Monday, June 18, 2018

Taminophile profiles The Shirtless Violinist!

OK, I usually profile singers, but I was so interested in how Matthew Olshefski, aka The Shirtless Violinist (just look at him!  **swoon**), has attracted people to classical music that I reached out to ask a few questions.  He has a presence on all sorts of social media, and the links are below.  

To start, some videos:

Is there anything in your background that is not easily found in your public web sites that you'd like people to know?

I don’t often get the chance to talk about the teachers I’ve had the opportunity to study under as I was growing up and learning to play the violin. Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week (as he was writing the answers--some times has passed), so I would love to mention how grateful I am for the time I spent with my teachers, including Almita and Roland Vamos, Ruggiero Ricci, Benny Kim, Zakhar Brohn, and Dorothy DeLay.  You asked about overcoming problematic teaching, and I can easily say I've had great teachers from the start.

You and your adorable boyfriend make your relationship very public.  Any concerns or regrets about that?  Benefits vs. costs of various kinds?

No regrets at all! Paul and I are happy to represent the LGBT community as a loving couple in a healthy relationship. The more opportunities we have, as a community, to portray gay relationships in a real way - the better! This has become an important aspect of what we do. The beauty of social media is that we control it; we keep certain things private, and choose to share others. 

Since you've become known as The Shirtless Violinist, how has life changed?  

I get to record music regularly, interact with fans around the world, and plan these exciting music video projects. All of that is new to me - and I absolutely love it. But when you get right down to the day-to-day of life, not much has changed at all! I go the gym; spend quality time with my boyfriend; run errands; watch Netflix; and I still have my day job as a violin teacher. I’m the same person, just with a few new things thrown into the mix!

I've talked to singers and other artists about marketing and brand.  What is the most important thing about your brand?

The answer is an evolving one! In the beginning I would have said it’s all about the music and the beauty of the violin. My body and physique have always just been an added bit of fun, it’s not the driving force behind what I’m doing. But as the platform has grown and the videos have found a new audience, I have discovered that the brand is about representing the LGBTQ community and portraying gay relationships in a positive and relatable way. Although the brand will always remain music-focused, Paul and I have both been delighted to become part of LGBTQ visibility on a global scale.

Of course you get a lot of notoriety about your looks.  I've talked with male singers who often sing shirtless about this--do you think it detracts from your brand, or becomes your brand?  (I recognize this is how you first achieved widespread publicity, so that will affect how you answer this question.)

When I decided to start performing shirtless, I did so knowing that it would invite a new audience. I wanted to reach people who had never considered sitting down and listening to the violin before. I can say with certainty that I’ve accomplished that goal - because that’s what people tell me every single day! I think that’s very cool, and it’s something I’m proud of. On the flip side of the coin, there are probably people out there who look away because of the shirtlessness. To them, I say “close your eyes and just enjoy the music!”

I talk with singers often about whether they have had any kinds of hurdles  to overcome.  Have you experienced that?

In terms of technical hurdles, I have come a long way as a recording artist. As many people know, recording studio time is expensive! And, when this project first began, I couldn’t afford to get in a studio so I recorded all of my music directly into my laptop. In order to produce a better quality sound, I built a blanket fort in my living room and recorded songs underneath it. My boyfriend has home video footage of me doing this, and it’s very amusing because my bow kept hitting the blanket and messing me up! Thankfully, as my audience grew, so did my budget and I have been recording with a professional sound engineer for the past year and a half. 

Have you worked with singers?  On my graduate recital I did two Bach arias with violin obbligato with a friend--do you do that sort of thing?  

One of my early videos is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which I performed with a vocal quartet called The Sound Four. And it just-so-happens that I am recording a song with another singer this very week! I am collaborating with an LA-based singer named Tom Goss and we are performing a duet of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect”. It’s something I’m very excited about, and hope to do more of soon!

If you're performing with a symphony orchestra, do you perform shirtless?  Do you do whatever the organizer asks?  Do you insist on formal wear?

I have never performed shirtless with a symphony orchestra. I’ve been playing in orchestras for many years, but always in a suit and tails. I still think a fully shirtless orchestra would be a really fun thing, and I want to make it happen one day. 

My favorite question from Inside the Actors' Studio:  What is your favorite swear word?

Shit. It does the job without being too offensive - just like me!

Another favorite question from Inside the Actors' Studio (paraphrased):  Assuming there is a God, what do you want Him to tell you when you meet Him?

“Great abs!”

P.S.  Any of you barihunks out there whom I haven't approached for a profile--it's OK to volunteer.  I won't think it forward of you. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed….

Guest blogger EB reviews three performances seen whilst visiting New York last month:

Cendrillon, Massenet, Metropolitan Opera, April 20th 2018
Luisa Miller, Verdi, Metropolitan Opera, April 21st 2018
Tosca, Puccini, Metropolitan Opera, April 21st 2018

…something blue? Maybe Anna Netrebko’s dress for the finale of her first ever Tosca (more of her later) but otherwise the traditional wedding saying will do for a satisfyingly busy weekend at the Met, worth taking a trip from London for three operas in two days.

Three operas, three composers, one conductor. Bertrand de Billy was already listed for both the Tosca and Cendrillon performances, but then took over Luisa Miller after James Levine’s departure. More about him later, but from the start let me praise his sheer energy as much as his musical achievements.

First up, Cendrillon, or “something borrowed” - in this case Laurent Pelly’s production. It has appeared in a number of houses – I saw its London outing – having started life in Santa Fe as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. The production’s provenance explains its relative economy and low-rise designs – Santa Fe has limited flying facilities – and the sets, with their palate of whites, reds and golds, take their cue from the words of the fairy tale upon which the opera is based. The production is full of witty touches – business with lamps, rooftops, a comic ballet for Prince Charming’s would-be future wives. Massenet gives a straightforward rendition of the familiar tale: Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri, idiomatic but underpowered) has married the rich but ghastly Madame de la Haltière (a bombastic Stephanie Blythe, vocally and visually several sizes larger than life). She and her dreadful daughters treat Pandolfe and daughter Lucette, known as Cendrillon (DiDonato) abominably but her Fairy Godmother, La Fée (Kathleen Kim) ensures she goes to the ball, glass slippers and all. There she meets, and at midnight runs away from, Prince Charming (Alice Coote). They almost meet again in an enchanted forest – they can hear but not see eachother in Massenet’s most original scene – before a more traditional happy ending.

