Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sacramento Philharmonic

I went last night to hear the Sacramento Philharmonic because on the program was the "Four Last Songs" of Richard Strauss, a piece I try to hear as often as possible.

I didn't think the concert started too well with the suite from Ben Hur by Miklos Rozsa. If you are going to program this kind of cheesy movie music, you are going to have to enter into the appropriate cheesy spirit of the thing. The timpanist Stanley Lunetta, a percussion institution in Sacramento since I was a mere child, was doing his best to sound like a drum for galley slaves, but the others just couldn't capture the idea. I don't think I thought about the importance of the music in this movie before. And probably I never will again. This piece was conducted by Ming Luke, the assistant conductor.

Michael Morgan, the music director of the Philharmonic, resumed his post for the Strauss. These pieces must sweep, and I am happy to say Morgan and his orchestra accomplished this. The style seemed perfect to me.

The soprano, Talise Trevigne, used a score, especially in "Im Abendrot," and stood in a position where she could not see the conductor. It has long been my theory that looking at the conductor should not be necessary. You and the music need only to become one. This theory was developed during years of performing while practically blind without my glasses. It is the music you sing with, not the conductor. There was not the tiniest hint of disconnection in Ms Trevigne's lovely performance. Her voice is very beautiful, and her style is just right. She soared at all the right moments.

So who is Talise Trevigne? She trained in New York and is currently making her way around second tier opera companies in the US and England. She will be singing Gilda in Rigoletto this year in Dublin and Knoxville. Maybe we will see her again.

I skipped the Elgar in the second half.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Letter to Opera News

I'm still stewing over the essay “The Jury is Out” by Brian Kellow on the back page of the March Opera News. My reaction to this is based on my own experiences with auditioning, a process I grew to loathe. One is auditioning for different purposes, but that didn't seem to matter to me. I loathed them all equally. It just wasn't what I was there for. I preferred the expectation of happiness that went with real performing instead of the expectation of judgment.

One auditions for entrance into various schools and then for exit from said schools. This is an up or down thing--you're in or you're not--and carries a high expectation of success. If you fail one of these, you should change your major. I ended up changing my major, but about 20 years after this.

One auditions for contests of various sorts. There is usually just one winner, so they are looking for tenors. If you are a lyric soprano, don't expect to win these.

One auditions for the San Francisco Opera or the Metropolitan Opera. In San Francisco these lead to being included in the Merola program. There would be no point at all in awarding all the places to tenors. What piece would 10 tenors be expected to perform together? Even lyric sopranos might win these. Coming out on top is not really required.

The purpose of these types of auditions is exposure. Presumably you will be singing for people who have never heard you before. I remember there was a big stink the year Janis Martin won the Metropolitan Opera auditions because she had already spent her year at the San Francisco Opera in comprimario roles and did not require exposure. Why not offer the prize to someone who really needed it? I don't have an opinion about this--I'm just relating the opinions of others.

Reasons for awarding to one person or another seem to be mysterious. Old people are not allowed. In that sense it is just like American Idol. If you are 35 and no one's ever heard of you, they don't care. They still don't want to hear you. And if they did, they would still prefer someone younger no matter how good you are. So don't get married when you are 23 and audition in your thirties like I did.

Brian Kellow doesn't want you to know any of this. He wants to be allowed to pass over you without having to face you afterwards. His reasons for not wanting to judge singers appears to be simply cowardice.

There is another kind of auditioning--auditioning for the German agents. I don't know how this is any more, but I know in the old days they could put you into an actual job. They aren't offering training or money--they are offering work. No company requires only tenors, so your chances are the best here. Provided, of course, that you are actually any good. The thing to do here is focus on the operatic repertoire that is hardest to cast. If you can do a decent Queen of the Night, bring it out.

To Brian I say: why worry over the attitudes of the other judges? Worry over the singers who are real human beings with lives you could spend a few minutes caring about. Good riddance, I think.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Food Fight

Hänsel..................Alice Coote
Gretel..................Christine Schäfer
Gertrud.................Rosalind Plowright
Peter...................Alan Held
Witch...................Philip Langridge
Sandman.................Sasha Cooke
Dew Fairy...............Lisette Oropesa

Conductor...............Vladimir Jurowski
Production..............Richard Jones

The Metropolitan Opera's New Years Day simulcast version of Hansel and Gretel, which I missed at the time, was on local TV last night. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be Pamela Rosenberg's food fight production. Unfortunately I slept during the entire Witch's role and awoke for the rescue scene at the end.

There was a rerun this afternoon. It was much messier in San Francisco with the witch spewing food all over the set. This version seemed messy enough. It's Hansel and Gretel for the modern child. Is it too late to point out that this is Regietheater at its finest?

