Friday, June 4, 2021

Those moments......

I've been watching a video over and over lately because it moves me deeply. Many might be surprised. It's a heavy metal arrangement of the 2nd movement of the Brahms Requiem. I am at a complete loss to understand why, but even after having viewed it repeatedly, I can not see it without sobbing. Is it because of my history with that work, and with large scale choral music in general? Is it because I know what the words mean? "Und Schmerz und Seufzen wird weg müßen--And all sorrow and sighing shall flee away"  I don't know. I don't have to know. I just have to come back and cry as often as I need. I will link that video at the end of this post.

Lauren Worsham in Dog Days at
Fort Worth Opera
Photo:  Fort Worth Opera
Of course this got me thinking about other moments in live or recorded performance that have moved me beyond measure. I hope, as people who appreciate music and communication, you have had similar experience. I can only list a few:

  • In 2015 I went to the Fort Worth Opera Festival, and saw an amazing new work called Dog Days by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek. The premise was a USA after a war on our own lands, and a family living in poverty and hardship in the aftermath. There was a scene of unimaginable pain where the teenage daughter of the family sings that the hardship and starvation has finally left her feeling beautiful. I can't write of it now without getting very emotional.
  • Everybody and his brother knows of my passion for the opera Norma. When I saw the opera in Washington in 2013, it might have been the first time I fully appreciated Norma's words, "Son io!" in the last act. She admits her guilt, having betrayed her vows as a priestess and borne two children with the enemy Roman consul. She is ready to die alongside her lover. I was wrecked. There are some moments that just do that. (Angela Meade, directed by Francesca Zambello, if you're wondering.)
  • I have always been a big supporter of smaller opera companies that give younger, aspiring singers opportunity. I have worked for some behind the scenes. This happened when I saw the Bronx Opera perform La Boheme in 2013. Even though there were flaws in the production, some of them unforgivable, I was moved beyond measure in the last act. I was in tears when Mimi died. (Sorry if that's a spoiler.) But I was overcome with sobbing when Mimi was present at the curtain call, not dead after all. I honestly had never experienced La Boheme so deeply before.
  • I have also written at length about the Verdi Requiem. A few years ago I started what I intended to be a "Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems" series. I couldn't make it to 10 days because it was so overwhelming emotionally. Also, life. You know how annoying that can be. Well this review was the first of the series. Van Karajan at the podium and some of the most stellar singers of the age as soloists, as well as a first-rate chorus and orchestra. I honestly could not move as I watched this performance on DVD. It was simply amazing.
  • In 2011 I saw the New York City Opera (it was a thing back then) debut of the amazing tenor David Lomeli, as Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore.  It was magic. There was a moment after that aria known to us all, Una furtiva lagrima, when the applause was thunderous and very long-lasting, and David wrapped his arms around himself in a big self-hug. Even the NY Times reporter couldn't tell whether he was laughing or crying. He later told me it was both! It was his moment of arrival, and I felt lucky to have witnessed it. As with all of these stories, the memory brings tears to my eyes, and I am very fortunate to call David a friend now. (I can not say what names he might call me!)

I have so many stories--I haven't even mentioned the many amazing productions I've seen at Glimmerglass or one or two that I myself produced with a small group in NYC--but what strikes me today is that they are all quite some time ago. I need to fix that. I actually have written in the past year about similar moving experiences. Nowadays, living in coastal NC, most performance that I see is online. That's OK. I just need to do more of it. 

What about you? Do you have similar experiences?

The video that started this whole line of thought:

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Pushing the boat out.......

I am once again reminded why I call myself a bel canto bear. I have never made any secret of the fact that Norma is my favorite opera in all the world, but recently I've been listening to a lot of Donizetti. In addition to the perfectly delightful L'Elisir d'Amore, there are the more dramatic operas, including those those that are erroneously called the Tudor Trilogy: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux. (For the record, there is no evidence that Donizetti conceived of these three operas as a trilogy, so I call them them a nilogy.) 

I bring up bel canto operas because it seems that this extremely difficult repertoire is where singers try to expand their reach. A few years ago there were lots of big-name sopranos who thought they could sing Anna Bolena, but couldn't.  Then the same thing happened with Norma.  On the other hand, I can recall hearing people  in Verdi operas singing much better than expected, and upon further investigation learning they'd sung many bel canto roles. "Of course he sang that so beautifully--look what he's done before!" I can also recall hearing singers I'd considered OK as Verdi singers shine in glorious ways that were totally unexpected when they assayed bel canto roles. Much as I would like to have one very famous soprano as an ally in this blog, I have written herein that she was OK in Verdi but amazing as Norma and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. I would also include one whom we might call the world's reigning Amneris and Azucena, upon hearing her as Adalgisa. I was amazed--a new way in which she was fabulous! I can not fail to give credit to a tenor who in recent years has left the lighter bel canto and Mozart roles to attack the heavier bel canto and Mozart roles such as Idomeneo, and to and also another associated with lighter roles who was amazing as Idomeneo. It was a surprise to learn that another singer, whose performances in lighter repertoire at the Met were beyond reproach, heavenly, was also absolutely stunning in larger repertoire at opera houses that were not the size of football fields. 

Let's face it. When it is a struggle to resist metaphors that include having to change my pants, we're talking hot stuff.  

