Monday, December 29, 2008

Top Five for 2008

It hasn't been a truly fabulous year, but I can report some highlights for 2008.

xThe biggest thrill for me was Aida at the Arena di Verona. This is spectacle opera at its finest--great singing, beautiful sets, fine acting and a wave! How could you top this?

XMacbeth and Daughter of the Regiment were the top events in the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast series. Macbeth with Maria Guleghina is available on DVD, and the Daughter production with Natalie Dessay can also be purchased on DVD.

Two versions of Carmen with Jonas Kaufmann, one in Zurich with Vesselina Kasarova and the other on DVD with Anna Caterina Antonacci were highlights. Given free choice, I would pick the DVD version. Both were original and fascinating insights on the opera, and Jonas is the best Don Jose ever.

I was also quite excited by the all media production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle at the Berkeley Opera. Despite Opera News's claim that this is a great opera libretto, shifting the drama to computer graphics produced the first really workable version of this opera that I've seen. All should be congratulated.

I saw a lot of other modern opera, including Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw, Satyagraha, Doctor Atomic, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Candide, but none of them truly hit the spot like Bonesetter's Daughter at the San Francisco Opera. The wedding of Chinese and European art forms completely worked for me, as did the chick flick plot. It was unforgettable.

Special mention must be made of 2008 as the Year of Renée Fleming. In September she appeared in her own Metropolitan Opera Gala in gowns designed especially for her. More dress designs for Renée also appeared in Thais in December. As if that weren't enough, she also produced a superlative new recording of The Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. Viva Renée.

I am going to skip the worst of 2008. Nothing completely fell on its ass.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Favorites for Year 2008

This year I spent a month in Florence as part of a class in Renaissance Art.  I also went to New York.  I reviewed 38 performances including 9 DVDs, 11 live in HDs and 18 live performances.

Favorite Performances

  • Guleghina in Macbeth HD  **  Early in the HD series from the Met Maria Guleghina sang Lady Macbeth.  Unlike most singers who take on the role, it was well within her grasp. Met HD
  • Dawn Upshaw live in Berkeley **  Dawn and her unusual orchestra performed pieces by Stephen Hartke, whale singing by George Crumb, and a personal favorite, Ayre (2004) by Osvaldo Golijov.  It's rare to hear anything this modern live.   Local
  • Satyagraha in NYC **  This was my second experience of this work.  It is not possible to duplicate the effect on ones brain of the first experience of it.  The production at the Metropolitan Opera live was huge, almost overwhelming. Travel
  • (ND) Natalie Dessay in Daughter of the Regiment HD  **  This is my favorite Natalie Dessay performance ever.  Everything was at its best.  One could truly adore such an artist.  A similar but not identical performance is on DVD from Paris.  My love and admiration for Natalie Dessay increased this year.  Met HD
  • Rinaldo in Zurich **  While in Zurich to see Carmen with Jonas, I also saw Handel's Rinaldo done entirely without countertenors.  One doesn't miss them.  Travel

  • Aida in the Arena di Verona **  As part of my class in Italian art, we attended an opera at the Arena di Verona.  This performance featured sets from the original Aida shown here at the beginning of the 20th century.  It's an amazing experience to see opera in the arena.  Travel
  • Simon Boccanegra at SFO **  This performance with the magnificent Dmitri Hvorostovsky successfully cured both my long time loathing of this opera and the decades long Verdi curse at the San Francisco Opera.    Local
  • Two versions of Carmen with Jonas Kaufmann, one in Zurich with Vesselina Kasarova and the other on DVD with Anna Caterina Antonacci were highlights. Given free choice, I would pick the DVD version. Both were original and fascinating insights on the opera, and Jonas is the best Don Jose ever.  Travel   DVD

  • Bonesetter's Daughter at SFO ** Most of the critics didn't like this, but I found it very enjoyable with its mixture of oriental and western musical styles.  It's based on a novel by Amy Tan and drew a largely Chinese audience.  I saw a lot of other modern opera, including Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw, Doctor Atomic, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Candide, but none of them truly hit the spot.   Local

  • Die Tote Stadt at SFO **  There were idiotic discussions about the coincidence of a red haired female and the Pre-Raphaelites.  Honestly.  Does that look Pre-Raphaelite to you?  In spite of this it is actually a lovely opera which I have only seen this once.   Local
  • Special mention must be made of 2008 as the Year of Renée Fleming. In September she appeared in her own Metropolitan Opera Gala in gowns designed especially for her. More dress designs for Renée also appeared in Thais in December. As if that weren't enough, she also produced a superlative new recording of The Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. Viva Renée.Met HD

Singer of the Year

Renée Fleming was everywhere.

New to Me Opera

  1. Handel's Rinaldo (1711) live in Zurich. **
  2. Handel's Ariodante (1735) live at SFO. **
  3. Korngold's Die Tote Stadt (1920) live at SFO. **
  4. Massenet's Thais (1894) was HD from the Met. **
  5. Paulus's The Village Singer (1979) was live in Sacramento. **
  6. Prokofiev's The Gambler () was live at the Met though 1/2.**
  7. Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges () was live in Berkeley. **
  8. Schubert's Fierrabras (1823) was a DVD with Jonas Kaufmann.
  9. Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George musical (1984) was live in New York. **
  10. Wallace's Bonesetter's Daughter (2008) live at SFO. This is new to everyone **

##20 top 20 all time
** live, live stream or live in HD

Things recommended to buy


Daily except Wednesdays

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art there will be...
4'33" by John Cage
Daily (except Wednesdays), noon

Guest performers

Guest performers execute Cage's famous "silent" musical score 4'33" daily at a piano. Without instrumentation for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the piece shifts attention…

Perhaps I should volunteer. I can sit and look at a piano as well as the next person.

Bitter Disappointed Old Women, Part II

I don't know who chooses the essays for the back page of Opera News, but the essay titled Sweet Bird of Youth in the January issue is completely disgusting.

Kathleen Battle makes my top 100 of all time and maybe even my top 10. She's still singing at 60, and not many light voiced women can make that claim. So she isn't cute like she was at 30. Are you? Lay off of her.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

I usually send cards. I don't seem to have bought any cards this year and I haven't done enough to write about, except I spent July in Florence, Italy. I am currently occupied mourning an old friend. In honor of all I offer this.

Why would I send Natalie Dessay's rendition of "Glitter and be Gay?" This has to do with being cheerful in the face of sadness, something I am managing surprisingly well.

Besides I really like it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Love in the desert

Thaïs...................Renée Fleming
Athanaël..............Thomas Hampson
Nicias..................Michael Schade
Palémon...............Alain Vernhes
Crobyle................Alyson Cambridge
Myrtale................Ginger Costa-Jackson
Charmeuse............Leah Partridge

Conductor...............Jesús López-Cobos
Production..............John Cox

I hadn't seen Thais before Saturday's simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera.  It's very funny. The plot is early Egyptian Christian. The production clarified this by having the head man of the band in the desert carry a stick formed into a cross. The men are all dressed in rags and chant things.
The hero Athanael, sung by Thomas Hampson, is one of the monks and has fallen under the spell of Thais, the most famous courtesan in Alexandria, sung by Renée Fleming. He sees her in his dreams. Now we know right away that this can't be good, but he decides it is a sign from God that he is assigned to convert her to Christianity and save Alexandria from her evil influence.

Nicias has sold several assets and bought Thais for a week. We appear on the final day. "Tomorrow I will be only a name to you," she sings.

Nicias and Athanael are old friends, and A explains to N his intentions to convert Thais to Christianity. Alone, Thais looks into her mirror and prays to Venus that she be granted eternal beauty. Athanael appears and tells her God will give her eternal life. Nice segue. She goes for this.

Then comes the hit tune of Thais, a violin solo called the Meditation from Thais. It was gorgeously played by David Chang who was permitted a bow on stage.

A tells T that she will achieve salvation by going into a convent in the desert and then takes her there. We who are not the fools he seems to be, notice he could just as easily have suggested she should achieve salvation by marrying him. Salvation does not require convents. But then we would have no plot. We have little enough of one as it is. It's all so deliciously silly.

Renée never at any time in the story appears even remotely like a nun.
So she is standing before the convent door thanking A for all he has done for her and saying "You will never see me again."

He, being slow on the uptake, goes "Shit! What have I done?" He goes back to his band in the desert and dreams about Thais. There is a bit where she laughs strangely.

The final scene was the funniest of all. She is perched high in the air, rather like the virgin [BVM] enthroned and sings about how she is feeling religious ecstasy. Her last words before dying are that she sees the face of God.

He in the meanwhile is desperately trying to convince her that heaven is all a crock.

Is it really this funny, or is it just Renée's style that makes it seem so? She was suitably gorgeous, seductive and ecstatic by turns, and sang beautifully. For my ear she is now singing her best ever. The middle of her voice is quite gorgeous while she retains her top. Hampson sang well and was not annoying.

It was fun and completely impossible to imagine without Renée.


Saturday, December 13, 2008



Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen,
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen, sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde . . .

Und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen. . .


And tomorrow the sun will shine again,
and on the path I will take,
it will unite us again, we happy ones,
upon this sun-breathing earth...

And to the shore, the wide shore with blue waves,
we will descend quietly and slowly;
we will look mutely into each other's eyes
and the silence of happiness will settle upon us.

This version is nice.

Friday, December 12, 2008


It is funny to read the news from Cleveland in the New Yorker. Someone has been panning Franz Welser-Möst--the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony and musical director of the Zurich Opera--in the Cleveland newspaper and has been fired for same. I don't think I've seen Welser-Möst conduct in Zurich. However, I did pan him by implication in my review of Arabella on DVD where he was the conductor.

I said:

"Renée is divine as Arabella, but the musical preparation of the rest of the cast is disappointing. No one but Renée comes close to getting it. It's basically two operas--when Renée is singing and when she isn't. Someone seems to have created the impression that singing Strauss is nothing more than pronouncing the words and hitting the correct notes. It is so far from the correct style for Strauss it's embarrassing."

The conductor has to take a significant amount of blame for this.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gertrude Stein

via Daily Routines by Daily Routines on 2/24/08, via Ignatz:

Miss Stein gets up every morning about ten and drinks some coffee, against her will. She's always been nervous about becoming nervous and she thought coffee would make her nervous, but her doctor prescribed it. Miss Toklas, her companion, gets up at six and starts dusting and fussing around. Once she broke a fine piece of Venetian glass and cried. Miss Stein laughed and said "Hell, oh hell, hell, objects are made to be consumed like cakes, books, people." Every morning Miss Toklas bathes and combs their French poodle, Basket, and brushes its teeth. It has its own toothbrush.

Miss Stein has an outsize bathtub that was especially made for her. A staircase had to be taken out to install it. After her bath she puts on a huge wool bathrobe and writes for a while, but she prefers to write outdoors, after she gets dressed. Especially in the Ain country, because there are rocks and cows there. Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn't seem to fit in with Miss Stein's mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.

Miss Stein always drives, and Miss Toklas rides in the back seat, squealing and jumping, for they say that Miss Stein is the worst driver in the history of automotive engineering. She takes corners fast, doesn't put out her hand, drives on the wrong side of the street, pays no more attention to traffic signals or intersections than she does to punctuation marks, and never honks. Now and then Alice will lean over from the back seat and honk. They haven't had any accidents. One writer who visited her had a fake wire sent to him from Paris calling him back, because he was afraid he'd be killed in the Ford.

Miss Stein spends much of her time quarreling with friends—always about literature or painting. The quarrels are passionate ones, involving everybody, taking hours to get under way, lasting for years (like the one with Hemingway). Nobody remembers after a couple of months exactly what the quarrels are about. The maid at the Stein house in Paris has to be told every day who will be persona grata at tea—it all depends on the quarrel of the night before. Gertrude sits up late, talking, arguing, and laughing; she has a rich, deep, and warming laugh. Afterward she wakes up Alice, who goes to bed early, and they go over the talk of the whole day. Miss Stein has a photographic memory for conversation.

The lady wears astonishing clothes: sandals, woolen stockings fit for a football-player, a man's plush fedora hat perched high on her head, rough tweed suits over odd embroidered waistcoats and peasant tunics. She also wears extraordinary blue-and-white striped knickers for underdrawers. This came out when she lost them once at a concert given by Virgil Thomson at the Hotel Majestic. She just stepped out of them somehow and left them lying there on the floor. She thought it was very funny and laughed loudly.

The New Yorker, October 13, 1934

[Dr B. I would love to have friends who wanted to quarrel passionately about art. Sigh. I can't even get anyone to play my art game. It would be nice to have a tape of Gertrude Stein laughing.]

Anna cancels

Anna Netrebko canceled her July 1 performance at the San Francisco Opera, the one I was supposed to go to. Luckily I was able to switch to June 16. This is good for me but bad that this was so easy to do.

She said she was going to make these types of cancellations in the interview I translated recently, but I never thought that it meant me.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Last week I received a package from Argentina in the mail. I thought this was someone's name, but no, the copy of the DVD for Cecilia Bartoli's Barcelona concert of her Romantic Revolution tour that I had bought on Amazon came from Argentina. In classical music terms the USA is a third world country. Everyone gets stuff before we do.

The concert is basically the same one I saw in London last December, with an added encore of "Yo que soy contrabandista." Cecilia was in excellent voice in Barcelona and showing the effects of a cold in London. My favorite track is the Willow Song from Rossini's Otello. Cecilia is in form.

The set also comes with another DVD about Maria Malibran and Cecilia's quest to rediscover her. Bits of this I had seen before, but it was nice to see them all again. Cecilia is almost as at home in French and English as she is in her native Italian. She gets the French glottal "R" as I certainly never have.

Cecilia is in Lucca opening the Museo Mobile Maria Malibran, taking a small tour of the exhibit.

Cecilia is in Venice riding a boat past the Rio del Malibran. She visits the Teatro Malibran, the steps of La Fenice and around Malibran's Venice.

Cecilia is in the Galeria in Milan.

Cecilia plays Maria's piano in Brussels. It could use a tune.

Cecilia visits Maria's birthplace in Paris, showing the room where she was born.

There is a short clip of Cecilia recording "Una voce poco fa." Perhaps she recorded this for a possible track on Maria and later rejected it. Both Cecilia and Maria made their professional debuts in Rossini's Barber.

Cecilia visits her childhood home in Rome where she says no one has been living for seven or ten years. Maybe I could get her to loan it to me. The living room is full of bicycles. She tells about her mother meeting Prince Charles, of rehearsing her to say "Your royal highness" to him. Then when she met him she said, "Buona sera. Sono la mamma di Cecilia." E perfetto. There is a brief audio of mamma singing "Libiamo" from La Traviata. Nice.

There is a clip of Cecilia singing "Sempre libera" that I have certainly never seen before. She does this very well, but skips the high note at the end.

Cecilia is at the Villa Pamphili in Rome where she lived opposite. Maria also visited there and sang "Casta diva" from the porch.

Cecilia follows Maria to Naples, to the Teatro Mercadante and Teatro San Carlo where Malibran sang La Sonnambula. C. tries on some of Maria's stage jewelry.

Cecilia is at the Rome opera which she says still smells the same as it did when she was a child and sang the shepherd in Tosca. They play a tape of this. Fascinating.

Cecilia visits her father Angelo Bartoli. The pressure of performing was too much for him. Anch'io.

Cecilia is in England recording Balfe. Christopher Raeburn tries to give her an English accent. She speaks with more of an American accent.

Cecilia goes to libraries and museums in all these places. She talks about the accident in Manchester and credits Malibran's death to fatigue from her grueling singing schedule. A letter from Maria says that she was feeling ill and that her voice seemed to be gone.

Over each section Cecilia sings a track from the Maria album. The last scene is a visit to the tomb of Maria Malibran in Brussels. Inside is a statue of M. dressed for Norma. Cecilia takes off her hat. Here she sings "Casta diva."

The film cuts suddenly from place to place, but sometimes tiny letters appear on the screen to tell where we are. It is a beautiful film of Cecilia's fascination with Malibran. It was nice to see mamma again. I'm done being mad at her.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Interview with Anna Netrebko

This interview is translated from the current month of Opernglas on line. I hope I got it right. It's hard to translate because obviously it was first translated into German.


Anna Netrebko, after the birth of her son, will already return to the stage at the beginning of the year. She spoke with Dr. Stefan Mauss about her plans and publicity – and about secret role desires. Selections from the interview:

Ms Netrebko, have you observed that during your pregnancy your voice has changed?

Not changed, but in the fourth month in the meantime I feared to lose it. I needed a lot more time to recover between two performances. This turned out to be due to a pregnancy caused lack of iron. Small cause, large effect.

What have you planned musically after the birth of your child?

I want in January to return to the Met stage as Lucia. Before that I want to try the part out in St. Petersburg.

What parts will you make thereafter?

Everything that comes in the near future was already planned before my pregnancy. There will be some bel canto roles, naturally a few performances of La Traviata, but also Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Mozarts Elettra in Idomeneo will come. A further dream which hopefully will be realized in some year is Anna Bolena. The Iolanta in Baden-Baden—also with Rolando Villazon there—should be noted, together with Aleko by Rachmaninov.

Your new CD Souvenirs contains small precious items in 10 languages. The selection is unusual: by Lieder by Richard Strauss, operetta selections by Kálmán and Heuberger, we find also plce for Andrew Lloyd Webbers “Pie Jesu”, a Yiddish lullaby, Offenbach’s “Barcarole” and Charpentier’s Louise. What was your intention with this selection?

Originally I suggested a CD with small but brilliant additions. When we thought about it further, more and more pieces came till the whole thing threatened to go out of control. What came out is something like a bright colored mixed bouquet. The flowers all smell differently, feel individual; some come from the garden, some from the woods, but each is of its kind completely individual. I think each listener will have completely different thoughts and feelings bound up with each piece. It is in part very emotional music.

You live in Austria and sing pieces in German on your new CD. Are you not challenged in the future to try some German Lieder or opera roles?

It is my dream someday to be allowed to sing Elsa from Lohengrin, but it may be a while before my voice is ready. I also love Parsifal, my first Wagner opera. So far a flower girl was my only Wagner role, by the way with Nadja Michael as “Mitblume”. In addition, Richard Strauss is one of my favorite composers. Hardly anyone understood how to write so perfectly for a Soprano voice as he. Take only his “Cradle song”: I took up it in a rush, it flowed immediately from my voice. Don’t laugh, but I’ve always wanted to sing Berg’s Lulu. Daniel Barenboim and Willy Decker, two important people in my life, always encourage me in this. My manager however constantly advises against it, because he is afraid I could lose my voice. I am still undecided. In any case the role lies very high, and there would be a lot of German text for me to learn. But it is a marvelous role, and I would enthusiastically like to work on it, it is really one of my dreams!

Do you mean that in the future you would be able to combine coloratura roles with somewhat heavier soprano roles?

This is exactly what I would like to try. I don’t want to stay in the coloratura Fach, but would like to swim around between this and various other soprano Fachs. If I sing too many coloratura roles, I have the feeling that the voice becomes too narrow, and I thirst for something like Puccini to even it out.

A child is an important point not only in the career, but also in life altogether. Do you think that you can reduce your appearances, despite the gigantic demand and the world-wide “Netrebko Hype.” so far that the child will not come up short?

“Netrebko Hype” is a funny way to put it and probably a little exaggerated! But you’re also right: it’s crazy what has happened with me and happened. I would like in any case to take shorter steps, and to reduce the number of appearances. I assume the theaters affected will understand, if I sing only five or six performances instead of eight or nine from a production in order to have more time for my family. I would not like to be before the public and behind the stage more than for my own child, whom I then leave with the nanny. That would be a terrible idea! Our child should simply be a normal child.

If one talks with your colleagues about the phenomenon Anna Netrebko, one gets almost in unison the answer, “We admire boundlessly what she does for us and for opera, but we would never like to change places with her!” Have you ever once dreamed to be a completely normal opera singer, and become not at the same time by your degree of fame quasi a public property?

I have never dreamed that my career could develop in such a way as it now has. Naturally I wanted to be on the stage and that as successfully as possible, but I never had above average ambitions. Each opera singer dreams to sing at the Milan La Scala or the New York Met. And if it happens, it is an unforgettable experience. But everything that came after, what you so beautifully called Hype, I could not have imagined. I argue also with it, and do what I must do, because this success permits me the luxury to be able to select productions which I would like to make, with the best conductors and singers, that is naturally a marvelous thing. Exactly the same as the possibility of being able to collect so much money for my child aid projects in Austria.

You see more positive than negative aspects in such a career?

That is very hard to say. But believe me: it is really hard. Everyone could not stand it. One needs a cool head and both feet need to stay on the ground. People demand and really expect a gigantic amount of one. I particularly suffer that practically my whole energy is pulled from me until nothing more remains, expecially in these big parties. I really don’t like that very much, because it costs endlessly more strength. I know that it also is required, but it isn’t really my world.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


There's more to life than blogging, and right now life is interfering. There are a lot of good opera blogs out there, and a few of them are running down the right side.

There is the emotional interference and the financial interference. I am scheduled to go to Greece in March, a first for me. There won't be any opera.

And I can't believe I actually like this from Anna Netrebko's new album.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

La damnation de Faust

Faust.......................Marcello Giordani
Marguerite..................Susan Graham
Méphistophélès..............John Relyea
Brander.....................Patrick Carfizzi

Conductor...................James Levine
Production..................Robert Lepage

Goethe's Faust was one of the primary inspirations for the Romantic. Berlioz was so taken with it that he composed music for it when he was only 15. The large work La damnation de Faust is not really an opera. He liked to imagine visions and set them to music without really bothering to worry about dramatic continuity.

The Metropolitan Opera is staging works extremely well. The stage is filled with a large four story grid where the singers, dancers and chorus work, including some dancers suspended on wires from above, with computer generated projections behind and in front. Faust's library is a projection quickly replaced by flocks of birds swirling in the background. I felt the episodic nature of the visuals completely suited the episodic nature of the work. Bravo.

I have not heard this work enough times to form an opinion of how it should be sung. The singers were Susan Graham, who introduced her own opera, Marcello Giordani as Faust and John Relyea as Mephistopheles. In my imagination Berlioz is melodramatic for a Frenchman, such as his melodramatic choral works: Requiem and Te Deum. I was relatively unprepared for the intensely lyrical performance presented here. Susan Graham is very fine in French repertoire precisely because her lyrical voice and style suit the lyrical French so perfectly.

I was much happier with Marcello Giordani as a partner for Susan than I was last week when he sang with Karita.  He was fully up to the lyricism established for Faust.   Even Relyea met the challenge of lyricism while looking very evil in his red leather outfit.

This must all be James Levine's idea. People in the movie theater, not many, only clapped for him.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Manon Lescaut

While I was in Ohio for Thanksgiving, I watched the first half of the Met version of Puccini's Manon Lescaut on television. I had missed the HD simulcast when it played in theaters last year. Unfortunately for them, this opera is also my favorite recording of Luciano Pavarotti and Mirela Freni. Karita Matilla and Marcello Giordani simply did not hold up by comparison. The Metropolitan Opera production was boring. Matilla punched her high notes in a style that might be fine for Salome but is all wrong for Puccini.

The one redeeming feature is the interview by Renée Fleming, the one where she gets Karita to perform the splits. Amazingly silly!

We switched to watching kiddie cartoons. There were kiddies.

If you want to own a Manon Lescaut, choose this one.

Inva Mula on YouTube

Here and here are videos of Inva Mula, an Albanian woman. Opera is from everywhere these days. In the second video she is performing with Placido Domingo an excerpt from Elixir of Love, the opera she is singing at the San Francisco Opera. This is the same thing with Rolando Villazon. You get the idea.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Musicophelia by Oliver Sacks is a physician's perspective on music and the brain, organized by his experience of departures from the normal. We may better understand our more average selves by understanding those of us whose minds are not like us.

He makes an excellent case for the primacy of music in human evolution. Music is the glue of the human community, giving us the evolutionary advantage of groups. Other species do not experience music which fills a large part of our brains.

I like a book where one can generalize from specific cases.

There is a story of a man with no memory at all, a man who when he closes his eyes and opens them again has forgotten all of his life before. In spite of this he could still play the piano and organ and conduct. Someone would need to bring him to the rehearsal and set the correct score on the stand.

This story reminded me of a conclusion I made about driving a car early in my experience of it. My subconscious was an excellent driver. I could day dream away and it would carefully signal, stop at stop signs and lights, avoid other cars, even shift gears all on its own. There was only one thing it couldn't do--remember where we were going. I could get myself home without thinking, but any new destination required attention. I ended up in some strange places. I digress.

Sacks tells how the ears reclaim parts of the brain unused by the blind.

He describes the therapeutic effect of music on those with Parkinsons.

He has described people dreaming about music, including an anecdote about Berlioz composing a symphony in a dream, as I once recall doing. Mine was remarkable, perhaps somewhere between Tchaikovsky and Brahms, but disappeared when I awoke.

For many the favorite story is of the man who became a musician after being struck by lightning.

It gives perhaps a better idea of how musical we are than more technical brain mapping writing. In many ways we are music.

The section on music and emotion is perhaps a bit cursory. Whole books have been written on this subject alone, and it probably has not yet been adequately described. He describes an emotionless man who nevertheless sang Irish songs with emotion. I think I would have described him as performing the Irish songs in the appropriate style. The music and the phrasing are one. If you have learned a song with a certain style, then that style is one with the music, and when you performed it, it would sound emotional. Only classical musicians with their brains chained to pages of written notes, notes entirely devoid of emotion, could imagine the two things to be separate. A full description of the relationship between emotion and music has not yet been written.

He needs to incorporate the idea of phrasing into his conceptual framework to carefully distinguish it from emotion. The musician phrases. The listener feels. Of course, the musician is a listener to himself.

Friday, November 21, 2008

La Bohème

Wednesday was La Bohème at the San Francisco Opera. How much can one say about La Bohème? I didn't cry.

Mimi was sung by Angela Gheorghiu. It is very important for me to say that I had no trouble hearing her. Angela's Mimi is a thing of beauty. There was a very catty interview with her in Opera News this month, but I'm still on her side. If I had paid to see Angela, I would not have liked being stuck with the understudy.

I enjoyed Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo. He sounded and looked just as he should.

I thought Norah Amsellem as Musetta looked and especially sounded familiar. She is the Micaela in the Jonas Kaufmann Carmen from the ROH. She was lively and fun, but unfortunately for her my previous Musetta at San Francisco was Anna Netrebko who simply exploded in the role. BOOM!

I liked the production. The scene at the Cafe Momus was staged indoors. I had only one problem--in the last scene the guys seemed to all look alike.

The other big event of the evening was my introduction to the conducting of Nicola Luisotti, the new musical director of the San Francisco Opera. My impression was good. The style was right, the coordination with the singers was excellent and best of all he paced the opera with great skill. You have to be paying a lot of attention to notice this aspect of conducting. How the music moves from scene to scene is all in the conductor's control. Luisotti will bring a new emphasis on Italian repertoire where Runnicles excelled in German. I wish him luck.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I was at a Mu Phi meeting the other day and was explaining how singers don't usually have the high toned taste of instrumentalists. My teacher, organist John Lewis, who died this year, would cringe whenever anyone mentioned the hymn "The Palms." For him it was ghastly. We singers would try to explain how much fun it was to sing, that it made you want to sway from side to side, like waving palm branches, but he was completely not having it.

So listening constantly to opera doesn't really work for me. I have to have some Alison Krauss or Linda Ronstadt once in a while. I'm just not that serious.

I may be exactly the right person in exactly the right mood for Anna Netrebko's Souvenirs album, the only recording of those I have been seeking that I have succeeded in getting.

There can be no question that the duet with Elina Garanča in Offenbach's "Barcarole" is perfect in every way. Imagine you are in a gondola at sunset and enjoy.

Anna always seems real to me. The greatest performers have the greatest gift--the ability to show their true hearts. Only the pure in heart can redeem the deeply corny. Listen while drinking cognac.

Incidentally, Gustave Charpentier composed Louise. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, credited on my ipod, was a completely different guy.

No Suspense

Here is an excellent article pointing out the complete lack of suspense in Doctor Atomic. I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Peter Mussbach

Here I discussed my favorite production from my time at the Ulmer Theater--the one with caskets and dead people, sort of the haunted house Nozze di Figaro. Well, that was Peter Mussbach, now something of a person in German opera. Above is a picture of him with one of the ghosts from the Figaro production. My Swiss friend who sang Susanna in this production told me he had given up medicine for a career in opera.

He has gotten into conflict with Daniel Barenboim and gotten himself kicked out of the Berlin Opera.

These are the walking dead arisen from their caskets--one of the caskets can be seen in the background--surrounded by members of the audience. I was allowed to go watch them and take pictures as long as I was not in costume.

Question: Did he actually invent Eurotrash?

Thursday, November 13, 2008


This is the Lied by Richard Strauss.

Bjorling. This is audio only.

Fleming. A bit over the top but fun.



Flagstad. In my youth she was a huge favorite. Audio only.

I only included ones I like.

Here is Jonas Kaufmann's version.

I have been reading the comments on YouTube for a while now and I have made a small observation. When you are studying singing, lots of time is spent getting you to sing on key, to pronounce the words correctly and articulate them a bit, to approximate the composed rhythm. This is primarily for the teacher's sanity.

When you are listening to famous singers, you should be trying to observe what they are doing that you are not doing, the idea being that they are right and you are not. Few teachers will teach you how to make music, so you may have to find it for yourself.

Wenn du es wüßtest,
Was träumen heißt von brennenden Küssen,
Von Wandern und Ruhen mit der Geliebten,
Aug in Auge,
Und kosend und plaudernd,
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Du neigtest dein Herz!

Wenn du es wüßtest,
Was bangen heißt in einsamen Nächten,
Umschauert vom Sturm, da niemand tröstet
Milden Mundes die kampfmüde Seele,
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Du kämest zu mir.

Wenn du es wüßtest,
Was leben heißt, umhaucht von der Gottheit
Weltschaffendem Atem,
Zu schweben empor, lichtgetragen,
Zu seligen Höhn,
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Du lebtest mit mir!

If you only knew what it's like to dream of burning kisses, of wandering and resting with one's beloved, eye turned to eye, and cuddling and chatting - if you only knew, you would incline your heart to me!

If you only knew what it's like to feel dread on lonely nights, surrounded by a raging storm, while no one comforts with a mild voice your struggle-weary soul - if you only knew, you would come to me.

If you only knew what it's like to live, surrounded by God's world-creating breath, to float up, carried by the light, to blessed heights - if you only knew, then you would live with me!

Translation borrowed from the internet.

Why I walked out on Dr. Atomic

This guy has a lot to say. I admit I wasn't able to get this worked up over Dr. Atomic that I wanted to write that much about it. It is a little less boring than the SF version, but still pretty boring. I stayed to the end just to see if it was different.

I still think Peter Sellars is a smooth talking idiot.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I add the Opera Tattler to my blogroll because it said that Gockley likes Jonas Kaufmann. Yeah! That's David Gockley, the Intendant of the San Francisco Opera.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


There was lots of smoking in both Carmen and Doctor Atomic. The difference? At the ROH the girls come out of the cigarette factory surrounded by clouds of real cigarette smoke. Oppenheimer's ever present cigarette never puts out any smoke. This seems sensible.

Doctor Atomic Revisited

Edward Teller...........Richard Paul Fink
J. Robert Oppenheimer...Gerald Finley
Robert Wilson...........Thomas Glenn
Kitty Oppenheimer.......Sasha Cooke
General Leslie Groves...Eric Owens
Frank Hubbard...........Earle Patriarco
Captain James Nolan.....Roger Honeywell
Pasqualita..............Meredith Arwady

Conductor...............Alan Gilbert
Production..............Penny Woolcock

I panned Doctor Atomic when I first saw it in San Francisco. I hated the fact that a bomb hanging in the air seemed to be all it was about. Even more I hated the emptiness of the second act. The SF production was by Peter Sellars.

Sellars is also the librettist for Doctor Atomic, and he and John Adams have worked over the second act considerably. People keep talking practically to the end now.

The Metropolitan Opera production, by Penny Woolcock, is far more interesting. There's still a bomb hanging in the air, but it is tucked back out of the way except when referred to. She kept people in proximity who might be supposed to be talking to one another--what a concept. The actors waiting for the blast, the "cloud flower," put on their dark glasses, and at the end there is a white flash of light, followed by the sound of someone speaking in Japanese asking for water. There is a definite sense of having reached the end of the opera, something completely missing in the version put on in San Francisco.

I think the closeups of the HD broadcast also helped make the opera dramatically more interesting. Video design was by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. Alan Gilbert, an American and the new conductor of the New York Philharmonic, ably conducted.

Gerald Finley who sang Dr. Oppenheimer did not take any bows, unless I was so distracted I completely missed them. I remember Sasha Cooke who sang Kitty (very nice), followed by John Adams, followed by nothing. Finley would have come between them, I would have thought. I thought this represented an excess of self-criticism. He was not in ideal voice but sounded fine. The role is not easy to sing. I recommend that he drop it from his repertoire.

I liked very much the Pasqualita of Meredith Arwady. I always watch for Thomas Glenn who sang Robert Wilson again. No one is going to make their career from singing in Doctor Atomic, but in general the singing was enjoyable, with lots of pleasant coloratura, especially for Kitty and Pasqualita.

I took away the impression that the entire staff at Los Alamos was slightly wacky. Edward Teller has long been a personal favorite for general insanity. The opera is an improvement over the San Francisco version, but I feel like I've seen it enough. Is it a great opera? It has edged toward being an opera at all, but not far. No amount of beefing up the parts of Mrs. Oppenheimer and her maid will make this a chick flick. A real opera on this subject would be about extramarital sex at Los Alamos. It's better, but it's still pretty much a yawner.

Disturbing comment by John Adams in the intermission: Dr. Oppenheimer was more cultured than Aristotle. Huh? I don't know that cultured is precisely the word I would have used to describe Aristotle.

Friday, November 07, 2008


Cecilia's interview with Charlie Rose when she was 29 has surfaced again. I first saw this interview by accident when it was first broadcast, sitting in my New York hotel room on a trip to see her at Carnegie Hall.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Sexy Carmen

Carmen, 1876, is the precursor to Italian Verismo that started in 1890 with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. All the characters are from the lower classes, and violence is a prominent feature. Carmen is a modern woman who praises the virtues of liberté, a woman who chooses her lovers and warns them to beware of her love, to regarde a toi.

We may well wonder why she chooses the timid good boy Don Jose when she could have anyone. Jonas Kaufmann completely personifies Jose, and provides in his good looks a possible reason why the wild and crazy Carmen should want him. She picks him because he is the only man there who is not pleading for her affection, who seems not even to notice her. She intuits his inner turmoil, throws the flower at him, and he says he feels as though he were shot by a bullet. We cannot guess what Jonas may be like, he so completely disappears into the role.

During the third act he rappels down a wall with the aid of a rope. Can your tenor do that?

The contrast between this Carmen and the Zurich version with Kasarova could not be greater. Kasarova acts with her shoulders while Anna Caterina Antonacci uses her whole body. This version has a credit for the person who stages the fights. Whoa! There is a terrific knife fight between Escamillo, here played by Ildebrando d'Arcangello, and Don Jose. And in the final act Carmen and Don Jose get down on the floor and wrestle around quite a lot.

The opera begins with a staged scene during the Prelude of Don Jose being taken off to his execution. This sort of thing, staging of scenes during the overtures of operas, is verging on cliche.

The world wasn't ready for Carmen when it opened, but we are definitely ready for such a physical, intense, well sung and sexy Carmen. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


Since I started blogging, I have discovered Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Sadly, this amazing singer first appeared in this blog as an obituary. I was also quite a gloomy singer with a taste for the "Dead Kid Songs" of Gustav Mahler, so I was fully prepared for her profundity, far deeper than my own. Most astounding, perhaps, is her Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Médée, available from House of Opera. She puts Peter Lieberson on the map with his Neruda Songs . She reaches to depths rarely reached before.

Another discovery since I started blogging is the composer Osvaldo Golijov, composer of the St. Mark Passion, Ainadamar, Oceana, Ayre, etc. The main component of his work is fun. Often the best performances of his works are by people not classically trained, leading to the possible conclusion that it isn't really classical music at all. He loves Dawn Upshaw because she is able to let go, to release her preconceptions and find the music as he has conceived it.

And, of course, there is Jonas Kaufmann, discovered by accident in a Zurich performance of Fidelio while on a trip to to see Cecilia Bartoli. I have even gone so far as to travel to see him in Zurich. He is fascinating at every level: he's cute and sexy, has a gorgeous voice, is apparently a fabulous actor and a great musician. This last is a qualification I am personally unable to ignore. They must arouse my musical instincts, and not just my libido.

Netrebko, Bartoli, Fleming and Florez are old loves, not discoveries. Renée is continuing to develop, something I did not really expect. One looks for and wishes for this--that the artist will grow in their repertoire as they mature.

Tristan and Isolde isn't exactly a love, but it does qualify as a discovery. Who knew I could enjoy this?

I am in the process of discovering Joyce DiDonato. Her Handel mad scene on YouTube is very impressive. I wasn't wild about her Octavian, probably because she is so small and not because of anything about her performance. She has a lot to offer.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I'm out of date. Yesterday I picked up a copy of BBC Music for September in a Borders in Albuquerque. I'm in Albuquerque. There's an interview with Renée Fleming about her at that time up coming recording of the Four Last Songs.

She talks about aging and retirement, though I would like to say I am hearing nothing that would indicate this is eminent. There are theories about each singer having a million notes. Placido must have passed his million long ago, I would think. I think Renée is singing better than ever now.

In her retirement she would think about teaching people the art of recitals, something she thinks is dying. I think what has died is the art of programming. The academic model for a recital has taken over. A recital used to be like a pop concert, and still is when the performer is Cecilia Bartoli. You pick out interesting songs and you string them together. You try to cover a lot of emotional extremes and be sure there is plenty of variety.

The academic model says you must start with early music--classic Italian, Gluck, something like that--and move on gradually through later periods. As much as possible, larger works such as song cycles should be presented instead of individual unrelated songs. I say perform something people will like hearing, something you love. Have fun. If you love it, they will, too.

Next to the interview with Renée Fleming was a list of recommended recordings of the Four Last Songs of R. Strauss. The reviewer doesn't like the second of Schwarzkopf's recordings. He complains if the high notes are not perfect. He complains constantly abut every conceivable detail. He bitches if their German isn't right. He complains about the tempo. (I know--it might be a she.)

My opinions hardly ever reach to that level of detail. I know that when I was performing, I worked over all the details repeatedly until I was satisfied, but I wasn't trying to reach technical perfection--I was trying to achieve a certain emotion. I remember in a class in college a student sang Brahms' "Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer" and managed a feeling of intense nostalgia and quiet longing. I wished in that moment to try to achieve the emotion she had achieved, though our voices were completely different. I like to feel that I did.

But the writers aren't talking about the feelings of each performance. They think there is only one way to sing it, and they criticize if anything is off from that perfection. My own opinions are almost the opposite. If I feel nothing, then I criticize. I want each performer to find her own joy. More than anything else I think the four songs are about singing, and I want to hear the passion for singing. When the lines soar, your heart must also soar.

There is a deep sadness in this music, a sense of resignation, and I want to feel this, too.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Katherine Jenkins

Norman Lebrecht said today that he could see Katherine Jenkins becoming becoming the next Barbra Streisand. I beg your pardon! By 28 Barbra was already Barbra.

Katherine has contracted herself out of the classical music world. She may feel free to become the next Celine Dion, but we in the classical world are just happy to see her go.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ombra mai fu

How about everyone singing "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Xerxes.

In response to a complaint is this miraculously beautiful rendition by my favorite baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

It transforms into something completely different when he sings it.  He doesn't ornament.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mezzos doing Handel

Mezzo-sopranos singing Handel arias on YouTube. Most of them don't seem to have pictures. These are arranged in a not precise order of ascending weight.

Cecilia Bartoli singing "Da tempeste" from Giulio Cesare. I don't know if this counts since she's singing Cleopatra. In a proper comparison she would have to be singing a castrato part. This is a pirate recording from Zurich.

Vivica Genaux singing "Spero per voi, si, si" from Ariodante.

Anna Bonitatibus singing "Un pensiero nemico di pace".  I've seen her in Zurich and like her a lot. 

I have added Susan Graham just ahead of Joyce singing "Verdi Prati" from Alcina. She has one of the most beautiful mezzo voices around.

Joyce Di Donato singing "Where shall I fly?" from Hercules. Joyce is definitely growing on me. This is awesome.

Vesselina Kasarova singing "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" from Alcina. **This is now a different aria also from Alcina. The closeups are priceless.

Alice Coote singing Sesto's "Cara speme, questo core" from Giulio Cesare.

Ewa Podleś singing "Dover, giustizia, amor" from Ariodante. This is what we missed when she didn't come to San Francisco.

Does this tell you anything about technique in the time of Handel? I always feel Handel in the mezzo Fach is pitched all wrong for women, but these particular women seem to be handling it well. Pun intended.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dr. A.

At last!! Someone besides me who doesn't like Doctor Atomic.


Robert Berger from the horn tells me I had it right the first time. "It should be KAR-i-ta. In Finnish, as well as in Hungarian and Czech, the accent is always on the first syllable." "Saying Zsa Zsa ga- BOR is as wrong as saying Ronald rea- GAN." So it's dactyls. KAR-i-ta MA-ti-la. So does that make it KIGH-uh SA-ree-a-ho for Kaija Saariaho, who is also Finnish? Maybe trochees would work: KIGH-uh SA-ree-AH-ho.

He recommends for this type of thing.

He goes on to say, "Kirsten Flagstad should never be pronounced Flagshtad, as in German. The great lady used to go ballistic when people used the German pronunciation." Wow. This would really be hard to change. It's not really our fault. She is inextricably linked to German repertoire, and by extension German pronunciation. I remember how I laughed the first time I heard shpagetti, but I soon got over it.

"With Russian, the accentuation is so unpredictable it's enough to drive you to distraction. It often falls where you least expect it. It should be vla-DI-mir, ser-GEI, an-DREY, kir-IL, and gen-NA-di rozh-DEST-vensky, mi-kha-IL, Kh is as in Chutzpah, etc. In Polish, the stress is on the next to last syllable." I know the tennis player is actually called Sha-RAP-o-va from watching Russian news.

In French there is no accent to speak of. Just accent everything. DE-BEW-SI. NA-TE-LEE DE-SAY. I never got past French, German and Italian.


Quote from Natalie Dessay, "I want to act. I don't care about singing." This is from an interview in Chicago.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


According to, Kaija Saariaho is pronounced KIGH-uh Sa-ree-AH-ho. I think I had the Saariaho part right. At Salome they were saying Kar-EE-tuh MA-til-ah. I don't think I got the Karita right. It is easy to find anything on the internet.


There are reports of rioting at the opera in Leipzig--see here. I will definitely have to look into this. It's been almost a century since anyone has reported this. It would appear that German audiences have limits after all.

According to various sources there was rioting at the opera:

25 August 1830, at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, an uprising followed a performance of Daniel Auber's La Muette de Portici.

September 10, 1838, in Paris at a performance of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini with Gilbert Duprez in the title-role.

May 30 1913, in Paris, the premier performance, by the Ballets Russes, of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

"To my knowledge, there hasn't been a significant classical music riot since 1973, when New Yorkers inside the beautiful Carnegie Hall booed so loudly at the US premier of Steve Reich's Four Organs that conductor Michael Tilson Thomas had to abandon the performance halfway through." See here Stretching the definition.

I think I was referring to the Ballets Russes riot. I haven't witnessed any riots at the opera.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I bought a New York Times this morning and was annoyed to read Tommasini’s article on new operas. I couldn’t disagree more.

