Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tannhäuser in HD

Michelle DeYoung as Venus

Tannhäuser...........Johan Botha (tenor)
Elisabeth...............Eva-Maria Westbroek (soprano)
Wolfram...............Peter Mattei (baritone)
Venus...................Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)

Conductor.............James Levine
Production............Otto Schenk

This production of Wagner's Tannhäuser premiered in 1977 with the same conductor, James Levine.  He is looking very fragile these days.  I am certain that a man carries him to his chair on the podium, but this is not filmed.  We only see the man going back into the wings.  Nevertheless, musically it was an excellent Tannhäuser.

Wolfram von Eschenbach and Heinrich von Ofterdingen, called Tannhäuser, were real people, Minnesingers from the 13th century, though not precisely contemporary. The opera is based on the legend that Tannhäuser spent a year in the grotto of Venus before returning to normal life.  Wagner is interested in the idea of the true meaning of love, especially as described in German literature.

It could be argued that Wagner thought of this as being about himself.  He had throughout his life complex and stormy relationships with women, though none of them seem at all like Elisabeth.  To me she is the anomaly and not Venus.  When this opera was written, Mathilde Wesendonck and Cosima von Bülow lay in the future.

I felt that the production conveyed clearly the meaning of the opera while at the same time giving it a medieval quality.  We begin in the cave of Venus with a ballet and what is called the Venusberg music.  For Wagner this music was intensely erotic.  Our version was sedately erotic, though I found Michelle DeYoung very sexy.  After the dancing, Tannhäuser tells Venus that he has dreamt of the sound of bells and wishes to return to the surface where he will be able to see the sun and the seasons.  He has tired of constant love making.  He tells her he is leaving to follow the virgin Mary.  We will consider this a low blow.


In the next scene he is found lying on the ground with his harp next to a roadside shrine to Mary.  Pilgrims pass by on their way to Rome.  Then a group of minstrels pass by and recognize him.  Wolfram convinces Tannhäuser to return with him to bring comfort to Elisabeth who loves him.



Elisabeth enters the hall of the singing competitions and knowing that Tannhäuser has returned, joyfully sings "Dich teure Halle" (treasured hall), the place where she fell in love with a singer.  This scene includes a singing competition where each contestant is to describe the true meaning of love.  Wolfram begins and describes an abstract and idealistic kind of love.  Everyone praises this except Tannhäuser who leaps up to sing that no one can know about love who has not been with Venus.  Everyone is shocked, especially Elisabeth.  Since this whole scene was arranged for the sake of Elisabeth, he realises he has messed up.  She pleads for them not to kill him, and he agrees to go to Rome with the pilgrims.

In this intermission Susan Graham interviewed the harpist Emmanuel Ceysson who is just beginning his career in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.  In this opera he accompanies all of the many songs heard through the opera.  He started to speak in French, and Susan reminded him, "You have to speak English now."

Finally we return to the road seen in the second scene.  Elisabeth is there waiting for the pilgrims to return from Rome.  We hear the famous pilgrim's chorus while she searches for Tannhäuser.  If he is there, it means the Pope has forgiven him.  He is not, and she goes off and dies.  Wolfram sings the very beautiful "O du mein holder Abendstern" to the evening star, which curiously is Venus.  "Greet her as her soul passes by."  Peter Mattei sang this especially beautifully.

Tannhäuser returns complaining bitterly and wanting to return to Venusberg.  The Pope has refused him.  We see Venus pleading in the distance, but when Elisabeth's body is brought in, he dies, too.  Too late they realize that the staff has bloomed, indicating that he is forgiven.

May this production live forever.  It can be wonderful to have the story told with so much straight forward simplicity.  I want to praise all the singers for their emotional depth.  This includes the magnificent chorus.  The chorus master told us his favorite HD choral moments.  In four languages they were Prince Igor (Russian), Il Trovatore (Italian), Sayagraha (Sanskrit) and Die Meistersinger (German).

