Tuesday, August 27, 2019

I've mentioned I sort of like Norma, right?

Earlier this evening I mentioned I was seeking a heart-wrenching Norma performance.  Because I'm completely incapable of dealing with my own emotions, but boy howdy, can I identify with a Medieval Druid priestess!

Shut up!

I wound up with this video on YouTube:


Norma.  1967.  Berlin.  Elinor Ross.  Mario del Monaco.  And as Adalgisa, Giovanna Vighi, of whom we never hear in the US, but WOW!

OK, there were vocal flaws, and this was the park & bark era, and yes, Adalgisa did get lost during "Mira, o Norma", but really, how exciting is this?  VERY!

For the sake of discussion, let us take the following points:
  • The opera is perfect.  Perfect.  I'll hear no arguments!  Messrs. Bellini and Romani have provided us with an amazing theatrical experience that includes solos, ensembles, choruses, and virgin sacrifices.  OK, maybe not the virgin sacrifices.  But the story line is amazing, the character development is spellbinding, and at the end there is not a single character we don't sympathize with.  Except for that bastard Pollione, perhaps.
  • We leave thinking about about these characters. We're not just humming tunes, but we're wondering what happens to Norma's children and to Adalgisa.  We're wondering just how many young maidens Pollione has seduced before Norma, and between Norma and Adalgisa. Had he not done the uncharacteristically noble thing and accepted death on the funeral pyre, we'd still be wondering how many maidens he was seducing today!
  • This opera has been the vehicle for countless amazing sopranos, and a few who were considered amazing until they tried it.  And each production has been the stuff of decades of gossip.  (I myself was in the chorus of a 1990 production in Miami with Carol Neblett as Norma.  I won't say any more.)  At least one soprano of current international fame was not a favorite of mine until I heard her conquer this role with complete confidence, technical ability, and dramatic certainty.  
  • Of two things I am certain:  If you don't care about puppies and if you don't understand Norma, then we can't be friends.  OK, since Norma came into being in 1835, that might take some effort, so you'll get a temporary pass on that.  But the puppies are not negotiable.  I'm totally serious about that.

These are just a few thoughts.  I need more opera in my life.  If only there were a living in viewing and writing about opera!  As I recently posted, I'll be able to see the entire season at Opera Carolina, and I might be able to wangle tickets to other regional opera companies' productions as well.  (I did recently write of Opera Wilmington's very nice La Boheme.)  

Monday, July 22, 2019

Il perche non so

I wrote of Opera Wilmington's delightful Amahl and the Night Visitors in January. I was quite impressed with the performance itself, the organization and its apparent administrative and development skills, and its marketing and public relations efforts. So I was excited to attend Friday night's opening of La Boheme as part of the Lumina Festival of the Arts at UNC Wilmington. I walked away very happy with the singing, and wondering exactly how I would write about other production components.

Jemeesa Yarborogh
The principals were all stellar.  Jemeesa Yarborough stole the show as Mimi.  A very beautiful and full voice, skilled and sensitive singing, and an endearing stage presence made the entire audience fall in love with this young girl who embroiders flowers in her lonely attic room. I see great things in this beautiful young soprano's future--perhaps bigger Puccini roles like Tosca or Manon Lescaut?--and I hope I am able to witness these triumphs.

Jonathan Kaufmann, another highly skilled singer, was Rodolfo. He was a pleasure to hear, with a voice that sounded free and easy throughout and a sound completely appropriate for Rodolfo. He is also a skilled actor and moves easily on stage for a man of size. One did wonder why his voice, which is beautiful, didn't seem to fill the auditorium as the other principals' voices did.

Jonathan Kaufmann
Marcello was sung by Andrew René, a fine young baritone, to quite pleasing effect. His love Musetta was beautifully sung by young Mary Claire Curran. I expect a bright future for both of these singers as well. The Schaunard of Scott Ballentine and the Colline of Carl Samet were quite fine. In particular, Mr. Ballentine brought a lot of life to Schaunard, a role that in some other productions can be quite thankless.

I hope I'm known as a supporter of regional opera and opera performed by young professionals. I wish Opera Wilmington had had the time and resources for more rehearsal with the orchestra and chorus, and perhaps some better decisions with other production components. I do recommend seeing one of the two remaining performances, on July 26 and 28. Once again, singing and story win the day.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Wie eiskalt ist dein Händchen.....

There's a reason La Boheme seems to be the most beloved of all operas. There's a reason singers will do anything to sing these beautiful roles and audiences will pay top dollar to see a good production.  There's also a reason that, although I lived in New York for over 25 years, I refused to ever see Rent, a 1980s retelling of the La Boheme story as a new musical.

