Friday, December 21, 2012

You might as well not believe in fairies

I've posted this in other places before, but this reaches a wide audience (I hope!) and I can't resist posting it here:

Editorial Page, New York Sun, 1897

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun: 

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O'Hanlon 

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge. 

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. 

He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. 

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. 

You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. 

No Santa Claus? Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood. 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!!! 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Some pretty darn good singers on singing!

I was chatting with dear friend Bocca L. Lupo (aka Bucky) and dear Birgit Nilsson came up in conversation, as he was listening to a recording of early excerpts from Nilsson's career.  So I immediately hied me to YouTube to listen to recordings I'd found and loved so many times before, and I found this very interesting episode of Opera News on the Air from 1963.  Nilsson and Joan Sutherland discuss and demonstrate vocal terminology. 

Oh, the quotes from this clip!  "That's very true, Birgit dear..."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

RIP Lisa della Casa

Directly from

Sad news: The most serene soprano that ever lived is no more

The Vienna State Opera has announced the death of Lisa Della Casa, the sweetest voiced singer of a fabulous generation. She was 93.
Swiss born, Lisa was renowned for her performances of Richard Strauss, which began in Zurich with the role of Zdenka in Arabella in 1947. She made a landmark recording of Four Last Songs. In Rosenkavalier she sang all three leading female parts – Marschallin, Octavian, Sophie. Abroad, she was first choice in Mozart, singing 47 Almavivas and 34 Elviras at the Met.
Late on, in 1961, she was a very sexy Salome.

In this clip she sings Mi tradi (Salzburger Festspiele 1954, Wiener Philharmoniker led by Wilhelm Furtwängler.):

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A case for obstructed-view seats

Last Saturday, Nov. 24, I attended a matinee of La Clemenza di Tito, but alas, from my seat I could see almost nothing of the stage. Although the singing was stellar--in addition to the always glorious singing of Elina Garanča as Sesto, there was the equally beautiful singing of Kate Lindsey as Annio and Lucy Crowe as Servilia, and Giuseppe Filianoti surprised one by singing a perfectly lovely Tito--it was as if I were listening to an expensive radio broadcast.

I almost wish that had been the case Friday night, Nov. 30, with Un Ballo in Maschera.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
I tweeted at the end I had never seen Ballo before, and I still felt like I hadn't. I have written before my feelings about updated or "concept" productions of common practice era operas. In a nutshell, such productions usually aim to make social and political roles and relationships more clear, but rarely do, and more often than not distract from the very details they intend to highlight by their attention--or worse, inattention--to detail. In David Alden's production, Ballo is set in Sweden, as M. Eugène Scribe's original libretto dictated (before the Neapolitan censors got their hands on it in 1859), but in the early 20th century rather than the late 18th century. It could have been Europe between the wars. There were German-style military uniforms. We have seen those grey morning suits and darks suits with bowlers on the gentlemen, cast and chorus, so often in recent years, one wonders if some extremely lucrative deal has been struck between the Met and a formalwear distributor.

A very important part of the confusing scenery was a large painting of Icarus. An uncredited program article about the production compares the fate of Icarus, when the joy of flight caused him to ignore his father's warnings to stay away from the sun, for his wings were made of wax, to Gustavo/Riccardo's hedonistic plight. I'm not buying it. Icarus and his Dad-alus were fleeing Crete, not out for a joy ride. I don't quite understand why Oskar (well sung by Kathleen Kim) is wearing the wings, both at beginning and end. Is he supposed to be a little Gustavo?

As I have said in other reviews, it's really hard to ruin Verdi for me, try as you might. Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi led a quite lovely performance vocally and musically. Ensembles were well paced and tight, and of course the Met orchestra and chorus met their usual high standard.

