Disclaimer: I never read what the director says is supposed to be going on in the production. I like it to unfold while I am watching and listening. I want to allow for the possibility of surprise. I assume that whatever I am seeing is what is intended for me to see. If I have to read things to understand the production, something is wrong. The purpose of the production is to explain the opera to me. I consider it the director's responsibility to communicate to me what the production means by putting the meaning in the production.
Now that it's over, I have read a lot of commentary about what was supposed to be going on in Faust. Perhaps they were confused and I was not because they read the director's explanation.
I want to know what in the visual elements of this production would have led one to believe this was another Doctor Atomic, and that he sold his soul, not for a young woman as seems so obvious, but for the atomic bomb? I read that that's what this production was supposed to mean. I do not read what besides the fact that they all wore lab coats would have meant that? I insist that if you can't see it, easily and clearly see it, it isn't there.
Norman Lebrecht has gotten himself involved in a discussion of how to pronounce "R." (Here for French, here for German.) This sounds like the sort of silly stuff I write about. My fanaticism is the pronunciation of the unpronounced neutral vowel in French. If it isn't pronounced, how are you supposed to tell how to pronounce it?
When native speakers speak both French and German, they often use a uvular or gutturalized R (back of the throat) instead of a rolled or flipped R (tip of the tongue). When I lived in Germany, my Spanish friend would laugh that she could do a guttural R only on the word "Brod." Then she would demonstrate. I couldn't do it on any word at all, so I was very impressed with this. My uvula refuses to do anything but just hang there. The fanatical German speech coaches fussed with a lot of things about my German but never once brought up how I pronounced R. Perhaps they simply assume that foreigners have no hope of achieving this. Or perhaps the uvular R isn't considered correct in opera singing.
I like to use certain models for these things. In French I think of Edith Piaf as the supreme model. Watching this again I can see her tongue rolling those R's. I am surprised by this.
For my money Régine Crespin and Edith Piaf are rolling with the tip of the tongue. This is what singers are taught. And you will please notice that neither one of these women use the silly super-rounded neutral vowel you are constantly hearing from coached non-French singers.
And Fritz Wunderlich is definitely using his tongue.
Christa Ludwig rolls with her tongue. The idea here is that you do nothing with your pronunciation that interferes with your tone because tone is king.
When the man in Brussels asks for a uvular R, he is trying for a theatrical effect. He wants Carmen to sound common. Here is a link to comments from the singer on this situation.
Curiously, if you go back a few posts to the film of Victoria de los Angeles, the word "chagrin" sounds the most likely to be guttural of anything I've found.
The only singer I am absolutely certain consistently uses a uvular R when singing is Gisela May.
At one point in the song she even sings it with her mouth wide open. No tongue. She was one of Brecht's favorites. We prefer to approach these subjects using the empirical method.
I have owned this film for years. After all, it comes with Pierrot Lunaire which I reviewed here. Es heisst Theaterrealität. It is two things in one--a film of Schumann's Dichterliebe and a film of people filming Schumann's Dichterliebe--and it can be played either way. I am showing the long version without subtitles for the full experience.
There is an extended bit filming Christine Schaefer's bare feet. In another section she says "Ich liebe dich" into the camera over and over. Unsuccessfully. We do not feel loved. The pianist Natasha Osterkorn takes a bath.
They are German, they smoke, they drink. "Es ist leichter sich am Arsch zu kratzen als am Hertzen," she writes on a blackboard while singing "Ich grolle nicht." Hoffentlich.
She is performing the songs in a moving railroad car with ragged furniture and dirt. And a grand piano. And an audience that appears and disappears.
One hears the words as never before.
I begin to feel that the truly modern exists only in Germany. I begin to long for Berlin Alexanderplatz.
I keep thinking about this, so because today is Puccini's birthday, I have decided to post it. At least a month ago I attended a performance in the Crocker Art Museum. I won't name the singer, but her program included a group by Puccini, including "O mio babbino caro."
One programs "O mio babbino caro" to show off ones mastery of the Puccini style, specifically scooping and sliding. Angela Gheorghiu may be considered a master of this style, and performs it with at least 15 scoops and as many slides. Now try to imagine that someone would program this piece and not scoop or slide even so much as once. It was deeply shocking. I am still asking myself why.
Sliding. A properly executed vocal slide goes from an upper note with a glissando to a lower note during the duration of the upper note, and lands on the lower note just at the right time to sing the lower note with the new word. To emphasize the slide the lower note may be delayed by extending the glissando. The slide ends with an anticipation of the next note.
Scooping. A scoop approaches a note from below and begins at the time of the new note. It's like you start flat and rise gradually to the right note. A properly executed scoop must end in tune.
Pamina: Ying Huang
Tamino: Matthew Polenzani
Queen of the Night: Erika Miklósa
Sarastro: René Pape
Papageno: Nathan Gunn
I'm writing about the rerun of Mozart's The Magic Flute in HD from the Metropolitan Opera because I missed it the first time around. I am out of the loop so I didn't realize it was in English. I've seen Flute in English before and found the whole thing offensively misogynistic. Someone was always making insulting cracks about women. They've edited all of that nonsense out, and no one missed it. The plot made the most sense it ever has. Hear, hear for Mozart in the 21st century.
The biggest problem with doing Flute in English, especially for the non-native speakers, most of the cast, is that they are coached so thoroughly on pronouncing English that the musical legato suffers. For that reason this is not the most musically satisfying Flute. For the singer language and phrasing are intimately joined. It isn't enough to say it right.