The four Bohemians
Photo:  Iko Freese, drama-berlin.de
We hear a lot about "concept" opera, seemingly arbitrary or senseless retelling or reframing of opera stories for novelty or shock value. I don't get it. I don't need to see Marriage of Figaro on a tennis court or a post-apocalyptic Die Walküre under a freeway on-ramp. I certainly don't need to see another literal embodiment of the idea that we are all born naked and alone and die naked and alone. And don't get me started on penguins! I haven't seen many instances where the supposed intent of clarifying social roles and power structures was achieved, but I won't say there have been none. The Glimmerglass Festival's updated Ariadne in Naxos of 2015 is an example that worked. Examples abound where the updating didn't get in the way of the story telling too much, and the costumes (for some reason usually 1960s Jackie Kennedy styles) were fun. In some cases the updating was confusing and distracting, and substantially diminished enjoyment of an otherwise fine performance.

I won't say that is the case in the Komische Oper Berlin production of La Boheme that is currently viewable at operavision.eu (until July 26, 2019), but I was confused. The original story is from mid-19th century, but the opera was first performed in 1896. I never really had a clear picture what era was being portrayed in this production. There were some clever ideas, such as the landlord in Act I never appearing but being impersonated/mocked by the four Bohemians as they prepare to go out into the Paris evening and make mischief. I also liked the idea of never seeing the parade in Act II, but seeing the crowd react to it. And seeing a much earthier crowd than one has seen before--really, it's not a Victorian drawing room comedy! The most distracting addition, however, was the camera setup Marcello had--while it's true this equipment did exist in the 1860s, it is highly unlikely a poor painter living in a shabby attic would have it. And the idea of taking photos for posterity distracted from the action. (Fortunately there were no POOF moments of flash and smoke.) Other distractions include some unfortunate costuming choices--did they really intend Mimi's Act I dress to remind one of a prison uniform with its horizontal stripes?--and inferior subtitles.

Musetta captivates all in Act II
Having gotten all of that out of my system, let me now rave about the singing, which was all quite good. The primary couple of Rodolfo and Mimi were beautifully sung by Jonathan Tetelman and Nadia Mchantaf, both of whom were new to me. I hope I hear more of these appealing young singers in the future! Ms Mchantaf is a highly skilled singing actress, and one didn't care about the distracting production elements when she was singing. If I'm sobbing at the curtain call because Mimi isn't dead after all, I call it a success, and this is what happened. Mr. Telelman is a handsome fellow and also a highly skilled singing actor. He gave Rodolfo a good combination of youthful immaturity and sadness. I was disappointed the director didn't have him touch Mimi when he realizes she has died.

As Marcello, Günther Papendell sounded nervous at first but became much more at ease with the vocal demands of the role as he threw himself into the character. Vera-Lotte Böcker was an appealing Musetta, growing from the impetuous, self absorbed girl of Act II to the more mature woman of Act IV. The Schaunard of Dániel Foki was fun, and the Colline of Philip Meierhöfer was appropriately somber. Conductor Jordan de Souza was quite good. We don't often think about how difficult this score actually is, but Mr. de Souza and the orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin never made it sound so.

Truly, my biggest gripes were with production values--Director Barrie Kosky, Set Designer Rufus Didwiszus, and Costume Designer Victoria Behr seemed to be operating on a concept I never really understood.  Lighting Designer Alessandro Carletti had the set so dark, it's been difficult to find pictures online to steal include with this post.

I realize this review sounds negative overall, but I do recommend viewing this production while it is still available. The singing and the story win out over all the distractions.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Dame Joan Sutherland has spoiled me for other sopranos

I was introduced to the wonder that was Joan Sutherland because I was a Marilyn Horne fan boy.  I'd seen the blessed Ms. Horne on The Tonight Show, and on reruns of The Odd Couple, where she had a recurring guest role as one of Oscar Madison's coworkers. Well, on an LP of Marilyn Horne hits, I discovered "Mira o Norma", that duet from the greatest opera of all time (I might be biased here), sung with Joan Sutherland. I soon had to have their complete Norma recording, and their album of Bellini and Rossini duets.

