Saturday, June 30, 2012


One of the things Lebrecht writes about is the death of classical music. If I were to pick one single thing that has been most destructive of any general interest in classical music, I would pick the tedious monotony of the classical music radio station.

Maestro Myth

I have two of them around my house, but I've actually never read any of Norman Lebrecht's books. Of the two I have The Maestro Myth looked the more interesting.

I'm not sure he's actually making the point he's trying to make. For instance, Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini became the icons they became by rescuing for all time the important cultural institutions, respectively, the Wiener Staatsoper and La Scala Milano. And they each did this single-handedly, without the help of incompetent administrators. So we should hire someone else over them to screw that up?  For me it doesn't damage either one of their reputations to know they were pretty weird ducks.  I've known a few musicians, and a lot of them are.  The fact that they come out dressed in tails doesn't mean they suddenly became normal.

The point it seems he is trying to make is that the mythology that surrounds the historical great conductors is just puffery. So what great cultural institution did he rescue? Norman Lebrecht, apparently. I didn't know that it was Mahler who wanted the Leonora Overture in the middle of Fidelio.  I'm glad this tradition seems to be dying.

The most shocking thing I've read so far is about Toscanini.  I already knew that he threw things around the rehearsal room when things didn't go his way.  No.  The shocking part was that it turns out there were two reasons why he always conducted from memory--the one about la bella figura where he was too vain to want to be seen wearing glasses we already knew.  He preached the gospel of following the composer's wishes, of the one true interpretation--his own, of course--which erases and supersedes all others while secretly rewriting the music whenever it didn't sound the way he wanted it to.  He wouldn't dare bring these obviously altered scores into the house where someone might see them.  Hmmm.

I'm on the other side of this argument.  For you there may well be only one true interpretation.  But someone else may hear and feel this same music differently.  For that person that is the one true interpretation.  It is vital to have one, but if you have truly done your work, your performance will sound completely original.  Few actually achieve this, but Toscanini was one of those.

For the public impossible fanatical standards of ones cultural leaders are an unqualified blessing.  It is the imposed identity that creates greatness.  Striving for mediocrity is what kills art.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

New Pictures of Anna

She still has the best legs in the business.  If I'm not supposed to post these, someone will tell me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Spearhead News

All the best pictures from the San Francisco Opera come from Spearhead News, the online publication of the company's supers.  Here is Nixon in China:

And this is Attila:

And here is Xerxes:
One of them is not a super.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Anna Bolena DVD

This is the DVD from the Wiener Staatsoper with Anna Netrebko as Anna and Elina Garanča as Jane Seymore.  The style of the production is less authentic but otherwise similarly as somber as the Met production.  I like Elina better than Ekaterina Gubanova simply because she seems like a legitimate rival to Netrebko.  Who is fabulous, and equally fabulous in duets with Garanča.  Anna does not over-sing as much as she does at the Met.  I like this a lot.  Netrebko is in her house.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


I haven't seen this story anywhere.  Deborah Voigt has had hip surgery in Australia.  It doesn't say what happened, but she must have had a fall.

Ory Rerun

I was supposed to go to Attila in San Francisco today but was too ill and switched my ticket to another day.  Meanwhile I thought I would give the rerun of Le Comte Ory a try.  Instead of 100 miles from my house, it's at most 2.  And it's all over by 9:00.

I was surprised to find that I remembered virtually nothing about this entire opera except the trio in the bed.  (This is probably not good.)  I didn't remember the Bartlett Sher production, particularly, but I know it's been complained about.  The proscenium adds emotional distance, so add a play within a play, and you get still more distance.  Perish the thought that you would think Ory was real.  For me this worked.  And it is exactly the same reason why it didn't work in La Sonnambula.  Poor Amina could not be more sincere and is destroyed by production distancing.

While Ory is disgusting.  Playing it out in the alley behind would be nice.  Our fabulous singing actors, Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau, are all playing it for comedy, but I don't think it's helping.  Sorry, Rossini, it's just not funny.  I know in Zurich they played it differently, but I would have to see it to have an opinion. 

Gorgeous young women who did not sing littered the stage like women in Italian television game shows.

While I was watching it, I noticed that formally it is like grand opera and not at all like a comique.  What little recitative there is is accompagnato.  The numbers are all large and complicated.  I don't think it's ever been popular.