Marcelo Álvarez -  Picture © Sasha Gusov
Gustavo/Riccardo seems to me to be very similar to the Duke in Rigoletto. He's out for pleasure. He thinks he feels love for some of the women he goes after, but he doesn't really. Gustavo was sung by Marcelo Álvarez, and I must say he sang much more beautifully than I expected. The current crop of Verdi tenors at the Met tends to bark a lot, but perhaps the nature of the role brought out lyricism in Mr. Álvarez I haven't heard before. Reading of his roots in bel canto, one sees the connection. I wrote of his Trovatore Manrico in April of last year that he wasn't terribly subtle but he was effective. In this performance, I heard more subtlety and many beautiful sounds. Although his top is where he sometimes loses the subtlety, he keeps the ring and it's still a beautiful sound. And he did seem to portray a number of Gustavo's many sides, from his passion to his conflicted feelings over betraying his best friend and advisor. Perhaps I blinked, but I didn't see very much of the sense of fun Mr. Alden suggests should be part of Gustavo's character.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is the reigning Verdi baritone at the Met nowadays. He's quite handsome, he sings well, and he knows his repertoire. But I can't think it's coincidence that it was during his scenes as Renato (I'm sorry, but I am not going to the trouble of typing Angkarström every time) that the weariness of the day found the evening's least resistance from excitement and passion. Having said that, I will say that he, like everyone else in the cast, was on fire in the last act. Renato's Act IV aria "Eri tu" brought my opera-going companion to tears. Considering my friend's wealth of knowledge and experience is easily twice my own, I take that as very high praise indeed of Mr. Hvorostovsky's performance.

Sandra Radvanovsky. I have stated publicly I'm not a big fan of hers, and my opinion hasn't changed. However, having on Friday evening much better seats than I'm accustomed to, I could see some of the passion that thrills audiences so. I still find her singing a little harsh at times, particularly in the upper middle voice. (What I call the Straits of Hell in my own feeble attempts to sing.) I know this is ungentlemanly to say, but to me she doesn't sound like a first-string soprano. I don't consider her the equal of Álvarez and Hvorostovsky. Still, there were moments of beauty, and one believed her as Amelia.

Stephanie Blythe in an earlier, saner production of Ballo
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The real wonder of the cast was Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica. (Ms. Blythe alternates in the role with Dolora Zajick.) Mr. Alden made it look like Ulrica had set up shop in a train station, but Ms. Blythe nonetheless gave a stellar vocal and dramatic performance, as one always expects from her. The woman's range in acting and vocal styles is simply amazing. (Honestly, have you seen her videos as Isabella in L'Italiana?) While the other singers earned the ovations they were given at curtain, it was only Ms. Blythe who got a "Brava!" from me. (I would also add that traditional curtain calls at the end of every act would have allowed Ms. Blythe to go home a few hours earlier.)

My overall impressions of the evening? Verdi sure knew what he was doing, didn't he?! For any opera to defy the Met's attempts at complete destruction and yet allow me to leave humming its beautiful melodies instead of fuming about the production is remarkable. I left thinking "I should pull out that score and look at it!" rather than "Make it stop! Make it stop!"

Saturday, December 1, 2012

You can never have too much Anna Bolena

You might remember my dear friend Bocca L. Lupo (Bucky to his friends) recently wrote a few thoughts about two Anna Bolena recordings he'd enjoyed on a road trip--one going and one coming back.  He has since penned a few thoughts on even more Anna Bolena recordings in his vast audiophile library:

The earliest recording of the three is a 1958 air check of a RAI Milano performance featuring Leyla Gencer as Anna, Giulietta Simionato as Giovanna, Plinio Clabassi as Enrico, Aldo Bertocci as Percy, and Anna Maria Rota as Smeton. The release I auditioned is on Opera d'Oro. The recorded sound is paper thin, particularly in the opening scene, leading me to think that the tape had been used many times before the off-air recording was made. The quality improves slightly later on, but climaxes are severely congested, and the overall constricted sound makes it difficult fairly to judge the true quality of the singing.  Ms. Gencer is accurate and portrays a charming Anna. It may be the poor recording, but much of her coloratura work has a Lily Pons/Mady Mesple "little girl" quality to the sound. Her Anna comes across as nearing middle age and charming, but I did not hear the fire of a wronged woman or the pain of an abandoned lover. Simionato's Giovanna is a mirror of her 1957 La Scala performance with Callas, which I discussed after my last road trip. In the Act II duet with Anna, she clearly portrays Seymour's trepidation and anguish. Throughout she is in good voice, accurate, and very musical.

Speaking of that great duet between the present and future queen, it is unfortunate that so many small cuts are taken. Donizetti, in this piece, expanded on lessons he had learned from Rossini and Mayr in developing the type of recitative that moves from what is effectively secco (strictly chordal accompaniment) to accompagnato (with melodic flow in the vocal line and orchestra). In this scene, the flow is seamless, and the melodic sections are placed to highlight the emotions of both Anna and Giovanna most effectively.

Plinio Clabassi, the Enrico, is a serviceable bass, and he opens the Act I finale with appropriate regal authority. His part is much cut. Aldo Bertocci, the Percy, is accurate, and his voice, while not all that attractive, is well managed. The Smeton, Anna Maria Rota, is not impressive, but, after the cuts, she has so little to sing it would be difficult to gain an impression. Maestro Gavazzeni conducts a performance similar to the 1957 Scala. There is again no Sinfonia. The RAI Milano chorus and orchestra are quite typical of the time, and it sounds as if there was little rehearsal time: things get rather scrappy from time to time. Recommended as an opportunity to hear Gencer as Anna and for Simionato.

Next is a 1968/69 Decca recording with Elena Suliotis as Anna, Marilyn Horne as Giovanna, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Enrico, John Alexander as Percy, and Janet Coster as Smeton. Silvio Varviso conducts the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Opera Orchestra. The recording, made in the Vienna State Opera's Sofiensaal, has the bright, big sound typical of Decca in that era, with the voices forward and the orchestra and chorus slightly recessed. There are small cuts - a measure or two here, a measure there - throughout. Many of these cuts were apparently standard practice, because they appear in the Callas, the Gencer, the Sutherland (which is generally more complete), and this recording.

Ms. Suliotis' characterization of Anna is credible and appropriate. This Anna is feminine, youthful, strong-willed, and truly triumphant in the final scene. Until hearing her Anna, I had known Suliotis only from the (in)famous Decca recording of Verdi's Nabucco released in 1965. Her Abigaille in that recording is legendary.  That she was deserving of her (admittedly short lived) celebrity is borne out by the two recordings. In both she is accurate, the voice generally under excellent control, with seamless transitions between the registers. What is impressive is how different the characters are between the Verdi and the Donizetti. Her Abigaille is a scenery-chewing firebrand: anyone would be cowed by her "Prode guerrier." Yet her Anna is feminine and extremely touching in her trepidation at the end of Act I (for example, her "Giudici? Ad Anna?"). The aria finale is a triumph. Her diction is excellent throughout, and only occasionally does she lose control of what is a large but well-managed voice.

Horne starts out as a very feminine Giovanna, with none of the "butch bark" that affected her singing of lyrical parts in later years. In Act II she reverts to some over use of chest voice when articulating phrases, and the character becomes more stony. Her pleas for forgiveness in the great duet with Anna are affecting and seem to come from Giovanna's heart. As is often the case with Ms. Horne, there are many highly suspect vowels, particularly in and above the passaggio. It is, overall a good portrayal.

Ghiaurov's Enrico is a disappointment. It is beautifully sung in his immediately recognizable tone. His Italian diction is consistent with what I always hear from him: reasonably clear but hardly idiomatic. The performance is most accurate. But there is no Enrico. There is Nicolai signing Donizetti quite well, but there is no character portrayed. Yes, this is often a problem with studio recordings! His disdain for Anna, his lust for Seymour, and his anger at Smeton and Percy all are expressed in the same lovely stream of tone. Most unsatisfactory.

John Alexander is, as he always was in the theater and on record, reliable and accurate. While there is nothing really wrong with his portrayal, there isn't much real characterization, and I have to admit I always found his vocal quality rather utilitarian. Janet Coster, the Smeton, has a good voice and uses it effectively. She portrays the character's fearful excitement in the chamber scene, and the anguish in the confession to Anna is palpable. Varviso was at this time a highly experienced conductor with a wide repertoire. The performance is fleet where appropriate but never seems rushed. The orchestra and chorus are excellent. The Sinfonia is most exciting. Suliotis and Horne bring the performance to life; otherwise, it is clearly a very good studio recording, accurate and almost complete but lacking full dramatic fire.

In 1973, ABC Records recorded Bolena in London with Beverly Sills as Anna, Shirley Verrett as Giovanna, Paul Plishka as Enrico, Stuart Burrows as Percy, and Patricia Kern as Smeton. Julius Rudel conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and chorus. The performance is complete: although I did not check the entire recording against the score, all sections I did check had no cuts.

By 1973, Ms. Sills had thoroughly absorbed the "three queens" to creat technical and artistic excellence. Hers is a thoroughly satisfying portrayal of Anna. The extra fioriture and high notes she interpolates make musical and dramatic sense. The vocal production is amazingly free. Anna emerges as youthful, feminine, strong in her convictions. The finale is touching to the end: you hear Anna's exercise of self control and will power as she rises to the moral triumph of "Coppia iniqua." The finale of Act I is marvelously poignant, with the incredulous terror of "Giudici? Ad Anna?" made palpable by Sills' artistry. Some of the tone is occasionally held back in the mask, but generally the voice is open and free. Good (but not perfect) diction. All in all, I find it the most satisfying, vocally and dramatically, of the five Annas I auditioned. (Six years earlier, I'd had the privilege of singing in the chorus of a production of Les contes d'Hoffmann, starring Ms. Sills as the heroines. Ms. Sills was clearly a star, but she joked with us and approached everyone as colleagues. A true professional and a gracious woman. Oh, and an amazing singer!)

Shirley Verrett is the best of the Giovannas in the five recordings as well. A clear match for Anna, this Seymour is a woman of ambition yet she displays genuine regret and concern in the great duet, given absolutely complete in this recording. Ms. Verrett is in wonderful voice, giving character to every line on that miraculous stream of burnished tone. Excellent diction but with the usual Verrett vowel variations. Her interaction with the other singers is an object lesson in ensemble performance.

Paul Plishka as Enrico sings well, although there is a weakness in the lower register. The notes are there as they should be, the words are generally clear, but Enrico is nowhere to be heard. There is absolutely no difference in vocal performance between the wooing of Giovanna and the rejection of Anna. Again, a role well learned for the studio, but little drama in the performance.
Burrows as Percy sings well, enunciates clearly, and manages the register shifts well. This Percy has character, but the voice isn't Italianate at all. I'm not looking for squillo or slancio, but a bit more tang would be welcome. Nevertheless, this is a very good performance of the role, and burrows' ensemble work is exemplary. Patricia Kern as Smeton emerges as the most satisfying on the five recordings. The voice is creamy, with registers well integrated. She conveys the rash youth quite well, and stands out in the chamber scene as a real protagonist in the action. Her confession to Anna in the finale conveys genuine anguish. Maestro Rudel demonstrates why he was so in demand in the pit throughout his long career. Tempi are always appropriate, with much energy conveyed without rushing. The chorus and orchestra are splendid, if a bit recessed. Overall, an excellent studio recording.

In sum, for a live performance, despite the cuts and limited sound, go with Callas. For a compete version made in the studio, Sills is the clear winner. The ideal cast from the singers on all these recordings would be Sills, Verrett, Ramey, Raimondi, and Coster. Inasmuch as the Sills takes three out of five palms, it is the one I wouldn't be without.

I have not heard the Gruberova. I don't think her voice would be right for the part. [n.b. That never stopped her from singing anything!--Tam.]

Bocca L. Lupo