Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Favorites by Year 2009

This year I went to Munich because both Jonas Kaufmann and Cecilia Bartoli were there at the same time.  I continue to wish this happened more often.   This was also my first experience of Nadja Michael when she did Salome in San Francisco.  This was a relatively slow year where I reviewed only 30 performances, including only 1 DVD, 9 HDs, 20 live performances and 1 movie.

Favorite Performances

  • Porgy and Bess at SFO ** Musically it was very exciting and starred Eric Owens* and Laquita Mitchell* in their SFO debuts.  This has become a DVD and plays occasionally on PBS.   Local

  • (ND) Natalie Dessay's La Traviata at Santa Fe **  She jumped from box to box more than could possibly be imagined.  I don't see how they could get anyone else to do this.  This was Natalie's first Traviata, and Saimir Pirgu was her Alfredo.  Travel
  • (CB) Sacrificium   I think this is my favorite recital recording by Cecilia Bartoli.  CD

  • (JK) Munich Lohengrin ** There is a film of this with Anja Harteros, but my live performance had Emily Magee.  I enjoy Munich quite a lot.  Live in the theater there were things going on at the sides of the stage that cannot be seen on the film.  I think sometimes it would be fun if you could view the same performance from different camera angles.  Travel

  • (CB) Sacrificium Tournee **  Cecilia Bartoli had cancelled the official opening, making this performance in Munich the opening of her tour of Sacrificium.  This is a spectacular program and she gave herself some fun costumes for her imitation of a castrato. Travel
  •  Jenůfa at the Bayerische Staatsoper  ** with my first experience of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Jenůfa.  Another treat was the appearance of old favorite Helga Dernesch as the grandmother. Travel
  • All Purcell concert at Mondavi **  This was Philharmonia Baroque and included a terrific Dido and Aeneas starring Susan Graham.  The rest of the program was filled out with more pieces by Purcell, a first for me.    Local
  • Johan Botha's Otello at SFO ** Nicola Luisotti has once again broken the SFO Verdi curse.  Soon we will not remember that it ever existed.  This is perhaps my only live experience of Johan Botha who has since died.   Local

Singer of the Year

I must award the singer prize for this year to Jonas Kaufmann AND Ceclia Bartoli.

Didn't like

I didn't like at all La Sonnambula in HD.  The singing was fine but the staging was incoherent.

New to Me Opera

My new operas list is short this year:

  1. Gluck's Alceste (1767) live in Santa Fe. **
  2. Janáček's From the House of the Dead (1930) was a DVD
  3. Moravec's The Letter  (2009) world premier live in Santa Fe. **
  4. Snow's Footloose musical (1998) live in San Juan Capistrano. **
  5. Webber's Cats musical (1981) live at the Music Circus. **

##20 top 20 all time

** live, live stream or live in HD

Things recommended to buy


Monday, December 28, 2009

Top for 2009

I saw 25 live opera performances this year, including the Santa Fe Opera, the San Francisco Opera and the Met simulcasts, and this is what impressed me. 

1. The peak operatic experience this year for me was undoubtedly the San Francisco Opera's production of Porgy and Bess. I had not known until this moment how absolutely exciting and moving this work could be. Congratulations to everyone involved. 

2. Second place for me has to be Jonas Kaufmann's wonderful Lohengrin in Munich. If he came to rescue me, I would not care who he "really" was. 

3. The semi-staged Dido and Aeneas at the Mondavi Center with Philharmonia Baroque was simply wonderful. 

4. Patricia Racette's Il Trittico at the San Francisco Opera was a tour de force. And the production in San Francisco is far better than the Met's, entirely removing the revulsion against excess corniness that every Suor Angelica except this one seems to have. Seeing the great Ewa Podleś was a bonus. 

5. This is a personal list. It is rare that a work and its artists so completely mesh as in the Metropolitan Opera's simulcast of La Rondine with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. The Met version was virtually a replay of the San Francisco production last year, but it was equally great the second time. 

6-10. The entire season at the Santa Fe Opera. 5 operas in 5 days is a little overwhelming, but every work was interesting, well sung and well presented. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Opera repertoire is too small. This single year included 2 Elixirs (Santa Fe and Sacramento), 2 La Traviatas (San Francisco and Santa Fe) and 2 Hoffmanns (Berkeley and the Metropolitan.) A little digging would please me, but in these financial times I understand the need for conservative repertoire. 

Maybe you could do La Bohème every year. Oops. I forgot the La Bohème movie with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, seen in the theater and again at home on TV at Christmas. Anna is such a great actress. She sets the standard for operatic acting. 

