Saturday, November 26, 2011

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Sena Jurinac

Dear Sena Jurinac left us this week, at the age of 90. She was a legendary singer, known for her many fine portrayals of Mozart roles. See the Wikipedia bio-blurb here.

I can't stop watching and listening to this, where she is singing Oktavian to the equally heavenly Anneliese Rothenberger as Sophie:

Donna Elvira, 1962, ROH Covent Garden, Georg Solti cond.:

Tosca, 1966, Wiener Stadtsoper, Andre Cluytens, cond.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Cesare Valletti

Cesare Valletti (December 18, 1922, Rome - May 13, 2000, Genoa) was an Italian tenor, one of the leading tenore di grazia of the postwar era. He was much admired for his polished vocal technique, his musical refinement and elegance, and beauty of tone. Read more.

Singing the Duke in Rigoletto, from a TV show, date not given:

Valletti is Alredo in the 1958 "London Traviata" with Maria Callas that is prized by collectors. Here he is with Callas in Mexico City in 1951:

This is a 1954 movie of L'Elisir d'Amore:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Guest Blogger EB reviews Eugene Onegin (English National Opera, November 15th 2011)

First bit of good news: New Yorkers, this show is coming your way - and it's a winner. Deborah Warner's intelligent, poetic production of Tchaikovsky's "Lyric Scenes" looks fabulous, and without any radical "concept", it is faithful to the spirit and letter of the work.

In any case, what's not to like about Onegin? (I refer to the piece, not the man - he is a bit of a pill to be honest). It takes a romantic view of its source material, but is never melodramatic or overblown. The score is achingly lovely, the characters expertly drawn and the dramatic pacing flawless. Each of the three acts has a "signature" dance - the Act 3 Polonaise being a particular jewel - around which the action is focused, Kim Brandstrup's choreography catching the individual tone of each superbly, especially in Act 2 where couples jostle for space in Larina's living room.

It was particularly interesting to hear Onegin so soon after The Queen of Spades; dramatically they are worlds apart, despite the common feature of Tchaikovsky's music, wherein rests so much of the drama. Where The Queen of Spades demands a particular type of imaginative response from a director, Onegin can be presented in any number of ways. The piece takes kindly to straightforward, simple productions (or not - Dimitri Tchernaikov's controversial Bolshoi production is generally well regarded). Fans of Robert Carsen's production, which Warner's will replace at The Met, will appreciate the "austerity" approach well.

For me, the benchmark production of this piece for me is Graham Vick's at Glyndebourne - spare, understated and painstakingly composed, it was enthralling and beautiful (anyone who saw Elena Prokina's thrilling Tatyana upending the water on her nightstand over her head at the end of the Letter Scene will not forget it in a hurry). Warner's production is not far behind in quality. Her work is characterised by a spartan visual aesthetic but enormous attention to detail, and she is renowned for her long and punishing rehearsal process. At ENO her work has focused on more unusual repertoire such as the successful St John Passion (and Messiah), the Diary of One Who Disappeared, and - best of all - Death in Venice. Onegin, therefore, represents a departure into mainstream repertoire for her.

It is updated to the late 19th Century - the reasons for this are not clear, but it certainly does no harm. It is visually detailed and sumptuous, yet no detail feels extraneous or decorative. Tom Pye's designs are marvellous, each stage picture carefully composed to capture the mood of each scene. There are impressive video front cloths (icy landscapes for the middle act, or a breathtaking view of the St Petersburg riverfront for Act 3). He uses his trademark reflective surfaces and glowing cycloramas, and populates them with telling detail. The Larin estate is represented by a huge barn where Tatyana also writes her letter, which exercised others more than it did me; the Act 2 party looks authentically cluttered and "provincial", whilst the duel takes place in a lonely, frozen wasteland. The Act 3 curtain evoked a gasp from the audience - vast, golden columns with glittering candelabras framing the couples parading across the floor to that Polonaise. The same columns inventively become a bleak outdoor colonnade on the Gremin estate for the final confrontation.

