Sunday, October 8, 2017

O rimembranza!

No one who has ever read this blog will be surprised to learn that I'm a hard-core Normaphile. From the moment I first heard "Mira O Norma" on a Marilyn Horne LP at a tender young age to to my first personal experience with the opera as a chorus member to my most recent experience seeing the opera via the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series, I can't get enough. The opera simply has everything: a compelling storyline, big chorus scenes contrasted with tender duets and moving solo scenes, and the opportunity--nay, the requirement--for phenomenal singing.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma
Photo:  New York Times
Saturday's Metropolitan Opera performance did not disappoint in any way. I had heard the Met's opening night performance of the work via Sirius XM Radio, but I was not prepared for the impact of seeing it [almost] live. The Met's new production by Sir David McVicar, with sets by Robert Jones and costumes by Moritz Junge, is raw and earthy and sheds new light on each character. I have never seen such an active staging of Norma's entrance aria "Casta diva", and was glad to see a logical dramatic transition to the cabaletta that follows. I liked Adalgisa's Aida-like moment when the Druids are singing of war but she knows that means killing the man she loves. The Norma-Pollione-Adalgisa confrontation in the Act I finale brought me to tears. And I found the sets both raw and opulent.

Joseph Calleja and Joyce Didonato
Photo: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera
I am a voice person. Voice, voice, voice. All three of the principals in the love triangle--Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma, Joyce Didonato as Adalgisa, and Joseph Calleja as Pollione--are great singing actors whom I've praised highly in these pages. None of them gave vocally perfect performances, but I didn't care. I didn't care. They were all amazing to see and hear in these roles. (And they all sounded even better on Saturday than they did on opening night.)

Hearing Ms. Radvanovsky in this role in 2013 completely changed the way I looked at her. In this performance, I was amazed by her vocal power and subtlety, the way she handled vocal challenges that have been the undoing of other sopranos I have heard, and her intensity as a deeply conflicted woman. I had been unconvinced that Adalgisa is a role that suits Joyce Didonato's enormous talents, but my resistance wore away as I watched her committed performance on Saturday. The scenes between Norma and Adalgisa were spellbinding for their dramatic power and their vocal beauty.

Joyce Didonato, Sondra Radvanovksy, anacronistic candles
Photo: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera
I'm a big fan of Joseph Calleja, but there are times when he is not at his best vocally. This was not one of those times. His opening aria "Meco all'altar di Venere" was free of strain or vocal worry, and his high C was solid, felt like it belonged to his voice, which is not true for every tenor, and belonged at that moment in the aria. (One did wonder why he didn't take the sustained B-flat at the end of the aria, however.) The remainder of the role is certainly no walk in the park vocally or dramatically, and Mr. Calleja was equal to the challenge, especially in the Act II finale, when Pollione changes his affections yet again in returning to Norma. (In truth, Pollione is not a likeable man. But we quite like Mr. Calleja.)

Matthew Rose sang the sometimes ungratifying role of Oroveso beautifully, and actually gave the character dimension.

As always, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus gave solid and nuanced performances. I always expect this, and I haven't been disappointed yet. Conductor Carlo Rizzi was fun to watch when the camera featured him, and he brought out subtleties of phrasing and overall shape that distinguish a good performance from a great one.

We are fortunate that there will be many more performances of this production, including a cast change in December, when Angela Meade and Jamie Barton take over the roles of Norma and Adalgisa.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Artist Profile: Judith Skinner, contralto

When I reported on Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! at The Glimmerglass Fesival I was delighted to learn I have a friend in common with Judith Skinner, the powerhouse contralto who played both Maria in Porgy and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! I was further delighted to learn that Judith and Talise Trevigne, who played Bess, have been friends for 18 years. My original plan was to write a joint profile on the two, or a profile with a sidebar article, but I wound up with too much material for either option, so I present this stand-alone profile of Judith. My profile of Talise will be published separately.

We met on a lovely July morning in Cooperstown, and soon were talking about the season at Glimmerglass.

Judith Skinner
Photo:  judithsskinner.com
About being cast in two roles:

Talise is the one who actually said, "Let's see if we can get one show together in our lifetime," so I sent my audition materials for Maria. Then they asked if I’d also consider being in Oklahoma! But I wanted to do it. It was crazy—a month of rehearsals going back and forth, back and forth. Crazy but fun. There are worse jobs. There are worse things you could be doing instead of doing something you love to do. I'm definitely happy about that. And happy that we did our first show together.

About the very different vocal demands for the two roles:

Kathryn LaBouff, who is our diction and dialogue coach, helped me a great deal with Aunt Eller by helping me find where in my register I needed to speak that so that it wouldn’t become very strenuous. She loved the way I was doing it, but she helped me fine tune things. I couldn’t tax myself so much that I couldn’t jump into an opera the next day and sing. I couldn’t mark (sing half voice) in rehearsal, because I had to train my body to be able to do this every single day and do it fully. I think that helped me a great deal. I felt like tech week lasted two weeks because we were teching both shows. It has become easier. And I don't feel it as much. There will be one day when I do both shows on the same day—that will be the test!

As Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!
(with Michael Roach as Will Parker)
Photo:  Karli Cadel for The Glimmerglass Festival
We have to train our bodies, because it's all muscle memory. We sacrifice a lot, but we do it because it's what we love. We're like athletes. To look at us you would not think that, but, we are. And we have to rest. We have listen to our bodies and rest when our bodies tell us to rest. I try to sleep a lot. I drink lots of water. I do a lot of cardio just to keep the body warm and you've gotta keep it moving.


About Porgy and Bess and discussions about race:

I don't have any racial issues with Porgy and Bess. I think the story is a beautiful story that is poignant today. There are people on drugs, there are people trying to get off of drugs, and there are drug dealers who try to keep people on drugs so they can keep in business. People can look at it today and see parallels to life today, and can understand everything that's going on there, and love is love.

When I was graduating from college, people warned me about doing Porgy and Bess early in my career and getting stuck with in that role. At that time nobody was producing Porgy and Bess, so I did lots of other roles before my first Porgy.

As Maria in Porgy and Bess
Photo:  Karli Cadel for The Glimmerglass Festival
About her character, Maria:

This production is a little different for me. I've done productions where she has her shop, but she was a little hustler herself and that's how she was making her money there. Sportin' Life was her competition. I've done a number of productions where she gets drunk at the picnic. This is the first time I've done a production where Maria was considered more of a pillar of the society, part of Catfish Row. She was the person that people came to for advice. She was very religious. I've never done a production where Maria was this religious before.

I could see the parallels between her and Aunt Eller from the beginning. Once I read these, I thought, "Oh, I get it. I’m in charge! I'm in charge this summer, no problem, I'm in charge."

Judith and Talise with some goofy guy
On the Glimmerglass production:

I love the dignity and the level of respect that this production has brought to the characters. Francesca (Zambello, director of the production at Glimmerglass) really kept dignity in the forefront. And it makes the music shine even more. John DeMain (conductor of the production) wouldn't allow anyone to make their roles into caricatures. He would explain why you shouldn't do that because he wanted to have a level of respect and dignity that these characters and the music deserve.

You could tell the relationships and how deep the relationships went. And Francesca brought that out of everyone, so even with the minor characters within the ensemble, it became like it was a family of people that lived in this community. We all knew each other, we knew each other's kids. When people live that close together, you know everything that's going on with them.

So when Bess leaves with Sportin' Life, and we discover this baby that's sitting in a basket on the other side of the stage. (Bess has been taking care of Clara’s baby after Jake and Clara are killed in the storm.) The entire community know they have to take this child in and we have to raise him. It was so poignant in that moment. I think that brought it all together and gave a totally different level of understanding of what "community" meant.

On her background:

I am actually a native New Yorker, which is rare to find in New York City. Most singers are transplants to New York. I went to the Fame School (New York’s School of Performing Arts, featured in the 1980 movie Fame). I went there for music, the clarinet and to work. I’ve definitely been doing music and theater since I was a kid!

I came to opera weird because I wasn't trying to be an opera singer. I went to college for theater, although I'd started studying voice in junior high school. I was helping another student with an aria, because I had learned it in high school. The head of the opera department heard us and opened the practice room door, and said, "That was not you, so it had to have been you." And she sat down at the piano and said, "Just sing it for me, just humor me." And I sang it. Two days later, they offered me a scholarship to study voice through opera department.

As a contralto, I think I've gotten a hell of a lot more than I ever would expect. What's next? There's a lot up in the air, so I couldn't really say.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Aida at Salzburg

I've just read a scathing review (link) of Aida at the Salzburg Festival. No, not critical of the performances, but of the opera itself. The reviewer seems to hate Verdi operas on principle, and Aida in particular. He thinks the characters shallow and the stories ridiculous. To put it mildly, I disagree.

Here are two YouTube clips from the production in question. Anna Netrebko sings Aida, Francisco Meli as Radames. (I'm not sure I'd have cast either in those roles, but you be the judge.)




Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thoughts on Glimmerglass 2017


At the Alice Busch Theater,
The Glimmerglass Festival
I've been coming to The Glimmerglass Festival since 2011. The Siege of Calais was my 20th opera at Glimmerglass. (It would be 28 had I not missed the 2012 and 2016 seasons.) That doesn't count the operas I was fortunate to see more than once and the additional programs such as Deborah Voigt's Voigt Lessons in 2011 or Jonathan Miller's open masterclass on the last act of La Traviata in 2014. I've seen Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's programs, in which she introduced opera scenes related to the law, more than once, and I've seen Girl's Night Out, a cabaret program of Glimmerglass Young Artists, several times. I've been granted interviews with great singing artists and with General and Artistic Director Francesca Zambello herself. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear again how fond I am of the place. I am quite grateful to Glimmerglass and to the PR Director/Diva Brittany Lesavoy for helping make all of this possible.

This season's programming had a common theme of home, community, belonging. This is plain to see in Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and The Siege of Calais. Less so in Xerxes, but it's there. That's a theme that's been on my mind a lot lately, probably in part because I'm in my 50s now, but also in part because of a career change in my non-musical life. That's part of why the first three shows made me quite misty at times.