Compare here and here to see if my mind wandered too far.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


I finally found someone who would send me the list of numbers from The Enchanted Island.  I found something I didn't expect.  The selection of numbers appears to have been tailor made for the artists in the cast, perhaps an attempt to guarantee success.

David Daniels had already sung...
  • #16, Vivaldi: Longe mala, umbrae, terrores, "Longe mala, umbrae, terrores"  
  • #41, Handel: Partenope, "Ch’io parta?"
 Joyce DiDonato had already sung...
  • #4, Handel: Teseo, "Morirò, ma vendicata"  
 Luca Pisaroni sings 
  • #5, Handel: La Resurrezione,  "O voi, dell’Erebo"  
 Placido Domingo sings
  • #22, Handel: Tamerlano,  "Oh, per me lieto" 

Besides this, a large number of pieces are from recent performances by other contemporary artists.  These include Philippe Jeroussky, Veronique Gens, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sophie von Otter, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, and Magdalena Kožená, to name a few.

In short the whole pastiche is part of the present-day burst of performances from the Baroque.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Herbert Breslin and the King

Herbert Breslin (October 1, 1924 – May 17, 2012) died recently, and this stimulated me to read his book called The King and I, a book about himself and Luciano Pavarotti. Pavarotti and Breslin had split in 2002 over the divorce after working together since 1967, so Breslin wrote the book with Anne Midgette. 

He advises not to look too hard for the next big thing.  He didn't like any of this generation's tenors and seems not to have noticed Jonas Kaufmann.  Germans are not supposed to count.

It's interesting to read about the early years of Pavarotti's career.  It was another world, one in which Americans still purchased recordings of people singing classical music.  If I wanted to know the details, I could read one of Norman Lebrecht's books: Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics or The Life and Death of Classical Music. By "Classical Music" he means classical recordings. The music itself seems to go on.

We sort of suspected that Pavarotti was more interested in the money and fame than he was in the music.  I personally think that his musical creative process was intuitive and based on the place of classical music in his childhood.  Breslin seems to have a similar opinion.  I get annoyed with Pavarotti's disinterest but then remember the incredible late recording of Manon Lescaut, probably my favorite Pavarotti.

There's a great anecdote of Pavarotti eating about a kilo of caviar and getting very sick.  You had to be there.  My sense of Pavarotti is that he was all of a piece--you simply cannot separate his personality from his music.  Everything flows out without any kind of inhibition.

I can't actually recommend reading this.  It's well written and interesting, but one might rather not know.  It descends, like his relationship to Pavarotti, into nastiness.

One interesting feature I've never seen in a biography before is long quotes from most of the concerned characters.  And pop star Pavarotti was the invention of his second wife Nicoletta.

This is the only Ernani I ever care to hear.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Flute at the San Francisco Opera

Wednesday night was the opening of The Magic Flute at the San Francisco Opera.  This is yet another occasion when I'm glad I'm not a real reviewer.

Above is a picture of Albina Shagimuratova as The Queen of the Night.  The top is the three ladies slaying the dragon and saving Tamino.

A couple of curious facts:  the set is computer graphics mostly in colored lines and shapes, such as those behind Albina, and the English translation is by David Gockley himself.  Did I want an English translation?  Not really.  When there is spoken dialog in an opera it is very annoying to teach people to say the lines well.  The other side of the coin is that the words and the notes accompanying them never quite gel into a complete musical interpretation.  This is especially due to the fact that there is a different translation each time. 

I liked Albina best.  Nathan Gunn was wasted.  The director didn't think of anything much for him to do.  Nadine Sierra as Papagena had the most charisma.  The children's version from the Met may be my favorite Flute.  Sigh.

As we were leaving the opera house, I heard the words "Giants" announced over the loudspeaker.  When I got home, I looked to see what was going on with the Giants and found that Matt Cain had pitched the 22nd perfect game in the history of major league baseball and the first ever for the Giants.  San Francisco is such a great city.

Monday, June 11, 2012

If not me then who?

I was watching the Tonys last night.  Tunes from Broadway musicals seem to sound the same as they always have.  In the meanwhile life has gone on.

But that isn't why I'm posting.  Audra McDonald won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for Porgy and Bess, and she sang during the broadcast.  There is a problem.  Don't get the wrong idea:  she richly deserves this award.  If you don't like it when I do this sort of thing, please stop reading now.

Porgy and Bess is an opera, and to perform it really requires opera rules, not musical rules.  Musical rules are seven or eight performances a week.  Opera rules are absolutely no more than three performances a week.  Bess is a spinto, someone like Leontyne Price.  Audra McDonald is not.  She is a lyric soprano.  Put as succinctly as I possibly can--her voice is not big enough for what she is doing with it, and she is hurting it.  She may already have passed the point of no return.

I'm sorry, but if not me then who?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

News about Jonas

I have copied this from Opera-L Archive.  It's the only thing I have been able to find.

Jonas Kaufmann withdraws from Les Troyens

Tenor withdraws due to illness and Bryan Hymel takes over role of Enée

It is with deep regret that The Royal Opera announces that Jonas Kaufmann has to withdraw from singing the role of Enée in the new production of Berlioz' Les Troyens.  

Jonas Kaufmann has been indisposed since late April with a protracted infection and has had to cancel performances at The Metropolitan Opera, New York as well as concerts in Europe. 

Kasper Holten, Director of Opera said: “Both we and Jonas were intensely hoping he would be getting better and would be able to join the production. However, after new consultations with his doctor, it is clear that he still needs some further weeks of pause in order to fully recover and that he will not be ready in time to join the production.“ 

Jonas Kaufmann added: “I am deeply sorry for the inconvenience and disappointment caused to my audience, and to The Royal Opera House. I hope my decision will be respected as an act of responsibility towards myself and the audience. I am particularly sad to not be able to participate in the new production of Les Troyens, a project I have been looking forward to for many years”. 

Kasper Holten continued, “It is never easy for a singer to make the difficult decision to cancel. However, sometimes it is inevitable. The Royal Opera is doing everything we can to avoid cast changes, and we are terribly sorry to disappoint our loyal audiences, who have experienced a number of very unfortunate high profile cast changes this season. 

“Knowing that Jonas Kaufmann has been ill since late April, The Royal Opera has recently secured Bryan Hymel who had already joined rehearsals last week, he will now take over the performances at Covent Garden. Bryan has sung the role of Enée at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam recently, and he appeared as the Prince in Rusalka at Covent Garden earlier this season. We are grateful to Bryan for stepping in, and we are very happy that such a gifted artist has been free to undertake this demanding task with such short notice.” 

All ticket holders will be contacted early next week about the cast change.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


Me to seat mate at John Adams' Nixon in China dress rehearsal:  This is minimalism.
Seat mate:  I don't mind the minimalism, but do they have to play the same notes over and over?
Me:  That's what makes it minimalism.  [Pause]  This is actually a much shorter opera.

The only thing the Metropolitan Opera's Nixon in China and the San Francisco Opera's Nixon in China have in common is David Gockley, the original commissioner of the opera.  The conductor (Lawrence Renes), the production, the singers are all different.  The Met used the original production, but Gockley wanted something new.

Hye Jung Lee is the best Madame Mao ever.  She puts it out there, making the character the complete bitch you have always wished for.  In this version she appears in the last act with Mao.  I don't remember that happening before.

It is the words that make this opera completely extraordinary.  The Americans and the Chinese stand talking to one another, but it is clear that neither knows what the other is talking about.  All the memorable lines come from the Chinese.  "The people are the heroes now."  "Founders come first, then profiteers."  In fact, they seem to speak always in aphorisms.

The new production was not so literal and looked only approximately like the historical events.

The first two acts are terrific.  The third act is improved but still makes the opera peter out into dullness.  Mao dances.  I noticed that one section of the second act ballet sounds a little like Wagner.

This was a rehearsal, and the action completely stopped after Madame Mao's aria so the director could criticize a part of the scene.  To fill the time the orchestra played the ending of Das Rheingold.  I think they miss The Ring.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Adriana Lecouvreur

I have enjoyed very much the DVD of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur with Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, Jonas Kaufmann as lover everyone wants (this is nothing new) and Olga Borodina as Princess de Bouillon, the woman rejected in favor of Adriana.  The cast includes Alessandro Corbelli as Michonnet.  This is the first time I have seen him in a serious opera.

