Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Colbran the Muse, DiDonato the Fierce

Quick; answer this riddle: How are Rosina in Barber of Seville and Elisabeth I related? Give up? continue reading and you will find the answer.

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I recently downloaded Joyce DiDonato’s new recording. The album is titled Colbran the Muse (click on the link to listen to samples). In it, Ms. DiDonato takes us through music composed for Isabella Colbran (the only exception being Una voce poco fa). Ms DiDonato goes from strength to strength in this album, proving that she is ready to take her place among the best Rossini mezzo sopranos of her generation. The voice is rich from top to bottom, the production is even, the high register responsive and strong and the low register rich in colors. This is a singer for whom Rossini (a famous voice wrecker in his time) poses no fears. The recording in one phrase is stunning, fierce, and well worth the prize to acquire it in any way you can.

The Album opens with Armida’s D’amor al dolce impero, a tour de force for any soprano brave enough to take on the piece, let alone for a Mezzo. Ms. DiDonato attacks the piece with gusto and bravura, giving us a rendition worthy of 2nd and 3rd hearings. It is sublime in every way, the coloratura flows from her throat at breakneck speed and with jaw dropping accuracy.

She follows this with renditions of Tanti affetti from La Donna del lago, an opera that does not seem to be able to get a hold on the repertoire, but an aria that has long been a favorite of Rossini interpreters, from Horne, to Caballe and Bartoli. Ms DiDinato shows that he has nothing to apologize for, her rendition is full of fire and beauty, including some perfectly executed trills. The recording also has her singing music from Otello (the Willow song, among others, beautifully sung), more Armida (including the death scene, in which Ms. DiDonato  unleashes some beautiful colors in her voice and reaches levels of pathos that make the listener ache that she would give the chance to sing this role somewhere) and Semiramide (the now very familiar Bel raggio, sung with enough bravura to challenge any soprano who aspires to sing the role)

Ms. DiDonato is assisted in this recording by some de facto legends in the business and some new comers. The Orchestra and Chorus of Santa Cecilia does have this music in their DNA, as Ms. DiDonato states in the YouTube promotional documentary. Their playing is perfect in every way. They cushion her with cascades of sound that make you feel like you are there, in the middle of it. Lawrence Brownlee, the American tenor, sings in the Armida selections and his participation is a welcomed addition to this recording and his fans (since his recording of Barbiere remains unreleased/impossible to find here in the USA). Only Roberta De Nicola’s Emilia (in the Otello selections) is a complete letdown. She sounds unsupported, thin, colorless. In the presence of such great singing, her amateurish sounds really make me wonder is there was nobody else who could be hired for them. Edoardo Muller’s baton is steady and his tempos suit Ms. DiDonato extremely well. Bravi tutti!

So, have you figured out how are Rosina in Barber of Seville and Elisabeth I related? well, they are sisters, born out of Giaccomo Rossini’s pen. In Ms. DiDonato’s new recording we get to hear both and realize how closely they are related. If you didn’t know, Rossini recycled Elisabetta’s Qant’è grato all’alma mia into Una voce poco fa. I have always wondered how the audience reacted in Rossini’s time when they heard music originally composed for the Queen of England now sung by a feisty young girl. These days, of course, the reaction is completely on the opposite direction. What I find interesting in both cases is how they are both defying convention and following their hearts and in that, the music serves as a kind of motif that weaves both characters into a single soul: Elisabetta defies convention by falling in love with a much younger man and Rosina by refusing to marry out of convenience and marrying for love. How fitting that Rossini used the same music for both; furthermore, how fitting that we get both pieces sung so ravishingly by the same artist.

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October 12, 2009 Posted by | Opera Review | | 5 Comments

Tosca, finalmente viewed..

I have waited several of hours to write my review out of necessity but also so I could let my impression of Bondy’s Tosca settle in. So here it goes:

The Set:

For the most part I thought the set was effective. It was as gargantuan as Zefirelli’s, but that is a necessity born out of the size of the space rather than the designer. Zefirelli filled the space with almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. Bondy went in the other direction, and given the amount of detail that went into the action, I see it as a virtue rather than the opposite.  Overall I thought the space at the Met was well used. I did have a problem with the cheap looking IKEA-inspired (and probably bought) furniture. I am not a fan of seeing contemporary furniture in a period piece.  In my opinion, it detracts from the overall impression, but I have a feeling I am in the minority on this point. When I see stagings that are obviously period and I see contemporary furniture I do not think edgy, fascinating, not even provocative. My first reaction is to think they ran out of money and asked the board of directors for pieces they could use on the décor, or maybe that they spent as little as possible on them so they could splurge on the artists; I even think that the director did a poor job on his research and obviously cannot tell the difference.

The Costumes:

Of all the visual aspects of the production, I think the costuming is definitely the stronger point. While the costumes are not ultra faithful to the period (in as much as only fabrics, textures and patterns that existed or were used at the time), they were evocative enough to make them believable. The one thing that I found uninspiring about them was the now cliché appearance of a leather trench coat. It seems that these days we cannot do a period piece without someone walking in a leather (or pleather) trench coat. Fortunately, it showed up in Scarpia’s wardrobe, the one character that would be expected to wear something like that. If this had been someone else who wanted to be “provocative”, Scarpia would have showed up wearing chiffon and Tosca the pleather jacket. Thank God it was not the case.

Mattila’s dresses were exquisite in the simplicity and beauty of the design. Let’s be fair, she is one hot cougar and those dresses made her look amazing. Scarpia looked menacing, even Spoletta could make it to the list of 20 best dressed in Rome. The Cardinal robes, while not accurate were evocative and sumptuous; even the nun’s costumes were exquisite. My only question is, why can’t Tosca show up in a royal blue, green or orange costume? Seems like every Tosca these days shows up in a Red or Black costume; why not take a chance, since the costumes were not strictly period but period-inspired?

The singing:

I thought the singing today was rather good if not inspiring. Mattila attacked the role more than she sang it. Compared to the broadcast, I thought she was vocally stronger and the role is setting in what the voice is at the moment.  She is an intelligent artist and she gave it her all. The high C’s were all there for the most part and she was able to vocalize them, not without effort and strain. Vissi d’arte was not a show stopper, we could see that she tried to integrate it to the story (a feat that even Puccini doubted could be done), but it failed to make a strong vocal impression. I think the problem is that she wanted to “act” the aria instead of singing it. By adding the moan after the Bb she was obviously trying to take the aria beyond the realm of vocalism, she should be commended for that; but I do not believe it was necessary. I believe that Puccini crafted the aria in such a way that no external additions need to be added for it to make an impact. Let’s be honest, one of the reasons why he doubted the aria could be brought into the action was because it is an incredibly beautiful moment in the middle of chaos. I think that sopranos are more than capable of supporting the moment by purely vocal means, if they trust what Puccini wrote and BRING the people into the drama rather than the drama to the people. I believe Mattila fell into the trap of wanting to bring the drama out to the audience and she was only partially successful.

Marcello Alvarez, bless his soul, tried hard to convince the world he is a Puccini tenor (a point that Susan Graham also tried to make while interviewing him on the 2nd intermission). The problem is that to sing Mario successfully, you have to have a strong upper register (which he has) AND a strong middle/bottom registers (which he does not). So what we were left with was a series of gloriously produced high notes with awkwardly produced crooning in the passagio (and some truly inspired piano singing at moments, which is, I guess, what he was going for). Mixed that with the weak middle and weak bottom and we have a series of unrealized promises. Both arias proved to be rather underwhelming moments in the action for very different reasons. While I can understand Recondita armonia to be a bit shaky because it is the first thing Mario sings, the aria sits high enough for a tenor with Mr. Alvarez’s strength in the upper register to make something of it. Instead it was routinely vocalized, poorly phrased and the high note punched like a baseball (a homerun, mind you). E lucevan le stele, which again sits high, comes at a time when you are getting tired. This time, Mr. Alvarez went for crooning instead of true piano. Once again, his phrasing was not elegant or inspired (if you want to hear how those phrases should go, listen to the strings in the accompaniment, they are doubling the tenor) and his high note was something more akin to a home run than a man who is remembering the last time he made love to the love of his life.  The one area where I thought Mr. Alvarez was very successful was in the little moments that many tenors brush over because they are not high impact like the arias or the Vittoria!!’s. The way he colored the voice when Tosca told him she was coming over tonight was masterful; the same should be said for the way he made fun of her trying to teach him how to die. Mr. Alvarez is obviously an intelligent artist, and I am sure in the right house he would be a fantastic Cavaradossi; I am not sure the Met is the right house for him to essay this role. It showcased his weaknesses more than his strengths.