Mozart was an enthusiastic free mason and Julie Taymor's production uses a lot of masonic symbols, pyramids and so forth, things that mean little to the ordinary person. Visually it is a treat. The most effective parts of the production come with the bird elements that surround Papageno and the three boys.
Nathan Gunn as Papageno shines. He is charming, cute, athletic and a good singer. What more could you possibly want?
I enjoyed the fairy tale vision, and the conducting of James Levine. In fact there was a lot to like. It was over in under 2 hours.
I have had a very strange operatic year. How about you?
The first strange thing is that of the 37 staged operas I reviewed this year (live, HD, 3 on film) only 15 of them appear on the most performed operas list, and two of those are Faust. First there is no Faust for decades, and then there are 3 in just over a year? It's like waiting for the bus in San Francisco.
The second odd thing is that there were 10 new operas. That means new for me. When I started the blog, I deliberately sought out operas that I hadn't seen as an educational project. This year it was all a coincidence. Only one, Heart of a Soldier, was a live world premier, though two of the films, Anna Nicole and Il Postino, were of world premier performances. While I would not call any of these three operas a great work, there was much to like in them. All three had chick flick elements and were theatrically viable.
The third odd thing is that only 13 performances in my 2011 list were from the Romantic and post-Romantic styles, namely Il Trovatore through Capriccio. Pagliacci in Sacramento was a stunning surprise. Joyce DiDonato as the composer in Ariadne was a joy.
I am including Wagner in this group. One of the highlights of the year was Die Walküre live in New York with Jonas Kaufmann. There should have been more. There should have been Nina Stemme's Götterdämmerung, for one thing. I apologize for missing the San Francisco Ring.
This year I saw 7 different bel canto operas, 4 of them serious (Armida, Lucia, Lucrezia Borgia, Anna Bolena), all by Rossini and Donizetti. These have to be regarded as the cream of the crop. Lawrence Brownlee, Natalie Dessay, Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Florez and Diana Damrau are all magnificent bel canto singers. It was a treat to hear them. It is one of the great joys of contemporary opera productions that we get to see and hear these wonderful operas.
Bel canto through post-Romantic is what most people think of as opera, and yet in this list it is just barely over half of the operas. I like having my brain tweaked and my experiences stretched.
Even odder is the fact that I saw two different stagings of Iphigénie en Tauride, one in DC and one in HD. I have now seen it 3 times. Curiouser and curiouser. Susan Graham continues her world tour of this opera, which she owns. First decades of no Gluck and now everywhere there is Gluck.
And the oddest thing of all has to be that I saw live performances of 3 Baroque operas I had never seen before: Griselda (annoying plot), Xerxes (trite bordering on stupid plot) and Rodelinda (sympathetic plot). My friends all walked out on Xerxes. Other friends tsked at me when I said I loved Rodelinda. They are not ready for Baroque opera or countertenors, no matter how good they are. Cecilia Bartoli has dragged me kicking and screaming into the Baroque, and now I generally like it. The singing has to be pretty spectacular, though, to overcome the irritating plots. I wonder if any of the companies made money off of these.
I have started to think that perhaps this is the golden age of opera.
Occasionally I copy things from elsewhere simply because they are interesting and deserve to be spread around. This is from Opera Today, and I post it because it is the most wildly impressive program for a recital I have ever seen:
The Wigmore Hall marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Maurice Ravel with a series of concerts that run through to June 2012.
Mixing piano song with chamber music, Bernarda Fink’s recital titled “Une rare émotion”, placed Ravel’s vocal music in the context of his era. That “rare emotion” was a search for alternatives to mainstream culture, exemplified by exotic, alien places. While British colonialism belittled other cultures, the French saw in “orientalism” potential for creative growth. Ravel’s fascination with non-western concepts wasn’t effete, but an act of affirmative courage.
Bernarda Fink began her recital with Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques (1904-6). Their simplicity is deceptive for they represent a very different aesthetic to the often florid fin de siècle lushness popular at the time. Perhaps it’s significant that the poet who wrote the texts, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, persuaded Ralph Vaughan Williams to study with Ravel instead of with Vincent d’Indy. Fink and Christopher Glynn, her pianist, are right not to overdo the folk origins of these songs, for they herald Ravel’s later work, like Rapsodie espagnol and even Boléro. Perceptively, Fink and Glynn juxtaposed these songs with Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, written only 5 years previously, preceding the languid sensuality of La Flûte de Pan with Camille Saint-Saëns Une flûte invisible (Flautist : Adam Walker)
Moire stellar, however, was Fink’s performance of Ravel’s very early Shéherézade (1903). “Asie, Asie, Asie”, she sang, her voice glowing with excitement, “Vieux pays merveilleux des contes de nourrice”. Then, she intoned the words “Je voudrais voir des assassins souriant”, almost parlando, hinting at menacing mysteries”. Emotional extremes and daring — Ravel was by no means as mannered as the dandy image he presented.
Jules Massenet’s Élégie (1872) was a reminder of the French Romantic tradition, here transcribed for cello (Marie Bitlloch) which nicely complimented Fink’s lower register. The highlight of the evening, nonetheless, was Fink’s performance of Ravel’s Chansons madécasses (1926). This is Ravel’s exoticism in full glory. Fink’s singing took on a shimmer that brought out the suppressed erotic tension. Her Aoua! was spectacular, vibrant with horror. “Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage”, she sang. Beware of the whites, who make enticing promises, but bring carnage. The violence is even more terrifying when Ravel follows this outburst with Il est doux. A man is sitting under a palm tree, a woman is preparing his meal. The music lilts languidly. But who is the man, and who is the woman? After Aoua!, we should beware. Ravel is provocative. Exoticism isn’t safe.
Fink and Glynn sang Debussy’s Trois mélodies de Paul Verlaine (1891) and a selection of Fauré songs from his op 39 and 76, including the lovely Les roses d’Ispahan which often makes me swoon, but after that Aoua! anything but Ravel seemed tame. Glynn’s transcription of Poulenc’s Priez por paix, for voice, piano, flute and cello ended the evening on a more soothing note.
This is Victoria de los Angeles at 67. I love this song and find this version wonderful.
The pleasure of love lasts only a moment
The pain of love lasts a lifetime.
I gave up everything for ungrateful Sylvia,
She is leaving me for another lover.
The pleasure of love lasts only a moment,
The pain of love lasts a lifetime.
"As long as this water will run gently
Towards this brook which borders the meadow,
I will love you", Sylvia told me repeatedly.
The water still runs, but she has changed.
The pleasure of love lasts only a moment,
The pain of love lasts a lifetime.
I discovered a new link today that shows stories about opera, and I've added it to my links list. It says it's in Fair Oaks, CA, just down the road from me, but it doesn't show any way to contact them.
I've been thinking of starting to post news about opera when it comes my way. The latest big item is that the orchestra and chorus of the New York City Opera are threatening to strike. The current managers are trying to turn it into something like the Sacramento Opera rather than a major cultural institution in America's largest city. We'll see.
I didn't mind the Faust production that played in HD last Saturday, but I may be the only one. The problem the producers of this opera are having is that they don't think anyone really believes in the devil any more.
Things you might want to give as Christmas presents. I apologize for being rather last minute. You can give instant electronic copies.
I loved this Fidelio.
If your friends like reality television, you could give them Anna Nicole.
There's some pretty wonderful stuff in this recording of Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte (1722) with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante. Even people who hate staged Baroque operas will probably like this.
This is pretty awesome. Netrebko is in form.
My personal favorite would, of course, be this video of Werther. I warn you, I haven't been able to get any of my friends to watch it.
This is her Donna Anna at La Scala. Of course. It's sort of Mozart as Wagner, don't you think?
I'm the person who gives advice. Right? My sense of Anna at the present time is that her aerobic conditioning is insufficient. I know she used to run in Central Park and can't help wondering if she is keeping this up. Taking the baby to the park isn't the same thing. You may resume ignoring me.
Faust: Jonas Kaufmann
Marguerite: Marina Poplavskaya
Méphistophélès: René Pape
Valentin: Russell Braun
Siebel: Michèle Losier
Marthe: Wendy White
Wagner: Jonathan Beyer
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production: Des McAnuff
Today in Faust Live from the Metropolitan Opera in HD we had the privilege of hearing loud boos from the audience for the production designer Des McAnuff. The production is a bit Eurotrashy, but after the bizarre production in Santa Fe--Marguerite on roller-skates--it didn't really seem too boo worthy. One of the advantages of being in the house over being in a movie theater is that one can participate in the post production audience antics. I "bravo" at the movies, but it does seem a bit silly.
Faust in this production is an aging bomb maker between the two world wars. The current trend is to explain the opera as a dream or hallucination between the poison and dying. Faust flashes back to his own youth, and the costumes change. Faust and Mephistopheles always dress alike. Perhaps Satan is his alter ego. The sets are spare, abstract and gray.
The goal is to cast the sincerity of the medieval religious fable into the cynical frame of the present. The sincerity of the music plays against this cynicism. I was prepared for the production to be confusing, but I did not find this to be the case.
In case there was any doubt about who the opera is really about, our Marguerite Marina Poplavskaya's face was projected on the curtain for extended periods throughout the opera. These were films. Her facial expression would change gradually, but she never blinked. When Faust is still in his laboratory, Marina enters and sits down at one of the work stations. He is hallucinating about a real woman. I enjoyed her performance, but her expression in the Jewel Song was rather textbook for my taste. In her interview with Joyce DiDonato she worked on her sewing the entire time. Perhaps she has never sewn anything before.
As an old man, Jonas Kaufmann's hair will apparently go straight. His problem in this role is that it is hard to think of him as a cad. He was irresistible. That is the idea, isn't it?
Musically this Faust was somewhere between the extremely somber San Francisco Opera version and the really quite gay Santa Fe Opera version. (Remember I am an old woman who has lived in a time when "gay" had a variety of meanings.)
René Pape was explaining to the very elegantly dressed Joyce DiDonato that he had no desire to be a tenor. Why, in fact, would he wish to be anyone but René Pape? He was simply awe inspiring. In his interview he greeted his mother who was supposed to be watching from a movie theater in Nuremberg, not too far north in Bavaria from Munich where Jonas is from.
I enjoyed the calming effect of the modern context. I cried anyway.
Remember before you start carping that everyone in Faust has better stuff to sing than the tenor.
"Le veau d'or", the ballad of the golden calf, is for the bass-baritone Méphistophélès.
The men's chorus has this wonderful march.
The soprano Marguerite gets this incredible Jewel Song, sung here by my favorite Victoria de los Angeles.
