I have found the perfect antidote to Adrianne Pieczonka's Amelia--Karen Slack's magnificent Violetta at the Sacramento Opera. Spare us the noisy but square Verdi. We want our Verdi with soul. We want Verdi to wail. We want blood on the floor. And we found it at the Sacramento Opera's production of La Traviata.
Karen is a big spinto with a gorgeous tone who has style dripping from her fingertips. She just gets it. OK, I'm getting carried away. Let's just say you had to be there.
I thought she moved well, too. Everyone formed up around this intense emotional performance and gave us their best wailing Verdi.
I liked Timm Rolek as conductor more than I have in the past. He supported his singers well and fully grasped Verdi.
Alexander Boyer as Alfredo was fine. He should listen more to Pavarotti, especially the vowels. The most beautiful scene was the second act with Karen and Kenneth Overton as Giorgio Germont. The production was nice. The chorus was great.
Utterly magnificent. There are more performances. Be there.
Before his Met debut 1988 he had sung not one large role at small opera houses. At Easter Ben Heppner sings Siegfried in “Götterdämmerung” in Salzburg. Marc Fiedler met him in London. Selections from the interview.
One often says, Tristan is a milestone in the career of each Wagner singer.
Is he! The first really large milestone of my career was Walther von Stolzing. Today I feel however most strongly drawn to Tristan.
Why Tristan? There are other Wagner roles, which actually always played a subordinated role in your career: Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegmund …
I had in 1998 the big chance to give my Tristan debut in a new production in Seattle. As one asked me three, four years before, I did not know what I should answer. I called my coach. She asked me: “How old will you be with this debut?“ I said: “42.“ She answered: “If you can’t sing the role by 42, you it will never pull it off.“ After that I dared the step. You see, that was a very pragmatic decision (laughs).
Only ten years later now Siegfried was added.
I had always made a very large circle around both the Siegfried roles, not because the roles appeared for tessitura and technique impossible to me, but because I saw myself again, as a pragmatist, with a hellish preparation time, in order then, with a “Ring” cycle to stand for performances, but only two, three times on the stage. I had the feeling Tristan gives back substantially more. Now, after I had sung both the Siegfrieds in Aix EN Provence and in Salzburg - with the Easter festivals this year comes also “Götterdämmerung” - I wished, I would have taken this step earlier. The challenge, and also the satisfaction of singing Siegfried are larger, than I had presented them to myself. Feelings-wise one cannot compare the two roles with Tristan. The actual third dimension comes with the young Siegfried only in the third act, after he has kissed Brünnhilde.
With Siegfried was the thirst for other Wagner roles awakened?
Actually the thirst was always already there. I love Siegmund and Parsifal, wanted however to wait until my voice became with the age somewhat darker, more baritonal. I think already that the time has come now to tackle these two wonderful roles.
How do you prepare apart from the study of the scores and coaching for such parts? Are there references for you?
Which regards to Tristan, Wolfgang Windgassen was certainly a reference. He also sang the part very late and groped with the role just as carefully as I do. Vickers' way to sing Tristan shook me next. I needed time in order to understand his interpretation, which fascinates me. And Siegfried? I think that I learned very much from Jess Thomas.
The beginning of the yearly 2010 stands completely in the sign of Wagner: Before already mentioned Siegfried in the Salzburger “Götterdämmerung” stand appearances as Lohengrin at the Deutschen Oper Berlin.
These performances have a high value for me. Also Lohengrin is an extremely captivating part! With regard to the Easter festival, I naturally particularly look forward to Simon Rattle and “The Band”, as I gladly call the Berlin Philharmonic. I earlier played Brass Band, first trumpet, then horn and euphonium. I love Brass - and the sheet metal of the Berlin is simply divine! For the horn calls alone it was worthwhile to rehearse Siegfried. After Siegfried come Captain Ahab in Dallas and Hermann in “Pique Dame” which I will sing in Barcelona.
Which music did you hear as a child?
