Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Joan Sutherland: Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali

 

Portrait by June Mendoza

 

On Mondays I wake up late, really late. What does that have to do with Joan Sutherland? The fact that about a minute after I get out of bed I hear my best friend’s ring tone; his greeting? You couldn’t have called me? When I asked him what the hell was he talking about, that I had just woken up and was confused he dropped  the bomb on me:

Joan Sutherland Died!

I know talking about Sutherland is an exercise in futility. Gallons of ink have been spilled just on superlatives, many more gallons have been spilled telling her story: The poor secretary who wanted to be a singer. She thought he was going to be a Wagnerian singer but her husband knew better. Then one night she is given Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden and the world was never the same. The same amount of ink has been spilled in criticizing her: the droopy diction, the extreme dependence on her husband, to the point of demanding him to conduct all her performances, the demands for expensive productions of operas that nobody cared about, the championing of 2nd rate singers just so she would be always the star, the alleged xenophobia and racism, the strained relationship with Australian Opera and many more. No doubt, Joan Sutherland provoked reactions anywhere she went.

But the voice, oh the voice…. That torrent of gold that emanated from her throat graced the music from composers as varied as Haydn (Euridice in the first modern performances of his Orfeo {wich of course she wasn’t, that would be Callas in 1951 and thanks to parterre reader Cocky Kurwenal for setting me straight on that one. I am such a dumbass sometimes}) to Mozart ( the first soprano with a British passport to sing Contessa Almaviva and Glyndebourne and her Donna Anna for Giulini remains a classic), Wagner (Brangane, Rheinmaiden and the Forrest Bird in Solti’s Ring) and Britten (Lady Penelope in Gloriana).  But it was her close association with bel canto that gained her the name of La Stupenda and will forever influence singers of future generations. Her handling of some of the most difficult passage work like she was doing simple math continues to astonish.

But now all that is gone. With Joan Sutherland’s death, the circle of greats that are associated to a golden age long ago passed continues to shrink. Her death, and the countless of public and private memorials it will provoke, will remind us how truly starved we are for singers like her. In this age of generic performances, we needed her the most and now she is gone.

For those of you who have never heard of her (the 3 of you in the whole world) Opera Depot has made available her breakthrough performance of Lucia free of charge. Just enter your email address and you will be taken to the download page. This is a limited offering, so get it while it is still available.  Elsewhere in the web there is plenty of available stuff so you can sample her art; Like a 1966 Atlanta recital or a recital of Bellini, Verdi and Donizetti works or a 1979 concert she sang with Pavarotti (2 parts!) .

Even YouTube is fertile ground for those who wish to either get to know her or just do their own private memorial.

 

 

What else is left to say but Thank you? Thank you Joan for all those wonderful nights you gave us. Thank you for all those wonderful recordings you gave us.

Just thank you…

October 11, 2010 Posted by | In memoriam | 1 Comment

Rheinsilver at the Met

Today we were able to put together the sounds and the visuals of the Met’s new Rheingold production.  As we have established, the musical values of this production were truly golden on opening night, and it was not any different today. These musical values are in my opinion this production’s strongest elements; and since I discussed them in extreme detail on my review of opening night, I will not bore you with the details again… So what about the visuals? I would say the set is quite interesting and I would go further in saying that the projections were very effective, but over all, rather than Rheingold, we got Rheinsilver.

As everyone knows by now, Robert Lepage has given us a unit set (yes, it will be the same for all 4 operas) consisting of wood aluminum planks (thanks to Mr. Van Sant for the correction) that are individually moved to create levels and acting areas. For the most part, I have to say it is used very interestingly, if it loses the novelty after an hour. The projections, specially those for underwater are very realistic, a winning moment and quite a bang to start the opera. Through these plank movements we also visit the “underworld of the Nibelunges, a mountainous area where the gods make their dealings, the entrance bridge to Valhalla and the passage way to the underworld. Of all of these, my favorite was by far the passage work to the underworld because it involved quite a feat of acrobatics in the part of the body doubles. They started walking on the planks parallel to the floor and slowly came to stand straight up on them; TWICE coming and going.  This effect was not only breath taking in its deceptive simplicity, it was deceptive on its own because if you were not paying attention, you would have sworn that the camera angle changed to an overhead one. Amazing.