Christine Schaefer as Gretel and Alice Coote as Hansel were perfect.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Blogging

Well, I give up. I can't find anything that trashes Jonas' recording. All point out that his interpretations are unusual, one German reviewer going so far as to say that it was "as if hearing it for the first time." You don't get better than that. My heart isn't in this search anyway.

I liked finding the article saying that his new heavier style of singing came from his singing in the shower style, not a precise quote, rather than from what agents and managers had planned for him. Or maybe it was the Zurich Opera that had this plan. His light voice singing is pretty but relatively boring. You can hear this on Cecilia's video of Nina.

If I refer to him as Jonas Buyer, the literal translation of his name, maybe it won't Google.

He aspires to sing Tristan and Otello. About at 45 I would say.

People who hated the camera work on the simulcast of Tristan und Isolde should tell the Met. I didn't necessarily hate it, but it was more interesting than strictly necessary. The enemy for me is always boredom.

Rats! I caught myself listening to Christine Brewer's Isolde just to see. Her voice is bigger than Debbie's but less edgy. I'm not really ready to be seriously interested in Tristan und Isolde.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Controversy

Jonas Kaufmann's album is controversial, it seems.

One of the reasons I posted the discussion of the I Puritani mad scene contest is to try to make clear that different performances of the same piece can be all over the map. Just the selection of performances of this particular aria are amazingly varied. I also tried to make clear that my own particular reaction to a performance is a matter of my own particular taste. I have modified this entry to include Bartoli, Callas and Dessay. I didn't post it to create in anyone the desire to fly off and start ranting about how horrible any particular performance is.

What usually happens is that things go on a certain way until someone unusual comes along and changes it. Maria Callas was such a person. We think today that a performance of Callas's repertoire must resemble Callas's performance, or it is incorrect. The truth is that before Callas no one sang things the way Callas did. Does that mean everyone else was wrong?

With their astoundingly different voices and performances I think both Netrebko and Dessay are heart singers and bring true feeling for the music into their work. They are the people I want to hear. And I completely love the fact that Cecilia's version resembles nothing you've ever heard before.

If anyone out there knows what they are saying about Jonas, links, etc., please let me know.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mr. Smith goes to New York

Tristan.................Robert Dean Smith [Debut]
Isolde..................Deborah Voigt
Kurwenal................Eike Wilm Schulte
Brangäne................Michelle DeYoung
King Marke..............Matti Salminen
Melot...................Stephen Gaertner

Conductor...............James Levine
Production..............Dieter Dorn

"Highlights of Robert Dean Smith's 2007/08 season include Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger in Dresden; Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with Deborah Voigt and Christine Brewer; Tristan und Isolde at the Madrid Teatro Real and the Bayreuth Festival; Tannhäuser at the Berlin Staatsoper; Der fliegende Holländer at the Bavarian State Opera(Bayerische Staatsoper) in Munich and the Vienna State Opera; Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera, London at Covent Garden; and Fidelio in Tokyo."

And now they include the role of Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera. One of the people interviewed at intermission [sorry, I only remember my own name and names written down somewhere] claimed there were 10 people who currently could do Tristan, and she knew exactly where all 10 of them were at that moment. Ben Heppner has been ill.

I liked Robert Dean Smith who is from Kansas. Most of the time he matched pretty well with Deborah Voigt, who is tiny, I didn't realize. A bit of the time she was louder than him, but mostly not. He is cute and apparently coy about his age.

Wasn't that a nice Tristan? I actually cried more than once, a first for me. One down side to attending simulcasts instead of live performances is that no one shouts in the movie theater. There seems to be no point. There was a lot of shouting for this, and I would surely have joined in. Shouted for were Mr. Smith, Ms Voigt, Michelle DeYoung as Brangaene, Elke Wilm Schulte as Kurwenal, absolutely wonderful Matti Salminen as King Marke, and our lord and master James Levine and his orchestra.

Deborah Voigt was all the way up to the three Isoldes: the furious woman of act I, the lover of act II and the tragic figure of act III. She achieved ecstasy. I had no idea she was so good. She may never make anyone's top 20, but she found the theatrical center of each scene both physically and musically. She was especially fine at the end.

Well played in every respect!

[See Kinderkuchen History 1850-70]

News

Things you wouldn't know if you didn't watch the simulcasts....

Matti Salminen was a tango singer in his native Finland before switching to opera. Of course you were all already aware of the great Finnish tango tradition.

Michelle DeYoung is even taller than Susan Graham.

The entire broadcast of Tristan und Isolde was directed for HD by someone named Barbara. This was a new approach and worked very well for the particular production. At least one section of the screen would show the whole stage so you wouldn't miss the lighting effects that were so important. I thought it worked most of the time. Shrunk down to a small screen it would not work at all. There was a lot of panning in and out, too.

Deborah Voigt and Robert Dean Smith had absolutely no rehearsal time together, but had at least met before.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I Puritani contest

I did a chart of the current I Puritani mad scene from YouTube to try to get an idea of the differences between the voices. I have modified the original contest selection to include Maria Callas 1949, Cecilia Bartoli 2007 and Natalie Dessay 2007. Only the cabaletta is considered. All of these performances are on YouTube. [Maybe not any more-can't currently find Bartoli.]

I tried to evaluate them by categories:

My opinion of their tone.
How slurred are the fast notes.
How much scooping and sliding.
How many added notes, trills, etc.
How do they treat rhythm and tempo.
General style.

There is wide variation in each category.

Tone



Lucia Aliberti was vying for the Maria Callas award, due to the strange darkness of her tone. Most have strong but not dark voices. Occasionally she actually sounds like Callas.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Goerne’s Dichterliebe

I never performed Schumann’s Dichterliebe (poet's love); it’s not supposed to be for women. Lotte Lehmann who taught Lied interpretation thought this was bullshit. She sang whatever she wanted. But nevertheless, it is a work that I have studied and tried to sing and play on the piano. I know each song almost by heart. “Ich grolle nicht” is probably the only one I actually performed. Dichterliebe is the peak in the song cycle world.

Why? It is made up entirely of fragments, snapshots with no beginning or ending, the perfect example of Schumann’s art, the reason he is revered above all others. It’s like haiku—capture all there is to say about one thing in just a few notes, and then move on. The poet Heinrich Heine is as perfect in his expression as Schumann is in his settings. What expresses falling in love better than “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai?” What song is more bitter than “Ich grolle nicht,” or more tragic than “Ich hab' im Traum geweinet?” [It’s mistranslated on Wikipedia—my tears are still flowing.] What other song cycle can claim irony such as “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” and “Allnächtlich im Traume?”

It’s like a collection of tiny diamonds.

Matthias Goerne is the first to establish a major career from Lieder since Fischer-Dieskau, and has recorded all of the big cycles. I’ve never cared for the voice of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau—it’s just too kind of sweet and whiny for me. He’s regarded like a god, but I just don’t like him, though old age has softened this. Goerne’s voice is not especially pretty. He growls and groans his way along, but I like this growl better than Fischer-Dieskau’s whine.

There is not room for great effects as there is in opera. Interpretation consists of finding the same fragment of perfection as the poet and the composer. Goerne has found the perfection of Dichterliebe. Each song is as it should be.

He is aided in this achievement by the astounding piano playing of Vladimir Ashkenazy. He’s far more assertive than what I am used to, but I think for Schumann this is right. The piano must feel equal to the voice. I love it.

Liederkreis is on the same recording, but I don’t know it nearly so well.


Well, I guess I do know this one.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Isabel and McGegan

The rich cultural life of greater San Francisco includes a group called the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra led by Nicholas McGegan. The concert mistress of this group is the eminent Baroque violinist, Elizabeth Blumenstock. The program lists the pedigree of each player's instrument. Ms Blumenstock plays a Guarneri.

I did not need to go to New York to hear Isabel Bayrakdarian, a soprano in whom I am currently interested, because she came to Berkeley. She popped into my inbox because the Chronicle review of her concert here compared her to Cecilia Bartoli, triggering a Google alert. I can't really be considered a Baroqophile, but it's a lot cheaper to go to Berkeley than New York.

The program of this concert was very musicological, worthy of a Bartoli concert. The theme of the concert was German music in the Baroque that wasn't by Bach. There was an awful lot of it.

Isabel sang opera arias written for the character of Cleopatra, both with Caesar and with Anthony.

Carl Heinrich Graun (1703-1759) Cleopatra e Cesare (1742) [Listed as Cleopatra e Cesare in the program and as Cesare e Cleopatra in the notes. Which is it?] Written for Berlin, text in Italian. This was accompanied by its overture.

Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra (1725) Written for Naples, text in Italian.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) Giulio Cesare (1724) Written for London, text in Italian. This is the great da capo aria "Piangero," the only thing on the program I had heard before. It was preceded by its overture.

Johann Matthewson (1681-1764) Cleopatra (1704) Written for the Hamburg Opera, text in German. The Hamburg Opera was the first commercial opera outside Venice, and Matthewson was one of its main composers.

Isabel closed with the death of Cleopatra. The works varied widely from the intensely ornamental of Graun, through the very lyrical Handel "Piangero," to the dramatic Mattheson. She was best at the ends, best in the intensity of her fioratura, best in her dramatic expression, but insufficiently legato for the intensity of "Piangero."

We should note here that Matthewson in 1704 is still in the middle Baroque, and this may explain the interesting variety of his pieces. I swear she sang something in this section that wasn't in the program. It had the text "Gute Nacht." It was very sweet.

