Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

A rude awakening…

I bought a copy of Inva Mula’s aria recording The beautiful Dream (Il bel sogno). Where to start? The title comes from Magda’s Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta from Puccini’s La rondine. After hearing most of the CD I’ll say that Doretta was woken up with a bat. This recording is appaling in so many ways I am looking for reasons not to return it at once, but I am not sure I have them, so off to Borders first thing tomorrow morning.

The recording starts with the title track and moves to some more Puccini: Mi chiamano Mimi, Donde lieta and O mio babino caro. On the evidence of the recordings, Puccini is not the composer to best showcase Inva Mula’s voice.  She sounds underparted, unsupported and just plain flat in many of the selections. the arias are of some of the most beloved operas in the world, so they come with some major baggage and competition. I will not waste my time conjuring ghosts of operas past like Moffo, or Caballe; this woman could not even hold to comparison to Luba Orgonasova, whose recording of the role of Mimi is enchanting in every way, even if she is not in the best company and her recordings of the rest of the Puccini arias in her Favorite Soprano Arias on Naxos give Mula a lesson in how to sing Puccini and how to sing it affectingly. The Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra  didn’t do themselves any favors by covering Mula in the climaxes either.

With this poor impression, I cautiously went to some French rep. I thought, OK, let’s give her a chance in the French, it might be that the voice is just not made for Italian climaxes. Next we got 2 arias from Gounod’s Mireille (Trahir Vincent & Voice la vaste plaine) ; Adieu notre petite table from Massenet’s Manon, The Miror aria from Thais, and 2 sections from Gounod’s Faust (the Jewell aria and Il ne revient pas). Alas, I didn’t finish the arias. The coloratura in the Mireille was labored, the French not very idiomatic (in her defense, it is a hard language to sing idiomatically, it takes a lot of work) and the feeling was that she had no idea what she was singing about. Once again, the voice sounded unsupported and the tome uninteresting.  The Manon was better, but not in a way that would redeem what was around it. I did make a point to listen to the Thais. This sucked so bad it was incredible. She sounded  out of breath, unsupported (are you getting the common threat?) and the trills, what trills? She simply could not sustain the long phrases and the voice could not reach the lower reaches of the aria. It was just unattractive and so un-French it was embarrassing. Hell, Moffo, with all her crooning and jazzy mannerisms in the same aria was able to convey the desperation of Thais.  One last thing, a lyric soprano like Inva Mula, SHOULD be able to sing a high D.

With this royal mess in my hands, I came to the last 2 arias of the recording. And it did not bode well for Mula, they were from Traviata, my favorite opera and one that I can sing from memory from start to finish, all parts and uncut. After a strange and unidiomatic reading of the letter (Addio del passaggio, I mean, pasato  comes first in the recording) she actually was able to communicate something in the aria.  Finally, I was listening to actual singing, you know, the kind that merits a solo recording in this economy we are living. Alas, it was not to last. Once again, we were treated to that colorless tone without body  and unsupported high notes. It would have also been nice if she was able to sing the high A’s on pitch, but she does get extra points for singing both verses. Would I hire her to do Violetta? in your dreams, I would rather hire Ana Maria Martinez, Eglise Gutierrez or Angela Meade (and the last one would not be the typical consumptive looking Violeta). Do I need to tell you how the Act 1 scene was handled? The words royal mess do not convey the complete lack of coloratura ability or the absence of any musicality or even the inability to sing the right pitches. I know the scene is hard, VERY hard. But a singer of Mula’s type (a lyric to a lyric coloratura) should be able to sing basic coloratura with some degree or respectability, not her. She sounded amateurish, not even her attempt at an Eb (thin, unsupported, ugly) saved the aria ; and help me understand this, no High D in the Thais but an Eb in the Traviata… You know it is bad when the off stage tenor steals the scene, Agim Hushi’s lines as Alfredo did just that.

Which brings me to the question: Are singers these days not taught how to support and sing on the breath? I have heard so many singers these days, specially of the Susanna, Contessa, Violetta, Mimi kind sing like they do not have a diaphragm. They actually sing like those unsupported tones are supposed to mean something. Do they think it is an artistic choice, or that we are supposed to interpret them as such? Sweet Jesus! I have heard Handel and Mozart sung with such lack of breath that it is making me believe that singers are actually not required to learn a good breathing technique. If Inva Mula is one of the world’s foremost lyric sopranos we are in deep shit people, we better get to church and PRAY.