It is argued that we today do not care much about someone's soul, but I can propose the idea that we might care for someone who did.  Elisabeth, especially as beautifully played by Eva-Maria Westbroek, might be such a person.  She went transcendently from joy to shock to sorrow to death.  Botha sang wonderfully, and conveyed Tannhäuser's wild emotional swings.  Michelle DeYoung convinced us that she was Venus.

Thank you for an excellent Tannhäuser.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Interview with Simone Kermes



[Dr.B:  This interview came across my path, and I found it fascinating.  I hope you enjoy it.]

Simone Kermes: "Sing in such a way that the people cry"
By Katja Engler

The soprano sings the artful, emotive arias of the Baroque.  In November she guest performs in Hamburg.  Simone Kermes is not only a charismatic entertainer, but one of the few sopranos who venture into the technically difficult baroque repertoire, into arias that were once sung by castrati, one of the most virtuosic and most expensive singers in the world.  A conversation about a lifelong passion, her own research and the beauty of a simple melody. On November 4, she sings in the Pro-Arte concert in the Laeisz hall.

Hamburger Abendblatt: The bravura arias, breakneck coloratura and giant jumps of the baroque call for an extreme singer. How do you deal with the pressure of expectation in this genre?

Simone Kermes: If you are afraid or are nervous, it does not happen. I have a lot more notes to sing, than in romantic music. That's the extreme variations and cadences, there are indeed double the number of arias. To sing Baroque arias, is really hard. Few manage it. And the farther you go, the more people want. But as soon as it comes up at a concert, when the people feel what you are doing, there is a very special energy that enables you to do things that you otherwise do not always make. If you then get back that energy, you're very, very happy.

HA:  Are you still working with the musicologist Claudio Osele, who was also the artistic consultant  and significant other to Cecilia Bartoli?

Kermes: No. We have made two CDs, but it is always the time for disagreements ... I often notice in my life when it no longer fits. After this phase, I myself have researched in libraries, read a lot, worried about my notes. But once you make something, everyone notices ... However, I cannot sing from the old notes.  And it's a hell of a job to set them up for your own voice.

HA:  What are you currently working on?

Kermes: I just recorded a new album. Music by Claudio Monteverdi and Barbara Strozzi, so sensual, so deep! Brand new material with entirely new interpretations, entirely new arrangements.  I burn just for this, and I am always working. The musical tells the story of a woman's life, from birth until death. It is pure, timeless, and the lyrics are amazing! Sometimes I find only lines, so beautiful, so touching! The composers in the time of Monteverdi were the pioneers for future generations. Then came the Baroque, then Rossini, who is only a poor copy of it.

HA:  Why do so few dare to try what you sing?

Kermes: Because they do not have the technique. The castrati then studied seven, eight years. Everything they needed technically. Nowadays there is hardly a good education, the students sing the wrong thing, do not know what their voice needs ... My teacher was one that showed me technically how to do it.

HA:  Some singers of earlier centuries have left writings. Do you study those sources?

Kermes. Yes. Every singer should read, for example, the Johann Friedrich Agricola, the singing school, which was written for the castrato Tosi.  Everything in there is as exactly true until today. Suddenly you understand this science and this incredible technique of the singer at the time, and I have studied this. He wrote what you may need with language, breathing, coloratura,  preparation ... Farinelli, for example, ate a sour herring before a concert ... you have to get to know your own voice so that it is natural and you can sing for a long time.

HA:  The arias that you put together dive into extremely emotional worlds. What do you love about it? What does your public  love in this time oriented to reason and efficiency?

Kermes: In baroque each beat has feelings. Not like in the Romantic period. Because it makes a click, then comes the change, and a totally different effect. Everything is in it! If you master the style, you can do anything, because everything builds on that. But it started earlier. The music of Dürer's time [1471 –  1528] was already so modern, so timeless! And the composer Barbara Strozzi must have been incredible. For the castrato the most beautiful arias were written. But Strozzi is simple, not just virtuosic. You do not always have to make a circus. I can also sing the slow, sad songs and make people cry.