To complete the program there were two concertos:

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) Concerto No. 161 for Flute, G major [Can't find a date. This may have been written for Frederick the Great and is Quantz's most famous piece.] The flutist is Janet See, who played on a Baroque transverse flute. The orchestral flutists played recorders.

Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) Concerto in F major, S 234 Dresden. The outer movements were for two natural horns, played pointing up into the air. The slow movement was a concerto for flute, again with Janet See.

I found the entire concert interesting. There is a recording of the arias.

She doesn't remind me of Bartoli at all. For one thing she's a soprano. Unfortunately, I am every day reminded of the vast differences between the cultural life of San Francisco and Sacramento and am spending a lot of money and time traveling back and forth.

Hunt and McGegan


Undoubtedly I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area when Lorraine Hunt Lieberson began her career there and knew nothing about it.

The extensive discography for Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra includes several recordings by Lorraine, including a lovely version of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. It's charming and very theatrical. Lorraine ornaments a lot more than Janet Baker.

The other people on the recording don't quite achieve Lorraine's heaven. The sailor and even the following chorus are done with heavy lower class English accents. Cute. Silly. I like the witches. The incredible theatrical viability of this work are everywhere apparent in this recording.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Stolen from someone

I was interested in these comments from an interview of Vesselina Kasarova:

WP: What is your secret in keeping your voice so fit and flexible even after two decades?
VK: The most important thing to me is the piano - crescendo and decrescendo, the dynamic juggling with the voice. If I cannot do that anymore, then I know I must have done something wrong. I want to have total control of my voice. I don’t want my voice to dictate to me what it can give. I want my voice to do what I want it to do. I am a very intuitive person. Intuition, as I understand it, is always also intelligence. Accordingly one learns from one’s own mistakes and one thinks it over. Rest time is also important for me.

WP: You also took some risks nevertheless. For example; in a single season at the Zurich Opera you sang Monteverdi, Mozart, Rossini and the Oktavian in Der Rosenkavalier . Would such a wide range of role wreck a voice?
VK: I sang my first Oktavian when I was 39 years old. Those who risk wrecking the voice on that role are ones who starts singing him at only 25. Besides I am very careful with this part. I have only sung Oktavian in Zurich and in a Japan tour of the Zurich Opera so far. And I don’t know at all whether I will sing him again. All the Richard Strauss repertoire - I never sang The Composer in 'Ariadne auf Naxos', much less the Dyer’s Wife in 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' ... that'll never happen. As far as the vocal style of speech-singing goes, I don't like it anymore.

Dr.B: Wow. I don't think I would have suggested Dyer's Wife for her in any event, but her Octavian is wonderful. It would be a shame if she never sang it again. At the end she seems to be rejecting the whole Strauss style. Try singing it like it's Mozart. That might work.

Wide range of role does not wreck a voice. Pushing, especially pushing with leaking air. Over singing. Extending into repertoire that is too high and heavy. These are the usual reasons. Wide range of role should help, I would think. She jumps immediately to discussing Strauss and ignores the other three composers as obviously not a problem. One could ask more questions here.

If one is coming to Strauss from Mozart and Rossini, perhaps he seems heavy and ruinous. I am always reminded of Gwyneth Jones who came to Strauss from Bruhnnhilde and Lady Macbeth. For her voice Strauss was a balm. I think Kasarova's voice could do a little heavy singing as long as she doesn't overdo it. My take on her is obviously quite different from her own.

Here is the link to the original interview in German.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Peter Grimes in HD


Peter Grimes............Anthony Dean Griffey
Ellen Orford............Patricia Racette
Captain Balstrode.......Anthony Michaels-Moore
Mrs. Sedley.............Felicity Palmer
Auntie..................Jill Grove
Niece...................Leah Partridge
Niece...................Erin Morley
Hobson..................Dean Peterson
Swallow.................John Del Carlo
Bob Boles...............Greg Fedderly
Rev. Horace Adams.......Bernard Fitch
Ned Keene...............Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Conductor...............Donald Runnicles
Production..............John Doyle

Natalie Dessay, our hostess for the simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera, asked Anthony Dean Griffey to describe his preparation for the title role of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. He replied that his whole life was preparation. "I was born to play Peter Grimes." I would have to say that I agree. His voice was if anything better in the part than Peter Pears, the singer the role was written for, and his large looming presence adds just the right note of fear and loathing. I've seen him before--last year in the LA Opera production of Mahagonny. He is a lyric tenor with power to back it up when he needs it. He is a man born to be Peter Grimes.

It is taught in school that this is Britten's masterpiece, but how is one to know when one has never seen it before?

The production was excellent. The set consisted of a floor to ceiling wall of doors which could be constantly repositioned to create different effects. The doors looming over the hero help to create his paranoia and sense of isolation from the crowds of villagers who never seem to leave him alone. It also helped to control the masses of people on the stage and prevent the chorus from confusing us about the characters. The essential choral work was massive.

