Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Italian? Yes. Tenor? Yes. The Italian tenor? Well… Can we get back to you?

After Villazon went bust with that huge thud a couple of years ago (if you are still believing all those news of a comeback, then lemme tell you I have a sign contract with Callas to sing Norma in 2012, Tebaldi will be Adalgisa, Serafin will conduct and Domingo will be Overeso) the whole marketing world has been aching to find a new “TENOR!” that can be inflicted on the unsuspecting public. Well, SONY, after pretty much abandoning the classical market, except for reissuing some the glories of their catalog; has taken the plunge and is bringing us  a pretender to the throne with their version of “The Italian Tenor”.

The good news is that Grigolo actually has a more attractive voice, has plenty of musicality, seems to be serious about his technique and is a hell of a lot cuter (some might call him hotter) than his predecessor. The problem is that this recording does him no favors. Of the 15 tracks I heard from this recording (which you can listen on its entirety on the NPR website) 5 are from operas that he has done or could do right now (Duke, Nemorino, Rodolfo in Boheme and Rinuccio); 4 are from roles that I see him growing into (Fernando in Favorita, Renato in Ballo, Cavaradossi and Rodolfo in Luisa Miller) and 6 tracks are better described as WTF! tracks (Manrico, Le Villi, Manon Lescaut and Corsaro). So lemme get this right, in a 15 track album, over 60% of the material is stuff that we are not going to hear him in the house right now or stuff that he has no business singing AT ALL, and this is supposed to be the new ‘TENOR!!!!!”? Gimme a fucking break.

Now, I got in hot waters the other day with a fellow member of’s Cher publique when I defended grigolo after watching extended excepts of the Rigoletto movie they just did in Mantua. I defended the fact that he seems to be serious about this and that he is still young and still finding the limits of his own instrument. I still believe this and I do have to say that some of the singing that he displays in this recording can be qualified as beautiful, musical and expressive. But along with that, some of the singing in this same recording is painful, pushed, whinny and reckless.

Never have I seen such irresponsible programing in a solo recital. This guy is singing music that was composed for 3 very distinct types of tenor. The most successful tracks are, obviously,  the ones that fit his natural instrument. The omnipresent and much love and much recorded Una furtiva lagrima comes off quite well. Nemorino is a role that fits Mr. Grigolo beautifully and his singing of the aria is both restrained and expressive. Same for his version of Rinuccio’s aria; the singing is fearless, open throated and ultimately exiting. The items from Rigoletto (Ella mi fu rapita and Posente amor) are less successful because they stretch Mr Grigolo’s intrument a little bit right now. He gets through them honorably, if not with some effort. The high D that ends the Posente amor is quite good, thrilling even (interpolated high notes are the only form of ornamentation we get in this recording, a crime after Joseph Calleja’s recording of the same arias); but by this point we are beginning to tire of Mr. Grigolo’s ONE expressive device: he acquires this tremolo when the music requires emotion. This seems to be a one-stop device that he uses over and over and over and over and over…. After an hour, it got old.

Some tracks are successful because they are well known. I will admit that while I would not go see him as Puccini’s des Grieux, his Donna non vidi mai was good; but one thing is to sing the aria and another thing is to sing the role. The same can be said for his recording of E lucevan le stelle, not bad singing for the aria (after all, it is not that taxing in terms of voice and orchestration) and he even manages some very nice phrasing (that is one thing I liked about this recording in general,  he phrases very well). While we are at it, lets include the items from La Favorita, Luisa Miller and Ballo in maschera. They were all proficiently sung but every now and then you could hear he was pushing and trying hard in repertoire that he is truly not ready to tackle.  When he needed an expressive device, he had the tremolo in the lower register and he went off the voice and used this cupo that in my opinion achieved nothing but to make the voice sound hooty; but to each his own…