HA:  What does singing so very deep inside mean to you?

Kermes: I wanted as a child for people to see me. And they saw me, because I sang. My father died early, I had a lot to do with the death in my family, who all no longer live. Through singing I was suddenly there! That's the reason: To lift oneself up with something that is beautiful and harmonious ...

HA:  Is the extreme ascending and descending of the notes not something like aspiring to heaven, like the clouds in the baroque church dome?

Kermes: I feel the same way. The quiet pieces I want to look deep inside myself. If anything comes up, it touches people in the moment where I go up.  As with Handel's aria "Lascia ch'io pianga", "Let me have the freedom to weep over my fate". I sing this often as an encore. And my own life has brought me new depth with this song. I love this piece, it's mine. This simple melody that touches so deeply and so beautifully that people go home feeling kissed by beauty.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Baritones and Basses

Of my chapters on different types of voices this one was actually the hardest for me.  I hope I got it right.

This is here to help you learn about the different types of operatic baritones and basses. It's intended to educate listeners rather than singers.

The bass is the lowest natural male voice.  His voice might extend up to F above middle C and down to low C depending on Fach.  The sub-categories for baritone and bass are many, some very specialized, that a full discussion may prove impossible.  This is proving to be difficult, a learning experience also for me.  We will start with this set and see how far we get.

Lyric baritone
Dramatic baritone
Lyric Bass-baritone
Dramatic Bass-baritone
Bass

If there are more categories, we are ignoring them.  I am now going to describe the sub-categories, but please be aware that the same singer may show up in different sub-categories.  A role may also cross into more than one category.  I have tried in selecting these examples to make sure that the singer is actually of the suggested sub-category.

Lyric baritone


This is a pleasant low sound, basically the voice of the average male.  Sample roles are Papageno in The Magic Flute (Mozart), Marcello in La bohème (Puccini), Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni (Mozart), Figaro in The Barber of Seville (Rossini), etc.  Here is Simon Keenleyside singing "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja" from The Magic Flute.



Can we have two Selfies this Week?


This is Noah Stewart, of course.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Was ist denn dass?

On the Kaufmann unofficial page:

23.6.2016, Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Lied von der Erde, + sinfonische Musik (beide Stimmen, Tenor und Bariton)

Did you ever hear of such a thing?  Translation.  Jonas Kaufmann will sing both the tenor and the baritone parts in Das Lied von der Erde by Mahler.  Ach du lieber.

Of course I am only aware of a Das Lied von der Erde that's for tenor and MEZZO.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review Live Stream from Munich


Conductor:  Kirill Petrenko
Production:  Robert Carsen

Haushofmeister:  Johannes Klama (spoken)
Ein Musiklehrer:  Markus Eiche (baritone)
Der Komponist:  Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Bacchus/Der Tenor:  Peter Seiffert (tenor)
Ein Offizier:  Petr Nekoranec (tenor)
Ein Tanzmeister:  Kevin Conners (tenor)
Ein Perückenmacher:  John Carpenter (baritone)
Ein Lakai:  Christian Rieger (bass)
Zerbinetta:  Brenda Rae (coloratura soprano)
Ariadne/Primadonna:  Amber Wagner (soprano)
Harlekin:  Elliot Madore (baritone)

I don't think of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss as a dark opera, so I was not exactly comfortable with all the black, especially in the second part.  On the live stream it was hard to see.  I think you could fake this with the technology and make it a bit lighter.

We begin in a mirror lined room, like a ballet studio only without the horizontal bars.  People are dancing.  The two entertainments must be performed as one because (as we know from the original Ariadne) the wife has requested fireworks when it gets dark at 9:00.  There is much dressing and undressing, which was wonderfully amusing, by both ballet men and singer men.  Very dark set with almost nudity.  For me this is incongruous.  They almost have to take off their clothes before we can see them at all.

I'm not sure why we love this opera.  Because it's successfully silly?  Or is it because it includes two of the greatest arias in the German repertoire:  "Es gibt ein Reich" and "Großmächtige Prinzessin".  This was an excellent cast from all over the opera world.  For me the highlight of the performance was Amber Wagner's "Es gibt ein Reich."  Glorious.  I can't think of when I've heard it better.  Brenda Rae approached "Großmächtige Prinzessin" more from a sexy/romantic direction than the usual showing off.  She was previously seen in Die Schweigsame Frau.  Both of these women are American.

Musically it was the very best.  Zerbinetta flirted with Petrenko.  Wenn es irgendwas heiliges gibt, muss es die Musik sein.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Otello in HD



Montano:  Jeff Mattsey (bass)
Cassio: Dimitri Pittas (tenor)
Iago: Željko Lučić (baritone)
Roderigo:  Chad Shelton (tenor)
Otello: Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor)
Desdemona:  Sonya Yoncheva (soprano)
Emilia: Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano)

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production:  Bartlett Sher

Saturday's Met Live in HD featured Verdi's Otello.  Many consider this Verdi's greatest opera.  I think it requires perfection to achieve that.  There is no sense of transition from recitative to aria, which leads to people calling it Wagnerian.  Bah humbug.

Otello has been the subject of a lot of talk since it opened in September.  People who don't know anything about opera are pitching for casting a black singer to play Otello.  Those of us who know things know that there are probably about 5 people who can sing Otello today and none of them are black.  Russell Thomas may develop into a great Otello, but he has already gone on record that he wants to keep his repertoire varied.

So we have Aleksandrs Antonenko, a Russian tenor with a huge voice who brought a lot of angry intensity to his portrayal.  I need an Otello who covers both ends of the emotional range and shows the transition from love to anger.  Željko Lučić as Iago was theatrically quite wonderful.  I would call him a lyric baritone who is stretching a bit to do Iago, but on the HD screen this was irrelevant.

My biggest complaint about both of these men is the complete absence of any Italian phrasing.  Each slid about 3 times in the whole opera.  Netrebko goes to great lengths to learn how to phrase her Italian repertoire, and you guys could do the same.  I wasn't sure if possibly Yannick Nézet-Séguin wasn't encouraging them in this direction.  A brief rehearsal was shown on the movie screen.  Dimitri Pittas shows a much more natural Verdi style, but the conductor was constantly trying to get him to square off the phrasing.  This is incorrect.  It is also the likely cause of the fact that Antonenko did not project as romantic in the early scenes.  It's less important for Iago who is always nasty.

Sonya Yoncheva sang with absolute perfection in her Italian style.  Never too much, never too little.  She was wonderful.  In the intermission she said that she had decided to portray Desdemona as a strong Italian woman.  It was a thing of beauty.  I wasn't sure I would like her, but I was completely won over.  The death scene did make me think of the issue, "Please remember that Otello kills Desdemona, but Antonenko does not kill Yoncheva."  Very important.  In the bows she tried to choke him jokingly.

I didn't mind the movable glass buildings though they did not project any sense of geographical location.  The plot was easy to follow.  This Otello was generally very pleasing.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Cumberbatch Hamlet


It was fun to see Hamlet simulcast from the Barbican in London.  This is the version starring Benedict Cumberbatch.  It was very much like a modern opera production with contemporary clothing and furniture.  At one point Hamlet wears a Bowie t-shirt.  When Hamlet is speaking only to us, the other actors freeze in place while Hamlet speaks.

The strongest feature of this production is the intense energy of Benedict Cumberbatch.  He is on stage for the whole first half.  The other actors displayed a wide variety of accents, something I have not experienced for Shakespeare.  Stage English is the standard.  Did this intend to illustrate class in the characters, or was it just a coincidence?

It starts with chandeliers and celebrations and moves through madness and accidental murder to a scene of utter devastation and ruin with dead bodies strewn about the stage.

One of my favorite bits:  Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are standing with the queen and king.  King says to left person, Goodbye Rosenkrantz and then to right person, Goodbye Guildenstern.  Queen then comes up to these same two guys and says to the left person, Goodbye Guildenstern, and then to the right person, Goodbye Rosenkrantz.  When was Hamlet supposed to be funny?

