Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Operas that were new for me are The Fairy Queen (DVD), Il Postino (TV), Lucrezia Borgia (Live), Serse (Live), Griselda (Live), Four Saints in Three Acts (Live), The Great Gatsby (Live), Heart of a Soldier (Live), The Last Savage (Live), Benvenuto Cellini (DVD), and Rodelinda (HD). I love it when there are so many new operas. Only Heart of a Soldier was new for everyone. I'm not counting the extremely charming The Enchanted Island (HD).
Are any of these a truly great opera? Unquestionably I Capuleti e i Montecchi is a great opera for the spectacular bel canto singing. I have a CD of it with Beverly Sills which in no way prepared me for how truly wonderful it actually is.
I am shocked to see that my favorite of the entire season was Sacramento Opera's production of Pagliacci. Thanks to Eduardo Villa and the raw and visceral production, this was just what you wish for with this opera--passion and violence. It was simply amazing.
My second favorite, especially from the live performance category, has to be Menotti's The Last Savage from the Santa Fe Opera. It was simply the most fun you could expect to have at the opera.
I watched six operas on DVD but two of them, Werther and Anna Bolena, were DVD versions of the same or similar casts and productions as things seen live/HD earlier. I preferred Werther live and Anna Bolena on DVD, but all four were fabulous.
I watched Nina to counteract the static effect of Otello. I watched The Fairy Queen to fill a hole in my education but found it charming. I watched Adriana Lecouvreur for Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu, though I don't think the opera is very good.
My third Giulio Cesare with Cecilia Bartoli was the best, Baroque opera of great passion and life.
And for the first time I understand Vesselina Kasarova. With Netrebko she was simply a towering artist. In my search for the truly wonderful, I found it in a place I have visited often before.
Monday, October 29, 2012
The west coast premier of the opera Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass opens with this photograph. You can see some water in the background. Otherwise the relationship to Einstein is rather tenuous. Three dot journalism:
Converse Allstars...Conch shell and woman who holds it up to her ear...British jurists...Woman reading the New york Times...Paper airplanes...Ding dong...
There is a violinist in Converse Allstars that we decided must be Albert himself who is known to have played the violin..."Court is now in session"...One judge pours a beaker of glitter...Woman who walked for half an hour at the beginning is the defendant. Styrofoam cups, illegal in Berkeley, appear.
They discuss: Mister Bojangles...This is about the things on the table...John Lennon...Baggy pants...Gun gun gun....
A girl scratches her butt. I can't help thinking of Gertrude Stein.
For over two hours we hear typical noodling music such as only Philip Glass can manage. It is apparently enraging because about three hours in, after a woman on the stage waved a machine gun at us and made noises like shooting, everyone became nasty and started complaining to everyone else.
You remember when I posted this a few days ago:
Share Your Thoughts
Connect with others attending the performance and let the world know your thoughts about Einstein on the Beach either by tweeting @CalPerformances or using the hashtag #einstein2012.
I tried to post things, but people around me were too annoyed.
Mist floating down into pit...Big chorus...Could all be a loop but isn't...Conch shell girl is back. Holds to ear. We don't hear ocean...Chorus chants "Onedy onedy onedy..." Back in court. Defendant is wearing a dress. Men in striped suits. Bars..."I have been avoiding the beach." Scream! "Prematurely airconditioned", my favorite line of the play...Suddenly she is in a gray pantsuit with a large lollipop....
After noodling for at least 3 hours, there is a completely unexpected saxophone riff that went on for about a half hour while people stood around a building and waved. There is talking, singing, chorus, two synthesizers, two saxophones and a piccolo, but absolutely no operatic singing.
I went out and had a beer and watched the rest on the monitor by the bar.
Jennifer Koh was Einstein playing the violin.
Kate Moran spoke "Prematurely air-conditioned."
Helga Davis spoke "Mr. Bojangles."
