People are always jumping on Renée Fleming. Maybe she has a sign on her back that says "Kick me."
This reminds me of a story. When my son was about 10 years old, we were in the Marina Safeway, and he took a sticker off one of the watermelons and put it on my back. It said, "Try me. I'm sweet and yellow inside."
Never mind. My mind wandered. So on February 21, 2011, the New York Times ran a review for the return of Armida, and thoroughly trashed Ms Fleming. They trashed the production and just about everything else except Lawrence Brownlee, but that is not my concern.
Since I've started blogging, I've heard Renée Fleming twice live--in recital at Carnegie Hall and in concert at the Kennedy Center in DC--plus a number of times in HD. Before that I heard her in Streetcar, Hérodiade and Rusalka at the San Francisco Opera, and maybe other things.
Her voice was never that big. I have never heard her live at the Metropolitan Opera, but the acoustics there aren't nearly as bad as the War Memorial. Hearing her in HD does not really give an idea of how she sounds in the house. But I can tell you that a lot of singers you would never suspect--Leontyne Price springs to mind--are simply not that loud in the opera house.
The young we want to hear for the vigor of their young voices. The older artists we hear for their art. Certainly Renée's voice has changed, as has also her body and mind. As an artist, she is at her peak. In fact it was just 2 years ago I wrote, "For my ear she is now singing her best ever. The middle of her voice is quite gorgeous while she retains her top."
She has her own identity which isn't to everyone's taste, but it is precisely her unique identity which makes her a great artist.
I expected better of the New York Times.
Post script. Colbran, who created Armida, retired before she reached 40.
Renée isn't going to come out and blast you with sound to show an enraged Armida. Nor in my experience of her would she ever have.
For a lot of people, apparently Zachary Woolfe is one of them, criticism consists of deciding in advance what something is supposed to be like and then criticizing every departure from that preconceived notion. My son hated the movie Alice in Wonderland because Tim Burton changed the plot. Let's just say things are a lot more fun when you open yourself up to new ideas.
Mary Zimmerman's production wasn't for an enraged Armida. Giant insects emphasize the enchantment and charm of the situation. Renée sang the charm. What you are seeing is a woman's Armida.
I was watching a long German interview with Cecilia Bartoli--link is here--and she was asked if she were engaged and intending to marry Oliver Widmer. That is what I understood the question to mean. Cecilia answered "yes" and went on to comment about what lovely men they have in Switzerland. Not just cheese. Oliver is Swiss. Another lovely Swiss man she likes is Roger Federer.
She went on to say that she had met Oliver when she was 21, long before Cosi. I hope this is now cleared up.
She likes Lady Gaga.
The interviewer spoke Hochdeutsch and Cecilia answered in Italian. Occasionally the interviewer had to translate her questions into Italian. We could hear only fragments of Cecilia speaking since her words were covered over by a German translation.
Cecilia called herself a perfectionist. This should not be a surprise to anyone. She also said that difficulties are there to overcome.
Several people spoke about her, including Ada Pesch, the concert mistress of La Scintilla, and Donna Leon, the crime novelist. There was a short clip from Il Trionfo, which I reviewed here with different singers. We are wishing for a DVD of this.
Gustav Mahler is a priority. The range of issues that Thomas Hampson touched on in conversation with our colleague Dr. Thomas Baltensweiler reaches from the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie to Verdi plans. Excerpts from the interview.
2010 marks the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler, in 2011 follows the 100th anniversary of his death. You have made this the occasion for a new recording of "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," the cycle you have already recorded with Geoffrey Parsons on CD. Why now again?
