Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Giorgio Tozzi Remembered

A dear friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous, let’s call him LeporBBello,  just sent me this remembrance. It is so beautifully written that I want to share it with you. Whatever I could say about Maestro, it all pales in the face of  the remembrance of someone who was in his presence on a daily basis.

Take it over LeporBBello:

Giorgio Tozzi was one of the most beautiful artistic flowers to bloom out of the social desert created by two world wars and the Great Depression. He sang originally out of necessity to feed his parents and family, and became operatic legend. He was a true “American” artist, living in popular medium as comfortably as the grandest operatic repertoire. Due to an injury two years into his  twenty year Met career, he needed to perceive pitch by “feel” rather than by it’s sound, making his considerable artistic accomplishments even more inconceivable.

There are few artists in whom one can hear as much pure humanity in the sound – he was a man born to communicate. To spend a moment with this man was to be forever changed, and he will be greatly missed by everyone who ever met him.

Giorgio loved music. He loved the human form, and depictions of it in photographs and painting. Giorgio hated liberalism with a passion, and loved to talk about it. He loved his mother and father. Giorgio loved his wife Monte deeply and rarely let his frustration over her own declining health show. He loved his children and grandchildren, and spoke of them with great pride.

Giorgio loved to write, and did so as cleverly as he spoke. Giorgio had a temper. He loved gadgets – his home office was cluttered with computers he had grown tired of, surrounded by digital cameras. He loved American Musical Theater, and hated the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Giorgio wasn’t a drinker, but loved a “Manhattan Cocktail with Canadian Club”. Giorgio had no uvula – it had been removed by a doctor in his youth, along with his tonsils…he didn’t know why. Giorgio hated cd reissues of his recordings. He preferred the mono version of his Figaro. Giorgio hated getting old and wasn’t afraid to say it. Giorgio told the best stories and made even corny jokes funny.

Being a singer who knows Giorgio Tozzi meant that you knew you could do it – you knew you could do it because he did it, and you were just like him…and you knew this because he told you so every time he saw you. There was no more positive man towards a young singer than this man – you felt this positivity until you opened up one of his recordings and actually tried to imitate what he was able to do. His legato was unparalleled, his diction was flawless, his sound was warm and uniquely human, and his stage acting was natural and deeply moving before it was a necessary goal of an operatic artist. He was an unusually humble man, particularly considering his amazing gifts.

For my part, today I lost something with no definition or descriptive words. Father, mentor, friend…role model?…forget these silly words we use to describe ordinary people – Giorgio Tozzi is otherworldly. He lives on in every person he touched and continues to touch in his peerless recordings, the numerous artists who were able to receive his message in person as pupils, and in the hearts of those fortunate enough to witness his artistry in person.

Giorgio was a genuine gentleman, and I am proud to have been his friend.

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This was the man within the legend and the reason so many mourn his passing today

May 31, 2011 Posted by | In memoriam | 2 Comments

Adieu Giorgio Tozzi

Maestro Giorgio Tozzi

Maestro

What can I tell you about Giorgio Tozzi that you don’t already know? If you are an opera buff, the name alone means “golden age,” so what could I possibly say about him that has not been said, written or spoken somewhere?

Maestro (that is what I called him since the day I met him) was one of the sweetest men I ever met. I had the honor of being in his presence for the first time in September 1993, when as a first year graduate student at IU I had been cast as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor; he happened to be the director. Me, being young, immature and not well informed, had no idea who Giorgio Tozzi was. That’s when I went into a little reading spree and realized what a lucky little bastard I was. I was in the presence of one of the most gifted American Bassos of his generation.

From then on, I was starstruck and to the day I left IU, I never stopped being starstruck by him. Maestro was incredibly supportive, there was not one general audition that he didn’t come to me to talk to me and provide me with feedback and words of encouragement. Even in my darkest moments, I could count on Maestro to brighten up my day and make me feel I counted. Even though I never spent one day as his student, he never stopped being my mentor, because  he never stopped being like a guardian angel, ready with a word of encouragement whether needed or not.

