Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

The art of the Coloratura…

I recently downloaded Diana Damrau’s new album, after seeing it on Amazon.com and waiting for iTunes to get their act together and offer a dowloadable version (I have some money to burn on my iTunes account). After her latest offering of mostly Mozart, I was eagerly anticipating this one, since it covers an area of the repertoire that Damrau is taking a claim to: the true and tested coloratura roles. I will have to say that I enjoyed the disc quite a lot, but I was also left with a sense of disappointment from her. In her desire to create a wonderful aural experience for the listener, I think she forgot her broad-stroke paint brush. What I mean is that she wanted to bring so many little details to her interpretations that I think she forgot that we, the listener, can (and should) add our own layers to what we are listening. Too many times sections are punched out and pulled appart that we do not get a sense Damrau can actually sing a legato line in which the music, and not her, take precedence.  I am going to go out on a limb and put some of the blame of this trend (no, Damrau is not the first one to do this on disk) squarely at the feet of Renee Fleming, whose bad habit of wanting to put her stamp on every little phrase she sings is apparently causing other artists to feel that is the way to go.

I do understand that a lot of this repertoire has been recorded, and sometimes quite good, but artists lucky enough to get a solo recording need to understand that we are going to buy their recordings, even if we own 30 other versions of an aria (or arias) already. Yes, there is a lot of competition, but by them distorting musical lines or exaggerating the punch line, the impression we get is not one of artistry but of a desperate act on their part, almost  like saying See? I got the joke here.. or See what can I do with this phrase, I bet [inset your favorite diva here]didn’t do this here. Artists, this is getting old and is actually turning us off your recordings and sending us right back at those artists you desperately want to make us forget. Time to trust the music and the text, kiddos; there is no need to all these nonsense show off that is ultimately not doing you any good; or in other words: Quit the fucking around and SING!

OK, now that all that is off my chest, lets do talk about the many good things this recording has to offer. For starters, the varied program (it is listed at the bottom if this review) . It offers Damrau an oportinity to give us a little bit of dreamy, a little bit of comedy, a little bit of resolve, an opportunity to hear what could have been and a whole lot of coloratura.

The disc opens with a effervescent Je Veux Vivre and continues with a Caro nome that doesn’t quite sparkles. I believe that Damrau’s personality might be too strong for some of these ingenue roles, even if her voice is perfect for them. While Juliette might seem just ideal, Her Gilda was a little too willing. Yes, she tried and in pure vocal terms she succeeds, but I was left with the feeling that this Gilda was not all that inexperienced, but remembering some heavy petting that might have occurred off stage. When the tracks reached Zerbinettas aria, I was looking forward mostly because it is not a piece that is usually  associated to heavier voiced coloraturas. I was hoping that Damrau being German would allow her do a lot with the text. Alas, I was left disappointed, not because she sang it poorly, but because the aria’s humor was delivered with a boxing glove rather than with a feather. In this aria more than in any other I wished Damrau would have taken a step back and allowed the music and the text to make the points rather than hear her deliver them in almost anal-retentive fashion.

The highlight of the disc, at least for me, was Anna Truelove’s aria from The Rakes Progress: Silently night…I go to him. In this aria Damraus does allow the music to flow naturally and by doing so she is highly effective in portraying Anne’s disappointment and eventual  resolution to go after the love she knows needs her. I will say that the other highlights of the recording come not far from the Stravinski, this time in the Oscar arias. Once again we get the effervescent way to sing, the smile and the joyeux de vivre that characterizes Damrau’s personality. She handles the staccatos in the  Volta la terra beautifully and the Saper vorreste is full of joy, teasing and (oh joy! finally!) some variations. How wonderful had it been had Damrau would have gone back to the time when coloratura sopranos made something of this aria by  way of ornamentation. Let’s hope that this is the beginning of a trend, since it has been too long since conductors have foolishly dominated the discussion on what proper Verdi style is.

The disc ends with a bang, with 3 numbers that are as famous and loved by coloraturas as Großmächtige Prinzessin. The O Luce di quest’anima starts in an immensely beautiful way; Damrau backs off the pressure that she sometimes puts of her voice and just sings, such simplicity of delivery is not something she is known for, but for a couple of pages she just shines.  I must admit I was not prepared for what I heard. I was expecting more pulling and punching, but what I got was truly beautiful singing, simple delivery, perfect for this aria.  I wish she had kept it up for all the aria, but even with the few times she did, I would say that those who will download single tracks from this disk should seriously consider adding this one to their list. This propably was the best singing of the entire disc. Ophelia’s mad scene from Hamlet finds Damrau in excellent form both vocally and dramatically and the Glitter and be Gay is fabulous in its ferocious intensity, all the way to an F# in alt, even if it is a tad overacted for the dizzy blond the character is.