One is attracted to but not overwhelmed by Adriana.  The music is lush and the singing gorgeous.  But the Princess is a stupid woman who thinks her lover will return to her if she just gets rid of her rival.  If you like this cast and this opera, this is an excellent version.  If you like conservative productions, you will be extremely happy with this.

Peter Gelb, Part I

To evaluate Peter Gelb in relationship to his new productions it is necessary for me to select operas to evaluate. I will evaluate new productions from 2007-2012, ignoring everything from the first 2006-07 season for which he is not responsible.

I will ignore those I did not see: The Nose, From the House of the Dead, and Attila, though I have seen the production of From the House of the Dead on DVD. This leaves 29 new productions. I am counting the four operas of The Ring as a single production.

Gelb has imported some famous productions from other houses. Both his Laurent Pelly productions were already famous-- La Fille du Régiment, 2008 [1], was already a DVD from Paris, and Manon, 2012 [2], was almost as famous from the Royal Opera. Pelly is a well established opera producer. As a side note, I must mention that Pelly was the designer of two Santa Fe Opera productions that I have seen: La Traviata and Platée, both rather odd. Traviata is boxes, Platée is bleachers and pond scum. Only Natalie Dessay would have been able to jump around on all those boxes.

Richard Jones' Hänsel und Gretel, 2007 [3], was from Pamela Rosenberg's San Francisco Opera. For me it was rather more notorious than famous, but in New York they seemed to love it.

David McVicar's Il Trovatore, 2008 [4], and Nicolas Joël's La Rondine, 2009 [5], were both seen previously in San Francisco and liked. La Rondine in particular is in a fascinating period style.

Willy Decker's La Traviata, 2010 [6], from Salzburg is famous around the world for Anna Netrebko's portrayal. Decker also produced Die Tote Stadt for San Francisco.

When Gelb decided to do Nixon in China at the Met in 2010 [7], he just borrowed Peter Sellars' original production from Houston. Why mess with success? I have seen a lot of Sellars by now, including Griselda in Santa Fe. Some I like, some I don't. He is famous because of his productions of Mozart-Da Ponte in modern dress, all three of which ran on American television. Don Giovanni as a drug addict comes to mind.

Of this group of 7 operas only La Traviata and Hänsel und Gretel can be considered Eurotrash. Fille is unique--modern and made for the talents of Natalie Dessay. I can't work up a sense of revulsion for any of them. I missed the food fight from the San Francisco production of Hänsel und Gretel, but can't actually complain. It can't surely be any of these productions that are supposed to be ruining the Met?

This still leaves 22 productions. I will begin with some less controversial productions. I hope you agree.

Stephen Wadsworth's first Met production was Rodelinda which I was very impressed with. Then in 2007 came the reasonably conservative Iphigénie en Tauride [8], and in 2010 Boris Godunov [9]. They all seem like normal opera productions to me. Iphigénie tried very hard to invoke an ancient Greek atmosphere and almost worked. I was good with Boris. It stayed out of the way of some pretty fabulous singing.

Phelim McDermott has opera experience at the ENO. Satyagraha, 2007 [10], was suitably abstract, and The Enchanted Island, 2011 [11], was like a traditional production from the long ago past. He is capable of bringing fun to the opera. Surely no one minds these.

David McVicar is very experienced all over the opera world. I already mentioned Il Trovatore, 2008 [4], but he has also done Anna Bolena, 2011 [12]. Both of these productions were very conservative, almost old fashioned.

Richard Eyre produced the amazing Carmen, 2009 [13]. If you didn't like this, what's the matter with you?

People from the west end theater in London include Adrian Noble who produced Macbeth, 2008 [14], John Doyle who produced Peter Grimes, 2008 [15], Nicholas Hytner who produced Don Carlo, 2010 [16], and Michael Grandage who produced Don Giovanni, 2011 [17]. I was hooked on Don Carlo from the opening scene. How could you ask for more? I liked Peter Grimes at first, but have reconsidered. For me every production of Don Giovanni I've ever seen has been ghastly, so this one was somewhat less ghastly than the others. Every tiny bit of plot is somewhere else, and this constantly shifting scene is very hard to stage. I thought the transitions between scenes were reasonably smooth. Macbeth was very ugly and sometimes absurd, very much Eurotrash, but I seem to have liked it anyway. Or maybe it was just Maria Guleghina I liked. So that's a score of one definite hit, two maybe near misses, and one pure Eurotrash for the London west end.

