Sunday, April 28, 2013

Julius Caesar, the Musical

There is so much to write about Handel's Giulio Cesare simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera.  Let's start with this head which appears broken in the production.  We're clear that this is Pompey the Great, right?  Not Julius Caesar who looked more like this.


Everyone calls the production Bollywood, a genre I'm not particularly familiar with. 
This opera staging has nothing to do with Rome and everything to do with the British Empire in Egypt.  It is much easier to distinguish the two ethnic groups, Europeans and Egyptians, than other productions of the opera I've seen.  When the Egyptians woo Cornelia (Patricia Barton), she is convincingly repulsed by them.  The British appear often in their red and khaki uniforms.  Julius Caesar wears a long, calf length coat.  The Egyptian serving men wear the fez, a red cap that does not fall off when they bow.  Ptolemy and Cleopatra are constantly changing their clothing throughout the opera.  Renée Fleming even interviewed the dressers.

Conductor:  Harry Bicket
Production:  David McVicar

Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar):  David Daniels
Cleopatra:  Natalie Dessay
Cornelia:  Patricia Bardon
Sesto (Sextus):  Alice Coote
Tolomeo (Ptolemy):  Christophe Dumaux

Natalie Dessay is a fine dancer as well as a wonderful singing actress.  I may have imagined it, but didn't she leave out "Tutto puo donna vezzosa?"  If you search carefully, you can find a film of Natalie singing it with one bare breast.  My mind may have wandered, but I was specifically looking for it.  I went out in the first act, so perhaps it came then.  My favorite staging in this style was definitely "Da tempeste."  Enormous fun.  This production is very entertaining, but the emphasis on dancing may limit the enjoyment of the singing.

I'm going to have to get a score of this.  There was a lot more recitative in this one than in Cecilia's version.

Now I must discuss David Daniels.  He has such a reputation that it has simply made me curious.   Now I know why.  I have never heard a countertenor with so much emotional range.  He dominates the role of Julius Caesar in a way that the others I have heard do not even approach.  It is extremely exciting and definitely moves the opera to center on the title character.  Bravo.

Harry Bicket conducted and played the recitatives.  He praised the Met orchestra for their growth in the performance of Baroque repertoire.

Giulio Cesare is unquestionably the greatest of all the Baroque operas, for the marvelous and varied character of the Queen of Egypt, for the rapid movement from serious to comedy and back again, for the gorgeous arias, for the opportunities it gives to great singers of each passing generation.



Last night Opera Parallèle presented Samuel Barber’s Hand of Bridge and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti at Z Space in San Francisco.  To date I have loved everything they did, (see here, here and here) but not this time.  Most of what I didn't like had to do with Z Space.  Like it or not, the audience for opera is old people.  Two different audience members fell down trying to get to their seats.  If you insist on staying in this venue, I predict a law suit in your future.  The acoustics were not good.  The orchestra was positioned to the side of the stage with no shielding.  I think a screen between the orchestra and the audience would have been helpful.  Any kind of pit muffles the orchestra at least a bit.  Here there was no pit and a lot of reverb, not a good combination.  Z Space is probably cheaper than the place in Yerba Buena Center, but I will not go there again.

Trouble in Tahiti began its life as a stand alone one act opera in 1952.  This was the version presented here.  Later, in 1983, it was first presented as the opener for a one act version of A Quiet Place.  Then a year later it was swallowed whole by a three act version of A Quiet Place.  Just so you know.  Trouble is legitimately presented by itself.  We did it at my college in 1958.

These two operas are basically the world before Betty Friedan.  Some of us lived then.  The sexes are still battling, but the rules have changed. 

Operas are full of projections these days.  They faked an entire movie of people on Tahiti, complete with a rescuing navy.  It was funny but very much too complex and distracting from the characters of the opera.  I liked the atmospheric stuff, like the cigarette ads, but not the movie.  This is a gross generalization:  the opera is about the people singing.  Try to remember that.  What I imagine is that this opera was found to be tedious, and the fake movie was intended to make it more interesting.  It was a futile effort.

Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu (Sam) and mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez (Dinah) played the main characters in both operas.  They are excellent singers and fully up to the challenge of a loud orchestra.

Conductor/Artistic Director Nicole Paiement
Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thomas Hampson and the Jupiter String Quartet

Baritone Thomas Hampson appeared as vocal soloist with the Jupiter String Quartet at Mondavi Center in Davis Wednesday evening in a pleasing combination of familiar and unfamiliar music. 

I have chosen to show this picture of the quartet with their bows raised because this was a feature of the performance.  They began the concert with an early quartet by Schubert, String Quartet in Eb, D. 87.  The four movements--sonata allegro, scherzo, slow movement, another sonata allegro--were not listed in the program.  This and the elaborate gestures shown above led to a lot of clapping between the movements.  Or perhaps the tradition of waiting quietly for the piece to finish is disappearing.  I remember in Paris Simon Keenlyside had to ask the audience to please not clap between the songs in Dichterliebe.  If they don't remember in Paris, why should they in Davis?

There was a kind of late Romantic quality to the remainder of the program.  There was a very early and therefore late Romantic piece by Anton Webern called Langsamer Satz, which just means slow movement.  I enjoyed this music quite a lot.  The Jupiter String Quartet is a somewhat sedate ensemble who may try to compensate with big gestures.

They also played something called Italian Serenade by Hugo Wolf, in the same basic late Romantic spirit.

Hampson's presence on the program brought us Aristotle, a new piece by Mark Adamo.  I find it impossible to describe this poem, but you can read it here.  My favorite part was "piles of ripe avocados" which came in the middle.  The poem has three sections:  Beginning, Middle, End.  So the avocados come in the middle of the poem in the section called Middle for no discernible reason.  Perhaps it's a literary reference.  (I see there is a blog named Piles of Ripe Avocados.)  We may deduce what is meant by "It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen" in the End section.  She must have committed suicide in the kitchen.  Adamo is suitably post romantic for this very post romantic concert.  He was there to receive applause.

The program ended with the for me familiar parts:  a group of songs by Hugo Wolf accompanied by the string quartet.  The program does not say who arranged them for string quartet, but the arrangements are very pleasing.  I have heard Schubert Lieder arranged for instrumental ensemble and not liked them.  Schubert's piano is very percussive and idiomatic, and for my ears the songs were destroyed by these arrangements.  Wolf survived the transformation quite nicely.   For Wolf it's all harmony and phrase rather than text painting.

Auf einer Wanderung
Im Frühling
Auf ein altes Bild
Anakreon's Grab  (one of my favorite Lieder.)

And for an encore...
Der Rattenfänger

Very nice.  Come again any time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Eugene Onegin at the Wiener Staatsoper

There's going to need to be a film of this.

This clip of the final scene from Eugene Onegin from the Wiener Staatsoper is to give you something to compare with the Met.

Film from Sesame Street

Could we make a collection of silly vocal exercises, please?  This sounds entirely plausible to me.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Monteverdi and Ortiz

Pablo Ortiz

A performance of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda by Claudio Monteverdi fell into my path at the Mondavi Center in Davis.  This turned out to be an unusual performance by a group called Empyrean Ensemble. 

This particular piece turns out to be something I have a score for.  It is one of the Canti Guerrieri from Monteverdi's 8th madrigal book.  It is originally scored for strings and continuo, is in fact the source for one of Monteverdi's inventions:  the string tremolo.  This idea didn't exactly sweep the world when Monteverdi invented it, but eventually it became a staple of opera.  The piece also employs pizzicato.  Monteverdi in many ways invented the future.