DiDonato, who has a real affinity and love for French music and language, remains a superb interpreter of the title role, such a contrast from her more recent outings as Didon and Semiramide. Perhaps there is a loss of the easy lightness I recall from London, but her remarkably humble portrayal of Lucette, her vocal control and her sense of style are impeccable. Coote’s voice has also moved in a different direction over the years – a thrilling Vitellia last time I saw her – but their duets were moving. Kim’s is perhaps the most successful performance, effortless and sparkling high above the stave, and looking a million dollars.

I had been expecting Parisian De Billy to have a natural affinity for this music, but the delicate score felt pedestrian at times, perhaps not helped by the size of the house. Somehow the particular combination of lightness and perfume that characterise Massenet was missing, although this is partly the score itself which isn’t quite the composer’s greatest work. Massenet’s best music is also his sexiest – think Manon, Thaïs, Hérodiade – and perhaps the innocent Lucette didn’t inspire him in quite the same way. I suspect my wish for the finale of La Cenerentola is a clue that De Billy and Massenet had missed the mark – but this was a highly enjoyable evening nonetheless.

Sonya Yoncheva, Placido Domingo, Pietr Beczala
“Something old” - the Met’s Luisa Miller, directed by Elijah Moshinsky’s and hailing from a bygone operatic age of brown and beige, the monumentally murky sets intermittently spotlit. Without screaming “Tyrol” or setting the stage alight dramatically, it proves an effective enough frame for the performers, and has a certain grandeur. And it’s grand operatic stuff, the tale of the Luisa (Sonya Yoncheva), innocent daughter of Miller (Placido Domingo), betrothed to Carlo – himself the disguised Rodolfo (Piotr Beczała), son of Count Walther (Alexander Vinogradov). Aided by cartoon baddie Wurm (Dmitriy Belosselskiy), a plot ensues whereby Luisa is forced to betray Rodolfo to save her father’s life; Luisa and Rodolfo take poison and die along with Wurm in the dramatic finale.

Whilst we are still in the transition from the bel canto structures of his earlier works to mid period Verdi, meaning that some of the music is formulaic, there is plenty to show us what would come later - some strong finales, one truly great tenor aria and a final act of duets and a trio which foreshadow Rigoletto and Forza. The fine overture was scorchingly performed by the Met orchestra and in all I found De Billy much more engaged with this music than with Massenet the night before, the playing and pacing very stylish.

The principals were very satisfying. Of Domingo’s “baritone” roles this is one of the most successful, once the listener accepts that his is not a Verdi baritone voice and takes the performance on its own terms. Some parts of the voice remain remarkably intact and powerful, and he sang better than at the broadcast a week before, with impeccable Verdian phrasing. Dramatically, he is most convincing as Luisa’s tragic, elderly father. In Domingo’s previous (tenor) role, Beczała poured forth irresistible, honeyed Italianate tones - much like Domingo in his prime in fact. This was my first encounter with the Polish tenor, and I hope the first of many. Yoncheva is a familiar performer from London stages and this role debut comes after some heavier recent assignments. She is convincingly girlish in the lighter, more florid music at the start, has the heft for the role’s (surprisingly) dramatic moments, and is touching in the finale. Vocally close to the demands of Violetta (one of Yoncheva’s signature roles in New York and elsewhere) it is not surprising that this is a great part for her at this stage in her career. Mention too for Vinogradov – a rolling, ample bass-baritone, oozing style – and Olesya Petrova, ear-catching in the smallish role of Federica.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov
Credit:  Sarah Krulwich, The New York Times
Last then, “Something New”, or new-ish. David McVicar's Tosca opened on New Year’s Eve (with Yoncheva in the title role, in fact), and returned principally to showcase Anna Netrebko’s long awaited first performances of the title role. Very long awaited in fact – people have been talking about her taking on this role for years. I was lucky enough to hear her as Lady Macbeth in London in March, when she was in splendid, fearless voice, and Floria Tosca inhabits a similar vocal ball park.

Netrebko has everything she needs for the title role – her familiar dark, even and beautiful tone is capable of scorching (but not screeching) intensity and she has a genuine chest voice which is well connected to the rest, crucial for some of the key low-lying lines. She was a little cautious at the very top – I think she will take more risks later – but histrionically holds little back. I have always been struck by her natural instinct for moving around the stage and her acting was spontaneous, never calculated – the leap to her death felt genuinely shocking. “Vissi d’Arte” was introspective and expressive without resorting to mannerism, and predictably caused quite an explosion in the house. Interviews have indicated she doesn’t perhaps feel the affinity for the role that she does for others, but I hope she keeps it in her repertoire, for she is very close to being a Tosca for the ages.

As in the London Macbeth, the tenor was her husband Yusif Eyvazov, a relatively late replacement for Marcelo Alvarez, and on these showings certainly more than just “Mr Netrebko”. His voice is light in colour, but vibrant and powerful, and vocally, he can act. He was a big hit with the house. Scarpia was Michael Volle, one of our truly versatile singing actors (I’ve heard him in French Verdi and Strauss already this season) and a seasoned Chief of Police. He was a superb foil to Netrebko in the second Act, not stinting on menace but stopping short of melodrama.

McVicar’s production looks fabulous, the opulent designs full of colour and detail. Designer John Mcfarlane is a painter, and at first sight his sets look naturalistic (the church and the palazzo feature a lot of paintings, after all). Alongside the naturalistic details like Scarpia’s roaring fire, however, there are touches of expressionism, the skewed perspectives culminating in a stunning final act, a queasy dawn cloudscape looming over the castle battlements and Roman skyline, all dramatically lit by David Finn. The production has no specific “angle” - McVicar understands that Puccini works best when following the score and directions to the letter – but there are some telling details (Tosca swigging wine before spotting the knife – her thoughts easily readable from Netrebko’s expressions), and the blocking is always purposeful (Tosca is cornered on the castle roof with the jump down her only route of escape).

