Fassbaender played him like a 12 year old. Disgusting.

Favorite conductor: Karajan, Sir Charles Mackerras, Jimmy Levine. Unfavorite: Donald Runnicles, apparently.

My favorite overall performance of Rosenkavalier: the Met version with Kiri, Tatiana, Judith, Jimmy et.al. And don’t forget Luciano. There must be contract conflicts that prevent a professional DVD from being issued. Go quickly because it’s now available from House of Opera.

It has to be exactly the same way each time. Mahomet must be black and wear a turban. The chocolate must arrive on a tiny table with a tiny tray and pot and an even tinier cup. In the second act there must be Louis XV chairs scattered around the stage. When Octavian and Sophie converse, they must sit on them. When Ochs is wounded, the chairs must be lined up in a row, and he must half lie on them. When he takes his wig off in Act III, he has to be bald. It isn’t allowed to vary anything except the decorations. I have seen a modernized production and didn’t mind it. But….

So how was last night’s version at the San Francisco Opera? Shall we obsess through each minute of the opera? I was very annoyed with the way Runnicles constantly cranked the volume of the orchestra up and down. He seems to have the idea that the orchestra should play as loud as it can any time no one is singing. Then any time the singers start, he can crank them back down again. Or not. Covering the singers is pretty common for him. This constant cranking up and down leaves a sense of seasickness. How nice to conceive it as a single piece and to think of the singers as part of the ensemble. Some time he should try it.

Joyce DiDonato made her debut as Octavian in this series. I think she has the idea. She was quite free and masculine in bed with the Marschallin. In her man clothes she seemed familiar with how to behave in the world of royalty. For me this is essential and is what Brigitte Fassbaender completely failed to do. Joyce was cute as Mariandel, too. I liked her portrayal very much and enjoyed her singing. But she is so tiny. This is the first time I have seen this boy of seventeen years and two months making love to an older woman and wondered if I were watching illegal activity. She is believable. He is very immature physically and his voice has not changed yet. I think she requires a very young looking Sophie, something not quite achieved by Miah Persson.

There were here and there unusual bits of business. In the last section of the first act the Marschallin actually pushes Octavian away. This was excessive and completely unnecessary.

Ours was the second string Marschallin, Martina Serafin. We felt that we had lucked out because the first stringer, Soile Isokoski, was said to be inadequate in her personification of the role. Martina fully possessed her Marschallin. She was passionate, pensive and in charge by turns as all Marschallins must be. She lacks only a proper awareness of Strauss phrasing to become a great Marschallin.

At the end Octavian and Sophie ran out laughing like the two children they obviously are.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hunks

The year seems to be overflowing with hunks.

There are old favorites like Russian Dmitri Hvorostovsky who was everywhere this year and especially in the Met broadcast of Eugene Onegin:

and Juan Diego Florez from Spain who wowed us all in Il Barbiere di Siviglia from the Met:

But we also have plenty of new guys, such as Danish Bo Skovhus from the San Francisco production of Iphegenie en Tauride:

And German Jonas Kaufmann from last winter's Fidelio:

If we go back a year we find the American Charles Castronovo from The Pearl Fishers:


I haven't seen him live, but I must include this photo of Erwin Schrott, from Uruguay, from this summer's Don Giovanni at ROH:

Oops! I have seen him live. He was Figaro last year in London. He was cute. That's the main thing I remember about him.

If I have left out your favorite, I apologize. Perhaps this year I will skip the ladies altogether.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Devils of Loudun

I was browsing in R5, a new record store in Sacramento that now occupies the old Tower Records building on Broadway, a store that is the brain child of Russ Solomon, the original founder of Tower Records. "He's 82 and a multimillionaire, but he likes to sell records," said the employee that sold me a DVD of The Devils of Loudun by Krzysztof Penderecki. "I can't afford this store," I replied. "This is the most opera DVDs I've never seen before I've ever seen." "That's good, right?"