Andrew Sternman played the tenor saxophone solo.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
In the intermission interviews for Verdi's Otello live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera it was revealed that Renée Fleming had sung Desdemona in 1994 at the Met in this very same production. She is still gorgeous in the role, though I have never seen this production before.
The main difference between Verdi's Otello and Shakespeare's Othello is how quickly Verdi's hero stops believing in his beloved wife. There has to be some reason for this, and that reason is provided by the huge and not particularly attractive Johann Botha. He just can't believe that this beautiful woman could love him. I liked him better than I did when he sang the role 3 years ago in San Francisco. This time I have no complaints. His control of the phrase is now quite beautiful. He has been ill, so I believe our performance was his first in the run where he was completely healthy. Vocally and dramatically, he and Renée were a very fine doomed couple. They died in style.
Our Iago was Falk Struckmann, a German who roars and growls his way through the opera. He is a nasty piece of work. We know why Iago hates Otello and Cassio--they were promoted over him--but what exactly does he have against Desdemona?
What we were all asking each other was: when do we get to see Michael Fabiano in something serious? His was an outstanding Cassio, but the role is just not much. I think he is ready for more.
Music mystery: The singer Cecilia Bartoli explains how she and Donna Leon discovered the composer Agostino Steffani
by Manuel Brug
La Ceci, as the mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is tenderly called by her fans, has taken three years since her so far sixth and most successful theme album "Sacrificium" about the "sacrifice" of Neapolitan eunuchs. Three years, where she could search for her follow-up project. The corresponding concert tour was still called "dangerous liaisons". A few weeks ago oblique YouTube clips appeared. Then, the true title of the project was eventually revealed: "Mission". Including a whole range of CD, DVD, iPad game, and even a new Donna Leon novel appears. It all revolves around the music of the mysterious singer (probably: castrato), composer, diplomat and perhaps spy Agostino Steffani (1645-1728). He was born in the Veneto, worked in Munich, Hannover, Düsseldorf, Rome and Brussels, died in Frankfurt, where he is buried in the Cathedral. He had his corner in the history of music as an important link between Carissimi, whose student he was, Scarlatti, and Handel. Now the 46 year old Bartoli with cleverly selected at times highly virtuosic, at times sensitive elegiac pieces from 12 operas, including four gorgeous duets with Philippe Jaroussky, would like to make him famous. Who, if not her should succeed at this?
We met in the 26th year of her career, the still best known mezzo-soprano in the world after the hurried presentation of the CD in the Munich Baroque Schloss Schleißheim - where Bartoli after concert, dinner and fireworks still in a green-pink dirndl had to tap a keg of beer. [Oktoberfest was fast approaching.]
DIE WELT: As I showed around the "mission" cover with the bald head, I was more than once asked: Oh God, does Bartoli have cancer? Are you being provocative?
Cecilia Bartoli: Of course not, but the cover is already attracting attention, if it fits. I think this worked well with "Opera Prohibita," where as Anita Ekberg reloaded I hop into the fountain. And also with my sexless statue on "Sacrifcium" I was very pleased. These photos should just tell you something, not just show me in a beautiful dress. That to me is far too easy, just like any colorful aria program. I want to convey a message and play a character. Senseless glamour photos I now feel are almost an insult. These travesties make me even richer as a performer. In "mission" we have gone a step further, as we tell a whole story in pictures that will trace the exciting and still enigmatic life of Steffani at least a little tongue in cheek. This mysterious man is my mission.
DIE WELT: With a big product family. Because you have sold 10 million CDs, does the record company give you total freedom?
Cecilia Bartoli: So far I have not disappointed them, although this time they were quite impatient, even nervous. Three years is long, but I want to be one hundred percent sure that it is good, for which I have spent so much effort. It's like with a good pasta ragout: you need the best ingredients - and much time.
DIE WELT: Do you actually always have several irons in the fire?