While we are at it, we need to congratulate the acrobats who were used as body doubles for several of the more dangerous stunts. It is unfortunate (insulting in my opinion) they are uncredited on the Met’s cast page for the performance, as I think they are an integral part of the effects the production is looking to create. Whoever you are, your contributions made for some spectacular theater today. Not only were you amazing in the scene where Loge leads Wotan to the Nibelungen’s dwelling, you also helped created one of the most breathtaking moments on the entire show when you doubled for the gods as they entered into Valhalla. Bravissimo!

 

Photo credit: Richard Termine for The New York Times

 

Special mention must be given to Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson, Tamara Mumford who not only sang beautifully but proved quite the acrobats as well. They look like they were actually underwater at times, and they moved like it as well. The pre-show featurette made it very clear that each one of them had their own fears to get over when they started tech rehearsals. You ladies did a bang of a job handling those cables, the height and the movements. You should be very proud of yourselves. And let me also add Eric owens who also did his own stunts on this production. His Alberich was both vocally impressive and physically impressive.

Least effective was the way Richard Croft’s Loge was cabled and handled. You could see him walking backwards to hit his spot and he looked rather uncomfortable doing it. Mr. Croft is an experienced man of the stage and one that is an accomplished actor, why were his movements staged that way is a mystery to me; they looked clumsy and ineffective.  Worst of all, he looked as uncomfortable as his singing was marvelous. Please, please, please, something HAS to be done about this.

The aspect of this production that was a true letdown is the costuming, which is in general just atrocious. I do not know what came over François St-Aubin, but I have to say his costumes left me, for the most part scratching my head in disbelief. The exception to this could be the Rheinmaidens, who look great from afar but on close up, they do not look scaly, as you would expect a creature of the water to look like nor silky smooth as you would expect from a creature like Ariel, the mermaid in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. They look like the  fabric for their costumes was bought at the clearance section of Mood. As my old boss would say: “Not good.” or as Nina Garcia (to continue the Project Runway reference) would say: “So sad…”

For the most part, the costuming is a hybrid of “fantasy”, early aviation influences, 80’s pop culture and cheap Halloween costumes from Party City. Worst offensive of the bunch was Loge’s costume.  Elsewhere in the net I read that it looked like they put Mr. Croft in Gary Glitter drag. Since I am not up to date on some of these names I Googled the name and when I saw some of the get ups I doubted that kind of get up could be inflicted on anyone in a serious situation. Imagine my horror when I saw Richard croft in an ill-fitting costume that made him no favors (the man looked like he was carrying an extra 40 pounds) and with a wig that made him look (you guessed it) exactly like Gary Glitter.  Was there no other alternative? Jesus, Mary and Joseph! it was very hard to take this character seriously looking like that, and then you have him an extra 40 pounds? What the fuck was up with that? Surely an artist of Mr. Crofts caliber deserves better than what he got from François St-Aubin’s costume designs.

If this was the only offensive costume, I would have guessed that Mr. St-Aubin did want us to correlate Gary Glitter and Loge, but the sad part is that it was not. Take for example Stephanie Blythe, a singer the likes we hear once in a generation. She was sent out with a costume that made her look frumpy, completely non-sexy (fat comments will be met with the Internet equivalent of an aluminum bat) and with an Elettra wig on top of her head. I understand that dressing a full-figure woman has some challenges; but you know what? If you do not know how to designs for a FF woman,  you call someone who does. There is no shortage of designers in this country who specialize in FF women and I am sure they would have elbowed themselves for the chance to collaborate in this project. Why was Ms. Blythe sent in such an ugly, frumpy and unflattering get up? There was no reason why more care was not used in designing her costume, unless the costume was yet another ugly comment on the current obsession we have in the business for looks. Surely if Mr. Lepage and Mr. St-Aubin wanted a size 4-6 Frika, they could have switched roles between Ms. Blythe and Patricia Bardon. I am sure Ms. Blythe would have been (and has been) a magnificent Erda.  And while we are talking about Ms. Bardon, who the hell designed that wig? or did the Met raided Lady Gaga’s wig closet and picked the  ugliest yellow one?

François St-Aubin’s unflattering costume parade continued with his efforts to make Wotan, Donne and Froh’s costumes looked like they were all found along the Vikings selections at a Party City, or Halloween USA; talk about ugly things. A little better, if not by much was Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Freia costume. This one was less ugly, but at least it flattered her figure. The winning designs, if they can be called that, were the designs for Alberich (although I could not forget James Jorden’s review where he said that they gave Eric Owens MC Hammer pants; accurate beyond any explanation) and the ones for Mime (actually very good, considering the character) and the giants Fasolt & Fafner (again, ugly, but then representative).

After seeing so many ugly costumes I just wanted to quote Heidi Klum and say “François, that means you are out; Auf Wiedersehen.” Most of these costumes deserve to be placed on the wall of shame of Project Runway’s working room

 

Photo credit: Richard Termine for The New York Times

 

All being said and done, this production is a success for several well deserved reasons: first among them is the casting and the singing. Let’s be blunt, the singing in this production is at levels not heard at the Met in several seasons; hardly a weak link in that cast. 2) The set and the possibilities it represents. The visual effects and screen projections created by Etienne Boucher & Boris Firquet and the stunts. These technical aspects bring it to a level not experienced in an opera house ever before.

Where this production fails miserably is in the costuming department. The costumes ran the whole gamut, from effective to unflattering, to risible to downright head scratchers. What a shame, because since it is likely these performances are the ones that will be released on DVD, we will have to suffer through them for the next decades. If I ever saw a production where the entire set of costumes should be rethought and redone, this is it.

If you are in the NYC area, good luck getting a ticket, but that does not mean you shouldn’t try. If you are outside of NYC and could not attend today’s performance, there will be an encore presentation on Oct 27th; call your local theater…

October 9, 2010 Posted by | Opera Review | 1 Comment

Es gibt ein Reich… Toledo opera

Today, thanks to Toledo Opera and their sponsors we had the opportunity to watch one of the dress rehearsals for their production of Ariadne auf Naxos. I usually do not like to review dress rehearsals, but given how everyone actually sang full out, I’ll take the chance.

Toledo has cast this opera from strength, starting with Barbara Quintiliani, who I would guess is doing her first Ariadnes and boy was she good. My first reaction when I see a young soprano take on a role like this is always “too soon, too soon…” I did not need to worry. Ms. Quintilianni encompassed the whole role quite admirably. Where others just get through or just survive, she soared. A couple of high notes aside, I would say she gave an account of the role that was mature beyond her years and vocally splendid. Was it perfect? No. Do I care? Most definitely not. I hope she will continue to grow as an artist and a singer. I can see her doing this role again and again. Brava.

The evening’s Bacchus was tenor Michael Hayes whose fearless singing of this killer role created quite en impression.  Unfortunately, his wig did not make as good impression as his singing did on me. It was way too feminine and to be honest, he looked like the Composer’s older drag queen brother. Surely a more flattering and masculine wig is available to correct this before opening night. For the rest, he sang like no one told him this role makes other tenors lose sleep.

The composer of Stacey Rishoi was probably less fiercely sung, but carried not less impact. She cuts a nice figure on stage and was an ardent composer. Some of the upper reaches of the role taxed her, but lets be honest, the Composer is not a Mezzo role. It would be best served with an Ariadne-in-waiting,  or a Donna Anna. I do not understand why we keep casting mezzos in this role, given how it can get high and taxing fast and furious. That being said, Ms. Rishoi did her best to sing this role and was a committed artist; that should not be discounted.

The most enjoyable and consistent singing of the night came from the Zerbinetta of Heather Buck. Zerbinetta holds no terrors for her; I think someone needs to tell her this role is quite difficult. She sand confidently and acted with assurance without getting cutesy (I hate cutesy Zerbinettas). I thoroughly enjoyed her performance all the way to the fabulous high D’s and E’s she sand. Over all, a fabulous performance and she was awarded a great ovation at the end; I had to join in.

Other roles were also cast from strength in this production. The nymphs of Kirsten Chambers (Naiad), Priti Gandhi (Echo), and Sarah Heltzel (Dryade) were a joy to hear. Their ensemble singing was just fantastic; their harmonies tight as they could be and they looked fantastic in their costumes. Bravi. The same should be said for the comedic troupe composed of Alex Richardson (Scaramuccio), Lawrence Jones (Brighella), Markus Beam (Harlekin), and Gustav Andreassen (Truffaldino). They all sang their roles beautifully and were quite charming on stage. Special mention must be made to the ensemble that forms the bookends for Zerbinetta’s aria. I have sung Saramuccio and I know how difficult this ensemble is. they performed it while running and clowning around. Dudes, you rocked it. This fantastic cast was rounded up by Mathew Edwardsen (Dance Master), Jeremy Kelly (Music Teacher),  Micah Graber (Servant), Eric Graber (Wigmaker), Dustin Scott (Officer) and (a former Bacchus himself, now local radio personality) Brad Cresswell (Majordomo). They all made the best of their parts and contributed to a very enjoyable evening. Bravi all.

Toledo opera secured the services of stage director Jonathon Field who kept the action moving with precision if without a lot of imagination. I have always wanted to see a production of Ariadne where the stage director takes the chaos and runs with it. I have always wanted to see a whole bunch of acrobats, jugglers and vaudeville acts share the stage in an arranged chaos. After all, that must be what it felt like for all concerned when they were forced onto the stage together, so why not? I have always wanted to see how an Ariadne had to almost claw her way into being paid attention during some of the soliloquies, maybe walk up the rock to find an acrobat getting ready for a jump. Since she is the prima donna, she could, in a grand gesture, help the acrobat with her jump (thus freeing her spot for her big aria) and once the acrobat is caught downstairs by his/her colleges have the entire troupe stop the moving around and PAY ATTENTION to Ariadne’s aria, her singing; and join the applause when she is done. If there was something that I missed from Mr. Field’s staging was that sense of chaos during the opera part, the characters on each side sang to each other but they did not interact WITH each other. Ariadne, the opera, should be a competition to see who gets the attention of the public and the master of the house (given the realistic expectation that the best troupe will be invited back) and there was no sense of that.  That being said, the blocking (because that is what it was) was easy to understand and enjoyable.

The opera was performed in a multi-language version that would make purists shake their heads but made me smile and giggle like a kid. I believe that Ariadne (and I hope Hugo von Hofmannsthal would agree) is an opera that can benefit from this. The prologue was performed entirely in English (and I have to say the diction was superb, congrats to the singers and the English language coaches) and the opera was done in dual language: German for the “serious” artists and English for the comedy troupe. That meant that Zerbinetta’s Grossmachtige Prinzessin was performed in English (and the aria’s opening line did prove the one awkward translation moment) but it made sense. The “serious” artists sang in their hoity-toity  language and the comedy troupe in the language of the audience. I think it is a great idea and one that works beautifully. Yea, some people might not like it; they might even protest the fact that it is not a purist approach and that the “beauty of Hofmannsthal’s libretto can not be admired.”  OK, they have a point… who cares, send them a link to the Kempe recording and they can spend the rest of their days admiring it in the privacy of their own sanctuary.

Maestro Thomas Conlin, conducting the  Toledo Symphony Orchestra did a beautiful job with this show. The orchestra was precise and I did not hear any issues between pit and stage, no small feat. The orchestra produced a very exiting sound (for what I could hear, more on that latter) and at the same time were very sensitive to the needs of the singers.

The production, whose designer is uncredited in the website, is a traditional XVIIth century set and costuming. I have to say that I liked it quite a lot. the prologue gave the audience a true sense of what a backstage looks like and how chaotic it can be. The “opera” set had a cardboard feeling to it that I found charming. Ariadne is after all, a “XVIIth cetury” opera and it can afford to look like it is done in that style, fake sets and drops, it feels realistic in a sense. I myself enjoyed the setting and the costumes (if not Bacchus’ wig and Ariadne’s tiara) a lot. You know, talking about those 2 things, I have an idea: make Bacchus’ wig smaller and Ariadne’s tiara larger, without making it look like she just won the Miss Gay Toledo pageant and it will be perfect.

Now, I would like to talk about some of the technical aspects of the webcast because I think I might have some feedback that could be considered for the next time. I say, take it and do with it what you want:

  1. Thank you to the person who turned the mics (finally!); you were a little late, please do not forget the next time. We were getting frustrated because we were having difficulty hearing.
  2. Thank you also to Opera Music Broadcast for making this available for free. If you do not know who these people are, please click on the link and get acquainted. They need your support.
  3. The multi-camera work was very good. Some people in the chat room were commenting that it felt a lot more natural than the met’s HD camera work because  it did not go into weird angles. So kudos to your cameramen. Work needs to be done in the direction so the cameras are not caught while in the process of setting the shot. That is just experience, so take it with a grain of salt.
  4. Is there a way to make the video feed detachable from the website? This is what I am referring to: we were given 2 options that were basically all or nothing. That meant that if we waned to chat (and trust me, we will be doing the same thing the next time) we had to be content with a small image. If we wanted to see the image in a bigger size, then our option was full screen, which meant that we could not chat (get it? all or nothing). If the video feed could be made detachable we could make the feed as big as we want, minimize the browser and chat away. Think about it, if it can’t be done, it can’t be done…
  5. Lastly (and this is a biggie), GET BETTER MICROPHONES.  The poor mics were getting overwhelmed left and right by the singing. Any time one of the sopranos hit anything from high A the distortion on the mics was audible and more pronounced that the singing. This was truly not flattering to Ms. Quintilianni or Ms. Buck, who has plenty of high notes and were done no favors by the hissing coming from my speakers.

And while I am at it, and I do not pretend to appear like a know it all, here are a couple of ideas:

  1. We could only get your sponsor’s name  during the speech at the beginning. Is there a way to add something to the video feed during intermission, even a short ad? We all owe your sponsors a HUGE thanks for making this available but their name was mentioned so quick and there were no other reminders in the feed. I feel horrible because I would love to mention them by name and link to their website. Unfortunately I can’t. Maybe they could be showcased more prominently the next time around.
  2. I loved the whole idea that we were watching a hybrid of dress rehearsal and student performance. I loved sharing with all those youngsters the fact that many of them were seeing their first opera. What I missed what a way for them to connect with the audience on-line. Remember that this will be the generation that will take the internet to a whole new level; and hopefully will be in love with opera on a way their parents are not. Could we get an acknowledgment during the opening remarks and allow the kids to say hi to the audience watching on their computers? Something like: Tonight you are not alone, there is a whole bunch of people sharing this with you through the power of the internet, say hello everyone, they are looking at you right now and are very proud of you for taking the plunge and not being intimidated by opera. I think the kids would enjoy it and know that there is a whole world of people out there who are passionate enough about opera to be watching over the internet.

All in all, I want to thank Toledo opera and Opera Music broadcast and to the sponsors which included [your sponsors will be here as soon as I get their names] and SoundQue Multimedia for the fabulous effort that they put in making this available, and FREE! I love it when a smaller opera company refuses to be invisible and or exclusevely local. I love it when stuff like this is done because it says LOOK AT US, no we are not the Met, or la Scala, but we are relevant and we are putting out a product worth showcasing and worth being exited about. I hope this is the start of a new trend, and to the fabulous people in Toledo, you did it first; so the biggest ovation of the night goes to you and your paint-out-of-the-lines staff and to the people of Opera Music Broadcast. This was a brilliant idea.

People, if you are in the area, or can travel, make sure you stop by Toledo Opera and buy a ticket. You will not regret it. Ariadne is playing this Friday 10/8 at 8:00 PM and Sunday 10/10/10 (what a beautiful number) at 2:00 PM at Valentine Theater.  I encourage you to get a ticket either at the theater or online, they have several ways for you to do it, JUST DO IT!

October 7, 2010 Posted by | Opera Review | 4 Comments