Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

A Christmas Concert to Cheer

On Dec 19th I attended a Christmas concert put together by the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. As a rule, I don’t attend choral concerts because the kind of singing required for a good choral balance grates my nerves. The concert had the added benefit of having Indianapolis’ own Angela Brown as a guest artist. The last time I saw Angela perform was as Elisabeth di Valois in Don Carlo in Cincinnati. I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd concert as one of Angela’s guests. Boy am I happy to inform she sang gorgeously. Could you imagine if she had sung poorly and me having to write it for all the world to see, after she invited me to attend? Thank Heavens I will not have to do that.

To see a full version of the program click on the pic

The concert was titled Angels Sing and it served to showcase the several choirs that form the Indianapolis Children’s Choir family. We had performers from elementary school level all the way to junior high. I was astounded at the high level of performing I heard all night. Songs were performed in English, German, Hebrew and Russian; they were all sung with skill and poise. Yes, there were a couple of suspect vowels here and there, but try to keep up with all those languages when you are doing them in the same evening; I can tell you from experience it is hard to do. So first kudos for having the courage to expose the kids to music in other languages and further kudos to the kids for digging in and making their language coaches proud with their skill. Second Kudos to all ensembles because the sounded like one voice. Whether performing as individual ensembles or as part of multiple ensemble numbers, the quality of the sound and the blending of the voices impressed me quite a lot.  The Vienna Boys Choir might have the fame, but those kids have nothing on these little Hoosiers. Bravi to all…

The concert was a blend of traditional carols (like Silent Night, performed in German and English), Negro Spirituals like Mary Had a Baby (sung exquisitely by Angela) to more popular fair like Silver Bells. I think whomever did the programing deserves a great big hand because it had a little bit of everything and I can not honestly say I got tired or bored once all night.

The concert started with several carols performed by the Kantorei, Lyric and Chamber choirs. Of those numbers, the stand out was for me Baruch J. Cohon’s (as arranged by Blanche Chass) Hanerot Halalu (A song for Hannukah). Through the evening, other songs for the Jewish holidays were sung. Of all the carols that were sung, these continued to stad out not only because they were not known to be but because they were performed at a consistent high level. It also brought to conscience the beautiful quality and yearning Jewish music has. Even though I am not jewish, hearing those songs made me yearn for home. Bravi.

The fabulous singing and the gorgeous music was coming to us at a maddening pace, even the audience got into the action by being invited to sing in 2 different occasions: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and God Rest You merry Gentlemen. This made the evening quite enjoyable for me because not only did i get to hear great holiday music, but got into the action a little bit.

Another favorite moment from the concert was provided by the Indianapolis Youth Chorale and their rendition of O Come, O Come Emmanuel in an arrangement by Jay Rousse than included a gorgeous cello solo played by Ross Mappes (an ICC member, I believe). Not only did they sang it beautifully, the arrangement was quite beautiful. This is one 0f my favorite carols and the only thing that would have made it even better for me would have been to have the first verse sung in the original Latin, as the words in that language are incredibly powerful and beautiful.

Along the way, we were also treated to some spectacular singing by Angela Brown. This woman continues to make me proud with her poise, her loving attitude (she signed autographs at a table for over an hour and never did I see her get tired or not smile) and her spectacular voice. She can produce some of the most gorgeous pianissimi you have heard this side of Caballe. She employed those gorgeous pianissimi to wonderful effect in her rendition of I Wonder as I Wander (accompanied by Cantates Angeli & Bel Canto Choirs) and in the climax of a goosebumps-inducing Oh Holy Night where she was joined by all the choirs. I wanted to join in and sing so bad I had to bite my tongue.The music making was just wonderful and the sound of all those choirs singing as one voice was truly awe inspiring. I was hoping for an encore of the piece with the audience invited to join in, I would have let out a Bb the size of Texas. A great ending to the concert.  Angela also got down to her roots, as already pointed out, in a fabulous rendition of Mary Had a Baby. All in all, her participation not only added luster to the events, but she also proved how generous a performer she is by acknowledging the kids with a broad smile when her ovations came; and then tending to them so lovingly during the reception.

The concert had the added bonus of having a fantastic ensemble of artists ready to accompany the singing. Peter Meyer in his clarinet part during the Mi Yitneni Of was evocative and was played gorgeously. Same thing for the Brass Quintetof Larry Powell, Mark DeGoti, Gall Lewis, John Huntoon and melissa Williams; and keyboad (piano and organ) players Anna Briscoe, Martin Ellis, and Rebecca Eddie. Steve Dawson in percussion instruments was also a big part in the success of this ensemble. Lastly, I must mention the great work Richard Prather did all through the night. He didn’t play any instrument, not did he sing a note, but his interpreting in Sign Language, many times in sink with the music added a deeper layer of enjoyment and involvement, at least to this attendee. Thank you.

My last words must go to the people who glued this evening together and who allowed (and guided) all the voices through the music making: I am talking about the choir directors Henry H. leck, Joshua N. Pedde, Ruth E. Dwyer & Cheryl E. West. Their firm baton and guidance resulted on a night where the singing went from strength to strength.

By the way, WTHR (Channel 13) will be telecasting a recording made on the first night of the concerts. If you are in the Indianapolis area on Dec 25th, tune in to Chanel 13.2 at 1:00 PM to enjoy the concert as well.

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December 21, 2009 Posted by | Concert Review | | Leave a comment

An even better Hoffmann

Today the Metropolitan Opera showcased their new Hoffmann on movie theaters across the world. While the show is basically the same that I reviewed just a couple of weeks ago, this time there are 2 elements that are different: the artists have had a chance to rest and we now have added the visual elements to the production.