The true disaster of this recording, if you ask me, was his singing of dramatic tenor repertoire, which he has no business singing now or ever. Who the hell had the brilliant idea of telling a tenor who should be singing Mozart, Bellini, and Rossini (listen to the way he handles the Una furtiva cadenza and tell me he shouldn’t sing Rossini) that he should record repertoire for dramatic tenor? Who had the idea of telling a guy who should be singing Ferrando and Idamante that he should record Di quella pira? I know, I know, tenors all over the world program arias like these because they are beautiful, or exiting, or crowd pleasers,  but is it wise to record them? Before you come to me with the whole “well, there is no sin in recording rep you are not going to do, what’s the harm in that?” argument search for a documentary in wich Sutherland talks about how she had to fend off impresarios who were offering her Turandot and Abbigaile after she recorded Turandot. Her face and her snicker as she talks about it are very telling of how she felt about the impresarios.  Grigolo was completely out of his element in the Le villi, Corsaro and Trovatore arias; plain and simple. He should send  flowers and gift cards to the engineers at SONY for making him sound good in this repertoire; I have a feeling that his heartbeat was racing and his face was red as it could be after he finished recording these pieces . I wonder how much did they need to adjust the volume dials in post production to make sure that he sounded like he did in the Trovatore. Don’t get me wrong, he is never swallowed by the orchestra and his high C’ is never less than audible; so you KNOW there is a well paid engineer behind that one.

While we are on the Trovatore, special attention must be given to the solo artists who chimed in as Ruiz and Leonora. Their vile singing is the stuff you once heard in vanity projects from Mary Lynn and other mythic “opera” stars. Where did they get these people? Did they hang around America’s Got Talent auditions and snagged a couple of rejects? If you think I am being too harsh, go listen to the track yourself.

All being told, this recording was saved from being an complete and utter disaster by the rocket scientists at SONY who did one hell of an engineer job. Whomever this person is, you should get equal billing with Grigolo and the Conductor.  You more that deserve it.

I am going out on a limb and suggest that you skip this recording, listen to the tracks on NPR and buy the ones you like on iTunes, emusic or your favorite online store. I am sure in no time you will find a copy in your town’s used CD store if you are that passionate about it.


September 30, 2010 Posted by | Recording Review | 1 Comment

Golden Night at the Met

Well, order is restored on the world, the opera season has officially started in the USA (don’t tell the guys at KY Opera though) with the official opening of the 2010-2011 season at the Metropolitan Opera. Not being from NYC, or living there, I had to be content with joining the festivities through the web and connect to the the free web stream the Met offered (and will continue to offer through the season with at least 1 free webcast a week in addition to the Saturday matinee broadcasts sponsored by Toll Brothers). Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s Manager, with his astute sense of occasion, has said that a new season should be opened with a new production. So in that spirit he unveiled the Body Tosca last year (the first one completely planned by him) and this year he unveils the first installment of the company’s new Ring Cycle.

I have to give the man credit for what he is doing. In the 4 years he has been general manager he has proved that he is fearless. In the space of 3 years he has spared no-one’s feelings and gone ahead on replacing 2 of the Met’s most beloved productions and has made it perfectly clear that no one should get too attached to anything because everything is fair game. This has drawn the ire of several patrons from the old guard who liked their operas safe and non-challenging. Then he has drawn the ire of people who are still asking themselves why are we not doing what Europe has been doing for 20 years (if it doesn’t work in Europe, why would we want it here? but nobody has asked me) pissing just about anyone off in the process. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of Gelb myself, but not because he is replacing productions, but for something else entirely different that, if he were to call me or write, I would be happy to discuss with him. So depending whose camp you ask, Gel’s regime has been a failure either because he is trashing productions that are sacrosanct (the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it camp) or it is a failure because he has not exported the “new” trend from Europe (the why-aren’t-you-buying-this-broken-down-rusty-vehicle-at-a-premium-price camp). So, according to some, Gelb desperately needed a success to finally signal his arrival, an opinion that Gelb likely does not share, given the HUGE success of the Met in HD series; but that might be espoused by some who look at successes from the past 4 years as either being orchestrated by Volpe or just flukes (I know, I am still trying to figure that one too). I’m not sure about you, but what I heard today would qualify and a success in every aspect.