It was fast paced and enjoyable.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Lucia in San Francisco


Enrico Ashton, Lucia's brother:  Brian Mulligan (baritone)
Lucia Ashton:  Nadine Sierra (coloratura soprano)
Riamondo Bidebent, Lucia's tutor:  Nicolas Teste (bass)
Edgardo, Lucia's fiance:  Piotr Beczala (tenor)
Arturo Bucklaw, man Lucia is forced to marry:  Chong Wang (tenor)

Conductor:  Nicola Luisotti
Director:  Michael Cavanagh

The San Francisco Opera presented a new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor before I was tired of the old one.  There were some interesting features.  The female ghost appeared.  I believe this feature was introduced by Mary Zimmerman in her production, but now it is treated as an ancient tradition.  When Lucia sings about the woman killed in the fountain, her ghost appears.  Nothing else resembled Zimmerman who evoked the Scottish moors and retained the traditional giant staircase.  Here everything either resembled an interior or moved to something like outer space.


This picture is the scene of Edgardo and Enrico quarreling in the clouds.

The mad scene in Act 3 was the creepiest ever.  Everything is covered with blood.  Then Lucia pulls her blood-stained train toward us, revealing Arturo lying dead on the bed.  I was sitting next to someone who was once a super, and we agreed that this was perhaps the great super role.  He must lie there quietly with his pants pulled down halfway and his butt sticking out while Lucia sings her heart out.  Very impressive.  There was an entertaining interplay between the soprano and the flute here that we enjoyed very much.

Nadine Sierra performed this role previously in Zurich and seems to have benefited beautifully from the coaching there.  I felt that both her singing and her facial expressions were a treat.  I liked this Lucia, though her voice is somewhat small for the War Memorial. 

Brian Mulligan, our Sweeney Todd, successfully made the transition to serious opera.  He was if anything even scarier here than his previous outing.  I love Piotr, but his voice may also be a bit small for our acoustically challenged opera house.

There are basically 3 ways to establish a costuming period for an opera.  First is the stated period, here the 17th century; second is the period of the first performance of the opera, here 1835, and last is something vaguely modern.  Curiously, our program says "TIME AND PLACE:  Scotland in the near-future."  This means anything goes.  Most of the time Lucia wears a big dress like you see in the era of the American Civil War.  The men wear modern looking suits, sometimes uniforms.  Occasional kilts were seen, always in dark colors.  In the wedding scene the women all wore giant hats such as one might see at a British royal wedding.  People like to think they can pick a fashion period, but that seemed impossible here.

Luisotti was great.  This is the first opera I have actually liked this season.

At the end as Edgardo kills himself, Lucia appears as the ghost to escort him to heaven.  If this is a new tradition, I think I like it.  If it turns out to be an old one, let me know.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Mezzo-soprano and Contralto Chapter

This is here to help you learn about the different types of operatic mezzo-sopranos and contraltos. It's intended to educate listeners rather than singers.

Lower voiced women in opera are usually mezzo-sopranos, but occasionally one hears a true contralto, the lowest female Fach.  Today I know of only two contraltos:  Ewa Podleś and Meredith Arwady.  Mezzos and contraltos will need notes well below middle C, and a mezzo should have a high B flat at least.  I'm not sure there is a sharp line separating mezzo-soprano from contralto, but I will try.  Here is a list of the sub-categories for mezzo-sopranos and contraltos.

Coloratura mezzo
Lyric mezzo
Dramatic mezzo
Coloratura contralto
Lyric contralto
Dramatic contralto

I am now going to describe the sub-categories, but please be aware that the same singer may show up in different sub-categories.  A role may also cross into more than one category.  I have tried in selecting these examples to make sure that the singer is actually of the suggested sub-category.

