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.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Opera Wilmington's beautiful Amahl and the Night Visitors

I have a long history with Amahl and the Night Visitors. I have sung Kasper several times--I've had the boys playing Amahl prompt me on the next stone in my magic box!--and I believe one of the first reviews I ever wrote was of dear Chelsea Opera's 2009 production. On Sunday I was pleased to see Opera Wilmington's production of Amahl. I'm relatively new to Wilmington, although my family has been here for many generations, so I was delighted to find such a fine production.

Jose Chirinos as Amahl and
Maria Beery as the Mother
Photo:  Opera Wilmington
I must rave first about the two most important singers, Amahl and his mother. Jose Chirinos deserves great praise for singing and acting the crippled boy Amahl so beautifully. There was never a moment of doubt in my mind, and he played against the more experienced singers and actors very well. Maria Beery was a very fine Mother. Although the Mother is often sung by heavier voices, Ms Beery was fully equal to the role. Always vocally beautiful, but also quite expressive and musical. I don't believe I've seen a more desperate and passionate performance of "All that gold". Her vocal moments with Amahl were quite lovely, Ms Beery showing the complete vocal control to refrain from overpowering young Amahl. (I think it was a wise choice to very subtly mic young Mr. Chirinos.)

The three kings are designed to be half comic relief and half Greek chorus. Rusty Kling as Kasper, Quentin Lovette as Melchior and Carl Samet as Balthazar were a fine trio, although not always balanced. I was especially pleased vocally with the lower two voices.

This is my first experience with Opera Wilmington, and I'm quite impressed. This group knows how to raise funds! The programs were very professional, they had received a grant to use an orchestra, and most of the production values were great. They've had impressive looking seasons in recent years, and in June will be assaying La Boheme.

I do wish they had done more to overcome the limitations of staging an opera in a chancel. Even if the orchestra had not been directly in front of the chancel--and why not off on the sides?--the way the place is built limits sight lines. Something as simple as a table for props or an elevated platform to perform upon would have done wonders. I have no complaints with the orchestra or conductor, and I must say the chorus, comprised of members of the UNCW Chamber Choir and Forest Hills Global Elementary School students, was quite fine, even though it needed more men.

I am very sorry there was only one performance, for I'd gladly recommending seeing a subsequent performance. I can only recommend seeing future concerts and performances of other works.

A triumphant curtain call
Photo:  Opera Wilmington

Sunday, December 16, 2018

È grave il sacrifizio

I had the delight Saturday of seeing the Metropolitan Opera's new production of La Traviata, which opened on December 4, in a cinema in Wilmington, NC. I'll be the first to agree that these HD simulcasts are very far from a live performance in the house, but those of us who are not near NYC appreciate them. And when I was near NYC, I often preferred paying less for a seat in the cinema with great comfort and visibility than I would for a seat in the nosebleed section in the actual house. I've written several reports of operas I've seen in these opera simulcasts.

Diana Damrau and Juan-Diego Florez
Photo:  Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
This is a new production of La Traviata by Broadway veteran Michael Mayer (I believe he was also responsible for the Met's Las Vegas Rigoletto of recent infamy), as well as amazing designers Christine Jones (sets) and Susan Hilferty (costumes). The work of Lighting Designer Kevin Adams was quite beautiful as well. I thought the entire production was beautiful, and was very much delighted by the touches of all of the production team I mention. The costumes for all--principals, chorus, and dancing boys--were quite beautiful, showing the stated intention of reflecting the seasons of the year in each successive scene. I especially liked how Violetta's costumes, dazzling as they were when dazzling was appropriate, were plain in relation to everyone else. This reflected another stated intention of showing all the action as a memory of Violetta on her death bed. (I usually think that is rather trite and overdone, but it didn't really interfere here. I was also a bit annoyed at the thought of the unit set, with the bed in the middle for every scene. I thought it could have a very crude effect, but it didn't. I was even prepared to say I preferred Willy Decker's big clock, but I didn't.) And I would be remiss if I did not mention the choreography of Lorin Latarro. The gypsy dance in the party scene was especially bacchanal-like, with very slightly costumed dancing boys. (Yeah, I guess there were dancing girls there, too, if you like that sort of thing.)

Quinn Kelsey and Juan-Diego Florez
Photo:  Metropolitan Opera
Now is the time to list some of the touches I found especially effective. I loved the moment in the Germont-Violetta duet when Germont took Violetta's hands and she seemed surprised. I also adored how it seemed clear that the elder Germont's argument for leaving Alfredo that actually had the most effect was the suggestion that their union could never be blessed by Heaven. I loved how the Alfredo moments of "Sempre libera" seemed to suggest memories, not Alfredo outside the window, as I'd always assumed. I loved the many lighting effects, especially in Act III, when some of the lights appeared to outline the arches of church windows. The appearance of Alfredo's young sister caused me to gasp in Act II, but I understood her to be almost an angel of death figure in Act III.

I really, really loved Diana Damrau as Violetta. Her singing was beautiful and nuanced, and her acting was beyond compare. Director Michael Mayer is said to have called Ms Damrau the Meryl Streep of opera, and it was easy to see why. The many individual moments, the thought processes, were quite beautiful. On the other hand, while most of her singing was quite beautiful, I can't say all of it was. I loved the desperation of "Sempre libera", which I often think is missing from the performances of other Violettas, but not all of the high notes. On the other hand, it seemed as if she were giving too much vocally to "Addio del passato".

I've written before about baritone Quinn Kelsey, and his portrayal of the elder Germont made me murmur "Daddy" more than once! I've praised Mr. Kelsey's singing and acting before, and I must say I was certainly not disappointed. I am usually not of one opinion about Germont, but this was a sympathetic Germont. He can sometimes seem like a manipulating bastard, but not so this time. He believed Violetta's protestations of love, and seemed conflicted when insisting she leave Alfredo anyway.

Yannick Néget-Séguin takes a bow
Photo:  Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera via AP
Juan-Diego Florez. I love him with all my heart. I really do. But I'm not sure I'd have cast him as Alfredo. I love his performances of bel canto roles, but rumor has it he would like to do bigger roles. He has essayed the Duke of Mantua on numerous occasions. I don't wish to appear cynical. OK, no more cynical than I usually am, which is pretty damned cynical. I really did love his performance of Alfredo. The man can act, and we believed all of Alfredo's sentiments. I was especially impressed with the cabaletta to his aria--both acting and singing. It goes without saying he can sing the high C at the end in his sleep, but he sang all of the rest of it with great valor and beautiful sound.

Now is the time when I gush about Yannick Nézet-Séguin. True, he is easy on the eyes and quite charming. True, I did post on Instagram that I think he's the cutest conductor in the history of the world. But I can not neglect his enormous talent and the amazing performance today. Not only did he have the always fine Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra in hand and lead them to fine performances, but he also gave this performance many nuances, many fine points of interpretation. In the short documentary about rehearsing this production, he rhapsodized about the joy of taking a new look at old warhorses, and that was just the effect we had. (I also thought it was adorable when he accidentally tossed his baton aside just before beginning Act II.)

Although the cast will change as time goes on, there are still quite a number of performances of this production to see. I highly recommend it!