I knew of the existence of this opera but have never had the opportunity to hear it before. The Devils of Loudun, the opera, is based on a play by John Whiting, which is in turn based on a book by Aldous Huxley, which is in turn based on real events which took place in 1634. A French man was convicted and executed for witchcraft, and Huxley uncovered the whole story.

The plot exists on two levels: the true plot involving the Huguenots and their perceived threat to the absolute authority of Louis XIII and his adviser Cardinal Richelieu, and the perceived plot about witchcraft. The opera, which focuses on the perceived plot with only hints of the true plot, is permeated with an atmosphere of sexual debauchery and hysteria.

A friend has pointed out that classical music generally is much more varied and interesting than the narrow, limited and monotonously tonal repertoire of opera. Penderecki offers a rare opportunity for some variety. Devils is written in his most experimental phase in a style involving extreme atonality, tone clusters and quarter tones. You may have seen a horror movie with a sound track that sounded like this.

The video is a studio production filmed immediately after the world premier in Hamburg in 1969. The opera is in German, and stars the 31 year old Tatiana Troyanos. She is magnificent. It isn't at all difficult to see what attracted her to this role. Mad scenes always go to the sopranos, and here is a wonderful mad role made for her mezzo soprano voice. She plays Jeanne, the Prioress of the debauched convent who has become obsessed with a male priest, Grandier, she knows by reputation only and imagines he is tormenting her. The character is mad from beginning to end, a fatal attraction for an opera singer.

The accusation of witchcraft comes from her. She and her fellow nuns are supposed to be possessed by devils, but the case is not completely made. A representative of the king appears and takes over from the locals. They see Grandier as a political threat and see to it that this threat is eliminated.

The music rolls over the atmosphere of hysteria like a tidal wave. The plot and music seem wonderfully well paired. It's somehow very spiritual. Religious ecstasy and madness are blended in a fascinating stew of sound.

The production is realistic and moving. The plot is very violent and involves, sex, torture and burning at the stake. If you are squeamish, you should know that this video does not pass the ickiness test. I have to admit I loved it.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Blogging

I do this because it's fun. Lately I have been sometimes feeling obligated, like I was working much too hard. The world will be fine if I don't blog. So when I'm working too hard at it, I make it fun by trashing something.

So the question is why doesn't anyone laugh? What could possibly be funnier than defending equal temperament? Unless it's trashing Gluck? Come on. Haven't you wanted to say music history is all a fraud, that completely different people than the ones you are reading about are interesting?

My son says that somewhere a silent nerd is laughing.

iTunes

I have made a folder called Handel Arias in iTunes and put the Handel arias from Cecilia Bartoli's Proibita, Renée Fleming's Handel album and Lorraine Lieberson's Handel album into it. Then I shuffled them. What a treat! These three ladies are the best. Not knowing what comes next improves the pleasure.

I know about Lorraine Hunt Lieberson primarily since her death, but by now I am definitely a fan. She is deep and dark.

It is curious to realize that in this trio Cecilia is on the light end. For me it can never get too dark.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Advice

I was listening to the radio, Terry Gross I think, and some guy, gee I wish I could remember who, said you should swim under water and stay under water as long as you can in order to improve your breath control. He said that Frank Sinatra advised the same thing. It sounds like a good idea.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Gluck Explained

Gluck has always puzzled me. In music history books he gets a whole chapter named after himself and is treated as some kind of big deal. He reformed opera. The only problem is that these operas are never done. If he rates a whole chapter, I thought, how come I never hear him? I learned "Che faro senza Euridice" and "O del mio dolce ardor" like everyone else, but that was the limit of my contact with him.

Christoph Willibald (von) Gluck was born in 1714 and grew up during the period of the collapse of counterpoint. By 1740 this collapse was complete. It was the complete disappearance of counterpoint that led Bach to write The Art of the Fugue. So you shouldn't be concerned that Handel said that Gluck knew as much counterpoint as his cook. Or that Metastasio called Gluck's music "barbaric." He was the younger generation.

Cecilia Bartoli recorded an album of Gluck arias, but they were entirely in the Italian style, not the later reform operas. Until the appearance of this album I was not aware that Gluck had composed so much opera seria, including libretti by Metastasio. These operas are performed even less often than the reform operas.

