Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

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!

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

Knoxville Opera Puritani: Nope they are not all hillbillies

Tennesee Theater, Home of Knoxville opera

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending Knoxville Opera‘s presentation of Bellini’s I Puritani. Yes, my dear friend Ronizetti and I drove 6 hours just so we could see the opera. The main attraction for us was to hear in the flesh American Coloratura Rachelle Gilmore who seems to be gathering laurel after laurel for her performances.

I am happy to say that Ms. Gilmore met and exceeded every expectation I had. Her Elvira was scrupulously (and scrumptiously) sung, beautifully acted; a complete success that was met with a standing ovation from a screaming audience. Ms. Gilmore’s voice is even through all the registers and she used them to great advantage up to a high F that rang to the audience like a laser.

Her legato was melting; and her ability in singing passagework had an almost insolent quality. It seems to me someone forgot to let Ms Gilmore know this role is extremely difficult to sing, as she sailed through the role like it has been composed just for her. Not only was her singing marvelous,  her Italian pronunciation veered on perfection; her entire performance veered on perfection! Her mad scene was met with a riot of bravos and with good reason. There are not enough good things I could say about her performance except: If she is announced in your town or close by, run to get tickets. If you, like me, are very picky about your singers, this is one you want to hear and soon.

Ms. Gilmore was partnered by Armenian tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan. Mr. Manucharyan has an ease with the high register that is enviable. His entrance aria, A te o cara was capped with a C# sung forte and then he performed a melting diminuendo that was both surprising and amazing. He also capped his Act III aria, Credea Misera with the written high F that has brought many a tenor to their knees. Mr. Manucharyan’s high F was again, sung in full voice and was exiting as all hell.

Alas, I wish I could say the rest of the performance was just as exiting as those two moments but the reality is that Mr. Manucharyan was a two trick pony: C# and F. The rest of the role was sung with what I am sure was meant to be a throwback style to resemble what some suppose was the way Rubbini sang it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The Tennessee theater is a very intimate venue for sure; when you can not be heard in such an intimate venue, you are in trouble and Mr. Manucharyan was very hard to hear for entire stretches.

The role of Riccardo Forth was sung by Cuban baritone Nelson Martinez.  His entrance aria had the desired effect to present the villain of the opera and set Mr. Martinez as a force to be recon with, not only physically, but vocally as well. Mr. Martinez was the other revelation of the afternoon. His voice is gorgeous and well projected. His acting could use some help, but with singing like this, complaining about someone acting seems almost risible. He and Daniel Mobbs made a highlight out of their act 2 duet Suoni la tromba.

Gilmore and Manucharyan as Elvira and Arturo

Speaking of Daniel Mobbs, the Kentucky native sang with distinction and authority as Giorgio. The one inconsistency I found in his performance was that he was made up to look like an old man but his acting retained the vigor of a much younger man. Why was he made up like an old man? There is nothing that says that Giorgio has to be in his 60’s or older. Vocally, Mr. Mobbs was fabulous in every way.

The cast was rounded up by mezzo Lorraine Di Dimone as Henrietta, who turned a passionate performance of this short role. I was fully expecting her to come back at the end dressed in full regal attire to give Arturo a pardon herself and I was disappointed she was not allowed the opportunity to do so by either Bellini or the director. Her singing was as enjoyable as the rest. There was a point during the Son vergin Vezzosa that she got into an acoustical hotspot on the stage and I kept getting the feeling she was singing right by my side.

The chorus of the Knoxville opera, after a somewhat shaky start, did a wonderful job in supporting the principals. Their singing was wonderful, precise, and passionate. What infuriated me, and I have to admit it, is how poorly they were used by stage director James Marvel. He chose to move them in lines or blocks, which rendered their positions resemble squares most of the time. This gave them an almost Greek chorus  quality that seemed off with their singing.

One thing that I know from experience is that the people from the chorus want to be used and challenged to create the atmosphere the principals need. The fact that James Marvel did not is almost an insult to the artists he had at his disposition. He could have created tableaus that were incredibly dramatic and could have used the chorus as individuals. What a pity that he chose to have the chorus stand in two straight lines for most of the time and to move them in exactly the same formations for the duration of the performance.

I am sorry to say this, but if there was a disappointing aspect to this afternoon was Jame’s Marvel staging. It was simplistic in some areas and it lacked dramatic impetus. Most of the time the principals looked like they were left to their own devices or just told to move about with very little meaning behind the movements. I am not sure if it was that he didn’t have enough time to work with the artists or if he just does not believe that opera can be a theatrical experience. It is indeed a pity because he had a group of artists ready to rise to the challenge as they demonstrated in several moments.

The production,designed by Ercole Sormani was a model of frugality. Mr. Sormani created marvels with painted backdrops, 5 chairs, 2 desks and a projector. Those who insist that the stage has to be cluttered with ornamental nothings should take a look at the production pictures for this opera. The costumes, rented from Utah Opera and designed by Susan M. Allred were traditional Puritan costumes except for some very un-Puritan colors and shades; all minor details since it is all make believe. Who cares whether Puritans wore green or red, really?

This leaves the orchestra and conductor Brian Salesky. In the merits of their performance Ronizetti and I were divided.  I thought the orchestra played fairly well; Ron, on the other hand thought the orchestra out of tune for long stretches. I also found some decibel issues with the orchestra.  The endings for Act I scenes 1 & 2 were particularly prominent because the singers were completely covered and all you could hear was a band-like sound coming from the pit. Ron thought this was forgivable given how small the theater is. I blame the conductor for not paying closer attention to the dynamics the orchestra played. Just because it is marked FF in the score it does not mean the orchestra has to rattle the chandelier in the lobby. I have always held the conviction that the dynamics are relative to the singer’s voice and the performing space.

This is not to say that Maestro Salesky thought he was conducting Salome. for most of the score, his support of the singers was very good. He allowed them and the music time to breathe and develop; which made this already discussed tendency to let the orchestra fly towards the end of scenes or acts all the more regrettable.

Overall, this was a marvelous experience enhanced by our stay in this beautiful city. As it turned out, Knoxville Opera scheduled this Puritanis to coincide with their Rossini Festival; a Saturday street fair with local and area artisans, great food and showcase performances by several performing organizations. Ronizetti and I had a chance to walk through for a couple of hours, since we arrived to Knoxville on Saturday. We enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly that we are already making plans to make it there for next year’s Rossini festival. As a matter of fact, we had so much fun that on the drive back we were lamenting Knoxville is not two or two and a half hours closer, as we would be regulars in the city. It was a lovely stay.

Although Knoxville Opera is done for the season, there are still some activities done to promote the operatic arts in the area. If you happen to be from Knoxville, or from a city close by, I encourage you to contact them and see how you can get involved, or even attend some of their events. We met with 2 lovely volunteers who were telling us about First Fridays, a monthly event where singers are taken to different and unexpected venues to promote the opera. Again, what a pity they are not closer, as I would love to participate. They were telling us how the event took place in a Chinese restaurant not too long ago.

Next year, Knoxville opera is presenting Traviata, Romeo et Juliette and Othello (This one timed to coicide with the Rossini Festival). I have a feeling that I will want to go see more than one performance.

Nope, Knoxville is not for hillbillies anymore.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | Opera Review | 10 Comments

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

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 Parterre.com‘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

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

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

An even better Hoffmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Great Start to the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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