November 30, 2009 Posted by | Opera Review | | Leave a comment

A Boheme to celebrate in Indianapolis

My birthday celebrations continued with Indianapolis Opera’s Boheme. I attended the 2nd (and unfortunately last) performance on 11/22 matinée.  It is funny, because I thought the performance started at 1, so I am rushing through traffic and cursing Sunday Midwestern drivers (God bless them, they are convinced they are the only ones on the road) and I made it with something like 2 minutes to spare. I purchased my tickets and when I get to the 3rd balcony (hey, I’m unemployed, that’s all I could afford, plus I do like it up there, it gives me a complete view of the stage, no sidelines) I discover that the performance didn’t start until 2 PM. So there I was an hour earlier (the fact that I didn’t have a problem finding parking should have clued me in, Duh!) and nothing to do. So I spent my time chatting with John Picket, executive director of the company and a charming man. I have to admit, the last time I attended Indianapolis Opera was their 2003 Boheme. I promise to do better, I do.

The opera was performed in a standard setting, no frills and nothing extravagant. Even in that (yes, gag those of you who would rather have some deconstruction staged in a post-apocalyptic world; if it is post-apocalyptic, doesn’t it mean that nobody survived? How could we have anyone still looking like humans then?), the magnificent production from New Orleans opera in shades of gray gave us the perfect ambiance for this love story. The costumes, rented from Malabar, were also very basic and they helped create a setting where the singing and the story could bring the audience in.

First of all, kudos to all in the audience. The Colts were playing and Indianapolis is PROUD of their Colts; so I know there were a lot of husbands (and some wives) who would have rather stayed home. Kudos to Indy opera for switching to the game in the monitors outside of the house so the fans could enjoy a bit of the game on those precious moments when we were allowed to walk away from Puccini. Further Kudos to the audience for their wonderful and attentive behavior. We are in Flu season and there was hardly a cough in the house. This is an audience that truly loves their home opera company.

The performance was wonderfully conducted by Indy Opera’s own James Caraher. Maestro Caraher is a musician of the first order and a sensitive conductor. Under his batton I did both my professional debut and my farewell and I can tell you, you will search wide and narrow to find a conductor that treats you like a partner. Today we were treated to music making of the first kind. First, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra played like one. This ensemble has been accompanying the opera for quite a while and they are an ensemble of fantastic musicians. Their playing was delicate when needed and rambunctious when appropriate. Puccini would be very proud to hear his music so well played. Bravi to all.

A big bravo also to the members of the Chorus. These people do it for the love of the art (they are not extravagantly paid like the choruses at the Lyric or the Met) but you would not know by the sounds they make. John Schmidt, another first rate musician has been preparing the chorus since 1984. He is demanding and it shows. The Indianapolis Opera Chorus is a source of pride for the house and they always give their best in every performance. You could not ask for a better ensemble behind you. Bravi to all of you.

Vocal honors in the soloists must go to Maureen O’Flynn, our Mimi. I feel that although I didn’t experience Freni or Tebaldi, I have been lucky enough to have seen Hey-Kyung Hong and Maria Spacagna as Mimi. Today I added another jewel to that crown. Ms. O’Flynn’s Mimi was all frailty, all sweetness and all human. There was not one weak moment in her performance. Her Mi chiamano Mimi brought tears to my eyes with the simplicity of her delivery and the silvery quality of her voice. Her act 1 finale included a perfectly placed high C that sent me to heaven. Latter on, while other Mimi’s grow in stature in act 3, Ms. O’Flynn’s Mimi wilted,while maintaining her vocal stature. That made her Mimi even more tragic. Her Donde lieta was again sung with such simplicity that it was devastating. By the time we got to the Sono andate in the 4th act, I was crying uncontrollably. She latter told me she will be doing a bunch of Mimis at the Met. If you are able to catch her, RUN for a ticket, elbow your way to one with no shame. You will not regret it. Indianapolis was very fortunate that we had her as our Mimi. Please, please, please bring her back soon. This is an artist of the first order in full control of her powers. Please bring her back!

Sean David Anderson was also quite good. His voice bloomed in the space and he gave us a beautifully sung and acted Marcello. I guess the year he spend on Broadway doing the Baz Lurman Boheme on Broadway helped create a three-dimensional character (you must in such small stages or you are toasted). I can not think of many Marcellos who have been so effective.