As special as this man was, the greatest moment I spent in his presence, was not in private, but where he belonged. IU was doing a production of Fidler on the Roof and somehow coaxed him out of retirement to sing the role of Tevye. The popularity of the show pretty much guaranteed sold out performances and when it came to it, I could not get a ticket, so the only way I could see the show was as an usher. Sitting on the stairs of orchestra section, I experienced the art of Giorgio Tozzi, the man in his element and the element within this man. I still had tears in my eyes when I went to greet him in the green room after the performance. Now that will be my favorite memory of him, as Tevye, as he extends his hand to the fiddler at the end of the show and slowly walks off followed by him.

Now the Maestro is dead. Not only has opera lost one of its luminaries, we have lost a friend, a mentor, a guardian angel, a smile, a joke, a hug; shit, we’ve lost maestro. Our lives are a little less sunny and our singing a bit sadder; we have lost Maestro.

Luckily for us, Giorgio Tozzi and his legacy live beyond his recording or South Pacific. Thankfully, RCA had his artistry at their disposition and they used him in several sets where his aristocratic sound gave life to more than one father, soldier, king or confidante. Those recordings are easily accessible and downloading them at iTunes or Amazon is a piece of cake.

What is not a piece of cake to find are some of the recordings he made for MORC, including his Boris and his extended highlights of Nozze di Figaro. Thanks to the tenacity and love of collector extraordinaire Mike Richter, those were preserved in his CD-Rom dedicated to the MORC and for those who would like to experience Tozzi in his absolute prime, here he is first as Boris and then as Figaro. Thanks to Mike as well, we can experience Tozzi as Figaro’s nemesis in a performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia from Teatro Colon in 1969.

I think it would be all to easy to past here several of his performances available on YouTube, but instead of that, I am going to use someone else’s voice and music. I am going to let Leonora in La Forza del destino be the one to send you off, dear Maestro, as you start your journey to eternity:

La vergine degli angeli ti copra del suo manto
E te protegga vigile Di dio l’angelo santo

May the Queen Angels cover you with her mantle,
and vigilantly protect you the holy angel of God.

Thank you Maestro Tozzi. We love you and we will miss you.

May 31, 2011 Posted by | In memoriam | 2 Comments

Elizabeth Caballero + Violetta Valeri = Match made in heaven

Giuseppe Varano and Elizabeth Caballero in Madison Opera's La Traiata. Photo Credit: James Gil

Madison Wisconsin residents were given a huge treat this weekend when their local company closed their Golden Anniversary Season with Verdi’s La Traviata. After a series of auditions in Chicago, my significant other and I trekked in that direction to see the opening night performance. Let me tell you something, that long drive was so worth it.

My first impression as I entered Overture Hall, the performing space that Madison Opera uses was OMG, I would kill to sing here. The hall is gorgeous in a modern sensibility, not too big as to overwhelm the voices and not too small as to render the space uncomfortably intimate. The seats are very comfortable and believe it or not, you can connect to the internet from the comfort of your seat; which makes tweating and facebooking about your experience instant. Needless to say, I took advantage of the opportunity during intermissions (duh!) and I have to say I loved it. Now, how many of you guys can say that you were able to tweet right from your seat? I know, I know, it might seem like the end of the world to some of you, but remember, the new generation is the “instant gratification” generation. Anything that will bring a tushie to a seat to enjoy the art form I love is a good strategy so kudos to the management of Overture Hall for their vision.

