Saturday, November 23, 2013

A surfeit of Normas

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn I have once again traveled to witness a Norma performance. There seems to be a surfeit of them in the land nowadays. I drove to Baltimore on Friday, November 22, to hear Baltimore Concert Opera, who so charmed me recently with their L'Elisir d'Amore, assay this monumental work. Once again in Baltimore's venerable Engineers' Club, BCO gave a performance that was a study in contrasts.

Courtesy Baltimore Concert Opera
Francesca Mondanaro was the only cast member who had performed the opera before, and the contrast between her performance and the others' was remarkable. She was the only singer who performed her role off book, and was completely immersed in the role. Her acting was committed and believable. Hers was a priestess I didn't want to anger! Ms. Mondanaro has a huge, dark, luscious voice--a Turandot or an Ariadne. Yet she has precise coloratura, trills, and high notes the envy of some other Normas with bigger names I've heard. She seemed to sing easily the particularly fiendish, very high phrases that have been the undoing of many sopranos with higher, less dramatic voices. She was at her best vocally in those moments, when controlling her Range Rover of a voice for the demands of, say, a tiny alley in Manhattan's Wall Street district. When she got on the highway, to extend this ridiculous metaphor, she lost of some of the finesse, some of the control, and her sound seemed overproduced when she sang full throttle.

Pollione was tenor Jason Wickson. Mr. Wickson sings big tenor roles--the program lists Florestan, Dick Johnson (La Fanciulla del West) and Erik (Der Fliegende Hollander) among recent/upcoming engagements. I found him on YouTube singing a scene from Peter Grimes, and singing it well. His singing of Pollione, however, seemed a bit blustery--not an unpleasant sound, but heavier than what I heard in online. I regret to report that he didn't have the same level of involvement in his role as the other cast members.

One wonders whether the limitations of the Engineers' Club ballroom, beautiful as it is, were factors in the singing issues Ms. Mondanaro and Mr. Wickson seemed to experience. Perhaps the long shape of the room, the sound-deadening materials, and the closeness of the audience contribute to acoustic conditions that singers are tempted to deal with in ways that impair their singing. You will recall I had doubts about William Davenport's Nemorino in that room, but all my doubts flew away upon hearing him at Opera Delaware's Grand Opera House. Should Baltimore Concert Opera consider other performance spaces? 

Bass Matthew Curran
Bass Matthew Curran's scenes as Oroveso were sung with beautiful, mellow sound and full commitment to the moment, even though he was using a score.  His singing never failed, and neither did his commitment. I liked his Oroveso much better than the Oroveso I recently heard at The Metropolitan Opera. 

Rounding out the quartet was the Adalgisa of soprano Jennifer Holbrook. A surprising casting choice, for Adalgisa is usually a mezzo. (Last spring I saw Dolora Zajick perform an Adalgisa that was magical.) Ms. Holbrook has a beautiful sound, and according to the recent/upcoming credits in the program, her career is beginning to take off. Her singing was fully equal to the demands of the role, and her commitment to her role was nearly equal to that of Ms. Mondanaro.

At the podium was conductor Tyson Deaton, who rallied the pickup chorus of mostly Peabody students, the problematic 88-key orchestra of James Harp, and the forces on stage quite successfully.

To many operaphiles, Norma is the ultimate opera. To me, this is one of opera's most successful marriages of beauty of music, beauty of singing, and dramatic impact. When done well, the finale packs a punch that would leave a linebacker weeping, with its slow buildup of dramatic and musical tension. There are vocal moments that illustrate the characters' emotional states far better than words alone could possibly do--rage or exultation or fear and vulnerability. There is enough to please both the immature operaphile who loves vocal fireworks but doesn't yet appreciate dramatic impact, while also pleasing the afficionado who knows the work by heart and tears up at the very thought of Norma's "Son io!" in the last act finale. It should be no wonder I would go to such great lengths to hear and see this opera. It never fails to excite me, for the star of the show is always, in the end, Mr. Bellini.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Great Singer: Maria Stader

Whilst doing comparisons of Ach, ich fühl's, I stumbled upon the marvel that was Maria Stader.

Born: November 5, 1911 - Budapest, Hungary
Died: April 27, 1999 - Zürich, Switzerland

The class of concert sopranos of the highest rank, long to be considered a vanished race, has found a worthy representative in the Hungarian-born Swiss soprano, Maria Stader, a favourite soloist of many of the worlds greatest conductors. This is not to say that the world of opera was outside the range of her art. Recordings preserve a long series of her beautiful interpretations of Bach and Mozart to Gluck and Puccini. These recordings, numbering over sixty works, have made her well-known to even the most remote areas of the world, illuminating most clearly all the virtues of her uniquely pure and flexible voice, with its bright radiance, beauty and warmth which make it ideal for oratorios and Lieder recitals, commanding the lyrical sphere as surely as that of a coloratura. During the 1960s she also built up a splendid reputation as a Lieder singer.

Maria Stader studied voice with Keller in Karlsruhe, Durigo in Zürich, Lombardi in Milan, and T. Schnabel in New York. She came to the notice of the public by winning first Prize as I. Concourse international dexecution musicale the Genève in 1939.

After a brief career as an opera singer, Maria Stader devoted herself to a distinguished concert career after World War II. She appeared in practically every major musical festival throughout the world. She first came to the attention of the American music public when she was invited by Pablo Casals to appear at the Prades Festivals. In the USA she appeared repeatedly with all the major orchestras as well as on television. Her appearances included the Philadelphia Orchestra in Philadelphia and New York, the Chicago Symphony, as well as Master Classes and recitals at the Aspen Music Festival. Maria Stader also completed a very successful tours through South America and the Far East.

This impeccably stylistic interpreter of Mozart, in both operatic and concert settings, was awarded the Lilly Lehmann Medal, the Silver Mozart Medal from the city of Salzburg, the Austrian Order of Merit for Arts and Sciences as well as the Hans Georg Neagell Gold Medal from the city of Zürich.

Maria Stader published her autobiography Nehmt meinen Dank (Take my thanks) in 1979.  She gave her final concert in 1969 at Zürich, at which one of her accompanists was the famous Hungarian pianist Geza Anda. Stader also taught voice in Zürich and published a text book on Bach arias that was translated into English in 1968.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Nov. 16, 2013, at the Met

I've often protested I'm a bel canto bear in a verismo world, and I will say that I didn't come to the November 16 performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten, by Herr R. Strauss, knowing what I was getting into. Not knowing the opera beforehand, I can say two things with great conviction:  it's long and it's loud. And I can also say without qualification that I heard some glorious singing.

Emper, Empress, Red Falcon
Photo:  Metropolitan Opera
Normally at this point I would provide a brief plot summary. "Ghostly ship's captain comes ashore once every seven years searching for true love, and one gathers that it never ends well." or "Nerd boy falls for popular girl, who only realizes she cares for him when he feigns indifference. Junior high school never really ends." (Both of these are actual quotes from my own reviews--Dutchman and Elixir.) Die Frau ohne Schatten defies such pithy brevity, but I'll try: "Goddess/Empress needs a baby in three days, but can't have one. Her evil sidekick recommends bribing a mortal to give the Empress her own shadow (fertility), but in the end everyone comes to their senses and all ends well. Except for the evil sidekick." There is much missing in that summation. It's very difficult to discuss this opera without getting into the symbolism! No surprise, then, that Andrew Porter's article in the program says, "That Hofmannsthal [genius librettist of Frau, as well as Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos] intended Die Frau ohne Schatten to be the great German opera of the 20th century--encompassing heroic decisions in extreme plights, larger than life characters and common people, actions both naturalistic and enchanted--is clear. He would draw on all the resources of the lyric theatre through the ages, and do so with aristocratic deftness and grace."
Meagan Miller, soprano
Photo ©Arielle Doneson Corrigan

Now please indulge me by listening to my raves about the singing. Beautiful American soprano Meagan Miller made her Metropolitan Opera debut with this performance of the Empress, and it was a success. Her singing was huge, beautiful and very free. Clearly she had a great understanding of the role. Her impressive list of accomplishments to date include leading roles (many of them Strauss) at the Deutsche Opera Berlin, Wiener Stadtsoper, Bayerische Stadtsoper, Hamburg, Monte Carlo, Washington National Opera, etc. I look forward to hearing many other great performances from this woman. (Here is a link to a video excerpt of her Ariadne.)

American Christine Goerke is no stranger to Metropolitan Opera audiences, having made her debut in 1995. As the Dyer's Wife (who has no name of her own), she also sang beautifully, with a huge and impassioned sound that was subtle where needed. In personality her Dyer's Wife was the equal of the bold Nurse (the Empress's evil sidekick), and even from the Family Circle, we could see her torment as she realized her current situation was far better than she'd thought, and far better than she might have gotten were she to actually trade her shadow for worldly goods.

Johan Reuter, as Barak the Dyer, was a marvel. Glorious sound and a wonderfully strong but sensitive portrayal of Barak, visible even from the Family Circle. His list of accomplishments ranges from Guglielmo to Wotan to Nick Shadow at some of Europe's great houses, and this is no surprise. I won't stoop so low as to call him a Great Dane (particularly considering my unfortunate culinary experience recently at a pub of that name in Madison), but he's been around. He's been on the roster at the Met since 2012.

Torsten Kerl, tenor
Photo © Bettina Stöß
The fourth member of the quartet of leads is the Emperor, sung with great skill and intelligence by hunky German tenor Torsten Kerl. This role is brief but demanding, and Mr. Kerl was equal to the great vocal demands. Listening to his clips on YouTube one hears the very same thing one heard Saturday night--a huge, free sound that will ride over a Wagnerian orchestra. A sound that is pleasing to hear, not just big and metallic. A genuinely large voice, not one that is manufactured. And check out his pic--look at those eyes! **swoon**

This 2001 Metropolitan Opera production is by Herbert Wernicke, and is visually stunning. Mr. Tommasini of The New York Times wrote, "The bold, inventive production, for which Wernicke also designed the sets, costumes and lighting, is one of the great achievements of Joseph Volpe’s tenure as the Met’s general manager, and it is good to have it back." All I can say is I was glad to have it as my introduction to this amazing opera. Rather than desperate to return to the order and delicacy or Donizetti and Bellini, I left wishing I knew this score better.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Misera te! Che festi?!

Sondra Radvanovksy and
Aleksandrs Antenenko
Photo: Beatriz Schiller,
Metropolitan Opera
I have been quite outspoken in the past about my opinions of Sondra Radvanovsky. I've said I thought she wasn't on the same technical level as some of her colleagues, and I thought she lacked polish and subtlety. Based on what I heard at the Met's final Norma performance of the season on November 1, I really must reconsider that opinion. While I stand by those opinions at those times, now I am forced to admit things have changed considerably.

Sondra Radvanovsky's Norma was a marvel. She has learned to use her huge, dark, luscious voice in ways that are surprisingly agile and free. None of the strain or unnecessary vocal choices I've heard before in the upper middle voice were there, and in fact, her voice was more even and free than I have ever heard it. The middle still has some "veil" to it and some metal--both appropriate to a huge voice. I heard her use a wide dynamic range, and in fact many times she brought back the sound to a piano that was thrilling. And what beauty in her high voice! Casta diva was a lesson in legato singing and control, and Ah bello, a me ritorna, the following cabaletta, was clear and passionate. Her coloratura singing, while not the 70 mile-per-hour singing we've heard from some divas, was clear and fast enough. Most importantly, we knew why all those flashy vocal passages were there--to convey heightened emotion, not merely to show off. I look forward to seeing how all the vocal work affects Ms. Radvanovsky's Verdi.

The opinions that several friends shared with me held true--Ms. Radvanovsky was the best thing in a pretty pedestrian production of Norma. While in the past I've written that she did not seem at the same level as the rest of the cast, this time I must say the rest of the cast were not at her level. Alksandrs Antenenko, Pollione, was certainly passionate and dashing, and had some lovely sounds, but overall his voice seemed uneven. I almost want to refer to his voices, plural. Kate Aldrich seemed to have bitten off more than she could chew with Adalgisa. Looking at the lyric roles she has performed, as listed in her program bio, one wonders why she was cast in a role historically associated with Fiorenza Cossotto, Giulietta Simionato, and Dolora Zajick. Her singing sounded over-produced to me, and she was hard to hear at times. And James Morris as Oroveso. I raved about his Claggart in Billy Budd, but his vocal quality does not fit Oroveso.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus was excellent, as always, but dear Lord, they needed better direction than they got! Everyone needed better direction than they got from Stephen Pickover (in John Copley's 2001 production). It pains me as a Norma-phile to say this, but Sondra Radvanovsky was truly the best thing in this show, and some might say the only reason it was worth seeing. That's something I never thought you'd read in these pages.

James Morris, Sondra Radvanovksy, Aleksandrs Antenenko
Photo: Nicole Bengiveno, New York Times