In 1752 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his opera Le Devin du Village and had it performed for the king of France. He was not concerned about the fact that that he was not a composer, nor should he have been. The point of Rousseau writing an opera was to change people's attitude about opera. It's opera for ordinary people. The enormous popular success of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona in Paris occurred that same year. These are comic operas devoid of pomp and serious music. They are for fun.

I put this in an article about Gluck because these were enormously influential in their time, and their influence extended to Gluck who sponsored opéra comique in Vienna. Gluck was right in the middle of a period devoted to the dumbing down of music. They liked folk songs and extreme simplicity. The re-intellectualizing of music was done in the structural advances of Haydn and Mozart. Not Gluck.

I am trying to explain to myself the experience of seeing Iphigénie en Tauride last night at the San Francisco Opera. It simply isn't like anything I've ever heard. The opera was first performed in Paris in 1779 and is considered the ultimate expression of Gluck's reforms. He was aiming for this.

There's no ballet. The San Francisco Opera's production included a lot of ballet work, but none of it is in pieces intended to be ballet. There's no coloratura at all. Not even tiny hints of it. The men's parts are written for men's normal voices. There's no secco recitative, and you have to be really paying attention to catch the transitions from recitative to aria. Clue: the harpsichord goes in and out, in for the recitative, out for the arias and other concerted pieces. There are arias, but they could have been folk songs. If it weren't for occasional high notes, how would we know it was an opera? The orchestration is not fully classical. Nor is it Baroque. He just fools around with sonorities in a completely homophonic texture. I like more to hook my ears to than this.

The plot is unrelentingly grim. Iphegenie is required to kill two men simply because they are strangers. They turn out to be from Mycenae, her home, and she finds out from them what has happened to her parents. They talk endlessly about killing and death, but only King Troas actually dies. Eventually she finds out that one of the two men is her brother Orestes. There is a very nice deus ex machina at the end that ends the curse of Agamemnon's family.

I think the significance of Gluck derives from hind sight. German historians like anyone who has a theory to go with whatever music they are writing. We might have liked Wagner without knowing he had a theory, but would anyone care about Schoenberg if he didn't have a theory? Would anyone listen to these reform operas if we didn't think Gluck was a forerunner of through-composed style operas of the nineteenth century? The existence of the theory seems to validate the significance of the work. Actually enjoying listening to it doesn't seem to be important.

If he was so influential, who did he influence? Where is the vogue he started? Mozart is supposed to be influenced by Gluck, but I don't hear it. Mozart wrote real arias and never abandoned secco recitative. He composed Metastasio just like everyone else. Idomeneo is structurally looser than opera seria generally is. Is this the influence they are talking about? Gluck's reform operas weren't popular enough in Vienna for Mozart to want to imitate them.


I didn't mind the minimalist production--everything was black except for a few words written on the walls. EPHEGENIE. AGAMEMNON. CLYTEMNESTRA. This successfully clarified the plot for me. A bit more differentiation between characters might have helped. It was hard to tell Bo Skovhus as Orestes from Paul Groves as Pylades. Their voices were remarkably similar and occupied a remarkably similar pitch range. Susan Graham was very good. Her voice is lyrical and sweet. A heavier sound in this role would have produced a different opera. Heidi Melton stood in the auditorium while singing Diane, the deus ex machina, thus saving the expense of any actual machinery. She has a huge blasting voice in startling contrast to the mortals in the opera.

It was a lot less boring than it should have been.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1760-1780]

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Blogging

I have been retired for a year now, and it's been a pretty rough year. For five months I lived out of a suitcase and traveled from place to place, wearing out my welcome in several places. It's something you expect to do in your twenties, not your mid sixties. In my twenties I was a sensible married lady.

Finally I have settled down. My present life in Sacramento consists of breakfast at the Java City on Capital Avenue followed by emptying boxes. I've been getting rid of things all year, but I still have a lot of junk. Why is junk so hard to get rid of? I bought shelves at Ikea and am putting books in them. I am going to save my music library, my art books and all the books with pictures of Italy.