Unfortunately, I had to rely on the visuals of the Times Square cam 10 to help me understand what was going on with the staging, but the little I saw in the blurry images certainly is making me ache to go to the HD transmission to see the rest. I will wait until then to cast judgment on the actual production (click on the link to read the review of the HD performance), but so far the pictures that have been published inspire a great deal of excitement in me.  So if you want to accuse me of being positively biased from right now, go ahead, I am not one to care much for what others think of me (as a reader discovered recently).

The first thing I am going to say is that this was my first Rheingold EVER. I own the Solti Ring on audio and some personal friends in Europe shared with me the Victorian Ring that was done in Amsterdam not long ago; but I have been lazy and have not felt ready to tackle Wagner and the Ring yet. I am going to go further and confess that had I not volunteered to moderate‘s chat I would have sat in front of the TV, watched Dancing with the Stars and Castle without a second thought. I am here to tell those who did that you made the biggest mistake of the week. To say this performance was fabulous is like saying that dark chocolate is just tasty or that the Grand Canyon is a hole on the ground. This performance could and SHOULD change the way Wagner is sung all over the world. With very few exceptions, there were no weak links in the cast and God knows the singing today was at a level that has not been heard in Wagner in a LONG time. But more on that later.

The good news is the return of James Levine to conduct this opera at the Met. After the several cancellations that his health forced on his last season, many of us were worried that Maestro Levine would either be a no-show or that he would be pushing himself too early and risk having to miss even more performances this season. Now, we do not know whether our fears are just silly dreams yet, but Maestro Levine was out conducting with the ardor and the vigor of a man a third his age. Commenters at the chat were saying that this performance was faster that he usually conducts. I do not have a comparison stick, but I can tell you that the performance never lagged. It had drive, it had energy and above all, it had polish. Maestro Levine is well known for his love and mastery of Wagner and to this neophyte’s ears that fame is more than deserved. If this was the only performance of Rheingold I ever listen to (and I hope it will not be) I would say I have heard perfection.

Part of that perfection must also be attributed to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the maestros that populate its ranks. I have heard this orchestra both on radio and live and I can attest that this is one amazing ensemble, but what I heard today was just the stuff of legends. Every detail, every nuance, ever silence had meaning. Today the orchestra did not accompany the singers; today they sang along and I would be a fool if I do not sing their praises. I know, it is like this is not said in every review you are going to read, and yet it would be such an injustice if it is not said, because this orchestra is worth their weight in pink and red diamonds. They played, no, sang gloriously tonight. Bravi.

Top honors in the singing department I will have to give (no surprise there if you know me) to Richard Croft, who sang one of the most luscious, beautiful and amazing Loges one could be so lucky to hear. Through my opera reading experience, I have been aware that Loge is a role that can be sung lyrically and the fact that an artist the caliber of the late Philip Langridge sang it made me realize, at least intellectually, that you do not need to have an ugly voice to sing the role. Mr. Croft, an artist among artists, pretty much walked with the show in my opinion. After witnessing his Gandhi several years ago I was already a fan, but what I witnessed today was even more amazing, and  after Satyagraha I thought that was not even possible. (Gelb, wake up! bring that man back and give us an HD of that production!) Every word he sang was pregnant with meaning, and beauty.  Loge in his hands went from a Siegfried-in-waiting role to art. I do hope many young tenors were listening today, because his performance has the potential to radically change the next generation’s idea of what Wagner singing is and make them realize that Wagnerian roles are not voice wreckers, or something that you do on your way to bark your way through Sigmund/Siegfried or that being a Wagnerian singer means only singing Brunnhilde and Wotan. People take notice, what he gave us today was Wagner singing of the highest caliber. If you are a young tenor, you need to get yourself a copy of this broadcast and listen attentively.  I would have screamed myself hoarse if I had been in the house. I am still in awe…

Now, some people will argue that the night belonged to Eric Owen’s Alberich. You are not going to get too much of an argument from me because Mr. Owen gave a career making performance. I will bet his agent has been woken up several times already, and (s)he should. Mr. Owen’s Alberich might have been physically ugly, but his singing was anything but. He gave us a performance of conviction and beauty so strong vocally that the audience have him a bigger  ovation than the night’s top dog.

Speaking of the top dog, what about Bryn Terfel? Well, judging by the comments made during the chat, the jury is still divided on that one. I did not hear any of the mythic Wotans beforehand, so I will have to say that in my opinion he did not embarrass himself. That being said, I am still not sure this is a role that suits him the way Alberich might. He tried to sing with authority, and for the most part he did, but at the cost of loosing some of the beauty and sounding a little rough in places. Towards the end he sounded a little tired, but you know, who wouldn’t? Rather than go down as a naysayer, and probably because I am tabula rasa when it comes to my Wotans, I am going to say that I will wait until the HD transmission and see how  I change my mind on it. I have the impression, also, that he will be better suited to latter appearances of this character (Walkyre being the one foremost in my mind), where the needs are not (as it is my impression) for power and might but for cantabile and narrative. As I get better acquainted with the Ring, I am sure I’ll join the pro and/or con camp. In the mean time I’ll let it rest and give the guy and A for effort, he survived where many have fallen on their faces.

Stephanie Blythe as Fricka proved why is she one of the preeminent American mezzos of her generation.  Her Fricka was more than beautifully vocalized. it was a long soft caress to the ears The blurry picture from camera 10 gave me the impression that she looked quite beautiful too. It seems ineresting that after taking this role so successfully in Seattle that this is the first time NYC audiences get to hear her in the role. I’d say the wait was worth it. This woman has gold in that throat and what better place to pour it than in Valhalla. Brava.

When I said that there were few to no weak links in this cast, I was not kidding.  Every role was cast with suck care and gusto that this felt like the night of a thousand stars. The Rheinmaidens were entrusted to Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson and Tamara Mumford and goodness gracious they were fabulous. I can not wait to add the visuals to what we heard tonight, as the description made the whole thing incredibly interesting; but I have to tell you that these women sang like goddesses. The harmonies were tight as they could be, the balance and the quality of the ensemble singing was top notch too.  The same could be said for Franz-Josef Selig’s Fasolt, Hans-Peter König’s Fafner, Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Freia, Adam Diegel’s Froh, Dwayne Croft’s Donner and the evening’s Mime, Gerhard Siegel. Their contributions made the evening feel, as I already said, Like the night of a thousand stars.  I wish I felt as strong about Patricia Bardon, but for some reason, amidst such glorious singing, her Erda felt out of place; I am still trying to figure out why. Bravi all.

All in all, I think the Met has in their hands an unqualified success, which made the boos at the end of the performance seem idiotic; but to each their own. If you are in NYC, I encourage you to hang around the Met and see if you can get yourself a ticket (the run is sold out, but there is always standing room and people who are looking to sell their ticket for one reason or another) . If you, like me, are outside of the NYC area, make sure you call your local movie theater and buy yourself a ticket for the Oct 9th HD transmission. I have a feeling you will not regret it. By the way, if you need to look for  a participating movie theater close to you, here are some links: readers in the USA check this list (PDF, 11 pages) for your city and state; here are also some independent venues if you can not find one close to you on the first list. International readers please check this list for your country, you will be forwarded to the site of the Met’s local partner where you can find out more information.

And, Mr. Gelb, I know I have said in the past that you would not be able to recognize talent if it walked up to you, kicked you in the balls, slapped you across the face, pinched your left nipple and, while you were on the floor, left a business card and a piece of chewed gum for DNA profiling . While I am not ready to take it all back, I do have to say that tonight’s Rheingold was the strongest casts I have seen at the Met since you took over (this and Satyagraha). THIS is what happens when you put singers on stage that can sing their roles like the professional singers they are and not like some sort of gimmick meant to dazzle people with STARDOM but who can not get through their roles with a minimum resemblance of authority either vocally or stylistically.  This is how it’s done bro.  Take your casting dept out to lunch and tell them to get you more of this, ’cause right now, it is more the exception than the norm. The Met needs more casts like tonight’s, without totally forgetting the other (I know you need to sell tickets), this is what opera is all about.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | Opera Review | Leave a comment

KY opera opening night: Turiddu and Nedda Habemus!

Last night I attended Kentucky Opera’s opening night performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci presented at the Brown Theater in KY.  I must say that they have had an unqualified success with this perennial double bill.  Let the blood bath start.

The casting management at KY opera must be feeling pretty good about themselves. They have assembled a cast for both operas where there were few to no weak links, the conducting was solid and the orchestra playing was exceptionally good. From the opening notes of the Cavalleria prelude it was clear that Maestro Richard Buckley had a fantastic ensemble at his hands. The orchestra played with a beautiful and luscious sound, but never covered the singers. Tempos were generally solid and the action was moved forward with dramatic impulse and drive, yet it never felt like (as it has become the norm) “Let’s get this show finished before midnight so we do not have to pay over time.” A big bravo to all the members of the orchestra and also the chorus. The playing and the singing were exquisite, especially considering how the chorus was not a mass of people. Bravi.

Both operas were performed in a basic unit set (not uncommon given how both basically take place in a town square) with some alterations between them (the church from Cavalleria was gone to open up the piazza for the Pagliacci). I am sure this was a money saving device yet it didn’t feel and look like one. The same could be said for the costumes. The action was moved forward to what seemed like a period between the 20’s and 30’s, judging by the hair and the fashions. This allowed the chorus to not have to change costumes, but maybe add or remove a hat or an accessory. This was a very well played move by the designers. It gave continuity to the action and saved money at the same time.

Director Kristine McIntyre kept the hostilities basic. There were no big directorial gimmicks (thank God) and the action was blocked sensibly and with simplicity. That being said, I felt the Pagliacci was more successful than the Cavalleria. While the acting all around was pretty decent, I felt there were some misfires in the Cavalleria that robbed it from some of the impact that it can had. For example, in the very beginning, we see Lola come to the balcony to hear Turiddu’s serenade. Eventually, we saw at least 3 other females that were not Lola appear in the same balcony and we saw Alfio refer to his house as if it was somewhere in the distance. I just kept thinking, is that their house, a motel, or is Turiddu bringing Lola to spend the night? (You guessed it; Mamma Lucia’s tavern was downstairs). I am not sure if this was born out of necessity, given how small the Brown theater stage is, but once that balcony was tagged as the little slut’s balcony, it was hard to take how many other women had access to the house.

As I said, the Pagliacci was a little more successful in that aspect. The blocking was kept pretty basic, and you know?, basic is good. The characters were able (for the most part) to relate to each other and to SING to each other. That is the beauty of a small stage, it might be a little crammed, but damn it, you can sing to your partner and still be able to be heard. We had a lot of that today and I loved it.

The singing was also at a very high level today.  Kara Shay Thompson, a soprano Santuzza who has also sung Tosca in regional opera houses sang the shit out of the role. Her voice was secure and it rang with power through most of the register. If her lower notes were a little careful, I truly didn’t care, there is no need for an Erda/Ulrica type of Santuzza. She seemed never to tire; vocally this Santuzza was rock solid to the end, with a ringing high C held for ever. I will say that her characterization left me a little cold. For some reason I was not able to connect emotionally to her character the way I was able to connect with the singing. I was not sure whether this Santuzza was just passive or passive aggressive.  There were times that I just wanted her to grab Turiddu by the hair and slap the little bastard across the face and teach him that she was not going to put up with that shit. I did not get the overbearing Italian girlfriend out of her, but I didn’t get the all-suffering-Jewish-mama-in-the-making either. That being said, who gives a fuck? Her singing was primal and she more tan deserves the ovation she got.

Her Santuzza was pitted against the charms of Mezzo soprano Brandy Hawkins, a studio artist at KY opera. Ms. Hawkins is an artist to watch, you just HAD to pay attention to her from her very entrance. She is a beautiful woman with voice and curves to match. This Lola was a bombshell who was not about to be bullied by Santuzza. Count me very impressed by this young lady. Let’s hope she is not swallowed up by this business and we never hear from her again, this kind of singing needs to be put on stage as often as possible. Casting managers, you have been warned.