First one spins only a little, then one focuses oneself. No, I don't even have concepts for the next ten years, I want to be spontaneous, to start again from scratch after each CD. The notes need to track me down. And I have noticed that the composers in times of great change interest me especially, the links - such as Gluck and Salieri. They are no Handels and Mozarts, but they have enabled them and deserve our attention. Then we can often love the greats even more. I worked with Steffani sheet music, by the way, first in 2005 for "Opera Prohibita".
Are you here alone?
Of course not, I always put together my teams, sometimes coincidence also helps. The conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, with whom I ventured my first Norma, for example, has advised me on Steffani. Then also Diego Fasolis, with which I have now issued the CD. I knew the name, of course, had heard this and that, but the heavenly jewels of Steffani first found only by browsing. And not just the Chamber duets, for which he was known--and I absolutely wanted to sing with Philippe Jaroussky because our voices mingle so gloriously--, but also wonderful Opera Arias, that no one had touched. That speak of real, great feelings, convey in a very special way between Italian, German and French baroque style.
Which is already very much.
But not all! Because then was revealed an incredibly adventurous life between Italy, Germany and France, between Church and Palace diplomacy, as a missionary of Catholicism in Protestant lands, as a possible accomplice in the tragic Königsmarck-murder affair, where two lovers caressed each other in letters with texts from his opera libretti, to his estate, which disappeared in the Vatican, and only in the nineties was accessible again. That was more exciting.
So the sales-rich Italo-Crime expert Donna Leon had to enter!
No, no, you know exactly Donna's God is Handel, she even funded CD projects, and we've known each other a long time. I just wanted to share my discoveries with her. At first she was unwilling like everyone else, thought I wanted from her a small introductory text for a Handel CD. But then she quickly became as inflamed as I, and wrote a whole novel, that also reveals many Steffani facts, with a new main character, a clever doctor of musicology. Now she waits, if this perhaps could be a new character next to Commissario Brunetti. Her end remains open in any case.
CD, DVD, book, iPad - Bartoli on all channels!
Not Bartoli, "Mission" is my mission. With the iPad game we want to offer something for younger people, it's exciting and playful - and as a reward, there are Arias! I am very curious how this goes, although there is no killer game! There is a lot to tell about Steffani, that it needed no CD booklet. Although it's still pretty thick.
Such a range of products, to each a presentation in historical places, in Lucca, in the Palace of Caserta and now Schleissheim, where until recently Christoph Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu had his Office in the "three Musketeers" in just this Ballroom: Are you actually clear that such an effort is made only for you in the classical music industry?
Yet, that's why it is always an obligation in the next project. Schleißheim was built by elector Max Emanuel, with whom Steffani practically grew up, but he has probably never seen the building. This day is always a beautiful graduation ceremony for the long employment with a theme before it gets going live with the concerts, because I burst from tension and expectation.
Are you otherwise under pressure?
I try to not let it get to me, but clearly, the welfare of the company depends on such a very expensive CD. But my audience wants to be challenged, wants to learn something. I must surprise them with something new, otherwise people are almost disappointed. Therefore I hope also that those moments that inspire me to Steffani, who made me realize that this time he's the right one, and the audience let the sparks fly.
Which moments are those?
I always call it his transcendence, the excessiveness, which points to a different sound world. This is very delicate, but always felt. As well as the vulnerability of this music. And I'm hearing more and more Renaissance echoes.
Where did you find the sheet music?
We have first looked in Munich and Hanover, there's also a lot, but the best and most editions were found in London and Vienna, which indicates just how popular he was, that people prepared copies there. I've plowed through it all on microfilm. With the castrati, as with the young Steffani, always resonates a moment of sexual diffusion. You never know exactly what attracted the Roman cardinals to these singers, but also the young Handel. And Steffani was by none other than the Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria when barely 13 years old, was brought from Padua to Munich ...
He had apparently fallen in love with his beautiful voice, or was there more, we do not know. I could not find any clues. And we must not forget: Gay or not, it was in the Baroque period a very different definition than it has today.
Do you believe in a Steffani Renaissance?
Otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here! But more must follow. Hello Decca, we should be sure to record his opera "Niobe." Have you heard?
Cecilia Bartoli: Mission (Decca) Donna Leon: The Jewels of Paradise (Diogenes)
Thursday, October 25, 2012
The purpose of the production is to explain the opera to us. Above are King Heinrich (Kristinn Sigmundsson), Lohengrin (Brandon Jovanovich) and Elsa (Camilla Nylund) from last night's production of Lohengrin at the San Francisco Opera.
He looks like a knight and we are supposed to not be able to guess that that's what he is. Our Lohengrin from last night looks like a homeless person who can afford a well fitting leather jacket. He's very handsome but not very likely. For me this does a much better job of explaining the opera. He comes when she asks for him, does a fine job of rescuing her, tells her he loves her and wants to marry her, but just doesn't look right. So when she asks him his name, we are not really surprised.
This production also emphasized the militaristic pieces of the story, something that I don't think I can recall from other productions. In Munich with Jonas Kaufmann everyone seemed to be wearing t-shirts. Here they look a bit like Nazis in their brown shirts. The King is there to recruit fighters for the war with Hungary, and this became clear as never before.
The swan that turns into a boy was also quite clear. I thought it was the easiest to follow Lohengrin I have ever seen. It was just boring and ugly looking.
Complaint: the super-titles were virtually unreadable.
I enjoyed all of these singers, though I found none of them spectacular. Camilla Nylund I had seen before in Fidelio at the Zurich Opera. In the wedding scene Lohengrin and Elsa look exactly like the couple on the wedding cake. Too bad it doesn't last. I didn't cry.
The orchestra sounded thick and muddy. This is the biggest problem with Wagner.
The best thing at the operas I have seen this fall is unquestionably the chorus work, especially the men. Moby-Dick is all men, of course, and I think perhaps Capuleti is, too, but Lohengrin also has more male than female chorus. But guys, show some sympathy for the soloists and tone it down a bit.
[See Kinderkuchen History 1850-70]
Monday, October 22, 2012
Greenhorn (Ishmael): Stephen Costello *
Captain Ahab: Jay Hunter Morris
Starbuck: Morgan Smith
Queequeg: Jonathan Lemalu *
Pip: Talise Trevigne *
Flask: Matthew O’Neill
Stubb: Robert Orth
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Director: Leonard Foglia
I google everything and was disappointed to find that Kokovoko is not a real place. We know only that it is "south and west." For it is the complete sense of reality, of truth, of real people living out their true lives that permeates Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's opera Moby-Dick now at the San Francisco Opera.
I include this picture of the cover of the score because it is as close as we will get to seeing the whale who is the object of Ahab's obsession.
The evocation of the sea in these sets and this music is complete. Kudos to Robert Brill and the others who created the production.
The casting is genius. Jay is creepily wonderful as Ahab. Stephen Costello is perfect as Greenhorn. Morgan Smith completely projects the sensibility and sentimental desire to return home of Starbuck. And if Jonathan Lemalu isn't from a south sea island, he should be.
There is madness. There is the gorgeous soaring orchestra. There are arias and duets. There is spectacular male chorus. There is even a soprano who plays Pip: Talise Trevigne. There is death.
I think I shouted for everyone, including Heggie who appeared at the end. Conductor Patrick Summers was excellent. I formally declare it to be the first operatic masterpiece of the 21st century.
Monday, October 15, 2012
Dr. Dulcamara...........Ambrogio Maestri
The first question you ask when you watch L'Elisir d'Amore live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera is What is Anna Netrebko doing wearing a top hat? Besides looking cute in it. I decided it was there to show that she was the boss, that she is running this farm. She orders people around.
Since I started this blog, I have seen Elixir of Love in the DVD with Netrebko and Villazon from Vienna, a straight presentation which focuses on Nemorino; the charming modernized version from the Santa Fe Opera where Adina is a school teacher and Nemorino repairs cars; the slapstick comedy version from the Sacramento Opera which I thought completely did not work; and this one from the Met which I liked very much. I agree completely with the talk at intermission--I want to care about them, and I can only do this if they are reasonably serious.