I like the Java City on Capital for several reasons. You can have your latte in a ceramic cup. It tastes more authentic like that. It's possible to pour the milk in the side of the cup and get the right mixture. You can drink it outside under the giant elm trees that line the streets of Sacramento. The air and the climate generally feel a lot like Italy. You can read your paper and imagine that you are in Italy.

I haven't been happy with the quality of my writing lately. It reflects all too accurately my state of mind. I was an overbearing bitch at Bechtel, something that isn't useful in ordinary life. I used to come in to work in the morning and wonder who I could torment today. I loved my job, and I miss it. I grew accustomed to great achievements, and can't find an outlet for that now. I am not destined to achieve greatness in blogging.

For two and a half years I have followed my curiosity around the world of classical music to see what had happened to it in the years since I had abandoned it. I found that many famous artists simply bore me. I cannot get any interest aroused in Magdalena Kožená, for instance, despite great efforts.

I have become fascinated by Anna Netrebko. She is overflowing with what Katherine Jenkins, the British icon, brings to the plate, plus she can act, plus her singing is interesting. For my ears Miss Jenkins' music just lays there. Even Bocelli is more interesting. Where does the taste for blandness come from?

I'm trying to think of such a triple threat from previous generations. Anna Moffo was never this exciting. I have been very impressed with the intelligence Netrebko brings to her career. When I said I knew secrets, they are all about Netrebko. Sigh. It's fun to know things, but gossip is for telling, isn't it?

It is my curiosity that has driven most of my best writing, so the question is: can I keep up my curiosity from a backwater in the California central valley. I've been to performances here, but I didn't think of anything to say about them. There is a group who do Gilbert and Sullivan called the Sacrament Lyric Opera, I think, who did HMS Pinafore. I tried to like them but failed. I went to an opera at the university and thought it was pretty good, but not good enough to write about. Maybe I'm too fussy.

I find that I often push myself beyond my actual interests. I bought a bunch of books, not because I wanted to read them but because I thought I might write about them. Good book reviews, saving specifically Divas and Scholars which I loved and could not stop writing about, are hard work. I don't want to work that hard.

I did enjoy trashing the book about equal temperament, though. If you are going to publish such an outrageous premise, you need to have all your ducks lined up. Clearly he didn't.

I want to have fun. I think some times opera should be more fun.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bad Singing

In my YouTube searches I have come across some dreadful films of some very great singers. I won't link to them. I wouldn't want anyone to sit gloating and laughing over these films.

One is a film of Maria Callas. Everyone knows that she did not age gracefully. The films don't give dates, but we know this must be from the post-Onasis era.

Another is of Beverly Sills. This film notes that a year later she retired. This is a much worse example, because not many really good films of Sills are on the internet. So we get this bad one, so people can make cracks.

I would prefer to remember them in their prime.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Generations

My generation will never have a president of the United States. I'm the generation that was too young for WWII and too old to be a boomer. George I was WWII, and now Clinton and George II are both boomers. My generation hardly seems to exist. We're called the Silent Generation. Isn't that reassuring!

40 years ago occurred a huge explosion of music, including Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Monterey Pop Festival.

The Mamas and the Papas, all born between 1935 and 1944, were my generation.

The Beatles were all my generation. Janis Joplin was my generation. Grace Slick was my generation. Jimi Hendricks. Bob Dillon. Joan Baez. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

In the world of pop music the Silent Generation rules. Boomers usually take credit for this, but that's wrong.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Digital Metropolitan

This essay on the Metropolitan Opera in the digital era by Ivan Katz has just appeared on HuffPo, one of my news sources. The Met has changed its union contracts to allow for all this new activity by ending the up front payments that were previously required.

Hmmm. He seems to be assuming that they haven't added after the fact payments to replace these before the fact ones. The last time I looked unions had not suddenly become managed by idiots.

