Saturday, January 30, 2010

Someone to think about

James Valenti. He's American, I think.


Placido pronounces his name Plathido.


One of the surprises of blogging has been that people comment entries I posted years ago.

Toward the end of my first year as a blogger I posted an entry on the organist Diane Bish that continues to draw comments. I meant no offense.

In 2008 I posted a picture of a man with goat feet that I had found on the internet, and someone has taken the time to tell me what it is a picture of. Thank you.

Now someone has commented my year old entry on giving advice to Sondra Radvanovsky.

"Curious, Dr. B. I totally agree with your analysis but come to the diametric opposite conclusion.
I know Natalie Dessay never thinks about the music. She always wanted to be a great actress and uses singing to that end. Listen to her on disc, however. Something complex like the Motzart arias. Listen to her Vorrei spiegar and compare it to other great sopranos in that genre. It doesn't hold up. Technique wins over style for me every time. We have seen Dessay and Radvanofsky live many times, and while Natalie is a delightful master of her art, Sondra sends me to the moon. She deserves to be a super star too. Singing actress... actress singer... we need them both."

Whatever I may have said, I don't suggest that people imitate Natalie Dessay. Natalie is unique in the world of opera. She has a lot of instinctive musicality which comes through in spite of herself. Probably I blunted my point by bring up Natalie at all.

Recently the San Francisco Opera presented the production of Daughter of the Regiment which has appeared on DVD and in the Met HD broadcasts with Natalie Dessay, played this time with Diana Damrau in the title role. Much fuss was made in the press about how she deliberately imitated Natalie's performance. I was fine with the idea that she imitated Natalie's acting, but she also imitated Natalie's singing. Diana Damrau is a stronger singer than Natalie Dessay and would be advised to go with her own strengths as a singer.

Sondra Radvanovsky may be the best Verdi soprano active today. One of my favorite blog entries ever is this ad hoc interview with her husband. I don't think she should imitate Natalie. That would be absurd. Sondra is a fine actress already. I still think the same thing today: a great Verdi singer needs the divine spark of musical genius. To achieve greatness she needs first to aspire.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Writing about Rosenkavalier

I have written often about Der Rosenkavalier. We are told in the intermission of the Met simulcast that it was initially called Baron Ochs. We're glad it was changed. We want it to be about a teenager who is lucky in love, and not about an old man who isn't.

I write here about the characters, why we love them, why we don't. Here I analyze the Marschallin.

I wrote here about performances I have seen. And here is a wonderful quote from Schwarzkopf.

Here I review Joyce Didonato's performance as Octavian.

This DVD from the Zurich opera is my first experience of a non-traditional Rosenkavalier.

This post gives a preview of Renée's performance, with Ochs in Lederhosen. The men look like Nazis.

I went again last night to see the encore and took a friend. She had learned Sophie but had never seen it staged before. I understand all the words and in this traditional setting know exactly what all the movements will be. All that changes is the voices and faces. This was my third viewing of the Ochs of Kristinn Sigmundsson, and I must say he grows on me.

This is my opera, and I never seem to tire of it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Trying to get in the mood

This film seems to be getting me in the mood for Paris. Who knew there was this much film of Josephine Baker?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I am going to Paris to see Werther and Giulio Cesare. Probably I'll see more. Daniel Barenboim and Simon Keenlyside are also there.

I haven't been to Paris since the seventies when I went up in the Eiffel Tower, visited 27 Rue de Fleurus, saw the Mona Lisa, and allowed a French student of architecture to take me home with him. It was the perfect French vacation, and I haven't wanted a repeat. I haven't learned any new French words since then.

I had not heard of Josephine Baker at that time. I understand the Folies Bergere is still in business. Perhaps between opera, Lieder and piano concertos I should pay them a visit.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Listening to interviews on YouTube

Hvorostovsky: You are taking after Domingo? [Singing everything under the sun.]
Kaufmann: Yes. You learn on the plane....

I am pretending to understand Russian, but can hear them talking in English in the background.

I haven't been able to find anywhere where Jonas complains about being thought sexy, but there is a spot where his wife complains, says that it insults his artistic standing, or something like that. This is a sort of reverse feminist position.

I started billing opera singers as sexy because people outside the tiny opera world don't seem to have noticed this. Opera is a fabulous entertainment from many perspectives, and today it is more exciting than ever. Jonas is a great artist, and is not less of an artist because he is also sexy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I awarded the decade to Anna Netrebko without giving any reasons. For me the Russian Album alone would be reason enough. The music is incredible and the performances are out of this world.

