Saturday, October 11, 2014

Another beloved singer departed from us: Anita Cerquetti

Beloved Anita Cerquetti left us today, at the age of 83.  Here is my tribute to her from 2009:

I give you Anita Cerquetti. There don't appear to be any performance videos available, but here is 1996 video of her hearing a 1956 pirated recording of her Norma in Jan Schmidt-Garre's film Opera Fanatic..

Anita Cerquetti (April 13, 1931) is an Italian dramatic soprano who enjoyed a short but brilliant career in the 1950s.

Cerquetti was born in Montecosaro, near Macerata, Italy. She was first a student of the violin, she trained eight years with Luigi Mori. After a mere one year of vocal study at the Conservatory of Perugia she made her operatic debut in Spoleto in 1951 as Aida. She sang all over Italy, notably in Florence as Noraime in Les Abencérages, under Carlo Maria Giulini in 1956, and as Elvira in Ernani, under Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1957. Her Teatro alla Scala debut was in 1958 as Abigail in Nabucco. She also sang on RAI in a wide variety of roles such as Elcia in Mosè in Egitto, Mathilde in Guglielmo Tell, Elena in I vespri siciliani, etc.

Cerquetti made headlines in January 1958, when she replaced "in extremis" the ailing Maria Callas in Norma, at the Rome Opera House. She was already singing the role at the San Carlo in Naples. She commuted between the two cities to honor both engagements for several weeks. This "tour de force" won her great acclaim but had serious effects on her health. Shortly after she started withdrawing little by little from the stage until her complete retirement in 1961, aged only 30. [n.b. I am inclined to think her decline was because of singing all this dramatic repertoire at such a young age!]

Cerquetti sang relatively little in America. Her debut there was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1955, as Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, opposite Jussi Björling, with Tullio Serafin conducting.

Cerquetti made only two commercial recordings, both for Decca in 1957, a recital of Italian opera arias and a complete La Gioconda with Mario del Monaco, Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato, Cesare Siepi. Among her "pirated" recordings is a 1958 Aida, from Mexico City, with Flaviano Labò, Nell Rankin, Cornell MacNeil, Fernando Corena and Norman Treigle. The Rome Norma of 1958 with Franco Corelli is also available.

(Bio from Wikipedia.)

Here is a link to another Cerquetti jewel on YouTube, "O re del ciel" from Agnes von Hohenstaufen. I know you don't know it, but go listen. It's terrif!

Taminophile sadly notes the passing of a great artist

Dear Rita Shane left us on Thursday. It is to my shame that I never presented her in this space. Toward that end:
Rita Shane as Zdenka
Photo: La Scala

Martern aller Arten, unattributed live recording:

Sempre Libera, also unattributed:

Private video of Ophelia's mad scene, unattributed:

Thursday, October 9, 2014

My Bachtrack review of Julie Taymor's Magic Flute at the Met

Pretty Yende and Toby Spence
© Marty Sohl, The Metropolitan Opera
On Monday, I saw the Metropolitan Opera's first performance of the season ofDie Zauberflöte. It was an evening of beautiful singing, amusing comedy, affecting pathos, and flamboyant visual effects.

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Monday, October 6, 2014

My Bachtrack review of Barbiere in Philadelphia

On Friday, September 26, I was in attendance as Opera Philadelphia opened its 40th season with a very new production of Il barbiere di Siviglia--very new because director Michael Shell has updated the setting to a modern-day festival week in Seville. We see clowns on stilts, flamenco dancers, and people in all sorts of traditional costume among the chorus and supers. Mr Shell finds inspiration for this production in the films of Pedro Almodóvar, “giving [the] characters a new depth, which ultimately reveals much more heart and humor”...

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Taylor Stayton (Almaviva), Jennifer Holloway (Rosina)
and Jonathan Beyer (Figaro)
Photo:  Opera Philadelphia, Kelly & Massa

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My Bachtrack review of La Boheme at the Met, second night of the season

I adore La Bohème.  I am a big, weepy mess nearly every time I see it.  From "Si, mi chiamano Mimì" to Rodolfo's anguished cries of "Mimì!", I go through tissue after tissue.  Since I was the age of these Bohemians, they have been my friends. The more I see and hear La Bohème, the more amazed I am at the music of Puccini.....   (see the rest)

Act II bow, from a previous season
Photo: The Metropolitan Opera

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A new Joyce DiDonato recording!

Last week, through the generosity of the folks at Erato (and their PR machine), I received an advance copy of dear Joyce DiDonato's new CD, which was released to the public today. On this recording, Stella di Napoli, we are treated to ten arias from early 19th‑century Naples opera composers, including one from the eponymous opera by Pacini. Most of these are quite seldom heard--some never recorded before--but we are also treated to arias from Maria Stuarda (Donizetti) and from I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (Bellini). Ms. DiDonato is accompanied by the Orchestre et Choeur de l'Opéra de Lyon, under the capable leadership of conductor Riccardo Minasi.

Photo (c) Pari Dukovic
Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867), like all the composers on this CD, was a contemporary of the bel canto triumvirate--Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini. Considered a lightweight by his contemporaries and many critics of following ages, he withdrew from composing opera in 1834 or 1835 and undertook a study of the trends in Italian opera of the age. He returned to composing in 1840, and his later period operas show a more mature style.