Cuban soprano Elizabeth Caballero

The reason for me being there, and I freely admit it was the presence of soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta Valeri, the courtesan who sacrifices herself for the well being of a pampered young girl with a close minded father and fiancee. If you remember well, I first saw Caballero live in the role of Nedda in KY opera and I was blown over. We had remained in contact since and a frienship has been blossoming. Since Traviata is my all time favorite opera, I had to see Caballero in the role no mater what. You can take whatever I say with a grain of salt, given how you already know she is a friend or you can wait until the broadcast in NPR World of Opera this Summer to realize that what I am saying is accurate; you decide…

Point is that Elizabeth Caballero gave an amazing performance of the role of Violetta. There was no weak moment, her singing of the role went from strength to strength in a performance that is better described as devastating. After the first act, my reaction was that Caballero was not even making it fair for other sopranos in the role right now. After acts II and III my first impression was conformed and I have to say that her Violetta stands on equal footing as some of the great Violettas of this generation and past ones. There was simply not one spot where I thought she was having a tough time coping! After seeing her in the role, I just have no desire to experience either Netrebko or Poplavskaya, 2 sopranos that seem to be gathering a lot of attention for the role, and some of it not for the right reasons.  I simply can not think of any soprano who can surpass Caballero in the ease of coloratura and still retain the lyric qualities to be successful in the heavy passages of act II and be able to spin an Addio del passato that left me looking at the stage through the glassy veil of tears. I simply can not see this role being better sung by almost anyone; specially the Russian flavors of the month Peter Gelb at the Met seems to be so enamored with.

If her singing has been this good and the acting sucked, at least I would have had a reason to find fault. The issue is that just as her singing was glorious, her acting was in par with her singing. There was not a gesture out of place, not a movement, not a glance. During act I she remained aware that the clock was ticking away on her but this did not mean some kind of “fate” acting; instead she remained appropriately youthful and carefree. In act II, she grew in stature as she had to confront both Germonts. Act III was first a cry of desperation and finally a love letter to the woman she knows will eventually replace her in Alfredo’s heart.

Italian tenor Giuseppe Varano

Talking about Alfredo, the April 29th performance marked the American debut of Italian tenor Giuseppe Varano. It is my understanding that even though we had never heard him in our side of the Atlantic, he is already a seasoned Alfredo with more than 30 performances of the role under his belt. I wish I could report that this was a happy occasion for Mr. Varano. Who among us wouldn’t want our debut in an opera house, let alone in a country be the stuff of legends? Unfortunately Mr. Varano had some health issues related to the acidity of our food (specially American tomatoes) that affected his voice. I think it would be unfair to go in detail about what went on because, well, the faster he forgets about it the better.

If there is any consolation, I hope someone tells him that Pavarotti’s high C cracked like a firework in his Met debut yet look at where he stands in history. Now, not everything is sad news in my report of Mr. Varano. While we have to admit that we might have not heard the quality of singing that brought him to the USA, we still saw the quality of the acting and in that, he remained committed. His Alfredo remained passionate, if a little overacted. I have a feeling that him being in survival mode had some to do with some of his dramatic choices. His voice is perfect for the role and in a moment of small victory, he willed his way through a very successful O mio rimorso (the cabaletta to Dei miei bolenti). The fact that he didn’t attempt the high C did not bother me at all. I hope his next performances in the USA will be under better circumstances and that he will soon be able to laugh at this moment in his career. Certainly he has an interesting story to tell his grand-kids, when he has them. Welcome to America Mr. Varano.

Donnie Ray Albert as Germont perre, Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta and Allisanne Apple as Annina. Photo credit James Gill

The role of Giorgio Germont was filled by American baritone and Grammy award winner Donnie Ray Albert. Mr. Albert might be a familiar name to some in great part due to his recording of the role of Porgy for RCA in conjunction to a series of performances of the opera in Houston many, many moons ago. It was nice to be able to experience the art of Mr. Albert 16 years after I shared the stage with him (as a chorister) in a Cincinnati Opera Aida that saw him as Amonastro.

Just like his Amonastro 16 years ago, Mr. Albert commanded the stage and sounded amazing in a role that some baritones around his age drop because it is getting a little too high. His confrontation with Violetta found him a little uncomfortable with this woman who all of a sudden was behaving in too familiar way with him, yet when it was time to scold his son in the next scene, he found himself not looking at his son, but walking to Violetta to teach the younger Germont how a lady is to be treated. Mr. Albert’s singing remains as impressive as ever. He is a masterful technician and after singing heavy Verdi roles for the good part of 25 years, he barely sounded like he had to work hard to sing this role.

