Monday, March 25, 2013

Chaste goddess indeed!

Your fearless reporter has once again traveled far and wide in order to bring you, his adoring public, news about opera goings-on outside of the Tri-State area. The reason was Norma, Mr. Bellini's major work, which the Washington National Opera so bravely mounted at The Kennedy Center. I say bravely because the work is quite difficult to cast and produce. There are many sopranos who are hired to sing Norma repeatedly, but I don't call that good judgement in every case. It is extremely rare in my experience to find a woman who sings both Turandot and Norma very well, especially if there is a little-black-dress component in the casting requirements. But opera companies seem determined to keep trying with that formula in mind.

Angela Meade as Norma
Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO
I saw the final performance at WNO, the matinee on March 24. I liked the casting in this case. Starting at the bottom, I must say Dmitry Belosselskiy was a very satisfying Oroveso. His sonorous bass filled the hall as he represented his people's pleas to get those darn Romans out of Gaul or die trying. His aria with chorus "Ah del Tebro al giogo indegno" was very fine indeed. Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila sang Pollione. I had been concerned about this casting choice, having seen YouTube clips indicating a blustery sound typical of today's Verdi tenors. (My friend Bocca L. Lupo, aka Bucky, refers to this common vocal phenomenon as "can belt-o".) I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mr. Davila unleashed the role's few isolated high notes remarkably well, and negotiated the high tessitura more capably than I expected him to. He did seem to grow tired in the second act, but most Polliones do. Had I not seen Act II, I would have described his acting as typically stentorian, but his passion in the electrifying Act II finale convinced me otherwise.

Dolora Zajick. The Azucena/Amneris/Eboli of our age. Other writers have called Ms. Zajick a force of nature, and I can't argue. Some of her singing on Sunday afternoon was almost unnaturally beautiful and affecting. In duets and trios where Angela Meade chose to float the climactic high notes Ms. Zajick was there, matching the floating quality beautifully. Adalgisa is the biggest loser in this story, and Ms. Zajick's anguish was very clear in the rear orchestra section. (Roman Consul Pollione had already married and deserted Norma before seducing poor Adalgisa, but when Adalgisa learns Pollione is also Norma's man and the father of her children, she sees him for the scoundrel he is. One wonders how many other girls Pollione had seduced between Norma and Adalgisa, but that's not part of the opera.) Although it did take her a short time to warm up again for Act II, her scene with Norma that ends with the famous duet "Mira, O Norma" was quite amazing.

Rafael Davila and Dolora Zajick
Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO
Readers might also recall my post "Wanted--One Sassy Gay Friend", about seeing Angela Meade sing Norma, daughter of Oroveso and Chief High Priestess Babe, at Caramoor in 2010. I have very few complaints about Miss Meade's singing on Sunday, although I will say her sound has grown with time. I've stated before that I'm not convinced her voice is as large as some of the roles in which she is cast. I have noticed in recent years that she has developed an apparent coping mechanism wherein she floats some of the most difficult high notes, when one fears singing them with full voice would not produce a successful result. This doesn't happen on all high notes, and in fact, Miss Meade sang some full-throated high notes that were stunning. One feared on Sunday Miss Meade was also quite tired, that being the final performance of a demanding production. But--and I can't emphasize enough the importance of this--she husbanded her resources remarkably well, emitted not a single sound that was not beautiful on its own. (OK, maybe one or two, but who's counting?) She used those floated high notes to beautiful effect in passages that have proven the undoing of many a soprano. She even sang a full-throated high D at the end of the Act I finale. Her sustained "Son io!", confessing in Act II that she herself is the accursed fallen priestess, seduced by a Roman, made me cry.

Let's talk about that Act II finale. From the end of the chorus "Guerra! Guerra!" and Hymn to the Sun to the final double bar, I was captivated. All of Mr. Bellini's amazing music and Mr. Felice Romani's skillful writing had been merely preparation for this sequence of one amazing passage after another. The duet "In mia man" in which Norma confronts Pollione, who had been captured while attempting to abduct Adalgisa, was riveting. "Son io!", as I've mentioned, really did make me cry. At the end of the finale, when Norma at last convinces her father Oroveso to look after her children after she has been put to death for her sins, brought many more tears. This was the kind of gripping operatic experience that causes people to leap to their feet and shout Bravo!

I credit Messrs. Bellini and Romani for this. I don't credit the stage director, Anne Bogart, with much of anything except traffic control, although some of those directions I found odd. Some stage bits were almost laughable, such as the very end of the Act I finale, when Norma, Adalgisa, and Pollione are singing their little hearts out, and pause upon hearing the offstage chorus in an uproar, each turning his/her head in the same direction and then turning back to face the audience and conductor and finish the last few bars, timed as well as if they were aspiring Pips. I'm not completely sold on the design by Neil Patel. The set was a unit set showing in a somewhat heavy-handed way the contrast between the Druids, with a full-height slatted wooden building on one side, with huge logs or tree trunks leaning against the building like toothpicks, and a heavy stone Roman building on another, where one occasionally espied a Roman sentry keeping watch from elevated window openings. Costumes by James Schuette were effective enough, although in low light some of the women's outfits had a somewhat 1920s profile.

Even with these minor quibbles, I can not over-emphasize how powerful this opera performance was. The talents of Bellini, Romani, Meade, Davila, Zajick and Belosselskiy gave me one of the best operatic afternoons I can recall.

Among the local delights in Washington were a delightful dinner with delightfuller drinks and truly inspirational waiter at The Pig, and Looped, a yarn shop that made the hubby very happy. Neither establishment is compensating me for these plugs, but we'll work that out later.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

RIP Risë Stevens

I know there can't be any of you who haven't yet heard that Risë Stevens died today at the age of 99. Here is the NY Times article. There are many just like it all over the 'net. She is just the sort of singer this blog was begun to feature--her generation of "golden age" mid 20th-century singers at the Met. What a great artist and a grand lady!

Click here to see my post about dear Risë on June 13, 2009, her 96th birthday.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Have another glass of wine!

I had the pleasure Saturday evening of seeing the opening night performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck's obscure comic opera The Reformed Drunkard, presented by Little Opera Theatre of NY. The 1760 opera was originally entitled L'ivrogne corrigé, and predates Mr. Gluck's masterpiece Orfeo ed Euridice by two years. A pair of young lovers tricks the girl's uncle into swearing off drink--and allowing them to marry, of course--by creating the illusion during one of his drunken stupors that he has died and is on trial for his sins. This production is in English, using a translation and adaptation by stage director Philip Schneidman and Ivana Mestrovic. Performances continue through March 26.

Lucas (Singer), Mathurin (Downen),
Cléon in disguise (Boley), Colette in disguise (Hoyes)
Photo by Tina Buckman, courtesy LOTNY
I am a great supporter of opera on this professional level, which gives young singers experience, resume credits, and a chance to be heard. The unpredictability and inconsistency are part of the fun, and one does occasionally hear truly outstanding voices, gain new insights from an unusual treatment of a well known opera, or hear rarely performed operas. LOTNY is at the upper end of this professional tier--many singers already have management and regional leading role credits, and the group appears to have an admirable budget for theater space, production and musical preparation, and promotion.

The show is double cast, and of the singers in Saturday's performance, there wasn't much to complain about. Even allowing for the typical first-performance-as-final-rehearsal phenomenon, much of it was quite delightful. I especially liked the pair of drunkards around whom the story centers--Mathurin, the young girl's uncle, played by tenor Brian Downen; and his friend Lucas, who also wants to marry the girl, played by baritone Matthew Singer. Both young men inhabited their roles with gusto and great energy, and sang beautifully. Mr. Downen especially had some delightful comic moments, and I liked him vocally very much. (He has some lovely clips at his web site that show more what he can do than this score did.) I first saw Mr. Singer in Opera Omnia's Giasone, and I was further charmed by his fine singing and acting Saturday night. Of all the roles, his seemed to suit his voice the best. And a great accolade for both--I understood every word they sang.

The problem? Every word they sang. My biggest complaint about this production was the English libretto by Mr. Schneidman and Ms. Mestrovic. It lacked poetry and subtlety. With a musical structure so square, one expected actual rhymes in the arias. Much worse, the English lines were very awkwardly set to the existing vocal lines. The effect was jarring and very much hindered my enjoyment of the show.

Mathurin (Downen) , Mathurine (Tonna)
Photo by Tina Buckman, courtesy LOTNY
I also wished the other singers had more gratifying vocal lines in their roles. (Mr. Gluck's vocal music was very different from that of the opera composers who followed him.) I last heard tenor Michael Boley at dear Regina Opera's Magic Flute last spring, and he continues to sing rather well. Although the character clearly was enjoyable to play, any tenor would have been bored with the role vocally. Candice Hoyes played the ingenue Colette and Anna Tonna played Mathurin's long-suffering wife Mathurine, and neither role was very interesting vocally.

Richard Owen led a small ensemble--a string quartet with oboe--through the score from the harpsichord, and the ensemble gained in steam and became quite good. Although at the beginning there seemed to be some timing issues with musical introductions and some nervous acting, for the most part I found the direction by Philip Schneidman adequate, although I was left with some unanswered questions--mostly about some of the the chandelier business. Set design was quite clever, using perhaps a third of the stage as orchestra space, with floor and walls completely black, while the remainder of the stage was a simple period drawing room set. The costumes were quite nice but seemed to suggest late 19th century. One wondered why.

Although I have quibbles, as an informed opera goer does about any show, I don't want to suggest I didn't enjoy the show. My companion for the evening, and indeed for many operas I see, was quite charmed by the entire show. To me that says more than any amount of raving or nit-picking I could do.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Great singer of the increasingly irregular interval: Gabriella Tucci

I recently decided to get my money's worth from that monthly subscription to the Metropolitan Opera's On-Demand service, and this evening I wound up listening to a 1962 audio recording of Aida, from a Saturday afternoon broadcast, that featured the divine Gabriella Tucci. What a singer! (Some guy named Corelli was in the same broadcast, but who cares?)

To show you what the lady could do, here is a clip from a televised performance in 1961. Japan, apparently.

Not only does she nail the aria, but her C is great.  And of course, as everyone who reads YouTube comments knows, that's the only important note in the entire aria.  

The following is stolen freely from her brief Wikipedia bio, further edited by yours truly:
Gabriella Tucci, attribution unknown
Gabriella Tucci (b. Aug. 4, 1929) is an Italian soprano, particularly associated with the Italian repertory. 
Born in Rome, Tucci trained at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia with Leonardo Filoni, whom she later married. She made her debut at Spoleto, as Leonora in La Forza del Destino, opposite Beniamino Gigli, in 1951. She appeared in the famous revival of Cherubini's Medea, as Glauce, opposite Maria Callas, in Florence, in 1953.
She made her debut at La Scala in Milan in 1959, as Mimi in La Bohème. The following year saw her debuts at both the Royal Opera House in London, as Aida, and at the Metropolitan Opera, as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. She sang at the Metropolitan Opera until 1972.  Other roles included: Euridice, Marguerite, Leonora in both Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino, Maria Boccanegra/Amelia, Violetta, Aida, Desdemona, Alice Ford, Mimi, etc. 
Tucci also appeared in Vienna, Berlin, and Buenos Aires. She traveled with the La Scala Opera to Moscow and Tokyo, performances that have been documented in live recordings. 
A versatile singer and an accomplished actress, Tucci was able to tackle a wide range of roles from bel canto toverismo, singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Elvira in I Puritani, Gilda in Rigoletto, Violetta in La Traviata, and Marguerite in Faust, Maddalena in Andrea Chénier, and Tosca.
Tucci made only two commercial recordings--Pagliacci in 1959, opposite Mario del Monaco, and Il Trovatore in 1964, opposite Franco Corelli--but can be heard in a number of "live" performances, including Cherubini's Medeaand Donizetti's Il Furioso al Isola di Santo Domingo.

The lovely lady was on the faculty at a certain opera factory school while I was a student there, but another soprano known for the Italian repertoire gained more notoriety.  As a stupid young lad, I had never heard of her. As a stupid old man, I certainly have!  Again I say, what a singer!

Here she is as Liu opposite another soprano you might have heard of, 1969.  That particular video has embedding disabled.

But here she is in a 1963 Met radio broadcast as Violetta in Traviata.  Audo only, I'm afraid.