Anthony Dean Griffey refused to answer Natalie's question about whether or not Grimes was guilty, preferring ambiguity. I suggest that unlike the law life is always ambiguous.

I particularly liked the first part of the second act where Grimes and Ellen talk while words from the Book of Common Prayer are recited in the background.

The always beautiful Patricia Racette was simultaneously gentle and powerful in the critical role of Ellen Orford. We aren't sure what she sees in Peter Grimes.

Everyone seemed perfect, including Jill Grove as Auntie the pub mistress, John Del Carlo as Swallow and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode.

Also born for Peter Grimes is the Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles. His work was full of love. In his brief interview he explained how Britten had composed for the movies, how the orchestra creates the feeling of the storms at sea that are crucial to the action.

I rarely come out of an opera feeling that there aren't here and there tiny bits that could be improved. Not so here. Benjamin Britten would feel proud of this wonderful production of his masterpiece. We believe now.

Anna Bonitatibus


Anna Bonitatibus is someone I heard twice at the Zürich Opera, first in Julius Caesar with Cecilia where I described her as "a small woman with a penetrating voice in the role of Sesto."

Then I saw her in Handel's Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. I said:

"The dynamism of the coloratura in this work is extreme. Perhaps Handel worked with some incredible singers in Rome in 1707. The most incredible of all is pleasure, a role that was sung by Cecilia Bartoli in the opera's last mounting here, and whose arias form the framework for her Opera Proibita tour. In this mounting it was sung very well indeed by Anna Bonitatibus, a personal favorite."

She was just terrific.

I don't know why I never noticed this before, but she can be purchased from Amazon. For instance, there is a DVD of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia where I assume she is the star.

She's in a bunch of Handel CDs, including Deidamia, Tolomeo, Tamerlano, the last also on DVD.  There is also a bit of her on YouTube. I am surprised and pleased.

And here's her picture with hair in her face.

Friday, March 14, 2008

20 Tenors

I feel obligated to comment on this list of the all time top 20 tenors from the BBC music mag:

20. Sergey Lemeshev
19. Wolfgang Windgassen
18. Alfredo Kraus
17. Anthony Rolfe Johnson
16. John McCormack
15. Franco Corelli
14. Peter Schreier
13. Juan Diego Florez
12. Carlo Bergonzi
11. Tito Schipa
10. Peter Pears
9. Nicolai Gedda
8. Jon Vickers
7. Beniamino Gigli
6. Lauritz Melchior
5. Jussi Bjoerling
4. Fritz Wunderlich
3. Luciano Pavarotti
2. Enrico Caruso
1. Placido Domingo

I am leaving out number 20 because I never heard of him. He's Russian. That's all I know. The remaining fall into a few well defined categories:

Italians
Enrico Caruso
Luciano Pavarotti
Beniamino Gigli
Carlo Bergonzi
Franco Corelli
Tito Schipa

Swedes pretending to be Italian
Nicolai Gedda
Jussi Bjoerling

These singers represent the Italian tradition, and it's a matter of taste whom you prefer. Tradition would emphasize Caruso. Many consider Franco Corelli the finest Italian tenor who ever lived, and I would definitely move him higher in the list, certainly above Bergonzi. Pavarotti is a brilliant example of the tradition. I have always had a weakness for Bjoerling.

An equally well defined tradition is:

Germans
Fritz Wunderlich
Peter Schreier
Wolfgang Windgassen (I'm counting him as German)

Miscellaneous tenors pretending to be German
Lauritz Melchior (Danish)
Jon Vickers (Canadian)

I think I personally prefer Vickers, but would not wish to slight Melchior. A proper list must include these.

The magazine is British so there are singers in that category that we might otherwise ignore, not being ourselves British:

British
Anthony Rolfe Johnson
Peter Pears
John McCormack (Irish)

I had a teacher who loved John McCormack and made me listen to him. It's not a style that particularly grabs me. I would leave all of these out of my top 20.

That leaves a few Spaniards:

Juan Diego Florez
Placido Domingo
Alfredo Kraus

We should all pause briefly to note that not a single Frenchman appears in the list, unless you count Windgassen. No one pops into memory for preferring French style and repertoire. Or perhaps Alfredo Kraus falls into this category. The Spaniard with the German last name emphasized French repertoire.

Juan Diego Florez, actually from Peru, at 35 is by far the youngest in this list. He is the only representative of his generation and is more or less a one off. The repertoire of the long ago Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794-1854) slips onto his voice like a hand made glove. There are others in his Fach, but no one is so spectacular a coloratura tenor in all of recorded history. Where you place him in the list will depend on how highly you regard the bel canto repertoire.