Worst? Abduction in San Francisco, followed closely by Aida. Apologies to Dolora Zajick.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tales of Hoffmann in HD

Here is the cast for the simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Les Contes d'Hoffmann broadcast live on Saturday:

Olympia Kathleen Kim
Antonia /Stella Anna Netrebko
Giulietta Ekaterina Gubanova
Nicklausse/ The Muse Kate Lindsey
Hoffmann Joseph Calleja
Four Villains Alan Held
Conductor James Levine

The director, Bartlett Sher, has obviously read my idea of staging an opera as Austin Powers. Olympia's father, Coppélius, was dressed as Dr. Evil. I waited in vain for him to raise his pinkie.

The production was fun and didn't quite know what it was doing. Kathleen Kim was exactly what she was supposed to be.

In this production Nicklausse hovers in all the scenes, controlling and ultimately destroying all of Hoffmann's relationships. Why didn't I notice this before? Nicklausse wants Hoffmann to have bad relationships so he will be a better poet. Did Goethe have a lot of unhappy relationships? (I always compare any poet to Goethe, the man who makes German sound good.) Kate Lindsay was charming and pleasingly androgynous.

I see now why Anna Netrebko wanted to sing Antonia. In her version the character is wonderfully intense and dramatic. On the HD screen she lies dead with a tear running down her cheek. I thought Anna looked good and sang well.

The three villains are always James Morris for me. Alan Held was ok I guess.

I can't make up my mind about Joseph Calleja. His voice has an odd flutter, but I thought his characterization of Hoffmann was perfect.

The order of Giulietta and Antonia is sometimes reversed. The Giulietta scene was very close to an orgy.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1870-90]

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I want to say after seeing the HD simulcast of Hoffmann today how wonderfully lucky we are to be living in the time of James Levine. He may just be the greatest opera conductor that ever lived. He brings his intelligence, his heart and his soul to every performance. Bravo.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tosca at last

At this point my opinions about the Metropolitan Opera's Tosca are irrelevant.

Production: Why all the fuss? The lighting is so dark you can't see anything anyway. It was hard to see on my tiny tv but the virgin seemed to have a boob hanging out. There was some silliness at the end, but I was falling asleep. Maybe a cooler Tosca would work better.

Alvarez and Mattila are not well matched vocally. He is light and bright while she is dark and heavy. I haven't been liking Mattila lately. She is cast in repertoire that she has no particular sympathy for.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

No Divorce

According to this blog devoted to Angela Gheorghiu, there will be no divorce. For now. Ah love.

If she gets tired of Roberto, there's always Jack Black.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Passionate Americans

The center of classical music may lie elsewhere, but we Americans bring our own particular passion to the field. This list is not inclusive but reflects my own taste.

There is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson whose Bach I wish to specially honor.

I hear so much more here than with the other mezzo who sings Bach. I like and occasionally love Lorraine's Handel, but nothing surpasses her Bach. In YouTube there is a recording of Ich Habe Genug, her last appearance, where she sings in her hospital gown. "I have enough. I am ready to depart." But I simply could not bear it. And besides this is perfection.

We are apparently into Bach this morning, so here are two more passionate Americans: Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis doing an aria from Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.

No one brings more of her heart to music than Kathleen.

This list would not be complete without the very passionate Jessye Norman, here in Wagner's Ring.

No one soared higher than Jessye.

New to my list is the very passionate Joyce DiDonato, here in Handel.

You can absolutely not beat this. She joins the long list of passionate American singers. If I have omitted your favorite, then make your own list.

Friday, December 11, 2009

More than you wanted to know about harpsichord technique

I decided to review Harpsichord Technique -- a guide to expressivity by Nancy Metzger. She quotes all the masters who have previously written on the subject--François Couperin, Arnolt Schlick, Girolamo Diruta, Jean-Philippe Rameau, etc.

She recommends something she calls the super legato. From my days as a recorder of midi music I know that the legato is achieved by allowing a note to extend the entire time until the next note starts. With a super legato there is an additional bit of overlap. The two styles produce different effects. To get two of the same note you must release the first before the second begins, so super legato is not possible. In midi this is simple to achieve, but by a live player it takes practice holding the fingers down.

How interesting. More so than organs or pianos there is a lot of difference between one harpsichord and another. It can vary how far the key goes down before the plucker encounters the string. It can vary how hard you push to get the string to pluck. It takes practice with the particular harpsichord to achieve perfection here. I have also been told you should replace all the pluckers at once so there will be consistency in how hard you push from one key to another.

She explains how to get the super legato and provides exercises.

Since the volume doesn't vary on a harpsichord, you are stuck varying the length of the notes relative to one another to get any kind of expression.

She discusses style brisé -- broken chord arpeggiation. This should involve some holding down of the keys -- rather like imitating a sustain pedal, which doesn't exist on the harpsichord.

The short version of this long book is that expression on the harpsichord derives primarily through manipulation of the spaces between the notes. You will be playing primarily music written for the harpsichord, and the composer will have been aware of how this was done.

A modern professional harpsichordist will be required to realize from a figured bass where these expressivity principles will be used in notes of the keyboardist's own invention.

It's a clear and fascinating book.