They are two people virtually obsessed with one another. He stares longingly at her, and she furtively stares back. In this production she has her little black book. She is a woman who likes men. She does not like being whined over. It is immediately obvious that she loves him. We really see the tear that he sees--a first for me.
In Vienna Netrebko was blocked up high on the porch of her house, made insignificant by her placement on the stage. Adina is the main character. Or rather Nemorino and Adina share the spotlight equally. The focus on Netrebko brought this production to life. She still moves well, sings well and makes us laugh and cry, but her voice is moving away from Donizetti comedy into heavier repertoire.
Mariusz Kwiecien as Belcore, shown in the picture above, was just right in this part. He sweeps Adina off her feet with great style, what she wishes Nemorino would do.
Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino is not really the perfect partner for Netrebko. He sings the role beautifully, but he whines too convincingly. At the end we need to see him show more confidence. Then we will believe that he is the one for her. Perhaps it will work out, perhaps not. There's always the little black book.
In the intermission Debbie Voigt was interviewing a tall bald man with an English accent about Thomas Adès' The Tempest which is currently in rehearsal. He was ornamented by a tall, absolutely gorgeous woman who simply stood by his side. Who could this be? Finally at the end Debbie turned to her and called her Isabel. Of course. That's Isabel Leonard. Wow. It would help if I paid more attention.
Sunday, October 07, 2012
I'm weirdly inadequate as a critic. A real critic forms his opinions, throws around a few adjectives and goes on the the next thing with no backward looks. I always want to know why I liked it, or why I didn't like it. If I can't figure out why, I'm uncomfortable. It's the systems analyst in me.
So today I am mentally comparing last night's performance of Purcell's Dioclesian by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Berkeley, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, with Cecilia's Mission. Purcell (b. 1659) and Steffani (b. 1654) are very close in age. With Steffani we get mostly arias and duets with bits of orchestra and chorus, while with Purcell we get arias, duets, choruses, trios and all manner of instrumental numbers.
What we don't get in either context is the formal structure of a late Baroque aria, such as those by Handel, Bach or Vivaldi, where an instrumental soloist shares the aria with the singer. In the late Baroque the da capo aria with its A section of instrumental solo followed by vocal solo, B section, followed by repeat of the entire A section, including the instrumental solo, dominates everything. It is these long instrumental solos that make Baroque operas so hard to stage in a way that is acceptable to a modern opera audience.
Purcell and Steffani often separate out the instrumental and vocal parts into separate numbers with completely different music. It is quite common for an aria to have only continuo accompaniment, which nowadays means a realized figured bass played on harpsichord, cello, and theorbo. And that's it. No winds or violins, a very thin sound, like recitative. Which we mostly don't get in either environment. Purcell is writing for a play, so instead of recitative there would be talking, omitted in our performance but summarized in the program.
The ornaments come in unpredictable places to illustrate the words, and not in the da capo repeat. Because there isn't one.
I find this all fascinating, but you are probably nodding off. I am surprised to see so much structural similarity between the two composers. Purcell shows a lot of French influence with lots of dotted rhythms. I am surprised that they sound so similar to each other. Except one has Cecilia and the other doesn't.
Purcell writes all kinds of duets--duets for countertenors, baritones, soprano and tenor, and most interesting for me--two tenors. Why do we never hear this? Of the soloists, I most enjoyed the two tenors Brian Thorsett and Jonathan Smucker.
And now I am all Baroqued out and listening to Beethoven. Whose arias are structured like Rossini.
Thursday, October 04, 2012
We studied the Guelphs and Ghibellines in my class in Florence. The Guelphs, represented here by Giuletta's family the Capuleti, support the Pope, and the Ghibellines, represented here by Romeo's faction the Montecchi, support the Holy Roman Empire. So you see it isn't just two families that don't like each other. It's a war that went on in Italy from 1140 to 1289. Then the Guelphs won, split into two parties and went on fighting with each other. Dante was on the wrong side of this part of the war. In the 15th century they were still at it.