That leaves Placido Domingo. I see from the comments on La Cieca that many would leave him off entirely. How can this be? I propose that it is the purity of his musicianship and the extreme difficulty of placing him in any of the stylistic categories that creates this problem. He sings a lot of Italian repertoire, but isn't exactly Italian. He has always sung a lot of French opera, but isn't exactly French. Now suddenly in his old age he is a Heldentenor without ever sounding exactly German. He must be in any top 20 list, and even any top 10 list, but where? He is not the best Italian, not the best German, so what is he? I've always said he was the sexiest man ever to walk onto an opera stage. Perhaps he is the best Placido Domingo that ever was.

Here are a few tenors not in the list:

Italian style if not nationality:
Giuseppe di Stefano
Mario del Monaco
Robert Alagna
Francisco Araiza
José Carreras
José Cura
Salvatore Licitra
Chris Merritt
Rolando Villazon

German style if not nationality:
Ben Heppner
James King
Jess Thomas

In his period Mario del Monaco dominated the Italian scene. James King was also excellent. Of the modern guys you can make up your own mind.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Paris Clemenza di Tito


I decided I should give the Paris Opera Susan Graham DVD of La Clemenza di Tito another try. The production is very formal and palely classical. The costumes are periodless--vaguely nineteenth century. There is real fire on the stage for the riot. The cast includes Christophe Pregardien, Catherine Naglestad, Hannah Esther Minutillo, Lorenzo Regazzo, and Sylvain Cambreling.

Susan Graham is very intense for the music, perhaps, but sang the part far better than Kasarova, reviewed elsewhere. Vitelia is noticeably too low for Catherine Naglestad. Christophe Pregardien as Tito is pretty mediocre. Basically you would want this for Susan Graham who is showered with flowers at the end.

But what the hell was that baked potato with the woman sitting in the butter for? It went across the stage for no apparent reason during the first act. I hate that.

I am so pleased to have found this picture of it.


Post recording industry

It's time to ask the question: What will a post-recording industry world be like? There is collapse all around, not merely in classical music which has been collapsing for decades. We should all try to remind ourselves that most if not possibly all of the great music that was created in western society was created pre-recording industry. It is possible that it is the recording industry itself that has created our world, a world in which ancient monuments recreated ad nauseum and modern crap are all we get to hear.

What if music weren't merely produced, but was instead created?

There isn't really much room for comfort, I'm afraid. It is proposed to replace the recording industry with endlessly repeating arena concerts. Much as I might wish it, it is doubtful that this bodes well for creativity. When Bryn Terfel proposed reorganizing his career in this way, I gave him shit for it. I repeat my previous proposal: if that's where they are going, we should boycott. Vow today never to attend an arena concert. In my case I would have to vow not to buy the DVD either.

I think the recording industry is looking in the wrong places to find where its problems lie. I think they should consider the possibility that the problem lies in the product and not the distribution methods. And other hand wringing.

Wait. We aren't to consider Cecilia Bartoli's concerts in the arena concert category, are we? I can't vow not to go to those. She generally appears in normal classical concert venues.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My boy






What should I say about Jonas Kaufmann's Romantic Arias? I love it as much as I hoped I would. The rendition of the Prize Song is very unusual.

I am able to see both sides of the controversy concerning Jonas. For me he is the real thing--an artist of great gifts and great originality. The chief attraction for me is the amazing beauty of his voice. I simply adore it.

His style is also fascinating to me. At various times on this blog I have encouraged performers to find their own way to expression, their own personal approach to the tools of expression. For my ears Jonas does this. He isn't doing mere imitations of other singers. He doesn't scoop and slide as much as a real Italian would in Italian repertoire, but does that mean he should? He projects as a German singer in all repertoire, one of the reasons I predicted he would evolve gradually into a Heldentenor. Expression must come from the heart and not be imposed from the outside from the performances of other singers. IMHO.

I hear true feeing in his voice. He successfully makes me hear the music again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Solti's Ring

Ever since I posted this as a review of Life and Death, I have wondered how it could be that a recording of Wagner's Ring, even one by so great a conductor as Georg Solti, could possibly sell so many records, 25 million as I recall. Perhaps they are counting each disk one at a time. Even if you buy it now on CD, it's 14 discs. Maybe one purchase counts as 14.

It's a great recording. Where else could you hear Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson on the same recording? And Hans Hotter as Wotan. And James King. And Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. And Christa Ludwig. And Regine Crespin? Have we missed anyone? Even the Rhine maidens include Lucia Popp and Gwyneth Jones.

One of the Amazon comments notes that it has been released in various media, so maybe the number is real. It's just hard to believe.

Monday, March 10, 2008

All I have to show for trip

...is this sort of funny movie.

This is the first time I've tried this.

This refers to my quasi-trip to Cleveland to see Jonas Kaufmann, discussed here.  There was a bad storm in Cleveland, the airport was closed and the concert was cancelled.  At least I didn't miss anything.  The price of my concert ticket was refunded.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Zurich Der Rosenkavalier



I am comforting myself with this DVD of Der Rosenkavalier from the Zurich Opera.

The second act is completely incongruous. We are expected to believe that Herr von Faninal is so completely middle class that he entertains the Count Rofrano and the Baron Ochs in his kitchen. No one is that middle class. And von Faninal uses the kitchen appliances? How are we possibly to believe this? Octavian stabs the Baron with a kitchen knife.

At the inn in the third act Octavian and the Baron sway back and forth in time to the waltz music. This Rosenkavalier is a fairy tale of no particular time and place.

The best bit in this whole production comes when the plot is unraveling and Sophie sees the relationship between Octavian and the Marschallin, she unselfconsciously walks over and puts her hand on the Baron's shoulder.

I have long suspected that I needed to see Vesselina Kasarova as Octavian. I could not have been more right. It is her masterpiece. She dominates the action as no one I have seen before. And I've seen a few of these.

Each actor is bringing us new insights. The unusual production makes this possible. Rosenkavalier is almost always choreographed with extreme precision according to ancient tradition, but not here. Without violating the meaning of the piece, each scene is not what we are used to. For instance, I have never seen it begin with the Marschallin and Octavian already out of bed.

Our Marschallin is not so brave. In moments of crisis she faints. Nina Stemme is not the best singing Marschallin I've seen, but she is the most tragic and emotional. She does not quite believe how well she has predicted this day. Today or tomorrow or the next day.... In the action she actively blesses the union of Octavian and Sophie, something I have never seen before.

Malin Hartelius is perfect for Sophie, serious and only a little bit arrogant. When she finally marries, it will be as a grown woman with her eyes open.

How can I possibly describe the Ochs of Alfred Muff? If he were not precisely this big a pig, we would surely love him. Life moves only forward. Sophie knows that she may have made a mistake. (There is no way I could possibly have gotten to Cleveland.) She pulls herself together for the happy ending, and briefly we hear the theme for "when was I ever this happy" from the presentation scene. When she sings "It's a dream, can't be real," we somehow know that she is right.

The magic flows together at the end, as indeed it must for a truly successful Rosenkavalier. When it comes time to wail, they do. If you can bear the unusual bits, it is a truly beautiful Rosenkavalier.

Cleveland

Or not Cleveland. To Cleveland or not to Cleveland? That is the question. The Cleveland airport was closed. So I sat in O'Hare and got drunk and ate Caesar salad and talked to a very nice man from Austria. I tried out my German which is still remarkably good. And came home.

I'm not very lucky. I was going to Cleveland to see Jonas Kaufmann sing Das Lied von der Erde, a piece of which I am quite fond. I was even going to forgive them for casting a baritone instead of a mezzo. Sigh.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Rolando

This is an important interview with Rolando Villazon about his vocal crisis.

The Voice of Now


I attended a Cal Performances concert last night at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley that featured three pieces performed by Orquesta Los Pelegrinos, orchestra of pilgrims, one with Dawn Upshaw. All three were fascinating, probably in ascending order. Ms Upshaw and the orchestra are touring these pieces around the country.

All three works involve electronic music in one form or another. The audience experienced the electronics through the auditorium's sound system, but the musicians were aided by speakers that pointed back toward them. Clearly we are in the realm of today.

There are unusual features galore. The first two works featured a prepared Steinway grand piano, an idea invented / popularized by John Cage that involves making physical changes to the piano that alters the sound. In Meanwhile the sound was muffled by padding the hammers. The prepared piano in the second piece was a more traditional mixture of distorted sounds and strumming on the strings. Imagine--John Cage now represents a tradition. This is a sign that one has lived too long. The player was a young woman named Lisa Kaplan who came attired in jeans, a black blouse and high heel boots.

First is Meanwhile (2007) by Stephen Hartke.

Is there anything else I can say about Meanwhile besides that it used prepared piano? The piece is described as incidental music to imaginary puppet plays. Imagine any play you like. The viola is tuned a half step lower than normal.

Percussion is vital to this sound scape work. The flautist and clarinetist eventually turned into percussionists by the end. The percussion ensemble included a lot of wood tones and an invented electronic instrument. The sound ideal seems derived from gamelan. It was fun.

Second is Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale, 1971) by George Crumb.

Have you heard whale songs? Judy Collins once had a song that included them. They are eerie and mysterious. When you were listening to them, did you imagine these sounds could be produced by electronic flute, cello and prepared piano? In the presentation of the theme the flautist, Timothy Munro, played and sang through his flute to produce some pretty bizarre sounds. The tunes clearly come from the whales themselves, but it is the phrasing that makes you actually feel whale songs. I would not have thought this possible. There were no recordings of whales included in the performance.

This piece was played with the lights dimmed and the players blindfolded. One is to imagine oneself deep in the ocean. They walked off with their blindfolds still on, though I think the pianist may have been cheating. The masks and dim lighting are suggested by the composer. Nothing is said about any possible role for extemporization, so I assume they memorized their parts.

The most curious sentence in the program says that "George Crumb is one of the most famous composers of out time." I am even more out of the loop than I thought.

Last is Ayre (2004) by Osvaldo Golijov.

If they'd said Osvaldo Golijov is one of the most famous composers of our time, I would have believed it.

The orchestra expands to eleven players, including Jeremy Flower on laptop computer who adds recorded elements when they become necessary. This is a very tricky job which he pulled off expertly. His part included Dawn Upshaw singing with herself. Percussion is also vital to Ayre, and it is curious that the percussionist hid on the floor behind the double-bass player. Was this to prevent us from knowing how much of the rhythm came from him and how much came from the laptop?

Ayre is deeply middle-eastern, fundamentally monophonic with several players providing the same melody, rather like Turkish music with a much more high tempo, driving rhythm. In my CD review of this piece I compared it to Klezmer, and this still feels right.

It was wonderful to see and hear Dawn Upshaw. She stands in the middle and leads her ensemble in a way that can only remind one of La Bartoli. I'm glad she figured out a way to present this cycle to the public. It's very exciting. It is her ability to immerse herself in the style that makes this work. All is done without compromising classical vocal technique. Best wishes.

I'm going on and on. And I haven't said anything about the hyper-accordion. The entire concert was completely fascinating. I have a feeling that this is what passes as classical music in the twenty-first century. There are apparent connections to whales, klezmer and gamelan, but connections to classical music as we know it were not there.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Bitter, disappointed old women

On the back page of the March Opera News is an essay titled “The Jury is Out” in which the author, Brian Kellow, explains why he no longer wants to serve as a judge for singing competitions. He cites in particular an unnamed fellow judge who once criticized Renée Fleming’s Italian R. Renée is now referred to as “Your Miss Fleming” by the other judges.

I am taking this personally. It seems an essay about bitter, disappointed old women, something I sometimes wonder I might be. I definitely think it is what Cecilia decided I was. When I criticized Bryn, his partisans quickly leaped to that conclusion. [I was criticizing his career plans, not his voice or performance standards.] There can be no disputing the old part or the woman part.

It's true I criticize people and suggest they should do various things. My intentions are that they should improve and do better. If Renée Fleming's Italian R stank, I would probably suggest she acquire one, exactly like the bitter old woman in the essay. The intent would be that she then acquired a proper Italian R and was the better for it (I note on YouTube that Renée's Italian R is fine now). The intention would not be that she should then feel humiliated and cry. If you feel intensely humiliated any time anyone criticizes you--as I myself often did--you are probably not cut out for the tough world of the opera. My first bit of advice would be to get tougher.

After a great deal of miserable, hateful, deeply loathed auditioning, I came to resent the fact that no one told me the truth. A lot of time was wasted trying to do something for which I was not suited. No one told me this. If your Italian R stinks, why isn't it better to know? If your voice is too light for opera, why isn't it better to know?

I am probably much more guilty of the things he criticizes than the woman he is attacking. After all, I wrote an entire 300 page book criticizing the worshiped and adored Italian singer. When I look back at my technique book, I don't see bitterness or even arrogance. I was genuinely surprised by how much I knew about singing. The pages just flowed out. My intentions were honorable, though in certain respects misguided. Or possibly insane. Humiliation was not the goal. In fact it was the very real possibility of humiliation that made me return it to its box in the closet. In the end I didn't publish it, and she didn't read it. It was pointless.

As one grows older, possibilities begin to close. Choices that were made earlier are called into question. If one regrets ones choices, bitterness can be the result. I blog because there is a lot of information in my head about music, information I would like to put to use. Music is what I was trained to do. I had virtually no training at all for systems analysis.

I always look back to see how much I might have been helped by honesty. If people love you, they don't hesitate to tell you. If they think you lack certain essential gifts, they gossip about it amongst themselves while smiling woodenly at you. Yes, I probably would have cried.

I advised Yvonne Kenny to pitch her pop songs higher. I advised Thomas Glenn to work on his coloratura technique. I advised Cecilia Bartoli to practice the messa di voce. I advised Measha Brueggergosman to look for the passion in French as she so easily found it in English. I advised Tracie Luck to "Reach into my heart and give it a little squeeze." I advised Rolando Villazon that he was a lyric tenor. I hope I didn't send any of them into a crying jag. I worry that I might advise someone to do something they actually shouldn't do.

I honestly don't know if I am a bitter, disappointed old woman. I hope not.