George Gagnidze’s Scarpia was saved by the bell. He is obviously not fully recovered from whatever forced him to stop singing half way through a performance a week or two ago. It was clear that he was running out of vocal resources towards the end of act 2; but since he was about to die, he soldiered on and finished strong. Vocally, the role suits his singing and the color of the voice. I could hear some signs of strain, but given the fact that I knew he had been sick, I am not sure whether he was still fighting his sickness or those were signs of a voice singing a role one size too big for it. I will say this, Mr. Gagnidze looked like one sexy bear in that opera. His is not the classically beautiful 6-pack trotting Scarpia alla David Pittsinger (a wonderful Angelotti), not the who-is-Cavaradossi? sexy villain alla Milnes, nor the aged pervert alla MacNeil.  George Gagnidze’s Scarpia was his own and he imparted it with his own brand of sexy and damn it, it worked.  I for one would have loved to turn the tables on that Scarpia and give him a taste of his own medicine; I bet that Scarpia would have just as good a time getting a spanking as giving it. (did I just say that, in public???!!!)

As I said, David Pittsinger is as far as I am concerned luxury casting as Angelotti. His Angelotti was beautifully vocalized and acted. So was Paul Plishka’s sacristan. It was good to hear this artist in a role that he recorded decades ago, singing it rather well, and shorn of all the buffo affectations that seem to be afflicted on the role. Joel Sorensen’s Spoletta was also well sung and acted (and he looked positively delicious on that costume). The one complain that I have is his not taking appogiatuiras in some places and not committing to the Gessu! when Scarpia scares him. For the most part I thought he did quite a good Job.

On being a Singing Actress…

I think all involved in the production should be given kudos for the acting, but then, why are we talking about this like it is the first time we see singers acting? Make no mistake; the acting was wonderful and committed. Mr. Alvarez was for the most part believable as a lover (and his costume was quite successful hiding the fact that he is, shall we say, also a bear; not that there’s anything wrong with that, right Mr. Gagnidze?).  George Gagnidze’s Scarpia was truly menacing, scary at times, and you believed that he was the “bigotto satiro” Cavaradossi describes. Mattila was also successful, for the most part in creating a character. Of all the singers on stage, I think she was the least successful in creating a three dimensional character. We could see all the hysteria in her Tosca, but what about her girlishness? Now, this didn’t stop her from talking about her acting; which leads perfectly into my next point:  I don’t buy is this going on and on about the whole singing actress bit. These days, Karita Mattila is sounding more and more like Dessay. No, not in vocal terms, but in the whole look at me, I’m acting!!! thing that seems to be infecting just about any diva of a certain age. I have news for Ms. Mattila: not new; not unheard of; not provocative; not even rare. Ms. Mattila (and Ms. Dessay), I have a little list for you to examine: Renata Scotto, Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Astrid Varnay, Martha Mödl, Grace Bumbry, Eva Marton, Magda Olivero, Teresa Stratas,  shall I continue? These artists were all wonderful actresses, some would be considered stage animals and they were all wonderful singers AT THE SAME TIME. We have all seen singers who can act well, it is not a rare occurrence so stop tooting your horn like you are the first ones and get to the business of singing AND acting. If you want to act, then ask your managers to get you auditions in Hollywood and Broadway.  Every time you go on and on about how committed your acting is, we want to say “now, is your singing that committed too?

The staging

And now onto the staging we go. From the day of the opening night broadcast I have been saying that I didn’t think the boos were completely deserved. Today I cemented my initial perception. Now, I know for a fact that some of the staging was toned down and changed, but I have no issue with that, since I understand that for a repertory house like the Met, these productions are works in progress even after the prima. Hell, Bayreuth insists on stage directors to come tweak their productions after the initial run of performances, why should the Met not tweak the production 3 weeks after it opened?

I also stated that Bondy was put in a miserable position of not pleasing anyone and that necessity dictated a cop-out. I am still going to hold my position on that one too. It was obvious to me, by the almost apologetic and scared tone the Met used when announcing they were replacing the Zefirelli production that there was going to be 2 factions on this Tosca and they are both best described by the same phrase: the “How dare you!’s”.  On one side we had the How-dare-you-replace-the-Zefirelli-production-that-is-so-beautiful-and-served-us-so-well-for-this-many-years-and-if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it faction. On the other side there was the How-dare-you-not-give-us-a-reggie-production-like-the-ones-in-Europe-‘cause-they-have-been-doing-this-for-decades-and-we-want-something-provocative faction. I think the Met tried to please both sides and in the game got a little lost. On one side we have what is mostly a traditional production with some modernistic touches; on the other we have some staging decisions that were clearly made in the spirit of pushing the envelope. Overall, I don’t think they completely succeeded on both attempts and we were left with something of a mix in the middle. Provocative enough on some sides, traditional enough on the other. Not vanilla, but not kink either.

To be fair, I think the staging was quite well done. Bondy took opportunities in presenting the characters in ways that we have not seen them in past stagings, some were successful, some not and some were left unfinished. I loved the way Mario and Tosca related to each other. Too often we see couples loving each other from opposite sides of the stage; not here. The love duet was staged like what (I believe) it is: a slice of domestic life for the lovers. We see them kissing, touching, but also pushing each other’s buttons until one of them explodes; they have a spat and make up just to rehash the spat and make up for good and then (likely) some make-up sex latter.  I loved the way Mario ungloved Tosca’s hands as he was singing o dolci mani. I just wished he would have taken the time to kiss them and caress them while she sang her responses. This beautiful touch was for me left unfinished, but it was full of tenderness (specific tenderness) while it lasted; beautiful. I loved that Bondy found some light moments right before the ending; like the way Mario teases Tosca about how she dies on stage and Tosca doing a full demonstration. It made their love more believable and their deaths all the more tragic.

I also liked the realistic way Scarpia was murdered. I am not sure I would have chosen to show such violence (we have enough of that on TV these days) but I did not disagree with it either. It was true to life and it was powerful. I liked the way Tosca prepped herself to do him in. This Tosca was no fool and she was ready to stab that mother fucker the moment he came within striking distance. On the other hand, why the hell would you have Tosca mess with the knife while she is singing Vissi d’arte. I do not believe that you must follow the musical cues Puccini wrote, but they are there for a reason. Tosca does not have to find the knife on the chord, how about picking it up? Having Tosca messing with the knife during the aria was too much too soon and it cheapened the aria.

I also did not miss the candles moment. I would have preferred to see Tosca saying a prayer over Scarpia’s dead body instead of contemplating suicide, but in the state of hysteria that Mattila’s Tosca was, I can see how she would. I though the final tableau of Tosca fanning herself was genius.  I can see this Tosca trying to compose herself before she got out of the office so no suspicions could arise. After all, if she got out of the room too soon, it would have clued Scarpia’s henchmen that something was not adding up, given how much Scarpia likes torture and rape, he was bound to take his sweet old time with this one, and likely have seconds before letting her go.  I thought this moment was brilliant; provocative; new (at least to me). Loved it…

On the other hand, I am not so convinced with the whores that accompany Scarpia at the beginning of act 2. Scarpia himself says he gets his kicks out of raping women (I believe that even some men have seen Scarpia’s raping tool). Why would he have 3 whores about 30 minutes before he was (as he planned) to rape the one woman he desired the most? Even further, why would he have 3 whores at all? As the saying goes, you can’t rape the willing; and in Scarpia’s case it fits like a glove (one more for the road). If Scarpia prefers raping, why would he have a willing partner? Yes, he could have a raping scene with the whores, but ultimately it would be acting and I believe he would lose interest after a while because it is not the real thing. In this, I could see how Bondy was trying to push the envelope, but I think he chose the wrong moment to do it. Same as when Scarpia kissed the Madonna. Mario himself states that Scarpia has cultivated a pious affectation. That means that when it comes to Scarpia, we get inside behavior and outside behavior; and they do not mix. Why would Scarpia, who wants everyone to believe he is so pious, deface the statue of the Virgin? He knows that he might be the chief of police, but in Rome there is someone who can have his ass at any time he wants: the pope. Historically, no, as the pope was not in Rome at this point, but this does not diminish the power of the church; and Scarpia needs the church so he can continue raping with no consequences.  I think that this is another point in which Bondy wanted to push the envelope, but failed to recognize that the character has more reasons to behave in the opposite way than he wants to portray.

I loved the whole soldiers bit and how they went about their morning routines and got prepared for their duties. I think this made the staging specific, it made it look real, life like; and I loved that. The jump, on the other hand, was a letdown. I could see that Bondy wanted his audience to have a quasi cinematographic moment. To experience it like we would had we been at a movie: slo-mo;  I’m not sure it worked. First, slo-mo on the stage is hard to do; second the jump happened so fast if you blinked you missed. I think this is one of those moments that I wished Mattila had taken a page from Tebaldi’s book and jumped while letting a blood-curling scream. I think it would have been a lot more effective than what we got. It truly was a letdown.

Overall, I think we got a winner here, with some Good ideas, some unrealized and some bad ones too, but no staging is perfect. I think as the production matures it will find a spot in the hearts of those who see it and they will find it effective and beautiful. I know I did.

October 11, 2009 Posted by | Opera Review | | 1 Comment