The production, by Bartlett Sher with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by designer Catherine Zuber promised a lot more than it delivered.  Much was made of the whole Jewishness of Hoffmann and his struggles as a Jew in a non-Jew world; very little was delivered in bringing that aspect to our eyes. Maybe it is me, but we see a lot of these concepts on paper, and the directors talk a great game, but when it is time to bring it on, they fall far short of all the conceptual ideas they so loved to talk about. That been said, even if Sher failed to show a Jewishness to this opera what he did deliver was quite good. His stage direction was direct and for the most part free of directorial “look what I can do” concepts that so many directors use to call attention to themselves.  Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber created sets and costumes that were both practical and beautiful to look at (again for the most part). In my opinion, Zuber was the most successful of the 3; her costume designs were stunning.

As Hoffmann Joseph Calleja acquitted himself quite well. This role is the Tristan of Lyric Tenors. I have seen several tenors crash and burn by the 3rd act because the role requires almost superhuman stamina. Calleja was able not only to make it through to the end (no mean feat all in itself) but do it with still plenty of voice left. I bet he will spend the rest of the night soaking in a bath. Vocally the role is probably a tad too big for him right now, but Mr. Calleja proved that he is an intelligent artist by managing his resources quite well. His prelude had the necessary mad energy that Hoffmanns need, his 1st act showed him to be quite the lover, and while the 2nd (and 3rd) act taxed him a little bit, he still sang with passion and great tone. His intonation never faltered and his French could use some work, specially since he has a very Gallic vibrato. This is a voice that will grow into this kind of repertoire and will do it well. Thank God we have someone who can take the mantle of Kraus in this role; we have been missing someone like this. Let’s hope that he will get to Paris soon and coach his French style and diction. We finally have a tenor who can sing the French rep and do it well.

Kate Lidsey as the Muse/Nicklausse improved over the opening night’s broadcast. I find her voice a little uninteresting and her French, while not embarrassing, is not a model to live by. For some reason, after it was all said and done, I was left with the impression of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts. Could it be that Nicklausse is just not a role that showcases Ms. Lindsey to her best advantage? She didn’t do a bad job, in fact, I think she gave it a good shot and sang well, but somehow still failed to get me exited. Her voice seemed a more natural fit for Mozart. Maybe she would be a better Idamante, Cherubino, Annio and Dorabella. As Niclause she just left me cold.

Kathleen Kim’s Olympia was a huge success. On my review of  Dec 4th I said that she failed to make an impression; boy did she make one today. The voice was limpid and the stress on her high notes was all but gone. Her Olympia was cute, perky and adorable. As a singer, her coloratura was accurate and her trill secure. I am inclined to say that her poor showing on opening night might have something to do with exhaustion, because she sounded fabulous today. My friend Ronizetti, who was in the house reported to me that he heard hints of vintage Pons, no small compliment coming from him. The one misfire I found in her interpretation was actually in her staging. Her jumping like a spoiled brat broke her legato and made her voice heavy and the production labored (In my review of opening night I said that she was unable to cope with some of the demands of the role: the coloratura was labored…) Today I realized that the problem was those jumps getting on the way. I also found her doll movements to get a little repetitive, more work is needed on those to make them more fluid and marry then to the wonderful singing she gave us today. One last comment, and this one is a matter of personal taste: Ms. Kims ornamentation was wonderful. Still, I found it a little repetitive and (strange for me) excessive. May I suggest working with a different coach?, get a fresh set of ears on it and see what works, what doesn’t and what can be changed or deleted.  Artists should have the liberty to continue experimenting with the music they sing, and Olympia’s aria is fertile ground for that. Brava Ms. Kim, You were the best of all the female singers today. You impressed a very tough dog, make that 2 of them.

Anna Netrebko as Antonia failed to impress me. Now, while that should not come as a surprise to anyone, I will say that her Antonia is a vast improvement over her recent assignments at the Met. Her Elle a fui, la tourterelle was well sung, but just that. What I continue to find lacking in her performance is a forward placement to her voice.  The voice continues to move farther from the mask and in its journey away, it prevents Ms. Netrebko to give us singing that is firmly based on the text; and that brings me to my next complaint: Ms. Netrebko’s French continues to elude me. Acquaintances and people whose opinion I value keep telling me her French as improved over the Juliettes from several years ago. If that is the case, kudos to Ms. Netrebko for improving her French; but let’s not get carried away, her French is in desperate need of continued work. Hopefully as she works on her French, she might also find a way to bring the voice to a brighter and more forward placement, as French singing and style requires the voice to stay very forward so the vowels and nasals can be done accurately and fast. The one wonderful aspect about her Antonia was her acting. Yes, she is famous for her acting, although she is certainly not the first soprano who is famous for her beauty, her acting skills and the beauty of the voice (Moffo anyone?). She created an Antonia that was strong and vulnerable at the same time (if such a thing is possible). If her singing was not up to par to her acting, she still gets credit for the great piece of acting she did today. Now girl, get to your voice teacher and fix some things…

This moviecast gave us a chance to see a side of Ms. Netrebko that the public usually does not get to see. I have to say one was quite charming while the other one left me scratching my head. Fans of the blog This is photobomb will know what I am refering to. At the end of the 1st intermission, while Debby Voigt interviewed Bartlett Sher, we saw Anna Netrebko officially do the Met’s most funny video bomb in HD history.  We saw her stretch and dance while Sher remained either unaware of what was going on behind him or trying to maintain composure. Her interview with Voigt was a disaster of epic proportions. She started well with her incredibly kind words about Calleja but things deteriorated quickly when she was unable or unwilling to answer other questions (say it girl, Antonia might be a short role, but she is a bitch to sing) and while doing so left Voigt scrambling. Her handling of the 2nd question might be open to interpretation. Netrebko said she was exited about wearing real chinchilla on stage and Voigt’s face was worth a million. When Voigt corrected her and said that the chinchilla was not real, Netrebko with a straight face corrected her and said that it was indeed the real thing. While I am sure the comment will make the rounds and much will be made about this (God help the Met if PETA gets a hold of this. Pamela Anderson organizing a protest in front of the Met) I am not sure it will all be 100% deserved. While it is true that many Americans feel that fur coats are inhuman and a poor use of our resources (and let’s not even touch the many species now in the brink of extinction), as La Cieca reminded us in her site, Netrebko IS NOT American and therefore her views and values on the matter are completely different. Rather than focusing on a perceived faux pas, I will chalk it up to a cultural difference. I am happy to say, I would rather wear a fake or a recycled/re-cut vintage fur than buying a new one; but Netrebko is entitled to her opinion, no matter how misguided I believe it is.  What I can not get over is how poor an interviewee she was. I felt horrible for Ms. Voigt.

The Giulietta of Ekaterina Gubanova was a puzzle to me. Not only was her singing unsophisticated and incredibly un-sexy. Her casting, to start with, should be raising brows. Yes, she is a woman of undeniable beauty but with the recent (if by recent you mean something like 10 years ago at least) discoveries of Hoffmann scores dating to the time of composition no longer support the continued tradition of casting a mezzo soprano as Giulietta. Having 2 mezzos singing the Belle nuit is boring and in today’s case not very pretty. Having a high voice and a lower one in the duet (as opposed to 2 low voices where one happens to be singing higher) balances the sonorities much better than what we were given today; plus Ms. Gubanova’s voice didn’t blend all that well with Ms. Lindsey’s.  Overall, the Giulietta act sported what was probably the best set design, the best costumes and the least interesting singing of the entire show.

As Lindorf, Coppélius, Dappertutto & Dr. Miracle, the 4 villains and Hofmman’s nemesis, the Met brought Alan Held; a veteran of more than 10 productions of Hoffmann. I have to say Mr. Held looked incredibly sexy as the villains (What is going on? Is the Met moving into casting sexy bears as villains these days?).  While his singing showed poise and commitment, his voice showed a lack of a secure top and lack of luster in the bottom register. This was truly a shame, as Mr. Held’s middle voice  is in perfect shape and it has some interesting colors. His acting, like his middle register was never anything less than secure. Overall, I think he acquitted himself with these roles.

In the 4 comic roles of Andrès, Cochenille,Pitichinaccio and Frantz, Alan Oke shone bright. He showed perfect comic timing, incredible stage presence and commitment. He also showed exactly what he (as Franz) lamented he didn’t have: technique. The mezza voce that he sang in the 1st verse of the aria, and the crescendo that he added was impeccably executed. As far as I am concerned he stole the show right out from Netrebko with his perfectly executed Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre. When this production is released on DVD, and I hope it is, this will be the interpretation to watch. Perfection in every sense.

Other small roles were also cast from strength. Dean Peterson as Luther, Rodell Rosel’s Nathanael, Mark Schowalter’s Spalanzani and Michael Todd Simpson in his dual assignments of Hermann and Schlemil all sang with great assurance and showed plenty of stage presence; specially Michael Todd Simpson who proved to be a sexier than usual Schlemil. I will say to the powers that be that more stage rehearsal is needed for his duel with Hoffmann. They both looked clumsy in it, but that can be resolves very easily. The chorus, as usual, continues to gather more than exceptional notices in this blog. The orchestra sounded terrific under the baton of James Levine.

As enjoyable as the show was, I do have to take exception to the poor job the Met has done by Offenbach and Hoffmann. They failed to stage a true representation of Offenbach’s Hoffmann. As pointed out earlier,  the past decade has seen a discovery of material closer to the composition and premiere time. While it can not be said that it is exactly what Offenbach would have wanted, surely it is closer to it than the musicological mess the Met put on this afternoon. Surely at this point it has been determined that several of the compromises Choudens and Oezer had to make are no longer sustainable or excusable.  Yes, the cast has seen more changes than a busy dryer has seen socks, but if the Met had the time to teach Calleja the role from scratch (a proposition so daunting it would make the tenor and the coaching staff run for the Prozac), I am sure a better job could be done in presenting a more faithful version of the score.  Presenting a completely new edition with the many changes the  cast has seen is, I know, unrealistic, but an effort should have been made to present a more faithful edition within the time constraints.  If this were not possible, then a compromise should have been reached to postpone the HD transmission to a time when a cast could be assembled and coached in a better edition of the score; this was done for Hildegard Behrens’ Elektra after all… That epilogue seemed to go on for days, and the music was not all that interesting, to say the least.

The next HD presentation (save for encores of Hoffmann) will be Robert O’Hearn’s sumptuous Rosenkavalier on Jan 9th with Renee Fleming, Susan Graham and Christine Schäfer. They recently posted pictures of the cast here, take a look at this beautiful production and buy your tickets ASAP.

December 20, 2009 Posted by | Opera Review | , | 9 Comments

Vivica + Vivaldi = Ecstasy

To listen to excerpts and/or buy click here

I finally got my copy of  the new recording of Vivaldi arias  with Vivica Genaux and Europa Galante under the baton of Fabio Biondy. The album is appropriately titled Pyrotechnics; and OMG, there is enough pyrotechnics delivered to fill a  4th  of July celebration.

The recording showcases Genaux’s ample gifts in a collection of 13 opera arias, some recorded for the first time, all revolving around the art or coloratura as a means of expression. Genaux delivers with such gusto, bravura and poise the recording is a joy to to listen to.  Is this artist capable of putting out a bad recording? Like Arlene Auger before her, it seems impossible. This recording is so fantastic, I am going to run out of adjectives quickly and fall into cliches, mostly because they work.

Now, before I fall over singing praises for this wonderful artist, I must talk about the other artists who also participate in the recording. Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante are just as impressive as Genaux. I loved the sound that Europa Galante makes!  In contrast to other conductor’s (and ensembles) thin, unsupported orchestral colors delivered in an earlier than thou attitude, Europa Galante’s sound is full, luscious, gorgeous. They sound like a full out orchestra; I would have never guessed I was listening to 15 players. They played with such care and love I am sure making this recording was not a chore for Genaux. These are artists of a high level and their contribution to the success of this recording should not be taken for granted. BRA – VI.

As a rule, I do not necessarily believe that music from the Baroque  and XIXth century should be performed with too much of a contrast, save for stylistic differences, like the approach to ornamentation. Romantic music did not spring fully formed in the XIXth century after all. Composers of earlier times did not make a distinction when casting their works. There was no early music scene during Handel’s,  Mozart’s or Vivaldi’s time. They used and cast the best available opera singers of the time. This doesn’t mean that I do not see a benefit in having specialists in this area of the repertoire, specially given the fact that many conductors who specialize in the music of the ottocento are completely incapable of realizing that music is so much more than what is written on the paper.  Vivica Genaux is the perfect example of an artist who can navigate both sides of the divide. She does not adopt a different sound for when she sings Rossini or Vivaldi. As singers of the past did, she uses her voice and adapts the style to her voice. I can only wish that we would get more artists like her, who can do both styles credibly without a need to go off the voice or adopt a mannered, unsupported or cutesy sound just because they are singing Bach, Handel, Vivaldi or Mozart.

The disc opens with Come in vano il mare irato, a bravura aria from Cantone in Utica. Right away the voice grabs you with its eveness and accuracy in passage work. Lemme tell you, the aria is a bitch. Passage work comes at you fast and furious; mercilessly exposing anything that could be wrong with any singer. Vivica more than singing it, conquers it by means of great articulation and expression alone. You can hear how hard she worked at the aria, you hear her gasping for air in some sections, a reminder that singing this aria is no easy feat. At the end, like an athlete winning a gold medal in the Olympics, Vivica throws her arms up in the air and you can almost hear her say I did it!


Now, don’t believe that the recording is all about fast and furious. There are also moments of introspection, like in Il labbro ti lusinga (Opera unknown), in which Vivica employs her beautiful voice to apparently turn down a lover who, despite the attempts to gain the character’s love, (s)he realizes it is impossible, and sings My eyes flatter you, my eyes promise love, but this ungrateful heart burns with another passion. Vivica sings it beautifully, expressing the characters pity towards the rejected one perfectly. What a way to get dumped. I already have my number and await in line…

Through the recording, several things are apparent to me, and while I have mentioned them here, I do want to summarize them. Vivica’s voice is incredibly even from top to bottom. I find it refreshing that we have mezzos like her singing with such evenness of tone. It is way too easy for mezzos to believe that they do not need to have both good high notes and low ones. Thankfully, artists like Vivica Genoux and Joice DiDonato sing with technical expertise to spare. Let’s hope the mezzos in waiting will listen to them and imitate the many wonderful qualities they have. Another thing that I absolutely love in this artist is how good her sung Italian is. I have gotten tired of listening to singers who can not sing in a foreign language without making unacceptable mistakes in their diction and their declamation. Just because a singer is American (or French, or Romanian, or German), it does not mean their recordings or performances have to be marred by accented delivery; Vivica is a testament to that. Her Italian singing through the disc is fantastic. She avoids the pitfalls of adding wrong accents on words by  singing note values rather than text (a mistake all too common in these, the latter days of the come scritto era). How refreshing to have a singer (not the only one mind you) who can use the text to inform the music making, rather than letting the note values in the page be a straitjacket that limits the expression. Truly I tell you, music making of the first order.

The disc moves along with expressions of rage, love and desperation, all carefully selected to display Vivica’s expressive voice and way with the text. I know that there are other mezzos who have recorded a Vivaldi album and more recently a castrato-inspired album as well. Not to make comparisons between artists, as I find both marvelous in their work; I find Vivica’s way with coloratura far more expressive and a lot less mechanical. To my ears, her phrasing a lot more natural, musical and ultimately pleasing . Other artists dazzle us with the speed of their coloratura in this repertoire, Vivica not only sings it just as fast and just as accurate, she adds the expression and thus triumphs in areas where other artists don’t. With other artists we are marveled at what they can do with the music, how fast can it be sung, how difficult the music is and accurate their articulation is. In this recording we marvel with Vivica at how expressive this music can be in the hands of a musician ready to make these arias something deeper than just pyrotechnics.  The recording triumphs because in spite of being called Pyrotechnics, it delivers both the pyrotechnics and the emotion in equal portions.

Lastly, I want to comment in something that is completely unrelated to the singing in this release: the picture on the cover. It is so refreshing to see an artist put a recording out with her picture, HER FACE, no photoshopping until you are completely unrecognizable and unrealistic. Whoever made that decision, thank you for taking a stand. Vivica is a beautiful woman and seeing her for the gorgeous woman that she is in the cover is a great thing for people all over the world who are succered into believing in unrealistic beauty standards.

December 13, 2009 Posted by | Recording Review | , , | 2 Comments

A Great Start to the Season

I just finished listening to the Met’s Trittico on what was the 1st of their brodcast of the season. before i start talking about my impression I must thank the sponsors of the season: Toll Brothers. Thanks you for taking over when Texaco thought they were too special for the opera. Thank you for your gift to many who can only receive opera through the radio. Than you for your support and your dedication. No matter what happens through the season, there will always be a winner: the audience and that is largely because of you. A standing ovation for Toll brothers and all their staff.

Needless to say, the afternoon belonged to Patricia Racette. She pulled one hell of a tour de force today. Her Georgietta was the best thing of an otherwise lackluster Tabarro. Her Suor Angelica was a towering characterization and her Lauretta was simple and beautifully sung. After the Angelica, I was astonished that she could still sing Lauretta and that she could deliver her in such simple terms. She definitely deserved the ovation she got. Brava!

Further honors go to Stephanie Blythe reprising the roles of Frugolla, Zia Pricipessa and Zita. This artist continues to make one fabulous move to another. She characterized the roles marvelously. Her singing was solid and ultimately proved to be a perfect foil to Racette’s 3 heroines.  I know that it was Marylin Horne’s dream to sing these roles on one night and that dream was left unfulfilled. How lucky are we that we got an artist of the same caliber to do it for us.

The afternoon got off to a rocky start with the announcement that Salvatore Licitra, the afternoon’s Luigi  had a cold and begged indulgence and understanding. I’ll try… You know? I didn’t hear any difference between how he sang in Chicago’s Ernani and today. If he was suffering from a cold, I understand, but how come he sounded exactly the same? I’m sorry, but given the fact that he sounded the same I will take the “cold” announcement with a grain of salt and still say that cold or not, he delivered yet another performance that showed no elegance and no restraint. His career continues to baffle me as I do not hear anything artistic coming out of his throat.

Zeljko Lucic’s Michele had his moments, but for some reason it reminded me of Juan Pons’ Michele from the last time Il Trittico was performed. No, that is not meant to be a compliment. Michele is an ungrateful role, short, unsympathetic and it has no truly showy moments. I think Zeljko Lucic did his best with what he was given. Stephanie Blythe didn’t sound pretty as Frugola. Needless to say the chat room where I was exploded with unkind comments. During the interview in the first intermission, she talked about how the role sits in an area of the voice that doesn’t make it sound pretty and how she believes that it is exactly how Puccini intended it. One way or another, I still think that she is luxury casting as Frugola and I thought that overall, she was fantastic in the one mezzo role that is sympathetic from start to finish.

The Trittico reach the high point with the Suor Angelica performance. To say that it was divine is to put it mildly. Racette was obviously in her element and Blythe was singing a role that allows for her beautiful voice to be heard to best advantage. Their confrontation reached levels of heat not seen yet at the Met. This was singing and characterization of the first order. For the most part, Racette sang the role beautifully. She encompassed everything you come to expect in an Angelica. My only quibble is the fact that she allowed herself to get caught up during the Senza mamma. This make for thrilling outward expression (albeit a less successful high A at the end) but it somewhat altered the arch of the opera. With such an outward Senza Mamma, there was nowhere to go in the final scene. The opera had reached its climax with the aria and building on top of that was hard, plus the hysteria seemed misplaced. Let’s hope that Racette hets to sing this role more times, as i believe her characterization of the role will grow and she’ll prove to be an Angelica to make you cry and cry…

The afternoon ended with a magnificent Gianni Schicchi. This time Racette took a back seat to Alessandro Corbelli’s Schicchi. Given how wonderful a Schicchi he is, both vocally and in acting, how could you not take a back seat and enjoy him?  Corbelli has matured  to a great singing actor with an uncanny sense of commedy. His Schicchi was beautifully vocalized and if the acting was anything like the telecast, he was the perfect foil for the Donato family. As Zita, once again Blythe put to use her wonderful voice and also her marvelous comic timing and created the perfect leader for the pack of wolves. I have do doubt that Blythe’s Zita and Corbelli’s Schicchi will make a wonderful couple when they get married (if you didn’t know, there is a sequel to Gianni Schicchi that hints that the hatred between Zita and Schicchi is due to their attraction to one another. It also hints that they will end up hooking up)

Racette was once again perfect in the role of Lauretta.  After having sung her heart out as Angelica, she came and sang Lauretta with simple delivery and a hint of childish charm that I am sure would have melted the heart of any Schicchi. She also sang the treacherous unwritten high C at the end with no showing of getting tired. As Rinuccio, Armenian tenor Saimir Pirgu in the role of his house and broadcast debut (he debuted on 11/20 in this production) showed much promise. His Rinuccio was a vast improvement over last year’s Massimo Giordano. Let’s hope for more wonderful things from Mr. Pirgu.

As always, it is easy to take for granted the orchestra and chorus at the Met. The same could be said for the magnificent set of supporting artists the Met secured for this production, so fantastic is their playing and singing that you just seem to forget them. The ensemble singing in all operas was top notch. Every small role was filled with wonderful artists too many to name but none the less for it. The orchestra under the baton of Stefano Ranzani played wonderfully and solidly. Bravo to all of you. This afternoon was a huge success in great part because you were there to support your soloists. Bravi tutti.

Next week we get the HD transmission of Hoffman. If you have a theater close to you, go see it. If it is not in your budget, you’ll have the opportunity to hear it free of charge thanks to the Toll Brother’s Company and the Toll Brothers International Radio Network.

December 12, 2009 Posted by | Opera Review | | Leave a comment

A Farewell to Mary Curtis-Verna

While the name Mary Curtis-Verna will immediately bring memories to hardcore collectors and those who still long for The Golden Age, her name might not mean a lot to younger opera goers. Hopefully this corrects some of that…

Born in Salem, Massachusetts on May 9, 1921, she studied at Hollis College in Virginia, and in Italy with Ettore Verna, whom she latter married. She made her stage debut in Milan (at the Teatro Lirico), as Desdemona, in 1949. She sang in theaters throughout Italy, and made guest appearances in Vienna,  Munich and other important venues through Europe in repertoire as varied as Norma, the Marschallin, Senta, Eva and Elsa, all in Italian. Her American debut took place in Philadelphia, in 1952, and the same year at the San Francisco Opera, as Aida. She debuted at the New York City Opera, as Donna Anna, in 1954, and at the Metropolitan Opera,as Leonora in Il trovatore, in 1957.