Saffo was Pacini's first new opera during this period. In the finale, Saffo, overwrought by unrequited love, chooses to throw herself off a cliff to end her suffering. This being bel canto opera, there are numerous last-minute revelations, but having made a deal with Apollo, she must ignore even these happy surprises and leap to her death. With this scene Pacini shows he was "no longer [a composer] of light cabalettas, but rather of complex works and considered productions," to quote conductor Riccardo Minasi's liner notes. This is the sort of scene in which Ms. DiDonato excels, acting the role with her voice in a hundred subtle ways--passion, tenderness, despair, et cetera.

"Ove t'aggiri, o barbaro" from Pacini's Stella di Napoli from the same period, is by contrast a florid polonaise, its style suggesting Stella's vengeful lyrics ("Where are you, cruel man I love so dearly?") might not be completely indicative of her fate. This aria's placement in Act I suggests that more will be revealed, and the outcome will not be what we are led to expect. (Searching for information about the opera yields hundreds of hits for this CD, but very little information about the opera itself.)

Michele Carafa (1787-1872) was the only composer on the disc I did not know, and by chance the composer on this recording whose life outspanned all others. He composed at least twelve operas, including settings of the stories we know from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Bellini's La Sonnambula. On this recording we hear an aria from his opera Le Nozze di Lammermoor, in which Lucia anxiously awaits her lover, and calls on Hope to bring her comfort. The vocal writing includes long, legato phrases with subtle touches of fioritura. It is no surprise Ms. DiDonato is more than equal to these vocal challenges, and imbues these long phrases with great tenderness.

Another favorite is from Donizetti's (1797-1848) seldom performed Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth. This was Donizetti's first venture into Tudor territory. (Elizabeth I seems to have fascinated the imaginations of 19th‑century Italians.) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is a favorite of the Queen, but has married his love, Amelia. When the Queen visits Leicester's castle, he tries to hide Amelia, leading to Amelia's aria both sad and angry. In addition to the vocal interest of this aria, we can't deny the charm of a glass armonica obbligato.

Time and space prevent me from describing all of the arias. Superlatives about Ms. DiDonato's singing, her amazing vocal skills, her understanding and interpretation of each character and scene, her interpretive talents, must surely grow tiresome. Indeed, one headline I saw about this CD used the word "dizzying" in reference to the repertoire and her amazing vocal prowess. Flawless? Almost. Although Ms. DiDonato's voice lies very high, there are a few moments in which the high tessitura seems slightly stressful. All in all, however, I must concur with the WQXR NY quote that is highlighted in the CD's publicity materials: "How blessed we are to be living in the age of DiDonato."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Having been enchanted by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's production The Fairy Queen/ A Midsummer Night's Dream, the first installment of its Summer of Shakespeare, I knew I must see their production of Macbeth, Mr. Verdi's setting of The Scottish Play. I was privileged to see the opening night performance on August 20. I've always been a great supporter of opera on this professional level, where young professionals gain experience and audiences can see what really creative minds are able do with a modest budget. Dell'Arte can do a lot!

Jackie Hayes, Elizabeth Bouk,
Monica Niemi as Witches
Photo: Brian Long
This was a semi-staged performance, which can mean anything more than a concert version but less than a full production with sets and costumes. Dell'Arte's production was very close to a fully staged production. True, costumes were mostly simple modern dress with add-on pieces suggesting the roles, and sets were almost non-existent, and a few of the props were mimed, but in all other ways this was a fully staged performance, and a very good one. All roles were very well prepared (no opening-night-as-final-dress-rehearsal insecurity), and all scenes were staged and acted with commitment and conviction. Music Director Christopher Fecteau and Stage Director Myra Cordell deserve congratulations for the vocal and dramatic commitment and highly musical performances of this capable young cast.

Mary Ann Stewart
as Lady Macbeth
Photo: Brian Long
The star of the show was Mary Ann Stewart as Lady Macbeth. Ms. Stewart has a long list of mezzo roles to her credit, and a growing list of soprano roles, including Madame Lidoine, Ariadne, and Donna Elvira. Her sound is full and rich, with secure high notes and booming low notes. She has a commanding stage presence, and acted the demanding role of Lady Macbeth with conviction and unwavering commitment. I expect to hear more of her in the future.

Another favorite was the Banco of Hans Tashjian. His rich and deep sound, although young, shows great promise. And I liked the three energetic Witches of Monica Niemi, Elizabeth Bouk, and Jackie Hayes.

I wonder about casting Jason Plourde as Macbeth. The role requires a powerful, stentorian voice, a true Verdi baritone. I believe Mr. Plourde's voice is lighter than that. His acting, however, leaves nothing to be desired. We saw Macbeth's conflicting emotions, his terror, his pride--all were there.

Jason Plourde
as Macbeth
Photo: Brian Long
Again I must praise Christopher Fecteau for leading the reduced orchestra in the tiny but resonant East Thirteenth Street Theater. Throughout, the pickup orchestra played like a true ensemble, following Mr. Fecteau's admirable musical instincts beautifully. Again I must praise Director Myra Cordell for her inventive staging in this unusual space, and for bringing committed performances from every one of the singers. The lighting design of Scott Schneider and costumes of Nina Bova also deserve praise, as does the fight choreography of David Laws.

Macbeth runs through August 24, so you'd better hurry if you want to see it!