On the other hand. Well. There is a particular sound I detect when a singer, even a singer I admire, is singing something that doesn't fit. The vibrato becomes faster and the timbre takes on a quality I might call brittle. Instead of listening and watching and being involved in the story, one becomes involved in the secondary story of whether the singer can get through the role or make that one difficult passage that is coming up. I don't like that experience, and I resent it when opera productions put me in that situation. Yes, the singer might perform the role beautifully, and with the finest of artistic and dramatic qualities, but to me there is more. Recall in my early days I only thought about beauty of singing, and it came with maturity that I considered other factors that might, on occasion, forgive a less beautiful tone. But really. We always knew Maria Callas, queen of the Less Beautiful Tone, would make it to the end of the opera, but we aren't always so confident with some singers we hear today.

Where do you draw the line? In today's world we have great singers who rely on beauty of sound alone--and that's OK--and singing actors who rely on stage presence to forgive shortcomings in vocal sound. I suppose it's always been that way. I once interviewed a stage director for these pages, and asked a question about the apparent trend toward acting or concept at the expense of vocal technique, and she stated that a singer who is worried about technique is not going to be able to act very well. If you're worried about the next high note, you can't throw yourself into the director's vision. 

My opinion is this:  Start with a beautiful sound. Always start with a beautiful sound. Whether the acting and characterization skills are there to begin with, are gained concurrently, or come afterward, it is still the beautiful sound that is required. That includes vocal technique and artistic production. One singer who is now known for big, Germanic repertoire, told me that every repertoire requires the presence of voice, the line, the breath that are all part of bel canto technique.  It always comes back to bel canto.  As well it should.


Friday, April 16, 2021

"I shall surely set you free" *offers bread and wine*

Once again, dear readers, I have soothed my weary soul with some amazingly beautiful singing.  Just as in so many of my recent opera posts, this was provided via  a performance of dear Mr. Beethoven's Fidelio.  Current world affairs require keeping everyone at least 6 feet (2 meters) from each other, and this production did not fail in that requirement. However, as with quite a few productions I have seen online in recent months (who goes out of the house now except for groceries, yarn, and liquor?), this restriction was used to great effect by the producers.

The performance was by the Garsington Opera at Wormsley in the UK.  Have a look at this:

Jaquino        Trystan Llŷr Griffiths
Marzelline    Galina Averina
Leonore        Katherine Broderick
Rocco            Stephen Richardson
Don Pizarro    Andrew Foster-Williams
Florestan        Toby Spence
Don Fernando    Richard Burkhard
First Prisoner    Richard Pinkstone
Second Prisoner    Thomas D Hopkinson

Chorus        Garsington Opera Chorus
Orchestra    Philharmonia Orchestra
Music        Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor    Douglas Boyd
Stage Director / Lighting & Projection Designer Peter Mumford
Associate Video Designer William Reynolds
Assistant Conductor & Chorus Master Jonathon Swinard
Assistant Director Cecilia Stinton
Reduced Orchestration Francis Griffin

Leonore is a tremendously challenging role, and I do believe that Katherine Broderick was a very good choice for this production.  Her vocalism and her musicianship were spot-on, and her understanding of a very complex character was quite amazing.  I liked the Rocco of Stephen Richardson, the Marzelline of Galina Averina, and the Jaquino of Trystan Llŷr Griffiths quite a lot.  Mr. Richardson especially played the gentle father figure Rocco, who somehow finds himself in a rather barbaric role, very sympathetically.  

What is it about basses? Why do they think they have to manufacture a sound that will be impressive instead of letting a truly healthy version of the sound God gave them suffice? I don't doubt the artistry of Andrew Foster-Williams (Don Pizzaro), but if my strongest memories from the production are a wobble and a scowl, I'm not sure the artist has achieved success. 

Toby Spence as Florestan
Photo:  Johan Persson

Toby Spence. A lyric tenor I have long admired.  He did a fine job with this role, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise, although the truly dramatic nature of some of the vocal passages did seem a bit beyond his grasp.  I associate him with Tom Rakewell, certain Mozart roles, and the like. The quintessential "English tenor."  I would expect to see a voice like his cast as Jaquino sooner than as Florestan. Yes, I know time will have its way. I'm 58. I'm not unfamiliar with this concept. But even those lyric tenors who have progressed into more italienisch and dramatic territory started out with a sound I don't identify with Mr. Spence. But I haven't kept current with every news item in the opera world in the past few years. I've had a few other matters on my mind. I don't know what he has done since I knew of his Mozart roles at the Met and a few others online. I would in no way say he was a bad Florestan. But remember I studied briefly with James King, one of the finest Florestans of his era.  (Certainly not one of the finest teachers, but I digress.)

The production. This was, of necessity, a concert production, with the 2-meter squares we have come to expect from clever lighting designers. I will say the lighting designer in this case never disappointed and offered occasional insights. In addition, the screen projections behind singers and orchestra were quite effective.  When one could read the text displayed. 

I really liked the quite reduced orchestra under the direction of Douglas Boyd. I was quite often reminded that Beethoven is not nearly so stodgy as I sometimes remember him (certain parts of the 9th symphony), nor as uninspired with voices as I tend to think. (An die Ferne Geliebte.  Genug gesagt!)  

Full cast with lighting effects
Photo:  Johan Persson

I know I sound like a Negative Nelly.   OK, I always sound nelly, but I do sound even more negative than usual in this post.  I really don't want to give that impression. 

When I realized that Leonore and Rocco were offering Florestan bread and wine at the same time they were supposed to be digging his grave, I was in tears. When Leonore revealed her identity and Florestan realized what has happened and very nearly left his 6 ft x 6 ft block, I nearly lost it.  

Did this production move me?  Hell to the yeah, as the young people probably said about 20 years ago.  (Who can keep up?)  Would I recommend it?  Oh yes!  Should you view it?  Didn't I already say yes?!