Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Night at the Met

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

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

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

The first thing I am going to say is that this was my first Rheingold EVER. I own the Solti Ring on audio and some personal friends in Europe shared with me the Victorian Ring that was done in Amsterdam not long ago; but I have been lazy and have not felt ready to tackle Wagner and the Ring yet. I am going to go further and confess that had I not volunteered to moderate 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

Farewell Giulietta

Today we have learned of the passing of the great Italian mezzo Giulietta Simionato at the age of 99. What can be said about this lady that has not been said before? Are there enough compliments and enough words to describe her importance and  significance to the art  form? Is there enough paper to enumerate her performances,  rehash her successes and reprint her reviews?

Suffice it to say that she has ensured a place among the honored on her own terms and not exclusively by the company she kept. Suffice it to say that she will be remembered for a long time and her recordings and performances still listened to and scrutinized long before those reading this have gone to pay their respects in the big Green Room in the sky.

If you are unfamiliar with the art of Simionato, there is plenty to see and hear on youtube. I will just give you a sample of her versatility: Cherubino and Amneris. How many mezzos can you name in the past 20 years who have successfuly navigated both roles? If you want to read more, click on her picture to be taken to her Wikipedia page.

Maestra, thank you for the music, the performances and for the support you gave to those who came after you. Rest in peace, your memory will live forever…

May 5, 2010 Posted by | In memoriam | Leave a comment

Addio Rafita, addio…

Several days ago I received news that the father of a distant cousin of mine died peacefully. What does that have to do with opera? Well, the fact that he and his wife Mezzo soprano Flavia Acosta were the first people in my family to make a living in the art form.

I never met Rafita, as he was known,  but every time it was mentioned in my family circles that I wanted to become an opera singer, his name was mentioned. Here I was, thinking I was trailblazing in my family by choosing a career that was out of the ordinary and well, I was not. His wife sang in several companies in the Midwest and Europe alongside luminaries like Grace Bumbry, Nicolai Ghiarov, Evelyn Lehar, Teresa Berganza, Oralia Dominguez, Carlo Cosutta, Walter Cassel and several others until she retired to live a quiet life until her death.

Rafita loved opera; he breathed it and lived for it; to the point of naming one of his daughters after one of the most beautiful and famous women in the ancient world, who was immortalized in an opera. Not only did he loved opera but he was a public servant as well. He worked for  Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marin.  Had we met, I have a feeling we would have had many a conversation (and arguments) over our favorites singers, composers, operas and conductors. Those might have beens will weight heavy in my heart; those conversations and arguments that are never to be will forever be my loss…

So, without any intention of sounding melodramatic I want to pay tribute to this man who I never met, but who certainly influenced my life.  Rafita, thank you for your influence, for giving me the gene of loving opera. Without knowing it, you gave me one of the most precious gifts I have ever received and for that I will be eternally grateful. Now it is my turn to pass the gene to the next generation and continue your legacy.

Rest in peace, and tell my gramps that I miss him a lot.

Lastly, I want to rise my voice in his memory. From a performance from long ago,  one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and one that I hope he will find fitting as a final tribute:

Adagiati, Poppea, acquietati, anima mia:                    Lie down now, Poppea, hush, my darling
Sarai ben custodita                                                      You will be well guarded
Oblivion soave,                                                           To the sweet oblivion of sleep
I dolci sentimenti                                                        let fly your tender thoughts
in te, figlia, adddormenti.
Posatevi, occhi ladri;                                                   Rest, thieving eyes;
aperti, deh, che fate,                                                   why open at all
se chiusi ancor rubate?                                                when closed you are still beguilding
Poppea, rimanti in pace;                                              Poppea rest peacefully;
luci care e gradite, dear,                                               lovely eyes,
dormite, omai dormite.                                               sleep now, sleep…

And another one with tenor Ramon Vargas:

Sotto la gronda de la torre antica                              Under the leaves of the old tower,
Una rondine amica,                                                         as the almond tree blossoms,
Allo sbocciar del mandorlo è tornata.                      a friendly swallow has returned.
Ritorna tutti gli anni,                                                       Every year she returns,
Sempre alla stessa data,                                                               always in the same day.
Monti e mare essa varca per tornar.                       Crossing mountains and sea to get back here.
Solo amore                                                                         Only love flees
Quando fugge e va lontano                                         and does not return
Speri invano                                                                       It makes you hope in vain,
ma non torna più,                                                            but it does not return.
Speri invano                                                                       It makes you hope in vain,
Ma non torna più.                                                            but it does not return.
Ne la penombra dolce della sera                                               In the soft twilight of evening
Passa la primavera.                                                         Sprintime passes by
Cinguettano le rondini nel volo,                                 The swallows chatter in their flight
Ebbre di luce e d’aria.                                                     they are drunk with light and air
Ed io son triste e solo;                                                    But I am sad and lonely
Monti e mare tu non varchi                                         You do not cross mountains and sea
per tornar.                                                                         to come back to me
Mia piccina,                                                                        My little one,
Fosti tutta la mia vita;                                                     You were my whole life
Sei fuggita                                                                           You are gone
E non torni più.                                                                 To never return
Sei fuggita                                                                           You are gone
E non torni più.                                                                 Never to return

April 30, 2010 Posted by | In memoriam | 2 Comments

The art of the Coloratura…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on the image to purchase the CD

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

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

Carmen est un oiseau rebele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Decade in Review

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

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

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

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

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