With Geoffrey Parsons I had recorded the world premiere of the piano version. That was in 1993. The orchestral version I've never recorded commercially. For the Mahler year I wanted to do something special. This has brought me to the idea of recording the cycle with the Vienna Virtuosi, with whom I had already been on tour. The Vienna Virtuosi are a chamber ensemble without a conductor. Mahler wrote, "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" should be played in a "chamber sound." Certainly, such a "chamber sound" is not dependent on the number of instrumentalists, and a large orchestra can create intimacy. The name probably means above all that the instruments are as important as what the singer sings. That does not mean that a chamber orchestra should play the music, especially a contemporary chamber orchestra that is different from one of Mahler’s time. With the Vienna Virtuosi I have – in order to come to this particular project - experimented, how many musicians a recording of this cycle really needs. We have adhered closely to Mahler's musical instrument list and we dealt strongly with the particular iconographic significance of the instruments, such as the harp, which refers to the afterlife. I have produced the album myself and given the license over to Deutsche Grammophon.
Your song recordings are also often unconventional in the choice of program, I think for example of your album "I Hear America Singing". How would you describe your approach in practice in the compilation of a program?
The selection of songs that I want to sing from the many that exist is purely subjective. In the American songs project I focused on American and European composers that have set American poetry to music or have been Americans. I have created a network that shows how a nascent American culture has unfolded in stages. The aim was to tell something about America. To seek the American Schubert would certainly have failed; I tried to capture the spirit of various decades, rather than to look through the eyes of a single composer.
In Hamburg, in a large-scale cooperation between tour operators and orchestras 2010/2011 Mahler's complete works are to be performed. It is marketed under the label "Elbe Philharmonic Hall,” a building that is still not completed. They will interpret in this context the complete Mahler Lieder. How did this commitment happen?
With the Intendant Christoph Lieben-Seutter I share a long-standing friendship. I have already experienced "Mahler residences" elsewhere, as in Vienna, and the mid-1990s I sang in Amsterdam every Mahler song. Certainly behind the concept of "artist in residence” stands a commercial interest, because you can put together an interesting "series." Hamburg is one of those: Here you can hear all the songs with piano and most with orchestra, and this is very enlightening.
You are also still active on the operatic stage, currently your debut in Zurich's "I Masnadieri" stands on the program, an early masterpiece by Verdi with music that seems to be elemental in its power but in contrast to the subtlety of the art song. What attracts you to such a role?
When you talk about Thomas Hampson, one can say nothing more than a lyric baritone with dramatic abilities. Purely technically I need with such a role to pay close attention to myself. But song and opera are not so close to each other. One can indeed focus on one of the two, but if you sing both, you become better. The song is not a specialist sanctuary, and the idea that one speaks a song with certain sounds does not correspond to my idea of singing.
You have recently taken up Scarpia in your repertoire, there the orchestra brings out the heavy artillery!
Yes, but with Scarpia I would always think what kind of house will I sing the part in. I love the character of Scarpia. His intelligence and sophistication, with its concomitant malignancy, which is never vulgar, is an acting and vocal challenge. In a singing career like mine often after a “heavy” role comes again “light,” and after light again heavier. So for example, after my first Posa [Rodrigo in Don Carlo?] I embodied again the "Barbiere -Figaro, who I respect very much not only for his comedy, but also his wisdom. It would be very appealing to me to sing again the barber.
Which brings us to your opera plans.
Next season is the new Iago in "Otello" at the Zurich Opera House. I have performed in the last 26 years, each season in Zurich, where I now have an apartment again. I was nowhere else as regularly heard over such a long period of time. I have also sung in this house many of my premiere roles. Now I'm looking forward to another role debut - my first Iago.
[This is translated from the online version of Opernglas.]
Iphigénie: Susan Graham Oreste: Plácido Domingo Pylade: Paul Groves Thoas: Gordon Hawkins Diane: Julie Boulianne Conductor: Patrick Summers Production: Stephen Wadsworth
I listened to every version of "O malheuruese Iphigénie" from Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride on YouTube and while the sound recording is not that great and there is no picture, Susan Graham owns this aria. No one comes close.
There is a cold going around. I had it 2 weeks ago, and today for the simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera Peter Gelb came out to tell us that both Susan Graham and Placido Domingo had it. They sang anyway, and Susan overcame a bit better than Placido.