In summary, the disc is a success, even if i would not call it a home run. Fans of Damrau should be very happy to add this disc to their collections while people who are getting to know her will ne happy to find tracks to sample her singing. Let’s hope that in future releases Ms. Damrau will back off a little from the extreme effects and give us a disc that shows more singing at the level of the O luce di quest anima.

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Roméo et Juliette: Je Veux Vivre
Rigoletto: Gualtier Malde…Caro nome
Ariadne auf Naxos, Zerbinetta: Großmächtige Prinzessin…
Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Una Voce Poco fa
The Rakes Progress: Silently night…I go to him
Gianni Schicchi; O mio Babbino Caro
Un Ballo in Maschera: Volta la terrea
Un Ballo in Maschera: Saper Vorreste
Linda di Chamounix: O luce di quest amina
Hamlet: A vos jeux, mes amis…
Candide: Glitter and be Gay

January 25, 2010 Posted by | Recording Review | , | 2 Comments

Carmen est un oiseau rebele

Today we were able to see the Met’s new Carmen in a new production staged Richard Eyre with sets designed by Rob Howell and costumes by Irene Bohan. This production is a welcomed changed from the Zefirelli production for 10 years ago that simply was just ugly. The opera, updated to sometime around the 40s is still very traditional and the stage machinery is used to create locales within a unit set. I know a lot has been said about the production already and many people have come against it because it is too traditional. To those who are pulling their hair because the Met again put out another traditional production I want to remind that the reggie movement now 20-30 years old in Europe (some would say that it started with Wieland Wagner and thus is 50 years old already)  and therefore these kind of productions are not avant garde or provocative anymore. In truth, they are now the new “traditional” productions over there; add the fact that even after these many years, audiences still reject them soundly and you are not going to get too much pity from me. So, in my opinion, cry all you want, bad art might be art, but it is still bad and some things do not need to be imported. So take what I say with a grain of salt, if you are expecting the Met to “finally” take on the reggie productions that have been all  the rage (in both senses) in Europe, then you are going to hate this new Carmen. I fucking loved it.

Now that you have sat through my little moment, I do want to say to those who feel like me, RUN to get your ticket. The sets and the costume design is truly inspired at times. I would say that this production of Carmen improved 100% on the old Zefirelli production. If you are in NYC, or planning a visit, this is the one production this year that I think you should not miss. Truly amazing stuff in my opinion.

I’m going to start with the chorus and the orchestra because I am starting to sound like a broken record: these people can do no wrong. The orchestra sounded amazing! They were sensitive to the singing and their playing made as much impact as the singing upstairs. Same thing for the chorus: are these people capable of poor singing? I believe not. (Angela, you looked amazing by the way). This chorus is such an improvement from the chorus from 10 years ago it is amazing to believe they are from the same institution. Congratulations to the Met for getting themselves one hell of a chorus, I hope you treat those people with as much respect and defference then you treat your soloist, because they are making your starts look a lot better than what (sometimes) they are. Bravi to all, and a big bravo to maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted with the energy of a 20 year older.  The orchestra responded to his fast tempos and the score had an energy and thrust that I had not heard in a while. Yes, some people will say that he conducted like he needed to go pee (or worse), but you know? Carmen the opera  is like having sex, sometimes you do need to do it fast and hard. Bravo maestro; bravi tutti!

