Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Kennedy Center Honors Ten Years Later


This blog is now 10 years old.  I began it with a post about the Kennedy Center Honors, and it is therefore suitable that I mark the anniversary with a new one.

The taping ran on CBS last night, and the honorees in order were:   singer Al Green, ballerina Patricia McBride, actor Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin, and Sting.  Jessye Norman was in the audience.  I expected her to do something, but she didn't.

  • Al Green.  Whoopie Goldberg did his intro, and Jennifer Hudson sang.  The audience sang along, including the president.  There was even a clip of Obama singing an Al Green song in a press conference.  This segment was fun and actually made Al seem significant.  I'll have to think this one over.

  • Patricia McBride danced with the New York City Ballet under Balanchine.  She was Edward Villella's partner and danced 60 roles, 30 of which were created for her.  Young people did bits from her repertoire.  How do you sandwich a ballerina between a pop artist and marching bands?

  • Tom Hanks had military choirs and bands.  Not sure why.  What really does one say about Tom Hanks's career which began with a sitcom where he appeared in drag in every episode?  I felt this segment pretty much fizzled.

  • Lily Tomlin had Jane Fonda and Reba McIntyre talk about her.  Lily Tomlin is an institution and could have been shown off better.

  • Sting was introduced by Meryl Streep and had the Boss, Esperanza Spalding and Bruno Mars sing his stuff.  Have I ever seen Bruno Mars before?  Esperanza Spalding was my favorite thing on the program, but her kind of cool jazz doesn't have the wow of other people.  The only Sting in my iTunes is by Dowland.  He's known for his range and versatility.

Jessye was as close to classical music as we got.  I felt that the show started high and went downhill.  Nevertheless the honorees were all deserving.  There was a controversy in the live performance that was edited out of the broadcast.

Happy anniversary to me.

Monday, December 29, 2014

News

I said here that I thought Eva-Maria Westbroek was ready for something bigger, but after years as the designated Isolde at Bayreuth 2015, she has decided not to try it.  Perhaps something not quite that big would be right.  Anja Kampe will replace her.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Die Csárdásfürstin



Would I have picked either one of these two for this, Die Csárdásfürstin [The Csárdás Princess] by Emmerich Kálmán from Sempoper Dresden?  The whole thing is amusing.  So is Jonas Kaufmann starting a trend?  Opera stars will now sing operettas.  This one doesn't seem very good, but you can watch it here.

There is a trick to operetta.  Oh well.  It's better than this, maybe.



It's too corny for me.  Who would have thought that was possible?  This is about as corny as I get.



Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hänsel und Gretel


The Witch (Rosina Loechermaul): Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
The Sandman: Amy Freston
The Dew Fairy: Malin Christensson
Mother: Irmgard Vilsmaier
Father: Klaus Kuttler
Hänsel: Jennifer Holloway
Gretel: Adriana Kučerová

Production: Laurent Pelly
Conductor:  Kazushi Ono

I'm watching Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel from Glyndebourne.  It's free until Jan 4.  It is a work that lies deep in memory.

These are modern children who live in a cardboard box which is delivered to the stage door. The credits run while each actor is introduced with his turn at holding the box.  One throws it out the window.  Hansel and Gretel fight over it.

When the angels appear, they wait for the children to sleep.  Their angels are wonderful children of their own age, just as one would wish.  I am immensely grateful that it is done in German. One of the beauties of this opera is its wonderful libretto which is filled with made up beautiful and astounding words. You can't actually hear that when they shout into the wings "Wer da? [Who is there?]" that the answer is "Erda."

Once the love comes into your heart, it never completely leaves you.  One's childhood should be spent in the company of great music, for wherever you go or whatever life may bring you, it will never leave you. Ich sehe jetzt keine Lebkuchenkinder. When the cookie children all appear, they are wearing fat suits.



This guy is one ugly witch. There's no cookie witch at the end, which is disappointing. After all, they say, "Look how the Knusper witch has now herself turned into a cookie."

The treatment of the orchestra is quite wonderful, very romantic and beautiful.  This is fun.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Michael Fabiano's Met Rodolfo



Michael was a huge hit at the Met.  I'm not sure I'm supposed to post this, but enjoy.

Janis Martin (August 16, 1939 – December 13, 2014)


Janis Martin has died.  I wrote here about our common experiences at Sacramento State in the late 50s.  I also reviewed her in the recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten here.