I come from British Columbia and grew up with church music. My whole family had a strong connection to the music. And with my whole family I mean all eleven in our house! All loved it to sing. With Country music very present in the west of Canada however I could begin little. Then already with Pop: I heard Santana and Chicago; Black Sabbath on the other hand was a bit too crazy. I had not very much of an idea of classical music, except that one heard on the radio, electronic versions of Mozart works, you know: “It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a Mozart!” Then one day I reached into the record store for the original of the 40 symphonies and was enthusiastic. From the Brass Band I came later to composers such as Bach or Bartók.
From the first Mozart record and Bach in the Brass Band it is a long way to the Met…
Originally I wanted to become a music teacher. At the university one drew my attention to my voice, and I began to train it, sang in various chamber choirs Bach, Britten, Mozart, predominantly Kantaten, but very quickly already solo parts. Once I was even one week long on the way as a countertenor - because I had agreed, without knowing what a countertenor actually was. However, I did not sing opera. This music was strange to me. It made little sense for me to blare out the very intimate texts of the libretti with the voice volume of an opera singer.
Then the year 1979 came. I won the very important for me competition of the CBC talent festival. That was on one Saturday. On the Wednesday after I ended my study, and on the following Saturday I married. In this exciting week I made the decision to try my luck as a full-time singer. Very quickly I noticed however that no way led past the opera. I visited the opera class and fell in love with these affectionate, often unconventional stage figures. Then I went to the opera house to Toronto. But before I was allowed to sing larger roles there on the main stage, the New York Met communicated with them. 1988 I won the Birgit Nilsson prize of the Metropolitan Opera. The house accepted me immediately with open arms – only there it was no more with small roles: I had to go immediately as Bacchus on the stage. That was my first large opera role! Immediately after it came the prince in “Rusalka” and “Lohengrin.” I have never sung a large role at a small house. But I would have had another choice? Naturally I had fear to stand on this stage where on the day before entered Pavarotti and on the day after Domingo. I decided to jump in the cold water and until today have not regretted it. Probably it helped me that I was at that time already 32 years old and thus no more the young upstart. But it was still a very unusual start of a career.
Simon Boccanegra........Plácido Domingo
Gabriele Adorno.........Marcello Giordani
Jacopo Fiesco...........James Morris
Paolo Albiani...........Stephen Gaertner
Production..............Giancarlo Del Monaco
I went last night to the rerun of the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Simon Boccanegra with Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, James Levine on the podium, Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia Grimaldi, Marcello Giordani as Gabriele Adorno and James Morris as Fiesco / Andrea Grimaldi. The audience in the house really loved this.
Is it necessary to review the plot? Fiesco, a Genoa aristocrat, has a daughter Maria. She gets knocked up by Simon Boccanegra, a lower class person. Baby is misplaced and turns up later as Amelia Grimaldi, Fiesco renamed. That's enough.
Anyone wants to see this because Plácido Domingo is singing Simon Boccanegra, a baritone part. Can he do it? The answer appears to be yes. The part lies well for him and he keeps his regular tenor tone. He is such a wonderful actor and carries it virtually on charisma alone.
The shock came with James Morris as Fiesco. This part did not lie well for him. His voice completely disappeared on the low notes. My previous complaints about him having a wobble, however, were not in evidence. He sounded great on the parts you could hear.
It was a stylistic mish-mash. Marcello Giordani sang beautifully in a very Italian style. Domingo and Morris were a kind of generic Verdi. Adrianne Pieczonka has a nice hefty voice for Verdi but absolutely no idea of how to phrase Verdi. Perhaps the Verdi curse will move to New York.
My trip to Paris coincided with a complete change in my blood pressure medicine, which was close to being a disaster. I managed to drag myself home, but just barely. I almost stayed home but found a cheap hotel at the last minute in the Latin Quarter. This turned out to be the perfect place for me to stay with lots of handy restaurants and Metro stations. A number of the sights of Paris turned out to be nearby.
I went around mainly by Metro, armed with my Streetwise Paris map. Some of the Metro stations are huge and very confusing. To get to Garnier and Salle Pleyel involved taking RER B followed by RER A. The first time I tried his I wandered all over the Chatelet station looking for the other train and ended up on the platform where I had started. You walk across the platform. I got on the wrong train only once. It would be extremely helpful if the trains were identified by the next stop instead of the final station, but that is probably an out-of-towner perspective. It would be handy to know if the train were taking me to Chatelet or Luxembourg instead of to the long list of end stations.
