Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pie Jesu contest

This is in case I am run over by a bus in Italy. Pick your favorite.

Journalism. These are five excellent versions of the "Pie Jesu" from the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré.


I enjoy very much the AT&T commercial with orange fabric falling, falling from the St Louis arch and the Los Vegas casinos, and I thought of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Then I saw the disclaimer across the bottom of the screen saying Christo and Jeanne-Claude have no affiliation blah blah blah. So is it or isn't it? My impression is that surely it must be. 

I Googled them and found that Jeanne-Claude had died last year.  Perhaps the commercial is an homage.  Perhaps not.

The picture above is Running Fence from Marin County in California.  It was the work we knew best.  They have made us see reality in a new way.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Vittorio Grigolo

This is the guy they are going mad for in London where he appears in Manon with Netrebko. Did you get goose bumps?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Die Schöne Müllerin

I decided Jonas Kaufmann's recording of Die Schöne Müllerin deserved a hearing where he was not alternating with Goerne. I must say it makes a much better impression this way. Jonas's diction is impeccable. If I don't understand a word, it's probably because I don't know it.

One wants youth, poetry, enthusiasm from the miller. He loves the stream he walks along and talks to it. The poems by Wilhelm Müller project a kind of innocence that would never have attracted the attention of history if Franz Schubert had not set them to music.

In Jonas's voice each song has a personal character. There is joy, love, sorrow and still the primitive innocence of the poetry. What more could we ask?

Bella Italia

In a few days I will fly to Italy, and I have begun to long for it already. This year we will go to Rome.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Romeo Rerun

I went to the rerun of the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Romeo et Juliette last night. Why do we like this and feel so reviled by Faust? Is innocence no longer valued? It is worth noting that Romeo immediately takes Juliette to the priest.

I enjoyed that they played the parts like enthusiastic children. I think seeing something again changes it. In another time and place these two blessed children would have been perfect for each other.

This is the most impressed I have been with Placido Domingo as a conductor.

They cut the intermission completely, something I didn't like at all. Most operas are too long to see without a break. 5 minutes?

Monday, June 21, 2010


I am happy with this list only if there are 14 names.

Renée Fleming

Natalie Dessay

Anna Netrebko

Angela Gheorghiu

Elina Garanča

Cecilia Bartoli

Joyce DiDonato

Juan Diego Florez

Jonas Kaufmann

Placido Domingo

Simon Keenlyside

René Pape

Bryn Terfel

Dmitri Hvorostovsky

And yes, this is this year's sexiest list. I have tried to use pictures I've never used before. Surprise. In this set of pictures the sexiest by far is Placido Domingo.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mass, the Musical

Sometimes I buy CD's in stores.  I realize this is extremely retro.  Marin Alsop's recording of Bernstein's Mass caught my eye.  I was, of course, around when this piece first made its appearance, and I read the commentary.  I just never heard the piece.  No one I knew was rushing out to perform it.

Michael Tilson Thomas and Marin Alsop are Bernstein's musical children, in a way. I rented Candide from Netflix in my first year of blogging and failed to mention that Marin Alsop was conducting that, too.

I don't think I expected what I am hearing. The style is pure Bernstein. I'm glad I never heard it in another version. What you want from a composer is that he is always himself. The piece is also pure Bernstein. Life and love flow out in passionate bursts. "Take a look. Under this there is nothing but me." Yes. The musical of Leonard Bernstein.

Lennie and I both know the mass from our musical lives. We sort of remember what the words are and we sort of remember what they mean. We both know that the Hebrew service includes a "holy, holy, holy," too--he sticks that in. He free associates from the mass, puts in pretty much anything he remembers that is in Latin. Sometimes he starts out with the right words and wanders off into something else before the movement is over.

Jubilant Sykes is the celebrant, rather more of a cantor than anything else. He is our thoughts as we experience the mass. In the old days the priest stood with his back to us and muttered a bunch of stuff. Maybe he was talking about how wine is more of a brown than red.

It isn't exactly religion. But it is completely, joyfully Leonard Bernstein. The mass has ended. Go in peace.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Christine Schaefer has all the fun

Great Singers

I am currently cataloging my books, 460 and counting, and have come across a wonderful book by Henry Pleasants called The Great Singers. Mine is the paperback edition from 1966, but I see there is a later edition from 1985 that includes Pavarotti.  I don't have the newer edition to compare with mine.  It says it starts with Jenny Lind while mine goes back to the dawn of opera.  Jenny Lind is a little late in the story.