At the Metropolitan Opera, the presence of famous divas like Tebaldi, Milanov, and Lentyne Price; all famous for singing the roles she sang, relegated Mary Curtis-Verna to the rank of cover and utility singer.  Given the  attention she was already enjoying in Italy, this must have been a hard pill to swallow; but her husband’s failing health did not afford her the luxury of spending entire seasons away from home, so stability won over super stardom.  Opera lovers of a certain age still talk about how they used to complain when they got Mary Curtis-Verna instead of Madame Super Diva X.  Those same people insist that a singer of her talents would have been more celebrated and appreciated today, given the scarcity of singers naturally endowed to sing her repertoire and, furthermore,  those who can sing it with command of the style and distinction.

As the Marschallin in Genoa, with Margaret Maz as Octavian

As a house soprano and cover artist, her resume at the Met is a mishmash of roles that would make a soprano’s head spin: Mimi, Violetta, Amelia (both the Ballo and Boccanegra), Alice Ford, Santuzza, Adriana Lecouvreur (a single performance), Gutrune, Aida, Turandot, Elisabeth di Valois, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Leonora (both of them), Maddalena di Coigni, and both Donna Anna & Donna Elvira (sung to Leontyne Price’s Anna). Now, don’t for one moment think that this artist went unapreciated by the Met management. For what I could gather she was given at least one new production (Boccanegra) , 3 broadcasts (Aida, Don Carlo, Gotterdammerung) , and 2 recordings that I discuss latter. She was also a staple of their yearly tour through the country. Surely the management saw the benefit of having such an artist ready to jump in at a moment’s notice in the house and gave her the opportunity to perform the roles while on tour.

Curtis-Verna sang at the Met for nearly 10 years. It encompassed 10 seasons, 96 performances and the 19 roles listed above.  Her career with the company ended the day they said farewell to the old theater. After her retirement in 1969, she chaired the voice department in the University of Washington for 20 years.

Her recording output is shamelessly small and hard to find. Arkiv Music lists 3 complete operas; Borders.com lists none Amazon lists the most. Seems that she made a solo recording and it appears to be available.  Collectors who want to buy her recordings need to go off the beaten path.   Earlier in her career, she did a series of broadcasts for RAI (Don Giovanni,  Ballo in maschera & Aida)  that made their way to the Cetra  Catalogue. These recordings were available for a while in the USA, and are still available through Amazon.com but at a steep price. The Don Giovanni was sung opposite Giuseppe Taddei, Italo Tajo & Cesare Valletti. The Ballo in maschera, opposite Ferruccio Tagliavini & Giuseppe Valdengo;  the  Aida was sung opposite Franco Corelli, Miriam Pirazzini & Giangiacomo Guelfi. Not bad company for a girl from Salem, MA.

The fact that at the Met she was seen as more of a house soprano (and maybe because of it) did not prevent them from using her for their own recordings. In addition to the recordings listed above (and the several live recordings that you can probably find) she is heard in 2 recordings made under the auspices of the Metropolitan Opera Record Collector Club (MORC). These were recordings (some of them abridged beyond recognition) made in the late 1950’s, and offered to club members at reasonable prices. Many of the singers used in the recordings, like Curtis-Verna, were seldom recorded commercially.

For the MORC, Curtis-Verna recorded Andrea Chenier with Tucker (his only recording of the role), and Il Trovatore with Kurt Baum and Rosalid Elias.  These recordings remain unreleased and are prized by collectors everywhere. Several years ago, a collector by the name Mike Richter took it upon himself to digitize all the MORC recordings from LPs and  out of his own pocket published the whole collection on CD-Rom. Thanks to his labor of love, you now have an opportunity to download the complete MORC  Chenier and Trovatore. The links are below the musical examples below.

If you are unfamiliar with Mary Curtis-Verna and want to wet your appetite, here is a full serving:

1962 Manon Lescaut Philadelphia Lyric Opera with impresario Ray Fabiani & Julius Rudel

From Don Giovanni: Or sai chi l’onore and Non Mi dir

From Il trovatore: Tacea la notte placida & the Act IV scene starting with D’amor sull’ali rose

From Un ballo in maschera: Ecco lorrido campo

From Andrea Chenier La mamma morta

If you want to download the complete MORC Chenier click here: Andrea Chenier

If you want to download the complete MORC Trovatore click here: Il Trovatore

As we bid farewell to this wonderful artist, let’s leave the last words to Curtis-Verna herself in 2 very different times during her career:

As a young singer in 1953 she told Opera News:  Perhaps if one were to list the requirements of a career, ‘patience’ would follow directly after ‘talent’ and ‘preparation.’

In 2005, in an article for the same magazine, she told Richard Dyer about the advise she always gave her students: I tell my students how hard it is to have a career. Your voice is in your body, and it is affected by your health and by your emotions, but the public must never know that. You need to learn how to have strong shoulders. You cannot take anything personally. You need to have a flame in you that nothing can extinguish.

Well, nobody will extinguish that flame now…

December 6, 2009 Posted by | In memoriam | , | 23 Comments

Hoffman Opening Night: Success!

Well, I wish I had been in the house, but being in the heartland, I had to content myself with the Metropolitan Opera’s free webcast (Link will take you to La Cieca’s post of the complete 09-10 Sirius schedule, including the free ones)  of their opening night Hoffman. I have to say I am glad I skipped Grey’s Anatomy and Private practice and heard this instead.

Now, I will not consider this a full review since I am missing the visual aspect of the production. Those I will get on the Dec 19th HD moviecast and I will share my views then. In the meantime, here are some of my views of what happen on stage as relayed by the radio:

Calleja continues to impress me. His vibrato reminds me of French singers from before the jet age and it lend an aura of credibility to Hoffman. His voice seems to be ideal for the role and he performed it quite well. Yes, he sounded tired towards the end and there were some less than pretty notes and some pushing; name a tenor who didn’t tire in Hoffman (besides Kraus). Overall I thought Calleja did a fabulous job and merits the place of honor in this performance. Bravo!

Kathleen Kim’s Olympia is definitely a work in progress, and a voice in progress.  I understand that the Met is wanting to give her some exposure and they are to be commended for it. I am not sure Olympia was the best role. She sounded shrill at times and unable to cope with some of the demands of the role: the coloratura was labored, the trill a little sloppy. Overall, while she failed to create a strong impression in the role, I will say that I would love to hear her in roles like Zerlina, Susanna, Rosina and other roles more suited to her voice. I know she wants to be considered a coloratura, so let’s hope she is continuing her training in that department so her Zerbinetta will leave us with a better impression. For being a good team player and putting out a good effort, you get this Atta Girl!

Stop the presses! Ana Netrebko is finally home! After witnessing some disastrous performances in several bel canto roles, Anna Netrebko and the Met have finally found a role in which she can shine and showcase he very considerable talents. Antonia is the perfect role for Netrebko and lets home the Met will get out of their denial and admit once and for all that Netrebko is not a coloratura and they start casting her in lyric soprano roles. Those are plentiful and she should be a lot better in them: Liu, Antonia, Mimi, Michaela, Susanna, The Countess, Lauretta and many more. As Antonia, Netrebko unleashed her now famous plush tones to great effect.  True, her intonation was suspect at times and there is not trill to be found but the overall impact was favorable. One last quip: one of the qualities that separate great artists from mere singers is the ability to sing in ensemble. There was no need for Ms. Netrebko to ride the last ensemble the way she did. A little more discipline in that area would be welcomed.

Kate Lindsey and Ekaterina Gubanova failed to impress me. Maybe there is a visual aspect that I am missing to fully get their appeal. What came over the web was (in both cases) a faceless voice and a lukewarm performance. These 2 roles give the singers  the possibility of walking away with the performances in the absence of a strong Hoffman and so-so Olympias and Antonias.  I got the sense that they didn’t even try. Ms. Lindsey’s muse was definitely not a muse, there were moments of shrillness and suspect intonation; same for Ms. Gubanova. She is portraying the role of one of the most famous courtesans ever and she did not sound plush, sexy or convincing. The Barcarole was an utter disappointent from both singers. Let’s chalk it up to opening night nerves and see what comes out on the 19th…

Alan Held, Alan Oke and Michael Todd Simpson all shined in their multiple personality disorders. Mr. Held held his own (no pun intended) against the monsters he faced on stage; singing with gusto and individuality. Bravo. Mr Oke and Mr. Simpson both brought a lot of character to their interpretations. Fantastic job you guys. I am looking forward to experience the visual part of your interpretations on the 19th. The vocal part was top notch.

Lastly, Maestro Levine steered the boat with distinction and security. It is good to have him in the podium and knowing he is recovering. Please don’t overdo it. The orchestra sounded fabulous and the chorus, oh my goodness, the chorus was spectacular. Overall, the Met in-house forces were more than support, they were artists in their own right and a huge portion of the success of the night is due to them. Bravi. By the applause heard for the production team, seems we have a winner here.

So there you have it. If you are close to NYC while Hoffman is playing, seems that you need to get your hands on a ticket. If you are not, you will have a chance to experience it on Movie theaters across the world on Dec 19th (check here for USA theaters and here for international venues) and also on the Toll Brothers international radio broadcasts.

December 4, 2009 Posted by | Opera Review | | 1 Comment

Casta Diva, Inmortal Diva

Today is Dec 4th and it is the day Maria Callas celebrated her birthday. So here at Can Belto I am celebrating.

I first heard Callas’ voice at the home of my voice teacher. Her husband played Divinite du Styx from Alceste and my first thought was THAT is Callas? Thank God I was not turnes off enough to come to love her. After the initial reaction I have endured a 20 year love affair with her voice and her artistry. I love many singers, but Callas is special to me for many reasons.

So I’ll spare you the details and the mushy reminiscences and the details repeated ad nausea. I’ll only say this:

Brava, Brava Maria Callas!

Thank you Maria for your art, your gift…

December 4, 2009 Posted by | In memoriam | | Leave a comment

Sometime I feel like a motherless child….

Sometimes I feel like the red headed one…

I have a bone to pic, and this one is kind of a biggie for me. I have always been kind of particular about my music and how I shop for it.  I remember how I used to work at a Musicland/Sam Goody (remember those?) in the town I went to school in. At that time, they didn’t have squat on Classical; we had the worse classical selection in town (In the biggest opera school in the world, mind you). Obviously, I could not shop there for stuff to add to my collection; for that I had to go to the other CD shops. It was a religious thing to visit the store every Tuesday when Music School students got 10-20% off, plus all the other offers they got. Needless to day, there came a time I got to know their collection quite well.  Every once in a while, the phone at Musicland would ring, it was the Classical clerk at the other store asking for me. Hey man, do you know if we got this recording? No, I am not kidding, the people from the other store would call me at my job (and sometimes at home) to ask me if THEY had a specific recording in their stock, sometimes they would ask me what to recommend to a customer.