Giulio Cesare ended after the last Metro and threw me on to the mercy of the Paris night buses. In the daytime the buses are filled with well behaved old ladies such as myself, but the night buses seem to be reserved for the sort of people who get into shouting matches with the driver. And they didn’t seem to go anywhere near my hotel. Luckily when the bus put me down near the flower market on Ile de la Cite, I had already been in Paris long enough to recognize the flower market and the path home. The lights had been turned off on Notre Dame. Everything looked quite forlorn at that hour of the night. One bar on Rue Saint Jacques was still open and going strong, but everything else was dark and quiet by 2 am.
I appeared to blend in. I noticed that older women seem to wear their hair very short in Paris which may account for why people would constantly approach me and start speaking French. When I tried to speak French, about half the words turned out to be Italian.
I was interested in the contrast with Rome. In Rome the wreckage was caused by invading armies who destroyed everything indiscriminately. In Paris the lower classes did their best to wreck anything that seemed to symbolize the aristocracy. In the Cluny Museum are the heads of the kings of Israel that were knocked off by the angry mobs of the revolution who thought they were kings of France.
At the ballet the young man who gave me a ticket and I discussed Paris traffic. I held that it was not nearly as bad as I remembered it from the early seventies. I remember being afraid that they were going to come up on the sidewalk after me. He pointed out that now there are cameras all over Paris filming you, much as I know is the case in London, so it is much more difficult to get away with things than before.
I was hobbling feebly across a street in the Place de la Concorde after visiting the Orangerie when a small van seemed on a trajectory to run right over me. I suddenly became spry and jumped out of his way.
Clearly this trip was meant to be for the miraculous encounter with Cecilia in the auditorium of Salle Pleyel. Two thirds of the way down the left aisle, I calculate. She looked especially beautiful in her black suit, and did not seem to mind this time that I never do or say the right things. Thank you. I think I squeezed back, or at least I hope so.
I returned home with memories and a lot of dark, gloomy pictures. Maybe Paris in the spring would be different.
I have been commenting lately about how great Renée Fleming sounds these days, better than ever, in fact. And I have noticed an interesting feature of her technique.
Most singers learn to fix their larynx at a certain spot in their neck. (They learn this whether they know they do or not.) When the larynx is fixed at a low position, it becomes a standard feature of a verismo or Wagnerian style.
It is curious that Renée while singing a lot of verismo, does not do this. As the pitch of her voice goes up and down, her larynx position goes up and down with it. She manages this with an extraordinary amount of precision and finesse. To darken or lighten the tone she lowers and raises her larynx in relation to this moving position.
Fascinating. This is very easy on the voice, avoiding the muscle strain that can develop with a fixed position.
I have been reading myself and find that I am silly. Perhaps I have always been silly, and perhaps I am acquiring silliness as I go along. I don't mind it, but perhaps some do.
Perhaps it is silly to worry about things like how to pronounce French, for instance. The French language does not include the concept of an unstressed vowel. The answer to the question, "Which syllable of Debussy do I stress?" is all of them.
Usually one bases ones decisions on the spoken language. One objective of pronunciation in singing is to make the words understandable. But what is one to do with vowels that are not spoken at all? So perhaps they are thinking of "je" and the E in "carte" as the same. Or at least the people coaching singers are thinking this. Perish the thought that you should do something different from what the coaches want, regardless of what Roberto Alagna and Regine Crespin do.
In the Still of Night is a new recording from Anna Netrebko to be released in March. Here is a website devoted to the album. It can be pre-ordered now from Amazon.
This article about the release makes the incredible statement, "This was, incredibly, the first recital of her professional career...." This is absurd. I have personally been to an Anna Netrebko recital in San Francisco where the accompanist was Donald Runnicles. Her Russian work is fabulous. I can't wait to hear it. Bits are on the website.
My only previous experience with seeing Bellini's La Sonnambula (billed here as La Somnambule though it was done in Italian) was the Met HD production. I'm glad I saw this one presented by the Paris Opera.