However, in our performance the piece was reorchestrated for violin, cello, string bass, clarinet, harpsichord and marimba.  It was also transposed to suit the voice of soprano Suzana Ograjeniek who performed the entire piece alone.  Monteverdi did not lose his intensity in this unusual arrangement.  It is a wonderful piece, one of the more spectacular examples of monody.  I have only one complaint--Italian diction was not very good.

This performance was paired with an original composition of the same text by Pablo Ortiz, a member of the faculty at UC Davis, called Parodia.   In this work the Testa or narrator is sung by a chorus.  The style of their a capella singing reminded me most of barbershop quartet singing:  seventh chords that never resolve to triads.  To the previous instrumental ensemble was added a bass clarinet and a drum set.

The staging for both pieces was minimal.  Behind the performers were computerized projections on a large screen.  There was a platform which allowed for some movement from side to side.  In the Ortiz piece the characters Tancredi and Clorinda were performed by tenor Jonathan Smucker and soprano Suzana Ograjeniek.  The ensemble was conducted by Matilda Hofman.

"Io vado in pace."

International Opera Awards

The winners have been announced for the International Opera Awards.  I predicted here that the singers would have names starting with "J", and I was half right.  Jonas Kaufmann won, of course.  I really don't think I mind that Nina Stemme beat Joyce DiDonato.  And the best opera company in the world is in Frankfurt.  Antonio Pappano of the ROH is the best conductor.  Read more here.

Friday, April 19, 2013

From Decca

It is a lot of fun to be a fan of Cecilia.


Forgive me.  It's been quite a while since I wrote anything insanely technical.  When I found out people actually read this, I became intensely self-conscious.  It is more fun to just write whatever I want.

I used the term "falsettist" instead of "countertenor" on several occasions and thought perhaps I should try to see if anyone fully explains falsetto.  Ugh.  Unfortunately everything I find is nonsense, including Wikipedia.

Falsetto is not breathiness.  It's not a register.  It's a technique.  It means that only the edges of the folds are vibrating and not the whole thing, specifically not the cartilages.  It is generally accompanied by a relatively high larynx since the force of pulling the larynx down might pull you out of falsetto.  Anyone can do it, I suppose on any note, but it is more easily identifiable when a man does it on relatively high notes.

David Daniels is doing it in this film.

But so is this guy. Skip ahead to 1:50.  Warning.  Not for the faint of heart.

I'd have to have a guinea pig to try this on, but can a man messa di voce from a falsetto into a normal tone?  You'd have to pick the right note, I suppose.

Maybe there are other books.  I haven't spent huge amounts of time looking for them.  But for me the only real book on vocal technique is William Vennard Singing the Mechanism and the Technic.  I have the 1967 version.  If you want a complete explanation, see Vennard, but don't expect it to be easy to understand.

A countertenor is singing falsetto, and it is certainly not breathy.  It has been a feature of certain pop singers.  I'll try to find a good example.  There's a song on YouTube called "Falsetto," which I will not post, where the guy sings most of the time in his normal voice and slips into falsetto to imitate a woman.  The normal singing is breathier than the falsetto, resulting in an excellent comparison between the two methods.

Here we go.  I buy this as falsetto.

I am baffled by the videos on YouTube purporting to explain this and not succeeding.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Isabel Leonard Wins Richard Tucker

This year's Richard Tucker Award goes to mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.  All the news announcements are calling it the Heisman Trophy of opera.  The prize is intended to predict a big career, as it certainly has done for previous winners like Renée Fleming, Dolora Zajick, Deborah Voigt, David Daniels, Lawrence Brownlee and Joyce DiDonato.  Good luck, Isabel.


A lot is going on now.

Sir Colin Davis has died.  I see that he conducted the Missa Solemnis I saw while I was living in London.  He specialized in Berlioz who also did not play the piano.

Here is a nice article about Danielle De Niese replacing Natalie Dessay with virtually no notice in the Met production of Giulio Cesare.  She performed the same role in the same production in Glyndebourne and Chicago, but despite the fact that it's been 7 years, she remembered the complicated dance numbers like it was yesterday.  I'm looking forward to seeing this with Natalie.

Opera News features Feruccio Furlanetto this month, complete with wonderful photographs. He likes to be photographed with expensive cars.  In the current issue it's a Ferrari.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Sunday, April 07, 2013

This is Nice

Jonas sings "Ingemisco" from the Verdi Requiem.  As usual with Jonas, in the comments there is the idiotic arguing over him.  If you don't like him, listen to someone else.  I tend to agree with the film of Renata Scotto telling him he is the greatest singer of today. Scotto appears at 2:40 in the film below.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Two in Tune

Last night the official unification of the Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera was launched at a reception at the Sacramento Convention Center Theater (CCT).

While we feasted on excellent cheeses and fruit, we were entertained by soprano Carrie Hennessey and a small instrumental ensemble.

To get this unification off to a good start both organizations will have a single General Director, and he will be Robert Tannenbaum, lately of Karlsruhe in Germany.  He was fresh off the plane, but still managed to greet us warmly.  He made a good argument for unified community arts.  Two sponsors of unified arts are Fairy Tale Town and Crocker Art Museum.  He also made an interesting remark that he was happy to support basketball in Sacramento even though he had never been to a basketball game.  I haven't been to one since high school.  He mentioned Sac State

There was also a season announcement for 2013-14.  Some of these items are still in discussion.

August 11, 1:30, the opera and philharmonic will combine at Fairy Tale Town for the "Cat and Fiddle Music Festival."

Oct 19, 2:00 and 7:30, CCT, Gershwin concert with Sylvia McNair.*

Nov?, Una Sorpreso Lirico!  This is Italian for A Surprise Opera.  Everything about this is a surprise.

January 11, 2:00 and 7:30, CCT, a concert featuring Stravinsky and Brahms.*

Feb 28, 7:30, and March 2, 2:00, CCT, Il Trovatore.*

March 14, 8:00, The Assembly, Violinist Rachel Barton Pine and cellist Mike Block will discuss the evolution of music from Bartok to Metalica.  This is a bold undertaking.  The only assembly I am aware of in Sacramento is in the state capitol.  We will need to know more.

March 22, 2:00 and 7:30, CCT, concert featureing Dvorak and Glazunov.*

June 21 & 22 at Crocker Art Museum, Family opera to coincide with a Crocker exhibition.

* Music director Michael Morgan will conduct.

Then we listened to the rehearsal for the concert tonight where the Sacramento Philharmonic will perform:

Franz Joseph Haydn Symphony No. 103 in Eb Major “Drum Roll”
Maurice Ravel Mother Goose Suite
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Mass in C Major “Coronation”

What I thought I was hearing was the incidental music from A Midsummer Night's Dream by Mendelssohn. 

The Coronation Mass is a symphonic mass (soloists are integrated into the texture of the orchestra and chorus) obviously intended to be performed in a service, rather than a concert mass like the Beethoven Missa Solemnis or Verdi Requiem.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Sesame Street

Isabel Leonard will appear on Sesame Street, following in a long tradition.  Watch it on the show on April 25 or catch it on YouTube Sesame Street Channel starting April 23.

You may or may not remember these opera stars who appeared on Sesame Street.

Denyce Graves

Samuel Ramey

Marilyn Horne

This one is cheating:  Beverly Sills on the Muppet Show dubbed into Italian.

Renée Fleming

This is maybe enough. We should hope for more in the future.

Monday, April 01, 2013


This just in.

The software Opera has decided to vigorously pursue their copyright on the name Opera.  This means that the art form with this title will have to come up with something else to call it.  Theater with a lot of Singing is all I can think of.  Heavy Musical.  Too serious to call a Musical.  I'm running out of ideas.

OK so this is lame.  So what about this?

Footnote:  it is important for everyone to know that Baby Einstein on the Beach is not an April fools joke.