With my new pals Judith Skinner
and Talise Trevigne
Highlight of the festival outside of the operas: Meeting Talise Trevigne, who played Bess in Porgy and Bess, in the parking lot Saturday night. I was pulling in, she was already out of her car and walking toward the theater, and she hugged me through the car window! (Watch for an article based on my interview with Talise and Judith Skinner, who played Maria in Porgy and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!)

Best food: Lunch Saturday at The American Hotel in Sharon Springs.

More fun food: The Village Restaurant in Canajoharie for delightfully low-brow diner food.

Even more fun food (are you sensing a theme here?): Lunch on the dock at the Blue Mingo Grill, overlooking Lake Oswego.

Lodging: This year we didn't stay at the B&B we'd used many times before, but tried something different with a cabin near Canajoharie reserved through AirBnB. Hubby was a bit wary, having never used AirBnB before, but he wound up liking the cabin more than I did. I think we'll try something else next time we come.

Amusements: We haven't gone to the breweries or wineries this year, but there is still lots to do and see in the area. Dear hubby was finally able to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, while I was otherwise occupied, and we've found lots of cute shops and restaurants. I've added to my collection of dog art. And dog T-shirts. And to my waistline.

Unfortunately, there were no extra programs I could see during my time here. This weekend has been only opera performances. I don't really have any more to say about the opera productions. Sort of a quiet end to my time at Glimmerglass this year.  I expect to be back.

Xerxes at Glimmerglass

The Glimmerglass Festival has created a sumptuous and nuanced production of Mr. Handel's Xerxes (Serse). This opera was innovative in many ways--use of shorter arias and accompanied recitatives to move action forward, inclusion of a comic character, and a storyline that is not as complicated as those of earlier operas. These changes to the opera seria form London knew contributed to the cool reception the opera received in 1738, but also help make it one of Handel's most popular operas in our own time. The story is still convoluted, involving rivals for a maiden's affection, the maiden's scheming sister, and the wacky servant of one of the rivals. Oh, and the fiancée of one of the rivals, disguised as a man. In the end the maiden gets the man she loves and the jilted fiancée gets the man she loves.

John Holiday as Xerxes
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
We were fortunate to see the first and second performances of the Glimmerglass production, and found it up to the high standard we always expect, both visually and vocally. From the very beginning, we were delighted by the clarity and sweetness of the reduced orchestra's playing, skillfully conducted by Nicole Paiment. The opera opened with the familiar aria "Ombra mai fu", bane of many a freshman voice student's existence. With maturity one learns to love the piece again, especially when it is performed by a singer like guest artist John Holiday, Jr.  Mr. Holiday still displays the agile vocal technique, pleasing sound, and very sure stage presence as Xerxes that we so admired two years ago in Cato in Utica at Glimmerglass. His show-stopper aria at the end of the opera nearly brought the house down. Xerxes experiences quite a range of emotion, and Mr. Holiday gave us this contrast with apparent ease.

Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
Arsamenes, brother and rival of Xerxes, was sung by guest artist Allegra De Vita, whom we also admired in Cato in Utica.  We still love her rich and even sound and her commitment to her role's many conflicting emotions. We believed Arsamenes' love for Romilda, the maiden who attracts these two gents.

The remainder of the cast were all Glimmerglass Young Artists. Romilda was sung by Emily Pogorelc, and her sister Atalanta, who also loves--or at least wants--Arsemenes, was sung by Katrina Galka. Both were made up with long, flowing blonde hair and attired in similar costumes, and did indeed look like sisters. Both were also very good singers, giving us all of Handel's florid and lyrical passages with equal grace. Ms. Pogorelc was all propriety and grace as the virtuous Romilda, while Ms. Galka was all scheming, fiery temperament as Atalanta.

Katrina Galka and Emily Pogorelc
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
The servant Elvino was performed with gusto by Calvin Griffin. We enjoyed his Leporello-like antics and his fine singing. Spurned fiancée Amastris was sung by Abigail Dock with skill and artistry. Her numerous rageful arias displayed vocal range and agility. Ariodates was sung by Brent Michael Smith with sonorous dignity.

Abigail Dock and Calvin Griffin
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
There is much to discuss about the production. We quite liked the musical direction by Nicole Paiement, and her leadership of the talented cast and the orchestra. We weren't so sure about the stage direction by Tazewell Thompson. Although opera of this period often didn't involve much movement, which would not be very successful now, we wondered about some of the movement included in this production. we found many of the stage movements either arbitrary or heavy-handed. In particular, the frequent movement back and forth, onto and off of the raised platforms on the stage during angry arias didn't really make sense.

Visual elements also concerned me. While we quite liked the costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti and Lighting by Robert Wierzel, the various elements of the scenery by John Conklin and how they operated together confused me. We didn't mind the raised, raked platforms on stage or the backdrops suggesting ancient Rome. But elements of scenery flew in and out for reasons we couldn't discern, often at unexpected angles to the ground.

You might disagree with my quibbles. It has been known to happen. On the whole, however, do we recommend seeing Xerxes?  Of course we do. The singing alone is worth the price of a ticket.

Xerxes full cast, 2017
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival