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.