Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My new drag name: Peaches Melba

I love food and I love opera, so of course after watching this Food Wishes video about five times (admit it--you do the same thing!) I looked for online recordings of Nellie Melba.




I already knew Dame Nellie Melba as one of the mostly highly paid and esteemed entertainment figures of her day.  As with most great singers of her time (and a few from our own time!) recordings don't flatter her, and as recording technology was improving she was aging.  But you can still hear what a wonderfully expressive singer she was.

Listen to this Caro nome from 1904:



And this Si, mi chiamano Mimi from 1907:




Considering this blog first arose out of efforts to keep the memories of great singers alive, I think it's a good thing.  Both the dessert and the historic recordings.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Opera with a capital "Oh!!!!" Preliminary thoughts on Il Trovatore

I was thrilled to hear the live audio streaming online as the Sir David McVicar production of Mr. Verdi's Il Trovatore opened for this season on Monday night. Il Trovatore is one of those operas. You know the ones--a story that seems laughable, every conceivable human emotion set to ridiculously singable tunes, but incredibly gripping when done well and we are paying attention. It is perhaps unfortunate that Il Trovatore is know as the "Oops! Wrong baby [in the fire]!" opera, for it has so much more to offer!

One of this season's surprises at the Metropolitan Opera was the announcement that dear Jennifer Rowley would sing Leonora in all performances of Il Trovatore, replacing the originally scheduled artist. Stepping in late in the game has become a common occurrence for Miss Rowley. Her triumph last season as Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met occurred in just this way. If I'm not mistaken, she was hired for her first Verdi Requiem just two weeks before the performance. And she was thrust into the international spotlight with a spine-tingling performance of Maria in Mr. Donizetti's Maria di Rohan at Caramoor in 2010, replacing the scheduled artist.

Caruso is said to have quipped that all you need for a successful Trovatore production is the four greatest singers in the world. Call this production successful! Although I recently raved about Miss Rowley's Tosca, I found on Monday night her Leonora was even better vocally than her beautiful Tosca. Everything Leonora needs--warm sound throughout, a broad palate of vocal colors and the ability to use them intelligently, great musical instincts, and chutzpah--Miss Rowley has in abundance.

Anita Rachvelishvili was a marvel as Azucena. The same qualities I praise in Miss Rowley--vocal color, intelligent and artistic musical instincts, chutzpah--were quite abundant in Miss Rachvelishvili's performance. (I wanted to hand the Met's radio announcer a tissue every time she said Rachvelishvili!) I wasn't familiar with her before, but I hope to hear much more from her.

I praised Quinn Kelsey's 2011 Rigoletto highly, and I've since seen and heard him give equally impressive performances. As Count di Luna, Mr. Kelsey displayed the same qualities that impressed as Rigoletto--singing that was beautiful and expressive, and vocal acting that was impressive. I have heard Yonghoon Lee grow as an artist over the years, and I found last night's Manrico quite thrilling vocally. When he was younger, I found his singing occasionally yell-y, but there was none of that in last night's performance.

To Marco Armiliato I give great credit for the overall high level of artistry and expressiveness in last night's performance. There was ample evidence that Mr. Armiliato is a singer's conductor, while he kept pacing and shape to the performance tightly reigned. And of course, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus performed at the superb level we expect of them.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Newsflash: Puccini's Shabby Little Shocker Not All That Shabby!

I was delighted beyond measure to see The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca on January 12. Regular followers know that I am a great fan of the soprano Jennifer Rowley, and this was her one scheduled performance in this production. Why it was only one, I can't imagine, but I was delighted to see the recent announcement that dear Jen will sing Leonora all of the Met's scheduled performances of Il Trovatore, which opens January 22, taking over for the originally announced Leonora.

Željko Lučić  as Scarpia
Photo:  Sara Kulwich, New York Times
Scarpia! Wow! Željko Lučić (I don't know how to pronounce it, either) was simply amazing. Enough vocal power to stop a Mack truck, enough stage presence to make one attend to his every move and gesture, and enough acting power to make one want him to die a thousand painful deaths instead of the one merciful death he is granted. Scarpia's big moments dramatically were also phenomenally beautiful vocally. How often can one say that? Remember I came of age during Cornell MacNeill's later days, when George London was still a fresh memory for my teachers and advisors. This man deserves comparison with those greats.

I admire Vittorio Grigolo very much, but I won't say I would happily cast him as Cavaradossi. Quite often I find his voice light for the roles in which he is cast, and this is certainly the feeling here. Although there was never a feeling of "Oh dear--I wonder if he'll get the next bit!", one simply lacked the feeling of "Ahhh! This is how Cavaradossi was meant to be sung." I was so conscious of this studied lack of discomfort that in the end I missed Mr. Grigolo's artistry, which is indeed considerable. Having said that, I can state his "Vittoria! Vittoria!" was glorious and his "O dolci mani" was sweet and tender.


The most beautiful soprano at the Met
But I might be biased
Quite frankly, Jennifer Rowley is the reason for this post, the reason I braved the Henry Hudson Parkway and actually went into Manhattan for the first time in months. And yes, that feeling of "Ahhh! This is how Tosca was meant to be sung!" was there in abundance! Vocal beauty, acting, commitment--a totally satisfying performance. One can see in her portrayal that Floria Tosca was actually a very young woman--jealous, insecure, impetuous, gullible. All eyes were on Miss Rowley whenever she took the stage. Her scenes with Scarpia were magic.

Tosca is built around conversations--Tosca and Cavarodossi, Tosca and Scarpia, even Cavaradossi and the Sacristan. This was where the entire cast shone.  (The Sacristan of Patrick Carfizzi, Sciarrone of the handsome Christopher Job, and Angelotti of Christian Zaremba were very good indeed.) There were many fine dramatic touches in this new production by Sir David MacVicar, who is known for his recent Norma, as well as the three Donizetti Tudor queens at the Met (It's not a trilogy!  Stop calling it that!).  I've never seen Cavaradossi working with both an initial small-scale painting and the large-scale final painting of Mary Magdalene in Act I, and I also adored the moment in Act I after the Tosca-Scarpia confrontation when Scarpia grabs Tosca's stole and locks her in a gaze before she runs away in disgust and horrror. And Cavaradossi's trembling with terror in Act III, just before he is shot by the firing squad (sorry if that's a spoiler) shows that he knew from the first that the "mock execution" wouldn't be mock at all. Sets and costumes by John Macfarlane were stunning. I especially liked Scarpia's apartment in Act II and the roof of Castel Sant'Angelo in Act III.

The always amazing Metropolitan Opera Orchestra lived up to their reputation under the leadership of Emmanuel Villaume. It must be a great challenge having a rotating cast, but there were very few moments when pit and stage were not together, and the vast majority of those involved singers who are singing most of the performances in this run.
Castel Sant'Angelo
Photo:  Sara Kulwich, New York Times

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...."