The performance was conducted with masterful precision and great support by John DeMain, whose beat was never anything less than precise and visible. There were no missing cues that I can remember nor was there any instances of singers or chorus being behind or ahead of the beat. His control of the orchestra was absolute and they performed for him like they were serenading the love of their life. This orchestra, my first time hearing them, impressed me for the beauty of the sound and the control of the dynamics. The support they gave the singer was nothing short of perfection and Madison opera is lucky to have such a wonderful orchestra at their disposition; a big bravo to the maestro and the maestros in the orchestra. The same thing needs to be said about the Madison Opera Chorus, who under the direction of Anthony Cao (who also sang the messenger in Act II-i) supported the principals beautifully. Their singing was precise in act I, like a soft cushion during the concertato that ends act II and appropriately rowdy in the short offstage chorus in act III.

And while we are at it, we must mention all the wonderful singers who took on small, yet not unimportant supporting roles in the show. Honor mention must go to Jamie van Eyck for her feisty and wonderfully sung Flora. Just as much praise must also be reserved for Heath Rush, whose Gastone showed a voice capable of dealing with heavier assignments than this and a color or a future Don Jose. Jeremy Kelly, Paul Rowe, Gregory Brumfield, Allisanne Apple, Joshua Sanders and Glen Siferd all shone brightly in their respective assignments of the Marquis, Duphol, Grenvil, Annina, Giuseppe the gardener, and the servant. Bravi to all for a job well done.

The show, performed on the sets and costumes  designed by Desmond Heeley owned by Chicago Lyric Opera and wonderfully lit (if a little too red in spots) by Christine A. Binder (the original light designer) was directed with conviction by Garnett Bruce. Mr. Bruce did not give us cardboard cut-outs but living and breathing people. His direction was rich in detail I (like Giorgio discovering how Violetta had kept his letter all this time), yet free enough that the singer never looked stiff. If there was any complaint was how he tended to keep some of the minor characters on stage longer than they needed to be; like Annina, and the gardener hanging on stage during what was obviously a very private conversation between the mistress of the house and the gentleman who showed up unannounced. Surely, if they noticed her reactions, why did they not get involved? I also wish he would have softened the character of Germont father and created a better stage picture during his aria. I have longed for a long time to see a Germont sing Di Provenza not to the audience or to the emptiness but to his son either as he holds the crying Alfredo in his arms or as he strikes his hair while the heartbroken man cries on his lap or on a chair. All these are but minor quibbles in a show that was directed with such expertise by Mr. Bruce.

Let me tell you people, I am glad I took this detour and went to see the show. Not only that, I hope I will get to see more performances in this city. Not only is the venue gorgeous, the city has a vibe that made me fall in love with it. All in all, I could have not been more impressed with what I saw, heard and experienced.

Next year Madison opera will be performing Onegin, Cenerentola and Phillip Glass’ Galileo and I can not encourage you enough to visit them if you are in the city. More information about their 51st season can be found in their website. If you can not wait, there will be a concert featuring Soprano Maria Kanyova (among others) on July 16th that is free and you can also find details in their website or by sending an email to them.

Lastly, I want to send a big hug to some very nice people who I met during my stay in Madison. Being a friend of the diva had its perks and through her I was invited to a small gathering of a club named Out at the Opera. O @ O is a group of gay opera fans that were hosting a fabulous party after the performance and I met some wonderful people there. They didn’t care I was not wearing a tux (I never do when I got to the opera) and they made me feel right at home, even in my jeans. If you are a Madison resident, and a member of the LGBT community, do contact the opera company and ask how can you join this group, you will not regret it.

And because there is no letter without a post script, Colorado residents and those who can attend performances in Central City should take note that Elizabeth Caballero is coming to your town. She will be singing Micaela this Summer with Central City Opera and Mimi next year. In between now and then, Kansas City will hear her as Liu and  Nashville as Nedda and if you are in those cities, you are forewarned…

Next is Traviata (again) in Indianapolis with the fabulous Maureen O’Flynn, and I can not wait!

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Opera Review | 1 Comment