She told me once that Erwartung was the hardest role she ever had to learn.  In Berlin I saw her sing Tosca and The Countess in Figaro.  Afterward we went out and had steak.  She knew where to get steak in Berlin at that time of night.

I saw a number of her performances at the San Francisco Opera, including Brünnhilde in the 1990 Ring Festival, and a fabulous Ortrud where she upstaged the entire cast.  I was present in the audience when she received the San Francisco Opera medal.  She had a big beautiful voice and was an intense actress as well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Divas 2014

In America this was the year of divas at sporting events.

First we had Renée Fleming at the Super Bowl.



This was done in typical Fleming style. Would we want it any other way?  She appeared in a formal gown that went immediately to the Smithsonian, and got fireworks and a backup chorus.

Joyce DiDonato's turn at the 7th game of the World Series could not be a greater contrast.  Fate intervened to let the series go to 7 games.  The universe wanted Joyce.



She sings in her Kansas City Royals fan outfit and has no accompaniment at all.  Maybe on an ear piece.  My favorite part is the small ornament toward the end that gets applause.  The universe didn't allow Kansas City to win.

This song is actually very easy for opera singers and doesn't show them off to best advantage.  Nevertheless, both were fun.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

2014 Opera Year in Review KK Opera Awards





It's time for the 2014 KK Opera Awards.

I am actually astounded by how many operas I have added to my operas seen list this year.

We will start with things that are not actually new but were new to me: Ercole Amante by Cavalli on DVD, Matilde di Shabran by Rossini on DVD, I due Foscari by Verdi from ROH, Rita by Donizetti live, Partenope by Handel live, Die schweigsame Frau by Strauss streamed, Les mamelles de Tirésias by Poulenc live, and the classic American opera Susanah by Floyd live. I can't decide about Show Boat. Does the movie count?  I viewed Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra on YouTube for the first time.

New for everyone or practically everyone: The Minotaur by Birtwistle on DVD, Hydrogen Jukebox by Glass live, The End of the Affair by Heggie live, Death and the Powers by Machover simulcast from Dallas, Anya17 by Gorb live, 27 by Gordon live, and Brokeback Mountain by Wuorinen streamed.

If you count Show Boat, this is 17 operas. I think I am impressed. I traveled only for 27

  • BEST NEW (to me) OPERA AWARD is a tough one. I am torn between 27, The End of the Affair and Death and the Powers27 and The Affair are traditional modern with strong acting and production values, but Death seemed truly ground breaking. There was a lot of good stuff here, but I am going to award to Death and the Powers which may possibly be my first science fiction opera.  Also I due Foscari turned out to be better than I imagined it would be.
  • BEST VERDI OPERA AWARD must go to Simon Boccanegra in Venice. This was a big year for Verdi for me with 10 performances, only 2 of which were La Traviata. I awarded to La Fenice because of the dramatic intensity and sheer overwhelming presence of the performances. They made me love the characters in this opera.  It's a very important opera for Venice.
  • BEST VERDI SINGING AWARD must go to the ever astounding Anna Netrebko for her performances in Il Trovatore from Salzburg and Macbeth in HD. She never ceases to amaze.
  • BEST BAROQUE OPERA AWARD must go to Partenope by Handel. My Baroque experiences were limited this year but nevertheless Partenope must win an award. I think it should also win for...
  • BEST TRANSFORMATION OF AN OPERA INTO SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. It was enormous fun from beginning to end, and the music was still excellent.
  • BEST BEL CANTO AWARD has to go to Joyce DiDonato's La Cenerentola from the Met with some of the best singing I've heard, but there was a lot of good Rossini this year.   I especially liked both of Cecilia Bartoli's recent DVD releases--Otello and Le Comte Ory--but the performances didn't actually happen in 2014.
  • BEST ROMANTIC OPERA NOT VERDI OR WAGNER AWARD goes, of course, to Werther from the Met starring our boy Jonas Kaufmann. He transforms into this character.  The production clarified the action extremely well.
  • BEST PUCCINI AWARD is not given with unqualified enthusiasm and goes to the ROH Manon Lescaut starring Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais. The production even with a lot of censorship was still pretty slutty. This leads to curiosity and a lack of satisfaction. The singing was outstanding, but are we to believe that Manon must become a porn star?  I thought she loved money.  This award is for the singing and the bravery of performing an entire scene 20 feet in the air.
  • BEST RICHARD STRAUSS AWARD in the Strauss year must go to Der Rosenkavalier from Glyndebourne. It was an unusual staging that worked for me emotionally. That's what I ask. Do whatever you want with my beloved operas, but the emotion must still work. It did here. I liked the Salzburg, too, but not as much.  There was a lot of Strauss that I missed, including especially Anja Harteros in Arabella.
  • BEST ACTING IN AN OPERA AWARD goes to Isabel Leonard in the Met's Le Nozze di Figaro.  Her Cherubino was a delight.  The rest of this opera was quite nice as well, though this one is still not my favorite.  Ailyn Pérez gets an honorable mention for her streamed performance of La Traviata from the ROH.  It was very touching.
  • BEST SURPRISE is both Verdi in Italy operas. We forget that we experience opera in a fairly static context, played by orchestras that digest all periods and styles into a single post romantic sound. We forget it until we experience something completely different. There are still places where Verdi remains Italian.
  • WORST EUROTRASH PRODUCTION AWARD doesn't really deserve to be awarded this year. The Il Trovatore as museum tour from Salzburg was very silly but not really ghastly.  The clownish Der Rosenkavalier from Malmö might be bad enough.  Perhaps if I'd seen Manon Lescaut from Munich.