You may have noticed strategically placed seats around the set. This is for the aging Placido who still has more power as a baritone than Paul Groves.
The production is colorful and used statues of the many-breasted Diana of the Ephesians to represent the goddess who rescued Iphigénie and carried her off to serve her as a priestess. No attempt was made to make the costumes appear to be Greek, but I still thought everything looked good.
There was some very effective wire work at the beginning and end. The deus ex machina descended on a wire. The lady on the wire had only the normal number of breasts.
To enjoy this opera you kind of have to like Gluck. When you think of all the vocal fireworks going on in Italian opera at that time, it can seem a little dull. Actually you would only want this for Susan Graham who was magnificent.
Last night at the Mondavi Center was my third live Bluebeard's Castle since starting this blog. The first was at the Washington National Opera and starred Samuel Ramey and Denyce Graves. The second was at the Berkeley Opera and starred a giant computer screen. Both of my previous Bluebeards made elaborate choices about what to show when the doors were opened. The drama shifted to these pictures.
Opera News once designated the libretto for Bluebeard as one of the best ever. Huh? First I would like to say that Judith is an idiot. I don't tend to go for operas where the main female character is an idiot. I guess I tend to prefer stories that actually imply some action. Here we just have a castle, seven doors which are opened one by one, and the idiot Judith.
The Davis production made some pretty interesting choices. Judith arrives in her wedding dress. This tells us exactly where we are in the story. The dialog seems to say only that they have arrived at the castle and that she is leaving her family behind.
On either side of the stage at the Mondavi Center are doors, and these doors became two of the seven doors. That meant that the set required only five doors.
Thomas Munn, formerly the lighting designer for the San Francisco Opera, works now at UC Davis and designed the lighting here. The solution to the problem of what we see when each door is opened is lighting. Colored lights shine out of each door in turn and Judith describes what she sees. The drama shifts back to the people.
Only when the seventh door opens does anything come out: Bluebeard's three previous wives still in their wedding dresses. They look like zombies, and Judith immediately turns into a fourth zombie and goes into the room with them.
The star of this opera is always Béla Bartók’s score. I felt the orchestra was occasionally much too loud, covering the singers, but otherwise played well. It seems different each time I hear it. Bartók was a musicologist who collected Hungarian folk music, and therefore his music is always said to sound like Hungarian folk music. We have never heard any Hungarian folk music and will have to take their word for it. I always hear early modernism, ethnic only in the absence of German Romanticism but still carrying the burden of the classical orchestra.
The program notes point out the unusual writing for voices, always eight syllables per line with generally descending phrases, and no hint of ornamentation. Gregory Stapp as Bluebeard was ominous and imposing, but also sometimes out of tune. Jessica Medoff seemed to have just the right voice, manner and aura of arrogant youth for the idiot Judith.
If you click here, you will see a discussion with Renata Scotto on NPR along with a short list of selections of arias by herself, her precursors Maria Callas and Jussi Bjorling, and two modern singers Natalie Dessay and Jonas Kaufmann.
This is oddly timely. Natalie sings the mad scene from Hamlet.
For her selection for Jonas Kaufmann she chooses what must also be my favorite track for him: the Prize Song from Wagner's Die Meistersinger.
The screen lets you explore the vast NPR archive. See it now before the yahoos get to it.
After seeing Hamlet from the Met, I felt a certain lack of completeness about the whole thing and ordered the DVD with Simon Keenlyside and Natalie Dessay. It needs Natalie. No one does mad scenes like Natalie. In this film she does coloratura while slashing her wrists. The minor characters are not as strong as the Met production, but this is definitely the one you want.
I have now seen both endings for this opera. The Metropolitan Opera simulcast used the Anglo-Saxon approved ending where Hamlet dies. This DVD shows a wounded Hamlet singing about going to be with Ophelie while the chorus hails him as the new king. He could still die from his wounds, but that isn't shown. #ad
When I was 23, my college presented a fully staged version of Rigoletto with orchestra and the whole 9 yards. It has long lived in my imagination as something truly wonderful.
