Monday, December 4, 2017

Guest reviewer: Berlioz would be dazzled!

Warner Classics/Erato graciously provided me with a copy of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, which they released November 24, Since the works are Berlioz are far from my field of expertise, I entrusted dear Bocca L. Lupo (Bucky to his friends), who has graced these pages before as guest blogger, with the happy task of listening to and evaluating the recording:



This fine recording is drawn from two concert performances that took place in April 2017 in Strasbourg, France. Under the inspired leadership of conductor John Nelson, the magnificent cast includes Joyce DiDonato as Didon (Dido), Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cassandre (Cassandra), and Michael Spyres as Énée (Aeneas).

Joyce DiDonato
Photo:  Paul Dukovic
Berlioz based Les Troyens on Books II and IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, and its creation was a labor of love for the composer. Any performance of Berlioz’s magnum opus is a significant event, not only because of the extraordinary resources required, but also because of the quality of the opera as a work of art. Poor Berlioz never saw or heard his extraordinary dramatic creation in its entirety: in his memoirs, he laments the atrocities performed against the score by the producers and directors who gave only a truncated outing of part two (Les Troyens à Carthage). This recording is, for all intents and purposes, complete: only 16 measures of a repeat in the Act IV Danse des Esclaves are cut.

John Nelson is an acknowledged master of Berlioz’s music and of Les Troyens in particular, having conducted the opera more frequently than anyone else during the past 40 years, including performances at the Metropolitan Opera in 1974. Nelson brings us Berlioz’s score with well-judged tempi and clear care for his singers. His attention to detail allows the fine Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg to bring out the myriad felicities in the orchestration, whether it be the stopped horns accompanying Hector’s ghost or the six harps supporting the women of Troy in the Act II finale. The Chasse Royale et Orage is an atmospheric tour de force for Nelson and his fine band. Nelson employs judicious, unwritten ritardandi fully in keeping with French style and Berlioz’s intentions. Just as it should be, Nelson’s performance is all about Berlioz.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Photo:  Denis Rouvre/Naive
The Choeurs de l’Opéra national du Rhin, the Badisher Staatsopernchor, and the Choeur philharmonique de Strasbourg perform their complex parts admirably. They are somewhat recessed in the overall sound picture, but the distinction between full-and semi-chorus in the Chant National, “Gloire à Didon,” is clearly drawn. En masse, their sound is indeed thrilling.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux is excellent as Cassandra. At first I wondered how her rich, plumy contralto voice would manage the higher range outbursts in her demanding part, but she proved more than equal to the task, giving a highly musical performance using clear, perfect French diction and thoroughly integrated registers. Lemieux's Cassandra is not possessed from the start: only as the disaster for Troy becomes apparent does she express despair. A very satisfying performance.

It should be no surprise that Joyce DiDonato, in her debut as Didon, gives an outstanding performance. She employs her creamy tone, smooth and intergrated throughout the registers, to express Dido’s initial regal repose and, as her relationship with Énée develops, her desperate attraction to the man who must leave her behind. Her French is clear and elegant: no libretto is necessary to understand every word. Her performance of the final scene is moving. She truly lives the role of Didon.

Michael Spyres is a revelation as Énée. Many previous performances and recordings have filled the role with heroic tenors or heldentenors, who often seemed to struggle with the role’s requirements for flexibility. Spyres makes everything seem easy, with a lyrical voice of even emission and subtlety of expression that nevertheless has the metal to make climaxes ring with passion. This is a voice Berlioz would have welcomed in the role.

Not surprisingly, the performance by DiDonato and Spyres of the Nuit d’ivresse duet at the conclusion of Act IV is outstanding. Nelson and the orchestra provide a subtle but passionate accompaniment.


Warner Classics provides this video about the making of the recording:


Complementing these marvelous artists is a cast of singers almost without a weak link. Stéphane Degout as Chorèbe and Marianne Crebassa as Ascagne provide focused voices and strong dramatic involvement. Cyrille Dubois as Iopas and Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Hylas have beautiful tenor voices perfectly suited to their roles, and each of their solos is a highlight. The voices of Hanna Hipp as Anna and Nicolas Courjal as Narbal both lack a clear center to the tone, so their performances do not rise to the level of the rest of the cast, but their commitment to the drama and their roles shines through. In the smaller parts, there is no weak link.

The performance is presented on 4 compact discs, with Acts II and III on CD 2. A full libretto in French and English is provided, along with an extensive background essay in French, English, and German. Also included is an 85-minute bonus DVD of video highlights of the concert performance on April 15, 2017, an opportunity to see all these dedicated, amazing artists at work.

There have been previous, excellent recordings of Les Troyens (Davis on Philips, Dutoit on Decca, Gardiner on Opus Arte DVD, and Levine with the Metropolitan Opera), and I would not choose to be without them, but this new recording, with its outstanding cast and inspired conducting, would now be my first choice. Highly recommended. If you care about Les Troyens, about Berlioz (who would be dazzled by this performance), about fine singing, about first-quality performance, about French opera, about opera itself, don’t hesitate.

--Bocca L. Lupo

Monday, November 27, 2017

RIP Carol Neblett

I must pay tribute to that great American soprano Carol Neblett, who left us on Thursday.

I regret that the only time I ever saw and heard her live was when I was in the chorus of her Norma in Miami in 1990.  (Yes, I have to find a way to make Norma relevant to every post.  Because Norma is relevant to everything, dammit!)  She had been hugely successful in the 70s and early 80s, but had not performed as much in the late 80s. She was reportedly working on a "comeback" with bel canto repertoire. I read a review at the time of another Bellini role she'd assayed and apparently done well with.  I wish I could report her Norma was completely successful, but there were issues. No one could doubt her ability to spin an amazing vocal line or her commanding stage presence, but some of the coloratura and the very high notes were problematic. The queens in the chorus dressing rooms were very cruel, but I was not among them. (I always identified with people who struggled vocally. Funny that.)