I thought that Doctor Atomic had not one minute of interesting vocal writing and even less of theatrical viability. Musically it was quite nice, though I might hear it differently today. I notice increasingly Adams’ minimalist tendencies, something I have no problem with. It’s the lack of a real libretto that I don’t like.

So why has Satyagraha not the same effect on me? It has a similar lack of theatrical viability and yet does not bother me at all. With Glass there is the expectation of boredom. One anticipates being numbed into submission. Adams has not created the same expectation. He began his operatic career with a highly viable theatrical vehicle--Nixon in China—with real dramatic tension and at least one real opera aria. Expectation undoubtedly plays a role. I was glad when he made a symphony of Doctor Atomic. Much more suitable.

So now Tommasini wants to attack my favorite thing about Bonesetter—the writing for female trio. He does this by pointing out how critical the trio in Rosenkavalier is to the plot. No it isn’t. It’s critical to the need for a big vocal moment. Strauss understood precisely what an opera was, how one worked dramatically, and most important of all how one worked musically. He understood the purpose of singing in the drama, where the arias went and why. The climax of Rosenkavalier involves 3 people, so all three have to sing.

I didn’t read Tam’s novel and am not sorry. I came to Bonesetter with no preconceived ideas. Do I think it’s as good as Rosenkavalier? Hell, no. Do I think anything is as good as Rosenkavalier? Hell, no. I thought the trios made the story about three characters, and that it needed that. I bought the theatrical solutions to the staging of the novel. For me it worked.

I don’t think Wallace is as good a composer as Adams. Tommasini was right in pointing out the flaw in Wallace not being able to imagine the sound for Bonesetter. Verdi didn’t sit around thinking of a sound. Wagner didn’t either—or if he did, he seems to have done it only once for his whole career. Strauss didn’t either. Mozart didn’t either. Any composer worth shit looks to their own sound for the musical materials, and they know what that sound is. The problem with most modern composers is that they have technique to burn but absolutely no characteristic sound. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of Philip Glass. He makes you crazy on occasion—though I seem to be getting over this reaction—but you always know who he is.

I think all three have to sing together in Bonesetter. It doesn’t work without it. For me it was vastly superior theatrically to Atomic, an opera about a bomb hanging in the air. Maybe the new production will help me change my mind, but for me Atomic lacked theatrical viability. At no time do any two characters actually talk to each other. The countdown that lasts through the whole last act completely did not work. I could go on and on.

Mrs Atomic asks over and over “Am I in your light?” Could he just turn around and say, “No, for god’s sake. The light is coming from the other side, as anyone can plainly see.”

Singing in the Bel Canto II

In the decades from 1830 to 1850 opera as we know it was born. And yet very little of this music is heard today.

It was primarily the era of Grand Opera, the era of Meyerbeer and Halévy, the one period in operatic history when French opera dominated the scene. The French had never liked the castrati or their Italian successors the heroic mezzo-sopranos, and embraced the appearance of Duprez and the heavy tenor with great enthusiasm. Plots became melodramatic and tragic. It wasn’t serious opera unless someone died.

Rossini had moved to Paris and made a serious effort to adapt to French fashion, only to see a new style arise which he didn’t want to participate in. The other Italians made similar efforts to succeed in Paris, especially Donizetti who had the most success there.

I’m not trying to write a history of opera, only of singing technique. Someone else will have to discuss the disappearance of secco recitative, the breakdown of the alternating recitative and aria structure, etc. We’re here just for technique.

Important in the history of Grand Opera is the appearance of modern musical instruments, especially valved horns and trumpets which first appeared in La Juive by Fromental Halévy, 1835. This resulted in a heavier, thicker, brassier orchestration used to increase the dramatic intensity, and as a result requiring a heavier vocal technique to sing over the heavier orchestra.

I would like to suggest that the transformation of opera from light to heavy singing was the result of these things: Gilbert Duprez, the dominance of French over Italian opera, the appearance of a louder, more tonally flexible orchestra, and the French fashion for heavy tragedy. My impression is that the transition in Paris was sudden, but in Italy was much slower.

In Italy Giovanni Battista Rubini, a light tenor with a very high leggiero voice, was still the dominant tenor. Vicenzo Bellini still wrote operas for him: Il Pirata, La Sonnambula and I Purtani. Bellini also followed Rossini and wrote an opera with a mezzo-soprano hero: I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

When performed in Paris, the Italian operas had to be adapted to Parisian fashion, in many cases practically rewritten. It is an era of great turmoil. The Italians adapted reluctantly, but by 1848 Bellini and Donizetti were both dead, leaving the field open to a new Italian master: Giuseppe Verdi. Singing in Verdi will be discussed separately.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Salome in HD

Salome..................Karita Mattila
Herod...................Kim Begley
Herodias................Ildikó Komlósi
Jochanaan...............Juha Uusitalo
Narraboth...............Joseph Kaiser
Page....................Lucy Schaufer

Conductor...............Patrick Summers
Production..............Jürgen Flimm

I was just writing about perversity and the twentieth century, and here from the Metropolitan Opera comes Richard Strauss’ Salome, 1905, the defining moment for the arrival of perversity in twentieth century opera. A successful production should point up how perverse it all is, I suppose.

So is it more or less perverse when she sings, “Nothing is so white as your body,” “Nothing is so black as your hair,” and “Nothing is so red as your mouth,” and the object of all this passion, Juha Uusitalo, is fat, fully clothed and quite ugly? As she says, “The mystery of love is deeper than the mystery of death.”

Admit it, we love it. Would we go to Salome if we didn’t? I especially liked the shot of Karita Mattila after the curtain hugging a colleague and saying how much fun it was. If there is anything more fun than going to the opera, it is singing in opera. You can’t beat it. Mattila was spectacularly fascinating. The production provided her with lots of places to hold on to, climb on and lean on, as she played Salome very young, unselfconscious and childlike.

My only complaint was in the choice of shots we got to see in the theater. Barbara Sweete was the director, so I assume we may blame her. I like to see more of the stage. The no nudity decision was laughable. The production played Oscar Wilde's v ery perverse play to its most perverse in my experience--if it didn't have to be a close up, who would notice?

I was quite curious about the appearance of angels in this production. First there were imitations of Giotto's lovely angels on the curtain. Giotto and Salome don't make a connection for me. Then there were black angels with white wings on the upper stage left. It's difficult to see a connection.

Photo from screen.

Giotto detail.