Coloratura Mezzo


The coloratura mezzo is primarily a phenomenon of the Baroque and bel canto.  Sometimes the male hero is in this Fach, but most of our examples are female roles.  Angelina in La Cenerentola (Rossini), Romeo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini), Costanza in Griselda (Vivaldi) [Wikipedia lists Griselda as a coloratura mezzo when she is barely a singing role at all.  Costanza has all the good singing.], Rosina in The Barber of Seville (Rossini), etc.  This example is Cecilia Bartoli singing "Non piu mesta" from La Cenerentola.



And only La Bartoli runs to the top of the cake.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Trio MôD Convergence

Maquette Kuper, Deborah Pittman, Omari Tau

Trio MôD, seen above, gave a concert at the Guild Theater on 35th Street.  I felt surprised that I had never been here before. 

Maki explained at the start of the concert that there is no repertoire for this ensemble.  So there is no Schubert or Bartok on the program.  One familiar name is the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria arranged by Pittman.  This is fun.

My favorite item on the first half of the program was Omari Tau's song cycle Did You Get My Text Yesterday?  Songs are added on an ad hoc basis when he receives a new text from his friend.  It is perhaps post modernist.  I would never text anything this long.

Virtually everything on the program was accompanied by spoken text and/or dancing.  The dancers represented TwoPoint4 Dance Theater, Sac State and River City Taps.  The spoken words were generally on the subject of Oak Park, the neighborhood around the Guild Theater.  The most coherent was the part about the race riots in the 60s.

I think they are interesting and enjoyable, but a bit ahead of their context.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Il Trovatore in HD


Conductor:  Marco Armiliato
Production:  David McVicar

Leonora:  Anna Netrebko (soprano)
Azucena:  Dolora Zajick (mezzo-soprano)
Manrico:  Yonghoon Lee (tenor)
di Luna:  Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Ferrando:  Štefan Kocán (bass)

Heard in the theater during intermission of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD simulcast of Verdi's Il Trovatore, "Does it get better than this?"  Followed by, "No!  No, it does not!"  It truly does not.

People get really confused by the plot of this opera, and I think the main reason is because it spends so much time explaining things that took place in the long ago past.  A young prince got sick right after he had been visited by a gypsy woman who seemed like a witch.  When the gypsy woman was taken off to be burned at the stake, her daughter Azucena kidnapped the sick child.  Then seeing her mother burning and her mother shouting out "avenge me," Azucena grabbed the nearest child and threw her own baby into the fire.  She kept the kidnapped child and raised him as her own.  This story gets told twice and then is referred to constantly by the different characters.  We would just rather watch the people we are seeing on the stage.

Azucena is really quite mad and is really quite happy when the son she has raised and loved is killed because at last her mother is avenged.  Yes.  Being avenged is what matters most.  And no one either sings or plays the really quite mad Azucena better than Dolora Zajick who owns this role.  She is the first block in the "four greatest singers" quadrangle required for this opera.

The plot on the stage is just your garden variety love triangle.  Both Conte di Luna and the gypsy Manrico love Leonora.  Manrico serenades Leonora and di Luna just lurks around looking dour.  It isn't hard to grasp why she prefers Manrico.  Enough about the plot.

Two, Anna and Dmitri, of this trio of singers are my absolute favorites in their respective Fachs.  (Or what is the plural of Fach?)  Much fuss was made over Dmitri because he is still in treatment for his brain tumor.  He spoke to us and thanked us for all the love.  His singing was powerful and emotional, a genuine experience.

A year ago after watching the stream of this opera from Salzburg I wrote, "I love Anna and find that she almost achieves the greatness here that she desires and will do so in the future."  I am very pleased to report that she has.  This is the greatest Leonora I have ever seen.  Her gorgeous voice is receiving spectacular attention to detail while retaining all of her wonderful emotion.  She is the opera singer for our age. 

Yonghoon Lee would rate a lot more raves if he were in any cast but this one.  Nevertheless he was outstanding.  It was all in all an emotional day at the opera.

At the end the orchestra repeated their ovation of white roses for Hvorostovsky.  Be well, maestro.

Footnote.  The San Francisco Opera also uses the McVicar production for this opera.