Digress to tirade: I'm going to say this again--the purpose of the production is to tell us who these people are, what is happening and why we should care about them. This leaves you a lot of leeway. Moving them around chronologically usually does not negatively impact this. Making them simultaneously two different people whom you can never clearly distinguish is a disaster. Caring about the characters is impossible.
End of tirade. This production at the Paris Opera is set in a Swiss hotel high in the Alps c. 1930. We have a lovely Deco set and convincingly Swiss people, made up of a mixture of hotel staff and guests. Most of the named characters are staff. The first scene was creatively staged with Natalie Dessay as Amina entering in her working clothes and gradually changing into a bride. It was also very effective at the end of the first act when Javier Camarena as Elvino threw a chair through a window and snow started blowing in.
At the end Amina transformed into Natalie Dessay to be married in a bright red dress. I wasn't so sure about this.
Elvino Pido was the suitably Italian conductor. Michele Pertusi was Il Conte again, and Marie-Adeline Henry was the villainess Lisa. Camarena was an excellent high tenor. So they are around. The singing was all good.
I guess a guy would get pissed if he thought his girl was messing around on their wedding night. The chorus' sudden shift of loyalty to Lisa is a bit dubious. I read in the program that this production is from the Wienerstaatsoper.
All around me are people with boxes of Ricola. I go into every pharmacie and ask "Aves vous Ricola?" They say no, and I buy something else. Today it was Vicks which is very stinky. I explain that I need them for the opera--tonight is Natalie. The opera should sell these. In San Francisco they sell hard candy that almost works, but Ricola is best.
I don't know why, but I always cough at the opera.
I am not keeping up a proper pace because my knee is hurting, besides the bitter cold. I will try to see Giulio again tomorrow and then try for Sonnambula Monday. I will go to Giulio again only if I can get a seat on the other side.
It was an extraordinary day in which I was almost run down in the Place de la Concorde and I was given a free ticket to the ballet La Dame aux Camelias at Opera Garnier by a lovely young Frenchman who had been stood up. I sat in box 37, probably the best seat in the house. La vie est belle.
La Dame is a ballet on music by Chopin with the same plot as La Traviata. This is the Chopin year--he was born in 1810. There is not nearly enough Chopin in our lives.
I liked it a very great deal, perhaps as much for the lack of any Tchaikovsky as anything else. The dancing was delicate and dramatically crystal clear. I went to please my niece who would like it if I were a ballet fan. If they were all like this, I definitely would be.
The set for the opening of the ballet from my seat. This is definitely a seat.
The lead dancers were Delphine Moussin and Benjamin Pech. She is a striking looking woman with a long neck who was easy to pick out on the stage throughout all her many costume changes. He carried her around the stage in a very impressive manner.
While having lunch with a friend, out of the blue she started talking about how to sing the neutral vowel, especially in French. The neutral vowel is the one where your tongue just lays there and you lips don't do much of anything. Uh. What people say when that can't think of anything to say.
The problem with French is that you frequently sing these even when you wouldn't say them. So you can't make your decision based entirely on what people say.
My friend teaches her students to use a bit of tongue in the pronunciation, a little like the "u" in "La plume de ma tante."
I don't have an opinion. 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.
However, if I listen to French people singing, people like Régine Crespin and Véronique Gens, it's just plain "uh." Like the "de" in "La plume de ma tante." I am always struck by how when a French person sings French, it sounds perfectly normal, but when someone else sings it, it often sounds quite odd. This is probably one of the reasons. If Régine Crespin is doing it, it's probably right.
The performance of Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Salle Pleyel in Paris has to be the greatest assemblage of countertenors ever: Andreas Scholl as Cesare, Philippe Jaroussky as Sesto, Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo and Rachid Ben Abdesiam as Nerino. Scholl is German, but the other three seem to be trained in France. Who knew that France was a hotbed of countertenors?
Jaroussky is the star of the younger generation. Based on his performance here, I would say he is very exciting and has a pleasing color to his voice.
William Christie is a dynamic and exciting conductor who kept this insane, seemingly uncut presentation of the Handel opera moving as fast as imaginable. The pacing could not be criticized, but nevertheless the performance ran a half hour over the announced 4 hours. A seven o'clock start would have been nice.