All that rambling just to say that after a couple of years buying recordings to build my collection, I think I know a thing or 2 about cataloging recordings in a shop, and I have gotten used to  seeing the same basic recordings and their reissue incarnations. Plus, I read some in the area of recordings and casts and who has done what and when. SO…

I am shopping at Amazon.com and I am looking for stuff to download since I got a gift certificate. I go to the Music section and when I get there, on the left of the screen they have this list of categories, which is kind of helpful since it allows you to narrow down your search.  I click Classical Music and right after that i click on the Opera & Vocal link.  Now, within the Opera & Vocal section, they have sub-categories titled General, Arias, Divas, Composers (and Performers) A-ZHistorical Periods, Operettas, Oratorios, Vocal (non opera), and Voices. Mind you, if you see, we are in Opera and Vocal section and there is every sub-division known to man BUT one that says Complete Operas; this doesn’t bode well…

So I click on the Arias section (what can I do?, there is not a Complete Operas section). Imagine my surprise when among the oratorio section I find the following treasures: Yo Yo Ma: Simply Barroque, The Art of Segovia, Christmas with Mario Lanza and several others, make that MANY more. Yep, there is not  a single opera aria in any of those recordings, but they ara cataloged under the Arias section…

So I decide to investigate the operetta section. You know, every once in a while you do need to let your hair down and sing Meine Lippen or Viljia. So imagine my surprise when I get these recommendations for a night of light entertainment and relaxation: Turandot with Sutherland & Pavarotti, Carmen with Callas and Gedda, Tosca with Callas and Pippo di Stefano and Traviata with Cotrubas and Domingo. Yes, all perfect for one of those nights when you need to pour a glass of port and CUT YOUR VEINS OPEN… LOL. Did i just say that? Now, here’s the cake. Among the many mistakes that you find in this sectyion, you also find Holiday instrumental Music by Mantovani and his orchestra. Oh, but the fun does not stop there. A quick look in the Cantatas section of the Vocal-non Opera section yields this as first choice: Sarah Brightman, A Winter Symphony. I have to confess, I had no idea that Sarah Brightman (or Josh Groban for that matter) was a Bach specialist.  Sometimes I wish I was making this shit up… At least the Chanson section has people actually singing French art songs.

So my question is. Do people at Amazon.com not have the money to hire people who actually know about Music and how to catalogue it correctly? I mean, you have an Opera and Vocal section with a whole bunch of categories but none of them is Complete Operas, then you put the operas with the operettas and then put Christmas and Holiday music all over the map. This is stupid in so many levels it baffles me. Why not use a smarter way of cataloging the music, one that will yield actual and accurate results.

  • How about having a Holiday Music section and within that have sub categories for Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other Holidays?
  • How about a Complete operas section where you actually find complete operas as opposed to having to click on the operetta section to find them?
  • How about an operetta section that then subdivides into German, Zarzuela, French, American operettas and the like?
  • How about a section for crossover artists like Brightman, Paul Potts, Josh Groban, and crossover efforts by Domingo, Pavarotti, Kiri and the many opera singers who do them every year?
  • How about an Arias section where you find people SINGING, and not an infinite list of Opera without words, or Freddy Kruger Plays Puccini in a Broken Violin

I am sure anyone with an expertise in the symphonic repertoire would find just as many mistakes and instances when he is looking for symphonies and (s)he comes up with Pavarotti and the Dixie Chicks Play all the Beatles Songs

Then I move to Borders.com to shop. If I thought the people at Amazon are clueless, the people at Borders are just plain dumb or worse. I will give them this: Their cataloging is a LOT better. When they say Operas, they mean operas. If you click on the operas tab, you will not come across some recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. They also have a way to separate your search by budget. That way you can limit your search if you do not want to pay more than $10, $15, $20, $30 ext. That I find quite useful, since it allows me to stay in budget.  So in terms of cataloging, the people at  Borders.com get an A+. What’s my problem then?, funny you asked…

In my search, I find this treasure: Puccini, Manon Lescaut, performer: Giuseppe di Stefano $10.99. I see that and I immediately think: I am fucking lucky, this is the Callas Manon Lescaut, which I don’t have and at a great price. I mean, I had checked my reference guide for recordings and I know that Pippo only recorded Manon Lescaut with Callas; short of a live recording that I didn’t know existed, this should’ve been a shoe-in.

Like every self-respecting site, Borders.com allows you to listen to samples and I did just that. Imagine my surprise when I start listening to In quelle trine morbide and I just keep thinking: This is not Callas, why is this woman sounding like Licia Albanese? I go to check the tenor, I know Pippo’s voice from a million tenors. I press the Donna non vidi mai and what do I get? Bjorling. Yes, the incompetent bastards not only failed to include a full cast for the recording (something that boils me. If you recorded a role in the opera, you should be mentioned in the cast; it is common decency) the stupid fucks identified the recording as belonging to Giuseppe di Stefano and he is nowhere near that recording.

So here my question is: Does Borders not have enough money to check that the operas they are going to put are correctly identified? Can they not do basic checks to make sure that the recordings are properly labeled so the people can find them, as opposed to run into them or worse, buy them in a different place?  I swear, sometimes the biggest corporations, with the biggest budgets are the ones that make the cheapest mistakes…

December 1, 2009 Posted by | Rants | , | 1 Comment

Cyber Monday

Well, The Mamas and the Papas would sing Monday Monday, but today I’ll sing Cyber Monday…. And I love Cyber Monday! I did some opera shopping today. You know, it being the last day of my birthday month and all.

So what did I buy? I was hoping you would ask that. For starters, Naxosdirect.com had a 5.99/CD sale and I had a $5.00 gift certificate. On top of that, they were offering 1.00 shipping or buy 5 and shipping is free. Yeah, I went crazy. For all the recordings that you see below, I paid $36.93 and no shipping! That purchase any other time would have cost me a mind boggling 134.94 plus Shipping & Handling. I saved 98.01!

Then, I had to return something to Borders. Instead of getting my money back, I got a gift card because I knew I would use the money at one point or another. Well, it so happened that their website (Borders.com) had a sale buy one get the other at 60% off. Plus if your order was over $10 shipping was free.  Needless to say, I got a couple of things. For the 2 below I would have paid 31.98 but I saved 8.99 on the 60% plus the S&H. Add to that the fact that I had already spent the money (since it was a return and I got store credit), I only had to pay an extra $6 out of pocket.

That means I’ll be busy listening to all this shit and writing my impressions in this blog.  I love it.

Stay tuned…

December 1, 2009 Posted by | Shopping! | | Leave a comment