It turns out it has lived also on tape and now on CD. Lou Clayson who was a member of the faculty sang the Duke. Dan Elias who had had polio as a child and was genuinely crippled took off his brace and sang Rigoletto. My friend Gloris Blackburn was perfectly cast as Gilda, and I was Maddalena. My mentor John Lewis was the conductor.
So yesterday I went to visit Gloris to hear the CD. We looked at the old pictures and marveled at how young we were and how fabulous Lou looked in tights. And how glorious it all sounded.
The orchestra was spectacular. John had a love/hate relationship with Verdi, complained about sopranos showing their tonsils on high notes and never gave an inch on tempos no matter how badly the singer was handling it. But the rhythmic excitement that is the heart of Verdi was stunning to the point of overwhelming.
It is nice to hear that he was as great as I had imagined him.
The singing is also wonderful. Lou didn't just look good. Dan had a very exciting tone to his voice, and Gloris was the perfect Gilda. She took all the high notes whether John liked it or not, and long stretches of "Caro nome" are completely unaccompanied, allowing the singer to add as much rubato as she wants.
I was fine. Gloris and I looked at each other and said "soprano."
I can't tell you how pleased I am to report that it was far more wonderful than I had remembered it.
In my musical club meeting on Sunday Keith Bohm played the saxophone and accompanied himself with a piece of software called Smart Music. This is a teaching tool that includes repertoire for each instrument.
That isn't what I wanted to write about. He studied in France, Germany and the United States, and he described how the vibrato is taught in each country. Apparently the French like a very fast vibrato with an intense tone, while here in the USA a slow vibrato is preferred. He said this wasn't an issue for him since he couldn't do the fast French vibrato.
He also said that Massenet was an early proponent of the saxophone. This reminded me of last year's two Werthers. In Paris I hardly noticed that Charlott's aria "Va! Laisse couler mes larmes" has a wonderful saxophone solo, while in San Francisco I immediately recognized it. Perhaps to me the saxophone with the fast vibrato didn't even sound like a saxophone.
I had the sense at the time that the romantic orchestra in Paris was an entirely new experience for me.
There's some pretty wonderful stuff in this recording of Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte (1722) with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante.
This performance is yet another result of the current burst of Italian musicology. The booklet that comes with the CDs describes the process required to revive this opera and recreate the original score.
The opera was written for Rome, and even at this late date the roles seem all to have been performed by men, either castrati or tenors. The casting for the recording is somewhat curious. Hercules and his band of Greeks have been tasked with stealing the arms of Antiope, the queen of the Amazons. The Greek roles consist of two tenors and two mezzo-sopranos: Ercole (Hercules) is sung by Rolando Villazon; Teseo (Theseus) is sung by Romina Basso, a female mezzo, not a bass; Alceste is sung by Philippe Jaroussky, the only countertenor; and Telamone is sung by another tenor, Topi Lehtipuu.
Both camps, Greeks and Amazons, are composed of two distinct types of personalities: lovers and fighters. For the Greeks the tenors represent the fighters, and the mezzos are the lovers. On the Amazon side Antiope, the queen, sung by Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano, and Orizia, her sister, sung by Patrizia Ciofi, soprano, are the fighters. Ippolita, another sister of the queen, sung by Joyce DiDonato, mezzo, and Martesia, the queen's daughter, sung by Diana Damrau, soprano, are the lovers.
That's a lot of treble characters. Some are pissed off and want to kill people, while others are desperately in love and pine for their lovers. The plot has an annoyingly conventional ending with no one dying and both pairs of lovers getting together. And incidentally the queen gives Hercules her arms. They all live happily ever after in the by then well established tradition of Neapolitan Opera.
By now in 2011 we are accustomed to the sound of Handel operas with their Germanic density of instrumentation. It's nice to hear this transparency. Italian opera is about singing.
With this collection of singers there is a lot of fabulous singing. Everyone gets something nice, but the sweetest arias are for Joyce DiDonato. She shines. So does Rolando Villazon. It's a good recording. #ad
Riding over to the opera, I was talking about some incomprehensible musical abstraction to my friends, both not musicians, who were sitting in the front seat, when D said (suddenly realize that both of their initials are D, but never mind) that he had no idea what I was talking about.
This made me think. When I started college as a music major, my only musical experiences had all been singing. A singer doesn’t actually need to know anything. If you can accurately repeat what you are taught by the coaches, that fills the minimum requirement. I’ve never forgotten the German mezzo who didn’t know which end of the keyboard had the low notes. Ignorant though I was when I started, I think I had already figured that part out. Maybe she was dyslexic.
As a music major, five days a week for two years we came every morning to study music theory. Our text book was McHose, an unusual book which is based entirely on statistics. Someone (undoubtedly Dr. McHose’s graduate students) had analyzed all of the harmonized Bach chorales and compiled statistical tables on what each chord resolved to.
If I determine that this is a tonic chord, 52% of the time it resolves to a subdominant, 22% to a submediant, etc. [Editorial comment—these numbers are made up. It’s just an illustration. I don’t see McHose on my shelf anywhere. I do see something called Beyond Midi which I must remember to read some time.] It is the standardization of expectation that is the main factor in creating tonality.
We practiced sight-reading, writing music from dictation, analysis, voice-leading, etc. Then in the third year we went on to form and analysis, counterpoint, and ultimately composition.
It changes a person. I hear immediately the presence or absence of tonality, for instance: present for much of Dowland, but little of Schuetz, absent completely from Froberger, but coming along in Purcell. Bach is the high point of tonal sophistication, actually, one of the reasons for the reverence paid to him. Mozart simply takes it for granted.
Once you have been through all this, you can never go back. I’m writing this while listening to the new recording Ercole sul Termodonte by Vivaldi, and am surprised to hear how much slower his harmonic rhythm is than Bach’s, who generally gets in at least two different chords per measure. Never mind. It’s a wonderful recording, incidentally, with a number of excellent artists.
I deliberately abandoned music for personal reasons, but all this blogging about opera keeps it stirred up, much like remembering how to speak German. My friends are to be commended and thanked for not abandoning me when I go off on a tangent. D turns up the radio occasionally, though.
Verdi: Requiem withRiccardo Muti, conductor; Duain Wolfe, chorus master; Christopher Alder,
producer; David Frost, Tom Lazarus & Christopher Willis, engineers/mixers; Silas Brown, mastering engineer (Ildar Abdrazakov, Olga Borodina, Barbara Frittoli & Mario Zeffiri; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Chicago Symphony Chorus)
Best Classical Album
Best Choral Performance
Saariaho: L'Amour De Loin with Kent Nagano, conductor; Daniel Belcher, Ekaterina Lekhina & Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Martin Sauer, producer (Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Rundfunkchor Berlin)
Best Opera Recording
Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony; Deus Ex Machina
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor (Terrence Wilson; Nashville Symphony)
Best Orchestral Performance
Best Engineered Album, Classical
Best Classical Contemporary Composition
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 & 24 with Mitsuko Uchida and The Cleveland Orchestra
Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with Orchestra)
Ligeti: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 with the Parker Quartet
Best Chamber Music Performance
Messiaen: Livre Du Saint-Sacrement with Paul Jacobs
Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra)
Dinastia Borja with Jordi Savall, conductor; Hespèrion XXI & La Capella Reial De Catalunya (Pascal Bertin, Daniele Carnovich, Lior Elmalich, Montserrat Figueras, Driss El Maloumi, Marc Mauillon, Lluís Vilamajó & Furio Zanasi; Pascal Bertin, Daniele Carnovich, Josep Piera & Francisco Rojas)
Best Small Ensemble Performance
Sacrificium with Cecilia Bartoli (Giovanni Antonini; Il Giardino Armonico)
won for ...
Best Classical Vocal Performance
I included so many of these because I was fascinated by the choice of repertoire. The Verdi Requiem and Mozart piano concertos are the only representatives of standard repertoire in the list.
Cecilia very much deserves her win. It's an amazing album.
In posting pictures for my review of the Live from the Metropolitan Opera in HD broadcast of John Adams' Nixon in China I have decided to go with reality instead of fiction.
The above picture from left is of Pat Nixon (sung by Janis Kelly), Richard Nixon (sung by James Maddalena) and Chou En-lai (sung by Russell Braun.) My favorite line in this scene is when Nixon says to Chou, "As we flew in, we looked down at the ground. 'Brueghel,' Pat said." I am always looking for things to look like something from a painting, and liked it that Pat might do the same.
The production has done a wonderful job of reproducing the look of the real people and places. Below is Mao Tse-tung (sung by Robert Brubaker) in his actual study. The chair and wall of papers look much like the set.
The scene in the opera of Nixon meeting Mao is definitely my favorite. I had to search for quite a while to find a picture with everyone in it, except Pat, of course. From left below are Chou, secretary, Mao, Nixon and Henry Kissinger (sung by Richard Paul Fink.) In the opera the single secretary/translator is replaced by a trio of singers who repeat everything Mao says like a kind of sound halo. Everyone says mysterious nonsensical things. "Founders come first, then profiteers." Kissinger declares that he is lost.
The events upon which this opera is based still lie in my memory, and they have omitted the part of the banquet where Nixon goes all around the room and toasts with everyone there one by one. We just get Chou and Nixon toasting.
This is the real Madame Mao, Chiang Ch'ing (sung fabulously by Kathleen Kim). Kathleen's Chiang was pretty frightening.
And this is a shot from the real Chinese ballet Red Detachment of Women.
Why bring back the real events? To show how close they are visually to the opera. So what is one to make of the fact that in the opera all the characters except Pat and Chou are really quite mad? It's part of its charm. Nixon comes off pretty lovable which I'm not at all sure he deserves.
The Kissinger part is a double role. He also plays the Simon Legree character in the play within the opera. In his interview Richard Paul Fink said that when working with dancers, it's necessary to stay out of their way. Not to hurt them. It was a very physical part for an opera role.
I love Nixon in China. I love the minimalist idiom which always enhances the action. I love the "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung" aria. I love the incomprehensible philosophy always lurking in the background. I could live entirely without the hand job in the last scene. In fact the whole last scene is extremely anticlimactic.
It was said several times that this is a modern masterpiece, and I am almost persuaded. The people being interviewed were pleased to be performing this opera on the day after the Revolution in Cairo. They made Mao and Chou seem to realize that revolution is only for a moment, like life generally.
Should I feel guilty for posting that Cecilia got married? The evidence appears to be quite sketchy, but the idea made me smile, so I posted it. All kinds of somewhat bogus information comes out on the internet. For instance, yesterday I was notified that she had won the Classical Brits Female artist of the year award when they usually don't come out until May. So what is one to do?
According to Opera Chic the Aargauer Zeitung announced that Cecilia Bartoli and Oliver Widmer have married. She always said she wouldn't, but you know, never say never. The picture is of them together in the bows of Clari and was stolen from Opera Fresh. Congratulations, my dears.
Here is an article about the 10 hottest opera singers. It's a guy so he only refers to girls. And he cheats because he includes Katherine Jenkins twice. However, I must say his selection criteria appear to be much the same as mine: you appear if I can find a nice sexy picture of you. He found two sexy pictures of Katherine Jenkins so....
His list is:
Now I'm not sure all of these admittedly hot women are actually opera singers. For one thing there are a few more microphones in evidence than opera would allow. Rule number one: if you cannot sing in a big hall over a full orchestra without a microphone, you are not an opera singer. It doesn't mean they are not perfectly good singers--they just are not opera singers.
The only three I can be sure of are Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanča and Kate Aldrich.