In 1966 Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland had just begun the bel canto revival, so he is basically writing from the perspective of my youth when opera singers followed the verismo / Wagnerian path. Many of my ideas about the development of technique over time derive from this book. He uses sources. Imagine that. This book is highly recommended.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Top 12 Singers

This is a list generated by Limelight Magazine from Australia of the top 12 singers today.

Renée Fleming
Natalie Dessay
Anna Netrebko
Elina Garanča
Cecilia Bartoli
Joyce DiDonato
Juan Diego Florez
Jonas Kaufmann
Placido Domingo
Simon Keenlyside
René Pape
Bryn Terfel

It's nicely symmetrical, don't you think?  I'm very pleased to see Joyce in this list.  She and Jonas are probably the most recent additions.  I would agree that this is pretty much the list, but I have flown to see only three of them. It's probably not a coincidence that most of them have appeared on my sexiest list at one time or another.

Two years ago Rolando Villazon would have appeared.  The only truly shocking omission is Angela Gheorghiu.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gounod's Faust

I am in danger of becoming jaded. I have seen some pretty amazing stuff this year, including some of the best French opera of my lifetime: Werther in Paris and Hamlet and Carmen from the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts. Werther in particular was quite staggeringly wonderful.

So here we are having to think of something to say about Gounod's Faust presented by the San Francisco Opera. Everyone says it's marvelous, so I guess it must be.

This is the opera the Germans insist on calling Margarite. I know this because I have a small German libretto amongst my collection of books. Faust is almost a secondary character. I listened to see if his name is ever spoken. People are constantly saying "Marguerite" but never "Faust." No one is worrying over Faust's soul, supposedly the whole point of the story.

The baritones saved the day. John Relyea as Méphistophélès virtually walks on water. I cannot get enough of him. He is sexy and sings like a dream. The best bit in the production is in the opening scene. Faust is whining away in a room full of corpses when one of them sits up, takes off his covering sheet and asks why Faust is so surprised. Nice. If he can raise the dead, what can he not do?

Brian Mulligan was an impressive Valentin. His aria in act one is my favorite part of the opera, and he was outstanding.

I was less thrilled with the rest of the cast. Why don't we just let it go at that.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1850-70]

Friday, June 11, 2010

Die Walküre

I have to get this out of the way:  horse in Fanciulla, dogs in Die Walküre.  What are things coming to?

Die Walküre is the best Wagner.  It is wonderful almost beyond imagining because it's about relationships:  the self-named twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the father / daughter pair Wotan and Brünnhilde.  Both end tragically.

And Donald Runnicles is the best Wagner conductor.  Whatever cracks I may ever have made about him, I was only ever referring to his non-Wagner repertoire.  For Wagner he is the best.  It's ok to care almost exclusively about the orchestra if you are conducting Wagner.

 In the production at the San Francisco Opera, shared with the Washington National Opera, all the characters are American.  The places are American, the clothing, the trophy cases, the aviatrixes.  It's very important to mention the Valkyries as aviatrixes, with boots and goggles and parachute landings.  This is by far the loudest bunch of Valkyries I have ever heard.  These women can wail.

It's the most emotional Walküre I've seen.  Nina Stemme is a singer with a powerful voice who never forces anything, and who creates a wonderful character for Brünnhilde.  

# Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme
# Wotan: Mark Delavan
# Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek*
# Siegmund: Christopher Ventris
# Fricka: Janina Baechle*
# Hunding: Raymond Aceto

It is an excellent cast. Special mention goes to Eva-Maria Westbroek. Go.

 [See Kinderkuchen History 1850-1870]

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Either Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West is a forgotten masterpiece or it's Puccini's biggest failure. The program from the San Francisco Opera is full of praise, citing various chords and cinematic features, calling it the precursor of movie soundtracks. But is successful opera found in the orchestra part? I think only Wagner managed that.

For the first 15 minutes or so Nicola Luisotti's orchestra completely covered the singers on the stage, a situation which gradually improved as the opera went on.

Only one small bit in the third act where the tenor is about to be hung sounds like an aria we have heard before. Puccini is supposed to have been trying for another success like Boheme. In Boheme a very long part of Act I excerpts as two glorious arias followed by a famous duet. There is plenty of opportunity for vocal fireworks when Johnson walks into the bar and Minnie and he recognize one another. The problem is that Puccini does not deliver.

How is one to evaluate an opera where high C's appear suddenly without warning? If this wasn't Puccini, we would say the vocal writing borders on the downright bad for extended stretches.