I would have preferred to see and hear Cecilia from the front instead of the behind the orchestra seat I was given. I can still remember how it looked in the staging in Zurich. The whole concert was very enjoyable, very professionally done, especially the early instrument orchestra. Cecilia was especially beautiful in "piangero" and "da tempeste."
William Christie is left, then Scholl, then Cecilia Bartoli. I didn't notice at the concert, but the men all seem to be wearing white tie and tails. This is the only view I got of their faces. Now that I know to look for it, I see the blue ribbon below Cecilia's right hand. This is the l'ordre du Mérite which she received at intermission.
I sat behind the stage. We foreigners don't need to read the titles, I guess. I went up the stairs on stage left, but noticed during the first half that the artists entered stage right. Had psychic event. Thought "go back from the john stage right." And there was Cecilia dressed in street clothes--ok, up scale street clothes--surrounded by tall men dressed in black. I think this clump included Scholl. We noted that there was a reception for Orange, a telecom company and sponsor. Irrelevant details. But have you ever heard of a reception at intermission?
I said "hello." She said "hello." She recognized me and took my hand and squeezed it. I said "How ya doin?" or something equally ridiculous. She said "OK," and flashed me her million Dollar smile. Or maybe her million Euro smile.
This was better than anything planned. The concert was really long, so long that I missed the last metro, and I left after.
I am thinking this topic is resolved. Fingers crossed.
I loved my Italian with a grand passion, and threw myself headlong into Italy. I consumed the art, the coffee, the landscape, the gardens, and most of all the city of Rome with the eyes of love. It is a perspective that mere looking cannot replace.
I bought a ticket for Idomeneo from a scalper at Opera Garnier. Second row of box 13. I went for Isabel Bayrakdarian who sang Ilia, and maybe Vesselina Kasarova as Idamante. In Paris Anna Netrebko has appeared in this production, though not now as the scalper claimed.
Kasarova is always the most manly person on the stage. Isabel rolls her Rs in a rather startling way.
Should I attempt an actual review? The production placed this opera in a modern Cretan fishing village on the shore of the Mediterranean with projections of waves at the back of the stage. I thought this worked.
Commentators always say Idomeneo is Mozart's best opera seria. Elektra is in it for some obscure reason--perhaps for the possibility of rage arias. After the thrill of Werther, it was pretty ho hum.
My seat mate spoke English so we talked about opera. I believe it was here that Berlioz sat in the orchestra pit with the orchestra to provide the material for Evenings in the Orchestra. I don't know if the dates are correct.
PS. Dates are not correct. It must have been another house.
One of the things I wanted to do in Paris was visit the exhibition of women artists at the Centre Georges Pompidou.
Early in the exhibition is a poster pointing out that while only a small percentage of art in museums is by women artists, almost all the nudes are women. So here we are with a giant museum full of women artists--where are the male nudes? Women artists in the twentieth century seem obsessed with the politics of gender, with the condition of being female.
Of course the art work that is the Centre is the most fascinating. I will have to return before I leave.
It is possible to teach yourself to see and hear more. (Perhaps it is not possible to teach yourself the French keyboard.)
One should be younger for Paris, I think. So far I have been to Notre Dame, Musée d'Orsay, Pantheon.
Art Nouveau revival at Musée d'Orsay turned out to be posters from the Fillmore. I had friends who were rock musicians during that period and had the posters put around the ceiling of their house. Friend would point out the name of their group on the posters, but I no longer remember what it was. Not Jefferson Airplane.
The French have no fear of modern architecture. We may make buildings into cones or boxes, but true modernism requires the French.
Massanet's Werther is based on Goethe's novel Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, 1774, which was the birth of Romanticism. From that day Goethe was one of the most famous people in Europe. He didn't have a similar success until Faust many years later. Everyone in the nineteenth century composed a Faust, but only Massenet seems to have done Werther. By the time of the opera in 1892 Romanticism had run its course. People had been dying on the opera stage for many years.
Bust of Goethe from the Musée d'Orsay.
In the novel the hero's heart is broken and stays broken until he ends his life. Charlotte cannot be blamed. She promised her dead mother to marry Albert, and she must fulfill this promise. Sometimes trajedy cannot be avoided.
At the beginning of the opera Werther is already in love with Charlotte, and they spend the day together. He tells her he loves her, and then her sister cries out that Albert has returned. Oh yes. Albert is her fiancé. Should have, could have mentioned. In the opera she is ambiguous, flirtatious.
In the second act Charlotte marries Albert, and everyone tells Werther (Vair-tair) to cheer up or get out. He chooses to get out.
It is only in the third act that Charlotte truly comes to life. She reassured her husband there were no regrets but finds that she cannot forget Werther. Who writes. He tells her he is alone and in despair. Then he appears and woos her again. The opera character is more manly than the whiner of Goethe's novel. She panics and leaves.
He returns to his hovel and shoots himself. She finds him and there is an extended death scene.
How is one to explain the extreme beauty of this performance at the Paris Opera? It is a question of atmosphere. Werther concerns itself primarily with the interior landscape of the hero's mind. It is all a gentle romantic dream that turns to despair and self destruction. All of the components combined to express this interior landscape.
The production contributes with its cool, bare, minimalist sets.
Anne-Catherine Gillet as Sophie, Sophie Koch as Charlotte, Michel Plasson conductor, Jonas Kaufmann as Werther, Ludovic Tézier as Albert. They are standing in front of the set for the last scene.
And then there is the masterpiece of Michel Plasson's conducting and the almost impressionistic effect of the orchestral playing. The orchestra actually received the biggest ovation with sustained rhythmic clapping before the third act and again at the end. Perhaps it works to conceive it as Impressionism. It is an enormous pleasure to praise a musical concept.
Jonas Kaufmann in this musical context is so much more than a mere singer--he is the spiritual incarnation of the interior landscape that is Werther. They none of them struggle against the hero's inevitable destruction but allow themselves to be swept away.
It was a masterpiece beyond my wildest imaginings. Werther will never be the same.
The San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas and Mahler all at the same time are a slam dunk at the Grammys. This year they won Best Classical Album for Mahler 8. The soloists are Erin Wall, Elza van den Heever, Laura Claycomb, Katarina Karneus, Yvonne Naef, Anthony Dean Griffey, Quinn Kelsey, and James Morris. They also won for Best Choral Performance.
Marin Alsop's Bernstein Mass is an interesting also ran.
Ravel: Daphnis Et Chloé with James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra won Best Orchestral Performance, but I couldn't find a picture. I could not find this recording on any version of Amazon.
The Best Opera Recording went to Billy Budd with Adam Green, Alasdair Elliott, Andrew Kennedy, Andrew Staples, Andrew Tortise, Daniel Teadt, Darren Jeffrey, Gidon Saks, Hugo Shepherd, Ian Bostridge, Jonathan Lemalu, Kyle Kean, Laurie Benson , Mark Stone, Matthew Best, Matthew Rose , and Nathan Gunn. Daniel Harding is the conductor. With no women in the cast I probably won't buy it.
The rest of the list is also interesting: Messiaen: Saint François D'Assise, Musto, John: Volpone, Shostakovich: The Nose and Tan Dun: Marco Polo.
Journey To The New World, by Sharon Isbin with Joan Baez & Mark O'Connor won for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (Without Orchestra). She is listed as Artist, Composer, Conductor. This is making me curious.
Yes, I skipped Askenazy doing Prokofiev.
Intimate Letters (Janacek & Martinu) performed by the Emerson String Quartet won for Best Chamber Music Performance.
Renée Fleming won Best Classical Vocal Performance for Verismo.
I feel compelled to mention all the other nominees:
Bach by Anne Sofie von Otter. Bel Canto Spectacular by Juan Diego Flórez. Recital At Ravinia Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Un Frisson Français Susan Graham.
The only ones I own are Recital at Ravinia, a truly wonderful recording, and Verismo. Several of these sound interesting.
It is curious to note that none of the winners goes back before 1890 in repertoire. They are out of synch with the current direction of at least the singing part of classical music.