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When this production was announced my first reaction was these guys are doing Carmen without a Carmen, and then Gheorghiu threw her little shit fit, walked out like the spoiled brat she is said to be and opened the door for Elina Garanca. I listened to the performance on opening night via the Met’s free webcasts and I was not hopeful. Her take on the character was described and an ice queen and the performance didn’t sound idiomatic to me. I am happy to say that I have been won over by Garanca as Carmen, hell, not only was I won over but even my friend Ronizetti (who hates Carmen with a passion) did say that she was a fantastic Carmen. No, the performance was still not idiomatic, there were things here and there, but as I said elsewhere, those are things that come with time and experience, so I’m not going to mull over them. What I’ll say first is that none of the alleged ice queen business was in evidence, at least not to me.  She had the passion and the fire in her to do justice to the role, I simply did not see her Carmen as being icy, except in some sections when her treatment of Don Jose needed to be.  Her Habanera had enough sex appeal to be convincing, her Seguidille (unfortunately) missed the mark in the fact that it was much too direct. I missed the inner play, the innuendo and the teasing that could make this piece sparkle with sexual energy. Garanca’s Carmen seemed to come from a place of anger, she seemed more a caged lion than a caged bird. Garanca’s  Carmen was strong, free willed and not about to be bullied. This Carmen certainly packed a punch. Act 2 and 3 found Garanca doing some fine singing and some dancing as well, as her Carmen faced the situations, she hardened her stance and got nastier. I will not say that I agree with everything she did, but I did find her interpretation valid; Garanca certainly thought things through and created a character that was true to herself and her interpretation of her personality.  Act 4 found Garanca rivaling Ponselle as one of the sexiest Carmens in Met history. To say she looked amazing in that dress is to put it mildly. That dress, in my opinion is as amazing as the mythic Valentina dress that Ponselle wore and just as sexy. Ultimately, her Carmen was phenomenal, with enough spunk and Mediterranean flavor to please me and turn me into a convert. Brava.

Roberto Alagna (the only principal of the original cast to actually make it to today’s performance) was a magnificent foil to Garanca’s Carmen. His voice might be a tad light for the role, but he used it intelligently and passionately; ultimately giving us a Jose full of passion and pain. One thing that I also liked about him was his attention to the small moments in the drama. He remained  a committed Jose to the end. His singing showed moments of strain, something that I have come to expect from him. What I didn’t expect was for him to sing the Flower aria so well (and ellegantly), and include the pianissimo Bb. Now, I’m guessing he wanted to create an excuse for the shortness of his Bb (not that he needed, I thought the aria was executed beautifully) by saying that the Bb is actually not written piano but that everyone expects it that way and so on and so forth. I must say that I do not buy it; and I don’t buy it because 1) Alagna correctly pointed out that the orchestra is marked to play piano at this moment. What? did Bizet asked the orchestra to play piano so the tenor could wail that Bb like a calf missing his mother? and 2) There is a long tradition of French tenors singing these passages in voix mixte (some people call it falsetto, call it however you want it) and many French composers wrote passages just like this one in their operas so their tenors could showcase their expertise in voix mixte (Gounod and Massenet come to mind immediately).  As a French tenor, Alagna should know the history of French style, specially when it comes to his voice type. There was no need for Mr. Alagna to feel that he needed to excuse anything about his singing of the aria. Latter on, as the role got heavier, signs of strain did become more visible, but his commitment never wavered. Ultimately his Jose was not an over-sized hero, but more a human being.  I have seen Mr. Alagna in several roles, this is by far the best I have seen him sing in a while.

As Escamillo, we were expecting Mariusz Kwiecien (or the Hot Pole as he is known in certain circles) and we got Teddy Tahu Rhodes (or Teddy Bear as he has admitted he is called).  I have to say that the casting of  Mariusz puzzled me, not because he doesn’t have the physique du role, but because I see him as a Mozart baritone, more at home as the sexy Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva and Guglielmo. I see his voice as much too light for a role that is better served with a bass-baritone. Teddy Bear not only saved the day, but proved that he can be every bit the sexy Escamillo we were expecting and probably better suited vocally to the role. Yes, there was a troubling loss of focus in some of the extreme high notes on the role (let’s hope it was a case of nerves and not that he is trying to beef up the sound) but for the most part Teddy Bear was more than just a satisfactory replacement on the role; he packed his own brand of heat and I loved every second of it too.

I wish I could be so enthusiastic about Barbara Frittoli as Micaela, and believe me, I am up to a certain point. This role is usually cast with young up and comers and it is easily dismissed as a complete bore. The Met has a strong tradition of casting the role with veritable stars and excellent singers as well: Licia Albanese, Lucine Amara, Mirella Freni, Hei-Kyung Hong, Gheorghiu, Pilar Lorengar, Leona Mitchell, Katherine Malfitano, Katia Riciarelli are just a few of the names associated with the role at the Met. The casting of Frittoli as Micaela is not a strange one at the Met and certainly the role is withing the scope of her voice and her abilities. I’ll do you one better and say it is a blessing to see her singing repertoire that suits her voice better than all the Verdi she has been singing elsewhere. The problem is that apparently all that Verdi that has made her a star is catching up to her. She sounded effort-full (as opposed to effortless) and some of the higher passages had a hint of a wobble. Elsewhere, she was a fragile looking and shy Micaela. Her acting was never less that perfect for the character. Frittoli certainly understands what motivates Micaela and presented a role that made me love her, but her singing was not at the same level as her acting. I hope Frittoli will get back to her bread and butter roles (NOT heavy Verdi for sure) and fix the warning signs before it is too late and we are left to lament how such a wonderful singer squandered her talents singing repertoire that ended up costing her too much.