Even the stupid brother Valentin gets this magnificent aria.
And Siebel, a completely insignificant person, gets this.
This is Faust's aria. Oh well. I'm just saying. I personally find the sentiments expressed in this aria, at a point in the opera when we know exactly what will happen, completely disgusting. The ovation is stunning. I have to say I wholeheartedly concur. This man knows his French opera. If you want to know how to pronounce French, listen to him. And Regine Crespin.
Here we have Mirella Freni's version of the ending.
I went to a party last night where it was discussed that the famous DVD of Netrebko and Villazon in La Traviata
had the pitches corrected with auto-tune over 200 times. This
completely ignores my claim that pitch modification (highly polite term
for singing flat or sharp) is part of the singer's expressive tool kit.
It's just your opinion that they are not supposed to be doing this.
Maybe that's why the recording sounds so bland.
Footnote please see Opera Chic for news on James Levine.
"After all human beings have to live dogs too so as not to know that time is passing, that is the whole business of living to go on so they will not know that time is passing, that is why they get drunk that is why they like to go to war, during a war there is the most complete absence of the sense that time is passing a year of war lasts so much longer than any other year. After all that is what life is and that is the reason there is no Utopia, little or big young or old dog or man everybody wants every minute so filled that they are not conscious of that minute passing. It's just as well they do not think about it you have to be a genius to live in it and know it to exist in it and express it to accept it and deny it by creating it." Gertrude Stein
This is probably my favorite Stein quote. Which brings me to the current on-going argument about original instruments. This comes up in all sorts of contexts. In recent years we have been hearing about the pros. Cecilia Bartoli has joined their cause and sings their praises. As their cause advances and the groups become more and more common, they get bolder and bolder, insisting that later and later composers should be played by these instruments.
The main purpose of all these "improvements" to musical instruments was to improve the ease of playing in tune in a large variety of keys, in fact to create a situation where all 24 keys (12 major, 12 minor) are created equal. The overtone series, the source of all pitches on natural instruments, creates a situation where the key of the fundamental pitch of the instrument is the most in tune, and the farther away you get from that the more out of tune everything is. Are we clear about that? Yes, modern instruments are louder, but that was not the purpose of changing them. The purpose was to improve intonation, and by extension allow much freer modulation to keys that are not close to the original key of the piece. The constant pea soup of Wagner modulation requires modern instruments. And don't even bring up Schoenberg's Twelve Tone System. I am ignoring the string family of instruments which changed to make a brighter tone. You can play anything on either kind of violin.
To play a composition on "original" or "natural" instruments, it will need to have been composed in a way that makes this possible. Special care is taken to put in notes for the French horn that will actually be available on a natural instrument. Pieces in different keys might have involved using instruments with different fundamental notes. Blah, blah, blah. Needless to say, giant books are written about this.
The point of this is--you can play any classical piece from any era on modern instruments, but you can only play pieces composed for natural instruments on original instruments. For simplification's sake the early instruments fell out of use. If I can play anything on my modern instrument, what do I need with this old one? I can simplify my training and improve my virtuosity if I focus on the present.
The revival of the use of original instruments is due to the fact that "there is no utopia." People are people, and that involves a lot of boredom with how things are and a desire to change them to something else. Right and wrong, good and evil, are not involved. It's all just human nature at work.
Apologies to The Horn who has been getting quite fiery about this subject here, here, here, here (my favorite in the series), here ( kind of like this one, too), here, here, and here.
Our ears are now accustomed to the exquisite precision of recorded orchestral music, particularly the precision of intonation. This is not a concept that can be projected into the past. The cultural ideal has changed and will continue to change. Your brain is different from theirs. Whatever you choose, you are doing it for your own reasons, and not for reasons related to what previous generations thought.
Precision creates boredom. Boredom creates a desire for something new, in this case "original instruments."
People just love feeling they are superior to other people. It's what people do. Do you enjoy playing original instruments? Then by all means keep doing it.
The picture shows Richard Croft, Alfred Walker, Rachelle Durkin, the Metropolitan Opera chorus, their shoes lined up along the apron and their coats flying in the air.
I went to the theater and sat in the chair for one act of the rerun of Satyagraha from the Metropolitan Opera. I was very tired and struggling with falling asleep, so I went home. I am reminded again that it is the most spiritual of all operas. A film showing the real Ghandi ran in the intermission. Eric Owens was the host.
I am including only fully staged operas seen either live or in HD from the Met since I started the blog in 2005. This leaves out The Fairy Queen from Glyndebourne. I am leaving out Monteverdi, since his operas are really their own genre. This leaves in chronological order:
Much as I love Dido and Aeneas, I have to disqualify it on grounds that it was staged as a ballet. This leaves a very nice set of 10 operas (now expanded to 12.)
Placed at the bottom must come (11) Griselda, Vivaldi's only entry, because I absolutely hated both the opera and the staging, and (12) Orlando, because the overall quality of the entire performance was inferior to the others.
Next higher in the rankings come the two productions from the San Francisco Opera which are saved solely by the presence of the magnificent Susan Graham. The productions were unimaginative, and Xerxes is just not that great an opera. So that's (9) Ariodante and (10) Xerxes.
All eight of the remaining performances are worthy.