I liked the production. Two large stone walls, painted brown on one side and gray on the other, form the structure for all 3 acts. Everyone enters the Act I bar down a tall staircase, providing a backdrop for some spectacular entrances. Minnie comes in firing her gun. Then through a lighting trick Johnson appears like magic on the upper landing.

The third act is the only one that seems to work. The miners find Johnson and decide to hang him. Just as Johnson finishes asking them not to tell Minnie how he died, she rides in on a very pretty palomino horse and saves him. She tells them, "God gave this man to me." The horse is hitched to a wagon and they ride off singing "Addio."

I predicted correctly that Deborah Voigt would reappear on the horse during the bows.

Of course we could always blame the singers. I felt a vocal fit with the role only with Salvatore Licitra as Johnson. It's a terrific part for him. The role of Sheriff Rance didn't lie well for Roberto Frontali.

Minnie is a difficult role, one that requires a big voice and a big personality to fill it. Deborah Voigt rose to the part, acted Minnie as the complex individual she is and handled the difficult singing. She projected perhaps a little more self-confidence than Minnie seems to feel about herself. But Voigt is right. Her voice is better suited to German repertoire.

I've seen this opera a number of times and have begun to wonder if anything could save it. Maybe it would work as a comedy.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Conducting Bel Canto

This is how you do it. Now try to picture him giving her a cutoff. The mind boggles. La Traviata is about as close to bel canto as Verdi gets.

My friends complain that they don't know what a cutoff is. Around 2:01-02 he is giving one to the orchestra with his left hand.  It means stop singing or playing.

I want to answer my own question. He would not consider giving her a cutoff because she is paying not the slightest attention to him. Nor should she.

This post is an afterthought to the post about Leonard Slatkin conducting Angela Gheorghiu found here.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Slatkin vs Gheorghiu

The Leonard Slatkin fiasco in La Traviata at the Met is playing out in the blogs.  It is important to notice that they fired Slatkin and not Gheorghiu.  For more background on the situation see this article.

Intermezzo reports here that Slatkin complained to the press that he gave cutoffs and what do you know Gheorghiu didn't cut off. Dear Mr. Slatkin. Karajan followed the singers, and what's good enough for Karajan is good enough for you.

Aprile Millo on her blog gives us this wonderful long quote:

It is a reflection of egos of today. No young conductor comes up knowing their craft really, slowly saturating to the music, understanding beautifully that many voices can sing a role, with help, some voices SHOULD be singing the roles, and some shouldn’t be hired at all. They come quick out of school and want to be the next great…..”Santini”…..

Mozart sounds like Rossini, Verdi sounds like Mozart, and they all sound alike ; badly fitting shoes that like to walk fast to get home to take them off because they hurt.

This alarming miscalculation of time coming with a maestro [Slatkin] of some twenty years career is a riddle to me. Where is the respect for the piece, the singers, and for goodness sakes, the Metropolitan Opera and it’s fabulous orchestra?

The men who beat time, in opera, should rehearse well, but in performance, especially with those that are artists, however quicksilver they can be and willfull, they should FOLLOW the voice. Personality is missing so much from opera today, encourage it…. inspire it….If you want to conduct something without voice, do a symphony. And learn it first, please.

Her [Gheorghiu's] choices are not always what I would want or do, but when she sings you know you are in the presence of a special message and a unique soul and voice, and I applaud her great courage and resounding success in so glorious a role under such a trying circumstance. Brava with only more beauty and calm to come.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


I just realized Takesha Meshé Kizart who recently sang Tosca to great acclaim at Opera Australia is the woman I picked out of the San Antonio Met auditions that were shown during the simulcast of Trittico. I'm so happy her career is going well.

This is her singing "Tu che la vanita" from Verdi's Don Carlo. Which makes her a spinto. Feel your heart take that leap.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Happy Birthday Cecilia

Salgo gia

"Salgo gia" is the big aria from Nabucco.

Callas did it.

 Guleghina did it.

A lot of people like Ghena Dimitrova.

Lyudmila Monastyrska.

I am trying to integrate the existence of this role into my history of singing.  Our tradition says it is to be sung by a very heavy dramatic soprano.  But what happens when it isn't?  It's still convincing.  The question I am still asking is:  can we project this type of heavy technique back into the past?  There was much discussion when tenors began to sing with a much heavier technique, but I don't recall a similar focus on sopranos.  Does the presence of rage arias mean heavy singing?  Is a puzzlement.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Advice to Set Designers

I haven't really given any advice for a while but here goes.