My dear friend Rebekah Bortz Hardin, whom I have not seen in 13 years, was a very good Mamma Lucia. Caring when she needed to be, firm when she needed to be and a little scornful at one moment or another. Her singing was just beautiful as well. Not that she is going to get it because she is my friend, but KY opera is lucky to have her. Brava Rebeckah!

The reason for me to take this trip was to see my Texan twin brother Michael Wade Lee. So take what I say with a grain of salt, ‘cause I know that when you review a performance of someone who you consider family, no matter what the DNA says, you are going to come across as biased. Mike has been singing some heavier rep lately, after doing some truly amazing Mozart in school. You know? it works for me. After completely reworking his technique in NYC, his singing still has that youthful ardor that made him such a fabulous Idamante nearly 15 years ago and now he has easier high notes. Not that he is my brother, but his singing tonight had both the power and the youth that made him a near perfect Turiddu. His serenade was appropriately lyrical; his treatment of Santuzza had the virility you expect but none of the barking that usually accompanies this kind of role. His final aria was beautifully vocalized (even when I kept thinking how different I would have staged that moment). All in all, I will have to say that Mike has proved that I was wrong when my eyebrows went to the ceiling when he told me he was taking on Don Jose, Turiddu and other heavier roles. Bravo bro, I am immensely proud of you.

I have purposely left Lester Lynch’s Alfio for the end because I am going to use him and a bridge for my talking on Pagliacci, given how he sang both Alfio and Tonio. His singing as Alfio was a little tentative at first, but as the evening grew, so did his singing and his stature. His Tonio turned out to be a grotesque creature both in body and soul, who sang with power and commanded attention. This was a tour de force and he deserves great kudos for his handling of both roles. Of all the principal artists, he had the longest night, and he never seemed tired. Bravo.
Michael Myes as Silvio also showed why he is considered a young artist to watch. His singing reminded me a little of Sherrill Milnes at times. He cut a dashing figure on stage and I could see why Nedda wanted to run out with him and send everything to hell. He made a meal out of the small role of Silvio and I have to give kudos to KY opera for hiring him. Let’s hope we will hear a lot more from this singer.

Talking about Nedda, I have to say that tonight; the Pagliacci performance belonged to Elizabeth Caballero and her Nedda. This had to be one of the most scrupulously vocalized performances I have heard this year. I know, I know, I am about to fall over myself writing superlatives about this singer and you know? nothing I write will accurately portray just how fabulous this woman was tonight. People, if you see Elizabeth Caballero’s name in your local company’s cast, don’t be an idiot and run to the box office and get yourself a ticket. I guarantee you that one day, when this woman is singing at a level that your opera company will not be able to afford her any longer, you will be thankful you took my advice. The singing I heard tonight was at a level that, to give you a comparison, I would have to pull the names of Popp and Lorengar, that is not something to be ignored. Her voice was evenly produced, the high notes were brilliant, that Striddono lassu was perfection; perfection I tell you. The best part is that her singing never felt mechanical. You know how some young singers look like they are more concerned with technique than with giving you a theatrical experience? Well, that was NOT what we got today.

John Mac Mester gave us a Canio that was all rage and all power. I never doubted that he would not get through the role. He had all the high notes and the voice to match the rage of this character. That being said, I will be respectful to this beloved artists of the KY audience and say I appreciated his effort. The audience certainly did and he was greeted like a conquering hero. I wish I felt as strong about his singing.

The cast was rounded up with Daniel Anderson, another member of the KY Opera Studio Artists. Mr. Anderson proved to be a charming presence on stage as Beppe, and one who is equally comfortable singing high Bb’s (and very well I might add) and doing cartweels and juggling.

All in all, KY opera has a winner in their hands. There will be one more performance on Sunday the 26th at 2 PM. If you happen to be in the area I strongly recommend that you get yourself a ticket. You’ll be happy you did.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Opera Review | 4 Comments