Why am I writing about this? I believe articulation to be a vital part of expressivity in singing, too, but in a far more complex and subtle way than for a keyboardist. Few singers have any awareness at all of how this features in their own singing. The widest variety in the use of articulation in singing by a wide margin is, of course, to be found in the singing of Cecilia Bartoli. I get the feeling she isn't hanging out with us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The rise of Jonas Kaufmann

I feel proud to have witnessed the rise of the career of Jonas Kaufmann. When I first began writing about him there were only about 3 videos of him on YouTube. Now there are over 600 without duplicates.

On 1/23/2007, almost three years ago, I wandered quite by accident into a performance of Fidelio at the Zurich opera. I described him as "a Florestan to die for." I was going for the opera rather than the performers. I immediately pegged him as a Heldentenor. And here.

By March he had made my sexiest list. A year later I was calling him "my boy."

Well, I guess he isn't mine any more. Everyone is flying to Milan to hear him in Carmen. They love him all around the world. Congratulations, Jonas. You deserve it.

The woman in the picture is his wife.

P.S. I feel I must add a footnote. I knew Jonas existed long before this because I saw him in Nina, La Pazza per Amore, the Paisiello opera filmed in Zurich with Cecilia Bartoli. What changed in the Fidelio performance was the idea that he might be significant for something besides his looks.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Google Alerts for Jonas

These are the Google Alerts I have gotten for Jonas Kaufmann over the last three days. He's hot right now because he is singing Don Jose at La Scala. Of course, I have seen his Don Jose in Zurich. It was gorgeous.

Google News Alert for: Jonas Kaufmann
The Associated Press
Critics applaud women in La Scala's 'Carmen'
The Associated Press
German tenor "Jonas Kaufmann sang Don Jose with a sweetness and passionate abandon," wrote Pestelli. Baritone Erwin Schrott as Escamillo has "a beautiful ...
See all stories on this topic
Review of the decade: Classical
... have maintained the Royal Opera as a place where the best singers – Plácido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Bryn Terfel, Jonas Kaufmann – still want to be seen. ...
See all stories on this topic

Monday, December 07, 2009


I want to say that I agree this time with Alex Ross in his praise of Joyce DiDonato. I wouldn't want anyone to think that because I gave her advice I don't like her. With me it might be possible to say that the size of my passion may be gauged by the extent of my advice. She is coming into her prime. I think she is the sort of person that grows on you. Viva.


Here in Sacramento everything is a Camerata. Yesterday I went to the Camerata California Christmas concert at Trinity Cathedral, the same church where I sang in my twenties.

Camerata California is noted for their interesting programming. They featured Beverly Wesner Hoehn on harp and managed to find two extended works for chorus and harp: With this Child by Michael Mauldin and A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten. "There is no rose of such virtu as is the rose that bare Jesu." This is my favorite Britten, and I sang it here in this place.

The harpist also played a solo: Fantasie on Stille Nacht by Marcel Grandjany. And Trois noel Des Oiseaux? How did they manage that? Fascinating.  Enjoy it for yourself.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Age of Netrebko

It is the end of the decade in less than a month, and before anyone else can say it I want to declare the 00 decade as the decade of Anna Netrebko. For more reasons than I could possibly count.

Breaking the Verdi Curse

We the audience of the San Francisco Opera are very pleased with our new Italian conductor, Nicola Luisotti. This season he has done Otello, Il Trovatore and Salome, the last the only German language opera I see in his credits. He knows his Italian repertoire and occasionally can be seen smooching with the female members of the orchestra. Everyone is very pleased. Is it too soon to declare the end of the Verdi curse?

Otello is an opera about a successful man honored above his expectations and married to the girl of his dreams, who cannot quite believe his luck. In his deepest heart he knows Desdemona is too good for him.

Johan Botha as Otello and Zvetelina Vassileva as Desdemona were very believable in this pairing. She is small, ethereal and devoted; he is large, dark and imposing. In short a mismatch. His enormous size emphasizes this dissonance.

Marco Vratogna as Iago was suitably diabolical and deceptive. For my taste his voice is not quite large enough for Verdi villains, but he successfully compensates with acting, phrasing and the other aspects of his performance.

Note to the San Francisco Opera: could you add a bit of information about nationality and training to the bios, please? It would be nice to have an idea of them as people and not just as roles and companies.

And now I am going to annoy everyone by discussing Johan Botha whom I have now seen in 2 Verdi roles in a one month period.

His big voice is beautiful and his legato is well developed. For me the beauty of his singing--the reason you are seeing him in opera at all--would be enhanced with better physical conditioning. Control of the phrase and control of the body are one.

I liked the one set production.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1870-90]

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Working Girls

This is a bit like reality TV. The Gala in Baden Baden 2007.

Question: Are Elina and Anna speaking to each other in Russian anywhere in this?

I have the DVD of this gala but this is all I said about it. It's fun. Fabulous Quartet form Rigoletto.

All this talk about babies is pretty annoying.