That confrontation is a reversal of the finale of Act 1 in Warner's thoughtful direction; after Onegin crushes Tatyana with his patronising lecture and returns her letter, he plants a lingering kiss on her lips before taking his leave. Tatyana does the same to him at the finale, pausing the action audaciously, before she leaves, every towering inch the Princess. Riveting stuff, along with the direction of the letter scene - Tatyana hardly writes at all, rather "rehearses" the speech to an imaginary Onegin, clearly something she has done many times before. There is a multitude of such telling details, along with detailed but unfussy treatment of the chorus. It is no mean feat for a production to appear so artlessly traditional, yet be crackling with dramatic tension .

The cast was good, but not great. Warner's treatment of Tatyana is perhaps controversial, and Amanda Echalaz - an artist I admire greatly - is always fascinating to watch. Yet this Tatyana is a little too much like Princess Gremina in the earlier scenes, too little like the shy country girl, so her apparent terror at her party never quite rings true. She sings as generously as ever, and there are some beautiful moments - but I wonder if this is really the ideal repertoire for her (compared with her wonderful performances in Italian Opera) and indeed some cautious moments may have betrayed tiredness at this second night. I have to say that she looked a million dollars in her Act 3 ballgown (indeed, all of Chloe Obolensky's costumes were exemplary).

Norwegian Audun Iversen as Onegin had an indifferent evening - he is pleasing to look at but hardly magnetic, and the voice lacks colour - this part in this house requires an altogether stronger performer (the last Onegin I saw here was Gerald Finley - enough said). The most successful performance came from Toby Spence's Lensky - an artist who can't seem to put a foot wrong these days and who grows from part to part. It was a fantastically nuanced, big-house performance with every word crystal clear. The translation, by the way, was by Martin Pickard - and at the risk of sounding too perverse - was somehow too prosaic. In a period production, taking the risk of using an altogether more poetic translation (as in that used previously at ENO - I believe by David Lloyd Jones) might lead to a better fit with the mood of Pushkin's verses.

No complaints about the excellent supporting cast. Claudia Huckle's charming Olga had a rich, authentically Russian contralto sound. It is hard to imagine a more glamorous, warm Larina than Diana Montague or a more expert Filipyevna than Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Brindley Sherratt's still-handsome Gremin was authoritative and dignified. Ed Gardner's music directorship goes from strength to strength - the orchestra played wonderfully well for him, and his pacing was spot on - another Tchaikovsky performance to treasure on the heels of Richard Farnes for Opera North.

This show will go down a storm in New York (I hear rumours of Netrebko) - catch it there if you can't catch it here first - highly recommended.

Next up: Castor et Pollux (Rameau) at ENO

Photo Credit: Neil Libbert

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nico Muhly's "Dark Sisters"-- My Review at Opera Pulse

Photo by Richard Termine
Courtesy Gotham Chamber Opera
I’m not of one mind when it comes to opera plots being ripped from the headlines. “Law and Order” style opera plots seem to me to be very much like Movies of the Week or the ABC Afterschool Special. I’ve been waiting for an opera based on “I Think My Name is Steven” or “Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack.” But we live in an age when jukebox musicals top the charts in Broadway revenues and each decade gets its own remake of “A Very Brady Christmas”. (Each starring Florence Henderson, who must have a painting in her attic or something. But I digress.)

Click here to read the rest.

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Sergei Lemeshev

I bring you a great Russian tenor unknown to me before today, Sergei Lemescev. He was the Russian Caruso, with countless adoring fans of his singing and followers of his personal life. Here he is singing his signature role, Lensky (apparently a live film in 1936):

Here he is singing Nemorino (no date or performance particulars given):

And later as Cavaradossi (again no particulars given):

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Raina Kabaivanska

Here is the the amazing Raina Kabaivanska (another link here) in 1977, singing "Io son lumila ancella" from Adriana Lecouvreur at Verona:

And again in 2009, at age 74, for a benefit:

Tosca, 1980, La Scala:

I would encourage you to look at as many clips as you can find. A true artist, a great singing actress.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Guest Blogger EB on La Sonnambula (Royal Opera House, London, November 2nd 2011)

This was my first encounter with Bellini's gorgeous Alpine confection. A tale of innocent mountain folk wrongly accusing a virtuous maiden, the plot is the sort that gives opera as drama a bad name. Fortunately it is rescued by Bellini's consistently lovely music. One of the 19th Century's great melodists, his works are only worth tackling for a superb cast and conductor.