Penny Woolcock, a British film director with a prior relationship with John Adams, produced Doctor Atomic, 2008 [18], and I thought it was a huge improvement over our version in San Francisco by Peter Sellars. The flaws that were left have to be blamed on the composer.

John Cox's Thais, 2008 [19], was his fourth production for the Met. I thought the production was pleasantly amusing, especially the virgin enthroned scene.

In researching this article who should show up but Cecilia Bartoli's darlings Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier as the producers of Hamlet, 2009 [20]. Who knew? There was absolutely nothing shocking about this. It was even maybe a bit boring. They are the producers for Clari and Giulio Cesare.

We have only 9 operas left and have still not hit anything completely shocking. Or are you more easily shocked than I am?

All three of Mary Zimmerman's Met productions are considered at least a bit controversial. Her background is American theater off Broadway. For me the original touches found in her Lucia di Lammermoor, 2007 [21], were effective and touching. This is the only production to be repeated in the simulcasts so far, once with Anna Netrebko and once with Natalie Dessay. I loved the fairy tale aspects of Armida, 2009 [22]. It didn't bother me that the tone wasn't dark and threatening. I parted from Mary Zimmerman only for La Sonnambula, 2008 [23]. The show within a show idea completely didn't work for me. When are we hearing the character and when the actor? When is Juan Diego himself and when is he the hero of the opera? This is a very simple plot made emotionally confusing for no reason. I give her two out of three.

Des McAnuff is an American theater director. I suppose his Faust, 2011, [24] from the ENO should be included in the list of imported productions, but I'd never heard of it before. It appeared to have a premise, namely that these people were somehow involved in the labs at Los Alamos. Thus the double-breasted suits, I suppose. I didn't mind looking at it, but it meant nothing to me.

When the various critics are blasting Gelb, they usually condemn bringing in theater directors with no operatic experience, but one of the most despised productions was Luc Bondy's Tosca, 2009 [25]. He has produced a lot of operas in Europe, including La Scala. This is pure Eurotrash. Madonna with boob hanging out. Dark, grim and depressing sets with nothing in the way of decoration. Ugly staging with almost depraved action.  I don't see why it's necessary to goose up Tosca with "interesting" details. Isn't it already interesting enough? Would anyone have cared if the singing had been better?

A producer who seems to actually fit the criticisms is Bartlett Sher who works across the patio at Lincoln Center Theater. His opera productions for Gelb are Les Contes d'Hoffmann, 2009 [26] and Le Comte Ory, 2010 [27]. There is much sound and fury here, especially directed at Ory, but I'm not sure why. Different people like different things.  I think the problem is that Ory is just not that funny.

We have saved the most controversial for last, of course. Robert Lepage is best known for his work with Cirque du Soliel in Canada. His productions for the Met have been La Damnation de Faust, 2008 [28] and The Ring of the Nibelungen, 2010-2012 [29]. I don't remember anyone complaining about his Faust. This work is not an opera and is, therefore, notoriously difficult to stage. Berlioz composed only the interesting parts, so it jumps around a lot. Lepage dealt with the difficulties smoothly and created a pleasant drama. There were projections in this, too.

I suspect that there is a tendency to trash Gelb strictly for the fact that he bought the pig in a poke that is the Lepage Ring. Much of the difficulty with this production, in my opinion, is that Lepage has vastly more experience with acrobats than he has with opera singers. This is all much more plausible when it isn't Bryn, Debbie and Stephanie who are actually doing it. To all potential producers of Wagner:  your actors will be middle-aged and over-weight. Get over it. Watching the film about the making of The Ring made me much more aware of the fact that there are a lot of acrobats on the stage. We would need for them all to be acrobats before this would really work. The projections were kind of cool, though.

My feeling is that Peter Gelb is much more in contact with and indeed in tune with the present day world of opera than are the people who are criticizing him. If you don't like the opera of today, I suspect you are stuck.