Then I found the 1960 album "The Art of the Prima Donna".  Oh.  My.  Gawd.  Becky!!!!!!!!!  I was in fan boy heaven!  Arias and excerpts from Norma, Semiramide, Artaserse (!!!!), plus hit parade arias from Faust, Otello, La Traviata, etc.  It was on this album I first heard "Son vergin vezzosa" from Mr. Bellini's masterpiece, I Puritani.  Like many lead soprano roles, there's something wrong with this girl.  (The title literally means "I'm a mad maiden".  Keep in mind that in days of yore, the word virgin meant young woman more often than it mean woman who had never.....um.....heard Puccini.)  I used to play this recording for my fellow fan boys and we would squeal with delight. As fan boys are wont to do. I simply adore her completely casual treatment of the many high Bs. 






A television performance of the aforementioned "Mira, o Norma" with Marilyn Horne:



Another television performance, Lucia di Lammermoor on Bell Telephone Hour.  Lucia was the role that brought her international fame in 1959.  (Forgive the makeup.  Color television was new in1962.)





There are many more performances to be found on YouTube, but these are some favorites.

I don't mean to suggest there aren't other very fine sopranos, past and present.  Some I adore, in fact.  But Dame Joan was La Stupenda.  What more can be said?


OK, just one more video:


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Guest Blogger Kofi Hayford Reviews "Pavarotti"

I’ll start this out by giving a bit of background about me and what Pavarotti means to me. I can confidently say that if it wasn’t for Pavarotti, there would be a good chance that I may never have picked up opera singing. I sang before I heard Pavarotti, but I didn’t ever think of myself as an opera singer or have a desire for it before hearing him. He inspired me to want to create as grand and magnificent as he could. Seeing this movie brought me full-circle and truly moved me. It was an emotional experience hearing the stories and the various carefully selected excerpts from the film. I’m extremely thankful to Ron Howard for making this much needed movie about one of my heroes. My only complaint is that I wish it was made sooner.

Takeaways from the Pavarotti movie:

Pavarotti's mission was bigger than himself, bigger than singing opera. It was to serve the people, bring opera to the world. He dreamed big. His career took off because he was prepared, had the talent, and and enjoyed the benefit of managers who pushed him in the right directions.

I’ve always felt that technique is the most important component to master before you attempt to get your career going. Pavarotti took a similar approach in that he really studied the voice from technical perspective and grew a proficiency early in his career. To me, his sound  was pure, consistent, clear and powerful always.

One funny thing was that even with all the preparation, all the success and all the mastery, he was still quite nervous on stage and used the white handkerchief to diffuse his nervous tension and energy. He kept a bent nail in this pocket as a good luck charm even though he was devout Catholic. Such superstitions and rituals (like his well known fondness for large bowls of pasta before a performance) helped keep him grounded in the midst of a whirlwind career in an extremely turbulent field.

This is all to say that he was larger than life in many ways and beloved by millions of people. He sold over 100 million albums and sang live for over 10 million people across the world. He deeply cared about suffering in the world and started a foundation that still helps disadvantaged children around the globe. He was playful and fun and LOVED being around women. Although a vocal Superman, Pavarotti was just human as all of us are.

Despite all that he did to popularize opera and bring it to the masses, the world of opera began to judge him for branching out and crossing over to collaborate with artists in other genres. I applaud him for that. Opera needs to be part of popular culture if we are going to keep pumping out singers from conservatories with music degrees in the numbers we are currently putting up. I thank him for being brave and bold and compassionate and true to his convictions. You’ll see in the movie that even back then in the city of Modena when he grew up, the business of singing was saturated and crowded but he was able to stand out and rise to the top. Many singers today can relate. Very inspiring.

They say that when a person dies, you get an understanding of who they were and what type of impact they had on the world. The one thing I can say for certain is that Pavarotti was an immeasurable force for good and did in one lifetime, what many could only dream to do in several.




Kofi Hayford, Ghanaian-American bass, described as possessing an “impressive” (Brooklyn Discovery) “sonorous,” (Meet Me at the Opera) and “stentorian bass voice” (National Herald) also produces a distinct sound - easily identified for its unique timbre. He is swiftly building his reputation as an accomplished  bass by bringing an ‘exciting’ and ‘stunning’ sound to the stage. Kofi’s major opera roles have included: Mephistopheles in Faust, Ramphis and The King in Aida,  La Roche in Strauss’ Capriccio, Raimondo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Rodolfo in La Sonnambula, Bartolo in Le Nozze di Figaro, Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Sparafucile and Monterone in Rigoletto,  and Baldassare in La  Favorita. Kofi is the 2018 1st Place Winner of the Tchaikovsky Music Competition(Albany, NY), 2017 NJ State Opera Guild Competition Finalist, and a 2007 Songfest Young Artist.