I suspect Covent Garden's main reason for reviving Marco Arturo Marelli's 2002 production - itself originating from Vienna in 2001 - was to showcase the Amina of Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutiérrez. As theatre, it is rather a curious affair. I can certainly understand why a director would seek to reinterpret the piece. It is dramatically fragile, turning on the gullibility (stupidity?) of the villagers - who impose a curfew for fear of the 'phantom' stalking the village, later revealed to be none other than the sleepwalking heroine herself. Mary Zimmerman took the same approach with her 2009 Metropolitan Opera production, set in a contemporary rehearsal room. Unfortunately, going searching for hidden meaning when there may be none to find can backfire, as happened here (and at the Met): Marelli's approach rather sent up poor Amina and her misfortune, rather than illuminating hidden dramatic depths.

I understand that Bellini was inspired to write the piece after a spell in an Alpine sanatorium, and this is where Marelli's production is situated. The splendid setting is a handsome, spacious art deco foyer with a view to mountains beyond, invaded by the snow at the end of Act 1 and in great disarray by the second half. Elvino (Celso Albelo in his Covent Garden debut) begins playing the grand piano overlooked by a picture of his mother - echoes of Antonia in Hoffman, perhaps? - whilst well-to-do patients genteelly celebrate the forthcoming nuptials. The turn-of-the-century setting, with its Freudian undertones, would certainly fit with Amina as a patient receiving treatment for her nocturnal affliction, yet she turns out to be a member of waiting staff, seemingly subordinate to Elena Xanthoudakis' embittered Lisa, all of which rather upends the social hierarchy.

Elsewhere, Marelli flirts with abstraction, for example his use of the stage within a stage and especially at the end, where Amina doffs her nightwear in favour of a scarlet ball gown and sings 'Ah, non giunge' concert style before the house curtain. The result, rather than being smart and provocative, is a bit of a mess, though easy on the eye.

And extremely easy on the ear. Gutiérrez followed her concert Linda di Chamounix and her adorable Fairy in Cendrillon with an astonishing performance in a role which plays to her strengths. Hers is a light soprano which carries well, dusky of hue and gossamer like, uncommonly beautiful. It extends effortlessly in altissimo and she employs her great technical prowess to spin Bellini's hallmark legato lines which appear to go on forever. Visually a buxom dead ringer for Netrebko, she was an appealing heroine. Now may we hear her in I Puritani?

Albelo sounded nervous for most of Act 1, with some stiff phrasing and tuning problems, but later spun some more liquid tone. He produced some gleaming phrases at the top of the voice and is very musical. He is no Floréz though, and I'm afraid he's no actor either - his ineffectual chair- throwing at the climax of Act 1 bordered on the laughable. The dramatic lynch pin was Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo, tall and dashing of figure, and vocally without peer in this repertoire. Xanthoudakis got over a peaky, ill-tuned start to turn in an appealing performance as Lisa, whilst Elizabeth Sikora -always a dab hand for cameos - was vocally secure and dramatically warm as Amina's foster mother Teresa.

There are few more experienced conductors of Italian ottocento repertoire than Daniel Oren, and he proved a very safe pair of hands here. A satisfying evening then, and One that whetted my appetite for Opera North's new Norma in the New Year.

Next up: A mini Tchaikovsky-fest - The Queen of Spades (Opera North), Eugene Onegin (English National Opera)

Photo Credit: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

Guest blogger EB reviews The Queen of Spades (Opera North at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, November 4th 2011)

I can remember my last Opera North show in Nottingham vividly, even though it was in 1997. On that occasion I saw Aida, in the wonderful Philip Prowse production and starring the mighty Dame Josephine Barstow in the title role. Opera North is a great company and one I have often travelled north to see (last year's Maria Stuarda and Rusalka were a highlight of the year). The Dame herself was one of the reasons I made the trip this time, for a reprise of the role of the old Countess - the one time "Venus of Moscow" - which I had heard her sing at Covent Garden some years ago.

New productions of Tchaikovsy's beautiful, hallucinatory masterpiece are usually worth travelling for. This version, by controversial director (and opera neophyte) Neil Bartlett, opened last month to a lukewarm critical reception. I can see why, as far from being controversial, it was notable for its lack of excitement or invention. The piece deals in obsession, madness and the supernatural, and invites an imaginative response from a director. Richard Jones managed it spectacularly in his 2001 Welsh National Opera production - one of his best - as did Graham Vick, with his Gothic vision of hell for Glyndebourne in the 1990s.

Bartlett can't seem to decide where his production is pitched. Kandis Cook sets it in a plain gold box. Perhaps it would be charitable to describe its aesthetic as 'economical', with occasionally handsome period costumes and some sticks of cut-price furniture. There is never any sense of grandeur or of the surreal, and the Act 2 ball is a very flat affair, the "stage" for the pastorale (with its tacky light bulbs and parlour palms) being a scenic low point.The chorus direction shifts uncomfortably between the stylised - singing some lines straight at Herman (giving "voice" to his paranoia, if you will) - and the stagy, concert style, facing out front.

The direction of the principals falls flat at some key moments, yet there are other where it snaps thrillingly into focus. Herman's pivotal encounter with the Countess in her bedroom (admittedly one of the best constructed scenes in all opera) is one such. It is played as a seduction, with far more physicality and with a sexual frisson I have never seen before in a scene where the poor lady is usually frozen to her seat. Yet the scenes between Herman and Lisa lacked any sexual chemistry at all (my friend rather unhelpfully described "Alexei Sayle getting it on with Janine Duvitski", an image which unfortunately stayed for the rest of the evening).

Musically we were on far surer ground. The orchestral performance, under music director Richard Farnes, was quite wonderful - much of the drama takes place in the score and Farnes nails both the grand romantic sweep and the wealth of creepy detail (check out the muted strings and bass clarinet in the countess's bedroom scene - incredible musical painting). It is given in English, in a really intelligent and singable translation by Bartlett and Martin Pickard - a vast improvement on the arch and archaic version ENO used in their last revival. Whilst there were surtitles, the soloists' diction was really superb and we could easily have done without them. Impressive.

The singing was of a high standard, with some exceptions. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts added to his gallery of Opera North antiheroes a role that at times taxes him sorely. It's a huge challenge - the part has an big range and is very long- and at times his unusually forward, "white" voice production is cruelly exposed. That said, he nailed most of the exposed high notes, and his commitment cannot be faulted. Poor Orla Boylan looked an absolute fright in some of the most unflattering outfits and wigs I have seen in a long time, and she was poorly directed. Such a shame, as she flooded this medium sized theatre with plush, vibrant sound at the big moments, and she has musicality to burn. It was wonderful to hear veteran Jonathan Summers, perfectly cast as a seedy, boozy, seen-it-all Tomsky (coincidentally the Amonasro in the 1997 Aida!). William Dazely sang Yeletsky's aria superbly. Hampered by another spectacularly unlovely wig, he lacked charisma, although it was perhaps one of the saddest and most touching portrayals of this thankless role I have seen. Special mention, too, of Alexandra Sherman (it must be odd for a Russian to sing this music in English - but she did so perfectly) who gave an idiomatic and darkly beautiful rendition of Paulina's aria, and for Fiona Kimm's Governess - a veteran performer who stole her short scene.

The best thing about the show by a mile? Dame Josephine as the Countess. She is a singer I have admired ever since I saw her Katerina Ismailova at ENO in 1991, Her Opera North Gloriana is widely regarded as definitive - as is Phyllida Lloyd's production - and certainly one of the best portrayals of anything I have ever seen. She brings her many years of acting experience to bear here. Exuding magnetism, she is cynical and seductive - a close relative of her ageless Emilia Marty with a twist of Salome. Her voice retains its covered, commanding quality - her barked orders to the servants send a chill down the spine - even if it has diminished in volume over the years.

I had the huge honour of meeting Dame Josephine after the show. She is charming, and utterly self deprecating. It made an average production into an evening to treasure.

Next up: More Tchaikovsky - ENO's new Eugene Onegin directed by Deborah Warner

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton