Friday, March 30, 2012

Mecco all' altar di Venere

No, dear reader, it's not another Norma post, but how could I resist making a comparison between the name of Pollione's aria and that of the wonderful CD I am reviewing today, Talise Trevigne's recording At the Statue of Venus, on GPR Records.  OK, it's a stretch, but if about half of you think it's clever, I'm OK with it.

I say this is a wonderful CD because I am enamored with the lovely Miss Trevigne's singing and her interpretation of the three works on the CD--a song cycle and a scena by Mr. Jake Heggie, known for his widely acclaimed operatic setting of Dead Man Walking, among other things, as well as a song collection by Mr. Glen Roven.  Those with razor-sharp memories will recall that I praised Miss Trevigne's singing in the brief role of Jemmy in Guillaume Tell at Caramoor last July.

The centerpiece of this CD is Mr. Heggie's "At the Statue of Venus", a scena with a very likable libretto by Terrance McNally.  This is, in fact, a soprano monodrama in six sections.  The story, if one is necessary, is about a woman waiting to meet a blind date and enduring a wide range of predictable adolescent feelings about what she might expect.  Junior high school never really ends, does it?  The woman becomes pensive, thinking about what she really wants from love and recalling the feeling of safety and certainty in her father's arms, and in the last section is finally her confident self, appearing to put her adolescent fears to rest, believing that if the man she is meeting today is truly the one for her, she'll know.

I call the libretto likable, but the songs as a whole are quite beautiful, showing the conflict and fear in the woman's heart and the humor of the libretto at the same time.  As she grows in turns fearful, angry, self-deprecating, pensive, and confident, Mr. Heggie's piano accompaniment and vocal lines tell us all, reinforcing the humor and pathos in the libretto, skillfully building tension and release.  Miss Trevigne gives us lyrical, passionate, beautifully heartfelt performances of these songs.  This work is worth the price of the CD.

I also enjoyed the other cycle from Mr. Heggie's pen, "Natural Selection", to five poems by Gini Savage.  The liner notes explain these songs "trace a young woman's search for her own identity."  My favorites of this cycle were "Animal Passion", in which the poet revels in fantasies of behaving like a wild animal in heat--or at least in the gutter--and "Alas! Alack!", in which she rather too proudly complains about being attracted to the bad boys.  Cavaradossi bores her, but Scarpia has all that power and a steady job!  (I would swear I heard motives from Tosca in Mr. Heggie's piano part!)  In "Indian Summer" she rhapsodizes about the car that gave her freedom in her teenage years and contrasts it to her current life as the wife of a Bluebeard-like man, a veritable emotional hostage.  I quite like Mr. Heggie's boogie-woogie piano part for the automotive rhapsody compared to the blues feel when the poet sings about being Bluebeard's wife.

The songs in the third collection, "The Santa Fe Songs," are settings by Mr. Roven of eight poems by various poets each related in some way to Santa Fe.  Mr. Roven discloses in his liner notes how finding the volume that contains these poems offered some solace in the dazed period after suffering a tragic loss. Among my favorites are "Listening to jazz now" (Jimmy Santiago Baca), a joyful song about simple pleasures.  "Bowl" (Valerie Martìnez) contemplates a bowl as metaphor for the cosmos, the earth and sea, and a chalice that unites all mankind.  In "Flying Backbone" (Christopher Buckley), Mr. Roven's piano part reflects the logy feeling of the first verse ("...our selves water heavy and/Low, lusterless as river bottom clay. ") and the more airy feeling of the second.  "Bone Bead" and "Sowing the Pecos Wilderness" (both Thomas Fox Averill) are about the emptiness and eventual hope felt after flinging a loved one's ashes to the wind.  Miss Trevigne sings these songs, somewhat more complex in melodic nature than those of Mr. Heggie, with beauty of tone and feeling for the poems.  As with all the songs on this album, it is easy to understand her English diction. This is a major accomplishment for any singer.

I've written before that I'm not qualified to judge the technical merits of new-ish music, and have joked that November 29, 1924, was to me The Day the Music Died (sorry, Don McLean), but I like these songs, and this CD will not gather dust on my shelf.  (Well, not much--I'm a very bad housekeeper.)  I especially like Miss Trevigne and hope to hear more recordings and see more live performance by this appealing artist.

Coming soon!  My reviews of these two CDs, also from GPR Records:

To other record producers and artists:  I happily review CDs, especially those that come accompanied by chocolate.

You can buy all these CDs from Amazon. If you start by clicking my Amazon store at the upper right, no matter what you buy, I earn a tiny percentage.  And I stop pestering you to buy stuff. OK, maybe not the last part.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Lauritz Melchior

Surprise!  It's not another soprano!  This is the first time I've featured heldentenor Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973).  Don't know why that is.  In any case, his Wikipedia bio is pretty thorough for an online source.

So let's get on with the YouTube clips!

Here he is in the 1948 MGM film Luxury Liner.
He made several such films.

Singing on an unspecified TV show, probably in the 50s.

Ora e per sempre from Otello, no performance data given.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Over the river and through the woods....

Yes, dear readers, your intrepid reporter has ventured across the George Washington Bridge again in search of great singing.  The work was the Verdi Requiem, the presenting group was the Monmouth Civic Chorus, the venue was the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, and the date Saturday, March 10.

Mark Shapiro
Photo credit:  unattributed
This was Artistic Director Mark Shapiro's last concert with the Monmouth Civic Chorus, ending a happy 21-year association between conductor and chorale, so it was an emotional night for many.  I don't know Mr. Shapiro, but I have never heard a word uttered against him, and I know many, many choral singers.  Clearly this group holds him in very high esteem. After Saturday night's performance one could see why. It was equally clear that they love the Verdi Requiem and thoroughly enjoyed singing it with Mr. Shapiro.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching them sing it, and enjoyed watching Mr. Shapiro.  His love for the work was also abundantly clear, and one could hear it in the detailed and subtle performance he sought to achieve with chorus and orchestra.  The chorus did nobly, and truly my only complaint with them was that they were not twice as large a group.  Mr. Verdi's magnum opus requires a chorus of several hundred to do it justice.

The solo quartet was comprised of four young and rising opera singers who were quite a joy to hear.  Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green (I'm not making this up, you know) was a 2011 National Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and is a current member of the Met's Lindermann Young Artist Program.  This article (link) about the 2011 finals, focusing on Mr. Speedo Green, appeared in the New York Times after he was accepted into the Lindermann program.  He has a polished, resonant sound that hasn't been corrupted by too much advice.  His performance on Saturday night was beautiful vocally and musically.  The "Mors stupebit" that concluded the Tuba mirum section was filled with fear of death, and many much more accomplished artists than Mr. Speedo Green have also gone astray tonally in the final measures of that section.

Tenor Noah Baetge has a beautiful, clear, ringing tenor sound.  He has an impressive list of credits, including very high roles like Fenton and Rinuccio, along with the meatier role Rodolfo and an upcoming Lensky.  One wished his voice had been better suited to the Verdi Requiem.  It requires a stentorian sound, and Mr. Baetge's sound is on the lyric side.  One does not wish to complain about his singing, however, and indeed he must be congratulated for negotiating Verdi's dramatic vocal writing skillfully without doing himself a mischief.

Mezzo-soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo has an impressive list of credits, a pleasing sound, and a keen musicality.  She is a fine singer, but as is the lot with mezzos, she was somewhat overpowered in memory and impact by soprano Jennifer Rowley.

Photo credit:  Markku Pilhaja
What a babe!  I wrote (link) about Miss Rowley's career-making debut at Caramoor in 2010, when she stepped in with very little notice as cover for the lead role in Mr. Donizetti's Maria di Rohan, and wowed everyone.  The Washington Post wrote of her debut, "To say that the young singer from Ohio acquitted herself well would be severe understatement. [Miss] Rowley proved fully equal to the demands of a role that requires both coloratura dexterity and dramatic power beyond the limits of a lyric soprano. She can sing with melting purity, but her voice also takes on an intriguing, dark-tinged color at times..."  For Saturday night's concert, Miss Rowley had a little more warning--two weeks for her first Verdi Requiem!  She once again acquitted herself admirably, showing all those vocal traits I'd admired before--beauty of tone throughout, evenness, feeling--and more.

I don't wish to slight the other soloists, none of whom were unequal to their roles, but the Verdi Requiem is about the soprano, an amazing vocal and dramatic feat for the woman who is equal to it.  The program notes from Saturday's concert suggest the soprano might be like a ritual sacrifice, the entire piece more sacral than sacred.  That's what one heard in Miss Rowley's singing--terror and passion.  The final movement, "Libera me", requires both nuanced, controlled singing with a pianissimo high B-flat  ("Requiem aeternam") and the almost raucous sound of desperation ("Tremens factus sum ego").  One is tempted to make earthier metaphors referring to the passion and intensity of Miss Rowley's performance.  That is what this work is--earthy, vulgar, operatic.  That is why the Requiem is often called the most operatic of all Verdi's works, perhaps more realistic and gritty than the most low-brow, kitchen-sink verismo opera.

Three of the soloists (without Mr. Speedo Green, alas) repeat their performances on April 21 at Carnegie Hall with Mr. Shapiro and the St. Cecilia Chorus.  I look forward to hearing even more from them all, and to enjoying Mr. Shapiro's performance of this great work once again.

Mr. Shapiro will deliver a lecture on the Verdi Requiem entitled "It Takes a Sacrifice a Maiden" on Sunday, March 18, at 4 p.m. at All Souls Unitarian Church (80th & Lex in NYC), and Monday April 16, at 11 a.m. at Hutton House, LIU, Brookville, NY.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Another singer of the week: Carol Vaness

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a huge Norma-phile.  There is no better opera.  Period.  All you Wagner-philes can go find another blog to follow.  I'm also a big fan of Carol Vaness, and I can't think why I've written so little about her here.  But take a listen to this audio track of her singing "Casta diva" and you'll understand why I admire her singing so much.

What a gal!  OK, so here's my personal Carol Vaness story:  I was in Salzburg during the summer of 1988, at a summer program run by the University of Miami (which stubbornly never granted me a masters simply because I never finished all the work, but that's beside the point).  Well, that summer Miss Vaness and dear Gösta Winbergh were singing Mr. Mozart's Clemenza di Tito at the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg.  My friend and I foolishly accosted Miss Vaness and Delores Ziegler in the street as they were heading to the theater to prepare for the evening's performance to see if they could get us in. Ah, the innocence of youth!  They took it in good spirits, though, and didn't resent it when we lied and got backstage after the performance, having bought last minute tickets, and sought their autographs.  (I've written before about see Gösta in his undies when someone emerged from his dressing room, revealing him almost au naturel.)

Here she is singing an aria from Clemenza in a Chicago production the same year:

And in my other favorite opera, Anna Bolena.  Although she never performed the role, she recorded the final act, of which this is the last part.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A great reason for a new Virginia Zeani post

Thanks to dear CharlotteinWeimar, there is a new, authorized web site for Virginia Zeani at  There you'll find a brief bio, discography, and lots of photos.  We're so happy to see the site renovated!  In Miss Zeani's honor, I post here more clips for your viewing and listening pleasure.

The final section M. Poulenc's La Voix Humaine in a concert.  Pianist is uncredited.

OK, here's another!  Havvi un Dio from Mr. Donizetti's Maria di Rohan.  Naples, 1962.

Mr. Boito's Mefistofele.  Nicola Rossi-Lemeni sings Mefistofele and Umberto Grilli sings Faust.  Conductor and orchestra uncredited.