This is a personal favorite.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Carmen in HD

Carmen:  Elina GaranÄŤa
Don JosĂ©:  Roberto Alagna
MicaĂ«la:  Barbara Frittoli
Escamillo:  Teddy Tahu Rhodes

Conductor:  Yannick NĂ©zet-SĂ©guin
Production:  Richard Eyre

Well, maybe, just maybe I never have to see another Carmen again. I think my search for the perfect Carmen is over. My favorite thing was when Renée Fleming as our announcer for the HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera said, "Brace yourself." It's nice to be warned.

Elina GaranÄŤa has an inner coolness, and before I saw this performance I wondered how it would play against the character of Carmen.  Angiolina, the heroine of La Cenerentola, has a hidden heat at her core which for me didn't mesh with Elina. But Carmen is as hard as nails. She is very beautiful, very sexy and very interested in men, but inside is cool, powerful detachment. Don JosĂ© never stands a chance. How does the character of Carmen play against the specific gifts of Elina GaranÄŤa? The answer is spectacularly well. And she is also the best danced Carmen I've seen. RenĂ©e couldn't say enough about her dancing. She also has one of the most beautiful voices around today and sang an extremely beautiful mezzo soprano Carmen. I know a lot of sopranos sing this, but I'm not sure why. If you still want more from your Carmen, I can't begin to imagine where you would find it.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes stood in for ailing Mariusz Kwiecien as Escamillo on three hours notice. He was lovely and looked ready to fight bulls.

Roberto Alagna was her Don José. I suppose I should thank him for driving his wife so mad that she would drop out of the production. Roberto was the perfect heat for this cool Carmen. He is the good boy who fondles his crucifix passionately just before stabbing Carmen. The part is good for his voice, and he did some gorgeous high pianissimos.

The instrumental numbers were often accompanied by some lovely dancing. In the bar scene they even attempted a bit of Flamenco. For a rare change it fit seamlessly with the drama.

There should be special kudos for the coaching staff of the Metropolitan Opera, for both music and acting. If you look at the films available on YouTube, you would not have seen this coming.  More kudos for the conducting of Yannick NĂ©zet-SĂ©guin.

I was thankful for being warned. If this was your first experience of opera, you might spend your life searching for something this good. I am in awe.



Well, today is Carmen from the Met. One keeps going to the damn thing hoping to see the perfect Carmen.

One wants singing like Regina Resnik.

And intense insane acting like Agnes Baltsa.

They never seem to arrive together. Perhaps today.

I've always imagined Rise Stevens was the one to see.

It's hard to tell from this.

Another singer I have missed in this role is Denyce Graves.

None is precisely the Carmen of dreams, but one keeps searching.

Friday, January 15, 2010


I finally got around to seeing Nine, the musical that is sort of an homage to Federico Fellini. The Felliniesque hero has a life, quarrels with his wife and several other women, attempts to make a movie, drives around in a small car to various parts of southern Italy, the whole while fantasizing a musical. The break between reality and fantasy is the homage to Fellini's 8 1/2.

I always love anything filmed in Italy. The on location filming is amazing. I liked the look of the movie with its attempt to capture the look of an Italian 1960s film. It was wonderful to see Sophia Loren who played the hero's mother, though she is beginning to look fragile. I loved Judi Dench singing about the Folie Bergere with her fake French accent. Penelope Cruz is good in anything.

It misses on a couple of fronts. Except for Sophia, these people are simply not Italian. Scantily clad women littered around the set was very Italian, but the actors simply are not. They try. But they don't succeed. Daniel Day Lewis came closest.

The other flaw is that the music is very boring.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What good is cake you have but never eat?

Why didn't anyone tell me about Grey Gardens? What planet have I been on? "You had two hands; you could have modeled gloves."

You see, this is real life. These are two of Jackie Onasis's relatives, specifically her aunt and her cousin. In 1975 a film was made of the mother/daughter pair living together in their collapsing mansion in the East Hamptons with their 52 cats.

Then in 2006 it became a musical on Broadway. According to Wikipedia: In the first act, which takes place in 1941, Little Edie is 24 and Big Edie is 47; in the second act, taking place in 1973, Little Edie is 56 and Big Edie is 79.

In the early scene Joseph Kennedy, the Kennedy brother who died in WWII, appears as Little Edie's fiance. The Bouvier sisters, Jacqueline and Lee, appear as children in the flashback sections. Christine Ebersole plays both Big Edie in the flashbacks and Little Edie in 1973. Mary Louise Wilson is Big Edie as an old woman.

The music reminds me of Broadway music from the 40s, and the singing is composed like conversation with a lot of that thing Wagner said never happened--people talking at the same time, interrupting each other, but with nothing that resembles a duet. The women quarrel. I suppose it couldn't be an opera because when they aren't singing they're shouting at one another.

I got this from House of Opera. It's filmed from someone's phone, I think. I confess that I love it madly.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Joyce and Vivica

Both of these recordings are from Virgin Classics.

This is Joyce DiDonato's all Rossini album, Colbran, the Muse, and it's magnificent. Her tone is gorgeous, and her style is very pleasing.

And this is Vivica Genaux's all Vivaldi album, Pyrotechnics. This is quite wowie.

If you're not mad for La Gioiosa, or even if you are, you might want to try one of these fabulous ladies.

Blogging about technique

While having lunch with a friend, out of the blue she started talking about how to sing the neutral vowel, especially in French. We don’t really agree about this and gradually progressed to an argument.

Can I explain to you what this is without resorting to references to the phonetic alphabet? In English there are two “uh” vowels: the one in “tub” (phonetic symbol like an upside down capital V) and the one in “the” (symbol like an upside down lower case e, usually called schwa.) I don’t actually think the first of these exists in French. So when I’m talking about the “uh” vowel I mean the second one and will call it the neutral vowel. OK?

The problem with French is that you frequently sing these even when you wouldn't say them and end up with a lot of “uhs”. So you can't make your decision based entirely on what people say. I used the phrase “la plume de ma tante” because it’s something that is said in French class. Roughly that’s “la pluem duh ma tant” when spoken. When sung it would be “la plem-uh duh ma tan-tuh.” We were discussing how the “uh” parts are pronounced when singing. Because there are so many of them, this will be crucial to how your French singing sounds.

Lots of voice teachers, including my friend, teach their students to sing this with a tight little tone and a bit of tongue, rather like the “u” in plume. She referred me to academic sources on how to sing in French. It has long seemed to me that one of the reasons French repertoire is done so little outside of France may have to do with how French is pronounced in singing. Sometimes you just don’t want to listen to it, and I was trying to discover why.

I try to form opinions based on empirical data. If I listen to Magdalena Kožená singing in French, she sings it like my friend suggests. So do a lot of non French singers.

The entire subject of how to pronounce things I assign to my panel of experts. To discover whether or not German singers use a glottal attack when words begin with vowels, as has been alternately recommended by some and forbidden by others, I listened to Brigitte Fassbaender, Hans Hotter and some other native born German singers to find out. The answer is not always but yes, occasionally.

So for my panel of experts on how to properly pronounce the neutral vowel in French I consulted with two recordings of the Berlioz Les Nuit d'Ă©tĂ©: RĂ©gine Crespin and VĂ©ronique Gens, both fine native born French sopranos. RĂ©gine Crespin’s recording of this piece made the Gramophone 100 greatest recordings list. If it is one of the 100 all time greatest recordings, I am assuming that whatever she’s doing must be correct.

With my attention directed toward this feature of the performances, I was surprised to hear how little either one of these great ladies worried about whether her singing sounded French. They were obviously worrying about whether or not their singing sounded beautiful and their tone consistent. They are French and don’t need to prove to anyone that they can sound French.

In particular I heard virtually no difference between the way they pronounced the schwa vowel in French and how I would sing “the” in English. Sometimes it's closer to the "oo" in "look" instead of the "uh" in "the."

In fact, it is striking how everything they sing sounds so completely normal, so completely beautiful.

Singing is an art and not a science. The proof is not in the test tubes, much as I enjoy CSI television, or in books on shelves; it is in the singing. I am trying as hard as I can to write about the world of singing that's out there. If you want me to hear your opinion, don't cite sources. Cite performances.

Here it is. Judge for yourself.

I promise not to bring this up again.

P.S. Ok, so I lied. Roberto Alagna was the only Frenchman in Carmen and pinched the neutral vowel less than anyone in the opera.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Susan and Renée together again

This picture of Renée Fleming and Susan Graham is from the New York Times.

Today I attended the Metropolitan Opera HD presentation of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. I am something of a Rosenkavalier freak. I'm even starting to understand all the words.

Conductor: Edo de Waart
Production: Nathaniel Merrill
Marschallin Renée Fleming
Octavian Susan Graham
Sophie Christine Schäfer
Tenor Eric Cutler
Faninal Thomas Allen
Baron Ochs Kristinn Sigmundsson

It is necessary to dislike something, right? Eric Cutler as the tenor was lame.

Placido Domingo was adorable as the host. He talked to Renée about her long friendship with Susan Graham and elicited the quote, "We used to say we were the only ones we kissed." Clearly opera singers spend most of their free time obsessing over their private lives, like everyone else.

The production is very traditional, one of those productions that is intending to show you what it really looks like. The Marschallin's bedroom, for instance, looks exactly like a period Viennese palace bedroom, complete with the heaters built into the walls. The skyline seen through the windows is really Vienna, though the viewpoint would seem to be entirely imaginary. The second act looks good but does not allow for Sophie's Duenna to look out into the street and see all the action she is reporting to Sophie. She looks very foolish prattling on about things she can't possibly know.

All the ancient Rosenkavalier traditions are followed. The chocolate looks exactly as it should, but comes with sugar tongs. Do people put sugar into chocolate? Everyone bows precisely to the Princess and backs out of the room. The chairs in act II are positioned exactly where they always are.

Now I've gotten all that out of the way and can talk about the performances. I hope I'm not required to be coherent. Towards the end I started muttering "wonderful" to myself over and over. It was simply amazing, the best third act ever. God is in the details, and there were too many details to take in all at once. I'll have to see it again.

What sets Renée Fleming apart from possibly everyone is her ability to actively relate to the other people on the stage. It is those eyes and reactions that bring the drama to life. The Marschallin is the greatest character in all of opera, and Renée played her as a living, loving, exciting woman. She is someone we know, someone who knows she is having an affair with someone too young to know what he really wants. The phrase "halten und nehmen, halten und lassen" (hold and take, hold and leave) is the plot of the opera. Take love when it comes and let it go when it leaves. She does this better than any Marschallin I have seen. Her third act is awesome.

It even worked with Ochs. "Komm' aus dem Staunen nicht heraus! Der Feldmarschall - Octavian - Mariandl - die Marschallin - Octavian. Bin von so viel Finesse charmiert, kann gar nicht sagen, wie." (I will never get over my astonishment. The Fieldmarschall, Octavian, Mariandl, the Marschallin, Octavian. I am charmed by so much finess, and can't really say how much.) They look one another in the eye, and we see for the first time that this admiration is completely sincere. Perhaps they will see one another again, and he will ask once more for her protection.

I have seen Susan Graham in quite a few pants parts, and I must say Octavian is her masterpiece. She has the big ungainly body of a seventeen year old and moves around in it with the same insecurity. She seems completely natural. Often women playing young men seem to be a parody of a man, but Susan's Octavian is real. She is the perfect real partner for this most real Marschallin.

Someone at the Met is creating this magic. Someone is leading these already magnificent singing actors to produce the performances of their lives.

A great Rosenkavalier is a feeling like nothing else, something one wishes one could hold on to forever. Thank you, my darlings.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Singing Verismo

The period of verismo opera is 1890 to 1910, contemporary with Debussy and the Strauss tone poems, and the composers are Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni. Operas with roles composed for castrati dropped completely out of the repertoire during the first half of the twentieth century, since they cannot be sung with a verismo technique.

In verismo coloratura completely disappears. In the early twentieth century, before Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland this was the standard for Italian singing. It features a heavy tone and low larynx. When I visit Italy, this seems to be what they are still aiming for. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but in most of the twentieth century this is what is meant by opera singing. Mario del Monaco may be said to have carried this technique to its most extreme. Here is a sample.

He is at his prime here, and for some this is as good as it gets. Franco Corelli is perhaps his closest imitator, though I don't find Corelli to shout so much.

The technique continues to the present day, but more and more singers choose to take another, lighter path.

This style also reflects the extreme amount of scooping and sliding as well as rubato of any in the repertoire. Del Monaco is not particularly extreme in this department.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Hot topic

This is the hot topic on opera blogs. He always makes my list.


I am psychic, though not in any significant way.

Vivica Genaux and Joyce DiDonato appeared in my head together. So I ordered both of their new CDs from Amazon: Pyrotechnics and Colbran the Muse respectively.

Then I posted pictures of them. And now I find that they are giving a recital together on February 22 at the University of Chicago in honor of Philip Gossett's retirement. Both sing his Italian specialty composers, so that is what you should expect on the program.

Best wishes to Dr. Gossett on his retirement.

Vivica Genaux, Philip Gossett, Lawrence Brownlee.

Monday, January 04, 2010


In and out of drag.

Vivica Genaux. I have no idea what's going on here, but isn't it great!

Vivica. This is the most butch picture I've seen of her.

Joyce DiDonato.

Joyce. I was starting to think there were no drag pictures of her.
More later.