De Billy gave his best performance of the weekend for me, leading his excellent principals and his debuting diva with a firm dramatic pulse. It was a busy weekend for him and a busy weekend for me – but once again the Met served up a feast well worth the flight across an ocean. Til next time…

Monday, May 21, 2018

Another glorious YouTube Verdi Requiem

Yes, dear reader, I know it's far too easy, but I've found another wonderful YouTube performance of the Verdi Requiem. This is actually not a live performance, but a video created from a 1967 recording under the baton of Georg Solti, with Dame Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Matti Talvela, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Vienna State Opera Chorus. What's not to like?

All the soloists are in top form. Dame Joan, of course, had all the transcendent qualities in this recording that I mentioned in writing recently of a the 1960 recording. Truly the 1960s were her best decade. The floaty section like Huic ergo in the "Offertorio" and the Requiem aeternam section of "Libera me" were glorious. I can't say whether it's the influence of Mr. Solti or of seven more years of a high-profile career, motherhood, and marriage to Richard Bonynge, but Dame Joan's "Libera me" had more desperation than in the 1960 recording. As it should be! (I hate to say this, but Requiem aeternam section did include some of the droopy, artificially dark sound we associate with Dame Joan once she started listening to people's advice.)

I am not always of one mind about the blessed Marilyn Horne, whose presence has indeed been a great gift to the American opera and vocal music scene. Known for lyric mezzo-soprano roles, the great Miss Horne also sang Wagner and Berg soprano roles in her early career. I always thought her voice lay somewhere in between--low-lying soprano roles and high-lying mezzo roles. One associates the Verdi mezzo role with Amnerises and Azucenas, which was not Miss Horne's forte. But she delivered. Beauty of tone, warmth, expression, and the ability to be heard quite well in ensembles with full orchestra were all present. While her "Liber scriptus" didn't exactly part one's hair, as I have written of other mezzos, one certainly knew it was there! And her "Lux aeterna" was beautiful.

Luciano Pavarotti. What can one say? Again, in his prime, again with a sunny voice that imparts optimism and joy. This was the same year as the first Verdi Requiem I wrote of. The man could sing. No doubt about it. He could float the Hostias section of "Offertorium" and also deliver a powerful and sensitive "Ingemisco".

Matti Talvela. First, his Mors stubebit was absolutely in tune! Everything else was icing on the cake! He was powerful, passionate, and sensitive, delivering exactly what one expects of a true bass singing this role. (I have heard bass-baritones and been disappointed often.) Mr. Talvela is the bass soloist on another recording I plan to feature, and I will write more about him then, but suffice it to say that I have no complaints whatsoever about this performance.

Of course the chorus and orchestra were amazing. World-class ensembles tend to be. We heard from Mr. Solti the well-shaped phrases we love, and the control and precision, especially in contrapuntal sections, that sometimes eludes other conductors. Again, I often only notice conductors if something goes awry. This conductor earned my indifference, if that makes sense. I knew he was in control and I had nothing to worry about. This was a great performance.

Now that's what I call singing!

I have two Verdi Requiem recordings on CD beside me that I will get to, but Friday and Saturday I had the pleasure of listening to a recording I had downloaded and forgotten about. This was a 1960 recording under Carlo Maria Giulini with Dame Joan Sutherland, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luigi Ottolini, and Ivo Vinco, with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. What a joyful experience!

Each recording I hear is different in its own ways, but there is a huge amount of tradition holding most of them together. I might think, "Oh, this conductor uses a healthy bit of rubato there," or, "That conductor is doing more to keep the texture and rhythm on point than another one did."  In the end it's nit-picking.  It's hard to ruin the Verdi Requiem for me. (Believe me, people have tried!)

Now we must discuss the soloists, of course.  This was Dame Joan at her best, before she started listening to advice.  Of course she could float a vocal line like no other, and she had the vocal color and weight to hold her own against an orchestra with three other soloists. "Libera me" was heavenly--the tremendous contrasts of mood, the sublime quiet moments, the dramatic moments.

I've rhapsodized about Fiorenza Cossotto in this role before, and she was just as remarkable as expected. I always love a good "Lux aeterna", and Ms. Cossotto never fails to deliver.  I wasn't very familiar with Luigi Ottolini or Ivo Vinco before, but I quite liked them. Mr. Ottolini has the sound, the vocal heft required for this role, as well as the vocal subtlety it also requires.  "Ingemisco" was just what you want from a tenor, and Mr. Vinco's Mors stupebit section was both beautiful and mostly in tune.

Although this is a fantastic recording, this is a brief post, largely because I'm running out of things to say about the Verdi Requiem. I will never, ever tire of the work--of that I can promise you!--but it's hard to be creative. Since I have more an analytical nature, maybe I'll do a comparison spreadsheet when I've done all the recordings I'm going to do.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A retread, but a beautiful retread

For this installment in my Ten Verdi Requiem series (the notion of Ten Days fell by the wayside on day 2, I think!) I point you toward a magical performance I witnessed a few years ago and wrote about. Here is the link to that post. Please read and respond here with comments and questions.

OK, next.....

This will be a shorter post. Perhaps inundating my senses with Verdi Requiem performances isn't such a good thing. Really good performances become just OK and sub-par performances become colossally terrible. Nevertheless, your intrepid reporter has braved yet another Verdi Requiem performance, one of long acquaintance through many long drives (in a car with a much better stereo than that mentioned in my second post of this series), and one that is considered very fine indeed. This is an RCA Gold Seal recording of Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra with Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Cesare Siepi, along with the Robert Shaw Chorale. It also features other Verdi choral works and arias. How can one go, "Meh" to that? The performancs are great! I confess I didn't know soprano Herva Nelli, but she was fully the equal of the other three soloists. Mr. Toscanini was with the NBC Orchestra from 1950 to 1954, but the exact year of this recording is not given. Although I didn't hear the precision in the orchestra I heard in the two La Scala recordings I wrote about, it was still a fine performance. I did hear great things from the four soloists. Beyond that, as a reason to buy this CD? With the wealth of audio and video resources out there, this is something to buy only if you're interested in Toscanini or one of the soloists specifically. I'm glad I own this CD collection, but I'm not sure I'd buy it today.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

All's right with the world

I'm back with more Verdi. Had to take some time off after the Eurovision Song Contest. I was totally spent after watching that. This is why I don't go to movies--if a television commercial has me in tears, and a song contest wears me out completely, I just can't bear to invest that much time and emotion in a 90-minute narrative story. I'd want to throw myself off Tower Bridge. (Doing it from the George Washington Bridge is so déclassé!)