There can be no best Wagner award because I have seen no Wagner at all this year. Unless I go to Meistersinger on Wednesday.

2014 was not the spectacular opera year that 2013 was.  Perhaps if Dresden had chosen to stream, or Munich had picked different things to show us.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Falstaff in Florence



Sir John Falstaff: Ambrogio Maestri
Fenton: Yijie Shi
Ford, marito d'Alice: Roberto De Candia
Mrs. Alice Ford: Eva Mei
Nannetta, figlia d'Alice: Ekaterina Sadovnikova
Mrs. Quickly: Elena Zilio
Mrs. Meg Page: Laura Polverelli
Bardolfo: Gianluca Sorrentino
Pistola: Mario Luperi
Dr. Cajus: Carlo Bosi

Direttore: Zubin Mehta
Regia: Luca Ronconi
Scene: Tiziano Santi


We wanted very much to see the new opera house in Florence, so we booked ourselves for Falstaff in Florence on Tuesday.  We thought we would see Roberto De Candia as Falstaff until the replacement with Ambrogio Maestri was announced. 

I included the picture above to give you an idea of the production.  This is from the second scene where the ladies have received their letters and are planning their revenge.  It is possible to interpret this production as Falstaff's dream.  It begins with him in bed and ends the same way.  He is lying in bed when the oak tree descends to hang over the bed.

There is a flock of geese on the stage at one point, stuffed, of course.  Then later the women pluck at the feathers on the geese.  Chi e?



Maestri is huge, just as Sir John needs to be.  He sings huge as well.  Perhaps you might be impressed with his enormous size after all.  He is glorious.

I enjoyed very much the "reverenza" of Mrs. Quickly.  My only complaint about the ladies was that their costumes were too similar to be able to distinguish them.  Nannetta was also lovely with a very nice high pianissimo.

It is good to hear Verdi in Italy.  It is an endless surprise.  In Falstaff the violins played with an almost constant leggiero technique, making it truly sound like a buffa opera.  That means they played with the sense of tiny spaces between the notes, creating an atmosphere of lightness and frivolity.  People constantly talk about late Verdi resembling Wagner to the point that our orchestras then play it as though it actually were Wagner.  All Verdi is still Italian, and it might be well for us to remember it on occasion.  Kudos to Maestro Mehta.

It was difficult to tell if the theater was completely finished.  The production did not require any elaborate stage machinery.  Our one complaint was that in the balcony a thin line of steel runs across the middle of one's view of the stage. 

Go see some Verdi in Italy.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Simon Boccanegra at La Fenice



Simon Boccanegra:  Simone Piazzola
Jacopo Fiesco, his enemy:  Giacomo Prestia
Paolo Albiani:  Julian Kim
Maria Boccanegra:  Maria Agresta
Gabriele Adorno:  Francesco Meli

Conductor:  Myung-Whun Chung
Production:  Andrea De Rosa

My operas seen in Italy are La Cenerentola and La Legenda di Sakuntala at the Rome opera, Aida in the Baths of Caracalla, Butterfly and Aida at the Arena di Verona and La Traviata near the Porta Romana in Florence.  None of them prepared me for the amazing experience of Simon Boccanegra at La Fenice in Venice.

We sat in expensive boxes which reduce the space available for the sound to enter.  In spite of this they could have been performing the opera inside the box with us, the acoustics were that good.  There was never any sense of over singing or covering by the orchestra.  I understand that the orchestra pit can be lowered to different levels to balance the sound.  This left these wonderful artists to fully express the emotions of this opera.

Remarkably, two of the singers participated in both Simon Boccanegra and I due Foscari:  soprano Maria Agresta and tenor Francesco Meli, both marvelous singers.  It is the warmth of the Simon character that elevates this opera to greatness, and Simone Piazzola succeeded brilliantly.

Remember Romeo and Juliet?  Feuding families is a common theme in Italian drama.  I have explained elsewhere that this has to do with the two factions:  Guelphs and Ghibellines.  In one opera(located in Venice) the enemy completely crushes the Foscari family for no apparent reason.  In the other (located in Genoa) while Simon dies, the others live on to a peaceful resolution. 

Simon Boccanegra was a pirate before he became the Doge of Genoa.  His life as a pirate is evoked throughout the opera through the projection of films of the sea projected on a scrim at the back of the stage.  The waves could be seen moving, and occasionally a gull would fly by.  This more than compensated for the fact that everything else except Maria was black.

With one more exception.  At the last while Simon is dying, a woman appears in a white gown and bare feet.  She walks slowly over the floor and kneals down behind Simon.  As he breathes his last, she embraces him.  It has to be his dead wife Maria.  He speaks her name and dies.

The performance was intense from the first note to the last with a vivid expressiveness such as I have never experienced.  I can't help thinking that Verdi would approve.  I used to have a derrogatory remark to go with this opera, but now I think it is my favorite.



Palazzo Ducale

On our first full day in Venice we took a well-led tour of the Palazzo Ducale or Doge's Palace.  Since it was only a few days ago that I saw I due Foscari, an opera about a Doge of Venice, the rooms took on the quality of a stage set.

We visited the room where the Doge, the council of ten and the senate met to make decisions.  The Doge's throne and the seats for the 10 looked very familiar.  Only the huge dark paintings were missing from the opera.  Paintings of the 10 showed their red robes trimmed with fur.

We visited the room where cases were tried, the torture room, the bridge of sighs and the prison cells.  The characters from the opera filled the empty spaces.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

I Due Foscari

Conductor:   Antonio Pappano
Director: Thaddeus Strassberger

Francesco Foscari: Plácido Domingo
Jacopo Foscari, son of Francesco: Francesco Meli
Lucrezia Contarini, wife of Jacopo: Maria Agresta
Jacopo Loredano, villain: Maurizio Muraro

At our local movie theater we saw I Due Foscari by Verdi, a new opera for me.  I didn't look anything up and realized that it is actually fun not to know what will happen. It was presented, I'm sure, at the request of Placido Domingo who plays the central character, the 89 year old Doge of Venice.

If memory serves, the Doge's Palace isn't quite this depressing.  The emphasis of the production is on unhappiness and political horror.  Jacopo Foscari, sung by Francesco Meli (heard live at Salzburg last summer in Nabucco, and streamed in Il Trovatore), has been found guilty of killing a member of the Donato family and is being exiled to Crete. Meli is handsome and dramatically intense.

Lucrezia's role (sung by Maria Agresta whom I have never seen before) is one long mad scene.  In line with modern psychology she murders one of her children at the end.  Agresta was interviewed in Italian, so I'm guessing she is Italian.  Her intensity was impressive.

Jacopo Loredano was sung by one of the great modern baritone villains Maurizio Muraro, seen previously in Barber of Seville both in San Francisco and at the Met, in Cosi in HD and to greatest effect in Manon Lescaut from the Royal Opera.  All he has to do is stand there glaring out at the audience, and you know he is up to no good.

Domingo continues to sing because he is still a wonderful presence on the stage, projecting a very wide range of emotions.  The character as created here seems unaware that most of politics goes on behind the scenes.  Remind you of anyone?  Never mind.

Our Verdi even in 1844 could create magnificent intensity in a wide variety of situations in a style that was uniquely his own.  I especially enjoyed the ensembles with the soprano.  The Venetians love Simon Boccanegra (seeing it there next week) but perhaps this opera makes them look bad.  That's the only explanation for its complete neglect that I can think of.