Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pondering the Death of the Sacramento Opera

This season at the Sacramento Opera was to be Handel's Orlando, Mozart's Magic Flute and Stephen Paulus's The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Only Magic Flute would most people have heard of before.

I would like to point out that the San Francisco Opera over the last decade has performed Puccini's Tosca in three different seasons, Verdi's La Traviata in three seasons, Magic Flute four seasons, including one set using Donald Pippin's English translation, and Puccini's Madama Butterfly in five different seasons.  That's one set of performances of Butterfly for every two seasons, sometimes double sets with twice as many performances as the other operas.

I don't have access to the attendance figures for the Sacramento Opera, but I would definitely recommend making a spreadsheet containing opera name, number of tickets sold and sort by number of tickets sold. Each of the top five operas should appear once every three or four years. I assume most opera companies know that they need to give their customers what they want.

Most of the gray heads in the audience (most of the audience) grew up in a time when no one even knew Handel wrote operas. Even today the primary reason for mounting one is to show off the spectacular technique of the singers. The potential audience guessed correctly that no one of that quality would appear.

Sell tickets to your opera by knowing your audience. There are a number of excellent things about the Sacramento Opera. Maybe we won't get to see them again.


Here is a footnote to my tirade about the Sacramento Opera. I decided to browse the Washington National Opera. I have friends in the DC area and would be happy for an excuse to visit them. Imagine my surprise! WNO is presenting Madama Butterfly and has had to add additional performances. I rest my case.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I like all sorts of things

It would be fun if this came without the label so we could all guess what this is.  She is only the very slightest younger than I, and I was a huge fan. It's less strange than Sting's Dowland.  For the sake of journalism this is Barbra Streisand singing Schumann's "Mondnacht."

Footnote: die Ausprache ist wirklich wunderbar.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Favorites by Year 2010

This year I went to Paris because both Jonas Kaufmann and Cecilia Bartoli were there at the same time.  Cecilia's concert also included Philippe Jaroussky.  I saw several other performances while I was in Paris  This is also the year I picked Nadine Sierra out of the crowd at the Merola finale for a duet from Romeo et Juliette.  New people also included Vittorio Grigolo and Javier Camarena.  Another slow year where I reviewed 31 performances, including 5 DVDs, 11 HDs, and 15 live performances.

Favorite Performances

  • Fleming and Graham Rosenkavalier HD   **  I saw them together years ago in San Francisco, so for me it was a treat to watch this pairing again.  Edo de Waart who was once with the San Francisco Symphony conducted.  Met HD

  • Carmen in HD   ** This was one of the most spectacular performances in the entire HD series with beautiful singing, great atmosphere, and spectacular acting.  Elīna Garanča and Roberto Alagna were surprisingly sympatico.  This is one of the great things.  Met HD ##20

  • (JK) Werther at Bastille **  I gasped and carried on throughout the opera from my fabulous seat in what we would call the Grand Tier at the Paris Opera Bastille.  Everything worked together to create an atmosphere of mysterious romance and doom.  Special award for the best playing by an opera orchestra.  The musical transformation of this opera was complete, and I have loved it ever since.  Travel  ##20
  • (ND) La Sonnambula at Bastille **  While in Paris, I added a ticket to see Natalie Dessay in a traditional production of the sleep walker.  This was my introduction to Javier Camarena who was an excellent operatic boy friend.  Travel

  • Renée Fleming's Armida in HD  **  Zimmerman crashed in Sonnambula, but her production here was a delight.  And how can you not like 6 Rossini tenors?  Met HD

  • Die Walküre with Nina Stemme SFO **  I loved this even though it didn't have Jonas Kaufmann.  The atmosphere and emotion were over the top.  The Ring cycle is coming again in 2018 but will not have Nina.   Local

  • (AN) Netrebko's Don Pasquale HD  **  This is the first time I have thought Don Pasquale was funny.  It also featured the great male duo Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien.  Met HD

  • (CB) Clari DVD  Bizarre and entirely unlikely.  But fun.  DVD
  • A once in a lifetime experience from the Metropolitan in HD comes the wonderful, moving and quite spectacular Boris Godunov with René Pape.  It was simply a great experience.   Met HD

Singer of the Year

I am going to give the singing prize to Elīna Garanča.

Didn't like

I didn't really like Placido Domingo or the rest of the cast in Simon Boccanegra in HD.  For me Patricia Racette's Faust from San Francisco completely fell flat.  If I were her, I would not repeat this opera. 

New to Me Opera

  1. Adès' The Tempest (2005) was a DVD.  I liked it better when I heard the HD from the Met.
  2. Frankel's Grey Gardens (2006) musical was a DVD
  3. Halévy's Clari (1828) was a DVD
  4. Krása Brundibár (1942) was live in Sacramento. **
  5. Rossini's Armida (1817) was HD from the Met. **

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

Things recommended to buy


Friday, December 24, 2010

Ceclia Bartoli: the limitations of being a mezzo

[This is copied from The Guardian.]

She's the most successful mezzo in the world, but Cecilia Bartoli can't help but feel she has been let down by the composers who only write for sopranos. 'I am, yes, I can admit it, quite sad about this," says Cecilia Bartoli gloomily. Outside, in the gathering dusk of her adoptive city of Zurich, it's beginning to snow. "My career – it could have been different." She throws a white scarf over the shoulder of her black polo neck sweater in a slightly irritated gesture.

The world's most celebrated mezzo-soprano is confessing her frustration at having an extraordinary voice for which no serious composer has written beautiful music. She would liked to have been a muse, but her destiny has been otherwise. "It would be very nice to have a composer of today composing for the voice of today, but I have not."

Her great vocal heroes and heroines of the 18th and 19th centuries were more fortunate. "I can admit it," she says, "I am jealous of these singers. I'm jealous in a way because today we don't have this rapport with the composer. We classical singers don't have this but pop singers have this. You mention Farinelli – Porpora was composing for him. Mozart composed for Nancy Storace. Rossini was composing for Isabella Colbran, Handel wrote all major roles for the castrato Senesino, even Mendelssohn wrote for Maria Malibran. I have not had this experience."

But why not? Bartoli's voice, even in its relatively immature form in her early 20s, captivated Barenboim and Karajan so much they called her agent demanding to work with her, and now fellow singers envy its range. Surely it should inspire composers? "It's become almost impossible. They – I would say the serious modern composers – don't want to compose tonal music any more. Who knows? Maybe it will change in the future."

So why not, while you wait, crossover to pop like so many of your peers have done? Then at least you might find someone who can write for your voice? "I'm not against this," she says, "but for me the real crossover that makes sense now is to make people cross the bridge to come and listen music they maybe have never heard before, music that I love, because this is what I can do best."

We're meeting in Bartoli's management's offices, ostensibly to talk about her new greatest hits collection, Sospiri, about which she is heroically upbeat, though I suspect it is not her thing at all. The sleeve notes include a treacly essay called Cecilia Bartoli and the Allure of a Sigh that begins: "What accounts for the unique flame that blazes in Cecilia Bartoli whenever she performs?"

"Look at the bubbles," she says pointing at the album cover in which she is photographed in mock-rapture amid bubbles – like a glamorous West Ham fan celebrating avoiding relegation. [?] "They wanted the bubbles," she says of her record company. "And I said 'Why not?'" The subtext: don't judge me for that, judge me for the 20 years of work inside – for my velvety legato, my spectacular coloratura, my sprightly melismas, my formidably maturing technique. [By all means!]

And we should. But we should also recognise that Sospiri is a collection of quieter arias conceived as mood music. There is a nagging sense that, for all its impeccable performances, this is just the CD that a Classic FM DJ could slip on at about 9.30pm while its demographic drifts off over Ovaltine.

But while Sospiri may belong to a genre satirised 30 years ago in the title of Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album, this disc of Italianate lollipops – Casta Diva, Una Voce Poco Fa, Ombra Mai Fu – also reminds us what makes Bartoli an overwhelmingly iconoclastic artist. The CD includes her interpretation of Gelido in Ogni Vena from Vivaldi's Farnace. It was Vivaldi, the forgotten composer of vocal music, whom she disinterred nearly 12 years ago. Her 1999 Vivaldi album made millions realise the Venetian wrote something other than The Four Seasons.

Were you using your star clout to do something you thought artistically worthwhile? "Yes. It was a success that was not anticipated and that gave me heart to carry on with other reinvestigations of neglected music." Decca, no doubt suspecting Bartoli had the golden touch, bankrolled albums that looked commercially dubious – her album of Gluck's Italian arias, another called Opera Proibita featuring music from operas banned by the church in her native Rome at the start of the 18th century, a disc of castrati arias and an album that paid homage to her 19th-century heroine Maria Malibran. All sold in the hundreds of thousands. "After this experience with Vivaldi, I thought may be I can do more research, more recording of esoteric works – and keep singing the popular classical repertoire as well."

It is through such research that she has, at least to her satisfaction, managed to retain integrity as a creative artist, bubbles notwithstanding. Inspired by the scholarly conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with whom she worked in her 20s, she has spent much time in European libraries scouring manuscripts to find music from the baroque period or the later bel canto era to reinterpret. Perhaps the best example is her 2008 album Sacrificium, which included 11 world premiere recordings of baroque arias originally sung by genitally-mutilated men.

"I was interested in castrati because what happened to them was the most criminal thing in the history of classical music," she says. "In Italy as many as 4,000 boys were castrated each year for about 100 years. From the families in the south of Italy, where they often had 10 or 12 children, one child would be sacrificed to the knife. They hoped this boy would save the family from poverty. In his time Farinelli was big like Michael Jackson so you can see why they would do it.

"But what a price! They would be castrated at six to seven to ensure the voice would sound like a female. Most of them became just miserable men. If 3,000 were castrated only 100 would make a career. The rest were rejected by society. Those who succeeded had voices with incredible expressivity. They were able to sing from the lowest to the highest registers."

But what could you, with all due respect, a woman, bring to castrati arias? Bartoli laughs at me for the question, which is only what I deserve. "It is difficult for anybody to sing as they did because castrati were men with female voices. These were men with big capacity of oxygen. For women it's impossible to reach the same capacity. Singing the woman repertoire is then much easier."

Why would you sing these challenging castrati arias, and so late in your career? Bartoli's left eyebrow shoots up at this, but she says: "It's because I now have the technique. When you start singing you are fresh you are young, but your technique is not solid. Today I can do much more with my voice than 20 years ago. I'm more in control. I know my instrument better. I'm like a painter, I can paint better – I have more colours in my paintbox."

Ten years ago Bartoli told an interviewer that a mezzo's best years are between the ages of 30 and 45. She is now 44. Is she steeling herself for inevitable career decline? Bartoli laughs at me again. "I did say that, but I am not going to retire soon." When will your career end? "It depends on how well you have used your instrument during your career. Take a singer like Pavarotti – Luciano was just choosy. He died with a still incredible voice. He was 71 and his instrument was almost perfect. He was choosing carefully what to do, not to spend the capital but only the interest."

Do you want to emulate this miracle of longevity? "I will also be choosy – like Luciano I won't spend the capital," she says. "If you do that you can really keep singing for a very long time."

Significantly, when Bartoli tells me of her forthcoming plans, she speaks not of a recital tour or an operatic engagement, even though her diary teems with them, but that she is going to curate the Salzburg Whitsun festival in 2012 – as if to say there is more to life and she would be kinder to herself and career to step off the endless globetrotting drudgery of recitals.

She is trying to perform two difficult roles at the same time: maintaining her integrity and her career longevity. Though born in Rome, she has settled in Zurich and has formed a close relationship with the city's opera house. How lucky for them, you might think – this is a woman who could have the Met, Covent Garden and many other great opera house begging her to perform. Instead she chooses to favour a cute little opera house. Why? "Because I can do relatively obscure things here that I wouldn't be able to do elsewhere." One of those things was to perform the title role in Halévy's Clari, an opera that languished for more than 150 years until Bartoli disinterred it recently, transforming its story of a humble milkmaid who captivates a duke into a topical tale of internet dating between a humble East European woman and a monied west European twerp.