Is the opera any good? Giulio Cesare is a Baroque opera that has actually stayed in the repertoire since the 1920's and is Handel's most popular opera. Semele and Il Trionfo are not operas at all. Rinaldo includes the wonderful villainess Armida to keep things exciting. Rodelinda is simply sweet beyond belief, a surprisingly sentimental plot for Baroque opera. Ranked for libretto from first to last: Giulio, Rodelinda, Semele, Partenope, Rinaldo, Trionfo. Ranked for music: Giulio, Il Trionfo, Semele, Rodelinda, Partenope, Rinaldo. You may feel free to rearrange this one.
Tops for creativity in staging must come Semele at the City Opera, Rodelinda in New York and Il Trionfo in Zurich. A special award for making a Theatrical Silk Purse out of Sow's Ear of completely static oratorio must go to Il Trionfo. Turning the oratorio Semele into an opera about American icons was shocking but fascinatingly believable. It would have been nice to see this preserved on video. Now from 2014 I would place Partenope at the top. It was simply incredible.
A special award for making the movements of the actors during the performance of da capo arias seem completely natural must go to Rodelinda. I also enjoyed the Eurotrash transformation of Rinaldo into modern corporate rivalry.
Ranked for staging: Partenope, Rodelinda, Il Trionfo, City Semele, Rinaldo, Giulio Salzburg, Zurich Semele, Giulio Zurich.
And how is the singing? Two of these performances are ranked basically because they include the ever astounding Cecilia Bartoli. Would I have been happy to see Giulio Cesare without Cecilia? And Semele in Zurich simply belonged to her.
The presence of Anna Bonitatibus also raises Il Trionfo and Giulio Cesare. The Zurich singing ensemble is simply incredible. Malin Hartelius is marvelous in Il Trionfo and Rinaldo, and I love Liliana Nikiteanu in Semele and Rinaldo. If I missed anyone, apologies.
The most emotional countertenor award has to go to Andreas Scholl for Rodelinda.
Ranked for singing: Giulio both, Rodelinda, Il Trionfo, Griselda, Partenope, Zurich Semele, Rinaldo, City Semele.
Ranked for acting: Rodelinda, Giulio, Partenope, Zurich Semele, City Semele, Rinaldo, Il Trionfo,
Je ne sais qua points go to Rodelinda and both versions of Semele. I give 3 of these to Partenope, a truly astounding staging.
So here's what I ended up with, based on a numeric scoring system:
(1) Rodelinda. Everything was simply perfect.
(2) Giulio Cesare, both versions.
(4) Semele in Zurich. Cecilia at her funniest.
(5) Semele at City.
(6) Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. This was some of the most spectacular singing I've ever heard, but lost on other issues.
(7) Rinaldo. This ended up at the bottom because of the competition.
It is clear to me that I thoroughly enjoyed all six of these, and could rearrange this ranking a dozen different ways. Biggest surprise from the numeric scoring system: Griselda moved ahead of Ariodante and Xerxes.
I think Baroque opera, particularly Handel opera, requires an enthusiasm for singing to overcome its limitations. Probably the greatest limitation is the presence of countertenors. A lot of people just don't like them. Notable in my list is that Trionfo and Rinaldo, both from Zurich, had no countertenors.
Sacramento has a group called Camerata California that performs interesting choral music by a small ensemble. They have done it again. Someone finds this stuff.
The first half of the concert was Oratorio de Noël, Opus 12, by Camille Saint-Saëns, something new for me. The composer claimed it was just like Bach, but this is nonsense. It's divided up into numbers, which is Bach-like I suppose, but it sounds very much middle Romantic without showing any Berlioz influence. The accompanying ensemble was harp, organ and string quartet. I wondered why there were two mezzos--Patrice Houston and Kathleen Moss, both lovely singers--until we got to the ensembles for a quintet of soloists and chorus. Sung in Latin, it was very enjoyable.
The second half was Lauda per la Natività del Signore by Ottorino Respighi, another new piece for me. This time the band was all woodwinds. They started off too loud for the singers, but things improved as they went along.
I was fascinated by this piece. The writing for voice was very much in the style of Italian opera, and would in fact have been completely suitable for an opera. So why no Respighi opera? One ponders. Wikipedia tells me Respighi wrote 9 operas, none of which I have ever heard.
The ensemble has improved in performance standards, probably due to the new conductor Kenneth Raskin.
Today we were treated to Handel's Rodelinda live from the Metropolitan Opera. It is an excellent opera. One of the hard parts of creating opera is finding a good libretto. In the Baroque and Classical periods this was much simpler: you just stole it from an existing opera. So Handel has stolen an excellent libretto, and even without any hit tunes, has created an excellent opera. In its original production it starred Cuzzoni and Senisino. You would be hard pressed to beat that.
Renée Fleming, our wonderful title singer, says it is her youngest daughter's favorite opera, because it is about family. It's about royalty, until the verismo serious opera is always about royalty, but it's also about a child who is treasured by his parents, and parents who love each other and who work very hard to bring their family back together. The required happy ending is truly joyful this time.
The direction, by Stephen Wadsworth, was practically miraculous. The movement from aria to aria and scene to scene was very smooth, and the singing actors well understood their roles. The non-singing child who begins the opera in bed with his mother was very fine in his role.
Few countertenors are as revered as Andreas Scholl who played the Senisino role, Bertarido. Senisino was a contralto, and a uniquely expressive singer. Scholl goes very deeply into the emotions of his character and is especially beautiful in his duet with Fleming toward the end. And who knew he was such a clown? Deborah Voigt asked him what made him decide to be a countertenor, and he answered in a very high voice. :-) Then he remarked that he had originally been a counter-terrorist and the transition to countertenor had been easy.
Stephanie Blythe impressed. She runs counter to every trend and succeeds magnificently in spite of this.
Joseph Kaiser, Lestyn Davies and Shenyang complete the cast. The conductor was Harry Bicket. He conducted from the harpsichord. I explained to my seatmates that at the original production that would have been Handel sitting at the harpsichord.
Of the eight Handel operas I have seen staged since I started this blog I think I liked this one the best. Bravi tutti.
Joyce DiDonato wants us to quit apologizing for opera. I wholeheartedly agree.
Opera is the only art form I can think of that can be all things to all men. Somewhere in this wonderful repertoire is the opera for you. Opera will rise with you. Your knowledge of the art form will grow with increased listening. As you absorb the experience of opera, your soul will rise.
Its pleasures will not diminish as you grow older.
In each decade of your life new artists will come to bring their passion to your heart. They will cast light into corners never heard before. If your heart stays open, they will bring new works to give you joy.
Opera is the soul of the world. Its symbols go deeper than you could possibly imagine, and fill with ever deeper and deeper meaning. There is meaning in these notes that you will find nowhere else.
Opera is magic. One day when you least expect it, it will lead you to extasy.
Michael Sokol, baritone, is a relatively recent addition to the faculty at California State University, Sacramento, and last night he gave a faculty recital with Richard Cionco at the piano. I didn't know he existed when a friend suggested we check him out. My apologies to Mr Cionco--the picture above shows a different pianist. Also a different piano. Also microphone. Actually only the baritone is the same.
His program consisted of Schubert's Schwanengesang, a song cycle that is actually a pastiche published posthumously. Maybe some of the songs were intended to be sung together, maybe not. The subject matter is the usual thing for this period--unhappy love affairs. It includes "Ständchen" (Serenade), one of Schubert's most famous Lieder. The heaviest of the set is probably "Der Doppelgänger" (the lookalike).
An English translation was provided, but it didn't correspond at all to the clearly understandable German he was singing. I asked him after if he spoke German, and when he said no, I congratulated him on some of the clearest German diction I had heard outside Germany. It was very impressive.
The songs cover a very wide vocal range which he handled easily. His voice is exactly the kind of bright baritone you would want for Lieder, and his expression was very nice, just right for Lieder.
Richard Cionco was an excellent, very musical accompanist. Lieder recitals by Americans are seldom this good.
I begin to feel deprived that I have never seen Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach. There are a number of audio versions, but clearly the visuals are essential. This is THE modern opera. The no intermission part would be a problem.
On Sunday afternoon in the Crocker Art Museum our Mu Phi Epsilon International Competition winner, pianist Yukiko Sekino, gave a recital. Her program, limited by the Crocker to 1 hour, was spectacular.
Piano Sonata, Op. 1, by Alban Berg.
Variations on "Salve tu, Domine" in F major, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante, in E-flat major, Op. 22, by Frédéric Chopin.
Etude No. 53: Cell Division and Etude No. 30: A Gliss is Just a Gliss, by David Rakowski, 2 pieces from the 21st century.
Dante Sonata (this is the short name), by Franz Liszt.
It starts slowly with the cerebral Berg, moves to the lyrical Mozart, and then bursts into flame in the Chopin polonaise. And if that isn't enough flash for you, we have a small modern piece with lots of glissandi up and down the keyboard. And if that still isn't enough flash for you, we end with one of Liszt's more outrageous and dynamic pieces. Everything was played brilliantly.
The museum asked for a piece by someone Italian to go with the current exhibition of paintings from Florence. We will assume the Dante Sonata will serve. There isn't that much Italian piano repertoire.
Completely unexpectedly, Il Postino (the postman), the opera by Daniel Catán, produced last fall in LA, was on television last night.
And how beautifully it fits into our currently developing tenor theme. The two main roles are both tenors. The poet Pablo Neruda, sung by tenor Placido Domingo (called Don Placido in Linda Ronstadt's introduction), is a character in the drama, and
Mario Ruoppolo, sung by tenor Charles Castronovo is the title character. Getting the rest of the cast out of the way:
Beatrice Russo (pronounced Italian), Mario's love, Amanda Squitieri
Neruda's wife, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs
Giorgio, communist postmaster, Vladimir Chernov
Donna Rosa, Beatrice’s aunt, Nancy Fabiola Herrera
Grant Gershon conducted.
There are a number of positive things about this opera. The composer, Daniel Catán, who has since died, actually seems to like to compose for singers. His style is neo-Romantic, possibly even neo-verismo. The plot is not only about love, it's about poetry, a marvelous subject to sing about. I don't know if it is a problem that the opera is in Spanish. Does this present casting difficulties?
The plot is handled in a manner reminiscent of Hector Berlioz: I compose the parts I like and skip the parts I don't like. This left the story presented in a choppy, disjointed way. Perhaps librettist is a skill that has not lasted into the 21st century.
It was enjoyable. I especially enjoyed the romantic portrayal of Charles Castronovo as the young man learning to love the metaphor and how to seduce a young woman with words. He was charming.
I was asked to post Cecilia Bartoli singing Balfe's "Yon moon o'er the mountains", and this was all I could find. This song is from The Maid of Artois which was written for Maria Malibran. She died before performing it.
It is fun to see him coaching her to sing with an English accent. She also talks about an ornamented version but sings it straight.
The great mezzo Sena Jurinac has died. She is perhaps best remembered for singing Octavian in the wonderful video of Der Rosenkavalier with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I praised her most in my review of Ariadne auf Naxos with Reri Grist here. YouTube provides us with an excerpt from that performance.
Here is another.
P.S. I knew her only for her mezzo repertoire, and have since educated myself. I find that I like best this video from Forza.
I apologize for saying that Sena Jurinac never sang at the San Francisco Opera. Her career there began in 1959 when she sang the composer to Eileen Farrell's Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos, Eva in Die Meistersinger, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly. Wow. People used to do this sort of thing under Adler. After that she appeared only in 1971 as the Marschallin to Christa Ludwig's Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and in 1980 as Kostelnicka in Jenufa. In 1959 I had just started college. In 1971 I lived in Indiana. I probably did not see her.
Apparently there is an entire blog that obsesses over the vocal technique of tenors here. I'm not prepared to get this carried away with it. The operatic tenor sound is not exactly natural, so they have to get very heavily into technique. There is stuff about squillo, e.g.
The Sacramento Opera succeeds best when it eschews subtlety. Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci is a prime example of verismo, opera based in the rough lives of the lower classes.
I don't like the orchestra at the back of the stage with acting in front, but since the first half of the program was a concert by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Michael Morgan, I suppose it was necessary. For their portion the orchestra was imprecise, both in pitch and rhythm, and the music was spiritually bland.
The contrast with the opera could not have been greater. The set effectively made the orchastra's presence hidden. TV screens made the conductor visible to the actors.
It was crude and wild and spectacular. Special kudos must go to the stage director, David Bartholomew.
The tenor who sang Canio, Eduardo Villa, was a last minute replacement, and he made the production. Canio should be a middle aged man with a beautiful, too young wife, a scruffy Italian looking man with violent passions lurking just beneath the surface. Then these violent passions must break forth. Villa was all those things. And he has just the right heavy, powerful dramatic tenor voice that kept all this passion well within his grasp. It was a privilege to see him.
Shana Blake Hills was good and very slutty as Nedda. Igor Vieira's Tonio was downright creepy. Zachary Gordin was a good but not great Silvio.
Gramophone Magazine has issued their Classical Music Awards for 2011, and among them is a Lifetime Achievement Award for Dame Janet Baker. Nothing I am about to write should be misconstrued as a criticism of Dame Janet.
There are three things: voice, technique and style. Dame Janet is a British singer not only by birth but also by style. There is a distinctly British style of singing with a quality of cleanness. British singing is spare, relatively unslurred and unornamented, like a great British folk song. In addition to her Britishness, Dame Janet also sang with a personal discursive style, rather like a magnificent British orator. To achieve the truly personal is for me the highest praise of a performer.
In the Gramophone article they discuss how instantly identifiable her voice is. And I insist--so is her style. She is her fascinating creative self in all her repertoire. My particular favorites are the Bach Matthew Passion and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.
The article goes on to say how clearly she observed the composer's wishes. I propose that this is only possible if all the composers whom she has performed wished their music to sound British.
No offense. They are British writers and have British ears. The composer's wishes have nothing to do with it.
None of this is a criticism of the great Dame Janet who was a very great singer and well worthy of this honor.
I'm struggling with what to say about the San Francisco Opera's production of Handel's Serse, or Xerxes, as it is billed here.
There are a number of pretty funny things about the production from the ENO in London. Apparently it has made the rounds. The main characters are dressed more or less as Handel's period. And then there are the gray people. I thought they might be garden statues, or anonymous chorus. My favorite bit was the green folding lawn chairs, shown above. They began their life folded flat on the floor.
At one point the back of the stage opens up on a desert landscape, and I thought I was back in Santa Fe. On the floor of the desert are the ruins of the ancient Persian city of Persepolis.
I think it might be important to understand that Serse was a failure when it first appeared in 1738. The music, if we choose not to blame the conductor, Patrick Summers, is a bit draggy and pompous.
Another problem is that four of the characters all have names that start with A:
Arsamenes, Xerxes' brother, sung by David Daniels,
Ariodates, Xerxes' general, sung by Wayne Tigges,
Atalanta, Ariodates' daughter, sung by Heidi Stober,
Amastris, Xerxes' betrothed, sung by Sonia Prina, seen also in Ariodante.
The production helped with this situation by introducing the characters during the overture. And not to forget Xerxes himself, sung by Susan Graham, and the other daughter of Ariodates, Romilda, sung by Lisette Oropesa.
Do we have to talk about the plot? Everything gets straightened out in the end.
Making it all worthwhile was the marvelous Susan Graham, who gets all the really good bits. She starts the opera with that great Handel aria "Ombra mai fu." Did you know it was about a tree? I should have known that. The other hit tune comes at the end where Xerxes knocks over a bunch of statues singing "Crude furie." This is only a hit tune because it's on Joyce DiDonato's Handel Mad Scenes album.
AUSTRIA reported the good news in May: "Pregnant! Opera star Elīna Garanča is having a baby. "
A message that would be even more gratifying, currently making the rounds in the circle of friends of Garanča's Viennese gynecologist: The baby was already one and a half weeks ago well, "landed." The daughter of Garanča and her husband, the from Gibraltar star conductor Karel Mark Chichon, in southern Spain, where the artists live, was born healthy. [They write sentences like that in German.]
The world wide in demand mezzo-soprano and the best Carmen on the opera stage was before confinement rather taciturn when it comes to family planning: "We Latvians are superstitious," she used to deny in interviews.
And even now no details penetrate to the public about the private happiness – there are zero entries about this on her international website.
What you want and never get with your Siegfried (live from the Metropolitan Opera in HD) is a sexy Siegfried. We have him in the sexy Heldentenor from Texas, Jay Hunter Morris. In her interview Deborah Voigt mentioned there was more electricity opposite Jay than the tenor he replaced. Those of us who have experienced the male teenager at home recognized him in Jay's portrayal of the 17 year old Siegfried. All teenagers think they know everything, but this one actually might.
In his interview Morris mentioned that he no longer sang as loud as he could. He gets through the very taxing role in fine form by allowing the natural ping in his voice to carry the day. I loved it. Jay, you need to hire a good photographer. I have undoubtedly seen him in San Francisco, but I scour my memory without success.
I liked the log machine a lot more this time than I have in the previous two operas. The technical gimmick of the forest bird was masterful. A yellow bird appeared to flit around the stage from tree to tree while Mojca Erdmann sang off stage. The projections grow ever more complicated.
Another thing that I liked much more this time was Bryn Terfel's Wotan the Wanderer. He seemed to handle the character better as someone who has tried everything and failed. He is bitter and seems to be fully prepared for the ultimate humiliation when Siegfried breaks his spear. He roles up his runes and leaves.
The dragon, shown above, is quite handsome.
And here is Deborah Voigt in the final scene. She tries to convince Siegfried to admire from a distance, but her heart just isn't in it.
Renée Fleming was her usual professional self in the interviews. It was an excellent Siegfried. I don't know if Levine would have been an improvement over Luisi. Everyone seemed well coordinated and dynamic.
P.S. It occurred to me after posting this that this installment in the Log Machine Ring included no wire walking. Perhaps it has started to occur to the producers of this mess that scaring the wits out of your performers is not the path to great acting achievements. Good riddance.
The Metropolitan Opera Guild is honoring Marilyn Horne this week. Here is a short interview with her.
I hope she is referring to the performance of the German Requiem with Kathleen Battle as the soprano soloist and Robert Shaw conducting the San Francisco Symphony and chorus. I sang in the chorus and it was one of the more wonderful musical events of my lifetime. This is as close as we can come.
This is another film than the one I posted before, but somewhere in there is Kathleen Battle.
I wanted to see Anna Bolena again so I could catch Anna Netrebko clowning around behind Renée Fleming. Her countryman Ildar Abdrazakov started it and egged Anna on. In an opera that is so strenuous it is nice to see them able to relax in the intermission. Tristan is maybe harder than this. Only just maybe.
In her interview before the opera Anna said she based her portrayal on "Tudors." I assume this means the TV series The Tudors. "Don't tell the director."
I enjoyed it again the second time and stayed awake all the way to the end. I like popcorn at the opera.
This is embarrassing. In my youth we had only one countertenor--Alfred Deller--and he was strictly take it or leave it. Now there are countertenors everywhere. I've always hated them, both for the odd sound of their voices and for the fact that they were taking parts from my beloved mezzos. So how should I confess that I really love Philippe Jaroussky? It's so embarrassing.
He appeared at Hertz Hall in Berkeley on Sunday afternoon, the same time as the opening of Xerxes at War Memorial across the bay. I've seen him before, though only from the back, at Salle Pleyel as Sesto in Giulio Cesare.
He shared the stage with a group called Apollo's Fire, conducted by Jeannette Sorrell. There was an interesting story told between arias about Jaroussky and Sorrell exchanging letters of mutual admiration. Apollo's Fire would be a difficult name to live up to.
Apollo's Fire play standing. Except for the cellos. I don't know if you can play a cello standing. The theorbo player also sits, but Ms Sorrell stands at the harpsichord. When they stand, their bodies become involved in the emotion of the music. This is some of the most passionate playing by a Baroque ensemble I have ever heard.
I added this picture because it's the only one I have that shows the theorbo player on the right end. These are everywhere now. In Baroque music theorbo is now as common as the harpsichord and cello for realizing the figured bass.
This is an Italian style ensemble with no winds. Many of the instrumental numbers are arranged by Jeanette Sorrell, the conductor. I am going to guess that this is due to the sketchy nature of the orchestration in the original scores. It is hard to picture this, but the original purpose of the figured bass was much like a modern fake book, to provide a basis for extemporizing. Not many can do this today. Instead of carefully planned orchestration such as we have today, a piece might be played by whoever was available, and they would extemporize their parts.
The entire concert was Handel and Vivaldi, so the period of the music was basically identical to Saturday night's program, and similarly it alternated instrumental with vocal numbers. The violinist Olivier Brault played a Vivaldi concerto and shared another Vivaldi concerto with Johanna Novom. It was all very dynamic and exciting.
So why Philippe Jaroussky? He sang Handel in the first half of the program, including an aria from Ariodante, and Vivaldi in the second half. His voice is actually beautiful and shows a lovely vibrato, a rarity among countertenors. And he phrases the dickens out of everything. Both slow tempo and up tempo showpiece arias were wonderful. He sang three encores including a final glorious "Ombra mai fu."
How can this be happening? At the end we waved at each other. In Berkeley this is the sign that the concert is over.