As always, the Met cast the small but incredibly important roles of Frasquita, Mercédès, Remendado, Dancaïre, Zuniga and Moralès from strength. In these roles Elizabeth Caballero (Frasquita), Sandra Piques Eddy (Mercédès), Keith Jameson (Remendado), Earle Patriarco (Dancaïre), Keith Miller (Zuniga) and Trevor Scheunemann (Moralès) showed that these roles need great artists as much as the principal roles or else the opera looses its balance; they all sang and acted amazingly well.  It was such a joy to hear the High C during the Toreador song executed perfectly and without strain. I want to also mention the 2nd act quintet and the Card scene as veritable highlights of the show and they were, no doubt, thanks to their participation. Bravi to all these artists.

It sounds bitchy that after all these compliments I should start complaining, but the fact is that there was one thing that truly bothered me about this Carmen: the edition. I believe the Met has the coaching resources and the clout to present operas in better editions and it is the 2nd time this season that they chose to show an opera in a questionable edition. There is no reason that I can think of for the Met to still be using those damn recitatives they should have gotten rid of 20 years ago. In 1996 they could blame Zefirelli and his dislike of Waltraud Meier and his opinion that her French sucked to go back to the recits. In 2010, what is their excuse? They no longer have Zefirelli and his bitching to blame. Certainly these are artists who have proved a certain affinity for the language, with one of them being a French native.  Moreover, this cast has remained mostly unchanged since the production was first announced, so what is the problem? Why can’t the Met bring themselves to do a Carmen as it was intended, with dialog. They could certainly not blame acoustics as they have very good acoustics, have done the show with dialog before and they also have a state of the art sound system that could be used to amplify the spoken voices and bring some relief to the artists. I certainly do not see a reason for some of the ugly transitions and bad story telling that I saw today. Let me give you an example:

Between the entrance of Remendado & Dancaïre in Act 2 and the quintet a couple of pages latter there is a certain amount of information that is provided that serves as a springboard for the quintet. Remendado and Dancaïre just came back from Gibraltar where they bought some merchandise and they were being expected at Lillas Pastia by Carmen, Mercédès and Frasquita, who are in cohorts with them to smuggle the goods. If you watched the Met’s Carmen today, you were not provided this info and were lead to believe that Remendado and Dancaïre are just a pair of bullies that showed up and slapped Mercédès and Frasquita into submission given the intense fear the 2 ladies had to show due to the lack of background. Not only was the information not provided, there was an ugly cut as well that made the quintet come out of nowhere and the interactions between the characters seem forced and artificial. Was this necessary? I mean, Truly? I applaud the Met for striving to provide productions that are strong, with good singers and actors; but when they package these elements in poorly wrapped musical editions they are still doing the singers, audience and the composers a disservice. Time to join the XXIst century kiddos… There is not need for audiences to have to suffer through the Giraud-composed recits anymore.

Carmen plays in the theaters again in an encore presentation, so check your local movie theaters for the information. The next HD presentation will be Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra on Frebruary 6. This promises to be quite interesting as it has Placido Domingo singing the baritone role of Boccanegra in a first for the opera and the Met. Like it or not, don’t miss it. I’ve been lead to believe it will be an interesting afternoon.

January 16, 2010 Posted by | Opera Review | , , | Leave a comment

The Decade in Review

Yes, I know that for many the decade is not over because there-was-no-year-0-and-because-there-was-no-year-0-a-decade-never-ends-on-the-year-0. You can spare me because the Gregorian calendar was 4-7 years off and therefore we are not really in 2010 but more likely in 2017, plus traditionally the beginning of decades have been celebrated on years ending in zero (0), so we could argue that the first decade of the modern world began in the year 10 and what happened before that was just 9 years.