You don't need to remember any of this, but to Shakespeare in the late English Renaissance it just looked like a silly family quarrel. We're not doing Shakespeare. Romeo killed Juliet's brother in a battle in the war, but her father still does not want her to marry Romeo. By 1830, the date of the opera, this was Italian history. When the opera begins, Romeo and Juliet have already met and established their relationship. I am reminded of Rossini's Otello which similarly omits all the happy parts.
We start off with saddles hanging in the air, see top. I think this is supposed to tell you we are doing war with horses and not just a street fight. The men all wear top hats which places the setting in the nineteenth century. You can see in the top picture and this next one that the way the sets are painted is very attractive. In the picture immediately below, for the second scene with the gorgeous love duet, we had a sink attached to the wall which Nicole Cabell climbed on.
I had to search for quite a while to find a picture that shows Juliet's costume in the second scene, below worn by Netrebko in Munich. You can see above that the floor in this scene is quite shiny, allowing us in the balcony to see up Juliet's dress, which hovered around her reflection like a halo. The director always sits in the orchestra. Just thought I would mention....
Below is the wedding scene with lots of supers dressed in outfits by Christian Lacroix. The men are chorus, the women supers who don't sing. Thus the flowers stuck in their mouths. We are mystified.
In the picture below you can see this same flight of stairs from the other side. People walk from above down into the slot below. Nicole played this scene walking in her bare feet across the top of this narrow ledge. She looked nervous. You can also see the director's island in the middle of the orchestra.
Juliet is the only female character in the opera, and she is written as insane throughout. In the bel canto it is difficult to find a normal woman in any of the operas.
I insist the production is to explain the opera. Maybe you could get used to this, and it would start to seem normal, but for me this one just draws your attention away from the action. Why is that there? Why are saddles hanging in the air? Why are we in Juliet's bathroom? What is that moon sticking up out of the floor?
All is forgiven. One reviewer actually dinged Eric Owens. Go figure. He sings everything under the sun, but is most magnificent in Wagner.
The singing was magnificent, especially Joyce DiDonato as Romeo and Nicole Cabell as Giuletta. Their voices are gorgeous together and separately. It's hard to believe that this was Nicole Cabell's San Francisco Opera debut. Joyce is getting her masculine swagger down.
The conducting was by Riccardo Frizza who only occasionally allowed the orchestra to play too loud.
It made me very happy. More bel canto, please.
It's only fair to show our stars.
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
How can one resist someone who shudders over Puccini? I am only inclined to shudder over Parsifal, but still.
I have been trying to explain it. I was raised on wonderful Baptist hymns like "Rock of Ages," and when professional concerns led me to participate in the music of other religions, I was forced to become aware of the tradition of adding an "amen" to the end of hymns. Usually this was a simple plagal cadence, but sometimes it was that most corny and cloying of musical phrases--the Dresden Amen. Just thinking about it now makes me shudder.
So you see, I was quite horrified to find that there existed an opera where this monstrosity repeated endlessly throughout. Jonas is singing in an upcoming Met simulcast of Parsifal, and I am determined to make it all the way to the end. Still. Maybe there will be scenes without it. I can only hope. And yes, the Dresden Amen antedates Parsifal.
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
One of the things I blog about is my own annoyance with the things other people write about singing. I don't seem to be able to help it. But sometimes I go out of control. After all, you can't really waste your life away complaining about the stupid things people say in the YouTube comments. I need to just get over it.
For me it's a lot harder to just ignore the things major reviewers write about famous singers. They seem to be completely unaware that the things they are so mindlessly complaining about are the reasons the person is famous in the first place. Those things you hate, those things they do that your teacher told you never to do are why they are who they are. I should probably just get over this, too. Maybe I need a page for complaining about what other people write.