I wish I could be so ecstatic about William Joyner’s Rodolfo. His is a voice perfect for the role, but in today’s performance it just didn’t bloom. His singing and acting were never less than committed. Even if I had not made some of the choices that he made, I must admire that. He sings well on the middle and lower parts of the voice, if a little too weighty and covered. His passaggio might be a little too covered too and that might be the reason why his high notes did not travel to the back of the house. I was sad for him and frustrated at the same time. His high notes, anything above G were just not audible. I am not saying that he does not have the notes, he does and apparently in spades; and for the one Bb that I heard in the act 3 quartet (Finally! I thought) they are quite beautiful. The problem must be somewhere in the technique. Somewhere in the transition to the high register, something is not working properly that is not allowing the A,Bb,B and C to open up and shine. One last comment, This tenor should also find a way to learn to sing piano and pianissimo. Rodolfo is a poet and he sounded more like a hero than a poet. His high A’s in the quartet (ch’io da vero poeta rimavo con carezze & alla staggion dei fior) need to be moments of pure unadulterated poetry. Sometimes, those moments are better expressed in hushed tones and not the other way around.

Gustav Andreassen’s Colline made a major contribution to the opera today. This bass voice said “Here I am” from the moment he came on stage. I hope we’ll see more from this singer, it is a major instrument and his Colline could not be ignored today. He was funny, blustery, perfect. I do have a request for this singer, he might need to rethink the way he approaches the aria Vecchia Zimarra. He sang it beautifully and there should be no complaints, BUT, he was much too present in the aria. The moment is a soliloquy, an aside. His voice did not scale down to the requirements of the aria. That was exactly the moment that I wanted to hear him sing piano and pianissimo. I wanted him to melt us with the softness of his singing and he didn’t. Once this aria is conquered, this is a Colline to watch and a bass to celebrate.

Laura Pedersen’s Musetta was funny, if a little restrained. I heard her and I felt that she would be better suited to the role of Mimi herself. Her voice is creamy, a quality that I usually do not associate with a Musetta (I usually prefer my Musettas with a brighter tone), but to say that she didn’t sing well would be unfair. She attacked the role of Musetta with gusto and fire. Still, somehow, her Musetta was not the hell raiser that I wished we had. I see Musetta as a woman who is not afraid to create hell if that is what is needed to get what she wants. Ms Pedersen was a little more restrained than most Musettas. Maybe what we have is a Mimi brewing and it might be time for Ms. Pedersen to move to Mimi…

The roles of Schaunard and Parpignol were sung with Gusto by Chad Reagan (Schaunard) and Rev. Michael Magiera (Parpignol). Mr. Reagan cuts quite a dashing figure on stage, acts well and he is still maturing both as an artist and a singer. His Schaunard was smaller scale than most, but I do not want to give you the impression that he was less effective for it. Your instrument is what your instrument is and you should not push it to do things it does not want to do; Mr. Reagan did just that. He has been recently covering a lot and it is a great experience to get a role where you get to be on stage. Guys, let’s bring him again as Guglielmo or Masetto. It could be that the orchestration might’ve been a little too big for this stage of his development and Mozart might showcase his voice better.

Any opera company will tell you that their strengths lays a lot in the strength of their co-primarios. Indianapolis Opera is extremely lucky to have Mark Gilgallon to sing roles for them. Over the years I have seen Mark sing Alidoro, Fiorello and other roles. He is never less than committed on stage and when he is on, you can not take your eyes off him. Today was no exception. He sang Alcindoro/Benoit and he was fabulous on both of them. He is not necessarily a bass, his voice might be too high for both roles but who cares when you have such a great actor. His comedic timing is impeccable. During Musetta’s walz, he sang his line (Quel canto surrile…) while shoved in Musetta’s chest. Instead of singing the lines in a big basso lines, he sang them high, like he was loosing air, My God it was funny! The audience laughed and at the end of the act, he earned a well deserved ovation.

Indianapolis Opera hit a great one with this Boheme. Their next performances will be The Mikado on March 19th and 21. If you happen to be in the area, make sure you attend.

Which brings me to the topic of supporting your local opera company. Today, I was reminded how important it is. Yes, going to the Met and the Lyric and all these glamorous houses is fun, but for opera to survive, it has to survive at the local level. So don’t be irresponsible like I was and make sure that your local opera company gets your support. Attend as many performances as you can. If you can pay for a ticket to get to NYC, the hotel, the outrageous ticket prices and the rest, you have no excuse for not attending your local opera company’s performances.

When the Met performs in HD, they say visit your local Company, so they know how important it is, FOLLOW THEIR ADVISE. Take pride in your local company and let them know how much you appreciate their efforts. It could be a lot worse, you could be in a place where you’d have to wait for the Met in HD (artificial opera) or have to pay thousands of dollars just to see 1 or 2 performances a year. Also, visiting your local opera company reduces your carbon footprint, so it is good for the environment. So check your local opera company’s schedule and pay them a visit, you’ll feel like the prodigal son, I guarantee you will.