That being said, a celebrated blogger asked in her blog for people to come up with end of the decade lists of important events that shaped or changed the opera world. In tongue in cheek fashion, I came up with the following 10 events and i wanted to share them with you as well. Happy belated new year and Happy (even advanced if you want) beginning of a new decade.

Decade in review: 10 events that gave the opera world a lot to talk about:

  • Villazon enters and exists (and enters and exists and enters and exits) and enters again the world of opera. We are still waiting to see if this one will stick…
  • The Met replaces its Zefirelli Tosca with another traditional production. Some people bitch because it is too traditional, some people bitch because it was not traditional enough, some bitch because it is not by Zefirelli. So the Met has to make peace with the fact that the unifying theme of the new Tosca is the fact that people went  out of their way looking for reasons to hate it.
  • Peter Gelb takes over the Met. Some people bitch because he is not traditional enough, some because he is too safe and some because he is not Volpe; once again proving that not everyone will love you for your pretty face. His marketing strategies prove that he is a genius and he changes the face of entertainment for years to come. His ability to recognise talent (outside a set of double D’s) is still under review.
  • For the first time in nearly a century, an opera house actually leads the way in the entertainment business. Yes, I am talking about the Met in HD series. At first people said it was a loosing proposition, now it is seen as the first of its kind and performers everywhere in the world from the Jonas brothers to Celine Dion are elbowing their way to cash in with their own Live in HD transmissions. Rummors of a 3 Tenors Reunnion Concert in HD sweep the world, but no confirmation as of yet…
  • We get a 3rd British invasion. The invasion starts in the late 90’s when the Commonwealth sends artists like Sarah Brightman & Charlotte Church. It reaches critical mass with artists like Paul Potts, Susan Boyle, and Katherine Jenkins. The imitators are not far behind and we get Bocelli, Josh Groban, Il Divo, Opera Babes, Amici and the rest. The effect is swift, half the world is giddy and the other half believes that it is not true what they say about the education system in the USA being the worst in the world.
  • After a year of fierce battle, Blue Ray wins the format war. This means that opera nuts the world over can let a sigh of relief as they trash their DVD’s and start over their collections with the new format, just like collectors from generations past did when the 78, the 10 inch, the LP, the 8 track and the cassette died a brutal death at the hands of newer technologies.
  • iPods and the iTunes store signal the beggining of the end for the CD. With the introduction and worldwide acceptance of the iPod, digital music is seen as a force to be reckon with and sales of traditional CDs plummet. This causes panic in the upper circles of opera conousieurs because, in their words, the new generation will not know where to go to find their music.
  • The economic environment of the new Millenium propels the death of opera houses in places as varied as Baltimore, San Diego and NYC. Others are sent to intensive care and others are just relieved Mortier never came to NYC, the health of the company be dammed; we dogged that bullet.
  • Maria Callas’ widows all over the globe celebrate the 30th anniversary of her death. Worldwide sales of Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Cymbalta skyrocket as Sopranos all over turn to medication to deal with the fact that they still have to hear that bitch’s name as a reason why they will never measure up.
  • A new crop of younger, thinner singers emerge. The backlash is swift and brutal. Charges of singing the wrong rep, or too early or too heavy are thrown like popcorn at a bad movie premiere. Calmer voices try to bring some sense into the discussion but are quickly shoved against a wall (and against their will) by opera nuts. Expert sociologists are called in and they discover that the fans are always 20-30 years too late to see the singers of the golden age. Counter experts say that it doesn’t matter now that Callas is dead and that the level of teaching and taste is worse than they have ever seen; proving that either a group of people have found the fountain of youth or that audiences will never change and in 10 years we will be having the same old fights with the same old terminology.

January 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rosenkavalier in HD

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Today, like every Saturday during broadcast season, was opera Saturday; add the fact that it was an HD simulcast and I was exited, add to that the fact that I had never seen Rosenkavalier from start to finish and I could not contain myself. As a strong bel canto lover, XXth century opera and music does not come easy to me and Strauss (and for that matter, Wagner) have been composers that have taken some time for me to warm up to them. As a matter of fact, about a year and a half ago, I attemped to watch the opera on a fantastic DVD from the Salzburg production with Anna Tomowa-Sintow (a soprano I adore) and I made it all the way to about half of Act 2 before I lost interest. I knew I was not ready and decided to put it away and l come back to the opera when I felt like I was mature enough in my tastes. This time I knew I was ready.

Let’s start with the actual production. The Merril production with sets by Robert O’Hearn debuted on Jan 23, 1969 and has been a staple of the Met ever since. O’Hearn’s sumptuous sets and costumes have hosted a myriad of Octavians, Marschallins, Ochs, and Sophies. The HD cameras were not consistently flattering to the sets,unfortunately. Yes, the design is just marvelous and they still retain some of their beauty, but they are starting to show the wear and tear of 40 years of storage, travel to and from the house, settings and strikes (not the labor kind). I thank the Met for preserving the sets once again on video after 20 years, but the production as it stands really can not take another coat of paint. I think it is time to either replace the production or do a rebuild from scratch. Unlike other opera fanatics, I see the use and beauty of traditional productions and understand if the Met were to keep this beautiful work of art, but can you imagine another 10-15 years of wear and tear on this production and it being showed again in a medium that would be even more detailed (and unforgiving) than HD?

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I make no secret of the fact that Renee Fleming has been a continued source of frustration and disappointment for me over the last 5-8 years.  Her ghastly bel canto assumptions have ruined several of my nights and the absence of Mozart in her schedule is specially frustrating given how much his music suits her voice. That being said I must admit that I am about to fall over offering the same tired superlatives that her most adoring fans use when referring to her.  This woman had no issues passing for someone nearly 20 years her junior. Her singing was solid, ravishing even, her musicality impeccable and her tendency to pull musical phrases like they are toffee all but gone. In other words, she was (for this picky reviewer at least) the embodiment of perfection in this role. Hardly have I ever left a theater (or in this case a movie theater) feeling that a performance I witnessed could not be bettered in one way or another. Yes, I could quibble about this or that gesture, or a way of handling a musical phrase, but in the end I was left convinced that Renee Fleming is capable of inhabiting the world of the Marschallin.  I understand how people who grew up with Schwartzkopf’s, Rysanek’s and the many wonderful Marschallins  that have graced this opera would complain about Fleming’s interpretation.  Having never experience any of the mythic Marschallins, I was able to come to Renee Fleming’s interpretation of the role with an open mind. I did not mind her impetuousness in the role, or her movements, or her perceived lack of regal bearing in the role. Seeing it for the first time, I can see a Marschallin who is younger and probably not all that far removed from the country, wide-eyed girl that was fooled into this life of seclusion.  This interpretation might not work for some people, but it worked for me; I found it possible and believable.

Susan Graham as Octavian was less successful in making this reviewer suspend belief but I do not see her as her fault. HD is not kind to anyone who does not have perfect physique (or age) du role. I am sure given some space, her interpretation worked just wonderfully. I should have not expected to suspend belief when we have a lady in her 40s portraying a 17 year old boy with an HD camera basically mounted of her back.  With that in mind, her acting was wonderful, even when scrutinized at levels that would make some of us scream sexual harassment.  Her singing showed some effort in the upper reaches, but how could you be surprised?, Octavian is basically a soprano role. That notwithstanding, she conquered the role once again and showed why she is one of the most celebrated Octavians of her generations. We should feel lucky that her Octavian has been preserved along those of Anne Sofie von Otter, Tatiana Troyanos and Brigitte Fassbender. Overall, I believe that Susan Graham was a lot more effective in the house than she was for the camera and ultimtely that is exactly where it counts. Brava.

It took me a moment to warm up to Christine Schäfer’s Sophie. Some people will call her miscast in the role and I will not dispute the experts. The presentation of the rose found me wishing the Met had given us Lisette Oropesa in the role instead. Schäfer at first sounded a little too mature and knowing for the role; I missed the silvery top that has come to epitomize this role and the piece.  Had Schäfer’s recent adventures in heavier repertoire (Violetta, Donna Anna, Konstanze) rendered her too mature for this fresh-out-or-the-convent little girl? As the opera progressed I was able to believe her as a 15 year old girl and appreciated what she brought to the role. Through out the opera her character grew in standing and her singing demonstrated the qualities of a once fabulous Sophie who can still bring it home; and that is nothing to scoff about. Her singing of the trio was beautiful and the final duet with Graham was ravishing. Would I have preferred to see Oropesa or Mia Persson? Sure! But I no longer lament the fact that we got Christine Schäfer. At least Mia’s Sophie is preserved on a performance from Salzburg in 2004 and it is not too late for Oropesa to be cast in a production somewhere and have her Sophie preserved on video as well.