When designing a set for an opera, do not design it as a giant staircase. A few productions come to mind.

  • Old production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at San Francisco.
  • The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • Nabucco also from the Met.

When you are designing a set for an opera, please write out in large letters and hang it up somewhere obvious: THESE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO BE SINGING. No matter what their conditioning program, climbing up and down gigantic staircases is going to make them out of breath. We would prefer that they were not out of breath.

Placido Domingo in The First Emperor had the good sense not to even try it. He did his final scene near the bottom.


We are continuing with the Maria Guleghina film festival, this time with Verdi's Nabucco from the Metropolitan Opera 2001. Bizarre as this may sound, this is my first Nabucco.

Wow. This is serious screamer Verdi. With a date of 1844 it is also very early. I will have to adjust my ideas. This could only have been written by Verdi. It's full of staccato choruses, a Verdi signature, for instance. Dio. Here's a paragraph from Wikipedia:

"The soprano role of Abigaille has been perceived as the downfall of a number of singers. Elena Souliotis and Anita Cerquetti sang it before they were ready and its high tessitura arguably damaged their voices. Maria Callas sang it only three times; only a live performance from 1949 was recorded. Leontyne Price and Dame Joan Sutherland refused to sing it."

Well. Guleghina probably thinks Lady Macbeth is a piece of cake after this. There's a lot of shouting from the audience on this film and most of it is for Maria. I'm hoping she has abandoned this role never to return, but it is amazing to hear. Abigaille suits her better dramatically than Lisa. She's best in the major bitch parts.  She's very intense, but wimps out in the end, of course. We can't be having these uppity women actually triumphing in the end.

Samuel Ramey as Zaccaria already has a wobble, but it's not intolerable. Juan Pons is a lovely singer, but the role of Nabucco is also reasonably difficult:  now dramatic, now lyric. The whole opera is really so incredibly heavy.  But intense and exciting.  It's an excellent performance of an insanely difficult opera.

Verdi is following the lead of French grand opera and wipes away all thought of the lyrical bel canto composers. It's very clear why he made such a big splash. Eventually he came to his senses vocally.

There is an encore of "Va pensiero."  My eyes are opened.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


I am finally getting around to watching the DVD of Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades with Valery Gergiev conducting, or as it is appropriately called on the cover: Pique Dame. I say appropriate because you can hear them saying it in Russian.

I always have something irrelevant to say. The third scene is a ball. We cut it entirely in Ulm, but must surely have moved the wonderful aria by the Prince. We can't surely have cut that. Never mind. In San Francisco there was always a surprise at the end of this scene. The chorus makes an elaborate announcement that Catherine the Great is coming. Her retinue makes its appearance. So does she enter or not? That is the surprise. Perhaps they could not afford the outfit or could find no one to wear it because sometimes they would announce and announce and the curtain would go down with no Catherine. I am excited watching this scene: will she enter or not? She does. She looks like a super and not like the Empress of Russia.

Maria Guleghina is a well sung Lisa, but she frowns all the way through. It would be difficult to imagine a better sung Lisa. Olga Borodina as Pauline is still thin in this.

Pique Dame for my taste contains some of Tchaikovsky's most beautiful music. The best scene musically and dramatically is the scene of the old Countess's death. Some wonderful actresses have performed this scene, and it was sad in Sacramento that they omitted it. It would have required a lot of added rehearsal, but they should have attempted it.

Herman is an asshole. For me he is the reason the opera ultimately fails and people prefer Onegin. The Met player has a version with Placido Domingo which I should try to see. Herman is on the stage almost constantly, and I'm not really sure we can bear an opera where the villain is also the hero. We prefer Onegin because he does not take her down with him. Gegam Grigorian is acceptable, plays the part with a lot of intensity, but does not redeem Herman. Perhaps no one can.

Gergiev makes the music sing.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010


What's On Stage reports the following paragraph:

[Erwin] Schrott decided it was a sign he had too much free time and ought to get busy doing something more useful. And so he resolved to “never google again, not log in, nothing”. I mentioned something the tenor Marcelo Alvarez said in a recent interview, “Blogs are the cancer of our operatic world.” Schrott approves. “So there are two things that you don’t have to do - to smoke and to read blogs!”

Since I am paranoid, I naturally think they are talking about me. But on the other hand, I don't suppose any working artist should pay that much attention to other people's opinions.