Anyway, this is the third Verdi Requiem in this series, and my third medium of enjoying it. First was watching a DVD in my living room. Second was a CD on my crappy car stereo. This time it was a full-length YouTube video with stereo headphones on. Of the three, I don't recommend the crappy car stereo. The stereo headphones offered benefits neither of the other media did--most clearly evidenced in the true stereo effect when the various brass choirs entered in the "Tuba mirum" section.

This was a 2013 La Scala performance, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the chorus and orchestra therefrom and soloists Anja Harteros, Elina Garanča, Jonas Kaufmann, and René Pape, all of whom I've praised in these pages. Once again I praise the chorus and orchestra of La Scala--among the finest examples of either in the world!--and I must say I liked this performance by Mr. Barenboim. I don't often notice a conductor unless he's bad or makes exceptionally wise and sensitive choices. In this case, I loved the dynamic shading and the phrasing. I loved his attention to his singers. The overall performance was quite different from the 1967 La Scala performance conducted by some other dude I wrote of recently. Both are beautiful and completely valid in my book.

Daniel Barenboim in action
Screen grab from YouTube video above
I am in love with Elina Garanča. The first time I saw her was several years ago, singing Angelina in La Cenerentola, and singing it very, very well. She announced that that production was her last coloratura role, and since she has done more serious roles. I've seen her as Charlotte in Werther (I think I have--in any case, I know she's done it lots) and Sara in Roberto Devereux. Always convincing, always spot on vocally. Can she be heard in Verdi quartets? You bet she can! And she sounds great. Her "Lux aeterna" was a shimmering delight.

Elina Garanca, Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape, Daniel Barenboim
Screen grab from the YouTube video above
And I really must say that any woman singer is very brave to wear an off-the-shoulder dress when singing. Remember the crowd--eyes won't be on her boobs, but rather on her throat and shoulders. Not a sign of tension or extraneous movement anywhere! (At this point I must rib all the teachers who advised I use a mirror while practicing, but never once told me what to look for. It was Debbie Crawford, of blessed memory--the teacher I went to after my second graduate school!--who clued me in. Am I pushing my tongue down or is it relaxed? Are my shoulders moving? Is there any movement that shouldn't be there?)

Anja Harteros in a blissful moment from the Libera me
Screen grab from the YouTube video above
Several years ago I wrote that Anja Harteros had delivered the most beautiful Non mi dir I'd ever heard. I still stand by that assertion. I've long been a fan of her singing, and I was glad to hear her interpretation of this fiendishly difficult role. I was not disappointed. Beautiful sound, nuanced delivery, an aura of complete comfort and mastery--what's not to love? I adored the "Agnus Dei"--the movement in which soprano and mezzo sing in parallel octaves. It was spine-tingling. I will try to refrain from comparing performances as I do these Verdi Requiem posts, but let us say that her "Libera me" stands proudly alongside other great performances.

Jonas Kaufmann. Yeah, I guess he's OK.

I kid! He's pretty damn good in this performance, too! I think I this role is quite appropriate for his voice, and his voice for this role. Nowadays we often see lighter tenors singing the Verdi Requiem, and although many do give good performances, overall we want more sound. We want meat. Blood on the floor if necessary. It is Verdi after all! Herr Kaufmann delivered sound and passion and sensitivity we dream of. So what if the trill in the sotto voce sections of the "Offertorio" were a challenge to him? In the end we don't care, and that's what a fine interpretation from a fine singer gives us.

I adore René Pape. I loved him in the Kenneth Branagh Magic Flute film, and I've seen and loved live performances several times as well. The man can do no wrong. (OK, he did fall into the "Mors stupebit" intonation trap, but only a little, and he got himself out of it.) I can say nothing except that this is a very fine, intelligent, sensitive singer. Go ye and hear him at every opportunity!

One might suspect from what I write above that I quite liked this performance. Well, I did. Flawless? No. Is any performance ever flawless? Great? Yes. Moving? Definitely! After the horrors of the second Verdi Requiem I posted about, this was balm for my weary soul. Which needs lots of balm. I have included a link to the actual video so that you can enjoy it, too, and will also include fun screen grabs.

Friday, May 11, 2018

I might have set the bar too high

Yesterday, in the first installment of Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems, I reported about luxuriating in an amazing DVD of Herbert von Karajan's 1967 filmed performance with a stellar cast and the chorus and orchestra of La Scala. I wondered whether I'd compare all of them to that one, and whether any other recording would measure up. Well, I'm here to tell you today's recording certainly didn't. And it was another von Karajan recording!

Wanting to find a recording I hadn't heard in a long time, if at all, I discovered one a friend had given me when he was moving and downsizing--a 1970 recording with Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Carlo Bergonzi, and Ruggiero Raimondi, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna's Chor der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. I confess I had never listened to this recording. Although the experience of listening on a car stereo while driving to Dutchess County and back is very different from watching a DVD in one's own living room, I don't think that's the reason this recording didn't suit me. I simply didn't feel the same precision, the same sense of ensemble, the same passion in this recording I did in the La Scala recording. I can understand why this recording is not on a major label.

Christa Ludwig was the best thing about this recording. A very different singer from yesterday's mezzo, but a very good interpreter of this demanding role. A beautiful sound, which is always very important to me, and a sensitive dramatic interpretation. Although she was the soloist on this recording with the longest-standing career in 1970, she was the soloist with the freshest sounding voice. That speaks volumes. (I confess I have not shown the great Frau Ludwig enough love in this blog. I hope to rectify that situation while the dear lady is still with us.)

This may hurt some people I know, but I've never been a big fan of Gundula Janowitz. To me she always had the brittle sound, the fast vibrato, and the occasional sharp pitch of someone negotiating an uncomfortably high tessitura. This recording reinforced my opinions. I also wished for more a sense of legato, more warmth, more passion. Everything seemed studied. And I found myself in the curious situation of dreading the Libera me. Turns out I had good reason to. (In her defense, the recordings of her singing Beethoven and Strauss used to fill out the second CD were much more pleasing to the ear than her singing of the Verdi. But those pieces were all lower in tessitura.)

Carlo Bergonzi had also had a long career already in 1970, and among many moments of great sweetness and vocal beauty there were occasional moments when one heard his age. Like  the tenor soloist in yesterday's recording, Mr. Bergonzi had a light voice but performed a wide range of roles successfully. Some of his unfortunate moments in this recording--admittedly very few--reflect that lightness in vocal weight not negotiating dramatic singing requirements as one might wish.

Ruggiero Raimondi was the youngest of the lot, but had already accomplished great things by 1970.  He also confirmed the opinions I held of him--very blustery in parts of voice, but a good top and good musical instincts. In the crucial "Mors stupebit" passage, by which I confess I judge every bass who sings this role, he erred and strayed like a lost sheep, and his blustery upper middle/passaggio was more out of tune than any bass I can recall hearing. In the remainder of the work, his singing was mostly very pleasing and sensitive.

I recently opined that nearly every recording or performance I have enjoyed of the Verdi Requiem has had one weak link--a miscast soloist, a chorus too small, a very badly chosen performance space (St. Thomas Fifth Avenue? Really?)--but in this case, the anomaly was the one strong link, Christa Ludwig. Again, my perception suffered from hearing it on a car stereo while driving at highway speeds, and likely from poor recording quality. I started out thinking I'd listen again when I got home. In the end, however, I didn't want to. I guess that says it all.

Tremens.....factus....sum ego.....

A Facebook friend accepted a Ten Days, Ten Albums challenge, discussing ten albums that were life changing. His first was a recording of the Verdi Requiem, which, judging by the personnel involved, must be amazing. I'm creating my own challenge--Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems. Surely I have that many recordings! If I don't, then I can revisit memorable performances I've seen. Word of warning--I might not complete all of this challenge in ten successive days. I can only listen to one recording per day in order not to cloud my already muddled brain. There's only so much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the gates of Hell one can take, you know? (Actually, I'm talking about my day-to-day life--I should listen to non-stop Verdi, come to think of it!)

What better way to start out than with this gem, a DVD of a 1967 film with Herbert von Karajan, Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, with the perfectly wonderful orchestra and chorus of the Teatro alla Scala? To say this was electrifying would be pointless, especially since the sticker on the front of the package says it for me, quoting a Gramophone review.

Of course I was drawn in from the beginning. It was magical. 100% commitment from everyone on stage, including the chorus. I hate when YouTube commenters make insipid guesses about what the composer or the performer must have been feeling, but I imagine everyone on stage having studied both classical and church Latin since childhood and knowing every single word of this piece. Not a one of them was glued to a score, and their performance musically precise, vocally lush, and full of passion and subtlety.

The first half of the Requiem was stunning, of course, but from the Offertorio on I was on the edge of my seat. (Side note: Why do they so often have a break between the Lacrymosa and the Offertorio in live performances? What, you're fighting eternal damnation, but you need to check your makeup and call the sitter?) When the sublime closing of the Offertorio was broken by the wall of sound that is the Sanctus, I couldn't help but to cry out! OK, just to cry. The Agnus Dei was ethereal, and the Libera me was a monumental tempest of conflicting emotions only Verdi could write. The older I get, the more I understand those who have called the Requiem Verdi's most operatic work.

The soloists. Incomparable! First, this was Leontyne at her prime.  I've always said her best singing was in the 1960s. Here we had that beautiful, dark, rich sound and that thrilling pianissimo that we love, but the smoky timbre that crept in later had not yet come, and although we had a few hints of swooping, it was tastefully done. (I know it's sacrilege to speak of Miss Price in any terms other than glowing, but there is a reason the 60s were her best decade. Although the 70s and 80s were damn good by comparison to anyone else!) I can only single out a few moments: "Fac eas de morte transire at vitam" was heavenly, and I thought the sustained B-flat at the end of the "Requiem eternam" section in the Libera me would last forever. I hoped it would. Miss Price uttered the words "Tremens factus sum ego" with a desperation that clearly showed what was at stake. 

Luciano Pavarotti was the new kid on the block in this cast. He was young, when his voice was amazingly fresh, but he hadn't yet learned the subtlety as his colleagues had. Luckily, Maestro von Karajan was there to lead him. From his first powerful entrance with "Kyrie eleison" to the beautiful Ingemisco to his part in the Lux aeterna trio, Pavarotti's sunny voice is the most optimistic thing about this performance, the thing that makes us think we might not be damned after all. 

The mezzo soloist should part our hair with the opening of Liber scriptus and make us feel transported with the opening of Lux aeterna. Fiorenza Cossotto did not disappoint. As if such a thing were possible! Already at her prime in 1967, she displayed power and tenderness and the unique vocal timbre we associate only with her. Nicolai Ghiaurov, also at his prime in 1967, was all power and expressive passion. His Confutatis was a wonder. It pains me to report, however, that a few moments in the "Mors stupebit" section were not exactly as one would wish, although he did end the section in the same key as the orchestra, which always surprises me in any performance.

This recording is available on audio and video. I am happy to own the DVD, and have watched it many times. I shall continue to do so. And I shall continue to recommend this recording to you.