Acting honors for the performance, the women I hope will agree, have to go to Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs. Jesus, Mary and Joseph what a piece of acting this man did! As the chaos around him got bigger and his behavior nastier I just wanted to jump in the screen and put one of the swords through him myself. Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Ochs was everything any production could wish for; he was an absolute chauvinist pig! His behavior was so reprehensible I was feeling embarrassed for him and was delighted when he was shamed into submission and retreat. I know it is a source of joy for any performer to render an audience member incapable of differentiating between reality and fantasy. Kristinn Sigmundsson did exactly that today and he should revel in that knowledge. Vocally the role of Baron Ochs is a bear. It is composed in a weird place: too high for a true bass, but with notes that baritones and Bass-baritones could find too low (it reaches down to a low C in act 1 and low Eb E in act 2). The problem with a role like this is that short of a true vocal freak, you have to decide whether to cast a singer that can rock the low notes that end 2 separate acts but would struggle with the upper notes or cast a singer who can manage the high tessitura and compromise a little on the low notes. Kristinn Sigmundsson is on the latter category, and I found the compromise just fine. I would rather hear a singer struggle with a low note than with high ones. Mr. Sigmundsson had no issues with the higher passages and while his low notes were not booming in a way that we’ve come to expect from, say, a Sparafucile, he did not embarrassed himself either.  When the dust settled, if there was one performer standing victorious on the stage today, that was Mr. Sigmundsson, hands down.

As his father in law, the recently ennobled Faninal, we had the pleasure of having Thomas Allen. This former count Almaviva and Don Giovanni is still going strong in the sunset years of his career. Not only was his singing a marvel of beauty, his characterization as the father desperately to fit in with his recent “equals” was all in itself at the same level of Sigmundsson’s. If Sigmundsson’s Ochs was the noble who is too broke, or cheap to admit it, Allen was the commoner all to rich to let that go to waste and they would have made a perfect pair.  I kept thinking that if this was Broadway, they should have encored the White Christmas number Sisters and walked arm in arm at the end.

I think one of the glories of what I hope will be an eventual DVD release of this performance is the many wonderful singers cast in the smaller parts. There was such a plethora of them, it will be impossible to name them all, yet is seems offensive that I do not try, they all seemed like luxury casting to me. There were so many wonderful artists on stage that it was hard to keep up, and the enjoyment their solid performances brought was a lot indeed. I think place of honor must go to Wendy White as Annina, Rodell Rosel as Valzacchi and Erica Strauss as Marianne, they were perfection in their roles. Not only was the singing solid as a rock, they inhabited their roles with energy and conviction. The Met is very lucky to have artists of such caliber to cast in these roles.  The same must be said about the contributions made by Bernard Fitch  and Ronald Naldi as the Major-domos, James Courtney as the Notary, Belinda Oswald, Lee Hamilton and Patricia Steiner as the 3 Orphans and Jeremy Galyon as Police Commissioner, their parts might’ve been small, but their presence and artistry loomed large on that stage. Bravi to all.

I wish I could be just as enthusiastic about Eric Cutler’s Italian singer. He got through the piece unscathed, no mean feat given how easily you can crack on it (Go ahead, click the link and watch what happens between minute markers 4:25-4:30) there was something in his singing that left me cold. I can appreciate the fact that he walked in a sort of vocal tight rope and came out the other side with no bruises, but at the same time I expected more bloom and less metal in this aria. The other thing that bothered me about his performance was his characterization.  In this role it is too easy to turn into the typical tenor and give the international sign for va fan culo on the way out. Easy as we might find it, I think it needs to be avoided given the fact that exhibiting such behavior would have found you in deep do-do faster than you can close your score. Add to that the fact that if this had been 100% representative of the historical period (the madrigal singer in act 2 of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut for example) , it would have been a castrato singing the piece and a young castrato would have not behaved in such reprehensible manner in front of the same nobility whose support he sought. Congratulations to Mr. Cutler on getting through the piece, I think he is owed at least that.

Conductor Edo de Waart brought his considerable experience in this opera (He conducts the recording with Evelyn Lear and Frederica von Stade). The orchestra played magnificently and the chorus (surprise, surprise…) could not have sung better. Overall, I don’t think this production could have been in better hands.

If you missed it, check your local movie theater for an encore and try to get to it; I have no doubts you’ll enjoy the performance as much as I did.

January 10, 2010 Posted by | Opera Review | , , | 1 Comment