I have a bootleg recording of that performance. I also have recordings of other Normas featuring singers who would surprise you--Carol Vaness, Christine Goerke (yes, @heldenmommy, I found it), and even Ghena Dimitrova! In retrospect, knowing the show, myself, and life a little better, I really, really wish I had seen it from the audience.

An appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson:

 

I once saw another clip, possibly of the same appearance, when she sat with Johnny to schmooze, and told the story of a big debut in which she totally blanked.  Totally forgot what was coming next.  She looked at the conductor terrified, and the conductor prompted her, "Un bel di...."

Monday, October 23, 2017

Artist profile: John Kaneklides, Tenor

I've been privileged to profile singers at every level here in my humble blog, but I especially like to write about young singers on the rise. I'm not sure how I first met John Kaneklides—perhaps friends in common—but I'm glad I did. I am especially glad I've seen and heard him sing, and so are many others. The Tampa Bay Times wrote of his recent performance as Hoffmann in St. Petersburg, "John Kaneklides makes for a mesmerizing lead as the poet Hoffmann, equipped with matinee idol looks and a electric sound that continues to surprise... Kaneklides supplies oxygen from his jaunty Kleinzach aria in the opening scenes to its dark reprisal in the epilogue." Of his Rodolfo in Ohio, WOSU Public Media wrote, "John Kaneklides fell in love convincingly as Rodolfo, approached the top notes in Che gelida manina ​with no fear and proved his fine musicianship..." Opera News has called him “the very picture of youthful optimism and potential.”

Upcoming engagements include opera concerts with Amici Music in North Carolina and Gulfshore Opera in Florida, another production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann at Skylight Opera in Milwaukee, and Alfredo in La Traviata at St. Petersburg Opera. A busy season!

Would you want to add anything to the bio-blurb that’s on your web site?

I received a dual degree in music and finance. I first gave up music for a corporate career, but I realized a part of me was missing. I started taking voice lessons again and pursuing a career. When I was granted a spot in a young artist program, I quit my job and never looked back.

I grew up in a very musical house. We listened to classical music often and I started taking violin lessons at the age of five and piano by the age of eight. When I did my first piano competition, the adjudicator was particularly impressed with my dynamic range and musicality at such a young age. That musicality has carried over to my singing, it is in my blood.

As Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific
Photo:  The Packinghouse Gallery
Your good looks are mentioned in reviews. Is it a distraction from what you are trying to accomplish, or a help?

The characters I typically portray are romantic leads. I don’t think of my looks as a distraction at all.  It still shocks me a bit when my looks are mentioned in a review or someone comments on them. I spent much of my life obese—as much as 100 pounds heavier!—but now fitness is a passion of mine.

I hope that I am cast primarily for my singing. It is essential to opera that the voice is of upmost importance. The Metropolitan Opera is even highlighting this in their add campaign this season—“The voice must be heard.”

If any director asked you to do nude scenes, would you do it?

It depends on the context of the show. I would have to have a long discussion with the director about whether the nudity was integral to the story we were telling. If it was, then I don’t see why not. It has been in my contract for several recent productions that I be shirtless in a production. Even that took some time to get used to. However, when I portray a character, I am sharing a bit of my soul. To me, it almost as vulnerable to share my emotions in an honest way though my voice and acting as it is being nude on stage.

As Hoffmann in Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Photo:  The Packinghouse Gallery
Have you had any kind of roadblocks to success?

I didn’t decide to go into singing full time until my mid 20’s, so I couldn’t easily follow the path most American singers take. Since I’d been in a different field for four years, I knew I needed additional training. I went back to school for my masters degree. While I was in grad school, I entered the Nico Castel International Master Singer Competition where I was fortunate to actually meet Nico and his wife, Carol. They expressed their interest in my voice and Carol offered me a role in at an opera company she runs. Later, she even invited me to live with them for a while so I could regularly study languages with Nico, audit his courses at Julliard, and listen in on his coachings. That training and support helped give me the confidence and tools needed to launch my career and move to New York.

What's your favorite role to sing?

Do I have to pick just one?!?! I love so many roles for different reasons. I love singing Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor), acting Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), and the musical language of Rodolfo (La Boheme).

Are there roles you'd love to sing that are outside of your fach?

I would love to be able to sing Violetta in La Traviata. The music Verdi gives her is so moving. Her character arch is astonishing and I love an operatic death with so much vulnerability? La Traviata is also the opera that made me fall in love with opera.

Are there roles within your fach you don't want to ever sing again?

There are a few roles I have sung before when I was trying to figure my fach that no longer feel comfortable. Thankfully I don’t have to worry about them any more.

How old are you? How has your voice changed over the years?

I’m old enough! I have really come into my voice lately. It continues to grow and I love the colors I am able to create in order to interpret the text and tell a story.

Have you done much teaching or master class work? How has that affected your own vocal technique and performing? 

I do enjoy teaching and maintain a small vocal studio in NYC and a few students I Skype with regularly. Teaching has always helped my vocal technique. I love learning and sharing what I have learned. That is true in teaching as much as it is in performing.

My favorite question from "Inside the Actor's Studio": What's your favorite swear word?

My grandfather was half Greek and would occasionally teach me some Greek words. His favorite was “scatai.” As a child he told me that it meant diarrhea, but I always knew it was something more. (It means Sh!t.) He would walk around saying, “Everybody’s got eyes” in an accent that made it sound like he said “scatais” and then he would crack up.

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.