The prohibitive aspect of before the fact payments would be that you wouldn't have any idea how much money you would make before you had made any. This way is obviously better for everyone involved. As long as the union payments are a percentage of gross, I fail to see a problem. Both the Met and the unions should clean up.

What everyone else is worrying about is how it will affect local opera companies. Will the audience feel like attending less professional productions with all this Met stuff everywhere you look. The San Francisco Opera is broadcasting into concert venues without charging anything. I was going to try to attend one of these, but waited too long. Maybe I'll go over on the day, and see if I can get in.

The higher objective is to broaden the audience for opera generally. Present audiences are primarily my age and up. Tickets cost a fortune. My own budget is starting to look out of control. You were wondering where the money was coming from for all the opera I have been seeing. I have started to wonder about this, too.

Monday, June 11, 2007

She knows

This is a quote from an article about Anna Netrebko in the New York Times:

What about the ne plus ultra of the soprano repertory, Bellini’s “Norma”?

“That’s what everybody says, but it is so hard!” she said. “And it has to be sung absolutely perfect. I was recently in the Met store, I came in there, and somebody was singing Norma just perfect! I cannot say any bad word about this singing. I said, who is this? Joan Sutherland.”

But, this anti-diva added, she does not listen to Ms. Sutherland when she is working on a role. Rather, she turns to Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto or Callas. Ms. Sutherland “is a completely different way of singing, and different technique,” she said. “I don’t know how she’s singing. It’s just like flute playing. Perfect sound, beautiful, everything is free. I think this is a voice, one in a century like that.”

Dr.B: She is amazingly self aware, blurts right out that her technique isn't good enough for certain things. When someone is so up front and honest about themself, one feels no inclination to give advice. There is more than one way to handle coloratura, to place the voice for coloratura, and Anna knows this. It's a matter of taste that you reject one and love the other.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Street Art

Apparently Joshua Bell [probably a distant relative] played the Bach Chaconne on his Stradivarius in a DC Metro station during the morning commute. He made $32.17. The original article seems to be missing, but you can read about it here. There is much speculation about what this means. Fellow street artists seem to regard this as an excellent return. The only clear meaning I am able to discern is that without the huge public and private institutions supporting his career, that's what he could expect to make. I don't know if it proves anything else.

I was attracted to this comment that came with the essay:

"Here's what Glenn Gould had to say on a similar subject:
I happened to be practising at the piano one day -- I clearly recall, not that it matters, that it was a fugue by Mozart, K. 394, for those of you who play it too -- and suddenly a vacuum cleaner started up just beside the instrument. Well, the result was that in the louder passages, this luminously diatonic music in which Mozart deliberately imitates the technique of Sebastian Bach became surrounded with a halo of vibrato, rather the effect that you might get if you sang in the bathtub with both ears full of water and shook your head from side to side all at once. And in the softer passages I couldn't hear any sound that I was making at all. I could feel, of course -- I could sense the tactile relation with the keyboard, which is replete with its own kind of acoustical associations, and I could imagine what I was doing, but I couldn't actually hear it. But the strange thing was that all of it suddenly sounded better than it had without the vacuum cleaner, and those parts which I couldn't actually hear sounded best of all. Well, for years thereafter, and still today, if I am in a great hurry to acquire an imprint of some new score on my mind, I simulate the effect of the vacuum cleaner by placing some totally contrary noises as close to the instrument as I can. It doesn't matter what noise, really -- TV Westerns, Beatles records; anything loud will suffice -- because what I managed to learn through the accidental coming together of Mozart and the vacuum cleaner was that the INNER EAR OF THE IMAGINATION IS VERY MUCH MORE POWERFUL A STIMULANT THAN IS ANY AMOUNT OF OUTWARD IMAGINATION."

This is hard to imagine. Can we put it on our list of recommended rehearsal techniques?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hope Briggs

News Item:

SAN FRANCISCO: Soprano Hope Briggs has been pulled from the starring role in the San Francisco Opera's upcoming performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," officials said.

Briggs will be replaced by South African-born Elza van den Heever, who performed the role of Donna Anna at the Lincoln Theater in Napa Valley and is contracted to sing the role with another opera company in a future season.

General Director David Gockley decided that Briggs was "not ultimately suited for the role of Donna Anna in this production" after the final dress rehearsal, opera officials said Thursday.

Dr. B: I liked her. It must have been a staging issue, though there are no clues here.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Meditation on A German Requiem

Perhaps you feel there probably is no God, and we just die and that's the end, but how can one resist the vision of God? It is mankind's most beautiful creation.

And what embodies the vision of God better than A German Requiem? We know that Brahms must have been evangelisch and not katholisch because he chooses his texts from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, and because in his vision there is no hell. There is only the withering of the flesh and the vision of God's heaven with our everlasting comfort.

In the store I listened to Simon Rattle's new version, but I don't really care for that narrow concept of a chorus. I like a big tone for Brahms. Dorothea Röschmann's "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" is very beautiful, but I long to hear Kathleen Battle's version again. She sang in the performances I was in with the San Francisco Symphony years ago. I also don't seem to be able to ignore Quastoff's wobble.

So I chose this version from 1983 with James Levine, the Chicago Symphony and chorus, Kathleen Battle, Haken Hagegard, and chorus training by the legendary Margaret Hillis.

A German Requiem celebrates the end of life and the passage of our souls into heaven. What could exceed the ecstatic entry of the ransomed of the Lord into heaven with rejoicing and eternal joy. The entire work moves from one joyful ecstasy to another. It may well be my favorite piece of music, one I have sung several times and know virtually by heart.

You, too, will long for the house of the Lord. In my heart "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" will always be in Kathleen Battle's voice.

These words are the central message of Christianity set in its most attractive and soul inspiring music. I can see the vision of heaven in my heart.

Friday, June 01, 2007

20 Greatest Sopranos

This list is from BBC Music magazine, April issue. It's based on a poll of critics.

1 Maria Callas 1923-1977 Greek-American*
2 Joan Sutherland 1926-2010 Australian*
3 Victoria de los Angeles 1923-2005 Spanish*
4 Leontyne Price 1927-  American*
5 Birgit Nilsson 1918-2005 Swedish*
6 Montserrat Caballe 1933-  Spanish*
7 Lucia Popp 1939-1993 Slovakia
8 Margaret Price 1941-2011 Welsh
9 Kirsten Flagstad 1895-1962 Norwegian*
10 Emma Kirby 1949- English
11 Elisabeth Schwarzkopf 1915-2006 German*
12 Regine Crespin 1927-2007 French
13 Galina Vishnevskaya 1926- Russian
14 Gundula Janowitz 1937- German
15 Karita Mattila 1960- Finn
16 Elisabeth Schumann 1888-1952 German
17 Christine Brewer 1960- American
18 Renata Tebaldi 1922-2004 Italian*
19 Rosa Ponselle 1897-1981 American
20 Elly Ameling 1933- Dutch

The asterisks confer a "selbstverstaendlich" status. Of course. Any list must include these people.

People I don't know at all are:

20. Elly Ameling
16. Elisabeth Schumann (I bet you don't either)
13. Galina Vishnevskaya (Huh?)
10. Emma Kirby (not an opera singer at all)

I don't ever remember getting worked up over:

7 Lucia Popp 1939-1993 Slovakia (She's OK, I guess, but not my style.)
8 Margaret Price 1941- Welsh (I think this ranking is much too high. Placing her above Flagstad is nonsense. They must be British critics.)

People who are missing from the list include:

Eileen Farrell 1920-2002 American (she would definitely be on my list.)
Beverly Sills 1929- American
Renata Scotto 1934- Italian
Mirella Freni 1935- Italian (I think she is the heir to Tebaldi and a very important singer.)
Kiri Te Kanawa 1944- New Zealand
Jessye Norman 1945- American
Kathleen Battle 1948- American (she makes my list.)
Waltraud Meier 1956- German (Wikipedia says she is a mezzo.)
Renée Fleming 1959- American
Angela Gheorghiu 1965- Romanian
Anna Netrebko 1971 Russian

What do you think?