November 24, 2009 Posted by | Opera Review | | Leave a comment

RIP Elisabeth Soderstrom

Elisabeth Soderstrom, the Swedish soprano, had died at the age of 82. I never had the pleasure of experiencing her in the flesh, but the beauty of her voice and the many performances preserved for posterity will always remind us of the loss.

Elisabeth Soderstrom was one of those voices that sounded beautiful in almost anything. She did roles from Adina to Leonore, from Sophie to the Marschallin and to all of them she brought impeccable musicianship and intelligence. Her recordings of Janacek operas are still unsurpassed and her Mozart still a model of refinement. Let’s hope the new generation of sopranos will follow her example (and listen to her recordings) and bring to their careers the same sense of dedication and respect that she brought; as well as the fantastic attention to the text that she always brought to any language she sang.

To her family and her many fans around the world, my deepest condolences.

Rest in peace, maestra, rest in peace…

November 22, 2009 Posted by | In memoriam | | Leave a comment

Elvira rescue me…

I just came back from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ernani. I was very exited because until yesterday, it was an opera I had yet to experience in the flesh. Verdi’s music and story (or at least most of it) made for a great evening.  Ernani deals with the quartet of the bandit Ernani (in reality the nobleman Don Juan de Aragon) Charles V, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva and Elvira. All men are after Elvira but Elvira only has eyes for Ernani. After several frustrated attempts by all the men to either force Elvira into marriage, kidnap her and/or rescue her; and a conspiracy to kill the king, King Charles V relents and gives Elvira to Ernani in marriage. On their wedding day, Don Ruy comes to claim a debt that Ernani has on him (Don Ruy saved Ernani’s head and he gave Don Ruy a horn and promised that whenever Silva was ready, he would kill himself as price from saving him). Don Ruy, who has not forgiven Ernani from stealing Elvira from him decides that if he can not have Elvira, neither can Ernani, so on their wedding night he comes into the party with the horn, and blows on it like it is the new year. Ernani, knowing what he has promised, kisses Elvira and promptly kills himself rather than live without honor. My one caveat (and it is only mine) is the fact that during Act 4, I just could not suspend belief. I just kept wanting Ernani or Elvira to take that damn horn from don Ruy’s hands and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine and send him to die the lonely and bitter dead that he deserves.  Ernani is a beautiful story, but that last act was hard for me to separate from my XXth century eyes and see it from their perpsctive. The music, on the other hand was just beautiful.

LOC presented a very traditional production designed by Scott Marr  and built by San Diego Opera. It looked just gorgeous (Let’s hope the sets and costumes survived SDO’s demise) {Thanks to SDO for the correction and best wishes with their season. Boy do I feel dumb!} The costumes, also by Marr were suptous in their vivid detail and meticulous construction. Marr’s attention to detail showed up even in the care he lavished in the chorus. There was not one simple, or careless stitch to be seen on stage. Bravo. The set was for the most part a unit set that consisted on a grand floor and multiple pieces (walls, chairs, etc) to change the location and the ambiance. It all worked to perfection.

The LOC orchestra once again showed why they are one of the premiere orchestras in any opera house in the USA. Their playing was a model of refinement and care for the singers. Too often we are treated with operas where the orchestra does their thing and ends up covering the singers in the climatic moments; not here. Credit must be given to Maestro Renato Palumbo for ensuring that the singers were audible at all moments. Too bad, maestro Palumbo decided not to give us enough Verdi. The edition presented by LOC was truncated by cuts coming from left, right, up, down and center. There were no 2nd verses to any cabaletta and the ensembles were shred to mere sketches. All in all, I think we lost about 45-60 minutes of music. I understand the need to keep a tight reign on over time, but I am not sure we gave Verdi the chance to make all his musical points. No 2nd verses meant that the opera was performed exactly as written, no ornamentation and thus no bel canto per se. There must be a way for Verdi, the audiences and the musicians to be able to perform and enjoy these works how they were meant to be presented and enjoyed. I for once would have loved to see Ernani performed as a bel canto opera, with Verdi’s gorgeous music and with ornamentations by the singers. How about more Verdi the next time boys?

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the singing as I was about the music. As the title of my review probably clues you, the night belonged to Sondra Radvanovsky. It was my first time experiencing this artist on the flesh and she delivered in spades. Ms. Radvanovsky proved that her career is no fluke or owed to an aggressive PR dept. Her singing was a marvel of nuances, beautiful phrasing, close attention to the text and marvelous acting. During her Ernani involami her voice rang out to the house with sweetness and power. She sounded (all the way on the 3rd balcony) like she was singing next to me. My ears rang with her singing and I was instantly in love. Her voice has a nice size and it can handle Verdi’s intricate writing of the cabaletta (ONE DAMN VERSE!; OK, I need to let it go…). It is a blessing that we now have a true Lirico-spinto who can sing bel canto (as opposed to can belto, which is more common) with ease, including a true trill. All in all, Ms. Radvanovsky more than earned her ovation at the end. Latter on I had the pleasure of meeting her briefly and my friend Ronizetti and I learned that she had performed the entire night wearing a cast on her right leg; and on a raked stage, mind you.  Brava for this Hoosier girl, she stole the show and kicked ass (Literally. In CA about a month ago she kicked a man that attempted to rob her. As Mr. T would say, I pity the fool)

Salvatore Licitra’s Ernani need not rescuing anyone. As a matter of fact, it was Verdi who should’ve been rescued from what Signor Licitra inflicted on him. What infuriates me the most is the fact that the voice is gorgeous and it more than fills the vocal requirements of the role. His unsupported barking and unrefined singing made me wish he had stayed home. His performance had a complete lack of style, finesse and artistry. He uses his voice like a canon, and like a canon, it is only effective when unleashed; and I doubt that Verdi would have been pleased with a tenor who showed such lack of care in his phrasing and his attention to dynamics.  He is also a technical mess. The lower register is uncharacteristically baritonal for a man his age (41, to be exact); the middle is OK, but looses focus here and there and his passagio is completely unresolved. Once he hits the E above middle C it is hit or miss; some notes are covered and some notes are spread. This gives the higher notes under Bb a hit or miss quality as well. His act 1 cabaletta was a mess. He was covered by the chorus in all the mid-high parts and then the Bb was almost inaudible. I am sure his high notes on stage are huge, but they do not carry pass the orchestra and that is not good. Signor Licitra’s Ernani was a trial and at the end he was unable to portray neither bandit, lover or nobleman convincingly…

Which begs the question: What do opera companies see in him? Yes, the voice is big, but what good does that do when you are inaudible in the moments where you should be? What good does it do when the singing is unrefined and sounds unschooled? What good does it do when audiences who do not know better use this as their benchmark for greatness? Do opera companies think this is a game of Gotcha!?  Do you opera companies actually think that we do not know the difference? Rest assured, many don’t but some of us do, and we need to call you out on this practice of record company casting. Yes, the singers are famous because they have a recording contract, but that does not mean they are the best available, or they are worthy to be shoved on stage. In the case of Licitra, he might study with Bergonzi (opera royalty, as far as I am concerned) but his plebeian singing does not  make him a good fit for the stage. Let him record his arias and sell concert tickets, please do not shove him on our faces until he is truly ready to sing with the finesse and artistry this profession demands.  The fact that he had to face such a refined singer in Ms. Radvanovsky put in perspective all his shortcomings.

Unfortunately, Signor Licitra was not the only one who failed to deliver the goods. Boaz Daniel (Charles V) and Giacomo Prestia (Don Ruy Gomes de Silva) also came way short tonight. Mr. Prestia took quite a while to warm up and after a precarious Infelice on act 1, he proceeded to deliver a stiff Silva that was also short on bel canto, short on menace and ultimately short on impact. Mr. Daniel didn’t fair much better. He looked fantastic as Carlo V, if I had been Elvira I would have chosen him on looks and bearing alone;  his singing was not so regal. He showed signs of strain, attaining a nasal quality way too often. His phrasing was labored, his low notes not really resonating and his high ones lacked true power. His intonation also gave him some grief, specially at the end of both his arias. His singing, left me with the impression that he was sick or fighting something (no announcement was made); for his sake I do hope this was the case.

The small roles of Giovanna, Jago and Riccardo were cast from strength. Ryan Opera Center members Kathryn Leemhuis (Giovanna), Paul Corona (Jago) and Rene Barbera (Riccardo) all sang with conviction and a great deal of security that was completely lacking in some of the principals. They all deserve mention because their singing showed much promise. Great job you guys! Let’s hope for bigger and better things from all of you.

So there you have it. Ernani was the one who needed rescueing at LOC. Thank God Sondra Radvanovsky came like a knight(ess) in shinning armor.

November 22, 2009 Posted by | Opera Review | | 5 Comments