Monday, March 26, 2018

When you're grotesque life can be Kafkaesque

I hope I'm known as a great fan of performances by young people. I have often written of operatic productions with young professionals and students. I'm also a great fan of good community theater, and have written of a few theater performances I've seen. On Sunday I was gifted with a ticket to see the final performance of Actors Conservatory Theatre's youth production of Shrek, the Musical, right here in Yonkers. It was a delight. (I will probably use that word far too often in this post!) I'll be the first to admit I'm not up on the modern musical theatre repertoire (anything after Noel Coward is modern to me!), and it has been many years since since I'd seen the movie Shrek, so I didn't know what to expect. What I got was a lot of clever writing and pop culture in-jokes that even I understood, and some mighty fine performances.

ACT_Shrek_Promo from Justin Bolger on Vimeo.

First I must praise the performers. Of course, Shrek himself was the most important character, and young Harry Cooper played Shrek with great confidence and skill. We saw the character's bravado and arrogance, but also his vulnerability. We knew early on that this Shrek was a lovable ogre. I was told Mr. Cooper was not in good health for this performance, but this was evidenced rarely in his singing. His song "When Words Fail" had this bitter old blogger in tears. At 16, this young fellow has already accomplished a lot, and we expect to hear his name in the future. (In the spirit of full honesty, I will admit I've met Harry before, as he is the son of acquaintances I like very much and the reason I was at the show, but I would have written these words regardless.)

Shrek's sidekick Donkey was given amazing energy by Christina Rella. I was not a bit surprised to read of her dance accomplishments in the program's brief bio-blurb, for her movement on stage was magical. The young lady can sing and act, too. Donkey reminds me of Papageno--all heart, and although appearing not too bright, full of wisdom. Every moment Miss Rella was on stage was a treat. Shrek's beloved Princess Fiona was played by Katie O'Donoghue, a beautiful, fiery young actress who also had great magnetism on stage. I loved how easily she transitioned from dreamy young princess to spoiled brat. Her chemistry with Shrek was palpable, and their duet "I Think I Got You Beat" was a delight. (Dang! There's that word again!)

I can't name all the other performers who deserve praise, but I would be seriously remiss if I failed to mention Brian Steinberg, who played the diminutive Lord Farquaad. (Say that name a few times and you'll know what the writers were going for.) This farcical villain must be a joy to play, and that was clear in young Mr. Steinberg's performance. He was fully equal to the vocal, comic, and physical demands of the role. And who wants to spend that much time on his knees? (Shut up! There are children present!) I also loved Naomi Joyce as the vampy Dragon and Eva Crowley as Pinocchio. And there were many other members of the ensemble who stood out with their energy and talent.

This was a delightful production. Again, I don't know the show, so I don't know how much was original and how much was added. Regardless, I must praise director/music director George Croom for this accomplishment. I also loved the choreography of Janice Paganelli. The entire production team must be congratulated, for creating such a dazzling show on a community theatre budget. And frankly, the amount of love in the room was beautiful. I would like to stay in touch with this group and see what else they can do.

Some favorite moments: The entire ensemble (everyone except the four principals had multiple roles) as tap-dancing rats to open the second act. The three girls who played Three Blind Mice reminding me of Robert Plant girls. (Yes, I'm a product of the 80s.) The A Chorus Line and Bob Fosse dance references. The four imprisoned knights in the dragon scene that had one longing for a reference to the "Inquisition Song" from A History of the World, Part I. There was even a Mama Rose reference that made me squeal like a schoolgirl.

Usually I conclude a review by recommending the reader see the show, but alas, this was the final performance. I can only recommending supporting and seeing more performances from Actors Conservatory Theatre.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Guest reviewer Jamie Henderson and Don Carlos in Lyon


How much Verdi is too much Verdi? That was a thought that crossed my mind on occasion during this weekend in Lyon, when three of his operas were performed on consecutive nights by conductor Daniele Rustioni and the forces of the Opera de Lyon. Somewhat heretically, that thought even crossed my mind during Don Carlos, one of Verdi’s greatest operas (second only to Falstaff, in my opinion).

The auto-da-fé
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
But this was no run of the mill performance of Don Carlos; the five hour running time told us that. Firstly, in was performed in its original French version of 1866 rather than in the later Italian version (‘versions’ might be more accurate) which tends to be performed without the opening Fontainebleu act. Indeed, with the exception of a small cut in the ballet music, we were given all the music that Verdi composed for the Paris premiere (and some that was excised before the first night, for reasons of length). Some of the many things we heard which are not usually performed were a peasants’ chorus at the opening of the opera (which certainly gives added context to the weight on Elisabeth’s shoulders - she really can’t refuse to marry Philippe); a duet for Elisabeth and Eboli when the latter reveals herself to be the King’s mistress; and a duet for Philippe and Carlos after the death of Rodrigue (recognisable as the Lacrimosa theme from the Requiem). Notably, when Elisabeth discovers Eboli’s treachery, she leaves the stage and it is the Comte de Lerma, acting on the Queen’s behalf, who banishes Eboli.

Sergey Romanovsky as Don Carlos
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
Christoph Honoré was entrusted to bring the piece to theatrical life, and in that he partially succeeded. In some ways, the production appeared entirely traditional: this dark, sombre piece was given dark, sombre sets. Black, empty sets were the predominant theme, with a few moving curtains in the Garden scene and the ballet. Given that the set design was pretty minimal, it was surprising that there so many pauses between scenes; perhaps it was to give the orchestra and audience a rest, but it undercut the momentum. Stage lighting was sepulchral, making it hard to read facial expressions. Costumes were all over the place, more of a goth or steampunk take on traditonal dress; nothing wrong with that, but any ‘edginess’ this might suggest simply wasn’t developed or taken far enough, though there was more groping and bare flesh than we would normally see in Don Carlos (Philippe’s court seemed a rather naughty one). Thibault was played as a female, as so many modern directors seem to have a problem with breeches roles; again, I am open to the idea but it went nowhere).

Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Eboli) and Sally Matthews (Elisabeth)
Photo (c)  Jean-Louis Fernandez
There was little sign of the political machinations that form a huge part of this opera, and Honoré didn’t make much of the relationship between Carlos and Rodrigue. I found Honoré’s direction terribly inconsistent - in some scenes, bringing out intense performances (particularly from Sally Matthews as Elisabeth), in others leaving the cast and chorus to stand and deliver (the nadir being the Auto-da-Fé scene). The ballet was another low point, and mostly consisted of a group of scantily clad slaves stomping around in a fountain and licking each other. In the end, I felt that this production fell uncomfortably between a traditional ‘Don Carlos’ and an edgier, Regie take; it didn’t wholly succeed as either.

Fortunately, the performance was much stronger and more consistent on the musical side of things. With the exception of Michele Pertusi and Roberto Scandiuzzi, all the leads were making their role debuts; indeed, some had never sung any Verdi role before. The results were interesting, if not always entirely convincing.

It was perhaps not surprising that Pertusi was the most satisfying performer of the evening. A relatively experienced singer of Verdi (the Requiem, as well as some operatic roles), he is not the most galvanising or expressive of actors. However, his voice suits Philippe II perfectly, especially in French (he has not yet sung it in Italian), and his Act IV scene was an exemplary piece of singing, if not the most moving rendition I have heard. The tone has greyed a little over the years, but that is not inappropriate for this role.

Sergey Romanovsky took the lead role of Carlos, and revealed an attractive lyric tenor that is probably a size too small for the part. There was much attractive, lyrical singing, and he never forced the voice or made an ugly sound, but he lacked some power for the dramatic climaxes (such as his confrontation with Elisabeth in Act 2). Probably his finest singing came in their touching final duet, Romanovsky displaying a plangent mezza voce, free from any crooning. Romanovsky was also a good actor and a game performer, willing to bare some flesh throughout the evening; he is a handsome man, and Honoré made sure we were all aware of it.

The biggest revelation of the evening was Sally Matthews’ assumption of Elisabeth de Valois, her first ever Verdi role. Being a fellow Brit, I have heard her sing many times over the years, but nothing she has sung before had quite prepared me for this. Indeed, I’m not sure I have heard her dip into her chest register before, at least not so noticeably, or so impressively. Her top soars as thrillingly as ever, and in many ways she was the most uninhibited of performers, vocally and histrionically. Apart from audibly gulping for breath on occasion, there was no sense that she was at the limit of her capabilities. Do I think she is ideally suited to Verdi? No - at least, not yet. Her vibrato is on the fruity side, which makes the voice sound a little matronly; ideally, one wants the smooth tone of a Harteros (who currently reigns in this role). At present Matthews also lacks the ability to float a piano high note, though her technical proficiency is such that she can diminuendo a note, as she did to beautiful effect in ‘Oh ma chère compagne’. I’ve a feeling that this will not be Matthews’ last time singing Verdi.

Stéphane Degout was making a rare appearance in his home town and was also singing Verdi for the first time. Degout is one of the finest baritones around, so my expectations were high but were not quite fulfilled. There was certainly little to fault with the singing - Degout’s voice is rock solid and his music was expansively phrased, and stylishly sung. Of course, his sung French beautiful to listen to, but - and this is purely my view - the voice itself was not of the most beautiful quality in Verdi. Simply put, I think the voice needs a bit more ‘meat on the bone’ for Verdi - it’s a focussed, slender sound, lacking the velvet and richness of some other Posas I’ve heard recently. As with Romanovsky, there was a sense that his voice was a size too small for the part. Though there’s nothing much he can do about that, I think he will, with time, find his way more deeply into the role than he did on opening night.

Eve-Maude Hubeaux is a mezzo to watch, though I suspect that Eboli may not remain in her repertoire. She has a big, vibrant sound and is a confident performer with bags of stage presence. She managed to sell Honoré’s conceit of confining Eboli to a wheelchair throughout (this physical disability taking the place of Eboli’s partial blindness, though to little effect or dramatic pay-off). Like many Ebolis, she was not equally comfortable in both arias: she impressed in the arabesques of the Veil Song, but started to tire by the end of 'O don fatale', which was a smidge too high. A sympathetic Brangaene in Lyon last year, this is a mezzo I’d like to see as Carmen, Dulcinee, and Charlotte and perhaps Oktavian.

Roberto Scandiuzzi - in the past, an excellent Philippe himself - bellowed threateningly as Le Grand Inquisiteur. It’s an appealingly dark sound that contrasted well with Pertusi’s brighter timbre, and Scandiuzzi’s low notes rumbled impressively. However, his vibrato has loosened over the years, and the top notes were sometimes more shouted than sung.

The cast received strong, sympathetic support from conductor Daniele Rustioni, who brought out all the dark wonders of Verdi’s score without drowning out even the lightest-voiced of his singers. Tempi were deliberate, sometimes lacking the fire and impetus of performances of the Italian versions, but with so much additional material being performed that is perhaps to be expected. The chorus were on better form than the night before, surer in their entries and singing with concentrated tone, though they don’t ‘do’ acting; or at least, they don’t act especially well when under-directed.

Undoubtedly, Verdi’s revisions and cuts make for a better, more powerful Don Carlos (though I never want to be without the Fontainebleu act). Overall, though, this was a fascinating experience and a huge achievement for Rustioni and his orchestra and chorus. One felt he had bitten off a little more than he could chew (this Don Carlos was sandwiched between a distinctly average and under-rehearsed opening night performance of Macbeth and an ebullient matinee concert performance of Attila. I hope they are all having a well-deserved break; Rustioni certainly looked like he needed it.

Review: Jamie Henderson
Twitter: @jsdhenderson

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My new drag name: Peaches Melba

I love food and I love opera, so of course after watching this Food Wishes video about five times (admit it--you do the same thing!) I looked for online recordings of Nellie Melba.

I already knew Dame Nellie Melba as one of the mostly highly paid and esteemed entertainment figures of her day.  As with most great singers of her time (and a few from our own time!) recordings don't flatter her, and as recording technology was improving she was aging.  But you can still hear what a wonderfully expressive singer she was.

Listen to this Caro nome from 1904:

And this Si, mi chiamano Mimi from 1907:

Considering this blog first arose out of efforts to keep the memories of great singers alive, I think it's a good thing.  Both the dessert and the historic recordings.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Opera with a capital "Oh!!!!" Preliminary thoughts on Il Trovatore

I was thrilled to hear the live audio streaming online as the Sir David McVicar production of Mr. Verdi's Il Trovatore opened for this season on Monday night. Il Trovatore is one of those operas. You know the ones--a story that seems laughable, every conceivable human emotion set to ridiculously singable tunes, but incredibly gripping when done well and we are paying attention. It is perhaps unfortunate that Il Trovatore is know as the "Oops! Wrong baby [in the fire]!" opera, for it has so much more to offer!

One of this season's surprises at the Metropolitan Opera was the announcement that dear Jennifer Rowley would sing Leonora in all performances of Il Trovatore, replacing the originally scheduled artist. Stepping in late in the game has become a common occurrence for Miss Rowley. Her triumph last season as Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met occurred in just this way. If I'm not mistaken, she was hired for her first Verdi Requiem just two weeks before the performance. And she was thrust into the international spotlight with a spine-tingling performance of Maria in Mr. Donizetti's Maria di Rohan at Caramoor in 2010, replacing the scheduled artist.

Caruso is said to have quipped that all you need for a successful Trovatore production is the four greatest singers in the world. Call this production successful! Although I recently raved about Miss Rowley's Tosca, I found on Monday night her Leonora was even better vocally than her beautiful Tosca. Everything Leonora needs--warm sound throughout, a broad palate of vocal colors and the ability to use them intelligently, great musical instincts, and chutzpah--Miss Rowley has in abundance.

Anita Rachvelishvili was a marvel as Azucena. The same qualities I praise in Miss Rowley--vocal color, intelligent and artistic musical instincts, chutzpah--were quite abundant in Miss Rachvelishvili's performance. (I wanted to hand the Met's radio announcer a tissue every time she said Rachvelishvili!) I wasn't familiar with her before, but I hope to hear much more from her.

I praised Quinn Kelsey's 2011 Rigoletto highly, and I've since seen and heard him give equally impressive performances. As Count di Luna, Mr. Kelsey displayed the same qualities that impressed as Rigoletto--singing that was beautiful and expressive, and vocal acting that was impressive. I have heard Yonghoon Lee grow as an artist over the years, and I found last night's Manrico quite thrilling vocally. When he was younger, I found his singing occasionally yell-y, but there was none of that in last night's performance.

To Marco Armiliato I give great credit for the overall high level of artistry and expressiveness in last night's performance. There was ample evidence that Mr. Armiliato is a singer's conductor, while he kept pacing and shape to the performance tightly reigned. And of course, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus performed at the superb level we expect of them.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Newsflash: Puccini's Shabby Little Shocker Not All That Shabby!

I was delighted beyond measure to see The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca on January 12. Regular followers know that I am a great fan of the soprano Jennifer Rowley, and this was her one scheduled performance in this production. Why it was only one, I can't imagine, but I was delighted to see the recent announcement that dear Jen will sing Leonora all of the Met's scheduled performances of Il Trovatore, which opens January 22, taking over for the originally announced Leonora.

Željko Lučić  as Scarpia
Photo:  Sara Kulwich, New York Times
Scarpia! Wow! Željko Lučić (I don't know how to pronounce it, either) was simply amazing. Enough vocal power to stop a Mack truck, enough stage presence to make one attend to his every move and gesture, and enough acting power to make one want him to die a thousand painful deaths instead of the one merciful death he is granted. Scarpia's big moments dramatically were also phenomenally beautiful vocally. How often can one say that? Remember I came of age during Cornell MacNeill's later days, when George London was still a fresh memory for my teachers and advisors. This man deserves comparison with those greats.

I admire Vittorio Grigolo very much, but I won't say I would happily cast him as Cavaradossi. Quite often I find his voice light for the roles in which he is cast, and this is certainly the feeling here. Although there was never a feeling of "Oh dear--I wonder if he'll get the next bit!", one simply lacked the feeling of "Ahhh! This is how Cavaradossi was meant to be sung." I was so conscious of this studied lack of discomfort that in the end I missed Mr. Grigolo's artistry, which is indeed considerable. Having said that, I can state his "Vittoria! Vittoria!" was glorious and his "O dolci mani" was sweet and tender.

The most beautiful soprano at the Met
But I might be biased
Quite frankly, Jennifer Rowley is the reason for this post, the reason I braved the Henry Hudson Parkway and actually went into Manhattan for the first time in months. And yes, that feeling of "Ahhh! This is how Tosca was meant to be sung!" was there in abundance! Vocal beauty, acting, commitment--a totally satisfying performance. One can see in her portrayal that Floria Tosca was actually a very young woman--jealous, insecure, impetuous, gullible. All eyes were on Miss Rowley whenever she took the stage. Her scenes with Scarpia were magic.

Tosca is built around conversations--Tosca and Cavarodossi, Tosca and Scarpia, even Cavaradossi and the Sacristan. This was where the entire cast shone.  (The Sacristan of Patrick Carfizzi, Sciarrone of the handsome Christopher Job, and Angelotti of Christian Zaremba were very good indeed.) There were many fine dramatic touches in this new production by Sir David MacVicar, who is known for his recent Norma, as well as the three Donizetti Tudor queens at the Met (It's not a trilogy!  Stop calling it that!).  I've never seen Cavaradossi working with both an initial small-scale painting and the large-scale final painting of Mary Magdalene in Act I, and I also adored the moment in Act I after the Tosca-Scarpia confrontation when Scarpia grabs Tosca's stole and locks her in a gaze before she runs away in disgust and horrror. And Cavaradossi's trembling with terror in Act III, just before he is shot by the firing squad (sorry if that's a spoiler) shows that he knew from the first that the "mock execution" wouldn't be mock at all. Sets and costumes by John Macfarlane were stunning. I especially liked Scarpia's apartment in Act II and the roof of Castel Sant'Angelo in Act III.

The always amazing Metropolitan Opera Orchestra lived up to their reputation under the leadership of Emmanuel Villaume. It must be a great challenge having a rotating cast, but there were very few moments when pit and stage were not together, and the vast majority of those involved singers who are singing most of the performances in this run.
Castel Sant'Angelo
Photo:  Sara Kulwich, New York Times