It is here in January that Bartoli will sing in Rossini's little-performed opera Le Comte Ory. "Twenty years ago I played the page; now I am going to be the Countess," she giggles. The former role was a mezzo, the latter a soprano. Neither role is a proper star vehicle.

Bartoli doesn't mind: "I am not interested in fame. I am also a mezzo, which can have its limitations." Indeed, Bartoli's career options are limited not by the fact that serious composers haven't written for her, but because there are few roles for mezzos. When Bartoli made her 1996 debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York singing the role of Despina in Così Fan Tutte, Herbert Breslin, Luciano Pavarotti's manager, said waspishly: "She can't sing Mimi, she can't sing Tosca or La Traviata, and she can't sing Aida, Manon Lescaut, or Desdemona. There is not one major role she can sing. You can't be a major opera singer without singing the bread-and-butter repertoire. Big, big, big things don't happen to little Despina!"

Breslin was wrong. Two major mezzo roles stand out and Bartoli is obsessed with them. She has traced the performance history of two of Bellini's great bel canto operas, Norma and La Sonnambula, and found that they have been co-opted by sopranos. "Bellini composed Norma and La Sonnambula for Giuditta Pasta who was a mezzo. But this music was nearly forgotten until the 1950s when Maria Callas and Dame [Joan] Sutherland performed these roles and made them their own. But they are sopranos! So we have a false understanding of what Bellini did."

Her recording of La Sonnambula last year remains a historical corrective, but now she wants to make Norma her own too. "She was a created as a mezzo, so I want to claim her." It's a tough gig: Norma demands incredible vocal flexibility and emotional expressivity. German soprano Lilli Lehmann once remarked that singing all three Brünnhildes in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in one evening would be less stressful than singing one Norma.

In Dortmund this summer she sang the role in a concert performance. "I want to create a new vision for this bel canto opera on period instruments. I want to make Norma my own." Perhaps because Herbert Breslin was right and you don't have many big opportunities in your career? "I have made the opportunities despite how few roles for mezzos there are," she says. Did it rankle when he implied that big, big, big things don't happen to mezzos? "Fifteen years on from that I can say look at what I have done. And look at what I will do. I am not exactly a failure as a singer."

[May I take this opportunity to recommend Philip Glass. My brain is absolutely able to imagine this. Call him up. Dare him. Terrific article!]

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don Carlo in HD

Today's simulcast of Verdi's Don Carlo didn't sound anything like this:

Marina Poplavskaya sings it like this:

Rather astoundingly different.

Don Carlo-Roberto Alagna
Elizabeth of Valois-Marina Poplavskaya
Princess Eboli-Anna Smirnova
Rodrigo-Simon Keenlyside
King Philip II-Ferruccio Furlanetto
Grand Inquisitor-Eric Halfvarson

Conductor-Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production-Nicholas Hytner

The version is all five acts.

Act I. a wonderful black and white abstraction of the forest at Fontainebleau where Elisabeth de Valois and Don Carlo fall in love begins the opera. Then it is announced that as part of the treaty with Spain Elisabeth is to marry King Philip II of Spain, not his son Carlo, destroying their hopes for a beautiful life. I swear I have never seen it with this scene included. It is utterly charming and for me completely changes the character of the opera. The beauty of opera lies in the personal.

There is very little color throughout the opera. Most of the costumes are black or white. Red and gold are the only other colors. Each setting emphasized the meaning of each scene. This made the drama very vivid and easy to follow.

Ferruccio Furlanetto played the King in LA, too. He's still quite wonderful. Simon Keenlyside was up to the lyricism of Rodrigo, though I continue to have doubts about him as a Verdi singer.

But perhaps the Met is trying something different here. Except for our wild Inquisitor, and perhaps Eboli, the entire cast is exhibiting a sweeter, more lyrical approach to Verdi. I thought it worked. One grows tired of being punched all the time. And perhaps the sweet tempered French Canadian conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin helped to lead the production in this direction.

Roberto Alagna was very strong in this part. If the other characters don't overwhelm him, then Carlo becomes truly the center of his opera. His singing was strong and sensitive throughout. I loved him.

One of the high points was when the host, Deborah Voigt, was interviewing her tenor for Fanciulla, Marcello Giordani, and asked him what was his favorite part of the opera? He responded by kissing her. Very funny. Maybe I would like Fanciulla more as a comedy.


Sorry.  I posted my best of list before the Don Carlo simulcast.  This was a mistake.

From the Bee: Sacramento Opera Cancels Remainder of Season

This is Karen Slack in La Traviata.

Citing plunging ticket sales and a budget shortfall, the Sacramento Opera announced Thursday that it is canceling the remainder of its 2011-12 season and laying off all but one member of its staff.

The season cancellation will affect its scheduled plans to present Mozart's "The Magic Flute" in February and the regional premiere of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" in May.

The dire move by the 28-year-old producing company was predicated by a $85,000 shortfall, said Rod Gideons, executive director of the Sacramento Opera.
The company is operating on a $1,144,517 budget this season, and had hoped for strong ticket income from its season-opening production of Handel's "Orlando."

But soft ticket sales – the opera brought in only $108,340 of the $193,500 budgeted to meet expenses – combined with a plunge in subscription ticket sales proved too onerous for the company.
Sacramento Opera derives 65 percent of its income from ticket sales.

Patrons with tickets to the two pending productions will receive refunds. In some cases, the tickets will be honored by the Mondavi Center, Sacramento Philharmonic and other arts groups, Gideons said.
"Looking at it from a business model, the structure we've operated with for the last 30 years is no longer viable," said Michael Nelson, president of the Sacramento Opera board. "Our subscriptions were 30 percent under what we projected at the start of the season. We had started the season with a known gap, and we were trying to close that gap with 'Orlando.' "

Producing opera is one of the most expensive endeavors in the art world – there are actors, musicians, props, sets and costumes. Several opera companies nationwide have canceled seasons recently, including the Cleveland Opera. Some companies have declared bankruptcy or closed their doors altogether.
Earlier this year Sacramento Opera chose not to fill a vacancy in the crucial position of marketing director, and in June it eliminated the position of outreach coordinator. It also cut the number of performances per production from three to two.

Nelson said the company would have had to meet $150,000 worth of single-ticket sales for "The Magic Flute" to avoid adding to its debt.

Meeting that goal for "The Magic Flute" is not an impossibility – it would require filling a majority of the Community Center Theater's 2,380 seats – for a popular opera. But at a meeting Wednesday, the board of directors decided that presenting the rest of the season was too much of a financial risk.
"That 'if,' in this economy, is what proved to be the biggest challenge," said Gideons. "We felt it was critical that we take the bull by the horns."

As a result of Wednesday's meeting, the company laid off conductor Timm Rolek, as well as its development director, subscription ticket manager and one part-time employee. Gideons is the only staff member remaining.

The move also affects many musicians, who perform for the company through an agreement with the Sacramento Philharmonic.

"Those two operas – that was work that we, as musicians, really count on," said tuba player Julian Dixon, who has performed with the Sacramento Opera since 2003. "It's work that, when taken away, really affects us because we've given up other work to commit to the opera schedule."
For a producing company, the cancellation of a season is a drastic move – but a step less severe than filing for bankruptcy protection or shutting down.

"I regret a season cancellation anytime it happens," said Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, a national service organization for opera. "If the cancellation is done with courtesy to ticket buyers and is the only way to ensure the long-term health of the company, then it's a wise thing to do. I would regret it if it was just a stopgap measure."

Gideons said that suspending the season will allow the company to retool and look to the future. "It will allow us, over the next six months, to envision a new direction for the company," he said.

Gideons said the company intends to produce next season, and that in the ensuing months it will consider changing its name plus a possible strategic merger or collaboration with another local arts organization.
Gideons did not say which companies he has approached but confirmed that talks are under way. One of the companies may likely be the Sacramento Philharmonic.

"The Philharmonic would welcome that discussion," said its executive director, Marc Feldman.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Best Opera for 2010

There were some pretty wonderful things this year.  First I will focus on live performances.

xxWerther at the Paris Opera was like an out of body experience.  Everything worked together to create an atmosphere of mysterious romance and doom.  Special award for the best playing by an opera orchestra.

xxNext has to be the wonderful San Francisco Die Walküre with the best ever Brünnhilde in Nina Stemme.  The atmosphere and emotion were over the top.

After 2 big La Traviatas in 2009, imagine my surprise when I so completely enjoyed Karen Slack's Violetta at the Sacramento Opera.  It was over the top intense, and why else do we go to the opera?

Good but not spectacular were Cyrano de Bergerac in San Francisco, x La Sonnambula in Paris, and The Makropulos Case in San Francisco.

The other best opera experiences of 2010 were all live from the Metropolitan in HD.  Top of this heap must come the wonderful, moving and quite spectacular Boris Godunov with René Pape.  It was simply a great experience.

xxThe HD series has brought us some wonderful things this year.  I loved Elina Garanča's Carmen for her singing, her clear-eyed intensity and her rapport with Roberto Alagna.

xxI am continuing to enjoy the Renée Fleming film festival.  We started the year with her performance in Der Rosenkavalier.  The most memorable thing from the HD broadcast was the shot of Renée and Susan Graham sitting on the bed talking while waiting for the opera to begin.

xxAnd I adored her in Rossini's Armida.  The whole thing was enormous fun with lots of excellent coloratura singing from Lawrence Brownlee and friends.

xxDid I forget something?  Don Pasquale.  Magnifico. 

I'm over 10, I see, but it was a very good year.

Disappointments also happened.  For me Patricia Racette's Faust from San Francisco completely fell flat.  If I were her, I would not repeat this opera.  And I hated the Met's Rheingold.  I would prefer not to be reminded of the almost icky Simon Boccanegra in HD.  If it weren't for Placido Domingo, it would have been a total loss.



This DVD of Halévy's Clari (1828) comes with something I've never associated with opera before:  a comic book.  This is apparently essential to the production which is called a photo-novel.  Another first for me is an opera plot about internet dating.  The comic book skips over some parts of the story.  We'll see.

It starts off with Oliver Widmer cursing out the orchestra.  This is good.

Cecilia Bartoli's attraction to Clari is based on the fact that the opera was written for Maria Malibran and forms part of the Maria project.  As with most opera lovers, I am only familiar with La Juive of Halévy's works, and was unprepared for the fully bel canto style of the opera.

Rather like Pinkerton, the hero declares that the demands of honor mean nothing to him.  Hmmm.

Cecilia pops out of a cake.  You are wondering, of course, how do they work the pink gorilla into the plot?  I'm not sure I should tell.

The comic book that comes with Clari tells us that we are "in a beautiful but poor country far away," a country that looks a lot like Switzerland, where the production takes place.

Clari with her new lover whom she met on the internet and who does not offer to marry her is reminded of home, has a nervous breakdown and ends up in the hospital.  They do a fascinating job of integrating the "Willow Song" from Rossini's Otello into the second act.  Clari, in despair, sees a hypodermic, shoots herself up with perhaps morphine, and sings the aria while on an extended high, thus turning the aria into a mad scene.  This is apparently what Malibran sang in this same place in the opera.
Papa sits back at home watching football on tv with his pet pig and complaining loudly.  First Clari and then her Duke, very well sung by John Osborn, show up at the old farm house and resolve the problem with the help of a suitcase full of money for papa.  Another aria, this time by Halévy himself, is inserted for Cecilia. The score contained only the words.

Let's be clear: this opera would not be a suitable vehicle for either Maria Malibran or Cecilia Bartoli without these two aria additions. It is, perhaps, not ideal to be reminded here of what true genius actually sounds like, but both arias are suitable to their contexts. Something that cannot be said for the Mozart that appeared suddenly in the middle of Nina.

The opera ends with a stage full of lovely cows.  I am almost tempted to call it the original verismo opera.  It is a special event for a special person.  She stands at the end next to Oliver holding her roses and smiling.   The pictures will be hard to forget.  Perhaps it is love that makes it work.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

If you are not getting enough of Cecilia....

Watch this while the watching is good. It may go away any minute.  Gee, I really, really like this.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


My copy of Rossini's Stabat Mater came today.

It feels like someone's vision, a vision so deep that you can only try to follow it into the depths.  For such a complete vision it must be Maestro Antonio Pappano. 

He has brought them all into his vision.  Ildebrando D'Arcangelo is the most musically expressive of my experience of him.  I may have to revise my ideas.

The Orchestra e Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia are with him for every note, every phrase.  The Russian and two American soloists become Italian for a moment.  Anna Netrebko is particularly spectacular, but I want to mention the wonderful work of Joyce DiDonato and Lawrence Brownlee.

This is Rossini after his retirement from opera, 1841,  Spiritually Rossini lies somewhere between Mozart and Verdi, and the feeling in this recording brings us the intense beauty of this great Italian. 

Thank you all.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


About this time every year I recommend things to give as Christmas gifts. The pickings are pretty slim this year.
Jonas Kaufmann's Verismo would be popular.

As might also Cecilia Bartoli's Sospiri.

Introduce your friends to Vittorio Grigolo. He deserves his title The Italian Tenor.

If you give your friends Clari, they will think you have gone mad.

The best recording of 2010 is undoubtedly Joyce DiDonato's Rossini collection.  If your friends like singing at all, they are bound to love this.

Cecilia Bartoli's Sacrificium is officially last year, but is still highly recommended.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

El amor brujo

I think it's supposed to be something like this.

Before and after the Berkeley concert was a party, and one of the guests told of seeing Carmen Amaya, the great flamenco dancer, dance El amor brujo. Guest was only 8 at the time and never forgot it.

This is a bit of Carmen.

Friday, December 03, 2010


Peter Hoffmann has died. I was in the audience in San Francisco when he sang Siegmund as part of Terry McEwan's amazing Ring. He started the trend for sexy opera singers.  This one is Bayreuth 1981.

Cecilia Bartoli keeps winning things:
an honorary doctorate in Dublin, the 2010 grand prize for a record magazine in Japan, and a Grammy nomination for Sacrificium. I am interested to hear that my friends like this album very much indeed, as certainly do I. This is her best Baroque recording.  For the depth of feeling.  I listen to it while walking around the park in the morning.

Neruda #5

If you never hear it anywhere else, here is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing #5 of the Neruda Songs.

My love, if I die and you don't--, My love, if you die and I don't--, let's not give grief an even greater field. No expanse is greater than where we live. Dust in the wheat, sand in the deserts, time, wandering water, the vague wind swept us on like sailing seeds. We might not have found one another in time. This meadow where we find ourselves. O little infinity! we give it back. But love, this love has not ended, just as it never had a birth, it has no death: it is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips.

Berkeley Symphony

The Berkeley Symphony, which performed last night in Zellerbach, has a new music director since Kent Nagano stepped down from the position in 2009 after 31 years.  Her name is Joana Carneiro and she comes to Berkeley from Lisbon by way of Brazil by way of Paris....  The list gets a little long.  She likes to talk and speaks virtually unaccented Berkeley English.  Welcome.

She talked for a while about Enrico Chapela, a composer from Mexico City whose piece Private Alleles was debuted last night.  The title of the piece refers to genetic studies of the native populations of Mexico.  To quote Wikipedia "His style amalgamates elements of Jazz, Rock and the Latin-American tradition with classical serialist techniques, which often are used in a playful manner."  Playful serialism.  Hmmm.  For my ears he sounds post modern.  It was ok but not at all memorable.  He came up for a bow.

Then she talked about Lorraine Hunt Lieberson whose presence was invoked with a gesture toward the viola section where at one time she was principal viola.  Many still in the orchestra were her friends.  This was part of the introduction to Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson, a set of five love songs that was written both to and for his wife Lorraine.  If you have not heard them in her voice, you should change that immediately.

It was brave of mezzo Rachel Calloway to take them on in this place where Lorraine is still so well remembered.  I could not help comparing. 

Rachel Calloway was also the soloist in de Falla's El amor brujo suite.  Both of these pieces are too low for Rachel's voice, especially El amor brujo where she actually struggled to make the right effect.

The Berkeley Symphony is showing the effects of having a conductor who can spend sufficient time with them to bring out their more wonderful qualities.  It was well programmed, well conducted and well played.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


I am still enjoying browsing through English, French, German and Italian Techniques of Singing by Richard Miller. He doesn't talk about the Russian school because that isn't part of his experience, a perfectly valid reason.

I was preparing to argue about constantly citing Manuel Garcia II about the lowered larynx--he was against--because, well, wasn't he a bit early for that? Isn't lowered larynx more a feature of late Verdi, verismo and Wagner? How could he...? Then it turns out he lived for 101 years, until 1906. On my side of the argument is that his treatises date from the 1840s, before singing with a lowered larynx became so popular. When I even think about singing, my throat opens and my larynx goes DOWN. Because that's how I was taught. I was probably taught in the Italian technique. When I go to Italy, I hear lowered larynx all over the place. No one says that's what they're doing, but nevertheless it is.

Here in Sacramento we have two prominent voice teachers. One teaches all her students to sing with a lowered larynx, and the other likes the larynx raised. No one just lets it float around in the throat. Sigh. Mr. Miller pretends that that's what everyone does. Mind you, absolutely no one overtly discusses larynx position. It's always inferred by other instructions. In my training it was called a "low yawn." Yawning makes the larynx go down.

Yawn. I meant that talking about technique is boring and sleep inducing. Actually it's rather fascinating, and what makes it fascinating is that there is no apparent correlation between what voice teachers say and what they want you to do.  They just suddenly say, "That's it!"

I like the book. Who would have guessed that the English were trying to eliminate upper partials? Or that Placido Domingo would probably have remained a baritone if he had studied in France? I guess you have to have been through the wringer of being forced to read technique books to even know what he's talking about.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Special thanks to the Cecilia Bartoli Forum for finding these fabulous pictures. When I saw Sacrificium at the beginning of its run, she wasn't wearing a cape.

Monday, November 22, 2010

English, French, etc.

I have been leafing through English, French, German and Italian Techniques of Singing by Richard Miller and am reminded of the days when I poured over anatomical drawings and sonograms in the name of learning how to teach singing.  I have long thought that this was all bogus, and now it occurs to me why this might be.  No one bothers to connect it back to anything observable.  OK, this is what all these machines are telling me.  Now what out in reality does it relate to?

If I am discussing styles of singing in different voice schools, the bare minimum is to cite actual singers, singers available on commercial recordings, who sing that way. No one wants to name names.

A voice teacher's life consists of sitting at the piano with the student standing where the teacher can see them, listening to the sounds the student makes, watching what their body is doing, and instructing them how to change this to achieve a better result. What can I observe from my chair that is going to help me in this task? I'm not going to crunch them through machines to see how fast their vibrato is. I have to figure out all on my own what their problems are and how to fix them. No. These kinds of books serve to allow one academic to impress another academic and have little if anything to do with actual singing. I teach through my eyes and ears and ability to explain what I want. I need it to connect back to that before I will think it's useful.

Of course, when I was actually teaching, my students were usually totally off, and it was not at all difficult to think of things to change without getting too deep into the minutia of vocal technique. One sang into his nose. He was a professional singer, so how he got that far is anyone's guess. I tried to explain that the objective was to resonate in the mouth. This was amazingly hard to communicate, but eventually he got it.

Others simply knew nothing at all and needed to know about breathing and vowels and simple stuff like that. None were in advanced stages of preparing for a classical vocal career. That's the spot where the comments need to get extremely specific. "See. There at 1:22 John Doe is raising his larynx as he was taught in the French school." Without this the information is virtually useless.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bryn in Berkeley

Berkeley audiences are so cool. If they like someone, they let them know. The audience at Zellerbach last night liked Bryn Terfel and his accompanist Malcolm Martineau. There was a sense of informality that fits Berkeley. Someone in the front row was coughing so Bryn Terfel went off stage and brought them out a glass of water. Why doesn't anyone sell cough drops in the lobby?

Then later he performed a Gilbert and Sullivan piece "The Ghosts' High Noon" where exclamations from somebody interrupt the person singing (Bryn). The exclamations came at first from the pianist, I think, but later people in the audience were doing it, too. If this description makes no sense, I apologize. It was all very silly and a bit chaotic. And fun.

We are still in the Schumann bicentennial year so he devoted the whole first half of the program to him, including "Belsatzar," all of Liederkreis, and "Die beiden Grenadiere." The first and last of these are pieces preferred by baritones. It was all very nice. The half closed with "Mein Wagen rollet langsam" which was included as an excuse for more silliness. The piece has singing for only a brief minute or two and then continues on with a seemingly endless postlude on the piano. Only Schumann would compose such a thing. Maybe it's supposed to be an aural description of the Wagen rolling langsam. Bryn lumbered off into the wings and peeked out every now and then to see if the piece was still going on.

After intermission was a group by someone named Gerald Finzi on texts by Shakespeare. The tunes weren't particularly catchy and will certainly not make me forget Schubert's "Who is Sylvia." Then Ibert songs about Don Quichotte in French.

Bryn interprets with his own personal style which, of course, makes him more rather than less interesting. My son decided not to go, which is probably a good thing. He would have bored me with stuff about how it's actually supposed to go. If you can pull it off, I'm good with the idea of completely tossing conventional interpretations.

Which brings us to a group of five songs from the repertoire of the Welsh-American baritone John Charles Thomas. Please remember, I am not doing journalism. Two of the five songs were pieces that I sang in my youth. I can still remember all the words to "Trees" and will complain that Bryn did not. He faked it extremely well, though. I loved this kind of kitsch. He ended the group with a very sincere and respectful rendition of Malotte's "The Lord's Prayer." I cried. Great pouring drops. Love can simply not be explained.

What is one to do? He is such an amazing amalgam of charisma, voice and style that one would wish to forgive him anything. If he doesn't really want to sing Wotan, he should simply not do it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I'd be willing to bet money, oh maybe up to a dollar, that Orlando was one of Handel's failures.  There isn't even one hit tune.  At the Sacramento Opera it is subtitled "Obsessive Love" and "Love Makes You Crazy."  Because the woman he loves does not return Orlando's love, in fact loves someone else, he massacres her and her lover.  There is a deus ex machina to save the situation, a potion brings Orlando to his senses, he goes back to being a hero, and all is well.  "How can nobility and heroism win out over beauty?" asks the heroine.  Boyfriend is cuter.  One of the few really sensible opera plots, as you can see.

Casting at the Sacramento Opera matches the original performance with male alto Orlando sung by a man, Randall Scotting, and male alto Medoro sung by a woman, Diana Tash.  Of course, our male alto is not the castrato Senisino but a countertenor.  If Randall's high notes are piercing, we have no way of knowing.  The role of Orlando is for a contralto with no high notes.  He looks quite pretty, every bit as cute as the adored Medoro, and leaps about the stage waving his sword in a very masculine way.  His falsetto is pretty masculine sounding.  Could I explain what that means?  Not really.  I enjoyed him, which as you may already know is rare for me when it comes to countertenors.

My friend informed me that the Sacramento Opera is a wholly owed subsidiary of Timm Rolek, the conductor.  If there is anything we don't like, we may blame him.  I usually like his conducting, though I think evidence of it is seen most often in the orchestra.  He is asking himself at this point "but...?"  He is not alone in thinking this.

They experimented with projections behind scaffolding for scenery.  This created the appropriate illusion of scene changes.  It was far more varied than would have been expected by audiences in Handel's time.  I thought the experiment was a success.  If you spend any time observing the Zurich Opera, you can't help noticing how little money goes into the sets.  Semele is a curtain, a bit of red carpet, a large bed and any number of matched chairs.  Don Giovanni is scaffolding very similar to that used in Sacramento.  Really cheap sets can work perfectly well.

Keeping pace with the contemporary scene probably requires putting a toe into Handel repertoire.  It worked well enough.  I expected the costumes to look something like the advertising--sequins--but they didn't.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Verismo Arias with Jonas Kaufmann came in the mail today.  Gee, I love him.  It may not be exactly Italian what Jonas Kaufmann is doing, but it is exactly him.  He has the most Italian of conductors, Antonio Pappano, to guide him. I love the sound, I love the thoughts and emotions behind it.

More.  The album ends with Jonas and Eva-Maria Westbrook in an intensely passionate rendition of the finale to Andrea Chénier, one of the greatest moments in all of opera.

A bit more.  On my iPod are three versions of  a lot of these arias:  Franco Corelli, Rolando Villazon and Jonas Kaufmann.  Corelli sings with that bright open tone that only Corelli would even try, scooping and sliding with a freedom that is almost shocking.  Villazon is covered, muffled, never quite opening up his voice.  Kaufmann hasn't the daring of Corelli--no one really does--but can get open when he needs to, can rise to the big occasion with wonderful vigor.  Is it fair to compare?  Everyone does it.

Sacramento does Orlando

The Sacramento Opera has decided to take on Handel's opera seria Orlando (1733), originally composed for Senesino in the title role. San Francisco did it long ago (1985) as a vehicle for Marilyn Horne, conducted by Charles Mackerras who also edited the edition. General Horne was magnificent.  In this decade its been revived by the Royal Opera.

My impression from memory and everything I can find to read about it is that this opera is a vehicle for whoever sings the protagonist.  In Sacramento this will be a countertenor, Randall Scotting, an American who sings internationally.  He gets a mad scene.  If he's any good, it should be a treat.  It plays Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

Here is a dvd from the Zurich opera.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Anna talks technique

In the November issue of Opera News Oussama Zahr interviews Anna Netrebko and mentions hearing Mirella Freni in her voice:

Netrebko's eyes light up. "Mirella. Thank you. I always heard this, since I started studying. And you know what, listening to her helps me a lot, because I think her technique is amazing for what she's doing.

"She always sang," says Netrebko of the Italian soprano. And, here, Netrebko reveals her partiality for singers with flowing, generous voices, unlike a different breed of singer she sees today, marked by lots of covered tone without forward placement in order to manipulate dynamics easily. "This dynamic control, usually, it's not going from the breath. Beautiful for the audience, dangerous for the singer," she explains. "I will not tell you the name of the singer," she explains. "I will not tell you the name of the singer--very good soprano, beautiful voice, one of the most beautiful--and I attend a couple of her performances in different roles. And I was like, why the fuck are you singing half mezza voce? Who needs that? Open your mouth, give me your voice--on the breath, supported, pointed, and that's it. But lots of people think this is the musicality. I think it's bullshit. You can show a couple of the notes, okay, you have piano, thank you. After that, give me singing, give me the voice."

Part of the blame for this kind of singing, Netrebko thinks, belongs to coaches and conductors. "Lots of coaches, and God forgive me, conductors, they are the worst. The worst. And actually one of the best conductors are working very bad to the singer. 'Cause they're sitting at the piano and saying, 'Do this phrase, shhh, shhh, no, no, no! Even softer, even softer!' And after that he is going to the orchestra like bwaah,"--and she makes the sound of a deafening brass section--they show you how it has to be soft."

Singing in the Twentieth Century

Styles of singing split into two branches in the twentieth century.

The heavy style of Wagner and Puccini continued throughout the century, tapering off only toward the end. Evidence of this can be found in the concerts hosted by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation which always feature heavy singers. (Curiously, this is this evening and features James Valenti as the 2010 Richard Tucker Award Winner. From San Francisco Leah Crocetto is a grant recipient. She is by far the heaviest woman’s voice among the Adler Fellows.)

Then came Expressionism and Arnold Schoenberg. Here is a bit from Erwartung (1909).

There is a lot of shouting in this short example. Schoenberg is sort of the anti-Wagner. Where Wagner is a sea of tonality with almost constant modulating, Schoenberg carefully avoids establishing a key, and therefore cannot modulate away from it. Wagner is still about singing. His roots are firmly in the operatic world. In Schoenberg we have returned to the world of the monodists. The singing is there solely to support the drama. This is the attitude of all the modernists.

This is a nice bit from Lulu (1979 version) "O Freiheit."

The goal for the singer is to get out of it alive. It may be important to know that Anna Netrebko's manager won't let her sing Lulu, though she would like to.

Modernism requires a narrow piercing sound rather than a large round one. Because established singers are reluctant to perform this repertoire, it can provide an opportunity for young singers. Marilyn Horne made her San Francisco Opera debut as Marie in Wozzeck.

With heavy Wagner/verismo singing the danger lies in over-singing, in pushing the voice to produce beyond its natural capacity. The danger in modern singing lies in never really establishing a proper legato. I must say Marilyn produced the most legato Marie I've ever heard. It is possible to sing Berg and not destroy yourself.

Here is a personal favorite from Nixon in China (1987) "I am the wife of Mao Zedong."

How can you not love this?  Kathleen Kim who sang in Tales of Hoffmann is doing it on this season's simulcast.

It is important to know that there is no particular style associated with modern music.  Stravinsky for one deeply resented even the suggestion that there was more in the music than was written on the page.  Any singer will tell you there is always much much more.


What am I to do if I suddenly find myself agreeing with La Cieca?  I won't go on at length but will say that Elina Garanča's Habanera album is pretty boring.  It is just too bland for me.

I am still feeling the high of Don Pasquale.  As a footnote, I think it is fine for old people to marry but only to other old people.

Missed Measha Bruggergosman at San Francisco Performances because she performed at the same time as Makropulos.   Can't be helped.

It's time for me to finish the singing technique series.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Don Pasquale in HD

Don Pasquale............John Del Carlo
Norina..................Anna Netrebko
Ernesto.................Matthew Polenzani
Dr. Malatesta...........Mariusz Kwiecien
Notary..................Bernard Fitch

Conductor...............James Levine
Production..............Otto Schenk

I know I've seen Donizetti's Don Pasquale, today's simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera, before.  In fact I am going to stop saying I've never seen something before.  Everyone else seems to think I saw Makropulos before.  So maybe I have.  Let's just say I never loved Don Pasquale this much before.

To start with there is the perfect cast:  Anna Netrebko as Norina, Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto, Mariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta and my personal favorite John Del Carlo as Don Pasquale.  Would we change even one of them?  Absolutely not.  John has honed his buffo bass to a state of perfection which I'm sure is seldom approached.  Matthew is a wonderfully romantic tenor.  Mariusz as Don Pasquale's doctor is charming and very funny.  And the conducting of James Levine was magnificent, as always.

And then there is Anna.  The best thing about the Netrebko is how much she loves it.  In fact the whole cast overflowed with a joy of performing that is seldom seen.  I have searched in vain for a photograph of Anna in her going to the theater outfit.  She said in her interview that she asked for boots with higher heels, and these were worthy of the runway.  Who but Anna would be this athletic, this beautiful, sing this fabulously and acting to such perfection?


There was an encore of a patter song with the doctor and the Don.  I was going to say it was my first, but you never know, I may have forgotten.

It was a blessing.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Makropulos Case

Conductor:  Jiří Bělohlávek
Production:  Frank Philipp Schlössmann

Vítek:  Thomas Glenn
Albert Gregor:  Miro Dvorsky
Kristina:  Susannah Biller*
Dr. Kolenatý:  Dale Travis*
Emilia Marty:  Karita Mattila*
Baron Jaroslav Prus:  Gerd Grochowski
A Cleaning Woman:  Maya Lahyani*
A Stagehand Austin Kness*
Janek:  Brian Jagde*
Count Hauk-Šendor:  Matthew O'Neill*
A Chambermaid:  Maya Lahyani
*Role Debut

I am embarrassed to confess that this opening of The Makropulos Case at the San Francisco Opera was my first experience of the opera.  Everyone asked me where was I when so and so did it?  I have no excuse.  The series of performances was dedicated to Sir Charles Mackerras, the father of modern Janáček performance.

This was my fifth Janáček opera after Katya Kabanova, Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen in San Francisco and From the House of the Dead on DVD.  The music never makes me think of Wagner.  He eschews Romantic tonality without even seeming to notice it exists.  I'm going to say something outrageous now so please duck:  to me he almost reminds me of Mussorgsky.  Almost.  Am I too far out on a limb yet? Wikipedia says he was influenced by Puccini.  I can see that in the vocal writing.  It's sort of verismo without the Italian soul.

The act I set is shown in the picture above.  The other two scenes are equally simple.  There was a giant clock in two acts that showed the actual time.

We begin with a court case that has been going on for almost 100 years.  Count Prus died intestate, and the members of the Prus family possess the estate.  One Albert Gregor claims that Count Prus named his ancestor Ferdinand Gregor as the intended heir.  The case drags on rather like Bleak House.

Then one day Emilia Marty is in town in her guise as a famous opera singer and drops by the law office to ask about the case.  Though none of them have ever seen her before, except possibly across the footlights, she seems to know all about the case.  She describes an existing will and tells them exactly where to find it.

Characters speculate about Emilia's age.  She must be at least 30, they say.  She is very beautiful and all the men fall in love with her.  It would be better to see it without knowing what's going on, perhaps.  She knows where the will is because she was present when it was placed there almost 100 years before.  Emilia has had many names and is over 300 years old.  She began her life in Crete as Elina Makropulos and has returned because she feels herself to be dying and wants another dose of the life-sustaining drug.

Isn't this fun!  Five of the smaller parts were played by Adler Fellows, and another was played by Thomas Glenn, a former fellow.  If there is a Janáček style, no one knows what it is, so don't worry.  Susannah Biller as Kristina was especially nice.

The star of the show, singing the virtually immortal Elina, is Karita Mattila.  She is towering, intense, gorgeous, outrageous, and utterly fabulous.  There was lots of audience screaming.  They closed the curtain before we were finished screaming, seemed not to know what to do with sustained applause.

Maybe I would like to see this with the closeup screens.

Monday, November 08, 2010


I think I was in Germany having a wonderful time when Tosca was simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. The other night it appeared on my local PBS station, so I put it on my DVR and watched it today.

The production was booed at the premier. Tosca is set in famous places, two of which any tourist can visit. Only the Villa Farnese is closed to the public. Anyone knows what it's all supposed to look like. In this production it's all dark and somber instead of brilliant and festive like real Italian churches and villas. But so what? The opera is quite somber. There are some odd touches: Mary Magdalene whom Cavaradossi is painting has one of her breasts showing, and Scarpia has some girls over for a visit. At the end you can see that something is leaping from the window above just before the lights go out. This all seems pretty mild to me, especially after the recent odd Werther in SF. But then people love a scandal.

The stars of this production were soprano Karita Mattila as Tosca, tenor Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi, and baritone George Gagnidze as Scarpia. People love Marcelo, and it is easy to see why. He is cute, passionate, warm and very stylish for Puccini. George is quite nasty with his huge, dark voice.

Can I say it? I don't enjoy to write a pan. Mario describes Floria as gentle. I don't see the gentle Tosca in Karita Mattila's performance. And I don't feel Puccini in her phrasing. She is hysterical and unnuanced. The audience stood for Marcelo so they were still up for Karita.

The sound in my living room was not nearly as good as in the movie theater. This is all very after the fact. Listen to a little Callas.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]